Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio-Conversion-of-St-Paul-1601 The doctrine concerning of the universal call to holiness is central to the teachings of Second Vatican council.   I would like to suggest that St. Paul was the most important source for this truth highlighted by Lumen Gentium.

I would like to invite you to journey with St Paul as he explores the theme of the universal call to holiness. For St. Paul, this journey begins on the road to Damascus which St. Luke narrates in Acts 9. Prior to his conversion, Saul is a pious Pharisee. He was probably from the School of Shammai which believed that Israel must be free of the gentile yoke. He tells us in Acts 22; “I am a Jew, born at Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as you all are this day” (Acts 22:3). As a zealous Pharisee, he had gone “to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). Saul is feeling very righteous as travels to Damascus, so when he experiences “a light from heaven [that] flashed about him” (Acts 9:3) he is expecting a heavenly cheer. He expects to hear, “well done my good and faithful servant.” Saul may have been thinking of the stories from other Rabbinic mystics who had seen visions of the Merkabah or throne of God descending from heaven as the prophet Ezekiel experienced in the Old Testament. Instead what he hears shocked him. He feel to the ground, began to dialogue with a heavenly voice. The voices cries out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” To which Saul replies with some confusion, “Who are you, Lord?” And the heavenly voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:5-6).

We need to think about this, the heavenly voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” We need to ask, did the Rabbi Saul ever literally persecute Jesus? Had he even met Jesus? As far as we can tell the answer is “No.” He had persecuted Christians, or the followers of the way as they are called in this passage. Here for the first time he learns the central truth about communion in Christ. To persecute the Church is to persecute Jesus. Jesus and the Church are one. After this life changing encounter, Saul the Rabbi becomes Paul the Apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God (1 Corinthians 1:1).

I would like to note a small pet peeve about this passage. In Catholic art since the middle ages, St. Paul is always depicted as falling off a horse in this episode. If you search the text carefully you will not find a horse. What you do find, however, is that after St. Paul was blinded the men he was with “led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:8). If you have a blind man and a horse, would you lead him by the hand, or put him on the horse and lead the horse instead?

Returning to our main point, St. Paul learns that to persecute the Church is to persecute Jesus. Jesus and the Church are one. From this experience the Apostle Paul gains one of his most characteristic ways of describing all of the faithful as “in Christ Jesus.” The expression “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus” occurs 164 times in the Pauline corpus. Furthermore, if you investigate this theme, to be “in Christ” is to be “in the Spirit.”

Writing to the Galatians St Paul, notes,

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; 26for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27)

By virtue of our baptism we have been joined to Christ.. This oneness includes bearing his image, being holy as he is holy.  This is the inescapable vocation of all the faithful.



Monday, January 10, 2011

The Christian Faith is Rooted in History

baptismmosaic What happened after Jesus commanded the Apostles “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”(Mt. 28: 19-20)? How did the Church survive the periodic persecution of the Romans for 300 years as a mostly underground, house church, yet emerging as the Church of the Roman Empire under Constantine? How did she overcome the heresies which threatened to hopelessly divide her? How did she begin to convert the barbarian tribes that overran the Roman Empire and build Christendom anew? How did Christendom emerge into a powerful rivalry between church and state? Is the story of the Church’s development of doctrine, its struggle to develop as an institution, its Saints, a story worth exploring today?

The Christian faith is rooted in history. Central to our faith is the fact that Jesus Christ became man and lived and taught and left us a rich legacy, which his apostles and disciples have since spread to every continent. The Christian announcement of Jesus Christ as Savior and Son of God is the product of faith, but is, nonetheless, based upon history and revelation. How the Church produced the Bible is itself a fascinating story of history, of which many Christians are ignorant. They are unaware that the New Testament canon was not finalized until the end of the fourth century by Church councils. This fact alone has great significance for those trying to understand the Church’s development. Church history also makes clear that the Bible is salvation history, not a mere collection of stories.

The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the Western world. It has made its mark on history, yet many Christians today see no reason to study it. Myths about the Church abound. Historical study of the Church was and is an important part of how the Church understands herself. Certainly, historical factors played a role in the great debate of the second and third centuries in defining Christ in the face of challenges by the heretical Arians and others who denied his divinity. The great churchmen and councils that decided these issues, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. which gave us the Nicene Creed, are the very fabric of Church history. The terms “Trinity” and “apostolic succession,” neither of which are found in Scripture, require the study of history for a full understanding. It is only through the study of history that we learn their Christian perspective and meaning.

To study Church history is to see the work of God amidst the strife and turmoil of man’s story. What did Christ mean when he said “the gates of hell” would not prevail against the Church? What significance did the keys he gave to St. Peter have for the Church or the power of binding and loosing? History puts these questions into perspective and helps us to understand our faith better as we see the Church marching through the ages. Her development from a seedling into a great institution is not without blood and tears, but Christians need not change the subject when the Crusades or the Inquisition become the topic of discussion. We don’t defend the extremes of either, but rather note that they were a reflection of their time and culture and there were some meritorious reasons for doing these things. The way that the Holy Spirit reveals truth is gradually over the course of centuries. The Church is growing into the fullness of Christ, and even today we fall short

It has been said that the Church is “the greatest humanizing agent the world has ever seen” and this is demonstrated in history. It was the Church which created the monasteries, which kept alive culture during the so-called “Dark Ages.” Even some secular histories now acknowledge as much. Still the prevalent view is that the rise of science, reason and a more humane approach to human affairs arose in the Enlightenment period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But according to historian, Thomas Woods in his work, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, this occurred much earlier in the Middle Ages and it was the Church and its institutions, especially monasteries, hospitals, cathedral schools, universities, etc. that laid the foundation for the development of the scientific revolution, of modern international law and human rights, and of modern economic theory. This is not mere triumphalism or misplaced devotion since to give credit where credit is due is only just. Nor is this an attempt to ignore the corruption or abuses that infected the Church and made possible the Protestant Reformation and led to Council of Trent and beginning of a Catholic revival. On the contrary, these too are a part of the fabric of our Church history. Let’s explore them together!

On the Feast of St. William of Bourges,

Dr. Claude Sasso

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr

Polycarp One of the more famous individuals from the close of the apostolic era was the man tradition remembers as "Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr.” Polycarp was born around 69-70 A.D. According to St. Irenaeus, Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and was personally appointed by Apostles as the bishop of the church in Smyrna (modern day Turkey). St. Polycarp was the leading figure among the churches in Asia in the mid second century. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records that Bishop Polycarp served faithfully for eighty-six years (Mart Pol 9.3) before being heroically martyred on February 23, 155.

Because of his long life and direct connection to the Apostles he was an important defender of orthodoxy against such heretics as Marcion and Valentinus. St. Irenaeus recounts that he knew Polycarp from his childhood, and he revered him as a holy saint. Irenaeus notes, “I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse-his going out, too, and his coming in-his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord.” He recalls the story of Marcion coming to Polycarp and asking if Polycarp would recognize him. Polycarp replies, “Of course I recognize you, the first born of Satan!” (Adv Haer 3,3,4).

St. Irenaeus relates how St. Polycarp journeyed Rome around 150-155 A.D. A dispute had arisen over the date of Easter between the church in Asia and the Church in the West. Polycarp met with Pope Anicetus. Each bishop felt obliged to follow the traditions they had been handed down. Polycarp felt Easter should be celebrated on the 14th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan, while Anicetus on the Sunday after the 14th of Nisan. Polycarp appealed to the practice of St. John and the Apostles, while Anicetus to the custom of his predecessors and to dominical usage. Although the Pope and bishop Polycarp could not achieve common ground in their practice they remained in communion and parted on the best of terms. While there could be no tolerance of the heretical views of Marcion or the early Gnostics, the Church could embrace different liturgical traditions.

St Irenaeus tells us that Bishop Polycarp wrote a number of letters “to neighboring Churches to confirm them, or to certain of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.” Unfortunately only St. Polycarp’s letter addressed to the Philippians remains. The theme of the letter is summed up in Polycarp’s exhortation, “‘Therefore prepare for action and serve God in fear’(1 Pet. 1:13; cf. Ps. 2:11) and truth, leaving behind the empty and meaningless talk and the error of the crowd” (Pol Phil 2.1). The letter is a rousing call to live the Christian life fully and consistently in the midst of the confusion and temptations of the world. The letter is filled with quotations from the New Testament and St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians. One can clearly see the “interwovenness” of Sacred Tradition in his letter. The living interpretive presence of Christ is expressed in the Church through his apostolic ministry. Polycarp notes, “For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures” (Pol Phil 12.1). Scripture is the center of the Church’s Tradition and it is made manifest in the preaching, teaching, doctrine and liturgy of the Church.

The Church in Philippi is again battling the heresy of docetism which denies that Jesus came in the flesh. Polycarp complains that these heretics twist “the sayings of the Lord to suit their own sinful desires” (Pol Phil 7.1). Sacred Scripture requires the interpretive presence of the Church. Knowing our faith well also helps us to live our faith in the midst of our daily life. One difficult distraction that Polycarp mentions is greed and the love of money (Pol Phil 2.1; 4.1; 5.2; 6.1; and 11.1). This was apparently the difficulty of a fallen away presbyter of the Church in Philippi named Valens (Pol Phil 11.1-4). Polycarp councils the Philippians to treat Valens kindly in hopes of winning him back from his waywardness.

The ultimate test of a disciple’s faithfulness is martyrdom. Polycarp’s martyrdom is recounted in detail in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (AD 156). This document is a combination of a letter and an act of martyrdom or eyewitness account of martyrdom (Cf. Acts 7, Revelation 6:9-11). The account of Polycarp’s death is the first full account of this type. Suffering death by Martyrdom was considered the ultimate imitation of Christ. The ‘baptism of blood’ of the martyr was considered the equivalent of normal Baptism. Since at least the second century the anniversary of the martyr’s death was celebrated with a feast at the tomb of the martyr and later churches were built over these tombs. The martyrs were venerated as powerful intercessors and their relics were sought after. St. Polycarp’s death is extremely heroic. The witnesses record, “Then the materials prepared for the pyre were placed around him; and as they were also about to nail him, he said: ‘Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails.’” (Mart Pol 12.3). The fire was miraculously unable to kill Polycarp, so his executioner had to stab him with a dagger. His body was later cremated by the soldiers and his friends gather up his bones and began to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.

Holy Mary, Queen of Martyrs, pray for us.


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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

St. Ignatius of Antioch (Part II)

st-ignatius As mentioned previously, St. Ignatius was condemned to death during the reign of the Emperor Trajan. His writings give us a unique glimpse of the life and beliefs of the Church at the close of the first century. In his writings we are still very close to Christ and his Apostles. Can we see the face of Jesus reflected in his writings?

St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians, speaks of the unity we share through our fellowship or communion through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the focus of the oneness we profess in the creed. It is a sacramental sign of this unity. St. Ignatius writes;

“Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians 4.1).

Later in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, St Ignatius addresses a problem with the heresy of docetism. Although not a unified movement, the early Christians had to correct the tendency among some early Christians to consider the humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ as merely apparent rather than real. St. Ignatius links this belief to a very low regard for the Eucharist. He notes;

“They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by his goodness. They then who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes; but it were better for them to have love, that they also may attain to the Resurrection” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 6.2). Seeing the face of Jesus clearly in the face of the early Church allows one to profess as well our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius refers to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20.2).

Our unity focuses not just on the Eucharist by also on the Bishop. St. Ignatius writes;

“You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. (2) Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop.” (Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 8.1-2)

This passage highlights the role of the bishop in preserving the unity of the Church. In numerous other passages St. Ignatius emphasizes a divine hierarchy of the bishop, presbyters, and deacons. The Catechism reminds us that the bishop is the “guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church” (CCC 1292). The Eucharist is celebrated under the authority or presidency of the bishop. The Catechism notes, “The bishop of the place is always responsible for the Eucharist, even when a priest presides; the bishop's name is mentioned to signify his presidency over the particular Church” (CCC 1369). St. Ignatius observes that only the Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop is valid. It is not permissible to hold an agape feast without the authority of the bishop.

St. Ignatius is also the first Church Father to use the word ‘catholic.’ Scholars will dispute whether it is appropriate to capitalize the word as ‘Catholic.’ Generally the basic meaning of ‘catholic’ is taken as the universal Church as opposed to the local church. William Schoedel has pointed out that studies of the original Greek word for ‘catholic’ make it unlikely that it refers to geographic extension, or universal as opposed to local. In the context of St. Ignatius the meaning of ‘catholic’ is more likely a reference to an organic unity under the bishop which parallels the universal church is an organic unity under Christ. Schoedel observes, “Thus we may say that the ‘catholic’ church here is not the universal church opposed to heresy, but the whole church resistant by its very nature to division.” Later the unity of the Church reflected in the whole allowed the Church to call herself ‘Catholic’ in the sense of the fullness of unity in distinction to heresy and in her mission for geographic extension to the whole world (Matthew 28:18-20). The Catechism notes that “the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole.’ There is a double sense in which the Church is ‘catholic’. The Church is ‘catholic’ because Christ is present in her (giving her correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession) and secondly because “she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race” (CCC 830-831).

We can see the face of Jesus in the community reflected in the letters of St. Ignatius. As Pope Benedict has recently noted, “In Christ, charity and truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan” (Caritas in Veritate, 1). Just as St. Ignatius answered those who thought Jesus only seemed to be flesh, today we must constantly dialogue with a dictatorship of untruth and the mere appearance of human opinion rather than a truth based in the person of Christ. Holy Mary, Seat of Wisdom, Pray for us.



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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch

St_Ignatius_of_Antioch The Fourth century church historian Eusebius tells us that St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch was condemned to die in Rome by becoming “food for wild beasts on account of his testimony to Christ” (Ecc. Hist 3, 36). St. Ignatius was condemned during the reign of the Emperor Trajan (107 A.D.). He was transported “under the strictest military surveillance” which he recounts as “being bound amidst ten leopards that is, a company of soldiers who only become worse when they are well treated.” Ignatius was taken as far as Smyrna where he was greeted by Polycarp the local bishop. From Smyrna Ignatius writes letters to four local churches. He writes to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey), and to the neighboring cities of Magnesia, Tralles and Rome. Ignatius is then taken to Troas in the north-west corner of Asia. From Troas he wrote letters to the Philadelphians, to the Smyrnaeans and to Bishop Polycarp.

I would like to begin this reflection by focusing on Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians. In this letter he highlights the role of the bishop as a source of unity in the Church. He writes,

“Thus it is proper for you to act together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your presbytery, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:1). Later he adds a warning to those who might attempt to act without a bishop, “Let no one be misled: if anyone is not within the sanctuary, he lacks the bread of God. . . Therefore whoever does not meet with the congregation thereby demonstrates his arrogance and has separated himself . . .  Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God. (Ignatius to the Ephesians 5:1-3).

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius addresses the intriguing question of why Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John the Baptist?”  Recently Pope Benedict XVI has reflected on this question in his work Jesus of Nazareth. He observes,

“Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one?” (p. 16-17).

The answer on one level is that Jesus did this to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Pope Benedict notes, “Righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the “yoke of God’s Kingdom.” (Jesus, p. 17). St. Ignatius addresses this question by recounting a primitive confession of the Church, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit. He was born and was baptized in order that by his suffering he might cleanse the water” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 18:2). St. Ignatius affirms that Jesus was baptized in order to “cleanse the water.”

In the Eastern Church the Feast of Epiphany is Jesus day of Baptism. Eastern iconography depicts the waters of Jesus’ Baptism as a liquid tomb leading down to Hades. There is a close connection between Jesus Baptism and Easter. St. John Chrysostom writes, “Going down into the water and emerging again are the image of the descent into hell and the Resurrection.” Jesus’ Baptism purifies the waters of Baptism and joins them to the entire mystery of salvation. Pope Benedict notes, “The sacrament of Baptism appears as the gift of participation in Jesus world-transforming struggle in the conversion of life that took place in his descent and ascent” (Jesus, p. 21). As St. Paul, notes, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). It is through baptism that we are brought into communion with Christ, and so into communion with his suffering, death and Resurrection. Earlier St. Ignatius describes the mystery of Christ’s person in another early creed, “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7.2). It is only through the mystery of Christ who is “flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man” that the waters of Baptism become a life giving means of grace and the foundational Sacrament of initiation. Flowing out of this baptismal union with Christ is a universal vocation to holiness and apostolic witness. The Christian life becomes an active participation in the life of Christ and a light to the world in which we live. Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us. (Novo Millennio Ineunte 74).


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