Josephine Bakhita’s Master

In his letter on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI undertook to explain something that we tend to take for granted. That is, how we came to have a concept of God that gives us hope.

St Josephine BakhitaThe pope illustrated his point with the life story of St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan. She had become a slave at age nine. Her multiple masters beat her mercilessly. One branded her by cutting ownership symbols into her skin and filling the wounds with salt. Then Josephine got caught up in the Sudanese civil war.

As a girl, Josephine never heard anything about Jesus and the heavenly Father. Until she was thirteen or fourteen. But when she learned from some nuns about Christ, and His love—His love for the Father and for all the Father’s children—Josephine realized that this was the true God Whom she had always longed to know.

Pope Benedict put it like this:

Bakhita came to know a different kind of ‘master’—the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time, she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her. Now she heard there is a master above all masters, the Lord of all lords. And that Lord is good. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that He had created her, that He loved her… This master had Himself experienced being flogged and was now waiting for her at the Father’s right hand. Now she had hope.

Here’s how Josephine explained her awakening to God: “I am definitely loved, and no matter what happens to me, I am awaited by this Love. So my life is good.”

Josephine’s encounter with the nuns led to her liberation from slavery. She herself became a nun. She lived in Italy through World War II and died 72 years ago today.

Now, speaking of anniversaries: here in Virginia we commemorate the fourth centenary of African slavery in the Commonwealth. It began in 1619. It became one of the basic foundations of the state’s economy and culture.

I don’t think the meltdown at the Richmond state house is a tempest in a teapot. Speaking for myself, it has rocked my own sense of who we are in this state and how we can understand ourselves. We need to find a way to face reality that involves neither unsustainable self-righteousness nor a willingness to excuse the inexcusable.

Seems like the Lord is watching out for us. He has given us the anniversary of St. Josephine Bakhita’s holy death right when we need it. We can tackle the very long, and very difficult, sorting-out process with a sense of hope–by starting from St. Josephine’s love affair with Jesus Christ.

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Parabola del Juez Injusto

pantocratorCuando venga el Hijo del Hombre, ¿encontrará justicia en la tierra?

Si o no encontrará fe en la tierra, sólo el tiempo lo dirá. Pero, nos preguntamos ¿encontrará justicia en la tierra?

Encontrara a los justos retribuidos equitativamente y a los criminales castigados proporcionalmente por sus crímenes? ¿Encontrará los bienes del mundo distribuidos bien, entre las personas honestas, todos viviendo en armonía, con cuidado a los vulnerables y la reverencia por los viejitos? ¿Encontrará la gente comunicando con discreción, dando mutuamente el beneficio de la duda, ayudándose unos a otros generosamente, superando antagonismos con sereno respeto mutuo? Encontrara Él todo esto cuando Él venga otra vez?

La viuda de la parábola buscaba justicia. Ella tenía una demanda legal. Podemos suponer que tenía un caso sólido en contra de alguien que la había engañado a ella.

El juez le debía una audiencia. Le debía una investigación sobre los hechos. Le debía a ella su trabajo como agente de la justicia. ¿Por qué, después de todo, tendríamos jueces, si no celebran audiencias, si no investigan los hechos, si no aplican las leyes, y hacen veredictos justos?

Pero este juez no lo haría. No se avergonzaba de admitir a sí mismo que no lo importaba nada. Tal vez un amigo poderoso lo nombró juez como favor personal, a pesar de que no tenía intención alguna de cumplir con sus deberes. O, tal vez él se había vuelto perezoso durante una carrera larga de fracaso frustrante. Tal vez comenzó como idealista. Pero año tras año, escuchó testimonios llenos de mentiras. Año tras año, trató de aplicar las leyes de manera justa, sólo para que el rey cambie las leyes para el beneficio de sus compinches. Año tras año, la verdadera justicia eludió su alcance. Así se dio por vencido. Tal vez eso es lo que pasó a este juez.

Anno Fidei inauguration Benedict XVIDe cualquier manera–ya sea desde el principio, o después de las decepciones–este juez había crecido perezoso, vago hasta los huesos.

Así que el enfrentamiento dramático se produjo. La viuda presenta su reclamación. El juez hace caso omiso de su demanda. Ella se enfada. Él la ignora más. Ella se pone furiosa con indignación justa. Ella aprieta su andador. “Su Señoría, o usted tiene una audiencia, como exige la ley, o yo le pongo los ojos morados antes de que pueda llamar a un mariscal, ayúdame Dios mío.”

Harto, cínico e inmune como era, el juez sabe que la viuda tiene derecho a estar enojado. Él sabe que no hay que defraudar a las viudas. El juez casi no cree en la justicia en la tierra, pero él sabe que el hombre desea la justicia, desea la verdad.  Él sabe que estos deseos no desaparecerán del alma humana. Así que tiene que hacer algo por esta viuda.

Yo no sé de ustedes, pero mi parte favorita de la encíclica del Papa Benedicto XVI sobre la esperanza cristiana es cuando trata de la Escuela de Frankfurt de la teoría social.

La Escuela de Frankfurt sostuvo que no se podía creer en Dios, porque hay demasiada injusticia entre los hombres. ¿Qué clase de Dios lo permita? Por otro lado, la Escuela de Frankfurt también sostuvo que no se podía tampoco rechazar la existencia de Dios. Porque si así fuera, se trataría de establecer la justicia perfecta por medios humanos independientes. Y eso, la historia ha demostrado, sólo empeora las cosas. El asesino más despiadado es la inclinación ateísta en el establecimiento de la sociedad humana perfecta.  El país de México lo vio hace un siglo.

El Papa Benedicto responde a la Escuela de Frankfurt, explicando nuestra fe cristiana en el Juicio Final. Nosotros no creemos en un dios vago que ignora toda la injusticia en la tierra. Creemos en Cristo crucificado por los pecados de la humanidad. Y creemos que Él, Jesucristo, Aquel que verdaderamente inocente y justo sufrió por nosotros–creemos que Él vendrá otra vez a poner todo en orden.

Citando Papa Benedicto:

Este inocente que sufre [Jesucristo] ha alcanzado la certeza de que: Dios existe, y Dios sabe crear la justicia de un modo que no podemos concebir, sin embargo, podemos intuir en la fe. Sí, existe la resurrección de la carne. Si hay justicia. Existe la ‘revocación’ del sufrimiento pasado, la reparación que restablece el derecho. Por esta razón, la fe en el Juicio final es ante todo la esperanza.

Estoy convencido que la cuestión de la justicia es el argumento esencial o, en todo caso, el argumento más fuerte en favor de la fe en la vida eterna. Sólo en relación con el reconocimiento de que la injusticia de la historia no puede ser la última palabra, llega a ser plenamente convincente la necesidad del retorno de Cristo y la vida nueva. (Párr. 43)

Si Cristo no viene de nuevo, entonces, ¿cuando se satisfacen nuestros deseos de la justicia? ¿Cuándo todos los males sean corregidos? Y si Él no viniera, entonces ¿por qué molestarse en tratar de hacer lo correcto? Si Cristo no trae la justicia, entonces nadie lo hará, porque nuestros intentos humanos siempre se quedan cortos.

Pero, como sabemos, Él viene otra vez. Eso no es realmente de lo que se trata. La pregunta es: cuando venga Él, ¿nos encontrará orando, con esperanza, y el anhelando la justicia?

The Widow and Elijah

elijah widow

She has contributed all she had, all she had to live on. (Mark 12:44)

If you are like me, Christ’s words here make you think of the first section of Pope-Emeritus Benedict’s encyclical on Christian hope. The poor woman at the Temple treasury gave all her “substance,” her whole livelihood, her material means.

In the first reading at Holy Mass this Sunday, we hear about the widow who had been reduced to poverty by a long drought. As she explained to the prophet Elijah, she was a woman of very little substance.

When the prophet asked for food, she said, “How can I provide for you, and my son, and myself, when all I have is a handful of flour, and no hope of getting any more?”

Pope Benedict XVI Castel Gandolfo good nightBut Elijah said: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is a “substance.”

Actually, Elijah did not say that exactly. He said, Just give me something to eat. I am a hungry prophet. Give me a cake. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Have some faith, woman. God makes the sun shine and the rain fall.

Who wrote, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for?’ Right. St. Paul. The same apostle who also wrote: “Christ will appear a second time to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him.”

In his encyclical, Pope Benedict posed the question: On what, exactly, does man live? What is the substance of human life?

Before we shout Faith! Love! Jesus! let’s pause. Hungry Elijah asked for bread before he got into matters of piety. As the Fathers of Vatican II put it:

A man can scarcely [attain a spiritual life] unless his living conditions allow him to be conscious of his dignity and to rise to his destiny…Human freedom is often crippled when a man encounters extreme poverty. (Gaudium et Spes 31)

So Elijah asked for food. At that point, he could not simply live on the words coming forth from the mouth of God. But the woman said: I don’t have any bread, man. No bread, as in money. And no bread, as in bread.

Elijah said: Woman, I feel you. I know you’ve got problems. So do I. But give me something to eat. I have been fasting for days, months, years. I have walked all over kingdom come–east, west, north, south. Just trying to serve the hardnosed God of Israel. He is enormously demanding.

Why do think we have this endless drought in the first place? Because the king and the people of our nation have abandoned the faith. Listen, just give me some bread. Then we’ll talk.

Elijah map ZarephathElijah did not start with a sermon; he demanded a cake. The woman was also practical and no-nonsense. But did she respond to Elijah’s purely practical request with pure pragmatism of her own?

Did she say, “Look, Israelite. I don’t know what kind of math you Jews practice, but here in Phoenicia 1 + 1 does not = 3. I do not have three cakes worth of substance in my flour jar?”

No, she did not say that. She did not refuse him. His request made no sense; it didn’t add up. But she faithfully obeyed anyway. Her faith became the substance of the cakes she proceeded to make. She had enough faith to bake cakes for a year.

Do miracles happen? Or can science explain everything? Is our substance made merely of molecules? Or do we need another science, other than “science,” to explain what we are really made of? As in: the science of the saints.

What if the woman had spiritualized everything and said to Elijah, “I wish you peace, my brother! In the name of the Lord! Go your way. Stay warm and well fed!” What if she never handed over the cake? Would her praises be sung in the Scriptures then? Hardly.

On the other hand, down-to-earth as she was, her life had more substance that just the flour in the jar. Her faith reached out to something real, to a supernatural substance. She believed in God. She wanted, above all, to obey God. And she hoped in His providence.

God took care of her, and her son, and Elijah, bodily and spiritually.

What’s the greatest miracle? I think it is two-fold. One: The greatest miracle is that anything even exists at all—and that things, as they exist, do fundamentally make sense.

Why does 1 + 1 even = 2? Because God makes sense, and makes everything He has made make sense. That is the most awesome of all miracles, and that’s why we can even have math, or science, or modern medicine, or economics.

But ultimately God makes more sense than we ourselves can grasp right now. After all, He has a fundamental divine reason for making the universe. The second part of the great miracle is that God has taught us through Christ His fundamental reason—the reason why He has made everything that He has made. He made it all for us: for our salvation, for our perfect fulfillment. His whole plan has one goal: that we would live.

Magnificat: True or False?

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!’…Yes, but I have seen the rich sit secure on their thrones and send the hungry away empty.

–Annie Dillard (stating the obvious with great eloquence, as she often does)

The beautiful, hard world. The dark world, that nonetheless holds surprising little flashes of light. The unfair world, full of people who simply cannot give up believing in fairness.

VisitationIn his encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the mystery of evil, the mysterium iniquitatis, head on.

Iniquitatis because we see the innocent, the powerless, the poor suffering. Mysterium because somehow we know it’s wrong; we don’t accept it; we pray and hope and struggle for something better. Evil may be a ‘given’ in this vale of tears, but that doesn’t mean that we regard it as normal. It’s a daggone mystery. Good makes sense to us; evil doesn’t.

Pope Benedict framed the business as follows. One of our most profound problems is: the contemporary mindset regards religion as something purely subjective, emotional, individual. Therefore, ‘salvation’ = my own personal bliss.

But many people of conscience reject religion, if this is what religion is. They cry, “What about the groaning injustice I see in the world, right in front of my eyes? What God is going to give me bliss if He can’t even see to it that the hungry get fed and the innocent don’t get killed?”

Pope Benedict: the Catholic faith recognizes that our longing for justice among men springs from the religious center of the human being. According to the Catholic faith, our hope for salvation does not confine itself to ‘my personal bliss.’ Rather, our hope includes–it must include–justice for the world, the whole world. Everybody in the world.

God does not stand by, an impotent spectator, while the mighty sit on thrones and crush the lowly. God Himself has been crushed by injustice. Then He rose again as the King of all history. On Easter Sunday morning, He showed His power to put things to rights.

The Lord refrains for now from confronting the world with His righteousness, solely so that we have time to repent. He patiently waits for us to stop committing the injustices that make the world an unjust place. He gives us time to love our neighbor. So that when He comes in a supernova of love, we will not be burned to smithereens, but rather caught up in His glory. We share in that glory now by our humble love.

Justice will be Done

Whenever we read about Lazarus and Dives, I think we recall the money passage of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi:

“I am convinced,” the Pope writes, “that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. Only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return become fully convincing.” (para. 43)

Not everybody believes in Christ. And not everybody who believes in Christ believes in Him enough. But everybody knows that life isn’t fair. Life as we know it, under the blue sky: Ain’t fair.

Anno Fidei inauguration Benedict XVICheaters prosper. Lying rogues get elected. Shallow nitwits become famous. Good people get sick. Young ladies with beautiful souls try and try to lose weight, and meanwhile all the boys talk to the cheerleaders in short skirts. People marry their love, and then, a few years later, they discover that they are actually married to their spouse’s mother or father. Promotions go to experts in face-time, while the real hard workers can’t catch a break. Meanwhile, opportunistic talking heads on television fill the airwaves with a steady stream of biased disinformation masquerading as “the news.”

Not fair. We all know this. Hopelessness can, and will, set in, unless we constantly focus our interior eyes of faith on the triumph of Jesus Christ. Again, to quote Pope Benedict:

“This innocent sufferer [Jesus Christ] has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an ‘undoing’ of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright.”

In my book, the Church expresses Her faith most eloquently at a funeral Mass. We sing at the end of a funeral:

May choirs of angels welcome you, and lead you to the bosom of Abraham, and where Lazarus is poor no longer, may you find eternal rest.

We believe: There is place where Lazarus is poor no longer. There is a place where justice is fully, completely, totally, thoroughly, honestly, and truthfully restored.

Sometimes that place seems a million miles away from earth. And sometimes, when a holy soul does good, the Kingdom seems very close.

The Kingdom will come. That’s what father Abraham is saying to poor Dives in the gospel passage. The Kingdom will come, and anyone with any sense knows that it will. The deep longings our hearts have for justice: Christ’s triumph over death confirms them all. By the divine light of truth, cynicism, worldliness, and atheism make no sense. The Kingdom will come.

Now, how do we hasten the coming of the Kingdom of justice? We can hasten it, after all. And it’s not complicated: Pray. Give. Do good. Avoid evil.

The Unjust Judge and the Second Coming

Frankfurt Schoolers Horkheimer and Adorno
Frankfurt Schoolers Horkheimer and Adorno

When the Son of Man comes, will He find justice on earth?

Whether or not He will find faith on earth (cf. Luke 18:8), only time will tell. But will He find justice on earth?

Will he find the virtuous fairly rewarded and criminals punished proportionately for their crimes? Will He find the world’s goods equitably distributed among honest people living in harmony, with a care for the vulnerable and reverence for the wise? Will He find people communicating discreetly, giving each other the benefit of the doubt, working out their problems gently, helping each other generously, rising above petty antagonisms with serene mutual respect? Will He find all this when He comes again?

Continue reading “The Unjust Judge and the Second Coming”

All Her Substance

She has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood. (Mark 12:44)

If you are like me, Christ’s words here make you think of the first section of Pope Benedict’s encyclical on Christian hope. The poor woman at the Temple treasury gave her whole “substance.” In English, this word “substance” means a number of different things. The same is true of Latin and Greek.

The substance of one’s livelihood refers to one’s material means. In the first reading for Mass, we read about the widow who had been reduced to poverty by a drought. As we hear her explain to the prophet Elijah, she was a woman of very little “substance.”

When the prophet asked for food, she said, “How can I provide for you, and my son, and myself, when all I have is a handful of flour, and no hope of getting any more?”

But Elijah said: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is a substance.

Continue reading “All Her Substance”

Yorick and Praying for the Dead

Can we get a grip on death? Can we calmly face it?

Our invisible souls animate our visible bodies. Then they don’t.

The bodies that seemed so full of life, so vigorous, so truly beautiful—these bodies become lumpen deadweights.

My father had a large frame. During the last ten years of his life, he had a hard time moving that frame around.

Helping my dad the stroke victim get into or out of a car was a workout. But he was still alive then.

Such tasks seemed like nothing, compared to hefting the dead weight of his 260-pound corpse into the church.

Now his body has been in the ground for 6 ½ years. Hamlet’s dear old friend Yorick had lain buried just about that length of time when the prince came upon the grave-digger who happened to be moving Yorick’s remains. Hamlet took his old friend’s skull in his hand and spoke to him, like I might speak to my father’s skull now:

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

Death makes us nervous, so nervous that we say and do strange, nonsensical things. What purpose does it serve to release doves at someone’s grave-side? Or, if the dead man loved Snickers bars, what good will it do him to line his casket with them?

In his encyclical on Christian hope, our Holy Father recalls the custom of the ancient people to whom St. Paul wrote Ephesians. The ancients entombed their dead with the inscription, In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus. “How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing.”

Alas, poor Kirk
In a word, our bodies are doomed. And, as for the fate of our spiritual souls, how can we know? Without definitive information, given to us by a higher power, we have no way whatsoever to know what becomes of our souls after death. Hence the human propensity to make stuff up. Like that Michael Landon might have something to do with it. Or that you could come back in the next life as a cow. If we look death squarely in the face, we have to dismiss all such silly fables.

Praised be God, we have, in fact, received definitive information from a higher power about what happens. Although God allows our bodies to die as a just punishment for our sins, in His mercy He will not leave them in the dust forever. In the same way in which He formed them in the beginning, He will raise them up anew, and we will be able to share in the perfect justice and glory of the risen Christ.

Not only that. God has given us clear and decisive information about what to do for our departed loved ones in the meantime. Pray and offer sacrifice for the expiation of their sins.

All the dead will rise again. We will see them at a grand re-union. Only God knows the day and the hour. Only God knows what kind of decorations will adorn the moment, what kind of birds will be singing in the trees, what kind of foods and drinks will be on offer. That’s His business.

Our business is to pray and offer sacrifice while we can, so that, when that great day comes, we will be able to greet the ones who died before us with the peace of knowing that we loved them and did our best for them.

St. Josephine Redeemed

(–Hey Jason, ever heard of Hollis Thompson? Come on, buddy!)

Hope you, dear reader, are having a good Syracuse Hate Week. Carolina-Duke? Yawn. Kentucky-Florida? Snooze. Giants-Patriots? Totally three-days-ago.

Some people might have to sit through parish Finance-Council meetings during the contest in the Carrier Dome. Sacrifices have to be made for Jesus. Feel free to text me the score every two or three minutes.

As we know, Pope Benedict wrote an encyclical letter about how Christian hope redeems us. He began his letter by recalling the life of St. Josephine Bakhita:

We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to [meet] this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II.

She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan…

Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant, who returned to Italy. Here, after the terrifying masters who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of master.

Now she heard that there is a Master above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her…

What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’ Now she had hope—no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’

Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed,’ no longer a slave, but a free child of God…She was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion. [Five years later], she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and she made several journeys around Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her, which had redeemed her, she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

…At every Mass, after the Our Father, we pray that the Lord would protect us from all distress as we await “the blessed hope.” This phrase comes from St. Paul’s letter to Titus, where the Apostle writes, “we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ” (2:13).

St. Josephine lived out in a particularly vivid way the redemption of every Christian. We confidently hope for the coming of Christ, the true Master of all, Who loves us. This certain hope frees us from every slavery.

Purgatory Pain

If you feel like re-living the experience of reading the explanation I gave of I John 5:4 when we read it at Holy Mass last year, click here

…Painful Hoya loss last night. But we will live to fight another day. Huge game against Connecticut on Saturday.

And there are other things that cheer a guy up, like:

1) It does a heart good to see the Holy Father celebrate Mass on Epiphany in an even more beautiful Roman fiddleback chasuble than the one he wore last year.

2) In Spe Salvi, the same excellent Pope gives the most exquisite one-sentence explanation of Purgatory I have ever read.

The Pope is explaining I Corinthians 3:12-13:

No one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one’s work.

The Holy Father proposes that the fire of Purgatory may be nothing other than the gaze of Christ.

He gazes upon us with perfect justice and perfect love. His gaze discloses all truth; nothing is hidden; all falsehood is laid bare. For most of us, this will be agonizing.

But there is hope: The gaze of perfect justice is also the gaze of infinite love. He demands pure truth BECAUSE He loves us so much. As the Pope puts it:

The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy
(Spe Salvi 47).