Tag Archives: Pope Francis

The Council of Jerusalem

Our reading at Mass today from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 7-21) brings us to a critical moment in the life of the early church– the Council of Jerusalem, which decided whether and on what terms gentiles would be accepted into the new Christian movement. Its decision to admit the gentiles led to a rapid expansion of the church as non-Jews from all parts of the Roman world became Christians.

Luke Timothy Johnson has a fine commentary on this crucial event. (Acts of the Apostles: Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1992)

Did a meeting really take place? Johnson writes “we can state with considerable confidence that in the first decades of the Christian movement an important meeting was held concerning the legitimacy and basis of the Gentile mission; that participants included Paul and Peter and James and Barnabas; that certain agreements were reached which, in one way or another, secured the basic freedom of the Gentile initiative. The most striking agreement between the sources comes, in fact, at the religious level. With only very slight variation, both Luke and Paul agree that the basis of the mission to the Gentiles was a matter of God’s gift, (Acts15,11. Gal 2,9) and that God was equally at work in the Apostle Paul as he was in the Apostle Peter. (Acts 15,7-8.12; Gal 2,8)

Notice the hesitancy of  the original Jewish followers of Jesus to accept gentiles into their ranks. That’s evident in Peter’s strong reluctance to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius as he visits believers of his own kind around Joppa. Not only are the disciples slow to recognize their Risen Lord, they’re slow to accept his plans for expanding their ranks. Peter must see signs of God at work in Cornelius before baptizing him and his household. Paul, James and Barnabas also must see God’s gifts in the outsiders they meet before they recognize that God is calling them to believe.

God sows seeds of faith, but we’re as slow to recognize the action of God in others and other situations as the first disciples were. We have trouble seeing God’s action in the stranger and in the unexpected. We need  enlightenment.

Johnson notes that the Church’s journey through time is marked by conflict and debate. We must accept those conditions today too. Those who follow Jesus will not always agree with each other; there are strong opinions and differences among believers.

One thing I would add. Besides conflict and debate, our reading today speaks of the “silence” that comes as they debate. We’re in the presence of our transcendent God, whose ways and thoughts are above ours. We need silence to discern God’s will. Debates can get in the way.

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Build the City: Thoughts from Genesis

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For almost two weeks we’ve been reading the creation story from the first part of the Book of Genesis at Mass. Six days after creating the world, God creates man and woman and gives them dominion over the created world. Creation and humanity are inseparable, the first 11 chapters of Genesis make clear, which is why Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si recommends we look at Genesis to understand our relationship with the created world.

Adam and Eve begin life in a garden, for one thing. No partner for Adam appears in the birds and the animals God brings to him, Genesis says, but even as Eve becomes “bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh” she’ s not enough for him. Both need a world beyond themselves. They both need the created world to flourish.

That’s certainly what the Book of Genesis says. For humanity to flourish, it needs to have a good relationship with creation. Human relationships are not enough, we need a relationship with creation, not a dominating relationship, or a selfish relationship, but one of love and care.

It’s an inseparable relationship. At the beginning of the story of Noah, which follows the fall, God says “I will wipe out from the earth the man whom I created.” But it’s not just man God threatens to destroy, it’s also “the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them.” Creation rises and falls with us.

After the deluge, God renews his covenant with creation and the descendants of Noah who are scattered over the earth in order to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else occurs: human beings, driven by a desire for unity, come together to build a city. A common origin and language draws them to live together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens; they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. So they’re punished as their tower becomes a Tower of Babel and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the story from Genesis does not claim God is against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place where human flourishing can take place. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story says a city is good but it can be destroyed by sin.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis recently convened a meeting of mayors from cities throughout the world at the Vatican. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, is looking to cities to be agents for unifying peoples. Cities are important places for humans to flourish.

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates the tower in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. Does the painter see a warning? So many cities suffer from ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city, but still? Its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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Healer of Withered Hearts

      The Gospel for this Wednesday, January 18th, once again reminds me of our purpose as a church, to bring the healing power of God’s love to each other and to this wounded world, as soon as possible, without delay or excuse:

     “Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if He would cure him on the sabbath so they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come up here before us.’ Then He said to the Pharisees, ‘ Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it? ‘ But they remained silent. Looking at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, ‘ Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored.” (Mk 3: 1-5)

     With all eyes upon Him Jesus took the opportunity to challenge,teach, and also to heal. Once again Jesus was breaking the rules of His Jewish religion, putting His own life at risk to show us how to live in the Kingdom.

     His challenge : paraphrasing the words of Pope Francis, are we, the Church, an empty museum for “saints”, or are we called to be “a field hospital” for the wounded, the lost, the withered, the sinner? We have many rules that damn the divorced, the gay person, the addict, the non-believer. Can we begin by welcoming, in our hearts and lives, those outsiders, the errant ones, hungry for the meaning in their lives that Jesus can most certainly provide? I don’t know that Jesus will turn them away because “it’s the sabbath “, or for any other reason. Maybe neither should we.

     His lesson: the time to accept and heal is now, today, with everyone we meet. Let us truly stop and see our brothers and sisters. Let us show interest, empathy, love. Let us risk our own lives and dare to reach out to the ones who might not even trust us. Let us risk criticism or rejection for the sake of love of neighbor.

     The healing: with every little act of mercy for others, the love of Christ reaches within our own withered hearts, and heals us as it changes us. With these hearts open to Jesus, let us accept His light, to change our hardened hearts into hearts of flesh and blood, sources of love to the world.

     Our Lord gave His life for us. May we give our lives to Him, and to the healing of His people.

     Orlando Hernandez

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Learning from Water

“The reason why I came baptizing with water

was that he might be made known to Israel.” (John 1, 29 ff)

In the encyclical letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis urges Christians to let the sacraments lead them into a deeper relationship and respect for creation. Created things like water, bread, wine, oil are signs in the sacramental world inviting us into the divine mysteries; they also call us to care for our common home,  the created world.

Water, for example, is the key sign of the sacrament of baptism. It’s more than the stuff we drink. Water has a long history in the bible, where it symbolizes life and chaos. In the beginning, God creates the world by moving over chaotic, formless waters and then God makes a world that’s good. (Genesis 1, 1-2)

In the story of Noah, God brings new life out of the chaotic flood. The earth becomes fruitful as water, by God’s command, goes back to its boundaries and earth flourishes again. Water is an instrument God uses to bring life.

Because it symbolizes the life and chaos found in the world, it’s no wonder that Jesus begins his ministry by going down into the waters of Jordan River. I doubt the Jordan was sparkling clean then. Judging by the river we see today, it was likely always muddied. It was muddied then as now, muddied as human life is muddied then as now.

jordan-396When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered human experience and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches, especially, see the waters of the Jordan, changed and blessed by the Word made flesh, flowing all over the world. Wherever human life is, wherever life of any kind is found, there is water. It’s a sign of God’s blessing.

Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it also has its chaotic nature. In the gospels it threatened the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”

The scriptures say Jesus is revealed as he goes into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. Jesus continually reveals his power over water. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.

Let’s not forget either, that water today plays a major role in climate change. In the last century the sea level globally has risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years it has risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.

This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.

Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.

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January 1: Looking Ahead with Mary

Mary sorrows copy

We’re beginning a New Year. What will it be like? Some people don’t want to even think about it. If we limit ourselves to political squabbles, terrorist attacks, storms and floods, racial tensions we wont find much to hope for. The commentators and talk shows are pretty pessimistic. Can anyone help us look ahead?

How about Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom we honor today?

Mary didn’t see far into the future in her own lifetime. She didn’t have a lot to go on when the angel left her in Nazareth. She was a woman of faith, rather than  sight, but faith in the future might the greatest gift she gives to us, a faith based on God’s power and not ours, a faith based on God’s love, God’s faithfulness and not ours.

Pope Francis quoted this prayer in his address to his advisors last year. He invited  them to look into the future with faith. God’s plan is unfolding, even if we don’t see it. We can recognize  Mary’s thoughts in the prayer.

“Every now and then it helps us to take a step back and to see things from a distance.

The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is also beyond our visions.

In our lives, we manage to achieve only a small part of the marvelous plan that is God’s work.

Nothing that we do is complete, which is to say that the Kingdom is greater than ourselves.

No statement says everything that can be said. No prayer completely expresses the faith.

No Creed brings perfection. No pastoral visit solves every problem.

No program fully accomplishes the mission of the Church.

No goal or purpose ever reaches completion.

This is what it is about: We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that others will watch over them.

We lay the foundations of something that will develop.

We add the yeast which will multiply our possibilities.

We cannot do everything, yet it is liberating to begin.

This gives us the strength to do something and to do it well.

It may remain incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way.

It is an opportunity for the grace of God to enter and to do the rest.

It may be that we will never see its completion,

but that is the difference between the master and the laborer.

We are laborers, not master builders, servants, not the Messiah.

We are prophets of a future that does not belong to us.”

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Caring for Creation

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St. Francis is one of those super saints we have to keep in mind, even after his feast day. I mentioned in a previous blog the statue of Francis facing St. John Lateran and Pope Innocent’s dream of a young man who, like Francis, held up the church’s walls ready to fall. The statue is a picture of Francis renewing the church.

In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis seems to paint a verbal picture of Francis, holding his arms out to the created world, caring for our endangered planet:

“I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

“Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”.

“His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour.

“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

I like the pope’s words: “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.”

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Matthew, the tax collector

Jews would usually turn away when they passed the customs place where Matthew, the tax-collector, was sitting. But

“As Jesus passed by, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.”

To celebrate their new friendship, Matthew invited Jesus to a banquet at his house with his friends – other tax collectors like himself – and Jesus came with some of his disciples. They were criticized immediately for breaking one of Capernaum’s social codes. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus’ answer was quick: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.

Go and learn the meaning of the words `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Hardly anything is known of Matthew’s part in Jesus’ later ministry, yet surely the tradition must be correct that says he recorded much of what Jesus said and did. A tax-collector would be good at keeping books; did Matthew keep memories? Are there some things that happened that were especially related to him?

The gospels say that wherever Jesus went he was welcomed by tax collectors. When he entered Jericho, Zachaeus, the chief tax collector of the city, climbed a tree to see him pass, since the crowds were so great. Did Matthew point out to Jesus the man in the tree, a tax collector like himself, and then bring them all to Zachaeus’ house, where Jesus left his blessing of salvation? And did tax collectors in other towns come to Jesus because they recognized one of their own among his companions?

Probably so. Jesus always looked kindly on outsiders like Matthew who were targets of so much suspicion and resentment. True, they belonged to a compromised profession tainted by greed, dishonesty and bribery. Their dealings were not always according to the fine line of right or wrong.

But still, they were children of God and, like lost sheep, Jesus would not let them be lost.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis told a group of bishops recently that he got his vocation to be a priest on the Feast of St. Matthew 60 years ago, when he went to confession and heard God’s call, a call of mercy.

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