Monthly Archives: March 2016


The Resurrection of the Body – more than the raising of Lazarus

[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out… (John 11:43b-44a)

What was Lazarus's experience? Why do we not hear a report about it? We are fascinated with “near-death” experiences (e.g. the recent book “Heaven is for Real” remained on the best seller list for over three years) and we have this feeling that if someone could scout ahead beyond the veil of death and come back to tell us about it, we would more easily believe (and more readily behave!). It is reminiscent of Israel's explorations of the land beyond the Jordan river, the Promised Land–we would like to send a Caleb or Joshua ahead of us to reconnoiter the land and come back to tell us what it is like. But Jesus assures us, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31b)

Perhaps this is why Scripture tells us practically nothing about Lazarus's experience of rising from the dead. It leaves us wondering, “What was it like?” It would be so interesting to know what his experience was…or would it? Perhaps we do not get more about Lazarus's experience of waking up and emerging from the tomb because it is simply a distraction. As Jesus reported in the parable of Lazarus (a different Lazarus) and the rich man, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” (Luke 16:29) Indeed, the law and the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles bring us closer to understanding the meaning of life (and eternal life) than someone who comes back from the dead (like Lazarus). How can this be?

Resurrection is more than a resuscitated corpse

Pope John Paul II explained this in the following way, “Eternal life should be understood in an eschatalogical sense, that is, as the full and perfect experience of the grace (charis) of God…” (TOB 67:5). Pope John Paul II clarified (in the same audience) that we already get a taste of this through faith, that this is an experience, “in which man can share through faith during his earthly life…” At the same time, we do not experience it fully, it will “only be revealed to those who will participate in the 'other world' in all its penetrating depth, [and] will also be experienced in its beatifying reality.” (TOB 67:5)

In order to participate “in all its penetrating depth” and experience this grace “in its beatifying reality,” we must be transformed in a way that is not only “by degree” but in a way that is “essential.” At the same time, we must be quick to clarify that this transformation does not involve any “disincarnation” or “dehumanization.” (TOB 67:2) Rather, there is a certain continuum between the human experience of this life, particularly the way that we are permeated by truth and love, and the divinized experience of the “other world.” (TOB 67:4) At the same time, our divinization in the “other world” is “incomparably superior to what can be reached in earthly life” (TOB 67:3).

The greatest mutation

Pope Benedict XVI tied all this together in an Easter Vigil homily when he called the resurrection “the greatest mutation”:

But somehow the Resurrection is situated so far beyond our horizon, so far outside all our experience that, returning to ourselves, we find ourselves continuing the argument of the disciples: Of what exactly does this 'rising' consist? What does it mean for us, for the whole world and the whole of history? A German theologian once said ironically that the miracle of a corpse returning to life – if it really happened, which he did not actually believe – would be ultimately irrelevant precisely because it would not concern us. In fact, if it were simply that somebody was once brought back to life, and no more than that, in what way should this concern us? But the point is that Christ’s Resurrection is something more, something different. If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest 'mutation', absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history. (April 15, 2006)

A glorified body

Pope John Paul II gave a thorough treatment of the resurrection of the body in his Theology of the Body discourses (TOB 64-72), but we will just give a hint of what he says about this experience. I will leave it to the reader to contrast this description of resurrection as a radically new step in life with Lazarus's experience of merely resuming this earthly life still headed towards his second death. Pope John Paul II described our resurrected life as being perfectly integrated, and “the powers of the spirit will permeate the energies of the body” (TOB 67:2). The “powers of the spirit” refer to things like the intellect and the will and the memory. That these powers will permeate the body means that we will have absolute control over our bodies to the most refined degree–having intelligent fingers, for example or eyes that can make their own choices. Furthermore, because our whole person will be taken up in receiving “God's most personal self-communication” (TOB 67:5) all of these powers will be oriented towards love. Our bodies will be a perfectly harmonized integration totally open and oriented to receiving God's love and through Him open to everyone else.

Whatever Lazarus's experience of life after death was, we can be sure it was not like that. From the experience of the resurrection of the body, there will be no turning back. In the Resurrection of Christ, we have a future that is unimaginably beautiful and therefore a hope that helps us to say with St Paul, “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…to know him and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8,10-11) And “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” (Romans 8:18)



Good Friday – A story of weakness

The story of mankind is a story about weakness. In the beginning man was weak. Satan tried to help man hide his weakness. First he convinced man he didn't have to be weak, “You can fix your weakness–just eat the fruit.” That didn't work! Now man was twice as weak, also feeling ashamed. “That's alright,” Satan continues to tempt, “just hide yourself. If no one sees your weakness there's nothing to be ashamed of and the shame will go away.” That still didn't work as God kept calling out, “Adam, where are you?” Soon after, man tried a third tactic–destroy the weakness. Cain killed Abel. That seemed more effective, except that feeling wouldn't go away and that voice kept following us saying, “Where is your brother?”

Satan wants us to hide our weakness–by fixing it, running away, or destroying it.

Ever since then we have been trying to hide our weakness. The Passion narrative we just heard repeats the old story about the many ways that we hide our weakness.

What are some of the ways?
Peter used boasting, “I will never leave you !”
And pride, “you won't wash my feet.”
Peter used a sword but everyone knows a bully is really just insecure, weak.
Then Peter resorted to lies, “I do not know the man.”

What do you use to cover up your weakness?

Some of them ran away. Some slept. We can become perfectionists and control freaks about things that don't matter–just to stay away from our weakness in things that do matter. Do you point out other people's weaknesses to take the attention off your own (like I'm doing right now!)? Do you create a big hysteria about nothing so people won't see what you feel is really wrong–that you are weak? Judas tried to make more money–you can cover up everything if you have enough money. Sometimes we are willing to admit we are weak…just as long as we have a chance to earn forgiveness first and distract people with our strength (so that we don't appear to be so we weak).

What's wrong with covering up my weakness? What else would I do with my weakness? Trust? But then that serpentine voice returns, saying “Be careful! You can't trust people too much. They let you down. You can't trust in obedience–you have to be realistic you know?? You can't trust your parents or your superiors or your brothers or sisters. They've already proven they will let you down. If you trust you just get hurt. Take the offensive instead. The best defense is a good offense. And you certainly can't trust God–He is Almighty. He doesn't understand weakness. He will reject your weakness.”

God responds to weakness with love

But Jesus pleads “I thirst!” He is so weak.

The Passion of Christ is God's response to our weakness. He embraces it by loving it, sharing it, supporting it–all the way to the end.

Weakness is not the ugly, horrible thing that needs to be hidden. Rather, the ugly horrible thing is the lack of trust that prevents our weakness from being loved. That's the ugly thing. Judas was not ugly so much for his betrayal but for his suicide. He chose to destroy his weakness rather than to let Jesus love it.

Trust means “to let Jesus love our weakness.”
Faith means “we believe He always will.”

Sometimes we think that everything depends on how well we love Him. But we fail to love Him so often. We fail to carry out our duty, we fail to love our neighbor. And when we try to love Him and we fail we just want it to go away. Sometimes we even just want God to go away so that we don't have to face our failure, our weakness.

Maybe there is a little feeling of relief after the Passion. We think, “Finally He's dead! That voice will finally stop calling out, “Where are you? Where is your brother?” Now I can just forget it. I can just cover up my shame with the latest trendiest animal skins and walk out of Paradise and forget the whole thing. I'll just make my way on my own. It was all a bit too idealistic anyway.”

And Jesus lets us walk away.

But as long as we eventually stop running, He will come to find us, showing up behind our locked doors and showing us He doesn't hate our weakness. He never did. “Peace be with you!” And He shows His wounds. He knows what it's like to be weak. He loves our weakness. He just wanted us to trust Him. To say to Him, “I'm sorry. I'm weak. I need your help.”

The path of Peter can become our path as well. Peter covered his weakness with lies when he was next to a charcoal fire. That charcoal fire appears again on the shore of Tiberius and Peter again has the opportunity to cover his weakness. But instead he chooses to be honest–not boasting, not proud, not lying. When Jesus asks, “Do you love me with a divine love (agape), Peter?” Peter responds humbly, “Lord you know everything. You know I love you with only a human (weak, imperfect) love.” Jesus accepts this and tells Peter, “'Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, 'Follow me.'” In other words, “You will become weaker and weaker, but you will let me be your strength. That will glorify me and it will perfect your love.”

God doesn't despise our weakness. He loves us and He loves our weakness. We don't need to cover it up. We just need to trust. To take the hand He reaches out to us and let Him pick us up again. He won't let us down. We can trust Him.
There is no weakness that He will not share.
There is no weakness that His strength will not support.
There is no weakness that He will not mercifully embrace.

Will we take the risk of trusting Him again? With all our hearts? Trusting Him enough
to expose our weakness, not hide it,
to give it to Him, not destroy it,
to let Him heal us, not just try to fix ourselves?

Jesus held on to our weakness all the way to the end. “It is finished.” He shows us that He identifies with our ultimate weakness, death, and He breathes His last. But it's not the end. If we choose to trust Him and let Him hold us, our weaknesses will be shining with glory.

Homily given at St Emma Benedictine monastery Good Friday 2014



For you? For some? For many? For all? Is Catholicism for everyone?

In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, we profess our belief each Sunday in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The word “catholic” in Greek means “universal”. Our initial impression, then, would be that the “Catholicism” is for everyone. There are some modern factors that cloud that impression, however. One confusing factor is the relativism that is so prevalent in our culture. One who ascribes to relativism believes there is no absolute and thus no universal (i.e. catholic) truth or morality and thus no universal religion. This might be expressed as, “Whatever you think is good and true–that is good and true for you. Whatever I think is good and true–that is good and true for me.” Another confusing factor has recently appeared in the heart of Catholic worship, in the Eucharist. For forty years the words of consecration, the very heart of the Eucharistic prayer, were translated into English as, “this is the cup of my Blood, which will be shed for you and for all…”. Now at Mass we hear, “this is the chalice of my Blood, which will be poured out for you and for many…”. Should we take from this change in the Eucharistic Prayer that the relativists are right, that Catholicism is not truly universal, but only good and true for some?

Pope Benedict's teaching on “pro multis”

Fortunately, Pope Benedict teaches us beautifully on this point. We will consider his explanation given in a letter to German-speaking bishops on April 14, 2012. The entire letter is beautiful, clear and worth reading. I would like to draw out a few points here that can help us in our understanding and living the Catholic faith.

Revelation always requires an interpeter

The first point is that the literal translation of the Latin pro multis is “for many”. Why then was it translated for so many years as “for all”? Pope Benedict explains that a style of translation was embraced after the Second Vatican Council that catered to a concern for the common person's understanding. The text, in Latin, had been remote from people's understanding, but if only presented in a direct translation, the implementors of the new liturgy feared the text would remain remote. Thus, to aid in the understanding of the liturgical prayer in modern languages, the translators incorporated interpretation into the translation. So, as an example, while it was not a problem that the words of consecration were pronounced in Latin as pro multis, there was a fear that if the words were translated directly into English as “for many” there would be a misunderstanding about the Church's theology. Instead of entrusting the task of interpretation to the Church's ministers (bishops, priests, catechists, parents), the decision was made to incorporate the interpretation into the translation.

This is the first key point Pope Benedict helps us understand: the need for interpretation is always a part of revelation. That is why God ordained teachers (Peter and the Apostles and now their successors, the Pope and bishops) and guaranteed that they would provide an authentic interpretation (not even the gates of hell will prevail against the rock of Peter). Pope Benedict expresses it in this way,

Not even the most sensitive translation can take away the need for explanation: it is part of the structure of revelation that the word of God is read within the exegetical community of the Church – faithfulness and drawing out the contemporary relevance go together. The word must be presented as it is, with its own shape, however strange it may appear to us; the interpretation must be measured by the criterion of faithfulness to the word itself, while at the same time rendering it accessible to today's listeners.

A corollary to this point is that we must keep growing in faith. This shows the need for ongoing formation. When there are things we do not understand, it is our responsibility to seek an authentic interpretation by looking to the Church's teaching. We can start with the Catechism and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. We can ask our parish priests who can explain things for us in terms of the teaching of the Magisterium (the Pope and the bishops). We can look for explanations in the writings of the Popes which can easily be found on the Vatican website. It is the Church's responsibility to provide an interpretation and the individual Christian's responsibility to seek it out and make the effort to understand it. This is part of the structure of revelation.

“For many” still means “for all”

Pope Benedict goes on in his letter to the German bishops to help us understand whether the change to “for many” indicates that Jesus did not die for all. He writes,

Did the Lord not die for all? The fact that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the man for all men, the new Adam, is one of the fundamental convictions of our faith. Let me recall just three Scriptural texts on the subject: God 'did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all', as Paul says in the Letter to the Romans (8:32). 'One has died for all,' as he says in the Second Letter to the Corinthians concerning Jesus' death (5:14). Jesus 'gave himself as a ransom for all,' as we read in the First Letter to Timothy (2:6).

Certainly Jesus Christ died for all. Cardinal Francis Arinze gives a further explanation on this point in his letter dated October 17, 2006, sent to the US Bishops,

The expression 'for many,' while remaining open to the inclusion of each human person, is reflective also of the fact that this salvation is not brought about in some mechanistic way, without one’s own willing or participation; rather, the believer is invited to accept in faith the gift that is being offered and to receive the supernatural life that is given to those who participate in this mystery, living it out in their lives as well so as to be numbered among the 'many' to whom the text refers.

Here Cardinal Arinze makes it clear that Jesus died for all, but it is up to us to accept the gift of salvation.

For you!

Pope Benedict teaches us more of the beautiful meaning behind the phrase of Jesus, “for many”. It should be noted, first, that the account of Jesus's words at the Last Supper are different in Matthew and Mark's accounts in contrast with Luke and Paul. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says, “for many” while in Luke and Paul He says, “for you.” The Roman Mass combined these words into “for you and for many.” When we read “for you” we do not understand that the Precious Blood of Jesus is shed only for the Apostles who were present at the Last Supper. Rather we see the personal way Jesus applies His Precious Blood to them. Likewise, the saving power of His Precious Blood is still applied to each one present at the Eucharistic Liturgy, who can hear those words personally addressed them. We can each stand at the foot of the Cross and rightly hear Jesus tell us that He is pouring out His Blood for me.

Pope Benedict then turns the love of Jesus spoken to each one personally at the Mass into a challenge. Jesus says, “I pour out my Blood for you and for many but it is your responsibility to ensure that it reaches all.” Pope Benedict expresses the challenge in this way,

How the Lord in his own way reaches the others – 'all' – ultimately remains his mystery. But without doubt it is a responsibility to be directly called to his table, so that I hear the words 'for you' – he suffered for me. The many bear responsibility for all. The community of the many must be the lamp on the lamp-stand, a city on the hilltop, yeast for all. This is a vocation that affects each one of us individually, quite personally. The many, that is to say, we ourselves, must be conscious of our mission of responsibility towards the whole.

We are not few but many!

Finally Pope Benedict uses the “for many” to encourage us. Sometimes we do not feel like “many” we only feel like “some” or “few”. Especially as our church communities dwindle in size, we must take up the responsibility to extend Jesus's life-giving death to others, but we must also remember that we are part of “many.” Indeed, St John reports in the book of Revelation that he saw, “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb…” (Rev 7:9) We must remember that even when only a few are present at Mass, we are always in the presence of many, even a multitude of saints who have gone before and are united with us in the Church.

Indeed, Catholicism is not merely for a few, for some or for many–it is for all, a universal religion that has the power to transform and elevate all that is authentically human and unite it with the divine.


“Blessed Be Saint Joseph, Her Most Chaste Spouse”

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

As the Divine Praises remind us, St. Joseph is Mary’s most chaste spouse. He is a master of purity and a master of modesty, even if he needs a little convincing on this point. A master of purity is able to see, to read, in the language of the body, the mystery of God’s presence hidden in the intimate center of another. A master of modesty does not exploit this mystery, nor expose this mystery, nor run away from this mystery, but rather veils the mystery with his love. In the end, St. Joseph both sees and veils the mystery of God’s spousal love for mankind expressed in the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it took an angel to help him understand this and have the courage to accept the task.

Purity and modesty

We turn to the Catechism to understand more clearly the two virtues of purity of heart and modesty. The Catechism teaches us: “[purity of heart] enables us to see according to God…; it lets us perceive the human body–ours and our neighbor’s–as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty” (CCC, 2519). Purity of heart allows us to behold the mystery, the beauty hidden in the heart of another, but seen through the body. In regard to modesty, the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2521 reads, “Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden…”and in paragraph 2522 we read, “Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love… it keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”

St Joseph’s drama – purity sees the mystery, humility backs away

Let us turn now to the Scriptures to see how the drama of St. Joseph’s life unfolds. Throughout the ages, the “Masters of Suspicion,” as St. John Paul II names them, read the Annunciation to St. Joseph with the suspicion that no one, even St. Joseph, could have sufficient purity of heart to see the mystery of God’s love in the unexpected pregnancy of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This presumption colors the interpretations of key biblical passages, supposing that St. Joseph saw Mary as an adulteress. Modern Scripture scholarship and the Doctors of the Church help us to reread these passages in the light of truth. The passage in question comes from St. Matthew’s Gospel and we hear it each year in the Mass on Christmas Eve and on the Solemnity of St. Joseph: “Joseph, her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” (Mt 1:19)

First, we need help with two Greek words–the verb deigmatizo, translated here as “expose to shame” and apoluo translated here as “divorce.” While we cannot go into all the details, a valid re-translation of this passage is proposed by the Jesuit scripture scholar Fr. Ignace de la Potterie, “But Joseph, her spouse, who was a just man, and who did not wish to unveil (her mystery), resolved to secretly separate (himself) from her.” (Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, p. 39)

From this we get a better understanding of the insight of St. Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, “Why did he wish to leave her?… He saw, with sacred astonishment, that she bore a special quality of the divine presence, and while not being able to understand this mystery, he wished to leave her.” (Hom. “Super Missus Est”) St. Thomas Aquinas reiterates this insight in his Summa Theologica, “Joseph wanted to give the Virgin her liberty, not because he suspected her of adultery, but out of respect for her sanctity he feared to live together with her.” (Supplementum III, q. 62, art. 3)

Then the angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream and helps him (and us) to understand the following truth expressed by St. John Paul II in his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount in the Theology of the Body, “[Christ] assigns the dignity of every woman as a task to every man.” And “he assigns also the dignity of every man to every woman” (TOB 100:6). Upholding this dignity “is assigned as ethos to every man, male and female: it is assigned to his ‘heart,’ to his conscience, to his looks, and to his behavior” (TOB 100:7). St. Joseph is assigned the “task” of Mary’s dignity. This task requires two virtues: purity, to see, and modesty, to protect.

Scripture scholarship and the Doctors of the Church reinforce our faith that St. Joseph’s purity of heart allowed him to behold a great mystery in the body of Mary. In the purity of his heart, St. Joseph beheld in his virginal bride not the sin of an adulteress but the awesome mystery of God’s presence. The body of Mary caused the sacred astonishment of St. Joseph as he beheld the great mystery of divine, spousal love in the language of Mary’s virginal pregnancy.

At the same time, St. Joseph recognized the virtue necessary to protect such a profound mystery. He feared that in his human weakness, he might defile the mystery by remaining close. Like St. Peter and the centurion who both said, “I am not worthy,” St. Joseph did not consider himself virtuous enough to veil this mystery by his presence; rather he thought he could do so better by his absence. Because of this, reasoned St Bernard, St Joseph decided to separate himself (apoluo) from Mary.

Obedience veils the mystery

Fortunately, in God’s gentle Providence, He sent an angel to St. Joseph to reassure him that he should protect her mystery by remaining her husband, by taking her mystery with him under his roof. Scripture affirms that St Joseph obeyed the angel. We can even read the exactitude of his obedience by the exact correspondence in scripture. The angel said, “Take Mary your wife into your home” (Mt 1:20) and Scripture affirms, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” (Mt 1:24)

One of the Church Fathers claimed the success of Joseph’s obedience in indicating that it is precisely the marriage that he maintained with Mary that protected her from the devil. Referring to something written by St Ignatius of Antioch, Origen asserted that the devil did not find Mary because he was looking for a Virgin rather than a married woman.

I found an elegant statement in the writing of a martyr–I mean Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch after Peter. During a persecution, he fought against wild animals at Rome. He stated: “Mary’s virginity escaped notice of the ruler of this age.” It escaped his notice because of Joseph, and because of their wedding, and because Mary was thought to have a husband. If she had not been betrothed or had (as people thought) a husband, her virginity could never have been concealed from the “ruler of this age”. (Trans. By Joseph Lienhard, Origen: Homilies on Luke, Fragments on Luke, FC 94 [Washington, 1996, 24-25], quoted in St. Joseph in Early Christianity, pp. 36-37)

St Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command served as a veil to protect Mary and her Child from the ruler of this age. This pattern was repeated twice more as St Joseph protected the Child and His Mother from Herod’s wrath (Mt 2:13) and the menace of Archelaus (Mt. 2:22) through his humble obedience to the angel’s command (Mt 2:14,22).

Let us ask St. Joseph to teach us true chastity in purity of heart, in modesty and in obedience. We ask him first to teach us to have sensitive hearts that can recognize the beauty of the mystery of God’s presence in us and in others. Then may he teach to protect that mystery through the obedience of faith. In this way, like St Joseph we will enter into deeper communion with Mary and the Mystery of God’s love revealed in the Word made flesh in her womb.

Originally written for the Theology of the Body Institute e-newsletter and expanded March 19, 2016


St Joseph’s “Doubt”


Here is a homily I gave to our monks in 2015 summarizing the interpretations of St. Joseph’s “doubt” in chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel. There are three main approaches to St Joseph’s struggle by saints, doctors, theologians and Popes throughout the ages. All three approaches can help us to see the greatness of this man chosen by God to be the spouse of Mary and the human, virginal father (legally, socially, but not biologically) of Jesus, the Son of God.

St Joseph, son of David, pray for us!


St. Joseph, Master of Virginal Begetting

Msgr. Jean-Jacques Olier, who founded the great seminary Sainte-Sulpice (and later the Sulpicians) as a response to the Council of Trent's call for a reform of the approach to training priests in seminaries, entrusted the seminarians of Sainte-Sulpice to the patronage of St. Joseph. The reason, he explained, was that St. Joseph, like priests, was involved in the “virginal begetting of Christ.” To understand this, one must recognize that the marriage between Joseph and Mary was necessary for the Annunciation to take place. In this sense St Joseph plays a real and important, although not biological, role in the begetting of Christ. St John Paul II wrote that “while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary's marriage to Joseph” (Redemptoris Custos #7).

Msgr Olier's concern that priests master the art of the virginal begetting is shared by Pope Francis who tied together unhappiness in a celibate vocation with a lack of spiritual fatherhood, “please: … never any priests with faces like 'chilis pickled in vinegar' — never! … But what is at the heart of this lack of joy? … when a priest is not a father to his community … he becomes sad. … the root of sadness in pastoral life is precisely in the absence of fatherhood…. It is impossible to imagine a priest … who [is] not fertile: this is not Catholic!… Joy, no sadness, pastoral fecundity.” (Pope Francis, Address to novices and seminarians, July 6, 2013)

Essentially, Pope Francis is emphasizing that the joy of the priesthood comes from fulfilling the spousal meaning of the body in making a sincere gift of oneself. This self-gift becomes mystically, virginally fruitful, begetting Christ in souls, and thus engenders a spiritual fatherhood in the priest. What can we learn from St. Joseph about how to live out this essential element of priesthood more fruitfully?

St Joseph models a culture of encounter and tenderness

The first point is the importance of cultivating encounters with certain qualities–encounters that are personal, tender, and open to human suffering. Pope Francis has taught us persistently about this as he has encouraged us to build a culture of encounter. When we have the courage to draw close to others, it forms a people, a family. “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG) #270)

St Joseph was tempted to distance himself from Mary, from her human suffering, but his openness to the Word of God and his courage to reverse his decision and draw close to Mary is an inspiration for priests who might likewise seek to distance themselves. His return to Mary with tenderness, rather than stoning, is likewise an example. And there is no doubt that his decision made his life “wonderfully complicated” and helped to form a people, truly to form the People of God.

Complementarity, the Holy Spirit and virginal fruitfulness

A second quality that is important for spiritual fecundity can be seen in the complementarity of Joseph and Mary and the role of the Holy Spirit. Joseph and Mary could only enter into a marriage because they were male and female. Furthermore, the virginal begetting could only take place because Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. St Joseph clearly did not understand all that was taking place and yet he was willing to draw close to the mystery and discover God in a new way in his virgin bride. The priest opens himself to the same spiritual fruitfulness when he draws close to the mystery of the bridal Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. He does this when he preaches the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Without this the seeds of faith cannot be planted in hearts, “and how can they believe…without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14) When the priest goes out of himself to plant the seeds of faith in the hearts of his people, watering them with baptism and nourishing them with the tenderness of personal encounter, the Church becomes pregnant with new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Without the bridal Church and without the Holy Spirit there can be no virginal begetting. Pope Francis drew out this analogy in a Wednesday Audience on the Church, “First of all a mother generates life, she carries her child in her womb for 9 months and then delivers him to life, giving birth to him. The Church is like this: she bears us in the faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit who makes her fertile, like the Virgin Mary.” (Sept. 09, 2013) Pope Francis also described the fruitfulness that comes when we are willing to let ourselves be fascinated by the difference, by the complementarity of the other, “When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.” (EG #271)

The mysterious nature of virginal fruitfulness

A final point that must be raised is that the pastoral fecundity is not always obvious; virginal begetting is also mysterious. Just as St. Joseph lived for many years in the hiddenness of Nazareth, the priest must often live in the uncertainty of the importance and fruitfulness of all his efforts. He can teach us what Pope Francis has called “a sense of mystery”. “'A sense of mystery' … involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others.” (EG #279)

St. Joseph is the best teacher for us in understanding the mystery of virginal begetting which he inaugurated in his willingness to encounter our Lady with tenderness, in embracing her difference with the power of the Holy Spirit and in rejoicing at the mysterious fruitfulness that burst forth in their lives.

Originally published in the Theology of the Body Institute email newsletter