Thursday, February 28, 2013

And so, we say "goodbye" and "God bless"...

For the first time in 600 years, the pope is retiring.  Today is Pope Benedict XVI's last official day as the leader of the Catholic Church.

I don't have words to say what it feels like...all I can say to him is, "Thank you for showing us what true servanthood is all about."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI

The complete text of his last public homily is below: 

Venerable Brothers, Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin a new Lenten journey, a journey that extends over forty days and leads us towards the joy of Easter, to victory of Life over death. Following the ancient Roman tradition of Lenten stations, we are gathered for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The tradition says that the first statio took place in the Basilica of Saint Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Circumstances suggested we gather in St. Peter’s Basilica. Tonight there are many of us gathered around the tomb of the Apostle Peter, to also ask him to pray for the path of the Church going forward at this particular moment in time, to renew our faith in the Supreme Pastor, Christ the Lord. For me it is also a good opportunity to thank everyone, especially the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, as I prepare to conclude the Petrine ministry, and I ask you for a special remembrance in your prayer.
The readings that have just been proclaimed offer us ideas which, by the grace of God, we are called to transform into a concrete attitude and behaviour during Lent. First of all the Church proposes the powerful appeal which the prophet Joel addresses to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2.12). Please note the phrase “with all your heart,” which means from the very core of our thoughts and feelings, from the roots of our decisions, choices and actions, with a gesture of total and radical freedom. But is this return to God possible? Yes, because there is a force that does not reside in our hearts, but that emanates from the heart of God and the power of His mercy. The prophet says: “return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment” (v. 13). It is possible to return to the Lord, it is a ‘grace’, because it is the work of God and the fruit of faith that we entrust to His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates and moves our innermost core, gifting us the power that “rends the heart”. Once again the prophet proclaims these words from God: “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (v. 13). Today, in fact, many are ready to “rend their garments” over scandals and injustices – which are of course caused by others - but few seem willing to act according to their own “heart”, their own conscience and their own intentions, by allowing the Lord transform, renew and convert them.
This “return to me with all your heart,” then, is a reminder that not only involves the individual but the entire community. Again we heard in the first reading: “Blow the horn in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly! Gather the people, sanctify the congregation; Assemble the elderly; gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast; Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her bridal tent (vv.15-16). The community dimension is an essential element in faith and Christian life. Christ came “to gather the children of God who are scattered into one” (Jn 11:52). The “we” of the Church is the community in which Jesus brings us together (cf. Jn 12:32), faith is necessarily ecclesial. And it is important to remember and to live this during Lent: each person must be aware that the penitential journey cannot be faced alone, but together with many brothers and sisters in the Church.
Finally, the prophet focuses on the prayers of priests, who, with tears in their eyes, turn to God, saying: “Between the porch and the altar let the priests weep, let the ministers of the LORD weep and say: “Spare your people, Lord! Do not let your heritage become a disgrace, a byword among the nations! Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”(V.17). This prayer leads us to reflect on the importance of witnessing to faith and Christian life, for each of us and our community, so that we can reveal the face of the Church and how this face is, at times, disfigured. I am thinking in particular of the sins against the unity of the Church, of the divisions in the body of the Church. Living Lent in a more intense and evident ecclesial communion, overcoming individualism and rivalry is a humble and precious sign for those who have distanced themselves from the faith or who are indifferent.
“Well, now is the favourable time, this is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The words of the Apostle Paul to the Christians of Corinth resonate for us with an urgency that does not permit absences or inertia. The term “now” is repeated and cannot be missed, it is offered to us as a unique opportunity. And the Apostle’s gaze focuses on sharing with which Christ chose to characterize his life, taking on everything human to the point of taking on all of man’s sins. The words of St. Paul are very strong: “God made him sin for our sake.” Jesus, the innocent, the Holy One, “He who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21), bears the burden of sin sharing the outcome of death, and death of the Cross with humanity. The reconciliation we are offered came at a very high price, that of the Cross raised on Golgotha, on which the Son of God made man was hung. In this, in God’s immersion in human suffering and the abyss of evil, is the root of our justification. The “return to God with all your heart” in our Lenten journey passes through the Cross, in following Christ on the road to Calvary, to the total gift of self. It is a journey on which each and every day we learn to leave behind our selfishness and our being closed in on ourselves, to make room for God who opens and transforms our hearts. And as St. Paul reminds us, the proclamation of the Cross resonates within us thanks to the preaching of the Word, of which the Apostle himself is an ambassador. It is a call to us so that this Lenten journey be characterized by a more careful and assiduous listening to the Word of God, the light that illuminates our steps.
In the Gospel passage according of Matthew, to whom belongs to the so-called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to three fundamental practices required by the Mosaic Law: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are also traditional indications on the Lenten journey to respond to the invitation to «return to God with all your heart.” But he points out that both the quality and the truth of our relationship with God is what qualifies the authenticity of every religious act. For this reason he denounces religious hypocrisy, a behaviour that seeks applause and approval. The true disciple does not serve himself or the “public”, but his Lord, in simplicity and generosity: “And your Father who sees everything in secret will reward you” (Mt 6,4.6.18). Our fitness will always be more effective the less we seek our own glory and the more we are aware that the reward of the righteous is God Himself, to be united to Him, here, on a journey of faith, and at the end of life, in the peace light of coming face to face with Him forever (cf. 1 Cor 13:12).
Dear brothers and sisters, we begin our Lenten journey with trust and joy. May the invitation to conversion , to “return to God with all our heart”, resonate strongly in us, accepting His grace that makes us new men and women, with the surprising news that is participating in the very life of Jesus. May none of us, therefore, be deaf to this appeal, also addressed in the austere rite, so simple and yet so beautiful, of the imposition of ashes, which we will shortly carry out. May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and model of every true disciple of the Lord accompany us in this time. Amen!

Ash Wednesday...(Or, "What In the World Is On Your Forehead?!")

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Contrary to what many say, Catholics are not the only ones who observe this day.  But why?

From Old Testament times, ashes on the head were a sign of deep grief and contrition over sin.  (Jeremiah 6:26; Isaiah 58:5; Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6--to name a few.)  It is a symbol of how sad we are to have sinned against God.

Okay, so what in the world is Lent all about anyway?  So you're sorry for your sins.  Why do you spend 40 days of "giving up" something, etc.?  Let God forgive you and get on with life!

I have addressed the need for Lent in past posts.  Briefly, let me just say, Lent is so important in the life of any Christian.  It mirrors the time Jesus spent in the desert, prior to His baptism and the beginning of His public ministry.  It is a time of "coming apart" with God--fasting, prayer, and alms giving.  Before becoming Catholic, we did have times of fasting.  And they were powerful times.  Lent is a time of Church-wide fasting.  Talk about powerful!

I've been asked, too, why we are being "forced" to fast?  We aren't!  No one is "forced" to "give up" anything.  We are encouraged, however, to use this time to set aside things that are peripheral.  We are encouraged to use that time or resources, to help draw us closer to God.  For instance:  Give up TV--spend that time in extra prayer or mediation on Scripture.  Give up sweets--give the money you would have spent to help the poor.  The main point of Lent:  use this time to allow the Holy Spirit to search you:

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
Psalm 139:  23, 24

One last thing to mention.  The ashes are put on people's foreheads in the sign of a cross.  This is yet another way we identify with Christ.  The sign of His cross emblazoned on our faces for all to see.  We should show His death and resurrection in our lives in such a visible way EVERY day.  The ashes are a reminder of that!

These 40 days are a time of preparation.  Preparation for remembering Christ's temptation in the desert, His baptism, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His offering at the Last Supper, His death, and His resurrection.  The Feast of Easter becomes so much more real and exciting after 40 days of preparation!

Again, feel free to post questions.  May God grant you a blessed Lent!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Who Needs a Pope?

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I thought it would be appropriate to address the topic of the papacy.  Why do Catholics insist they need a pope?  What's the big deal, anyway?

I will acknowledge that a blog post is insufficient to cover this topic in its entirety.  I will also admit that I don't have the depth of learning on this topic that others have.  I'm just going to explain this in the most simple terms.  (If you want a more complete explanation, please see this article.  Also, I have found this site to be very helpful, and a little less complex.)

Most people know the Catholic Church traces the popes all the way back to St. Peter.  Of course, you wouldn't see that title in the Bible.  The bishop of Rome did not hold that title exclusively until the 4th century.  Prior to that time, the title was used of bishops in general.  However, the "chair of Peter" (bishop of Rome) has been recognized as the "first among equals" since Peter was bishop in Rome before his death.

Some typical questions about the pope:

- Why do you need a pope in the first place?  Aren't bishops sufficient?
   Actually, the pope is a bishop.  But in the earliest days of the Church, it became evident that if there were matters of dispute, someone had to have the "final word" in any given situation.  Groups of bishops would discuss matters in question.  As St. Jerome said, "one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division."  Any other words, even the best committee has to have a chairman!  :o) 

-  Why do Catholics say the pope is infallible?  How can a man suddenly become perfect?

   Okay, this is a simple misunderstanding.  We don't believe he is without sin.  He is, after all, "just" a man.  The basics of it are this:  God won't allow the doctrine of the church to be misconstrued by men.  When the pope speaks on issues of doctrine of faith or morals, the Holy Spirit protects the Church from being led astray.  (The gates of hell will not prevail!)
   There is a difference between a pope being impeccable (completely without sin) and infallible  (teaching truth without error).  I know it's kind of hard to understand.  I'm probably not doing the  subject justice.  I guess the best way I can illustrate is to say:  picture a carpenter's level.  It might   have scars in the wood and nicks in its varnish, but it will still hold to a straight line.  The bubble   keeps it "on the level" (ha).  The Holy Spirit keeps the popes on the level, even if they are chipped or marred vessels.  (Again, God's way of preserving His Church against the gates of hell.)

I'm basically only scratching the surface here.  This seems sufficient for today.  Feel free to post questions in the comments.  I do check them frequently.  I won't assume the position of knowing all the answers.  But I will promise to research and find out, to the best of my ability!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Stepping Down

I'm sure by now everyone has heard the news:  Pope Benedict XVI has submitted a letter of resignation from his position as the pope.  Some reporters are trying to say, "We knew this was going to happen."  Doubtful.  Even reporters in Rome are in shock.

The last time a pope resigned was back in the 1400's.  It is hard to grasp what this means, other than that we will soon have a  new pope.  What I DO know is that we should all be praying with great fervency for the college of cardinals.  They have a great burden of decision on them, that absolutely must be directed by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away.  At that time, though I was not Catholic, I instinctively knew this was a historical moment for, not just the Catholic Church, but for all Christians throughout the world.  That evening, our family attended Mass at St. Stephen's Catholic Church, just to show our support and prayer for all of our brothers and sisters.  We had no idea that, two years later, we too would be Catholic.  And that the new pope, Pope Benedict XVI, would be the supreme bishop of the Church to which we would belong.

Pope Benedict has withstood firestorms of accusations and criticism over the past eight years.  The full force of the clergy scandal, which is still being felt, had to be dealt with.  He stood strong in his compassion for the abused and his abhorrence of the acts which caused their irreparable wounds.  He never wavered in his stance on the issue:  priests and bishops must repent, and love must pour forth to those whose lives had been shattered. 

His position on issues of life and morality have been voiced without apology:  Life is precious.  Marriage is between one man and one woman.  Families need our support, as they are the moorings of a society.

He has consistently promoted and preached the message of the New Evangelization:  Reach those who have never heard the Gospel.  Reach those who have heard, but have not taken it to heart.  Rekindle the flame in your own heart.

Thank you, Pope Benedict, for the strong leadership you have given us.  May God bless you as you allow Him to use you in new ways.  And may God give us a man who will, as you have, cling to the message of the Cross with unwavering fervency.

For a great perspective on Pope Benedict XVI's resignation, see this article by Ryan Eggenberger.