Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial of St. Justin Martyr

(II Peter 3:12-15a.17-18; Mark 12:13-17)

If Jesus were to enter the city of Phoenix, Arizona, a zealous Christian would probably approach him with a question similar to the Pharisee’s in today’s gospel. Of course, the questioner would not inquire about taxes; rather, he would touch on the divisive issue of immigration. He would want to know Jesus’ thoughts on the recently passed immigration law that puts illegal immigrants ever on alert.

Many, including the bishops of the Catholic Church, think that most undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. in dire need of work. They defend the newcomers as decent people who contribute significantly to American society. Not all church-goers are in agreement, however, Opposing illegal immigration, some find the wholesale disregard for American law intolerable and point out that many people would like to emigrate to the United States but patiently wait their turn in their native places. Now what would Jesus say?

From his answer to the Pharisee in today’s gospel, we might postulate that Jesus would sidestep the brunt of the question. He is not so interested in resolving disputes among peoples as he is in drawing different sides to God his Father. We might imagine him asking for an apple and then inquiring who produced the fruit. “The grower,” some would answer; “with the assistance of immigrant farm labor,” other would chime in. But Jesus would remind everyone that God is the source of all good things, and we must give God His due. So where does this put us in regard to illegal immigration? We have to figure that out now after realizing that the issue is not just about the right to work or the need to obey laws. It is first and foremost about how to view the undocumented with God’s love in our hearts.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and companions, martyrs

(II Timothy 2:8-15; Mark 2:28-34)

The night before he was assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life - longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.” Dr. King knew that his cause was in line with the gospel. He could rest assured, like St. Paul in the reading today, that even if his persecutors silenced him, they were not going to stop the movement for human dignity and racial equality.

Nobody wants to die a useless death. Because we believe our lives are valuable, we hope our deaths may magnify the purpose for which we live. Of course, we who believe in God especially want our lives to reflect God’s will as King proclaimed. A chosen few of us, however, feel the urgency to have our lives reflect a particular aspect of that all-encompassing good. We readily think of social reformers like Charlie and Pauline Sullivan who have given their lives to assisting some of “the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.” Since 1972 the couple has campaigned for better treatment of prisoners in the criminal justice system. They inform right-minded people of the systematic mistreatment of the incarcerated often for venal reasons. They also urge everyone to recognize that a society can by correctly judged by how it treats its imprisoned offenders.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Feast of the Visitation

(Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Luke 1:39-56)

Forty years ago two Peace Corps volunteers went on an expedition upriver in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. They wanted to meet the area’s native Iban people who lived with extended families in longhouses. Ibans at one point in history had been notorious headhunters but became pacified long before the Peace Corps volunteers arrived. Many converted to Christianity. The volunteers were advised to take gifts of canned food to the people who often ate little beyond a daily ration of rice. They were also told that they could expect hospitality. As it turned out, they were more than graciously received, but the Ibans would not accept the food for their own use. Rather they served it to their guests whom they seemed delighted to host so that their children might know some foreigners.

The meeting of the Peace Corps volunteers with the Ibans mirrors in a way Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Mary is poor as she implies with the words, “He has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Yet the lack of material wealth is not a curse for her because she possesses God’s blessing. We should see Mary as representing the faithful poor or anawim of Israel who long awaited the Messiah. Now he has arrived and Mary, his mother, is the first to feel the excitement of his presence. Knowing that he is there fills Mary and Elizabeth with a joy that the treasures of Egypt could not provide. He is going to bring justice to the people, freedom to the oppressed, health to sick. The fidelity of the thousands like these two women is vindicated.

The promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus, especially in his paschal victory. Now stirred by that triumph, Christians eagerly await his return in glory. Like the Ibans of Sarawak, we show kindness to neighbors and make every effort possible for the development of our children. We know that God will bless us when he comes again. Indeed, He blesses us continually with graces that far exceed the luxuries that money can buy.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Peter 4:7-13; Mark 11:11-26)

We should not be distressed when Jesus curses the fig tree. He is not in league with BP Incorporated; he is only making a symbolic gesture for what is coming in Jerusalem. The people at the Temple will not recognize him as Israel’s Messiah who will provide perfect worship as well as true leadership. Rather, when he comes into the Temple area, he will find business as usual -- men paying prescribed amounts for sacrifices that can hardly make up for their unrighteous lives. This charade, symbolized by the fig tree with the splendor of its leaves but no fruit, is what has to go.

In just a few days Jesus will be hanging on a cross outside the same Jerusalem. It will seem to many Jews as the execution of a troublemaker. But his followers will know that the people have had God’s beloved killed. This will become the sacrifice which renders the Temple superfluous. From that point on all people will have to do to find a worthy sacrifice is offer bread and wine as Jesus prescribes at his final supper. Of course, their act of worship must be accompanied by lives given to the holiness which Jesus lived.

It may be a shame to see Jesus as anti-environmental, but it would be a greater shame to see Christianity as opposed to Judaism. Certainly hypocrisy had its play among Jews in Jesus’ day just as today many Christians embarrass the Church. But Judaism is not just the root onto which Christianity was grafted but the pot in which it incubated. Faithful Jews deserve our respect and attention. They have much to tell us of the kind of Savior that we have in Jesus.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thursday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Peter 2:2-15.9-12; Mark 10:46-52)

Is there any virtue more American than autonomy? More than anything else Americans want control over their own lives. We want our own car, even our own home. When we are sick, we ask to be kept abreast of our condition. We want to die when we are ready, and then we want to write our own funeral script.

Autonomy is good for it allows us to give ourselves in faith to the Lord. In the gospel passages for Monday and today we meet two contrasting figures – one autonomous from the start and the other made so by Jesus. The man who approached Jesus asking what he must do to attain eternal life was perfectly autonomous. He came looking for Jesus under his own power and ably put to him his question. Disappointed with Jesus’ answer, he left because he had many possessions – another sign of autonomy. On the other hand, the blind man must sit and wait for Jesus to pass by. He is completely at Jesus’ mercy in that if Jesus chooses to ignore him, there would be no way for him to make his request. Jesus’ bestowal of sight grants the blind man autonomy. The man makes good use of it: he follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. In his case, but not in the first man’s, autonomy leads to salvation.

A woman of indeterminate age was standing in church at mass. You could not tell her age because she was little more than two feet tall! She looked mature but it also appeared that she was part of a family with children who were nine or ten. Her situation was freakish and yet she appeared to be content. She eagerly participated in the peace rite and then took communion. Looking at her, one feels sorry but perhaps that such sorrow is misplaced. Like the blind man of today’s gospel, she apparently uses whatever autonomy she has to follow Jesus. Like the blind man, her autonomy apparently ends in salvation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wednesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Peter 1:18-25; Mark 10:32-45)

The gospel describes the disciples as “amazed” and some of them as “afraid” as Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem. They are, no doubt, traumatized because they know that nothing but ill awaits Jesus in the center of Jewish ritual. On the other hand, we are amazed at the obtuseness of the Twelve disciples who make up Jesus’ closest confidantes. As Jesus is facing the supreme test, two of them have the brazenness to jockey for the highest positions of glory when he emerges victorious.

We may also be amazed at what some fellow Catholics are doing. Teens almost as soon as they are confirmed are leaving church behind. Mothers divorced from their spouses have live-in boy friends. Veteran Catholics blithely miss Sunday mass at almost any inconvenience. “Have the commandments been changed?” some wonder.

Jesus would answer "no," there is no justification for such practices. When he calls his disciples to serve one another, Jesus intends that all of us sacrifice individual autonomy to achieve divine authenticity. That is, rather than doing what pleases us, we are to imitate Jesus’ compliance with God’s will. Sometimes the challenge is daunting as it is for Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. For this reason we pray, “Lead us not into temptation...” This prayer alone assures us of the grace of the Holy Spirit to overcome any difficulty.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Peter 1:10-16; Mark 10:28-31)

Novelist Ann Lamott tells the story of a young tennis player who is prone to cheat. She calls balls that hit the line “out” in order not to lose a point. A man sees her doing this and tells her so. But more than correcting her, he befriends her and admits, “I did what you did....I cheated.” At the end of the story the young player overcompensates by calling balls that go beyond the line “in” so as not to appear dishonest. But then she summons the courage to call a long shot as out. With that the man stands up to leave the match which causes the girl’s mother to ask, “’Aren’t you going to stay and watch Rosie win?” The man answers, “’I already have.’”

Peter’s letter to the Christian community calls us to the same kind of integrity. We are to give up “the desires of our former ignorance” in order to live in accord with the holiness of God. Honesty needs to be as implicit with us as we expect a nurse to treat his patients with care. More than that even, we are to set a model example in whatever we do – whether people expect it of us as, for example, when we refrain from cursing and when it is most difficult as occurs at times when women are called to carry a baby to term despite danger to their own lives.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

(I Peter 1:3-9; Mark 10:17-27)

Jesus simply astounds us when he says that it is hard for the rich to enter heaven. The disciples in the reading are nonplussed with Jesus because they are inclined to think that the rich are favored by God. On the other hand, we think it unfair that the rich may be summarily excluded from the kingdom just because they have money. But more interesting in this passage is the claim that Jesus implies about himself.

Pope Benedict XVI reflects on Jesus’ saying, “...come follow me,” as the way to eternal life. According to Benedict Jesus is staking out equality with God by indicating that associating with him brings one into heaven. It is the same identification that Jesus makes in the Gospel according to John when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

We must add, however, that it is not just following Jesus in the sense of accompanying him that accomplishes eternal life. Judas does this but fails to enter into glory. No, to gain eternal life entails becoming like Jesus which in turn means to embody the love of God. It means looking at others not as our competitors but as our equals worthy of attention and respect as many poor do almost instinctively. It also means being grateful for whatever we have and willing to share it with those in need, again as the poor do out of love for God.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

(Acts 25:13b-21; John 21:15-19)

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory of communism -- a society supposedly without leaders. Every animal is claimed to be equal to every other. No farmers remain to force any animal to do what he/she does not wish. The situation, of course, soon becomes inoperable. Some of the animals begin to claim that they are “more equal” than the others. The same division of labor ensues as when the farmers were in charge, but the situation is worse with new found tyranny not tempered by experience.

There is some evidence that the early Church saw no need for a leader to replace Jesus. His disciples expected Jesus to return soon after his going to the Father. Everyone associated with the various communities of disciples understood the primacy of love. With such high motivation, is a leader really necessary? Today’s gospel indicates that there is indeed such need if the institution’s existence stretches to any appreciable length. For this reason Jesus is seen appointing Peter as chief shepherd of his flock. But love is to play a major role in his leadership.

To assure that Peter understands what he is saying when he gives him authority over his following, Jesus has Peter profess his love to him three times. Later this love will be tested in an even more revealing way. When Jesus tells Peter that someone will lead him where he would not otherwise go, he is predicting Peter’s martyrdom. Leadership is fraught with pitfalls. Based on self-sacrificing love and guided by the Spirit’s gifts of justice and prudence, however, leaders perform an indispensable and necessary service.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Easter

(Acts 22:30.23:6-11; John 17:20-26)

Often when we feel criticized, we plan on how we are going to defend ourselves. We search for impressive words that will show off our wit and put down our critics. But this is a foolish strategy. We would do much better to listen carefully to what others are saying, pray to the Holy Spirit that we might respond prudently, and speak forthrightly what comes to mind. Jesus tells us as much when he says, “'When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.’”

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles Paul seems to be following Jesus’ advice. He evaluates the situation and speaks to it. His reference to being a proponent of the resurrection of the dead divides his persecutors. What starts as a probable conspiracy to condemn Paul turns into a debate with half the assembly supporting him. The Holy Spirit is the driving force behind this move and the rest of the apostolic activities in Acts. He brings Christianity from its humble beginning in Jerusalem to center stage in Rome where it will fan out throughout the whole world.

The Holy Spirit is God’s incomprehensible gift of Himself to us. We are never abandoned when he settles upon us. The Spirit bestows peace in trial and strength to endure persecution. Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, we proclaim the Spirit’s coming. God is never reluctant to share His Spirit, but we should directly and persistently petition his presence.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wednesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

(Acts 20:28-38; John 17:11-19)

The world for the Gospel of John, as for most of us, is both bad and good. Jesus can say, “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son...” and also, in today’s reading, “I do not belong to the world.” The ambivalence goes back to the Book of Genesis where God creates the world as good but then the woman and her husband sow havoc into the world by considering themselves as equal to God.

Now Jesus is reversing the trend. The world and its mire will not pollute his disciples because they have the word (the truth) of God which is love. They will overcome the world’s tendencies to self-promotion by loving one another even at the expense of self. Jesus has shown them the way. Soon they will follow. Their love for the world will take them to far away places to preach God’s love. Still they will not be ensnared by the world’s seamier side because Jesus has prayed for them.

His prayer protects us as well. There is no point in trying to flee the world. As long as we have bodies, the world will be part of us. In fact, we have a mission in the world as surely as the apostles in Acts. We too have to give witness to God’s love for the world by acts of care.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

(Acts 20:17-27; John 17:1-11a)

In a lay minister formation class recently a student asked, “What does ‘euthanasia’ mean?” The term is usually associated with taking a dying person’s life so that s/he does not suffer pain; however, its literal meaning is not outrageous. Euthanasia combines two Greek words: eu meaning good (think of euphemism or eugenics) and thanasia meaning death. Many limit their concept of a good death to not having to suffer, but certainly Christians hope for more than that when they are dying.

Because we desire to die in God’s grace, we consider having the sacraments of Penance, Anointing, and the Eucharist as part of a happy death. We also make wills to avoid disputes among relatives over our belongings. More importantly, we plan to assure those close to us of our love. Since an ideal Christian death includes reconciliation with one’s enemies, we will address as well those who have caused us difficulty. We still may lack one item on our agenda.

In the reading from Acts Paul has death on his mind as he speaks to the leadership of the Ephesian church. He intimates his affection for them by saying that he never held back in what is most important – telling them about the Lord Jesus. In this way he models the faith that we also hope to convey as we depart.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Monday of the Seventh Week of Easter

(Acts 19:1-8; John 16:29-33)

What can it mean, “’We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit?’” Some may think of the Charismatic movement with its “Baptism in the Spirit” and opine that the majority of Christians do not really know the Holy Spirit because they do not speak in tongues or sway their arms in prayer. But more radically, never hearing of the Holy Spirit may refer to an insufficient appreciation of sanctifying grace, the work of the Spirit. It is a shortcoming just as prevalent today as it was in the beginning and perhaps throughout Church history.

In the days of St. Augustine a priest from Britain named Pelagius evidently taught that grace is not really necessary for eternal life. We say “evidently” because little of his writings remain. We can only surmise what Pelagius taught from what his critics, like Augustine and St. Jerome, wrote about him. However, these two scholars were so upset with Pelagius that his teachings must have been defective. According to our understanding today, Pelagius held that free will guided by Christ’s example is sufficient to overcome the pitfalls the world poses.

Such a concept conflicts with St. Paul’s teaching of Christ’s saving grace. Without such grace the strongest will falter and the weakest are lost from the start. With such grace everyone has hope. The grace, which we acclaim as “amazing,” should never be taken for granted.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Feast of St. Matthias, apostle

(Acts 1:15-17.20-26; John 15: 9-17)

In a Catholic elementary school many years ago, Fr. Joe came to each class at the end of the year to ask the pupils to sign up for the “Friends of Christ” club. He distributed a polished white, three-by-five inches card with the dates of every Thursday during the summer vacation. Those who wanted to join the club would attend 8:30 a.m. mass on those days and circle the date when they returned home. Nothing special was to be done with the card when summer ended. There were no prizes for perfect attendance. There was not even a party after the last Thursday mass of vacation. But many of the children accepted Fr. Joe’s offer. They certainly did want to be friends of the Lord.

And why not? After all, it is always good to have a friend in high places. What is rather astonishing, however, is that Christ would want to make friends with us! As we see in the gospel today, Jesus offers friendship to his disciples as he shares with them the secrets of his divine family. It is as if he were giving us his cellular telephone number so that we might contact him at any hour, with any need.

We may think of Matthias being selected for the inner core of Jesus’ friends. But the particularity of this group is not actually intimacy with Jesus, at least in John’s gospel where the “beloved disciple” is not among the Twelve. Rather Matthias is being included in the echelon with oversight over the spread of the faith. Lest we think it pure privilege, it needs to be pointed out that membership in this club requires martyrdom along with the promise of a high place in Christ’s kingdom.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

(Acts 18:1-8; John 16:16-22)

The readings from the Acts of the Apostles at mass these days have covered a lot of territory, principally by skipping over accounts of Paul’s missions. On Monday and Tuesday we heard of Paul’s establishing a beachhead in Europe at the town of Philippi. Not being a critical center of commerce, Paul pushes on to Thessalonica, a provincial capital. He establishes a church community there, but the Jews almost literally kick him and his companions out. The Jews of Beroea, the next missionary stop recorded in Acts, give Paul a much fairer hearing until their kinsmen from Thessalonica arrive. Next, Acts records Paul’s flop in Athens, about which we heard in yesterday’s mass. Today’s reading shows Paul having arrived in Corinth, his ultimate destination on this missionary expedition.

One student of St. Paul thinks Corinth a much more strategic place than Athens. He compares Athens to a library given to safeguarding old ideas and Corinth to a marketplace open to new ones. It is definitely a crossroads of commerce from which ideas might spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul establishes himself by working as a tentmaker in the shop of Aquila and Priscilla, who become critical mission collaborators. Providing his own bread frees Paul of suspicion the people perennially have of evangelists seeking personal gain. Still Paul needs a patron to provide a place for Sunday worship. Fortunately, he will make the right connection.

It may seem like Paul goes from town to town haphazardly preaching to whoever lends an ear. More likely, he makes deliberate choices on where to go and how to proceed. Since he believes that Christ’s return is imminent, out of love he wants to prepare as many people as possible to receive him. We must see this as God’s plan with the Holy Spirit prompting Paul to act. As Paul eventually realizes, the coming of the Lord is not as near as once thought but still the urgency remains to prepare the world for Christ. As our own times amply testify, all people need to embrace Christ’s message of love, mercy, and forbearance.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

(Acts 17:15.22-18.1; John 16:12-15)

In the movie Taps , a crisis descends over a high school military academy. Upon the arrest of the academy’s esteemed commander for a crime he did not commit, the cadets take control of the institution and the multiple arms it stores. Before the commander can counsel the young cadets to give up their futile quest, he dies of a heart attack. The cadet leaders are left in a quandary. Should they nobly defend their academy or should they give in to civil authorities? Seeking clues that might help them answer their question, the cadets review old films of the director. A similar action is suggested in the gospel today.

Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth to his disciples after he ascends to the Father. It will help them meet their challenges as a community of faith in the future. The Spirit will remind the disciples of what Jesus told them as if Jesus had not really left them. Because he knows that the community will expand and multiply, Jesus has said that it is better that he returns to the Father and the Spirit comes. Not limited to time and space, the Spirit will accompany the community wherever its new incarnations are found.

The Spirit remains with us today. It reminds us that in loving one another within the Church, we give witness to the world that Jesus is Lord. As the Church becomes more diversified culturally, communal love means that more established components show acceptance and support for newer, fledging ones. It also means that liberals and conservatives arrest much of their bickering in order to attend to the Spirit’s promptings.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

(Acts 16:11-15; John 16:5-11)

If we scratch our heads over Jesus’ meaning in the gospel today, we are in good company. It is said that St. Augustine avoided the passage because of its difficulty! Still, the passage is not impossible to understand. To do so, however, we should note that the word convict is too literal a translation of the Greek and does not fit well with each object. It would be better to say that the Spirit Advocate proves the world wrong regarding sin, righteousness, and condemnation.

The world sees Christians as sinful for believing in Jesus. This may seem odd since we have a sense that the world does not really care what one believes. But the Roman world, at least, had its deities to which people were expected to give homage. Because of their ancient status, Jews were a recognized exception to this rule. So when Christians were expelled from the synagogues, they were persecuted as atheists. The Spirit Advocate (really more a prosecuting attorney) will show the world that the Romans, not the Christians, worship false gods.

The error of righteousness concerns the Jews’ putting Jesus to death for claiming to be God’s son. The Spirit, moving Christians to love one another, shows them to be righteous, not those who crucified Jesus. The final error regards the condemnation of Satan, the prince of this world. Since Jesus is vindicated by his resurrection, his adversary Satan is condemned. We might ask, “Then how can Satan roam freely seeking our ruination?” The gospel would reply that Satan is powerless over true believers; moreover, his limited domination will end once Jesus returns in glory.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter

(Acts 16:11-15; John 15:26a-16:4)

In today’s reading from Acts, Paul, evidently accompanied by the author of Acts whom we know as St. Luke, cross the Hellespont into Europe. It is the beginning of a new frontier. Although the gospel arrived in Rome through others apostles, Paul, like Christopher Columbus arriving in America, is the one whom history records as taking the monumental step.

Interestingly, Paul does not begin preaching in the marketplace before non-believers but goes on the Sabbath to a river where Jews habitually pray. He obviously figures that they would most likely give him a fair hearing. His effort bears fruit. We are not surprised that a woman is the first one of his converts mentioned. Lydia is a Greek proselyte of Judaism. We may speculate regarding what about Jesus attracts her to him. Perhaps it was his message of love for neighbor who included even one’s enemies. Maybe it was his courage to face opposition even to the point of death. Perhaps it was the promise that his resurrection gives to those who believe in him. We will never know.

But we can examine our own motives for belief. It would be disappointing to hear that we espouse Christianity only because our families do or because it connects us to important people or even because it gives meaning to our lives. Hopefully we can say that Christ’s teaching draws us, his story engages our attention, and his Holy Spirit has compelled our assent. We believe because Christ promises us eternal life and provides the means to attain it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday of the Fifth Week of Easter

(Acts 15:22-31; John 15:12-17)

An old song says, “Love makes the world go round.” Once a high school teacher, challenging this idea, told his students that love does not make the world go round. Rather, he said, money does. Of course, he was referring to the fact that money motivates most people to work which, in a way, sets the world in motion. An astrophysicist would give another answer. She would inform that the earth was set in rotation at its foundation by the swirling gases and dust of which it was formed, and that rotation has never ceased.

With today’s gospel in mind we might ask ourselves, what does love do then after all? Love puts us in harmony with God. Since God’s very being is love, we share God’s life when we love others. There is the difficulty of how to identify true love. St. Augustine can help us here. He once preached, “What does love look like? It has hands to help others. It has feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men and women. That is what love looks like.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter

(Acts 15:7-21; John 15:9-11)

Many years ago Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote an instructive book titled Models of the Church. The work asks the question, what is the Church? Is it an institution with organizational offices and a clear line of authority? Or is it a messenger announcing the divine offer of salvation? Or perhaps it is a servant of the world caring for the weak and instructing the powers? Maybe it is a sacrament, a sign of God’s ongoing presence among humans?

Although Cardinal Dulles indicates a preference for the sacramental model since it suggests a spiritual core, he concludes that the Church encompasses all the given models. Without having an institutional structure, the Church could not address new issues that arise. Without preaching the Good News, the Church would not fulfill the mission given her by Christ. Without caring for the poor, the Church would not practice what she preaches. And without representing Christ in the world, the Church would not be his Body.

Some people wince at Church bureaucracy wondering if Christ intended all the pomp. The regalia of cardinals and bishops may not be necessary, but order is essential to face new challenges. We see the order functioning in the first reading from Acts today. Peter, the head apostle, speaks first to the issue of Gentiles’ following the Jewish Law. Then James, the chief elder of the Jerusalem flock, presents his view. Finally, the reading indicates, all apostles and community leaders decide the matter. Today’s system of pope and curia with dioceses and religious institutions represents a significant development of structure. The formalities of this system help identify the ones most responsible for a functioning order.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Easter

(Acts 15:1-6; John 15:1-8)

A theologian of some repute once challenged Mother Teresa’s famous dictum that the Lord does not ask us to be successful but only to be faithful. The theologian reasoned that it is a waste of talent and time to go about oblivious to the effects of our actions. Rather, he would say, it is only prudent to make our efforts as productive as possible.

As often happens, both sides in this debate have a hand on the truth. Certainly Jesus calls us to accountability for what we do. Wasting resources and producing results which harm as much as they help are not the fruits that he looks for. But some fruit trees, like the tropical mangosteen, take over a dozen years to grow from seed. Faithfulness on the part of the planter is required if their fruit is ever to be harvested and enjoyed. Just so, sometimes our best efforts require years to produce the results we desire.

In today’s gospel Jesus prescribes faithfulness as the one indispensable quality to produce any worthwhile fruit. He calls himself the vine to which we must stay connected. Apart from him our well-intended actions either devolve into egotism or are summarily abandoned. Both results are like incipient fruit that shrivels when plucked off the vine. Staying connected to Jesus we produce a harvest which both benefits people and glorifies God.
Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Easter

(Acts 14:19-28; John 14:27-31a)

We think of peace as the cessation of hostility, but Scriptures relate a richer meaning. Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, means fullness or perfection. In the Old Testament Israel may have shalom even when it is at war since the word has less to do with human conflict than with right order in creation. When Israel follows the Law which God has established, the nation is at peace. This is the same blessing that Jesus bequeaths his disciples in the gospel today. Following him the disciples are reconciled with God.

Realizing that being stoned by jealous crowds imitates Jesus’ own persecution, Paul too is at peace. There is no hint of inner conflict as he picks himself up from the ordeal and proceeds on his missionary way. His peace gains depth as he returns to Lystra with Barnabas to shore up the disciples they left behind. And it reaches a climax when the two return to Antioch to celebrate God’s goodness with the church there.

We too find peace by remaining close to God in the midst of our activity. To use everyday images, God is our “ace in the hole,” our “fireman” in the ninth inning, the “one we can count on.” Keeping close to Him by prayer and adherence to His commandments, we have nothing to fear.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Feast of Saints Philip and James, Apostles

(I Corinthians 15:1-8; John 14:6-14)

The relative anonymity of the apostles at least hints that none of them followed Jesus for vainglory. The New Testament portrays Peter with depth and refers to James and John in a number of situations. We also have a feeling for Thomas, but in a negative way -- because of his protestations about belief in the resurrection. Of course, we associate Judas with the foulest of characters that we have ever known or heard of. But it is hard to get a sense of what the other apostles are like.

Saints Philip and James are not exceptions to the vagueness of our knowledge. Besides appearance on the lists of apostles, Philip emerges at the beginning of John’s gospel and again near the end (which we find in today’s reading). At the beginning he seems to be on a noble search for the Messiah. But at the end he appears to miss the point of his quest by failing to recognize Jesus as the image of God the Father. In both cases we receive less sense of his personality than we have of the deacon Philip, the deacon in the Acts of the Apostles, who boldly preaches the gospel. It is unlikely that this James is “the brother of the Lord” whom the Acts of the Apostles treats as co-leader of the Jerusalem community along with Peter. He is named on New Testament lists as “son of Alphaeus,” but who is Alphaeus? A strand of tradition refers to him as “James the Less” which at least removes any pretension from his identity.

The anonymity of the apostles is instructive for us. Like them we should not follow Jesus for earthly glory. Rather we suspend our desire for fame in order to serve God by praising His name and caring for His people.