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Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges has an excellent message on the topic of suffering and death in the perspective of the Resurrection.
“All that is written about us, will be fulfilled by you in these days”. Thus the opening verse of a song that Willem Barnard wrote for the start of Holy Week. Much is said in those few words. That He shared our existence to the very end. That nothing human is unknown to Him. The final days, the days of His passing. These are also the days that refer to what is impossible, but what the Church counts as her deepest conviction: that He is risen. The final days: they are the days of ‘pascha’, the passing from death to life. And in these days He fulfilled all that was written about us.
What is striking is that that also includes His death. You would think that the Resurrection makes everything in order again and that we would better forget this dying and that death. Especially considering how scandalous that dying was: condemned and executed. But that dying and death does belong to what He fulfilled in those final days. No Easter without Good Friday. Death is also part of the Pascal mystery.
The Church has never been tempted to hide or trivialise that death, let alone suppress it. Paul says with emphasis: “We are preaching a crucified Christ” (1 Cor.1 :23). And when Holy Week begins with the introit of Maundy Thursday, we sing: “Let our glory be in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him we have salvation, life and resurrection, through Him we are rescued and set free.”
Glory in the Cross, that is a strange and alienating thing to say. Isn’t suffering being cherished here? Isn’t it explained as something positive? That is something that the Church and Christianity is sometimes accused of. A sort of mystification of suffering. When, a few weeks, the expansion of the euthanasia bill for minors was voted on, we were confronted again with that criticism. Are faithful not aware of the suffering of people? Shouldn’t people be freed from that suffering? Is that not the ultimate at of compassion? Or is it perhaps meaningful and good that people suffer?
Suffering is something we should pursue. That would be absurd. Pain must be relieved and that is possible today. Therapeutic stubbornness can’t be justified. Christianity does not cherish suffering. Not even that of Jesus. Jesus did not seek out suffering. The Gospel informs us that Jesus, when things did indeed get dangerous for Him, retreated more and more. Now and then we read that He did not show Himself in public. In the end He even prayed that that cup could pass Him by. He tried to avoid danger as much as possible. But not at the expense of His mission. He would complete that mission to the end. And if the Cross was part of it, He would accept it. He said so to His disciples: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
But there is one question that remains. Why did God not answer the prayer of Jesus? Why couldn’t He change the minds of those who wanted to kill Jesus? Why couldn’t God arrange this differently, without that suffering and without that Cross? For faithful people the Resurrection is the ultimate answer to that question. Here, God breaks through all barriers. Indeed, what awaits is neither more nor less than a new creation. But not without that detour of suffering an death. Like the People of God once, when it left Egypt and tried to escape from a life of slavery, had to make a detour through the desert, a place of testing and suffering. Why no direct route to the promised land? Why that detour? Why Jesus’ death? There is only one answer to that question: because that detour, because suffering and death are a part of the human condition. We are not gods but human beings. About Jesus it is also said: “Who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. […] and being in every way like a human being” (Phil. 2:6-7).
In the media debate about the expansion of the euthanasia I gradually started to ask myself this question: doesn’t all this also have to do with the fact that death is loosing its place in our secular society? That life is being arranged in such a way that it doesn’t really exist? It is being banned as much as possible from life. And when it comes and can’t be avoided, let it strike as quickly as possible. The euthanasia file is no longer about the physically unbearable suffering. It is increasingly about psychological suffering. And while the danger of a slippery slope as denied at first, the transition seems fairly obvious. Psychological suffering is real suffering, so why exclude it? And why not go further? Existential suffering also exists. Suffering because the meaning of life itself has been affected. It is striking that suicide is no longer a taboo today. Of course it is shocking in the case of young people. And that is the focus is rightfully on prevention. But the elderly? These are people that are “done” with life and so “step out of it”. That language says much. Suicide becomes a lucid and courageous act. Death is being made harmless from the start because it is no longer recognised for what it really is: a sign of radical finality. A sign that I did not decide or want my existence but was given it. A sign that I am not my own origin.
In a column in De Standaard rector Torfs rightfully notes, “life must be beautiful, and if it is not, death is an option. Suicide is today not just an escape for people who are deeply unhappy. It is equally there for someone who, after careful deliberation, decides that his happiness is not enough”. Where one no longer realises that finality and mortality, and so also death, are an essential part of what it means to be “a human being on earth”, life itself in its deepest sense becomes trivialised. Life in itself has then no meaning or value. Meaning and value depend on a presupposed quality to which it has to answer. But what is quality? The lightness with which “stepping out of life” is being discussed ultimately refers to the lightness with which life itself is being discussed.
The Christian faith in the Resurrection does not trivialise death. It belongs to our finite and mortal existence. And it is that finite existence that Christ wanted to share with us. Everything that is written about us, is fulfilled by Him. Including our death. Even if our culture tries to keep death as much as possible out of sight, death is and remains a mystery that we will never fully comprehend, let alone solve. Christian is no mysticism of suffering. But it does not deny death. But – and this is the heart of our faith – it is taken up in the even greater mystery of God’s love defeating death. That is what Christ fulfilled for us.”
Over the past weekend, the news of the “plausible” abuse by Bishop Gijsen has obviously dominated Catholic news in the Netherlands. For some it was reason for renewed attacks against the Catholic Church, but what struck me most were the thought and feelings of those who had known Bishop Gijsen, who had entered seminary when he was bishop, who have him to thank for setting the first step towards finding their vocation. Those that I read all expressed feelings of confusion, of feeling lost. And that is what abuse, being a complete destruction of the bonds of trust and responsibility, does. It leaves victims stranded, alone, trying to build themselves up again and, too often, in the face of disbelief and accusations of lying.
Below, find my translation of the homily that Bishop Franz Wiertz gave on Monday, in a Mass of penance and reconciliation at Maastricht’s Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.
“It is Holy Week. For Christians this is a week during which they not only follow Christ in His suffering, but especially look at themselves in this light and question themselves about the why of this death of the cross. The first confessions of faith, which we find in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the First Letter to the Corinthians, indicate the why of the cross very clearly: “Died for our sins”. In order to expiate our sins the Lord died on the cross. This makes us fall silent and we prefer not to hear these words. We don’t like being told that we are people who are not spotless and thus guilty.
Perhaps we think it is a bit strange that the new Pope, when he was asked, “Who are you, Jorge Bergoglio? What do you say about yourself?”, answered, “I am a simply sinful human being.” That means that the Pope does not want to present himself smugly as a perfect person, but as a human being in whose life guilt and sin are also a reality. We struggle with this fact. It throws us back on ourselves.
It is not without reason that guilt and sin are topics which are addressed in many ways in modern literature. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, devotes his play “The Flies” to the freedom of man and the responsibility that comes with it. But also to the feelings of guilt which are the result of choices made. The protagonist can’t live with these feelings of guilt. He tries to suppress them. Every attempt to chase them away is a stroke in the air. The flies return.
You can only come to terms with feelings of guilt by acknowledging them. Not by suppressing them. And certainly not by explaining away what happened. He who acknowledges guilt, will certainly also ask himself, “Who did I hurt? Who is the victim of the evil I have done? How can I repair what happened?”
Handling guilt is not easy for a person. It is more than a stain on one’s reputation. Guilt questions one’s own integrity. In response one attacks the evil of other with strong condemnations. Like David did when the Prophet Nathan told him the story of the rich man who prepared the poor man’s lamb for dinner. David suppressed how he had abused his own power and took the wife of Uriah for his own. How he then tried to hide his tracks by having Uriah die in battle.
Difficulty to accept our own guilt which is the consequence of the acts of her members, and taking responsibility for it, is also difficult for our own Church. Even this week we in the Netherlands and in our diocese were painfully confronted with the fact that a bishop, priests and religious abused their power and undermined their mission. They caused scandal, by actions that do not stand up to daylight: abuse of children and young people. There is nothing worse.
For decades it was denied or suppressed. Now that the true extent has become known, the shame is great. Parents entrusted their children to people of the Church, thinking that there was no safer place than that. Children entrusted themselves to people of the Church and they were abused. Their stories were often not believed.
Although this is also a social phenomenon, that can never be an excuse for people of the Church. Although it happened half a century ago, we experience it as an original sin which is almost impossible to atone for. But we must carry it with us. The Church also does not want to be reminded of the stains in her own reputation, and she frequently made the mistake of David by condemning the mistakes of people with great harshness and without mercy. Why did the Church respond like that? Is it shame? Is it fear of loss of prestige? Loss of face? Did they want to protect the institution more than the hurting victims?
It hurts to be confronted with these sinister and dark sides of the Church. We want to acknowledge that Church authorities and Church members have caused grave scandal and that they have been guilty of grievous acts. In that context the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” have perhaps been used too quickly. Since the extent of the abuse became known these concepts were for the victims like a red cloth for a bull. It angered them, because it was misguidedly used to avoid acknowledgement of the facts and to avoid to take responsibility.
This misguided use of the word “forgiveness” should never have happened, because it is a special word and it is a special phenomenon when forgiveness and reconciliation happens between people. But it should always be remembered that forgiveness and reconciliation confer no rights. They can only be received as an undeserved gift.
It always presumes a completely honest acknowledgement of one’s own guilt, without fleeing for the responsibility for what was done in the lives of people. Family members and partners of the victims must certainly not be forgotten in that. Forgiveness is only possible where it is preceded by the acknowledgment of guilt. Acknowledging guilt before the victim and for us a Church also acknowledgement of guilt before God. The forgiveness has a chance and there can be a future again. People can set off on the journey together again. Then they can find each other again as people and appreciate each other for what we can give each other.
May the time come that victims can give their trust to the Church and to people of the Church and forgive them for what was done to them. The Church must wait for that and in the meantime must continuously prove herself to be worthy of it. For now, we work hard together on a “road to reconciliation”. Amen.”
Photo credit: ANP
For today’s Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi for short, the Diocese of Roermond has published a brochure about Communion. After a description of who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us, the brochure delves into the Eucharist, its celebration an, most notably, the proper disposition for receiving that sacrament, Jesus Himself, in the Communion.
In their foreword, Bishops Frans Wiertz and Everard de Jong write:
“The attention for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of faith, the most precious gift that the Lord has left His Church, could use an extra impulse in our days. Not only because of the Year of Faith that the pope has announced, but most of all because of the graces that participation in this beneficial Sacrament can give the faithful. Does our time not have a great need for spiritual food which can lessen the soul’s thirst?”
I won’t be analysing the entire brochure, which offers a handy introduction to the source and summit of our faith, but I will share what in my opinion is the most significant chapter in it: an explanation of the proper disposition for receiving Communion. This is especially necessary in the Netherlands, where Communion is often considered a right or “just something that everybody does, so why shouldnt I?”.
- Certain texts seem to imply restraint when receiving Communion is concerned: We hear Jesus Himself say, “‘Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and then turn on you and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7:6). Saint Paul also writes in his letter to Timothy:
“You may be quite sure that in the last days there will be some difficult times. People will be self-centred and avaricious, boastful, arrogant and rude; disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious; heartless and intractable; they will be slanderers, profligates, savages and enemies of everything that is good; they will be treacherous and reckless and demented by pride, preferring their own pleasure to God. They will keep up the outward appearance of religion but will have rejected the inner power of it. Keep away from people like that” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).
And the same Apostle claims:
“What does this mean? That the dedication of food to false gods amounts to anything? Or that false gods themselves amount to anything? No, it does not; simply that when pagans sacrifice, what is sacrificed by them is sacrificed to demons who are not God. I do not want you to share with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons as well; you cannot have a share at the Lord’s table and the demons’ table as well. Do we really want to arouse the Lord’s jealousy; are we stronger than he is?” (1 Corinthians 10:19-22).
He then opines:
“Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves we would not be condemned, but when we are judged by the Lord, we are corrected by the Lord to save us from being condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:26-32).
It is then clear that Communion is not for just everyone.
- Yet this question about the reasons to not receive Communion can, on second thought, seem like a strange question. After all, we are sinners and we need Him. Yes, exactly because we are sinners, we need Him. The more we sin, the more we need Him. Not without reason do we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed” (vg. Luke 7:6).
- This unsuitability to receive Communion tells us, on further examination, what we have just said [in previous chapters] about the will to be converted, the openness to healing and the unity in love. There are actions which, as it were, lock us so tightly within ourselves, which block us from experiencing Jesus’ love and active healing power in the Communion in such a way that we can’t experience this meeting with Him in a fruitful manner without some preparation. There are actions or omissions which have shut the door to Jesus in such a way that it won’t open without a special help. They cause such hardness in our hearts that a ‘softener’ and a strong purification are needed to receive Him properly. Jesus offers those too, but not in the sacrament of the Eucharist. For that reason He, as we saw, instituted the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation: Confession. We must therefore distinguish between the need to being saved by Christ, and the way in which this can occur. The encounter with Him in the Communion is so sensitive and tender that Communion can’t work without a prior big cleaning, ie. a verbal confession of our sins. It is like a communal meal, or even a marital physical union, which also can’t happen if there are major issues between man and wife. General apologies do not suffice here, as in the penitential rite , but specific and honest regret must be shown. In other words, the road to unity with the Lord only goes via the road of purification. The sacrament of penance and reconciliation is in this way complementary. Saint Thomas Aquinas summarised these arguments in this way: because of mortal sin we no longer have spiritual life within us, while the Eucharist is food for the living; and because of our attachment to mortal sin we have removed ourselves so far from Christ that we can’t become one with Him through Communion .
- Do not be afraid of this sacrament of penance and reconciliation… As the Apostle Saint John writes in his first letter, “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and truth has no place in us; if we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil. If we say, ‘We have never sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word has no place in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
- What are mortal sins? According to the Church you can only sin mortally if you go against God’s commandments in a serious matter (materia gravis) with full knowledge and in free will. What is exactly a serious matte is not always clear, but they often have to do with life and death, the beginning and end of physical and spiritual life. They may be things against God, your neighbour, or yourself.
- In judging the sin, there are a number of aspects which involved. Three aspects of an action count. 1: That what you do, the action itself. 2: The motivation, by which you act. 3: The circumstances of the act. All three aspects must be good to speak of a good act. So only one of these three has to be bad, for the entire act to be bad. All three aspects can also independently lead to a mortal sin. 
- Some acts, regardless of their result, intention or circumstance, are always bad, because the act is intrinsically, in itself, bad. These human actions or omission have to do with what seriously affects and damages our deepest personality or that of another. The killing of an innocent person, for example, in whatever phase of life, regardless of motivation or circumstance, is never justified. But all other forms of damage to human dignity and human integrity, such as torture, psychological terror, slavery, human trafficking and so on  are always reprehensible. For the Church, sexuality is a sacred event, and man is very vulnerable in that area: it affects the heart of his person and God’s creative power. If it does not take place within a marriage between a man and a women, or when the openness to new life of consciously blocked, it is, in principle, always a mortal sin. Not without reason does Jesus tell us, “But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart”(Matthew 5:28).
- Who decides how serious a sin is? And so if you need to confess it before receive Communion? As long as they are acts which happened in secret, it is primarily the sinner’s, conscience, formed by the Church, which indicates what should be done. Of course, a priest may always be asked for advice. With acts that are presented to the priest in confession, or which are public, the Church will always judge the nature and the consequences. We already see this in the early Church:
“If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: whatever the misdemeanour, the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a gentile or a tax collector. ‘In truth I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-18).
- When in doubt about receiving Communion, you may always entrust your own judgements to a good spiritual counselor.
- Of course, Communion also has a social aspect. Saint Paul says that he will eat certain kinds of meat, but does not does so to avoid giving scandal to the weaker (Romans 14:20, 2 Corinthians 6:3). It could happen that one has permission from the Church to receive Communion, but would cause public scandal with it. It is then wise to avoid receiving Communion in a church where one is known. One can receive Communion in a place where one is unknown.
- But priests have their own responsibility. About this, the Second Vatican Council says, in a positive way, “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”
- The public aspect of sin and the scandal it may possibly cause can also mean that the priest, or the person distributing Communion, and who is therefore “entrusted with the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), may have to prudently take his own responsibility. “I ask everyone, especially ordained ministers and those who, after adequate preparation and in cases of genuine need, are authorized to exercise the ministry of distributing the Eucharist, to make every effort to ensure that this simple act preserves its importance as a personal encounter with the Lord Jesus in the sacrament” . A minister of Holy Communion therefore has his own responsibility and will not randomly refuse someone Communion, without any prior knowledge. If a person’s way of life is clearly contrary to Catholic faith and morals he can’t allow that person’s to receive Communion. In certain public cases of serious scandal, in which the meaning of the sacrament is seriously undermined, he will then have to warn a person, prior to the celebration, to not come forward for Communion, and in special cases will even have to refuse Communion .
- And what if there is no minister of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, and the serious sin is not publicly known? Then you can receive Communion, provided you have prayed a personal act of contrition and have the intention to receive the sacrament of penance and reconciliation at the earliest occasion.
- It is important to realise, even if you know that you can’t receive Communion, that there are ways to unite yourself to Christ. There is the option to come forward with the other people as the Communion is handed out and then, with arms crossed over your chest, receive a blessing. One can also unite oneself spiritually with Christ and so receive spiritual Communion. It is not shameful to not come forward… on the contrary, it shows your appreciation and respect for the Holy One among us.
 Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction Redemptionis sacramentum (2005), n. 80: “As for the Penitential Act placed at the beginning of Mass, it has the purpose of preparing all to be ready to celebrate the sacred mysteries; even so, “it lacks the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance”, and cannot be regarded as a substitute for the Sacrament of Penance in remission of graver sins.”
 Cf. Summa Theologica, III, 89,3
 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nr. 1755
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1756, identifies blasphemy, perjury, murder and adultery as intrinsically evil. The Second Vatican Council says the following: “Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed” (Gaudium et spes, n. 27; cf. Evangelium Vitae, n 80).
 Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 11.
 Cf. Sacramentum caritatis, n. 50.
 Cf. Redemptionis Sacramentum, n. 84: “Furthermore when Holy Mass is celebrated for a large crowd – for example, in large cities – care should be taken lest out of ignorance non-Catholics or even non-Christians come forward for Holy Communion, without taking into account the Church’s Magisterium in matters pertaining to doctrine and discipline. It is the duty of Pastors at an opportune moment to inform those present of the authenticity and the discipline that are strictly to be observed.”
And so, as ever surprisingly fast, we rush towards the end of Lent, towards the eternal salvific sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Yesterday, we learned of the betrayal of Judas, and today, on Maundy or Holy Thursday, we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper that Jesus shared with His disciples.
Before He offered Himself on the Cross, Jesus eternally gave Himself to us under the appearance of bread and wine* St. Paul, in his first Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-26), writes:
For the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you is that on the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and after he had given thanks, he broke it, and he said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’
And in the same way, with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.’
Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.
We’ll hear this passage as the second reading at today’s evening Mass, when the priest washes the feet of twelve faithful, in imitation of Christ washing the feet of His disciples. At the end of Mass, Jesus, in the form of bread and wine, secludes Himself in the altar of repose, the altar is stripped and we enter that final night of His life, alone in prayer while His disciples failed to stay awake with Him.
As He has promised, Jesus is with us every day, and especially so in the Eucharist. We are beings of flesh and blood, as well as spirit, and our nourishment reflects that. The Word that is Christ feeds our heads and hearts, and in the Eucharist He feeds us physically. But unlike a regular meal, the food does not become part of us: we become part of it, of Him.
Tomorrow is Good Friday…
Art credit: “The institution of the Eucharist”, by Joos van Wassenhove, 1473-75
*An enlightening text to consider in this context is John 6: 48-58
Yesterday I came across an extremely sola Scriptura website which contained a rant against the use of symbols in Christianity. One of their targets, in addition to (of course) the pope and the mitres worn by bishops, was the symbol of the Cross. The reasoning of the writer or writers was as follows: crosses had been used as symbols by various peoples and religions long before Christianity appeared, and it was a torture tool used by the Romans. Oh, and Christians didn’t start using it until the fifth century, no doubt under the influence of the evil Roman Catholics… So, Christians who wear a cross or display a crucifix are pagans exalting a satanic piece of torture equipment.
Well, it is some sort of logic, I suppose…
In formulating a reply, I came across this passage by Pope Benedict XVI, given in the Angelus address of 17 september 2006:
But what does exalting the Cross mean? Is it not maybe scandalous to venerate a shameful form of execution? The Apostle Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Cor 1:23). Christians, however, do not exalt just any cross but the Cross which Jesus sanctified with his sacrifice, the fruit and testimony of immense love. Christ on the Cross pours out his Blood to set humanity free from the slavery of sin and death.
Therefore, from being a sign of malediction, the Cross was transformed into a sign of blessing, from a symbol of death into a symbol par excellence of the Love that overcomes hatred and violence and generates immortal life. “O Crux, ave spes unica! O Cross, our only hope!”. Thus sings the liturgy.
And that is what struck me yesterday. This is what being a Catholic, being a Christian is all about: the transformative power of the faith. Yes, crosses have been used by others in the past; yes, it was a horrible form of execution, but for us, now, it is more than that.
Everything we see, hear, experience, learn and understand in the faith of the Church directs us to Christ. The Cross (now with a capital C) does so too. It has become the symbol of our salvation, for it was the means by which Christ won that for us. To display it, venerate it, kneel before it, are our ways to express our faith and gratefulness for that salvation. And it can help us live according to what salvation, Christ, asks of us. The Cross also shows us that whatever suffering we go through, Christ has gone through as well. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Christ tells us in the Gospel of Mark (8:34). We all have a cross to bear, but Christ has already born it.
“Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
Gospel of Matthew 11:28-30
Despite what the cross has been in the past, what matters is what the Cross is for us, today. Christ has transformed it for us, used it to indicate our salvation, but also our burden, both the one we carry with us and the one He places on our shoulders, which He helps carry. He has done so, and He does so in all time.
“And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20)
Like many holidays and feasts in the west, today – Valentine’s Day – has its roots in the Catholic Church. But in this case the roots are thin and fragile. Extremely little is known about the Saint Valentine who gave his name to today. In fact, he may be any of as few as three or as many as fourteen different Valentines. But the celebration of his unknown exploits and example is not completely without foundation.
The fifth-century Pope Saint Gelasius I established St. Valentine’s feast day, and alleged relics of the saint are to be found in various location in Europe; among them Rome, Dublin, Glasgow, Vienna and Birmingham. Also, starting in the tenth century, churches started to be dedicated to St. Valentine, and at the same time, two late-Roman men, one a priest and the other a bishop, started to be identified with St. Valentine. They are buried in two different locations along the Via Flaminia, which runs from Rome to modern Rimini.
Still, even though there may have been a man name Valentine who was venerated for his holy life, even St. Gelasius I acknowledged that his name was “justly reverenced among men, but [his] acts are known only to God.”
Because of his anonymity, the Church no longer includes Saint Valentine on the calendar of saints, although local celebrations still take place where his alleged relics are kept.
Literary flourishing in the Middle Ages turned the day into a celebration of courtly love, and later into a day to express love in general to whomever one pleases. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules from 1382, wrote: For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. But he may well have been referring to May 2, the feast day of St. Valentine of Genoa, somebody else altogether.
It’s a murky business, trying to figure out who did what when and why we celebrate those things now… But the fact remains: despite rampant commercialisation, today is a day to celebrate the love between people – the greatest Christian virtue.
As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:13)
Below is a selection from the official addresses and homilies made by Pope Benedict XVI during his state visit to the United Kingdom last week. They are a strictly personal selection of passages which I think are either important to consider or which reflect the general topic of the various speeches. A full collection is available via the Vatican website. Below are my choices from the third day of the visit, 18 September.
Homily at Westminster Cathedral
“[T]he great crucifix which towers above us serves as a reminder that Christ, our eternal high priest, daily unites our own sacrifices, our own sufferings, our own needs, hopes and aspirations, to the infinite merits of his sacrifice. Through him, with him, and in him, we lift up our own bodies as a sacrifice holy and acceptable to God (cf. Rom 12:1).”
“Here too I think of the immense suffering caused by the abuse of children, especially within the Church and by her ministers. Above all, I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes, along with my hope that the power of Christ’s grace, his sacrifice of reconciliation, will bring deep healing and peace to their lives. I also acknowledge, with you, the shame and humiliation which all of us have suffered because of these sins; and I invite you to offer it to the Lord with trust that this chastisement will contribute to the healing of the victims, the purification of the Church and the renewal of her age-old commitment to the education and care of young people. I express my gratitude for the efforts being made to address this problem responsibly, and I ask all of you to show your concern for the victims and solidarity with your priests.”
“One of the greatest challenges facing us today is how to speak convincingly of the wisdom and liberating power of God’s word to a world which all too often sees the Gospel as a constriction of human freedom, instead of the truth which liberates our minds and enlightens our efforts to live wisely and well, both as individuals and as members of society.”
Salute to youth
“I ask you to look into your hearts each day to find the source of all true love. Jesus is always there, quietly waiting for us to be still with him and to hear his voice. Deep within your heart, he is calling you to spend time with him in prayer. But this kind of prayer, real prayer, requires discipline; it requires making time for moments of silence every day. Often it means waiting for the Lord to speak. Even amid the “busy-ness” and the stress of our daily lives, we need to make space for silence, because it is in silence that we find God, and in silence that we discover our true self. And in discovering our true self, we discover the particular vocation which God has given us for the building up of his Church and the redemption of our world.”
Address at St Peter’s Residence, home for older people
“As advances in medicine and other factors lead to increased longevity, it is important to recognize the presence of growing numbers of older people as a blessing for society. Every generation can learn from the experience and wisdom of the generation that preceded it. Indeed the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude.”
“Life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take. One may enjoy good health in old age; but equally Christians should not be afraid to share in the suffering of Christ, if God wills that we struggle with infirmity. My predecessor, the late Pope John Paul, suffered very publicly during the last years of his life. It was clear to all of us that he did so in union with the sufferings of our Saviour. His cheerfulness and forbearance as he faced his final days were a remarkable and moving example to all of us who have to carry the burden of advancing years.”
Address at the prayer vigil at Hyde Park
“Here is the first lesson we can learn from [Cardinal Newman’s] life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations. In a word, we are meant to know Christ, who is himself “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6).”
“The truth that sets us free cannot be kept to ourselves; it calls for testimony, it begs to be heard, and in the end its convincing power comes from itself and not from the human eloquence or arguments in which it may be couched. […] In our own time, the price to be paid for fidelity to the Gospel is no longer being hanged, drawn and quartered but it often involves being dismissed out of hand, ridiculed or parodied. And yet, the Church cannot withdraw from the task of proclaiming Christ and his Gospel as saving truth, the source of our ultimate happiness as individuals and as the foundation of a just and humane society.”
“[Newman} saw clearly that we do not so much accept the truth in a purely intellectual act as embrace it in a spiritual dynamic that penetrates to the core of our being. Truth is passed on not merely by formal teaching, important as that is, but also by the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity and holiness; those who live in and by the truth instinctively recognize what is false and, precisely as false, inimical to the beauty and goodness which accompany the splendour of truth, veritatis splendor.”
“By letting the light of faith shine in our hearts, and by abiding in that light through our daily union with the Lord in prayer and participation in the life-giving sacraments of the Church, we ourselves become light to those around us; we exercise our “prophetic office”; often, without even knowing it, we draw people one step closer to the Lord and his truth. Without the life of prayer, without the interior transformation which takes place through the grace of the sacraments, we cannot, in Newman’s words, “radiate Christ”; we become just another “clashing cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1) in a world filled with growing noise and confusion, filled with false paths leading only to heartbreak and illusion.”
“No one who looks realistically at our world today could think that Christians can afford to go on with business as usual, ignoring the profound crisis of faith which has overtaken our society, or simply trusting that the patrimony of values handed down by the Christian centuries will continue to inspire and shape the future of our society. We know that in times of crisis and upheaval God has raised up great saints and prophets for the renewal of the Church and Christian society; we trust in his providence and we pray for his continued guidance. But each of us, in accordance with his or her state of life, is called to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom by imbuing temporal life with the values of the Gospel. Each of us has a mission, each of us is called to change the world, to work for a culture of life, a culture forged by love and respect for the dignity of each human person.”
“Dear young friends: only Jesus knows what “definite service” he has in mind for you. Be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now his heart is speaking to your heart. Christ has need of families to remind the world of the dignity of human love and the beauty of family life. He needs men and women who devote their lives to the noble task of education, tending the young and forming them in the ways of the Gospel. He needs those who will consecrate their lives to the pursuit of perfect charity, following him in chastity, poverty and obedience, and serving him in the least of our brothers and sisters. He needs the powerful love of contemplative religious, who sustain the Church’s witness and activity through their constant prayer. And he needs priests, good and holy priests, men who are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. Ask our Lord what he has in mind for you! Ask him for the generosity to say “yes!” Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus. He will give you the grace you need to fulfil your vocation.”
Last night we commemorated the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas and His capture by Sanhedrin officials. All this following a night He spent in prayer in Gethsemane, with the Father and a couple of sleepy Apostles for company. In the night, He prayed for His people and also for Himself. His fear at what He know was to come made Him ask His Father to let the cup pass from His lips, but “not my will, but yours”.
Today we walk the Stations of the Cross, the fourteen stages of Christ’s death on the Cross, from His conviction by Pontius Pilate to His burial. These fourteen stations are illustrated below. The photos are details from the station in the St. Joseph cathedral in Groningen (originally taken for a different Good Friday project for which I lacked the time, and I hope you’ll excuse the bad lighting conditions in some) and the texts are snippets from prayer sand meditations written for the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome, written by Camillo Cardinal Ruini, which you can read in full here.
FIRST STATION – Jesus is condemned to death
“Jesus died for our sins. And on an even deeper level, he died for us, he died because God loves us and he loves us even to giving us his only Son, that we might have life through him (cf. Jn 3:16-17)”.
SECOND STATION – Jesus carries His cross
“[I]n our conscience shines the light of goodness, a light which in many cases is bright and guides us, fortunately, in our decisions. But often the opposite occurs: this light becomes obscured by resentment, by unspeakable cravings, by the perversion of our heart. And then we become cruel, capable of the worst, even of things unbelievable”.
THIRD STATION – Jesus falls for the firs time
“Jesus did not refuse physical suffering and thus he entered into solidarity with the whole human family, especially all the many people whose lives, even today, are filled with this kind of pain. As we watch him fall beneath his cross, let us humbly ask him for the courage to break open, in a solidarity which goes beyond mere words, the narrowness of our hearts”.
FOURTH STATION – Jesus meets His Mother
“Mary becomes the Mother of us all, the Mother of every man and woman for whom Jesus shed his blood. Here motherhood is a living sign of God’s love and mercy for us. Because of this, the bonds of affection and trust uniting the Christian people to Mary are deep and strong. As a result, we have recourse to her spontaneously, especially at the most difficult times of our lives”.
FIFTH STATION – Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
“[W]hat seemed at first to be merely a stroke of bad luck or a tragedy not infrequently is shown to be a door which opens in our lives, leading to a greater good. But it is not always like this: many times, in this world, tragedies remain simply painful failures. Here again Jesus has something to tell us: after the cross, he rose from the dead, and he rose as the firstborn among many brethren (cf. Rom 8:29; 1Cor 15:20). His cross can not be separated from his resurrection. Only by believing in the resurrection can we meaningfully advance along the way of the cross”.
SIXTH STATION – Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
“In the suffering face of Jesus we […] see another accumulation: that of human suffering. And so Veronica’s gesture of pity becomes a challenge to us, an urgent summons. It becomes a gentle but insistent demand not to turn away but to look with our own eyes at those who suffer, whether close at hand or far away. And not merely to look, but also to help”.
SEVENTH STATION – Jesus falls for the second time
“[L]et us ask God, humbly yet confidently: Father, rich in mercy, help us not to add more weight to the cross of Jesus. In the words of Pope John Paul II, who died five years ago tonight: “the limit imposed upon evil, of which man is both perpetrator and victim, is ultimately Divine Mercy” (Memory and Identity, p. 60)”.
EIGHTH STATION – Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
“It is Jesus who takes pity on the women of Jerusalem, and on all of us. Even as he carries the cross, Jesus remains the man who had compassion on the crowd (cf. Mk 8:2), who broke into tears before the tomb of Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:35), and who proclaimed blessed those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (cf. Mt 5:4)”.
NINTH STATION – Jesus falls for the third time
“In our efforts to identify ourselves completely with Jesus as he walks and falls beneath the cross, it is right for us to have feelings of repentance and sorrow. But stronger still should be the feeling of gratitude welling up in our hearts”.
TENTH STATION – Jesus is stripped of His garments
“As we look upon Jesus naked on the cross, we feel deep within us a compelling need to look upon our own nakedness, to stand spiritually naked before ourselves, but first of all before God and before our brothers and sisters in humanity. We need to be stripped of the pretence of appearing better than we are, and to seek to be sincere and transparent”.
ELEVENTH STATION – Jesus is nailed to the cross
“How many times, when we are tested, we think that we have been forgotten or abandoned by God. Or are even tempted to decide that God does not exist. The Son of God, who drank his bitter chalice to the dregs and then rose from the dead, tells us, instead, with his whole self, by his life and by his death, that we ought to trust in God. We can believe him”.
TWELFTH STATION – Jesus dies on the cross
“In truth, nothing is as dark and mysterious as the death of the Son of God, who with God the Father is the source and fullness of life. Yet at the same time, nothing shines so brightly, for here the glory of God shines forth, the glory of all-powerful and merciful Love”.
THIRTEENTH STATION – Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed in the arms of His Mother
“As we remember that Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, also became the mother of each one of us, we ask her to put into our hearts the feelings that unite her to Jesus. To be authentic Christians, to follow Jesus truly, we need to be bound to him with all that is within us: our minds, our will, our hearts, our daily choices great and small”.
FOURTEENTH STATION – Jesus is placed in the tomb
“Let us halt in prayer before the tomb of Jesus, asking God for the eyes of faith so that we too can become witnesses of his resurrection. Thus may the way of the cross become for us too a wellspring of life”.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow, Godfried Cardinal Danneels, archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels and primate of the Belgian Church Province, bids his official farewell. At 76 years of age, it is time for him to retire. There is no successor yet, but the general expectation is that it won’t be long until Rome names one, and that that will coincide with the official acceptance of the cardinal’s resignation by the pope. Here is the homily he deliver today in Brussels.
It is a very eloquent piece of writing that even touches upon some of the points raised by Msgr. Marini on adoration and liturgy.
“There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven”, Ecclesiastes says (Ecl. 3,1). There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, a time to start and a time to go. Shepherds come and shepherds go. But there is one Shepherd who continues to take care of you: “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13,20). And He, He remains: the Christ.
And that Shepherd should the be the focus of today. Jesus. With the author of the Letter to the Hebrews I say: “all you who are holy brothers and share the same heavenly call should turn your minds to Jesus, the apostle and the high priest of our profession of faith.”(Heb. 3,1)
Lift your eyes to Jesus
There is much that can frighten us when we look ahead: the crisis, the Church in the tempest, far fewer people and means and many who search and do not find the way. May I ask you, brothers and sisters, to keep looking towards Jesus? As the Gospel says: He sleeps in the bow of the ship of the Church in the tempest. And we keep saying: “’Master, do you not care? We are lost!” But we know the answer: “Why are you so frightened?” yes, why are we frightened? Fear is the only thing the Lord will blame us for. Not that we did not work enough, or planned or organised enough. But that we had no trust and no faith. That we did not look at Him; that we did not notice and believe that He was there among us. That He was there in the smallest and poorest among us and saw us with their eyes. He was also there in His Word that ceaselessly sounded in the liturgy. Clearly audible. But He is especially among us in the gift of His Body and His Blood. Yes, more, deeper and longer there than anywhere.
Lift yours eyes to Jesus, especially in Eucharistic adoration. I already asked you this at All Souls in 2006. I do it again today, the last time as archbishop. Grant me this.
Love the Church
Another thing: ‘Love the Church.’ I have served her wholeheartedly my entire life. A bishop is married to the Church. That is why he wears a ring. Love the Church! Certainly, she has her wrinkles, no wonder after 2,000 years. The Song of Songs already says: “I am black but lovely… Take no notice of my dark colouring, it is the sun that has burnt me… My mother’s sons made me look after the vineyards” (Songs 1,5-6) To see the Church as she really is – both divine and human – you need faith, that clear vision that can penetrate into the depths; that sees what can’t be seen. For the Church keeps within her an unfathomable mystery. She has something of the darkness and something of the light, sunlight and shadow both come over her. I like to repeat after Saint Augustine: “When I speak of the Church, I can’t stop.” And every time we discover a blemish in her, we must – after a moment of pain – be able to say: “but perhaps that spot on her skin is actually mine, it clings to my skin.” She is my mother and all mothers grow old. But precisely because of that do we appreciate our mother more: she is, after all, mine.
We received everything from the Church: the Scriptures and the sacraments, all the beauty of the liturgy, the tender pastoral care that many have received. We received Mary and all the saints and numerous brothers and sisters in the same faith. The strength of the Church lies in the liturgy. When the liturgy is celebrated beautifully and prayerfully, she creates an image of the Church as she really is: austere and grand at the same time, divine and human. The liturgy is the strongest form of evangelisation we have. No one escapes her mysterious charms. It could be that, in the times to come and the winter of indifference, the liturgy becomes the prime fireplace where we can warm ourselves on the Gospel.
Not of the world, but in the world
Something else. Many of our contemporaries barely know anything of the Gospel. Even its vocabulary is unfamiliar to them. The language is alien. We are almost back at the early days of the Church: a handful of people in a sea of unbelief and indifference. Perhaps more still an ocean of ignorance. What to do? Start to develop a healthy Christian sense of self-awareness. That is not pretense or pride: it is simply standing behind the truth. How can anyone follow us if we are mere shades? No one follows shadow images. To show and confess our identity – without issues and arrogance. We belong to Christ and the Gospel. To dare to be ourselves. It is allowed. It is even mandatory. Because “if the trumpet sounds a call which is unrecognisable, who is going to get ready for the attack?”(1 Cor. 14,8) St. Paul already wrote. Dare to be radically evangelical, and show it without issues.
But more is required. We must dare to take full part in the culture around us: in her science, her knowledge, her progress, the fabulous development of her technology, the modern thinking of modern man, in her art and culture, in the latest sensibilities. Certainly, we need the gift of discernment – not everything on the market is in good condition, after all. But how can one discern, when one does not know anything or wants to know anything?
Christians live on the edge of a knife: the are in the world, but do not belong to the world. That paradox cuts right through their hearts; it crucifies them. Just as it has also crucified Jesus, suspended high between heaven and earth. That is us as well: crucified, hanging between heaven and earth. But exactly there, on that intersection, the resurrection and the new life springs from. Should we start calling out loudly? Sometimes, yes: that is called speaking the language of the prophet. But Isaiah said of Jesus – the servant – “his voice is not heard in the street…” The most important thing has happened, in the silence of the cross. For the silence also speaks.
Speak clearly. But we must seek and find the gift not to sound arrogant, all-knowing or superior when we speak. Speak to serve, not to rule. Speak like Jesus spoke: “He felt sorry for them”. The lay there “like sheep without a shepherd.”(Matt. 9,36) Compassion is suffering with. To like to see people as they are, not as we would prefer them to be.
Perhaps also this: We Christians have a lot to do and we do a lot for the world: we fight for justice, solidarity, for food and for creation… But there is something unique to us: to bring forgiveness and reconciliation into the world. Here and elsewhere. To work towards reconciliation between all those colours, races and languages. In that respect our nation has become a laboratory. To be able to live together we need law and order, of course. But the problems won’t be solved without the service of reconciliation and forgiveness. He who gives lets another live indeed. He is as someone who gives birth, But he who for-gives is someone who raise a dead person.
Looking back at thirty years of shepherdhood among you, what can I say? I see what I have done and have not done. I know my successes and failures, the chances taken and missed, my talents and my flaws, my good and my bad. What to say? This. Maybe this: what the young priest from the novel by Georges Bernanos, ‘Journal d’un curé de campagne, whispered just before he died: “Tout est grâce”. All is grace… Yes. “All is grace”. Is it a coincidence that these were also the words of Saint Teresia of Lisieux? Tout est grâce. All is grace. Thank God with me.
+ Godfried Cardinal DANNEELS,
Archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels