“Let Us Cross to the Other Side”

June 25, 2006

Readings for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading 1: Jb. 38:1, 8-11
Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31
Reading 2: 2 Cor. 5:14-17
Gospel: Mk. 4:35-41
Link to Readings

By Father Robert Pecotte

Jesus’ stilling of the storm is a miracle of power over nature. Only God has this direct power over nature, and this is why the disciples are “filled with great awe” and ask the not-so-rhetorical question, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” And yet, for the average Christian, this question often seems rhetorical. For we think that we know who Jesus is, but do we really know Him?

Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” What does Jesus mean by this question, and is it limited to the disciples in the boat?

A good way to understand Jesus’ questions is to examine His actions. We must ask ourselves, “What is faith, and how does Jesus live it?” if we are to understand what Jesus means by His questions to the disciples.

The book of Hebrews tells us:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear. (11:1-3)

Through this statement, we can see that faith is a virtue that works through the intellect to search out the hidden things of God. It is also a quality of the soul that places man in God’s grace. We can also say that faith is an aspect of the intellect, given to us at baptism, which enables us to spiritually perceive what the senses cannot perceive, namely the hidden things of God. If all of this is true of faith, then we should expect it to have an effect on those who posses it.

For example, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat, even though it is being tossed about by a violent storm and is about to sink. This in itself is not that big of a deal; if Jesus is sound asleep, then He can’t be expected to know that the boat is in trouble. Yet the disciples definitely expect Him to know, hence their question, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples are not asleep (they may have been sleeping and been woken by the storm, which is probably the case, hence their bewilderment that Jesus remained asleep) and that is the difference between them and Jesus.

Jesus, in His humanity, possesses the fullness of faith. Here, it is demonstrated by His lack of terror in the face of something terrifying. The disciples demonstrate a lack of conviction that God is constantly caring for them (another way to describe faith in action) through their terror in the face of mortal danger. God commands nature and it responds to His commands; therefore if the disciples have faith in God, they will not fear the things of nature.

Jesus’ response to the storm demonstrates His power over nature, which itself demonstrates His divine sonship. By His response, He teaches the disciples to
have faith in God and to have faith in Him, even before He rebukes them for their lack of it. His command to the wind and sea–“Quiet! Be still!”–is, perhaps, itself the greatest definition of faith. Psalm 46:10-11 says:

“Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Faith is the sought and lived relationship with God, Who is all powerful. He IS. Faith grasps this, and thus the soul surrenders itself to His providential care. It gladly accepts all things as coming from the loving hand of God, even apparent calamities.

In fact, we can see in this event that God, through the violence of the storm, was preparing the disciples for an even greater test of their faith. Now, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat; later, He will sleep the sleep of death in the tomb. Now, the disciples fear for their lives because of the storm; later, they will fear for their lives because of their companionship with Jesus the criminal. Now, the disciples feel betrayed by Jesus because He is apparently abandoning them to their fate; later, they will feel betrayed by God, because the one whom they believed in has been crucified. Now, Jesus
commands the wind and sea (and the disciples!): “Quiet! Be still.” Later, He will say, “Peace be with you,” and breathe the Holy Spirit upon them, and later still He will breath the Holy Spirit into them at Pentecost.

Do you have faith in God and in Jesus Christ whom he sent? Are you terrified by the things of this world? Do you know the answer to the question, “ Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” The disciples didn’t fully understand the answer to that question until they were filled with the Holy Spirit. We have received the Holy Spirit at Baptism . . . yet we still struggle with faith. How then can we strengthen our faith?

Prayer . . . Prayer is the beacon fire of faith burning in the dark night of doubt. Be still, and know that He IS. The essence of prayer is being still and resting in God. If you make your prayer to God, He will save you. Whenever the storm rages, simply turn to Jesus and say, “Jesus, I trust in You.” As you keep placing your trust in God and accept all things as coming from God, you will begin to exercise the virtue of faith. Without constant prayer, we
will succumb to doubt. Then we will be ruled by our passions, our fears. It is only through the prayer of stillness (contemplation) that we are able to encounter God as He is.

To know God is to love Him. Let us know Him by faith made firm through quiet prayer. Then we will know the answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?” And that answer will not merely be a statement made from reason, but rather a lived experience of “ HE WHO IS.”

Fr. Robert Pecotte is a priest of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota.

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The Truth of the Trinity–The Mystery of God

June 11, 2006

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinity Sunday)

Reading 1: Dt. 4:32-34, 39-40
Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 33:4-5, 6, 9, 18-19, 20, 22
Reading 2: Rom. 8:14-17
Gospel: Mt. 28:16-20
Link to Readings

By Father Robert I. Bradley, S.J.

Have you ever noticed the unique position that Trinity Sunday occupies in the Church’s calendar? Celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost in early summer, it stands almost exactly opposite the first Sunday of Advent in early winter, which marks the beginning of the liturgical year. Thus we have in the first half (winter and spring) the Christmas and Easter cycles celebrating respectively the Incarnation and the Redemption, and in the second half (summer and autumn) the so-called “Ordinary Time” celebrating the ongoing life of the Church. Appropriately linking the two halves in a single “economy” of saving grace is our celebration of the unique reality that is the supreme mystery of the triune God.

The simplest and clearest statement of this mystery occurs in the last sentence of the first Gospel: Our Lord’s final commission to His Apostles, when he commands them to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). What this really means is that we are baptized into the faith of the Blessed Trinity! This truth of the Trinity is therefore the truth beneath, within, and beyond all the other truths of our
faith. It is the mystery of God in Himself: not what he does “outside” Himself, but only What–and Who–He is.

The same “first evangelist” also reports the words of Jesus that most tellingly reveal not so much the total content as the total exclusivity of this truth: “All things have been delivered to me by the Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Mt. 11:27). Significantly, it is only later that the total revelation of the Trinity was made, as reported
by the “last evangelist” seated beside Jesus on the eve of His Passion (Jn. 13-17 passim).

Once the Paschal Mystery was completed by our risen Lord’s return to His Father and the promised sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost, that same Holy Spirit began what would continue until the end of time: His guidance of the Church “into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13). That guidance came in two successive forms: 1) the inspired transcript of the revelations themselves, in what was called “the New Testament”; and 2) the formulation of the Church’s faith in the truth of the revelations thus transcribed. This formulation was needed to facilitate their being understood and to correct their
being misunderstood. The basic truths, thus formulated in “canons’ by the early councils of the Church, were abbreviated into “creeds” for use in her liturgy. And so the Church lived on in her faith and prayer, centered on the one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Trinitarian faith and prayer of the Church, which has been her very life from the beginning, was once more “defined” in 1968 by Pope Paul VI in his Credo of the People of God:*

We believe that the only God is absolutely one in His infinitely holy essence as also in all His perfections, in His omnipotence, His infinite knowledge, His providence, His will, and His love. He is He Who is, as he revealed to Moses; and He is Love, as the Apostle John teaches us: so that these two names, Being and Love, express ineffably the same divine Reality of Him Who has wished to make Himself known to us and
Who “dwelling in light inaccessible” is in Himself above every name, above every thing, and above every created intellect. God alone can give us right and full knowledge of this Reality by revealing Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Whose eternal life we are by grace called to share, here below in the obscurity of faith and after death in the eternal light. The mutual bonds which eternally constitute the Three Persons, Who are each one and the same Divine Being, are the blessed inmost life of God Thrice Holy, infinitely beyond all that we can conceive in human measure. . . .

We believe then in God Who eternally begets the Son, in the Son, the Word of God, Who is eternally begotten, and in the Holy Spirit, the uncreated Person Who proceeds from the Father and the Son as Their eternal love. Thus the three Divine Persons, co-eternal and co-equal, the life and beatitude of God perfectly One superabound and are consummated in the supreme excellence and glory proper to uncreated Being, and always “venerated Unity in the Trinity and Trinity in Unity.”

What is intensified in this extended passage is the absolute transcendence of the triune God, i.e., God only in Himself. It was meant to counteract the Modernist denial of this Absolute, a denial that was but a warmed-over Gnosticism absolutizing a man-centered universe worshiping itself.

But surely the “good news” that broke upon the world two thousand years ago has not been spent! The “Unknown God” Whom St. Paul preached in Athens–though still “unknown” by all too many–is indeed He in Whom “we live and move and have our being.” Yes, this is the very core of the Gospel: that He “Who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light” is our “Emmanuel, God with us.” So much, then, for the modernist Gnostic, whose “truth” is as spurious as Pilate’s; and for whom in consequence there is nothing left but despair.

As for us who by sheer grace have been given the Church’s faith, the two-fold truth of Trinity and Incarnation is doubly reinforced: If the Trinity has made the Incarnation possible, the Incarnation has made the Trinity credible.

In summary let us return to what is surely the most weighty single statement in the Credo of the People of God: “ . . . these two names, Being and Love, express ineffably the same divine Reality . . .” Yes, Love! the only reason that any thing “outside” of God exists is that His Goodness “overflows.” The two eternal Processions of God’s self knowing and loving freely “spill” into the two temporal “Missions”: the Father’s sending of His Son, and the Father-and-Son’s sending of the Spirit. These two missions began in time; but being divine, they terminate in eternity. Meanwhile, sanctioned by Sacred Scripture and Tradition, we “appropriate” Creation to the Almighty Father, Redemption to the Incarnate Son, and Sanctification to the Holy Spirit. Such then, is the “Mystery of Mysteries,” at once infinitely immanent, utterly beyond our comprehension, yet closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Thanks to our triune God, we have an eternity in heaven promised us, if we but remain faithful to that promise! How far from or how close to that destination we may be, we have a kind of inbuilt midpoint in every year of the Church’s calendar: Trinity Sunday. Set between the purple and white of our Lord’s earthly sorrows and joys and the green of the Holy Spirit’s “ordinary time” of labor and rest, this day reminds us that our life’s trajectory must always be “from the Father through the Son in the Spirit,” so “in the Spirit through the Son to the Father.” Amen!

Father Robert I. Bradley, S.J. is an esteemed member of CUF’s advisory council and was CUF’s spiritual advisor for 30 years. A close friend of CUF founder H. Lyman Stebbins and his wife, Madeline, Fr. Bradley has supported CUF since its founding in 1968. He is beloved by multiple generations of CUF members. Fr. Bradley has written numerous articles for Lay Witness magazine, including “The Components of Catechesis and the Senses of Scripture” (Nov./Dec. 2005) and an upcoming article for Lay Witness online, “St. Thérèse and the Church’s Criteria for “Doctor Ecclesiae.” He writes from Austin, TX.

*Pope Paul VI Promulgated the Credo of the People of God on June 29, 1968. One month later appeared his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Three months later H. Lyman Stebbins founded Catholics United for the Faith.

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The Historicity of Gospel Accounts of the Nativity

From the Nov/Dec 2005 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Issue: What does the Church teach about the historical nature of the Gospel accounts of the Nativity?

Response: The Church unambiguously affirms the historical nature of the four Gospels, including the first two chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel and the first two chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel, which discuss the Incarnation, Nativity, and childhood of Jesus Christ.

Discussion: As Christmas approaches each year, articles about the Nativity appear with greater frequency in newspapers and magazines. These articles, on the one hand, are welcome signs that our secularized culture continues to take an interest in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, such articles tend to quote scholars who deny the historicity of the Gospel (while ignoring scholarship of two millennia that has upheld its historicity). This air of scholarly authority sows doubt in the minds of some believers and makes it more difficult for nonbelievers to come to faith in Our Lord and in the Church.

This FAITH FACT reviews Catholic teaching on the historicity of what English-speaking biblical scholars generally call the “infancy narratives” (Mt. 1:1-2:23 and Lk. 1:1-2:52). It then examines popular objections to the infancy narratives’ historical nature.

Catholic Teaching and the Infancy Narratives

Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture is summarized succinctly and authoritatively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 101-41). The teaching of the Catechism is the culmination of a century-long magisterial journey from that has five important reference points:

  • Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus (Encyclical on the Study of Holy Scripture; November 18, 1893)
  • Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus (Encyclical on St. Jerome; September 15, 1920) • Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (Encyclical on Promoting Biblical Studies; September 30, 1943)
  • Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; November 18, 1965)
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (first edition, October 11, 1992; second edition, August 15, 1997)

Drawing upon Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, these five documents are the indispensable texts for understanding Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture.[1]

Popular objections to the infancy narratives’ historical nature spring from the rationalism criticized by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus. These rationalists, he observes,

deny that there is any such thing as revelation or inspiration, or Holy Scripture at all; they see, instead, only the forgeries and the falsehoods of men; they set down the Scripture narratives as stupid fables and lying stories: the prophecies and the oracles of God are to them either predictions made up after the event or forecasts formed by the light of nature; the miracles and the wonders of God’s power are not what they are said to be, but the startling effects of natural law, or else mere tricks and myths; and the Apostolic Gospels and writings are not the work of the Apostles at all. These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented “free science”; a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it. (PD, no. 10)

To help counter such errors, Pope Leo set forth important principles of biblical interpretation, some of which can help Catholics respond to contemporary criticism of the infancy narratives’ historicity:

  • in matters of faith and morals, the true sense of Sacred Scripture cannot contradict the unanimous agreement of the Fathers (PD, no. 14)
  • “all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the sacred writers disagree one with another, or is opposed to the doctrine of the Church” (PD, no. 14)
  • do not “depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires” (PD, no. 15)
  • “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred … all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true” (PD, no. 20)[2]

It follows from Pope Leo’s teaching that the proper interpretation of the infancy narratives cannot contradict dogmatic Catholic teaching on the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God; nor can it contradict dogmatic teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s divine maternity and perpetual virginity. Proper biblical interpretation cannot oppose the Church’s doctrine on the existence of angels; it cannot assert that St. Matthew’s account of the Nativity contradicts St. Luke’s account. An authentically Catholic reading of the infancy narratives cannot depart from the literal and obvious sense of these passages and cannot hold that they contain errors. Thus, assertions that the Magi never traveled to Bethlehem and that the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (in St. Matthew’s Gospel) and the census (in St. Luke’s) never occurred are not simply offensive to the sense of the faithful; they are “absolutely wrong and forbidden” as contrary to Catholic teaching.

In Spiritus Paraclitus, Pope Benedict XV showed that the teaching of Pope Leo is a modern restatement of the teaching of the Fathers and affirmed St. Jerome’s statement that “belief in the biblical narrative is as necessary to salvation as is belief in the doctrines of the faith” (SP, no. 24). Urging all to uphold the principles taught by Pope Leo, Pope Benedict took particular care to defend “the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels” (SP, no. 27). Quoting Sts. Jerome and Augustine, Pope Benedict taught that “none can doubt but that what is written took place” and that “these things are true; they are faithfully and truthfully written of Christ; so that whosoever believes His Gospel may be thereby instructed in the truth and misled by no lie” (SP, no. 27).

In Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII again upheld Pope Leo’s teaching and discussed its roots in the teaching of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.[3] He also exhorted interpreters of Scripture to “endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed. Thus can he the better understand who was the inspired author, and what he wishes to express by his writings. There is no one indeed but knows that the supreme rule of interpretation is to discover and define what the writer intended to express” (DAS, nos. 33-34). Pope Pius also urged exegetes to consider “to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the sacred writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation” (DAS, no. 38).

It is entirely appropriate, then, for scholars to examine these matters. An honest examination, it seems, can only affirm the historicity of the infancy narratives. The foundation of St. Matthew’s account is a genealogy of historic personages who are clearly not fictional literary characters (Mt. 1:1-18). St. Luke’s literary mode is explicitly historical, for he relies upon “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” so that Theophilus, for whom the Gospel is written, “may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Lk. 1:2-4).

After upholding Pope Leo’s teaching on the inspiration of Sacred Scripture (DV, no. 11; see especially footnote 5), the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught in Dei Verbum that

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven. … The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. (DV, no. 19)

To deny the historical character of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Nativity, then, is to spurn the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church authoritatively summarizes the teaching of these four documents and breaks some new ground by highlighting the relation between the literal sense and the three spiritual senses of Scripture (the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical). The Catechism also places particular emphasis upon three criteria for interpreting Scripture found in Dei Verbum:

  • be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture
  • read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church
  • be attentive to the analogy of faith: the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation ( Catechism, nos. 111-14)

Because the Church’s living Tradition is handed on in her worship (Catechism, no. 78), these criteria lead one to be particularly attentive to the liturgical pairing of certain Old Testament texts with selections of the infancy narratives. Thus, the pairing of Isaiah 60:1-6 (which mentions gold and frankincense brought by “a multitude of camels”) with Matthew 2:1-12 (which mentions gold, frankincense, and myrrh) at Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord suggests that the presence of camels with the Magi in many Nativity scenes is not without foundation, as some critics charge.

Answering Common Objections

Critics of the Gospels’ historicity frequently claim that St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s accounts of the Nativity are irreconcilable. One newsmagazine article, for example, asserts that

Matthew and Luke diverge in conspicuous ways on details of the event. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angelic Annunciation is made to Joseph while Luke’s is to Mary. Matthew’s offers wise men and a star and puts the baby Jesus in a house; Luke’s prefers shepherds and a manger. Both place the birth in Bethlehem, but they disagree totally about how it came to be there.[4]

As discussed above, the assertion that two evangelists can contradict each other is incompatible with Catholic teaching. Common sense can easily reconcile the two accounts. St. Gabriel’s annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk. 1:26-38) and the unnamed angel’s appearance to St. Joseph in a dream (Mt. 1:18-24) manifestly describe two separate historical events that took place months apart. Likewise, the birth of Jesus on Christmas night and the visit of the Magi are two different historical events whose details can easily be reconciled; in the days and weeks after the Blessed Virgin gave birth and laid Him “in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk. 2:7), the Holy Family apparently found a “house” to stay in where the Magi would later adore the Child (Mt. 2:11). There is no contradiction whatsoever (let alone a “total disagreement”) between the two accounts on how the birth came to take place in Bethlehem: St. Luke records that the Holy Family traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census, while St. Matthew states simply that the chief priests and scribes told Herod that Micah prophesied Christ would be born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:2-6).

Other critics assert that because St. Matthew and St. Luke did not discuss exactly the same events, the events each relates could not have been true. Some, for example, claim that the Annunciation to Our Lady, the census, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents were so important that if they were historically true, both evangelists would have included them. This objection, of course, fails to take into account that God inspired one evangelist to write about certain events and another to write about others: that He “so moved and impelled them to write—He was so present to them—that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth” (PD, no. 20). This objection also fails to consider that St. Luke may have been aware of what St. Matthew had written and, under divine inspiration, have chosen not to write about exactly the same events.

Similarly, some critics assert that because there is no contemporary secular evidence that corroborates some events discussed in the infancy narratives—for example, the census, the visit of the Magi, the star seen by the Magi, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents—these events are not historical. This standard of proof for the historicity of an event is unreasonable. If, two thousand years from now, there is no historical record of the existence of Watergate apart from the existence of the chronicle All the President’s Men, that lack of corroborating evidence would not be proof that Watergate never took place. In addition, these objections ignore the extant nonbiblical evidence from Josephus and Herodotus, among others, that Herod was cruel, that Magi did exist, and that a triple planetary conjunction did appear at that time.

Many critics of the historicity of the infancy narratives also believe (without quite stating this objection so boldly) that the evangelists lied about the facts in order to win over first-century readers. Some critics assert that St. Matthew invented the person of St. Joseph and the flight into Egypt in order to remind Jewish readers of Joseph, who, as the Book of Genesis relates, was sold into slavery in Egypt. These critics also claim that St. Matthew invented the massacre of the Holy Innocents in order to remind Jewish readers of Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew boys (Ex. 1:15-16). Others assert that St. Luke invented the angels, the shepherds, and the events in the temple to remind Gentile readers of the lives of prominent Greeks and Romans. These speculations, of course, are incompatible with Catholic teaching on biblical inspiration, and there is no contemporary physical evidence to support them. Such speculations lead one to wonder why St. Matthew would lie about the Nativity when he writes that Jesus repeatedly preached against lying (Mt. 15:19; 19:18), or why St. Luke would launch into a series of lies immediately after stating that he is writing his Gospel “that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (Lk. 1:4).

Perhaps most insidiously, some critics claim that the idea of the virgin birth was unknown to Christians until five decades after the death of Christ; an “invention” so late could not be true. The most important “evidence” for this claim is that the apostolic preaching, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul, emphasized Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, not His birth.

One might reply to these critics that because the Redemption of the human race was the center of Christ’s earthly life—He was born in order to “save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21)—the apostles, in their preaching, would naturally emphasize the Redemption, not Christ’s birth and childhood. In addition, in asserting that the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke could not have been written by St. Matthew and St. Luke but were instead written much later by others, these critics set aside not only the teaching of the Church that the Gospels were written in apostolic times (see PD, no. 10 above) but also ignore the testimony of numerous ancient authors to the contrary. [5]

“Always be prepared to make a defense”

Catholics should not allow their faith to be shaken by Christmastime articles that question the historicity of the Gospels. A knowledge of Sacred Scripture and Catholic teaching, an acquaintance with the writings of sound Catholic authors on the Nativity, and a healthy skepticism towards the claims made in these articles should prepare us “to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

First, we should make time to read the Gospels prayerfully or hear the Gospel proclaimed at Mass every day. A knowledge of the Gospels allows one to sense almost immediately the falsehood of some assertions of critics of the infancy narratives’ historicity: for example, the assertion that St. Matthew’s Gospel presents Joseph and Mary as permanent residents of Bethlehem before their flight into Egypt.

Second, we should acquaint ourselves with Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture, which is presented authoritatively in the five texts cited in the first portion of this FAITH FACT. A knowledge of these documents allows one to read Sacred Scripture with the faith of the Church and to realize how perennial and ideological—and unscientific—many of these objections are.

Third, by reading lives of Christ and commentaries on the Gospels from patristic times to our own day, we can not only better know and love Our Lord, but also see that there is no contradiction between the four evangelists. Three resources for further study are the patristic and medieval authors mentioned in Providentissimus Deus, the lives of Christ and commentaries listed in the late Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan (available from www.lifeeternal.org), and the resources at the website of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (see endnote 1).

Fourth, while approaching the Gospels with the Church’s faith, we should approach the writings of critics of the historicity of the Gospels with a healthy skepticism. When critics insinuate that the evangelists lied about the facts for the sake of a theological agenda, we might ask a common sense question in return: “Why would men at constant risk of martyrdom lie about Christ’s origins in order to convince others of the truth of His teaching?”


Other Available FAITH FACTS:

• Taking God At His Word: A Catholic Understanding of Biblical Inerrancy • The Complete Bible: Why Catholics Have Seven More Books • Sola Scriptura?: Not According to the Bible • Approved Bible Translations for Mass Use • Who Knows?: The Human Knowledge of Christ • Call No Man Father: Understanding Matthew 23:9 • Brothers and Sisters of Jesus • Doctors of the Church

Call 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484).

FAITH FACTS are a free membership service of Catholics United for the Faith.

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Last edited: 5/9/2014


[1] These five texts, together with other magisterial documents, pastoral statements, and documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, are available online at http://www.salvationhistory.com/library/ Scripture/ChurchAndBible/index.cfm.

[2] Pope Leo lays down this principle in the context of the historicity of Scripture: “The principles here laid down will apply [to] cognate sciences, and especially to History” (SP, no. 20).

[3] Pope Pius XII upheld Catholic teaching on biblical inerrancy with a particularly memorable comparison: “as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, ‘except sin’ (Heb. 4:15), so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error” (DAS, no. 37).

[4] David van Biema et al., “Behind the First Noel,” TIME Magazine (December 13, 2004).

[5] “Gospel of St. Matthew,” Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1911), available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10057a.htm; “Gospel of Saint Luke,” Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1910), available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09420a.htm.

Pope John Paul II’s Enduring Legacy

Msgr. Charles M. Mangan
From the Jul/Aug 2005 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

ISSUE: What may be learned from the life and pontificate of John Paul II?

DISCUSSION: During the last day of March and the first two days of April 2005, much of the world was riveted on the third floor of the Vatican Apostolic Palace—the home for the last twenty-six years of Pope John Paul II. The once physically strong Pontiff finally succumbed to a panoply of medical ailments.

As was to be expected, the days following his death were the backdrop for much analysis, both scholarly and popular. What is the legacy of the Holy Father? What are the perduring contributions of Karol Wojtyla to our troubled era? Undoubtedly, these pressing questions will be asked in the years and decades—even centuries—to come.

In cataloging the remarkable achievements of Pope John Paul II, one faces a stiff task. There are so many things that the simple priest and bishop from Krakow did that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Archbishop John Patrick Foley, the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Vatican City, was a long-time collaborator of Pope John Paul II and an astute observer of his noteworthy Pontificate, often being called by the media to give his perspective on various papal initiatives.

Almost two months after the death of the Successor of St. Peter, Archbishop Foley, who was appointed to his current position by Pope John Paul II in 1984, traveled to Orlando, Florida, where he attended the meeting of the Catholic Press Association. In a homily he gave during the gathering, the prelate avoided the understandable temptation to provide a lengthy list of the incredible accomplishments of his dear friend—an exercise that surely does have merit. Instead, Archbishop Foley was content to summarize the Holy Father’s legacy as follows.

“Pope John Paul II taught us that there is much more to the papacy than speaking, writing, greeting people and traveling—although he certainly did enough of all of that.

“Pope John Paul II taught us how to live, how to suffer and how to die.”

The “numbers” of this Pontificate—countries visited, encyclicals penned, men, women, boys and girls beatified and canonized, audiences held, babies embraced, bishops appointed, civil authorities encouraged—are helpful and do tell part of the notable story very well. However, this author, taking a cue from Archbishop Foley, will rather consider what lessons we learn from Pope John Paul II as he lived, suffered and died.

As He Lived

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (Jn. 15:16). Jesus Christ the Great High Priest had designs on Karol Wojtyla from an early age. The merciful Lord was preparing the sensitive lad who lost his mother at a tender age to become a priest after His own Heart.

God has been glorified and souls saved because the Polish youth said his personal fiat—“Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). In fact, we can assert without hesitation or exaggeration that the world has been significantly altered for the better because the young man destined to be the Bishop of Rome surrendered his will to the Almighty. Karol Wojtyla bore fruit. So it is whenever anyone submits to God’s sagacious and inscrutable plan.

“Behold, your Mother” (Jn. 19:27). The sincere veneration of the Holy Father directed to the Immaculate Ever-Virgin Mother of God was legendary. His papal motto, Totus Tuus (“Totally Yours”), demonstrated not only an intellectual assent to the Church’s wise doctrines concerning Our Blessed Lady but also a real—and lasting—recognition of her rightful place in the spiritual life.

Pope John Paul II could say with St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090- 1153): De Maria numquam satis— “Concerning Mary, never enough.” Correctly understood, this assertion corresponds to the traditional theology and praxis of the Church. The Pontiff spent himself in imitating Our Blessed Mother and making her more loved in the hearts of the faithful. He generously consecrated himself Ad Iesum Per Mariam (“To Jesus Through Mary”) in the spirit of St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) and lived that consecration joyfully, courageously, and unreservedly.

“For from the rising of the sun to its setting My Name is great among the nations” (Mal. 1:11). The Holy Father displayed such an urgency in his words and deeds that this Old Testament verse should be increasingly realized. Of course, as it stands, this sentence is true—the Lord’s Name is blessed throughout the universe. But, sadly, we confess that not everyone professes the Holy Name of God with faith, conviction and love.

The multiple excursions made by the “Pilgrim Pope” only underscored the fervent desire of Pope John Paul II that the Gospel of Jesus Christ be preached to—and accepted in—the four corners of the globe. His heroic efforts were not in vain but redounded to the honor of the Creator Who inspired the Holy Father to expend so much energy in going to find the Lord’s needy sons and daughters.

“What shall I render to the Lord for all His bounty to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the Name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13). The virtue of gratitude was readily observable in the life of Pope John Paul II. He often expressed his genuine thanks to the Lord for all the varied and splendid gifts he had received—his parents, family, friends, faith, and even the indescribably challenging Petrine ministry which had been entrusted to him. But since gratitude demands a kind of recompense from the recipient to the bestower, the Holy Father sought to “pay back” the Divine Giver with the best possible return: his own conversion to Christ.

The Successor of St. Peter celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass daily. He knew that the Mass is the thanksgiving offered to God, par excellence. His love for the Most Holy Eucharist was manifested in the countless hours he spent before the Most Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance. Pope John Paul II lived a “Eucharistic life” through his union with Jesus and his willingness to
be “broken and shared” for the brothers and sisters of Christ.

“Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). The Holy Father tirelessly repeated the inspiring verity that the Creator has fashioned the human person into His own likeness. Man is the imago Dei—“the image of God.” Hence, it is never licit to attack innocent human life. Rather, such an audacious assault is a heinous affront to the Maker and must never be tolerated.

The human race continues to profit from the amazing fortitude of Pope John Paul II. Instead of capitulating to the diabolical forces of our era, the Holy Father enunciated the singular beauty and dignity of human life, exhorting all persons, regardless of their race, ethnicity or creed, to stand up for human life and defend it at every turn. Just when we needed this message, it was announced to us with precision and kindness by none other than the Vicar of Christ. Had the Holy Father “only” done this for us, it would have been enough.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). The colorful pilgrimages of the Holy Father will always be remembered. He took literally the imperative—not suggestion—of the Lord Jesus to go and make disciples of all nations. Pope John Paul II traversed the world in search of the lost sheep and trumpeted the Good News to Christians and non-Christians alike.

But the Pontiff also obeyed this command of Christ when he remained in Vatican City. He welcomed countless persons to his audiences, offering them hope and comfort along the arduous path that leads to heaven. And he produced one text after another that conveyed the eternal mysteries. Whether in Rome or elsewhere, Pope John Paul II carried out his teaching office with fidelity.

As He Suffered

“O God, Thou art my God, I seek Thee” (Ps. 63:1). One of the most quotable lines from the Holy Father’s massive teachings as found in his homilies, discourses and writings is that “suffering is salvific.” His February 11, 1984 apostolic letter entitled Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) emphasized that we who carry our own crosses with Christ closely participate in His saving action. We seek the Holy Face of the
Lord in our prayer and in our suffering and are content to be used by Him for the welfare of the sons and daughters of God.

As is well known, the Pontiff suffered intensely from the mysterious assassination attempt that occurred on May 13, 1981, which was the sixty-fourth anniversary of the appearance of the Mother of Jesus to the three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. Furthermore, he suffered from other illnesses that plagued him during his nearly twenty- seven year Pontificate. Yet, he cheerfully carried his heavy cross, convinced that the Master Who loved him and suffered on Calvary for him would grant the necessary strength to him to complete his taxing assignment. The Holy Father insisted that “Christ did not come down from the Cross”—evidently a reference to his intention to fulfill his God-given mission until the very end and not resign from the Papacy.

“Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly of Heart” (Mt. 11:29). The Holy Father’s suffering was not limited to the physical realm. He experienced anguish deep in his soul. The haughty rejection of Jesus by millions of persons haunted him, as did the blatant refusal by some Catholics to heed the Vicar of Christ and the Magisterium of the Church. That peace has proven so elusive in diverse parts of the world also intensified
the agony of Pope John Paul II.

As he did with his bodily suffering, the Holy Father offered this moral anguish to the Redeemer. He sought to persevere in his agony with the unfailing help of the Lord. Pope John Paul II was confident that Christ had already taken upon Himself all of our burdens. Therefore, he had to be faithful to his role and accept upon himself with trust in Jesus whatever moral suffering our benevolent God required of him.

“Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” (Lk. 23:46). The Holy Father was cognizant of his declining physical health and his aging. He saw the progression—the deterioration—that had occurred. He referred to himself as an older person, well aware that soon he would be called by the Lord to make an account of his life.

Those who enjoyed access to Pope John Paul II on a frequent basis periodically commented on his serenity. He was tranquil about his approaching death, though he faced it with sufficient gravity. He trusted in the mercy of God but was also mindful of His justice. The Holy Father yielded to the divine will; with the grace that only comes from the Holy Spirit, he made himself into a pleasing oblation to the Eternal Father in union with the suffering Jesus.

As He Died

“It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). Shortly before his painful death, the Holy Father asked that passages from Sacred Scripture relating the Passion of Christ be read to him. He also participated in the Stations of the Cross from his bed. Pope John Paul II found great consolation, as he had throughout his life, in meditating on the life-giving sufferings of Jesus.

There was now only one thing left for the Roman Pontiff to do: to join Jesus in saying, Consummatum est— “It is finished.” And the Holy Father did! He accepted his death peacefully, though he had to endure excruciating suffering. In this submission he gave magnificent witness a final time to the importance of surrendering to the Lord and trusting in His unspeakable love and mercy.

“I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last He will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). Faith was a hallmark of Pope John Paul II. He truly believed that one day he would see Jesus Christ in all His inimitable glory. For the Holy Father, the Redeemer was living and breathing, not a fading historical reality as are the numerous human entities he strenuously fought, such as communism, materialism, consumerism, and radical feminism.

In harmony with the Church, the Holy Father anticipated the future “final comings” of Jesus: the first, at the death of each individual; the second, on the Last Day when the Messiah will appear triumphantly accompanied by the Angels. The last days on earth of the Bishop of Rome, which were filled with prayer and suffering, testified to his faith in God and his contention that it is very important to prepare well for the particular judgment that each of us will undergo.

“Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). It has been reported that during the evening of April 2, 2005, which was the first Saturday of the month, after the Vigil Mass of the next day—“Divine Mercy” Sunday— was celebrated, the Holy Father recited the Holy Rosary with several of his associates and then uttered his last “Amen” at the precise moment before his death at 9:37 PM local time. This was supremely fitting. The fiat and Amen of his life and suffering would now give way as he returned to the Lord from Whom he came.

Only God Himself knows how often Pope John Paul II prayed, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” That authentic pining for Christ marked the Holy Father in his life, suffering and death. Would that the same be said for all disciples of Christ here on earth who await that wonderful day when they, too, will be summoned by the Creator.

Pope John Paul II—priest, prophet and leader—has left behind a tremendous legacy that is not meant merely to be esteemed but must be lived to the fullest. His unceasing concern for Jesus Christ and His Kingdom must now be translated without delay into the lives of all those who wish to follow the Savior. The Holy Father loved the Risen Christ and showed it in his life, suffering, and death. May that same charity be evident in our lives, suffering, and deaths for the glory of the Lord and the salvation of souls, including our own.

“Karol, Do You Love Me?”

The following is excerpted from Pope Benedict XVIs homily at the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II on April 8, 2005.

The Holy Father was a priest to the last, for he offered his life to God for his flock and for the entire human family, in a daily self-oblation for the service of the Church, especially amid the sufferings of his final months. And this way he became one with Christ, the Good Shepherd who loves his sheep .
. . .

Once more there took place that dialogue with Peter reported in the gospel of this Mass: “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Feed my sheep!” To the Lord’s question, “Karol, do you love me?” the Archbishop of Krakow answered from the depths of his heart: “Lord, you know everything: you know that I love you.” The love of Christ was the dominant force in the life of our beloved Holy Father. Anyone who ever saw him pray, who ever heard him preach, knows that. Thanks to his being profoundly rooted in Christ, he was able to bear a burden that transcends merely human abilities: that of being the shepherd of Christ’s flock, His universal Church . . . .

Together with the command to feed His flock, Christ proclaimed to Peter that he would die a martyr’s death. With those words, which conclude and sum up the dialogue on love and the mandate of the universal shepherd, the Lord recalls another dialogue, which took place during the Last Supper. There, Jesus had said, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow me afterward” (Jn. 13:33-36). Jesus, from the Supper, went toward the Cross, went toward His Resurrection; He entered into the Paschal Mystery and Peter could not follow Him. Now, after the resurrection comes the time, comes this “afterward.” By shepherding the flock of Christ, Peter enters into the Paschal Mystery, he goes toward the Cross and the Resurrection.

The Lord says this in these words: “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (Jn. 21:18). In the first years of his pontificate, still young and full of energy, the Holy Father went to very ends of the earth, guided by Christ. But afterward, he increasingly entered into
the communion of Christ’s sufferings; increasingly he understood the truth of the words: “Someone else will fasten a belt around you.” And in communion with the suffering Lord, tirelessly and with renewed intensity, he proclaimed the Gospel: the mystery of that love which goes to the end . . . .

We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house; that he sees us and blesses us . . . .

We entrust your dear soul to the Mother of God, your Mother, who guided you each day and who will guide you now to the eternal glory of her Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Recommended Reading

Pope John Paul II, Pope John Paul II Prays the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Msgr. Arthur Burton Calkins, Totus Tuus: John Paul II s Program of Marian Consecration and Entrustment

Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination

Msgr. Charles M. Mangan, What Do You Want of Me? The Apparitions and Message of Our Lady of Fatima

Michael J.Miller, The Encyclicals of John Paul II

Michael J. Miller, The PostSynodal Apostolic Exhortations of John Paul II

George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II


• Following Our Bishops • Hope: A Pilgrim’s Virtue • Papal Succession • The Year of the Eucharist

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The Encyclicals of Pope John Paul II

From the Mar/Apr 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Issue: What topics did Pope John Paul II examine in his fourteen encyclicals?

Response: Pope John Paul devoted three encyclicals to the Divine Persons, three to subjects that touch upon the truth of the Catholic faith and morality, three to the Church’s social doctrine, two to missionary activity, and three to other subjects (the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Mother, and ecumenism).

Discussion: Pope John Paul II issued important and at times groundbreaking apostolic constitutions, exhortations, and letters during his pontificate (1978–2005), and his audiences contain much rich theological reflection. Still, for him, like previous popes, the encyclical remained “the highest form of papal teaching document,”1 “a letter addressed to all Christendom for the defense and increase of spiritual life.”2 Papal encyclicals are “the richest and most colorful documents of the Church, issued primarily as the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church in a manner to clarify the Church’s position on issues in the modern world.”3 The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council alluded to papal encyclicals in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.4

Pope John Paul wrote fourteen encyclicals; this FAITH FACT summarizes their content in the order in which they were written.5

The Early Years

In the first three years of his reign, Pope John Paul wrote three encyclicals. He issued the first, Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man”), less than five months after he was elected the 264th pope.

Redemptor Hominis begins with the resounding words “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history. To him go my thoughts and my heart in this solemn moment of the world that the Church and the whole family of present-day humanity are now living.” Describing the years preceding 2000 as a “new Advent,” the Pope reflects briefly upon his election, the heritage left to the Church by Pope Paul VI, and the importance of collegiality and Christian unity. Considering the mystery of Christ’s redemption, he examines its divine and human dimensions, the relation between Christ the Redeemer and His Church, and the relation between the Church’s mission and human freedom. Turning his attention to redeemed man in the modern world, the Holy Father sets forth a Christian humanism and notes threats to man, especially violations of human rights. Pope John Paul then reflects upon Christians’ participation in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of our Lord. Participation in Christ’s prophetic office demands fidelity to revealed truth; participation in the kingly office demands a life of service to others. The union of the faithful with Christ the Priest, Prophet, and King is fostered by receiving the
Sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance. “Nobody else,” concludes the Holy Father, “can bring us as Mary can into the divine and human dimension of this mystery” of redemption.

Having devoted his first encyclical to “the truth about man, a truth that is revealed to us in its fullness and depth in Christ,” Pope John Paul noted that “a no less important need in these critical and difficult times impels me to draw attention once again in Christ to the countenance of the ‘Father of mercies and God of all comfort’ (2 Cor. 1:3). . . . Man and man’s lofty calling are revealed in Christ through the revelation of the mystery of the Father
and His love.” This theme forms the basis of his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”). The Holy Father begins by noting that Christ revealed the Father’s mercy and—even more—is the incarnation of mercy. The pontiff then develops a biblical theology of mercy: He considers mercy in Jesus’ actions and teaching, mercy in the Old Testament, mercy in the parable of the prodigal son, and mercy on Calvary, where one sees not only divine mercy but also Mary as Mother of mercy. In the sixth chapter, the Pope uses a verse from Mary’s Magnificat—”And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50)—as a foundation for pondering the ways in which modern man is particularly in need of mercy. Pope John Paul concludes by examining the relation between the Church and mercy: how the Church professes God’s mercy, proclaims it, seeks to put it into practice, and finally begs it from God.

Following in the footsteps of Pope Pius XI and Bl. John XXIII, Pope John Paul II then issued an encyclical to commemorate the anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s seminal 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”). Pope John Paul II devoted Laborem Exercens (“Engaging in Work”)6 to human work, because work is a “perennial and fundamental” aspect of redeemed man’s existence. After showing that work has been a
key component of the Church’s social doctrine since 1891, the pontiff turns to the question of work and man: work in the Book of Genesis, work in its objective sense (technology), and work in its subjective sense (with man being the subject of work). After considering worker solidarity, work and personal dignity, work and society, and the threats posed to the right order of values by materialism and economism, John Paul evaluates the conflict between capital and labor, much as Leo had ninety years before, and discusses at length the rights of workers. The pontiff concludes by discussing the Church’s duty to develop a spirituality of work. Elements of this spirituality include seeing work as a sharing in the activity of the Creator, seeking union with Christ—whom the Pope calls “the man of work”—and considering work in the light of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection.

The Mid-1980s

Between 1985 and 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote four encyclicals. Like Pope Leo XIII before him, Pope John Paul devoted an encyclical to Saints Cyril and Methodius, who were declared co-patrons of Europe in 1980. In Slavorum Apostoli (“Apostles of the Slavs”), which commemorated the eleventh centenary of St. Methodius’s death, Pope John Paul sought to “look in a new way—a more mature and profound way—at these two holy figures. . . .And we can read in their lives and apostolic activity the elements that the wisdom of divine Providence placed in them, so that they might be revealed with fresh fullness in our own age and might bear new fruits.” In writing a biographical sketch of these two brothers, John Paul upholds them as models of missionary activity: “The effort to learn the language and to understand the mentality of the new peoples to whom they wished to bring the faith was truly worthy of the missionary spirit. Exemplary too was their determination to assimilate and identify themselves with all the needs and expectations of the Slav peoples.” Paying particular attention to how they planted the Church in Slavonic culture, the pontiff reflects upon what they can teach us about the catholicity of the Church. The saints’ legacy, he concludes, is an enduring one, for they are “recognized by the family of Slav peoples as the fathers of both their Christianity and their culture.”

Having devoted the topics of his first two encyclicals to God the Son and God the Father, Pope John Paul wished to write about the life of the Holy Spirit—for faith in the Holy Spirit, “uninterruptedly professed by the Church, needs to be constantly reawakened and deepened in the consciousness of the People of God.” Dominum et Vivificantem (“Lord and Giver of Life”) is largely a biblical reflection: It examines Jesus’ promise and revelation of the Holy Spirit at the Last Supper, the Messiah as the one anointed with the Holy Spirit, Christ’s words on Easter evening— “Receive the Holy Spirit”—and the Holy Spirit and the era of the Church, beginning at Pentecost. Reflecting upon the Holy Spirit as the one who “convinces the world concerning sin” (cf. Jn. 16:8), Pope John Paul considers original sin, the Holy Spirit’s work in consciences and in the Paschal Mystery, and the sin against the Holy Spirit. The pontiff then considers the Holy Spirit as the one who gives life: His role in the Incarnation—which would be recalled in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000—His work in souls—whereby He strengthens the inner man for battles against the flesh—and His action in the life of the Church and in the prayer of believers.

Though thirteen years away, the year 2000 offered an occasion of Pope John Paul’s next encyclical, Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”), on the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the pilgrim Church—for “the Bimillennial Jubilee of the birth of Jesus Christ at the same time directs our gaze towards his Mother.” The pilgrim Church, writes Pope John Paul, “proceeds along the path already trodden by the Virgin Mary.” Reflecting upon three Marian biblical texts—”full of grace” (Lk. 1:28), “blessed is she who believed” (Lk. 1:45), and “behold your mother” (Jn. 19:27)—Pope John Paul considers Mary in the mystery of Christ. Meditating upon the Mother of God as the one at the center of the pilgrim Church, the pontiff considers Mary’s presence at Pentecost, Mary and Christian unity, and the Church’s union with Mary in her Magnificat. Turning to Mary’s maternal mediation, Pope John Paul considers her mediation as part of her service as handmaid of the Lord and her role in the life of the Church and of every Christian. He also discusses the significance of the Marian Year of 1987–88.

Later in 1987, Pope John Paul wrote his second encyclical on the Church’s social doctrine. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“Solicitude for the Social Condition”)7 commemorates the twentieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s social encyclical, Populorum Progressio (“The Progress of Peoples”), and highlights “the continuity of the social doctrine as well as its constant renewal.” Pope John Paul pays tribute to the threefold originality of Populorum Progressio, which is original in its theme of evaluating economic and social development in light of God’s word, in its broad recognition of development as an international concern, and in its description of development as “the new name for peace.” John Paul then offers a largely negative survey of development in the contemporary world and in doing so discusses the gap between North and South, unemployment, international debt,
international relations, arms production, and demography. After noting some positive contemporary trends, the pontiff examines authentic human development before offering “a theological reading of modern problems” and some particular guidelines. Although “the Church well knows that no temporal achievement is to be identified with the Kingdom of God . . . that expectation can never be an excuse for lack of concern for people in their concrete personal situations and in their social, national and international life.”

The Early 1990s

Pope John Paul II wrote three encyclicals in the early 1990s. The first, Redemptoris Missio (“The Mission of the Redeemer”), affirms the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate and highlights the “urgency of missionary activity.” After teaching that Jesus Christ is the only Savior and that the Church is the sign and instrument of salvation, the pontiff examines the Kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit as the principal agent of mission, the vast horizon of missionary activity, and how such activity takes place. The Pope then turns his attention to the leaders and workers in the missionary apostolate, the mutual cooperation of all Catholics in missionary activity, and the components of missionary spirituality.

The pontiff’s final social encyclical, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), commemorates the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Rerum Novarum. In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul proposes a “rereading” of Rerum Novarum, in which he “looks back” at its fundamental principles, “looks around” at contemporary society, and “looks to the future.” After considering the historical context and doctrinal content of Rerum Novarum, the Pope examines at length the contemporary historical context—particularly the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989—and applies to the modern world Pope Leo’s teachings on private property and the universal destination of material goods. The pontiff then considers the state and culture, including its economic component, and urges Christians to act in accordance with the Church’s social doctrine so as to promote man’s good.

Two years later, Pope John Paul issued Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) to recall “certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied.” The pontiff examines these truths in light of the conversation between Christ and the rich young man (Mt. 19:16–22) and in doing so affirms the link between eternal life and obedience to the commandments. The Pope then
evaluates trends in moral theology in light of Catholic doctrine; issues examined include freedom and law, conscience and truth, the “fundamental option” and specific kinds of behavior, and moral acts—certain acts, he emphasizes, are intrinsically evil. He then turns to false dichotomies between freedom and truth and between faith and morality. Obedience to the commandments, even unto martyrdom, is possible through divine grace and the cooperation of human freedom.

The Last Decade

Pope John Paul II wrote four encyclicals in the last decade of his pontificate. Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) begins:

The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message. . . . Jesus says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). In truth, he is referring to that “new” and “eternal” life which consists in communion with the Father, to which every person is freely called in the Son by the power of the Sanctifying Spirit. It is precisely in this “life” that all the aspects and stages of human life achieve their full significance.

Proclaiming the “incomparable worth of the human person” the pontiff uses the biblical passage about Cain’s murder of Abel (Gen. 4:1–16) as a prism through which to examine “the extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples.” The Pope then discusses at great length the content of the Gospel of life and the demands of the divine commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” After offering guidance for building a culture of life, Pope John Paul uses texts from St. John’s Apocalypse to reflect upon Mary and life.

Two months later, the pontiff renewed the Church’s commitment to ecumenism in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They May Be One”). Because “Christ calls all his disciples to unity . . . how could [believers] refuse to do everything possible, with God’s help, to break down the walls of division and distrust, to overcome obstacles and prejudices which thwart the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation in the Cross of Jesus, the one Redeemer of man, of every individual?” Emphasizing renewal, conversion, the importance of doctrine, the primacy of prayer, dialogue, and practical cooperation, Pope John Paul affirms the Church’s commitment to ecumenism and discusses at length the fruits of ecumenical dialogue since the Second Vatican Council. After discussing the future of ecumenism, he states that “as the Church turns her gaze to the new millennium, she asks the Spirit for the grace to strengthen her own unity and to make it grow towards full communion with other Christians.” The Church can obtain this grace through prayer, thanksgiving, and hope in the Spirit.

Having drawn attention in Veritatis Splendor to “certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied,” Pope John Paul wished “to pursue that reflection by concentrating on the theme of truth itself and on its foundation in relation to faith.” This theme forms the basis of Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”), which was issued “because of the Second Vatican Council’s insistence that the Bishops are ‘witnesses of divine and catholic truth,’” and because of “the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going.” Discussing at length divine revelation, human understanding, and their mutual
relation, Pope John Paul reviews the history of Christian philosophy, pays tribute to “the enduring originality of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas,” recalls the magisterium’s interventions in philosophical matters, and explores the relation between philosophy and theology.8 He then outlines the “current requirements and tasks” in this area, including “the indispensable requirements of the word of God” and “current tasks for theology.”

Pope John Paul wrote his final encyclical to rekindle “Eucharistic amazement” in the Church, in accord with his post-Jubilee “program” —outlined in two apostolic letters—of contemplating with Mary the face of Christ. In Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“The Church from the Eucharist”), the pontiff emphasizes that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist”; he examines the content of the Church’s Eucharistic faith and explores how the Eucharist builds the Church. Reflecting upon how the Church and the Eucharist are both apostolic, he explores the relation between Holy Communion and ecclesial communion. In light of lamentable liturgical abuses, Pope John Paul turns to sacred music and architecture and stresses the importance of following liturgical norms. Reflecting upon the relation between Mary and the Eucharist, he writes that “the Eucharist has been given to us so that our
life, like that of Mary, may become completely a Magnificat.” The Eucharistic mystery, he concludes, “does not allow for reduction or exploitation; it must be experienced and lived in its integrity, both in its celebration and in the intimate converse with Jesus which takes place after receiving communion or in a prayerful moment of Eucharistic adoration apart from Mass. These are times when the Church is firmly built up and it becomes clear what she truly is.”

1 Matthew E. Bunson, gen. ed., Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac 2006 (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2005), p. 140.

2 James-Charles Noonan, Jr., The Church Visible (New York: Viking Penguin, 1996), p. 403.

3 Noonan, p. 408.

4 Lumen Gentium (November 21, 1964), n. 25. The documents of the Second Vatican Council are available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/.

5 All of Pope John Paul’s encyclicals are available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_ paul_ii/encyclicals/index.htm. Excerpts of encyclicals quoted in this FAITH FACT come from the translations on the Vatican Web site; italics in the original (when used for emphasis) have been removed.

6 The English title of this encyclical is often rendered On Human Work.

7 The English title of this encyclical is often rendered On Social Concern.

8 In doing so, he pays tribute to nine modern thinkers: Ven. John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, St. Edith Stein, Vladimir S. Soloviev, Pavel A. Florensky, Petr Chaadaev, and Vladimir N. Lossky.

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Daily Penance, Days of Penance

Issue: What does the Church teach about daily penance? What are the days of penance, and how ought Catholics to observe them?

Response: As part of our response to Christ’s exhortation to repent, the Church urges us to live penitentially every day. While Catholics are called to do penance primarily in daily life, the Church has established special days of penance—all Fridays and the season of Lent—on which Catholics are called to pray, fast, and perform works of charity. The laws of fast and abstinence bind Catholics of certain ages on certain days of penance.

Discussion: Repentance is at the heart of the Gospel. After the beginning of His public life, Jesus “came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel’” (Mk. 1:14-15). Later, when He began to send out the Twelve two by two, “they went out and preached that men should repent” (Mk. 6:12). On Pentecost, St. Peter’s hearers “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:37-38).

The resounding message of the Gospel—”Repent!”—is primarily an invitation to “the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, [exterior] penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.”[1] A “work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him,” interior repentance is “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace.”[2]

Daily Penance

Since 1966, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Paenitemini (“Repent”) has governed the Church’s penitential discipline. In guiding our response to Christ’s exhortation to repent, the document urges us to live penitentially every day, for as the Catechism of the Catholic Church would teach decades later, “taking up one’s cross each day and following Jesus is the surest way of penance.”[3] Thus the Church “insists first of all that the virtue of penitence be exercised in persevering faithfulness to the duties of one’s state in life, in the acceptance of the difficulties arising from one’s work and from human coexistence in a patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it.”[4]

We ought, then, to look at our state in life and the difficulties inherent in the human condition as the means by which God invites us to daily repentance. We respond to this invitation by fulfilling our duties faithfully and by accepting such difficulties patiently.

In addition to these day-to-day trials, God, in His loving providence, sends more specific, personal trials into His children’s lives. These personal sufferings are acts of discipline by which our loving Father leads us into deeper repentance and transforms us into truer disciples of Christ. “God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . He disciplines us for our good, that we share his holiness” (Heb. 12:7, 10). Our sufferings are not for our own benefit alone, for they can lead us to say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). Thus the Church teaches that “those members of the Church who are stricken by infirmities, illnesses, poverty or misfortunes, or who are persecuted for the love of justice, are invited to unite their sorrows to the suffering of Christ in such a way that they not only satisfy more thoroughly the precept of penitence but also obtain for the brethren a life of grace and for themselves that beatitude which is promised in the Gospel to those who suffer.”[5]

Our daily repentance, brought about by grace through the duties of our state of life, the difficulties inherent in the human condition, and the specific sufferings God sends us, finds its “source and nourishment in the Eucharist.”[6] External signs accompany our daily interior conversion, as the Catechism elaborates:

Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of justice and right, by the admission of faults to one’s brethren, fraternal correction, revision of life, examination of conscience, spiritual direction, acceptance of suffering, [and] endurance of persecution for the sake of righteousness.[7]

Days of Penance: The Universal Discipline

Within this context of penitential discipleship, the Church invites the faithful to “respond to the divine precept of penitence by some voluntary act, apart from the renunciation imposed by the burdens of everyday life.”[8]

Holy Mother Church, although it has always observed in a special way abstinence from meat and fasting, nevertheless wants to indicate in the traditional triad of “prayer-fasting-charity” [9] the fundamental means of complying with the divine precepts of penitence. . . . Where economic well-being is greater, so much more will the witness of asceticism have to be given in order that the sons of the Church may not be involved in the spirit of the “world,” and at the same time the witness of charity will have to be given to the brethren who suffer poverty and hunger beyond any barrier of nation or continent. . . . In order that all the faithful . . . may be united in a common celebration of penitence, the Apostolic See intends to establish certain penitential days and seasons chosen among those which in the course of the liturgical year are closer to the paschal mystery of Christ or might be required by the special needs of the ecclesial community.[10]

These common penitential days and seasons, on which we are exhorted to pray, fast, and perform works of charity, are “all Fridays through the year and the time of Lent.”[11]

Particularly appropriate acts of prayer on Fridays and during the season of Lent include reading Sacred Scripture, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, praying the Our Father, making spiritual exercises (that is, a retreat or day of recollection), attending penitential liturgies (especially the Sacrament of Penance), and making pilgrimages. [12] Still, the Church does not require that any specific prayer be said on these days, for “every sincere act of worship or devotion revives the spirit of conversion and repentance within us and contributes to the forgiveness of our sins.”[13]

To assist the faithful in fasting during these times of penance, the Church has legislated the following:

Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity [14] should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year.[15] Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.[16]

Bishop and “pastors also for just cause and in accordance with the prescriptions of the Ordinary may grant to individual faithful as well as individual families dispensation or commutation of abstinence and fast into other pious practices.”[17]

While the Church does not specify how we should engage in “fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)”[18] during penitential times, the Catechism in its treatment of the Seventh Commandment teaches that

The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, [and] comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.[19]

Within the context of daily penitential discipleship, then, the Church has established all Fridays and the season of Lent as times of penance in which prayer, fasting, and works of charity hold pride of place. According to the discipline of the universal Church, Catholics of certain ages must fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on all Fridays that are not solemnities.[20]

Days of Penance: The American Discipline

Pope Paul VI granted episcopal conferences wide latitude in implementing and modifying the universal discipline of penance: “It is up to the bishops—gathered in their episcopal conferences—to establish the norms which, in their pastoral solicitude and prudence, and with the direct knowledge they have of local conditions, they consider the most opportune and efficacious.”[21] Nine months after Pope Paul reformed the Church’s universal penitential discipline, the American bishops responded to his invitation to apply that discipline in the United States.[22] In doing so, the American bishops made four modifications.

First, even though Advent is no longer a season of penance, the American bishops urged the Catholics of the United States to observe Advent as a penitential time of preparation for Christmas.[23]

Second, the American bishops offered specific guidance on observing the weekdays of Lent on which there is no mandatory fast or abstinence:

For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge particularly during Lent, generosity to local, national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the Rosary) and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification.”

Let us witness to our love and imitation of Christ, by special solicitude for the sick, the poor, the underprivileged, the imprisoned, the bed-ridden, the discouraged, the stranger, the lonely, and persons of other color, nationalities or background than our own.

Third, even though Pope Paul VI had abolished the penances associated with ember days and the vigils of feast days, the American bishops stated:

The liturgical renewal and the deeper appreciation of the joy of the holy days of the Christian year will, we hope, result in a renewed appreciation as to why our forefathers spoke of “a fast before a feast.” We impose no fast before any feastday, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer, and fasting.[24]

Fourth, the American bishops modified the discipline of abstinence on Fridays outside of Lent. “Since the spirit of penance,” they wrote, “primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.” With the intention of reinvigorating the penitential observance of Friday, the bishops

  • urged Catholics to be mindful on Fridays of their sins and the sins of mankind, which we are called to help expiate,
  • asked Catholics to make Friday “in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year, “that is, “a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ” in preparation for Sunday, the weekly Easter,
  • and abolished the mandatory nature of Friday abstinence outside of Lent but instead allowed Catholics to choose their own act of “voluntary self-denial and personal penance,” among which abstinence stil holds pride of place.

For those Catholics who choose a penance besides abstinence from meat, the bishops recommended temperance in the use of stimulants and alcoholic beverages.[25] They added:

It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

Since 1966, the American bishops have repeated the call to observe Friday as a day of penance. In a 1983 pastoral letter, they wrote:

As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.[26]


Recommended Reading:

Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1422-98.

Pope Clement XIII, Encyclical on the Spiritual Advantages of Fasting, Appetente Sacro (1759).

Bl. John XXIII, Encyclical on the Need for the Practice of Interior and Exterior Penance, Paenitentiam Agere (1962).

Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), nos. 109-10.

Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (1966).

National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence (1966).

Code of Canon Law, canons 1249-53.

Pope John Paul II, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church Today, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984).

Committee on Pastoral Practices, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), “Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics” (2000).

Tertullian, On Repentance.

St. Ambrose, On Repentance.

 St. Thomas Aquinas, “Penance as a Virtue,” Summa Theologiae, III, q. 85.


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[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1430. The Catechism is available online at http://www.vatican. va/archive/index.htm.

[2] Catechism, no. 1431.

[3] Catechism, no. 1435.

[4] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini (February 17, 1966). This document is available online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_ vi/apost_constitutions/index.htm. All quotations from this document come from the third chapter, which is legislative in nature. The first chapter examines penance in Sacred Scripture; the second discusses asceticism in general.

[5] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini.

[6] Catechism, no. 1436.

[7] Catechism, no. 1435.

[8] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini.

[9] The Latin text here reads “precationem, ieiunium, opera caritatis“-“prayer, fasting, works of charity.” The Catechism uses the word “almsgiving” (“eleemosynae“) instead of “works of charity” (no. 1434) and exhorts the faithful to “charitable and missionary works” on days of penance (no. 1438).

[10] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini.

[11] Code of Canon Law, canon 1250. The preceding canon also exhorts the faithful to fulfill their responsibilities more faithfully on these penitential days. The Code is available online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/index.htm. For a reflection on the penitential (and baptismal) character of Lent, see the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963), nos. 109-10.

[12] Catechism, nos. 1437-38.

[13] Catechism, no. 1438.

[14] Solemnities that are not holy days of obligation in the United States when they fall on Fridays include the Solemnities of St. Joseph, the Annunciation of the Lord, the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, the titular saint of one’s parish, and the anniversary of the dedication of one’s parish.

[15] Pope Paul VI decreed that “the law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat. The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing-as far as quantity and quality are concerned-approved local custom.” Approved local custom in the United States allows for the eating of the main meal at the end of the day.

[16] Code of Canon Law, canons 1251-52. In these matters, the Code of Canon Law modified Pope Paul VI’s 1966 legislation in two ways. First, the law of fasting now binds Catholics beginning at the age of majority (age eighteen); previously, the legislation bound Catholics beginning at the age of twentyone. Second, Pope Paul had decreed that the law of abstinence is to be observed on all Fridays that are not holy days of obligation; the current legislation allows for the suspension of this law on all other solemnities as well. Note that all Fridays remain days of penance, even if they are solemnities and the law of abstinence does not bind.

[17] Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini.

[18] Catechism, no. 1438.

[19] Catechism, no. 2447.

[20] The “substantial observance” of the penitential discipline of Fridays and Ash Wednesday, Pope Paul VI wrote, “binds gravely.” Interpreting this statement authoritatively, the Sacred Congregation of the Council decreed that this grave obligation does not refer to the individual days of penance, but to “the whole complexus of penitential days to be observed . . . that is, one sins gravely against the law, who, without an excusable cause, omits a notable part, quantitative or qualitative, of the penitential observance which is prescribed as a whole (February 24, 1967; reprinted in Canon Law Digest, vol. 6, pp. 684-85).

[21] Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini. Bishops’ conferences, he wrote, may “transfer for just cause the days of penitence, always taking into account the Lenten season” and “substitute abstinence and fast wholly or in part with other forms of penitence and especially works of charity and the exercises of piety.”

[22] National Conference of Catholic Bishops (now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence (November 18, 1966). This document is available online at http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/ doc_view.cfm?recnum=5303.

[23] “Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season,” the bishops wrote. “Something of the holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that is once had. Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. For these reasons, we the shepherds of souls of this conference call upon Catholics to make the Advent season . . . a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished. If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, and retreat and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practices with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own.”

[24 ]Ember days were days of mandatory fast and abstinence that took place on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after December 13th, Ash Wednesday, Pentecost Sunday, and September 14th. For more information about ember days, see “Ember Days,” Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (Robert Appleton Co., 1909), available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05399b.htm.

[25] “Perhaps we should warn those who decide to keep the Friday abstinence for reasons of personal piety and special love that they must not pass judgment on those who elect to substitute other penitential observances. Friday, please God, will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat. In this connection we have foremost in mind the modern need for self-discipline in the use of stimulants and for a renewed emphasis on the virtue of temperance, especially in the use of alcoholic beverages.”

[26] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, no. 298.

Date created:

Avoiding War and Safeguarding Peace

Issue: What does the Church teach about just war?

Response: While recognizing the right of nations to legitimate self-defense under the just war doctrine, the teaching Church urges the avoidance of war.

Discussion: In the days following Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the Chair of Peter, speculation arose in the Catholic and secular media about why he chose the name Benedict XVI. In his first general audience, the pontiff revealed that he had chosen his name because of his concern for peace:

I wanted to be called Benedict XVI in order to create a spiritual bond with Benedict XV, who steered the Church through the period of turmoil caused by the First World War. He was a courageous and authentic prophet of peace and strove with brave courage first of all to avert the tragedy of the war and then to limit its harmful consequences. Treading in his footsteps, I would like to place my ministry at the service of reconciliation and harmony between persons and peoples, since I am profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is first and foremost a gift of God, a precious but unfortunately fragile gift to
pray for, safeguard and build up, day after day, with the help of all.[1]

The horrors of modern warfare have led the pontiffs of the past century to lament repeatedly the evils that attend war and to emphasize the importance of safeguarding peace. In a 52-year period, five popes devoted an astounding 21 encyclicals to these topics. Since 1968, papal teaching on peace has been expressed primarily in Messages for the World Day of Peace, celebrated annually on January 1st.

The Roots of War and Peace

War, according to St. James, has its roots in disordered passions. “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war” (Jas. 4:1–2). Our Lord, too, teaches that sinful anger leads to killing (see Mt. 5:21–22).

This sinful anger is not the praiseworthy desire “to impose restitution to correct vices and maintain justice,” but rather is the “desire for revenge . . .in order to do evil to someone who should be punished.”[2]

The grace of Christ can subdue all sinful anger and disordered passions. Much as war is sin writ large, “earthly peace is the image and fruit of the peace of Christ, the messianic ‘Prince of Peace.’ By the blood of His Cross, ‘in his own person he killed the hostility’ (Eph. 2:16; cf. Col. 1:20–22), He reconciled men with God and made His Church the sacrament of the unity of the human race and of its union with God. ‘He is our peace’ (Eph. 2:14). He has declared: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Mt. 5:9).”[3]

Much, too, as Christian life is more than the absence of sin, peace is more than the absence of war. St. Augustine describes peace as the “tranquility of order”; it is “the work of justice and the effect of charity.”[4] The Second Vatican Council elaborates upon how peace results from justice and charity:

Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by men as they thirst after ever greater justice. The common good of humanity finds its ultimate meaning in the eternal law. But since the concrete demands of this common good are constantly changing as time goes on, peace is never attained once and for all, but must be built up ceaselessly. Moreover, since the human will is unsteady and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant mastering of passions and the vigilance of lawful authority.

But this is not enough. This peace on earth cannot be obtained unless personal well-being is safeguarded and men freely and trustingly share with one another the riches of their inner spirits and their talents. A firm determination to respect other men and peoples and their dignity, as well as the studied practice of brotherhood are absolutely necessary for the establishment of peace. Hence peace is likewise the fruit of love, which goes beyond what justice can provide. [5]

Avoiding War

The Roman pontiffs have often lamented the evils that accompany war. Issuing his first encyclical in the opening months of World War I, Pope Benedict XV observed that

the sad cohorts of war, sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases, and with the interruption of communications, trade is at a standstill; agriculture is abandoned; the arts are reduced to inactivity; the wealthy are in difficulties; the poor are reduced to abject misery; all are in distress.[6]

Likewise, a month after World War II began, Pope Pius XII wrote in his own inaugural encyclical:

when We think of the wave of suffering that has come on countless people who but yesterday enjoyed in the environment of their homes some little degree of well-being, We are tempted to lay down Our pen. Our paternal heart is torn by anguish as We look ahead to all that will yet come forth from the baneful seed of violence and of hatred for which the sword today ploughs the blood-drenched furrow.[7]

Because of the evils that accompany war, “the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war. All citizens are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.”[8]

The teaching Church does not place hope for the avoidance of war in the disordered accumulation of weapons.[9] Instead, the Church counsels the overcoming of “injustice, economic or social inequalities, and pride raging among men and nations.”[10]

The Just War

The Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) does not forbid legitimate self-defense “once all peace efforts have failed.”[11] For self-defense to be morally legitimate, the following conditions must be met simultaneously:

• the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

• all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

• there must be serious prospects of success;

• the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

The evaluation of these conditions “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”[12]

Within this context, governments “have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.” Those who serve in the armed forces are thus “servants of the security and freedom of nations” who can “truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” “Equitable provision” must be made for conscientious objectors, but they, too, are obliged “to serve the human community in some other way.”[13]

Just as the teaching Church offers moral criteria for evaluating whether to wage war, the Church also has a body of moral teaching related to conduct in war. Among the most important points:

  • The moral law remains valid during war.
  • A soldier is innocent of violating the Fifth Commandment when, “actuated not by motives of ambition or cruelty, but by a pure desire of serving the interests of his country,” he “takes away the life of an enemy in a just war.”[14]
  • Orders to destroy a people, nation, or minority—in other words, to commit genocide—are gravely immoral and must be disobeyed.
  • The “indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants” is gravely immoral.
  • “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.”[15]

Developing the Church’s just war doctrine, in light of the killing of civilian populations in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Pope John Paul II spoke of the right and duty of the community of nations to disarm an unjust aggressor under certain conditions:

Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defence prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor. These measures however must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone. . . .

There remains a fundamental duty for all men and women of good will, called to commit themselves personally to the cause of peace: that of educating for peace, setting in place structures of peace and methods of non-violence, and making every possible effort to bring parties in conflict to the negotiating table.[16]

Praying for Peace

Prayer is the foundation of the peacemaking to which Our Lord calls us in the beatitudes. “Prayer for peace,” writes Pope John Paul II, “is not an afterthought to the work of peace. It is of the very essence of building the peace of order, justice, and freedom.”

To pray for peace is to open the human heart to the inroads of God’s power to renew all things. With the life-giving force of his grace, God can create openings for peace where only obstacles and closures are apparent; he can strengthen and enlarge the solidarity of the human family in spite of our endless history of division and conflict. To pray for peace is to pray for justice, for a right-ordering of relations within and among nations and peoples. It is to pray for freedom, especially for the religious freedom that is a basic human and civil right of every individual. To pray for peace is to seek God’s forgiveness, and to implore the courage to forgive those who have trespassed against us. [17]

Particularly efficacious in this regard is the Holy Rosary. When the Blessed Virgin appeared in Fatima on May 13, 1917, she said, “Say the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war.”18 Pope John Paul II discusses why the Roman pontiffs have long associated the Rosary with the cause of peace:

In a word, by focusing our eyes on Christ, the Rosary also makes us peacemakers in the world. By its nature as an insistent choral petition in harmony with Christ’s invitation to “pray ceaselessly” (Lk. 18:1), the Rosary allows us to hope that, even today, the difficult “battle” for peace can be won. Far from offering an escape from the problems of the world, the Rosary obliges us to see them with responsible and generous eyes, and obtains for us the strength to face them with the certainty of God’s help and the firm intention of bearing witness in every situation to “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).[19]


For Further Reading

Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World discuss Catholic teaching on peace.[20]

The popes of the last century have written 21 encyclicals on peace and the evils that accompany war: [21]

  • Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (Appealing for Peace, 1914)
  • Pope Benedict XV, Quod Iam Diu (On the Future Peace Conference, 1918)
  • Pope Benedict XV, Paterna Iam Diu (On the Children of Central Europe, 1919)
  • Pope Benedict XV, Pacem, Dei Munus Pulcherrimum (On Peace and Christian Reconciliation, 1920)
  • Pope Benedict XV, Annus Iam Plenus (On the Children of Central Europe, 1920)
  • Pope Pius XI, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio (On the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ, 1922)
  • Pope Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus (On the Unity of Human Society, 1939)
  • Pope Pius XII, Communium Interpretes Dolorum (Appealing for Prayers for Peace during May, 1945)
  • Pope Pius XII, Quemadmodum (Pleading for the Care of the World’s Destitute Children, 1946)
  • Pope Pius XII, Optatissima Pax (Prescribing Prayers for Social and World Peace, 1947)
  • Pope Pius XII, Auspicia Quaedam (On Public Prayers for World Peace and the Solution of the Problem of Palestine, 1948)
  • Pope Pius XII, In Multiplicibus Curis (On Prayers for Peace in Palestine, 1948)
  •  Pope Pius XII, Summi Maeroris (On Public Prayers for Peace, 1950)
  • Pope Pius XII, Mirabile Illud (On the Crusade of Prayers for Peace, 1950)
  • Pope Pius XII, Luctuosissimi Eventus (Urging Public Prayers for Peace and Freedom for the People of Hungary, 1956)
  • Pope Pius XII, Laetamur Admodum (Renewing Exhortation for Prayers for Peace for Poland, Hungary, and Especially for the Middle East, 1956)
  • Pope Pius XII, Datis Nuperrime (Lamenting the Sorrowful Events in Hungary and Condemning the Ruthless Use of Force, 1956)
  • Blessed John XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram (On Truth, Unity, and Peace, in a Spirit of Charity, 1959)
  • Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (On Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty, 1963)
  • Pope Paul VI, Mense Maio (On Prayers during May for the Preservation of Peace, 1965)
  • Pope Paul VI, Christi Matri (On Prayers for Peace during October, 1966) Pope Paul VI wrote the first annual Message for the World Day for Peace in 1968. Beginning in 1976, each message had a specific theme.22

Pope Paul VI

  • The real weapons of peace (1976)
  • If you want peace, defend life (1977)
  • No to violence, yes to peace (1978)

Pope John Paul II

  • To reach peace, teach peace (1979)
  • Truth, the power of peace (1980)
  • To serve peace, respect freedom (1981)
  • Peace: a gift of God entrusted to us (1982)
  • Dialogue for peace, a challenge for our time (1983)
  • From a new heart, peace is born (1984)
  • Peace and youth go forward together (1985)
  • Peace is a value with no frontiers, North-South, East-West: only one peace (1986)
  • Development and solidarity: two keys to peace (1987)
  • Religious freedom: condition for peace (1988)
  • To build peace, respect minorities (1989)
  • Peace with God the Creator, peace with all of creation (1990)
  • If you want peace, respect the conscience of every person (1991)
  • Believers united in building peace (1992)
  • If you want peace, reach out to the poor (1993)
  • The family creates the peace of the human family (1994)
  • Women: teachers of peace (1995)
  • Let us give children a future of peace (1996)
  • Offer forgiveness and receive peace (1997)
  • From the justice of each comes peace for all (1998)
  • Respect for human rights: the secret of true peace (1999)
  • Peace on earth to those whom God loves (2000)
  • Dialogue between cultures for a civilization of love and peace (2001)
  • No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness (2002)
  • Pacem in Terris: a permanent commitment (2003)
  • An ever timely commitment: teaching peace (2004)
  • Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (2005)

Pope Benedict XVI

  • In truth is peace (2006)


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[1] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience (April 27, 2005), available online at
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20050427_en.html. He added, “The name ‘Benedict’ also calls to mind
the extraordinary figure of the great ‘Patriarch of Western Monasticism,’ St Benedict of Norcia, Co- Patron of Europe.”

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2302. The Catechism is available online at http://www.vatican. va/archive/ccc/index.htm.

[3] Catechism, no. 2305.

[4] Catechism, no. 2304.

[5] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (December 8, 1965), no. 78. This document is available online at http://www.vatican.va/ archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council.

[6] Pope Benedict XV, Encyclical Appealing for Peace Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (November 1, 1914), no. 3.

[7] Pope Pius XII, Encyclical on the Unity of Human Society Summi Pontificatus (October 20, 1939), no. 23.

[8] Catechism, nos. 2307–08.

[9] Catechism, nos. 2315–16.

[10] Catechism, no. 2317.

[11] Catechism, no. 2308.

[12] Catechism, no. 2309.

[13] Catechism, nos. 2310–11.

[14] The Catechism of the Council of Trent (TAN Books and Publishers, 1982 ed.), p. 422. [15] Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2313–14.

[16] Pope John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2000 (December 8, 1999), nos. 11–12.

[17] Pope John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2002 (December 8, 2001), no. 14.

[18] Quoted online at http://www.ewtn.com/fatima/ apparitions.

[19] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary Rosarium Virginis Mariae (October 16, 2002), no. 40.

[20] Catechism, nos. 2302–17; Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (December 8, 1965), nos. 77–82.

[21] To find an encyclical online, type in the title of the encyclical at a search engine such as Google.

[22] Pope Paul VI’s Messages for the World Day for Peace (1968–78) are available online at http://www. vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/messages/peace/index.htm; Pope John Paul II’s Messages (1979–2005) are available at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/ john_ paul_ii/messages/index.htm; Pope Benedict XVI’s Message (2006) is available at http://www. vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/index _en.htm. 0.693.2484 /

Date created:

“Renew the Face of the Earth”

June 4, 2006

Readings for Pentecost Sunday

Reading 1: Acts 2:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
Reading 2: 1 Cor. 12:3b-7, 12-13
Gospel: Jn. 20:19-23
Link to Readings

By Father Peter M. J. Stravinskas

Wind, fire, thunder and lightning. The Sacred Scriptures are replete with instances of divine revelation accompanied by these impressive phenomena in nature. The Book of Genesis tells us that “a mighty wind swept over the waters” at the dawn of time; in the Book of Exodus, we learn how God gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai with thunder and lightning as the communicators of His Will and Word. But less fearsome signs have also been used by the Almighty as we recall how the gentle breath of God brought Adam to life and how the breath of Jesus on the Apostles gave them the ability to bring to life again men spiritually dead through sin. All these events are connected to God’s self-manifestation or, even better, His self-communication to the human race and,
most especially, to the Chosen People.

The Pentecost being observed by the apostolic community was a major feast of covenant renewal, harking back to that primal giving of the Law to Moses, that act of God which essentially formed the people of Israel and made them His own special portion. Each time the Church gathers to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice, she engages in a similar ceremony of covenant renewal, and the same Spirit that hovered over the waters of the abyss bringing creation from chaos, the same Spirit that hovered over the Blessed Virgin Mary making her the Mother of the Lord—that self-same Spirit hovers over the elements of bread and wine, transforming them into the Lord’s Body and Blood which saved the world 2000 years ago and makes present that invitation to salvation day in and day out, until He “comes in glory.” Hence, it is possible to say that every time the Sacrifice of Calvary is sacramentally renewed, a little Pentecost occurs.

As we endeavor to plumb the depths of the mystery of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the Church’s sacramental life, Holy Mother Church offers us a rather full plate of food for thought; in reality, we are beset by an embarrassment of riches. What shall we make of it all? My hope is to lead you in a reflection on the holy priesthood which is the principal instrument given to the Church by which the Lord has willed to continue the sanctifying work of His Holy Spirit.

On the first Christian Pentecost, a terrified band of persecuted believers huddled together for safety and mutual support. And then, in nothing less than a miracle, God’s Holy Spirit came crashing into their lives, changing them at the core of their being in such wise that they made “bold proclamation as the Spirit prompted them.” The point to ponder, however, is not so much the period of fear but the moment of liberation effected by the action of the Holy Spirit—a liberation given for the noble purpose of sharing the Gospel message in all its fullness and truth.

When the Twelve emerged from the Upper Room, what did they find? People who were “confused,” says St. Luke. They were confused because they were overly impressed by the linguistic feat performed, yes, but I would suggest they were even more confused because they knew these men to be naturally weak and reticent and they could not fathom what had gotten into them—or better yet, Who had gotten into them.

Something comparable happens to every man at his ordination, and we have the right to expect similar results. Our task is to speak incessantly and courageously about the magnalia Dei, “the marvels God has accomplished.” It must be a priest’s special and daily prayer to take the refrain of today’s Responsorial Psalm as the theme of his priestly life and ministry: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth”—through me! It is interesting that when St. Peter gave that earth-shattering first sermon of his on the first Christian Pentecost, he chose to link up the happenings of that occasion with the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit delivered by the mouth of God’s spokesman, Joel. The significance of this becomes apparent when we read the 1994 document from the Congregation of the Clergy on the life and ministry of priests, as it
underscores this fact:

It is. . .the Holy Spirit Who by ordination confers on the priest the prophetic task of announcing and explaining, with authority, the Word of God.

. . . Therefore, the priest with the help of the Holy Spirit and the study of the Word of God in the Scriptures, with the light of Tradition and of the Magisterium, discovers the richness of the Word to be proclaimed to the ecclesial community entrusted to him. (no. 9)

Where do we find the program of action for this task? Let us continue our reflection by returning to the food placed before us by the Church in the Liturgy of the Word.

This work assigned to us priests by Christ’s holy Church cannot be done, “except in the Holy Spirit,” as St. Paul taught the Corinthians. And if anyone is foolish enough to think that he can pull it off otherwise, he will soon learn differently and the hard way. The priestly ministry cannot be effective without reliance on the Holy Spirit for the simple reason that the priesthood is the chosen channel for the Holy Spirit. Just consider the beautiful
“Golden Sequence” of today’s liturgy. So many of the titles we accorded to the Spirit and the things for which we prayed are applicable to the priest and his ministry in the Church and in the world. We priests, by the mysterious workings of grace, are called to “shed a ray of light divine.” It is our particular privilege to be “the Father of the poor,” not merely to those economically disadvantaged but even more to those who are spiritually malnourished and who cry out for the food of the truth of Christ. By standing at the altar and repeating the awesome words of Christ at the Last Supper, we give the Lord’s People access to “sweet refreshment here below,” which is a foretaste of the “rest most sweet; grateful coolness in the heat; solace in the midst of woe,” all of which anticipates the glory of the liturgy of Heaven. It is our responsibility to teach all who would listen that where God’s Holy Spirit is not present, “man hath naught, nothing good in deed or thought, nothing free from taint of ill.”

By God’s design, it is ours to heal wounds, renew strength, and “wash the stains of guilt away.” That almost incredible power was given to the Apostles and their successors on Easter night, when our Blessed Lord linked for all time the possession of genuine peace to the forgiveness of sins. Nevertheless, we live in such a world that the psychiatrist Karl Menninger could entitle his book, Whatever Became of Sin? Modern man has lost his sense of sin which, of course, explains why he has also lost the key to full and lasting peace. We priests must remind the world that sin exists, not in the fashion of a dreary and depressing Cassandra, but with an attitude of joy and enthusiasm. In one of Cardinal Newman’s poems, in admirable humility and with love for sinners, the priest of the poem says to the fallen: “Look not to me—no grace is mine; But I can lift the Mercy-sign. This wouldst thou? Let it be! Kneel down, and take the word divine, Absolvo te.” In the confessional, the priest seeks to “bend the stubborn heart and will; melt the frozen, warm the chill; guide the steps that go astray.”

Yes, the work of absolution is central to the priesthood. Those words are uttered in Baptism, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, paving the way for any other sacramental encounters which increase the divine life within. Once the roadblock of sin is removed, then the process of divinization can begin—and only then. From the Garden of Eden until the present, man has wanted to be like God—and that is not bad in itself; in truth, it is a holy desire implanted within us by the Creator as a way of bringing us into union with Him. And so, we shall pray at the commingling of the water and wine: “May we come to share
in the divinity of Christ Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” A bold prayer, to be sure, but a good one, so long as we go about it all in God’s way, rather than our own. And that is why our Divine Savior gave us priests—to provide for the divinization of the human race, so that Christ’s faithful can attain to “virtue’s sure reward. . . (and the) joys that never end.”

An image that looms large over the landscape of today’s celebration is that of fire, which can warm or destroy, enlighten or consume. From the smoke and fire of Mount Sinai to the fiery flames of the Cenacle, this symbol bespeaks the power and majesty of God. Even in ancient, pagan Rome this was so, as it fell to the Vestal Virgins to keep the flame alive before the altar of the goddess. Those superstitious Romans believed that if the fire went out, so would the glory of Rome. Thus, the Vestal Virgin who would fail in her duty would have her life snuffed out. Christ’s priest as an instrument of the Holy Spirit is, in a preeminent manner, the keeper and the bearer of the flame of God. Notice that I do not say only “the keeper,” for it is not enough for the priest to possess that flame for himself or to preserve it as a museum piece; he is required to impart that flame to all. In what does that flame consist? Exactly what is he called to share?

The priest is the keeper and the bearer of the flame of truth. In all too many ways, Pontius Pilate can be seen as the true ancestor of western civilization since the so-called Enlightenment. His cynical question, “What is truth?” has echoed down the corridors of time to our own day which not only questions the existence of absolute truth and objective reality; it has made it the one and only acceptable dogma of modernity that we must hold all truth to be relative, with every opinion claiming equal authority, as Pope Benedict has so eloquently and forcefully put it. How particularly silly for an age which demands such rigid standards of scientific evidence for almost every other aspect of life. The priest must stride into such a world with all confidence and assurance, asserting that the true dignity of the human person needs nothing less than “the splendor of the truth,” which comes from the Holy Spirit, Whose special mission it is to lead us “to all truth” (Jn. 16:13). In this way, the priest helps “renew the face of the earth.”

The priest is the bearer and keeper of the flame of the sacred. I said earlier that we must restore a sense of sin, but we must also restore the sense of the sacred; I am fully convinced that the two tasks go hand-in-glove. In all the great theophanies of both Testaments, the human person is graciously granted a glimpse of the divine but immediately becomes conscious of the tremendous gap which exists between himself and the Almighty and responds accordingly, which is with a holy fear and wonder. The priest must recapture that attitude for his people by prodding them into reverence and devotion through the tried and true practices of the Catholic Tradition: bowing one’s head at the holy name of Jesus; genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament; fitting attire for worship; a holy silence in the house of God; liturgy which truly raises the mind and heart to the Blessed Trinity. When the sacred and the profane merge, contrary to some theories, only unfortunate results ensue: Not only is God dethroned, but man is progressively debased. On the other hand, when the precincts of the sacred are honored, man is
progressively elevated. When the priest reminds his flock that the ground on which they stand is holy, he is helping to “renew the face of the earth.”

The priest is the keeper and the bearer of the flame of unity. St. Paul understood this all so well, which is why he urges his readers to appreciate God’s manifold gifts and ministries as being “given for the common good,” in order to build up the “one body,” which is Christ’s Church. All too often in recent years clergy, religious, and laity alike have seen personal projects as means of self-aggrandizement or, even worse, as providing access to what they tritely term “empowerment.” Service in the Church can never be perceived in that manner, and to do so is a blasphemy and sin against the Holy Spirit, for it is destructive to that unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed on the night before He died. Indeed, power-plays and antagonism between persons and groups within the Church sadden the Heart of Christ and gladden the heart of the Evil One. Ecclesial unity or communion, my dear people, is not just a pleasant concept or a sociological nicety which makes for the smoother running of the ship; it is an absolute necessity, as Jesus Himself saw it: “That they may all be one.” But why? He goes on: “That the world may believe
that you sent me” (Jn 17:22-23). The miracle of Pentecost occurred precisely due to the unity of the apostolic college, especially as that unity was manifested in and under Peter, and the formula is the very same today: The guarantee of Catholic unity and apostolic fruitfulness comes from intimate, loving communion with Peter’s successor, our Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome. In the lovely preface for this Solemnity, the Church asks for the gift of having “one voice to profess one faith.” When the priest strengthens the bonds of ecclesial communion, he builds up the Church in love and thus helps “renew the face of the earth.”

The priest is the keeper and the bearer of the flame of fidelity and commitment. When the Risen Christ appeared to His Apostles on Easter night, the first thing He did was to “show them His hands and His side.” How strange, you say? Not really, for He was offering them the evidence of His saving love, which is love everlasting. The love of Christ, which was a love unto death, is epitomized in His wounds that He retains even in His risen life of glory. And those tokens of sacrificial love beckon His sons in the priesthood to be as faithful in their sacrifices as He. Fidelity seems so hard—even so impossible—to the vast majority of our people. Fidelity to promises, to contracts, to friendships, to marriage is so seldom seen anymore. But we all know, in our heart of hearts, that life without commitment is hardly a life worth living at all. Pope John Paul II said it well when, in Philadelphia in 1979, he recalled to our minds and hearts that “priesthood is forever— tu es sacerdos in aeternum—we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God Who gave the impulse to say ‘yes’ now wishes to hear ‘no’.” And so it is that the priest comes onto the scene of massive infidelity with his promise of faithful and lasting service. In this way, he becomes an example worthy of emulation as well as a beacon of hope, and yes, this is how he helps “renew the face of the earth.”

The priest is the keeper and the bearer of the flame of chastity. Ours, my dear friends, is a sex-saturated culture, which has made an idol of sexual gratification—an idol more pernicious than the golden calf of the Hebrews of old, more dangerous because it is so all-consuming. I can scarcely make a trip on public transportation and not find myself approached by someone who has a question or comment about some aspect of human sexuality. The adage has it that the Victorians tried to fall into love without falling into sex, while we moderns try to fall into sex without falling into love. Yet once again, the Church sends out her contemporary apostles as signs of contradiction, challenging the prevailing wisdom, by asking them to be chaste and celibate for the Kingdom, reminding all that there is indeed more to life than sex, and that once one has truly encountered God, every other human attraction—even things good and holy in themselves—must be judged as but temporary and transient. As Cardinal Newman put it:

Unveil, O Lord, and on us shine
In glory and in grace;
This gaudy world grows pale before
The beauty of Thy face.
And thus, when we renounce for Thee
Its restless aims and fears,
The tender memories of the past,
The hopes of coming years,
Poor is our sacrifice, whose eyes
Are lighted from above;
We offer what we cannot keep,
What we have ceased to love.

Interestingly enough, even the rabbinic scholars teach that after Moses encountered the Almighty on Mount Sinai, so powerful and moving was that event, that he never again had relations with his wife. This does not say that conjugal love is bad or ugly, by no means; it does say that the eternal puts it all into perspective. And the celibate priest is in a unique position to assist married couples who struggle to live Catholic marital morality by his own
joyful witness of celibate love. He likewise shines forth as a model for the unmarried and even the unhappily married or, more tragically, the separated or divorced. The priest living celibately in this world points the way to eternity where, the greatest celibate Lover told us, men “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mk. 12:25). And thus, the priest helps “renew the face of the earth.”

To be sure, priests have been given a tall order, some might think, but our faith informs us that “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:13), and so we are told, “do not be afraid” (Acts 18:9). Every priest has become a new man. The Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests  stresses this:

In priestly ordination, the priest has received the seal of the Holy Spirit which has marked him by the sacramental character in order always to be the minister of Christ and the Church. Assured of the promise that the Consoler will abide “with him forever,” the priest knows that he will never lose the presence and the effective power of the Holy Spirit in order to exercise his ministry and live with charity his pastoral office as a total gift of self for the salvation of his own brothers. (no. 8)

Yes, a priest is a “marked man,” interiorly but also externally. That same document repeats the traditional and wise discipline of the Church in this regard as it notes the importance of being clearly identifiable at all times and under all circumstances as a priest of the Church. It states: “(A cleric’s) attire, when it is not the cassock, must be different from the manner in which the laity dress, and conform to the dignity and sacredness of his ministry.” And yet more strongly, it warns that “a cleric’s failure to use this proper ecclesiastical attire could manifest a weak sense of his identity as one consecrated to God” (no. 66). Therefore, while never a clericalist, a priest must always feel honored to be a priest and to see in even the externals the Lord’s way of making him a constant and consistent instrument of the Holy Spirit.

As we prepare ourselves to move into the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we must remember that “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” and so it is our bounden duty to give thanks. Here, in particular, I offer a prayer of gratitude for all those who brought me ad altare Dei—especially my parents, along with the priests and Sisters of my youth—and all those who have kept me there by their faithful and loving support—especially, Father Nicholas for the past 18 years. I think this would also be a good moment to invite all of you to thank Almighty God for the priests who have brought you the grace of the Holy Spirit through their sacramental ministrations.

Oh yes, one more person must be mentioned, and that is Our Lady. The Directory for Priests highlights the necessary relationship between every priest and the Mother of our great High Priest:

Like John at the foot of the cross, every priest has been entrusted, in a special way, with Mary as Mother. Priests, who are among the favored disciples of Jesus, crucified and risen, should welcome Mary as their Mother in their own life, bestowing her with constant attention and prayer. The Blessed Virgin then becomes the Mother who leads them to Christ, who makes them sincerely love the Church, who intercedes for them, and who guides them toward the Kingdom of Heaven. (no. 68)

Now Mary once more stands at the foot of the cross, inviting us to the altar of this church. She who is the Spouse of the Spirit readies the hearts of all in this liturgical assembly through the ministrations of us unworthy priests to beg that same Spirit to enter our midst and overtake the bread and wine which we shall soon present, bringing the life of Heaven to mortals here on earth. In the most profound way possible, then, God will have sent forth His Spirit to “renew the face of the earth.”

As Monsignor Giussani of Comunione et Liberazione used to pray, “Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Veni per Mariam. Come, Holy Spirit. Come through Mary.” Amen.

Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., STD, is a member of CUF’s advisory council. He has written and edited many books, including  The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Catholic Church and the Bible, Understanding the Sacraments, and many others. He is the founder of the Priestly Society of the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Newman House Press, and The Catholic Response.

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