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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“Let it happen to me as you have said”

Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 26 to 38

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.

Art credit: ‘The Annunciation’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

Christmas meditations: “The Lord has done this for me”

In the home stretch towards Christmas, as faithful across the globe will gather for midnight Masses tonight, let’s return to the extraordinary narrative of tomorrow’s feast. Over the course of the day I will simply share passages from the Gospel of Luke. Read them think on them, and open your heart for the coming of the Son. Jesus Christ came not only those many centuries ago in Bethlehem, but every day in the hearts of those who welcome Him.

Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 5 to 25:

vision of zachariasIn the days of King Herod of Judaea there lived a priest called Zechariah who belonged to the Abijah section of the priesthood, and he had a wife, Elizabeth by name, who was a descendant of Aaron. Both were upright in the sight of God and impeccably carried out all the commandments and observances of the Lord. But they were childless: Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in years.

Now it happened that it was the turn of his section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there.

And at the hour of incense all the people were outside, praying. Then there appeared to him the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him,

“Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink; even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the Israelites to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him to reconcile fathers to their children and the disobedient to the good sense of the upright, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. Look! Since you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were surprised that he stayed in the sanctuary so long. When he came out he could not speak to them, and they realised that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. But he could only make signs to them and remained dumb. When his time of service came to an end he returned home.

Some time later his wife Elizabeth conceived and for five months she kept to herself, saying, “The Lord has done this for me, now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered in public.”

Art credit: The Vision of Zacharias, James Tissot, 1886-1894

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.