The View from the Center

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Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head

Anyone visited the Lateran Basilica? In the great city of… Rome!

Rome offers a unique view of the Catholic world. First time I visited, I realized that, until then, I had seen the world off-center. The Catholic world, which extends to every continent, not to mention back in time for two millennia—that world has one geographical and historic center. Rome. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has a single geographic and historic center point. And, praised be God, you can get a good cappuccino there.

From that center point, you see the world from a unique point-of-view. You hear all the languages and see all the skin colors involved in the one Church.

Most holy places in the world receive pilgrims from some far-flung places—like the Shrine in Washington receives pilgrims from all fifty states, or the shrine in Guadalupe, Mexico, receives pilgrims from all of Latin America. But Rome alone receives pilgrims from everywhere.

One man sits on the chair at the center of Rome; one man sits at the center of the center of the Church. Namely…

pope-francis_2541160kWe owe him a huge amount of respect, if for no other reason than that he has this far-more comprehensive view of the world. The pope’s unique point-of-view can become a terrible burden. It also can fill him with a unique love for the one Church. He alone sees from the point-of-view of the man at the center of the center.

Also, the pope’s unique point-of-view allows him to grasp just how small he himself really is, in the grand scheme of things. He can see just how much everything really depends on God and His Providence.

So let’s rejoice in the fact that really matters, when it comes to the unity of the Church. All of us Catholics agree on it. Pope Francis is the pope. He alone has the right to sit on the chair of Peter. He alone has that crushing duty. We agree on who the pope is. That itself is an amazing and wonderful thing.

Maybe I think Pope Francis is the worst pope since Vatican I. Or maybe I think he’s the best. Doesn’t really matter what I think on that subject. None of us can competently judge the job-performance of a pope anyway. That judgment exceeds our pay-grade. Let’s leave such judgments to God.

The great thing is simply that we all agree on who the pope is. May he preside in health and holiness, from the center of our one, beloved, ancient, and worldwide Church. Long may he live. We love our Holy Father.

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North-American Martyrs and Blessed Paul VI

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St. Isaac Jogues with missing fingers

At Holy Mass today, we commemorate the North-American martyrs. They came to these shores from France, to teach the Hurons about Jesus Christ and His Church. The martyrs happily gave their lives to spread the Gospel. What motivated them?

For a short and precise answer, let’s think back three years. Anyone remember what happened three years ago today, in St. Peter’s Square?

Here’s a hint. It involved the last Italian pope. Or at least the last Italian pope who lived for longer than two months in office.

Side note: It is amazing to think that we have not had an Italian pope in over 39 years. Most of the people living on the earth right now have never had an Italian pope. Which is amazing. We have had 266 popes in total. 196 of them have been Italians. Our current pope is an Italian-American, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Anyway: three years ago today, Pope Francis declared Pope Paul VI to be among the saints. The last Italian pope to live for more than two months in office became Blessed Pope Paul VI.

Blessed Pope Paul wrote many, many beautiful and inspiring things. He possessed an utterly tireless mind, along with a beautifully humble heart.

But a few sentences he wrote capture the spirit of the North-American martyrs perfectly, in my humble little opinion. We Catholics don’t proselytize, if proselytizing means assuming that people who do not know and accept our doctrines have not hope at all. We do not believe that. We believe that God has a plan for everyone, and God’s plans extend way beyond what we little creatures can grasp in our wee minds.

Nonetheless, we consider the task of evangelization urgent. Blessed Pope Paul explains:

It would be useful if every Christian were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them.

But as for us, can we gain salvation if—through negligence, or fear, or shame –if we ‘blush for the Gospel’–or as a result of false ideas, we fail to preach it?

For that would be to betray the call of God, who wishes the seed to bear fruit through the voice of the ministers of the Gospel; and it will depend on us whether this seed grows.

Christ: The Light of the American Nation, Part II (Laudato Si’)

We have to start by going back to the 90’s, and to the work that Pope St. John Paul II did to help us understand our continent and our heritage as Americans. 1992 marked the anniversary of…? Knights? In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Pope St. John Paul II visited the island of Hispaniola to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first proclamation of the Gospel in the New World. In his homily, the pope addressed himself to all the sons and daughters of “America,” from Canada to Chile and Argentina. He referred to his brother bishops “of America.” Continue reading “Christ: The Light of the American Nation, Part II (Laudato Si’)”

The Mass is the Oil

Pope Francis Patriarch Bartholomew Holy Sepulchre
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew together at the tomb of Christ

In the parable of the ten virgins, five of them had something, and five did not. Having that something made a great difference—all the difference. The five who had it entered the wedding feast. The five who did not found a locked door, and they heard God say to them, “I do not know you.”

Oil. Oil for the lamps. This is a parable. What does the oil represent?

Pope Francis and the bishops have made today the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Holy Father issued a joint statement with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A brief, penetrating, and captivating statement. Come to my Vespers talk on Sunday, and we will study every word of it [4:30pm, St. Joseph’s, Martinsville, Virginia. Parish dinner to follow!]

Right now let’s focus on one sentence. The statement of course exhorts all Christians to pray: to pray that all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ, to thank the Creator and pledge our commitment to care for His handiwork. Then the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew write:

An objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world.

The oil in the parable is: prayer. And not just any prayer, but prayer in the Holy Spirit; prayer in which I, me, myself truly speak and communicate and open my heart, but not unilaterally. Rather: when I pray in the Holy Spirit I am myself only in co-operation with God.

So we can be even more precise: The oil is our regular celebration of the Holy Eucharist. When we participate in Mass, we pray—we ourselves, thanking God, asking Him for help, begging His mercy. But as much as the Mass is our work, much more so is it God’s. After all, in the Holy Mass, the triune Lord continues the Incarnation, and unites us to the mystery of His infinite love bodily. In the Mass, God makes our co-operation with Him as physically intimate as physical intimacy can possibly be. As Pope Francis put it in his encyclical on Mother Earth:

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation…The Eucharist is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love… The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration. (Laudato Si’ 236)

This is the oil we need.

The View from Mount Nebo

Pope Benedict Mount Nebo

If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted. (Matthew 18:19)

If two of you agree. Sounds pretty easy. But if you think so, you’ve probably never attended a parish council meeting. And you’ve definitely never been married.

As we read at Holy Mass today, Moses stood on Mount Nebo and saw the entire Holy Land, from Dan to Beersheba, from Naphtali to Idumea. To be sure, the view from Mount Nebo is majestic, like the view from McAfee’s Knob, or Moore’s Knob in Hanging Rock State Park, NC. But no human eye could see the entire Holy Land from Mount Nebo. The Lord must have given Moses a share in His own divine vision, in order for the prophet to see the whole expanse of the land.

Then Moses died, and Joshua assumed his office. Now, two popes have stood at the same place on Mount Nebo and taken in the same view as Moses, at least the part that can be seen by the human eye.

At Holy Mass a week from Sunday we will hear the Lord speak about the Church’s authority to bind and loose (we hear about that at Holy Mass today, too). Our spiritual Mother, the family formed by God through the sacrifice of Christ, governed by Christ’s Vicar on earth: She possesses the holy concord, the agreement, the harmony of spirit which the Lord promised to reward. She teaches us how to pray and how to live.

We human beings rightly cherish our sacred personal independence. But this does come as good news: our Creator has not left us on our own to seek Him. He has not made us religious free agents.

Yes, we only truly find Him when we have the courage to enter into the depths of our consciences to find our true selves, the saints He made us to be. But our true selves never stand alone. We always belong to the family God forms from the flesh of His only-begotten Son.

Basilicas of the Patron of Comedians

Titian Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence died for the faith 1,758 years ago today.

Rome has at least two grand basilicas of St. Lawrence. But we have one, too—a basilica of St. Lawrence, here in the Appalachian mountains.

Why did they erect a basilica in honor of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina? Is it because Lawrence exercises a special patronage over brewers? But the basilica came before the craft-beer movement…

St. Lawrence loved the faith, and the Mass, and the poor. He went to his martyrdom so fearlessly that he made his famous joke, as they burned him alive: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” At that moment, he became the patron of both cooks and comedians. The Perseid meteor shower occurs on or around St. Lawrence’s feast day to remind us of the sparks from the fire that burned him into heaven.

Anyone visited the basilica in Asheville? It’s no St. Andrew’s—just like Asheville is no Roanoke. But you don’t visit a church with a soaring elliptical-dome roof every day. It’s like the peaceful and prayerful Oval Office of God.

Good St. Lawrence, pray for us.

Card. Ratzinger on New-Evangelization Method

Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves…do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say. You will be given at that moment what you are to say. For it will not be you who speak but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:16,19-20)

The New Evangelization. Our mission. St. Kateri beheld her mission and gave herself over to it, here in this land, almost four centuries ago. Now it’s our turn.

But how? How do we participate in the New Evangelization? Here’s how Cardinal Ratzinger put it, back in the Jubilee Year 2000, before he was chosen Pope Benedict XVI.

New evangelization must surrender to the mystery of the grain of mustard seed and not be pretentious… Instead we must accept the mystery that the Church is at the same time a large tree and a very small grain…..

Card. Frings and Joseph RatzingerOf course we must use the modern methods of making ourselves heard in a reasonable way—or better yet: of making the voice of the Lord accessible and comprehensible… We are not looking for listening for ourselves—we do not want to increase the power and the spreading of our institutions, but we wish to serve for the good of humanity, giving room to He who is Life.

This expropriation of one’s person, offering it to Christ for the salvation of men, is the fundamental condition of the true commitment for the Gospel. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive, says the Lord (John 5:43). The mark of the Antichrist is the fact that he speaks in his own name.

The sign of the Son is his communion with the Father. The Son introduces us into the Trinitarian communion, into the circle of eternal love, whose persons are  pure acts of giving oneself and of welcome. The Trinitarian plan—visible in the Son, who does not speak in his name—shows the form of life of the true evangelizer—rather, evangelizing is not merely a way of speaking, but a form of living: living in the listening and giving voice to the Father. He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, says the Lord about the Holy Spirit (John 16:13).

Conclave Liturgical Anniversary

Pope Francis waving

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, became pope on Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent, 2013. The conclave lasted only a day–the Cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday. Four years ago today, according to the liturgical calendar.

At daily Mass, this fourth week of Lent belongs to John 5. On a sabbath, Lord Jesus told a sick man, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” And the man did as ordered.

Can God break the sabbath? I think we have to say No to that one. He consecrated the sabbath Himself with His own blessed rest at the beginning of the world, His happiness with all that He had made.

But, His work isn’t over until…the fat lady sings? History moves; God moves history. God, in His blessed, undisturbed peace—He works. Each morning He gives us the new day. A fresh gift, healed of the weakness and weariness of yesterday.

History moves, with God working, giving life and renewal. Springtime 2013 held great promise. New pope, new evangelization, new hope for the Gospel to light up the world.

I’ll say that four years ago today, I never could have imagined the ways in which Pope Francis would choose to love us. He has brought me to my knees. I guess I love him like I love the cross-country coach I had in high-school, who made us run until we vomited.

But God knows what He’s doing. He said to the man He had healed: “Look, you’re well. Do not sin anymore.” That’s what He says to us each morning. He gives us new birth by His mercy. Do good. Avoid evil. Rock on.

Ask and You Shall Receive the good Holy Spirit

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on my way down to kiss the ring of the fisherman, 3/9/00

Seventeen years ago today, I assisted at Mass with Pope St. John Paul II. He welcomed seminarians into his little chapel in the papal apartment every morning. Room enough for about 30 people, with half of them standing along the back wall. I’ll never forget how we got ushered in there at 7am, hushed, after passing through a chintzy metal detector and going up an old elevator—and there he was, kneeling in front of the altar, preparing to vest for Mass. Afterwards, we got to meet him in the library outside the chapel, and he encouraged us in our service to Christ.

On that day–March 9, 2000–the sun shone through the crisp Roman air. Spring was springing–just like it is here, in what I like to think of as the second-most-beautiful city in the world, Roanoke, Va.

This weather reminds us of the ancient origins of our English word for the 40 days before Easter. The word comes from “lengthen,” because the days get longer. “Lent” literally means “springtime.”

Which is why, when the Lord tells us, “Ask, and you shall receive,” we immediately blurt out: “Please! No snow this weekend!” He promised that He would lavish “good things” on those who pray. Snow ain’t no good thing.

st john paul iiBut, speaking of those “good things:” again we must briefly contend with a slight discrepancy in what our Lord said on two different occasions.

As we read at today’s Holy Mass, St. Matthew recorded the Lord, during the Sermon on the Mount, promising “good things” to those who pray. But when St. Luke recorded Christ’s teachings on prayer, He quoted Him as promising the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

So is it “good things” or “the Holy Spirit?”

Come on, people. This apparent discrepancy hardly poses the kind of tricky challenge we faced yesterday, when we had to clear up what the “sign of Jonah” was. This one is easy by comparison. After all, what thing could be as good as the Holy Spirit? The original Goodness from which all things flow?

So, if it be His will that snow fall this weekend, on the very night when we lose an hour’s sleep, then so be it. We can take it. God’s will be done.

By the day seventeen years ago when I had the privilege of kissing the fisherman’s ring on his finger, St. John Paul II had grown old and thoroughly enfeebled. His vigorous youth–when he hiked, and camped out, and said Mass on the back of a kayak for his college students–had vanished.

But he rejoiced in the Lord nonetheless. He rejoiced in the divine will. He rejoiced in the great mystery of Christ crucified, in the springtime–the mystery by which a spring will come that will never fade.