Monthly Archives: February 2022

FEBRUARY 28-MARCH 6: WELCOME TO LENT

FEBRUARY 28 Mon Weekday1 Pt 1:3-9/Mk 10:17-27 

MARCH 1 Tue Weekday 1 Pt 1:10-16/Mk 10:28-31

1 Tue The Prayer of Jesus in the Garden, Her 5:1-9/ Lk222:39-46

2 Wed Ash Wednesday Jl 2:12-18/2 Cor 5:20—6:2/Mt 6:1-6, 16-18 

3 Thu after Ash Wednesday [USA: Saint Katharine Drexel, Virgin]

Dt 30:15-20/Lk 9:22-25 

4 Fri after Ash Wednesday [Saint Casimir] Is 58:1-9a/Mt 9:14-15 

5 Sat after Ash Wednesday Is 58:9b-14/Lk 5:27-32

6 SUN FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT Dt 26:4-10/Rom 10:8-13/Lk 4:1-13 

The final daily readings from Mark’s gospel, Monday and Tuesday, introduce the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Monday the rich young man ( Mk 10:17-27) hesitates before the invitation of Jesus. He represents  humanity hesitant before God’s gracious invitation.

The Passionist calendar, Tuesday, offer a memorial of the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden. St. Paul of the Cross understood the need to pray in order to  enter into the mysteries of God.

The readings and rites of Ash Wednesday offer basic directions for entering the Lenten season–prayer, fasting and almsgiving. How will ashes be administered this year?

The 1st Sunday of Lent recalls the Temptation of Jesus, this year from the Gospel of Luke. This year the pandemic seems in decline, but war isn’t. The world is still in a desert.

During Lent saints’ feast days are few, so as not to overshadow the readings and events of the season. Most feasts of the saints celebrated are optional memorials in the liturgical calendar of the USA. 

St. Gabriel Possenti, CP

gabriel

St. Gabriel Possenti, whose feastday is today, was born on March 1, 1838, the 11th child of Agnes and Sante Possenti, governor of Assisi, Italy. Gabriel was baptized Francis after that city’s famous patron. He had everything a privileged child could hope for.

In 1841, the Possentis moved to Spoleto and Gabriel fell under the spell of that city’s bright social world. Spoleto was influenced by the Enlightenment, a movement that preferred what’s new to what’s old.

Lively, headstrong, intelligent, he was educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits. Popular, usually head of his class, he embraced the city’s latest fashions, plays, dances and sporting events. Gabriel was charmed by it all.

Yet, something else kept calling him. A year after moving to Spoleto his mother Agnes died. Her death and the death of two brothers and three sisters made him think seriously about life. A couple of times he almost died himself. He heard Jesus calling him to give up everything and follow him, but then the call seemed to fade away.

In the spring of 1856, a fierce cholera epidemic struck Spoleto and Gabriel’s favorite sister died in the plague. Overwhelmed by the tragedy, the people of the city processed through the streets with an ancient image of Mary, praying that she intercede to stop the plague and help them bear their heavy cross.

It was a transforming experience for Gabriel, who was drawn into the presence of Mary, the Sorrowful Mother. Passing the familiar mansions where he partied many nights, the theater and opera that entertained him so often, he realized what little wisdom they offered now. He took his place at Mary’s side and at her urging joined the Passionist Congregation.

In a letter home, Gabriel described his new life as a Passionist to his father: “ I would not trade even fifteen minutes here for a year or any amount of time filled with shows and other pastimes of Spoleto. Indeed my life is filled with happiness.”

Gabriel died on February 27, 1862 and was canonized in 1920. He’s a saint for young people looking for the pearl of great price, but sometimes in the wrong place. May St. Gabriel help them find it in the right place. Interested in becoming a Passionist?

Lord God,

you hide your gifts “ from the learned and clever,

but reveal them to the merest children.”

Show your love to the young of today,

and call them to follow you.

Give them the grace you gave St.Gabriel,

grace to know you as good.

grace to judge life wisely,

grace to be joyful of heart.

Amen

Speaking the Truth:Mark 10:1-12

Christ Questioned. James Tissot

Often Mark’s Gospel offers little clues to help us interpret one passage in the light of another. For example, Jesus is sharply questioned by the Pharisees whether it’s lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. The questioning takes place as Jesus “came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan,” on his way up to Jerusalem where he will meet his death.

Mark’s not altogether accurate in his geography but “Judea across the Jordan” was where John the Baptist was put to death for questioning the validity of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who divorced Herod’s brother Philip to marry him. Mark tells that gruesome story a few chapters before in great detail. (Mark 6, 14-29) The site of John’s death, east of the Dead Sea in what is now the country of Jordan, was lost for more than a thousand years after it was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 71/72 A.D. It was definitively identified in 1968, when a German scholar discovered the remains of a Roman siege wall. Since then, the Hungarian architect and archaeologist Dr Győző Vörös has been excavating the site.

Perhaps the Pharisees thought that questioning Jesus here might have two outcomes. Either it might incite Herodias and Herod to do to Jesus what they did to John, or if Jesus didn’t answer the delicate question about divorce, the crowds gathered around him might see him less brave than the Baptist.

Jesus’ answer is brave, and it’s not an abstract one. Marriage is not to satisfy human ambition, like Herodias’ ambition. From the beginning God willed that man and woman be one flesh. The final lines of our gospel, spoken at this time and place, is also a strong judgment on the man and woman who engineered John’s death:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Meditating on the Passion of Christ

The Passionists believe the passion of Christ should always be in our hearts. We should keep it always in mind. St. Vincent Strambi in our previous blog called the passion of Jesus  a “ book of life, it teaches the way to live and communicates life. The one who reads this book day and night is blessed.”

How can we read such a book? Three questions help open the book of the Passion of Jesus for us:

What happened?

Who did it happen to?        

Why did it happen to him? 

If you asked anyone at the time of Jesus what happened when someone was crucified, they would tell you immediately. Everyone in the Roman world knew what crucifixion was. Someone was arrested, imprisoned and judged. If you were found guilty of a major crime and not a Roman citizen, you could be scourged and then crucified publicly, often dying painfully hanging there for days.

The Romans used scourging and crucifixion as a deterrent, a warning. They made sure everybody knew about it. They deliberately publicized it. Those to be crucified were marched through the streets to a public place of execution. In Jerusalem the place of execution where Jesus was crucified was right outside the city gates on a main road. It took place on a raised spot of ground the shape of a skull, Calvary. 

People going in and out of the city had to see it. They were meant to see it. The crown of thorns the soldiers put on Jesus was an added touch: Don’t try to be a king here.

Crucifixion was abolished in the Roman Empire in 337 by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, but even before some Romans were critical of the practice. The Roman orator Cicero called it “ a most cruel and disgusting punishment” and he suggested  “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s presence, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears”. (Verrine Orations 2) In polite society, art and Roman literature at the time of Jesus crucifixion is hardly mentioned. 

We’re not acquainted with crucifixion today as the people of Jesus’ time were. Today people may know it from Mel Gibson’s popular film “The Passion of the Christ”, which explores the passion of Jesus in grim visual detail. Gibson has none of Cicero’s qualms about crucifixion. He shows what happened, but doesn’t answer those two other questions much, if at all. Who is this? And why was he crucified?

Bill O’Reilly’s recent book “Killing Jesus ”  (2017) also looks at the facts of the crucifixion of Jesus but doesn’t dwell on them as Gibson does. Like other reporters, O’Reilly is interested in the facts. Get the facts, but also find a scoop, something sensational, that might surprise people by your investigation.

Facts are important in our world. We’re living in the period of the Enlightenment that began in the16th century, when science told us to look for facts.  But facts aren’t the only thing. Meditation on the passion of Jesus goes beyond the facts.

Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, our primary sources for the story of the passion of Jesus, certainly knew the facts of his crucifixion and death. Their audience also knew what happened then. But the gospel writers and those they wrote for were also interested in those other questions. “Who did this happen to?”  And “Why did it happen to him”?

The gospel accounts are not simply same day reports of what happened. They were formed over a period of time involving three levels of development. The first level occurred when Jesus was arrested, judged, crucified, died and was buried.

The second level took place in the decades that followed the resurrection of Jesus, when his followers questioned, reflected and preached on why this took place. This level can be seen, for example, in the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel ( Lk 24:13-35) and in the Letters of St. Paul.

The third level occurred in the last decades of the 1st century when the gospel writers wrote for a particular Christian community of their own time and place . They took into account the life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and also the questions, reflections and preaching that followed. They wrote, finally, for  people of their day, to strengthen them in their faith. Commentators today, using modern biblical scholarship, are interested especially in this final level of gospel formation. 

The Second Vatican Council urged Catholics to read, reflect and pray on the scriptures using these new tools.The four gospels, even the three synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke that appear so similar, have their own distinct voice. Instead of harmonizing the accounts, we can learn from their differences.

“Each of the gospels revolves around the crucifixion of Jesus,” Fr. Donald Senior, a Passionist scriptural scholar, notes in his book “The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” (Collegeville, MN, 1985) Their interest “was not simply in the dramatic historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by crucifixion. Rather, the evangelists sought the meaning of all this, not only for Jesus’ life, but for all human life. How could this happen? And what purpose might it have? These were the questions that drew Christians to Jesus’ death. Discovering coherence in the sufferings of Jesus might yield the meaning of suffering in their own lives.” ( p 8)

Each gospel writer tells the story of the passion of Jesus in his own distinct way for his own Christian community, and for all the world.

“When we speak of Christ’s passion,” Fr. Senior continues, ‘we refer to the suffering and death he endured. But “passion” has other connotations in English. It can mean intense emotion, feeling, even commitment. People can do things “with passion.”

Both of these meanings are present when we say Jesus “took up his cross.”

The Second Vatican Council, besides approving current biblical scholarship,   directed that the treasures of the scriptures be available more widely in our liturgy. We now have, in a lectionary for Sundays and weekdays, an extensive yearly exposure to the gospels and others scriptures. Daily reading of the scriptures for us today is not only a way to grow in faith but also a way to “keep his passion in mind.” 

The gospels, which “revolve around the crucifixion,” are also daily meditations on the passion of Jesus, because the mystery of the cross falls on every part of them, from his birth, to his ministry of healing and teaching, to time he is arrested and condemned to death. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Herod haunts his birth, killing infants in Bethlehem, John the Baptist is arrested after his baptism, leaders of the people oppose him as he teaches and heals. Signs of what awaits Jesus appear even before he’s seized and put to death. The same ominous pattern is there in all the other gospels. 

For this reason, as we read from Matthew and Luke in the Christmas season and from Mark from the feast of his Baptism by John till Ash Wednesday beginning Lent,  we keep his passion in mind. As we read in Lent from Matthew and then from John from the 4th week of Lent till Holy Week, we are reading the book of his cross.

We are best prepared to meditate on the passion narrative itself by meditating on the entire gospel along with the rest of the scriptures. Jesus, in fact, told his disciples at Emmaus they all speak of him.

The scriptures are the best place to learn what happened, who did it happen to, and why did it happen to him. They help us keep his passion in mind.

Solemn Commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ

Sign

The Passionists celebrate the Solemn Commemoration of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Friday before Ash Wednesday before Lent and Easter begin. If you want to pray this feast with the Passionist, see here.

Here’s St Cyril of Jerusalem on this mystery:

“The Catholic Church glories in every deed of Christ. Her supreme glory, however, is the cross. Well aware of this, Paul says: God forbid that I glory in anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!

“At Siloam, there was a sense of wonder, and rightly so: a man born blind recovered his sight. Yet still, how many blind people are left in the world! Lazarus rose from the dead, but even this affected only Lazarus: what of the countless numbers who die because of their sins? Those miraculous loaves fed five thousand people; yet this is a small number compared to all those now still starving in ignorance.

“For us all, however, the cross is the crown of victory. Indeed, it has redeemed the whole of humanity!” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem)

“A book of life, it teaches the way to life and communicates life,” the Passionist bishop Vincent Strambi writes. “The one who reads this book day and night is blessed.”

“The Passion of Jesus is a “sea of suffering” but also a “sea of love,” St. Paul of the Cross writes. So many do not know the depths of this mystery.  “Like people living in a swamp,” he says,  an image probably taken from the swamp lands of the Tuscan Maremma in Italy where Paul ministered  much of his life.

“We must awaken them from their sad state. We must send them quickly zealous workers, truly poor in spirit and detached from every creature, that by the trumpet of God’s word they might, through the holy Passion of Christ, awaken those who ‘sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

Almighty God,

awaken within us a spirit of prayer.

Give us devotion to the Passion of your Son

and the grace of fostering it in others

by our preaching and example,

and we ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Feasts for Tired Believers

Central Italy, 1800s

The Passionists celebrate two feasts immediately before Ash Wednesday. The Solemn Commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ on the Friday before Ash Wednesday. The Prayer of Jesus in the Garden on Tuesday before that day.

I think both feasts are inspired by our missionary founder, St. Paul of the Cross, (1694-1775) who spent many years announcing the graces of lent in the villages and towns of the Tuscan Maremma in Italy..

It was a challenge. The Tuscan Maremma was then a place where graces seemed gone. An area in Central Italy facing the Mediterranean Sea, almost 2,000 square miles– roughly the size of Long Island and New York City together– it was the poorest, most troubled part of Italy in Paul’s day. Only gradually, towards the end of the 1700s, after his death, did it begin inching towards recovery.

St.PaulCross.017

Now Tuscanny is a popular tourist destination. Then it was an unhealthily mix of hills and swamplands. Malaria was widespread, roads often impassible, dangerous because of bandits. Farmlands were abandoned; beggars everywhere. The people in isolated villages and hill towns suspected outsiders.

Paul and his companions preached there for many years. Every year it was the same; it never seemed to change. You need other eyes and another kind of heart to work in a world like that and not get tired.

And so I think as they packed their bags for their lenten journey into the Tuscan Maremma they had to remind themselves what was there before them: the mystery of the Passion of Christ. They needed to pray so they wouldn’t forget. That’s what Jesus did before the mystery of his Passion.

It’s still so today, isn’t it?,. These two feasts are for tired believers, as well as missionaries, who face the world where things don’t seem to change. We need another way of seeing things and another kind of heart to journey on..

If you want to pray these feasts with the Passionists, go here.

Desiring God

Always good to listen to St. Augustine when he’s reflecting on a favorite theme: Desiring God.

“The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. 

By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: ‘Not that I have already obtained this’, he said, ‘or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it.’

We might ask him, ‘If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?’ This one thing I do, answers Paul, ‘forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above.’ Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realised in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.”

Let me desire what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.

Feast of St. Polycarp

Agora, Ismir (Smyrna). Wiki Commons

Today’s the feast of St. Polycarp. Some years ago, I visited Izmir in Turkey where Polycarp, a revered Christian bishop, was martyred about the year 155. The city was then called  Smyrna.  Now predominantly Muslim, there’s a small church of St. Polycarp in the city and up the mountain is the ancient agora and the ruins of the stadium where Polycarp was burned to death by the Romans.

The account of his martyrdom, sent to other Christian churches by the Christians of Smyrna, is one of the most interesting documents of the early church. Polycarp was an old man, 86. As a child he knew John the Apostle and was a friend of Ignatius of Antioch, another early bishop martyred for the faith. He was also a teacher of Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyon in Gaul.

The old bishop went to his death peacefully and heroically, the account indicates:

“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.

There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.

Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.

“I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.”

When he had said “Amen” and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others. Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.”

One small incident occurred on our visit to Izmir I still remember. It happened during our visit to the Church of St. Polycarp, which is today the only Christian presence in a Muslim city. The custodian asked us to sign our names in the visitors’ book and as I did I noticed many signatures in Korean. When I asked about them, the custodian said the church is a favorite pilgrimage destination for Korean Catholics.

Somebody must have told Polycarp’s story in Korea and it must have impressed them there. A missionary priest or sister, perhaps? Heroes inspire us, old heroes as well as young. Who knows? But we need more Polycarps.

Here’s how Polycarp answered the judge who urged him to renounce his faith and live:

“I have been a servant of Christ for eighty-six years and no evil has come near me: how can I now speak against my king who has saved me?”