Sunday, May 18, 2008

Up Close and Personal


Entrance Antiphon
“Benedictus sit Deus Pater, unigenitusque Dei Filius, Sanctus quoque Spiritus, quia fecit nobiscum misericordiam suam.”

You sent your Word to bring us truth
and your Spirit to make us holy.
Through them we come to know the mystery of your life.
Help us to worship you, one God in three Persons,
by proclaiming and living our faith in you.
We ask you this, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
one God, true and living, for ever and ever.”

As a young priest, I can remember sweating the homily preparation for Trinity Sunday. I can also remember listening to more than one young priest and deacon stumbling through a homily on this day, which obviously either had him frightened or embarrassed. For the longest time I always thought that this discomfort on the part of young preachers had something to do with the fact that on this Sunday above all others we owed our listeners an accessible homily on this great mystery of our faith. We owed them a homily which had a genuine theological content. It was like all those notes and classes in the seminary which had only been maybe half or half-heartedly studied had come home to haunt us once a year.

While I have no doubt that this day and our people deserve genuine theological content, I am beginning to wonder if that was the reason for our embarrassment. Although getting across the truth of the Oneness in Three to the person in the pew is a real challenge, I have become more convinced now in my later years that once the first task is accomplished it is the second which causes the preacher to fear and to tremble. Once the notion has been imparted, it would seem that the preacher is obliged to make the Trinity come alive and set his listeners on the great journey hand in hand with the living and true God.

Recently, in a social setting and in conversation with a group of people (in other words, I’m not giving away any secrets) the topic of vocation came up and one of the ladies expressed what she understood by the words “God calls me” or even apart from vocation she explained to all in the group how she understands divine intervention. In a very real sense, it was an account of how she understands the teaching on the immanence of a God Who is transcendent. I could see that this good Catholic woman seems to have no appreciation for God as a Person having a personal interest in me, first, middle and last name. My point today is that I am sure she is not alone in having worked things out this way. Two ideas or notions seemed to dominate hers and many others (perhaps even some priests’) notion of God’s involvement in our world: a) He has an eye for detail; b) vocation is my choice to go with His flow, so to speak. Asking a question or two, allowing another person in the group that evening to lay out a vision similar to mine about a personal God being interested in a personal me from all eternity found no resonance with her at all. God was definitely other for her. The great dogma of the Trinity was certainly confessed in the words of the Creed by this woman, but “person” for her was person period. That cannot be: if person is person at all, it is relational; it is Person to person, it is first God to me and then me to God (and obviously Person to Person within the Godhead itself from all eternity), as it must be.

It’s not the academics of Trinity Sunday which should make the preacher sweat, but the challenge for once in the year beyond Christmas and Easter to do more than offer a moral message. St. Patrick’s shamrock as a visual aid for explaining Three in One is the catechetical first-step to sharing with folk the witness of prayer and closeness to God, where it was God Who sustained St. Patrick as a boy-captive forced to watch sheep on the hillsides of Ireland. The challenge of Trinity Sunday is to pull back the veil and let people see the face of God.

This year’s readings for the Solemnity bring this home in a most articulate way. In the First Reading from Exodus, God passes before Moses on Mount Sinai and Moses bows down to the ground at once and worships God. He says: “If I have indeed won your favor, Lord, let my Lord come with us, I beg.”

In Second Corinthians, St. Paul blesses his readers with a Trinitarian blessing, addressing them singly and as a communion of saints, wishing twice that God would be with them and of course with us. God is an identifiable God, first the God of love and peace, and then he continues naming the three Persons individually: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

And above all: John’s Gospel Chapter 3 verse 16, Jesus speaking to Nicodemus struggling to understand and saying: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.”

We are not plugging into or going along with a cosmic flow, we take the hand which is extended, we respond to a named Person Who calls us by our very own name.

I remember one of those funny words which professors were always using and using it, if I remember correctly, as if it were something negative and maybe even dangerous: “reify” or “reifying”. Websters doesn’t seem to have gotten that impression. The dictionary defines reify simply as: “to treat (an abstraction) as substantially existing, or as a concrete material object.” Maybe that is the problem and the challenge of Trinity Sunday. Perhaps for too many of us good Catholics God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has been an abstraction, which we reduce to something concrete?

Maybe none of this is fair and there are really more profound theologians out there in the pew than there are in the pulpit? In any case, I encountered someone for whom the words “flow” or “source of energy” concretize a notion of person which is not person at all. For just one person, it would be worth the effort to sweat a bit of a Trinity Sunday and try to move beyond abstraction to encounter God as Person reaching out to me as person in more ways than I can count in a well crafted homily.

You sent your Word to bring us truth
and your Spirit to make us holy.
Through them we come to know the mystery of your life.
Help us to worship you, one God in three Persons,
by proclaiming and living our faith in you.
We ask you this, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
one God, true and living, for ever and ever.”

Yes, Jesus loves me; God loves me, that person with a first, middle and last name. He loved me before I was even named. He called me into being, He calls me to know, love and serve Him in this life, so as to be happy with Him forever in Heaven. Person to person!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Speak, Lord, Your Servant is Listening

Holy Mass for the Closing of the Academic Year
at the Regional Seminary of
St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs

15 May 2008, 6:30 p.m.

Solemnity of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs
Reading I: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2.9-14
Reading II: 2 Cor. 4:7-15
Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

The poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted in the cause of right… and all of this because of me, Jesus says, rejoice and be glad for heaven!

Among my all-time favorites from the Second Readings in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of Hours are two in the course of the year from Pope Paul VI, of blessed memory: one, assigned to the Feast of the Holy Family, comes from his talk in Nazareth about all the lessons to be learned from the school of the house of Jesus, Mary and Joseph at Nazareth; the other is from his 1964 homily at the canonization of the martyrs of Uganda.

Part of what thrills me about this excerpt from the Pope’s canonization homily is precisely the fact, that I (the Nuncio), a non-European, am hearing a great European sing the praises of another part of the world other than Europe. I am sure that Europeans are not and cannot be touched by the Pope’s message for the Feast of the Uganda Martyrs in the same way as I or most of us can. Let me quote the text ever so briefly:

“Who could have predicted to the famous African confessors and martyrs such as Cyprian, Felicity, Perpetua and – the greatest of all – Augustine, that we would one day add names so dear to us as Charles Lwanga and Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and their twenty companions?”

They were young men for the most part, whom the Church gladly identifies with the seven sons and their mother from the Book of Maccabees, and who in Christian art are often portrayed as the Black counterparts of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three young men singing unharmed in the fiery furnace of Babylon. The reading from Pope Paul VI continues:

The infamous crime by which these young men were put to death was so unspeakable and so expressive of the times. It shows us clearly that a new people needs a moral foundation, needs new spiritual customs firmly planted, to be handed down to posterity. Symbolically, this crime also reveals that a simple and rough way of life – enriched by many fine human qualities yet enslaved by its own weakness and corruption – must give way to a more civilized life wherein the higher expressions of the mind and better social conditions prevail.”

Hold that thought and let me switch gears for just a moment!

It is a commonly held opinion that today’s students, especially theology students, and major seminarians par excellence, are much more serious about learning than we were years ago. I’ve also read that your typical vocation to the priesthood today is more serious than we were once upon a time. I am glad for you, but also a bit puzzled and will try and explain myself by reflecting for a moment on your great patrons, the Uganda Martyrs.

The heroism of the young men in the Book of Maccabees, brutally tortured and killed for their refusal to eat pork from a pagan sacrifice in violation of God’s Covenant and Law given to Moses and the Chosen People always causes me to shudder, but I have no real problem understanding or accepting their zeal. They give evidence of the typical psychology or should we say appreciation of noble values as understood and embraced by boys, youths and young men of any day and time. Faith in the God of their ancestors was certainly the cornerstone of their sacrifice, but they were martyred essentially because of their adherence to the Commandments and dietary laws of Judaism which were concrete and judged worth holding. This they had learned at their mother’s knee. It is true the Book of Maccabees here and elsewhere offers us among the most articulate Jewish expressions of faith in a future resurrection, but central to these young men’s oblation was their adherence to the law of the God of their fathers.

The Uganda Martyrs, as the Pope points out so clearly, are of a piece with the great North African Martyrs and Saints of the early centuries, whose sacrifice is not described first and foremost by a strict adherence on their part to the observance of the Law but rather by their faith in Christ, to whom they had bound themselves firmly, bound themselves in love and fidelity, bound themselves to Jesus, to the Risen One, to the Victor over sin and death. They, the Uganda Martyrs like centuries of Christian martyrs before them, had embraced what the seven brothers and their mother could only salute from afar.

Recently in Curacao I had a conversation with a man I’d judge to be in his forties, who expressed optimism concerning the attractiveness of priesthood today as a vocational choice for young men here in our region. Even though he seemed to me to be a regular “man in the pew” my guess is that he had also heard as I had about this new generation of conscientious students and hardworking or more-dedicated-than-my-generation seminarians. I’m afraid I may have burst his optimism bubble, by insisting on the old faith imparted to me in primary school by Sister and by Father from the pulpit back when I was just a little boy in the 1950’s.

You see, I am a staunch believer in a timeless understanding of vocation, amply sustained by the descriptions of how men received their calling from God in both the Old and New Testaments. You’ll never convince me that the three basic prerequisites in a boy or young man for a priestly vocation have changed. What are they? They are very simply: 1. sound mind; 2. sound body; 3. somewhat better than average intelligence. Everything else that goes into a vocation is supernatural and mediated by the Church through the voice of authority. God called me to priesthood from my mother’s womb; He gave me the grace to respond; the Church confirmed the rightness of my childish, at first, later youthful and idealistic, longing. The Church trained me and ordained me and has never ceased in love to knock off all my rough edges and purify me, first and foremost for the service of the Altar.

The vocation or call to martyrdom in the act itself is as horrifying as Christ’s Passion. In the Light of Easter Sunday the sense of it all comes clear in God’s plan to raise us up, to save us and our world. Whether hung, drawn and quartered, flayed alive, stripped and locked away in a cold old starvation bunker in a concentration camp in Central Europe, impaled or burned facing the furious rejection of a blood relative who may be a temporal ruler but does not share our hope in Christ, we are talking in the martyr, male or female, child, youth or adult, we are talking in that person about the ultimate unto life’s blood witness of radical respect for the human person. We are talking about a new dignity and worth attributed to the human person through baptism into Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, Who in Himself has raised us to even greater nobility than that we had at the moment of the creation of our first parent. The New Testament or Christian martyr’s witness flows from a true love of God and neighbor. Death is swallowed up in death as we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (to quote one of the most approved authors).

I hope and pray you all had a great academic year. Some people claim that studies are the ultimate bloodless martyrdom. Pope Paul VI would tell you that the Uganda Martyrs did not choose the path of confrontation but, when pressed to the wall and demanded to choose, chose Jesus. As little more than neophytes, barely graduated from the catechumenate, they were called by Christ. He made their hearts (boyish hearts, youngish or youthful hearts) his own. They knew the Commandments but more essentially they knew their Redeemer; they knew He would raise them up to life and never abandon them; they knew that whole, entire, glorified in the flesh they would with their own eyes see God.

“Symbolically, this crime also reveals that a simple and rough way of life – enriched by many fine human qualities yet enslaved by its own weakness and corruption – must give way to a more civilized life wherein the higher expressions of the mind and better social conditions prevail.”

As I say, I hope you all had a great academic year, that your studies have helped to equip you for “…a more civilized life wherein the higher expressions of the mind and better social conditions prevail.” I am convinced that the Hellenizers who tortured and killed the seven sons and their mother in Maccabees were indeed as enslaved to their own weakness and corruption as Uganda’s degenerate king. The young men of the Old Testament outstripped their torturers in their hope and adherence to principle. St. Charles Lwanga and his companions had the further advantage through their catechism lessons and youthful life of faith of having come to know, love and serve Christ.

The self-oblation of the young men from Uganda must be one of the best possible examples of the glories of the true faith without admixture or ambiguity. I would never wish martyrdom on myself or on any of you, but I am willing to predict that if your faith-life is as straightforward and centered in the person of Jesus Christ as that of any one of those twenty-two boys, youths or young men, we’ll soon be resorting to phrases like “a new Pentecost” to describe the renaissance of Catholic life spreading across the Caribbean like wildfire.

What is ultimately attractive and inspiring? What causes the Gospel to be spread? The life of virtue and adherence to the Person of Christ most certainly! These are gifts of grace, things we learn, things we are trained in. We can identify such traits in ourselves and in others; we can come to live them better and better each day. Our Gospel summary for this Feast again: The poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted in the cause of right… and all of this because of me, Jesus says, rejoice and be glad for heaven!

I don’t know how much the bishops share with you about their anxious prayers and efforts for the sake of the life of the Regional Seminary of St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs. We can only speculate concerning what the present and ongoing crisis of the seminary is all about. Part of the problem and perhaps the reason crowds of young men are not knocking down the doors and begging to serve may be that young people have been deprived of the encounter with the Lord Jesus which Charles Lwanga and his companions were blessed to have had at the dawn of the evangelization of Sub-Saharan Africa. No, that is not possible! I don’t believe it! Rather, I would say that maybe there haven’t been enough Eli’s out there to tell the little boys named Samuel, sleeping in the Lord’s House at Shiloh, to simply lift up their heads and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”

The marvelous human traits of the Uganda Martyrs are present also in the youth of this region. God’s call of shepherds in sufficient number to tend the flock is guaranteed. We need more parents like Samuel’s mother who gave her son back to God no sooner than he was weaned and we need more Eli’s to say, “Boy, God is calling. Respond as you should!”

The nuncio prays for you and hopes at the close of this academic year that you’ll have a wonderful vacation or next stage in your life. Life only gets better when you allow the Lord, Who loves you more than yourself, to plot your course.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Life in Hope

Pentecost Sunday
11 May 2008

“Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:11-13, RSV-CE)

PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI… I heard a very fine Pentecost homily at the annual jubilee Mass of the local province of the Holy Ghost Fathers. The homilist also alluded to the above quoted text from the Second Letter of Peter, touching me in a very particular way, because this is the Scripture quote which stands behind and explains my Episcopal motto. Father’s allusion was drawn from a reflection he offered to the festive assembly on the nature of hope from the Holy Father’s Encyclical Letter Spe salvi.

WAITING FOR AND HASTENING THE COMING OF THE DAY OF GOD … Going beyond striving to live a holy and godly life and thereby contributing to shortening the time of God’s forbearance, lest “any should perish” and “all should reach repentance”, was certainly something that caught my attention when I picked my motto from this passage. I looked at it first and foremost from the point of view of cooperating with God’s grace. Father’s Pentecost homily this year hit me at an opportune moment and helped me to tighten and thereby light another bulb on that Christmas tree of my understanding of these words from Holy Scripture. He helped me better illuminate for my own understanding the aspect of hope involved in St. Peter’s call for zeal.

If you think about it, trying to hasten the day when “the elements will melt with fire” as an effort tied to genuine hope is a notion which needs some head work. Hoping for the establishment of God’s rule is not an instinctive yearning, like longing to be free from unjust constraints and respected by one’s peers. Eagerly awaiting new heavens and a new earth from God is an intelligent choice subsequent to our encounter with the Truth, with the Light and Life of the world. Godless men and women of good will and even non-Christians sadly content themselves with much less. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the difference which Jesus Christ makes. We need only reflect for a moment about the back and forth we find in the Gospels between Jesus and His adversaries, and even between Jesus and His disciples or would-be disciples. Not everyone expected as revealed in the Person of Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ Who was to come into our world! The history of Creeds and Councils helps us understand something of the struggle to preserve the fullness of that faith over the centuries.

PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI… Is it really more than a longing for the establishment of righteousness? Most certainly! The violent wind which was heard to blow in the Upper Room on that first Pentecost, those tongues of fire which settled upon the disciples gathered there with Mary, the Mother of God, in prayer, were certainly for them and for all who witnessed that event the foretaste and promise of the world to come. On that day, everything melted away in fire and hope’s object in faith may not have been seen but was certainly witnessed from afar. This was not only the birthday of the Church, but in a very real sense the Church’s Transfiguration, meant to strengthen the baptized for the scandal of the share in the Cross which would be ours, to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.

Freedom’s nature and dignity certainly does not allow us to victoriously establish God’s reign by imposing it on the lives of others. As transformed through our share in the prayer and suffering of Christ and His Church, we stand eagerly on the threshold of Judgment and Eternal Life. It is enough. Holiness and godliness will draw others to the Day as nothing else can. The light on the lamp stand, the city on the mountain top cannot be hidden.

Sometimes we hesitate, terrified or at least stymied by the darkness which seems to have devoured us and to have claimed the victory. The Lord Jesus’ temptations in the desert are not always withstood so valiantly by us, His followers, as we falter in hope, while awaiting that Dawn from on High.

Pentecost: caught up into the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity through the grace of that whirlwind Who is the Holy Spirit, we live in hope of God’s Day. It is more than enough.