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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Quo vadis, Benedictus?

On the hit CBS TV program, NCIS, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs lives by a code of 50 rules.  One of the Gibbs' rules notes that "there is no such thing as coincidence."

Call it timing.  Call it coincidence.  Nonetheless, I found it rather interesting that less than a week after Pope Benedict XVI stunned Catholics the world over by announcing his resignation, Turner Classic Movies aired the Oscar-winning film, "Quo Vadis".  TCM probably had this planned some time in advance because of its Oscar celebration, but, the timing was, nonetheless, thought provoking. While the movie's premise centers around a love story between a Roman commander and a Christian woman, the midpoint of the film carries a more profound aspect of love, that between Christ and St. Peter.

Set in the time of the macabre reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, "Quo Vadis" gives us a snapshot of the persecution inflicted on the nascent Church.  Nero has just burned the Eternal City and, at the insistence of his vain queen, decides to blame the followers of new religious sect, the Christians.  Peter, having been in Rome for quite some time, is urged by the faithful to flee the persecution and decides to journey to Greece.  As he is journeying along the Via Apia, he encounters a vision that resumes the conversation that he and the newly risen Christ had on the shores of the Sea of Galilee some thirty years before.  

At that time, Peter was a young fisherman, still trying to process having seen his Master, whom he had denied three days earlier.  Filled with remorse over what he had done, he went out to fish, joined by the rest of the surviving Apostles.  When Jesus calls out to him and tells him to cast his net to the other side of the boat, a miraculous bounty of fish is caught, prompting St. John to announce that it was the Lord who had made this happen.  Peter impetuously leaps from the boat and swims to where Jesus is.  It is there, over a charcoal fire where the fish are being cooked, that Jesus asks St. Peter three times if he loves him.   Recall that Peter made his denial while warming himself over a charcoal fire.  Now, Jesus gives him the chance to undo the triple error.  Each time Jesus asks him and Peter responds "Yes", the Lord tells him to "feed his sheep, tend his lambs."  At Jesus' third query about Peter's love, the burly fisherman is flustered, blurting out, "Lord, you know all things.  You know that I love you."   After telling Peter a third time to "feed his sheep", Christ predicts that when Peter grows old, someone else will put a belt around him and lead him where he does not want to go.  St. John alludes to the fact that the Lord is predicting the kind of death by which Peter will glorify God.  Jesus then adds the words, "Follow me."

And now, Peter is an old man.  We do not know how old, but, one could guess that he is probably entering his 70s.  He is escaping the persecution in Rome when he encounters Christ on the road going in the opposite direction.  "Quo vadis, Domine," Peter asks.  "Where are you going, Lord?"  "To Rome,"  Christ replies, "to be crucified anew." Suddenly, Peter realizes that the time for his ultimate witness has come, the time for the fulfillment of Christ's prophecy is fast approaching.  He is being led to where he does not want to go. He returns to Rome and, at least in the movie, he boldly goes to the Coliseum right before the Christians are being slaughtered, and courageously confirms them in the Faith, giving loud witness to Christ before the crowds, thus drawing Nero's deadly ire.   Peter is immediately arrested and thrown in the same cell as the Roman commander and his beloved Christian girl.  In the next scene, we see Peter absorbed in prayer as the camera cuts away to Nero who is plotting Peter's death.  Peter seems at peace, resigned to whatever the Lord has deigned for him.  When the centurions come for Peter, they inform him that he will be led to Vatican hill where he will be crucified.  Peter tells them that he does not deserve to die as Jesus did and asks to be crucified upside down.

I saw this part of the film while I was getting ready for Mass this past Sunday.  About five hours earlier, I woke up to see the live telecast of the recitation of the Angelus with St. Peter's successor, Pope Benedict XVI.  Looking at the Holy Father, I could not help but wonder why he did this.  Quo vadis, Benedictus? Where are you going, Benedict?  You asked us to pray for you that you might not flee for fear of the wolves and now, eight years later, you seem to be doing just that.

It was not until I read the comments made by papal biographer, Peter Seewald, that I realized that perhaps Benedict was entering into his own fulfillment of the words that Jesus spoke to St. Peter so long ago in Galilee.  This is the same reading that was used when Pope Benedict XVI was installed as our Supreme Pastor on April 24, 2005.  This is also the same reading that was used for the funeral of Blessed John Paul II.  Christ entered the dialogue with both of these men, imparting the same message but seeking a different fulfillment.  We all saw Blessed John Paul's sufferings play out on the world stage.  We felt the pain of seeing him suffer.  In Benedict's case, the martyrdom has been quiet, but, no less painful.  Joseph Ratzinger knew the heavy costs of assuming the papacy.  Who knows how many times he refused the post until he could not deny the call that Christ was now making to him.  But now, his body is betraying him.  His eyes, once vibrant and blue, have now clouded.  His hearing, once so attuned to the sounds of Mozart, has now wired itself to one voice, that of Christ's.

When the devil tested Jesus in the desert, he tempted him with food, pride and power.  Jesus showed him and us that true power comes not from who is under your control or how many, but, on service.  One of the Pope's titles is servant of the servants of God.  For Benedict, his power lies not in lording it over the Church; rather, it comes in being its most loving servant.  Wisdom comes in knowing when to say when.

Peter wanted to flee Rome perhaps to save himself.  But, following Jesus' example, he returns to Rome to face the inevitable.  Benedict is not necessarily fleeing Rome.  Upon his retirement, he will actually live at the Vatican.  He is also not necessarily fleeing us because he will forever be united to us in prayer.  He will be praying with us and for us.  I do believe that Benedict had his "quo vadis" moment with Christ in prayer.  Perhaps the Lord told him that this loving German theologian could best serve him and the Church in prayer.  Perhaps the Lord asked him to offer up his sufferings and his infirmities for the good of his flock.  He can still feed the flock by praying for it.

"When you were young you went as you pleased, but, now that you are old, you someone else will fasten your belt and take you where you do not want to go."  Pope Benedict XVI, we do not want you to go, but, you go the way that Christ has laid out for you.  As you go, you will take me in your heart.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Bavarian Bear finds rest

It's not the kind of news one wants to wake up to on a dreary Monday morning.  I was in a fog when the San Antonio television newscast blurted out words that I never thought I would hear: "Breaking news:  Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation."

Forget the snooze button. The words that rolled off the anchor's lips took away whatever grogginess I was experiencing.  I stared at the television transfixed, in stony silence.  A wave of anger, sorrow and disbelief swept over me.  Betrayal even reared its ugly head.  As I got ready for work, I was still trying to process the news.

I love Pope Benedict XVI, loved him even before April 19, 2005.  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was my hero.  He was like an extended member of my family.  Through his books and writings I was able to grasp the faith and to deepen my love for Christ and the Mass.  How could he do this to me, to the Church?

I heard the words over and over again on my way to work.  But, it was not until I actually sat down to read the text that the German professor (with a lot of help from one of my dearest friends via Skype) was able to knock some sense into this thick Italian skull.  The spirit in Pope Benedict is certainly there.  His mind retains its sharpness and its agility.  But, the body cannot keep up.  The Holy Father had the humility to see that.  He had the grace to literally let go and let God.  As I re-read the text, I realized that perhaps Pope Benedict XVI was living out Christ's prophecy to St. Peter, "When you are older, they will fasten the belt around you and lead you where you do not want to go."  He had come to that point and freely made his decision to step aside in humility and in love for the Church.

Pope Benedict leaves behind a Church that is all the richer because she had him as her Supreme Pontiff.   He set the wheels in motion to restore sacredness to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  At his installation Mass, he told us that Peter must feed the sheep.  Feeding means loving and he opened up his Bavarian heart and found a space for all of us.  He fed us with eloquent homilies that reminded us of God's love for us and challenged us to return that love.  His pastoral heart desired unity and he opened the door for Anglican to return to the Faith and even invited them to bring the rich patrimony of their rites with them, infusing these liturgies with the Truth of the Church.  He remains the best gift that God could have given to His Church.

I am sorry I was selfish earlier today.  I wanted Pope Benedict XVI to stay with us for a long time.  I wanted him to keep guiding us along this vale of tears.  However, in my selfishness, I did not see that this is indeed a crushing load for him.  He once called himself God's pack animal, citing the example of the bear on his coat of arms that had to carry a load for a saint.  Now it is time for the mighty Bavarian bear to rest.   I have no doubt that Pope Benedict still carries all of us in his heart.  As long as I live, he will remain forever in mine, whether he is Benedict or Joseph Ratzinger.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

On Courage and the Culture of Communion

Blogger's Note:  An abbreviated version of my article ran in this morning's edition of the Laredo Morning Times.  Below, is the story that I wrote,  in its entirety.

HOUSTON, TX— On the night before his Crucifixion, Christ prayed that “all be one, one flock under one shepherd.”  While there have been divisions in the Body of Christ, there is a slow and steady movement towards fulfilling Christ’s plea for unity.

Although many individuals have found their way back to the Catholic Church, in recent years, there has been a movement of wholesale conversions from the Anglican Communion.  Many parishes, including their pastors, have petitioned Rome for full communion.  In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, through the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, formally paved the way for this reunification to occur.  The United Kingdom took the first step in 2011 with the establishment of the Ordinariate (similar in some ways to the more familiar diocese) of Our Lady of Walsingham.  On these shores, the Vatican formally erected the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, basing this new structure in Houston, Texas in 2012.  In establishing the American Ordinariate, the German Pontiff chose Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, a former Anglican bishop, now an ordained Catholic priest, to serve as its first leader, or, Ordinary.  

“This is the Pope’s personal project,” explained Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, during his address at St. Mary’s Seminary, in Houston on Saturday, February 2, 2013.  The Vatican’s chief doctrinal official was on hand to mark the American Ordinariate’s first anniversary at a symposium.  “It can be said that in creating this new structure, the Holy Father was responding to a movement of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Spirit that draws the disciples of the Lord together, fashioning them into the ecclesial Body of Christ.”

However, this has not always been an easy journey.  The German prelate recognized that the members of the Ordinariate made significant sacrifices to join Rome.  “I am well aware that many of you have experienced conflict and division in the years leading up to your decision to seek full communion with the Catholic Church,” he told the group of about 300 participants from all over the United States and Canada.  However, he noted the immense courage that they displayed in crossing the threshold into the Catholic Church.  “This is an exercise in great courage,” Müller said.  “It has meant leaving behind what is familiar and comfortable in order to put out into unknown and deep waters.  Actually, it takes a great deal of courage to be Catholic, and so I say to you, be courageous.”

The Vatican official noted that this first anniversary comes in the midst of the Catholic Church’s Year of Faith, which Pope Benedict XVI opened this past October.   He stressed that the Church must promote the “Culture of Communion”, imitating the communion of the Blessed Trinity. “True communion is rooted in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a communion in which the diversity of the Persons is constituted and sustained by their essential relations” he told the group.  This, he added, is in direct opposition to the secular world’s viewpoint of unity.  “The history of the world demonstrates again and again that human beings often go about trying to construct unity by enforcing uniformity.  Uniformity tends toward the elimination of those who do not conform or comply.”

The Church, in this Year of Faith, the archbishop noted, proposes something different. “We are called to discipleship and grafted onto the ecclesial Body of Christ through Baptism,” he explained.  “Our unity with one another as members of the one Body does not destroy our distinctiveness.  Our distinctiveness and interdependence is a blessing for the Church and a source of its vitality.”

While his words were primarily meant for Anglican converts, the Prefect added that they apply to Catholics as a whole.  For South Texas, where other denominations have made some inroads within Catholics, Müller urged the faithful to look to the courageous example and the zeal of the Anglican converts as an example.

“One becomes Catholic by conscience,” he said.  “We belong to Jesus Christ through Baptism and we must do all that is possible to come to a closer communion with him.  Yes, there are struggles, but, we must realize that in these struggles, we encounter Christ. Communion with Jesus Christ in the sacramental sense is important and the doctrinal identity with the Apostolic Church is fully realized in the Catholic Church. Courage is a gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., and the Holy See’s delegate for implementation of Anglicanorum Coetibus in the United States, added that along with courage, Catholics, in general, need to rediscover the Faith.   “The New Evangelization is about helping all of us renew our faith, intellectually and effectively,” he explained. “ It’s a matter of mind and heart.  We need that across the Church.  In addition to knowing the Faith, we need to be confident in its truth. We have to be willing to share it.”

Marcus Grodi, a Catholic convert familiar to many Laredoans who watch EWTN, further encouraged the faithful to re-examine their relationship with Christ.  “This is important so that the enthusiasm we have is authentic,” he explained. “We are not simply passing along something because we know it.  The way we will help other Catholics has to be based on our relationships with each other.  We need to re-establish our friendships.” 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Orienting ourselves during the Year of Faith...and beyond

We are now four months into the Year of Faith.  While many dioceses throughout the United States have launched several initiatives to mark this important occasion, I believe that perhaps the most integral part of this sacred and privileged time involves learning more about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

If we are to truly understand the meaning of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, we need to first examine the liturgy.  The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the "source and summit" of our life as the Church.  If we do not ground our activities in this sacred act, then whatever good we do loses its meaning and its orientation.

I have written much on the issue of liturgical orientation, mainly the posture that the celebrant takes when offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Others, more learned than myself, have written extensively on the matter.  Nonetheless, whether it comes from famed liturgical scholars or simple bloggers such as myself, the matter certainly bears repeating as there remains much misunderstanding and misconstruing whenever a priest chooses to celebrate Mass in this matter. 

Fr. Z, in his excellent blog, "What Does that Prayer Really Say", relates with filial joy (an expression that I wholeheartedly share) that the Bishop of the Diocese of Madison (Wisconsin), the Most Rev. Robert Morlino, is actively promoting the posture of ad orientem for priests celebrating the Mass in his territory.  Not only is the good bishop fostering this posture, he is taking it upon himself by leading by example.  Of course, the one who has shown us the ultimate example of celebrating Mass ad orientem is no less than the Holy Father, himself, Pope Benedict XVI, as seen in the above photograph.

If we are to understand the Mass and live the Sacred Mystery that we celebrate, it is certainly important that we have the proper orientation. When the celebrant and the faithful turn towards the Lord during the Mass, we renew the prayer of Ancient Israel that is so beautifully expressed in the Psalms, when David beseeches God to turn His face towards us.  As Pope Benedict XVI observed, Moses turned towards the Lord when making supplications on behalf of the Hebrews.  Through this posture, Moses was leading the people in prayer towards God.

Even though there are parts of the Mass wherein the Roman Missal and its General Instruction call for the celebrant to face the faithful, it is not assumed that he will take this posture throughout the entire Mass.  There are certainly words that are directed towards the gathered assembly; however, there are more orations that point directly to God.  In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, for example, the orientation of these prayers, from the Offertory through the recitation of the Pater Noster, are all directed towards the Father.  Only a few times does the Roman Missal mention that the celebrant faces the people.  He explicitly faces the faithful when he prays, "Orate fratres" and "Dominus Vobiscum", and then when he shows the Sacred Species after the consecration of each.  He then faces them once again when he invites the people to pray the "Pater Noster", imparts the Sign of Peace and then at the "Ecce Agnus Dei".

While some may argue that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a community prayer, there seems to be more of a focus on the horizontal than on the vertical dimension of our worship.  Remember, though, that the cross is made up of horizontal and vertical beams.  The vertical dimension is longer than the horizontal one. 

And so it is with our Faith.  Through Baptism, we are incorporated into Christ's Body, the Church.  We are invited into a communal relationship with one another as sons and daughters of the one God.  But, we are, first and foremost, in a relationship with Christ, Himself.  When we pray as a community, we do not focus on ourselves, but on the One who unites us.  Our prayer is directed towards Him.  Our spiritual compass should orient itself to Him.