In the seminary, we would get each other laughing sometimes by saying the phrase “human person” in a booming Polish accent. Oomun pear-sewn.
The second half of the 20th century saw the heroic career of a certain Polish prelate: first in the drafting of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, then in the innumerable encyclicals, letters, homilies, speeches, and books of Pope John Paul II.
This Polish saint must have used the phrase “oomun pear-sewn” half a million times. Reading it all, in vast reams, night after night, semester after semester—we needed some light moments sometimes.
The human person. The only material being capable of contemplation.
There is a time to be born and a time to die…There is a time to weep and a time to laugh…A time to keep, a time to cast away, a time to rend, a time to sew, a time to be silent, a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3)
These are the words of a unique creature, a creature with a transcendent dignity. These words are the fruits of the uniquely human personal action: contemplation.
We made fun. But, upon reflection, I am left thinking that: Perhaps the pre-eminent gift of the Second Vatican Council is the re-affirmation of the perennial Christian teaching that human action only makes sense when it serves human contemplation. The ultimate reason for our existence: to take delight in God and in His works, and to praise Him.
The disposition of practical affairs is subordinate to the personal realm, and not contrariwise, as the Lord indicated when He said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Gaudium et Spes 26)
So taught Vatican II. So taught the Polish Pope. “The personal realm,” the unfathomable depth of the oomun pear-sewn, the reason why everything exists.
Saints Cosmas and Damien were brothers, Arabians, physicians. During the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century, they were beheaded. Their relics were eventually brought to Rome, where Pope St. Felix transformed an ancient pagan temple in the Forum into their church. The names of Cosmas and Damian are invoked in the ancient prayer of the Roman church.
The apse of their basilica has a famous mosaic, depicting Saints Peter and Paul presenting the martyrs Cosmas and Damian to Christ.
King Solomon prayed that the Lord would spare him both poverty and superfluity. “Provide me only with the food I need” (Proverbs 30:8). Better to have only the necessities, with nothing added. After all, the Lord told us to “take nothing for the journey” (Luke 9:3).
Wise king Solomon wanted to focus on other things than his material needs and desires. Namely, praising God and seeking the truth. Saints Cosmas and Damian offered medical treatment for free. Because of this, everyone knew them. When the persecution came to Asia Minor, the gun-sights were immediately trained on the magnanimous Christian doctors of Cilicia.
Seems to me that three key points emerge:
1. The Lord provides enough for everyone to eat and drink, and not starve, and not freeze to death in the cold. He has no plan for anyone to luxuriate in this world. Not because He doesn’t want us to be happy; He actually has better things planned for us than bon-bons on the divan.
2. The wise person cultivates the cardinal virtue of temperance. The temperate person fasts and feasts, according to reason, proportion, “appropriateness.” Temperance allows us to focus on spiritual pursuits, leaving us to eat, drink, sleep, exercise, and have sex according to what makes sense, given the realities of our particular individual lives.
3. In the mosaic in Rome, Saints Cosmas and Damien hold their crowns in their hands as Saints Peter and Paul present them to Christ, waiting for Christ Himself to place the crowns on their heads. The crowns Cosmas and Damian hold are crowns of martyrdom. But, of course, they only became crowns of martyrdom because of external events beyond the saints’ control. The generous physicians would have been glad to continue to try to heal the sick on earth, if such had been the divine will.
If we hold in our hands crowns of justice and temperance, if our consciences do not accuse us of self-indulgence or abuse of this world’s goods, then we can stand up straight before the Lord and live the life He gives us to live. We can say to St. Peter and St. Paul, to St. Joseph, St. Francis, and all the saints: “Denizens of the court of heaven, I stand ready to serve. Please present me to Christ. If it be His will that I remain on earth today, then give me the grace to serve well here. If today is my day to suffer death, let it come.”
The just, temperate person can live life as God made us to live, starting now, and never ending.
Heard on the radio today that the dear, little baby panda “passed away.”
Very sad. But, forgive me: The panda cub did not pass away. The panda cub died. Like horses die, and dogs. Sad indeed.
But not like Padre Pio passed away, on the same day in 1968. Or the great lady of Martinsville, Va., or the lovely prayer-warrior who lived on the bank of Smith Mountain Lake. Both these ladies breathed their last yesterday.
People pass away. Which reminds me of the decisive paragraph of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s opening address at Vatican II:
The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.
…It pays to take Book One of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Countra Gentiles down off the e-shelf every once in a while and read it.
Words can appear in a meaningless jumble, like the noise of t.v. burbling in the background. Words can be arrayed like jewels on a necklace, i.e. poetry. And words can be set down with such bedrock-penetrating precision that entire bridges of culture can be built atop their foundations.
Here follows my humble one sentence summary of SCG I. The point of the book is that, if any of the following words mean anything at all, then they mean this:
God is, eternally, not made up of parts, acting in no way violent or unnatural; complete, utterly unique, universally perfect, transcending everything we know, yet name-able, because we can call Him good, the good that all things seek; alone infinitely intelligent, He knows Himself, understands Himself perfectly, and in this He knows all and wills all that is good; He loves and rejoices in His true, just, liberal, magnificent, prudent, artful, wise Self, eternally blessed.
The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. (James 3:17)
As you hopefully recall, we have for a few weeks now concerned ourselves with this “wisdom from above,” the supernatural knowledge that we have received from God, Who has revealed Himself to us.
He has revealed Himself in order to save us, in order to give us peace. He has revealed Himself to the deepest part of every individual human heart, the part that responds with the self-abandonment of faith. And He has revealed Himself to a people, the People of God.
The Old Testament has a lot of pages, not all of which make for easy reading. One fact emerges from just about every page, however: God’s designs for fulfilling His loving will require the establishment of a holy community.
With whom did the Creator of heaven and earth make the ancient covenant? With the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a cohesive group, a collection of tribes, a nation, a people. The Bible contains books written by God and books written by Jews, and dang it! if they aren’t the same books.
In the fullness of time, God became a Jew and fulfilled all His mysterious and wonderful old Jewish books. He made a New Covenant by shedding His own Precious Blood for the entire human race. The new Israel, like the old one, lives as a people, as a group, as a holy nation. This new people also has holy books. The newer books are considerably fewer, shorter, and more readable than the old ones.
The Lord gave us Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry. (Ephesians 4:12)
To equip the people for the work of ministry. Ergon diakonias. The diaconal work, the work of serving.
Aimed at what? Building up the Body of Christ.
We serve Christ to build up Christ.
Christ our King, Whom we serve as ministers—He Himself needs no building up. He reigns eternally in heaven, having conquered death and evil by His perfect work of ministering to the Father.
We build ourselves up by serving Him. He needs nothing from us. But what He desires, what He wills—that is clear. He wills that everyone would reign with Him, that everyone would share His eternal peace.
How? By serving the Father just as the Christ has served Him. Christ, by serving the Father in us, builds us up into fullness—the fullness that He has had with the Father since before the world began.
At the holy altar, the Lord gives us Himself, His Body, Blood, soul, divinity. He instituted the sacrament so that His will could be fulfilled: that He and we would become one holy, immortal, blessed Body.
We priests of Christ, we sacred ministers, have the unique privilege of ministering to Christ by standing in His place, speaking His words, receiving His Body from heaven through the holy offering we make on behalf of the people.
From this sacred ministry–which we priests do, in spite of our manifest unworthiness–from this, all the ministry of the Church flows. So what can our ministry together be, then, other than zealous love, aimed at fostering the true communion that we can have with God in His Church?
The dutiful minister always runs the risk of letting familiarity with the master lull us into taking things for granted. We’re faithful Catholics, sure. Ho. Hum. Mass every Sunday. Ho hum.
But what if we tried to recite the Nicene Creed this Sunday, as if we had never recited it before? What if we tried to make an act of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, as if this were the first time we ever prayed at a Catholic Mass?
Then maybe we could behold again the fact that the Holy Mass is the most important, most wonderful thing that anyone could ever do. The Mass is where heaven and earth meet.
And the most loving act of kindness anyone could ever do for someone else would be to help him or her share in this.
ADDED BONUS! Line of the day from young Mr. Fred Vincy, as to why he prefers not to enter the clergy:
I don’t like divinity, and preaching, and feeling obliged to look serious.
Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more? (Luke 7:41-42)
We gather that, upon arriving at the Pharisee’s house, the Lord received only the bare minimum of polite welcome.
Herein we discover Lesson #1: The lowest pit of hell holds all the people who have received the divine Messiah with curt politeness. Better to spit on His feet than to treat Him merely as a marginally respectable intrusion into my precious life. The better course of action is, of course, to bathe His feet with kisses and tears of repentance for all my sins.
Returning to the episode: The Lord proceeded to say to the nervous Pharisee, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” To which the Pharisee responded, “Tell me, teacher.”
Lesson #2: There is hope for this Pharisee yet. He listened.
I may be nervous. I may be judgmental. I may be a gossiping snob who hides behind icy good manners. But if I am prepared to listen to the words of Jesus Christ, then there is still hope for me.
Then the Lord proceeded to tell a very short parable, which only makes sense one way. It only makes sense if: 1. We are all sinners, and I am the worst. 2. Jesus is God, Who is prepared to forgive any sin. 3. The best way to respond to all this is to bathe the feet of Christ with my kisses and tears of joy in His goodness.
Simon managed to deduce the meaning of the Lord’s parable. Quite frankly, the meaning of the parable is perfectly obvious. Another lesson: Confessing our sins and receiving God’s pardon does not require rocket science. Few things can be accomplished more easily. All it takes is a priest, an act of contrition, and a firm purpose of amendment.
The Lord Jesus concluded the episode by telling the woman with the sweet-smelling oil that her faith had saved her. Have peace, your faith has saved you.
What did the woman believe, exactly? She believed that the loving Heart of Jesus is the loving Heart of Almighty God, the loving Heart of the One just Judge, Who can and does forgive sins.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. (I Cor 13:1)
All Christians clearly must take a stand for a few things in our day and age. Among these, “traditional marriage” has a nice ring to it. And we can take heart from the fact that statewide referenda have thus far defeated the idea of “same-sex marriage” 32 out of 32 times.
But if we really want to bear witness to divine love–the divine love we read about in St. Paul’s letter at practically every wedding–we have to dig deeper.
It’s not just that marriage is between one man and one woman. There’s also the fact that it involves a bond that only death can break. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Still we have to keep digging. Why get married? According to God, the reason is clear enough: Be fruitful and multiply. Onan wasted his seed on the ground; what he did greatly displeased God (Genesis 38:10).
So: Marriage is not just between a man and a woman. It is between a man and a woman for life; for richer, for poorer, sickness, health, as long as we both shall live. And marriage is a partnership of the whole of life, in which the man and woman become one flesh, without impediments of any kind (barrier, chemical) being admitted to the marriage of true minds.
Forgive me; I can’t help it: the idea of “gay marriage” strikes me as simply ridiculous. How can anyone take it seriously? Maybe one reason is because there is so much divorce these days. Some people have gotten the idea that marriage is nothing but an arrangement for my enjoyment which I make at will and control at will. A false idea indeed. But can we doubt that a lot of people have come by this idea honestly, because that’s what they see when they look around?
So we have to keep digging. Why are there so many divorces? Is it because the marrying public these days is so much more wicked than in the old days? Maybe. But such an explanation does not altogether satisfy. The Church Herself has granted annulments in many of these cases, which means that the spouses involved are not in fact bound by the vows they rashly made, and neither of them is necessarily wicked.
It seems to me that the whole contemporary “marriage problem” lies at the beginning of marriages. The perennial fact is: it is not easy to marry the right person. To enter prudently into marriage requires prayerful discernment over a significant period of time; it requires the discipline of chastity; it requires mature faith in God.
Thanks be to God, the Church possesses this art, the art of marrying wisely and well. It really isn’t anything too complicated. It’s just a matter of following our rules, living a life of prayer, staying out of potentially dangerous situations, and—above all—nourishing and strengthening oneself with the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Penance. The faithful lives of countless married Christians bear witness to the successful application of the Christian method of marrying.
So I guess what I am saying is: I don’t think the world needs us just to be opposed to “same-sex marriage,” which of course we are. The world needs us to give freely one of the gifts that has freely been given to us: the humble and quiet art of knowing how to get married.
As we have been discussing over the past few weeks, Almighty God has revealed Himself to us by a particular course of events. By words and deeds, which culminated in His personal appearance as a man, God has revealed the divine truth.
The truth that God is love, triune love. The truth that God conquers evil and brings good out of it. The truth that God wills the eternal salvation of every human being.
So the next thing we have to consider is this: God has spoken His Word in Christ. We want to stand on this Word of God, since it alone provides the foundation of truth. How do we do that? How do we stand on God’s Word?