At the conclusion of the first season of the Pauline Year being kept for the 2,000th anniversary of his birth, I offer you my first observance in honor of the Holy Apostle…
This summer, our second readings at Mass will be taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
St. Paul is of course one of the greatest saints of all time. He had been an enemy of the faith, but then the Lord called him, and He became a zealous Apostle. He spent his life, everything he had, for Christ and the Gospel. In the end, St. Paul offered the witness of his blood and died a martyr’s death.
We know that our holy Roman Catholic Church is built on the rock of Peter, the chief of the Apostles and Vicar of Christ, whose blood shed on Vatican hill consecrated the Holy, Apostolic See of Rome. But St. Peter himself would want us to acknowledge that our faith and our Church rests also on the foundation laid by his brother Apostle, St. Paul. Together, Sts. Peter and Paul are the patrons of our Mother Church, the Church of Rome.
We do not know the exact date of St. Paul’s birth in Tarsus in what is now Turkey. But as best we can determine, we are now within a year of St. Paul’s two thousandth birthday. To celebrate this, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has declared that the next year will be kept in honor of St. Paul. Beginning on St. Paul’s feast day, which he shares with St. Peter on June 29, the Catholic Church will observe a Pauline Year.
Now, what does this mean for us? First and foremost it means that we should all seriously consider going on pilgrimage to visit St. Paul’s tomb to honor him and pray for his heavenly intercession. This is something that Christian people have done since the first centuries of the Church, to go on pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul. St. Paul’s tomb is in the second-biggest church in Rome. Hopefully you are already aware of the fact that I have conveniently arranged for a parish pilgrimage so that we can make these visits. We will go in November.
If you cannot go on pilgrimage to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul, then another excellent way to honor the Holy Apostle would be to spend time studying his writings.
Of the fourteen letters of St. Paul preserved in the New Testament, his letter to the Christians in Rome is the longest and certainly the most important. He wrote it during the winter of 58 A.D. while he was in Corinth in Greece. Paul had been a missionary preacher for twenty years; he had traveled throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire teaching people about Christ. Now he wanted to move his operation to the west. His plan was to go back to Jerusalem in the spring, and then sail from there to the capital of the world, Rome. From Rome, he intended to begin evangelizing Spain.
By the year 58, St. Peter had been in Rome for some time. Rome already had a large and stable community of Christians. St. Paul knew this, so he wrote to them to introduce himself and explain his message, so that when he arrived they would embrace him in faith and Christian brotherhood.
St. Paul also likely intended his letter to the Roman Christians to be the definitive summary of his teaching. Of all his letters, this one is uniquely calm and systematic. The Apostle knew that the Lord had given him a crucial insight into the mystery of Christ, and he knew also that it was his duty to express this insight as best he could, for the benefit not only of his brother Christians now living, but for succeeding generations.
Our readings of Romans at Mass begin today in the latter part of the third chapter. The Apostle has just finished outlining how all of the human race stood under condemnation for sin, both Jews and non-Jews. The Roman church that St. Paul was writing to was made up of both Jewish converts to Christianity and pagan converts. In other words, Christianity had brought together people who otherwise would not associate with each other.
St. Paul is pointing out that the communion of Jew and non-Jew in the Church is based on the fact that all people are sinners. Everyone, all the children of Adam, rely totally on the free gift of salvation given to us by God in Christ. With this letter, St. Paul is clarifying the overall shape of history for us, and showing us our place in it: There was a time before the Redemption wrought by Christ on the cross, and that was a time of sin. Now that Christ has come we live in the time of grace.
Our access to that grace begins with faith. There is no human righteousness which does not begin with believing in Jesus Christ our Savior. We cannot redeem ourselves; we cannot save ourselves. Our salvation begins by believing in the free gift of redemption that God has given us.
In the opening passage of Romans, St. Paul announced his theme: faith. He wrote: “The Gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who has faith…for in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed through faith…” He went on to quote the prophet Habakkuk: “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” And in last Sunday’s reading from Romans, we heard: “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested through faith in Christ Jesus for all who believe…God justifies him who has faith in Jesus.” And another verse: “God will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.”
St. Paul’s reference to the circumcised and the uncircumcised shows that the Apostle was considering the role of both Jew and non-Jew in God’s plan of God of salvation. Starting with Abraham, the fore-father of the nation of Israel, God had commanded that His Chosen people be circumcised as a sign of His holy covenant with them. The Church in Rome, to which St. Paul was writing, was made up of converts both from Judaism and from paganism, circumcised and uncircumcised.
St. Paul’s message to both groups is this: Without Christ, everyone stands condemned for sin before God. Non-Jews are condemned by the natural moral law, the law of upright living which any reflective person can know. The natural law is the Ten Commandments written invisibly on the human heart. At the same time, Jews are condemned by the explicit divine law revealed on Mt. Sinai. The Jewish nation does indeed have a unique covenant with God, but, while God has been unswervingly faithful, the Chosen people have not lived up to their side of the Covenant. In other words, Jews may be circumcised in the flesh, but not in the heart; they are not truly obedient to the divine command.
In our reading today, St. Paul explores the origin of the Covenant between God and Israel. In spite of the fact that the Pharisees and Sadducees tended to emphasize circumcision and the law of Moses, the covenant did not in fact originate with either of these. As the book of Genesis recounts, the divine covenant began when God called Abraham to leave his home and come to the Holy Land. God promised Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed in his offspring, even though both Abraham and his wife Sarah were too old to have children. The divine covenant began when Abraham believed the Lord’s promise, even though, from the human point-of-view, it seemed impossible to fulfill. St. Paul is making the point that the covenant has always been a covenant of faith. The Old Testament itself teaches that the ritual of circumcision was meant to be merely an outward sign of inward faith.
You and I, then, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, have St. Paul to thank, therefore, for teaching us to call Abraham our “father in faith.” Abraham was righteous because he believed God and trusted Him. God’s promise to Abraham was perfectly fulfilled in Abraham’s descendent, Jesus of Nazareth. God has made known his goodness, mercy, and love by sending His Son. All of us who believe in Christ, therefore, are true children of Abraham, because we share Abraham’s faith. All who believe in Christ are united with God in the divine covenant which first began when Abraham believed God.
In the verses we heard from the fifth chapter of Romans, St. Paul refers to “the wrath,” the wrath of God.
St. Paul may have been moved to write the letter in the first place because he suspected that the early Christians in Rome did not fully appreciate the grace which they received through Holy Baptism and the other sacraments of the Church. We may very well be in same boat, not fully grasping what Christ has done for us —so St. Paul’s teaching will be illuminating for us, too. This/yesterday morning, seven new priests were ordained for our Archdiocese. St. Paul’s teaching will help us to understand precisely why.
In earlier parts of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Apostle had already mentioned the wrath of God numerous times. Although his letter was meant to be an act of Christian fellowship and love with the Christians in Rome, St. Paul certainly did NOT kiss up to his audience; he did not go easy on them and tickle their ears. He did not try to give them ‘warm fuzzies.’ Quite the contrary.
At the beginning of the letter, St. Paul had pointed out that Judgment Day is coming: “God will render to every man according to his works…the day will come when God judges the secrets of men.” What will happen then? St. Paul writes: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men.” Why will the ungodly be punished? “They did not honor the Lord as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.”
Sobering. Especially since this sounds frighteningly familiar. Who will escape condemnation? St. Paul insists that everyone is liable to condemnation by God’s law, because the Law convicts the entire human race of sin. Even those who accept the truth about God do not faithfully follow His Law. God is perfectly righteous, and we are not—this is one of the fundamental facts of our existence. So the inevitable day of judgment would be a day of wrath for all of us—were it not for the salvation which God in His mercy has brought about by sending His only Son into the world.
And when did Christ come? It happened “while we were yet helpless,” St. Paul writes. We human beings may be clever and industrious; we may be able to get someone to the moon; we may be able make little computers you can carry in your pocket to send e-mails to Katmandu; but when it comes to being righteous before Almighty God, we are utterly helpless, because we cannot atone for our own sins.
We will hear the Apostle explain it in our reading from Romans next week: From the Fall of Adam and Eve onwards, the human race has been helpless to please God and attain His friendship. God originally bestowed His love and grace on us; all our First Parents had to do was accept reality and obey God. But they were seduced into pride, and their senseless minds were darkened.
This left us all helpless, deprived of divine goodness and bereft of any hope of glory. This is St. Paul’s fundamental point in this letter, and it is a point we must constantly call to mind. When God sent His Son to die for us, it was an act of pure Fatherly love. He had nothing to gain by doing it. Christ’s mission of salvation came as a pure, unmerited gift. None of us have earned God’s forgiveness; none of us have earned reconciliation and friendship with Him. But God has poured out His love anyway, because that is the way He is. He is infinite mercy and infinite love.
For THIS reason, we can rejoice and live without fearing the wrath of God. We can look forward to Judgment Day; we can even pray that it would come soon. For THIS reason—because Jesus Christ graciously has redeemed us by His Precious Blood. We please God by believing this. He rose from the dead; He will raise us up also. Bodily death is the universal punishment for original sin, but the bodily death of God’s faithful ones does not leave us in oblivion. Rather, we look for the eternal life won for us by Christ’s perfect sacrifice. This is what we believe, and by believing it, we are delivered from the wrath to come.
St. Paul’s words to the Romans remind us that our Christian faith obliges us to acknowledge our sins. It makes no sense to say we believe in the divine Savior Jesus Christ if we do not simultaneously admit that we need to be saved. When we frankly confess our sins, the Lord forgives us through the ministry of priests, our condemnation is lifted, and we are restored to God’s friendship. Priests are friends of God, hopefully—but God is the kind of friend who wants His friends to make more friends for Him. So, above all, a priest is a man through whom anyone can become God’s friend, no matter what, since God’s friendship is a pure gift.
As we heard St. Paul put it, our faith in the Redemption won for us by Christ leads us to rejoice, positively to glory in God—even to boast in Him, as the Lectionary translation has it. We glory and revel and boast in our wonderful Savior. Without Him we are nothing, but with Him and in Him we are children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed be Jesus Christ the Lord! Blessed be the Holy, Righteous, and Merciful One!
Our reading from the sixth chapter of Romans lays out the fundamental Christian doctrines of original sin and Redemption.
When God originally created us, He blessed us in two distinct ways. Adam and Eve first of all received human nature. They were a unique creation, made up of both matter and spirit. Adam and Eve were different from all other creatures, set between animals and angels.
This wonderful, unique human nature, however, is not the only thing that God gave to Adam and Eve when He created them. God also blessed them with His friendship. Friendship with God is called grace; Adam and Eve were created in a special state of grace. This grace added to their humanity, but it did not change them into something other than human beings. Among other countless other gifts, God gave Adam and Eve the special grace of immortal blessedness. We do not know exactly what human history would have been like if Adam and Eve had not sinned, but we can certainly say this much: No one ever would have died, children would be conceived without lust and born without pain, and our pilgrimage to heaven would not be a difficult struggle like it is now.
Adam and Eve’s disobedience, however, meant that they lost God’s grace. The original sin wounded our human nature itself. All of our ancestors, therefore, have still obviously passed human nature down to us through procreation, the same human nature that God originally created, but we receive it without the original addition of God’s grace. Therefore, we are born mortal, ignorant of God, and inclined to evil. This is called the state of original sin. Original sin is not a sin anyone of us commits now; rather, it is the state that human nature is in, as a result of the actual sin committed by Adam and Eve.
Do not get me wrong, though: Because we are born in the state or original sin, we inevitably do commit actual sins once we grow up a little bit and become responsible for our own actions. And the sentence of death which originally condemned Adam and Eve has condemned us all as well. Only God’s friendship—His grace—confers the hope for eternal happiness. He gave this friendship as a gift to our First Parents, and they freely refused it. He does not owe the human race His grace. When it comes, it comes as a pure gift.
Original sin, therefore, does not simply refer to the bad example given to us by our First Parents. Surely, they did give us bad example by disobeying the one simple commandment God gave them. But if original sin meant just bad example, then we might imagine that we could break out of the cycle of evil by our own efforts, by just acting differently. We would just have to avoid following Adam and Eve’s bad example.
But original sin is in fact something much deeper than this, something much thornier, mysterious, and intractable. Original sin means that Adam’s sin has ‘overflowed’ into the entirety of human nature. Human nature itself is in a state of sin, and there is no earthly escape. The only remedy is a new Adam, a new human nature, a new state of humanity.
So, when St. Paul refers to the “first man,” Adam, in the passage we just heard from Romans, he intends to convey all of this. He intends to remind us that the human race needed a new founder. The human race needed a new Adam who could establish our nature in righteousness and justice again, like when it was new, and then hand this redeemed humanity on with pure and perfect love to the whole race. In other words, the human race needed a new father who was a true friend of God.
This is the background for St. Paul’s message. The message is this: The human race needed nothing less than a new Adam, and this is exactly what God in His infinite grace and mercy has given us. Christ is not just a good teacher and a good example; He is not just a prophet and a righteous Jew; He is not even just a perfectly innocent man who was unjustly killed and then rose from the dead. Christ is all of these things and something much more: Christ is God Who took human nature to Himself in order to re-found the human race.
So, yes it is true that we still must struggle with evil because the effects of Adam’s Fall have not been completely removed from our nature. But it is all the more true that this same human nature of ours can now be healed, renewed, and glorified by the grace of Christ. Christ has restored our race to God’s friendship. The sin of Adam still touches us through our birth in the flesh, but the grace of Christ touches us with infinitely more power through our re-birth in the Church.
Of course we venerate St. Paul as one of the greatest saints of all time. But we have to acknowledge that his writing is not always crystal clear. St. Peter referred to this, when he wrote in one of his letters, “Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you…there are some things in [his letters that are] hard to understand.”
Our reading from Romans this evening/morning is no exception. But let’s not be discouraged; let us try to put the passage in context. The passage we heard a few moments ago is a part of St. Paul’s explanation of Holy Baptism.
In an earlier chapter of the letter, St. Paul explained that Baptism is death, death with Christ. Baptism brings the line of human corruption, degradation, and loss to an end, so that life and growth and holiness can begin. As the Lord Jesus put it when speaking with Nicodemus, to be baptized means to be re-born, not into a new body, but into the eternal life of God. In other words, the sacrament of Holy Baptism puts us into the state of grace. It sets us on the road to heaven, and it includes the promise of all the graces we will need to get there. Baptism is a once-and-for-all gift, but if we fall out of the state of grace by sinning, we can come back to the original power of the Baptismal waters by making a good Confession to a priest.
In considering the effects of Holy Baptism, St. Paul goes on to tell us this evening/this morning: “You are not in the flesh. On the contrary, you are in the spirit.”
Now, we might be inclined to say to St. Paul, “Dear teacher and master, we of course believe everything you tell us. But it seems to us that we actually are in the flesh. For instance, if we pinch our forearms real hard, it does hurt. Also, we get hungry and need to eat, and we get tired and need to sleep. We need clothes and a roof over our heads, too.”
Honest points. We can imagine that the Apostle would reply, “My children, I grant your point. My question for you is: Why? When you eat, drink, sleep, clothe yourselves—when you do all that is necessary to survive—why do you do it? Why do you strive after the things you strive after? What is your goal? If your goal is anything less than God, then what good are all your efforts? What good is living in this world without the hope of eternal life?
The words of the Apostle remind us of the true horizon of our life. Christ came into the world to show us this true horizon. Perhaps the horizon appears to be far off in the distance. We human beings are plodding pilgrims on earth, and we move forward one little step at a time. But we cannot so much as take one sure step in the right direction if we haven’t first glimpsed the horizon and set our sights on it. Bodily survival is NOT the horizon; life in this world is not the horizon; nothing having to do with the flesh is the horizon. Heaven is the horizon of our life.
“We are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh,” continues St. Paul. We human beings are above all material things in the hierarchy of creation. We occupy the place between the world and the angels and God. We owe this world nothing. We owe everything—our immortal souls, our perishable bodies, all the means of survival, everything we have—we owe it all to God.
God gives us everything that He gives us because of His love. Because of His infinite love, He set everything up so that we could proceed through our pilgrim lives on earth and then come home to Him in glory. Our First Parents turned away from Him by sinning, but He sent His Son to set things right again.
What fools we would be if we spurned, neglected, or ignored God’s gifts! Why would we live for anything other than God? God alone is infinitely good; nothing in this world is. God alone give us true and lasting happiness and peace; nothing in this world does.
St. Paul tells us to “put to death the deeds of the body.” This means never putting anything we want, or like, or think we need, before God. May we be willing to lose it all—to suffer injury and insult, to look like fools and naifs in the eyes of worldly men, even be killed, if that is what we have to do to be true to Jesus Christ our Lord and God. Let the worldly people call us fools if they want to. We know that we would be fools if we did not live for God.
We just heard St. Paul declare that, “All creation—and we ourselves—are groaning in labor pains.”
The Lord Jesus spoke of the travail of childbirth on Holy Thursday night, before He went to the Garden of Gethsemane. He told His disciples: “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. When a woman is in travail, she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice.”
Of course there is only one particular group of us that can really appreciate the full force of the comparison here, but I think all of us can understand what the Lord was trying to tell His disciples.
St. Paul, on the other hand, extends the analogy of childbirth to all of creation—not just to the disciples who lived through the death of their Master on the Cross. St. Paul applies the analogy to us, too. This is harder to understand. To try to grasp what the Apostle is teaching us, let us recall a few things from earlier passages in his letter to the Romans.
First, let’s remember that St. Paul began the letter by pointing out that all of mankind has been estranged from God by sin. After recalling the reality of original sin, St. Paul went on to declare: Where sin abounded, grace has abounded all the more. We were powerless to save ourselves; we were doomed to perpetual pain and loss, so God became one of us and set things right. What we could not do for ourselves, Christ did for us on the Cross. Christ’s obedience to the will of the Father has overcome the disobedience of Adam and Eve.
Then there is another step in the fulfillment of our salvation. The perfect justice of the Son of God must reach each of us individually. This happens when we receive the sacraments with faith. Hence, the Apostle treats the sacrament of Holy Baptism at length in his letter.
St. Paul’s words about creation groaning in labor pains help us to reckon with the following fact: Our Lord, having paid the price for our sins and having won heaven for us, could have established the Church in such a way that, upon our being baptized into Him, we would just go straight to heaven. He can do anything; He could have done that—but He did not. He has left us to make our pilgrim way through life by faith, struggling to avoid good and evil.
God always does things in the best possible way, but that doesn’t mean it is easy for us to understand. The sacraments do indeed bathe us in Christ’s grace, but we still have to struggle with our inclination to evil. Sometimes we might wonder to ourselves: If the grace of these sacraments is so wonderful, then why is it still so hard for me to fight temptation and do the right thing? Why do I still sin, and have to go running to Confession and confess the same things over and over again for years?
Now, before we get too discouraged, let’s recognize that we do make slow progress if we stay close to Christ, especially in the Confessional. But there is no question that it is a ceaseless battle requiring a lot of effort. Why do I have to undergo this struggle?
St. Paul wrote to the Romans to clarify the answer to this question. The central theme of the letter, as we have seen, is faith. We are saved by faith. Christ has taught us to believe, to believe in a great destiny for ourselves, the eternal friendship of Almighty God. We are made for greatness; we are made for holiness; we are made for divine glory—and we attain all these things by faith, because faith alone lifts us up to God’s level. We persevere through all trials, we advance toward the goal, we triumph over sin and death—all of this we do by faith.
Our faith is proven by adversity. If it were easy to be holy; if it were easy to get to heaven; if we could see God’s whole plan right now, or see the invisible grace of the sacraments of the Church, or see the saints and angels pulling for us and reaching out to help us—if we could see all these things, then we wouldn’t have to dig deep to believe. But it is precisely by believing from the bottom of our hearts that we become the true friends of God that we are meant to become. The harder it is to believe in Christ at any given moment, the closer we actually are to Him, because we are reaching out to Him Himself, and not just to His gifts.
Every Easter Eve, we rejoice in this mysterious truth: It is better that our First Parents fell, and sin entered the world, leaving us with the hard battle we face to get to heaven. It is better this way, because this is precisely the situation that brought our beloved Savior Jesus Christ into the world. It is better that we have to follow Christ up Calvary Hill, through the dark night of faith, through the bitter travails of eternal life’s agonizing birthpangs, because this rough strife—and nothing else—will bring us to the glory prepared for us.
In our readings from Romans the past few weeks, we have been hearing passages from St. Paul’s treatise on the effects of the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Baptism unites us with Christ’s death, but we usually do not die in the body immediately. What we die to is sin: we die to our corrupt and disordered inclinations so that we can live Christ’s immortal life. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul put it this way: “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”
Through Baptism–or by a good Confession, when we fall into sin after Baptism–the Blessed Trinity dwells within us. The indwelling Trinity inspires us, guides us, helps us, uses us for the good of others, and moves us gradually toward our final goal, which is eternal blessedness with Him.
The indwelling of God in the Christian soul means that our pilgrim life here on earth is primarily interior and only secondarily exterior. We are most interested in what is invisible to us now, the mysteries of faith. Everything visible is important enough, but it is secondary. God is first.
Our reading from Romans this evening/morning picks up right where we left off last week. As we recall, in last week’s reading, St. Paul described our experience of persevering with hope through trials and tribulations. He compared our spiritual struggle to the travails of a woman in childbirth. Doing God’s will, becoming holy, and getting to heaven is not easy. We often feel as though we are flailing around in the dark, unsure of God’s plan, beset by temptation and human weakness.
We need, therefore, to pray constantly. We rely totally on the help of God and His saints. We need to lift our hearts and minds up to heaven and ask for the help we need. God made us to do this. We were made to pray. It is natural for us to ask God to give us what we desire. The trick is being prepared to accept what the Lord gives. We do not know everything about what is best for us, so we do not always pray for what we really need.
At the heart of our life of prayer is the mysterious fact that God has foreseen all events and knows perfectly everything that will happen until the end of time. Keeping this in mind puts our prayers in their proper perspective. We do not pray in order to change God’s mind, or to bargain with Him, placate Him, or manipulate Him. It is impious even to fantasize that we could deal with God as if he were a human being with particular interests who is open to some kind of negotiation with us.
We do not pray for God’s sake at all; we pray for our sake. Our requests draw us close to the One Who is our salvation and our true happiness; they unite our minds and hearts with God’s unchanging truth and His infinite love.
St. Paul teaches us that, because we are baptized, the Holy Spirit prays within us, interceding, asking the Father to give us truly good gifts. When we ask God for something in particular, then, it is either the Holy Spirit praying within us, or it is not. If it isn’t, we are asking for something superfluous, and we should be neither surprised nor scandalized if we don’t get it. We are always free to ask for whatever we want, but we can only count on getting what we ask for when we pray in the Holy Spirit.
St. Thomas Aquinas helpfully teaches us the four conditions necessary to be certain that we are praying in the Spirit. I can count on my prayers being answered if: 1) I pray with complete submission to God’s authority; 2) I pray for myself; 3) I ask for things necessary for our salvation; and 4) I persevere in prayer no matter how long it takes.
These criteria are actually pretty obvious. God will of course never answer our prayers if we ask to be allowed to commit sins. He may answer our prayers for other people, but He may not. Every individual soul must freely turn to God in order to be saved, and my prayers cannot force someone else to turn to God. God gives us everything we need to get to heaven, including our daily bread, but He never promised us any luxuries on earth. And of course God answers worthy prayers at the best possible time, which may not be right now.
The ultimate guide for our personal prayer is the prayer of the Church Herself. The best way to learn how to pray in the Spirit is to use a Missal or missalette to pray the entire Holy Mass along with the priest. The prayers the priest says during Mass are not personal prayers; rather, the priest speaks on behalf of the entire Church. The heart of our Mother the Church is opened and revealed to us in these prayers, especially the prayers that immediately precede and immediately follow the consecration. We should always make these prayers our own, at every Mass.
If we want what the Church wants and ask God for what the Church asks God for, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is interceding within us. Our prayers then will certainly be answered.
The last few verses of the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans include some of the most consoling sentences in the entire Bible. Many devoted Bible readers have found their all-time favorite verses somewhere between Romans 8:28 and Romans 8:38. Our second readings at Holy Mass today and next Sunday are taken from these beloved verses.
Our reading today began: “Brothers and sisters: we know that all things work for the good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
This is a supremely consoling statement. To establish more firmly our own conviction of its truth, let’s confront a couple of questions.
“We know that all things work for the good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”
Question 1: We “know” this. How do we know it?
Question 2: “…who are called according to His purpose.” What is God’s purpose?
First let us freely acknowledge that Romans 8:28 is NOT self-evident. There are a lot of people out there who disagree and say that they do NOT know that all things work for the good. Many of our brothers and sisters in this world look around at the way things work, and they despair. They see nothing but selfishness, or the law of the jungle, or the slow arc of inevitable death. Some people have the sense that the higher powers calling the shots are unfriendly, or even malicious. And there are also the poor souls who think there is really nothing except atoms—no angels, no truth, no love, no honor, no glory.
So our being able to perceive the sweet hand of divine Providence is a great gift. The Holy Spirit enables us to know that all things are working for our good. To know what Romans 8:28 says we know is the Spirit’s gift of knowledge. One of the seven gifts, knowledge is our interior perception that God is in charge of everything, that there is a reason behind everything.
As our Holy Father Pope Benedict has frequently pointed-out, this is one of the distinguishing marks of true religion, the doctrine that God is reasonable, rather than arbitrary. Right now our minds are not quite up to understanding all of God’s reasons for doing or permitting all the things that He does or permits, so we need to abandon ourselves in faith sometimes. But when everything is said and done, we will understand it all, because God’s entire plan is perfectly reasonable, as we will see, please God, when His mind is fully revealed to us in heaven.
The Lord wills good; He permits evil. His plan is so magnificent, and His power is so awesome, that He brings greater good out of the evil which He allows. In outlining God’s over-arching plan of salvation, St. Paul pointed out earlier in his letter to the Romans that God brings good out of evil: From the evil of Satan’s temptation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the whole history of human sin, God has brought about the infinitely greater good of the mission of His Son to the earth. Jesus Christ—who suffered and died unjustly, then rose again—Jesus is the best possible thing that ever could have happened. His goodness trumps all the evil that has ever been or ever will be; His goodness overcomes it all, and turns all evil into an opportunity for holiness, because it unites us with the Savior who suffered for our salvation.
So now we can answer our first question easily enough: We KNOW what Romans 8:28 says we know because God became man, lived for us as a man, died for us as a man, rose again and ascended into heaven as a man, and He pours His Spirit out from heaven into our hearts to give us interior knowledge of Himself.
Now, to answer the second question: What is God’s purpose in guiding everything as He does? The answer is simple and obvious on one level and impossible to fathom on another. We know from the Lord Jesus that God’s purpose in everything is that we would share the divine glory forever. Simple enough.
On the other hand, though, we do not yet see what this glorious destiny of ours is. The prospect of seeing God and being like Him is so utterly beyond our capacities to feature that for now our destiny must remain an interior mystery of faith. So again, the Holy Spirit comes to our aid with a special gift.
The Lord pours divine wisdom into our souls so that we can savor the sweetness of heaven a little bit, even before we get there. The sweetness we savor is nothing other than the sweetness of true love. God’s purpose is to love, and to love us above all. The Holy Spirit lifts us up towards God so that we can have a little share in the divine point-of-view even now.
This wisdom even allows us to savor God’s sweetness in the midst of severe trials and tribulations, in the face of the evils God allows us to endure so that we might grow in holiness and conformity to Christ. Our pilgrimage is not easy, and we have to fight hard in order to attain the victory over sin. But through it all, by virtue of the Spirit’s gifts, we know that all things are working together for our good, even and especially the crosses we have to carry as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.
“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Almighty God united Himself with our human nature in the unique Person Who is both God and man, Jesus Christ. He established His Church, His mystical body, so that all mankind could share in this union. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are spiritually united with Christ, because the Holy Spirit of Christ dwells within us.
We rely on the grace of God in our souls, because we have powerful enemies to contend with. In Romans 8:38, St. Paul used a couple of words in a way we might not be familiar with. He referred to “principalities” and “powers.” These words refer to two particular types of spirits.
When God created the heavens and the earth, he made three basic kinds of creatures: Some are made out of matter, so they are visible to us now. Some creatures are purely spiritual, so they are invisible to us now. And of course there is one creature that is both material and spiritual, partly visible and partly invisible—namely us, mankind.
There is a hierarchy of the purely spiritual creatures. In this hierarchy, principalities and powers are two of the grades.
Obviously, the good principalities and the good powers, along with all the good angels—all of them are constantly working to help us get to heaven. But Satan seduced many other spiritual beings to come with him to hell. So the bad principalities and the bad powers, along with all the other demons—all of them are trying to get us to lose heart, to give up on God, to abandon our pilgrimage of faith for the sake of self-indulgence or worldliness.
C.S. Lewis wrote a very illuminating book about the stratagems of the demons, called The Screwtape Letters. As he illustrates in the book, one of their favorite tricks is to lure us into state of mental vagueness about the most important things. The teaching of St. Paul about the state of grace, on the other hand, comes to our aid by clarifying matters.
What it comes down to is this: I am either in a state of grace, or I am not. Nothing is more important than being in a state of grace. Therefore, we all must carefully examine our consciences, and do so regularly. Have I broken the commandments? Have I done something seriously wrong or omitted something important? Have I missed Sunday Mass without a good reason, or lied, or committed adultery, or coveted–dissatisfied with what God has given me?
If I have, then I should assume that I am not in the state of grace. My soul is in danger, and I must seek a remedy immediately. If I have never been baptized, then baptism is the remedy. If I am already baptized, then I should confess all the sins I can remember to a priest, say I am sorry for them, and resolve, with the help of God, not to repeat them.
On the other hand, if I have received the sacraments, and I examine my conscience carefully, and I do not discover any serious sins that I haven’t already confessed, then I can be confident that I am in the state of grace. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t go to Confession regularly anyway, because it is good to confess venial sins, too. But if my conscience is truly clear of grave sin, then I have nothing whatsoever to fear. Once I have the grace of God, the only thing that can cause me to lose that grace is me. Our own free choices as human beings can come between us and God. Nothing else can—absolutely nothing. If God is for me, who can be against me?
This is what St. Paul is trying to teach us: Someone in a state of grace has nothing to fear FROM ANYTHING. Nothing to fear from the Devil and his minions, nothing to fear from the economy, from the terrorists, from sickness, old age, food poisoning, bad drivers, identity theft, computer viruses, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes…You name it. It can’t hurt me, because it cannot take God away from me.
Now, of course this doesn’t mean that we should abandon ourselves to wanton recklessness. It is right to protect our interests prudently in this world, to stand up for our rights when we can, to be wise as serpents while at the same time being innocent as doves. St. Paul is not urging us to self-destruction. Good, holy fear of calamity can keep us out of unnecessary trouble.
But St. Paul’s point is that even when we do exercise prudent vigilance, even when we are careful and reasonable and good, we still at times face adversities that we cannot prevent. Those are the times to remind ourselves of what St. Paul has expressed for us. There is only one power in the whole universe, including all the awesomely powerful spiritual beings—only one power that can separate me from the love of God, and that is my own free will. If my conscience is right, if I am in a state of grace, then I am truly invincible.