Sunday, January 31, 2010

Christus Vincit

The Presentation of the Lord
2 February 2010, Our Lady of the Assumption Abbey
Coubaril, St. Lucia, West Indies

            “And the Lord you are seeking will suddenly enter his Temple; and the angel of the covenant whom you are longing for, yes, he is coming says the Lord of hosts… and then they will make the offering to the Lord as it should be made.” (Malachi)
            “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke)
            They’re talking about beatifying Pope John Paul II at the opening of the Synod for the Middle East next October in Rome. It’s hard to believe how quickly time passes. I can remember when he established today’s feast as the World Day for the Consecrated Life (1997). For the younger people here today, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II is already history and the announcement of this day for religious is little more, perhaps, than an event in the now distant past. We’re getting older!
The longer I live the easier it is for me to understand how much for good can be concentrated in the life of one person whether it be the Pope, a bishop or a priest, whether it be a man or woman who consecrates his or her whole life, breadth, length, height and depth, to God. The Second Vatican Council did so much good toward empowering the laity that sometimes we forget that it also reviewed and offered criteria for renewing the consecrated life, empowering religious to shine forth with a clearer witness to total gift of self to the Lord and the importance of this joyful and rewarding sacrifice for the life of the world.
The Servant of God Pope John Paul II gave several reasons for establishing this day for consecrated life. He mentioned the need to praise and thank the Lord for what he called “the stupendous gift” of consecrated life; he spoke of the importance of promoting among all God’s People awareness and esteem for this gift of God to His Church; he underlined the urgency of the task of helping consecrated people, especially today, to deepen their own awareness of the beauty of their vocation and of the irreplaceable mission entrusted to them for the sake of the Church and the world. Yes, sister, yes, brother, I said it and I meant it, your irreplaceable mission for the life of the world.
            Why did the Holy Father choose the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple for this task? Because there is no better icon, no better sacred image to describe you, the consecrated, than that of the Son wholly given and wholly directed, once and for all, to the Father. The Presentation in the Temple, Simeon’s joy, best renders your sacrifice to God through the profession of the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, that is, your embrace of and struggle to live out that which is most characteristic of Jesus, Who ultimately upon the Cross placed His Life in the Hands of His Father.
            So come on and do your thing, World day of the Consecrated Life! Let this year’s observance have an effect and come closer to fulfilling the intention of Pope John Paul II!
We need to praise and thank the Lord even more and from a clearer conviction for “the stupendous gift” of the consecrated life. Recently, I read a publication from the Pontifical Council for the Laity trying to explain all the new lay movements since the Second Vatican Council which are to be found in the Church. The point was to say how important these various and different approaches entrusted to the laity out there in society are to evangelizing a disjointed world. Interestingly enough, however as I was able to gather from this publication of the Pontifical Council, these lay movements are not to be considered so much as an end in themselves but as that good ground for spreading the Gospel, for making better Catholics straight across the board and also for bringing forth in the Church priestly vocations and vocations to the religious life.
            The icon of the Presentation in the Temple, Mary and Joseph presenting the First Born Son of the Eternal Father and redeeming Him with the symbolic gift of two turtledoves, just like the image of the mother of the Old Testament prophet Samuel taking her son just barely weaned and walking to the temple in Shilo, returning God’s gift to her of a son to the Lord and forever, demand a reflection, a meditation on our part. We need to bring the consecrated life as it is lived out in the Church today into the same visual frame with this icon. Excuse my boldness, but for that very reason, we need to bring about an image change in the way that religious life is perceived by many Catholics, especially young ones. Unfortunately, too often today, religious life (sisterhood, brotherhood, the life of a priest in a religious order) draws forth from our subconscious an image or impression other than that of the youthful couple presenting an infant to God in the Temple. Sad to say our image, in our minds eye, of the consecrated life, the one that fills our hearts, does so more with pity, let’s say, than with awe or wonderment. In our day and time the man or woman religious is seen less as the young aspirant (Here I am, Lord! Send me!), the hero type, and more as the figure of the poor man along the road to Jericho beaten up and left for dead. Nor are there many Good Samaritans among our young people, willing to stop, lend a helping hand and bind up wounds; sadly, it would seem, most give this pitiable figure abandoned at the side of the road a wide berth as they go on their way in a world with other priorities. Hi, sister! Bye, sister!
            I suppose we could say that seeing the consecrated life as a stupendous gift for the Church and the world is conditioned by the way those who are religious live that life; the impression given to others and to youth especially depends upon the attitude of those who have consecrated their lives to God. In all fairness, however, it also depends on mothers and fathers and their being able to rejoice with their child as he or she begins to long to share the life of the priests, brothers or sisters. Mom and Dad are indispensable in the normal course of events in providing a positive environment for a religious or priestly vocation as it begins to clarify itself in the heart of their child. May I ask who these days dreams and prays during their pregnancy about being able to give their child back to God, the God Whom they thank for the gift of that child? Who dreams about or hopes to have a child of theirs totally consecrated to the Lord? When I asked one young priest here in the region active in vocations work why there weren’t so many vocations any more, he said the world has too many distractions and there’s too much noise today shutting God out. I’m sure he’s right. I fear even our world of committed and practicing Catholics is topsy-turvy…
We really need to promote among all God’s People awareness and esteem for this gift of God to His Church, for the gift of religious life. Entirely by accident last year I picked up a book by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, with a 1990 copyright, entitled “The Reform of Renewal”. He explains convincingly enough for me why religious life today has fallen on such bad times, why religious are among the most exposed to every crosscurrent which blows through. He argues for a reform, starting with the individual, which will give to the Church in our time, and through the Church to our world, that bounce, that shockwave of new life which shot forth in times past from the great founders and foundresses, from the great reformers of religious life. He suggests that we begin with penance and personal conversion, rededication to our vows and to the founding charism of our respective religious institute, a new and renewed dependence on the person of Jesus Christ. What is worship in spirit and in truth? What is the sacrifice or oblation demanded by our God? The psalmist says: A humbled, contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn”.
Let me say it outright and straight at you: of all the reasonable options for getting a handle on the present situation (crisis in religious life and generally in the Church) and turning our world around, it is you, the consecrated who count the most. More than anyone else, it is you, the religious who can make a difference. You, the consecrated people, need to deepen your own awareness of the beauty of your vocation and of the irreplaceable mission entrusted to you for the sake of the Church and the world. Enjoy your feast today; contemplate the Mystery of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple, the sacred icon of the vocation which is yours; rediscover your first love and in the maturity of your years and vocation, give the Lord your heart once again. Allow the gift of yourself, your personal oblation, to illumine and transform the darkness around you. Did sister in the old days with all that habit covering her up really have such a pretty face? Maybe, but it is more likely that she knew what she was about, that she was boundlessly happy with her Spouse the Lord, doing what she had always hoped to do with her life, whether that was praying the office and singing in choir, scrubbing floors, nursing the sick or teaching children in school. The Bridegroom is here! Go out to meet Him, even if you have to use a cane or a walker! The radiance of your spirit is not dimmed by age or infirmity. Be the flame which ignites the youthful potential of the generation of renewal of religious life in the Church.
The Lord has indeed entered His Temple as the prophet Malachi promised in God’s Name; “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace, just as you promised; because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see, a light to enlighten the pagans and the glory of your people Israel.”
My dear bishops, my dear priests, my dear consecrated folk, men and women, dear parents and all pious souls, young and old! Diocesan, National and Regional Directors of the Pontifical Mission Societies! Live in hope! Do like, be like Simeon and the prophetess Anna, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher! Behold the King, the Lord carried into the Temple on His Mother’s arm! Expend every fiber of your being in letting the world know that it is time to rejoice! The Bridegroom is here!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hearts Set on the World to Come

The Baptism of the Lord in C
            I was very happy to see that the Holy Father used the readings offered ad libitum for Year C this morning for his celebration of the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. We need to hear much more often the Second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus and to us:
            “When the kindness and love of God our savior for mankind were revealed, it was not because he was concerned with any reason except his own compassion that he saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and by renewing us with the Holy Spirit which he has so generously poured over us through Jesus Christ our savior. He did this so that we should be justified by his grace, to become heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.”
            I find these words as calming and reassuring as the sinking Peter must have found Jesus’ grasping him when fear of the wind and waves distracted him from the Lord Who bid him to come to him across the waters. Really? Yes, really! St. Paul’s words flesh out for me what is meant by the expression “You are loved by God”, better than a hundred PowerPoint presentations with puppies, kittens, flowers, butterflies and little angels with bows and curly hair… And I mean no disrespect for all those who find consolation in such pretty things. Just think: “it was not because he was concerned with any reason except his own compassion that he saved us”! You are entitled to your own opinion, but these words move me.
            The point is that these words give my life trajectory. Apart from those limit situations in life where we must deal with fear or despair, I am becoming ever more aware of the amount of entertainment or distraction out there which can break my concentration or focus, much like the “bread and circus” which the early Church anathematized for its followers because of the dulling or brutalizing effect it had on the baptized. Even today the “world’s” family filters are not necessarily discerning enough to block out all those things which can dull my awareness or turn my head; the filters provided by Google, YouTube and my friendly neighborhood cable company are not really able to aid me in my search or keep me on track for eternal life. What to do?
            Pope St. Gregory the Great was among those former monks who bitterly missed the silence and contemplation of the monastery, recognizing in the office of bishop certainly a divine calling, but one which he considered more difficult to live out than that of the cloister. Others would contend that the rarified atmosphere of the monastery or the desert hermitage can be eminently more dangerous because of the way the struggle to opt for the Lord in all things is played out as it were someplace between earth and heaven.
            I really only have one tiny insight to share and namely that if in the midst of life we can be mindful of the Father’s compassion manifest in the Son, Who sanctified the waters of the Jordan and gave us cleansing unto eternal life in Baptism, then we have the wherewithal to discern, to choose, to walk the stormy seas of this life without going down into the depths.
            My wish for all those out in the world is that they and we might have a full and active life without bartering our birthright in Baptism for any old bowl of porridge… Happy conclusion to the Christmas Season and Happy return to an extraordinarily rich in graces Ordinary Time!