Answering like Mary – Cardinal De Kesel upon taking possession of his title church

On Saturday, the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, Cardinal Jozef De Kesel was in Rome, to take possession of the title church granted to him upon his creation as cardinal. The Basilica do Santi Giovanni e Paolo al Celio, its full title, in the heart of Rome, is an ancient church, a cardinal title since the sixth century, and previously held by no less than six future popes. Cardinal De Kesel devoted his homily to the question of how and why God loves us and what that means for us. The Dutch text linked to above is sprinkled with Italian quotations from Scripture, and I have copied these unchanged in my English translation below. The general gist of it should be clear enough.

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“Good friends, no one has ever seen God. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel of John states this. God resides in inaccessible light. He does not belong to this created world. He is invisible, ineffable. He transcends everything that exists. But Scripture also tells us that He has wanted to be known. That He came to us to live among us. What’s more: to belong completely to us and share our existence. It is the point of today’s feast. He has asked Mary if she was willing to become the mother of His Son. We praise her today with the entire Church for having answered, “Avvenga per me secondo la tua parola”.

Why does God wish to reside among us? Of course, we humans also search the proximity of others. We search for support and a sense of security. No man lives for himself alone. We can’t do without others. But He is God, not a man. What, then, has He seen in us? Why does He want to be with us? What can He find with us that He doesn’t already have? And why did He choose to become like us? Scripture says that the reason is that He loves us, that we people and this creation are worth everything to Him. Out of love: that is indeed the only answer. But it doesn’t explain anything. It only invites the other question: why does He love like this? There is no answer to that question. It remains the mystery of His love. That is how God wants to be: not for Himself, but for us. That is the mystery of which Paul says that it was hidden in eternity, but has now been revealed in the incarnation of God’s Son.

It is striking in the story of the Annunciation that God does not impose Himself, He does not force, He does not want to act without man’s cooperation. He calls Mary, invites her, asks her. As is written so beautifully in the book of the Apocalypse, “Ecco, sto alla porta e busso. Se uno ascolta la mia voce e mi apre, io verro da lui.”  That is what happened with Mary: she heard God’s voice, she opened the door, and the Lord entered That is powerlessness of love. It has to knock and wait until the door is opened. Without man’s yes God remains powerless. But when man answers, everything becomes possible.

Jesus was once told that his mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside and wished to speak with Him. He then pointed to His disciples and said, “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. It is exactly what Mary did: she heard God’s word and acted accordingly. With her great faith, she not only received her Son in her body, but also in her heart.

But not everything was self-evident for her. She is greeted with those beautiful words we still express in the liturgy: “Il Signore è con te”.  That is the mystery of God’s love: that He wants to be there for us That is not self-evident. Not for us, and neither for me: those words frighten her. The angel puts her at ease: do not be afraid. And he also says why: You have found favour with God. Everything that God will ask her will be nothing but a sign of His great love. And when she is told that she will bear a Son, she still ask questions. How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? Only when she hears that that too will be the work of God’s grace does she speak her yes: May it be done to me according to your word. She did not immediately say yes, did not answer lightly. Her yes was conscious and free.

Friends, Mary is the image of the Church. We are called to do what she has done. “Mia madre e i miei fratelli sono coloro che ascoltano la parola di Dio e la mettono in pratica”. Today, too, He stands at the door and He knocks. It is the vocation of the Church and every one of us to answer, consciously and free, in word and action. That is also not self-evident for us, not without questions. We no longer live in a world and society where the Christian faith is commonplace. Modern society is increasingly characterised by secularism and pluralism. But in this society we are also called to be witnesses of God’s love. It is no wonder that we sometimes fearfully wonder, “Come avverrà questo, poiché non conosco uomo?” But the same message is addressed to the Church today, in the midst of all the questions and challenges: “non temere“. She is also told, “Hai trovato grazia presso Dio“. And she is also and always overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

Friends, let us celebrate this feast of the Annunciation to Mary in great joy and gratitude. And also in hope and confidence. The Church is and remains called, not only to proclaim God’s word, but also to first hear it herself and act according to it. Let us be grateful for the way in which Pope Francis helps us to do so. Not a Church which closes itself off from the world and looks inwardly, but a Church which sympathises with the people, especially the poor or other victims of the globalisation of indifference. A Church that is close to people. That is precisely what we celebrate today: God who does not only want to be close to us, but even wanted to share our existence, human among humans.”

In the video, also shared by Kerknet, Cardinal De Kesel speaks about the purpose of cardinals having a title church, and also addresses the topic of his homily. Here, I share a translated transcript of his words on the first topic.

“You must known that the Pope is the local bishop of the city of Rome. He is not only the universal shepherd of the entire Church, but he is in the first place the bishop here, of his own community, of his own city. And originally, the cardinals are parish priests. That is to say, his immediate coworkers, with whom he built up the Christian community here in Rome. The College of Cardinals has of course become more international, but it has been held onto symbolically, that cardinals also always have a connection with the local church of Rome. And that is also an official title: one is a cardinal of the Roman church, not of the Roman Catholic, but of the church of Rome. And of course, that is a titular church now, as there is a parish priest here, this is a convent church, but they have wanted to symbolise the connection with the Pope, with the bishop of Rome.”

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^The coat of arms of Cardinal De Kesel adorns the facade of his title church.

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Lent reading schedule

lent_desktopIt’s almost Lent. Snuck up on you, didn’t it? But it’s true, Less than a week away the great time of fasting and penitence will begin and prepare us for Easter.

Time to plan ahead.

For this Lent and Holy Week I want to take the Gospel readings of every day and do some lectio divina with them, a spiritual reading. I’ll be posting the relevant passage every day (well, that’s the plan) and reflect on it. These reflections will be short, as lectio divina is by definition a personal exercise: we prayerfully read a Bible text for ourselves and are open to learn from it. The reflections are therefore what I take from the text: your experience may be a different one, but I hope that comparing what others learn with what you have learned can set you off on new avenues of thought, prayer and discovery.

For those who want to read and reflect in their own time, or if I am unable to post every day, here is a list of the Gospel reading of every day:

  • Wednesday 5 March (Ash Wednesday): Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
  • Thursday 6 March: Luke 9: 22-25
  • Friday 7 March: Matthew 9:14-15
  • Saturday 8 March: Luke 5:27-32
  • Sunday 9 March (First Sunday of Lent): Matthew 4:1-11
  • Monday 10 March: Matthew 25:31-46
  • Tuesday 11 March: Matthew 6:7-15
  • Wednesday 12 March: Luke 11:29-32
  • Thursday 13 March: Matthew 7:7-12
  • Friday 14 March: Matthew 5:20-26
  • Saturday 15 March: Matthew 5:43-48
  • Sunday 16 March (Second Sunday of Lent): Matthew 17:1-9
  • Monday 17 March: Luke 6:36-38
  • Tuesday 18 March: Matthew 23:1-12
  • Wednesday 19 March (Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary): Matthew 116, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2: 41-51a
  • Thursday 20 March: Luke 16:19-31
  • Friday 21 March: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
  • Saturday 22 March: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
  • Sunday 23 March (Third Sunday of Lent): John 4:5-42 or John 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42
  • Monday 24 March: Luke 4:24-30
  • Tuesday 25 March (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord): Luke 1:26-38
  • Wednesday 26 March: Matthew 5:17-19
  • Thursday 27 March: Luke 11:14-23
  • Friday 28 March: Mark 12:28-34
  • Saturday 29 March: Luke 18:9-14
  • Sunday 30 March (Fourth Sunday of Lent): John 9:1-41 or John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
  • Monday 31 March: John 4:43-54
  • Tuesday 1 April: John 5:1-16
  • Wednesday 2 April: John 5:17-30
  • Thursday 3 April: John 5:31-47
  • Friday 4 April: John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
  • Saturday 5 April: John 7:40-53
  • Sunday 6 April (Fifth Sunday of Lent): John 11:1-45 or John 11:3-7, 20-27, 33b-45
  • Monday 7 April: John 8:1-11
  • Tuesday 8 April: John 8:21-30
  • Wednesday 9 April: John 8:31-42
  • Thursday 10 April: John 8:51-59
  • Friday 11 April: John 10:31-42
  • Saturday 12 April: John 11:45-56
  • Sunday 13 April (Palm Sunday): Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
  • Monday 14 April: John 12:1-11
  • Tuesday 15 April: John 13:21-33, 36-38
  • Wednesday 16 April: Matthew 26:14-25
  • Thursday 17 April: John 13:1-15
  • Friday 18 April (Good Friday): John 18:1-19:42
  • Saturday 19 April (Holy Saturday): Matthew 28:1-10
  • Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday): John 20:1-9

It’s much, to be sure, but it is an investment that’s worth the effort. Lent is especially a time to return to the basis, to the Word, and allow the Lord to join us on our way.

In Namur, a new – and very young – basilica

On Thursday, the “upper church” of the Belgian Marian shrine at Beauraing was elevated to the dignity of basilica minor. The building, built in addition to the original chapel built on the site after the Blessed Virgin appeared there to five children in 1932 and 1933, will henceforth carry the name of Basilica of Our Lady with the Golden Heart.

The importance of Beauraing as one of Belgium’s most important pilgrimage sites was reflected by the fact that seven bishops concelebrated the Mass with Bishop Rémy Vancottem, the ordinary of the Diocese of Namur, in which Beauraing is located. They were Cardinal Godfried Danneels (em. archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels) and Bishops Pierre Warin (aux. Namur), Aloys Jousten (em. Liège), Guy Harpigny (Tournai), Antoon Hurkmans (‘s Hertogenbosch, Netherlands), Gérard Coliche (aux. Lille, France) and Pierre Raffin (Metz, France).

The new basilica is unique in several aspects. It is very young for a basilica, as it was consecrated only in 1960, and it stands out in its concrete barrenness. There are no decorations and statues (ony very subdued Stations of the Cross). The architect of the building wanted all attention to be on the altar.

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Evidently, the vitality of the devotion and the faith displayed here is strong enough to overrule the other unofficial requirements for a minor basilica: that it be of a certain age (usually understood to be in the range of centuries) and of an outstanding beauty.

Our Lady with the Golden Heart is the 28th minor basilica in Belgium, and the fourth in the Diocese of Namur.

Bishop Vancottem’s homily follows in my English translation below:

vancottem beauraingIt is with joy that we are gathered in this in this upper church of the shrine of Beauraing, which was elevated to the status of basilica today.

When Mary appears to the children of Beauraing, it sometimes happens that she says nothing; but it is her attitude and her gestures that speak. Her smile. The arms that are opened. And how can we not be touched when she shows us her heart, as a heart of gold? A mother’s heart which is an expression of the tenderness and the love of the heart of God. A golden heart which reflects all the love of Jesus – Jesus, who, as the mouthpiece of God’s love for all people, goes to the extreme by dying on a cross -, and so one couldn’t give this basilica a better name than that of Our Lady with the Golden Heart. With this, the basilica does not replace the chapel that Mary requested from the children. In a sense, it is an extension of it, and an invitation to answer increasingly better to that other wish of Mary’s to come a pilgrimage here.

In the Gospel of the Annunciation we have just heard Mary pronouncing her “yes” to God. The Gospel ends with these words: “And the angel left her”, which indicates that Mary, according to the Gospel, received no further special revelations. She continued “her pilgrimage of faith” through the dark moments and hardships of life. “[T]he Blessed Virgin,” the Council states, “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross” (Lumen Gentium, 58).

For us, who are still on or pilgrimage in a world where our faith is often tested, the faith of Mary is an example. What was announced by the angel is impossible, humanly speaking. And yet the answer of Mary is a simple and clear: “You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said”. Mary trusts the Word of God and devotes her entire life to the service of the “Son of God”. This is typical of the “Gospel image” of the Virgin Mary: Her initial “yes” will develop into lifelong loyalty.

  • At the moment of her Son’s birth, faith was needed to recognise the promised Saviour in this child of Bethlehem.
  • Of the many years of Jesus of Nazareth’s hidden life, the Evangelists only remembered the moment when Jesus was found in the temple. That was a moment of darkness in Mary’s faith. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”, Jesus tells His parents. But, the Gospel adds, “they did not understand what he meant. … His mother stored up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2: 48-51).
  • Mary suffers the most radical test at the foot of the cross. She stands there, and it is there that she becomes the Mother of all the faithful. It is there that she receives her mother’s heart. It is there that we understand that we can entrust ourselves to her motherly protection.

How important it is to discover the mother of God. Our mother began her journey in faith, like us her children, through dark moments and the tests of life. Her “pilgrimage” is also ours. The “yes” of the Annunciation led Mary to the foot of the cross. But the cross has become a Glorious Cross, an elevated cross. The cross leads to the shining light of the resurrection.

Coming to Beauraing on pilgrimage, we meet Mary, but only to let her lead us to her Son. “Do you love my Son?” she asks. “Do you love me?””Pray, pray often, pray always.”

In this Year of Faith, in the heart of this Eucharist, she achieves for us, through her prayer, that we advance in faith in Jesus, her Son, died and risen, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

“Oh Mary, teach us to weather the tribulations of life, to utter a yes to God without equivocating, as you did at the Annunciation by the angel. Be our guide on the way that leads to God, through our yes that we repeat every day.”

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The coming pastoral year will be especially dedicated to catechesis. The Catechesis Commission of the Bishops’ Conference will issue a document in early September about the pastoral course concerning the sacraments of Christian initiation. We will have the opportunity to discuss that further later.

I wish you all a good start of the pastoral year!

Photo credit: [1] Notre-Dame de Beauraing, [2] Tommy Scholtes

‘The Lord will give you a sign’

‘The Annunciation’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

Yahweh spoke to Ahaz again and said: ‘Ask Yahweh your God for a sign, either in the depths of Sheol or in the heights above.’
But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask. I will not put Yahweh to the test.’
He then said: ‘Listen now, House of David: are you not satisfied with trying human patience that you should try my God’s patience too? The Lord will give you a sign in any case: It is this: the young woman is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel.’

Isaiah 7:10-14

Magnificat anima mea Dominum
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillæ suæ: ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est, et sanctum nomen eius.
Et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in bracchio suo, dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis et divites dimisit inanes,
Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiæ suæ,
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros, Abraham et semini eius in sæcula.

A foretaste of Christmas in Lent

The Annunciation by Luca Giordano, 1672

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour! The Lord is with you.’
She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’
Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. And I tell you this too: your cousin Elizabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.’
Mary said, ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said.’ And the angel left her.
(Luke 1, 2-38)

Today, nine months before Christmas, we celebrate the Annunciation, the announcement to the Virgin mary that she would be the mother of God’s Son. This is how our salvation begins, in the simple faithful ‘yes’ of a young woman in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. Her faith in God Who grants her this great privilege is an example to us all. The Blessed Virgin Mary is the first among the followers of Christ, and the first intercessor for us with Christ.