Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Bringing Back Exiles

Last night I was listening to a lecture by N. T. Wright, given in Connecticut about 12 or 13 years ago. In it, he said that to understand the gospels we must understand how deep was the sense among 1st century Jews that their Exile had not yet ended. Sure, they were back from Babylon. On the surface, to us, things might seem as if they were great. But in fact, the exile was a deeper phenomenon than simply not being home. The exile was not being about what they should be doing, not being God's people, alienation from God's plan. Their continuing exile was most poignantly revealed to them in not being able to worship God in His home. The Temple was newly rebuilt, or almost rebuilt, in Jesus' time; but something was missing. God.

Solomon built the first Temple. Upon its completion with the installation of the Ark, the temple was filled with the Shekinah cloud, the sign of God's physical, tangible presence. When the Temple reconstruction project was finished by King Herod, there was no Ark because it had been lost during the Exile, and there was no Shekinah. The Temple was incomplete, and the worship of God, Israel's living relationship with God, was also incomplete. On the surface, they had been restored and their relationship renewed - the Temple was rebuilt. But inside, nothing substantial was happening, only sacrifices that didn't seem to do very much.

It is in this light that we are to read the Gospel, the Rev. Dr. Wright says. Jesus, by entering into the Temple, literally restores God's presence to it in his own person. Wright makes a good case that Jesus understood his ministry as a preparation for this re-entry. God restored to his Temple, God himself would restore the priesthood and the value of the sacrifices by offering up himself.

Those of us who are waiting on God's will are a lot like the Jews waiting for the Shekinah to return to the temple. Day by day, doing our best to do our best, we are never sure exactly what God has in mind, and the temptation to feel as if He has nothing in mind creeps in. It can feel like an exile from God's plan, an exile from God.

The third psalm from today's Morning Office (IV Thursday Ord. Time) is Psalm 147. The Psalmist sings, "The Lord builds up Jerusalem and brings back Israel's exiles, he heals the broken-hearted, he binds up all their wounds... he calls each one by name." This passage is a powerful reminder that God does have a plan for us, and moreover, that God is the one who will accomplish it. He wants to do His will in our life. It will make us perfectly happy, drying up every tear. We have only to let Him. The psalm continues, "His delight is not in horses nor his pleasure in warriors' strength. The Lord delights in those who revere him, in those who wait for his love." When we feel barren and cannot see how God is acting in our life, I propose that the best course of action is this: examine our conscience and confess our sins; receive communion as devoutly as we can, asking the Blessed Virgin for her help; and pray that beautiful prayer, the Hail Holy Queen, that says, "To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus." And then wait. We must let God show us in His own time.

And when we really cannot wait to know how the whole thing turns out, Psalm 40 might be handy: "I waited, waited for the Lord, who inclined and heard my cry, and brought me up out of the muddy pit..."

The Church's First Prophet

Birth of St. John the Baptist (June 24)

Each year the Church celebrates the life and death of hundreds of saints. Of all the holy days in the Church year, only three mark births: that of Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, of His holy and immaculate mother, and of his cousin John. Yet St. John the Baptist is not often anybody's favorite saint. That's odd, because Our Lord said, "Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist," (Mt 11:11). We speak of a Marian dimension of the Church, that is, the Church's role as a loving mother. We speak of the Church's Petrine dimension, of her authority. We might, perhaps should, also speak of her Johannine dimension - her role as prophet.

Though they sometimes do so, prophets are not people who tell the future. Prophets tell the truth. Prophets speak God's word in season and out, telling people exactly what they do not want to hear. King Herod probably wanted to hear clever riddles and predictions, but from St. John he heard only a stern rebuke: "It is not lawful for you to have her," (Mt 14:4). Herod had taken his brother's wife in lust, and John called him on it. Herod's neice, the daughter of his brother and his wife, danced seductively for him, he promised her anything. At her mother's urging she demanded on a platter the head of the man who would wreck her life. Herod's head was swollen with pride, and so he could not look small in front of the little potentates of Palestine. "A promise is a promise, and what will people think?" his warped conscience must have asked. Thus the only sane man in that Jerry Springer castle, the Baptist, was baptized in blood and his head was made a gift to a gruesome little girl.

Before Jesus began his public ministry, John began his. John's ministry focused on preparing people to receive the Christ when he should come to them. When Jesus' disciples heard of John's fate, they must have known that their master would meet increasing opposition. So it is with the Church. When we reflect on the coming of the Baptist into the world, we should recall the Church's own mission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..." (Mt 28:19-20). The Holy Spirit sent John to prepare the world for the Coming of the Christ. The Holy Spirit sends the Church to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ. Immersed in the world and proclaiming Christ, the Church steadily finds herself confronted with greater and greater opposition. Bearing in mind the sort of baptism with which the Baptist was baptized, we will not have to wonder long what sort of baptism might yet await the faithful who follow in his footsteps. What choice do we have, but to tell the truth? For the courage to lead people to truth, in season and out, we need to look constantly, and be configured more and more, to Him who is "the way, the truth, and the life," (Jn 14:6).

St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

Models of Integrity

St. Thomas More (martyr) and St. John Fisher (bishop martyr)

How does one get holy while living in the world? That question underlies the life of every layperson and even every diocesan priest. We answer it with the way we live our life. The first basic ingredient to supernatural holiness is natural goodness, because grace builds on nature. The first basic ingredient to goodness is integrity. We might call integrity the virtue by which, or condition in which all of one's "parts" fit into a cohesive whole. I have integrity when I can truly say, "There is one me. I am who I am, and that's all that I am. I do not put on different acts or change faces for different audiences." Clearly, different circumstances call for different behavior; but when all these different behaviors originate with a person who is being himself, then they are integrated with each other. As I have struggled to grow in integrity, I have had to give certain things. Lying clearly has to go. But so do those behaviors that I might be tempted to lie about, and for that matter, those behaviors about which I would even be embarrassed if they became public knowledge. After all, even without lying, one might easily hide part of one's self from certain people. This hiding will lead to a rift in one's self. In that sort of situation, the parts of one's self run the danger of splitting from each other.

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher are both excellent models of integrity because they would not split themselves. Each knew in his heart that King Henry VIII had no right to divorce his wife and take another while she yet lived; though all the world asked them to submerge their conscience so that they could continue to prosper, they refused. Even to save their lives they refused to so much as hide their conscience. "For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Mt 16:26). St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher knew the meaning of those words. We can't even sit back and say, "Oh, but they had it easy." They had few supporters and both lived in professions that give themselves to nuance and compromise: lawyer and bishop. If by the grace of God, they could suffer unto death rather than betray our Lord, why should we expect less grace from Him?

Growing in integrity is essential because it allows us to act as one whole person, undivided and unalloyed. Without it, genuine charity is compromised by undetected, manipulative motivations. Without it, our chastity is compromised by a body over which our soul has no real control. Without it, under the contradictory pressures the world can put upon us, our faith, which sits at the center of our being, may be snapped in half at the very end. Growth in integrity is a daily process that is greatly aided by regular confession. In confession we claim and own the darkest, most painful and despicable part of ourself: our sins and sinfulness. Rather than rationalize, we take responsibility. From there we can receive the grace to amend our ways, to mend the tears and iron out the wrinkles in the fabric of our character.

St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, pray for us.