Thursday, February 28, 2013

Some Reflections on the Sede Vacante

On April 15, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger, became the Two hundred and sixty fifth Pope.

In case you haven’t heard, he resigned the papacy a little over five hours ago. And have you seen the coverage? Not since the Funeral of Blessed Pope John Paul II have we seen such wall-to-wall coverage...and we haven’t even come to the Conclave yet! There’s a fascination with the Pope, not just among Catholics, but with all the people of the world!

Indeed, last year’s Forbes magazine ranked the most powerful people on earth. The pope was number 6, after Chinese President Hu Jintao, President Obama, King Abdullah, and Prime Minister Putin. He beat out Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Cameron, Chairman Bernanke, President Gandhi, and Bill Gates.

And it is true that the Pope is the chief shepherd of one-sixth of the world's population. But, the Vatican (don’t tell anyone) doesn’t have nuclear weapons and not a single drone, unless you count those little plastic airplanes the guy across from Porta Sant’Anna sells with the rubber bands and the propellers for beaks.

At the height of his powers, the dictator Joseph Stalin once sarcastically asked his advisors, ”how many legions does the Pope have?” Fifty years later, the Soviet Union is no more, and largely due to the efforts of a Polish Pope, and the Catholic Church is about to elect its 266th Pope.

What is it about the Pope that so fascinates an unbelieving world? If you will allow me an oversimplification, the Pope it seems to me is three things to a world whose heart aches:

He is Priest to a world which finds it hard to accept God’s mercy.

He is Prophet to a world which lies to itself in order to feel better. 

And he is Papa to a world in which fatherly affection is at a premium. 

Three stories.

Pope as Priest
Is there any image more priestly than an old priest sitting in a confessional, listening deeply to the sins of a penitent?  And is there anything the world needs more than an assurance that sins can be forgiven?

That’s why it was such a shock when the newly elected John Paul II insisted that he wanted to hear confessions on Good Friday.  He walked in with a simple white cassock and a purple stole, like any parish priest, and entered the confessional and heard confessions for over an hour....not just that year, but every one of the years in his quarter century as Pope.

But even that priestly act was not what really impressed me about Pope as Priest under Blessed Pope John Paul II.  It was the shooting.  In the midst of a General Audience the Pope was shot and almost died in the succeeding days.  However, over the course of the coming months he miraculously recovered. 

But beyond the shooting and beyond his recovery, what is seared in my memory is that picture of the Pope, sitting on a plastic chair in the jail cell of his attempted assassin.  He’s hunched down in the confessor’s pose, listening to Ali Agca, extending his hand over him in blessing and forgiving him for trying to kill him.

A world that cannot forgive itself, a world where nothing is wrong but nothing is forgiven aches for the mercy of God.  It aches for a Pope as Priest in the model of Christ.

Pope as Prophet
As the world aches for the truth.  In an age when everything is up for grabs, when nothing is always true, and where every blogger is free to make up his own notion of reality...we ache for absolute truth.  For the truth the comes from God...the truth which i unchangeable, not subject to shifting winds of the roaring crowd.

Pope Benedict XVI was a prophet of the truth, perhaps never more eloquently than in his words just before the start of the last Conclave eight years ago.  That was the day on which he proclaimed:

“...relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and “swept along by every wind of teaching”, looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

Pope as Papa
And third, my favorite story...I was a seminarian, three conclaves ago...I had just arrived in Rome, fresh from my senior year at Holy Cross.  As luck would have it, Pope Paul VI held a private audience for the American seminarians in honor of the American Bicentennial.  The very old Pope practically fell into the Cathedral of the Sala Clementine and addressed the group in English which was, at times, hard to understand.

Then he looked at us with a deep kindness and began to speak in Italian.  It was an informal Italian which recalled his days in Rome and how strange it was to him to be in a different city with different people and different food far from home.  “Yet,” he continued, “I think of how far from home you are.  There must be times when you feel alone and afraid!  Know that when you feel alone and afraid, there is one person in this city who loves you and prays for you, and that person is il papa.”

The Pope is called the Holy Father because he is, and to a world so in need of paternal love, he reflects the love of our Heavenly Father in a wonderful way.

Priest of the Church
Prophet to the Church
And Papa of the Church

Who Do They Say We Are?

To read some news reports you think we were defined by clergy sexual abuse. And who can blame them, really?  When the horrendous crimes of some priests have cruelly wounded the hearts of little children with an exquisite pain that never completely goes away.  But in response the Church has done so much, but we have so much more to do.  

To read other reports you would think the church was the most archaic institution in the world, so far behind the times on gay marriage, optional celibacy, women priests, abortion and birth control. One prominent blog lamented that what the Cardinals really need to  do is to finally admit the premarital sex is really OK, and even at times to be recommended.  The blogger wrote:

“The threat of eternal damnation for an act so natural and so beautiful is destructive. Those who wish to wait for marriage to partake in sexual relations are to be commended. Those who wish to enjoy sexual relations with loved ones before marriage should not be condemned. This restriction may be the most glaring example of how far behind the times the church really is.

There is no shortage of such commentary in the blogs these days. But what do such commentators expect the church to do? To abandon the Scriptures and the very words of Christ? To abandon 2000 years of Christian tradition? To speak to the modern age the words it wants to hear rather than the truth?  

Who is the Church?

That is what they say about us.  But who is this Church that now seeks to elect a Pope for the Twenty-First Century?

She is, as we profess in the Creed and hear echoed in the words of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, a reality both visible and invisible.

Visibly, she is the largest manifestation of the Christian religion on earth.  One out of six people on the globe is Catholic.  1.1 billion members worldwide, while all Protestant denominations add up to 593 million.  As you might expect, there are areas of growth and areas of diminishment.  Most Catholics today live south of the Equator.  Africa, by way of example, the Church has tripled its membership in the past thirty years, from 55 to 150 million.

In the United States the number of self identified Catholics has, likewise, grown dramatically.  In 1965 there were 48.5 million.  Today there are 78.2 million, a thirty eight percent growth in just under fifty years.  

At the same time, the number of U.S. Priests has declined by almost a quarter in those same fifty years.  The reduction in the number of priests and the increase in the number of U.S. Catholics has resulted in priest less parishes and a radical reexamination of the ways in which ministry is done on the local scene.  Worldwide, the number of priests has actually increased by two percent in the past twenty five years.  

But the deepest reality of the Church is not visible, but invisible. 

And here, the most fundamental reality of the Church, which we hear echoed in Lumen Gentium tonight, is that to be a member of the Church I must be Baptized and in Baptism I become one with Christ.

And how do we live out that Baptism?.  And no place it that more clearly lived out than in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire life of the Church.  Indeed, as Blessed Pope John  Paul II reminded us, it is the Church which makes the Eucharist, but it is also the Eucharist which makes the Church.

Better still, allow me to quote from His Holiness, Benedict XVI, Pope-emeritus of the Church, in his words to the Cardinals gathered in Rome just about twelve hours ago.  In the last formal address of his Pontificate, the Holy Father spoke of the Church within the context of the last few hours of his time in the See of Peter:

I would like to leave you with a simple thought that is close to my heart, a thought on the Church, Her mystery, which is for all of us, we can say, the reason and the passion of our lives. I am helped by an expression of Romano Guardini’s, written in the year in which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution Lumen Gentium, his last with a personal dedication to me, so the words of this book are particularly dear to me.

Guardini says: "The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ."

This was our experience yesterday, I think, in the square. We could see that the Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God, She is in the world but not of the world. She is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, as we saw yesterday. This is why another eloquent expression of Guardini’s is also true: "The Church is awakening in souls." 

The Church lives, grows and awakens in those souls which like the Virgin Mary accept and conceive the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. They offer to God their flesh and in their own poverty and humility become capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today. Through the Church the mystery of the Incarnation remains present forever. Christ continues to walk through all times in all places. Let us remain united, dear brothers, to this mystery, in prayer, especially in daily Eucharist, and thus serve the Church and all humanity. This is our joy that no one can take from us.

So let us pray for His Holiness, Benedict XVI, that God will grant him a good, long and restful retirement.  

But let us also pray to the Lord for our new chief shepherd, whoever he may be.

O God, eternal shepherd,
who govern your flock with unfailing care,
grant in your boundless fatherly love
a pastor for your Church
who will please you by his holiness
and to us show watchful care.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

From a talk given at Saint Mary’s Church, Charlestown, Massachusetts.   28 April 2013

O God, eternal shepherd, who govern your flock with unfailing care, grant in your boundless fatherly love a pastor for your Church who will please you by his holiness and to us show watchful care. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Roman Missal, Masses for Various Needs and Occasions, For the Election of a Pope.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

the good of the Church...

"...Loving the Church also means having the courage to make difficult, trying choices, having ever before oneself the good of the Church and not one’s own...In our heart, in the heart of each of you, let there be always the joyous certainty that the Lord is near, that He does not abandon us, that He is near to us and that He surrounds us with His love. Thank You."

Pope Benedict XVI 
Final General Audience
27 February 2013

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oremus pro Pontifice!

From 1:52pm until 2:00pm on February 28th the Saint John's Seminary bell will toll in commemoration of the end of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI.  All students and faculty are asked to pause in silence as the bell tolls and then to pray the following prayers for Pope Benedict XVI and for the Election of a New Pope.

O God, shepherd and ruler of all the faithful,
look favorably on your servant Benedict,
whom you set at the head of your Church as her shepherd; 
grant, we pray, that he may continue to be found worthy 
to offer you a perfect gift of loving service.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

Roman Missal, Masses for Various Needs and Occasions, For the Pope, adapted.

O God, eternal shepherd,
who govern your flock with unfailing care,
grant in your boundless fatherly love
a pastor for your Church
who will please you by his holiness
and to us show watchful care.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever.

Roman Missal, Masses for Various Needs and Occasions, For the Election of a Pope.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Passion, Glory, and the Sede Vacante

Second Sunday of Lent

The Transfiguration of the Lord has been proclaimed as a Lenten Gospel from the first days of the Church.  Along with last week’s Temptation in the Desert, next week’s Samaritan Woman and the Man Born Blind, these Gospels form a sort of Catechism of our Salvation.

Today’s lesson is a meditation on the glory of the Lord, a foreshadowing of the Resurrection and that day at the end of time when the Lamb slain for our sins will take the place of the sun and the moon as the eternal light of our heavenly home.

As told by the Evangelists of the Synoptic Gospels, the Transfiguration is set on Mount Tabor, where the Lord’s face is seen to change in appearance and his clothes become dazzlingly white.

This unequivocal manifestation of the divinity of Christ was said by Saint Thomas Aquinas to be the Lord’s “greatest miracle,” not only providing us with a glimpse of heaven, but a reminder of who Jesus is when, as at his Baptism, a voice thunders from the clouds: “This is my beloved Son, Listen to Him”

But is there something more going on here than a mere revelation of the divinity of Christ, as hinted at by the Preface in today’s Mass, which gives us a look at what the full meaning of the Transfiguration really is.  Here’s what it says:

For after he had told the disciples of his coming death,
on the holy mountain he manifested to them his glory, 
to show, even by the testimony of the law and the prophets, 
that the passion leads to the glory of the resurrection.

What then is the greatest secret of life which the voice from the cloud insists we should listen to?  What is the deeper meaning of the Transfiguration?  That the passion leads to the glory of the resurrection.

In the Transfiguration, then, we have the first real glimpse of the Mystery which we will enact during the Sacred Paschal Triduum.  That Easter Glory is always preceded by the Passion of Good Friday; that the dazzling light of the Resurrection is always preceded by the dark sorrow of the death of the Lord; and that Eternal Life is a gift which comes only through the Cross.

There are hints of this all through today’s Gospel.  Who does Jesus take up with him to Mount Tabor?  The same three who will fall asleep when he goes up to pray while weeping blood on the Mount of Olives.  Tabor is a rehearsal for Olivet, the same cast of characters, the same script.  But Tabor is glory, while Olivet is passion.  Two sides of the same coin, two essential dimensions of the same saving mystery.

Which brings me to various news reports of recent days.  Each time I click to a different blog, I am tempted to think we are back in the presidential primaries, with tales of political intrigue and struggles for power.  

But with each new blog report, they get it wrong.  For the new Pope will be the vicar of him who promised that the first will be last and the last will be first. And the road to the papacy is not a road to personal glory.  It is Peter crucified upside down, it is a half dozen martyred popes, and it is the man who will walk out on that balcony in a couple weeks...who will have given up his life, his freedom, and everything he has always known and enjoyed, in order to ‘stretch out his hands and be led to places he did not want to go.' (John 21: 18b)

You may have heard of a part of the medieval rite for the election of a pope at which the great procession of pomp and circumstance was stopped as a bunch of dried flax would be held before the new Holy Father and ignited.  As it quickly burned, the Papal antiphoner would remind the Holy Father, “Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.”

Cardinal Rivasi in preaching the Lenten retreat to the Roman Curia in the presence of the Holy Father yesterday lamented the “divisions, dissent, careerism, and jealousies” which so compromise the life of the Church.  Unlike the world of politics, our life and our Church is not about exploiting divisions, but about making all one in Christ.  It is not about fomenting dissent to personal advantage, but helping all men to see the truth.  It is not about building an ecclesiastical career, but seeking out the last place that we might be conformed to our Blessed Lord and Savior who washed their feet and then opened his arms on the cross to die for our salvation.

So what is done in the Sistine Chapel and in the halls of Saint John’s Seminary is really hard for the media to get.  Just as the Transfiguration is hard for us to understand.  It is not about us, but about Christ, to whom is due the glory and the power for ever and ever.  Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Homily for the Chair of Peter

Today is the Feast of the Chair of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Vicar of Christ on earth. The chair or cathedra Petri is symbolized in the Vatican Basilica which bears his name by Bernini’s enormous monument at the end of the western apse. Four great saints, two from the East and two from the West, hold the chair by slim ribbons as angels swirl ‘round and from the heavens the Holy Spirit descends upon the chair, the Pope and the Church.

The chair is empty, because it belongs to Peter, who is now enthroned with the other Apostles and his Lord in heaven.

And I have known Peter. I have known him in the joy of “good Pope John,” whose unbounded optimism and extraordinary courage gave joy to my youth, as he convened a Council of aggiornamento and opened the doors of the Church to the modern world.

I have known Peter, when as a seminarian I witnessed the aching heart of Pope Paul VI, who agonized and grappled with the greatest problems of his day with a love of the Church and a love of the world so tangible that it was almost painful to watch. Who before the U.N. Security Council declared “No more war! War never again!” and who prophesied that, when it comes to life, “there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go,”1 and for the Sacred Liturgy sought a people who “should become attentive, entering into dialogue by song and action...consisting not only of outward acts but of an inner movement of faith and devotion, investing the rites with a real power and beauty.”2

I have known Peter. I have known him in the flash of light which was Pope John Paul I. I have known him in the intensity and strength of Blessed Pope John Paul II. Who spoke the truth unflinchingly and bore the cross before our eyes as a clear reflection of his suffering Lord.

I have known Peter, even in these latter days. I have known him in the quiet brilliance of Pope Benedict XVI. Whose words were as beautiful as his heart was pure, and who leaves us gently, assuring us that the Lord will take care of us and that the Church belongs to God and not to any pope or person of power.

And in the weeks to come, I will know Peter again. Perhaps with an Italian accent, or in black skin; perhaps with a ready joy or a contemplative demeanor; perhaps with the intensity of youth or the sagacity of old age; perhaps with a pastor’s zeal or an intellectual’s genius....I will know Peter again. For the Holy Spirit will give us a new Vicar of Christ, as a new Prince of the Apostles sits in the cathedra of the Bishop of Rome.


1 - Pope Paul VI, Humane Vitae, no. 17.

2 - Pope Paul VI, General audience, 17 March, 1965.

Additional Notes on the Conclave

The photo above is of a group of seminarians in Saint Peter's Square in October, 1978, awaiting the election of Blessed Pope John Paul II.  (The author of this blog is in the front row with the sweater around his neck and a much thicker head of hair!)  The photo is part of the opening of a program on Catholic TV explaining the upcoming Papal Conclave.  The following remarks are taken from that program.

A little over thirty years ago, I was a seminarian studying in Rome.  Here I am standing in Saint Peter’s Square with some of my classmates, waiting for the white smoke which would elect Pope John Paul II.  I can still remember the enormous crowd packed into the square as the Holy Father came out on the balcony and greeted the people of Rome and of the world as their new Bishop and Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ.

And then there was the death of Blessed Pope John Paul II.  At this point in my life, I was serving as an official of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and served as their spokesman on most of the TV Networks, from Hardball to Nancy Grace. 

Many of you remember those days: the long vigil of prayer...the waiting as a weak and very sick Holy Father slowly died.  Remember when he appeared at the window just three days before he returned to his father’s house and tried to bless us.  But replete with frustration all he could muster was a weak sign of the cross on the tens of thousands gathered in the square below him.

And remember the Funeral...we’ve never seen one like it with everyone who was anyone, as they say, gathered to pay tribute to Peter.  And then, just days later, as the world gathered in Saint Peter’s square and we heard ANNUNCIO VOBIS GAUDIUM MAGNUM and listened to and loved Pope Benedict XVI for the first time.

My recollections of those days of deep mourning for Blessed Pope John Paul II and of the seven years which have passed are marked with a certain sadness at the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a wise and gentle pastor and one of the finest teachers of the faith who has ever worn the shoes of the fisherman.

Allow me but one small personal recollection from just over three months ago in the course of an audience with the Vox Clara Committee, a group of senior prelates which I serve as Executive Director.   Having recently been named Rector of Saint John's Seminary, I bragged to the Holy Father that Saint John's was completely filled with wonderful and highly talented men, to which he replied "Filled?  How wonderful!  Please tell them that I will pray for each of them."

And I know those were not just words.  I know he prayed for our seminarians, as he prayed for all the whole Church, most especially all those in need.  He is, more than anything else, a good pastor, our priest, who leads us to Jesus.

I thought it might be helpful if I briefly outlined the three phrases of Electing a Pope which will unfold over the coming weeks.  The entire process is regulated by the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (The Lord’s Universal Flock), promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1996.

Phase One
The first phase surrounds the extraordinary event of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI from the Papal Office, an event which will take effect at 8:00pm Rome time on February 28th in accord with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.  At that precise moment we enter a Sede Vacante, or a vacancy in the Holy See.  This interregnum, which normally follows the death of a Pope, lasts until the Holy Father’s election.

The Vatican Press Office has made clear that upon his resignation the Holy Father will leave the Apostolic Palace and remain at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer home in the Castelli Romani.  When renovations on a monastery inside the Vatican walls has been completed, the Holy Father will return to Vatican City for a ministry of prayer and reflection. Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.

Phase Two
The second phase in this process begins with the convening of the College of Cardinals under the leadership of the Dean of the College.  The College will be convened as a General Congregation on March 1st.  All members of the College, including those over 80 and ineligible to vote in the Conclave, may still attend this Congregation.

The Executive Board of the General Congregation is called the Particular Congregation and it is composed of the Cardinal Camerlengo (Cardinal Taricisio Bertone, presently Secretary of State to the Holy See) and three Cardinal Assistants (chosen by lot, every 3 days).
The Particular Congregation sets the date for the conclave and leads the discussions of the General Congregation on a wide variety of subjects relevant to the preparations for the Conclave.  Normally this process takes fifteen to twenty days from the death of the pope, including nine days of mourning, known as the novemdiales.  However, with the resignation of the Holy Father, the novemdiales are not required, which could mean an opening of the conclave as early as six days after his resignation, as early as March 6.  In any case, the date for the opening of the conclave will not be later than twenty days from Feb 28, or March 18th.

Phase Three
The third Phase is comprised of the actual election of the Pope by those members of the College of Cardinals under the age of eighty.  On the day the conclave opens there will be a Morning Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica, followed by an afternoon procession from the Pauline Chapel to the Sistine Chapel (Veni Creator Spiritus)

The Cardinal electors will take an oath to observe the procedures set down by the apostolic constitution; to, if elected, defend the liberty of the Holy See; to maintain secrecy; and to disregard the instructions of secular authorities on voting.

The Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations will then order all unauthorized persons to leave the conclave with the words extra omnes and the deliberations will begin.

Who are they
Who are these Cardinal who will gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a Pope? There are a total of 209 Cardinals, of whom 118 are aged under 80.  Cardinal Husar of the Ukraine will turn 80 before the Pope’s resignation on February 28th, so he will be ineligible to enter the conclave.  Only Cardinals under the age of 80 are allowed to vote for the Pope.

Of the 117 Cardinal electors, 61 are from Europe, 19 from Latin America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa, 11 from Asia and 1 from Oceania. 

The College of Cardinals is led by its dean, the senior member of the Cardinals of the Order of Bishops, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.  However, since Cardinal Sodano (born 1927) is over the age of 80, he is ineligible to vote in the Conclave and would be replaced within the conclave by the next senior member of the Order of Bishops under the age of eighty,  Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. 

How do they vote?
First, the Papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Mario Marini, gives at least two ballots to each Cardinal Elector.  Each ballot bears the words Eligo in Summon Pontificum (I elect as Supreme Pontiff)...and then there’s a space for a name to be written in.

Then the Secretary of the College of Cardinals, the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations and the Masters of Ceremonies all leave the chapel as the junior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal James Harvey of the United States, closes the door behind them.

Cardinal Harvey then randomly selects three Scrutineers and the Cardinal electors mark their ballots and one by one walk to the Altar and in the presence of the Scrutineers say: "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." and each drops his ballot into a receptacle on the altar.

When the votes have been cast the Scrutineers shake the container and remove, count and then tabulate the ballots, reading each name aloud.  The Scrutineers then burn the ballots with a chemical that creates white smoke if one of the candidates has achieved the necessary two-thirds vote and a chemical which produces black smoke if the vote is inconclusive.

If no candidate receives a two-third majority on the first day, four ballots are cast on subsequent days, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.  If after three days of voting, no candidate has achieved a two third majority, the Cardinals may choose to suspend the voting for a day, during which they will pray and hear an address from the senior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Tauran.

If, after seven more ballots, there is still no definitive result, the Cardinals may pause for another day of prayers with an address by the Senior Cardinal Priest, Cardinal Arns of Brazil.

If, after seven more ballots, there is still no definitive result, the Cardinals may pause for another day of prayers with an address by the Senior Cardinal Bishop, Cardinal Re.

If, after seven more ballots, there is still no definitive result, the Cardinals may pause for another day of prayer and discussion and from that point on only the two names which have received the highest number of votes would remain on the ballot and the two candidates lose their right to vote.

When a Pope is elected, the Cardinal Dean, Cardinal Re, goes to him and asks him whether he accepts election.  If he does, he is vested in the Pope’s white cassock.  The senior Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, then announces to the word:

Annuncio vobis gaudium magnum.  Habemus Papam,

and the world meets the new Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome, the Roman Pontiff for the first time.

Rector's Conference IV - The Stations

Walking the Via Dolorosa
Lent 2013

I like control. I like to be the smartest and best informed man in the room. I like to be the one in charge. I like to have the power to work my will. In other words, I like Adam and Eve, like to make believe that I am God.

Lent and it's fasting, the stations of the cross and almsgiving and prayer are nothing less then an antidote to my obsession with control.  It is a time, as a very wise prelate once said, to imagine what it would be like if I were not God!

Very often in life the things we let go of are not freely relinquished. But lent is a time when out of love and the desire to be made perfect in Christ we imitate his act of self emptying, opening our arms on the cross of Lenten penance, admitting, once again, that there is a time for holding on and a time for letting go.

While I have reflected on many of the aspects of a Blessed Lent in the Pastoral Letter I wrote to you last week, this evening I’d like to briefly reflect on the Stations of the Cross and the ways in which they can help us to live a good and holy Lent. 

The Stations of the Cross originate in the Holy Sites associated with the Lord’s Passion and Death from earliest times.  The English Pilgrim, gives us one of the first versions of these stations in the fifteenth centiry, a hundred years later an illustrated version of the stations was printed in Germany.  But curiously, the number of stations varied widely, from seven to thirty stations.  It was not until a hundred and fifty years ago that Pope Clement XII fixed the typical stations at fourteen in number.

The Stations and Us
But why do we pray the Stations of the Cross?

Quiet simply, our Holy Father reminds us, because, at times, life can be a cross, and the Stations remind us that “in times of trial and tribulation, we are not alone... Jesus is present with his love, he sustains [us] by his grace and grants the strength needed to carry on, to make sacrifices and to evercome every obstacle. And it is to this love of Christ that we must turn when human turmoil and difficulties threaten the unity of our lives and our families. The mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection inspires us to go on in hope: times of trouble and testing, when endured with Christ, with faith in him, already contain the light of the resurrection, the new life of a world reborn, the passover of all those who believe in his word.”1

Some Reflections

Allow me, then, to offer some brief reflections on a few of the Stations.

Jesus is condemned to death
Here we meditate on two realities: to be unjustly condemned and to be the unjust accuser.

Seminarians get judged a lot.  Words like composite review, evaluation and pastoral supervisor may not strike fear into your heart, but it’s understandable if they make you a bit queasy.

It’s not easy to be judged, but its particularly hard to be judged unjustly.  It’s happened to all of us, and it even happens sometimes at Saint John’s Seminary.  

And on those rare occasions when you are told you are this and you know you are that, when you are accused of doing this and you know you do that. when you are told to stop doing this but you know you never do that, stop....and think of the Apostles, beaten by the Temple guards, who left “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name,”2 or the martyr Polycarp being led to the pyre thanking God that he was deemed worthy to drink of the same cup as his Lord.  But most of all, think of Jesus standing beaten and bloodied as they shout “Crucify him” and Pilate snarls “behold the man!”  

Life is filled with injustices, while the cross overflows with grace.

Jesus carries His cross and Jesus is stripped of his garments
A seminarian in formation is called upon daily to take up his cross.  The cross of worry about that course I cannot master, that concept I cannot understand, that priest whom I just can’t get to like me.  The cross of broken relationships and daily disappointments, in myself and in those who might betray me.  The cross of loneliness, of being afraid, or of temptations I cannot seem to control.  The cross of coming face to face with my own inadequacies and to be reminded of it in a composite evaluation.

The other day I was going through files at my parents’ house from years ago and I came across four years of my composite evaluations from seminary.  When I read them it all came back to me: the anger, the uncertainty, the whole sequence of emotions I used to engage to keep me from picking up that cross which Christ asked me to carry, the exquisite cross of discernment and formation.  To pick up that cross and to carry it, not becuase I wanted to, but because he handed it to me.

Jesus carries his cross, and he invites me to do the same.

Jesus falls the first time, second time, and the third time
I hate to fall, but the older I get the more I do it.  I might be rushing to catch a plane, or getting out of the car on an icy morning, or trying to rush up the stairs.  I hate to fall because someone else might be watching.  And due to my falling they might guess that I am not quite as omnipotent as I usually pretend to be.

Falling is hard.  It hurts.  And the temptation is often to just lay there in a heap, close your eyes, and hope they all go away.  It’s hard to fall, but its harder still to get up.

I remember late one night being awoken by the doorbell in a rectory near the Mass Pike.  It was a priest who had clearly had too much to drink.  His car was parked diagonally in the driveway.  I need a place to stay, he slurred, and I’m in no shape to drive home.  Can I stay here?

I took him in, took his keys, put him to bed and saw him after the 7am Mass for breakfast.  He was a prominent pastor and an old friend and now he was ashamed.  You know, he quickly smiled, that was the only time....  I stopped him.  I respected and cared for him too much to let him get away with that.  You know what we’ve gotta do now, I said to him, with tears in my eyes.  And he started to cry.

We went to the Bishop and he went to Guest House, and today he’s sober and alert, as Saint Paul would say.  The devil stands no chance with him.  But he fell and he had the courage, by the grace of God, to get up and walk the way of sorrows with the Lord.

Jesus meets His mother, Veronica, and the women of Jerusalem
Maybe one of the most neglected reflections in seminary formation is the importance of women in the life of the priest.  Women in the life of Jesus, from his Blessed Mother, to Martha, to the first witness of the Resurrection...each play an indispensible role.  They are his support, his disciples, and his friends.

The women who share the sorrows of the Passion of the Lord are models for us.  One is his mother, who cradles his lifeless body as the Pieta.  Another, the woman who stands faithfully at the foot of the cross, the woman of sorrows whose heart has been pierced with a sword as sharp as the nails which pierce the flesh of her son.  In her we see our own mothers, both those who give us birth and those whose encouragement and strength help us to face suffering with the same courage and strentgh which they have modeled for us.

They are women like Veronica, who wipe the face of Jesus and relieve his suffering in the old man suffering from chemo, the old woman crying out in hospice, gently leading her home to God.  The women who give their lives to service of the Church: from the DRE to sacristan, from the religious sister to the home schooloer.  The women who will support you on your worst days with a kind word, their constant support, and a quiet smile.

The women of Jerusalem, or Spencer, or Norwood or Natick whom you meet along the way.  The young bride, the single mother, the teary widow worn down by her years, the bright young college student, the successful executive, the passionate crusader for justice, the devout pilgrim....all the women of Jerusalem you will meet.  Each of them witnesses to and pilgrims on the via dolorosa, whose own courage will inspire you and whose tears will bring you closer to Christ.

Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross
You know the dilemma.  Been there, done that.  The poor guy down the hall just can’t get the concept.  And the one next door just can’t wake up on time for Morning Prayer.  Another just can’t seem to make friends.  Another has the worst pastoral supervisor in the history of seminary formation.  And another....  You get the picture.

It may look like a desperate seminarian, but it’s Jesus, walking down the corridors of this Seminary every day, waiting for you to play the part of the Cyrene.  

There’s an old Scandanavian narrative poem called “Christ came down,” which I remember first reading when I was a seminarian in the last century.  In the poem, Christ comes down from the cross and walks the main street of a small Scandanavian village, going house to house.  He is bloodied, beaten and staggering as he knocks on the door of each quaint little cottage.  People react to this unwelcome visitor by locking to door, closing the drapes and turning out the light on the porch.  Soon the whole town is dark and silent and the crucified points to his cross and moans deeply, “Put me back up there!  For I would rather hang from that cross than walk the streets of an earth where no one cares!”

It’s Jesus, walking down the corridors of this Seminary every day, waiting for you to play the part of the Cyrene. 

Jesus is nailed to the cross and dies
The Paschal mystery is not just a high faluting theological concept. For the faithful Christian, life is a spiraling sequence of dark Good Fridays and splendrous Easter morns.  

From the time we first go down into the font, we die with him and rise triumphant from our tombs, we know his paschal dying and rising as the school of love and the path to salvation.

“The cross of Christ,” Pope Benedict reminded us last year, “is the supreme sign of God’s love for every man and woman, the superabundant response to every person’s need for love. At times of trouble, when [we] have to face pain and adversity, let us look to Christ’s cross. There we can find the courage and strength to press on; there we can repeat with firm hope the words of Saint Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”3

Jesus is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb
The Lord has given his all...the last ounce of suffering and the last breath...he has loved us unto death, and he has given all, in a superabundance of overflowing love, so we are called to do.  

As they took his lifeless body from the cross, as the Pieta, held him in her arms, that sacrifice seared their hearts, as did his words, “as I have loved you, so you should love.”

Joined with her, the Mother of Sorrows, we walk these Stations, we who along with him are unjustly condemned, fallen, humiliated and crucified.  At such times:

Let us gaze on the crucified Jesus, and let us ask in prayer: Enlighten our hearts, Lord, that we may follow you along the way of the cross. Put to death in us the ‘old man’ bound by selfishness, evil and sin. Make us ‘new men,’ men and women of holiness, transformed and enlivened by your love.”4


1- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Stations of the Cross 2012.
2- Acts 5:41.
3- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Stations of the Cross, Good Friday 2012 (Cf. Romans 8:35, 37).
4 - Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Stations of the Cross, Good Friday 2011.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Temptation and the First Sunday of Lent

The Lord Jesus, a man like us in all things but sin, demonstrates his close kinship to us in the desert today as he is tempted by Satan.

Is there anything more human than to suffer temptation?  Temptation is not sin.  Temptation is that nagging conviction which resides just behind the heart and slightly above the stomach, that gut-wrenching suspicion that true happiness lies not in doing what I should but in what I want.  It is the lie that happiness will be found not in obedient surrender, but in selfish grasping.

It is the agony of the three year old at the cookie jar, or the fifth grader sitting by the smart kid with the answers to the quiz, or the teen overwhelmed by lust, or his father doing his taxes or the spouse with just the right words to strike back or the old man whose just fed up or the addict with a bottle or the couple who just learned they are inconveniently pregnant.  

As Old as the Hills
Temptation is as old as paradise, when our first parents heard the whisper of the snake in the Tree that they could be like God if they would just do what they knew to be wrong.     

Do you remember when Kind David was tempted to steal Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite,  He saw her one hot night at a distance and fell immediately in lust.  So overwhelming was the temptation experienced by the chosen one of Israel that he forgot himself and his God and ordered that Uriah be sent into battle at the front of the army to face certain death.  Then he sent for the object of his desire and took what was not his to have.

Do you remember what the Prophet Nathan said to David the next day?  With all the skill required to surgically untangle the web of deception which David’s sin had woven, Nathan proposed a case for the wise King to judge. It seems, Nathan proposed, there was in David’s Kingdom a certain rich man and a certain poor man: The rich man had many sheep, while the poor man had only one little ewe, whom he loved more than anything else in the world. A traveler approached the rich man for food, whereby, instead of sharing of his own riches, the man took the poor guy’s beloved sheep and gave it away to the stranger.

Hearing this story, David grew angry and replied: "As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

At which, in one of the greatest dramatic moments of human history, Nathan shouts in David’s face, "You are the man!"

David had been caught by God.  And like everyone from Adam to Lance Armstrong, he is amazed that God has caught him.  For the real source of temptation is the Devil’s lie that you are bigger and smarter than God.  And the real act of sin is to believe it.

How Can We Resist?
Such is sin, and temptation is always the entry-way to it.  How then, can we resist temptation?

Perhaps the Lord gives us a hint in his struggle with the Devil in the Judean desert this morning when, three times, he is tempted.  You heard the temptations and Jesus’ response:

He’s hungry and the devil tempts him to turn the stones into bread.

He’s powerless and the devil tempts him to use all of creation for his own benefit.

He seems overwrought by the devil and he’s tempted to just give up and give in to the dark side.

In other word’s, he's tempted just like you and me to pleasure, to power, and to despair.  But to each, the Lord responds with, not just a witty retort, but a true antidote to a particular species of temptation.  Listen to what Jesus says to the devil:
  • When he tempts with pleasure, the Lord responds: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word which comes from the mouth of God.
  • When he is tempted by power, he retorts: you shall worship the Lord your God, and him alone.
  • And when the devil suggests he might just gave it all up and give it all to him, Jesus declares: you shall not tempt the Lord your God.
The antidote to temptations to selfish pleasure then is fasting, to the lust for power, prayer, and to despair, the discipline of penance.

A brief word about each, for this Lenten agenda of Fasting, Prayer, and Penance form the triple agenda of these forty days.

Fasting, as every second grader knows, is giving something up.  But not giving up just because something is bad.  We fast so that we might later feast.  We give up so that we might appreciate the value of that from which we abstain.  Thus we fast from joyous music and resurrectional acclamations in our music that we might sing those songs with all the more fervor on the night of Paschal joy.  We drape the crucifix and our glorious Cathedral in purple with not a flower in sight that we might be all the more deeply touched by the smell and the beauty of lilies and white and gold on Easter Sunday morning.

We fast from rich foods and meats each Friday, that our hunger might soon be replaced with reminders of the joys of heaven.  We discipline our minds and bodies in little things that we might prepare them for the spiritual battle required to accept the incredible love of him who is the first born of many brothers and who destroys even death by his Paschal sacrifice.

Fasting, then, is a powerful tool against Satan and his tempting lies.  And the more we fast, the less is the power of the Prince of Darkness.

And then there’s prayer.  Prayer is a funny thing, for in order to pray I must kneel down, or at least bow my heart and my will before God.  Prayer cannot happen unless I admit that I am little and God is big.  Prayer is never a dialogue between equals but the cry of a wretched suppliant before a benevolent patron.  Prayer establishes right relationships and reminds me who’s boss.

And finally, there’s penance, of which fasting is a species, but not the whole enchilada.  Penance is a constant self-examination, a rooting around in my life for that which is rotten or selfish or which refuses to love.  It is a radical turning from self to other, from selfishness to loving, from me to God.

So good luck with your temptations, for they will come.  Customized for your time and state in life, the Devil will spend a great deal of time wrapping his gifts for you this Lent.  But you and I have the weapons of fasting and prayer and penance to defeat him and all his vanities. All we have to do is to decide to use them.