They came to honor the Child. The shepherds and the magi. We go to honor Him, too, by making a spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Not just to honor Him, of course, but also to praise and adore Him, and to rejoice at His birth. But let’s focus on the giving of honor. [Spanish]
We honor God above all things. All goodness, all nobility, all truthfulness, all grace comes from God. We owe God everything. We exist because of His generosity. We respond to His kindness by consecrating ourselves in His service and honoring Him for Who He is.
Like the shepherds and the magi, like St. Joseph and the Virgin, we honor God made man in Christ. By honoring the Son, we honor the Almighty Creator and provident Father of the universe. And by honoring the incarnate Word, not only do we honor the triune God, but also we honor everything virtuous and honest about mankind. The God-man has infinite divine virtue and the perfection of humanity. We honor all of that, when we honor the newborn Christ.
Recognizing all that is honorable about God and man in Jesus liberates us from idolatry. Honoring the Christ attunes us to reality as it truly is. God is God, and only God is God. God made the human race beautiful, in His image. We betrayed that; we betrayed our true selves. But God became one of us to restore and fulfill the original holiness of mankind. We honor that true loveliness of our race when we honor Jesus.
To give honor where we should give it, and not where we shouldn’t: that’s a matter of honesty and justice, a matter of maintaining personal integrity as human beings. (See St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, Pars II-II, q63 a3.) It’s a sin to neglect to honor someone who deserves our honor. That’s called disrespect. It’s also a sin to honor someone who doesn’t deserve it. That’s called flattery or sycophancy.
A couple weeks ago, a priest who supervised and guided me when I was a seminarian became a bishop. I watched the ceremony on YouTube, praying for my one-time mentor and for the people of his new diocese.
The Cardinal Archbishop who presided over the ordination gave a long homily, as they always do. But this one wasn’t totally boring. The Archbishop reflected on where bishops come from and what their fundamental role is.
The office of bishop comes from Christ, and the bishops give us Christ. Jesus founded His Church on the Twelve Apostles, the first priests and first bishops. Without the unbroken succession of the laying on of hands that started with the Twelve, and which has now continued for two thousand years, we would not have the Holy Mass or any of the sacraments. No one can make himself a priest. Only a bishop can make a man a priest, who can give the Body and Blood of Christ to the people.
We have to honor this. We have to honor bishops and the pope, because they are the successors of the original Apostles as Jesus’ representatives on this earth. The pope and bishops of today are the living ends of the chain that links us with the baby born in Bethlehem.
All that said, we have to remember what we read in Scripture: Like snow in summer, honor for a fool is out of place… Like one who entangles the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool. (Proverbs 26:1,8)
Very few people attended my one-time mentor’s ordination as a bishop. The people of his new diocese were stunningly, painfully absent from the ceremony. The pandemic kept people away, to be sure. But that’s not the whole story.
We learned earlier this year that the previous bishop of that diocese covered-up sexual abuse that had been committed by the bishop there a generation ago. At least two of the previous bishops of that diocese were guilty of sexually abusing minors, as well as dozens of priests there. To this day, the diocese has not reckoned with the full truth.
One of the priest-abusers likely killed one of his young victims. It is a murder mystery that still lingers. A skilled investigator wrote a book about the case a couple years ago, calmly laying out all the facts. It is practically impossible to read that book and retain any sense of honor for the clergy of the Catholic Church.
Another old priest friend of mine died just before Christmas. I attended his funeral, but I could not concelebrate, since the bishop here has unjustly suspended me from ministry.
Now, I don’t mean to “project” as the psychologists put it. But I think that my standing away from the altar at my friend’s funeral put me in the strained kind of place that a lot of Catholics find themselves in these days. I knew I belonged in church for the funeral. For me to be anywhere else would have involved betraying my friend and my faith. But I could not fit in there, as if nothing were wrong. For me to concelebrate the Mass peacefully—that would have required my making concessions to the bishop months ago, concessions that would have betrayed my conscience.
This is where I find myself as the new year of grace begins. I daresay you, dear reader, find yourself in a similar place. Let’s make a resolution for 2021: That we will trust God and trust Christ. Let’s trust that His plan will involve better days to come. And let’s trust that, to get there, we won’t have to betray either the Church or ourselves.