Photo: Bishop Michael F. Olson with newly ordained priests Fr. Stephen Elser (left) and Fr. Joseph de Orbegozo (right) of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas.
June 3, 2018
Christ the King Catholic Church
Little Rock, Arkansas
Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
Today, God has said “yes” to so many of our prayers in the ordination to the priesthood of Father Stephen Elser. So we are called here in this parish church of Christ the King, to celebrate the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, the most important action that we can do on earth. We gather here to celebrate, in communion with the entire Church throughout the world, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi—Christ’s gift of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the sacrificial gift of the Eucharist. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, “It is the gift of the Eucharist that makes us the Church.” Finally, in celebrating this sacrifice and Eucharistic Banquet on this solemnity and occasion, we come with joy to a deeper gratitude for the gift of the ministerial priesthood and for the particular vocation to the priesthood of Father Stephen Elser.
The word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving.” On this solemnity, we receive the gift that enables us to thank God for the very gift received. Without this gift, we could not fittingly offer God thanks. The priesthood, in a very intentional and intimate way, is both an offering and a gift required and essential to the gift of the Eucharist received and offered and received again.
The Eucharist, as provided through the service of the ministerial priesthood, is more than simply “going to Communion.” The celebration and offering of the Eucharist by the priest and our active participation in this mystery is so much more than simply a “communion service.” The Eucharist is a sacrifice and thus so is the ministerial priesthood. The Eucharist is a perfect act of love—both divine love and human love. The cross is made present through the unbloody sacrifice offered by the priest in the offering of the Mass. We know that without a priest there is no Mass; without the Mass there is no cross; without the cross there is no hope.
At times in my life I have heard people talk about communion in a manner that separates the Body from the Blood of Christ. At Mass, when the Eucharist is offered under both species of consecrated bread and consecrated wine, one can carelessly refer to the consecrated bread as the Body and the consecrated wine in the chalice as the Blood, exclusive of each other. In fact, when one receives Holy Communion under each species of bread and wine, one receives the entire mystery of Communion with the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ offered by the priest in the Eucharist. This Solemnity of Corpus Christi and the occasion of the first Mass offered by Father Stephen Elser offers us cause for reflection on the inseparability of Holy Communion, the priesthood, and sacrifice.
The chalice is the central image used in the Gospel of Mark to connote the suffering of Jesus. In chapter 10 of this Gospel, Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee—James and John—who have asked to sit at His right and His left: “Can you drink the chalice that I drink or be baptized with the Baptism with which I am baptized?” The chalice connotes the suffering that Jesus will experience. Yet, even more than symbolizing existential suffering, the chalice specifically signifies the unconditional love by which Christ conquers sin and death in the free and willing sacrifice of His life in obedience to the Truth of the mission entrusted to Him by His Father. The chalice offered to us by Christ is a share in the ability and willingness to love as Jesus loves. He offers this to us through the ministerial priesthood—the gift received by the Church yesterday in the gift received by Father Stephen Elser and his classmates.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, James and John initially seek from Jesus a place to sit. In His love, Jesus responds by offering them instead a vocation to love and to sacrifice. He offers them a vocation to love God and His people unconditionally with Jesus’ very own love—the sacrifice of and a share in His chalice.
Many of us in our life as the Church, whether we be bishops, priests, deacons, religious, or laity, experience the temptation of James and John to follow Jesus out of a sense of what we can get from Him. Even more, we confuse our discipleship with simply a question of “where do we sit”—passively. When we do so, we ignore the sacrificial character of the Eucharist—to remove the chalice from our communion in the love of Christ. When we do this we fail to appreciate the gift that is offered as a gift of love, and we ignore the grace offered freely to us as the Eucharist. We confuse it with a sense of entitlement in routinely “going to Communion.” Inevitably, when we fall prey to this temptation we also begin to ignore the ministerial or servant character of priesthood and treat it simply as a career with reference only to one’s own selfish preferences and entitlement of where one sits.
The chalice is not some afterthought to the central mystery of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. It is a constitutive part of both. And, perhaps, for those of us undergoing some real experience of suffering, it is the connection to the truth that God has poured Himself out also—out of love for us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The chalice, then, is our connection to the suffering of Jesus Christ united by Him to His love. The ministry of a priest is required to provide this connection between our suffering and love.
The theme of blood, a theme that represents life, runs throughout our readings in this Liturgy. The first reading speaks of the blood of the Old Covenant whereby an isolated and disparate group of refugees have passed over from slavery to sacrificial belonging as God’s covenanted and chosen people. The Gospel reading from Mark speaks of the Blood of Christ that will be shed for the salvation of the many—that is, for all people. The reading from Hebrews speaks of the Blood of Christ that offered once and for all cleanses our consciences and delivers us from slavery to our sins and transgressions. The chalice of salvation spoken of in the proclamation of today’s responsorial psalm is a chalice of the Blood of Christ. It is offered by the priest at Mass and is inseparable from the priest’s life and ministry. The blood that is offered is the blood that flows from the wounds of the Body of Christ inflicted by the intended violence of sin, but offered by the redemptive act of love; two actions that are transformed into one by Jesus in His One Sacrifice, His gift of Himself.
The most painful wounds that the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, suffer today are the wounds of autonomy and isolation, the wounds of despair and presumption, the wounds of cynicism and spiritual indifference. It is the service of the priest to attend to the healing of these wounds in the members of Christ’s Body for whom Jesus has established the priesthood in His Church. The priest is to give of himself in sacrifice, and in that sacrifice to offer the blood spilt by the wounds of these sins in the chalice of salvation offered in compassion and love. It is the vocation of a priest to do this not simply at Mass but in every sacrament he administers, in every word he preaches and with every person he meets.
Yesterday, Father Stephen Elser was ordained for that healing and sacrificial ministry of a priest through the bishop’s hands imposed upon his head and through the anointing of his hands.
His hands became Christ’s hands wounded by the assaults of sin and glorified through the sacrifice of love.
As a child and young man, Father Stephen Elser heard this vocation through his belonging to his father and mother, in his belonging to his entire family, in his belonging to your parish and to your Catholic schools. He heard his calling through the gift of hope in the face of voices of despair and presumption. He most clearly heard his calling through the gift of thanksgiving offered by priests in the celebration of the Eucharist—sacrifice and communion—celebrated here in your parish community of Christ the King.
Father Elser’s ministry as a priest means that he must reach out to those who are most prone to think that they are isolated and do not belong to Christ. He must go to those who maintain that they cannot belong to His Church or to those who wish to belong to Christ and to others, but only on their own terms and therefore, in fact, not at all. It requires of him courageously to take the risk of being vulnerable to be hurt, just as Jesus Christ was wounded, by speaking the Truth well in the face of falsehood, in response to error, in the alleviation of despair or presumption. It most especially means that he is to be docile to Christ’s grace to pray always for the People of God, that all might be washed clean with their thirst quenched from the spiritual indifference of our culture that arrogantly ignores God and our responsibility to care for other human beings. It means that he is to offer his own blood, the sacrifice of his very life in love, in order to offer Christ’s Blood in sacrifice, in raising the cup of salvation.
The grace of gratitude and thanksgiving that Christ offers us, and that Father Stephen Elser will celebrate, in the Eucharist becomes the source and summit of Father Elser’s life and ministry, so that, in part through this ministry, it can also become the source and summit of our own lives—lives always growing more deeply in the sacrifice and unconditional love of Christ whereby we are made to be the Church, God’s Holy People.
Posted by Diocese of Fort Worth at 1:38 PM
May 27, 2018
Christ the King Catholic Church
Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40
Psalm 33:4-5, 6, 9, 18-19, 20, 22
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
In his collection of works on the Holy Trinity, the theologian Joseph Ratzinger relays a story told by Martin Buber about the visit of a young man to an old and learned rabbi. The young man very much wanted a deeper knowledge of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. The visit would require that the young man make a long journey to meet with the rabbi and he would have to be away from his home and the family business for some time to make the journey. The young man’s father-in-law was very much against him making this journey because it appeared to be a frivolous reason to leave his family and business behind. Yet, the young man persisted and set out on the journey. He met with the rabbi and after six weeks returned home.
Upon his return home, his father-in-law was filled with resentment and disdain for what he took to be the young man’s silliness. He spoke to his son-in-law, “Well, what did you learn from the rabbi?” The young man responded, “I have learned that there is a Creator of the world.” The father-in-law was further infuriated and scornful, so he called into the room his 7-year-old grandson and asked him, “Are you aware that there is a Creator of the world?” The little boy replied, “Yes.” The old man coldly glared at his son-in-law with resentment and contempt. The son-in-law exclaimed, “Yes, everyone says that. But do they also learn it?”
On this Holy Trinity Sunday and in this Eucharistic celebration of the first solemn Mass of Father Wade Bass, we consider how God teaches us as Christians that as the Holy Trinity, God is the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier of the world. We consider how it is the vocation and ministry of a priest—of Father Wade Bass in particular—to learn, to proclaim and to teach this mystery; and we give God thanks for all of it.
Father Bass has already begun to teach us. He did so when at the beginning of this Eucharist he invoked the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accompanied by the Sign of the Cross. We hear this invocation so frequently and we recite it without thinking, that it can become redundant and not simply repetitious.
|Bishop Michael F. Olson with Fr. Wade Bass|
There is a distinction to be made between redundancy and repetition. Redundancy in the spiritual life is akin to a popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, with the intention of manipulating a different result each time that one does the same thing.
On the contrary, repetition in the Catholic spiritual life develops our incorporation into the mystery of the Triune God, freely offered and fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Repetition fosters the formation of our character with every full human virtue exemplified in Jesus Christ.
For us priests, repetition fosters our full configuration with Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of His Church. Redundancy has to do with vicious circularity (doing the same thing again and again without making progress or accomplishing anything except narcissistic absorption). Repetition has to do with the spiral: there is always forward growth and momentum in a spiral even as it circles again and again over similar words, patterns, ideas and themes. Redundancy enslaves us; repetition liberates us for love.
The bitter fruits of redundancy are isolation, complacency and entitlement; the sweet fruits of repetition are gratitude, humility and joy. Redundancy in the spiritual life of a priest leads him to functional minimalism; repetition in the spiritual life of a priest leads him into deeper waters of conversion and configuration with the life of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church—Who offered His entire life freely and obediently to His Father and in loving sacrifice for the life of His sheep—and He calls us, His priests, to do the same.
What is at the heart of this redundancy? Is it atheism, the smug and arrogant refusal to believe that God exists? No. At the heart of this redundancy is a much older and stale malady, that is, idolatry—the worship of false gods. The real pastoral challenge that the Church faces today and against which priests must courageously battle is not so much the pretense of atheism. Rather, it is the seduction of idolatry.
Idolatry occurs when we lose sight of the cross in our lives; when we refuse to love and to sacrifice ourselves for others. Idolatry results when we refuse to enter into the mystery of the Holy Trinity into which we were baptized and for which we as priests were ordained. Idolatry is when we make ultimate gods of ourselves and of our own preferences and drives; it is when we prefer redundant manipulation and control over selfless love and sacrifice. We forge these egoisms into many different totems, the most pernicious of which is the false god of our autonomy—the most dominant idol in our contemporary pantheon.
It is the Sign of the Cross and the confident invocation of the Trinity that saves us from idolatry. Every time we make the Sign of the Cross we invoke the Holy Trinity. In particular, for priests, every sacrament administered begins simultaneously with the Sign of the Cross and the invocation of the Trinity and then ends simultaneously with the Sign of the Cross and the blessing by the Trinity.
Our entrance into the loving communion of the Trinity is through the sacrifice and cross of Jesus Christ—be clear that there is no other entry into this mystery of love except the cross; it is our only hope for salvation. The cross of Jesus unites perfectly divine love and human love in one action. The divine love is that of the Holy Trinity—a relationship among the persons that does not dissolve or enmesh into each other. It is also the communion of the loving human obedience of the Son to the Father transparently manifested by the Holy Spirit.
It's our entrance because it is simultaneously human and divine—in the cross of Jesus humanity and divinity meet perfectly without the tinny alloy of manipulation or domination. That is why the priest begins the Mass as he does both simultaneously in the name of the Trinity and with the Sign of the Cross. We learn the lesson that God is the Creator of the world through the cross. We learn the lesson that God is the Redeemer and the Savior of the world through the cross. We learn the lesson that God sanctifies the world through the cross. The cross is made present through the unbloody sacrifice offered by the priest in the offering of the Mass. We know that without a priest there is no Mass; without the Mass there is no cross; without the cross there is no hope.
The priest's vocation then is to guide and to shepherd the people of God through teaching this lesson by his entire life as he is configured to Christ at his ordination. The priest especially must be on guard against the seductions of idolatry that reduce his vocation as a shepherd to either a casual employment as a hired hand or even worse to degeneration into a rapacious wolf.
This caution requires humble transparency on the part of the priest. It is a transparency only offered by the grace of the Holy Spirit who points always to Jesus Christ and to the Father and not to Himself. Without the guidance of the Holy Spirit such transparency becomes lacking in a priest and is soon replaced by a Gnostic secrecy of entitlement or the blackmail of the devil.
The devil employs seductions against us as priests that distract us from our own entrance into the mystery of the Trinity—that is the entrance that is the acceptance of our particular share in the cross and the willingness to sacrifice our lives for the sake of Christ's people. These seductions are legion. They can be as inebriating as alcohol; they can be as stultifying as our excessive attention to hobbies; they can be as aggressive as greed or as alluring as lust. Nevertheless, make no mistake about it; they take us away from the communion of the Holy Trinity and the love of the cross and they isolate us from God and from each other. The only defense against this is our share in the cross.
The degree to which the priest is available to the people and loves them as Christ loves them in the sacrifice of the cross; is the measure of fidelity and fulfillment in a priest's life and ministry. Without the cross, a priest's identity is confused by the totems of entitlement instead of the selfless love and communion of the Holy Trinity. When the cross is absent the priest then only says that the Triune God is the Creator, the Redeemer, and Sanctifier of the World—but he doesn't learn it or worse—he ignores or forgets it and becomes unable and unwilling to teach it.
It’s important to note that in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel the disciples are specifically entrusted with teaching all the nations to keep everything that Jesus has commanded them to keep and to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This is a different commissioning than the commissioning that they received earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. The commissioning recorded in today’s Gospel reading involves the Holy Trinity and only is offered after the disciples have entered into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. The Gospel of the Holy Trinity can only be proclaimed and taught in tandem with the cross and resurrection—which is unconditional love.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with the angel’s proclamation to St. Joseph in his dream that the birth of Jesus will bring “Emmanuel”—God is with us. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the promise of Jesus that He is with us until the end of the world. The life of a priest is meant to begin and end with this covenantal mission of “God with us”—His priests and His Church. The mission is to serve and not to be served.
The beauty of the priest’s life and ministry is that they are imbued by a Trinitarian character. The priest imparts the Holy Spirit in administering the sacrament of Baptism; the priest governs and shepherds a parish with the life-giving generosity of the Father; and because a priest is configured to the Son at his ordination, he is invited into the intimacy of the Son’s sacrificial prayer of consecration spoken to the Father at the Last Supper, when the priest at Mass speaks Christ’s words in Christ’s person but with the voice of his own first person—“This is my body, this is my blood.”
Father Wade Bass, yesterday, Christ gave you a particular and special share in His Sonship as He has done generously with every priest whom He has called since He first called His Apostles and entrusted them with the mission of His Church. In so doing, as a priest you received from Christ the participation of intimacy between Jesus and His Father, with Whom He has first conversed in choosing to call you by name to follow Him as His priest. With a special grace, you address in persona Christi, “Abba Father”—as we read today in the letter to the Romans.
Yesterday was a beginning for you in learning that God is the Creator, the Redeemer, and Sanctifier of the world. It is a beginning in Christ who is not just ALPHA but is also OMEGA. We pray that you and each of us priests will end as you begin—with Christ. We pray that He will be with you, and through your priestly ministry be with us until the end of the world. We pray for this in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
May 19, 2018
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Psalm 89: 21-22; 25-27
The Book of Deuteronomy reveals a promise that is unique and different than many of the other promises regarding the coming of the Messiah, unveiled in other parts of the Old Testament. In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses speaks, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, that is the one to whom you shall listen.” The point of the promise is that the Messiah will be a new and ultimate prophet, superior even to Moses. He will be a prophet who will fulfill the Covenant of the Law.
The role of the prophet distinguished God’s chosen people significantly from the surrounding Gentile tribes. Other tribes attempted to force entry into the future and to manipulate it through the employment of magicians or charmers; but because Israel had been chosen by the one true God and given the gift of faith—they received prophets from the Lord in place of charmers. What is the difference?
Charmers cajole idols and conjure future events for the purpose of selfish gain in an effort to control the future with the result that the false gods dominate the lives of the charmers and of those who listen to them and thereby making them slaves. Prophets, on the other hand, discern and reveal the authentic desires of God for His People. Moses, as a prophet, revealed God’s desire of the exodus of His chosen people from slavery and from sin. Authentic prophesy requires that the prophet first listen and then speak intimately with God on God’s terms. God’s terms include in God’s time.
We see in the history of God’s chosen people that there are sad moments when Israel and their prophets become afraid and impatient with God’s timing and so they set aside prophesy for the false and inebriating seductions of charm. When this occurs, the chosen people choose their own slavery in place of God’s desires for them.
Moses is the prophet of the Covenant—the Ten Commandments—the prophet of the Law. His prophesy establishes Israel’s identity as belonging to God and to each other. There is a strong communal element to Moses’ vocation as a prophet. This wandering group of exiled slaves and refugees from Egypt become one people, that is, God’s chosen people through Moses’ prophetic vocation and leadership. Moses reveals God’s desires for them. Moses speaks the truth to them. The Truth liberates them from slavery.
Our first reading today tells us that before Moses speaks to Israel of God’s desires for the people, Moses first listens and speaks with God as with a friend. The people worship in unity each in their own place when Moses converses with the Lord in the tent of intimate friendship; they not only follow Moses’ example but they also rely on Moses’ intimate conversation with the Lord God for them to worship authentically and to become their truest selves—to receive their clear identity as the chosen people of the Lord united in the Covenant with Him. This covenant and unity come about because of Moses’ intimate conversation with the Lord as with a friend. Yet, despite this closeness, Moses’ request to see the face of God is refused by God.
It will be for Jesus, the prophet greater than Moses, to speak to the glorious face of the Father not only as a friend but as a Son. Jesus fulfills the Covenant made by God with Moses. As we read in the Gospel of John, “From His fullness we have all received, Grace in place of Grace, because while the Law was given through Moses, Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed Him.” The face of God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus leads us to consider our Gospel reading from Mark in which we read that Christ spends the entire night in conversation with God before descending the mountain and calling His Apostles each by name. Jesus’ conversation with God surpasses even the nearness of friendship extended by God to Moses. Rather, Jesus speaks with God face to face with the intimacy and trust of God’s Son. As the Son, Jesus both reveals and is the face of the Father that Moses longed to see. In descending from the Mountain he calls each Apostle by name—He calls them and speaks with them as friends—they see His face as a friend sees another friend’s face. They are commanded to be with Him at the same time that they are sent to prophesy to the Truth of God’s desires of redemption for His people—the desires incarnate in Jesus Christ Himself.
Today, in your ordination to the priesthood, you are called again by name. In your ordination to the priesthood Jesus Christ calls you friends and you see His face as that of a friend. You are called to be with Him and you are sent to prophesy to His people by preaching, teaching, and exemplifying the entire Truth of His Gospel. In the celebration of the sacraments you will prophetically reveal God’s desires for His people. These desires include entrance into eternal life, freedom from original sin and membership in His Church through Baptism; these desires include the merciful absolution of sins and correction of vice in the Sacrament of Penance; these desires include the prophetic witness of the permanent, selfless, and life-giving love of the Sacrament of Matrimony in the consent made between a man and a woman; these desires include the healing of sin’s effects in illness and death through the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick; and most especially these desires include the celebration of the Eucharist whereby His People see Christ’s face in your proclamation and preaching of the Gospel, in each other as members of the gathered assembly, in your attentively reverent and priestly presence as celebrant and presider, and most especially in the bread and wine consecrated through your praying of Christ’s words becoming His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
The prophetic character of your priestly vocation is nourished by the time that you spend with Jesus in prayer as with a friend. The People of God, who are made the Church through the celebration of the Eucharist, depend upon your time spent speaking with Christ as with a friend. Just as the chosen people of the Old Testament depended upon and followed Moses’ example of intimate and prayerful conversation with God in order that they could worship authentically, thus, the Priestly People, His Church, depends upon your prayerful conversation with God in Christ at the Eucharist and also in your ongoing life of prayer spoken with God as with a friend. Christ desires that you treat Him as a friend and not as a passing acquaintance or as a periodically useful benefactor. The People of God depend on this. Without this patient friendship, the prophetic aspects of your priestly vocation run the risk of becoming corrupted into a type of charm resulting in manipulation for your selfish entitlement and the people’s inebriation with a false gospel of consumption based upon their ideological preferences.
To accomplish His desires for all of His People, in calling you by name and calling you His friends, He offers you even more than friendship in your priestly ordination. Christ offers you a particular and special share in His Sonship. He shares with you the intimacy of His sacrificial prayer of consecration spoken to the Father at the Last Supper whereby you as the priest celebrant speak Jesus’ words in Him but with the voice of your first person—“This is my body, this is my blood.” In so doing, as a priest you receive from Christ the participation of intimacy between Him and His Father, with Whom He has first conversed in choosing to call you by name to follow Him as His priests.
The Rite of Ordination begins with the expressed desire of the Church that you be ordained as priests. Your worthiness is attested to, as much as any human being’s worthiness can be attested to, for the enormous responsibility and privilege of the priesthood. Earlier I began by choosing you as brothers for the priestly office. In a few moments, I will address you again but this time as sons.
The promise of obedience that you will make to me and to my successors is the obedience not of a slave but of a son. It is an obedience that involves loving discipline and not simply minimal compliance. It is an obedience that is relational and communal, not private and subjectively interpreted. As the obedience of a son it requires of me as your bishop the reciprocal attention and care of a father for the sake of the unity and mission of the Church desired by Christ and prayed for specifically by Him at His Last Supper that all may be one. In other words, the People of God require that we make ourselves available to each other in this filial relationship of obedience frequently and intentionally. Otherwise we run the risk of wrongly considering obedience to be an unjust hindrance to personal autonomy and further to misunderstand the fatherly office of bishop as needed only annually as a dispensary of sacred chrism for one’s own private ministry. Neither the bishop nor the priest should be presumptuous of the integrity of this relationship as essential to the health and life of the Church as intended by Christ and desired by the Father.
I would offer to you one final point for reflection. To assist us in receiving His gift of a priestly share in His Sonship, Christ has also given us the gift of Mary, His Mother, to be our Mother too. As He died on the Cross for our salvation He entrusted to the Beloved Disciple the care of His Blessed Mother—our care for her and her care for us. Christ is specific in that she is to be our mother and we are to be her sons. While she is the Mother and Help of all Christians, she offers in a particular way her motherly care for us as Her Son’s chosen priests. She assists us in cultivating the virtue of purity of heart; she fosters in us a sense of approachable compassion for all of God’s People; she assists us in pondering with docility the Word of God in our hearts and enfleshing it through our preaching; and she guides us as she guided the stewards at Cana by encouraging us to do whatever He tells us to do. Most especially our Blessed Mother assists us in saying yes to God with trust in the midst of frightening circumstances that would be overwhelming and insurmountable without God’s Grace. She saves us from arrogance and offers us confidence to fulfill the prophetic responsibilities of our priestly vocation. Pray to her.
|The Incredulity of Saint Thomas|
Caravaggio, 1602, Public Domain
April 8, 2018
Saint Mark’s Catholic Church
1 John 5:1-6
The disciples experience the glorified Jesus in the setting of their being gathered together in the upper room. In some ways, this initial gathering is prompted by the fear caused by the trauma of the crucifixion that has been perpetrated. In their fears they have locked the doors. Yet, Jesus appears to them as they are gathered together and imparts peace to them with the same words that I spoke to greet you gathered here today with our own fears and lack of certainty: “Peace be with you.” In the gathering of the disciples they encounter the glorified Jesus and they receive His gift of mercy, His gift of peace, and His gift of faith. In this gathering of us at Mass today as disciples of Jesus Christ, prompted in part by our own fears and sinfulness, we encounter the glorified Jesus and we receive His gift of mercy, His gift of peace, and His gift of faith.
Thomas is not present among the gathered disciples in that first encounter with Jesus in which they receive the gift of faith. Thomas hears what they say but he is rigid in his explicit doubts regarding the truth of what they tell him. There might be many motives for Thomas’ initial rejection of the testimony of the other disciples. Perhaps it’s too difficult for Thomas to believe; perhaps Thomas has sadness over Jesus’ death; perhaps Thomas is ashamed of his disloyalty to Jesus in abandoning Christ when He needed Thomas to be a friend. The important point is that the other disciples do not abandon Thomas in his doubts. They don’t judge Thomas or expel him. They remain with Thomas; they listen to Thomas; they share their experience of Jesus and their faith with Thomas. Their faith might not be so certain because the doors of the room remain locked at the time of Jesus’ second appearance to them. Yet, they remain gathered together because faith does not bring one to self-reliance. Their faith is not a private experience; it is the shared experience of their communal identity as the Church. Our faith is not a private experience; it’s shared as communal in our life as the Church.
Thomas sets conditions before he will accept faith in the Resurrection of Jesus; these conditions include the intention to inspect Jesus’ wounds in almost forensic detail. The disciples have been entrusted with the mission of mercy, the power to forgive sins. This entrusted mission has enabled them to be merciful and patient with Thomas even in their own fears and doubts. Jesus peacefully encounters them again through the doors that their fears have locked. He mercifully agrees to meet Thomas’ conditions for faith and in so doing manifests their inadequacy. This encounter of faith with the risen Christ occurs in the presence of the disciples gathered together as the Church. It is not an isolated experience of a crowd of individuals each of them pursuing their own happiness. Our encounter of faith with the mercy of the risen Christ occurs in our presence as the disciples gathered together at Mass and in that gathering transformed into the Church through the Eucharist.
Jesus shows Thomas His wounds and in so doing reveals to Thomas his own wounds. Jesus’ wounds are real wounds; they are not healed wounds; they are not scabby wounds; they are not bloody or infected wounds; they are glorified wounds in the mercy of the truth of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
Thomas has been confused about the order of things. He has thought that vision leads to faith; rather it is the shared gift of faith that provides authentic and true vision. It is the gift of faith that leads Thomas and all of the disciples ever deeper into the mystery of perfect mercy and love, the love of the Cross and sacrifice of Jesus. The experience of doubt is not a sufficient reason not to be present or not to be received by the community of the disciples, that is, the Church, to encounter the glorified Christ through faith. This is true for Thomas and the early disciples spoken of in today’s Gospel; it is also true for each of us gathered here today. We, too, can be like Thomas and confuse the order of things by thinking that vision leads to faith.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux writes, “Of all the movements, sensations and feelings of the soul, love is the only one in which the creature can respond to the Creator and make some sort of similar return however unequal though it be. For when God loves, all He desires is to be loved in return. The sole purpose of His love is to be loved, in the knowledge that those who love Him are made happy by their love of Him.”
This reliance upon faith in Jesus as the author of life includes but extends beyond the simple limits of the crucifixion of Jesus as an event recorded in history. There is always a struggle to define the death and Resurrection of Jesus exclusively on historical terms. The actual event is essential and indispensable for authentic Christian faith; it really happened. Yet, the Death and Resurrection of Jesus are not definable exclusively on the terms of the world as the world discloses itself to us. It is more meaningful than historical events like the writing of the Declaration of Independence or the arrival of Columbus in America. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ together transcend history and make present the authentic mercy and love of God in our present lives.
The Liturgy of these days of the Easter season includes readings from the Gospels that depict the initial appearances of the Risen Jesus to the disciples. Two of these accounts offer us an important insight in our own lives of faith. Mary Magdalene, who tradition identifies as one of the “Marys” who was present at the Cross, recognized Jesus when He spoke her name, calling her into her identity as redeemed. She then attempts to cling to Him as she knew Him to be in the time before the crucifixion. It’s a type of nostalgia — things were so much better with Jesus before the Cross. On the other hand, Thomas attempts to set criteria by which he can know Jesus on Thomas’ own terms in the future — knowledge not born of faith but one born of Thomas’ own false need to control. Each time, Jesus calls both Mary and Thomas into the present moment away from the past of sinfulness to be denied and away from the future to be feared, each of which does not exist in reality.
We receive faith through the witness of the Church in the present moment. This is one reason why priests and deacons respond at their ordination to the call of their name to Holy Orders by answering with the word: “present.” It is the reason that a man and a woman in matrimony consent to be attentive and present to each other in each moment of their lives through permanence, fidelity, and openness to God’s gift of children.
We receive the gift of faith in our being present in our doubts and attentive to Christ in the Eucharist, in the Gospel proclaimed, in the priest-presider, and in each other in this assembly of disciples made to be united as the Church in the celebration of the Mass. This is why we need to be present weekly at Mass when we are weak in faith or when we are strong in faith. It’s essential that we show up at Sunday Mass and not simply live our faith in the self-absorption of the computer screen or of the iPhone. Our presence is an act of gratitude to Christ and an act of generosity to each other. Faith is not a matter of nostalgia for the past nor is it a form of idealism for the future.
Thomas had set conditions for his decision to believe. Jesus showed how futile these conditions were for faith when Jesus shows Thomas His glorified wounds. This experience of Thomas in the loving presence of the disciples gathered together prompts in him the gift of the faithful cry, “My Lord, and my God.”
The glorified wounds of Christ are manifested in the presence of the Church, gathered in that room and gathered here today — the wounded Apostles, the wounded disciples are glorified as well in the wounds of Christ. They are no longer the wounds of sin, the wounds of Good Friday. They are the wounds of mercy and of love. The Love of Christ through the Cross engenders the eternal life and peace afforded us in His Resurrection. Because of Christ’s introduction of perfect love into death through His sacrifice on the Cross, it is in and through the acceptance of death that eternal life mercifully enters into the world; not through denial or evasion of sin and death. Through this grace, in this faith we are then able to love as Christ loves, without condition.
Thomas hears; then he believes; then he sees. Thomas begins by thinking that seeing leads to believing. Yet, in encountering Christ in the gathered presence of the disciples whose testimony he has heard, Thomas comes to know that it is faith that leads to sight. In the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “You wish to see, listen. Hearing is a step towards vision.”