Monthly Archives: April 2014

“Good Pope John” – Why you shouldn’t overlook Pope St. John XXIII

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Despite my membership in the “John Paul II Generation,” I winced a few times leading up to Sunday, hearing questions like, “Are you going to watch the canonization? Of John Paul II and…uh…that other guy?”

Yes, this Divine Mercy Sunday – April 27, 2014 – two popes were added to the Canon of Saints: Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Saint John XXIII. It would be a tragedy to overlook jolly John, a simple yet revolutionary figure in the history of Catholicism. From the time I began learning about him, he quickly became one of my heroes.

In John Paul II’s homily for the Mass during which he declared John XXIII ‘Blessed’, he said:

Everyone remembers the image of Pope John’s smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world. How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world.

Photo by La Stampa

Photo by La Stampa

Angelo Roncalli was the son of an Italian family (tenant farmers). As a young seminarian, he became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. During World War I, then-Fr. Roncalli was assigned to carry wounded soldiers on stretchers from the field of battle to the field hospital. While a Bishop, he served Vatican City as a diplomat. He was a leader in the Vatican’s efforts that saved hundreds of thousands of European Jews from Nazi deportation. “In Budapest alone, Roncalli rescued at least 50,000 Jews by issuing baptismal certificates” (Catholic World Report). Read his biography; you will be inspired.

This ‘Good Pope John’ has taught me so many lessons. Here are a few:

1. God is calling you to holiness in an unrepeatable way.

Sometimes, I read saint biographies, and I think, “Wow, that is amazing, but that’s not me.” Further, Catholics can get caught up comparing ourselves, our prayer lives, and our talents to Saint So-and-So’s. We can end up more discouraged than inspired.

As a young man, John XXIII kept a spiritual journal, and reflected on this:

“I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way” (Journal of a Soul).

2. Maintain a healthy sense of humor.

Shortly after his election, John XXIII was walking in the streets of Rome. A woman passed by, noticed him, and said to her friend, “My God, he’s so fat!” Having overheard, he turned around and replied, “Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest.”

Famously, a journalist once asked him, “How many people work in the Vatican?”

He responded, “About half of them.”

3. God is in control; it’s OK to relax.

You think your life is stressful? Imagine being the Pope…the man elected to lead 1 billion Catholics around the world, who are facing all types of challenges, living in all different cultures, and with so many needs. Imagine holding the title, ‘Vicar of Christ on Earth’!

John XXIII said, “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it.  Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope…”  Talk about pressure! How did Good Pope John deal with it? At the end of a long day, he is said to have prayed, “Well, Lord, it’s your church. You take care of it. I’m going to bed.”

Simple as that.

4. “I am your brother.”

Having worked in evangelization for several years, I still find it hard to preach the Gospel. Loving others and speaking the truth to them requires us to get our hands dirty; to be present to people wherever they are; to be vulnerable. I fear ridicule, or failure. John XXIII maintained a very simple but profound attitude. He often greeted people saying, “I am your brother.”

Somehow, that phrase changes my perspective. I’m overwhelmed by the thought of approaching people with the Gospel, but when I remind myself, “I am their sister,” my eyes are opened to the simplicity of God’s call. Just be a brother.

5. Most of all — Do not worry. Do not be afraid.

Elected pope at 77, everyone expected John XXIII’s pontificate to be quick and forgettable. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, John’s turned out to be one of the most revolutionary pontificates in history. Most notably, he called for an ecumenical council: a meeting of the entire Church. In Christianity’s 2,000-year history, only twenty of these had been organized. So, why did he do it?

He said this in his opening address at the Second Vatican Council: “In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Rather than flee from the world and lock the church doors behind us, John XXIII envisioned a Church that was empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and bring God’s love. Because John XXIII was unafraid to start a revolution, unafraid of the doom-and-gloom, and unafraid of what people might think of him, today we have a more lively, educated, enthusiastic, culturally-rich Catholic Church.

What a debt we owe him.

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What is Greater than the Wisdom of Solomon?

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. . . apparently the power of women.

Upon giving the throne to his son, David told Solomon, “Take courage and be a man. Keep the mandate of the Lord, your God, following his ways and observing his statutes, commands, ordinances, and decrees as they are written in the law of Moses, that you may succeed in whatever you do, wherever you turn.” (1 Kings 2-3)

Solomon, a smart young man understanding the immense responsibility his father has just bestowed on him, asks God, “O Lord, my God, you have made me, your servant, king to succeed my father David; but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act. I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.” (1 Kings 3:7-9)

God was so thrilled with this prayer that He did in fact give Solomon ‘A heart so wise and understanding that there has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you.” (1 Kings 3:12) To this day, we speak of the wisdom of Solomon and how clever and astute he was in his judgments.

Unfortunately in his later years, Solomon was not so wise. So just how did Solomon go from being the smartest guy ever, enjoying great success and riches, to losing favor with God and causing the loss of his kingdom?

‘When Solomon was old his wives had turned his heart to strange gods, and his heart was not entirely with the Lord, his God.’ (1 Kings 11:4)

It is understandable that Solomon’s wives, taken from tribes outside his Hebrew faith, would naturally want to steer their husband to their beliefs. What is curious though, is why did Solomon listen to them? Why did he turn from the God he knew all his life, the Source of his wisdom, to these new and strange gods?

Could it be that the influence of woman is greater than the intelligence of man?

What may surprise you is that the Catholic Church has always professed this feminine influence and directly addressed women concerning their power on December 8, 1965, in the closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, when Pope Paul VI wrote:

“And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states—girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone—you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.”

So, what does the discovery of this feminine power, an influence so great we can bring down kingdoms, mean for us women?

As I see it, we have three choices:

1)    We can deny this power and continue to believe the culture’s mantra that women are victims with no voice (even though more women than men graduate with a college degree these days; and women have reached the top-echelon in all areas including industry, education, medicine and politics.)

2)    We can accept it and choose to wield this power for our own interests.

3)    We can embrace this gift and use our influence to give glory to the One who gave it us.

Assuming you are as wise as our ‘younger’ brother, Solomon, and chose number 3, here are some ways we can respond to the Church’s call to ‘acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved so as to aid mankind in not falling:’

  • We can become ‘impregnated with the Gospel’ by taking Catholic faith/bible studies on a consistent basis.
  • We can pray daily for wisdom to live a life of virtue and ask for the intercession of the woman most powerful, our Blessed Mother, in living out our vocation to womanhood.
  • We can frequent the Sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation and humbly ask Jesus to remove all obstacles that prevent us from influencing our family, friends, co-workers, etc. and turning their hearts to God.
  • We can transform the world! . . . . by simply being the woman God has created us to be.

Choose wisely, Sister!

The Night is Coming

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“The Raising of Lazarus” by Rembrandt, 1630

The gospel reading from this past Sunday’s liturgy seems to be one that has several odd quirks tossed in.

The basic outline of the resurrection of Lazarus is familiar enough: Jesus has retreated west of the Jordan River to the place where John baptized him, when he hears from Mary and Martha that their brother is ill. So he waits a few days – this part is shocking, but understandable – until Lazarus has died, and then goes to resurrect him, giving glory to God and bringing Mary, Martha and the disciples to a deeper faith in the process. The point being that here is a kind of preview of the death and resurrection that we will experience in him.

There’s another layer to the narrative, though, that gets hinted at throughout.

First, Jesus’ initial reply seems maybe a little dry in light of the urgent news that had come from Bethany, a two-day’s journey away. He says with noticeable lack of alarm, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” – which must have been a bit less and a bit more than what they were expecting.

There is a tinge of that, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already in flames!” impatience, but more muted, more compressed. Understandable: he spent thirty years watching, observing, living an ordinary life, such that no one expected to see the “carpenter’s son” making such waves. Now it’s time for action, and there’s not always time to explain everything! He sounds almost like a parent to the disciples.You don’t get it? Okay, let’s go, you’ll see.

And he is glad for the coming glory of God, but it’s not there yet. Lazarus will be resurrected, but for now he’s deadThen Thomas says something curious and unelaborated: “Let us also go to die with him.”

Commenting on this passage at the Catholic Seniors’ Conference this past weekend, Fr. Carl Beavers s noted that when Jesus retreated to this place along the Jordan, it was to rest and bask in the serenity of the breezy locale. He was speaking from experience, having visited the Holy Land and been to the peaceful riverside. Fr. Beavers recalled that Jesus had just struggled with a thick-headed Nicodemus, and then escaped from a crowd that wanted to stone him. He probably did need a breather.

There’s a deeper significance, too. This was the place where Christ first publicly threw in his lot with us. There was no need for him to receive the baptism of repentance, but he did so “to fulfill all righteousness.” God willed that he would show his unity with a broken humanity in submitting to the baptism of John. He was not just making a guest appearance on earth only to whisk back up to heaven before getting his hands dirty. This was where he began to publicly intertwine his life with ours, and John, in turn, is alarmed for us: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”

After the baptism, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the voice of God came from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” After humility and meekness, here is the sublime encouragement and affection of the Father. Then Jesus goes out to the desert to suffer in fasting and temptation, being steeped further into the poverty of the human condition, and being prepared for ministry.

When Jesus and the disciples get to Bethany, Martha goes out to meet him. She confides, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died, but even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Seeing the maturity of her faith, he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,” and he asks her point-blank, “Do you believe this?”

More confidence from Martha: “Yes, Lord.” Mary, on the other hand, is more shaken. She falls at Jesus’ feet (again) and weeps, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and stops there. She’s also confident like Martha, but overwhelmed.

The words of the Father bring up another parallel, one still to come on Mt. Tabor, where Christ is transfigured. There a voice comes from the clouds: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” More fatherly comfort, reassurance, and preparation. Shortly after, “he set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem,” where he would be crucified.

Where, despite their protests of faithfulness, Thomas’ eerie pre-notion, “Let us also go die with him,” would be reversed in their abandoning him.

Jesus knew all along that he would resurrect Lazarus. The disciples did not understand, but he gathered them up and set off resolutely toward Bethany, with what must have been an astounding equanimity. In a single curt breath, he tells them, “Our friend Lazarus… has died.  And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”

Solid marriage advice holds that when one spouse is freaking out, the other should be calm. Christ’s calm in the midst of Martha and Mary’s grief and the disciples’ confusion is appropriate. Come, hurry, let’s go, he tells the disciples. “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

Our night is as the day to God, he sees beyond the inexplicable. But even Christ cannot escape stumbling in the darkness, immersed as he is in our condition. His unique identity as the Father’s beloved Son is now intertwined with his unique mission as the Incarnate Word of God, come to draw us to himself. When he sees the sorrowful heart of Mary, he is “perturbed and deeply troubled.” He was composed before, but when he sees the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps. He knows that the resurrection is coming, but he is no stoic. His friend is dead, his loved ones are mourning. His heart aches with them.

After his transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, Jesus predicts his passion. He says, “The Son of Man must suffer,” by being “handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day,” and the disciples “were overwhelmed with grief” (Matt 17). It says nothing about Christ’s feelings, nothing of any trouble on his brow. Perhaps the memory of his Father’s voice was still fresh in his mind.

Then once more, when he gets to his destination, darkness: in the Garden of Gethsemane, now his own death is closer and he sweats blood as he prays. Like Mary outside of Bethany, now it’s Christ (divine, yet so much like us) who falls prostrate at the feet of the Father, so to speak, and confides his perturbed and deeply troubled heart, and his faithfulness.

The night comes. Stumbling: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We only get glimpses of his glory in this life, and it’s enough. Not to always prevent us from being overwhelmed, not to always save us from dark nights and sweating blood, and certainly not to offer an escape from the concrete to the abstract; but to enliven us during the many trials that put us to all kinds of death. Again, Jesus observed us quietly for thirty years – he takes for granted that our lives will be filled with poverties and darkness, which he will use to draw us into himself, his life. By grace, especially since baptism, he grafts our death into his own, because we are one. By grace, his life is our life, and vice versa, because we are one. His grace is enough to make the Gospel our wise red blood.

We’re closing in on Holy Week. We started Lent with resolution, setting our face toward Jerusalem, then still a way’s away. We’ve walked in the light, and we hope to do so again in Easter’s dawn. But now, the night is near. Come, let us also go die with him.