Sunday, June 12, 2011

The structure of the Church is not man-made, but is of God. Pentecost, Sermon of June 12th

The Solemnity of Pentecost
June 12th, 2011

Acts 2:1-11
Then there appeared to [the Apostles] tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

John 20:19-23
And when [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the Apostles] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

I would invite you to imagine with me a playground in which children are running to and fro, enjoying themselves as they play. The children are happy and free. And, surrounding this playground, there is not merely a fence, but a tall and sturdy brick wall. This wall completely encloses the children and the grounds, but there is still ample room for games and for fun.
However, one day, a man comes and begins speaking to the children and tells them, “This wall limits your freedom, it stifles you, it constricts you.” Some of the children begin to listen to the man and he continues, “Moreover, this is no playground at all, but is rather a prison. This wall is the barrier that keeps you from true freedom in the outside world.”

And so, several of the children, though not all, join with the man and they begin to tear at the wall. And, as the wall comes tumbling down on all sides, the children are horrified to realize that their playground is on a small island that is surrounded by cliffs on every side, falling off into the sea.
As the walls crumble, several of the children who were tearing them down stumble and fall off the cliffs and drown in the sea. Likewise, several children who were playing and not paying attention also get too close to the edge and stumble and fall into the sea.
The children who remain, however, are now gathered in the center of the island, huddled together in terror. Indeed, now they have truly become slaves of fear.

This image is something of a parable for an aspect of modern culture and, specifically, for the manner in which many in modern culture approach the Church. The Church, they will claim, has set up this enclosing and restricting wall of doctrine, moral teaching, and tradition. “Let us tear down these old fashioned teachings and traditions. They are a prison to free thought! Get rid of all this antique notion of faith and moral discipline.”
However, as they reject the doctrines of the faith, they imitate the protestant reformers and, as one doctrine falls, so too many others follow. Suddenly, as they turn away from the traditions of the faith, these individuals fall farther and farther away from the truth – just as the protestants continue to divide amongst themselves, daily forming new sects each one in contradiction to the others.

Closer to our own times, there is the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s in the USA and the western world. Many individuals rejected the traditional moral teachings of the Church and of the natural law – “It’s too restrictive,” they said. “Let people be free and stop making them feel guilty all the time.”
And what is the fruit of their revolution? Tearing down the moral code, they fall off into the abyss of perversion. Alas, who can doubt the moral depravity of the modern world? How many souls have been lost because of these sins!

Underneath both of these radical notions – the rejection of the Church traditional faith and the rejection of the moral law – there is a fundamental misconception. These people fail to understand an essential point about the Church in herself.
The radicals will claim that the Church is made up of two separate realities: On the one hand, so they claim, there is the invisible, internal, charismatic spirit of the Church – this is good, and is given by God. This is what is essential about the Church. Then, on the other hand, there is the external, visible structure of the Church – this, so they claim, is man-made and is not usually very good. To these radicals, the visible structure of the Church is not essential, but is something added on by men.
And, when they say that the visible structure of the Church (I refer here both to the doctrines of the faith and to the moral teachings, as well as to the hierarchy of the Church and her liturgy), when they say the visible structure of the Church is “man-made” they mean two things by this. First and foremost, they intend to state that the hierarchy and the sacraments (as well as the doctrines and moral teachings) were not established by God, but were created by human beings. Moreover, and here we see just how radical their ideologies are, these individuals mean to say that the visible structure is “man-made” in the sense that it is made by males as opposed to females – apparently they think that anything made by God or by women is good, but if it be made by males it will necessarily be oppressive!

This radical view, even if it is extremely popular today (both outside and, sadly, even inside the Church), this radical view is directly contrary to the vision of the Church presented in the Scriptures.
Today, the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the birth of the Church, we recall that the Church is one reality – both in her visible hierarchical structure and in her charismatic spirit, the Church has been created by God, established by Christ during his life on earth, and confirmed by the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost. The Church, both visible and invisible, is united as one and there can be no division or separation, nor can there be any contradiction, between the visible structure and the invisible spirit of the Church.

In the Gospels, we see quite clearly that Christ established his Church as a hierarchy. Recall that he did not make everyone who followed him an apostle. Rather, from among his disciples, the Lord chose twelve men. And he ordained these twelve men as his apostles and priests. And from among these twelve men, our Savior chose one (namely, St. Peter) to be the prince of the apostles and their visible head and ruler. Our Lord himself, during his earthly life, established the hierarchical structure of the Church – the Pope (that is, St. Peter), the Bishops (that is, the other apostles), and the lay faithful (that is, the crowd).
It was to the apostles that he appeared after his Resurrection and, as we heard in the Gospel reading, he breathed upon then and said Receive the Holy Spirit. Christ did not give the Holy Spirit immediately to all his followers, but rather he chose to entrust the gift of the Spirit to the ministry of his apostles.
Moreover, he did not give the power to forgive sins to all his disciples, but solely to these chosen men – it would be through the ministry of the apostles (that is, through his priests) that the sins of the world would be forgiven. Therefore, we see that Christ established, together with the hierarchy, also the sacramental life of the Church.

This visible structure which was established by Christ was also confirmed by the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost. On the very day in which the Church was born, the Holy Spirit chose to confirm the hierarchical structure of the Church – for he did not descend upon everyone in Jerusalem immediately, rather he came down first upon the twelve apostles (for Matthias had already taken the place of Judas the betrayer). Having filled the apostles and inspiring them with the gift of tongues, the Holy Spirit then worked through the ministry of the hierarchy to bestow his blessing upon the crowd. For, as those present began to believe in the doctrine of the faith which the apostles proclaimed, they came to believe and received the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism.
The miraculous events of Pentecost happen entirely within the hierarchical and visible structure of the Church! These two elements within the Church – the visible, external structure and the invisible, charismatic spirit – work together in perfect unison.

And so, as we consider the mysteries which the Scriptures themselves present to us on this feast, we recognize that the Church is not a man-made structure, but that this visible hierarchy (together with her teachings and her sacraments) is given from above by God himself. As there is only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, so too there is only one Church, founded on the one Rock, which is Christ the Lord.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It is better for us that Christ has ascended, Sermon of June 5th

The Ascension of the Lord
June 5th, 2011
Matthew 28:16-20

And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

There is a great temptation to think that it would be easier to believe if only Christ would simply be present to us in the way he was present to his disciples during his earthly life. Wouldn’t it be easier if only the Lord still walked among us on this earth? After all, though we most certainly love and respect our Holy Father in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI; it probably seems like more people would convert to Catholicism if Jesus Christ himself were sitting in St. Peter’s Basilica.

All this boils down to one simple thought: It would have been better for us if only Jesus had remained with us and not ascended into heaven. This line of reasoning is a great temptation. And it is a terrible lie.

Our Savior promised us that it is better that he goes. He ascends to heaven not so much for his own sake, but for ours. His Ascension is what for the benefit of the world, for our salvation, and for the glory and exaltation of his bride, the Church. We are much better off, now that Christ has ascended. In fact, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, we have benefited from the physical and sensible separation which the Ascension has effected.
Christ has ascended into heaven and he is no longer present among us in the same manner as he was present to his apostles, that is to say he is no longer physically and visibly present among his people. Still, we know that he has ascended in order to intercede in our behalf, to pray for us and to answer our prayers. Indeed, the Lord did not abandon us when he ascended to his Father; rather, he his physical separation has brought about a greater unity through his grace working within us.

Now, to be very clear, when I say that it is better for us and for the Church that Christ has ascended into heaven; I do not mean this as a purely theoretical, spiritual, or theological claim. Certainly, it is true, on the level of doctrine, that the Church and each individual Christian has benefited from the Ascension of Christ; but I want to emphasize that, even on an historical and statistical level, we can see that it is better for us that the Lord ascended.
While it may seem to us that there would be more converts to the Faith if only Jesus had remained on earth, we must admit that this is historically not true. During his own life on earth, there were relatively few believers. Certainly, many individuals did follow Christ and many lives were changed and converted, but there was no great mass-conversion. Even the crowd which followed the Lord can scarcely be said to be true believers – one minute they will praise him, but the next they will cry out Crucify him! And we do not need to mention the fact that only a very few remained faithful to him at the Cross.

We must admit that the Church did not grow much during Christ’s life. The number of believers was very small – even the apostles were not much to speak of during this time.
However, after the Ascension, everything changed. Scarcely had our Lord ascended into heaven when, on the feast of Pentecost, the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the Gospel with boldness. In one day, 3,000 people were converted and baptized – more came to believe in that single day after the Ascension than had converted throughout Christ’s whole earthly life!
Moreover, consider how the Church spread throughout the whole world – those who had ignored Christ during his earthly life (I refer to the Greeks and the Romans, as well as many of the Jews), these are now converted by the preaching of the apostles after his Ascension.
Simply looking at the history of the Church, with a scientific perspective, we must admit that it has been better for us since Christ ascended into heaven.

And this points us to the dogmatic or theological and spiritual perspective: What is the reason behind this truth? Why is better for us that Jesus did not remain on earth, but ascended into heaven?
Christ ascends in order to teach us the importance of prayer. If he remained visibly present in our midst, we would not grow in faith as we ought; moreover, we would fail to recognize the power of prayer. Jesus ascended to take our prayers to the Father. The Lord mounts the heights of heaven, not to distance himself from us, but rather to raise us up and to give real power to our prayers. This is why Jesus told us: If you shall ask me any thing in my name, that I will do.

The Lord ascends in order to teach us that, in the final analysis, the only thing that has any real power is prayer! Think of it, he goes forth from this world and completely rejects all that the world has to offer; but, ascending into heaven, he directs our hearts and minds to what is above, to the power of prayer.
The Faith will spread and the Church will grow only through prayer – even the work of missionaries only has power because of prayer. You and I, each of us, will become saints only through prayer.
This is the lesson of the Ascension: As Christ hides himself from our worldly vision, he invites us to look upon him with the eyes of faith. And, as we grow in the interior life of prayer and contemplation, we shall find that our Savior is with us always, until the end of the age.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On Confirmation, Sermon of May 29th

A youth is confirmed in the Usus Antiquior

6th Sunday of Easter
May 29th, 2011
Acts 8:5-8,14-17

They sent them [i.e. the newly baptized Samarians] Peter and John, who went down and prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

No matter what President Obama might tell you; and, no matter what any politician might tell you – Life begins with conception. From the first moment a child is conceived and through till his birth, that child is a human person with all the dignity of a human being.
There is nothing lacking to a newly-conceived child, but he is a full and complete human being. However, although the child is in himself fully and completely a human person, nevertheless we admit that the child must grow into adulthood. Not that there is anything lacking in the child – for life and humanity begins with conception and continues through to birth – but we admit that human nature demands also the natural process of growth into mature adulthood.

This relation between the infant child and the grown adult has been used by the Church Fathers and theologians as an analogy for the relationship between baptism and confirmation. At baptism an individual becomes a Christian and is truly and really incorporated into the mystical body of Christ, the Church. From the moment of baptism, the soul is filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit and lives a new life in Christ. There is nothing lacking to the Christian soul reborn in baptism, excepting that there is need for a growth into spiritual maturity.
Just as the newly conceived or newborn child is truly a human person and yet must grow into adulthood, so too the baptized must come to spiritual maturity – And this is precisely what the sacrament of confirmation does. As baptism give the soul a new birth into Christ, confirmation brings that soul to maturity in the Lord. The confirmed are no longer simply children, but have become adults and even soldiers for the Kingdom of God.

This reality of spiritual maturation from baptism to confirmation is the subject of the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke tells us that a group of individuals in Samaria had been baptized by St. Philip – and this is Philip the deacon, not Philip the apostle. These newly baptized had not yet received confirmation and it was on this account that the Christians in Jerusalem sent the two apostles, Sts. Peter and John, to pray over them and lay hands on them, that these Samarians might receive the graces of confirmation.
St. Luke goes so far as to say of these Samarians, the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on any of them – not, of course, that they had in no way received the Holy Spirit; for, in baptism, they had been filled with the Spirit and with the grace of the whole Trinity. But St. Luke says that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit, meaning that they had not yet received the fullness of the Holy Spirit – for they had only been baptized and had not been confirmed.

From this event, we see just how necessary confirmation is. The Church teaches that, in a qualified sense, confirmation is necessary for salvation. Let me be clear: Confirmation is not simply and absolutely necessary in the way that baptism is necessary. However, St. Thomas Aquinas gives us a helpful analogy when he says that confirmation is necessary for salvation in the same way that a horse (or, we should say, a car) is necessary for a long journey. True, we could travel hundreds of miles by foot, but anyone would know what I meant if I said I needed a car in order to travel from New York to Los Angeles.
Confirmation is necessary for salvation not as though salvation cannot be attained without this sacrament, but insofar as the sacrament is the most fitting (and ordinary) means of coming to salvation. Confirmation brings us to the perfection of the Christian life begun in baptism. Likewise, confirmation bestows upon us new graces which bring us more perfectly and completely to the perfection of salvation.

When we consider the importance and even the relative necessity of confirmation – in addition to the fact that it completes and perfects baptism – we can quickly understand just how important this sacrament is for our Christian lives. It is the grave importance of confirmation which has led our diocese and many dioceses to lower the age of confirmation to the same age as first communion.
Now, to be very clear, I am not saying that what was done in the past was wrong or bad – it worked for the time and had certain pastoral benefits to it. Still, when we consider how important the sacrament of confirmation is and also how many graces it bestows, we can easily see that this sacrament ought not to be delayed so long.
Perhaps in years past, in an age when there was much less temptation and perversion in the world, we could afford to postpone confirmation until around junior-high or even high-school. But today, with the world in the state it is in and all the many evils which are thrown at our children, how could we not want them to receive the helps and the graces of this sacrament? Certainly, there are some drawbacks to moving confirmation up to a younger age (just as there were some advantages to the previous practice of delaying confirmation); however, when we consider the objective value of the graces of the sacrament and consider these graces in light of the horrible perversions of the modern world, it seems pretty clear that our kids can use all the help that they can get. And what better help than the supernatural sacramental graces of confirmation?

Finally, when we think of the graces of this sacrament, recall that the Holy Spirit has called you and chosen you. He has elevated you and built you up through confirmation. And so, when you feel exhausted or stressed, when you doubt whether you have the faith and the courage to carry on, whenever you are tempted to discouragement or despair – recall that you are no longer a mere child, you are now a soldier for Christ! The Holy Spirit is at work in you, what have you to fear?
The grace of almighty God is more powerful than any force in the world. The outcome of the spiritual battle you wage is already decided, if only you will remain faithful to the Lord and follow the new life which is being perfected in you through the graces of your confirmation.