Practising English, Faith & other skills

Weekly updated by Santiago Acevedo Ferrer

Fall Fight Fortifying Shampoo

pope3Last Sunday the Pope released his first Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium, i.e. “The Joy of the Gospel”.

Before commenting this exhortation, I need to study it carefully. In the meantime, my audience can start reading it too.

In any case, I would like to comment what Pope Francis said the previous Sunday during the Angelus: “Jesus predicts that his disciples will have to suffer painful trials and persecution for his sake. He reassures them, however, saying: ‘Not a hair of your head will perish’ (Lk 21:18). This reminds us that we are completely in God’s hands! The trials we encounter for our faith and our commitment to the Gospel are occasions to give witness; we must not distance ourselves from the Lord, but instead abandon ourselves even more to him, to the power of his Spirit and his grace.”

I find it scaring and comforting at the same time. Indeed, it is scaring to know beforehand that, inescapably, one has to suffer for believing in Christ. It is comforting, though, that one’s life is in God’s hands and that we will not perish. In this regard, it is funny that Jesus uses the image of the hair. Perhaps he wanted to impress his audience which was fully aware that many of their hairs were (and are) perishing.

The martyrs are the best example of Jesus’ words. Although they died, they didn’t perish. Moreover their blood speeded up the evangelisation of the pagan world.

I don’t know whether one of us will have the opportunity to become a martyr. But I do know that in our lifetime, there will be many instances in which if we give testimony of our beliefs, we will encounter adversity. Someone might laugh about some of the commandments we strive for fulfilling; some other could label our behaviour us as discriminatory; another could blame us for trying to impose our own ideas on our society.

We Christians should not forget that when one suffers for Christ (no matter how much or little), one is fulfilling in his own life Jesus’ prophesy described in the 21st chapter of the Gospel of Luke. And we cannot forget, either, that there is a second prophecy that follows: not a hair of our head will perish (Lk 21:18). This should comfort us during our trials and foster our hope that we are Christ’s flock and that we are called to be with him for good.

This second prophecy will act as a good ‘Fall Fight Fortifying Shampoo’, which will prevent us from falling and perishing.

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The Darkness of Sin

pope3Last week Pope Francis said: “The word ‘Baptism’ literally means immersion. Through the Sacrament, we are immersed spiritually in the death of Jesus Christ and we rise with him as a new creation. Regenerated by water and the Holy Spirit, we are illuminated by grace which dispels the darkness of sin.”

The darkness of sin. Many times one regards sin as just something outside the laws of the Church, but not as “darkness”. But when sin is described as something that darkens the Church’s life, it inevitably leads one to think about something which does no good to us.

Additionally, one might think that there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of sins: sins that outwardly harm others (like committing homicide) and sins that are just ‘personal’ ones (such as sinful thoughts or envy).

Today’s question is whether those two kinds of sin darken the Church’s life or just the first group.

It seems that the best way to understand that each sin of each Christian affect the whole Church is through what is called the ‘communion of saints.’ In the first letter to the Corinthians (12:12-31), Saint Paul explains this communion using the image of a body. He went on to say that we are all members of the body of Christ, and if one member suffers, the whole body suffers. Following this image of the body of Christ, point 947 of the Catechism of The Catholic Church, quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas, states the following: “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others…. We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church.”

So far, we can conclude that there is one good reason to understand why one’s sins affect the whole Church: Because we are united in the communion of saints.

However, none of the above mentioned reasons explain why we are united. In other words, what does produce the communion of saints? Why we are united?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gives us one clue in his 2010 book ‘Light of the World’: “[W]e believe that in the Eucharist we really receive Christ, the Risen One. And if every member receives the same Christ, then we are all really gathered in this new, risen body as the locus of a new humanity. It is important to understand this and so to conceive the Church as a living organism that comes from Christ himself.”

Perhaps there are more answers to the question why we Christians are united in the communion of saints. In any case, the reason Pope Benedict XVI gave us seems to me sufficient. When receiving the Holy Communion, we are entering in the same room where Christ lives. We are all gathered in the same place. It is a family get-together as well as a spiritual reunion. In those circumstances, all what we are and what we have done communicates with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even one’s ‘personal’ sins, which have left a mark in one’s soul, can be perceived by everyone in that meeting.

A friend of mine told me once that for him it is easier to avoid sins that outwardly harm others because he doesn’t want to hurt someone. On the contrary, he told me that when he is tempted to commit ‘personal’ sins, he easily falls into that temptation precisely, he thinks, he is harming nobody. I will tell him what Pope Emeritus Benedict said about the communion of saints. Perhaps this would help him (as well as me) to resist temptation and ask for God’s help in those moments.

At least for me the thought about being in the same room with Christ and with all my brothers and sisters will help me to avoid falling into the darkness of sin.

The Coin of Poverty

pope3Today, I would like to talk about poverty. I regard this issue as a very difficult one. On the one hand, poverty is a state which consists in lacking of essentials such as food, shelter and clothing. On the other hand, poverty is a Christian virtue which leads us to renounce to worldly things in order to be closely united to God (see CEC 2544).

From this point of view, the Church wants to alleviate poverty (poverty as a state) and to encourage poverty (poverty as a Christian virtue) at the same time.

Now, how are we to reconcile those two ‘poverties’?—It seems there is no easy answer. Imagine a world without poor. Would it be a perfect world from a Christian point of view?—Not necessarily, since this environment could lead us to start loving riches which is something opposed to Jesus’ Gospel.

Conversely, imagine a world where everyone practises the virtue of poverty. Would it be a perfect world from a Christian point of view?—Not necessarily either. As long as there be people lacking of essentials, this will not be a perfect world.

Things get a little bit more complicated when we come to the Beatitude which reads ‘Blessed are the poor’. It is true that Mathew’s version says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3), which lead us to think Jesus is talking about the Christian virtue of poverty. But it is also true that Luke’s version just says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20).

To whom the blessing is addressed?

a) To the ones in need (poverty as a state)

b) To the virtuous (poverty as a Christian virtue)

c) To both of them

d) To none of them

I think the correct alternative is letter c) for the following reasons:

First, it is undeniable that Jesus praises the virtue of poverty. Mathew’s wording couldn’t be more explicit in this regard: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). Additionally, in the parable of the talents, the one who received more talents (the richest of the three) was awarded by God for having managed his talents wisely. This one was poor in spirit (see Mt 25:14-30).

And second, it is also true that Jesus identifies himself with the needy. “For I was hungry and you gave me food (…) As you did with the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:35, 40).

All in all, this difficult issue of poverty shows two different sides. On the one side, we are to love the poor and strive to alleviate poverty. God identifies himself with the poor and asks us to feed them and to clothe them. On the other side, we are to become poor as Jesus encouraged his disciples to do in order to follow him more closely.

Last week Pope Francis visited Assisi. The Pope highlighted how these two aspects were present in the life of Saint Francis: “[Saint Francis’] encounter with Jesus led him to strip himself of an easy and carefree life in order to espouse ‘Lady Poverty’ and to live as a true son of our heavenly Father. This decision of Saint Francis was a radical way of imitating Christ: he clothed himself anew, putting on Christ, who, though he was rich, became poor in order to make us rich by his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). In all of Francis’ life, love for the poor and the imitation of Christ in his poverty were inseparably united, like the two sides of the same coin.”

Jonah, the Angry Prophet

pope3Last week, during an address to Catechists from all over the world, the Pope encouraged them to read the Book of Jonah. Though I am not an official Catechist, I read this book of the Holy Bible. Here are my findings.

Firstly, I found that the Book of Jonah was extremely short. Indeed, one of the problems a Christian might find in reading the Bible is its length. The book of Jonah, though, lasts 4 short chapters.

Secondly, I haven’t realised that Jonah was a prophet. I thought the Book of Jonah belonged to the historical accounts of the Bible. I was wrong. Jonah is counted among the Minor Prophets of the Bible. Each prophet has a prophecy that has to be fulfilled. In Jonah’s case, though, his prophecy (“Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)) was not fulfilled. Because of that, Jonah felt he was a failure as a prophet. We will return to it later.

Thirdly, at the very beginning Jonah disobeyed God’s command of going to Nineveh and, instead, he flew from God’s presence and embarked toward a foreign land. God needed to send a tempest and a big fish to send Jonah to Nineveh. Jonah was a disobedient prophet.

Fourthly, After Jonah’s preaching, the Ninevites (who did not belong to Israel) “believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.” (Jonah 3:5). Seeing their deeds of repentance, God relented and did not destroy the great city of Nineveh. Because of this, Jonah went stark raving mad. Jonah was an angry prophet too.

Fifthly, why did Jonah become angry?—It seems that what made Jonah angry was that his prophecy of the destruction of Nineveh failed in the end. We, Christians, should learn a lesson here. We should prefer the salvation of people above everything else, even our own reputation. It is better our failure as prophets or preachers than the condemnation of the ones that surround us.

Finally, we do not know if Jonah calmed down in the end (that short is the Book of Jonah). I hope so. In any case, it is utterly moving the way God talked about Nineveh at the very end of this Book: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). Although Jonah lacked the merciful outlook of God, Jonah’s preaching was successful. May God help us to be as successful as Jonah and as compassionate as Him.

I encourage you to read the Book of Jonah and to draw your own conclusions.

None of Them

pope3There are two attitudes that are to be avoided: Adoring without preaching and preaching without adoring.

The one who adores God but does not preach (i.e. spread the Gospel) can be compared with the one Jesus talked about in the parable of the talents. The one who received one talent and hid it in the ground. He was sternly scolded by the owner of the talent (see Mt 25:14-30).

Conversely, the one who preaches without adoring God in one’s heart might meditate upon the words of the Apostle: “but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).

Now, one might think that either situation could be mended by doing what one is not doing: Preaching or adoring. But, what can be done if one is doing none of them? For instance, a Christian who does not fulfil the third commandment of God (Keeping holy the Lord’s day) because he/she does not attend Sunday Mass. Imagine that that very Christian does not talk about God to anybody. The question is: Where does he/she begin? By adoring (attending Mass) or by preaching (talking about God)?

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis said: “Certainly faith is a personal act: “I believe”, I personally respond to God who makes himself known and wants to enter into friendship with me (cf.Lumen Fidei, n. 39). But the faith I receive from others, within a family, within a community that teaches me to say “I believe”, “we believe”. A Christian is not an island! We do not become Christians in a laboratory, we do not become Christians alone and by our own effort, since the faith is a gift, it is a gift from God given to us in the Church and through the Church.

From the Pope’s words, it seems to me that the answer to the abovementioned question (Where does one begin, by adoring or by preaching?) is the following: None of them.

In fact, if faith comes through others, one should repair one’s faith by letting oneself to be influenced by the faith of others. How can this be done? One way could be by start attending Mass to perceive the faith of others. Another way could be asking for advice to a friend of us who knows about it. And yet other could be reading a good spiritual book. This way, one might start perceiving that one’s soul wants to adore God and one’s heart wants to spread this inner joy to the ones that surround us.

Adoring and preaching. May God help us to do both. And May also God help us to visit a believer when we feel we are doing none of them.

Before Going to the Stadium

pope3Last week the Pope said: “In the first reading Paul and Barnabas say that ‘we must undergo many trials if we are to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). The journey of the Church, and our own personal journeys as Christians, are not always easy; they meet with difficulties and trials. To follow the Lord, to let his Spirit transform the shadowy parts of our lives, our ungodly ways of acting, and cleanse us of our sins, is to set out on a path with many obstacles, both in the world around us but also within us, in the heart.”

Today, I would like to talk about the trials one might encounter in order to fulfil the first precept of the Church: “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CEC 2042).

To attend Mass one Sunday or some Sundays does not seem that difficult, even more if we live nearby our parish, as I do. To attend Mass would be even easier if we regard our parish priest as a great preacher.

However, if one commits oneself to attend Mass 52 out of 52 Sundays a year, one would begin to taste some of the many trials Paul and Barnabas talked about. Reconciling Mass with a family trip, with skiing or going to a party till late hours the night before is a little bit more problematic. When a combination of event takes place, the trials multiply. For instance, eating out Saturday night and going to the stadium Sunday noon.

The list of trials can be expanded: children, parking problems, overcrowded churches (good problem from another point of view), boring priest, silly songs, winter and flu.

One probably has to deal with just a couple of trials a week. However, over a year these mini trials add up to many.

The Catechism explains that “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life.” (CEC 2177) If Sunday Mass is at the heart, without it there will be no life in the Church. Why?—Because, as Paul states, “if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty too your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). And, as Sunday is the day of the resurrection, when we skip this obligation we are depriving our faith from its core, from its meaning, from its heart. Paul himself warned the Hebrews to “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but to encourage one another” (10:25).

When one participates in Sunday Mass one is celebrating what Jesus has accomplished with his resurrection.

The martyrs rejoiced for having had the opportunity to die for the risen Jesus. We do not know if we will have the privilege of becoming a martyr. This is not under our control. What is under our control, nonetheless, is to behave in such a way that we can say to our Lord at the hour of our death: “My Lord, I might have sinned a lot, but in the last period of my life, I always celebrated your resurrection (before going to the stadium).” Brakets are optional.

NOTE: Originally posted on Tuesday 7 May 2013.

Another War

pope3Pope Francis is intensely talking about peace but, curiously enough, in last Sunday’s Gospel Jesus talked about war: “What king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?” (Lk 14:31).

The Pope admits that this Gospel passage is apparently inappropriate after a whole day of fasting and prayer for Syria. However, he went on to say: “Here Jesus doesn’t want to discuss war, it’s only a parable. But at this moment in time, when we’re strongly praying for peace, this Word of the Lord affects us closely, and fundamentally it says: there’s a deeper war we must fight, all of us! It’s the strong and brave decision to renounce evil and its seductions, and to choose good, fully prepared to pay personally: that’s following Christ, that’s taking up our cross! This deep war against evil!”

Combating evil. This is the war Jesus wants us to fight. Now, where is evil?—It seems that evil is within us and without us. One realises evil is without us when we read the paper or watch the news. One experiences evil is also within us when one keeps on reading the paper disregarding the beloved ones’ needs. When one feels that there is only room for us.

One might think: Where do I begin my war against my interior evil? Saint Paul, in the letter to the Romans, gives us a clue that might help us: “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.” (Rom 5:20). This is certainly a difficult passage. I would like to learn its meaning in the context of the whole letter to the Romans. In any case, it seems that this passage can help us to answer our question.

Let us split the phrase:

(1) Where sin increased, (2) grace overflowed all the more.

This can be paraphrased as follows:

(1) Where evil is, (2) precisely from there God’s help will come.

For instance, if one tends to look at other people the way Jesus told us not to do (see Mt 5:27-28), he/she should try to praise God every time he/she sees a beautiful/handsome human being walking down the street. This way we can turn our wickedness in prayer to God for His wonderful work.

For its part, a husband who “reigns” at home doing nothing and expecting to be served by everyone, can start mending his behaviour by doing at least the dishes every night.

Now, if we look carefully, Paul states that the actual warrior in this war is not our but it is God’s grace through us. Nonetheless, how can we be sure that these successful battles in our lives are the work of the grace of God, as Paul affirms?—Unfortunately, I am not able to prove it in a scientific way, but I have felt many times that there is a mysterious force that allows us to act in a good manner in the same things we experience our evilness.

I cannot prove it, as I said. But everyone is welcome to try this three-phase war experiment: (1) identifying a sin; (2) going to the sacrament of confession and (3) trying to perform a good deed to counter the sin confessed.

Paul himself experienced this. He was transformed from a Christian hunter to a Christian preacher. And he was convinced that this was done through the grace of God. He couldn’t have been more explicit: “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:9-10).

Becoming a Syrian

pope3I have to admit that, in spite of having read some news about Syria, I cannot say that I understand what is currently going on there.

However, Pope Francis has invited us to fast and pray for Syria in the following terms:

“I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.

On 7 September, in Saint Peter’s Square, here, from 19:00 until 24:00, we will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches, in addition to fasting, that they gather to pray for this intention.

Let us ask Mary to help us to respond to violence, to conflict and to war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation and love. She is our mother: may she help us to find peace; all of us are her children! Help us, Mary, to overcome this most difficult moment and to dedicate ourselves each day to building in every situation an authentic culture of encounter and peace. Mat, Queen of Peace, pray for us!”

I will do my best. I will fast and pray for Syria next Saturday. But as I don’t want to fast and pray for something I do not understand, I will also do my best to learn about the conflict there.

I am grateful to my faith-filled Pope who encourages us to be more catholic, i.e. more universal. It seems that the Syria problem can help us to get out of our often tiny problems and encourages us to enlarge our hearths.

Understanding the conflict in Syria can be of assistance to view our lives in a new fashion. In fact, we can take advantage of this tragedy in order to be more grateful to God: For being alive, for having received the gift of faith, for living (most likely) in a peaceful society.

This day of fasting and prayer should also help us to join in prayer to our brothers and sister who live in Syria. How heroic they have to be in order to keep their faith alive! May Our Lady intercede for them so that their faith be enkindled.

Next Saturday could be a wonderful day for all of us. The day in which all Christians became Syrians for 24 hours in order to strengthen our brothers and sisters who actually live there. I look forward to becoming a Syrian.

Chastity vs. Celibacy

pope3

Last week the Pope said: “The parable of the talents emphasizes our responsibility to use wisely God’s gifts, making them bear abundant fruit. Here I would ask the many young people present to be generous with their God-given talents for the good of others, the Church and our world.”

We Christians have to distinguish clearly between commandments and evangelical counsels. Commandments are the things God asks us all to fulfil. He can do that, He is our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. On the other hand, evangelical counsels are recommendations, personal invitations to lead a more perfect life.

For instance, chastity is a commandment whereas celibacy is an evangelical counsel. Every Christian is called to lead a chaste life, as the Catechism clearly expresses: “Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence” (CEC 2349). So, the question is quite simple: Are you married?—God asks you to love with your whole heart, whole body and whole soul just one person: your spouse. Are you single?—God asks you to be continent, which basically means no sex yet.

Celibacy is another sort of thing. It is not a commandment (God never said: ‘Thou shalt live in celibacy’). It is advice, an invitation from God: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29).

Chastity is a commandment (in short, compulsory) and not a counsel (optional). Alternatively, celibacy is a counsel (optional) and not a commandment (compulsory).

The Pope addresses youth and invites them to put their gifts into the service of God. The Pope is probably thinking of many things. But he is probably thinking in giving God things that are not compulsory but optional. If I am right, the Pope’s invitation could include this one: Dear young people, think in serving the Lord in celibacy. Give God your most precious gifts. And, could anything be more precious than to marry an endearing spouse and raise a family?

From a human point of view, celibacy is totally crazy. It is like childhood without ice creams. No sense. It is even more incomprehensible when you realise that the Church allows you to fulfil the commandment (chastity) having at the same time an active sexual life within wedlock.

I agree, celibacy makes no sense… from a human point of view. And this is precisely what makes celibacy powerful. It suggests that there is a Being above us that supports that choice. Celibacy reminds the world (including myself) that God exists.

My two best friends live in celibacy. And this is not coincidence. They are the ones who always listen to me, call me, ask me about my wife and family and pray for me. They do so many things every day (too many I told one of them last week), yet for me they are always available. They make me feel that I am important. Celibacy reminds the world (including myself) that every human being is important.

A relative of mine also lives in celibacy. She is very pretty. And it seems to me that God makes her even prettier each year. Maybe I am wrong and it is just because I love her so much as well as her way of living. Or perhaps celibacy makes people happier, and happiness makes them look prettier. Either way, her attractiveness must have something to do with her vocation.

Celibacy is optional and nobody should ever be forced to follow that path. What is compulsory, though, is to be grateful for those whom God has invited to live in celibacy, for they mirror life in Heaven.

*NOTE: originally posted on Tuesday 30 April 2013

The Three-Word Pope

pope3Sometimes a teacher is regarded by his/her students as a “good one” because of the fact that he/she speaks in a way nobody can decipher. “The teacher is excellent. I couldn’t understand anything he explained,” someone might say.

I think quite the opposite. That a teacher whose audience does not understand what he/she is conveying is a deficient one. Indeed, a teacher is meant to act as a bridge between a given area of knowledge and his/her audience.

The task of every teacher is to explain. Etymologically, to explain means to unfold. From this perspective, a good teacher is the one who is able to unfold complex realities showing them in a simpler way. Pope Francis has been giving us an example of simplicity over these months. His simplicity manifests in all aspects of his life: his way of acting, his way of living and also his way of teaching.

If one reviews Pope Francis’ homilies one would realise that they follow the same pattern. The Pope builds up his homilies around three words. The first word is taken from the first reading of the Mass; the second from the second reading; and the third word from the Gospel. This pattern is utterly simple yet highly pedagogical. For us, his sheep, it is much easier to remember a homily made up by three main ideas, each one contained in one single word. Additionally, through these three word, the Pope brings in all the readings of the Mass and makes them converse with each other.

For instance, last week the Pope said during his homily on the Assumption: “In the light of this most beautiful image of our Mother, we are able to see the message of the biblical readings that we have just heard. We can focus on three key words: struggle, resurrection, hope.

The passage from Revelation presents the vision of the struggle between the woman and the dragon.

(…)

The second reading speaks to us of resurrection. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, insists that being Christian means believing that Christ is truly risen from the dead.

(…)

The Gospel suggests to us the third word: hope. Hope is the virtue of those who, experiencing conflict – the struggle between life and death, good and evil – believe in the resurrection of Christ, in the victory of love.”

Although it is not the essence of the Sunday Mass, the homily plays such an important role in it. It is the weekly instance the priest has to explain the Scripture to us as Jesus did with the disciples heading toward the town of Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). Each Sunday homily is a unique opportunity to illumine the reality we Christians are facing with the light of the Word of God.

I feel that sometimes priests do not take full advantage of this opportunity. Sometimes Sunday homilies evoke vague emotions and have no structure at all. Sometimes they are quite difficult to follow. Sometimes it is evident they are not well prepared or not prepared at all. Differently, when one attends a course and one is not getting what the teacher is teaching, one always has the chance to raise one’s hand and ask a question. However, during the Mass there is no “question time,” and so, there is nothing one can do to get better explanations.

I think most of us, Christians, are not expecting amazing speeches each Sunday. What we want is just some guidelines to improve in our relationship with our Lord and in the service towards our family and neighbours. In this respect, Pope Francis is giving to all priests a simple yet highly useful recipe to prepare and deliver a fruitful homily. Three ideas, three words from the three readings.

If we, Christians, are meant to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature, we certainly need our weekly doze of Catholic doctrine from an easy-to-follow Sunday homily.

The Good God

pope3If there is something above us, if there is life after this life, if there is a new beginning after our earthly end, then it is worthwhile to know what we should do to attain that.

Our Christian Faith answers those questions in the affirmative. “I believe in,” we recite each Sunday during the Mass “the life everlasting.”

We were created to naturally attain that happy end. But as our first parents (Adam and Eve) sinned, the gates of Heaven were closed for us. It was Jesus the one who came down to forcefully open those gates again for us by dying in the Cross and resurrecting.

If Jesus redeemed us, i.e. reopen the gates of Heaven for us, does it mean that we will all reach Heaven after our death?—Not necessarily. One might object: ‘Then God is not good since a good God would want to be with all His children in Heaven.’

The above mentioned objection is a good one and it is difficult to dismiss. We will try, though.

God says in the Bible two things at the same time, namely:

(1) “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). And,

(2) “Enter the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Mt 7:13).

Therefore, God is good and He wants everyone to be saved. But at the same time He observes that many people are going astray.

At this point the message of Jesus gains all its urgency and drama: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). Indeed, this message explains at once (1) that God wants everyone in Heaven and (2) that God sees that if people do not convert they are to encounter the wrong gate.

Pope Francis ceaselessly encourages us to fulfil Jesus’ missionary commandment. In fact, last week he said: “We must always have the courage and the joy of proposing, with respect, an encounter with Christ, and being heralds of his Gospel. Jesus came among us to show us the way of salvation and he entrusted to us the mission to make it known to all to the ends of the earth.”

With or Without Joseph

pope3The year 1 B.C. an angel of God appeared to Mary in the town of Nazareth, to let her know she was going to be the mother of the Most High. This event is known as the Annunciation. During the Annunciation, the angel let also Mary know that her cousin, Elizabeth, was expecting a baby (John the Baptist). After that Mary decided to set off to visit her cousin Elizabeth.

The question I would like to raise today is this one: Did Joseph accompany Mary to visit her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation?

The Gospels say nothing about this. Actually, only the Gospel of Luke recounts this episode. Luke says, “Then the angel departed from her [Mary]. During those days Mary set out and travelled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1:38-40).

It can be argued that Joseph did not accompany Mary since she went to her cousin’s place in haste, which implies that she did not arrange things and just went by herself. Additionally, the Gospel of Matthew informs us that at the time of the Annunciation Mary and Joseph did not live together (cf Mt 1:18). Consequently, it is reasonable to think that if they did not live together by then, they did not travel together.

The most convincing argument, though, for this thesis against Joseph’s attendance to Elizabeth’s house can be found in the Gospel of Matthew 1:19-25. In fact, those verses explain that Joseph was mulling over the idea of secretly divorcing his wife when he found out she was pregnant. And that it was an angel who prevented Joseph from doing it and encouraged him to take Mary into his home, after explaining the whole situation.

Then, if Joseph had visited Elizabeth, it is difficult to understand his worries. In fact, he would have heard that Elizabeth regarded Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43). And this piece of evidence would have allowed Joseph conclude that God had something very important to do with Mary’s pregnancy. Thus, he wouldn’t have thought in dismissing her.

But at the same time, it is also plausible that Joseph did accompany Mary on her trip to visit Elizabeth. Firstly, it was a long trip from Nazareth (in the region of Galilee) to the region of Judea. Mary would probably not have dared to do such a long trip by herself, not even in a caravan. Secondly, the Gospel says that Mary travelled in haste, but it does not say that she went immediately after the Angel’s departure. She set off “during those days,” and a good reason for having done that is that she helped Joseph to arrange everything in order for him to join her.

Now, what about Joseph and his thoughts about dismissing Mary? In other words, is it possible that Joseph did not hear Elizabeth treating Mary as the mother of her Lord?—It seems it is. I can imagine Mary leaving Joseph behind as she sped up to greet her cousin when she saw Elizabeth´s house in the distance. I imagine their conversation was a private one, between two women, while Joseph was approaching them.

All in all, there are arguments for and against Joseph’s presence at the visitation to Elizabeth. The question now is: Where does lie the importance of this discussion?—It depends. If we are to discover the historical aspects of this, then the importance in only historical.

However, we are dealing with the life of Jesus’ parents. And if Jesus came also down to give us an example, we should take advantage of every single detail from the womb to the tomb and even beyond.

With or without Joseph, I hope this discussion allow us to deepen our understanding of the role of Mary. As the Pope said last week, “Let us turn again to Our Lady, to her who bore Christ in her womb and accompanied the first steps of the Church. May she help us to always put Christ and His Church at the centre of our lives and of our ministry. May she, who was the first and most perfect disciple of her Son help us to allow ourselves to be conquered by Christ in order to follow Him and to serve Him in every situation.”

Gravel under One’s Shoes

pope3Last week Pope Francis said to Argentineans in Brazil: “Here in Rio there will be plenty of noise, no doubt about that. But I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going out… if they don’t, they become an NGO, and the Church cannot be an NGO.”

The Pope is calling us to go out onto the streets. What does he mean?—As this is not the first time Pope Francis says something like that, I think the answer is only one. He means exactly that: To go out onto the street.

One might realise that one seldom go out. That one picks up his/her car to go to work and then picks the car again at the end of the day to go back to one’s place. One’s car could be our shell that prevents one from touching the streets.

For some other, the street is the place where one shows no emotion at all and interacts with nobody. Perhaps the street is the place where one ceases to be who one is and, instead, one has only eyes for one’s smart phone and ears for one’s headphones.

Going out onto the streets is clearly not an end in itself. Something has to be done there. The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church and wants what Jesus wants: That God’s good news reach everybody.

If we are the one that never touches the street, I think one might park one’s car a little bit farther once in a while. Or maybe, one can go for a walk. If the Pope is asking us to go out onto the streets, it is urgent to begin, at least by doing little things.

If we are the one that walks down the street as a sleepwalker, one should begin by changing our headphones for a book or the paper which allows much more interaction.

I can see one further way to go out onto the streets. To strive in order to make that our daily work reach the street. The question should be: What can I do in order to produce a social contribution while working? A baker can make more delicious cakes. An architect can design cheaper and environmentally friendly houses. A doctor can not only heal but also give some consolation to his/her patients. A lawyer can behave in such a way as to avoid hurting his/her counterpart. And this is just the beginning. The social benefit one is able to add to one’s work is probably vaster than one could imagine.

All in all, one thing is crystal clear: The Pope is ceaselessly asking us to go out onto the streets. Therefore, one should begin by obeying the Pope’s request in the most literal way. Simultaneously, one should ask God in one’s personal prayer: What else can I do in order to reach the street for the sake of spreading your love? May God help us to get some gravel under our shoes.

A Worthwhile Investment

pope3Yesterday Pope Francis arrived to celebrate the 28th World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Why did Pope Francis, being as poor as he is, come to Brazil?—I think one can find a good answer in yesterday’s first speech of Pope Francis.

“As you know, the principal reason for my visit to Brazil goes beyond its borders. I have actually come for World Youth Day. I am here to meet young people coming from all over the world, drawn to the open arms of Christ the Redeemer. They want to find a refuge in his embrace, close to his heart, to listen again to his clear and powerful appeal: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’”

Three conclusions follow:

First, Pope Francis is not doing tourism.

Second, the Pope has gone to Brazil to meet young people from all over the world.

Third, young people are going to find refuge in Christ and also to listen once again to his last commissioning recounted by Matthew (28:19): “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

I have never attended a WYD. I wish I had. As I am not young any more I think I will content myself with attending some day the World Family Day (perhaps the 2015 one in Philadelphia). In any case, I commit myself to pray for the fruits of this WYD. Especially, I will pray that every single young Christian who has travelled to Rio learn what Pope Francis has already said: That Jesus is asking us to spread his good news.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine asked me if I hadn’t thought that maybe if I had been born in Muslim culture I would have been Muslim and not Christian. The point he wanted to make is that religion has only to do with culture. I was born in a Christian culture, I am Christian, and full stop.

I think my friend was only partly right. Undoubtedly, if I were born in Algeria I would have had 98% chances of being Muslim. I totally agree.

However, Christianity is a religion that began in one specific culture, and its first members were just twelve apostles, Holy Mary and some other women. What happened is that these few people took seriously the commissioning of Jesus quoted by Pope Francis yesterday: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” They went into the whole world and Christianity began to spread to different cultures, languages and continents.

My friend is right when he suggests that I am probably Christian because my parents were Christians. And that my parents were Christians because my grandparents were Christians and so on. But at some point we will find that one of my ancestors was not Christian by birth. He/she heard the word of God and converted to Christianity and received the sacrament of Baptism. Besides, each one in the chain decided to keep the Christian faith, and for that very reason baptised his/her children. Therefore, I am grateful to them all. To the one who converted to Christianity and to the ones who handed our faith on to the following generation. All of them fulfilled the commissioning of Christ.

May God help us all to continue our chain, keeping our faith and handing on to our children. But may God also help us to begin new chains by converting people that surround us, as the Apostles did two thousand years ago.

“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). This is the message of Pope Francis and the reason his trip. What a worthwhile investment!

Mass and Elastic Beds

pope3Translations are useful, no doubt about it. Nonetheless, there is one phrase that, so far, has never been properly translated, and that is the very last sentence of the Roman Mass. “Ite, missa est” is translated into English as follows: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.” Its equivalent in Spanish is quite similar to the English translation: “Podéis ir en paz, la Misa ha terminado.”

Unfortunately, those translations are far from being faithful to the Latin sentence. “Ite” is actually an order: “Go!” It seems as if deacon or the priest is expelling us from the Church.

There is much discussion around the last two words “missa est.” Some people state there is a word missing. Benedict XVI points out that “missa est” was commonly understood as a dismissal, but in Christian language it has a deeper meaning. It implies our mission as Christians (cf Sacramentum Caritatis, 51).

From this point of view, the end of the Mass can be conceived as the beginning of something else, our starting-point as missionaries.

This interpretation is consistent with what Pope Francis said last week: “Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. (…) Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: “Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?” Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters.”

Indeed, if we go to the Mass to gather energies to go to the world afterwards, we might feel a little bit more responsible for what is going on in our surroundings.

For us, Christians, attending Mass should be like jumping on an elastic bed. The more we jump, the higher we would be propelled. “Ite, missa est” should be understood as a calling to fulfil the missionary commandment uttered by Jesus at the end of Mark’s Gospel: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). The Mass has finished, now go out and preach the gospel. Do your best to heal the sufferings of needy with the light and the fire of your faith.

We, Christians, should face reality in a quite new fashion. Instead of complaining about the evil in this world, we should examine our conscious by asking: What else can I do to prevent those tragedies to take place?

We should keep on practising our faith. We should keep on attending Mass every Sunday (and even more often). But we should keep in mind that we are entering church just for one purpose. In order to be propelled at the end of the Mass further than ever, higher than ever, for the sake of the evangelisation.

I’ve Got a Lamp

pope3Last week Pope Francis released his first encyclical letter: Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith.

It is marvellous to regard Faith as light, for light allows us to see. A couple of weeks ago my sister-in-law gave me a lamp key ring as a birthday gift. Instead of using it as a key ring, I placed it in the shade of my bedside lamp. It is a perfect device to read during the night without waking my wife.

That light of mine is not an ornament. It is for something. It allows me to see, to read. Likewise, Faith should not be the cherry on the cake of one’s life. Faith should play a critical role in one’s existence. It should let us fulfil the two-fold commandment of loving God and one’s neighbour (cf Mt 22:37-40). Faith is light, to act, to love.

The believer, then, is not better than the nonbeliever. He/she just have something better: a light that illumines reality in a quite new fashion. For instance, Faith helps us to see in the needy, the face of the suffering Christ who is calling us to heal the reality that surrounds us.

After his encounter with Jesus Christ (Light itself) the apostle Philip went to his friend Nathanael. He enthusiastically said, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth” (Jn 2:45). Nathanael was not convinced and replied, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (46). Philip did not argue. He had received the light and that had been enough evidence for him. “Come and see,” (46) Philip said. Nathanael went to the light, saw Jesus and became an apostle.

During one’s times of prayer, perhaps one has told God something like this: ‘I am glad with the Faith you have gifted me with. I would like to share it also, but I don’t know how! Should I go to the streets and preach?’ Preaching in the street is a valid option, no doubt about it. But perhaps one could follow Philip’s example by saying to one’s friends and relatives, ‘Come and see.’

‘Come to my parish and see.’ One’s friend would see happy people, though they are struggling as any other. He/she would see rational people (maybe some colleague of his/her) believing in something above his/her reason. He/she would realise that that silence during the consecration of the host is not easy to explain in human terms. And, maybe, one day he/she will think, ‘These guys have something that I don’t have. These guys see more than me. They might have an extra lamp which I would love to buy.’ And then the Holy Spirit would finish his work, for sure.

For some people Faith is a nice story one was told when one was young that, foolishly, some adults persist in believe. For us, Christians, Faith is the light that allows us to see and moves us to love. Lumen Fidei is the encyclical letter Pope Francis wrote for us and that can be downloaded here: papa-francesco_20130629_enciclica-lumen-fidei_en

Our Elder Brothers

pope3Last week Pope Francis met members of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. The Pope addressed the Jewish representatives by saying: “[T]he Church recognizes that ‘the beginnings of its faith and election are to be found in the patriarchs, Moses and prophets’. And, with regard to the Jews, the [Second Vatican] Council recalls the teaching of Saint Paul, who wrote ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’ [Rom 11:29] and who also firmly condemned hatred, persecution and all forms of anti-Semitism. Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!”

The crucial difference between a Catholic and a Jew is that the latter is currently waiting for the Messiah to come, whereas the former acknowledges that the Messiah did come, die and resurrect. For us, Catholics, the Messiah has a name and face: Jesus.

From this point of view, it can be stated that Jesus Christ is our common problem. Catholics cannot deny Jesus is the Messiah. For if Jesus is not the Messiah our religion is nonsense. For its part, if Jews regard Jesus as the one sent by God and announced by the prophets, then they should become Christians. For the Messiah would have been allowed to found a new Church as Jesus did.

The moment when the Jewish religion parts ways with Catholicism is dramatically yet succinctly recounted at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (Jn 1:11).

These two religions seem, therefore, irreconcilable. Then, one question clearly arises: Why do Catholics and Jews meet and dialogue? There are at least two good reasons to do so.

First, there is no reason for not meeting and dialoguing with somebody who thinks and believes differently. On the contrary, dialogue strengthens relationships and allows us to discover the areas in which we agree. During my first days of school at the age of seven, I went to the swings during a break. However, two classmates of mine were using them. I despotically ordered one of them to leave the swing because I wanted to use it. He got off the swing but approached me, hit me in the face, and climbed back onto the swing, leaving me crying and bleeding. Years later we became good friends, but it certainly wasn’t because of that first encounter in which none of us tried to dialogue. Therefore, if we are not willing to dialogue we will probably use other means of interaction which are much less peaceful.

Second, Jews and Catholics have much in common. After Adam and Eve’s sin of disobedience, our friendship with God was broken. God wanted to re-establish our friendship and He immediately promised a redeemer. Nonetheless, God did not send the redeemer out of the blue. On the contrary, God prepared a nation and allotted it a land to receive the Messiah.

Some authors have calculated that Adam was created in 3924 BC. If this is figure is accurate, we can conclude that Catholics and Jews have almost four thousand years of common history. This common heritage is compiled in the Old Testament we both share.

Bearing in mind the need to dialogue with everyone and the common heritage we share, it seems that the Committee made up by Catholics and Jews can bear much fruit. As Pope Francis pointed out, one of the aims of this Committee is to explore the challenges to Faith in contemporary society, and one of those challenges is certainly secularisation.

Secularisation means there is no room for faith in our society. God should be excluded from the public arena. The Jewish religion may offer an alternative to this worldwide trend. The history of Israel consists in listening God’s words and promises and incorporating them in daily life, as many Jewish people has done from Abraham (and even before) onwards. Israel history is a love story between God and his chosen people. A love story not exempt from the temptation to exclude God from society. Moses experienced this when he came back from Mount Sinai with the Tables of the Law and found his people adoring a golden calf (cf. Ex 32).

For its part, Catholicism may also take a step in the same direction. Jesus Christ, the Messiah awaited by Israel, offered his life on the cross for the ransom of our sins. He tells us that He can fill our lives with hope of eternal happiness, since he is the way, the truth and the life (cf. Jn 14:6). He has done it in our Church for two thousand years.

All in all, Jewish and Catholic religion can decisively contribute to overcome secularism.

I would like to finish by saying that there is hope for utter unity between Jews and Catholics. Indeed, although John said that “his people did not accept him,” he did not say the Jewish people will not accept Jesus as the promised Messiah. And this is our inner hope as Christians. That someday we would rejoin in one single Church, adoring Jesus as the beloved Son of God, announced by Abraham and the prophets. To this end, may God help us to eliminate every single trace of anti-Semitism from within our Catholic Church. Pope Francis was clear in this regard. The Jews are our elder brothers, the bearers of the promise of the Messiah; the same Messiah who now leads the Catholic Church.

Requesting A Divine Gift

pope3Last week the Pope said: “And here I come to a second aspect of the Church as the Body of Christ. St Paul says that as members of the human body, although different and many, we form one body, as we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13). In the Church, therefore, there is a variety, a diversity of tasks and functions, there is no dull uniformity, but the richness of the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes.”

In the very same chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians Pope Francis referred to, Saint Paul lists a variety of functions and gifts: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. Some people God has designated in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues” (1 Cor 12:27-28).

Therefore we have four different functions (apostles, prophets, teachers and people who work mighty deeds) and four different gifts (of healing, of assistance, of administration, and of varieties of tongues).

The Church needs them all. We need all those functions and gifts.

We need apostles, i.e., bishops who united to the Pope, lead us to achieve salvation.

We need prophets, i.e., people who can foresee future events in order to sustain our hope and also to prepare ourselves for to future difficulties.

We need teachers who can explain the Scriptures as well as the Church’s teachings to us, as Jesus did with the disciples in the road towards Emmaus (cf Lk 24:13 ff). Indeed, I realise that it is impossible for anyone to catch up on everything the Church has said in these two thousand years. We need teachers who show us the shortcuts and the rationale behind everything the Catholic Faith professes and teaches.

We need people who work mighty deeds to experience that “the Lord’s hand is not shortened” (Is 59:1), that He is still working miracles among us. The only problem I see is that this function can lead you to become famous. And famous people have no private life, something I would consider unbearable.

We need people gifted healers, to cure our infirmities, both material and spiritual.

With regard to the gift of assistance, nowadays it is difficult to regard it as a gift. It looks more like a burden. I think this gift consists in coaching your brothers, helping them be the best they can be.

We need the gift of administration in the Church. Much energy is lost just because nobody is organising properly! Human and material resources are scarce and there is a need for gifted people to properly allocate all those resources.

We need the gift of variety of tongues. Since Babel, people have begun to talk in different languages. And even Christians who speak the same language cannot understand each other. We need translators, we need gifted people who can understand different languages and allow communication between brothers in the only language of God’s love.

The image of the Church as a body outlined by Saint Paul helps us to realise that in our Catholic Church everyone is indispensable if we are about to fulfil God’s missionary statement: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mk 16:15).

Every Christian should ask God which is the function or gift He has attributed to us.

However, if it happens that God does not answer us, one should request from God a function or a gift, bearing in mind our own personal abilities and natural talents. He is always accepting new applications. After submitting one’s request, and while one is waiting for the reply, one can go to one’s home parish and ask for the different options they offer. Perhaps, one will not receive the results the way one would expect. Perhaps, one could receive them while joining and enjoying a particular parish activity.

Dreaming Confidently about Unity

pope3Last week, the head of the Church of England and Pope Francis met. On that occasion, the Pope said: “The history of relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church is long and complex, and not without pain. Recent decades, however, have been marked by a journey of rapprochement and fraternity, and for this we give heartfelt thanks to God.”

Almost two thousand years ago Jesus himself said: I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (Jn 17:20-21).

Two lessons can be learnt from this, namely, that unity is not a reality but an aim (they may all be one) and that Jesus is praying for it (I pray).

Historians can tell us many things about the origin and causes of that painful division among Christians. Today, I just want to dream about what we would gain if Anglicans and Catholic reach unity.

If Anglicans rejoin the Roman Church, we Catholics would gain appreciation for Sacred Scriptures. The motto of the Reform (which includes the birth of the Church of England) was “sola Scriptura”, i.e., only the Bible and nothing but the Bible. Reformist got rid of the Pope, the teachings of the Church, the Tradition, the councils. Only the Bible.

However, it seems to me that in daily life we, Catholics, are countering the wrong approach (“sola Scriptura”) with another wrong statement: “little Scriptura.” Sadly enough, we, Catholics, hardly read the Bible. We are not familiar with the New Testament books, let alone the Old Testament ones. We cannot even answer rightly this simple question: Does the Gospel of John narrate the Institution of the Eucharist? (Note of the Editor: the answer is no).

Some weeks ago, another Catholic told me that before testifying in a trial in London, he was offered several translations of the Bible to pick one and swear upon it. He replied: “Catholics don’t mind translations.” And he randomly chose one. Catholics often don’t mind translations, because we don’t mind that much the Bible. I wish we would. And from this point of view, Anglicans can teach us how to love the Bible as the Bible deserved to be loved: as the Word of God.

On the other hand, Anglicans can regain universality if they return to Rome. In fact, “Catholic” means universal, and this is not only a word but a living reality. Catholicism has been spread throughout the world and currently, 1.2 billion people from all over the world belong to the Roman Church. This reality echoes one of last words of Jesus according to Mark: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15).

Conversely, from the outset the Anglican Church cannot be universal since she is called “The Church of England.” Additionally, the Anglican Church and is joined to a political power.

When I lived in Australia I joined the choir at my Catholic parish. During a rehearsal, I asked the director who wrote the beautiful psalm we were singing. The director replied, “Look, if you find that an English song is beautiful, most probably it is Anglican.”

From this perspective it is understandable that an Anglican who is mulling over the idea of becoming a Catholic is not willing to give up all the traditions and beautiful songs in which he/she was born and raised. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Indeed, Pope Benedict provided canonical structure to those Anglicans that wanted to be collectively received into the Catholic Church. While they preserve their traditions, these communities have been welcomed back to the Catholic Church.

His Holiness Pope Francis endearingly said to His Grace Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Anglican Communion): “My dear brother, let us travel the path towards unity, fraternally united in charity, and with Jesus Christ, our elder Brother, as our constant point of reference.”

Going back to Jesus’ prayer for unity, we can learn that unity is a goal Christians should strive for, but is not a reality. But at the same time, we can confidently dream that we are going to reach unity. After all, the one who has prayed for it is nothing less than the almighty Jesus Christ, God himself.

Your Beauty Lies within You

pope3Today I would like to compare the conception of Jesus with the conception of a relative of Jesus, John the Baptist. The characters involved in this comparison are Zechariah  (father of John the Baptist) and holy Mary (mother of Jesus).

Both  Zechariah and Mary were visited by the very same angel within a period of six months.

Zechariah was old, Mary young. Zechariah was a priest (Lk 1:5), Mary was not. Zechariah was married to a barren older woman, while Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph (Lk 1:27).

Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was praying in the most important place of the most important Jewish city: The temple of Jerusalem. Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in her hometown: Nazareth, an unknown place from the region of Galilee (see Pope Benedict XVI, The Infancy Narratives). Years later, Nathanael would ask his friend Philip “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 2:46).

Zechariah was told by the angel that he would be the father of John the Baptist, who “will be great in the sight of God” (Lk 1:15). Mary was told she would conceive Jesus in her womb, “the Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:32).

Zechariah replied: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk 1:18). Mary replied: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Lk 1:34). Zechariah was not convinced about what he had been told. Implicitly, he was asking for a sign. Mary, instead, did not doubt. She asked about the how, the means.

The difference between Zechariah’s attitude and Mary’s is the difference between not believing in the word that comes from God and believing in it. In Mary’s case, her act of believing in God’s word caused that the Word of God was made flesh in her womb.

Last week the Pope dwelt upon the idea of keeping God’s words: “Keeping the Word of God: what does this mean? Do I receive the Word, and then take a bottle and put the word into the bottle and keep it there? No. Keeping the Word of God means that our heart opens, it is open to that Word just like the earth opens to receive the seed. The Word of God is a seed and is sown. And Jesus told us what happens with the seeds: some fall along the path, and the birds come and eat them; this Word is not kept, these hearts do not know how to receive it”.

I understand Zechariah. He was a believer but his faith was not perfect, and he doubted, as I might have done in the circumstances (old man married to an old and barren lady). He asked for evidence, and he received some. He was made mute until John the Baptist was born. He accepted his temporal punishment as a means to repent and reinvigorate his faith. After John’s birth, the very first words of Zechariah consisted in praising God (Lk 1:67ff).

I admire holy Mary. Being a humble girl from the countryside, she listened and kept God’s word. Her stainless faith allowed the seed of the word of God to enter time and space and dwell among us. Quoting the band Simply Red one can sing to Mary: “And your beauty lies within you / look in the mirror, baby.” Indeed, Mary’s beauty lies in her womb, since God is beauty itself. But Mary has to look herself in the mirror, also, since her faith made her a unique woman. Mary herself humbly recognised it when she admitted that, “from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Lk 1:48).

I understand Zechariah. I admire and venerate Mary. May God help us to believe as Mary did, and to repent for not believing as Zechariah did.

My Neighbour’s New Car

pope3Last week the Pope said: “Some people say – this is beautiful – that sin is an offence against God, but it is also an opportunity: the humiliation of realising [that one is a sinner] and that there is something [exceedingly] beautiful: the mercy of God. Let us think about this.”

Let us think about this. Sin as an opportunity.

There are seven sacraments instituted by Jesus. Each sacrament needs matter and form. For instance, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the matter is the bread and wine. The form, the words of the priest: ‘This is my body,’ ‘This is the cup of my blood’.  In the sacrament of Penance (or Confession), the matter is the sin, and the form, the words of the priest: ‘I absolve you from your sins’.

Without bread there is no Eucharist. Without sin there is no Confession.

One bread is an opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist as one sin is an opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of Penance.

One should encourage bakers to always produce breads. But, should one encourage Christians to always commit sins?—Not at all.

Indeed, it is possible to imagine a world without bread (a boring world, nonetheless). However, it is not possible to imagine a world without sin. Why?—Because sinning became part of our inclinations after Adam’s and Eve’s original sin.

There are two ways to prove this. First, by Faith. Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis deserves a close look. After sinning, our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden. This is called the original sin which has been transmitted to all humankind. Psalm 51 could not have said in a more clear way: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5).

Second, there is another way to prove that sin exists: our own personal experience. One’s neighbour buys a brand new car. One greets him/her. But two seconds later one starts thinking: ‘Why he/she could and not I?’. ‘Didn’t know he/she earn that much’. ‘Of course, his/her parents-in-law bought it for him/her’. ‘Don’t like the colour either’.

I don’t mean that by thinking this one is automatically sinning. The sin takes place when one means those thoughts instead of rejecting them. And that sin is called envy.

In any case, the example shows what the Church teaches. That although one is not predestined to commit a sin, one is prone to sinning.

Before the adulterous woman, Jesus said: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). And they all left her, beginning by the eldest ones.

In my experience, it is not that difficult to realise that one have sinned. The challenge, however, is to single sins out in order to approach Jesus as the leper did: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Lk 5:12).

The second precept of the Church reads: “You shall confess your sins at least once a year” (CEC 2042). Additionally, Pope Francis is teaching us that sin can be an opportunity. The Church obliges us to take advantage of that opportunity at least once a year.

Let us be faithful to this Church’s commandment. Let us confess our sins once a year.

But also one should feel free to go to Confession more often. The Church and the saints encourage us to do so (CEC 1458). I am going to do it today.

 

Why do I sit where I sit?

pope3Today, I would like to address the people who sat in the back pews the last time they attended church.

Why did you sit at the very end of the temple?—There are probably many reasons for having done that. I will attempt some answers:

a) I sat there because I like to have a panoramic view of my church.

b) I sat there because I arrived late.

c) I sat there because I don’t want to be chosen to read the First Reading.

d) I sat there because my badly-behaved children need to be close to the entrance.

e) What’s the matter?—I sit where I want.

f) I sat there because I am not that Catholic.

Of all the above-mentioned responses, the only worrying one is the last one, letter f), which involves feeling that one belongs to a kind of “second-hand” type of Catholics.

When I began this Blog (not long ago) I invited some friends to visit it. One of them answered me: ‘I really appreciate what you are doing. In fact, I do share your concerns but not your fervour. I attend Mass only on Sundays’.  This friend of mine might sit at the back of the church.

If it happens that any of us considers himself/herself prey to a feeling of low ‘religious self-esteem’, I would give him/her three pieces of advice.

First, even when the church is full, it is quite common that the very first pews are half empty. I don’t know why this happens but it happens.

Second, as far as I know, God never made such a distinction between first-class and second-class Catholics. Rather he said, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In this sense, it is remarkable that this statement was uttered in the fifth chapter of Mathew. This chapter consists of the Sermon on the mount, which begins as follows: “When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” (Mt 5:1). Therefore, these words were addressed to the crowd, to everyone. To you and me.

Third, this feeling of low self-esteem could prevent us from hearing God’s voice. Jesus explained Nicodemus that “the wind blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8), meaning that God does what he wants. To explain this, Matthias is the case in point.

After Judas’ betrayal, Matthias was chosen to take his place (Acts, 1:15ff.). There were two candidates, though: Matthias and Joseph, known as Justus, that is just or holy. Joseph must have been great. I like him. And I can imagine him arriving punctually at Mass, sitting down in the first row and volunteering to read the First Reading. Matthias, on the other hand, seems more like an average Christian, like the ones at the back of the church. But God chose Matthias. Why?—We will never know. But the fact is that God blew where He willed.

Last week, the Pope said: “To evangelize, then, we must be open to the action of the Spirit of God, without fear of what He asks us or where He leads us. Let us entrust ourselves to Him! He enables us to live and bear witness to our faith, and enlighten the hearts of those we meet.”

All in all, it doesn’t matter where one sits at church… as long as one is open to the action of the Holy Spirit. He can blow over us.

While I Wasn’t at Home

storyOn April 12th, 2010 I wrote:

Dear Patricia,

I hope this letter finds you well. I wasn’t at home the day of the earthquake because my boss had sent me to Copiapó, eight hundred kilometers from Santiago, that morning. On Saturday, February 27th, at 3:34 a.m., I felt a slight tremor and instinctively turned on the radio. An 8.8 Richter quake had just shaken a great part of the country. As the phone lines were down, it took me several hours to reach Elizabeth. I eventually got a hold of her, and she said everything was alright at our home.

Working at an insurance company is not stressful… until an earthquake hits. My boss assigned me to work in the emergency committee to evaluate damages, so for the next 14 days I travelled throughout the south of Chile instead of going back to Santiago. After submitting a report on estimated losses, my boss paid me for my extra hours and then fired me. The company had gone bankrupt.

I finally arrived to Santiago on Sunday, March 14th. I got in a taxi and gave the driver my home address. Forty minutes later, I awoke to the taxi driver saying, “This is the closest we can get. The block is closed off. Don’t pay me. God bless you.”

When I arrived at my place, I learnt why Elizabeth had run off: the house had been condemned.

Yes, Patricia, the house I inherited, the beautiful house in which I grew up and in which we lived until January 2007… the house from which I expelled you three years ago… the house in which I lived from then onwards with the accomplice (and part victim) of my adulterous behavior against our marriage: Elizabeth.

I asked for shelter and ended up in the Parish Community Centre sharing 60 square meters with 10 families. The Parish priest did his best for our bodies and souls: legumes and sacraments. One morning I went to Confession. I told Father Peter everything and that I was tormented with thoughts of suicide. Father Peter wasn’t scandalized by my confession, but rather calmly advised me, “If our beliefs are true, sinners should repent, and sinners who cause damage should repent and repair. Besides, as suicide is a sin in itself, it doesn’t seem the best way to leave this world… Hell seems too hot.” Then he added, “Do something for your wife”. My answer was that I didn’t know your address. He added, “Trust in God and try Google.” Then he concluded, “If this natural disaster has been the starting point of your way back to God’s home, thank God for the earthquake. The difference between you and your house is that only it was condemned.” And he absolved my sins.

One month later, I found a job which perfectly satisfied both my new company and me. I was hired as the in-house Administrator of the Hyatt Hotel in Santiago. Basically, the Hyatt was looking for an educated homeless person.

Dearest Patricia, I am not worthy of your forgiveness. I’m sending this letter to the only address I found linked to you on the world wide web: your parents’ house in Colombia. I don’t know if it will reach you. I haven’t seen you since January 2007, when I left you at the airport. I don’t know anything about your current projects or your life. Did you have children in the end, find a new husband or a new job? As for me, right now, I have no house, no children, no girlfriend, no friends… nothing but my job.

I have repented and I am trying to repair the damages done. I needed an earthquake to realize Elizabeth and I were only in love with money and pleasure.

If it happens that you want to be by my side again, I promise I will be faithful with your help as well as God’s.

I’ll understand if you don’t believe these last words: I love you.

Yours still,

Daniel

Twenty months later, on Friday, September 2nd, 2011, my office phone rang. “Hi Mr. Kennet, this is Sarah from reception. There is a woman and her son here interested in renting a suite indefinitely. As far as I know that’s not possible. Ah, she added that today is her son’s fourth birthday.” Redeemed,… I let go of the phone.

8 Million Copies—Not Enough

pope3Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, that is, the coming of the Holy Spirit.

So many things can be said about the Holy Spirit. I would like to quote something Jesus himself said about the Holy Spirit at the Last Supper: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26).

Therefore, the Holy Spirit does two important things: He teaches and he reminds us.

What does he teach?—Everything. What does he remind us about?—All that Jesus told us during his earthly life.

One might think that in one’s life none of these two things has being experienced by us. I think it is unlikely. But, more importantly, we can improve the conditions in order to take advantage of the Holy Spirit’s actions.

Firstly, the Holy Spirit teaches. I remember that in high school, we had a great Spanish teacher (we called him ‘Jopo’), author of great books, who delivered important speeches in many universities. But we were in high school and the only thing we wanted was to talk to each other instead of listen to our Spanish teacher. No doubt we missed many valuable lessons.

The same thing can happen with this Divine Master. Perhaps we are not attending his lessons, or maybe, we are not paying attention to him. We should go to his class which is prayer; we should pay attention to him through silence.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit reminds us about the things Jesus said in his earthly life. Now, in order to remind someone of something, it is necessary that something be already in someone’s mind. “Re-mind” can be understood as taking something that is already somewhere in one’s minds and making it resurface.

If the Holy Spirit wants to remind us of something, we need to make sure that we have valuable information in our minds. And I strongly recommend two books we should read constantly: The Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Read the Bible. A couple of months ago I wanted to buy a safe. There were many of them, but there was one in the form of an old book with a boring title on its spine. I think they might have written “Holy Bible” on its spine to make sure nobody would open it. In fact, it is quite common that the Bible adorns our bookshelves or coffee tables at home and seldom does someone dare to open it. One should challenge this trend and open the Bible at home. Too difficult?—Begin with the Gospels. They are highly readable and easy to follow. No Bible at home?—Buy one for yourself. I recommend the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) or the New American Bible (NAB). These are good translations.

Read the Catechism. It is relatively common that the Catechism be at home. Check it out. If not, it is worthwhile to buy a Catechism of our own. Sometimes we have doubts regarding certain doctrines of the Church. One might think, ‘I will ask a priest about this,’ which is great. However, it would be greater if one tried to understand the problem and the arguments of the Church by consulting the Catechism, before visiting a priest. That conversation would be highly fruitful.

I bought my Catechism two years ago. Its back cover reads: “Over eight million copies in print worldwide.” Considering that we are more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, eight million copies don’t seem to be enough. Every single Christian deserves a copy of this fabulous vademecum of the Catholic teachings.

Last week the Pope said: “Let us ask ourselves: am I truly open, like the Virgin Mary, to the power of the Holy Spirit? Even now, with the Father and the Son, the Spirit dwells in our hearts. Let us ask him to guide us into all truth and to help us grow in friendship with Christ through daily prayer, reading of the Scriptures and the celebration of the sacraments.”

The Pope encourages us to pray daily and to read the Scriptures. These two things will improve the conditions in order to allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish his twofold mission of teaching and reminding.

The Teacher Leaves the Classroom

pope3Two days ago was the Feast of the Ascension, which commemorates the moment when Jesus, gathered with his disciples at the Mount of Olives, “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

I would like to attempt an answer to the following question: Why did he leave us?

For me this is a mystery. I would rather prefer that He, the risen one, would have remained with us in body and soul for good. He could be our perennial Pope on earth. He could live in the Vatican, deliver speeches each Sunday and have appointments with many people each week.

With Him, the good news would have been spread more rapidly and fruitfully in these two thousand years. As he is almighty, his presence on earth could be compatible with the Eucharistic presence of Jesus in each consecrated host. Besides, he could have prevented many bloodsheds and wars and misunderstandings.

Why did he leave us?—From this point of view, it is difficult to celebrate last Sunday’s Ascension. Instead, I, like the disciples at the Mount of Olives, would stand looking intently at the sky (Acts 1:10), asking why.

Nonetheless, the Church has always considered the Ascension as a feast and this forces us to find a suitable reason for celebrating.

I would compare the Ascension to a teacher who leaves the classroom during an exam saying, ‘I am coming, do not cheat.’

For a student, this constitutes a test of principle of his/her honour code, which is sometimes more difficult than the exam itself. Things get worse when the teacher takes long and many people start cheating obscenely. This is the time when correct behaviour seems to be silly behaviour. Even one can be bothered for not doing what (at this time) everybody is doing.

However, it is in circumstances like that when one can taste how beautiful and comforting is to conduct oneself in a good way. One needs to be brave (or too shy) to keep the honour code without a teacher in front of us. And probably, one’s peers will, in a hidden way, respect one for that. It is a liberating experience.

Similarly, the Ascension can be regarded as the beginning of the hour of freedom. Outwardly, nobody is looking at us, nobody will spill our money if we want to trade in the Temple again (Jn 2:15), because the teacher left the room.

In this hour of freedom, we Christians want to obey God, despite the fact that he “left” us. We want to keep his words and commandments because he (who is good) told us so. And, as it seems that nobody is controlling us, in behaving like that we can taste how delicious is to do something not out of fear but out of conviction, passion and love.

For me, Ascension is still a difficult feast to celebrate. I wish he would have not ascended. But at the same time this feast challenges me and encourages me to freely choose to be faithful to the one who left us and has not come back in almost two thousand years. Ascension can be celebrated as the feast of human freedom.

In this spirit of freedom I will examine myself before the Lord asking the questions Pope Francis put before us last Sunday: “How is my faithfulness to Christ? Am I able to ‘make visible’ my faith to others with respect but also with courage? ¿Am I attentive to others? ¿Am I aware to the needy? ¿Do I regard others as brothers and sisters to whom I shall love? Through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Mary and the new saints, let us ask the Lord that he may fill our lives with the joy of his love. Amen.”  

Before Going to the Stadium

pope3Last week the Pope said: “In the first reading Paul and Barnabas say that ‘we must undergo many trials if we are to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22). The journey of the Church, and our own personal journeys as Christians, are not always easy; they meet with difficulties and trials. To follow the Lord, to let his Spirit transform the shadowy parts of our lives, our ungodly ways of acting, and cleanse us of our sins, is to set out on a path with many obstacles, both in the world around us but also within us, in the heart.”

Today, I would like to talk about the trials one might encounter in order to fulfil the first precept of the Church: “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CEC 2042).

To attend Mass one Sunday or some Sundays does not seem that difficult, even more if we live nearby our parish, as I do. To attend Mass would be even easier if we regard our parish priest as a great preacher.

However, if one commits oneself to attend Mass 52 out of 52 Sundays a year, one would begin to taste some of the many trials Paul and Barnabas talked about. Reconciling Mass with a family trip, with skiing or going to a party till late hours the night before is a little bit more problematic. When a combination of event takes place, the trials multiply. For instance, eating out Saturday night and going to the stadium Sunday noon.

The list of trials can be expanded: children, parking problems, overcrowded churches (good problem from another point of view), boring priest, silly songs, winter and flu.

One probably has to deal with just a couple of trials a week. However, over a year these mini trials add up to many.

The Catechism explains that “The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life.” (CEC 2177) If Sunday Mass is at the heart, without it there will be no life in the Church. Why?—Because, as Paul states, “if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty too your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). And, as Sunday is the day of the resurrection, when we skip this obligation we are depriving our faith from its core, from its meaning, from its heart. Paul himself warned the Hebrews to “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but to encourage one another” (10:25).

When one participates in Sunday Mass one is celebrating what Jesus has accomplished with his resurrection.

The martyrs rejoiced for having had the opportunity to die for the risen Jesus. We do not know if we will have the privilege of becoming a martyr. This is not under our control. What is under our control, nonetheless, is to behave in such a way that we can say to our Lord at the hour of our death: “My Lord, I might have sinned a lot, but in the last period of my life, I always celebrated your resurrection (before going to the stadium).” Brakets are optional.

Chastity vs. Celibacy

pope3

Last week the Pope said: “The parable of the talents emphasizes our responsibility to use wisely God’s gifts, making them bear abundant fruit. Here I would ask the many young people present to be generous with their God-given talents for the good of others, the Church and our world.”

We Christians have to distinguish clearly between commandments and evangelical counsels. Commandments are the things God asks us all to fulfil. He can do that, He is our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. On the other hand, evangelical counsels are recommendations, personal invitations to lead a more perfect life.

For instance, chastity is a commandment whereas celibacy is an evangelical counsel. Every Christian is called to lead a chaste life, as the Catechism clearly expresses: “Married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence” (CEC 2349). So, the question is quite simple: Are you married?—God asks you to love with your whole heart, whole body and whole soul just one person: your spouse. Are you single?—God asks you to be continent, which basically means no sex yet.

Celibacy is another sort of thing. It is not a commandment (God never said: ‘Thou shalt live in celibacy’). It is advice, an invitation from God: “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29).

Chastity is a commandment (in short, compulsory) and not a counsel (optional). Alternatively, celibacy is a counsel (optional) and not a commandment (compulsory).

The Pope addresses youth and invites them to put their gifts into the service of God. The Pope is probably thinking of many things. But he is probably thinking in giving God things that are not compulsory but optional. If I am right, the Pope’s invitation could include this one: Dear young people, think in serving the Lord in celibacy. Give God your most precious gifts. And, could anything be more precious than to marry an endearing spouse and raise a family?

From a human point of view, celibacy is totally crazy. It is like childhood without ice creams. No sense. It is even more incomprehensible when you realise that the Church allows you to fulfil the commandment (chastity) having at the same time an active sexual life within wedlock.

I agree, celibacy makes no sense… from a human point of view. And this is precisely what makes celibacy powerful. It suggests that there is a Being above us that supports that choice. Celibacy reminds the world (including myself) that God exists.

My two best friends live in celibacy. And this is not coincidence. They are the ones who always listen to me, call me, ask me about my wife and family and pray for me. They do so many things every day (too many I told one of them last week), yet for me they are always available. They make me feel that I am important. Celibacy reminds the world (including myself) that every human being is important.

A relative of mine also lives in celibacy. She is very pretty. And it seems to me that God makes her even prettier each year. Maybe I am wrong and it is just because I love her so much as well as her way of living. Or perhaps celibacy makes people happier, and happiness makes them look prettier. Either way, her attractiveness must have something to do with her vocation.

Celibacy is optional and nobody should ever be forced to follow that path. What is compulsory, though, is to be grateful for those whom God has invited to live in celibacy, for they mirror life in Heaven.

Three Steps to Sanctity

pope3Last week the Pope said: “In God’s great plan, every detail is important, even yours, even my humble little witness, even the hidden witness of those who live their faith with simplicity in everyday family relationships, work relationships, friendships. They are the saints of every day, the “hidden” saints, a sort of “middle class of holiness”, as a French author said, that “middle class of holiness” to which we can all belong”.

The Pope is clearly asking us for sanctity, “hidden sanctity,” specifically. However, what on earth is sanctity?—There probably are dozens of great definitions. I do not dare to produce one of my own. But I think that the following quotation from Jesus may lead us to sanctity:

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (Jn 14:23).

According to this, to accomplish holiness one needs to follow these three steps:

Step (1) To love Jesus; Step (2) to keep his word; and Step (3) allow the Father and Son to make their dwelling in us.

Step (1) seems rather attainable. How can one not love the lovable Jesus? At the same time, Step (3) looks reasonable. If God wanted to enter my life, that would be awesome. That experience would be like being home, suddenly, Pope Francis knocking at our door and asking us to spend the whole afternoon with us.

In contrast, Step (2) is quite challenging: To keep God’s word. And I see two problems.

Problem a) God’s word is not just one sentence. The Bible is made up by 46 Old Testament books (counting Lamentations and Jeremiah as two different books) and 27 New Testament books.

A couple of weeks ago I was playing with my 11 month-old son in a friend’s place. She asked me to take care of her 3 month-old daughter for a couple of minutes. I found it very difficult. I couldn’t rest. While paying attention to one of them, the other was messing things up behind my back. I cannot imagine taking care of 46 girls and 27 boys at once. Keeping God’s word is difficult because his word is multiple.

Problem b) Some of God’s words are easy to keep since everyone agrees with them. Think for instance in this one: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Who can oppose this wonderful truth?—No one.

However, some of God’s words are more disputed in society, such as: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt 5:38-39). We see the opposite in daily life. Imagine you are standing outside the stadium waiting for the game to start. Everybody will probably do his/her best that day to get there before everyone else, even at the expense of striking many cheeks.

In any case, I suggest some solutions to these problems.

Problem a) has a shortcut. God’s words have been entrusted to the Church. Therefore, we have a great ally in our mission to keep God’s words. Listen carefully to next Sunday’s homily. Arrive early and find a good seat. The Church is going to speak to you.

Problem b) demands heroism in many instances. I would compare it to a rugby player retaining the ball under a heap of guys from the opposite team trying to take it away. Such heroism seems impossible in many cases. I agree. Thus, we should pray to not to give up, as Jesus recommended (Lk 18:1). The reward is quite attractive: sanctity.

Swing Even Lower

pope3Last week the Pope said: “I am always struck when I reread the parable of the merciful Father; it impresses me because it always gives me great hope. Think of that younger son who was in the Father’s house, who was loved; and yet he wants his part of the inheritance; he goes off, spends everything, hits rock bottom, where he could not be more distant from the Father, yet when he is at his lowest, he misses the warmth of the Father’s house and he goes back. And the Father? Had he forgotten the son? No, never. He is there, he sees the son from afar, he was waiting for him every hour of every day, the son was always in his father’s heart, even though he had left him, even though he had squandered his whole inheritance, his freedom.”

What a hopeful message this is from the Pope. I see a problem, though. The story of The Merciful Father (or of the Prodigal Son) is a parable. Therefore, it is fiction. A great story told by Jesus himself, but a story in the end. How can we draw conclusions from a tale?

—Luke gives us the clue to understand it. “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him (Jesus), but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (Lk 15:1-2). Subsequently, three parables are given: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Merciful Father. So, the parable of The Merciful Father is in response to a complaint.

From this point of view this parable consists in Jesus’ explanation of how God treats sinners. Being the word of the Word, this parable is as truthful as any act performed by our Redeemer.

My former English teacher taught me the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The lyric is so simple, yet so deep. It evokes the passage when Elijah was taken to heaven by a chariot (2 Kings 2:11). The song’s lyric requests that chariot swing low in order to bring us to heaven (home).

The parable of The Merciful Father would have impressed even Elijah himself. How could God have gone so low to make  a feast for the ungrateful son?

In this regard, I understand the protest of the Pharisees and scribes. They can be compared to the eldest son of the parable. They were acting according to the law given by God. However, Jesus pays attention to the sinners instead. At the time, it probably seemed to them that it was better to offend God rather than to obey him.

God’s logic is unreacheable for us. God’s chariot swings even lower than we can imagine. And that impresses Pope Francis.

I understand the Pharisees, as I said. However, they and I are wrong. God lowers his chariot to bring more people to heaven, but God does not lower his standards. On the contrary, he raises them in the Sermon of the Mount (Mt 5). Pharisees should have drawn near to Jesus too. The sins of the Parisees (no doubt they had) would have been forgiven; their virtues (no doubt they had) would have aligned with what the Father had said to the good eldest son: “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours” (Lk 15:31).

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is the official Oklahoma State Gospel Song and we should consider it a means to enlighten the desire to enter heaven. I know my soul is heavenly bound, it sings.

Priestesses

pope3Last week the Pope said“The first witnesses of the Resurrection were women: moved by love to go to the tomb, they accept with joy the message of the Resurrection and then tell the good news to the Apostles. (…) In Church’s history, women have had a special role in opening doors to faith in Christ, for faith is always a response to love.”

Women and faith. If women are so keen on believing, why can’t they be ordained as priestesses?—This is a difficult question for me to answer.

The first answer that came to my mind was this one: They cannot be priestesses since they are too beautiful. I would attend Mass just to contemplate them rather than God. This explanation convinces me less and less. Although it is true that, objectively speaking, women are prettier than men, it is also true that each man feels attracted to different women for different reasons.

Some years ago I attended a party with a friend of mine. We wanted to dance. There were two girls alone at the other end of the dance floor. ‘I want to dance with the prettiest one,’ I told my friend. ‘Me too, the fair-haired one,’ he replied. ‘Are you kidding? It’s crystal clear that the dark-haired girl is much more attractive’. That night, we both danced with different gals convinced we were dancing with the prettiest. If one of these girls had been a priestess, at most only one of us would have attended her parish because of her beauty.

The question remains unanswered. Why can’t women be ordained?

In Jesus’ life, women played an important role. God was made flesh in the womb of a young girl (probably a teenager). Contravening the rules of his time, Jesus talked privately to a woman, to the astonishment of his disciples (Jn 4:27). It was Jesus who listened to Mrs. Zebedee’s petition for heavenly thrones for her sons (Mt 20:20). Several women accompanied him during his earthly life (Lk 8:2-3) and, apart from John, only female disciples dared to stand by the cross (Jn 19:25). As Pope Francis reminds us, the women were the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Mk 16:1), and the risen Christ appeared first to Mary Magdalene (Mk 16:9). Finally, there were women at the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, as described by Luke (Acts 2:1; 1:14).

However, it is significant to note that there were no women among the twelve Apostles chosen (Mt 10:2-4), and in the Institution of the Eucharist, only the Apostles (Mt 26:20; Mk 14:17; Lk 22:14) received the mission that made them priest: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19).

At this point, the question slightly varies: Why didn’t Jesus want priestesses?

The Church understands that Jesus, who loves every man and woman with all his blood, did not want priestesses. Not even his holy mother. And the Church obeys Jesus’ most holy will.

Additionally, the Church considers that every priest acts in persona Christi, i.e. taking the role of Christ (see Declaration Inter Insigniores, 5). Therefore, as Christ was and is a man, he cannot be represented by a woman. Christ is the Bridegroom who delivers his life to the Bride, the Church (Ep 5:23).

In any case, women should not feel discriminated by Jesus since there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus loves men and women alike. Besides, to discriminate is to regard somebody as less, and priests are not more than the rest of us. Priests are ordained to serve us and to obey their superiors.

On the contrary, women should be proud of having the same sex as Mary, without whom God would never have descended from Heaven, at least in the wonderful way he did. Paraphrasing Pope Francis, Mary opened the most important door to faith. A door that allowed the first priest to be born.

‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce

bookA couple of weeks ago I finished this book and I would like to tell you why I liked it so much and to whom I would recommend it. At the same time, however, I don’t want to give away the whole plot beforehand.

The book, as its title suggests, is about a pilgrimage, a trip. This pilgrimage, however, not only involves the journey towards Berwick but also an internal search. The main character, Harold, reflects upon his entire life,while he spends months travelling across England.

Along his trip, Harold finds a way to heal his wounds by recalling a series of anecdotes that provide the reader with colourful descriptions.

The author intertwines Harold’s trip with Harold’s internal search. As the main character approaches his destination, the reader reconstructs Harold’s past life.

I strongly recommend this book to couples of any age. As a newly married man, the book challenged me to consider the lifestyle and habits that could harm my marriage in the long run. I think it is worthwhile to examine one’s life periodically to detect the moments when one is acting selfishly, not willing to listen, not ready to serve.

Thanks Rachel for this wonderful as well as funny book.

Santiago

Note: Originally posted in The Good Reading Guide.

Where Exactly Were You, Magdalene?

pope3There are four accounts of the resurrection of Christ: The four Gospels: Matthew (ch. 28), Mark (ch. 16), Luke (ch. 24) and John (ch. 20). The problem is that they differ.

With regard to the hour, Mathew, Mark and Luke say Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ sepulchre at the crack of dawn, while John states that Magdalene went “while it was still dark.”

Concerning the number of people, Matthew reports that Magdalene went with 1 more people. Mark and Luke say that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb with 2 more companions, but the name of the second companion varies. John does not mention any companion.

With reference to what Magdalene saw, Matthew explains she saw an angel coming down from heaven that removed the stone and sat upon it. For his part, Mark says Mary Magdalene didn’t see the angel. She just saw the stone already rolled back. The angel was inside the tomb, not sat upon the stone, as Matthew says. According to Luke, while the women were inside the empty tomb, two angels (not one) appear to them. So, for Luke the angels weren’t inside the tomb in the first place. John also maintains that there were two angels inside the sepulchre. However, Mary Magdalene saw them from without, while weeping.

How can we possibly harmonise those accounts?—Many authors have tried over the centuries. I would love to try too.

Are these contradictions insurmountable?—I don’t know yet.

Are these contradictions jeopardizing the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?—I think no for three reasons.

Firstly, because if the Church had felt uncomfortable with the contradictions, she wouldn’t have regarded all those four accounts as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, because contradictions can be the main prove of veracity.

Many years ago, a friend of mine and I witnessed a tragic accident. The police called us to tell them what had happened. Surprisingly, our accounts differed considerable. “There were 2 people at the road at that moment,” my friend said. “Come on, there were 3,” I interrupted. “Patrick left alone the stream at about 5 pm.” “No, that’s not correct. Nobody was alone during the whole trip,” I added.

I thought my friend was lying. He thought likewise. The policeman listened carefully. After finishing, a lawyer approached us and explained us that our testimonies were helpful and completely truthful precisely because they spontaneously differed from one another and not in essential aspects. Two exact testimonies in every single detail cannot be true.

Thirdly, all four accounts agree on the essentials: That Sunday morning, the corpse of Jesus was nowhere to be seen. And that was utterly unimaginable. Indeed, the holy women approached the tomb to anoint the slaughtered body of Jesus, and not to find out whether or not he had resurrected.

The resurrection of Christ is the cornerstone of our Faith, no doubt about it. Saint Paul was clear in this regard: “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty too your faith” (1 Cor 15:14). And last week, during the Urbi et Orbi message, Pope Francis invited us to reflect in the wonderful implications of this miracle:

“We too, like the women who were Jesus’ disciples, who went to the tomb and found it empty, may wonder what this event means (cf. Lk 24:4).  What does it mean that Jesus is risen?  It means that the love of God is stronger than evil and death itself; it means that the love of God can transform our lives and let those desert places in our hearts bloom.  The love God can do this!”

Out of His Car

pope3The Pope said last week: “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

This quote from Pope Francis’ homily at the beginning of his petrine ministry sets a clear hierarchy of values: God, man, creation.

However, the first part of the sentence is rather striking: “Let us protect Christ.” It is like saying “The Lord is my sheep,” rather than “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Ps 23:1). How can I protect the same person I address as my Lord?—Indeed, the word “Lord” implies that He is the Protector and I the protected.

I will attempt an answer, borrowing a verse from John, “And the Word was made flesh.” (Jn 1:14). I would paraphrase John’s verse as, “And the Protector was made an object of protection.” God did something none of us would ever have done. It can be compared to getting out of your car in the middle of the night in a dangerous neighbourhood. Unconceivable, and highly risky.

However, God decided that He had something very important to do in our neighbourhood, and got out of his glory. This  seems not logic. God is omnipotent enough to skip this part of the history of our redemption. Nonetheless, whether or not this is logic can be discussed in a future post. The important thing to bear in mind now is that God did get out of his glory, make himself an object of protection. We are now entitled to be the caretakers of God.

It can be argued, though, that for Christ this is no longer the case, because it is all over. From this perspective, Jesus was an object of protection but now is not anymore. Christ is safe and sound (and resurrected) in Heaven. Saint Mary, Saint Joseph and Jesus’ disciples were blessed because they had the chance to protect Christ. An honour we do not have had.

This is only partly correct. Although it is true that Jesus is risen and in Heaven, there is evidence that Christ is still an object of protection. The Catechism Catholic Church teaches the following:

1373      “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us,” is present in many ways to his Church: in his word, in his Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name,” in the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, in the sacraments of which he is the author, in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the person of the minister. But “he is present . . . most especially in the Eucharistic species.”

According to this, in at least seven ways, Christ is still getting out of his car. And we have the honour to do our best to protect him.

Massmates

pope3The Pope said last week, “And now, we take up this journey:  Bishop and People.  This journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.  A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.  Let us always pray for one another.  Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity.”

Praying for one another. As these were one of the very first words of our brand new Pope, I think all of us, Catholics, are willing to put them into practice.  However, how should we start?—It seems sound to begin by praying for the ones who are closer to us.

I attend Holy Mass (almost) daily at 7:30 am in the same neighbourhood where I live and work. And I am not alone. Every morning, an average of 100 people attends the very same Mass.

So far, it hasn’t occurred to me to pray for the ones that fill the pews of my parish. I would like to call them my Massmates. For sure I am not obliged to pray for them (as I am not obliged to attend Mass during the week), but it seems to me to be a great thing to do.

The minute I think in praying for my Massmates, they appear to me in a quite new perspective. They no longer are just the ones sat around me, the ones who repeat the same prayers. They are real people. Girls, boys, ladies and gentlemen. Each one with his/her own stories, projects, preoccupations, joys and sorrows. Each one wanting to praise the same God I praise. Each one wanting to begin his/her workday by the Beginning: The Triune God.

For me is not that easy to get to 7:30 am Mass at time. I need to wake up very early. Then I have to have breakfast minding not to brake the one-hour fast before receiving communion. If time allows me, I also do some exercises before having a shower and getting dressed.

When thinking about my Massmates I realise they all have to struggle to arrive at 7.30 am. For sure most of them live and work much farer than I. Probably, for them is harder than for me to get there punctually. However, there they are, every day, not complaining but happy to participate in the most holy sacrifice. My Massmates are great.

It is true that Pope Francis also encouraged us to pray for the world, which is highly important. However, it seems more problematic praying for actual people than for the world. In fact, as the world is faceless and nameless, it is unlikely that we would get angry at or hate the world. On the contrary, it is not difficult to get angry, hate or even ignore the ones that surround us.

From this point of view, praying for the ones who are closer to us (even physically) could be a sensible means to enlarge our hearts in order to undertake the most challenging task: Spreading the word of God throughout the world.

Treasure Finders

storyBeing the sixth of seven siblings had its advantages and its disadvantages. I would say that the main advantage was having a great deal of autonomy, not as a result of a family policy towards me, but because of my parents’ tiredness after having done their best to raise the first five children. The disadvantage was that I was the sixth and that meant that above me were not only my parents but also my four brothers and my sister. They had de facto authority over me which they exercised despotically: “Santi, go there”, “Santi, come here”, “buy cigarettes for me”, “get off the sofa and sit on the chair”, “Santi, change the channel, turn up the volume… and hurry up”. It is important to highlight that there were no remote controls back then. I was my family’s remote control. I don’t mean to say my childhood was sad. I just had to obey my siblings’ wishes from time to time.

My closest brother was the fifth, Chris. He was only two years older than me and thus had less power over me than the rest of my family. We used to play together. If I were to describe each of us in one word I would say that he was smart and I was naive.

One morning, Chris came to me with a brilliant idea, “Santi, we should play at being ‘treasure finders’”. I frowned. My brother added, “You know, many people lose money while they are walking in the street. We should go outside and find that money. I am pretty sure we will be rich within an hour or so.” After this explanation, I was not only convinced but utterly set on this simple and lucrative plan. I was unsure though about my ability to find lost money in our deserted street.

After walking around with our backs bent for five minutes, my brother ran over to me shouting and laughing. He had found a bill. “Now”, he said, “It’s your turn. You need to find more money.” Frustrated, I kept on scanning the sidewalk, observing nothing but busy ants. After a while, my brother cried out again: “Look over there! See what you have found!” I hadn’t seen anything where my brother was pointing, but I looked back anyways. Lo and behold, another bill was lying on the pavement. My brother convinced me that it was I who had found that bill.

My brother decided that it had been enough for that day and that we needed to celebrate our success by spending our new found income on candies, gums and cookies. How much had we found? It is hard to explain in real currency terms, but I can tell you that we were able to buy a full bag of delicious stuff. When we came back home our mum was waiting for us, quite angry since she was missing some money from her handbag: Not only the same amount of money, but actually the very same bills we had “found” in the street. That afternoon, we were both punished. In spite of that, my brother and I are still good friends. Read the rest of this entry »

Almost Physically

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“[I]n these days which have not been easy for me, I have felt almost physically the power of prayer—your prayers—(…)”, said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his second last General Audience.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is made up by four parts, one of which is precisely “Christian Prayer.” I will quote just one brief number.

2590 “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”

Undoubtedly, the Pope was referring to the second part of this definition, i.e. the requesting of good things from God. He was going through a very difficult time, but he also experienced that something was supporting him and giving him comfort: prayer, “your prayers”, he said. Prayer played the role a bottle of fresh water has in a Marathon. Water does not shorten the 42 kilometres, but makes them less unbearable.

However, how can we be sure (during a difficult time) that is prayer what is comforting us and not something else?—Unfortunately, it seems to me that it cannot be easily proved. Perhaps it cannot be proved at all.

I found, though, an interesting piece of information last year. It was an academic article on the relationship between marital stability and religiosity. It was based on a survey of more than 4,000 couples interviewed at one point and then interviewed again at least four years later. The paper concludes that “[w]hen both spouses attend church regularly, the couple has the lowest risk of divorce.

Any married reader would agree that marriage necessarily encompasses difficulties (and thankfully it has also great times). Churchgoers, then, are supported by some things that help them to overcome their marital troubles and to keep married. Certainly, one of those things is prayer, as attending services is praying in community.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI prayed in order to decide whether he should resign or not, and after resigning he experienced “almost physically the power of prayer—your prayers.

You might think, “I haven’t prayed for the Pope, though”. And I reply that you probably have.

If you have attended Mass, you did it since in every Mass is compulsory to pray for the Pope.

Additionally, if you have prayed the Our Father, you have also prayed for the Pope since in the Lord’s prayer we ask for seven things. And one of those petitions reads Thy Kingdom Come. It means not only that we want Jesus back at the end of time, but also that his reign, his Church, has to spread throughout the earth, guided by the Pope. Thy Kingdom come is therefore a prayer for the Church and also the Pope.

I don’t mean that we shouldn’t pray more. We should pray more for so many intentions. For instance, for the next Pope who will be probably elected this week. However, praying more could be done either by saying more prayers or by trying to mean what we currently pray.

Prayer is powerful. Pope Emeritus Benedict experienced it last month… almost physically.

Volumus Papam

ImageWhen a new Pope is elected, the Cardinal Protodeacon says in Latin, “Habemus Papam”, that is “we have a Pope”. As we currently have no Pope, I say, “Volumus Papam”, that is, “we want a Pope”.

The Church wants a Pope, the Cardinals want a Pope, the faithful from all over the world want a Pope. I want a Pope, too.

However, it can be asked, “why do we want a Pope?” Probably, there is more than one answer to this question, but I will attempt only one.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its number 805 explains that “[t]he Church is the Body of Christ. Through the Spirit and his action in the sacraments, above all the Eucharist, Christ, who once was dead and is now risen, establishes the community of believers as his own Body.

I would like to highlight the concept community of believers. We are a community which means two things at the same time: (1) that we have something in common, and (2) that we are communicated.

(1) We have something in common: Christ, “[t]he Church is the Body of Christ.”

(2) We are communicated. “Through the Spirit and his action in the sacraments, above all the Eucharist, Christ (…)”

(1) and (2)… Christ and Spirit… body and soul.

Then, what is missing?—The Father… the head… the Pope. We want a Father, we want a Pope. Volumus Papam.

We want a Pope in order to have someone to look at as our Father. We want a Pope to his teachings as coming from God himself.

The concept of community of believers gives us one further clue. We are a community and not a societas or a company. Societates and companies are created by equals, partners. They do not need someone above them. For their part, communities are born the minute two people have something in common. Thus, communities need something different than their members. They need something in common.

We, Catholics, are more than two and we have in common nothing less than God our Father. However, our Father art in Heaven. For that reason we want a Father on earth, we want a Pope. Volumus Papam.