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On the first Sunday of Advent – which is tomorrow, so happy new year – the Year of Consecrated Life begins in the Church. Although in the Netherlands the presence of religious communities varies per area – from virtually none in the north, to numerous in the south – it is good to remember that they are there, often hidden from view, praying and working for all of us and for the Lord.
Bishop Frans Wiertz opened the Year in the Diocese of Roermond (which is home to some 900 religious) and spoke the following homily.
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” With these words Pope Francis opens his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium, which has already impressed so many people.
A central element of the words of the Pope is the message that it is Jesus Christ who can fill our hearts with joy. Not a temporary joy or cheap sense of fun, but deep joy which we shall feel through the personal encounter with Christ. The desire for that encounter is something that we may experience once more in the coming weeks. Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope; a prophetic time too, which lets us look forward to the encounter with the Christ child. “But in my trust in you do not put me to shame,” the Psalm of this first Sunday of Advent tells us. In those words the hope and expectation already resound, which we also hear in the words of Pope Francis when he says that “with Christ joy is constantly born anew”. Every year we experience this expectant time again, in which we go from dark to light. Towards joy.
At the same time we may perhaps consider Advent to be a metaphor for everyone who dedicates his or her life to the service of the Kingdom of God: sisters, brothers, monks and nuns lead a life of Advent. A life in hopeful and prophetic expectation of the encounter with Christ. A life on the way to the light. And therefore by definition a life of joy.
“Where there are consecrated religious, there is joy,” Pope Francis says in the preparatory texts for the Year of Consecrated Life that we open today. With that he does not mean, of course, that every religious per definition leads a joyful life. Because in a sense a consecrated life is choosing a voluntary martyrdom. Your choice for life in a religious community is a radical one. You deny yourselves much: married life, a family, a career in society. In some parts of the world religious even live in very difficult circumstances. These are certainly not to be envious about.
And yet they choose to continue that life. Because they want to life according to the Gospel with the people around them, and so manifest something of the coming joy of the Kingdom of God. I am grateful that there are always people, also in our part of the world, who decide to dedicate their life completely to God.
Our society doesn’t always understand this. Perhaps it can’t be understood when you are not looking forward to God in your own life. When you can’t live from the hope of the coming joy of the encounter with Christ. When you can’t live in Advent. That is why I have great respect for those who do make that choice. Especially for young people who today – against all trends – choose a life that is completely dedicated to God.
In the Gospel of today we are called to be vigilant. This can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. In the context of this celebration I would say: Let us be vigilant that we do not lose the charism of the religious life in our diocese and beyond. The Church needs religious. Throughout the centuries the renewal and the renewed evangelical zest has always been initiated out of religious movements. This will also have to happen now. Whether they will be new movements, foreign religious establishing themselves among us, or perhaps a revival of classical orders and congregations, that is something the future will show.
But it is our task together to create such a climate in which religious life remains possible. A climate in which people can choose a life in Advent, in imitation of Christ and towards the encounter with Him. I invite you to be open to initiatives which allow the joy of the Gospel to be constantly born anew, as the Pope says.
A logo has been designed for the Year of Consecrated Life which includes three words: Gospel – prophecy – hope. Life the Gospel, be prophetic and keep for us the hope, so that many will experience the hope you carry in your hearts. Amen.
+ Frans Wiertz
Bishop of Roermond”
Today all the affairs of our daily life, important or trivial, come to a stop. It is Good Friday, the day on which we return to the very heart of everything, our entire life and all the things that concern us.
We’ve all heard it before, the story of the agony in the garden, the arrest, the innocence and the death closing off this day. But it never gets old, and we must not pretend it does, even when it is sometimes hard.
In our lives there are good times and bad times. For all those experiencing difficulties of some sort, know that Christ is there with us, especially today. His agony, his pain is elevated by His intention to do what is right for us. Not for Him, but for us. Part of his pain and suffering are the problems we experience, whether they exist because of our own mistakes or because we are innocent victims of circumstance. The Lord is concerned with our plight, not with questions of guilt. Taking our pain on His shoulders, He merely looks us in the eye and tells us to sin no more (cf. John 8:11).
Today, in the Stations of the Cross and in the Service of the Passion of the Lord, our suffering becomes joy, even as we contemplate the death of Our Lord and Saviour. “Go, and sin no more” becomes a commandment that elevates His shameful death from pointless cruelty to saving grace. With Jesus, our old self dies, the self who suffered, who made mistakes, who caused others grief or who simply could not take things anymore. The Cross becomes the sign of this fundamental change: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world”, we hear the priest chant today.
Our faith is not a depressing faith, or one which reminds us of all the things we do wrong, or how unworthy of everything we are. As Pope Francis reminded us recently, ours is a joyful faith. And even the events we remember and experience anew today move us further along the road to joy.
“Go and sin no more”.
Christ took the first steps. Let us follow.
“Somehow we have to recapture the notion that the Church isn’t primarily about running institutions or winning political debates. It’s about reaching deep inside the human heart and stirring what’s best in it, and then boldly going out into the world and insisting that the better angels of our nature can prevail, that cynicism and ego don’t have to be the last word about the kind of culture we pass on to our children, and that the Church is an ally in every positive stirring and hopeful current in that culture. That’s a vision worth devoting one’s life to, and if that’s not affirmative orthodoxy, what is?”
Timothy Cardinal Dolan,
from A People of Hope: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation With John L. Allen Jr.
It’s strange and sad that we find it so hard to be faithful Catholics – faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church – without descending into arguments and disagreements. Apparently, it is often easier to pillory a person that we disagree with, be there a good reason or not, instead of communicating our disagreements in accordance with the joy that our faith calls for. But that’s also understandable: it is, after all, something very personal. Faith is, by definition. If someone then says or writes something that we think is in error, we feel the natural urge to correct them.
But what would be the Catholic approach to this correcting and the debate that will follow? I think the answer to that question is ‘affirmative orthodoxy’. True to Our Lord and the Church, but in a positive way. John L. Allen Jr., in a 2009 column, defines it as follows: “No compromise on essential points of doctrine and discipline, but the most positive, upbeat presentation possible.”
Our message is a very joyful one. How can we not present it with a smile? When we engage other people, we do so out of love: Christ teaches us to work towards what’s best for others. His salvation is the best thing that has ever, and could ever happen to us. While our presentation should not be of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” kind, it should reflect the content of what we try to communicate.
Faith in God also entails faith in the people He created, and that faith should not be crushed underneath relentless attacks, insinuations and arguments, but should flourish as we are open, honest and loving. Does that mean we can’t disagree? Of course it doesn’t. Errors are there to be corrected, and we have a framework by which to determine what is error and what is not: the teachings that the Church communicates.
In the Gospel of Matthew we find what to do if someone does something wrong:
“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” [Matt. 18:15-17].
Our first recourse should never be to publicly pillory a person for the mistake he made. Instead, we must discuss it one-on-one with that person, and if need be with one or two others. Only then does the community of faithful come into view. This is the honest approach, and it fits in well with affirmative orthodoxy, for some errors are serious indeed, and should be treated as such, but they are never reason to disavow the person making them. Even gentiles and tax collectors are able to mend their ways. We are all evidence of that.
And, lastly, let’s not forget that we are equally prone to mistakes. What we consider I mistake may not turn out to be one upon closer consideration, just as our own understanding of what is correct must also be properly considered and understood.
In his annual World Youth Day message, celebrated on Palm Sunday, Pope Benedict delves into the topic of joy. It is, he says, not only a defining characteristic of our faith, but also an unavoidable consequence of our encounter with the Lord. In seven subsections, the Holy Father, pictured here with children during his visit to Mexico, discusses the nature of our joy and how young people can find it, make it last and hand it on to the people around them.
“Christianity is sometimes depicted as a way of life that stifles our freedom and goes against our desires for happiness and joy. But this is far from the truth. Christians are men and women who are truly happy because they know that they are not alone. They know that God is always holding them in his hands. It is up to you, young followers of Christ, to show the world that faith brings happiness and a joy which is true, full and enduring. If the way Christians live at times appears dull and boring, you should be the first to show the joyful and happy side of faith. The Gospel is the “good news” that God loves us and that each of us is important to him. Show the world that this is true!”
Read the official text via the link above, or my Dutch translation here.
Photo credit: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images