Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On "Mitis": Accipe sanctum gladium

In the wake of Pope Francis' motu proprio Mitis iudex there has not been very much discussion of the word mitis (gentle) itself, which as a word for "merciful" is much less common than near-synonyms like clemens (clement) or misericors (tender-hearted).  My purpose here is to begin a conversation about that word.

Etymologically "mitis" means "ripe", and so Virgil in the Bucolics says "sunt nobis mitia poma", "there are ripe apples for us." "Mitis" therefore carries a sense of maturity, of being "just right." For this reason, unlike many other Latin words relating to softness, it does not carry a pejorative sense (cf. mollis).

 In the Clementine Vulgate there are only eleven instances of the word "mitis".  (To give a sense of its rarity, compare over 400 instances of "misericors".)  It is used of Moses, in Numbers 12:3 to describe him as the meekest (mitissimus) man on the face of the earth; in Psalm 85:5 to describe God as suavis et mitis, et multae misericordiae (sweet and mild, and full of mercy); and in Matthew 11:29 where Jesus says, "Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek (mitis), and humble of heart."  The other instances are comparable, as are the nine instances of the verb "mitigare" (to lighten, alleviate), e.g. Psalm 84:4, "Mitigasti omnem iram tuam", "Thou hast mitigated all thy anger."

The Roman Breviary provides us with one further example of the word mitis in the Church's liturgy.  An October responsory at Matins says, "Hic est fratrum amator, et populi Israel: Hic est qui multum orat pro populo, et universa sancta civitate Ierusalem. Vir iste in populo suo mitissimus apparuit," "This is a lover of the brethren, and of the people of Israel: This is one who prays much for the people, and for all the Holy City, Jerusalem. This man appeared most gentle toward all his people."  This text comes at least in part from 2 Maccabees 15:14.  I am not sure whether the response containing the word "mitis" relies on an alternative version of the Bible (perhaps the Old Latin that pre-dates Jerome's Vulgate) or whether it has some other origin.  In either case, this mitissimus or most gentle man was, we know from context in the Second Book of Maccabees, the holy prophet Jeremiah, who appeared to Judas Maccabeus in a dream and "stretched forth his right hand, and gave to Judas a sword of gold, saying: Take this holy sword a gift from God, wherewith thou shalt overthrow the adversaries of my people Israel." (2 Macc 15: 15-16)

In the public prayer of the Church, this is an example of what it means to be mitis.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sermon on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

For the last several weeks we have been reflecting on the Holy Eucharist. We first considered how the Eucharist fills the hunger of our hearts and souls. We continued that theme by considering how "in the strength of this food" from Heaven we find the strength to live our Christian lives. This week, I would like to consider another aspect of the Sacrifice of the Mass, and I will do this by drawing our attention to an important upcoming anniversary.

We stand now in the year 2015, and the year 2017 will mark five-hundred years from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when an Augustinian friar by the name of Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. I mention this because ultimately the Protestant Reformation became a revolt against the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, and so by turning our attention to what was being said about the Sacrament in the 16th century we can find ample material for our meditations today.

A question much debated by that first generation of Protestants was this: What did Christ mean when He said at the Last Supper, "This is My Body?" From the earliest days of Christianity all Catholics had always believed that Christ actually meant what he said, that the elements of bread and wine used in the Eucharist actually become his Body and Blood. In the 16th century, however, many began to deny this. One rebuttal written at the time had this to say about their interpretation of "This is My Body":

Who but the Devil has granted such license of wresting the words of the holy Scripture? Who ever read in the Scriptures, that my body is the same as the sign of my body? or, that is is the same as it signifies? What language in the world ever spoke so? It is only then the Devil, that imposes upon us by these fanatical men. Not one of the Fathers of the Church, though so numerous, ever spoke as [these men do]: not one of them ever said, 'It is only bread and wine;' or, 'the body and blood of Christ is not there present.'
(It was a less politically correct century.)
These words of rebuke were written by none other than ... Martin Luther.

Woah! Plot twist!

Martin Luther, the architect of the Protestant Reformation, believed in the Real Presence. Merely the Real Presence is notthe central issue. Now, it is strange to speak "merely" of the Eucharist, isn't it? But yes -- in the Eucharist we have something even greater than "merely" the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ present among us!

The difference between Martin Luther's understanding of the Eucharist and ours is this: THE EUCHARIST IS A SACRIFICE. Rightly do we speak of "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."
The 22nd session of the Council of Trent says this:

If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration [that is to say, a mere calling to mind] of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.
This is hard to explain, but easy to illustrate.

Last week I had occasion to celebrate Mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine church in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Now, normally I wouldn't recommend that anyone go to Atlantic City, but for this church I might make an exception. It's a real gem: in the baptistry chapel of this church there's a beautiful mosaic, in the center of which is that famous quotation of St. Monica: "This only I ask of you: That you remember me at the altar of the Lord."

Now, I was on vacation, and this was not a scheduled or public Mass I was celebrating, so there was no congregation. It was just me and the angels. And it struck me: This would make no sense to Martin Luther. 

If all that we believed about the Eucharist was that in made Christ present, there would have been no reason for me to celebrate Mass. After all, Christ was already present in the Tabernacle! Even if I derived particular joy and consolation from the prayers of the Mass, I could have knelt down with the Missal and read them devoutly -- no need for all the fuss with vestments and altar cloths. What I did only makes sense if we believe that the Mass is a Sacrifice! Not that at every Mass Christ is somehow killed over and over again—that would be absurd. But in Holy Mass we offer to the Father the One Sacrifice of Christ, the Sacrifice made once for all on the Cross, that of the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.

I don't mean all this to be just a history lesson, or a chapter from a theology textbook. What I've said has two very practical consequences for us: first for Evangelization, and second, for our own prayer.

When we witness to the truth of our Catholic faith to our non-Catholic friends, and when we tell them about the great gift that Christ has given to us in the Eucharist, I would propose that we sell ourselves short if we only talk about the Real Presence. We must also tell them that the Mass is a Sacrifice. Because after all, perhaps there are some Lutherans who've read their Luther, and think that they already have what we're talking about!

And this also means a great deal for us. St. Monica really hit the nail on the head in that final instruction she gave to her son just before her death: "This only I ask of you: That you remember me at the altar of the Lord." She did not say simply, "remember me in your prayers," but, "remember me at the altar of the Lord." Here at the altar, because of the fact that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, at every Mass it's as if we step into a time machine and are present on Calvary with the Apostle John, the Virgin Mary and the other holy women gathered there. At every Mass we have access to the font of infinite graces won for us by Christ. So as we offer this sacrifice here today, let us call to mind all of our needs, all of those who have asked us to pray for them--and all of those who have not asked for our prayers, but need them anyway. Let us approach this holy altar with reverence, and ask God for the fulfillment of all our needs.

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Homily for Palm Sunday (Year B)

In the 20th century the story of Holy Week was turned into a play—perhaps you've seen “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But the idea to make the story of Christ's Passion into a musical predates Andrew Lloyd Weber by many centuries:

♬ Ho-san-na to the son of David....
From the Entrance into to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the haunting events of Good Friday:
♬ Crucify him, Crucify him!
To the glories of Easter that we celebrate at the Vigil:
♬ A...
… well, I don't want to sing the “A”-word during Lent, but you know I mean.

This week we have a chance to watch this drama unfold before our very eyes (and ears). On Holy Thursday Christ will institute the Priesthood and the Eucharist at the Mass of the Lord's Supper, at 7:00pm. On Good Friday, Christ will die for our salvation, here at 2pm and at St. Bridget's Church, with chanted Passion, at 7pm. And at the glorious Easter Vigil, beginning at 8pm at the end of Holy Saturday, Christ will rise again from the dead.

We will all participate in the sacred drama. Whether you choose to come to these beautiful Holy Week liturgies or not, we will all play a role in this sacred drama, because it is the drama of our lives and of our eternity. And thankfully, it's still early enough to try out for a good part in the play. There are several different parts to choose from.

You could sign up to be a member of the fickle crowd. These are the extras who hold up their palm branches when Jesus comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but who turn away when following Him becomes inconvenient. This role requires very little commitment, and most people who play these parts do not even bother to show up for the weekly rehearsal. Unfortunately, they usually do not get invited to the cast party afterwards, and their children rarely take an interest in theater.

But there are also some speaking parts, which require a lot of hard work. For example, in the script we just read we heard Christ say to the disciples, “Your faith will be shaken.” To really be able to “get into character” you may have to submit to some very unpleasant experiences.

Or you could play the part of one of the faithful women. They don't get top billing, but they do get to share the stage with Jesus in the most memorable scene.

If you're anxious about your role in the play, don't worry: although our Director has very high standards, He's also very forgiving.

So think about which part you'd like to play this year—and beg God to help you remember your lines.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B)

This is a rough version of the text of my homily of 3/22/15.  In main it is a summary of an article in the October 2014 issue of the Communion & Liberation magazine Traces entitled "I am Nothing when You are not Present.  The text lacks citations but most of the quotations are drawn from this article.

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. […] I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts […]. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord.”

What a great promise, that we will not need anyone to teach us how to know the Lord, because we will encounter Him in an unmediated way when He writes on our heart.

Some Greeks […] came to Philip […] and asked him, 'Sir, we would like to see Jesus.'” These Greeks may not have gotten an up-close-and-personal one-on-one with Jesus, but there He was, standing there for all to see! “No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord”—He's right there! And they got to hear a voice from Heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

Perhaps we come to Mass today with that same desire, “We would like to see Jesus!” And He's even closer to us than He was to them—because although physically He is now in Heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, He is really present in the Blessed Sacrament and each of can know Him directly, not having to settle for merely learning about Him from our friends and relatives. All can know Him! To know God! To be in a loving relationship with the creator of the universe, “Who would not desire this every morning, in every moment of life?

And yet somehow it doesn't seem that simple. Yes, He is present in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet perhaps we would prefer a voice to come from heaven, like the one that some in the crowd around Jesus mistook for thunder.

Now, “In certain exceptional moments, we have all had an experience of that kind,” and experience whereby we know with certainty that God is present. Or at least, I hope each of you has had that experience at some time. If not, my heart breaks for you. If you have never had a deep and meaningful encounter with God, then beg Him to reveal Himself to you today in the mostly Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, following the example of Christ as St. Paul portrays Him to us in the Letter to the Hebrews: 'offering prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who is able to save you from death, and you will be heard because of your reverence.'

I think asking for this experience is important because 'Only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it … is strong enough to survive in a world where everything, everything seems to point in the opposite direction.'

For most of us, though, I imagine that 'in some exceptional moments, we have had an experience of that kind: but we wonder how it can become stable.'

At first, our relationship with God can be dramatic: “When the love of our life enters into your existence, you are ready to give your life for it.” And yet our relationship with God, like any relationship, has its ups and downs, highs and lows. Not because God ever abandons us, but because something changes within ourselves. Our relationship begins by asking, with the flame of desire burning in our hearts, (excitedly) What next!? What do You have in store for me today!? “Then, over time, after years of belonging, the dramatic question becomes, (dejectedly) '[Now what]?'” Now what?

It's not that I necessarily doubt my previous experience of God or reject my faith in any way. I acknowledge that, in some general or theoretical way, God is 'calling' me, that I am in a relationship with God, but I don't really know what that means so I end up just going through the motions, week after week. I show up to Mass every week and I do the Catholic things and I say the Catholic words but “Mere words […] do not help us get by.”

If we're stuck in a rut, spiritually, we have a problem, and we need help. But “Rather than seeking […] help […] we limit ourselves to comments, often of an intellectual nature.

So, what's wrong with my relationship with God? Why is my prayer so ineffective? “It's the way the liturgy is done; it's the way this person near me is praying so very annoyingly; it's the way this child of mine has recently acted towards me; it's the economic difficulties that fill my life with worry.”

But at the end of this list of complaints “our dissatisfaction remains, and we ask ourselves what should be done, as if the solution were outside ourselves.”

The English author G. K. Chesterton was once asked to write an essay with the title, “What's Wrong with the World?” His response was just two words long. “What's wrong with the world?” He wrote simply, “I am.”

For some reason, we think that the problem with our relationship with God is someone else's fault, something we can't control. But that is not true. “The question is not banal: are we still seeking [God], or have we stopped?” If we have stopped, if we've given up our quest for a deeper relationship with God and have grown content with merely going through the motions, then let us offer prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save us from death, Who is able to save us from our nothingness, able to give us meaning and purpose!

The crucial question is to understand how God calls us, because otherwise we talk about God in the abstract.”

Let us return again to that first encounter, “When the love of our life enters into your existence, you are ready to give your life for it.”
Why does God let this experience fade? Why doesn't God allow us to feel that surge of religious emotion intensely and continuously?
God wishes to teach us that “Life can be even more profound than this”
We are ready to give our life … but there is an even greater sacrifice [than this heroic/romantic impulse. There is an even greater sacrifice than this], which is giving your life according to the how and the when that He decides.”

Our first activity [in hearing God's call] is passivity, [even the words we use imply this—God calls, so I listen! Passivity,] accepting, receiving, acknowledging that everything is given” to us by God.

Everything is given to us. God gives us all our circumstances. These “Circumstances are the [way in] which [God] calls us.” He has chosen to insert us into the universe at this moment, in this place. And the Lord, the One Who at this very moment is creating the reality in which we live, tells us, 'Look, these circumstances that you do not understand, that seem so dark to you, this is way in which I who make all things have chosen to build your life, to help you to mature, to make you yourself, to rekindle your desire, and to make you present to the present.'

God wants to make us present to the present. If we only appreciated the great gift of our present circumstances, circumstances over which we have no control whatsoever, we would flourish.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit some of my favorite parishioners. I don't mean to insult anyone by the comparison, but last week I was blessed to visit the Ontario County Jail. I have never left the jail without being inspired by the people I meet, and a little ashamed of the way I live my own life of prayer. People I meet in the jail are always telling me about how they've deepened in their relationship with God, and not because of some great experience of conversion after whatever sin or crime landed them in a correctional facility, but because they've established a routine: “I get up at the same every morning and say these prayers...”. Here are people whose circumstances, objectively speaking, seem pretty horrible. They have very little say over what they do or when they do it. Yet they have accepted those restraints, embraced those circumstances, and so have found a way to grow closer to God in their situation.

Similarly, I recently read the story of a woman whose life was turned upside-down when she had a daughter with Down Syndrome. Now this was a very Catholic woman who never in a million years would have considered having an abortion (as so many do when they discover their family life will not turn out the way they imagine), but “all […] my good Catholic openness to life,” she writes, “is not enough”. “I need a reason for living what exists,” a reason for living day-by-day the difficulties her daughter's condition requires of her. “It's not that I need someone to tell me that my daughter is of infinite value” (I know that when I look into her eyes. Rather, I need Jesus.) Acknowledging that God has given us our circumstances makes all the difference, and not just intellectually: “the difference is in the gusto that comes from the consciousness that the Lord is calling me here, and not where I thought I would be.

This is how God calls us. Maybe we don't understand why, but this is how God calls us. It's not without reason that at every Mass we refer to Christ's presence among us as the Mystery of Faith!

But at times we don't want this method: […] In the face of the challenges of the current circumstances, which often shock us, [Our temptation] is to give into fear, thinking we can reach unity [with God] […] 'exonerated from risks.' We do not believe the circumstances were given to us by the Mystery, by the Lord of time and history, so we could re-acquire the truth.”

But this is how God calls us.
The only condition for being truly and faithfully religious […] is always to live reality intensely”.

In the presence of a […] culture which gives top priority to appearances, to all that is superficial and temporary, the challenge is to choose [to] love reality.”

Either we understand this, or all the […] challenges we have to face have nothing to do with our journey, and even become an obstacle.”

For the Christian, “Nothing [in life] is to be […] censured, forgotten, or rejected,” because these circumstances are the means by which God has chosen to call us.

Our relationship with God cannot stay at the level of the dramatic emotion where it may have been after our first encounter with Him. “Unless that initial ring of truth ripens into maturity, we can no longer bear, as Christians, the enormous mountain of work, responsibility, and toil to which we are called.”

But if we accept that our circumstances are the way in which God calls us, if we live with gusto every moment of every day because we expect to find God's presence there, then “You [become] more and more fascinated, [and] you become more and more yourself.”

Jesus says in the Gospel that “Whoever loves his life loses it,” because if we imagine that we can only be happy with our life just as it is, or just as we wish it would be, invariably we will be disappointed. But He also says that “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Mt 10:39) because if we are willing to give up our preconceived notions of what's best for us God will show us why his path for us is greater than the one we would have plotted for ourselves, difficult as his way may seem.

As we prepare next week to celebrate Holy Week, when Christ himself was betrayed and crucified, are you willing to lose your life for his sake?

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent

Lent. Lent. Why does the Church observe this season of fasting and penance?

A friend of mine once gave a heart-felt and beautiful defense of Catholicism. He said, “Some people say that Catholics mourn their faith, but I've never felt that.”

Some people say that Catholics mourn their faith. I had never heard it put quite that way before, but I think I know what he meant. If someone were to just observe Catholics, watch what we do here at Mass, they'd think that we are indeed pretty good at mourning. Right? Last Wednesday this church was packed several times throughout the day with people getting ashes on their heads as they were told to “Repent!” and reminded that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then we come together again on Sunday, beating our breasts: “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” In a few weeks' time on Good Friday we'll process up the aisle to kiss the Cross, the gruesome instrument of torture on which our Savior was executed.

And on top of all that, we're “giving up” something for Lent and doing penances. Why?

That friend of mine said, “Some people say that Catholics mourn their faith, but I've never felt that.” He was able to see that there was something behind all these practices of ours. Or better yet, he understood that there was something beyond all this, that these things we Catholics do have a purpose, a goal.

The season of Lent is not a time simply to do penance or fast or go without meat on Fridays as if these things were ends in themselves. The season of Lent is about preparing for Easter. The road that leads to the Cross goes on father, to the Resurrection. In the Collect prayer of today's Mass we asked God that “through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ.” There are riches—great riches!—in Christ, but they are hidden. We must find them, and to do this we need to go out into the desert with Christ. The richness of our faith, the purpose of our Lenten practice, is not always immediately apparent to the observer, just as the Resurrection of Christ was not believed in by all who had seen Him die. But if we look for the hidden riches of our faith we will find a treasure beyond our wildest dreams.

St. Peter said to us this morning, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. […] In the days of Noah […] a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which now saves you. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”

This is why the Church observes the season of Lent. Those preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil are making “an appeal to God for a clear conscience,” asking that the grace of the Sacrament may perfect their conversion, not only doing away with their guilt and washing away their past sins but also giving them the strength, from then on, to lead a life free from further sin. And for those of us who have been receiving the grace of the Sacraments for years, but so often fall short of having “a clear conscience”—how much more do we need this season of penance!

But it is always important to keep the reason for our penance in mind. If our goal for this Lent is to suffer a little and then to continue in Easter with business as usual, we might rightly be accused of mourning our faith. But if our goal for this Lent is, through suffering, to find the riches hidden in Christ; to grow closer to Christ, to grow in holiness and to be united with Christ both in the suffering of his Cross and in the triumph of his Resurrection, if this is our goal!  If this is our goal: Then as saints we shall reign in the glory of Heaven.

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