Thursday, February 28, 2013

Popes Come, Popes Go

And now the second topic: the Church. We know that the First Vatican Council was interrupted because of the Franco-Prussian War, and so it remained somewhat one-sided, incomplete, because the doctrine on the primacy – defined, thanks be to God, in that historical moment for the Church, and very necessary for the period that followed – was just a single element in a broader ecclesiology, already envisaged and prepared. So we were left with a fragment. And one might say: as long as it remains a fragment, we tend towards a one-sided vision where the Church would be just the primacy.

So all along, the intention was to complete the ecclesiology of Vatican I, at a date to be determined, for the sake of a complete ecclesiology. Here too the time seemed ripe because, after the First World War, the sense of the Church was reborn in a new way. As Romano Guardini said: "The Church is starting to reawaken in people’s souls", and a Protestant bishop spoke of the "era of the Church". Above all, there was a rediscovery of the concept that Vatican I had also envisaged, namely that of the Mystical Body of Christ. People were beginning to realize that the Church is not simply an organization, something structured, juridical, institutional – it is that too – but rather an organism, a living reality that penetrates my soul, in such a way that I myself, with my own believing soul, am a building block of the Church as such. In this sense, Pius XII wrote the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi as a step towards completing the ecclesiology of Vatican I.

Reflection – Well, so the day has come at last. At 8 p.m. (Roman time) today, Pope Benedict will step down from the chair of Peter and retire to a life of prayer and seclusion. I find myself unable to offer some sweeping analysis of Benedict’s papacy and its long-range impact, or some grand conclusion about the meaning of his resignation and its implications for the Church.

Partly, I’m still jet-lagged, and very much taken up with my short-term assignment to Robin Hood’s Bay, UK. Mostly, though, I don’t put all that much stock in grand sweeping analyses, especially those made in the moment of the event. Time and history will give us a better sense of ‘what it all means’ than this present moment affords.

Meanwhile, by sheer coincidence I have come to the point of the address to the Roman clergy about the ecclesiology of Vatican II, and particularly about the incomplete ecclesiology of Vatican I. And this is more than slightly relevant to today’s event.

Vatican I (if you are hazy on the details) defined the dogma of papal infallibility—the pope as the final arbiter of the deposit of faith. His ministry can never be exercised in isolation from the rest of the magisterium or in conflict with the whole of the tradition of the Church, but nonetheless, there is a last word, a final authority, and it resides in the occupant of the chair of Peter.

Vatican I said so, and it is binding on Catholics to believe so. But if we leave it at that, as Vatican I was forced to by historical events, then we are indeed left with an unbalanced and undue emphasis on the office of the papacy to the exclusion of the bishops and indeed this whole deeper sense to the Mystical Body of Christ.

Yes, the Pope has a unique and vital role, and may Benedict’s successor do as good as job with it as he did and John Paul II before him. But… your bishop is also a successor to the apostles, and has a role. And… you have a role, too, you know. As do I.

It is this deep sense of the Church as bigger than one man and even bigger than one office, crucial as it may be, that we need to grasp and truly take to heart. Some of the anxiety around Benedict’s resignation betrays, I would suggest, a lingering lack of balance in the Catholic community. A certain focus on the papal office that is just slightly out of proportion.

Everyone who reads this blog knows that my love of Benedict is second to none, and my respect for Church authority and fidelity to the Church is (I hope by now) beyond question. So understand me well when I say that popes come and popes go, you know! It is Jesus who is the life of the Church, and the Holy Spirit whose abiding presence makes this life real, present, vital, effective. And God the Father who is the source and end of our life in the Church.

So, thank you Benedict. We love you, and we wish you well, and will continue to pray for you daily. Now go have a good rest and pray for us as you promised you would. And the Church goes marching on with unfaltering step and unwavering gaze at the Lord who is our life and our salvation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What Part Do You Understand?

Then there were the principles [of liturgical reform]: intelligibility, instead of being locked up in an unknown language that is no longer spoken, and also active participation. Unfortunately, these principles have also been misunderstood. Intelligibility does not mean banality, because the great texts of the liturgy – even when, thanks be to God, they are spoken in our mother tongue – are not easily intelligible, they demand ongoing formation on the part of the Christian if he is to grow and enter ever more deeply into the mystery and so arrive at understanding. And also the word of God – when I think of the daily sequence of Old Testament readings, and of the Pauline Epistles, the Gospels: who could say that he understands immediately, simply because the language is his own? Only ongoing formation of hearts and minds can truly create intelligibility and participation that is something more than external activity, but rather the entry of the person, of my being, into the communion of the Church and thus into communion with Christ.
Reflection – Ah, this is so crucial, right here. In the Eastern liturgy, the bulk of the action takes place behind the icon screen. At the most sacred moments, the curtains are drawn, and the priest’s voice is low, barely audible. The reason I have been told for this is that the reality of the liturgy is so beyond our human comprehension, that to see and hear it clearly with our senses is actually not to see or hear it at all.

We have to get this, we moderns who are so clear that everything is so clear all the time. Intellgibility does not mean having everything laid out for us to easily hear and see. Not when it’s the liturgy; not when it’s the mystery of God. 

Liturgy is the great mystery of God – the love of God poured out in Jesus, consummated on the cross, made present to us in the Church by the action of the spirit through the ordained ministers of the rite. It’s not so much ‘what part of this do you not understand?’, as it is ‘what part of this do you understand?’

Get it? So the language of liturgy should be a bit elevated, should be a bit ‘up there’. If it’s all ‘Jesus you are so nice help us to be nice too’ we are actually falsifying the mystery we are supposed to be presenting. And so I personally am thrilled to bits at the new English translation with its sometimes tangled syntax and fun vocabulary words, its sense of hieratic language.

If we easily see it, we are not seeing it. If we immediately comprehend it, we have understood nothing. To be a bit baffled, a bit puzzled, a bit confused – to be uncertain of what’s really being said, what’s really going on – that puts on a more sure footing, a more correct track.

And that’s the intelligibility of liturgy. As it happens, that’s also active participation – to be swept into a mystery beyond our ken, and to give ourselves to it in wonder and in awe. This may look like silent prayer, attentive listening or yes, singing and responding with full voice to what is being said.

Liturgy: not our work, but God’s, not our truth, but God’s, not on our level, but God’s, and how we structure it should reflect this basic understanding.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

First Things First: The First Day

I would say that there were several [principles guiding the renewal of the liturgy]: above all, the Paschal Mystery as the centre of what it is to be Christian – and therefore of the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons, expressed in Eastertide and on Sunday which is always the day of the Resurrection. Again and again we begin our time with the Resurrection, our encounter with the Risen one, and from that encounter with the Risen one we go out into the world. In this sense, it is a pity that these days Sunday has been transformed into the weekend, although it is actually the first day, it is the beginning; we must remind ourselves of this: it is the beginning, the beginning of Creation and the beginning of re-Creation in the Church, it is an encounter with the Creator and with the Risen Christ. This dual content of Sunday is important: it is the first day, that is, the feast of Creation, we are standing on the foundation of Creation, we believe in God the Creator; and it is an encounter with the Risen One who renews Creation; his true purpose is to create a world that is a response to the love of God.
Reflection – You know, my intent had been to just do bits and pieces of this talk of the Pope’s, and then move on to my new blog format and content. But the more I dig into it, the less I am able to condense or excerpt it. It is so very fine.

For example this little bit on the Paschal Mystery and Sunday. Sunday is not simply a day to rest, recharge or (as is more likely these days) run around like a lunatic getting everything done that can’t be done during the week.

Sunday is Resurrection Day. In Russian, that is the actual name of the day—Voskrisenie, I believe. Every Sunday we should know, in some fashion, that the whole universe is beginning again from and with the Risen Christ. Every Sunday we should taste this newness, this freshness, this joyful springing hope. In MH we do this in the time-honored ways human beings have always expressed joy and hope: by dressing up a bit, having foods that we don’t normally have during the week, making the liturgy a bit fancier, trotting out the more lovely or elaborate hymns. The library puts up a display highlighting some theme or other of the Sunday readings. Unnecessary work is avoided. Little things, but they create a special Sunday atmosphere, a signal to our senses and from our senses to our whole self that this day is different, this day is new, this day something happened, and is continuing to happen.

Well, that’s MH. Your life is different from ours, but the call is there nonetheless. The Paschal Mystery is at the heart, not just of the Church’s liturgy, but of all our lives. As we pray, so we believe, and as we believe, so we live. Lex credendi, lex orendi.

And the whole thing the Pope says of Sunday – the day of creation, and that creation is bound up in the whole love of the Son and the Father, which becomes our love and our life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So our whole way of loving the world and carrying God’s love into the world is deeply bound up with the liturgy and its centrality in our lives.

I was just out walking in Robin Hood’s Bay, which is laced with footpaths that extend for miles in all directions. It is truly one of God’s most beautiful creations, this little corner of England… and I must say that man’s creation here isn’t too shabby either. The village is lovely and blends perfectly with the rugged stone terrain. It is this joy and love for creation that such a place elicits in us almost automatically that is elevated and completed by our faith and the Paschal Mystery. God looked on all he had made and said it was very good—so good that He leapt down from heaven to die for its salvation, and rose again raising all creation up with Him into its fulfilment. And this is what every Sunday is about, and what we should strive in our human little ways to reflect.

Monday, February 25, 2013

First Things First

The first, initial, simple – or apparently simple – intention [of the Council fathers] was the reform of the liturgy… Let us begin [there]. After the First World War, Central and Western Europe had seen the growth of the liturgical movement, a rediscovery of the richness and depth of the liturgy, which until then had remained, as it were, locked within the priest’s Roman Missal, while the people prayed with their own prayer books, prepared in accordance with the heart of the people, seeking to translate the lofty content, the elevated language of classical liturgy into more emotional words, closer to the hearts of the people. 

But it was as if there were two parallel liturgies: the priest with the altar-servers, who celebrated Mass according to the Missal, and the laity, who prayed during Mass using their own prayer books, at the same time, while knowing substantially what was happening on the altar. But now there was a rediscovery of the beauty, the profundity, the historical, human, and spiritual riches of the Missal and it became clear that it should not be merely a representative of the people, a young altar-server, saying "Et cum spiritu tuo", and so on, but that there should truly be a dialogue between priest and people: truly the liturgy of the altar and the liturgy of the people should form one single liturgy, an active participation, such that the riches reach the people. And in this way, the liturgy was rediscovered and renewed.

I find now, looking back, that it was a very good idea to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration. "Operi Dei nihil praeponatur": this phrase from the Rule of Saint Benedict (cf. 43:3) thus emerges as the supreme rule of the Council. Some have made the criticism that the Council spoke of many things, but not of God. It did speak of God! And this was the first thing that it did, that substantial speaking of God and opening up all the people, the whole of God’s holy people, to the adoration of God, in the common celebration of the liturgy of the Body and Blood of Christ. In this sense, over and above the practical factors that advised against beginning straight away with controversial topics, it was, let us say, truly an act of Providence that at the beginning of the Council was the liturgy, God, adoration.

Reflection – First, on a personal note, I survived my trip OK, in spite of very nearly missing the train from Manchester to York due to a criminally slow baggage carousel. I am writing this from the MH Robin Hood’s Bay priest quarters, across from the lovely simply chapel. The village and area await my exploring feet tomorrow.

Meanwhile, it is so wonderful that Pope Benedict should give us his perspective on the Council in these last days of his papacy. The centrality of liturgy is key in this part of his reflection – that before we can know how to carry the joy and beauty of the Gospel to the modern world, we must have this joy and beauty within our hearts and spirits. And we can only have this joy and beauty if our own life is worship is ordered rightly. 

‘Save the liturgy, save the world’ is a slogan in some circles today, and there is great truth in that.
If first things are not placed first, if the core relationship, not simply of my own personal life but of the Church’s common life, is not well ordered in truth, beauty, and goodness, then what do we have to offer anyone? How can we preach a Gospel we are not living? And the right worship of God—orthodoxy in its original sense—is at the very heart of living the Gospel.

Catherine Doherty knew this very well. From the beginning of her social justice apostolate in Toronto, she immersed herself and her followers in the very liturgical renewal movement the Pope mentions here. She knew that we cannot work for justice, love the poor, advocate for life, serve one another in generosity and persevere in righteouness if we are not drawing life from God and bringing him our all in all, which happens nowhere more perfectly and truly than in the Mass and in the other liturgical acts of the Church.
So right liturgy is key to the renewal of the Church in the modern world, and I believe Pope Benedict has done more than anyone to work tirelessly for this right renewed liturgy. And… that’s enough for jet-lagged me right now, so I will try to check in tomorrow with our next thrilling instalment of ‘The Council and Me’, by Pope Benedict XVI.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Off to England

Well, I'm sitting in Toronto's Pearson Airport, waiting for my flight to Manchester. I'm off to our house in Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, UK for three weeks there, giving retreats and talks and whatnot (whatnot being whatever the director of the house tells me to do!).
I will try my level best to keep up with the blog, especially since we're in these historic times of papal succession. But, of course, being in a different place on a different schedule will no doubt make blogging a bit more sporadic the next few weeks. And while I am committed to the blog re-naming and re-design... well, we'll just have to see when that gets done.
Meanwhile, prayers please, as I jet and then train off to encounter the Yorkshire moors, pudding, and (possibly) terriers.

The Herald of the Future

We went to the Council not just with joy but with enthusiasm. There was an incredible sense of expectation. We were hoping that all would be renewed, that there would truly be a new Pentecost, a new era of the Church, because the Church was still fairly robust at that time – Sunday Mass attendance was still good, vocations to the priesthood and to religious life were already slightly reduced, but still sufficient.

However, there was a feeling that the Church was not moving forward, that it was declining, that it seemed more a thing of the past and not the herald of the future. And at that moment, we were hoping that this relation would be renewed, that it would change; that the Church might once again be a force for tomorrow and a force for today.

And we knew that the relationship between the Church and the modern period, right from the outset, had been slightly fraught, beginning with the Church’s error in the case of Galileo Galilei; we were looking to correct this mistaken start and to rediscover the union between the Church and the best forces of the world, so as to open up humanity’s future, to open up true progress. Thus we were full of hope, full of enthusiasm, and also eager to play our own part in this process.

Reflection – I want to spend these last days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate giving excerpts from his address to the Roman clergy. This is truly one of the most interesting talks I have ever read of the Holy Father’s, which is saying a lot, and as you can see I have put in a link to the whole text on the Vatican website. It’s too long for me to blog the whole of it, but I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. The Pope in this talk seems much more relaxed, informal, even chatty, as if the impending relief of the burdens of office has already put him more at ease.

And so, like many elderly men, his thoughts go back to younger days. In his case, the reminiscences are of great value to us, since his younger days occurred at the heart of the seminal event of modern Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council. And with his sharp intellect in no way diminished, he has something to say about that seminal event.

It is all about the mission of the Church in the modern world. When the apostles—those twelve Jewish men, a motley assemblage of fishermen, tax collectors and who knows what—went out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world, they were charged with the difficult task of proclaiming Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, the Messiah of Israel, to people who knew neither the law or the prophets nor longed for this Messiah.

By the true sensus fidei already acting in their midst and by the very words of Jesus recorded in Matt 28: 19-20 they knew they must do this… but how? In the first century and following the apostles and their successors boldly claimed the language, the culture, the images, the symbols of the pagan world to express faithfully the truth of the Christian Gospel, and did this while retaining the full moral content it demanded, and the whole Jewish religious sense of the one God and the covenant model. It was arguably the greatest feat of authentic inculturation of the faith in our history, and it occurred while people were being beheaded, crucified, thrown to lions, immolated.

All of which is a slight digression to allow me to say: buck up, folks! If they could do it, we can do it! Nobody’s throwing us to lions yet, much, at least not in North America and Europe. Oh, we get scoffed at and the sins of fellow Christians thrown in our faces, ad]nd it all can be very nasty and vulgar at times, but I don’t somehow see Ignatius of Antioch (‘let the teeth of the beasts grind me to become the pure wheat of Christ!’) feeling toooo sorry for us just yet.

The Vatican Council was all about seeing how best to bring the Catholic faith and the Catholic mission to the modern world which is in such disarray. What is the ‘language, culture, images, symbols’ of this modern pagan world? How can we faithfully express the message of salvation, the full weight and beauty of its teachings, and the true moral implications that flow from them, in a way that modern people can hear?
It has to be done in the communion of the Church, in fidelity to the God-given structures of authority in the Church, and in continuity with our past and its wealth of wisdom. That’s all part of the fullness of our faith. But it has to be done effectively, apostolically, evangelically, and that’s the burden we all carry in the year 2013.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Things I Am Not Blogging About

OK - so the Internet is all abuzz with salacious gossip about Vatican scandals. Several people have asked me what I think.
I don't think anything, because I don't know anything. The entire article, as I understand, is rumours, gossip and unsubstantiated tittle tattle.
I don't blog about that stuff.
We all have one duty right now, as far as the Vatican, the papacy, and the conclave are concerned. And that is to pray, to fast, and to keep our eyes on Jesus. It is his Church, and his power alone that holds the Church in being and in life.
Gossip, rumours, and salacious scandal do not help us, I think to do anything of our duty of the moment in this matter. So I will not blog or comment further on it. God bless us all, and keep His Church in peace and integrity

Foxhole of the World

As the Fathers of the Church teach us, the temptations are part of Jesus’ descent into our human condition, into the abyss of sin and its consequences; a descent that Jesus made to the end, even to death on the Cross and to the hell of extreme remoteness from God. In this way he is the hand that God stretches out to man, to the lost sheep, to bring him back to safety. As St Augustine teaches, Jesus took the temptations from us to give us his victory (cf. Enarr. in Psalmos, 60, 3: pl 36, 724).

Therefore let us not be afraid either of facing the battle against the spirit of evil: the important thing is to fight it with him, with Christ, the Conqueror. And to be with him let us turn to his Mother, Mary; let us call on her with filial trust in the hour of trial and she will make us feel the powerful presence of her divine Son, so that we can reject temptations with Christ’s word and thus put God back at the centre of our life.

Angelus, February 14, 2013

Reflection – ‘The important thing is to fight it with him.’ That’s a great little sentence to meditate on today. One of the truly lamentable tendencies that came out of the 1960s and following in the English-speaking Catholic world was a cleansing of our spiritual vocabulary of militaristic language.

God was no longer the ‘God of hosts’, but the ‘God of power and might.’ Prayers that in the Latin clearly referred to battles, campaigns, strife and war were generally softened in the translation to the language of ‘struggle.’ I don’t know about you, but I struggled to get out of bed this morning, and it wasn’t quite the invasion of Normandy.

There was a certain anti-militarism that prevailed in much of the first English translation of the Latin liturgy. And it is a shame. Oh, we all want peace; nobody wants war. Military men and women themselves don’t want war, given that the burdens and dangers of it fall on them nearly exclusively.

But… we got war, folks. This is the existential condition of the human person in this world of flesh and blood. It is not a war against other human beings—the ‘others’, whoever they may be this week. It is a war against the devil and his legions, and it is ongoing constantly.

Temptation, illusion, confusion, captivation—these are the weapons of our enemy. And there are lots of defeats in this war – there is sin, there is failure. We have to be realistic about all these matters. The fact that we don’t happen to like war and conflict doesn’t stop the enemy from dropping bombs on us. We’ve got to get our armour on, even if we would prefer to slip into something more comfortable.

And so the Pope’s words here are very salutary and bracing. Do not be afraid of the battle with evil, but fight it with Christ who has conquered. We run to Jesus in all this, like the weak little children we are, because the enemies we face are truly stronger than us. And to help us run to Jesus, to show us how it’s done and get us there securely, we call on the help of Mary our Mother.

And while all this is very serious and real and sobering, ultimately God allows it all for our good. We have to put God at the centre of our lives, or we die. God is God for us, or we are lost in the hell of idolatry and selfishness. That the world is not a primrose path to skip along carefree, but rather a battle zone where we are in clear mortal peril pushes us out of complacency and towards God and towards truth.
There are no atheists is foxholes, the old saying goes. That may or may not be true, but truly the world is a foxhole, and the shelling can be intense at times. Let us not be in denial, or paralyzed by fear, or confused about who our enemies really are and what weapons we have been given to fight them. The weapons are faith, hope, and above all love. Prayer and fasting and mercy, all the while clinging to Jesus and Mary and  entrusting our whole life to them. This is how the victory is won.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ten Thousand Places

OK - so I've given some careful thought and prayer to the new name for the blog, and its new direction.

First, since our beloved Pope Benedict has a full week left with us as our German Shepherd in his office, I will keep the original name and exclusive focus on his writings until February 28. I might mention at this point that I am actually on the road again from this Sunday onwards, heading to Madonna House in England for three weeks of ministry there. Blogging will be ongoing, but may be a bit more sporadic than my usual daily post.

On March 1, though, I will retitle the blog Ten Thousand Places. What on earth do I mean by this title? Well, my two favorite authors (besides Joseph Ratzinger and Catherine de Hueck Doherty) are C.S. Lewis and Gerard Manley Hopkins. My favorite novel of all time is Lewis' Til We Have Faces, to the point where I struggled and strained to find some play on the word 'faces' for the blog that wouldn't sound horribly cheesy, like 'Face to Face' or 'Facing Facts' or 'Face Values'. You all know that I have a terrible loathing of puns and would never stoop so low as to make one. I would lose face by doing so.

So I went searching for Hopkins quotes instead. Having considered and rejected such possibilities as 'Deep Down Things' (which sets the bar a bit too high for me, I think), 'All Things Counter, Original, Spare, Strange' (that one almost got me, I have to admit!) and 'Dayspring to the Dimness' (I would be the dimness, Christ the dayspring in that one), I then found this most lovely and beloved poem:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; _myself_ it speaks and spells,
Crying _What I do is me: for that I came_.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Bingo, says I. My intent is to expand the blog from Ratzinger outward to other authors, other beautiful Christians reflecting Christ in manifold ways, with my own running commentary babbling alongside them. And here we have - Christ is ten thousand places, lovely in... men's FACES.

And so this will be the new blog, beginning on March 1 - Ten Thousand Places, with the tag line of  'To the Father through the features of men's faces.' So now you know.

Whatever, Lord

With the traditional Rite of Ashes last Wednesday we entered Lent, a season of conversion and penance in preparation for Easter. The Church who is mother and teacher calls all her members to renew themselves in spirit and to turn once again with determination to God, renouncing pride and selfishness, to live in love. This Year of Faith Lent is a favourable time for rediscovering faith in God as the basic criterion for our life and for the life of the Church. This always means a struggle, a spiritual combat, because the spirit of evil is naturally opposed to our sanctification and seeks to make us stray from God’s path. For this reason the Gospel of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is proclaimed every year on the First Sunday of Lent.

Indeed, after receiving the investiture as Messiah—Anointed—with the Holy Spirit at the baptism in the Jordan Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit himself to be tempted by the devil. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus had to unmask himself and reject the false images of the Messiah which the tempter was suggesting to him. Yet these temptations are also false images of man that threaten to ensnare our conscience, in the guise of suitable, effective and even good proposals.

The Evangelists Matthew and Luke present three temptations of Jesus that differ slightly, but only in their order. Their essential core is always the exploitation of God for our own interests, giving preference to success or to material possessions. The tempter is cunning. He does not directly impel us towards evil but rather towards a false good, making us believe that the true realities are power and everything that satisfies our primary needs. In this way God becomes secondary, he is reduced to a means; in short, he becomes unreal, he no longer counts, he disappears. Ultimately, in temptation faith is at stake because God is at stake. At the crucial moments in life but also, as can be seen at every moment, we stand at a crossroads: do we want to follow our own ego or God? Our individual interests or the true Good, to follow what is really good?
Angelus Address, February 14, 2013

Reflection – Happy Chair of St Peter! This feast day rolls around every year, and every year we are asked both to pray for the Holy Father and to give thanks for the Petrine ministry in the Church and the service of unity that it fulfills. Somehow, I am willing to bet that Catholics in general are a bit more aware of both the feast day and the papacy this particular February 22. It’s the Lent of the papacy, in a certain sense, as all eyes turn towards the Vatican to witness Benedict step down next Thursday and the cardinals gather shortly thereafter to elect a new pope.

So I’ve still been pondering this whole matter of Benedict’s resignation. I think one remarkable aspect of it is precisely what he reflects on here so beautifully. That is, the renunciation of power. ‘The true realities are power and what satisfies our needs’ – this is the way of the world. Get power and keep power. Hang on to whatever power you have until it is wrested from your hands. This happens in big ways and in small, all over the place, all the time. The power struggle, and who comes out on top. And so we have this man, certainly old and tired and perhaps sick, and carrying God-alone knows what heavy burdens of office, but nonetheless still capable of hanging on to the office, hanging on to the power.

And he is saying, ‘You know what? It’s not about power. It’s not about me. It’s about God – He is the true and only head of the Church.’ As John Paul II taught us powerfully about carrying the cross of suffering until the end, Benedict is teaching us about deep humility and self-effacement. Two different men with two different lessons to teach us.

Ultimately it is the same lesson, though. Turn to God! God is the center. God is the source. God is the Father, the one Father, the only Father. God is the One who sustains us in times of trial and empowers us to walk in fidelity to the bitter end of life. God is the One who strips us, ‘belittles’ us in the positive sense of that word, makes us very small and childlike and simple in all things.

It is God’s Church, not Benedict’s or John Paul’s or the Cardinals or yours or mine. It is God’s world, not Obama’s or Harper’s or any of the other great movers and shakers of our time. My life and your life belong to God, not ourselves. Benedict’s resignation, if we really take it to the depths of spiritual meaning, is a call to all of us to really dispossess ourselves, really detach ourselves, really dis-empower ourselves freely out of love, so that this Lent God can be a bit more all-in-all in our lives.

What that means for you and for me will vary widely depending on our circumstances. But the call is there for all of us. ‘Whatever, Lord’ – do what you will with and in me. Take everything from me or ask me to carry it all until I break—so long as you are with me ‘til the end. This is the great Lenten call our Holy Father has issued to us in this Year of Faith.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Blog Will Go On

Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the Logos. Christianity is faith in the Creator Spiritus, from whom comes everything that is real. Precisely this ought to give Christianity its philosophical power today, since the problem is whether the world comes from an irrational source, so that reason would be nothing but a ‘by-product’ (perhaps even a harmful by product) of the development of the world, or whether the world comes from reason, so that its criterion and its goal is reason. The Christian faith opts for this second thesis and has good arguments to back it up, even from a purely philosophical point of view, despite the fact that so many people today consider the first thesis the only ‘rational’ and modern view.

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 49

Reflection – ‘So, what are you going to do about the blog?’ The question has been posed to me once or twice (or a couple dozen times, but who’s counting?) the past week or so. My answer has always been, “I’m praying about it!”

You see, I didn’t start the blog precisely because Joseph Ratzinger was the bishop of Rome. I started the blog because he writes passages like the above one: luminous, penetrating, intellectually acute and yet accessible to the general reading public. I started the blog because I believe this ‘German Shepherd’ (and he will still be a shepherd—a bishop—on March 1, don’t forget) has offered the modern world insight, guidance, thoughtful reflection and a gentle presentation of the Gospel in a somewhat intellectual key, but no less the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The modern world has largely responded by sneering at him, calling him silly names, and ignoring his writings, as we have all had lamentable opportunities to see in the past week of media ‘coverage’ of the story.

So I do want, and fully intend, to continue presenting excerpts of Ratzinger’s writings ongoingly on this blog. There may be less interest in him as he retreats into the silence and seclusion of a monastery, but I believe he is a key figure in the Church’s re-presentation of the faith to the modern world, and his life work deserves and in fact needs to be made better known. I may broaden the blog out to include other writers (Catherine Doherty first among them, of course), and my own independent writing and reflection. Given that we are no longer (sob!) living with him, I will probably be looking for a new name for the blog (any suggestions gratefully accepted), but nonetheless, the blog will go on as it has.

A great central matter of Ratzinger’s contribution to modern theology is, in fact, found in the above passage. The reasonableness of the doctrine of creation, the fact that only a creation of the universe from a rational being undergirds and assures us of the ultimate reasonable quality of being, the fact that modern atheistic materialism reduces the universe to absurdity—all of this is key in Ratzinger’s entire thought.

The Regensburg address several years ago, which everyone remembers as if it were an assault on Islam, was in fact an assault on post-modernism. God as Logos, God as a Being super-eminently reasonable, logical in the best sense of the word, means that our human reason, our capacity to move towards apprehension of the truth, this fantastic human power which delivers, in a sense, the whole material universe into our hands through technological mastery—this human power in fact takes us beyond the material universe and into the very heart of God.

Reason does not merely give us scientific prowess, but opens us up for communion in love with God and one another. This is so alien to our whole understanding of reason in a positivistic technocratic world, yet it flows naturally and automatically from the Christian doctrine of creation. And this doctrine, then, and this understanding of reason, yields a whole theology and spirituality of communion, a vision of reality in which our humanity in its deepest and highest nature comes from God and is ordered towards God, and in which our whole apprehension and relationship with the created order is meant to be shaped and ordered by this God-ward orientation.
This is the theological vision of Joseph Ratzinger, and I fully intend to continue presenting it to the world on this blog. Now, what am I supposed to name it…?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Great Lenten Dilemma

In this time of Lent, in the Year of the faith, we renew our commitment to the process of conversion, to overcoming the tendency to close in on ourselves and instead, to making room for God, looking at our daily reality with His eyes. The alternative between being wrapped up in our egoism and being open to the love of God and others, we could say corresponds to the alternatives to the temptations of Jesus: the alternative, that is, between human power and love of the Cross, between a redemption seen only in material well-being and redemption as the work of God, to whom we give primacy in our lives. Conversion means not closing in on ourselves in the pursuit of success, prestige, position, but making sure that each and every day, in the small things, truth, faith in God and love become most important.

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – Once again Pope Benedict in a few words lays out a whole program of life, a whole concise and very deep understanding of what we are to do and what it is all about. He truly does have an extraordinary gift for that kind of thing. (Can you tell that I’m really really going to miss him?)

This is the whole business of Lent, though, and we really need to get clear about it. To reduce Lent to ‘giving up chocolates (except on Sunday! And feast days! And… when I’m really desperate!!) is to reduce Lent to something of little if any spiritual value.

It’s not about giving up. We do give up stuff in Lent, but the giving up is only so as to open up, to make room, to get ourselves moving God-ward and out of ourselves.

We make ourselves a bit uncomfortable, a bit hungry, a bit unsatisfied with the fare of life. This is not so we can enjoy some ridiculous triumph of the will (‘40 days without potato chips! I am like unto a god!’), but so that we go looking Elsewhere for life.

Conversion – that is the whole point of Lent. Conversion away from self-centredness, materialism, concern with success or prestige or wealth. Conversion away from gluttony, avarice, sloth, pride, envy, anger, lust—the seven deadlies that all conspire to close us in on ourselves and offer us myriad paths to life which in truth lead nowhere but the graveyard.

In Lent in Madonna House, we pray each day at the end of Lauds the ancient Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. At the end of each petition, we prostrate before the Lord, expressing our deep humility and contrition and desire to change. This is the prayer:

O Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and faintheartedness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.

Grant instead to me your servant a spirit of purity and humility, a spirit of patience and love.

O Lord and King, bestow upon me the grace of being aware of my sins, and of not judging my brother. For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.

There is a reason why this prayer is so prominent in the Christian East. It expresses perfectly what Pope Benedict captures of the true Lenten spirit. And it really does all come down to Jesus in the desert, the voice of the tempter and the response of Love Incarnate, and our entry into that mystery. Do we place God first, or ourselves first? Do we turn to God in humble supplication for everything, or charge along living from our own power and lights? Do we simply make Christ the center of our lives, or our own desires and agendae the center of our lives?
These are the Lenten questions, the great Lenten dilemma, the Lenten choice. Really, the choice of all our days, no matter what the season, but in Lent we are called to confront it all a bit more intensely. Why? So we can welcome the gift of God at Easter more deeply, rejoice with our brothers and sisters being baptized all around the world with greater exutation, and ourselves receive this eternally new life of God more fully, so that we can bear it into the world which needs it so terribly.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Coffee With God

Someone pointed out to me that Kathryn Lopez is blogging about Catherine Doherty today. Lo and behold, not only is she doing so, but on the very subject of my Benedict post this morning.
Quoting Catherine:
Maybe for you it’s different, but for so many people, God seems very distant. But he’s really right there, with you. I always invite him for a cup of coffee. Do you know that God never drank a cup of coffee while he lived on earth? They had no coffee.
Mentally, I invite him for coffee. I take the Bible and put it between us, saying: “Lord, you sit there and I’ll sit here. Here’s your cup of coffee, and here’s mine. Now we’re going to have a dialogue from your own book called the Gospel. So now I’ll be the apostles and you be yourself.”
Read the whole thing - it's worth it! 

Blind Instinct

The ability to oppose the ideological blandishments of her time to choose the search for truth and open herself up to the discovery of faith is evidenced by another woman of our time, the American Dorothy Day. In her autobiography, she confesses openly to having given in to the temptation that everything could be solved with politics, adhering to the Marxist proposal: "I wanted to be with the protesters, go to jail, write, influence others and leave my dreams to the world. How much ambition and how much searching for myself in all this!".

The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficult, but Grace acts nonetheless, as she points out: "It is certain that I felt the need to go to church more often, to kneel, to bow my head in prayer. A blind instinct, one might say, because I was not conscious of praying. But I went, I slipped into the atmosphere of prayer ... ".God guided her to a conscious adherence to the Church, in a lifetime spent dedicated to the underprivileged.

In our time there are no few conversions understood as the return of those who, after a Christian education, perhaps a superficial one, moved away from the faith for years and then rediscovered Christ and his Gospel. In the Book of Revelation we read: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me"(3, 20).

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – It’s kind of nice to have the Pope talking about Dorothy Day, isn’t it? Probably most of the readers of this blog have at least heard of her and of the Catholic Worker movement she founded. She has an honored place in the history of Madonna House and Catherine Doherty’s life. At a key moment of crisis, when Catherine’s work in Toronto had been shut down by a vicious whisper campaign of gossip and the withdrawal of ecclesial support, a devastating blow to her, Dorothy took her in briefly and gave her help re-establishing herself in Harlem.

Catherine always considered Dorothy a true saint of God, and it does seem like her cause for canonization is proceeding nicely. Papal approbation in a general audience certainly carries some weight.

Meanwhile, here’s you and me in the Lent of 2013, with a pope retiring and the world in a mess. What are we going to do about it? The option of ‘politics’ is always before us. By that, I don’t necessarily mean politicking, radicalism, or getting involved in the local branch of your preferred party. I certainly don’t mean obsessing over the makeup of the College of Cardinals and actively campaigning for the papabile of your choice (have you noticed that I have sternly ignored that topic on the blog? I will continue to do so.).

No, politics is a much broader field than all that. It means finding the solution to the world and its problems, my life and its problems, in the external manipulation of events, people, situations to my favor. Politics is from polis – city – and politics is all about getting the city shaped up and in order according to our best ideas of it.

Politics is not evil—some things do need to be organized, and God does ask us to take care of them—but what of Dorothy Day? What of this blind instinct to pray, to bow the head, to turn to God? What of this God who stands at the door and knocks? ‘Politics’ in its various expressions is the outward visible course of the world; faith and prayer are like a subterranean spring running along beneath the surface of the world. But without that spring, the world is in a terrible state of thirst, of drought.

Without faith and prayer, our politics tend towards self-serving avarice and vainglorious pride. It is prayer that continually orients us away from self and to God and neighbor. It is prayer that turns our hearts towards the poor, towards deep concerns for justice and charity. It is prayer that humbles us, that tenderizes us, that makes us cry out to God for wisdom and mercy in the face of a world that is in deep trouble and distress.
It is Lent 2013, Tuesday of the first week. How’s your prayer going? How’s mine? It is this turning to God that is so utterly crucial in our world today, racked by petty politics and self-seeking, by unmanned drones and death panels and folly of all kinds. Dorothy Day prayed, and gave her life to the service of the poor. So pray… and see what God asks you to do about all of it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Lent: A Call to Conversion

The tests which modern society subjects Christians to, in fact, are many, and affect personal and social life. It is not easy to be faithful to Christian marriage, practice mercy in everyday life, leave space for prayer and inner silence, it is not easy to publicly oppose choices that many take for granted, such as abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, euthanasia in case of serious illness, or the selection of embryos to prevent hereditary diseases. The temptation to set aside one’s faith is always present and conversion becomes a response to God which must be confirmed several times throughout one’s life.

The major conversions like that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or St. Augustine, are an example and stimulus, but also in our time when the sense of the sacred is eclipsed, God's grace is at work and works wonders in life of many people. The Lord never gets tired of knocking at the door of man in social and cultural contexts that seem engulfed by secularization, as was the case for the Russian Orthodox Pavel Florensky. After a completely agnostic education, to the point he felt an outright hostility towards religious teachings taught in school, the scientist Florensky came to exclaim: "No, you cannot live without God", and to change his life completely, so much so he became a monk.

I also think the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. Initially far from God, she found Him looking deep inside herself and wrote: "There is a well very deep inside of me. And God is in that well. Sometimes I can reach Him, more often He is covered by stone and sand: then God is buried. We must dig Him up again "(Diary, 97). In her scattered and restless life, she finds God in the middle of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah. This young fragile and dissatisfied woman, transfigured by faith, becomes a woman full of love and inner peace, able to say: "I live in constant intimacy with God."

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – The Pope now develops the theme of conversion by turning to various examples from our own time. Florensky came to his religious faith in the context of the rising atheism and eventual persecution of Soviet Russia. Hillesum found God in the midst of the Nazi extermination of Jews. Both began as agnostics or even atheists; both came to know God in the most difficult social contexts imaginable.

And so, both of them are worth considering. For Florensky the scientist, it was dissatisfaction with a wholly positivist explanation for reality, the spurious rationalism that rejects any possibility of transcendent being and knowledge. For Hillesum, it was her own interior emptiness and need for love that led her to this mysterious God.

So many today are in this same boat – left with a certain intellectual despair where all that knowledge can offer us is greater and greater technological mastery, but with nothing to say about what it all means and is for. Others feel keenly the failure of human love to satisfy, the existential emptiness or insufficiency of created goods to fill our need.

And so many thrash around looking anywhere but God-ward in all this. Perhaps we Christians are at least partly to blame for that. We have not always shown forth the face of a loving merciful God in the world. But many are looking still, and there is a great potential for a new evangelization in our times.

The world is shaky right now. Economics, politics, personal freedoms and rights—so many things are just very uncertain and tenuous right now. There is a great chance for a new presentation of hope in God and faith in Christ as so many of the things we have placed our hope and faith in crack and crumble.

But of course, we who have faith must ourselves be converted, must be willing to make these hard choices, pay steep prices for the faith we hold. We live in a secular society that provides no encouragement at all for a lively faith life, that often opposes it in obvious and subtle ways. So Lent is a time to take hold of our lives again and examine them. Do I live as if God is the most important value, the first and deepest good, the source and goal of my life? Or am I living somewhere else, doing something else, choosing something else? This is our Lenten question, and the call to repentance and conversion at the heart of this season.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Have You Read the Manual?

Overcoming the temptation to place God in submission to oneself and one’s own interests or to put Him in a corner and converting oneself to the proper order of priorities, giving God the first place, is a journey that every Christian must undergo. "Conversion", an invitation that we will hear many times in Lent, means following Jesus so that his Gospel is a real life guide, it means allowing God to transform us, no longer thinking that we are the only protagonists of our existence, recognizing that we are creatures who depend on God, His love, and that only by “losing" our life in Him can we truly have it.

This means making our choices in the light of the Word of God. Today we can no longer be Christians as a simple consequence of the fact that we live in a society that has Christian roots: even those born to a Christian family and formed in the faith must, each and every day, renew the choice to be a Christian, to give God first place, before the temptations continuously suggested by a secularized culture, before the criticism of many of our contemporaries.

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – Well, when Pope Benedict is in top form (which he is remarkably often), I don’t think there is anyone writing today who is as succinct, elegant, and penetrating in their analysis of the Christian call in the modern world. The above paragraph is as neat and concise a description of what conversion means and the fundamental path of Christian life in the world as any I have ever read.

You know, for a man who says he is old, sick, and tired, he is sure doing OK on some fronts at least. Meanwhile here we are with this luminous path and challenge laid before us. This whole business of making the Gospel not just words on a piece of paper or something we hear in church every Sunday, but an actual life guide. So we hear today that ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test,’ for example. Well, are we going to test God this week? Decide how much we trust God based on how He is performing in our lives? How much He’s giving us of what we want and like, and turning away from Him as soon as our prayer life is a bit dry or the road is a bit rocky? Because, you know, that’s not living the Gospel, and that’s therefore an area we need conversion.

Or ‘love your enemies’. Or, ‘give to those who cannot repay you.’ Or ‘forgive seventy times seven.’ Or… well, you can read, right? Read the Gospels, and put them into practice. This is the instruction manual of our faith. This is what it means to live a Christian life.

Now of course we have to know the Gospels if we are to do this. When we’re in the thick of life and its challenges we usually don’t have time to go run get our bibles and start flicking through them for the relevant passage. The words and precepts of Christ should be so familiar to us that they are second nature.

Someone is rude and horrible to you, and you should automatically, as a Christian, think ‘turn the other cheek!’ There is someone in some small or great need presented to you, and as a Christian you should think ‘foot-washing time! The Son of Man came to serve!’ That kind of thing. But that kind of thing simply will not happen if you don’t know the Gospels backwards and forwards, will it? If you are reading this (all you wonderful anonymous readers of this blog who never leave comments but keep coming back here every day!) and it hits home for you, perhaps a Lenten priority would be to simply read the Gospels, study them, work them into your mind and heart like yeast into dough. Get those words down, memorized if possible, but deeply familiar.

Meanwhile our lovely secular world is drilling in its message, its ‘Gospel’ into our heads night and day, day and night. The Gospel of consumption, of pleasure, of power, of cleverness, of so many things that have very little to do with Christ and Christianity. And we have to watch out for that, too. I am a Catholic priest and have lived in an intensely Catholic community for over 20 years, and I have to watch out for that. So all you out there in the deeply secular wilderness have a real struggle on your hands, and it’s no joke.

But at the same time, it’s a matter of daily choices, daily taking a stand with Christ and for Christ in your little world, your corner of creation. It’s all very big and can seem overwhelming, but it is a matter of here and now and what we are doing next in life—the Gospel, or something else? And all the little and big conversions and repentances that come on the heels of those choices each day. And God in the midst of it all, not remote up in heaven somewhere, but by our side, in our hearts, gracing us with his presence and help. And that’s the whole story of our life, so beautifully expressed by our wonderful Holy Father.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Hard Business of Life

In reflecting on the temptations Jesus is subjected to in the desert we are invited, each one of us, to respond to one fundamental question: what is truly important in our lives? In the first temptation the devil offers to change a stone into bread to sate Jesus’ hunger. Jesus replies that the man also lives by bread but not by bread alone: ​​without a response to the hunger for truth, hunger for God, man can not be saved (cf. vv. 3-4).

In the second, the devil offers Jesus the path of power: he leads him up on high and gives him dominion over the world, but this is not the path of God: Jesus clearly understands that it is not earthly power that saves the world, but the power of the Cross, humility, love (cf. vv. 5-8).
In the third, the devil suggests Jesus throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple of Jerusalem and be saved by God through his angels, that is, to do something sensational to test God, but the answer is that God is not an object on which to impose our conditions: He is the Lord of all (cf. vv. 9-12).

What is the core of the three temptations that Jesus is subjected to? It is the proposal to exploit God, to use Him for his own interests, for his own glory and success. So, in essence, to put himself in the place of God, removing Him from his own existence and making him seem superfluous. Everyone should then ask: what is the role God in my life? Is He the Lord or am I?
General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – I will never forget one of the signal graces of my life. Like most of the really big graces I have received it was utterly undramatic, so this won’t make all that great a story (Dear God: why can you never give me a big grace some time when I’m dangling from a precipice or fighting off a grizzly bear, just so I have at least one a good story to tell? Thanks, Fr. Denis).

Anyhow. Some years ago, we were praying the rosary in the MH dining room after supper as is our custom, and very simply, at one Hail Mary or another the word ‘Lord’ leapt out at me. So here was this word we Catholics use from practically when we learn to speak, in a prayer as familiar to us as our own names… and suddenly God brought it from my head and my lips to my heart.

God is the Lord. God is THE LORD. In other words, God has a right, an absolute claim, to my obedience, my loyalty, to my all in all. This was a true moment of conversion for me, a true waking up to the basic terms of life. I ain’t doing God no favors when I turn to him to seek and do His will—this is my absolute duty in justice towards Him, because He is LORD.

So the Holy Father’s words here resonate deeply with me. God is not an object for my use. God does not exist to get me what I want, to make the universe and my life just the way I think they should be. He is not a magician performing tricks to delight and amuse me. He is not my servant, really, although in His divine love and awesome tenderness He bends down to wash my feet and minister to my needs.

But ultimately what I most need is to be brought into the depths of the truth of His mighty lordship and my call to total abandonment and trust. And I do believe that this accounts for at least some part of the hard business of life: the fact that the universe does not curl itself around me like a snuggly blanket, that I just do not get my way in many things, and that this can at times be not just annoying but extraordinarily painful.

We must come to this reality of God’s lordship and our creaturely call to loving obedience. It may come in some form of hunger, either voluntary fasting or genuine deprivation of food or some other genuine good. It may come in the form of powerlessness, of abandoning ourselves to the condition of helplessness in the face of the world and its overpowering forces. It may come in the form of a deep call to trust God in the face of genuine difficulties and distress, to not try to force God to do our will or to force the world into our shape.

Jesus shows us the way in these temptations and his response, and shows us that this way is the way to life in the heart of God and eternal joy and bliss. And that is the whole purpose of Lent, and of our Christian way of life, to make Jesus’ way of life our way of life, and so enter into the fullness of life and joy He has made us for.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Don't Wanna Go There

Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the liturgical time of Lent, forty days that prepare us for the celebration of Holy Easter, it is a time of particular commitment in our spiritual journey. The number forty occurs several times in the Bible. In particular, it recalls the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness: a long period of formation to become the people of God, but also a long period in which the temptation to be unfaithful to the covenant with the Lord was always present.

Forty were also the days of the Prophet Elijah’s journey to reach the Mount of God, Horeb; as well as the time that Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public life and where he was tempted by the devil. In this Catechesis I would like to dwell on this moment of earthly life of the Son of God, which we will read of in the Gospel this Sunday.

First of all, the desert where Jesus withdrew to is the place of silence, of poverty, where man is deprived of material support and is placed in front of the fundamental questions of life, where he is pushed to towards the essentials in life and for this very reason it becomes easier for him to find God. But the desert is also a place of death, because where there is no water there is no life, and it is a place of solitude where man feels temptation more intensely. Jesus goes into the desert, and there is tempted to leave the path indicated by God the Father to follow other easier and worldly paths (cf. Lk 4:1-13). So he takes on our temptations and carries our misery, to conquer evil and open up the path to God, the path of conversion.

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection - Well, let us leave aside the more personal reflections I’ve been doing on the blog since Monday, and return to what Pope Benedict himself clearly would like to be the focus of our attention now and always: not on him, but on the Lord Jesus.

We are on the great forty day hike through Lent and, depending on how seriously you take the austerities and call to fast in it, you may already be feeling the pinch a wee bit. You should, you know. While individual circumstances vary, and people’s health and energy needs dictate different levels of practice, we all should strive to be just a bit uncomfortable during Lent, just a bit hungry, or weak, or genuinely challenged on some front or other. The Church wisely leaves this to the individual conscience these days, but that means it’s up to us to make Lent a real journey into the desert.

Why go there, anyhow? Didn’t Jesus do all that for us? Why should we be hungry, why confront this place of death and solitude and temptation and poverty? It’s hard! It’s morbid! I get grumpy when I fast, or tired! I don’t want to!

Well, yes. That is indeed the case, at least for many people. I’m not actually using the metaphorical ‘I’ here, by the way. Who wants to fast? But it is precisely for that reason that we go into the desert.

We need to find out what we’re made of. We need to find out that, by the simple expedient of eliminating, say, eating between meals, or sweets, or caffeine, or taking second helpings, or all of the above, or… by a simple reduction of intake of food, we are all grumpy and weak and struggling. In other words, we experience our weakness, the depth of our needy condition, how insufficient we are in ourselves to practice virtue, to be kind and patient, how limited our own resources truly are.

By this most simple expedient of real fasting, of real discomfort of body and mind, we are thrown into the desert of the world where we cannot live. And in that, challenged to throw ourselves on the mercy of God more deeply. And in that throwing, to experience the mercy of God more fully. And in that experience, to enter the joy of Easter, of new life in Christ, more intensely.
There’s quite a bit more to be said about all these matters—I am just scratching the surface here. But the Holy Father himself is going to go on to say quite a bit more himself, so let’s take up the matter again tomorrow, God willing! Have a good Lenten Friday, and hey—don’t eat too much, eh?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

We're All Only Human

Dear brothers and sisters, as you know I decided to resign from the ministry that the Lord had entrusted me on April 19, 2005. I did this in full freedom, for the good of the Church after having prayed at length and examined my conscience before God, well aware of the gravity of this act.

I was also well aware that I was no longer able to fulfill the Petrine Ministry with that strength that it demands. What sustains and illuminates me is the certainty that the Church belongs to Christ whose care and guidance will never be lacking. I thank you all for the love and prayer with which you have accompanied me.

I have felt, almost physically, your prayers in these days which are not easy for me, the strength which the love of the Church and your prayers brings to me. Continue to pray for me and for the future Pope, the Lord will guide us!

General Audience, February 13, 2013

Reflection – I am going to blog the whole of Pope Benedict’s general audience yesterday, which is quite an extraordinary reflection on Lent and conversion. But, of course, he began his audience with the above personal remarks, which were interrupted several times by prolonged applause from the crowd and great emotion.

I also watched a small clip of his final public Mass, also yesterday, at which Cardinal Bartone publicly thanked him, again with considerable emotion. “You have brought man to God, and God to man,” he said. There was, again, prolonged applause, and it was so very touching to see the various cardinals and bishops removing their miters in a gesture of respect, more than a few of them wiping tears from their eyes, and the Pope himself, looking very drawn and tired, but visibly moved by the outpouring of love and genuine affection.

You know, I keep trying to take my own personal reflections on this whole matter to the next level of depth, to get to the big picture, to the large-scale ramifications of this event for the Church, to the deeper theological and spiritual meanings of it for world and ecclesial history.

Can’t do it. Not yet. Maybe I’ll get there eventually. What really strikes me here, and maybe this is of great spiritual significance after all, is the enormous personal love and affection being poured out for this man, Joseph Ratzinger, our German Shepherd. His own personal love for the Church, for us, which has kept him at this difficult task these past years, and is now motivating him to do this hard controversial thing of resigning, and the love being expressed for him in so many quarters.

Yes, there are politics and wrangling and the usual negative comments from the usual suspects... but who cares about that? What I’m seeing is a whole lotta love for this quiet little man who has really tried to love and serve us with his great intellect and gift for words.

And this is rather important, actually. So often we can lose the humanity of the Church behind the trappings of office or the tug-of-war of controversy or the struggle with obedience and authority. So often people can become symbols: Ratzinger of the ‘conservative’ wing; Martini (say) of the ‘liberal’. But people are not symbols, not primarily. They are human beings, with all the human fraility and foibles, but also with human beauty and grace.

The Church is divine… but it certainly is always human, too. And this humanity is not, as we so often mean when we speak of it, simply the Church’s failures and the sins (horrific at times) of its members and leaders. It’s also a little old man in the Vatican who is sick and tired and is telling us he cannot do it any more. It’s his colleagues and co-workers in the Vatican wiping tears from their eyes as they thank him for trying so hard for so long. It’s all of us with our hearts in our throats and perhaps tears in our eyes as we take in these events and turn to each other for support, perhaps in some confusion, perhaps anxiety, perhaps hurt or even anger.

It’s all of this—all of us gathered together around this little old man—our father in Christ who is also our brother in Christ and who needs our prayers, and all of us gathered together around the college of cardinals who most definitely need our prayers, because they are only human too, and subject to the same frailties and limitations as we all are.
All of us human, all of us needing kindness and compassion, all of us together in this divine project called the Church, this divine mystery that comes to us in our deep humanity to draw this humanity into divinity, and the name and the path of this drawing is one thing and one thing only: it is love, which is made possible by grace, which is given to us by Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Catholic Moment

It is interesting to observe how in the New Testament the word “saints” designates Christians as a whole, and certainly not all would have qualified to be declared saints by the Church. What is meant, then, by this term? The fact that whoever had and lived the faith in Christ Risen were call to become a point of reference for all others, setting them in this way in contact with the Person and the Message of Jesus, who reveals the face of the Living God. And this holds true also for us: a Christian who lets himself be guided and gradually shaped by the faith of the Church, in spite of his weaknesses, his limitations and his difficulties, becomes like a window open to the light of the living God, receiving this light and transmitting it to the world...

Today’s widespread tendency to relegate faith to the private sphere thus, contradicts its very nature. We need the Church in order to confirm our faith and in order to experience the gifts of God: his Word, the Sacraments, the support of grace and the witness of love. Like this, our “I” can be perceived in the “we” of the Church and, at the same time, be the recipient and the protagonist of an overwhelming event: experiencing communion with God, that is the foundation of communion among men. In a world in which individualism seems to rule personal relationships, making them ever more fragile, the faith calls us to be the People of God, to be Church, bearers of the love and communion of God for all mankind (cf. Pastoral Constitution Guadium et Spes, n. 1).

General Audience, 31 October 2012

Reflection – As I said yesterday in my initial and rather shocked reaction to the news of Pope Benedict’s resignation, I think I will continue blogging as normal. The German Shepherd has shepherded us long before he came pope, and his words and wisdom will continue to be part of the Good Shepherd’s shepherding of us long after he has left the office.

Meanwhile… well, we’re all very conscious of our Church identity now, aren’t we? Nothing like a conclave to make everyone very mindful of being Catholic and this strange call to communion that comes to us accompanied by puffs of white smoke and rooms of elderly men wearing red hats.

It’s a ‘we’ time that hopefully overrides or at least gives a stiff competition to the ‘I’ focus of our normal lives. Meanwhile, the eyes of the world are, for at least a couple news cycles, very much on the Catholic Church. There is a great opportunity here, but also a great challenge.

Our non-Catholic friends and relatives may ask questions of us on Facebook. Can you answer them? Fevered media speculation and verbiage fills the airwaves and bandwidth of the chattering classes. Can you sort out what has validity from what is ill-informed nonsense? (Hint: the ratio is about 10%-90% on that score).

It is this whole business the Pope speaks of here, of a Christian being a point of reference for others directing them towards Christ, and to do that, allowing ourselves to be formed by the faith of the Church and not the passing values of the world. It is a very Catholic moment right now—lots of attention and ‘buzz’ around all of this, at least until the next squirrel distracts our ADHD media. Are we going to move through it in a Catholic way, though? That is, with a depth of faith and prayer, a knowledge of how serious all this is, but at the same time a deeper knowledge that it’s not too serious, that God is in His Church to watch over it and guide it in all events.

If I may give you all a bit of practical advice, it would be this. Ignore the mass media. They don’t know what they’re talking about, frankly, and don’t seem terribly interested in getting the story right. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CBC—all the alphabet soup of talking heads are simply not reliable sources for information, and bring an exclusively political perspective to the whole matter (it’s all they know about, the poor dears), along with their own peculiarly obsessed tunnel vision re social issues (‘maybe the NEXT Pope will approve abortion and gay marriage!’ Uh, no – that’s not going to happen.).

Ignore them all – they are untrustworthy. Rocco Palma is a knowledgeable journalist, as is John Allen (Yes, I know the link is NCR - he's still one of the best). EWTN does a reliable professional job covering this stuff, as does Salt and Light TV in Canada. Go to the people who know what they’re talking about and ignore the rest.
Above all, though, pray, pray, pray. This is a clarion call from God to the Church to pray for our leaders, to ask the Holy Spirit to descend on the College of Cardinals, to give peace and firmness of purpose to all the faithful, to be the saints of God our baptism and Confirmation have made us to be. Amen.

Updated to add: Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. A good day to mortify our senses and our intellects. I will not blog tomorrow. See you Thursday, God willing.