The very Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul is itself a reminder that these two great pillars of the Church’s life are closely related. In front of the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the two saints together flank Maderno’s imposing façade. At the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, the martyrdom of both saints is shown in the courtyard that opens before the entrance to the church. And in the sacred liturgy, that most resplendent “architecture” of our faith which gives shape and structure to our worship of God, these great men are historically always honoured side by side.
In his apostolic letter on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Saint John Paul II wrote, ‘the Liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ’. In the sacred liturgy, then, the praying Church on earth encounters her Lord and God in a unique way as she is caught up in the eternal worship of heaven – the selfless love-giving relationship between the persons of the Most Blessed Trinity.
It is for this reason that we can describe the sacred liturgy, in the words of Father Faber of the Oratory, as ‘the most beautiful thing this side of heaven’. And it is to emphasize this reality that the sacred liturgy bids us join the singing of the Sanctus, together with the saints and angels in the Church’s hymn of praise, a Church present both in earth and in heaven. Thus we can say that the worship of the New Jerusalem is, in the authentic celebration of the sacred liturgy, presented to us who still labour below. In the sacred liturgy, we say, the curtain between heaven and earth is pulled back for us to see into the fullness of the life to which we are called.
This homily was given at the Sung Mass on the XVII Sunday after Pentecost at Old Saint Mary’s church in Chinatown, Washington, D.C:
In the opening of his masterful Encyclical Letter on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI referred to today’s gospel scene, commenting, ‘Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus […] Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us’ (§1).
This is both a strong and a beautiful instruction in the Christian life. Strong, because it reveals to us the somewhat uncomfortable truth that the extent to which we love our neighbour is a reflection of the extent to which we love God. And beautiful, because it calls us to a more profound relationship with God, through the bonds of charity which we share with our brothers and sisters – those who share in Christ’s dignity, simply because he has chosen to take on our human nature and redeem it. As Pope Benedict points out, there is an intrinsic connection between our love and service of God, and our recognition of him in our fellow man. In and through the miracle of the incarnation – the enfleshment of God himself – Christ’s divine nature and human nature are fused together for all eternity and we certainly cannot separate them out and still profess an authentically Christian worship of God.
Chapter Two of Sherry Weddell’s book is entitled, We don’t know what normal is. Here she underlines the dramatic – but often unspoken – truth that a personal encounter with Jesus Christ is not the reserve of Protestant Evangelical language, but an authentic part of the Christian life as understood by the Church throughout the ages.
The writings of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI are littered with quotations about this ‘friendship’ with the Lord Jesus, but it is nothing new. Pope Saint Pius X, as noted by Pope Benedict, ‘teaches all of us that a deeply personal relationship with Christ that we cultivate and grow day by day must always be at the foundation of our work to spread the faith, wherever it may be’ (BXVI, General Audience, 18 August 2010). Saint Philip Neri spoke to the Lord openly and personally in many of his spontaneous prayers – Jesus, be a Jesus to me. This is not the mutterings of a crazed Televangelist, but a child of God who lives the promises of his baptism – his incorporation into the mystical Body of Christ – and wishes to make make disciples of all the nations (Mt. 28:19).
In his 2007 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (SC), Pope Benedict XVI remarked that ‘Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty’ (SC §41). I would like to offer, here, a few short reflections on how a better understanding and knowledge of this simple, guiding principle, might underpin our celebrations of the Eucharist.
First, it is the duty of the Priest (and all those assisting with the celebration) to ensure that everything neccesary is made ready before the Mass begins. This may seem to be an obvious point, but being ‘ready’ does not simply mean being organised; it means being spiritually prepared for the role we undertake in the Sacred Liturgy, from the Priest-Celebrant to those in the pew. The Priest should take – and should be given – space and time to prepare to ascend the altar, both in the church and in the sacristy before Mass. Bishop Peter Elliott recently called for the mandatory and official use of the Vesting Prayers in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This is a good way for the Priest to recognise that he is not simply ‘getting changed’, but being clothed to enter the Holy of Holies. In the Personal Ordinariates, some priests make use of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, from the Extraordinary Form, as a preparation with the servers before Mass. This, too, can inculcate a proper sense of preparation and readiness for the sacred action.
Two weeks ago I attended the 2013 Sacra Liturgia conference held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. The conference was organised by Bishop Dominique Rey of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon as an opportunity ‘to study, promote, and renew appreciation for the liturgical formation and celebration’. I hope, over the next few weeks, to write up some more comments on the excellent talks and papers that were delivered, but I also wanted to simply make note of a few of the particular highlights of the conference whilst they are fresh in my mind.
Today’s news from Rome is that the Cardinals who are meeting for the General Congregations will no longer give interviews about the meetings and about the forthcoming conclave. As I understand it, this is in keeping with the media blackout after Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005, though with the difference is that this time the Holy See Press Office will continue to give a daily Press Briefing, broadcast live on www.news.va.
It’s easy to assume that a heavy-handed ‘Vatican’ has closed-down the dialogue, but this would miss an important point. Without a Pope, the Cardinals themselves are the principal authority in the Church and so it is only the Cardinals who can (self-)impose this ban, which is what they’ve done. It’s also worth noting that the reason for enforcing this ban is that the confidential nature of the General Congregations was apparently undermined this morning by an article in La Stampa, an Italian daily newspaper.
Given at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, on the third Sunday of Lent:
The season of Lent this year takes on a particular character as we begin now to pray for the election of a new successor to Saint Peter as the Bishop of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. In Pope Benedict XVI we saw a man whose own personal holiness and sincere pursuit of the truth was an example to us all in the Christian life, but of particular significance in understanding the spiritual purpose of this great season: a renewal of our sense of reliance on the very person of Jesus Christ whose passion, death, and resurrection we strive to proclaim in every word, thought, and deed. During Lent, we turn to the Lord with a sense of urgency, fixing our eyes on the one who saves: Oculi mei semper ad Dominum. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, because it is the Lord who set us free (cf. Introit, Third Sunday of Lent; Ps. 24: 15-16).
That reliance on Christ, that need we have for his mercy and his grace, is reflected in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Saint Luke. In his telling of the parable of the fig tree, the Lord tells the gathered people of their need to repent: ‘Unless you repent’, he says, ‘you will all perish’. If, like the fig tree, we cease to bear fruit – that is we cease to show signs of the life which God has implanted in us through our baptism – then our lives have very little purpose at all. It’s not simply that we may as well not live without that intrinsic purpose, it’s that, like the fig tree, life without fruit is barren and perfunctory. Without the life which God has given us – the life of grace – we risk bearing no fruit, giving nothing to the world, and being – if anything at all – a sign of death and lifelessness.
This homily was given on Thursday 28 February 2013, at a Solemn Mass for the Election of a Pope, at St Patrick’s, Soho Square.
What sets our faith apart? Quite simply, it is this: ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’. These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI, now Bishop of Rome Emeritus, in his 2005 encyclical on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est, and in many ways they an insight into his pontificate, and a template for the whole of the Christian life.
Over the past few days certain parts of the press and media have had a field-day with the Church, and as the Cardinals gather in Rome and the conclave begins, to elect a new Pope, we will surely see much more speculation and intrigue appear. The fundamental misunderstanding which seems to be at the heart of these reports is this: however much we try and say otherwise, the world can only really see the Church as an institution and the Pope as a kind-of CEO. For ‘secular culture’, the idea that we are not simply dealing with the appointment of a new President or Prime Minister, is one which is alien to most people. But if we look at the example of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, and even his resignation, we can all find again the true nature of the Church and the essential vocation of the Christian life to which we are all called.