Tag Archives: Passionists

The Passion of John the Baptist: Mark 6:14-29

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Mark’s gospel today tells the gruesome story of the death of John the Baptist, which prefigures the death of Jesus. King Herod ordered his death, prompted by Herodias. Human sinfulness is on display in this court banquet, which the artist (above) describes very well. The women smugly presenting John’s head. The man pointing his finger at Herod and Herod denying it all. John’ eyes are still open, his mouth still speaks.

Venerable Bede says that John’s death is like Jesus’ death because they both embraced the same values.  If John stayed silent about Herod’s conduct, he may have gained a few peaceful years of life, but he was more concerned with what God thought than what powerful people on earth thought.

“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?

He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.

“But heaven notices– not the span of our lives, but how we live them, speaking the truth.” (Bede, Homily)

Wonderful line: It doesn’t matter how many years we live, but how we live them, “speaking the truth.”

For John that meant dying for the truth. What does it mean for us? It may not mean getting our heads chopped off, but we should expect some scars from the daily battle for God’s truth. ” May we fight hard for the confession of what you teach.” (Opening prayer)

The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Acquinas

The feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, January 28th, in my student days was a day for presentations honoring the saint. The presentations were not about the saint’s life but his wisdom. Thomas Aquinas was a great theologian dedicated to the search for truth.

He was a man of faith, searching for understanding. That’s the definition of theology–faith seeking understanding, an understanding that draws us closer to God and helps us know God, the source of all truth.

He was a man of questions, who approached great mysteries through questions. That’s the way St. Thomas begins a sermon he once preached, found today in the Office of Readings for his feast:

 “Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us?” he asks as he looks at the Cross of Jesus. The passion of Jesus was necessary, the saint says, for two reasons. First, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

Interestingly, the saint doesn’t spend much time asking why it’s a remedy for sin. He’s more interested in the passion of Jesus as an example for us. To live as we should, we need to look at Jesus on the cross, an example of every virtue:

“Do you want an example of love? ‘Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That’s what Jesus did on the cross. If he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.

“If you want patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid.

“Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.

“If you want an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

“If you want an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.

“If you want an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

“Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honours, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

St. Thomas’ great theological work, the Summa Theologica can be found here.

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.

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.

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“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. 

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

Paul in Sin City

We’re reading Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian for the next few weeks at Sunday Mass. Paul wrote a number of letters to the Christian community he founded after reaching Corinth about the year 50. It was the most exasperating community Paul dealt with, but the Corinthians made him think about faith, so we can thank them for keeping Paul on his toes.

Corinth was a rich, sprawling seaport, being rebuilt as Paul arrived, a frontier city attracting ambitious people from all over the Roman world. They were people who wanted to get ahead. Corinth was a city of “self-made” people; only the tough survived there. It was also a center for prostitution and sexual commerce. We could call it a “sin” city.

Maybe that was a reason why Paul wanted to establish a church there. He was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. Where could be better meet Gentiles than a seaport connected to the whole world. If Christianity could take root there, it could take root anywhere.

When Paul arrived there around the year 50 AD, he did what anybody has to do when they go to a new place– find a place to stay and get a job. He stayed in the house of Prisca and Aquila, a Jewish Christian couple who owned a small shop in Corinth. He worked as a tentmaker in their shop. He met people, and Paul spoke to them of Jesus Christ, and they believed.

Then on the Sabbath in the synagogue he made contacts too, but I think Paul probably did most of his preaching while working. A lot of things can happen when you are working.

To form new believers, Paul asked some of his friends with large houses to hold meetings there. A lot of things happen in homes that don’t happen in church.

Paul generally founded a church and moved on. But when he moved on, troubles often started in many of those communities, so sometimes he wrote letters, and sometimes he had to come back himself to try to straighten things out. There were some grave problems in the church at Corinth. The church was split into factions, based on wealth, status and friendship. It also was confused about sexual morality.

Paul reminded the Corinthians where they came from and who they were. Not many of you were wise or well-born, he told them. God chooses the weak things.

God still does.

Keeping Heroes in Mind

We’re reading the Letter to the Hebrews at length these days in our liturgy at Mass. Why was this written? When and to whom was it written? Interpreters of the Letter to the Hebrews ask these questions to understand this writing better.

Obviously Hebrews is written to Jewish-Christians, some think in Rome which had a substantial Jewish-Christian population in the 1st century. It was written after a time of persecution, perhaps when the Emperor Claudius banished Jewish Christians from the city in 49 AD because they were causing riots in Rome’s synagogues in disputes over Jesus Christ. Or maybe a later persecution.

Did that  cause the followers of Jesus there to tamper down their efforts and embrace their faith less fully? Perhaps. The writer of Hebrews warns his hearers against “drawing back” and “losing confidence” in the faith they profess. Were they losing their enthusiasm? That sounds like something that happens to us too.

Keep before you the heroes of faith, beginning with Jesus, the author of Hebrews says as he draws up for them a lengthy list of inspiring believers.

“For, after just a brief moment, he who is to come shall come; he shall not delay. But my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.”

 To that list of Old Testament heroes we can add the saints of the New Testament and saints of our times. They can inspire us too.