Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mercy and the Saint: My JPII Story

Fr. Karol Wojtyła, with a First Communion class in Niegowić, Poland, 1948.

The first time that I visited Rome I came as a pilgrim. More exactly, I came as a backpacker. Nearing the first week of a month-long trip that would see us criss-cross Europe to eke every dollar out of our Eurorail passes, two buddies and I arrived there after a variety of mishaps and misadventures, very much looking forward to a shower and to sleeping in the same place for consecutive nights. Our time in the Eternal City was, in short, fantastic, and probably the most memorable and meaningful stop on a very memorable, meaningful trip.

On our last day in the city, having already made a 70-mile, $200-trek to the airport to retrieve some very stubbornly errant lugage, my friends and I debated how we wanted to spend the day. We thought briefly of trying to make a hurried trip to Assisi, to see the famous medieval town of Umbria and the birthplace of St. Francis. But perhaps out of a desire to capture a few more brief moments in the Caput Mundi, perhaps out of mere exhaustion, we decided merely to bum around the city for a few more hours, heading back especially to the Vatican. I am eternally grateful that we did. Emerging onto the Via Ottaviano from the metro stop of the same name, and making it past the Piazza Risorgimento onto the Via di Porta Angelica (I knew none of these names at the time), we ran smack into a mob of people. It just so happens that on that Sunday, May 18, 2003, we happened upon a Mass being celebrated in St. Peter's Square by Pope John Paul II. We had visited St. Peter's and the Vatican earlier in the week but had not known the Holy Father would be celebrating a public Mass that Sunday, let alone a Mass in which he was canonizing four saints (specifically. St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli, St. Maria de Mattias, St. Ursula Ledóchowska, and St. Józef Sebastian Pelczar).

The occasion was impressive, but I remember being more struck by the fact that I was actually seeing John Paul II. He was the only pope I'd ever known; he defined the papacy for my generation, not just as an office but as a personal ministry. He was, by this time, feeble and wracked by Parkinson's, but even as he struggled to lift his head enough to address the crowd, the power and sanctity of that man was visible to me from afar. We didn't linger at the Mass for long, but I remember feeling very grateful that luck (or, more likely Providence) had given us the fortune to be there for a moment, so that I could see John Paul II in the flesh.

Looking back now, my momentary connection to that great man was more lasting and meaningful for me than I realized at the time. A year or so later, I would begin to question my plans for graduation after college, thinking seriously again about the priesthood. Some two years later, I would watch as the world mourned the passing of that pope who embodied the meaning of suffering love, cheers of "Santo subito" echoing through the crowds. A few years after that, having entered seminary, I would have the privilege of visiting the pope's homeland, and I have visited it now three times, seeing among other things: his hometown of Wadowice, seeing the font where he was baptized in the local church; the image of Our Lady of Calvary at Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, to which Karol's father took him after the death of his mother, saying to him, "She is your mother now"; the Divine Mercy Shrine that he consecrated, just steps from the Solvay Soda Works where he worked, and the tomb of St. Faustina Kowalska, whom he canonized in 2000; and the palace of the archbishop of Krakow, where he lived and worked for years, including the chapel where he celebrated his first Mass as a priest, clandestinely during the Nazi occupation. Since his death, I had the great privilege of attending his beatification, and my personal chalice was used for the very first time at a Mass offered at the altar above his tomb in St. Peter's Basilica by Bishop Anthony Taylor, assisted by yours truly as deacon, a few months before I was ordained a priest.



Today, along with Pope John XXIII, in that same square where I first glimpsed him, John Paul II was declared to be among the canon of saints in heaven, who enjoy the beatific vision and see God face to face. I have no doubt that that is true, not only because the Church declares it to be so but because of personal conviction as well. The experts say that John Paul II was seen by more people than any other person in human history: some 500 million or so, due to his more than one hundred pastoral visits around the globe. And yet, what was his message at its heart? Know and love Christ. Jesus was always at the center of John Paul II -- his life, his spirituality, his theology, his public word.

As wonderful and holy as John Paul II was, he pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. All the saints do. Karol Wojtyla and Angelo Roncalli were men; men in need of mercy and forgiveness, men with shortcomings and faults and sins. We celebrate their lives and their holiness, not because they were perfect, but in a sense, because they were imperfect. They were not divine beings or angels or superheroes. They were human beings who opened themselves to the grace of Christ and were transformed by it. In no way does that diminish their greatness; rather, their greatness lies precisely in that.

In the Gospel for this Second Sunday of Easter, this Divine Mercy Sunday, Thomas touches the wounds of the Risen Jesus, putting his finger into the nail marks, and his hand into his side. Thomas touches and believes. But is it not true that, touching, Thomas is also touched? The Risen Lord touches Thomas at the core of his being, healing him of his incredulity, softening his heart of stone. At the essence of sanctity lies this personal encounter between each person and Christ. St. John Paul II and St. John XXIII knew that touch of Jesus -- they experienced his infinite Divine Mercy in a real, redeeming way, and they allowed the life of grace that they received from him to radiate through them, such that we saw not them, but Christ.

My friends, fellow pilgrims on this earth, none of us are perfect, not even the saints. All of us need the Divine Mercy of the Son who desires to give it to us. And yet, as we know from the lives of Karol and Angelo, holiness really is possible. Not just for them, but for you and me as well. Let us give thanks to God for the gift of his saints, who prove for us the reality of the possibility of holiness. And let us open our hearts to the Risen Christ, who desires to touch each of us with his divine hand, to share with us his Divine Mercy, to make us saints as well.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Resurrection of the Lord

 The Anastasis ("Resurrection") fresco, Parekklesion, Chora church/museum, Istanbul

For those who heard my homily on Good Friday, you may remember I began with a little Latin. Fr. John always likes it when I do that. I said, “pro nobis”. Jesus died, for us, in our place, and that is a truly wondrous thing.

On this Easter Sunday morning, allow me continue to impress you with my linguistic abilities, especially with Fr. John here, this time with a little Italian: “già ma non ancora.” That was a favorite expression of my classmates and myself when we were studying in Rome. It became a sort of catchphrase among us, because it seemed, in one way or another, that every Scripture passage that we studied, every aspect of theology we investigated, was ultimately summed up by our professors with that phrase: “già ma non ancora.” Everything about our faith was: “già ma non ancora.” Already but not yet.

Perhaps we seminarians should have guessed it, but this phrase – “already but not yet” – seemed to be at the center of our priestly studies for a good reason: it is at the heart of the Christian experience. It is, in fact, perhaps the best way of summing up what the Resurrection means for us today, and tomorrow, and all of our days in this life – the Resurrection is “già ma non ancora”. Already but not yet.

Now, don’t get me wrong! Jesus has truly risen. That’s the “already” part. In the Gospel, we hear how Mary Magdalene and then later Peter and John go to the tomb and find it empty. At first they do not understand what has happened – Mary seems to suspect theft, while Peter and John are clearly bewildered. Has the Resurrection happened? Yes! … “already.” Do they realize it? Well… no, not at first. In fact, the Gospel explicitly states that even when they enter the tomb, and see the burial cloth rolled up, and begin to believe, they still do not fully understand.

How much of the Christian life exists between those two poles – believing in things that are, without yet seeing them. We believe (now) in a God who is good and just and holy – even as we wait (yet) to see the end of violence and malice and suffering. We believe (now) that, for those with faith in Christ, all suffering and pain we endure can have meaning and that our parting from our loved ones is only temporary – even though one of us have (yet) seen that for ourselves. We gather (now) here this morning, every Easter, indeed every Sunday, proclaiming our faith in the Resurrection – even though none of us have (yet) ever seen the Risen Jesus. We even will come forward to receive that Risen One in his Body and Blood … and even though we believe in that Real Presence, none of us fully understand.

These things that we believe are not foolish – they are true, more true than we know. They exist now, they are “already”, and we believe in them… but we also wait for the part of them that is “not yet” – to fully understand them, to fully experience their true occurrence for ourselves, to fully witness their final unveiling. Even Mary Magdalene and Peter and John – who saw the Lord as Resurrected, and came to understand by the power of the Holy Spirit the reason for Jesus’s dying and his rising – even they, in a very real sense, are waiting for that final unveiling of the Resurrection. “Già ma non ancora.” Already but not yet.

All of us, all of us who live after the Resurrection and before the final Resurrection of the Dead, exist in this in-between time. Last night at the Easter Vigil, Fr. John solemnly announced the Paschal Proclamation, the Exsultet, that great and ancient hymn which declared among other things: that Jesus Christ, the one true Lamb, has wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness, has banished the darkness of sin, has broken the prison-bars of death and risen victorious from the underworld, has dispelled wickedness, has washed fault away, has restored innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners, has driven out hatred, has fostered concord, and has brought down the mighty.

And yet, this morning? Nothing seems out of the ordinary. The sun shines upon a world that seems just as broken as yesterday. What is different? Anything? Well, yes! Christ is Risen! And his Rising means that God’s victory has been achieved even as we wait to see it. The Resurrection is here, it has happened, it is present to us now, and has already changed the world. And … it is also a sign of things to come, a promise for us that the world will not remain as it is. Even more, in the Resurrected Christ we see reality as God sees it – changed, redeemed and glorified.

Let me offer an example of just one person who I think truly understood this meaning of the Resurrection, of “already, but not yet”. The great American writer, Flannery O’Connor, herself a devout Catholic, is most famous for her novels. Yet she also wrote many letters, and in one letter, addressed to a friend who did not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus because it defied the physical laws of nature. Listen to what Flannery wrote:

"For you, it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the child born of a virgin, the Incarnation of God, the Resurrection of Christ which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws."

What a beautiful statement of true faith – to say that the things of faith, the things we believe without yet seeing – that those are the truly real things. It is for that reason that, for the Christian who truly believes, sorrow and suffering, as terrible as they might sometimes be, will never lead us to hopelessness or despair. No matter what we face in this moment, we can find meaning in the promise of what awaits us.


Flannery O'Connor, at her home in Milledgeville, GA, with one of her pet peacocks.

Shortly after writing this letter, Flannery died at the young age of 39 of lupus, after having suffered for many years from that devastating illness. In many ways, her experience on this earth was much closer to a Good Friday than an Easter Sunday, and yet as she said, death, decay, destruction – these things are not real; it is the Resurrection of Jesus that is real.

My friends, our entire Christian life is defined by the Resurrection of Jesus, which was real, is real, and will be even more real for us in a future to come. We wait in hope for that day when the full unveiling of that eternal mystery we celebrate today is made real for us, and made real *to* us. In the meantime, may we strive, as St. Paul says, to cast out the old, to welcome in the new, to live – even amid the sufferings of this present time – always in the grace and the joy and the love that come from knowing the Risen Christ, that come from seeing the world and our lives and everything that is, not just as we see them now, but as Jesus in his Resurrection has truly made them to be.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday)

Stabat Mater (1873), Evgraf Semenovich Sorokin

“Pro nobis”.

The earliest Christians were very wise when they included these words in the Creed. When they wished to put down in definitive form what they believed about God and his Son Jesus, they added two little words – “pro nobis”. “Pro nobis”, the Son of God became man, and “pro nobis”, he was crucified, died, and was buried.

Today, perhaps above every other day of the year, those two little words should resonate with us – “pro nobis.” For us.

“Why did Jesus have to die?” I remember that was the very first question that I was asked when, as a newly admitted seminarian, I visited a 3rd grade classroom at the school of my home parish. What a simple question – and yet, how mysterious. If you begin to think about it, it is a question that bewilders the mind, that confounds reason and logic, a question that seems almost unanswerable. The saints in history have penned long and beautiful sermons, men and women throughout the ages have fled the civilized world to the silence of the desert to pray and meditate, entire books of the Bible have been composed – all in an attempt to answer it.

And yet, as the earliest Christians knew, the answer is succinct enough: “pro nobis.” Christ came to earth and suffered and died for us – that is, not simply “for our benefit”, to rescue us from the sin that had plagued us from ancient days, to defeat once and for all the power of the devil and the curse of death that sin had inflicted upon the world. He also died “pro nobis” – that is, “in our place”, submitting to the awful fate that would have been ours. Jesus died because, out of love for us, he took upon himself what was our due.

There is a tendency among us, even among us faithful Christians, to water down this idea. We tend to think, as the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, that the Cross was just the terrible end to an otherwise happy and god-fearing life – that Jesus, out of humility and love, submitted to a cruel fate as a testament to non-violence and forgiveness. But, this idea – and it’s one that all of us at times fall victim to – misses the crucial point: God did not just cancel our debt: he paid the debt himself. He did it knowingly and willfully, “pro nobis.” For us. In our place.

The Cross reveals to us who God is and how God loves us, and this is very very important. Nowadays everyone talks about God, everyone has an idea of what God might be like, but isn’t it true that that “god” is so often a projection of ourselves? How often do we hear, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in God.” But what God? How God? What does God do? The answer to these questions is not in our conceptions or ideas but in the image of the Cross. “God is love,” we say, and he is, but not just warm, fuzzy love that makes us feel good – God is Love with pierced hands and feet and side, crowned with thorns, and dying in agony from the Cross. Pro nobis. For us. In our place.

If any of this is a bit unsettling, and it probably should be, then perhaps it’s a sign for us that we haven’t really incorporated the meaning of the Cross into our lives. It’s true that we are “an Easter people” as they say – and we never want to think about the Cross as if we didn’t also know about the Resurrection. But the reverse is also true – the Resurrection could not have occurred without the Cross. The Cross without the Resurrection is utter despair; if Jesus has not risen, as Paul says, we are the poorest of fools. But equally true is that the Resurrection has no meaning without the Cross – it is just superficial, empty, devoid of meaning. Easter Sunday and Good Friday are inextricably linked, and we cannot have the one without the other.

Perhaps we might think, "Well, I don’t like thinking about the Cross – it’s too painful, too dark, too sad." Exactly right. The Cross declares to us, “Evil is real! And you must admit it! You have to face it!” Things are not right. The world is not it should be. There is evil. There is the devil. There is sin. These things exist, they are real, and they are terrible. We can’t color over them. We know them all too well. People get sick. People suffer devastation from tornadoes and floods and mudslides. People die from airplane crashes and bombs and wars and crossing deserts to try to find better lives for their families. People die from hunger and hypothermia, sometimes on our very street corners, and people die out of desperation that their life has no meaning. People are thrown out of their countries and their homes, children are abused and enslaved, people are victimized by addiction and greed and despair and injustice, and all of us suffer in silent ways, hidden ways, ways that only we know about. And all of that is real. And all of that and more is what God faces on the Cross, it is what God on the Cross pronounces his judgment upon, and it is what God on the Cross forgives.

So, “why did Jesus have to die?” Remember the answer: “pro nobis.” The one who said “I AM WHO AM”, appearing to Moses on Mount Sinai, the one who said “I AM” to answer the call of Judas and the betrayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, the one who, at the end of all time, will say “I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the One who is, who always was, and who is to come” – took upon himself all suffering, all sin, all death – for us, in our place, to declare judgment upon the sin and evil that separate us from him, and to take it away, to forgive it, to carry us – in himself – to the very depths of hell, and having utterly redeemed us, having made all things new, he rose to give us a share in his eternal life.

We gaze upon the Cross today with reverence and awe at such profound forgiveness. And we will venerate it in just a few moments, with love and worship. We do so all too aware that, for us, now, the Cross as a symbol of pain and suffering; and yet, we also must believe that contained there, in its meaning, it is also the sign of God’s power and victory, a glory which we will only understand once we also behold the Resurrection. And, yet, in the Eucharist, we will be drawn ever more closer to that final reality, as we receive the One who hung upon the wood of the Cross, now Resurrected and at the right hand of his Father. We taste there, in his Body and Blood, now glorified, a preview of the joy of the Resurrection.

So, my friends, “Ecce Crux Domini” -- Behold the Cross of the Lord. Behold in it the infinite power of a God who humbled himself for us; behold the ineffable majesty of a Lord who loved us and took our place, who suffered for us in order to forgive us, who died for us in order to redeem us. “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.”


(Grateful acknowledgement to Hans Urs von Balthasar, Robert Barron and Thomas J. Neal for some of the ideas and language herein..)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion

Entry into Jerusalem (c. 1620), Pedro Orrente

“Hosanna to the Son of David… Hail Jesus, King of the Jews… Truly this was the Son of God…”

In a way, those three quotations from the various readings today capture the dramatic moments of today’s liturgy. Palm Sunday is such a fascinating liturgy because within it, from reading to reading, the drama intensifies, and where we end is a different place from where we began.

We began by gathering together, outside, not just recalling but reenacting the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This was the moment that all of Israel had been waiting for for centuries – an event that every Jewish child knew by heart, because their parents and grandparents had described to them what it would be like. The king of Israel, the Messiah, fulfilling the words of Zechariah, at last would enter into his own kingly city to take possession of his throne, to overthrow Israel’s oppressors, gather together the lost tribe, and finally establish a kingdom of justice and peace. Imagine then the joy and exultation of not only the disciples but all of the people of Jerusalem as, at last, their dream became reality. “Hosanna to the Son of David!,” cried the young and old alike, as this Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, arrived in the city prepared for him.

And then, how quickly things change. For the people of the time, it took just a few days, and for us, in the liturgy, just a few moments, to shift from the triumphal joy of the entrance into Jerusalem into the cruel humiliation and sorrow of the passion, the Cross, and the death of Christ. Whatever expectations had been present, whatever anticipations the disciples and others had established in their minds, quickly disappeared in the face of such brutality and bewilderment. The mouths that been full of praise and adulation for Jesus a few days before, now spat at him and cursed. “Hail, King of the Jews!”, they mocked. Behold the Christ, who came to bring liberty to those enslaved, now himself made captive; behold the Lord, who welcomed all, rejected and abandoned by all.

And so, as I said, in this liturgy, we bear this stark contrast in mind: that Christ has rejected what the world deemed as royal and noble so that he might more fully share in the weakness of our humanity. Jesus indeed came as our king, but not as a king who desires to rule and to dominate us. He entered into Jerusalem not to take possession of what was rightly his, but, as St. Paul says, to empty himself to the fullest degree. For our sake, he desired to experience the depth of every pain, every humiliation, every suffering that we ourselves might experience, even to the point of a criminal’s execution – so that everything in the human condition might also be the experience of God himself, and so also redeemed by God himself. Surely that was the realization of the centurions who, looking upon the face of the crucified Jesus, exclaimed, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”

My friends, as we enter into this most Holy Week, we know that we will end it in a far different place from where we begin it. We are called to walk this Passion journey with Christ, and so to be changed with him. Each day this week, let us take a moment to reflect upon this momentous love of God, upon this wondrous love of the King who desires only to reign in our hearts. As we walk the steps of our week, let us bear in a conscious way – in our minds, in our hearts, in all of our experiences – the certainty that we have a king who desires to exalt us in our lowest moments, who desires to lift from us our burdens, who desires to place upon us his kingly favor. May we look upon the humility of a God who humbled himself even to the point of death, so as to save us from eternal death, and find there the strength to say, with love and awe,

Hosanna to the Son of David… Hail Jesus, King of the Jews… truly, the Son of God!