On April 2, 2005 at 9:37 p.m. the Venerable Pope John Paul II died. In April of 2009 his beloved successor, Pope Benedict XVI, told Pilgrims gathered in Rome “With you, I pray for the gift of beatification”. That prayer has been answered. Friday, January 14, 2011 the Holy See released the “Decree for the Beatification of the Servant of God John Paul II. The full decree is found here on the Vatican Radio site.
The choice of the Feast of Divine Mercy, May 1, 2011 is not accidental. He had a deep devotion to his fellow Pole Sr. Faustina Kowalska and to the Divine Mercy devotion identified with her. In August 2002, in Lagiewniki, Poland where Sr. Faustina lived and died, John Paul II entrusted the entire world “to Divine Mercy, to the unlimited trust in God the Merciful.”
The Decree of his Beatification notes, “Since the beginning of his pontificate, in 1978, John Paul II often spoke in his homilies of the mercy of God. This became the theme of his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, in 1980. He was aware that modern culture and its language do not have a place for mercy, treating it as something strange; they try to inscribe everything in the categories of justice and law. But this does not suffice, for it is not what the reality of God is about.”
With millions of the faithful I prayed throughout those final days of his life before he entered the eternal communion of love. What a gift he was – and still is. He showed us how to live and how to love as Jesus, poured out for others. He showed us that suffering joined to the Savior is a sign and vehicle of God’s mercy and an occasion of grace. Then, he showed us how to die, not with fear, but with faith.
This Polish Pope was so filled with the love of God it was contagious. A talented and gifted “man of letters”, a playwright, a philosopher, an intellectual giant, a poet, and a genuine human being , he had a heart that embraced the whole world like the Heart of the One whom he represented on earth.
He traversed the globe, proclaiming freedom to the captives and truth to the victims of failed false ideologies that had ravaged the people of the twentieth century, the bloodiest in all of human history. He proclaimed the unchanging, Christian message with a prophetic urgency, profound clarity and contemporary relevance.
Many tried to label him but he demonstrated how shallow the labels can be. He was simply a Christian who stood on the shoulders of giants, rooted in the ancient rich tradition of the Church while proclaiming Jesus Christ as “forever young.”
Communism, atheism, secularism, and false humanisms, were exposed because he had the courage to stand up to tyrants with the bold message of the God who came among us to make us all new! He taught that Jesus Christ is the path to authentic personal, social and universal freedom!
He authored more encyclical letters, apostolic exhortations, constitutions and letters than any Pope in the two thousand year history of the Christian Church. Once I started reading his writings as a young man I could not stop. I wanted to consume them, and I have done so, over and over.I also hoped to become them and offer them to others. On that front, I have a long way to go.
It was the writings of this great Pope which prompted a later call in life for this lawyer to the Diaconate and then to the pursuit of a Masters Degree at his Institute and later studies for the PhD in Moral Theology at Catholic University, focusing on his contributions. I knew I was to be a part of the “New Evangelization” and “New Springtime” of world missions which he proclaimed. His successor, Pope Benedict the Builder, is now leading the work.
Over many years I have come to understand more deeply the meaning of living in the communion of the Church because Pope John Paul II taught about it and lived it with such beauty. I have tried to practice his version of authentic ecumenism. I have tried to pass on to others his message of authentic freedom. However, the older I get, the more I realize how little I have accomplished.
This giant whose voice changed history was barely able to speak during those final hours. The once physically robust Pope presided over the Church from a wheelchair as a prophetic sign of the dignity of every human life; the message he carried throughout his pontificate. Just before he died he spoke to a friend at his bedside “I am happy. You should be too. Let us pray together with joy.” Then, on April 2, 2005 at 9:37 p.m. after asking, “Let me go to my Father’s House”, he died in peace. The world wept.
I remember his death like it was yesterday. Along with millions, my heart sunk as he was placed in the earth after such a long period of suffering. When the “transitus” (passing to eternal life) of this holy man was completed it seemed as though that earth stood still. History was changed by the witness of one man singularly conformed to the One whom he served, Jesus Christ.
Pope John Paul II became in both life and death a “living letter”, as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians. (2 Cor.3) Also, like the master he loved he became a “grain of wheat” fallen to the ground in order to bear much fruit. (John 12: 24-26) Like countless others my life was forever changed by this prophet who occupied Peters’ chair for such a brief time. I must admit, my heart still hurts when I think of him. I miss him.
Like millions, I am convinced that history will record him as “John Paul the Great.” However, I am also convinced that his message still needs to be unpacked in order to be used as material for the work to be done in this new missionary age.
There is no doubt that we had a saint in our midst. A man so filled with Jesus Christ that, like the Apostle Paul, he no longer lived but “Christ lived in him.” (Galatians 2) The sentiment of the faithful expressed on the day on which his body was processed through the streets of Rome, “Santo Subito” has echoed as the Church has discerned the cause of his canonization.
Now, he will be raised to the Altar on the Feast of Divine Mercy and the faithful will call him “Blessed John Paul II.” There is little doubt that soon, we will also affirm what the miracles effected by his continued intercession confirm, John Paul II is a Saint.
Last Sunday, in the Western Church, we remembered the “Manifestation” to the Gentiles, the Feast of the Epiphany. We reflected on the “wise men” from the East who followed the light to the fullness of Divinity who humbled Himself to share in our humanity. The word “Epiphany” means “manifestation”, it is a making present, a revealing.
Yet, from antiquity, the Christian church has pointed to this “Manifestation” in the river of Jordan, as the event wherein the full plan of God for His Church and the entirety of creation itself is made manifest. It is not only the beginning of the Lord’s “public ministry”, it is the beginning of the new creation, re-constituted in Him. He is the first born of a new creation. You and I follow Him into those waters.
The beloved disciple John wrote in His first letter: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)
We shall be like Him for we shall “see” Him as He is? How? When we live in Him, growing in holiness and manifesting His glory for others. This process of conversion and transformation begins at our Baptism. He initiates the relationship, and it continues through our communion with Him in prayer, learning and living His Word, receiving the Sacraments and living our life in the Church.
Through our baptism we are “incorporated” into Christ. We enter into His “Mystical Body”, the Church. We now live in Him for the sake of the world. We begin to see Him as He is and in the continuing encounter which that mystery entails, we become “like Him” for others. We become a “manifestation”, an “epiphany” of God in a world stumbling along in the darkness of sin. We become immersed in God when we live our lives in Christ.
The word “Epiphany” is not often used in Eastern Christianity, Orthodox or Catholic. It is replaced by the word “Theophany”, which in Greek literally means the “manifestation of God.” The Theophany speaks to the vocation of the Church and of every Christian to be immersed in God and bring the whole human race and the world along with us.
The Apostle Peter writes in his second letter to the dispersed early Christians that we become “partakers of the divine nature”. (2 Peter 1:4) The Baptism of Jesus reveals the Holy Trinity to the world. The heavens open, the voice of the Father speaks to the Son and the Spirit descends! We are invited into a participation in that life of the Trinitynow, through Baptism into Jesus Christ!
The waters of the Jordan are sanctified by the Son. In the first creation, God created the heavens and the earth through the Son. Now, that Son come among us as a man goes down into those waters and re-creates the world. From antiquity, the Church has found a deeper meaning in this Baptism in the River Jordan. Symbolically, all water is sanctified when God the Son is immersed into it. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the original creation, the Spirit now hovers over these waters when the Son, through whom the entire universe was made, is immersed. (Genesis 1:9/ St. John 1:1-5)
In Eastern Christian Churches, when this feast is celebrated, waters are blessed. The clergy lead the faithful to rivers and bless the waters. Into these waters, through which the people of Israel were once delivered, the entire human race is now invited to follow Jesus in every Baptismal Font, in every Church, for all eternity. This kind of symbolic action reveals the deeper mystery of the Feast.
In Christ, all water has been sanctified. What was once the means of God’s judgment at the time of Noah has become the fountain where men and women are delivered from sin and made new! The heavens open and the Holy Spirit appears as a sign of the beginning of the new creation in each new life. Through Christ’s Baptism the waters of the whole earth have been sanctified and the Church is given new water for her saving and sanctifying mission. The Church is the Ark of the New Covenant.
In the waters of the Jordan, the Trinity, the Communion of Divine persons, in perfect unity, is revealed. In the great liturgical prayer of the East the Church proclaims: “When Thou, O Lord was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest… O Christ our God who has appeared and enlightened the world, Glory to Thee.”
In his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus is not sanctified for He is without sin. He is the Holy One who makes us holy as we choose to enter into communion with God through Him. We become “sons (and daughters) in the Son. He descends into the waters of the Jordan River and begins the new creation. We are now invited to follow Him as He “makes all things new.”
The waters of Baptism now flow with mercy. The Creator who spoke those waters into being through the Son, in Him condescended to take on our humanity and be immersed in the waters of the Jordan! Once, the Spirit hovered over the waters. Now the Word Incarnate descends into Jordan’s water making it holy.
In this Baptism, He begins the re-creation of the universe. We who are now baptized into Him are called to share in this work. The public mission and ministry of Jesus began at the waters of Jordan. It continues now through His Church. As sons and daughters of that Church, we carry on His public ministry through time into eternity. We are invited on this great Feast to learn to live our lives immersed in God and reveal the Love of the Trinity to the entire human race.
This past Saturday,the last before Christmas, the Gospel reading for Holy Mass was taken from St. Matthew: “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary; of whom Jesus was born, he who is called Christ. Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly.
“But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” (Matthew 1)
From antiquity, Christians have cherished Joseph as a model of genuine manly virtue. Since the fourteenth century there has been a specific day set aside in the Roman calendar to honor him. He is viewed as the “Patron” of the universal Church, of all husbands and of social justice. He has also been designated as the patron of all workers, this Carpenter who taught the Word Incarnate, the Child Jesus, how to work with wood.
This man was the foster father of the Incarnate Word of God and he loved Jesus with an exemplary love. This same Jesus who learned to work with wood from the hands of Joseph would, during his 33rd year save the world, through the wood of the Cross. In an age that has lost its way, given over to the selfish pursuit of illusory pleasure, Joseph should again be lifted up as a model, particularly to men who desire to follow Jesus Christ.
In popular language we sometimes use an expression to refer to men who are comfortable “in their skin” and content with being men. We say of such a man “He is a man’s man”. Well, Joseph is a true “man’s man.” He was a man of few words, he spoke through his actions, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded.
Joseph was a man for others. Though the Scriptures say little about Joseph, even that absence speaks volumes. Why? Because to Joseph, he was not the one who was important, others were. He loved Mary above himself and his behavior was “just” as a result of his love. He was prepared to “do the right thing” when she was found to be with child. He could have chosen otherwise. How refreshing this upright manly behavior is in an age where men often cower in the face of difficulty.
Joseph was a man of faith and courage. Along with loving his betrothed, he loved His God courageously. He had a close, intimate personal relationship with the God of His Fathers. In fact, this “just” man was, in a sense, the last Patriarch, completing the lineage. Through his response of faith, He would receive the great gift promised for all men and women and hold in His arms the One that His fathers had only longed to see.
God’s messenger, an angel, visited Joseph in a dream. He was ready to receive. He was disposed not only to the encounter but to the invitation it presented to pour himself out in love and for Love. He heard the message and, without hesitation, did what the Lord commanded! This is, in a real sense, Joseph’s “Fiat”, his Yes, his exercise of human freedom to advance God’s eternal plan. How refreshing such manly faith and courage are in an age of cowardice and rebellion.
Joseph was a humble man. There was not an ounce of false bravado or “machismo” in this servant of God. Named after the great Patriarch who was sold into slavery in Egypt; he bore the name with similar humility. As the Old Testament Joseph embraced his lot, rejecting the temptation to bitterness or “victim-hood” and actually came to rule Egypt, forgiving the very brothers who had sold him into slavery; so too this son of the Covenant embraced the One who would establish the New Covenant on the altar of Calvary. In so doing, Joseph is a patron and a model to all men who choose to walk the way of the cross.
Joseph emptied himself in order to be filled with the love and life of God. He gave himself fully to God through accepting his unique and specific vocation as a guardian of the Redeemer. The child Jesus, God in the flesh, was given to Joseph to raise as a father raises a son. A Carpenter, Joseph taught this child how to work with wood. That was, after all, what he had to give.
During what are often called the “hidden years” because we have little in the Gospel text about them, Jesus was with Joseph and Joseph was with Jesus. Joseph uniquely participated in the mystery of Gods plan of redemption through simply being the man he was called to be. How challenging his witness is in an age of narcissism and inordinate self-love.
For over two millennia, the redemptive mission of Jesus has continued through His Body on earth, His Church. He has entrusted the work to all men and women who accept the invitation to empty themselves in order to be filled with the life and love of God. We are invited to continue His redemptive mission for the world.
Through the Fountain of living water called Baptism, he invites each one of us into His new family, the Body of His Son, the Church. He still gives His message and His mission to men who, like Joseph, cultivate ears to hear and then choose to exercise authentic manly virtue and act out of courage.
He still invites men to turn the ordinary into extraordinary through cooperation and participation in God’s plan. He is looking for a “few good men” like Joseph who will work in the workshop of the world that he created in order to recreate it anew in His Son.
In this age of the “anti-hero”, men should rediscover this true hero, this “man’s man” named Joseph. Then, we need to follow his example by courageously, humbly and faithfully loving Jesus Christ. We need to learn to give our “Yes” to the God whose love always invites participation. Joseph is our teacher and shows us the way, a true ‘Man’s Man’, calling all men to follow Jesus.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28).
These angelic words of greeting recorded in this biblical passage form the opening words of one of the most cherished prayers in Catholic piety referred to as the “Hail Mary.” In the years that I have served as a Deacon of the Church I have found that these words – and the prayer that they intone – are a source of great comfort especially when people are ill, in trouble, or facing death. They bring tremendous comfort to many.
Sacred Scripture tells us that Mary was “full of grace”, filled with the very life and presence of God. She walked in a deep, abiding and intimate relationship with God. He was with her before she even responded to His invitation. God chose Mary even before Mary chose God. This order is vitally important if we want to grasp the deeper meaning of living the spiritual life.
We sometimes think that we brought God into our lives. This is hinted at in the use of popular language that, even if well intended, can lead us to believe that we do the initiating and somehow control the relationship. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus made this clear in His words to His disciples “You did not choose me, I chose you” (St. John 15:16). Sometimes, in our religious subcultures, we actually end up communicating the opposite.
I was raised in a sacramental tradition as a Catholic Christian. My family practiced the faith until a tragedy shook our foundations. Afterward, we remained cultural – but not always practicing – Catholics. This occurred just as I began my turbulent teenage years. Later on, when I returned to the practice of my faith, I felt as if I had “come home”. I thought that I had “found” the Lord. In a sense, that was true. However, I would soon come to discover that He had never left me; it was I who had wandered away. It took a while to understand what that meant as His grace unfolded in my daily life.
During that time I discovered a prayer of the great western Church father, Augustine, which he uttered upon his own return to the faith and recorded in his wonderful “Confessions”:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
St. Augustine understood, like Mary and countless men and women throughout the ages, that it is the Lord who reaches out to us in His love. It is the Lord who offers His grace. We are the recipients of that grace, and He fills us according to the capacity that He has built within us. The proper order of initiation and response has profound relevance for us if we truly desire to live the spiritual life. God is already there. He awaits our response to His relentless love and grace, which are both within and all around us.
We can learn this and so many more things from the Biblical visitation of Mary by the angel or “messenger” of God. Her experience with Gabriel offers other important lessons for our own daily lives. Let’s look at a few.
First of all, the story is time specific. The angel came in the sixth month. Angels still come at the specific moment that God chooses to intervene in our lives. The One who sends them does not wear a watch, keep a day-timer, or use a pocket computer. He is outside of time but always on time. He is never early. And He is never late.
The angel came to a specific person, “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph.” Angels appear to specific people in the real circumstances of their daily lives, in the midst of their human relationships. The older I get, the more I am able to recognize the “angels,” or messengers, the Lord sends into my life. They come bearing His message, speaking to my specific circumstances at a specific time of need. The angelic greeting also tells us about our invitation into a relationship with God.
Gabriel’s greeting was specific. Mary was addressed by her Hebrew name, implying that the God from whom the angel was sent knew Mary personally and had a relationship with her that preceded the visitation. So it is with each one of us. As the Great Hebrew Psalmist David sang, “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works! My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, fashioned as in the depths of the earth. Your eyes foresaw my actions; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be (Psalm 139).
The angel refers to Mary as “O highly favored one” or, in other translations, “full of grace.” Mary was indeed favored and full of grace. The Lord of heaven and earth had prepared and chosen her as a fertile ground into which he planted the seed of His Word. Angels still visit those who believe that grace is real and available, the favor and blessing of God. They come, bearing God’s message to men and women are humble enough to open themselves to its dynamic, sanctifying and transforming action. In a real and substantial way, when we respond to the words of the Lord, we also become filled with grace – and He is formed within us. In that sense, we become favored. An early father of the undivided Christian Church, Gregory of Nyssa, once wrote:
“What came about in bodily form in Mary, the fullness of the godhead shining through Christ in the Blessed Virgin, takes place in a similar way in every soul that has been made pure. The Lord does not come in bodily form, for ‘we no longer know Christ according to the flesh’, but He dwells in us spiritually and the father takes up His abode with Him, the Gospel tells us. In this way the child Jesus is born in each of us”
Perhaps the reason the scriptures tell us so little about Mary was because she was meant to serve as a mirror, a reflection, of “Some- One” who was much more important. It was His grace that filled her. God brings new life to ordinary people who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and pure hearts that are opened to his invitation of love. Like Mary, they become full of grace through their encounter with the Lord.
A profound mystery is made wonderfully simple by Mary of Nazareth’s witness. She lived a fruitful life, marked by an innocent and childlike spirit. As Jesus said, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth that what you have hidden from the learned and the wise you have revealed to the merest of children” (Luke 10:21). His words help us understand that we, too, are to become “as little children.”
Each of us is now called to become full of grace. The Lord desires to be with us, to live within us in a world that hungers for His love–a love which can be borne in us and offered through us to others. Mary shows us the way. She heard the promise, believed, was filled with grace, and conceived the Lord who is Love incarnate. We can do likewise if we learn to pray, to listen, to hear, to respond, to say “Yes”.
In doing so we, like Mary, will discover that “nothing is impossible with God.” The Invitation Continues.