2017-05-28 Seventh Sunday of Easter – John 17:1-11A

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It is a wise policy, issuing from experience, and one hopes not from cynicism, to distrust email messages that begin by saying that the writer is “excited to share” something. Inevitably, this involves an overuse of exclamation points and much self-advertising. In religion, various movements keep pumping themselves up with excited promises of something great about to happen, some new program or rally or change of custom that blurs the distinction between the Good News and novelty.

Such was the case in the area of Phrygia in what is now Turkey during the second century. A convert priest named Montanus stirred up a lot of excitement when he confused himself with the Holy Spirit and started to deliver various “prophecies” while in a trance. Like the typical fanatic so defined, he was confident that God would agree with him if only God had all the facts. In a languid and dissolute period, his ardor and amiability attracted many as far away as North Africa and Rome, and even the formidable intellect of Tertullian was misled by it.

Sensational outbursts of emotion were thought to be divinely inspired, and the formal clerical structure of the Church was caricatured as the sort of rigidity that quenches the spirit. Maintaining that prophecy did not end with the last apostle, new messages were declared, sensationalism in the form of purported miracles and exotic languages was encouraged, and women like Priscilla and Maximilla left their husbands and decided that they could be priests.

In the twentieth century, the Montanist heresy sprung up again in the Pentecostalist sect, and even many Catholics were attracted to “reawakenings” that gave the impression that the Paraclete promised by Christ had finally come awake, having  been dormant pretty much since the early days of the Church. While bizarre in its extreme forms, such as dancing in churches and barking like dogs while rolling on the floor, any quest for novelty quickly grows bored, for nothing goes out of fashion so fast as the latest fashion.

In preparing for the celebration of Pentecost, the Church prays for a holy reception of the truth “ever ancient, ever new” that comes not through a Second Pentecost or a Third Pentecost, but through an enlivened embrace of God’s timeless grace. Christ makes “all things new” and does not superficially make all new things. (Revelation 21:5) Heresies are fads, but the eternal dogmas of the Faith never go out of date because they never were fashionable to begin with.

Chesterton thus described the romance of orthodoxy by which the Church is like a chariot “thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” That truth needs no artificial excitement or manufactured heartiness, and the Gospel has no orchestrated exclamation points, for when the mystery of God is revealed, everything falls silent (Revelation 8:1), and then . . . the Great Amen.

2017-05-21 Sixth Sunday of Easter John 14:15-21

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Often have I reflected on a story that an Australian bishop told me, about a man on a railroad platform who said “I am not a Catholic, but there is one thing about the Catholic Church I have never understood.” The prelate replied, “Only one thing? I am a bishop, and there are many things about the Church I do not understand.”

That is how it must be, since mortals did not invent the Church. The countless sects and denominations structured by humans have a certain cogency and predictability because they are fashioned according to natural understanding. The Holy Catholic Church was planned by divine intelligence, and in consequence there are mysterious elements that are unpredictable and often contradictory to limited logic. The “Church Militant,” which exists in time and space, in contrast to the “Church Expectant” of the faithful departed and the “Church Triumphant” of the saints, will be a mix of the best human accomplishments and the bleakest human foibles, but none of that alters the Church’s supernatural character as the living presence of Christ.

An architect knows where each door leads in the house he has designed, but God made the Church, and so we have to find our way around in it by the guidance of Christ who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). To those who say that they accept Christ but not the institutional Church, the answer is that the Church is an institution because Christ instituted it, and so the Church is indispensable.

With deliberate symmetry, the Lord invoked the pattern of forty days that is threaded through salvation history, spending forty days on earth from his Resurrection to his Ascension. His departure from this world was the means by which he could be omnipresent, no longer confined to one generation in time or one acre of space. His instruction as he ascended was to bring others into his Church: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

When I was appointed as pastor here on 34th Street, the question frequently asked was, “How many Catholics are in that neighborhood?” As our Lord was “taken up,” he did not send his disciples into Catholic neighborhoods, because there were none.  So the right question must be: “How many Catholics will there be in the neighborhood?”

There will be many things we do not understand about the Church. The one thing that must be understood, because Christ made it so very clear, is that he says of himself, and by so saying says of his Church: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

2017-05-07 Fourth Sunday of Easter – John 10:1-10

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The month of May stirs feelings most in lands where it follows dismal winters. In the northern damps Chaucer chanted: “And after winter folweth grene May.” By understandable instinct, it is the month specially dedicated to our Lord’s “Mother of Fair Love.” This May 13 will have a special elegance of symmetry, marking the hundredth anniversary of the day three children in the remote village of Fatima north of Lisbon said they had seen the Virgin Mary.

That was a “private revelation” which, since it is not part of the essential deposit of faith, is not like a doctrine that Catholics must acknowledge as true. But what happened at Fatima in 1917 is one of twelve apparitions which the Church considers “worthy of belief.”

Lucia Santos and her two young cousins claimed to have received heavenly messages and visions on the thirteenth of each month from May to October. Jacinta Marto died shortly after that at the age of nine, and her brother Francisco died at ten. This week Pope Francis will go to Fatima and declare both of them saints. The beatification process began a few years ago for Lucia, who died in 2005 at the age of 97.

The  ways that some have tried to read their own ideas into the messages do not detract from the astonishing manner in which these untutored visionaries conveyed such powerful descriptions of things eternal, and even spoke of  Russia and the Communist revolution, of which they had no earthly knowledge. Most riveting was the promise the Lady gave of a “sign” which then happened exactly on the appointed day on October 13 when over 60,000 people, including many who had come to scoff, saw the sun appear to spin and seem to plummet near the ground.

In 1981 as a student in Rome, I saw the chaos on May 13 when St. John Paul II was shot. A year later, he went to Fatima and presented one of the bullets to the shrine, saying that he had come “because, on this exact date last year in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, there was an attempt on the life of your Pope, which mysteriously coincided with the anniversary of the first vision at Fatima, that of 13 May 1917. The coincidence of these dates was so great that it seemed to be a special invitation for me to come here.” It has been said that coincidences are God’s way of remaining invisible.

In 2000, the future Pope Benedict XVI, having visited Sister Lucia, wrote: “The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God. But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word.”