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Today is the feastday of St. Bonaventure.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had a lot to say about this saint, beginning with his academic formation:

Benedict XVI himself gave us an idea of this intellectual background in a speech he gave to a group of scholars several years ago, before he was Pope.

He said this: “My doctoral dissertation was about the notion of the people of God in St. Augustine. … Augustine was in dialogue with Roman ideology, especially after the occupation of Rome by the Goths in 410, and so it was very fascinating for me to see how in these different dialogues and cultures he defines the essence of the Christian religion. He saw Christian faith, not in continuity with earlier religions, but rather in continuity with philosophy as a victory of reason over superstition. …”

So, we might argue that one major step in Ratzinger’s own theological formation was to understand Christianity as “in continuity with philosophy” and as “a victory of reason over superstition.”

Then Ratzinger took a second step. He studied Bonaventure.

“My postdoctoral work was about St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian of the 13th century,” Ratzinger continued. “I discovered an aspect of Bonaventure’s theology not found in the previous literature, namely, his relation with the new idea of history conceived by Joachim of Fiore in the 12th century. Joachim saw history as progression from the period of the Father (a difficult time for human beings under the law), to a second period of history, that of the Son (with more freedom, more openness, more brotherhood), to a third period of history, the definitive period of history, the time of the Holy Spirit.

“According to Joachim, this was to be a time of universal reconciliation, reconciliation between east and west, between Christians and Jews, a time without the law (in the Pauline sense), a time of real brotherhood in the world.

“The interesting idea which I discovered was that a significant current among the Franciscans was convinced that St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order marked the beginning of this third period of history, and it was their ambition to actualize it; Bonaventure was in critical dialogue with this current.”

So, we might argue, Ratzinger drew from Bonaventure a conception of human history as unfolding in a purposeful way, toward a specific goal, a time of deepened spiritual insight, an “age of the Holy Spirit.”

Where classical philosophy spoke of the eternity of the world, and therefore of the cyclical “eternal return” of all reality, Bonaventure, following Joachim, condemned the concept of the eternity of the world, and defended the idea that history was a unique and purposeful unfolding of events which would never return, but which would come to a conclusion.

History had meaning.

History was related to, and oriented toward, meaning — toward the Logos … toward Christ.

This is not to say that Ratzinger — or Bonaventure — made any of the specific interpretations of Joachim his own. It is to say that Ratzinger, like Bonaventure, entered into “critical dialogue” with his overall conception — that history had a shape and a meaning — that he, like Bonaventure, took it quite seriously

(You can, of course, purchase the published version of the dissertation.)

On July 15, 2012, he spoke about Bonaventure at the Sunday Angelus:

Jesus Christ is the inspiring centre of St Bonaventure’s entire life and likewise of his theology. We rediscover this centrality of Christ in the Second Reading of today’s Mass (Eph 1:3-14), the famous hymn of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. The Apostle thus shows in the four passages, that all begin with the same words: “in him”, with reference to Jesus, how this plan of blessing was brought about. “In him”, the Father chose us before the creation of the world; “in him” we have redemption through his blood; “in him” we became his heirs, predestined to live “for the praise of his glory”; “in him” all those who believe in the Gospel receive the seal of the Holy Spirit. This Pauline hymn contains the vision of history which St Bonaventure St. Bonaventure helped to spread in the Church: the whole of history is centred on Christ, who also guarantees in every era new things and renewal. In Jesus, God said and gave all things, but since he is an inexhaustible treasure, the Holy Spirit never ceases to reveal and to actualize his mystery. So it is that the work of Christ and of the Church never regresses but always progresses.

And then, as part of his lengthy series of General Audience talks on great figures of Christian history and thought (beginning with the Apostles), he had three sessions on Bonaventure:

Part 1 (3/3/2010) offers an outline of his life

In those years in Paris, Bonaventure’s adopted city, a violent dispute was raging against the Friars Minor of St Francis Assisi and the Friars Preachers of St Dominic de Guzmán. Their right to teach at the university was contested and doubt was even being cast upon the authenticity of their consecrated life. Of course, the changes introduced by the Mendicant Orders in the way of understanding religious life, of which I have spoken in previous Catecheses, were so entirely new that not everyone managed to understand them. Then it should be added, just as sometimes happens even among sincerely religious people, that human weakness, such as envy and jealousy, came into play. Although Bonaventure was confronted by the opposition of the other university masters, he had already begun to teach at the Franciscans’ Chair of theology and, to respond to those who were challenging the Mendicant Orders, he composed a text entitled Evangelical Perfection. In this work he shows how the Mendicant Orders, especially the Friars Minor, in practising the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, were following the recommendations of the Gospel itself. Over and above these historical circumstances the teaching that Bonaventure provides in this work of his and in his life remains every timely: the Church is made more luminous and beautiful by the fidelity to their vocation of those sons and daughters of hers who not only put the evangelical precepts into practice but, by the grace of God, are called to observe their counsels and thereby, with their poor, chaste and obedient way of life, to witness to the Gospel as a source of joy and perfection.

Part 2 focuses on Bonaventure’s theology, and is important to read – it’s still applicable:

In a special way, in St Bonaventure’s day a trend among the Friars Minor known as the “Spirituals” held that St Francis had ushered in a totally new phase in history and that the “eternal Gospel”, of which Revelation speaks, had come to replace the New Testament. This group declared that the Church had now fulfilled her role in history. They said that she had been replaced by a charismatic community of free men guided from within by the Spirit, namely the “Spiritual Franciscans”. This group’s ideas were based on the writings of a Cistercian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In his works he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm in history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Fathers, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. The third age was to be awaited, that of the Holy Spirit. The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history of progress:  from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative freedom of the time of the Son, in the Church, to the full freedom of the Sons of God in the period of the Holy Spirit. This, finally, was also to be the period of peace among mankind, of the reconciliation of peoples and of religions. Joachim of Fiore had awakened the hope that the new age would stem from a new form of monasticism. Thus it is understandable that a group of Franciscans might have thought it recognized St Francis of Assisi as the initiator of the new epoch and his Order as the community of the new period the community of the Age of the Holy Spirit that left behind the hierarchical Church in order to begin the new Church of the Spirit, no longer linked to the old structures.

Hence they ran the risk of very seriously misunderstanding St Francis’ message, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church. This error entailed an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole….

…..

The Franciscan Order of course as he emphasized belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and cannot be built on utopian spiritualism. Yet, at the same time, the newness of this Order in comparison with classical monasticism was valid and St Bonaventure as I said in my previous Catechesis defended this newness against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris:  the Franciscans have no fixed monastery, they may go everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely the break with stability, the characteristic of monasticism, for the sake of a new flexibility that restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.

At this point it might be useful to say that today too there are views that see the entire history of the Church in the second millennium as a gradual decline. Some see this decline as having already begun immediately after the New Testament. In fact,”Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”:  Christ’s works do not go backwards but forwards. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the spirituality of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross and so forth? This affirmation applies today too: “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt”, they move forward. St Bonaventure teaches us the need for overall, even strict discernment, sober realism and openness to the newness, which Christ gives his Church through the Holy Spirit. And while this idea of decline is repeated, another idea, this “spiritualistic utopianism” is also reiterated. Indeed, we know that after the Second Vatican Council some were convinced that everything was new, that there was a different Church, that the pre-Conciliar Church was finished and that we had another, totally “other” Church an anarchic utopianism! And thanks be to God the wise helmsmen of the Barque of St Peter, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on the one hand defended the newness of the Council, and on the other, defended the oneness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.

Part 3 on other aspects of Bonaventure’s theology, again, still applicable:

His defence of theology is along the same lines, namely, of the rational and methodical reflection on faith. St Bonaventure lists several arguments against engaging in theology perhaps also widespread among a section of the Franciscan friars and also present in our time: that reason would empty faith, that it would be an aggressive attitude to the word of God, that we should listen and not analyze the word of God (cf. Letter of St Francis of Assisi to St Anthony of Padua). The Saint responds to these arguments against theology that demonstrate the perils that exist in theology itself saying: it is true that there is an arrogant manner of engaging in theology, a pride of reason that sets itself above the word of God. Yet real theology, the rational work of the true and good theology has another origin, not the pride of reason. One who loves wants to know his beloved better and better; true theology does not involve reason and its research prompted by pride, “sed propter amorem eius cui assentit [but is] motivated by love of the One who gave his consent” (Proemium in I Sent., q. 2) and wants to be better acquainted with the beloved: this is the fundamental intention of theology. Thus in the end, for St Bonaventure, the primacy of love is crucial.

Consequently St Thomas and St Bonaventure define the human being’s final goal, his complete happiness in different ways. For St Thomas the supreme end, to which our desire is directed is: to see God. In this simple act of seeing God all problems are solved: we are happy, nothing else is necessary.

Instead, for St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in his and our love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Along these lines we could also say that the loftiest category for St Thomas is the true, whereas for St Bonaventure it is the good. It would be mistaken to see a contradiction in these two answers. For both of them the true is also the good, and the good is also the true; to see God is to love and to love is to see. Hence it was a question of their different interpretation of a fundamentally shared vision. Both emphases have given shape to different traditions and different spiritualities and have thus shown the fruitfulness of the faith: one, in the diversity of its expressions.

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Today.

From B16, a General Audience talk, an introduction to Cyril, from 2007. In it, we see two important truths emphasized. First, the importance of theology, which is not pointless nit-picking, but rather part of the journey to clarify the mysteries of faith as far as is humanly possible. Secondly, the Christian faith as one rooted in revealed truths, and the Body of Christ has a responsibility to guard and share those truths faithfully.

Today too, continuing our journey following the traces left by the Fathers of the Church, we meet an important figure: St Cyril of Alexandria. Linked to the Christological controversy which led to the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the last important representative of the Alexandrian tradition in the Greek Orient, Cyril was later defined as “the guardian of exactitude” – to be understood as guardian of the true faith – and even the “seal of the Fathers”. These ancient descriptions express clearly a characteristic feature of Cyril:  the Bishop of Alexandria’s constant reference to earlier ecclesiastical authors (including, in particular, Athanasius), for the purpose of showing the continuity with tradition of theology itself. He deliberately, explicitly inserted himself into the Church’s tradition, which he recognized as guaranteeing continuity with the Apostles and with Christ himself.

But the old conflict with the Constantinople See flared up again about 10 years later, when in 428 Nestorius was elected, a severe and authoritarian monk trained in Antioch. The new Bishop of Constantinople, in fact, soon provoked opposition because he preferred to use as Mary’s title in his preaching “Mother of Christ” (Christotòkos) instead of “Mother of God” (Theotòkos), already very dear to popular devotion. One reason for Bishop Nestorius’ decision was his adherence to the Antiochean type of Christology, which, to safeguard the importance of Christ’s humanity, ended by affirming the division of the Divinity. Hence, the union between God and man in Christ could no longer be true, so naturally it was no longer possible to speak of the “Mother of God”.

The reaction of Cyril – at that time the greatest exponent of Alexandrian Christology, who intended on the other hand to stress the unity of Christ’s person – was almost immediate, and from 429 he left no stone unturned, even addressing several letters to Nestorius himself. In the second of Cyril’s letters to Nestorius (PG 77, 44-49), written in February 430, we read a clear affirmation of the duty of Pastors to preserve the faith of the People of God. This was his criterion, moreover, still valid today:  the faith of the People of God is an expression of tradition, it is a guarantee of sound doctrine. This is what he wrote to Nestorius:  “It is essential to explain the teaching and interpretation of the faith to the people in the most cyrilofalexandriairreproachable way, and to remember that those who cause scandal even to only one of the little ones who believe in Christ will be subjected to an unbearable punishment”.

In the same letter to Nestorius – a letter which later, in 451, was to be approved by the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council – Cyril described his Christological faith clearly:  “Thus, we affirm that the natures are different that are united in one true unity, but from both has come only one Christ and Son; not because, due to their unity, the difference in their natures has been eliminated, but rather, because divinity and humanity, reunited in an ineffable and indescribable union, have produced for us one Lord and Christ and Son”. And this is important:  true humanity and true divinity are really united in only one Person, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Bishop of Alexandria continued:  “We will profess only one Christ and Lord, not in the sense that we worship the man together with the Logos, in order not to suggest the idea of separation by saying “together’, but in the sense that we worship only one and the same, because he is not extraneous to the Logos, his body, with which he also sits at his Father’s side, not as if “two sons” are sitting beside him but only one, united with his own flesh”.

And soon the Bishop of Alexandria, thanks to shrewd alliances, obtained the repeated condemnation of Nestorius:  by the See of Rome, consequently with a series of 12 anathemas which he himself composed, and finally, by the Council held in Ephesus in 431, the Third Ecumenical Council. The assembly which went on with alternating and turbulent events, ended with the first great triumph of devotion to Mary and with the exile of the Bishop of Constantinople, who had been reluctant to recognize the Blessed Virgin’s right to the title of “Mother of God” because of an erroneous Christology that brought division to Christ himself. After thus prevailing against his rival and his doctrine, by 433 Cyril was nevertheless already able to achieve a theological formula of compromise and reconciliation with the Antiocheans. This is also significant:  on the one hand is the clarity of the doctrine of faith, but in addition, on the other, the intense search for unity and reconciliation. In the following years he devoted himself in every possible way to defending and explaining his theological stance, until his death on 27 June 444.

MORE

Benedict’s General Audience talks on great Church figures were collected into books by several Catholic publishers, including Our Sunday Visitor. I wrote study guides for two of them: his talks on the Apostles, and those on the Greek and Latin Fathers. You can find the latter in a pdf form here, and it is still useful for both individual and group study, I believe. The questions for the unit including Cyril of Alexandria:

1. Cyril of Alexandria is remembered for his defense of Christian orthodoxy against Nestorius. What did Nestorius claim?

2. What did Cyril say was wrong with Nestorius’s teaching? Why was this conflict just as much about Jesus as it was about Mary?

3. What was at stake in this controversy? What is the deeper reality that concerned Cyril?

4. Why was Hilary of Poitiers exiled? What did Hilary do during his exile?

5. How did Hilary’s approach combine adherence to truth with pastoral sensitivity?

6. How, according to Hilary, do we come into relationship with Christ? How does this change us?

7. What role do the words of baptism play in the thought of Hilary?

8. Where did Eusebius of Vercelli live and minister? What was the spiritual condition of this area?

9. What role did his monastic establishments play in his ministry? 10. What was Eusebius’s time in exile like? What did he accomplish?

11. How did Eusebius encourage his clergy and people to keep their spiritual balance?

12. What were the conditions in Turin during the ministry of Maximus?

13. To whom were many of his homilies addressed? Why?

14. What did Maximus have to say about wealth?

15. How did Maximus come to be involved in a role in the civic life of the community?

Questions for Reflection

1. The Fathers in this session, as well as in the rest of the book, grappled with questions of Jesus’ identity. Why was this not a simply academic question? Why was it so important to them? How does our sense of Jesus’ identity impact our own spiritual lives?

2. Eusebius emphasized monastic establishments as centers for spiritual renewal and pastoral ministry in his area. Why do you think he did this? Why was monasticism such an important factor in Christian life for the next millennium? What role does monasticism play in today’s Church and world?

3. Maximus spoke strongly to the people of his community about their relationship to wealth and material things. What do you think he would say to us today?

4. Pope Benedict cites Hilary’s “spirit of reconciliation” in dealing with those who cannot quite affirm the fullness of faith. Are there areas of life in which you have reached out and built relationships with those with whom you disagree? What is the foundation of such a relationship?

5. These Fathers ministered in communities in which Christianity was still a minority and often found itself in conflict. How did they minister in those situations? What can you learn from them about living in such an environment, in which the general culture stands in conflict with the Gospel?

Huh. There seems to be more to Catholicism than, “What does Pope Francis think?” and “What did Pope Francis say today?” and “What would Pope Francis do?”

Tomorrow…Irenaeus.

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ascension_papyrus

Click on graphic for link to Daniel Mitsui’s page and more information about the art. 

That’s what it is, no matter what…40 days after Easter, right?

(Although in Italy, also, it’s celebrated on Sunday, so these homilies reflect that.)

Some reflections from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:

2006, from a homily in Krakow:

Brothers and Sisters, today in Błonie Park in Kraków we hear once again this question from the Acts of the Apostles. This time it is directed to all of us: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” The answer to this question involves the fundamental truth about the life and destiny of every man and woman.

The question has to do with our attitude to two basic realities which shape every human life: earth and heaven. First, the earth: “Why do you stand?” – Why are you here on earth? Our answer is that we are here on earth because our Maker has put us here as the crowning work of his creation. Almighty God, in his ineffable plan of love, created the universe, bringing it forth from nothing. Then, at the completion of this work, he bestowed life on men and women, creating them in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-27). He gave them the dignity of being children of God and the gift of immortality. We know that man went astray, misused the gift of freedom and said “No” to God, thus condemning himself to a life marked by evil, sin, suffering and death. But we also know that God was not resigned to this situation, but entered directly into humanity’s history, which then became a history of salvation. “We stand” on the earth, we are rooted in the earth and we grow from it. Here we do good in the many areas of everyday life, in the material and spiritual realms, in our relationships with other people, in our efforts to build up the human community and in culture. Here too we experience the weariness of those who make their way towards a goal by long and winding paths, amid hesitations, tensions, uncertainties, in the conviction that the journey will one day come to an end. That is when the question arises: Is this all there is? Is this earth on which “we stand” our final destiny?

And so we need to turn to the second part of the biblical question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” We Salvador Dali, Ascensionhave read that, just as the Apostles were asking the Risen Lord about the restoration of Israel’s earthly kingdom, “He was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” And “they looked up to heaven as he went” (cf. Acts 1:9-10). They looked up to heaven because they looked to Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, raised up on high. We do not know whether at that precise moment they realized that a magnificent, infinite horizon was opening up before their eyes: the ultimate goal of our earthly pilgrimage. Perhaps they only realized this at Pentecost, in the light of the Holy Spirit. But for us, at a distance of two thousand years, the meaning of that event is quite clear. Here on earth, we are called to look up to heaven, to turn our minds and hearts to the inexpressible mystery of God. We are called to look towards this divine reality, to which we have been directed from our creation. For there we find life’s ultimate meaning.

….I too, Benedict XVI, the Successor of Pope John Paul II, am asking you to look up from earth to heaven, to lift your eyes to the One to whom succeeding generations have looked for two thousand years, and in whom they have discovered life’s ultimate meaning. Strengthened by faith in God, devote yourselves fervently to consolidating his Kingdom on earth, a Kingdom of goodness, justice, solidarity and mercy. I ask you to bear courageous witness to the Gospel before today’s world, bringing hope to the poor, the suffering, the lost and abandoned, the desperate and those yearning for freedom, truth and peace. By doing good to your neighbour and showing your concern for the common good, you bear witness that God is love.

2009, at Monte Cassino:

In this perspective we understand why the Evangelist Luke says that after the Ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy” (24: 52). Their joy stems from the fact that what had happened was not really a separation, the Lord’s permanent absence: on the contrary, they were then certain that the Crucified-Risen One was alive and that in him God’s gates, the gates of eternal life, had been opened to humanity for ever. In other words, his Ascension did not imply a temporary absence from the world but rather inaugurated the new, definitive and insuppressible form of his presence by virtue of his participation in the royal power of God. It was to be up to them, the disciples emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make his presence visible by their witness, preaching and missionary zeal. The Solemnity of the Lord’s Ascension must also fill us with serenity and enthusiasm, just as it did the Apostles who set out again from the Mount of Olives “with great joy”. Like them, we too, accepting the invitation of the “two men in dazzling apparel”, must not stay gazing up at the sky, but, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit must go everywhere and proclaim the saving message of Christ’s death and Resurrection.

2005:

The human being finds room in God; through Christ, the human being was introduced into the very life of God. And since God embraces and sustains the entire cosmos, the Ascension of the Lord means that Christ has not departed from us, but that he is now, thanks to his being with the Father, close to each one of us for ever. Each one of us can be on intimate terms with him; each can call upon him. The Lord is always within hearing. We can inwardly draw away from him. We can live turning our backs on him. But he always waits for us and is always close to us.

(This 2005 homily is very interesting, for it was delivered very soon after his election, and contains good thoughts on the role of the papacy, particularly its limits.)

2010 Angelus:

The Lord draws the gaze of the Apostles our gaze toward Heaven to show how to travel the road of good during earthly life. Nevertheless, he remains within the framework of human history, he is near to each of us and guides our Christian journey: he is the companion of the those persecuted for the faith, he is in the heart of those who are marginalized, he is present in those whom the right to life is denied. We can hear, see and touch our Lord Jesus in the Church, especially through the word and the sacraments……

….Dear Brothers and Sisters, the Lord opening the way to Heaven, gives us a foretaste of divine life already on this earth. A 19th-century Russian author wrote in his spiritual testament: “Observe the stars more often. When you have a burden in your soul, look at the stars or the azure of the sky. When you feel sad, when they offend you… converse… with Heaven. Then your soul will find rest” 

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May, of course, is Mary’s month.  It’s a good time to read a free book on the Blessed Virgin – mine, originally published by Word Among Us, now out of print and available in a pdf version here.

Amy Welborn and Michael Dubruiel

This May is also the centenary of the first Fatima apparition – May 13, 1917. Plenty of books are being published to celebrate, and I want to draw your attention to one in particular that is the work, in part, of my friend and frequent collaborator Ann Kissane Engelhart:

Our Lady's Message cover

Written by Donna Marie Cooper O’Boyle and published by Sophia, Ann was brought in to do the illustrations, so let’s give her due credit, shall we? Isn’t that a nice cover? I don’t have a copy of the book, nor can I access illustrated pages online, so I don’t know how the interior illustrations were actually used, but here are some samples Ann sent me:

Blurbs for the book have specifically mentioned the illustrations as worthy of note. So if this appears on your radar, remember that the very talented artist involved has other books:

Another recent work to which Ann contributed is this:

Written by Nancy Carpentier Brown, it’s a fictional account of a friendship between G.K. and Frances Chesterton and another family. 

Ann and I aren’t working on anything specific at the moment, but we are tossing around ideas – it’s challenging to find a Catholic publisher willing to invest in quality illustrated children’s books, but we’re trying!

(If you would like a sneak peak at my newest, forthcoming book, check out Instagram Stories – you can only access the “stories” part via the app on a phone, by clicking on my photo.)

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Pope Emeritus Benedict’s birthday is this coming Sunday..if you’d like an simple, free introduction to his thought, take a look at the book I wrote a few years ago, now out of print, but available in a pdf version at no cost. Did I mention, “free?”

Here. 

Pope Benedict 90th birthday

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From my favorite old-school 7th grade catechism, With Mother Church. 

EPSON MFP image

From B16 in 2007

It is a moving experience each year on Palm Sunday as we go up the mountain with Jesus, towards the Temple, accompanying him on his ascent. On this day, throughout the world and across the centuries, young people and people of every age acclaim him, crying out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But what are we really doing when we join this procession as part of the throng which went up with Jesus to Jerusalem and hailed him as King of Israel? Is this anything more than a ritual, a quaint custom? Does it have anything to do with the reality of our life and our world? To answer this, we must first be clear about what Jesus himself wished to do and actually did. After Peter’s confession of faith in Caesarea Philippi, in the northernmost part of the Holy Land, Jesus set out as a pilgrim towards Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. He was journeying towards the Temple in the Holy City, towards that place which for Israel ensured in a particular way God’s closeness to his people. He was making his way towards the common feast of Passover, the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt and the sign of its hope of definitive liberation. He knew that what awaited him was a new Passover and that he himself would take the place of the sacrificial lambs by offering himself on the cross. He knew that in the mysterious gifts of bread and wine he would give himself for ever to his own, and that he would open to them the door to a new path of liberation, to fellowship with the living God. He was making his way to the heights of the Cross, to the moment of self-giving love. The ultimate goal of his pilgrimage was the heights of God himself; to those heights he wanted to lift every human being.

Our procession today is meant, then, to be an image of something deeper, to reflect the fact that, together with Jesus, we are setting out on pilgrimage along the high road that leads to the living God. This is the ascent that matters. This is the journey which Jesus invites us to make. But how can we keep pace with this ascent? Isn’t it beyond our ability? Certainly, it is beyond our own possibilities. From the beginning men and women have been filled – and this is as true today as ever – with a desire to “be like God”, to attain the heights of God by their own powers. All the inventions of the human spirit are ultimately an effort to gain wings so as to rise to the heights of Being and to become independent, completely free, as God is free. Mankind has managed to accomplish so many things: we can fly! We can see, hear and speak to one another from the farthest ends of the earth. And yet the force of gravity which draws us down is powerful. With the increase of our abilities there has been an increase not only of good. Our possibilities for evil have increased and appear like menacing storms above history. Our limitations have also remained: we need but think of the disasters which have caused so much suffering for humanity in recent months.

The Fathers of the Church maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields. First, there is the force of gravity which pulls us down – towards selfishness, falsehood and evil; the gravity which diminishes us and distances us from the heights of God. On the other hand there is the gravitational force of God’s love: the fact that we are loved by God and respond in love attracts us upwards. Man finds himself betwixt this twofold gravitational force; everything depends on our escaping the gravitational field of evil and becoming free to be attracted completely by the gravitational force of God, which makes us authentic, elevates us and grants us true freedom.

Following the Liturgy of the Word, at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer where the Lord comes into our midst, the Church invites us to lift up our hearts: “Sursum corda!” In the language of the Bible and the thinking of the Fathers, the heart is the centre of man, where understanding, will and feeling, body and soul, all come together. The centre where spirit becomes body and body becomes spirit, where will, feeling and understanding become one in the knowledge and love of God. This is the “heart” which must be lifted up. But to repeat: of ourselves, we are too weak to lift up our hearts to the heights of God. We cannot do it. The very pride of thinking that we are able to do it on our own drags us down and estranges us from God. God himself must draw us up, and this is what Christ began to do on the cross. He descended to the depths of our human existence in order to draw us up to himself, to the living God. He humbled himself, as today’s second reading says. Only in this way could our pride be vanquished: God’s humility is the extreme form of his love, and this humble love draws us upwards.

Seems appropriate that this will be my reading for the week:

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Today’s her memorial, too. A summary of her life:

Saint Catherine was born in Bologna, and appointed as the maid of honor to the daughter of the Marquis of Ferrara, for whom her father served as an aide. Catherine moved into the palace, and became best friends with her mistress, Margaret. Upon the engagement of Margaret, who wished Catherine to remain with her, Catherine instead entered the religious life. At age 14, she joined the third order of the Franciscans, who lived a semi-monastic life.

Eventually, the community to which Catherine belonged adopted the second rule of the Franciscans, joining the Order of the Poor Clares. There, Catherine lived in poverty and obedience, joyfully serving the Lord. However, Catherine felt that the rule was not strict enough in the community she served, and eventually was moved to a more austere community, where she reluctantly agreed to be Abbess.

Saint Catherine was graced with many spiritual gifts, beginning early in her religious life, and persisting until the end of her days. A mystic, she frequently experienced visions of the Blessed Mother, Christ at the hour of His crucifixion, and was tormented by visions and temptations of the Devil. All of these she passed along to her sisters, for their spiritual direction, and some she recorded in Latin, having been schooled in Latin at the court of the Marquis….

Under the direction of Saint Catherine, the community became known for austerity, service to the poor, and holiness. But Catherine, led by her joyous heart, was also a woman filled with joy, which she passed along to her sisters. They suffered gladly for Christ, eschewing wealth and comfort, but their hearts leapt and danced for joy.

She wrote a short treatise called Seven Spiritual Weapons. You can read the whole thing here, and it’s excellent Lenten (or anytime) reading.

She begins, charmingly, comparing herself to a puppy:

With reverence and sweet and gentle love, I pray that Christ Jesus will guard from the sin of unbelief anyone who comes to know of this little work which I made with the divine help and not attribute to the vice of presumption nor take amiss any error in this present little book. I am the least puppy barking under the table of the honorable and refined servants and sisters of the immaculate lamb Christ Jesus, sister of the monastery of the Body of Christ in Ferrara. I, the above mentioned puppy, wrote this by my own hand only for fear of divine condemnation if I were silent about what could delight others.

The seven spiritual weapons which she highlights are (via B16): 

1. always to be careful and diligently strive to do good; 2. to believe that alone we will never be able to do something truly good; 3. to trust in God and, for love of him, never to fear in the battle against evil, either in the world or within ourselves; 4. to meditate often on the events and words of the life of Jesus, and especially on his Passion and his death; 5. to remember that we must die; 6. to focus our minds firmly on memory of the goods of Heaven; 7. to be familiar with Sacred Scripture, always cherishing it in our hearts so that it may give direction to all our thoughts and all our actions. A splendid programme of spiritual life, today too, for each one of us!

 

Last summer, we spent time in both Ferrara and Bologna, and made a visit to the chapel where Catherine’s body is preserved – sitting up in a chair. Here’s a photo, and I wrote about it here. 

 

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