Priests and a Priestly People

Are priests a class apart, separate from the rest of humanity? The Letter to the Hebrews, our weekday reading at Mass, offers an extended reflection on the priesthood of Jesus in the light of Jewish tradition of priesthood found in the temple of Jerusalem. The Letter to the Hebrews was probably written to the Roman church where many Jewish Christians were lamenting the fall of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. Can it throw light on the meaning of priesthood today?.

Jesus is our new high priest, but he did not separate himself from the rest of humanity. He became fully human to bring humanity to God in sacrifice and praise. Here’s how St.Fulgensius of Ruspe explains it:

“When we speak of Christ’s priesthood, what else do we mean than the incarnation? Through this mystery, the Son of God, though himself ever remaining God, became a priest. To him along with the Father, we offer our sacrifice. Yet, through him the sacrifice we now offer is holy, living and pleasing to God. Indeed, if Christ had not sacrificed himself for us, we could not offer any sacrifice. For it is in him that our human nature becomes a redemptive offering.

When we offer our prayers through him, our priest, we confess that Christ truly possesses the flesh of our race. Clearly the Apostle refers to this when he says: Every high priest is taken from among us. He is appointed to act on our behalf in our relationship to God; he is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God.”

A priest embraces the mystery of the Incarnation, the saint says. Like Jesus, priests are called to embrace humanity in its weakness. Following him, they must embrace their own times and place, without isolating themselves from the world they live in.  Otherwise, how can they bring it to God?

All who are baptized also share in the priesthood of Christ. Every Sunday, we gather as a priestly people. The priestly call belongs to us all. “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” we say at Mass. We’re a priestly people.

Timothy and Titus: January 26

Timothy and Titus were companions of St.Paul on his missionary journeys and they continued his mission. Timothy was given leadership of the church at Ephesus; Titus assumed leadership of the church in Crete. We have Paul’s letters to them: one letter to Titus and two letters to Timothy, most likely written from house arrest in Rome.

Like Jesus, Paul never saw himself acting alone or handing on a church that was completely developed. He had men and women companions in his ministry and he recognized a church in transition, evolving from a “way”, a movement, to a church settled in places like Ephesus and Crete. 

We celebrate the feast of Timothy and Titus on January 26th, the day after the feast of Paul’s conversion, as a reminder that Paul recognized others at his side in his work.  They also represent another stage in his ministry.  Paul and the other apostles were to go to the nations, but the church had to be firmly established in every place visited. The roles of bishops, priests and other ministries began to evolve to fulfill that task. In other words, a local church needed to be organized. The church is missionary, global, sent by Jesus to the nations, but it’s also local, part of a town. city, neighborhood.

The gospel has to be proclaimed day by day, “in season and out of season.” Those who proclaim it to the nations have to stay “in that same house, eating and drinking.” They need consistent prayer, a stable base, a home. The feasts of the Conversion of Paul and Timothy and Titus explore those two aspects of the church.

Paul’s  advice to Timothy is especially interesting. “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.”

Sounds like Paul is trying to bolster Timothy’s confidence as he loses a powerful mentor. Timothy needs the gift of God to make the church flourish in its own time in Ephesus. It would be a local church.  I wonder if Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois found a home and were involved there.

Timothy and Titus were given “apostolic virtues” by God to continue the work of Paul and the other apostles, the opening prayer of their feast says. And “May we merit to reach our heavenly homeland” by “living justly and devoutly in this present age.” Like them “we” also are given a task –to work for the church’s growth and development in this present age.

So let’s remember our mentors, mindful that God “ does not give a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self control.” Like the two followers of Paul, we have to hold on to what we are given; it’s our turn to continue their work: “Go into all the world, and proclaim the gospel. I am with you always, says the Lord.”

I see in the notes in the American Bible that the deacons Paul refers to in I Timothy 3, 8-13 may include women as well as men. “This (deacons) seems to refer to women deacons, but may possibly mean the wives of deacons. The former is preferred because the word is used absolutely…”

Why not today? We need women in roles of leadership. I have some in mind who would fit the role very well. I wonder what my mother would say.

Paul’s Conversion: January 25th

Caravaggio, Conversion of Paul

Our yearly church calendar celebrates saints from every age and place because saints are examples of God’s grace present always and everywhere. But some saints are singled out in the liturgy for their importance. One is St. Paul the Apostle, whose dramatic conversion is celebrated on January 25th. His martyrdom, along with Peter, is celebrated June 29th and we read extensively from his writings throughout the church year.

An account of Paul’s conversion ( Acts 22: 3-13) – one of three found in the Acts of the Apostles – is read first at his feast day Mass. St. Luke devotes much of the Acts to Paul’s  missionary journeys ending in Rome. In Mark’s gospel for the feast, Jesus, appearing to this disciples after his resurrection, tells them to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16: 15-18)  

Paul fulfilled that command of Jesus. He writes to the Corinthians: 

“I am the least of the apostles; in fact, since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle; but by God’s grace that is what I am, and the grace that he gave me has not been fruitless. On the contrary, I have worked harder than any of the others: or rather, not I but the grace of God that is with me. (  1 Corthinians 15:9-10)

St. Paul is an example of how far we can rise, from the depths to the heights, and for that reason the church celebrates his conversion.  Paul never forgot that God’s grace raised him from the dust to become  a powerful force in his church and in the world. Paul never forgot he was a Pharisee, intent on eradicating the followers of Jesus who became one of his most loyal disciples. His conversion gave him a boldness that carried him fearlessly to the ends of the earth 

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Jesus says to him from a blinding light. From that meeting Paul received the gift of faith and a mission to bring faith to the gentile world. He never forgot the moment he was blinded by a light that made him see.

  

“Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue a human being is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardour and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them… ” ( St. John Chrysostom)                                                                                             

O God, who taught the whole world

through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,

draw us, we pray, nearer to you

through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,

and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

God, for ever and ever.

Amen.

At the Caves: Mark 5:1-20

Caves along the Sea of Galilee

By Orlando Hernández

The Gospel for Monday of the fourth week in Ordinary Time (Mk 5: 1-20) follows the story from the end of Chapter 4. The disciples, after the terrifying experience of the storm in the Sea of Galilee, “came to the other side of the sea to the territory of the Gerasenes”. They were about to undergo another scary experience. From the caves in the mountainside, a naked, wild-eyed, scarred, bleeding man, strong enough to break chains, crying out in a terrifying voice, runs right up to them! (I have often wondered if any of the disciples stepped up in front of Jesus to defend Him, or if they stayed behind Him!) To what must have been everyone’s relief, the man prostrates himself before Jesus. It turns out, a host of demons have possessed this man, and Jesus drives them out of him. At the end, the man is “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.”

     This story has always had a special, if disturbing, meaning to me. I don’t think I have ever been possessed by demons, but I must confess that, even after all these years with Jesus, I still have all these fears, prejudices, resentments, and hatreds (of myself and others) in my mind and soul, which come out of nowhere and torture me in a way that makes me think of the Gerasene demoniac.

     On the Pilgrimage to Israel this was one of the places that I most wished to visit. There, I wanted to kneel by those cave-tombs on the mountainside and beg Jesus to finally rid me of these personal flaws. The site is neatly kept by the Israeli government as a national park, next to the highway that goes around the Lake. One can visit the ruins of an ancient Orthodox Church and Monastery that commemorates the miracle by Jesus. I was not interested in seeing this place, so I detached myself from the group and climbed up the trail to the steep hills that were dotted with caves. A winding steel staircase led up to the caves but I knew that I did not have enough time, so I stood there at the bottom. I was all alone, surrounded by this arid, lonely landscape. I could imagine the screams of the possessed man echoing all around, and within me. I felt the urgency. If not here and now, when? I threw myself upon the ground and started to beg Jesus, whose presence I felt so strongly, to deliver me from all these things that torment my soul. I moaned. I cried. I yelled. Then, a quiet attitude came within me, not peace, but acceptance. Somehow I felt that the calm, quiet message that my Lord was giving me was this:

     “I will not release you of these ‘demons’. They will be with you until the day you die. They are part of your cross. What I will do is be with you always, and help you to control them. I will never stop teaching you to love yourself and others. You can count on me.” I felt with certainty that this was Jesus’ message. 

     I stayed there for a while, until my wife came to tell me that the group was leaving. I did not say a word during the bus ride back to the hotel in Tiberias. That night I dined and laughed with my fellow Pilgrims. But that moment at the hillside was always in the back of my mind. That night my sleep was troubled, and I kept on dreaming that I was going in and out of those dark caves. To this day this memory haunts me.

     To this day I fight with these elements of negativity within me. Of course, I am not alone. Wonderful people of God surround me, helping me to be a better person. Occasionally , I meditate and pray in Ignatian fashion and visit those caves with my Lord at my side. The Holy Spirit of God fortifies me with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharistic Christ comes within this old, crumbling temple of my soul, and boy, does He clean up! I realize that there is nothing I can do without Him. Without Him there is no meaning in life. 

     The healed Gerasene man wanted to stay with Jesus, but the Lord gave him the mission to stay and give His message to his people. The message, after all, is Love. Lord, You hold me up me with such an awesome Love! Thank You. Let me be an instrument of that Love.

The Possessed Man: Ottheinrich Bible. Library of Congress.

Saint Francis de Sales, January 24

Francis de Sales had a wonderful approach to holiness. He believed in the uniqueness of every person and recognized the variety of ways God works in people’s lives. That led him to believe in respect and dialogue, especially with someone who doesn’t think like you or is from another religious tradition.

Some years ago, I visited a church in Geneva, Switzerland, center of Calvinism in the 16th century, where Francis was the Catholic bishop. A statue in that church (above) pictures him holding a book and a pen in his hand – not a sword.

Geneva was a city of swords then, real and verbal;  religious differences led to conflict and even bloodshed. Francis believed instead in peaceable dialogue.

Dialogue did not mean for him abandoning your own beliefs or being silent about them. It meant examining and measuring your own beliefs more deeply while listening carefully and respectfully to the beliefs of others to find the truth.

Francis de Sales prepared the Catholic Church for the approach to ecumenism it would take in the 20th century at the Second Vatican Council. He would certainly support the ecumenical movement today.  

 The spiritual writings of Saint Francis de Sales have become classics. Here’s something from  “An Introduction to a Devout Life” that reveals the way he thought and taught. God works in quiet ways, as we see in creation itself.

DSC00154

“When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.

“I say that devotion must be practised in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

“Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbour. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganised and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfils all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

“The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.”

You can find this spiritual classic online here.

The opening prayer in today’s liturgy asks God to give us too  Francis’ gentle approach to life: 

O God, who for the salvation of  souls willed that the bishop St. Francis de Sales become all things to all, graciously grant that, following his example we may always display the gentleness of your charity in the service of our neighbor. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A good prayer and a good saint for our contentious times. 

3RD Week in Ordinary Time: Readings and Feasts

JANUARY 23 Mon USA: Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children

[USA: Saint Vincent, Deacon and Martyr; USA: Saint Marianne Cope, Virgin]

5 Heb 9:15, 24-28/Mk 3:22-30 

24 Tue St Francis de Sales, Bishop Doctor Heb 10:1-10/Mk 3:31-35 

25 Wed Conversion of St Paul Apostle Feast Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22/Mk 16:15-18 

26 Thu Sts Timothy and Titus, Bishops Memorial 2 Tm 1:1-8 or Tit 1:1-5 /Mk 4:21-25 

27 Fri Weekday [Saint Angela Merici, Virgin] Heb 10:32-39/Mk 4:26-34 

28 Sat St Thomas Aquinas, Priest Doctor Memorial Heb 11:1-2, 8-19/Mk 4:35-41 

29 SUN 4TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME Zep 2:3; 3:12-13/1 Cor 1:26-31/Mt 5:1-12A

The Conversion of St. Paul (January 25) and his two disciples, Timothy and Titus (January 26). What would our church be without them? During the Octave for Church Unity we pray that God give a converting grace to all the Christian churches that they become the one church Jesus prayed for.

St. Francis de Sales ( Jan 24) was a great communicator when a fractured Europe needed communication. He the patron of publishers; would he be interested in the internet today? St. Thomas Aquinas (Jan 27) is one of the great teachers of the Church.

Two women saints this week are reminders of what women have done in the church. St. Angela Merici (Jan 27)began a community to teach children. Big need today. St Maryanne Cope (Jan 23) was a American nun who, after founding two hospitals in upstate New York, served lepers in Hawaii.

January 23 is also a day of prayer in the United States for the legal protection of unborn children. A major issue in society today.

Praying for Christian Unity

We celebrate a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity every year from the 18th to the 25th of January.

Pope Francis, speaking about ecumenism, said that like the Magi, whom tradition represents as representatives of diverse cultures and peoples, Christians today are “challenged to take our brothers and sisters by the hand… and move forward together.”

Some of the journey together is easier than others, the pope noted, like works of charity together, for example. which draw us closer not only to the poor but to one another.

On the other hand, the journey toward full unity is sometimes more difficult, which “can lead to a certain weariness and temptation to discouragement.

The Pope encouraged Christians to remind themselves “that we are making this journey not as those who already possess God, but as those who continue to seek Him.” He called for courage and patience along the way, in order to encourage and support one another.

 

The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” (Decree on Ecumenism n.1). Ecumenism affects the mission of the church, because the division of Christians prevents the preaching of the gospel and deprives many people of access to the faith” (Ad Gentes, n. 6). Divisions among Christians cause a confusion that hinders people from accepting the gospel today.

Passionist Father Ignatius Spencer, an early pioneer in ecumenical activity, strongly urged more prayer together. Might be a good idea to consider . How can we do it?

St. Agnes, January 21st.

Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Church of St. Agnes, Via Nomentana. Rome

Agnes, a popular Roman woman martyr of the 3rd century, ranks high among the seven women mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia…”

That prayer goes back to St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Some say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women, all strong women who died for their belief. They come from all parts of the church of their time. Felicity and Perpetual are from North Africa, Agatha and Lucy from Sicily, Agnes and Cecilia from Rome, Anastasia originally from Greece.

Details of the story of Agnes, from 5th century sources, may be questioned, but the essential facts about her are true.

St. Agnes, Via Nomentana

A young Roman girl of 13 or so,  Agnes was put to death because she rejected the offer of a highly placed Roman man to become his bride. Incensed, he tried to force Agnes to change her mind; eventually she died for continuing to refuse him.

Women were expected to marry young in those days, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. They were to produce children for Rome, especially soldiers needed for the empire’s many wars.

Agnes’ refusal then to marry one of Rome’s elite was a dangerous decision. With no support from family or friends, alone in a male-dominated society, at a time suspicious of Christians and their beliefs, the little girl sought strength in Jesus Christ. She was a martyr put to death for her faith.

The Golden Legend, a favorite saint book  from the Middle Ages, says that Agnes was true to her name. She was a lamb (Agnus) who followed the Good Shepherd. Though young, she followed truth, never turning away from it. God gave her strength beyond what’s expected for her years.

The story says they put Agnes among the prostitutes found near the racecourse then on the Piazza Navona in Rome. God warded off those who tried to rape her. A church in her honor stands today in the busy piazza; another church over her grave is on the Via Nomentana in Rome. (above)

They finally killed her with a knife to her throat. Heavenly signs surrounded Agnes even then, her story says, assuring her that her faith was not in vain. The One she loved was with her as she struggled.

 

Agnes, the prayer for her feast says, is an example of how God chooses “what is weak in this world to confound the strong.” The young girl was stronger than her powerful killers.  “May we follow her constancy in the faith, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”

Martyrdom of Agnes

The Cross of Confusion

Mark’s Gospel describes growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, but growing numbers also find him hard to understand, the gospel says.

VATICANCRUC

Scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.

Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves too. They may be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but ordinary people of Galilee find him too much for them.

Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.

Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, Mark’s early stories announce the story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.

Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome facing a surprising brutal persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually singled out Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Rome’s Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds his followers they must follow him without always understanding.

Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.

The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.