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Monday, March 25, 2013

Sparing no expense

The social media seems to be teeming with images and comments comparing Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  Some of the comments question Benedict's humility in his use of beautiful vestments and the ornate papal throne.  Sadly, even one of the princes of the Church has taken to Twitter to register his disdain for Benedict's use of beauty.

Today's Gospel account taken from St. John reminds me of what has been unfolding before us these past 12 days.

“Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was about to betray him, said: Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein. Jesus therefore said: Let her alone, that she may keep it against the day of my burial. For the poor you have always with you; but me you have not always.” 
The first commandment is that we love God.  Loving God means giving to him our best, especially when we render to him worship that is befitting to His Divine Majesty.   When the Lord dictated to Moses just how He was to be worshipped, the Father gave very specific instructions and parameters, right down to the gold, silver, silk and cedar that was to be used. 

We tend to have the mistaken notion that Jesus pretty much set aside all of the beauty of the Temple and the sacred rituals of Ancient Israel.  However, such a notion appears to be ignorant of Sacred Scripture.  All of Ancient Israel's sacrificial cultic practices in worship of the Lord find their fulfillment in Jesus.  God used the beauty of the Temple, the grandeur of the priestly vestments and the precious materials to elevate the heart.

Jesus understood the deeper significance of what Mary of Bethany had done when she anointed His feet with the expensive oil and them dried them with her hair.  She spared no expense in demonstrating her deep love for Jesus.  He had restored her beloved brother Lazarus and had shown her the depths of His boundless mercy.  She wanted to give Jesus her best. When we love someone, we spare no expense.

What then, are we to make of the approach that the man who served as the Vicar of Christ on Earth had taken during liturgy and during his particular exercise of the Petrine ministry? St. Augustine of Hippo noted that beauty wounds the heart wonderfully.  There is something about beauty that pierces the soul and fills us with such wonder.  Sublime beauty attracts us and elevates our hearts and minds to the beloved.  It attracts us with such a gravitational pull that we cannot resist.

Such beauty also compels us to want to give that beauty back in return to the beloved. In his short story, "The Gift of the Magi" O' Henry captures this notion rather exquisitely.  The young husband sells his most precious possession so that his beautiful wife can have a precious comb while the bride sells her hair so that her beloved can have a gift that expresses the profoundness of her love.  Each parts with that which is most valuable out of love for the other.   Mary parted with a considerable sum of money for the spikenard, not counting the cost nor worrying about the expense.  For her, the sacrifice was made out of love and even at that, she did not believe it enough to give to Jesus.

Judas, on the other hand, bullies his way onto the scene.  "Why this waste," he brazenly asks, "when this money could have been given to the poor?"  His Eminence Roger Cardinal Mahony seems to make that same remark in his repeated condescending tweets about Benedict.  Sadly, even my fellow Catholics echo that same sentiment when they try to pit Benedict against Pope Francis.  They just do not get it.

Jesus tells Judas and he tells us, "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not have me." We cannot love the poor if we do not first love Christ.  If the arrow of beauty does not pierce us and lead us to love of God, how then can we love the poor?

The vesture that Benedict used for the Mass, the gold finery of the candlesticks, the jewel encrusted chalices and ciborria, the gilded Book of the Gospels, the ornate Papal throne, the red shoes and the magnificent pastoral staff point to the dignity and solemnity of the liturgy being celebrated.  As the Universal Pastor, the Holy Father offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to God, making supplication for us, his flock.  When the high priest of the Old Covenant offered the sacrifice to God on behalf of the faithful, he wore ornate vestments because he was offering worship to the Lord.  In fact, every detail of the vesture was dictated to Moses by God, Himself.  If God demanded the best when He was worshipped during the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, should we not do the same for Him in the New Covenant?

Mother Theresa certainly recognized that.  She was cruelly criticized for spending the proceeds of her Nobel Peace Prize on a golden tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament instead of tending to the poor.  She believed that the Lord deserved the best, for her missionary work was deeply rooted in loving Christ first.

To wear the sacred, beautiful vestments for Mass is not a sign of arrogance nor is it a repudiation of humility.  To wear the gold, the silver, the silk and the lace shows that we recognize that we are in the presence of a King, a Crucified King who did not spare any expense in His love for us.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Joseph remains with us

Today, the Universal Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Foster-Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  This just and holy Patriarch is also the Patron Saint of the Universal Church.

We know very little about St. Joseph, but, what we do know is highly significant.  We know that he is of the House of David, Israel's beloved king from whose lineage would come the Messiah.  He is compared to our first patriarch, Abraham, who was constantly ready to serve God no matter where that journey would take him.

When looking through images of the beloved saint, I came upon this beautiful depiction.  We tend to assume that St. Joseph was an elderly man, but, this particular image depicts him as young and strong. St. Joseph, like perhaps most of the young men in Nazareth, probably had plans about his future.  He met and fell in love with a wonderful young woman and he was set on building a home for her and their future family.

Yet, God had other plans.  While Joseph was building a house for his beloved betrothed, Mary, unbeknownst to him, received a visit from the Archangel Gabriel who told her that she would conceive and bear the Son of God. Mary gave her consent, setting the wheels in motion for our redemption.  Joseph learned that Mary was with child, and being a righteous man, he chose not to expose her publicly to the Law of Moses.

St. Paul calls Abraham a just man.  In Genesis, God credits Abraham's act of faith as righteousness.  St. Matthew, in his Gospel account, uses these same adjectives to describe St. Joseph.  This young carpenter loved Mary with his whole being.  He knew in his heart that she could not be unfaithful to him; yet, there was something mysterious about the circumstances.  Perhaps he perceived that Mary's condition might have been supernatural and he did not consider himself worthy of such a profound mystery.  That night, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to St. Joseph and told him not to fear taking Mary as his wife for the child she has conceived is of the Holy Spirit.

God asked Joseph to set aside his dreams and his carefully laid plans.  He led him on a different path, a path that was not even on his radar screen.  Yet, of his own free will, Joseph accepted and trusted, not once, but many times.  Shortly after the Christ child was born, the Lord led Joseph to take Mary and the Child Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath.  Once the vile king was dead, the Lord told Joseph to take the Holy Family back home.  Some 12 years later, even when he and Mary thought that they had lost the Child Jesus, they persevered for three days until they finally found Him in Jerusalem, in the Temple.  What was even more remarkable was that Jesus willingly submitted himself to the authority of two human beings.  Just as Joseph was obedient to God, Jesus was obedient to him and his mother, Mary. He had confidence that this humble carpenter was going to protect the family.  What Adam failed to do in the Garden of Eden when he left Eve unprotected, Joseph was now doing in caring for the Holy Family.  St. Joseph never uttered a word in Sacred Scripture, yet, his actions, his willingness to surrender his plans and follow the will of God unreservedly, speak volumes.  Even though he was hidden and silent, his strong presence reverberated in Nazareth and now in the Church.

But, the beloved Patriarch from Nazareth is not the only Joseph who continues to watch over the Church.

Today is the feast day of another Joseph, one who has tenderly watched over the Church for nearly 33 years, 25 as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and nearly eight years as Pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, Supreme Pontiff Emeritus.

Like his namesake, Joseph Ratzinger had his own carefully made plans.  His intent was to serve as a priest and as a professor of Dogmatic Theology.  But, God had other plans, plans that would lead him in a direction he never thought he would take.  When the Metropolitan See of Munich-Freising was vacant, the late Pope Paul VI named Ratzinger its Archbishop.  Ratzinger did not want to take the post as he considered himself ill-equipped for the position.  But, out of obedience, he submitted to the will of God.  Roughly four years later, God would manifest Himself again to the now Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger when Blessed John Paul II asked him to become Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Ratzinger had previously declined the Polish Pope's request that he serve as Prefect of another Congregation.  This time, he could not refuse Peter again.

He stayed by John Paul's side for nearly a quarter of a century.  He wanted to retire, but, John Paul would have none of that and threw Ratzinger's retirement letter away. When the beloved pontiff died on  April 2, 2005, Ratzinger presided over his friend's funeral six days later.  He thought that after the conclave he would return to Regensberg to live with his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger.  But, God had another plan.  He charged Ratzinger with the same charge he made to St. Peter so long ago on Lake Genesaret:  "Feed my sheep.  Tend my lambs."  Like the beloved Patriarch of Nazareth, who was asked by God to abandon his plans, Joseph Ratzinger set aside his dreams of a quiet life and took on the role of shepherding the flock of the Universal Church as Pope Benedict XVI.

With profound wisdom and immense humility, Pope Benedict XVI led the Church for nearly eight years. He nourished us with his teaching.  He guided us with the deepest of love. He confirmed us in the faith.

And now, God has called Benedict to devote himself to a life of prayer and reflection.  But, as the Supreme Pontiff Emeritus explained, he has not abandoned us.  Like St. Joseph, Benedict continues to watch over the Church, praying for her and with her.  While he remains hidden from us, just as St. Joseph was hidden through the Gospels, he remains close to us, just as his namesake remains close to Christ.  Benedict remains with us through a bond that can never be broken, that of love.

Just as Benedict is praying for us, so, we, too, should pray for him.  We should never cease thanking God for this wonderfully humble soul who only seeks to do the will of the Father and who teaches us that true Power lies not in holding on to authority, but, in giving that authority back to God.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The continuity of authentic reform

This scribe remains somewhat shell-shocked over Wednesday's grand announcement.  Although the white smoke has cleared, clouds of questions remain.  What are we to make of our new Holy Father, Francis, and how are we to interpret his reasonings behind selecting this completely new name?

The first Pontiff to choose a new name in several hundred  years was Cardinal Albino Luciano when he was elected to the Chair of St. Peter back in 1978.  He chose the double name of John Paul (a surprising novelty) because he saw his mission as a continuation of what now-Blessed John XXIII and Pope Paul VI tried to do.  Unfortunately, some 33 days into his reign, Pope John Paul died.  The mantle then fell to a young and athletic Polish cardinal, Karol Wojtyla, who, although not choosing a new name, decided that he would be called John Paul II to carry on the unfulfilled work of his predecessor.

But, what of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?  Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, the Vatican spokesman, confirmed what many of us had speculated:  our new Holy Father chose to name himself after the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, the great reformer of the Middle Ages. 

Many of us know the famous vision that St. Francis had wherein Our Lord charged him to rebuild His Church.  The saintly deacon thought that Christ meant that he needed to rebuild the church in Assisi that had fallen into disrepair.  The Lord had a deeper meaning, as St. Francis would soon find out.

Now several centuries removed, Pope Francis believes that this is his calling.  However, while there are definitely problems with the way that the Curia has operated, this does not mean that the rest of the Church has fallen into despair and disrepair.  To make that accusation, as the secular media has done, is to ignore the nearly eight-year reign of His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus.

Benedict was not perfect; none of us is.  Benedict also inherited many problems left behind by Blessed Pope John Paul II, namely the way the Curia operates.  Benedict tried to make solid appointments:  Raymond Cardinal Burke to head the Apostolic Signatura; Antonio Cardinal Canizares Lloera to be in charge of the Congregation for Divine Worship; Marc Cardinal Ouellet, to preside over the Congregation for Bishops; and Archbishop Gerhard Mueller to lead Benedict's former post, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But, it is in the area of the sacred liturgy where Benedict made, perhaps, his greatest mark.

With the assistance of the very learned, yet very humble, Msgr. Guido Marini, Benedict re-infused the sacred back into the liturgy, an element that had been missing for quite some time.  He ensured that the propers, the official texts of the Church, be chanted and that the Mass have its proper orientation.  He stressed that the focus during the Mass needs to be on Christ, hence the use of the Ad Orientem posture during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

There has been a lot of opining on the internet, especially on Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere about the liturgical particularities of Benedict's successor.  The internet has certainly been fodder for pictures of Pope Francis washing a woman's feet during the Holy Thursday Mandatum and video footage of some of the Masses that he celebrated in Buenos Aires.  Not a few people, myself included, have expressed concerns.  Conversely, many other bloggers have sought to downplay these concerns.  One person in particular, Roger Cardinal Mahony, has been very spiteful in his commentary about Benedict's liturgical practices, almost as if to drive a wedge between the Pope Emeritus and the new Holy Father.

I accept Pope Francis because, as a practicing Catholic, I am bound to by obedience.  However, disagreeing with him on Ars Celebrandi is not the equivalent of disobedience.  The changes he has made are subtle departures from the Ars Celebrandi of his predecessor, including using the portable altar at the Sistine Chapel instead of the permanent one that is affixed to the wall and the lessening of the formality.  It is as though we are making a paradigm shift from the sublime beauty and dignity of Msgr. Guido Marini towards the informal watered down style of Archbishop Pietro Marini. Although I may not agree with Peter, I cannot separate myself from him.

That Pope Francis is personally humble and a gifted preacher is certainly wonderful and quite a positive  thing.  Humility is a gift to which all of us should aspire to attain.  However, it would be a total misreading of St. Francis' reform if we were to take humility to the extreme and strip the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass of its beauty, grandeur and sublime majesty.  The holy deacon once said that "Lady Poverty should never enter the sanctuary." St. Francis' words are not new.  If we were to read through the Old Testament, the Lord was very adamant about how the liturgical rites of Ancient Israel were to be conducted. Nothing but the finest materials, gold, silver, and cedar were to be employed for the service of the Lord.  The vestments of the priests of Ancient Israel were to be of the finest materials.

Benedict certainly understood that.  The vesture that he chose to use during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the copes for the solemn celebration of Vespers and the attire he wore for his Urbi et Orbi addresses were not about him; it was about the office of Vicar of Christ.  As someone on Twitter wrote, "Christ did not negate the gift of the precious oil from the woman who anointed his head and feet."  Furthermore, when Judas rebuked Jesus for allowing this waste when the money could have been used for the poor, Christ turned to him and said, "The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have me."

With regard to the poor, there are some dimensions of poverty that, perhaps, Pope Francis has not considered.  Much has been made about material poverty; however, a person can be poor on so many levels.  When one of the cardinals told the newly elected Holy Father not to forget the poor, it should not be automatically assumed that this refers to the materially poor.  A priest friend of mine reminded me that one can be spiritually poor,  morally poor, emotionally poor, physically (health) poor and psychologically poor.  Robbing the Church of her rich liturgical treasures in the name of poverty, in the name of solidarity with the poor, actually does more harm than good.  The rich treasures of the Church are employed not for material pomp, as Cardinal Mahony would have us believe; rather, these wonderful riches are employed for the divine worship of God.

My prayer is that Pope Francis will open himself to the wonderful example set forth by his much beloved predecessor, Benedict XVI.  I pray that his heart may be wonderfully pierced and wounded by the arrow of beauty and that he will allow himself to be guided by Christ so that he can feed and tend the sheep and lambs entrusted to him.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Electing a New Shepherd: Seeing as God Sees

While most of the Church will read and reflect over the Cycle C Readings during this Fourth Sunday of Lent, those who are marking the Second Scrutinies of the Elect will ponder the readings for Cycle A.  For me, the first reading from Cycle A, which comes from the First Book of Samuel, takes on a deeper significance, as 115 Cardinal Electors prepare to enter the Conclave which will elect a successor to our beloved Benedict XVI.

In this particular reading, we encounter the prophet Samuel whom God commands to travel to Bethlehem to go and anoint a new King of Israel from among the sons of man named Jesse.

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided myself a king from among his sons.’
“Samuel consecrated Jesse and his sons, and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely, the Lord’s anointed is before him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
“And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel.  And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these. Are all of your sons here?’ Jesse said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.’ Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and fetch him; for we will not sit down till he comes here.’
“And he sent, and brought David in to see him.  Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.  And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.’
“Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
Ever since the Supreme Pontiff Emeritus, Benedict XVI, announced his resignation, the media, Catholic and secular alike, have speculated as to who his successor would be. The usual list of Papabile showed up in practically every media outlet.  The list rivals that of the 64 collegiate basketball teams competing for March Madness’ Final Four.  CNN, ABC, FOX, BBC, CBS and NBC and even the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM, raised questions concerning where the future pope could be from or whether or not he would be reform minded. Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with everyone issuing a wish list of the qualities they want in the new pope. 

I have to admit that I have fallen prey to this mindset  I suppose that I want a younger Joseph Ratzinger: a devoted promoter of authentic liturgical reform, superb theologian, a gifted preacher and teacher and a lover of souls.

Yet, at this particular moment, the Church presents us with the account of David’s anointing.  She reminds us that “man does not see as the Lord sees.”  We look at whether or not the man who would be Pope is media savvy, has charisma, is able to be a populist and can modernize the Church.  I cannot presume to speak for God; none of us should dare try.  However, maybe He is looking for something beyond what we see.  While being a part of the world is certainly important, the Church needs someone who will be able to help fit us for the next world, the heavenly Jerusalem.

God chooses the most surprising instruments to bring about his greatest accomplishments.  Jesse certainly did not expect that the boy tending sheep would wind up leading a kingdom.  Samuel probably did not see that one coming. David was probably just as surprised.  But, God had a plan.

In the same way, no one probably saw a shy, elderly man wearing a white alb step out onto the  loggia of St. Peter’s as the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI. But, just as He had a plan for a very young shepherd named David, God, had a plan for Joseph Ratzinger.

In about 40 hours or so, the Cardinal Electors will process into the Sistine Chapel to perform the most sacred duty of electing a new Pope.  They will do so under the intimidating gaze of Michelangelo’s panorama of salvation history.  My prayer is that each Cardinal see as God sees and not as the media or the secular world sees.  The Pope Emeritus told the Cardinals that the new Pope was already in their midst.  Just as God pointed out the new King of Israel to Samuel, so will He point the new Supreme Pontiff to the men who will elect him.