Donate now

ZENIT News in Text Format

Today's news dispatch: Dec. 22, 2015

Pope Uses Acrostic to Encourage Curia, Faithful in Seeking Virtue

Missionary and pastoral spirit, idoneity and sagacity, spirituality and humanity, example and fidelity, reasonableness and gentleness, innocuousness and determination, diligence and attentiveness, charity and truth, openness and maturity, respectfulness and humility, intrepidness and alertness, and finally, accountability and sobriety.

These are the qualities Pope Francis highlighted Monday in his greetings to the Roman Curia, as a practical aid to embracing the time of grace of Christmas and the Year of Mercy and ensuring the fruitfulness of service to the Church.

“I would ask the Heads of Dicasteries and other superiors to ponder this, to add to it and to complete it”, he said. “It is a list based on an acrostic analysis of the word 'Misericordia' … with the aim of having it serve as our guide and beacon”.

During his traditional exchange of Christmas greetings with the members of the Roman Curia, the Holy Father addressed the prelates recalling their previous meetings: in 2013, when he stressed “two important and inseparable aspects of the work of the Curia: professionalism and service”, offering St. Joseph as a model to be imitated. Then, last year, as a preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation, he considered “certain temptations or maladies – the catalogue of curial diseases … which could affect any Christian, curia, community, congregation, parish or ecclesial movement. Diseases which call for prevention, vigilance, care and, sadly, in some cases, painful and prolonged interventions”.

“Some of these diseases became evident in the course of the past year”, he continued, “causing no small pain to the entire body and harming many souls, also by scandal. It seems necessary to state what has been – and ever shall be – the object of sincere reflection and decisive provisions. Reform will move forward with determination, clarity and firm resolve, since Ecclesia semper reformanda. Nonetheless, diseases and even scandals cannot obscure the efficiency of the services rendered to the Pope and to the entire Church by the Roman Curia, with great effort, responsibility, commitment and dedication, and this is a real source of consolation. St. Ignatius taught that 'it is typical of the evil spirit to instil remorse, sadness and difficulties, and to cause needless worry so as to prevent us from going forward; instead, it is typical of the good spirit to instil courage and energy, consolations and tears, inspirations and serenity, and to lessen and remove every difficulty so as to make us advance on the path of goodness'”.

Therefore, “it would be a grave injustice not to express heartfelt gratitude and needed encouragement to all those good and honest men and women in the Curia who work with dedication, devotion, fidelity and professionalism, offering to the Church and the Successor of Peter the assurance of their solidarity and obedience, as well as their constant prayers. Moreover, cases of resistance, difficulties and failures on the part of individuals and ministers are so many lessons and opportunities for growth, and never for discouragement. They are opportunities for returning to the essentials, which means being ever more conscious of ourselves, of God and our neighbours, of the sensus Ecclesiae and the sensus fidei”.

Francis turned to the central theme of his discourse: “this return to essentials … just a few days after the Church’s inauguration of the pilgrimage of the Holy Year of Mercy, a Year which represents for her and for all of us a pressing summons to gratitude, conversion, renewal, penance and reconciliation”. At the time of Christmas, the feast of God’s infinite mercy, as St. Augustine of Hippo tells us, and in the context of the Year of Mercy, he presented to the Roman Curia “a practical aid”, beginning with the theme of missionary and pastoral spirit.

M-I-S-E-R-I-C-O-R-D-I-A

“Missionary spirit is what makes the Curia evidently fertile and fruitful; it is proof of the effectiveness, efficiency and authenticity of our activity. Faith is a gift, yet the measure of our faith is also seen by the extent to which we communicate it. All baptised persons are missionaries of the Good News, above all by their lives, their work and their witness of joy and conviction. A sound pastoral spirit is an indispensable virtue for the priest in particular. It is shown in his daily effort to follow the Good Shepherd who cares for the flock and gives his life to save the lives of others. It is the yardstick for our curial and priestly work. Without these two wings we could never take flight, or even enjoy the happiness of the 'faithful servant'”.

With regard to idoneity and sagacity: “Idoneity, or suitability, entails personal effort aimed at acquiring the necessary requisites for exercising as best we can our tasks and duties with intelligence and insight. It does not countenance 'recommendations' and payoffs. Sagacity is the readiness to grasp and confront situations with shrewdness and creativity. Idoneity and sagacity also represent our human response to divine grace, when we let ourselves follow the famous dictum: 'Do everything as if God did not exist and then put it all in God’s hands as if you did not exist'”.

Spirituality and humanity: “Spirituality is the backbone of all service in the Church and in Christian life. It is what nourishes all our activity, sustaining and protecting it from human frailty and daily temptation. Humanity is what embodies the truthfulness of our faith; those who renounce their humanity renounce everything. Humanity is what makes us different from machines and robots which feel nothing and are never moved. Once we find it hard to weep seriously or to laugh heartily – these are just two signs – we have begun our decline and the process of turning from 'humans' into something else. Humanity is knowing how to show tenderness and fidelity and courtesy to all. Spirituality and humanity, while innate qualities, are a potential needing to be activated fully, attained completely and demonstrated daily”.

Example and fidelity: “Blessed Paul VI reminded the Curia – in 1963 – of 'its calling to set an example'. An example of avoiding scandals which harm souls and impair the credibility of our witness. Fidelity to our consecration, to our vocation, always mindful of the words of Christ, 'Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much' and 'If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes”.

Reasonableness and gentleness: “Reasonableness helps avoid emotional excesses, while gentleness helps avoid an excess of bureaucracy, programmes and planning. These qualities are necessary for a balanced personality: 'The enemy – and forgive me for quoting St. Ignatius once again – pays careful heed to whether a soul is coarse or delicate; if it is delicate, he finds a way to make it overly delicate, in order to cause it greater distress and confusion'. Every excess is a symptom of some imbalance”.

Innocuousness and determination: “Innocuousness makes us cautious in our judgements and capable of refraining from impulsive and hasty actions. It is the ability to bring out the best in ourselves, in others and in all kinds of situations by acting carefully and attentively. It consists of doing unto others what we would have them do to us. Determination is acting with a resolute will, clear vision, obedience to God and solely for the supreme law of the salus animarum”.

Charity and truth: “Two inseparable virtues of Christian life, 'speaking the truth in charity and practising charity in truth'. To the point where charity without truth becomes a destructive ideology of complaisance and truth without charity becomes myopic legalism”.

Openness and maturity: “Openness is honesty and rectitude, consistency and absolute sincerity with regard both to ourselves and to God. An honest and open person does not act virtuously only when he or she is being watched; honest persons have no fear of being caught, since they never betray the trust of others. An honest person is never domineering like the 'wicked servant', with regard to the persons or matters entrusted to his or her care. Honesty is the foundation on which all other qualities rest. Maturity is the quest to achieve balance and harmony in our physical, mental and spiritual gifts. It is the goal and outcome of a never-ending process of development which has nothing to do with age”.

Respectfulness and humility: “Respectfulness is an endowment of those noble and tactful souls who always try to show genuine respect for others, for their own work, for their superiors and subordinates, for dossiers and papers, for confidentiality and privacy, who can listen carefully and speak politely. Humility is the virtue of the saints and those godly persons who become all the more important as they come to realise that they are nothing, and can do nothing, apart from God’s grace”.

“Diligence and attentiveness: “The more we trust in God and his providence, the more we grow in diligence and readiness to give of ourselves, in the knowledge that the more we give the more we receive. What good would it do to open all the Holy Doors of all the basilicas in the world if the doors of our own heart are closed to love, if our hands are closed to giving, if our homes are closed to hospitality and our churches to welcome and acceptance. Attentiveness is concern for the little things, for doing our best and never yielding to our vices and failings. St. Vincent de Paul used to pray: “Lord, help me to be always aware of those around me, those who are worried or dismayed, those suffering in silence, and those who feel alone and abandoned”.

Intrepidness and alertness: “Being intrepid means fearlessness in the face of troubles, like Daniel in the den of lions, or David before Goliath. It means acting with boldness, determination and resolve, 'as a good soldier'. It means being immediately ready to take the first step, like Abraham, or Mary. Alertness, on the other hand, is the ability to act freely and easily, without being attached to fleeting material things. The Psalm says: 'if riches increase, set not your heart on them'. To be alert means to be always on the go, and never being burdened by the accumulation of needless things, caught up in our own concerns and driven by ambition”.

Accountability and sobriety: “Accountable and trustworthy persons are those who honour their commitments with seriousness and responsibility when they are being observed, but above all when they are alone; they radiate a sense of tranquillity because they never betray a trust. Sobriety – the last virtue on this list, but not because it is least important – is the ability to renounce what is superfluous and to resist the dominant consumerist mentality. Sobriety is prudence, simplicity, straightforwardness, balance and temperance. Sobriety is seeing the world through God’s eyes and from the side of the poor. Sobriety is a style of life which points to the primacy of others as a hierarchical principle and is shown in a life of concern and service towards others. The sober person is consistent and straightforward in all things, because he or she can reduce, recover, recycle, repair, and live a life of moderation”.

Synthesis of the Good News

Following this list of qualities, Francis went on to remind the prelates that “mercy is no fleeting sentiment, but rather the synthesis of the joyful Good News, a choice and decision on the part of all who desire to assume the 'Heart of Jesus' and to be serious followers of the Lord who has asked us to 'be merciful even as your heavenly Father is merciful'. In the words of Father Ermes Ronchi, 'Mercy is a scandal for justice, a folly for intelligence, a consolation for us who are debtors. The debt for being alive, the debt for being loved is only repayable by mercy'.

“And so”, he emphasised, “may mercy guide our steps, inspire our reforms and enlighten our decisions. May it be the basis of all our efforts. May it teach us when to move forward and when to step back. May it also enable us to understand the littleness of all that we do in God’s greater plan of salvation and his majestic and mysterious working”.

To conclude, the Holy Father invited those present to savour the magnificent prayer, commonly attributed to Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero, but pronounced for the first time by Cardinal John Dearden:

“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 marvellous 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 programme 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 labourer.

We are labourers, not master builders, 

servants, not the Messiah.

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

 

 

Mother Teresa's Miracle

“My professional experience has placed me many times before events that are difficult to explain from the scientific point of view, but what happened in 2008 to a Brazilian engineer is truly incredible,” said Professor Carlo Jovine, official expert of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, primary neurologist at the Saint John the Baptist Hospital of the Order of Malta.

Professor Jovine was part of the Medical Consultation team charged by the Vatican to study, from the scientific point of view, the extraordinary healing of Marcilio Haddad Andrino, mechanical engineer born in Santos, close to Sao Paul in Brazil.

In December of 2008, at the age of 35, Andrino was urgently hospitalized. He got sick suddenly and presented serious disturbances in the neurological sphere. The specialist examinations showed the presence of eight cerebral abscesses — the presence of eight points in which brain infections were found.

Professor Jovine explained that a cerebral abscess is a purulent area of bacterial or viral origin, which determines the destruction of tissues and the production of pus within the encephalon.

After his urgent hospitalization, the CAT scan confirmed the gravity of the pathology underway. The patient entered into a coma and, after a few days, an obstructive hydrocephalus also appeared.

The situation was so serious that the surgeon, Professor Cabral, in the presence of a progressively deteriorating clinical picture, with the risk of imminent death, decided to subject Andrino to an urgent intervention.

However, at this point, a series of unexplainable events occurred.

Taken to the operating room in a state of coma, the patient suddenly opened his eyes and, to the astonishment of those present, asked why he was there.

Recovering from his astonishment and observing the patient’s full lucidity, Professor Cabral decided not to carry out the planned surgical intervention and to execute an immediate CAT to understand what was occurring.

The examination revealed a radical change of the pre-existing pathological picture, with the disappearance of the acute hydrocephalus and a 70% reduction of the cerebral abscesses.

In the course of a few days, Andrino’s conditions improved to the point that Professor Cabral, verifying the perfect clinical and neurological conditions, decided to discharge the patient, certifying the absence of any trace of the preceding alterations, that is, there was no trace either of cerebral abscesses or of hydrocephalus.

However, the most surprising thing was that the patient did not have any debilitating effects of the grave pathology that had stricken him. In the course of a few days – from December 13, date of the planned surgical intervention, to December 23, date on which he was discharged from the hospital – Andrino was cured definitively and totally.

At present, Marcilio Haddad Andrino drives, works, has two children, is completely autonomous and, above all, shows no negative consequences of any sort. A cure that, in relation to the gravity, to the course of the illness and to the grave complications associated with it, is inexplicably far from the natural course of the illness, as known by medical science.

It must be stressed in fact, that even in the hypothetical case of an eventual cure, the latter would have had need of a surgical intervention (which did not take place), it would have had a slow course and in any case would have left some effects. Instead, the cure was manifested spontaneously without any medical intervention.

Jovine explained: “There are no precedents — one can be cured of one cerebral abscess, but with eight cerebral abscesses and an acute hydrocephalus, the percentage of the deceased is practically 100%. From this concatenation of events and from the specialist and expert clinical examinations, one must necessarily conclude that we are before a scientifically inexplicable event, which occurred in a resolute, instantaneous, lasting and total way. And, for the Church, this is equivalent to say a miracle.”

A miracle that, by the ways it manifested itself, leads to the intercession of Mother Teresa, the famous Albanian Sister, protector of the “last” who lived and died in the fragrance of sanctity, confirming, with her exemplary life, the vox populi that, already in life, wanted her to be named a Saint.

But what does Mother Teresa have to do with the inexplicable cure of Marcilio Hadda Andrino? The wife of the Brazilian engineer is called Fernanda and, when her husband’s conditions were worsening dramatically, she went to Father Elmiran Ferreira, parish priest of the church of Our Lady Aparecida, Sao Vicente.

The parish priest was about to celebrate a Mass of commemoration with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries. Father Ferreira heard what happened and tried to console Fernanda. He gave her a booklet of novenas and told her to continue to pray, asking for the intercession of Blessed Mother Teresa.

As the situation was worsening, on the evening before the surgical intervention, Father Ferreira went to the hospital with Fernanda.

The priest recited the prayers and administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, after which, together with Fernanda, he put a holy picture and relic of Mother Teresa next to Marcilio’s head.  Shortly after that, the extraordinary cure occurred.

Professor Jovine stressed that, although he is a believer, when he carries out expert assignments of such delicacy and responsibility, he tends deliberately to clear the field of any suggestion in order to concentrate exclusively on the scientific objectivity of the case being examined.

So it was in 2011, when he analyzed the cure of Sister Normand, who was at the origin of the Beatification of Karol Wojtyla, and so it was today for the cure of Andrino, from which will stem Mother Teresa’s Canonization.

And the conclusion is that the objectivity of the analysis, based on medical and documentary checks, confirms that Andrino’s cure is absolutely inexplicable from the scientific point of view.

Hence, we are in the presence of an incredible event that has provided further proof of Mother Teresa’s sanctity. On the basis of these circumstances, Pope Francis recognized the existence of the miracle, giving a green light for the Canonization of the Albanian nun.

 

 

Healed and Ready to Make a Future in Syria

This report is contributed by Eliane També of Aid to the Church in Need.

War rages on in Syria. Aleppo, the country’s major business center—what’s left of it—is a city at war, subject to regular bombardments by various factions fighting for dominance. Last year, a mother of two sons, 48-year-old Joumana Jarjour, a Melkite Catholic, was gravely wounded by shrapnel from a rocket that landed and exploded right in front of the family home. 

She and her husband Alexan Saba, an out-of-work auto mechanic, were standing on their balcony, waiting for their boys—teenagers 14 and 15 years old—to get home from school. Joumana almost did not make it.

She was given a couple of days to live, after doctors discovered a large piece of shrapnel inside her body, close to her heart and neck, areas of the body too delicate to perform surgery on. Then it happened. Joumana remembers “fervently praying.” “I loved life and wanted to have a chance to go back to work to help my husband who lost his job,” she said recently, “and I was not ready to let go of my two sons.”

She says she saw “Jesus Christ smile” from a picture hanging before her on the wall, and right then she knew that “He responded to my request and that I would live.” Many surgeries later, Joumana is back on her feet.

What’s more, this brave mother just enrolled in a training program sponsored by the Melkite Archdiocese of Aleppo; she has enrolled in a course for beauticians offered by the Church’s “Build to Stay Program.” 

The brainchild of Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, the initiative offers local Christians who’ve lost their jobs during the civil war a chance to pick up the pieces—to update their skills, learn a new trade, or get a modest subsidy to relaunch their small business.

“Build to Stay,” which the archbishop describes as part of social movement rallying local Christians to a fresh commitment to stay put and rebuild their city and country—is designed to lay the concrete foundation for a future for the local Christians. Its programs are harbingers of a future of self-sufficiency and promise for a better life once, God-willing, the fighting will have come to an end.

For Joumana, the prospect of a professional career is “part of the promise of the Lord,” made that one dark night, when she saw that “beautiful and charming smile.”

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)

 

 

In the Year of Mercy, Catholics in Middle East ‘Will Pray for Daesh’

This report is contributed by Oliver Maksan of Aid to the Church in Need. 

* * *

The Holy Year of Mercy that was solemnly inaugurated by Pope Francis in Rome on Dec. 8 — the Feast of the Immaculate Conception — is being hailed with joy by Catholics throughout the Arab world – from Morocco to Iraq. International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) gathered impressions from across the Middle East. 

Father Dankha Issa is a Chaldean monk in Alqosh. Last summer, hundreds of Christian refugees found refuge in the city after their villages were seized by jihadists. The ancient, exclusively Christian city is situated in the northern part of Iraq. As the crow flies, only about 10 miles separate the monastery of the Virgin in the Corn Field from the front line of ISIS-held territory. 

“We are very thankful to Our Holy Father that he has proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy. It is a time of grace for us,” the priest told ACN. He himself had been forced to flee Mosul in June of 2014 after it fell to ISIS, or Daesh, as the terrorist organization is known in Arabic. Father Issa said: “This Jubilee gives us new hope. Let us hope that this year will extinguish the fires of hate and bring peace.

“In this year our attention is particularly drawn to how merciful God is with us sinners. God forgives us. But this also means that we have to forgive each other. Even the people of Daesh, who have done so many evil things to us. After all, as a Christian you also have to love your enemies. This is almost humanly impossible. But it is easier through faith. God is capable of everything.

“Of course we hope that God will open and soften the hearts of the people of Daesh so that they cease their murderous doings. Let us pray that he will dispel the hate and violence in their hearts and let love take hold.” 

The priest’s monastery wants to make it possible for the refugees to experience the mercy of God over the course of the year. “We will continue to support them with food and the like. However, we especially want to pray together, above all the rosary. This is what makes it possible for us suffering limbs of the Body of Christ to become one with the universal Church and the Pope.” 

In Lebanon, Father Raymond Abdo wants to use the Holy Year as an opportunity to come up with a Christian response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. “The people who persecute Christians have to come into contact with Jesus Christ. Mercy thus means not allowing ourselves to hate these people,” the Carmelite from the northern city of Tripoli said. 

He added: “We need the courage to pray for them and to love them. Because when they persecute Christians, they do not know what they are doing. This [prayer and love] is what Jesus did on the cross.

“The Church in the Middle East plays a role in many institutions that are visited by non-Christians. We have to love these people and show the mercy of the Gospels to them by example. Jesus did this with the Gentiles.” In the school in which the priest teaches, 65% of the students are Muslim. “Respecting the Muslim students in the same way we respect the Christian students: this is what mercy means to me,” he said.

The Year of Mercy is also receiving attention in Gaza.There are only about 1300 Christians. The number of Catholics is hardly higher than 160. Father Mario da Silva is pastor for the Catholic parish of the Holy Family. The Brazilian religious from the Argentine Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) has been living in Gaza City for several years. During this time he has witnessed several wars. 

“This Holy Year is a big chance,” he told ACN, adding: “We Christians can re-learn what the mercy of God means. This includes re-thinking the reality of sin. We are dependent upon the forgiveness of God. This is an opportunity to find out something new about the sacrament of penance.

“From the first moment I arrived in Gaza, of course I felt the hatred that the people harbor because of Israeli politics. This hatred is rooted in the injustice the people here experience every day. It may be less pronounced among the Christians because forgiveness belongs to our faith. But of course they also know this feeling. That is only human.

“The wars, the destruction, the high unemployment rate that also affects the Christians: all this eats away at the people. However, as a priest I do not feel it is my first priority to change the political situation. That is not in our hands, even though the Church of course draws attention to injustice as such. However, what we can do is to help convert our hearts.” 

In Egypt, Father Beshoi has been the priest in Azareia, a Christian town in Upper Egypt near Asyut. The Coptic Catholic cleric wants to make the sacrament of penance more accessible to his parishioners again, saying: “We need the forgiveness of God. Here, there are a lot of cases of revenge because of insults to family honor. These are often caused by something trivial. But the situations often escalate until there are casualties. 

“And that happens here—even though only Christians live in our town. But they have assimilated to the Islamic culture that surrounds us. In Islam, God is only seen as a lawmaker who metes out punishment when His commandments are not heeded. However, I want to change this mentality. I want to show God to my brothers and sisters as a merciful Father who forgives us. However, this is also why we have to forgive each other. Thus, the Year of Mercy has come at just the right moment for me.”

There are a lot of problems, especially among the adolescents in the town. The pastor said: “Many take drugs because they feel unloved or misunderstood. I want to show them that God loves them and is waiting for them with open arms. I know that God can work miracles in the souls. Just recently, an almost 60-year-old man came to me for confession: for the first time in his life! I hope that I will see many such small miracles over the course of this year!”

The Holy Year is also being celebrated at the outermost Western edge of the Arab world. Admittedly, there are hardly any Catholics living in Morocco and the vast majority of these are foreigners. However, the small local Catholic community takes an active part in the life of the World Church. A good example are the Sisters of the Carmelite convent of Tangiers. “We embrace the Holy Year with pleasure and gratitude. It is a great grace that we want to experience together with the entire Church. With all of our poverty and weakness and in recognising our sinfulness, we are on our way to the Father, whose embrace we have need of,” Sister Maria Virtudes told ACN. The Spanish nun is the prioress of her community. 

The sisters began the Jubilee with a prayer vigil. The Sister said: “We prayed to the Lord who is present in the Eucharist. In doing so, we took turns in singing the hymn that was composed for the Holy Year and held long moments of silent worship. As we did this, we were, together with the Immaculate Virgin, in communion with the entire Church.” 

 

 

Grace, Nature, and What Advent Is Finally About

The readings for the third Sunday of Advent put me in mind of one of the most significant themes in Catholic theology, namely, the play between nature and grace. St. Luke tells us that people came to John the Baptist, asking what they should do to reform their lives. John responds with good and very pointed moral advice. To the tax collectors he says, “Don't take more money than you ought” and to the soldiers he urges, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone; be content with your pay.” In so saying, he was addressing very common practices of that time and place. Tax collectors regularly demanded more money than was just and skimmed the surplus for themselves — which helps to explain why they were so unpopular. And soldiers — young men with weapons and too much time on their hands — predictably acted as bully-boys, extorting money through threats of violence.
 

John the Baptist is, quite sensibly, calling such people to decency and justice. As such, he stands with great philosophers, poets, social reformers, and religious figures. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. all summoned people to be just, “to render to each his due,” in Plato's pithy formula. In point of fact, John, often called the last of the prophets, echoes his prophetic forebears — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea, etc. — all of whom urged Israel to walk the path of justice and care for the marginalized and poor.

 

So far, so natural. But then John adds something, which should take our breath away: “One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals,” that is to say, perform a task that was considered too demeaning even for a slave. We just couldn't imagine Isaiah saying such a thing about Jeremiah, or Amos about Hosea, or Plato about Aristotle. What John the Baptist is signaling is the qualitative difference between himself (and the entire prophetic tradition that he represents) and the coming Christ Jesus. John was baptizing with water, but the one he announces will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

 

Notice how the emphasis has shifted from the active to the passive. John told his audience that there were certain very definite things that they could do. But the one who is coming will not so much call for action on our part; rather, he will accomplish something that we, even in principle, could never accomplish for ourselves. He will dip us (baptizein) in the Holy Spirit, which is precisely the love that obtains between the Father and the Son, the love that God is. It is with this very love that he will set us on fire.

 

This passivity is signaled as well in the second great image that John employs, one that might be opaque to us but that was eminently clear to the Baptist's first century audience: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor.” When farmers in the ancient world wanted to separate wheat from chaff, they would place stalks of wheat on a flat surface and then, using a kind of rake or pitchfork (the winnowing fan), toss the grain in the air and allow the wind to blow the light and insubstantial chaff away. The one whom John heralds will in a similar way separate out what is life-enhancing in us from what is life-denying. Again, he will not so much expect us to accomplish this work; he will do it in us and for us.

 

None of this, of course, is to gainsay the significance of John's own teaching; but it is indeed to say that that teaching is inadequate. To put this in terms of the Church's classical theology, nature is not negated by grace but is rather completed and perfected by grace. Grace (gratia in Latin; charis in Greek) is, quite simply, gift, something offered and freely accepted. At the end of all our striving, we surrender to a power that, as Paul said, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” After many years of tying our own belts and going where we want to go, someone else (the Holy Spirit) will tie us up and take us where we could never go on our own. 

 

Now what does this look like on the ground? What, to use William James's language, is its “cash value?” If, as we saw, this new life is an immersion in the very essence of God, it will look like love in the truly radical sense. Since God has no need whatsoever, he can never operate in a self-interested way. Hence, authentic love, the love that is the nature of God, is not indirect egotism: I will be kind to you that you might be kind to me. Rather, it is willing the good of the other as other, acting for the benefit of another, even when such action is in no way beneficial to us. Now think of Mother Teresa caring for the poorest of the poor in the worst slum in the world; now think of Junipero Serra going to the ends of the world to share the Gospel; now think of Rose Hawthorne taking cancer patients into her own apartment to care for them when no-one else would.

 

Such love is a consequence of grace, of the Adventus of Christ, of being dipped into the fire of the Holy Spirit. To welcome this grace that transfigures nature, to pray for it with all our heart, is what the season of Advent is finally about.

 
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

About ZENIT Staff

Share this Entry

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation