Holy See Mission Seminar Day 4- Verbum Caro Factum Est

20 Jul

Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

These words are inscribed on either side of the tabernacle at Holy Family Church in Manhattan, the parish of the United Nations. Fr. Bob Meyer presided over Mass there on the fourth day of the Path to Peace Foundation- Holy See Mission Seminar, Wednesday, May 23, 2007. Upon entering Holy Family Church, one is also greeted by a large representation of the risen Christ above the altar, instead of the depiction of the crucified Christ found in most Catholic churches I’ve been in.

The doctrine of the Incarnation- that the second Person of the One Triune God took on human form, becoming one like us in all but sin- is distinctive to Christianity. The Word became flesh and lived, suffered, died, and rose among us, all the while obeying Jewish tradition and respectfully challenging religious leaders, and choosing disciples and Apostles to lead us, His Church. In short, through the Incarnation God became our neighbour. He loves us, having been one of us, therefore, in response to the lawyer’s question about how we are to inherit salvation (cf. Luke 10:25), the Son of God and Son of Man taught the law with authority:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

Here, Jesus taught without actually answering the question asked of Him; He left the answer up to one who was knowledgeable of his religious tradition. The lawyer gave Jesus “the right answer”. Similarly, Christians who read the Bible somewhat regularly would be able to answer Jesus’ question correctly by rote. But we need to act on our knowledge of this greatest Commandment. Jesus said to the lawyer: “Do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:28 )

Like the lawyer, though, we would likely prefer to question Jesus further, “wanting to justify (ourselves)” instead of putting our faith in action, by asking, “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). But Jesus patiently teaches us how to be neighbourly, as He taught the lawyer using the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’ tale, the priest and the Levite, both capable speakers of the law, are shown to be less charitable than the Samaritan, who would have been disliked by the lawyer, or by the priest or Levite, because of the doctrinal differences between Samaritans and other Jews. However, only the Samaritan has courage enough to bandage and to disinfect the victim of the roadside robbery, who is taken “on (the Samaritan’s) own animal” and placed in the care of an innkeeper. (Luke 10:34, cf. v. 35) This parable is well-known, even in popular discourse, and is easy to remember and to recite. But we risk forgetting the most important part of the story, where Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responded, as expected, “The one who showed him mercy”, to which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”(Luke 10:37)

There, Jesus said it: Go and be a neighbour; act like the Samaritan, who in his mercy acted as Christ Himself would. Our Lord expects nothing more. Our Incarnate High Priest knows our weaknesses (cf. Hebrews 4:15), yet He gives Himself to us and perseveres with us to the point of our complete self-offering unto Him.

The readings during Mass on the fourth day of the Holy See Mission Seminar further reinforced how we are to be neighbours to one another, following God’s own example. The first reading, from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles verses 28 to 38, began where the first reading from the previous day left off. (cf. Acts 20:17-27) Paul had assembled some elders from Ephesus. He taught these leaders one last time, realizing that the Ephesians would likely never see him again. (cf. Acts 20:25, 38 ). St. Paul spoke of the “Church of God that He obtained with the blood of His own Son.” (Acts 20:28 ) Thus, our omnipotent and always-present God sent Jesus in human form to redeem us by His death on the Cross. The same God empowered Paul to proclaim “the message of His Grace”, while the Holy Spirit chooses “overseers” to act in the stead of Christ and of the first Apostles. (Acts 20: 28, 32)

Those who proclaim God’s message, laypersons and clergy alike, must be aware of distortions of the truth. False teaching often comes from outside the Church, but has also come from within. Therefore, St. Paul cautioned us to “be alert” against “savage wolves (that) will come in among (us), not sparing the flock.” (Acts 20:29, 31) He also reminded us of Jesus’ words that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Paul lived what he preached, as Christ had before him, regarding material goods as less important than our actions borne out of love such as aiding the weak. (cf. Acts 33-35).

As St. Paul was leaving the Ephesian elders, he knelt among them and prayed. (cf. Acts 20:36). This is also consistent with the actions of Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the day’s Gospel reading from St. John. Prior to His Passion, Our Lord prayed for His disciples, that they might live in unity with one another, as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfectly one. Jesus also prayed that His disciples might be protected by God, that they might be joyful, that they might be consecrated to the truth, and that they might be spared from Satan. (cf. John 17:11-19)

In the same way God prays for us and among us, we call upon Him as in the Psalms. (cf. Psalm 68:28-29) God showed His might and strength by covering Himself in human flesh, thus we respond with praise, again following the words of the Psalmist:

“Sing to God, O kingdoms of earth; sing praises to the Lord. O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens; listen, He sends out His voice, His mighty voice. Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel, and whose power is in the skies. Awesome is God in His sanctuary, the God of Israel; He gives power and strength to His people.” (Psalm 68:32-35)

Our praise, though, must be more than simple words; God, I emphasize, calls us to act. The theme of neighbourly action was again at the fore during the first session of May 23, when the seminar attendees were assembled before the ambassadors to the UN from Austria, Honduras, and Senegal. The Austrian ambassador spoke first, beginning with a reflection on the fact that national delegates are seated alphabetically in the General Assembly. Thus, Austria is between Australia and Azerbaijan. For the Austrian representative, this underlines the importance of the question posed by the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbour?” At the UN, links are forged between people and nations that, though very diverse, frequently end up sitting next to each other and participating in the achievement of a common goal to build a better world.

Unfortunately, terrorism, especially as illustrated on September 11, 2001, has in some cases delayed initiatives toward co-operation that the UN strives for. At the UN itself, security is heightened, while international trade and mobility are sadly though often necessarily restricted.

Austria’s UN ambassador commendably mentioned the role of the Catholic faith in his country’s approach to issues of global interest, stating also the European nation’s “great admiration for Holy See diplomacy”. 90% of Austrians consider themselves Catholic. The ambassador himself comes from Tyrol, which he dubbed “the Holy Land of Austria”. Important contributions by Austria toward the UN include the June 28, 2006 introduction of the resolution that made Montenegro the 192nd member of the organization. Austria herself is a recent addition, obtaining UN membership in December, 1995. Before then, she had spent forty years as a neutral power “actively engaged in the United Nations.” In addition, Austria is currently supplying the largest contingent of UN troops in the Golan Heights, and 60 000 Austrian troops in total are under the blue beret. Austria is also one of 27 members of the European Union, which contributes 38% of the UN budget and more than half of its development funds.

At the UN, “all believe in something better”, according to the Austrian ambassador. Despite negative press, the UN is held in high esteem. Poorer countries in Africa and in Latin America especially benefit from its existence. Thus, international commitment to the UN is “critical”, in the Honduran ambassador’s words. Such solidarity begins with the young, who were encouraged by the Senegalese ambassador to “believe in the United Nations”. Though all three ambassadors agreed that reforms are needed in areas ranging from the relationship between the Security Council and the General Assembly to better human rights protection and regulation of aid distribution, they expressed hope, particularly since the UN is under a new Secretary General, the South Korean Ban Ki-Moon.

Senegal is a model for co-operation among persons of different religions, as highlighted by that country’s ambassador. Though officially a secular state, 90% of Senegalese are Muslims, and 8% are Christian, with most Christians belonging to the Catholic Church. In Senegal, religion has never been divisive: its first president, Sangor, was a Muslim whose wife was a devout Catholic. The brother of the late Archbishop of Dakar, His Eminence Hyacinthe Cardinal Thiandoum (1921-2004), is the Imam of his village. Senegal, which achieved independence on September 28, 1960, has experienced democracy for longer than many European countries, and extends its example of inter-ethnic peace beyond its borders, acting as an important negotiator and peacemaker in African conflicts such as in Darfur, through which Senegalese Hajj pilgrims must pass annually on their way to Mecca.

As in Senegal, religion plays an important role in Honduras, whose population is 90% Catholic. The ambassador speaking in the panel was the only Honduran citizen to have received a prestigious honour from the Vatican (I unfortunately was unable to note correctly the name of the Order to which he belongs). Honduras also acts as a key regional mediator, since much of Central America was plagued by civil war not long ago. Grievances related to these conflicts continue to be prosecuted, for example, at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. In Honduras, poverty is a persistent problem, but the country’s presence is welcome among other nations in Latin America and in the Caribbean, where 32 countries are “working together”, often “under UN oversight”.

Following the panel discussion, several noteworthy questions were asked of one or more of the three ambassadors. Everything from regional issues including how a peaceful, democratic, and religiously diverse nation like Senegal might provide an example to other African countries that are less free, to whether the Honduran ambassador thought his fellow countryman and a speaker of ten languages, Andrés Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, would make a good pope, was on the agenda.

Back at the Holy See Mission, the afternoon began with a stimulating talk by a retired Canadian Senator, Douglas Roche of Edmonton. Before the lecture, I was identified to Sen. Roche as a student of the University of Alberta and as a fellow Edmontonian, the only one among fifty-three people registered for the seminar. Sen. Roche greeted me as I was finishing lunch, and then we conversed for a short time about Edmonton, about Canadian politics, and about our experiences in the university setting. The Senator had been a professor in political science at the U of A, and is active in the community. I remember him speaking during the 2006 outdoor Way of the Cross through downtown Edmonton on the steps of a Baptist church that serves meals to the homeless about the alleviation of poverty in our inner city. Senator Roche, a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament from 1972-1984, is a recipient of the Order of Canada. He also served as a Special Advisor on disarmament and security, for which he was awarded a Papal Medal by Pope John Paul II in 1995, and then honored with membership in the Order of St. Gregory the Great as a Knight Commander in 1998. (cf. Wikipedia, article on “Douglas Roche”)

Sen. Douglas Roche, who was appointed to the Canadian Upper House on September 17, 1998, began by discussing “the impression of a world beset by greed, corruption, (and) evil…” conveyed by much of the media. While such a characterization of world affairs is “not without reason”, Sen. Roche invited particularly youth to contribute to a “feeling of hope and strength” and therefore to build human security. The Senator considered the proliferation of armaments and environmental degradation to be two of the largest affronts to human dignity. He quoted from President Dwight D. Eisenhower that weapons “signify a theft from those who hunger and are not fed…those who are cold and not clothed.”
Rightful human relationships “(toward) one another and…the planet” involve more than a “personal morality”. Both human diversity and universality, perhaps paradoxically, involve exercising a “global conscience”, as per the lecture’s title and that of Roche’s newest book, based on “moral commonality”. By showing consecutive Google Earth images of Edmonton and then of Baghdad, Sen. Roche challenged us to regard all humans as worthy of the same rights. He asked: “Shouldn’t people in Edmonton and Baghdad enjoy the same rights we claim?” While peace abounds in developed nations, those in war-torn, poverty-stricken, or corruption-ridden countries face threats of being harmed or killed by the lack of food, water, shelter, and by armed hostilities. Other striking figures were cited. For example, according to the National Priorities Project in Chicago, the daily cost of the Iraq war would fund over 60 000 teaching jobs in the U.S., while for the $200 million yearly expenditure on nuclear arms, full health care could be funded for all Americans.

Swedish diplomat Hans Blix once called the number of nuclear weapons in the world- 27 000- “alarmingly high”, whereas Kofi Annan described the world as “sleepwalking toward disaster.” Senator Roche is faithfully dedicated to nuclear disarmament. However, Sen. Roche admitted, citing the example of Sierra Leone, that small arms present as great a problem as nuclear weaponry. In total, annual global spending on development is $78 billion U.S., whereas $1.035 trillion U.S. are spent on weapons per year. To promote development, peace, literacy, and sustainability, three elements are crucial, said Sen. Roche: participation, especially with advanced electronic technology available, understanding, and communication.

While Senator Douglas Roche’s views were convincing on the disarmament front, many including myself thought his presentation on climate change and environmental preservation to be less so. He also stated, much to the dismay of some, that a global conception of truth must “transcend religion”. This was problematic for those to whom the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ, has unique access to His truth among religious institutions through apostolic succession. In fairness, Sen. Roche seemed to relay throughout his discussion that moral living wasn’t tied exclusively to one faith or denomination, though that was unclear. Also, one of the Senator’s main sources on the environment was former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore’s book, “The Inconvenient Truth”. This book and its author are frequently cited, on good grounds, for hypocrisy. While Gore and like-minded alarmists preach moderation of resource consumption, many of them travel in private aircraft and inefficient large automobiles, or own, heat, and power sprawling mansions. Aside from that, though, Sen. Roche drew an important parallel between care for the environment and the alleviation of poverty, hunger, and ultimately war over disappearing non-renewable resources. He closed his talk by telling us to “have confidence” in ourselves, that we are expected to use our intellectual capabilities in the world’s favour…

Covenant House, which serves underprivileged youth under 20 in Manhattan, was the next stop after Senator Roche’s lecture. There, goals include helping the young and often homeless to acquire job skills, including an education, followed by proper housing. In fact, 70% of those aided by Covenant House graduate from high school. Adolescents are placed with employers that provide a fair wage, flexibility, and often scholarships. Covenant House also provides for pregnant women and their children, both before and after birth. It is able to house nearly four times the population that the next largest institution can take in. As a result, crime and drug abuse are reduced as the homeless population declines. Within the last 20 years, said a Covenant House staff member, the number of homeless in New York has been halved, while current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had once promised to cut a further two-thirds from that figure by 2009. Due to these initiatives, Covenant House serves fewer people than it did two decades ago. As it is largely reliant on private funds, such contributions are essential. It provides desperate young persons with a home, with a structure to their lives. As such, respect and obedience are taught to those who suffer on the streets and that many would simply ignore. College students can also help the homeless, for example, by participating in clothing or food drives, or by working toward better care for the mentally ill. Thus we can better assist “the cream of the crop that no one else wants to deal with”.

After the completion of the day’s busy schedule, we were treated to the Circle Line Cruise around Manhattan, followed by dinner out- Italian fare in a raucous venue that nonetheless provided us the opportunity to converse about the seminar to that point or just to unwind. I was asked many questions about my views concerning the talks by Senator Roche and by Archbishop Charles Chaput the previous day. The two lectures were the ideological bookends among the seminar’s presentations; attendees who sided with one of those speakers were often troubled by the other’s standpoint.

The sun set as the Circle Line Cruise offered us several beautiful views of New York City. Another day’s journey was coming to its end, while I hoped for the beginning of another invigorating and spiritually and intellectually fulfilling day. I realized that our tomorrows are never certain. We embark on our ship, whether this is the Circle Line Cruise or, in the case of St. Paul, the vessel that takes us away from Ephesus, figuratively speaking. After teaching and praying with the Ephesian elders, Paul was greeted by kisses, embraces, and weeping from grieving disciples, who feared the prospect of never again seeing the Apostle’s face. (cf. Acts 20:37-38 ) Imagine, then, the devastation felt by the Twelve upon Jesus’ horrible death. The women who visited the tomb on the third day were equally distressed, yet they were the first to audaciously greet a new beginning:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5)

As the sun sets, surely it will rise again. At both its rising and its setting, it casts a beam out onto the water along which our ship sails along the way to Heaven. (cf. Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Autobiographical Manuscript A, p. 22 front side; translation from French is mine) Our journey to the Heavenly shore is a joyful mystery, guided by Christ our Incarnate Lord.

Jesus, you became human like us. In so doing, you even more closely became our neighbour. Guide us toward our home beside You, O Lord. We pray for the strength to encourage each other along the same path. Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis. Amen.

WRS

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One Response to “Holy See Mission Seminar Day 4- Verbum Caro Factum Est”

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  1. The Prophetic Body of Christ- Reflection for Mass of August 9, 2009 « A Canadian Catholic Perspective on WordPress - August 9, 2009

    […] of the tabernacle. It was inscribed in Latin with the words from the prologue to John’s Gospel: “Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis – The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Indeed the Incarnate Word dwells among us and […]

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