Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday Homily

As I have examined my own spiritual life and interacted with others through ministry at many different parishes throughout seminary and Priesthood, one thing most evident to me is that a true concept of sin is quite hard to find. I think we all, myself included, at different times in our lives vacillate between a lack of a sense of sin on one hand and a scrupulosity or shame on the other hand. But, it is when we are not vacillating, when we are not moving from one to the other as we seek with God’s help to find the truth in the middle, then we are really in trouble.

When the lack of the sense of sin becomes concrete and determines our way of life then we have started down a troubling path indeed. This type of person coasts through each day, one after the next, oblivious to the little sins he commits that often add up even to unnoticed mortal sins. This type of person may not go to confession in years but if he, by chance does one day, he is at a loss to think of one single thing he has done wrong. An equally troubling path is the scrupulous person. Once this becomes a concrete way of life it settles from the soul into the psyche and begins to resemble obsessive compulsive disorder. Minor sins become serious sins in the heart of this type of person and not even God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the power of the Eucharist to forgive minor sins is enough. Often shame builds up to keep this person from the sacraments altogether.

Thank God for Good Friday. One of the reasons it is “Good,” I think, is because it helps us to apprehend the truth of sin and forgiveness. For one who has lost or is losing a sense of sin in his life, Good Friday is a yearly reminder that it was not only the sins of the Romans and Jews of Jesus’ time that nailed him to the cross, but each one of our sins too. Fr. Luis de Granada, following the spirituality of St. Josemaria Escriva, writes vividly about the role our sins had to play in the drama of the passion and death of Jesus. The following excerpt definitely afflicts the comfortable:

“Imagine that divine face: swollen by blows, covered in spittle, torn by thorns, furrowed with blood, here fresh blood, there ugly dried blood. And, since the sacred Lamb had his hands tied, he could not use them to wipe away the blood running into his eyes, and so those two luminaries of heaven were eclipsed and almost blinded… Finally, so disfigured was he that one could not make out who he was; he scarcely seemed human; he had become an altarpiece depicting suffering, painted by those cruel artists, producing this pitiful figure to plead his case before his enemies… Therefore, sins – yours and mine – were the executioners who bound him and lashed him and crowned him with thorns and put him on the cross. So you can see how right it is for you to feel the enormity and malice of yours sins, for it was these which really caused so much suffering” (Navarre Commentary, Jn 19:1-3)

Such a reflection is a reality check isn’t it? The little sins that we commit each day, that we just brush off or don’t give much thought too – when seen in that perspective, cause us to take them more seriously and to turn to God more often for his mercy and help. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin,” the Letter to the Hebrews explains in our second reading. “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Heb 4:15-16). Receiving this mercy and help frequently in the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the best way to avoid one of the most clever tricks that the evil one plays on us: the formation of an attitude in our lives that sin doesn’t really matter and that I never really ever do anything wrong. A monthly confession, preceded by an examination of conscience, will help us become more astute observers of sins in our lives and give us continual grace to avoid these sins and grow in holiness – this more examined life brings comfort to our Lord’s sacred heart.

In Christ’s Passion and Death, there is not only gruesome reminders of the gravity of sin but also much comfort for the afflicted. Those who are scrupulous or filled with shame are also corrected. We find St. Peter falling asleep three times rather than praying with Jesus. We see him denying Jesus three times out of cowardice. But we also see him express repentance and upon Jesus’ Resurrection, state three times his love – a love that brings him forgiveness and makes him a pillar of the Church. St. Josemaria Escriva himself writes of this truth, that “In this adventure of love we should not be depressed by our falls, not even by serious falls, if we go to God in the sacrament of Penance contrite and resolved to improve. A Christian is not a neurotic collector of good behavior reports. Jesus Christ our Lord was moved as much by Peter’s repentance after his fall as by John’s innocence and faithfulness. Jesus understands our weakness and draws us to himself on an inclined plane. He wants us to make an effort to climb a little each day” (Navarre, Jn 18:27). Again, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is helpful for the scrupulous person too if it can be seen for what it really is – as the way in which Christ’s victory over sin is shared and applied to each one of us. With God’s grace we can be victorious over sin too! Then when victory brings confidence and mercy softens the heart, harshness with oneself can be relieved. Then guilt can be seen as a good thing that motivates one to renewed union with God and the Church rather than as shame that causes isolation and alienation.

The grace of Reconciliation helps us settle into the middle, into the truth of sin and forgiveness. We thank God that we have a heavenly mother to help us with this also. Jesus from the cross gave his mother to his beloved disciple and so to all of us. When he took her into his own home, he took her into everything that makes up his inner life. “Mary certainly wants us to invoke her, to approach her confidently, to appeal to her as our mother” (Navarre, Jn 19:26-27) so that she can teach us about her Son and how to take sin seriously while still living a life of joy.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday Year C

Homily after the Commemoration of the Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem

This morning, like the children who cheered in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” when they saw Jesus healing the blind and lame (Mt 21:14-15) – we too shout out with unbridled joy, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk 19:38) And just like the multitude of the heavenly host that praised the Eternal Word who processed into our lives as a child, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will,” (Lk 2:14) we too sing out, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:39) as our Lord processes among us. From the beginning of his life, toward the end, all men, from children to adults, sing his praises and bless Jesus’ Name. Before, our Lord had cautioned us not to cheer for him, his hour had not yet come. But now it is nearly here. The Pharisees tried to quell the children in the temple – “Do you hear what these are saying?” – just like they tried to quiet us today, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” Our Lord takes up for us: “I tell you,” he said, “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” As the prophet Habakkuk foretold, against those who try to cut off God’s people, even their own houses will cry out to God: “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond” (Hab 2:11). Even all creation sings His praises. It has begun. Nothing can stop him now.

Homily After the Gospel

The time from the beginning of Lent through Easter Sunday is marked with a rapid succession of external rituals in the life of a Catholic. We remember Ash Wednesday when we received the blessed ashes on our foreheads. Today we receive palm branches and we fold them into neat little crosses. On Holy Thursday we have the foot-washing. On Good Friday we kneel and kiss the Cross. And Saturday night, the Easter Vigil, is filled with incense, chants, exclamations, water, oil, and light. All of these, even the deadening silence and emptiness of the altar on Good Friday, are rich experiences that flood our senses.

It somehow makes sense that we show up in such larger numbers to these liturgies than to the common Sunday obligation. Our Lord made us to be sensing beings and uses our senses to help us know him. But what will we do when Easter is over and the rest of the liturgical year marches on? What will we do when all the sensational things give way to the sobriety and noble simplicity that most often marks the Holy Mass?

Today, Palm Sunday, and continually until Easter Sunday, you I are called to re-examine our Faith. We must remember that all of the external rituals of our faith are not ends in and of themselves. We have them to remind us of the deeper spiritual realities that they signify. Religious sentiments are good and appropriate in response to these beautiful things for they often serve as invitations to more fully enter into our faith. But our experiences of these things must not stop at the external level or the level of sentiment. We must consider the underlying spiritual effect that is taking place: what the ashes mean, what the palm branches mean, what the foot-washing, the cross, the water, oil and light meanwhat difference they make for our faith.

We are made for deeper realities, for solemnity, for transcendence. Deep down we are longing for something greater than ourselves. Some of the Jews of Jesus time, though, were only caught up with the spectacle of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem; they had not let Him enter into their hearts. St. Luke also describes how Herod treated Jesus with contempt and mocked him because of his malicious desire simply to “see him perform some sign” (Lk 23:8). He had no real faith in him. Up to today, Jesus has been telling those he cured to remain silent so that his signs would not be misunderstood.

This day, though, is different. He allows us to proclaim him as king to teach us to look for a savior not in one who is dominating and ambitious but in One who is humble and obedient. Therefore our Lord rides into Jerusalem not upon a warhorse along a path of gold but upon a peaceful colt along a path of palm braches. This he did to the shouts of praise of a “whole multitude of his disciples” (Lk 19:37). But, then, only a few days later, this same group, riled up by the high priests, shouts for his crucifixion. Pilate said to them, “What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.” “With loud shouts, however, they persisted in calling for his crucifixion, and their voices prevailed” (Lk 23:22-23).

It’s easy to shout with praise and acclamation to Jesus when everyone around us is shouting too. But when the leaders of our society disperse enough ill will, are we quick to condemn him? Do I preach Christ, and Him Crucified only when I am surrounded by attentive parishioners or brother priests? What do I say to those who disagree with Church teaching or try to persecute the Church? What about when I’m with friends or family and my guard is down? Do I praise him still?

How can we live differently today because of the scenario that has unfolded before us? You and I have to make sure that our faith doesn’t stop at the externals. If we live our lives no deeper than the surface level, then we are easily swayed by those who have the loudest voice. But when we allow the external signs of our faith to take us deeper then we come to know the truth of our faith and come to know Christ for who He really is. If we allow the grace of his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, signified by so many beautiful rituals over these coming days – when we allow that grace to penetrate deeply into our hearts, deeper than our surface feelings, then Christ can begin to mold and transform us into Catholics who are always faithful, always at His right hand, even if we are the only ones standing up for Him, even when there is “darkness… over the whole land” (Lk 23:44).

If we can go deeper, we can be Catholics who wear ashes to show contrition, who wash feet to honor the Institution Eucharist and the Priesthood, who are sprinkled with water to reclaim our Baptism, who receive oil to be sanctified, healed, and strengthened, and who light candles to show the world that Christ is the Light. We never use symbols because “that’s just what we’ve always done” – we use them because their deep and underlying meanings make us holy and glorify God. We use them because they flow from our faith and stir up our faith. We use symbols in order to be empowered to stay true to Him.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Homily 5th Sun Lent, 3rd Scrutiny, Year A Readings

In the summer of 2008, I had one of the most difficult experiences of my entire formation to be a priest; I participated in a program at U of L Hospital called C.P.E. – Clinical Pastoral Education. This is an ecumenical program in which I worked as a hospital chaplain while learning how to be a more effective minister. Each of us in the group of different faiths, genders, and ages were assigned to visit the patients in a particular department of the hospital. We would then gather as a group to discuss and study our experiences.

My department was particularly difficult: Palliative Care – which is the care that one receives in order to manage pain or to aid in making end of life decisions. Most of the patients I visited were dying or near death, but I felt like it was a great honor to be with these patients in their greatest need. Perhaps what I appreciate the most, though, are the times I spent with patients who, while they were dying of a terrible cancer or intense pain, were comforting and praying for me, consoling me, and reassuring me. Shouldn’t I be taking care of them? What was it about these particular patients that enabled them to be so other-centered, so loving, so peaceful? I saw a wide range of reactions to death that summer. I myself had a wide range of reactions! The Gospel from today’s Mass, of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, has helped me to understand better what I experienced during that summer almost five years ago.

In today’s Gospel reading and in many other places in Scripture, we can see that wherever Christ is present at significant events, he sanctifies the situation. One of the reasons we celebrate Matrimony as one of the Church’s seven sacraments is because Christ was present at the Wedding Feast of Cana, thus making it holy, grace-filled, and a sign of his love. One of the reasons we celebrate Baptism as a sacrament is because Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by John even though he was without sin, thus making the waters of Baptism holy and able to wash away sins and give divine life.

And so today, on this 5th Sunday of Lent, Jesus enters into our lives too, particularly our experiences of suffering and death, making them holy too, making them a mystery, and taking away the crude and narrow finality that we too often give them and replacing it with his presence. Even death, even times of great suffering, when Christ enters into them, can become times of his healing and divine life. What was a time of grief and confusion for Mary, Martha, and their friends and family, became an occasion of faith, of hope, and of love.

Because Jesus Christ was fully human, we can feel comfortable inviting him into any place, any circumstance, any struggle whatsoever. He was like us, completely human, in every way except for our sinfulness. That humanity he still has in heaven, but in a glorified state, no longer affected by the limitations he once felt alongside us. He did feel them. He felt the full range of human emotion too. The Gospel mentions that he wept in sympathy for Mary and Martha and for what Lazarus had to endure. He understands our lives and what we are going through. At the same time though He is fully God and so wherever he goes, wherever we welcome him, he brings the fullness of divinity and all that God has to offer.

To places of pain and suffering he brings new purpose, meaning, and value; he brings the Resurrection. To places of happiness and success he brings a glimpse and a foretaste of eternal happiness with him in everlasting life. He wants to be for us, right here and now, Resurrection and Life. He wants to show us too, like he showed Martha and Mary, that death is not the end; it is simply the step, God-willing, to eternal life. He wants to give us a share in eternal life, which grace brings to the soul, even while we still live on earth. Mary and Martha have shown us how to enter into this type of relationship with Jesus Christ. “They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’” As Catholic Christians, I think we would do well to have these words always on the tip of our tongue in prayer: “Lord, come and see.”

To the students here, for example: Whenever you get a good grade on a test, pray to him, “Lord, come and see” and he will share that joy with you and help you to know he is proud of you whenever you use the gifts he has given you well. What else can we invite the Lord to come and see today? What is it for you? Perhaps it is a childhood trauma that has affected you for years. Perhaps it is a physical or psychological illness or the struggles of someone in your family. What can you invite the Lord into to give it new meaning and life?

Mary and Martha have taught us what power can come from the simple prayer of invitation, “Lord, come and see.” They have also taught us that when we run to the Lord without delay, with patience and humility, and without presumption, even though he may seem to delay he actually desires to exceed our expectations. He is not content to simply restore us to level zero. He wants to do that and so much more! He wants to restore us and then increase us! This may be hard to believe when the Lord doesn’t respond to our invitation when we want him to. If Jesus had come to Lazarus in two days rather than four then Lazarus could have been cured and would not have died. But, Jesus knew that raising Lazarus from death to life would have a more profound effect on his disciples’ faith than simply raising him from sickness to health.

“So then Jesus said to them clearly, ‘Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.’” Despite this though, when Martha came to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she said this not in order to complain or ridicule him but because she actually believed that to be true. Her faith was so deep that she didn’t even ask him to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. She abandoned herself to him, trusting that if he willed it he would do it. Jesus, moved by her faith and the sympathy he felt, did indeed raise Lazarus from the dead. He could have left it at that! But he also asked his disciples to unbind Lazarus after he had risen. Then he had a meal with Lazarus and his family!

One of the most profound ways Jesus is present to us, giving us peace and strength, is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. St. Augustine saw the episode with Lazarus as an image of this sacrament. Whenever we sin, our spiritual lives can begin to deaden and we find ourselves in our own tomb of despair or isolation. The call to reconciliation that this Lenten season brings is like Jesus crying out to each one of us, “Lazarus, come out!” Through the words of absolution our sins are forgiven, we are given new life and emerge from the tomb. Then Jesus instructs the priest in the confessional, like he instructed the friends of Lazarus: “Untie him, and let him go.” We are released from the sins that bind us and are restored to full fellowship and communion with God and with the Church, our spiritual family.

All of this is offered to each one of us, individually, personally, during the remainder of this Lent and beyond. The prayer to the Lord to “come and see” and his call that we be unbound and “let go” – these are how a dying cancer patient can have more peace and strength than those sent to minister to her. When the Lord is present and we are set free, our happiness can be transformed from happiness that fades away to happiness the brings a taste of eternal life. And suffering and death are transformed from a meaningless pain or a senseless end, to experiences that give faith to others by the sheer power of faith in the heart of one who believes. Jesus Christ gives us the hope that with death life is changed, not ended.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Exhortation before Rite of Baptism in the Extraordinary Form

The 1954 Collectio Rituum says in the Praenotanda before the Rite of Baptism, “If there is to be an instruction, the priest should give this at the beginning of the rite, at the church door, or upon entering the baptistery, at the point when the change of stoles is indicated, or at the dismissal.  Since I needed to bless the water for Baptism beforehand, I gave the instruction/exhortation before that.  Here it is:

It is a great pleasure and honor for me to be able to celebrate the Baptism of my niece little Margaret Susanne with all of you this afternoon. First, a little bit of context is needed. Before recently, if Catholics wished to celebrate the Mass or the sacraments as they were most commonly done before the Second Vatican Council, that is mostly in Latin, one needed special permission from the local bishop even though these were never abrogated. Thankfully, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has expanded access to the older forms so that those who still desire them no longer need special permission. The older form of the Sacrament of Baptism is what we have gathered this afternoon to celebrate so I would like to explain a few of its different parts.

First, there will be an elaborate blessing of the Baptismal water that is required by the ceremony. Then, we’ll see that the ceremony for the baptism of a child is simply an abridgment of that for an adult. In olden times baptism of adults was not administered in one continuous ceremony but in stages spread out over a period of time. We see this in the RCIA today.

The ritual of Infant Baptism itself is divided into four parts with different subparts that move from the narthex to the nave to the font. The first major part takes place in the entryway symbolizing that at this point the child is not yet a member of the Church. This part involves the Questioning of name and intent, the Breathing on the child, the Sign of the Cross, the Imposition of hands and the Imposition of salt. These basically outline the ancient enrolling of adult catechumens.

The breathing ritual harkens back to the book of Genesis. The priest breathes three times on the child in the form of the cross recalling the breath of God breathed into the nostrils of Adam. This breathing is also a form of exorcism and it, with the two that follow, symbolize not that the child is possessed or has sinned, but simply that due to the original sin of Adam and Eve her human nature as well as ours is fallen, weakened, and susceptible to the power of Satan. These exorcisms symbolize a true dispelling of the evil spirits that would try to influence her. The laying on of hands that happens here symbolizes an act of appropriation. The Church acknowledges or claims the child as her own, places a protecting hand around her, and commends her to God.

The last ceremony of the first part is the imposition of salt and also may seem unusual. Salt is a condiment meant to flavor foods and also preserve them. Christ told the Apostles: “You are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13). In the Rite of Baptism salt is a symbol of wisdom – that the child be given a taste for heavenly doctrine; and a symbol of immortality – that she be preserved from final corruption. The ancient ritual of the enrolling of catechumens also ended with the giving of blessed salt. This salt will also be blessed with an exorcism prayer of its own.

The second part of Baptism brings about the Admission of the child into the Church building. This involves a Second exorcism, the Sign of the cross, the Imposition of hands, the Admission into the Church, and the Recitation of the Creed and the Our Father.

The exorcism of the child here has its roots in olden times when the catechumen had at this stage advanced to the rank of a petitioner. He continued with his instructions and was subjected to an examination called a scrutiny. The priest now uses the power of exorcism received from Christ to free the child from the tyranny of Satan and to fit her throughout life for the whole Christian warfare against sin. The ancient enemy of mankind seeks to dispute with the Son of God for the possession of a child’s soul. But in this confrontation Jesus is victorious.

In the laying on of hands here, we remember the occasion when little children were brought to our Lord. St. Mark tells us that “embracing them and laying hands on them He blessed them” and St. Matthew adds that this blessing was accompanied by a prayer.

In admitting the child into the main body of the Church, the priest places one end of his stole on the child, a beautiful gesture that reminds us of those in the Gospels who reached for the fringe of Christ’s garment in search of salvation. Furthermore, the Church has now thrown open her doors to the child and welcomed her into God’s house. In the Adult catechumenate a special day is assigned for entrusting the candidates with the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Gospels – the whole deposit of faith. It is this stage that is being recalled when the priest, together with the godfather, recites the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as the child and family process to the font.

The third part of the Baptismal Rite takes place in the nave or main part of the Church near the baptismal font and includes the third and definitive Exorcism, the Ephphetha prayer, the Renunciation of Satan, and the Anointing with the Oil of Catechumens.

After the final exorcism we see the last semblance of the ancient last scrutiny or examination. It was called “the opening of the ears” or the Ephphetha prayer, Aramaic for, “Be opened!” In the Gospel, Christ used spittle in healing the deaf mute. Here too, the priest wets his thumb, touches the ears and below the nose of the child, and prays that her inner faculties will be attuned to perceive the good news of Christ’s redeeming grace and its fragrance.

The child through the godfather, now publicly renounces the devil three times, corresponding to the later threefold profession of faith. After renouncing Satan, the child is anointed with the Oil of Catechumens. The Christian life is a contest and a struggle against the powers of evil. Therefore, as an athlete of Christ the child is anointed with oil, signifying that she is willing to engage in the contest, and that she is being given suppleness and strength for this purpose. In olden times the entire body of the candidate was anointed, in imitation of wrestlers and athletes who anointed their entire bodies with olive oil prior to entering the arena.

Finally there is the fourth and last part of Baptism which occurs at the Baptismal font and involves the Profession of faith, Baptism itself, the Anointing with Chrism, the White linen cloth, the Lighted candle, and the Last words of good will.

The candidate is now brought to the font, where we have the most highly symbolic act of the whole ritual: baptism in water which signifies and effects the cleansing of the soul, death and burial of the old life that comes from Adam, and resurrection to the new life that comes from Christ. After Baptism, the newly baptized receives the anointing with Sacred Chrism. The child is given a priestly anointing, because through baptism she shares in the priesthood of Christ; and the anointing is done on the crown of the head, because she shares likewise in his kingship. Finally she shares too in His Prophetic life in order to preach the Gospel by her words and deeds.

The bestowal of the white garment reminds us of ancient times when baptism was administered by immersion and the candidates stripped off their old garments before descending into the font, never to wear them again. Figuratively it meant putting off the old man of sin who stems from Adam. On coming out of the font they clothed themselves in new white garments as a sign of their new innocence as St. Paul says, “putting on Christ as a garment.”

Finally, the child is presented with a lighted candle. Formerly, with burning torches held aloft, the “newborn from the dead” marched into the church to assist for the first time at the Eucharist, singing as they went, the psalm, “I will go to the altar of God.” This is reminiscent of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The present ritual points to the truth that baptism is related not only to the past – the sacrifice of Christ; not only to the present – the grace of new birth; but also to the future – the glory of the life to come. After the ceremony, as so many before her have done, the mother may consecrate the child to the protection of our Lady.

This beautiful prayer, said after the Baptism, is as follows:

O Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, when the Son of God decided to take upon himself our human life in order that we might share in his divine life, he did not wish to come to us without your pre-cooperation; He deliberately willed to have need of you. Look down today from heaven upon little Margaret. She has received from her parents the life of man and now by the Holy Sacrament of Baptism she has been given a life which is infinitely superior, the very life of God. We know that just as God is her Father and our Father you are in regard to her spiritual life her Mother and our Mother. We confide this child to you, show yourself as mother, watch over her education, nourish her with the life of grace, make her progress in her Christian life just as her human parents aid her to progress in physical as well as spiritual life. Protect the precious life which has just been received. Be for her a real mother, to guard her in your arms when the devil seeks to destroy her spiritual life in your Son Jesus Christ. May she love you as Jesus Christ loved you, for our love for you is nothing else but a participation in the love of your Son for you. In the name of this child, Margaret, we wish today to make her very first prayer to her heavenly Mother, “Hail Mary, etc. Amen.”

Mass for the Election of the Pope

While I was on my yearly retreat recently, at the Passionist Monastery of cloistered nuns in Whitesville, KY, the Holy Father retired.  So I celebrated a Mass one day for the pope and one the next day for the election of the pope.  For the latter, I used the following readings from the Common of Pastors:

First Reading: Ez 34:11-16 (no. 9) - “God will shepherd his sheep”
Responsorial psalm: Ps 23:1-6 (no. 2) – “The Lord is my shepherd”
Gospel Acclamation: Jn 10:14 (no. 5) – “I am the good shepherd, says the Lord, I know my sheep, and mine know me”
Gospel: Jn 21:15-17 (no. 12) - “Feed my sheep”

Here are the notes from my homily:

For the Gospel, I originally chose Mt 9:35-38 (no. 1) where the Lord has compassion on the Jews for they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.  But I decided last night to change the Gospel to Jn 21:15-17 (no. 12).  We may be harassed but we are not helpless.  We feel lost and without a shepherd because of the great love we have for Pope-emeritus Benedict but we are neither lost nor helpless.

The pope, our earthly, visible shepherd, is seen and heard and identified with more easily.  But this period between popes helps us to see our Lord as they chief shepherd of his flock, the Church.  He is the Good Shepherd, the Pastor Bonum; He is our shepherd-king – the New Joshua, the New David – the invisible but always vital shepherd and pastor of the Universal Church, as our readings so beautifully describe.

Nevertheless, our Lord desired that His Church always have a visible head, a Vicar, an Ambassador on earth sharing in His authority, the invisible Head.  There is no tension between His role and His delegation of St. Peter as Peter himself said in his First Letter to the Christians of Asia Minor: “And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).  And so in our Gospel we see our Lord, by commanding Peter three times to “Feed my sheep,” entrusting to him the task of shepherding his entire flock.

Vatican I in 1870 solemnly defined what had already been believed; that in this episode Christ made Peter the visible head and visible chief pastor over the universal Church.  Out of our Lord’s great Love and Mercy for His flock he has continued to care for them through a visible head, one “Peter” after another, in unbroken succession to our current day and to the end of time.

Through the instrumentality of the College of Cardinals our Lord will again say to his chosen apostle in our own day, “Feed my lambs; Tend my sheep; Feed my sheep.” It is imperative that today and in the coming days, we say the traditional Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for this chosen man, that we offer our Lenten prayers, works of charity, and sacrifices for him, so that he as Peter will be able to say – as Pope-emeritus Benedict, Bl. John Paul II, and so many saintly popes before him faithfully said - “Lord, you know that I love you” and “I will never fall away.”