Archive | June, 2007

Holy See Mission Seminar Day 2- Master, it is Good to Be Here

26 Jun

The opening lecture of the Holy See Mission seminar focused on the role of the Church in building the common good throughout the world. As I mentioned in my previous post, the “common good” is an ambiguous term. The defense of this common good involves the protection of basic human rights. As such, the Holy See has maintained formal ties to the United Nations since attaining Permanent Observer status. It is the oldest diplomatic unit in the world. In seeing the whole human person as both sacred and social, the Holy See Mission to the UN focuses on issues related to policy and lawmaking, to social life, and to the family and to marriage. The Church especially upholds the dignity of the most vulnerable people, including the poor, refugees, women, children, and workers.The Holy See’s relatively small delegation to the UN works with diligence and with charity in many areas. Its Permanent Observer Mission is a light to Catholics everywhere as we strive for justice, albeit on a much smaller and usually more localized scale. The Holy Spirit perpetually guides our efforts, even as we have but a limited understanding of our role in promoting the common good.

Even with only partial knowledge of God’s great commission that He gives to us, we can say as St. Peter did at the Transfiguration: “Master, it is good for us to be here”. (Luke 9:33) This passage, which most accurately summed up my thoughts as the second day of the seminar began, is inscribed above the altar of the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue, where Mass was held on the morning of Monday, May 21, 2007. Our Saviour is situated in one of the most affluent areas of Manhattan, yet despite the prosperity of this part of New York City, homeless people could be seen on the street near the church. As was noted during the reflections at the end of the day by Fr. Bob Meyer of the Holy See Mission, an expert on legal affairs and on pro-life causes, the plight of the homeless amid such wealth serves as another of “God’s reminders” to which we are impelled to respond with Christ-like compassion modeled for us by the Saints.

Those who have gone before us to Heaven are icons of Christ, as I remember one priest saying after a philosophy lecture I was attending. The Catholic Church believes icons to be written, not only drawn or painted, by the artist. In an even deeper sense, God has written us into existence, in His own image. (cf. Genesis 1:27) We, as God’s icons, are therefore destined to return to Him. As I stated in my previous article, our quest for sainthood begins with a change in mindset our in our decision-making process. Sainthood, though, is much more than an ideal or a lifestyle; we are called to be God’s word in action every day in order to unite ourselves fully with the Word of God. This was the message of the Homily delivered by Monsignor Leo Cushley of the Holy See Mission at Our Saviour. During his Homily, Msgr. Cushley pointed to the icons behind him, which were designed by Ken Jan Woo, a Chinese-born muralist who had recently been baptized by the pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, Fr. George Rutler. The most amazing of these icons, which is centered above the altar, is that of Christ Pantokrator (from Greek for “Almighty” or “Ruler of all”), a 28-foot-tall enlargement of a sixth-century Byzantine representation of Our Lord. This image is one of the oldest known icons of Jesus Christ. The breathtaking Pantokrator icon is surrounded by several smaller icons of Saints, seven of which were written by Woo. The most recent addition is an icon of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

As we gathered for Mass, I found the church’s grandeur humbling. A verse from the Book of Proverbs urges those that are very small to come to God, who is Wisdom. (cf. Proverbs 9:4) We are all like small children before the Almighty. We are like the child resting in the arms of Mother Teresa, as shown in the icon of her. Fittingly, then, at the Church of Our Saviour I felt like the smallest icon where I stood, along with fifty-two other living icons created in God’s likeness, who were being called out into the world to love and to serve the Almighty. One day, I can only imagine myself, the little unworthy icon, standing before the Judge of the living and of the dead, hoping that, by the grace and mercy of God, I may enter into life everlasting. More immediately, we ought to pray as one community of faith for the salvation of all souls entrusted to Our Divine Ruler.

We also pray for those who are given the gift of teaching and preaching God’s message in word and in deed. Also, may those who hear the Good News be faithful to it and not be distracted from its Source that we are asked to follow. In the first reading heard on May 21 (cf. Acts 19:1-8 ), St. Paul warned about such distractions from the Word of God. St. Paul had traveled to Ephesus, where many people were found to be followers of John the Baptist. Thus, John the Baptist’s Ephesian disciples hadn’t heard of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul proceeded to teach the Ephesians and to baptize them, and “the Holy Spirit came upon them”, conferring upon some Ephesians the gifts of prophecy and of speaking in tongues. (Acts 19:6) St. Paul argued persuasively in favour of “the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8 ), but some persisted in “(speaking) evil of the Way before the congregation”. (Acts 19:9) Those who refused to believe were confused as the gifts of the Spirit were made manifest at Ephesus. They couldn’t see a “still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) beyond the gifts of tongues and prophesy. This confusion, as well as St. Paul’s teaching against the worship of the goddess Artemis, led to a riot in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:21-41). When order was restored by the town clerk, Paul was able to sail to Macedonia. Almost 1900 years after St. Paul’s time, on August 26, 1910, Skopje, Macedonia would become the birthplace of Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu), one of the greatest servants of God the Church has ever known.

This Blessed “saint of the gutters” showed the face of the Lord, the “Father of orphans and the protector of widows”, to the most downtrodden. Mother Teresa, who opened her soul so that it became God’s “holy habitation”, gave “the desolate a home to live in”. (Psalm 68:5-6) She is an example of one who spoke plainly of the Father’s love, serving Christ faithfully. (cf. John 16:29) When we, the disciples of Christ, are “scattered, each one to his home”, (John 16:32) we are still united in our love for the least of our brothers and sisters. (cf. Matthew 25:40) We must therefore make of our souls an abode for Christ. Through us, Christ’s hands and feet on earth, Our Saviour goes out to conquer the world. Thus we need not fear the persecution or hardships of this world. The Father is with us, so that we may live in peace. (cf. John 16:33)

Msgr. Barney Auza, a native of the Philippines, delivered the opening lecture of Day 2 of the seminar. The talk featured a superb historical overview of the Holy See and of its Permanent Observer Mission to the UN. When one thinks of the Catholic Church, one often immediately speaks of the Pope, the Church’s Supreme Leader. The Pope is the Catholic Church’s top executive, judicial, and legislative power, as well as being her foremost spiritual authority, an apostolic successor to St. Peter. (cf. Matthew 16:18-19) The governing body that surrounds the Pope is referred to as the Roman Curia. Confusion arises over the title of the temporal government of the Church. It is frequently, though mistakenly, referred to as “the Vatican”. In fact, the Vatican City State, in the middle of Rome, is a relatively new entity. It was created by the Lateran Treaty of 1929*, signed between the Italian King Victor Emanuel III and Head of State Benito Mussolini, and, on behalf of Pope Pius XI, “His Eminence Lord Cardinal Pietro Gasparri”, with the Papal Secretary of State, His Eminence Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, as a key negotiator. (cf. Intro) The Lateran Treaty guaranteed “sovereignty of the Holy See in international matters” and within the boundaries of Vatican City. (Art. 2, cf. Art. 3) Italy also was bound to recognize Roman Catholicism as the official state religion, as per the Italian Constitution of March 4, 1848. (cf. Art. 1) In exchange, the Treaty subjected the citizens of the Holy See to Italian laws when such legislation was not overridden by that of the Holy See. (cf. Art. 9)

The Lateran Treaty put an end to a period called “The Roman Question”, which began with the Congress of Vienna of 1815. That agreement, which sealed the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, left Italy, then a series of disconnected states, in political and economic disarray. Pope Pius IX, whose policies included cautious acceptance of liberalism, where it upheld principles of objective moral truth, of natural law, and of social justice, was elected in 1846. Soon thereafter, Charles Albert, King of Sardinia, led a war against Austria to sustain his own monarchy. He was aided by a Genoese lawyer, Giuseppe Mazzini. In the process, Pope Pius IX was imprisoned at Gaeta for refusing to join in the fighting, and Papal Minister Count Rossi was assassinated. St. Peter’s Basilica and other important churches at the Vatican were pillaged and desecrated. The French counter-offensive of Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and the eventual Emperor Napoleon III, capitalized on pan-European anger over the Pope’s captivity. Mazzini and Garibladi were easily defeated. The Pope returned amid great joy to Rome in 1850. Order, at least on the surface, was maintained for a decade, while the Italian nationalistic movement became progressively anti-Catholic. The freemason Count Camillo de Cavour then united the many broken states of Italy around Sardinia, while also taking over the Papal States between 1860 and 1870. The French, preoccupied with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, left the Papal States open to de Cavour’s onslaught. Pope Pius IX thus voluntarily made himself a prisoner of the Vatican Palace, which was surrounded by Italian territory. It would remain so until 1929.

Pius XI, the “Pope of the Conciliation”, guaranteed mutual recognition of the sovereignty of Italy and of the Holy See, in the aforementioned Lateran Treaty. The paranoid Mussolini was left unafraid of a potential overthrow orchestrated by the Holy See, whereas the Holy See’s property, citizens, and diplomatic rights were protected within the Vatican City State. The autonomy of the Holy See was instrumental in its response to later abuses perpetrated by the Fascist regimes of Mussolini and of Hitler, and to its organization of safe havens for those persecuted, particularly in Nazi Germany and in Vichy France.

The Lateran Treaty explicitly mentions the title of the temporal arm of the Church as the Holy See, which dates from the granting of legal status to Christianity by the Roman Empire. After World War II, the Holy See took an active role in examining the creation of the United Nations. It gained Permanent Observer Status at UNESCO in 1952, and at the UN in 1964. Its first formal delegation to the UN oversaw the regulation and control of nuclear energy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) beginning in 1957.

The UN today includes 173 member states, of the 193 recognized countries in the world. The newest UN member is Montenegro, which joined in February, 2007. Since Switzerland’s entry in 2002, the Holy See remains the only nation with Permanent Observer status. Some, though, question whether the Holy See ought to be a part of the UN. As a non-member, the Holy See cannot vote in the General Assembly, though it may present declarations and participate in various debates and committees. The Holy See also opposes any move by the General Assembly that advocates easier access to abortion or to artificial contraception, for example. But the Holy See counters that it never imposes its moral views on the majority of nations; it only proposes a better way, to paraphrase Pope John Paul II.

Other matters, some of which are largely obscured by hot-button moral issues that are nonetheless important, concern the Holy See, including the abolition of torture, nuclear disarmament, and the eradication of anti-personnel mines, of small arms, and of the use of child soldiers. The Holy See functions pivotally as a member of the Convention on Persons with Disabilities. HIV/AIDS, which is best countered by access to food and to water, education, monogamy within marriage or abstinence without, and proper access to antiretroviral drugs, presents a worsening crisis, particularly in Africa. This continent is already beset by many of the problems already cited, as well as governmental corruption, the use of child labour, and civil wars…Speaking of war, the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides for limited conditions under which war is justified (cf. Section 2309). However, avoidance of war should always be sought. While acknowledging the occurrence of war, armed conflict can be avoided by focusing on its economic, political, and social root causes, especially poverty and underdevelopment.

In February, 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a United Nations that would not only prevent and prosecute war, but that would be a movement for peace. The UN has had many successes, namely the Declaration on Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. It attempts to abide by the rule of law and by democratic principles. Over its existence, the number of democracies has risen significantly. Despite this, the UN’s shortcomings and slowness have been well documented. For example, the ineffective Commission for Human Rights was replaced by the equally dysfunctional Human Rights Council in 2006. Much to the chagrin of those including former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, this Council’s declarations tend to be watered down, while states that are large-scale human rights abusers are admitted to critical councils.

Even accounting for its deficiencies, the world is much better with than without the UN. On a daily basis, the Holy See Mission in New York carries out its far-reaching, Christ-centered vision. It is often, according to Msgr. Leo Cushley, a discreet diplomatic force as opposed to a noisy advocate. In the style of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Church must continue to defend social doctrine that is founded on human dignity. This is done by and for “human beings, one person at a time”.

Going forward, each of us is to be an exemplar of truth, justice, and charity, perhaps starting at a small, local level. One might donate food, clothing, or money to the service of the less fortunate. Following the example of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S. native to be canonized (by Pope Paul VI on September 14, 1975), one might work to ensure proper treatment of immigrants, including prompt processing of applications for legal status and for access to employment with just wages. Many university students, who live the vocation made possible in part by St. Thomas Aquinas, also struggle to maintain basic necessities on top of paying for tuition fees and for textbooks. Sponsorship of families and especially children abroad is another option. The mission of the Holy See and of all Christians is clear, as per the words of His Holiness Pope Paul VI in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope- 1965):

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”

Lord, though we are scattered throughout the world, we are one body, united in Christ. We are one in our humanity. United in our joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties, may we be the salt of the earth that never loses its taste. May we be the light of the world that never fades, so that all may give glory to Our Father in Heaven. (cf. Matthew 5:13-16) We pray that we may exclaim together: “Master, it is good to be here.” Amen.

Saints Elizabeth Ann Seton and Thomas Aquinas, the Apostles Peter and Paul, Pope Pius XII, and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us…





*For the full text of the Lateran Treaty of 1929, see

Holy See Mission Seminar Day 1- the Moral Element

12 Jun

While I was filling out the application to attend the seminar on Catholic Social Teaching in New York, I realized how little I knew about the United Nations or about the Church’s influence within such a large worldwide organization. Even so, it was a great privilege to have attended this symposium from May 20 to 25, which was officially entitled “Catholic College Students and the Common Good; Building a Better World”. This gathering of over 50 students was organized by the Path to Peace Foundation of the Holy See Permanent Observer Mission to the UN. Therefore, the prayer at the end of my last article, which was intended both as a reflection on the controversy narratives in the Gospel of Luke and as an introduction to my account of the seminar, concluded with the passage from the Canticle of Zechariah that asks God “to guide our feet in the path of peace”. (Luke 1:79)

Many of my thoughts also centered on the lives of the Saints, particularly young figures who lived Christ’s mission. I began with a discussion on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the “Man of the Beatitudes”. His biography, written by his sister Luciana, is organized into chapters that show how Pier Giorgio exemplified each of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for in the same way they prosecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:3-11)

The Beatitudes are clearly exhortations toward action, yet many people find them difficult to understand, let alone to live out. For example, what does it mean for a person of even average means in a developed nation to be poor in spirit or meek? Surely we aren’t meant to mourn constantly. Hunger and thirst for righteousness and purity of heart seem to be abstract terms. Mercy is a hard concept, especially when we legitimately feel wronged. One would prefer not to be persecuted for one’s beliefs (as such, countries have enacted provisions for tolerance of a wide range of convictions). How is one to be a peacemaker, especially when one’s nation is at war or is under armed attack?

I have heard more than one priest refer to the “Be-attitudes”- attitudes that are essential for being a Christian. In a pluralistic environment such as the UN, living a Catholic Christian life often appears difficult. One cannot explicitly mention God, Jesus, or the Bible, or defer to the Pope’s authority at every turn and in every document issued. If Catholics were to do so, people of other faiths or of no professed religion likely wouldn’t be inclined to listen. Yet the Church must appeal to a universal law- a common good.

This doesn’t mean that Catholics need to abandon or to dilute their faith in the international community. Instead, the Church must demonstrate that the common good is at the very root of her teachings and especially of those of her founder, Our Lord Jesus Christ. This common good is based on love that has sustained the Church since the beginning. We must love not only other Catholics according to Jesus’ commandment (cf. Mark 12:29-31), but our love must seek the good of all people, our neighbours throughout the world.

Another ambiguous term has been added here without an adequate definition- the “common good”. Without knowing fully what it is, members of the Church still strive to work for this ideal in a setting like the UN. The social teaching of the Catholic Church has developed over the Church’s history. It was maintained during a period of frequent persecutions of early Christians who had no political clout. The Council of Nicaea in 325 then established the Holy See as a diplomatic unit that today has ties to 171 countries. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII published Rerum Novarum, which clarified Catholic social teaching in the face of the opposing evils of Marxism and of uncontrolled capitalism at the expense of the right to the basic necessities of life. This groundbreaking Encyclical letter has been referred to in many of the Church’s social documents since then, namely Quadragesimo Anno (Forty Years- 1931), Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth- 1963), Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae (Joy and Hope and On Human Dignity- both in 1965), Centissimus Annus (One Hundredth Year since Rerum Novarum- 1991), and Deus Caritas Est (God is Love- 2005), to name a few…Furthermore, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was published in 2004.

(Sunday, May 20, 2007)…The seminar in New York began with lunch at the Holy See Mission, where we were welcomed by the Papal Nuncio to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore. His Grace is originally from Cuneo, Italy. His given name, as he said in his welcome, means “from heaven”, while his surname means “the best”. After lunch, we were treated to a bus tour of New York before we arrived at the Passionist Retreat Centre on the east bank of the Hudson River. The peaceful retreat house was a welcome temporary departure from the bustle of New York City, which truly never sleeps.

Mass, the ideal start to the seminar, followed shortly thereafter at the retreat centre, with Archbishop Migliore presiding. I was chosen to read the second reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, from the Book of Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20). I felt greatly honoured, especially since I enjoy reading at Mass and because this time I was to read before a Papal Nuncio, one who is indeed a gift to the world, one of the best from Heaven. The reading, one of my favourite passages but one that I find difficult to capture its full significance, begins with the verse:

“Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.” (Revelation 22:12)

These words convey a necessary urgency to our deeds. Jesus will return soon to judge the living and the dead. Our good works are essential and are expected of us. Therefore no one ought to boast about their own righteousness. (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:29) Rather, we must humbly endeavour to do more good than what we have already accomplished. All our goodness comes from God, “the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13), who expects us to use His gifts selflessly.

As the reading continues, Jesus is referred to by the messianic titles “root and offspring of David” and “bright morning star”. (Revelation 22:16) I am reminded here of St. Matthew’s Nativity account, where the magi are guided by a star to the stable where the Child Jesus lay. The star in the Gospel can be taken to mean a literal star, it could be a symbol of Jesus Himself, or the star could be a reference to us, who are asked to be Christ’s “light of the world”. (Matthew 5:14)

Both God and the Church- the Spirit and the Bride- unite in beckoning the one who thirsts to come forward. (cf. Revelation 22:17) All people thirst for love and justice, as did Jesus when he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. (cf. John 4:1-42) The Lord says, “Come”, and the hearer responds, “Come”. (Revelation 22:17) The hearer approaches the source, until the Spirit and the Bride become one as God intended… “Amen! Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

The first reading from Sunday, May 20 was perhaps an even more fitting introduction to our visit to the Holy See Mission. In the passage from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of St. Stephen, who is traditionally regarded as the first martyr. St. Stephen, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55) professes his faith in Jesus Christ before the religious authorities, who condemn him to death by stoning for what is perceived as blasphemy. As Stephen is dying, his words closely resemble those of Our Saviour on the Cross: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”…“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60, cf. Luke 23:46, 23:34)

The story of St. Stephen was the focus of much of Archbishop Migliore’s Homily afterward. There will be people who, upon hearing the Gospel message, will become enraged and will look to persecute those who live and preach the truth. Others will stand by silently holding the coats of those who directly perpetrate evil, (cf. Acts 7:58 ) yet some among us will have the strength of St. Stephen, whose silence in death spoke as loudly in favour of goodness and love as did the words of wisdom spoken through him by the Spirit while he was living. (cf. Acts 6:10)

Tertullian (c. 155-230) wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Not long after the stoning of St. Stephen, the Book of Acts tells of the conversion of Saul (cf. Acts 9:1-19), who would also go on to give his life for Christ who gave His life for us. Indeed, the willingness of the early martyrs to love so deeply as to die for their faith amazed even their persecutors. These followers of Christ unto Calvary were ideal witnesses to God’s love, so that many more came to believe in the One sent by the Father (cf. John 17:21). Such devotion is still strong today. In fact, the twentieth century is sometimes referred to as the “century of martyrs” (cf. H.W. Crocker, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000-Year History) because more Christians were killed for their faith than in any previous century, owing in part to the rise of fascist and communist regimes where failure to worship the state meant endangering one’s own life.

While martyrdom is not the call of many Christians, some are still called to be taken where we do not wish to go. (cf. John 21:18 ) All of us, though, are called to serve others in smaller ways in order to make Christ known to all by sharing His love (cf. John 17:26). Usually, one does not need to be literally martyred, but as St. Francis of Assisi said, we must “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” This is best achieved through daily acts of kindness that are carried out joyfully.

Seeing Christ in our brothers and sisters, especially those most in need, we become more aware of opportunities for justice. Decisions ought to be based firstly on what is best for our neighbour. The common good and love of God and of neighbour are the basis of Catholic social teaching. The observance of the Church’s social teaching requires a change in our mindset and decision-making process. According to the introductory presentation by Luke Swanepoel of the Holy See Mission, we are often limited by our decision-making “tool box”: we decide based on gut reactions that involve self-interest and little reason, or on empirical data derived from observations designed to test a hypothesis. Our decisions can also be founded upon past events, or upon national or familial interests. However, this tool box lacks a moral element that is fundamental to Christian living.

Catholic social teaching, which is summarized in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, provides this moral element of decision-making. Firstly, one must respect the rights to life and to dignity of the whole human person, who is by nature both “sacred and social” in Swanepoel’s words, from conception to natural death. Therefore, the Holy See supports initiatives to protect the unborn and to promote peace. Its Permanent Observer Mission to the UN provides an ideal forum for the maintenance of widespread diplomatic relations with other countries.

The defense of human rights also entails many responsibilities. The basic moral test is how we protect the world’s most vulnerable persons. These especially include the elderly and disabled, children, refugees, and women. The Holy See Mission also strives to be a voice for workers, in the tradition of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers. I found one quotation used by Luke Swanepoel to be most pertinent to the topic of workers’ dignity: “The economy (must serve) people, not people the economy”. Solidarity is at the root of human rights protection.

A unified human family can transcend ethnic boundaries, and even the most oppressive ideologies. This was shown most effectively by Pope John Paul’s stance toward the communist regime in his native Poland. The late Pontiff was thus quoted by Swanepoel: “If you want peace, work for justice”. In Poland and elsewhere, humans have overcome great obstacles to fundamental dignity by working together.

The Church also focuses on care for all of God’s creation. Humankind has been given the gift of “dominion…over every living thing that moves upon the earth”. (Genesis 1:28 ). Environmental stewardship is thus another facet of moral Christian living.

Lord, may we live the Beatitudes, always working toward the common good. We pray for the strength to uphold the rights and dignity of every person. May you also guide us toward the most responsible use of resources that you created for us in your infinite goodness. Amen.


Charity Amid Controversy- Luke 5:12-6:5

6 Jun

Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)

Our Lord’s call to discipleship from a boat on Lake Gennesaret is an appropriate passage on which to reflect as we have passed from the Easter season through Pentecost and into Ordinary Time again. My previous post was written on Holy Saturday, more than a month and a half ago. Again, I make no excuses for my recent inactivity on this blog, though in the meantime I did squeeze in a little pilgrimage to the Holy See Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations in New York. This was followed by a visit to Frassati House, a residence for seminarians of the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilians), the order I hope to join soon, in Toronto. The house is named after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, an athletic and handsome man from a rich family who gave himself to serve the poor of Turin before he died of poliomyelitis on July 4, 1925, aged 24.

Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified on May 20, 1990, by Pope John Paul II. He is recognized as Blessed, with Our Lady, whom all generations will call “Blessed”. (cf. Luke 1:48 ) The Church has thus beatified the lively Italian layman who lived the Gospel message without fear, often times amid controversy. All the saints, but particularly those like Pier Giorgio Frassati and Thérèse de Lisieux, mentioned in my last post on Luke’s Gospel, who lived brief but complete lives, model for young people how to live as ambassadors for Christ. The Lord summons us now to continue the mission of the great Saints. Today, the Church needs people who are willing to learn Christ’s message in schools, universities, and seminaries, and to proclaim it fearlessly throughout the world. The United Nations, if it is to be truly united with the dignity of the whole of humankind, is a great place for young Christians to carry out the essential work of spreading the Good News to every nation.

Christ provides us with several examples of how to live out His mission despite the opposition of even learned people. The Gospel of Luke tells of Jesus leaving the lakeshore where He had called Simon, James, and John, known as the “Sons of Thunder” for their outspokenness, to His service. (cf. Mark 3:17) Jesus proceeds from Lake Gennesaret into a city where He heals a leper. While He is teaching in another instance, He heals a paralytic. The Lord also calls Levi, a tax collector, to follow Him. Questions arise from some Pharisees and scribes about Jesus’ acceptance of such outcasts, as well as about His apparent disregard for the traditions of fasting and of the Sabbath.

In all these stories, St. Luke cites examples of people who choose to follow Jesus, but the Gospel writer also contrasts the acceptance of the Lord by some with His denial by others. The controversy narratives in Luke’s Gospel show that, given God’s gift of free will, some people will accept Christ’s way that embraces and heals the whole human person, whereas others will reject “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Often times we can be counted as part of the first group, but each of us is tempted at some point to give in to our pride- we are led to believe, like some well-read Pharisees were, that we know the letter of the law well enough to get along without the law’s author Himself.

When we succumb to pride and develop a false sense of self-sufficiency, we are as sick as the leper in Luke’s Gospel. But in our sickness, Jesus is always prepared to stretch out a healing hand. He touches us and says, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (Luke 5:13) Just as we have free will, so does Our Lord, who always chooses the best for us…In Italian, there are two phrases that convey “I love you”. The first is the more generic “ti amo”, whereas the second is a more intimate “ti volio bene”, which literally translates into English as “I wish the good for you”. Christ’s love is of the second kind, but is even deeper than the love between spouses or that of a parent for a child. “Ti volio bene”: With this love, Christ always chooses to humble Himself because He loves us so deeply. He wants what is good for us. Therefore, He became one like us so that we could become like Him.

Love is behind Christ’s healing of the leper, as indeed it is the force behind everything that Christ says and does. Thus, the Lord’s love for the leper is more important than the act of healing itself. As I read the passage about the cleansing of the leper, a footnote pointed out that the words ‘leper’ and ‘leprosy’ often referred to different skin diseases in Jesus’ time. In accordance with Jewish scripture, those afflicted by disfiguring conditions were often sent to live apart from other people:

“The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46)

St. Luke doesn’t specify which disease the ‘leper’ carried, but whatever the man’s disease, it was no match for the love of Christ. The leper came to Jesus begging to be made clean. Jesus chose to touch and to cleanse the man. Christ’s physical contact with that man would have been scandalous for many religious leaders, but for Jesus it was no more and no less remarkable than any other healing. The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus had been passing through “one of the cities”. This could have been any city at any time, the man Christ healed could have been anybody, and the disease of which he was cured could have been any ailment, either physical or spiritual.

More recently, we draw upon the example of Blessed Mother Teresa of service to society’s outcasts. No poor person in the gutters of Calcutta was so unclean that Mother Teresa, acting in Christ’s name, would not have taken them in and cared for them. Yet Mother Teresa bore suffering from people who questioned why she was seeking close contact with the inhabitants of filthy slums. Meanwhile, she repeatedly questioned herself as to whether she was doing enough to fulfill her vocation.

We approach the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance with our souls crying out “Unclean”. As Mother Teresa cared for those with physical as well as spiritual ills, so the priest, in persona Christi- in the person of Christ, frees us from a deeper affliction yet with the words of absolution. We are made clean, and then we are exhorted to respond by more closely observing the law of righteousness which is written on our hearts. (cf. Romans 2:14) Likewise, Jesus tells the former leper to follow the Mosaic law by making “an offering for (his) cleansing” before a priest. (Luke 5:14) Jesus shows respect for Jewish tradition, more so than the scribes and Pharisees who knew the tradition so well that they thought themselves to be above it. The man is ordered not to tell anyone else about the cure, presumably because Jesus didn’t want His miraculous works to detract from His deeper message of universal charity, or because He, like us, needed time to retreat into solitude and to pray. (cf. Luke 5:16, 4:42)

Jesus moved from this scene to another, where “some men” arrive carrying a paralyzed man. This happened “one day, while (Jesus) was teaching”. (Luke 5:17-18 ) Again, Luke writes about these events as if they could have occurred anywhere and at anytime. The details of the setting are unimportant, though the “Pharisees and teachers of the law” had arrived “from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17) to scrutinize every detail of Christ’s actions so that they might be able to build a case against Him. Meanwhile, the paralytic was lowered on his bed through a roof into a room where Jesus was. The Lord immediately noticed the great faith of the paralytic’s friends, and addressed the paralyzed man as “Friend”. (Luke 5:20)

Following His greeting, Jesus told the paralytic, “your sins are forgiven you”. (Luke 5:20) The mob accused Jesus of blasphemy. After all, only God has the power to forgive sins. (cf. Luke 5:21) Jesus perceived that hatred was deep within His accusers. Therefore, He asked them: “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” On the surface, the healing of the paralytic appears to be two-fold: Jesus healed the man’s paralysis (cf. Luke 5:24) and removed his sin. But this narrative has a deeper meaning: The man was healed in his entirety. Language tends to oversimplify concepts. For example, we speak of receiving the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. In fact, we are receiving the entire Christ, which is a greater gift than simply the sum of many parts. God escapes intelligibility. We are “filled with awe” in His presence. We might well say “(we) have seen strange things”, (Luke 5:26) because the Lord constantly shows us that which is great beyond human knowledge. (cf. Jeremiah 33:3)

Christ’s charity toward humankind, which is beyond all telling, urges us on- “Caritas Christi urget nos.” (2 Corinthians 5:14) We are impelled by this charity to respond with love of God and love of neighbour. (cf. Mark 12:29-31) This becomes “no mere command…but the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1) The tax collector Levi is shown by St. Luke to be better disposed to respond to Jesus’ request to follow Him than many of the scribes and Pharisees. Levi left everything behind to follow Our Lord. St. Luke, uniquely among the synoptic Gospel writers, mentions repentance as a necessary part of our response to God’s love in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the publican. Jesus comes down to a human level, accommodating our level of understanding. He “became man” (Nicene Creed), He lived, ate, died, and rose again among us sinners, and He perpetually shares Himself with us in the Eucharist and by sending us the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Divine Physician, of whom “those who are well have no need”, comes “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance”. (Luke 5:31-32)

Still, there are those who will refuse to visit their Physician when they are ill. Some will refuse to eat and drink at the Lord’s table, asking, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30) It is not for us to ask such questions, if our questioning becomes a self-righteous focus on the wrongdoing or lack of strict observance of tradition by others while we forget to prepare ourselves to host God within us. The hypocrites’ line of questioning continues; it is no longer an issue of whether Jesus welcomes sinners to share a meal with Him, but of why the Lord does not obey the laws of when to fast and when to feast when His Law includes but also transcends the customs of people. Jesus responds thus to the inquiry about fasting:

“‘You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’ He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it onto an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘the old is good.’’” (Luke 5:34-39)

This passage reminds me of the motto of World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany: Gott ist mit uns- God is with us. Therefore, Jesus commissions us to replace the old with the new. God is with us on our journey of life; it is truly a co-mission. As the leper was made clean, the paralytic was made able to walk, and Levi cast away his belongings, so we must contritely come before Our Lord to ask for forgiveness. God, in His infinite mercy, will absolve us of our sins unconditionally. We will then put on the new garment of purity instead of merely patching over our shortcomings. The wine that becomes for us the blood of Christ will be poured into fresh wineskins, and the desire for our old ways will diminish.

Finally, ritual observances such as the Sabbath are important in religious practice, but they cannot be allowed to obscure our main focus. Jesus reminded the Pharisees who attacked Him for allowing His disciples to eat the grain of the fields: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:5) It is He who gives sustenance to us, His companions, “to the end of the age”. (Matthew 28:8, cf. Luke 6:4)

You are Lord of the Sabbath, O Jesus. You are Lord over our rest and our activity, over our sleeping and our waking, over night and day. You, our all in all, have given us a great commission to spread your Good News over all the earth. You are with us forever as our help, having led the exemplars of the Beatitudes who now see you face to face, especially Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati*, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux, co-patron of missionaries**. We ask your blessing upon those young and old who do your will throughout the world. From when you were a child you were “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel”. (Luke 2:34) We pray therefore as we go forth that you might “guide our feet in the path of peace”. (Luke 1:79) Amen.



*I’m referring here to a biography of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati that I received as a gift from the Basilians at Frassati House in Toronto and have begun to read. The book, written by Pier Giorgio’s sister Luciana Frassati, is entitled “A Man of the Beatitudes: Pier Giorgio Frassati”. Its revised edition, with an introduction by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner and a foreword by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, was published by Novalis in 2000. Pier Giorgio Frassati, a beacon of love and justice in the world, didn’t come from a particularly religious background. According to Fr. Rosica (cf. p.5), Pier Giorgio’s father was an agnostic…

**Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux was proclaimed universal co-patron of missionairies and of missions, along with St. Francis Xavier, by Pope Pius XI on December 14, 1927.