Monthly Archives: February 2016

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The Merciful Chair of St. Peter

The Second Vatican Council taught clearly about the authority of the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter. It is easy to misinterpret this power, given to one man, in purely secular terms, and to fear the damage he could do. With the help of Sacred Scripture and the reflections of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) , G.K. Chesterton, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Pope Francis, however, we will see that papal primacy and the celebration of this mystery on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, are truly mysteries of God's boundless mercy.

Petrine primacy

In the Second Vatican Council's great teaching on the Church, with the Latin title Lumen Gentium, we get a clear presentation of the power entrusted to the Pope:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. … But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. (Lumen Gentium #22)

Scriptural witnesses

The language of the Church in the Second Vatican Council including “primacy” and “full, supreme and universal power” developed its precision over time as it was elaborated throughout the history of the Church, but it finds its origin in the words spoken by Jesus to Peter in Sacred Scripture, “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” (John 21:15,16,17) and “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) We can look also to the affirmations of St. Paul who went specifically to Peter (Cephas) to confer with him on disputed points in the faith (Gal 1:18) and testifies that he did it specifically so that he “might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (Gal 2:2) It is also Peter who is identified by St. Paul as the first witness of the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7) and in lists which vary in many details, Peter is named first in every listing of the twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13). Finally, the most well known passage, which is also the Gospel for the Mass for the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, states persuasively, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

Peter's weakness

In reflecting on all these texts, however, we cannot take a triumphalist approach to Petrine primacy, because another point emerges more strongly–the mercy of God. Each scriptural affirmation of Jesus's choice of St. Peter to lead the Apostles and the Church is accompanied by an acknowledgement of Peter's weakness and failure. The commission from John 21 is interspersed with a threefold recognition of Peter's threefold betrayal. The call that Jesus gives to Peter in Luke 22 will take effect after Peter's recovery from his denial. When St. Paul affirms the role of Peter as a criterion for the authenticity of the Gospel in Galatians 1, he also recognizes the personal failure of Peter in Galatians 2:14. Finally, in the context of the power entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16, we find Peter chastised by Jesus immediately afterwards for being a stumbling block and failing to think as God does (Matthew 18:23).

Observations of Ratzinger, Chesterton, Sheen and Pope Francis

In light of these Scriptures, which Cardinal Ratzinger interpreted more carefully and thoroughly in the book Called to Communion, he concluded that Petrine primacy is really a doctrine of mercy. The choice of Peter, in the face of his profound weakness, shows that the Church is built on the rock of mercy and forgiveness:

This seems to me to be a cardinal point. At the inmost core of the new commission which robs the forces of the destruction of their power is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded on forgiveness. Peter himself is a personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon. The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality: she [the Church] is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness. Behind the talk of authority, God's power appears as mercy and thus as the foundation stone of the Church; in the background we hear the word of the Lord: “It is not the healthy who have need of the physician, but those who are ill; I have not come to all the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) (Called to Communion, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger)

Saint Paul expresses this principle clearly, sharing it from his own experience and relating the words of Jesus to him, “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) He firmly embraces the same mystery that is manifested in Peter, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” As Cardinal Ratzinger identified, the “Church is founded on forgiveness…she is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness.”

G.K. Chesterton expressed the same truth in his own unique way, touched with humor, pointing out that by founding the Church on the weakness of Peter, Jesus subverted the wisdom of the world and according to the mystery of divine wisdom thus prevented the Church from suffering the ultimate collapse that worldly wisdom is subject to:

The thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man—the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link. —G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

The great televangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen expressed it similarly, but in his own characteristic, poetic simplicity, “No chain is stronger than its weakest link, and the weakest link of the chain of Popes was the first. But that weak link was held in the hands of Christ. That is why the papacy will never fail.” (Quoted in Through the Year with Fulton Sheen)

Pope Francis reiterated this theme on the Feast of the Chair of St Peter in 2016 as he celebrated the Jubilee for the Roman Curia. He reminded those who support him in exercising St Peter's merciful power, that that power was originally and is still entrusted to weak and fallen men who are, therefore, in an even better position to seek out the lost, heal the sick and raise up their brothers from their sins:

Pastors, above all, are required to have as their model God Himself, who cares for His flock. The Prophet Ezekiel described God’s way of acting: He goes out in search of the lost sheep; He leads back the lost to the fold; He bandages the wounded and cares for the sick (34:16). A behavior that is a sign of a love that knows no bounds. It is a faithful, constant, unconditional dedication, that His mercy might reach all those who are weakest. And nevertheless, we must not forget that the prophecy of Ezekiel starts from the observation of the failures of the shepherds of Israel. (Pope Francis, homily, Chair of St Peter, translation by WAOB®)

Power Made Perfect in Weakness

From this vantage point we can revisit the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and see how the weakest man is placed in the center so that he can be a point of unity for all. “The Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful.” (Lumen Gentium #24) After all, one thing that we all share is weakness and sin. Few are strong and none are sinless, so it makes divine sense that the principle of unity and cornerstone of the Church should be one who is deeply aware of his need for mercy so that the mercy of God can shine brightly through him. “Power is made perfect in weakness.”

 

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Fasting is Romantic

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” These are among the words of Matthew’s Gospel that welcome us into Lent on Ash Wednesday. We are told to fast and not look gloomy, but why not? After all, don’t we feel gloomy? Hungry, a little weak, maybe a headache coming on and we have a lot of work to do and we are not sure if we are going to hold out the rest of the day without any food. We are not sure if this might be ruining our health and we don’t like it when our stomach is growling. Looking gloomy would seem to be simply honest. What is the point of fasting anyway?

In his 6th century Rule, St. Benedict teaches us that there is a connection between fasting and chastity. In his lengthy 4th chapter on the Tools for Good Works, St. Benedict instructs the monk “to love” only two of the tools: “to love chastity” and “to love fasting.” This follows the already centuries-old tradition of monastic wisdom regarding the interrelation of sense-desires, the desires that St. Thomas calls (and Blessed John Paul II refers to in ToB audience #54) the concupiscible appetites. Based on this connection we can draw some insight on fasting from St. John Paul II’s teaching in the Theology of the Body about chastity.

In Audience #54, St. John Paul II notes that chastity has a negative aspect: to master and overcome the “lustful passions.” This is an exercise of the virtue of temperance and is part of the path to purity. At the same time, St. John Paul II explains the teaching of St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, noting that, “[t]he task of purity emphasized by the author of the letter is not only (and not so much) abstaining from ‘unchastity’ and from what leads to it, that is, abstaining from ‘lustful passions,’ but, at the same time, keeping one’s body, and indirectly that of the other, in ‘holiness and reverence.'” In short, St. John Paul II couples the negative “abstinence” with the positive “reverence” for the body. He couples the exterior negative self-denial with the interior positive attitude of reverence for the body that leads to purity of heart.

In fasting, also, we have a negative, self-denial of a sense-desire, a concupiscible appetite. At the same time (if we do not want to look gloomy) there must be a positive affirmation, a positive interior movement towards reverence for the body, holiness, and love. The key for this is given in Luke 5:35 where Jesus tells us, “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Jesus connects the practice of fasting with love for the bridegroom. The desire for food becomes a desire for union with Christ–an attitude the Church has maintained from the earliest days. Indeed, the only current daily fast in the Roman Catholic Church is the fast before Holy Communion. We learn to relate the hunger pangs of empty stomachs with a preparation for Communion with Jesus Christ, the Divine Bridegroom. Fasting, like chastity, becomes a reverence for the Body. In short, given the motivation Jesus provides, in which fasting (like chastity) is an expression of longing and a preparation of the body for the Body of the Bridegroom, we might even say, “fasting is romantic.” In this light, we can better see how St. Benedict can encourage his monks “to love fasting” (and “to love chastity”) and we can see how Jesus can tell us not to look gloomy. Our growling stomachs are calling to us, “The Bridegroom is near! Let us go out to meet Him!”

This article was originally written for the Theology of the Body Institute e-newsletter.

Here is a homily I preached for the Franciscan TOR Sisters that expands on this topic:

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The Importance of Mary’s Body in Our Faith

One week before the beginning of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI made a pilgrimage to the shrine of our Lady, her Holy House in Loreto, Italy. He did this to entrust the Year of Faith to her intercession. This physical gesture of pilgrimage and prayer (he even lit a candle!) incarnated his words at the end of his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the indiction of the Year of Faith, “Let us entrust this time of grace to the Mother of God, proclaimed ‘blessed because she believed’ (Lk 1:45).” But, stepping back, we might ask, “Why Mary? Why Loreto?” Before answering those questions, first we should ask, “What is the goal of the Year of Faith?”

Pope Benedict writes in Porta Fidei, “The Year of Faith…is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world.” A “renewed conversion to the Lord” means turning away from lies and turning towards the Truth. The lies entice us to reduce ourselves, our future, our hope to something much less than God has made us to be. So, if I might paraphrase, during this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict wants us to rediscover who God is and, in light of that, to rediscover the greatness of who we are made to be, the greatness of our destiny, and then, in faith, to take a step in that direction.

With this in mind, we can understand the importance of Mary for the Year of Faith. In her, we come to a clearer vision of God, a clearer vision of God’s love for us, and a discovery of the true greatness of our human nature, a discovery of what we are called to, a discovery of our destiny. Furthermore, we can learn from Mary how to take a step away from the reduced vision of the human person offered to us by the world and a step towards embracing the greatness of the human person revealed by God in Jesus Christ.

Let us see how Pope Benedict explains this in his homily from Mass celebrated a week before the Year of Faith at the Holy House in Loreto. Please allow me to quote at length before reflecting on the Holy Father’s words:

Mary offered her very body; she placed her entire being at the disposal of God’s will, becoming the “place” of his presence, a “place” of dwelling for the Son of God. We are reminded here of the words of the Psalm with which, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ began his earthly life, saying to the Father, “Sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but you have prepared a body for me… Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (10:5,7). To the Angel who reveals God’s plan for her, Mary replies in similar words: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). The will of Mary coincides with the will of the Son in the Father’s unique project of love and, in her, heaven and earth are united, God the Creator is united to his creature. God becomes man, and Mary becomes a “living house” for the Lord, a temple where the Most High dwells. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012

Pope Benedict explains to us that Mary’s very body became the meeting place of heaven and earth, the place where the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, a “living house” for the Lord. What we discover in Mary, then, is the great dignity of the human being. No other creature, not even the angels, can be a dwelling place of God—only human beings, only the human body can be a living house for the Lord. We can have heaven within us.

What a different vision of the human person this is in comparison to what the world offers. We are not just a cog in the wheel of production. We are not merely consumers, who can be manipulated by advertising and enslaved by our appetites. We are not the servants of science on a path to world domination. We cannot be reduced to the sum of our failures, nor to the sum of our successes. Our life is not valuable only in so far as we have possessions, power, and pleasure in this world. Our life is valuable because we are made to be the living house of God. From the unborn child to the terminally ill, from the severely mentally challenged to the most brilliant genius, from the quadriplegic to the Olympic athlete, every human being is made, like our Lady, to be the meeting place of heaven and earth. That is what defines us.

Unfortunately, this destiny cannot be realized unless we are willing to be open to the Lord. God is willing—that is the source of our dignity—but are we willing? What is holding us back? The problem is that we are blinded by a lie, corrupted by a poison that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. We always knew that we were made for heaven, made to be filled with God, made to be like God, but, at the serpent’s urging, we go about it in the wrong way. Hearkening back to the passage of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, Pope Benedict summarizes, “What picture does this passage show us? The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.” Homily from December 8, 2005

When we allow this poison to take hold in our hearts and we see God as a rival, then His commandments become a threat, a plot to steal our freedom, a plot to take away the fun in life. Suspicious of God, we carve out a part of our life and keep it away from Him. This attitude, in the modern day, leads to the cry to keep God out of the bedroom or to keep God out of politics. In whatever area of life that we try to keep God away from, it is because we do not trust Him to bless that part of our life, to fill it with heaven. We think that only when we are in control, when we are free to do whatever we want, that our life will be filled with heaven.

What we discover, however, is that when we keep God out by insisting on control, we also keep love out. Love does not exist in an environment of control, but in an environment of openness and trust. Pope Benedict says, “it is precisely God who liberates our liberty, he frees it from being closed in on itself, from the thirst for power, possessions, and domination; he opens it up to the dimension which completely fulfils it: the gift of self, of love, which in turn becomes service and sharing.” Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012 Being closed in on ourselves, being in control through power, possessions and domination is not heaven. To the contrary, it is a radical isolation, being locked up entirely in ourselves. It is hell! Only God draws us out of ourselves to become the gift of love we were made to be.

In this light we see the wisdom of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, “man… cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (#24) We are filled with heaven when we make a gift of ourselves. In this, and so many other teachings of the Second Vatican Council, we see that Blessed John XXIII’s prayer to the Virgin of Loreto was answered: “Here at Loreto fifty years ago, Blessed John XXIII issued an invitation to contemplate this mystery, to ‘reflect on that union of heaven and earth, which is the purpose of the Incarnation and Redemption,’ and he went on to affirm that the aim of the Council itself was to spread ever wider the beneficent impact of the Incarnation and Redemption on all spheres of life.” Pope Benedict XVI’s Homily from Loreto, October 4, 2012

At the heart of the Year of Faith is this rediscovery of who we are, in light of the Incarnation and Redemption. Our bodies are made to be the meeting place of heaven and earth, living houses of God. Our task for the Year of Faith is first to believe this and then to let this truth reach into every corner of our lives until we experience a total conversion to the Lord. We look to Mary for this, as Pope Benedict said in Loreto, “As we contemplate Mary, we must ask if we too wish to be open to the Lord, if we wish to offer our life as his dwelling place; or if we are afraid that the presence of God may somehow place limits on our freedom, if we wish to set aside a part of our life in such a way that it belongs only to us.”

Concretely, in this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict is asking us to look back to those seminal teachings in Vatican II where we can learn who God is and who we are. He directs us also to the Catechism which is, as he says, one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council. Furthermore, as a daily practice we are encouraged to take up the Creed as part of our daily prayer. We can remember that the interpretive key for all that teaching is the fundamental truth that God has made us to be His dwelling place and He wants to fill us with heaven.

In this article, we have allowed the mystery of the Annunciation to shine light on the Year of Faith. It would take another article to see how Mary guides us in the other dimension of the Year of Faith—in light of the mystery of the Visitation. Having been filled with God in the Annunciation, it is in the Visitation that Mary brought Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth, and by extension, to all who are in need. This follows the impulse of the New Evangelization, noted by Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei: “Caritas Christi urget nos.” (2 Cor 5:14) The Love of Christ impels us to share this gift of faith with others, to counteract the lie that self-sufficiency is heaven, and to open the heart of each person to be, like the womb of the Virgin Mary, filled with heaven.

To return to the question stated above, then, we can see now how important our Lady is. Heaven and earth come together in her and she teaches us how to be her little children, little Mary’s, such that heaven and earth can also come together in our bodies. With her faith in our hearts, heaven and earth come together in us. Let us conclude with Pope Benedict’s own prayer from the end of his homily in Loreto, “Mother of the ‘yes’, you who heard Jesus, speak to us of him; tell us of your journey, that we may follow him on the path of faith; help us to proclaim him, that each person may welcome him and become the dwelling place of God. Amen!”

(Published originally in the Theology of the Body Institute online newsletter October 25, 2012)