Sharing Christ in freedom – Pope Francis to 50,000 altar servers

They were 50,000 strong, coming from 26 dioceses in Germany and beyond, filling all of St. Peter’s Square for an encounter with Pope Francis yesterday. Young altar servers, accompanied by some of their bishops, on a pilgrimage to Rome. To their great surprise Pope Francis addressed them in German. In my translation:

“The words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we heard, make us sit up and listen. The time is right, Paul says. God is serious now. What God has always told the people through the prophets He now shows us with a striking example. God explains us that He is a good father. And how does He do so? By the fact that He made His Son man. Through this concrete human being Jesus we can understand what God really means. He wants human beings, who are free but know themselves always to be secure as children of a good father.

To release this, God needs only a man. He needs a woman, a mother, to bring His Son into the world as a human being. That is the Virgin Mary, whom we honour with these Vespers tonight. She was completely free. In her freedom she has said yes. She has done what is good for all time. That is how she has served God and the people. Let’s keep her example in mind when we want to know what God expects from us as His children.”

pope francis altar servers

After the Vespers, four altar servers asked questions to Pope Francis. The first question was about how young people could play a bigger part in the life of the Church, as suggested by the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium, and also what the Church expects from altar servers? The second server asked for advice in how to respond to friends who do not understand why anyone would want to be an altar server at the expense of other passtimes. Question three dealt with freedom, and how to experience, understand it in a life which has so many rules.

Pope Francis answered:

pope francis“Dear servers,

I thank you for this encounter on the occasion of your pilgrimage to Rome and I want to give you some food for thought related to the questions that your representatives have asked me.

You have asked me what you can do to  contribute more in the Church and what the Christian community expects from you as altar servers. Let’s first remember that the world needs people who attest to others that God loves us and that He is our father. Everyone in society has the obligation to serve the common good by contributing to what is essential: food, clothing, medical care, education, information, the legal system, and so on. As disciples of the Lord we have an additional task, namely to be the “channels”, the lines which pass the love of Jesus on to others. And in this duty you, youth and young adults, have a special role: You are called to tell your contemporaries about Jesus – not just in the parishes or organisations, but especially outside them. That is a task which has been especially entrusted to you, because with your courage, your enthusiasm, your spontaneity and your sociability  it is easier to reach the thoughts and hearts of those who have drifted away from the Lord. Many people of your age have an enormous desire for someone who tells them, with their lives, that Jesus knows us, loves us, forgives us, shares our problems and supports us with His mercy.

But in order to speak with others about Jesus, we must known and love Him, experience Him in prayer and in His Word. You have the advantage in that respect, because of your service in the liturgy, which allows you to be near to Jesus, the Word and the Bread of Life. Let me give you some advice: The Gospel reading you hear in the liturgy, read it again for yourselves, in silence, and apply it to your lives. And with the love of Christ, which you have received in Holy Communion, you will be able to put it into practice. The Lord calls each of you today to work in His field. He calls you to be happy players in His Church, willing to share with your friends what He has shared with your, especially His mercy.

I understand your problems of combining your service at the altar with your other activities, which are necessary for your human development and cultural formation. So you must organise a bit, plan things in a balanced way… but you are German, so that should be easy! Our life consists of time, and that time is a gift from God, so it must be used for good and fruitful things. Perhaps many young people waste too many hours with useless things: chatting on the Internet or on your mobile phone, but also with television programs. The products of technological progress, which should simplify life or increase its quality, are sometimes distractions from what is really important. Among the many things which are part of our daily routine, those that remind us of our Creator, who gives us life, who loves us and accompanies us on our journey through life, should have priority.

Because God has created us in His image we have also received from Him this great gift of freedom. But when we don’t use this freedom properly it can move us away from God, can let us lose that dignity which He has given us. That is why guidance, rules and regulations are necessary – both in society and also in the Church – to help us do the will of God and to live in this way according to our dignity as human beings and children of God. When freedom is not influenced by the Gospel it can turn into slavery, the slavery of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, moved away from the will of God and so fell into sin, and also into a bad use of freedom. Dear young friends, do not use your freedom wrongly! Do not waste your great dignity as children of God, which has been given to you. When you follow Jesus and His Gospel, your freedom will bloom like a flower and bear good and rich fruits. You will find true joy, since God wants us to be completely happy and fulfilled. Only when we immerse ourselves in the will of God, we can do what is good and be both the light of the world and the salt of the earth!

The Virgin Mary, who understood herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), is your example in the service of God. She, our mother, will help you, young people full of hope and courage, to be workers for good and labourers for peace in the Church and in society.”

Easter message – Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki

Marking Easter – which is more than just one day – I want to share some of the messages that our bishops have given for the Feast of the Resurrection. First is the archbishop of Berlin, Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki, who speaks about how the hope of Easter opens us up to Christ, every day anew, so that we can help others to also meet Christ.

Rainer Maria Kardinal Woelki, Erzbischof von Berlin“”He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would” (Matt. 28:6). The angels’ Easter message is not only directed to the women at the empty tomb, but also directly to us. Full of joy we join in with the Alleluiah of Easter. At the same time, many people have difficulties believing in the Resurrection, which makes me think.

Easter brought something new into the world: a hope which tells us, over the power of death: “For this is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Joh. 3:16). Easter is the answer of the Christian faith to the provocation of death.We are called to life in unity with the living Lord, we are called to eternal life. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminded us of this: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (EG 7)*. It is the encounter with Jesus Christ as the risen and the living. Scripture tells us of these encounters of people with the Risen: Jesus Christ is risen, He lives!

Only the Light “from Heaven” brightens our own life. Only the gaze “upwards” to Him opens up for us the meaning of all that Jesus Christ has done and said. His death on the cross seems to put into question his message and works. But through the Resurrection God the Father confirms the message and the work of His Son. The Resurrection, not death, is the final chapter of His and our life story.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!” (Joh. 20:29). This is verse from the Bible puts it succinctly: Whoever is open to the Easter message, in him it changes something. The Kingdom of God is near, and the promise is already active today. In the night before Easter this becomes visible when the Churches festively receives the catechumens. Through Baptism they arise into new life in Jesus Christ. The same is true for all of us, who are baptised and confirmed in His name. In Jesus we arise every new day to new life. And when we suffer some setback in our life, the hope of Easter give us the power to stand up anew every day.

In this way our own life becomes an answer to the questions of those who struggle with the message of Easter: Every Sunday, every day he can encounter the Risen One himself! In the Eucharist we meet the Risen One like the disciples met Him on the road to Emmaus. Similarly, we meet Him in prayer, where He listens to us and our concerns. And we meet Him in our neighbour, and vice versa: “It is no longer I, but Christ living in me” (Gal. 2:20). As easter people we are the “Light of the world”, the “Salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13-14), and we become signs of His salvation.

I wish you a happy and blessed Easter, Alleluiah!”

* Pope Francis quotes Pope emeritus Benedict XVI here

Original German text.

Eijk on Trent – Protestants feel insulted, but for the right reasons?

staatsieportret20kardinaal20eijkCardinal Eijk just can’t win. In an interview for the Reformatorisch Dagblad, which was published yesterday, he explained that the Council of Trent is still current. The statements of that Council, which aimed to put an end to certain practices which had caused the Reformation, but also wanted to emphasise the content of the faith and the consequences thereof in daily life for those who professed it, has not been scrapped in any way in the centuries after. What was said there still goes.

Protestant faith leaders in the Netherlands are none too happy with the cardinal’s clear and open explanation. The chair of the Protestant National Synod claimed that Cardinal Eijk “would give the faithful a burn-out some day”. “The claim that the church is always right is not in line with the Bible”, Gerrit de Fijter said. Well, that’s  right, if you have a Protestant understanding of what a church is. The Catholic definition of the Church, the body of Christ which enjoys the promised inspiration of the Holy Spirit, can make certain dogmatic statements (which is not the same as saying she’s always right…). Former head of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, Bas Plaisier (who himself is not too concerned with ecumenical respect for other churches) “does not understand what the cardinal is doing”, calling the statements “formal and hard”. Even Catholic professor Marcel Poorthuis had his reservations. While agreeing that Cardinal Eijk is correct in his statements about the Council and the heresies it addresses, he puts Pope emeritus Benedict XVI opposite to the cardinal, referring to the retired Pope’s statement that Martin Luther was a man of the Church. He even goes so far as to say that he expects Luther to be rehabilitated by the Church.

Cardinal Eijk called the Council of Trent a sign of the Catholic Church’s “capacity to purify herself” from errors and sinful practices. Examples of these are “the trade in offices, the unbiblical understanding of the priesthood en the lack of discipline in monasteries. In that regard, Trent has put things in order. The Council has also been very fruitful. When all the decrees had been implemented this led to a restoration of order in the Church.” The Council also delineated certain truths of the faith, which are still unchanged and valid.

The cardinal relates the anathemas that the Council issued to the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians, which says, “Anyone who preaches to you a gospel other than the one you were first given is to be under God’s curse” (1:9). “If someone does not share the faith of the Church in the Eucharist,” the cardinal explained, “he can’t receive it either. This curse or anathema essentially means you are blocked from receiving the sacraments, and in that sense it is still applicable.” But, the cardinal continues, these anathemas apply to people who refuse the truths of the Church “in full knowledge, aware of the truth and with free will”. “In a way that is a theoretical question. There are many people who have an incorrect image of the Catholic Church because they were raised that way, or they have another idea of God. You can not directly blame someone for that. You can therefore not understand the anathemas of Trent as being eternally damning for someone. God is the judge; you can and may not make that judgement as a human being.”

A clear explanation of what the Council taught about those who do not adhere to what they know to be the truth of the faith. Does this mean, as the critics I mentioned and quoted above assume, that modern Protestants are damned by the Catholic Church? No, it does not, because to be damned you must know and be aware that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and decide freely to not follow that truth. Clearly, that is not what most Protestants do: they do not believe that the Catholic Church teaches truth. If they did, why remain Protestant? Are they damned by the Council? No. Can they receive all the sacraments? Also no, but for different reason: the sacraments are also a profession of faith and an expression of the desire to belong to the community of faithful that is Christ’s Body. If you don’t share that faith, well…

Yes, all this may not be nice to hear, but it is certainly worthy of being taken seriously and read carefully before being commented on. But, seeing the cardinal as the big bully is perhaps the easier and more comfortable way…

In ecumenical relations with other church communities there is one thing that must always be at the centre: the truth. The truth that the Church, or any other community, claims, must not be hidden for the sake of “being nice to each other”. Cardinal Eijk’s explanation is not a nice one, but it is true. It is what the Catholic Church continues to profess and uphold as truth. Ecumenism is a good thing, but it can never be a reason to ignore who we are and what we hod to be true.

Afternoon reflection: Responsibility

We find the following reading in the Liturgy of the Hours at today’s None or afternoon prayer. It is not a very difficult or long text, but it does articulate what, in my opinion is a very important aspect of the relationship between God and people, especially in its day-to-day reality:

“God is not to be fooled; whatever someone sows, that is what he will reap. If his sowing is in the field of self-indulgence, then his harvest from it will be corruption; if his sowing is in the Spirit, then his harvest from the Spirit will be eternal life.”

Galatians 6:7b-8

The image that some people have of religious people – that they are somehow mindless followers of some ancient commandments – is disproven by this passage. I’ve said it before: God takes us seriously. He lets us take our own decisions since we are intelligent and independent beings. He also lets us take our responsibility; it’s not as if He steps in whenever we make some dumb or even dangerous decision. Why not? Because as intelligent and independent beings we can take our responsibility and be expected to think before we act. That means we can take credit for what we do, but also the blame for things that go wrong.

In the context of our relationship with God, this means that we are free in how we relate to Him. We are able to find our way in the world, but there are consequences to the choices we make. While we can choose to follow God or ignore Him, we must be aware of the consequences of each of these actions.

The passage above is not objective, of course. The author, St. Paul, does not pretend that he does not care what choice his audience makes. There are right and wrong choices, but we are free and able to make them, and God will never impose His will upon us.

Alive in Christ

In fact, through the Law I am dead to the Law so that I can be alive to God. I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me. The life that I am now living, subject to the limitation of human nature, I am living in faith, faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians 2: 19-20