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.
Let me quote Blessed Pope Paul VI, interpreting this verse:
Christ first of all proclaims a kingdom, the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is so important that, by comparison, everything else becomes ‘the rest.’ The Kingdom of God is absolute; everything else is relative. (Evangelii Nuntiandi)
Pope Paul continues: “The Lord Jesus gives the Magna Carta [the Constitution] of the Kingdom of God,” namely…The Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek and gentle, those who mourn the sin of the world.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
Blessed are the merciful, the peaceful, the pure of heart. Blessed are those who suffer for the sake of God’s kingdom.
“Blessed” because: In the kingdom of God, we will receive consolation, comfort, and true satisfaction. There will be mercy. We will see God.
Pope Paul continues: “Jesus gave us the heralds of the Kingdom,” namely…the Apostles and their successors in the work of evangelization. And: “Jesus described the vigilance and fidelity demanded by whoever awaits the definitive coming of the kingdom of God.”
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison? To those who inherit the Kingdom, the Lord will say, “You did for Me whatever you did for…”
The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Now, I think we need to sort out the two ways in which this declaration of Christ’s can be understood. The two ways the phrase “Kingdom of God” can be understood.
Way #1: The vague, shallow way.
According to the vague, shallow interpretation of the idea of the Kingdom of God, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe, so long as you are nice. It doesn’t matter whether your good deeds actually help anyone in particular, or if you even ever do any real good deeds at all.
The vague, shallow interpretation holds that God is very nice and very imprecise himself. God does not really concern himself with what I do, or fail to do, exactly—according to the vague, shallow interpretation. But I can count on the vague, nice God to give me good feelings whenever I show up in a church or temple for a wedding or a funeral.
Actually, according to the shallow interpretation, I get to judge the vague, nice God, applying my own criteria. If God doesn’t meet my expectations, I am allowed to pout and stew. I might forgive him, provided he conform to my ideas and plans.
The second way of interpreting the phrase “kingdom of God” involves actually reading the Holy Bible.
When we read the Bible, we discover that one particular character never appears, not even on a single page—from Genesis, all the way through to Revelation, he’s not there. Namely, the vague, nice God.
In the Sacred Scriptures, we read about God, Whose kingdom flows with a kind of milk and honey so wonderful that we can’t even imagine it. All the dreams about heaven that we could concoct would never touch the sublime beauty of what God has revealed through His prophets and apostles.
We read, and we meet a God so powerful and wise that even the strongest and smartest human beings either have to tremble at the very thought of Him, or He humbles them to nothing by crushing all their delusions of grandeur into the dust.
We read, and we encounter a divine King Who insists that the most annoying and demanding of His subjects–who smell bad and often sit near us–are precisely the ones that we have to find a way to love as much as we love ourselves.
We read the Bible, and we see that God relentlessly concerns Himself with a lot of things that the vague, shallow interpretation regards as petty details. Like how to do holy ceremonies properly. And how to avoid lying, and lusting, and gluttony, and all kinds of hidden sins. He concerns Himself painstakingly with how we live in a marriage and as a family. And with what we ought to do when someone asks for help.
In other words, the actual King of the kingdom of heaven is demanding as hell. You have to belong to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. And not only do you have to belong, you have to do all the required things. And you have to do them with a loving and cheerful heart.
You also have to give up anything and everything that stands in the way of reaching the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that exists on its own, no matter what I think or don’t think about it. There’s a real King ruling over it, Who was born of Mary in Bethlehem and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
The vague, shallow interpretation of the Kingdom of God insists on being especially vague and shallow when it comes to two things in particular. We will have to cover those next week.
Everyone knows that our readings for Sundays and holy days follow a three-year cycle? The second reading always comes from the ____ Testament. Most of the time, the second reading at Mass comes from a letter written by St. ______. He wrote letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, Galatians, Thessalonians, Philippians, Ephesians, etc.
Paul himself was none of these; he was, in fact, a descendant of Abraham, a ______. Jews were also known as H_________. Sometimes we read from St. Paul’s letter to his own people.
Now, obviously, the Bible contains many inspiring chapters. To claim that any particular chapter qualifies as The Most Inspiring Chapter of the Holy Bible! would involve a lot of hubris. But Hebrews 11 will give any chapter a run for the money. If you only intend to read one single chapter of the Bible between now and the end of 2014, and you decide to make it Hebrews 11, I congratulate you on a good choice.
We hear in Sunday’s reading how the paragraphs of Hebrews 11 begin with the phrase “By faith, So-and-so did such-and-such.” By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to move to an unknown land. By faith, Abraham received the power to generate offspring, even though he had passed the normal age, and had a sterile wife. By faith, Abraham, when put to the test, offered up his son Isaac.
Now, Hebrews 11 recounts not just Abraham’s faith. The chapter chronicles the faith of the successive generations of Israelites who awaited the fulfillment of God’s promises. The chapter exhorts the Christian Church to unswerving faith.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, practically based his whole encyclical Lumen Fidei on Hebrews 11; he quotes the chapter thirteen times in the encyclical. Like when he writes:
If we remove faith in God from our cities, mutual trust would be weakened. We would remain united only by fear, and our stability would be threatened. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that ‘God is not ashamed to be called their God…’ (Heb 11:16)… The intention is to say that God, by his concrete actions, makes a public avowal that he is present in our midst and that he desires to solidify every human relationship. Could it be the case, instead, that we are the ones who are ashamed to call God our God? That we are the ones who fail to confess him as such in our public life, who fail to propose the grandeur of the life in common which he makes possible? Faith possesses a creative light for each new moment of history, because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things, in the Father. (paragraph 55)
Anyway, one particular verse of Hebrews 11 struck me, and I will tell you why. In the section of the chapter after the part about Abraham and his sons, St. Paul considers the faith of Moses. We read:
“By faith, Moses left Egypt, not fearing Pharaoh’s fury. For Moses persevered as if he could see the invisible God.”
Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, marching towards the sea, with chariots in hot pursuit. No earthly consideration could have made the situation hopeful. Didn’t look good at all. But Moses marched forward as if he could see the invisible God.
We see the baby Jesus, a baby, a boy. A human being, like us. But, by faith, we look at the infant in the manger as if we could see the invisible God. The Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the shepherds: gazing at the baby, adoring Him, as if they could see the invisible God.
Nothing will evangelize like this. The world needs the Good News of Christ. And nothing will convince like the witness of people who speak and live as if we could see the invisible.
Let me quote Pope Paul VI:
The world shows innumerable signs of denying God. But, nevertheless, she searches for him in unexpected ways. She painfully experiences the need for Him. The world is calling for evangelizers to speak of a God whom they know and are familiar with, as if they could see the invisible. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, paragraph 76)
For us, this requires discipline. It requires constant engagement with Christ, through Scripture and the sacraments. It requires renouncing the “concupiscence of our eyes,” which grasp like desperate babies for stimulation.
Moses did not lead the Israelites to the Promised Land by pulling out his smartphone all the time and checking his e-mail or facebook. Moses could see the invisible because he had conquered the concupiscence of his eyes, by denying them the immediate satisfaction that they crave.
Let’s think of the long, slow nights which Mary and Joseph spent with the baby. Hours of quiet breathing, little baby noises, in the pitch-black night. Totally unexciting. Except that they could see the invisible God.
That’s how we can learn to see the invisible, too. By embracing quiet, and solitude—and not running away. By becoming people who are not afraid to pray, to pray with reckless abandon to the unseen God–Who, in Jesus Christ, we can see and know.
The Church holds that these multitudes [of non-Christians or nominal Christians] have the right to know the riches of the mystery of Christ–riches in which we believe that the whole of humanity can find, in unsuspected fullness, everything that it is gropingly searching for concerning God, man and his destiny, life and death, and truth.
…The religion of Jesus, which the Church proclaims through evangelization, objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action. The Church thus causes an encounter with the mystery of divine paternity that bends over towards humanity. In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.
This is why the Church keeps her missionary spirit alive, and even wishes to intensify it in the moment of history in which we are living. She feels responsible before entire peoples. She has no rest so long as she has not done her best to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Savior. She is always preparing new generations of apostles. Let us state this fact with joy at a time when there are not lacking those who think and even say that ardor and the apostolic spirit are exhausted, and that the time of the missions is now past. The Synod [of Bishops, of 1974 has replied that the missionary proclamation never ceases and that the Church will always be striving for the fulfillment of this proclamation. (para. 53, from chapter five)
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)
If we find this sentence, uttered by the Prince of Peace, hard to understand, we won’t be the first. Thankfully, we have people like Blessed Pope Paul VI to explain this verse to us. In our humble parish cluster, we read the following paragraph together this past Sunday afternoon:
The Kingdom of God and our eternal salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ’s evangelization, are available to every human being as grace and mercy, and yet at the same time each individual must gain them by force–they belong to the violent, says the Lord, through toil and suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the cross, through the spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 10)
Interior change brought about by struggling and striving against our profound tendencies toward evil.
My beloved Georgetown Hoyas took the court last night wearing warm-up shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.” If I were coach JTIII, I would have told them, “Once you can hit 50% from the floor on a consistent basis, then you can make political statements…”
But I am not the coach. And center Josh Smith put it like this: “We weren’t saying the cops were wrong…We wore the shirts to show our condolences to the family. You don’t know who is right or wrong, but they still lost somebody, and they won’t get that person back.”
Now, in my book, there are probably better ways to express one’s condolences. But the pain is real. There are families who have lost someone in a fast-moving, violent scene, involving police firing their weapons.
Twenty years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant on 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C., and a squad of police officers entered with guns drawn. It was genuinely insane. In their pursuit of two punks hiding in the bathroom, the police risked the lives of a roomful of innocent people. Thank God, no one was hurt.
That said: Is this country racist like it was fifty years ago? More than half of the police officers involved in the episode I just mentioned were black. In those days, I was a middle-school teacher with a classroom full of black boys. And the joke among them, after the trial of the decade, was: What did O.J. say after the not-guilty verdict was read? “Can I get my glove back?”
A large group of Catholic theologians have released a statement about the ‘racial unrest’ our country has experienced these past few weeks. I give these professors credit for getting organized and giving us something thoughtful and substantial to consider. Especially the proposal that, since local prosecutors and police can and should work so closely together on a day-to-day basis to keep the peace, someone other than the local prosecutor should instruct grand juries when charges arise against police officers.
These theologians have pledged to abstain from meat on Fridays as a sign of penance for the sin of racism.
Their statement, however, opens itself up to charges of ivory-tower foolishness by…
1. invoking Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail in an anachronistic way.
2. citing the Greensboro, N.C., “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a precedent for a similar nationwide effort. I know some Greensborians, both black and white. I think I can say that the work of that Commission, such as it was, only confirmed the ancient axiom: “Exercises in conspicuous self-righteousness rarely accomplish anything.”
But exercises in friendship and kindness accomplish a great deal. Exercises in sharing the experiences of another human being.
The great evangelist St. Paul wept with those who wept. Laying down in the street to cause traffic jams seems stupid to me. But to weep with those who grieve a dead brother, or nephew, or son—and to hope and pray like Dr. King did, looking to Jesus to help us find a better day: we should do that.
My theme for a while is going to be: “Keeping the spirit of Vatican II alive by recognizing that the world is totally different now.”
It is only in the Christian message that modern man can find the answer to his questions and the energy for his commitment to human solidarity. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, paragraph 3)
These are the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI, from forty years ago. They are beautiful, and also painful to read.
Pope Paul had the idea that modern man was committed to human solidarity. And he had good reason to think so.
Yes, the 20th century saw the most brutal wars of all time, with more casualties than all the other centuries combined. But also, during the 20th century: mankind officially recognized that everyone has fundamental human rights; that racism is a bad thing, and colonial exploitation bad; that we as the human race should work together, for the common good of all, communicating with each other honestly and thoughtfully, giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
Above all: That we should care about each other’s welfare and have the courage to make sacrifices for the sake of my neighbor’s human rights.
“Modern man,” Pope Paul believed, had a commitment to this vision of the world, a vision that could hardly be expressed any more beautifully than Isaiah 29:17-24 (which we read today at Holy Mass). A human race that understands itself to be united and intimately concerned in the health and spiritual peace of all.
“Modern man,” however, has become a thing of the past. To understand Vatican II, fifty years later, we need to keep that in mind.
The idea of human solidarity, I think we can say, has faded from the public consciousness. The idea of the dignity of the human person has faded. These two go hand-in-hand, of course: We each have a unique dignity, and we all bear the burden of standing up for that dignity in every instance.
So I think we have to update and re-phrase what Blessed Pope Paul said. I think, in 2014, we have to put it like this: “It is only in the Christian message that post-modern man can find the idea of human dignity and the image of a united world, a world of human solidarity.”
Some of us can remember how the Church of the 1960’s and 70’s saw Herself as a partner with the better angels of our human nature, with a human spirit which was working for a better future for everyone.
But we need to recognize that now, a generation later, we have to propose Christ as the reason to believe that mankind can have a better future. Because post-modern man does not believe that. We have to propose Christ as the bond that can unite us as a human family. Because post-modern man has never experienced the desire to buy the whole world a Coke.
If you missed our first Evangelii-Nuntiandi study-session this past Sunday, here’s a highlight:
Even in the face of natural religious expressions most worthy of esteem, the Church finds support in the fact that the religion of Jesus, which she proclaims through evangelization, objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action… [Evangelization] thus causes an encounter with the mystery of divine paternity that bends over towards humanity. In other words, our religion effectively establishes with God an authentic and living relationship which the other religions do not succeed in doing, even though they have, as it were, their arms stretched out towards heaven.
This is why the Church keeps her missionary spirit alive, and even wishes to intensify it in the moment of history in which we are living. She feels responsible before entire peoples. She has no rest so long as she has not done her best to proclaim the Good News of Jesus the Savior. She is always preparing new generations of apostles. Let us state this fact with joy at a time when there are not lacking those who think and even say that ardor and the apostolic spirit are exhausted, and that the time of the missions is now past…The missionary proclamation never ceases, and the Church will always be striving for the fulfillment of this proclamation. (EN 53)
…As you can gather, we started with Chapter 5. This Sunday afternoon, we will go back and cover chapters 2 and 3.
Be watchful with all perseverance and supplication…that speech may be given…to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel. (Ephesians 6:18-19)
Guess what begins precisely one month from today? Holy Advent.
In our parish cluster, Advent-Sunday afternoons mean: Vespers and spiritual reading with Fr. Skinny Crewcut![This Advent at St. Joseph, M’ville.]
Now, who is our newest beatified pope? Who wrote the original gameplan for the New Evangelization?
What kind of fools would we be if we didn’t read Evangelii Nuntiandi as our spiritual reading this Advent?
The presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism, or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. It is the beauty of the Revelation that it represents. It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world. It is able to stir up by itself faith–faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life. (Blessed Pope Paul VI, EN 5)
So much to reflect on this Sunday, it’s almost too much. Bear with me here.
1. Sunday we mark 368 years since the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues, who died in upstate New York.
And he was by no means the only Jesuit who died for the faith on this continent. In 1571, eight Jesuits died as martyrs here in what is now Virginia.
We salute these greatest of American heroes. Before George Washington’s great-great-grandparents were conceived in their mothers’ wombs, the missionary martyrs of America gave their lives so that the people of this land could know the Good News.
2. In Rome on Sunday, our Holy Father will declare Pope Paul VI to be among the blessed in heaven.
Some of us, maybe, remember when Pope Paul governed the Church, which was from 1963 to 1978. The Beatification of Pope Paul concludes the Roman Synod that has studied marriage and family life these past two weeks, and which some of us may have heard something about in the newspaper or on tv. We had better discuss the Synod. But I think the Synod we had better discuss is actually the Synod on Evangelization, which took place in 1974. Let’s come back to that in a minute.
3. In the middle of all this, we hear our Lord say to us with His quiet wisdom: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Maybe you remember us talking about this gospel passage three years ago. We considered the challenge of actually trying to give God His due. We start at the altar: praising Him; offering the perfect sacrifice given to us by His Son; offering ourselves, along with Christ, to the Father. It all starts with Mass, and our whole lives are directed to the glory we come into contact with in the Holy Mass.
But we have to give God His due outside church, too. And we give Him His due by following His solemn command that we love our neighbor. We truly love our neighbor by thinking of him or her in the exact same way that Christ thought of us, when he spread out His arms on the cross for us.
Which brings us to “repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Our love for our fellowman means paying careful attention to our duties as citizens. Because we love God, we also seek, even in this fallen world, the great political goal known as “the common good.” And in a couple weeks, we who are of voting age have to figure out a way to cast a pro-life, pro-immigrant vote.
…But let’s go back to the memorable Synod of Bishops, which took place in Rome—in 1974, when Blessed Paul VI was pope. One topic on the table then was this:
Since we Catholics firmly believe that God is all-merciful and all-loving; since Jesus Christ, crucified for our salvation, has revealed the truth about God like nothing else ever could, we of course believe that God has a plan for absolutely everyone to be saved. This includes people who have never heard of Jesus or received the sacraments.
We ourselves know only one way to heaven—Holy Baptism, along with the other sacraments of the Church. But God knows more than we do, so we never despair about anyone’s salvation. The second Vatican Council re-echoed these truths, which can be found in the New Testament. God can find a way for anyone to get to heaven. How then do we understand our mission to evangelize?
Such was one of the pastoral problems posed by the Synod of Bishops which took place in the 1974. A good question. Allow me to quote what Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote:
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. [emphasis added]
…Anyone ever heard of Francis Parkman, the writer? He wrote the definitive history books about the two centuries when Europeans and native tribes both lived in what is now the United States, with each living according to their own long-standing traditional way of life. That is, the 1600’s and 1700’s.
Parkman was an amazingly smart historian and gifted writer. That said, in his books, Parkman has a clear bias against some of the Indian tribes. One group, though, he held in even greater contempt. The Jesuits. Parkman’s phrase for the Jesuits in North America during colonial times is: “Romish zealots.”
Seems to me that this lays a challenge on us. When biased historians look back on the 21st century, will they find a record of what we have done, and conclude: What a bunch of Romish zealots!
May God give us the grace to water this land with our blood, sweat, and tears, because we Romish zealots won’t be satisfied until everyone has a chance to share in the grace that we have received in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
From the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same File:
“…the duty of confirming the brethren…seems to us all the more noble and necessary…after the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops…and we do so all the more willingly because it has been asked of us by the Synod Fathers themselves. In fact, at the end of that memorable Assembly, the Fathers decided to remit to the Pastor of the universal Church, with great trust and simplicity, the fruits of all their labors, stating that they awaited from him a fresh forward impulse… “ –Pope Paul VI, post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, paragraph 2 (1975).
Thus, the illustrious genre of papal post-synodal Apostolic Exhortations began.
Here’s how Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI’s biographer, summarizes what had happened in 1974:
“A new actor had entered the scene, whose importance was not recognized at the time. Frustrated in his desire to have a Synod on marriage, he was named Relator of the Synod on Evangelization…The Relator’s approach prevailed in the final document, with the effect that the Synod rejected it. The result was impasse. But not tragic…
“Everything was simply dumped in the papal lap, and Paul was invited to sort it all out. But since ‘informing the pope’ was one of the functions of the Synod, one could not say that collegiality had failed: better honest confusion than papering over the cracks. To the pope fell the task of synthesis.” –Hebblethwaite, Paul VI, pp. 626-27
And who was the ‘new actor,’ whose final document the Synod rejected, thus giving rise to the need for the pope to write an Apostolic Exhortation? Karol Cardinal Wojtyla.
Collegiality, a fancy word for trying to work together, began while the Lord Himself still walked the earth. And, as the Lord taught us, collegiality is only possible when—only possible; no collegiality, no co-ordination without: one loving father, who reigns supreme, who bears the burden of sorting everything out, and who demands obedience to what he decides.
Holy Father Francis called the synod of 2015, and Holy Father Francis will tell us what it means, when the time is right for us to know what it means.
In the meantime, much better to pray than to agitate oneself. The Church most certainly has been through all this before.