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The Reality of the Christ: Part 1

nativityDuring the Christmas and Easter seasons in particular, many skeptics appear in the media who insist that these celebrations are meaningless, because Jesus never actually existed. How can we respond?

It’s important to understand that people who doubt the birth and existence of Jesus of Nazareth are extremely few. Their claims are, quite frankly, not credible. They are not accepted by any legitimate historian. In fact, no credible professor of history who holds a university teaching chair denies Jesus’ existence as a historical figure.

One such professor has truly thrown down the gauntlet in this regard. Scholar Greg Monette notes that “John Dickson, who holds a PhD in ancient history and is senior research fellow of the department of ancient history at Macquarie University, is so sure of the evidence for the historical Jesus that he’s recently put forward a challenge on Facebook: If anyone can provide the name of a single university professor holding a PhD in ancient history who denied the existence of Jesus, he’d eat a page from the Bible! So far, Dickson’s Bible is safe, and I believe it will stay that way” (Monette, The Wrong Jesusp. 28).

In actuality, there are many historical references to Jesus from pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources. Let’s focus for now on the pagan Roman sources. These are valuable in part because they are essentially “hostile witnesses”, who have no interest in promoting Christianity – often quite the contrary. Yet, they affirm the existence of Jesus. Here are a few of the most important Roman citations (cited by Monette, pp. 28-29):

1. PLINY THE YOUNGER (AD 62–113), Epistles 10.96:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light [Sunday], when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

2. TACITUS (AD 60–120), Annals 15.44:

“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”

3. SUETONIUS (AD 75–160), Life of Claudius 25.4:

“Because the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”

4. MARA BAR SERAPION (2nd or 3rd century), in a letter:

“The Jews in executing their wise king were ‘ruined and driven from their land [and now] live in complete dispersion. . . Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.’”

Even the skeptical scholar and ex-Catholic priest, John Dominic Crossan, has written: “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” If Jesus was a historical figure who was crucified, he was of course born into our world as well. And this is what we commemorate during the season of Christmas.

Pope Francis’ Message for Lent 2016

Pope-Francis-Motion

Q. Today, Pope Francis released his message for Lent for 2016. It seems hard to believe, but Lent is just around the corner! Ash Wednesday is February 10, and Easter Sunday is on March 27.

A. Yes, this year, Lent is relatively early. It feels as if we’ve just caught our breath after celebrating Christmas, but here we go again! It’s important for us to start thinking about how we can get the most out of Lent, making it a spiritually fruitful time. And Pope Francis is eager to help us do that – hence, his letter.

Q. What are some of the highlights? Is there anything in particular that jumped out at you?

A. As with all of Pope Francis’ writing, there is a lot of spiritual food for thought, served up with many arresting images and scriptural references. I really encourage everyone to read it for themselves. What really grabbed me upon first reading it was the quote from the Gospel of Matthew that prefaces the letter: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13). In Lent, we traditionally think of making sacrifices – for example, fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We also think of good things that we “give up” for Lent for a greater, spiritual purpose, like chocolate or dessert.

But Pope Francis, in this jubilee Year of Mercy, wants us to focus not simply on what we give up, but what we can do this Lent – we can practice the works of mercy, helping others experience the love and forgiveness of God.

Q. How does Pope Francis suggest we go about this?

A. The Holy Father calls us to rediscover what the Church has traditionally called “the corporal and spiritual works of mercy”. Here’s how he puts it in the letter: “These works remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbours in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them. On such things will we be judged.”

Pope Francis also reminds us that these “corporal and spiritual works of mercy can never be separated”, and we must practice both if we are to avoid Hell and attain Heaven, which is God’s desire for us:

“In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy – counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer – we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need. By taking this path, the “proud”, the “powerful” and the “wealthy” spoken of in the Magnificat can also be embraced and undeservedly loved by the crucified Lord who died and rose for them. This love alone is the answer to that yearning for infinite happiness and love that we think we can satisfy with the idols of knowledge, power and riches. Yet the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell. The pointed words of Abraham apply to them and to all of us: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Lk 16:29). Such attentive listening will best prepare us to celebrate the final victory over sin and death of the Bridegroom, now risen, who desires to purify his Betrothed in expectation of his coming.

Let us not waste this season of Lent, so favourable a time for conversion!”

What do you think? Share your answer in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The official English translation of the entire letter is below:

MESSAGE OF POPE FRANCIS
LENT 2016
“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13).
The works of mercy on the road of the Jubilee

1. Mary, the image of a Church which evangelizes because she is evangelized

In the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, I asked that “the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year be lived more intensely as a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God’s mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, 17). By calling for an attentive listening to the word of God and encouraging the initiative “24 Hours for the Lord”, I sought to stress the primacy of prayerful listening to God’s word, especially his prophetic word. The mercy of God is a proclamation made to the world, a proclamation which each Christian is called to experience at first hand. For this reason, during the season of Lent I will send out Missionaries of Mercy as a concrete sign to everyone of God’s closeness and forgiveness.

After receiving the Good News told to her by the Archangel Gabriel, Mary, in her Magnificat, prophetically sings of the mercy whereby God chose her. The Virgin of Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph, thus becomes the perfect icon of the Church which evangelizes, for she was, and continues to be, evangelized by the Holy Spirit, who made her virginal womb fruitful. In the prophetic tradition, mercy is strictly related – even on the etymological level – to the maternal womb (rahamim) and to a generous, faithful and compassionate goodness (hesed) shown within marriage and family relationships.

2. God’s covenant with humanity: a history of mercy

The mystery of divine mercy is revealed in the history of the covenant between God and his people Israel. God shows himself ever rich in mercy, ever ready to treat his people with deep tenderness and compassion, especially at those tragic moments when infidelity ruptures the bond of the covenant, which then needs to be ratified more firmly in justice and truth. Here is a true love story, in which God plays the role of the betrayed father and husband, while Israel plays the unfaithful child and bride. These domestic images – as in the case of Hosea (cf. Hos 1-2) – show to what extent God wishes to bind himself to his people.

This love story culminates in the incarnation of God’s Son. In Christ, the Father pours forth his boundless mercy even to making him “mercy incarnate” (Misericordiae Vultus, 8). As a man, Jesus of Nazareth is a true son of Israel; he embodies that perfect hearing required of every Jew by the Shema, which today too is the heart of God’s covenant with Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:4-5). As the Son of God, he is the Bridegroom who does everything to win over the love of his bride, to whom he is bound by an unconditional love which becomes visible in the eternal wedding feast.

This is the very heart of the apostolic kerygma, in which divine mercy holds a central and fundamental place. It is “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (Evangelii Gaudium, 36), that first proclamation which “we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment” (ibid., 164). Mercy “expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe” (Misericordiae Vultus, 21), thus restoring his relationship with him. In Jesus crucified, God shows his desire to draw near to sinners, however far they may have strayed from him. In this way he hopes to soften the hardened heart of his Bride.

3. The works of mercy

God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn. In an ever new miracle, divine mercy shines forth in our lives, inspiring each of us to love our neighbour and to devote ourselves to what the Church’s tradition calls the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. These works remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbours in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them. On such things will we be judged. For this reason, I expressed my hope that “the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; this will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty, and to enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy” (ibid., 15). For in the poor, the flesh of Christ “becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled… to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us” (ibid.). It is the unprecedented and scandalous mystery of the extension in time of the suffering of the Innocent Lamb, the burning bush of gratuitous love. Before this love, we can, like Moses, take off our sandals (cf. Ex 3:5), especially when the poor are our brothers or sisters in Christ who are suffering for their faith.

In the light of this love, which is strong as death (cf. Song 8:6), the real poor are revealed as those who refuse to see themselves as such. They consider themselves rich, but they are actually the poorest of the poor. This is because they are slaves to sin, which leads them to use wealth and power not for the service of God and others, but to stifle within their hearts the profound sense that they too are only poor beggars. The greater their power and wealth, the more this blindness and deception can grow. It can even reach the point of being blind to Lazarus begging at their doorstep (cf. Lk 16:20-21). Lazarus, the poor man, is a figure of Christ, who through the poor pleads for our conversion. As such, he represents the possibility of conversion which God offers us and which we may well fail to see. Such blindness is often accompanied by the proud illusion of our own omnipotence, which reflects in a sinister way the diabolical “you will be like God” (Gen 3:5) which is the root of all sin. This illusion can likewise take social and political forms, as shown by the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, and, in our own day, by the ideologies of monopolizing thought and technoscience, which would make God irrelevant and reduce man to raw material to be exploited. This illusion can also be seen in the sinful structures linked to a model of false development based on the idolatry of money, which leads to lack of concern for the fate of the poor on the part of wealthier individuals and societies; they close their doors, refusing even to see the poor.

For all of us, then, the season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favourable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practising the works of mercy. In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy – counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer – we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need. By taking this path, the “proud”, the “powerful” and the “wealthy” spoken of in the Magnificat can also be embraced and undeservedly loved by the crucified Lord who died and rose for them. This love alone is the answer to that yearning for infinite happiness and love that we think we can satisfy with the idols of knowledge, power and riches. Yet the danger always remains that by a constant refusal to open the doors of their hearts to Christ who knocks on them in the poor, the proud, rich and powerful will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is Hell. The pointed words of Abraham apply to them and to all of us: “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Lk 16:29). Such attentive listening will best prepare us to celebrate the final victory over sin and death of the Bridegroom, now risen, who desires to purify his Betrothed in expectation of his coming.

Let us not waste this season of Lent, so favourable a time for conversion! We ask this through the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary, who, encountering the greatness of God’s mercy freely bestowed upon her, was the first to acknowledge her lowliness (cf. Lk 1:48) and to call herself the Lord’s humble servant (cf. Lk 1:38).

From the Vatican, 4 October 2015
Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi
FRANCISCUS

Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” Easter Message

Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and to the World) Address
Easter Sunday – April 5, 2015

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Happy Easter! Jesus Christ is risen!

Love has triumphed over hatred, life has conquered death, light has dispelled the darkness!

Out of love for us, Jesus Christ stripped himself of his divine glory, emptied himself, took on the form of a slave and humbled himself even to death, death on a cross. For this reason God exalted him and made him Lord of the universe. Jesus is Lord!

By his death and resurrection, Jesus shows everyone the way to life and happiness: this way is humility, which involves humiliation. This is the path which leads to glory. Only those who humble themselves can go towards the “things that are above”, towards God (cf. Col 3:1-4). The proud look “down from above”; the humble look “up from below”.

On Easter morning, alerted by the women, Peter and John ran to the tomb. They found it open and empty. Then they drew near and “bent down” in order to enter it. To enter into the mystery, we need to “bend down”, to abase ourselves. Only those who abase themselves understand the glorification of Jesus and are able to follow him on his way.

The world proposes that we put ourselves forward at all costs, that we compete, that we prevail… But Christians, by the grace of Christ, dead and risen, are the seeds of another humanity, in which we seek to live in service to one another, not to be arrogant, but rather respectful and ready to help.

This is not weakness, but true strength! Those who bear within them God’s power, his love and his justice, do not need to employ violence; they speak and act with the power of truth, beauty and love.

From the risen Lord we ask the grace not to succumb to the pride which fuels violence and war, but to have the humble courage of pardon and peace. We ask Jesus, the Victor over death, to lighten the sufferings of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for his name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence.

We ask for peace, above all, for Syria and Iraq, that the roar of arms may cease and that peaceful relations may be restored among the various groups which make up those beloved countries. May the international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding in these countries and the drama of the numerous refugees.

We pray for peace for all the peoples of the Holy Land. May the culture of encounter grow between Israelis and Palestinians and the peace process be resumed, in order to end years of suffering and division.

We implore peace for Libya, that the present absurd bloodshed and all barbarous acts of violence may cease, and that all concerned for the future of the country may work to favour reconciliation and to build a fraternal society respectful of the dignity of the person. For Yemen too we express our hope for the growth of a common desire for peace, for the good of the entire people.

At the same time, in hope we entrust to the merciful Lord the framework recently agreed to in Lausanne, that it may be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world.

We ask the risen Lord for the gift of peace for Nigeria, South Sudan and for the various areas of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. May constant prayer rise up from all people of goodwill for those who lost their lives – I think in particular of the young people who were killed last Thursday at Garissa University College in Kenya –, for all who have been kidnapped, and for those forced to abandon their homes and their dear ones.

May the Lord’s resurrection bring light to beloved Ukraine, especially to those who have endured the violence of the conflict of recent months. May the country rediscover peace and hope thanks to the commitment of all interested parties.

We ask for peace and freedom for the many men and women subject to old and new forms of enslavement on the part of criminal individuals and groups. Peace and liberty for the victims of drug dealers, who are often allied with the powers who ought to defend peace and harmony in the human family. And we ask peace for this world subjected to arms dealers.

May the marginalized, the imprisoned, the poor and the migrants who are so often rejected, maltreated and discarded, the sick and the suffering, children, especially those who are victims of violence; all who today are in mourning, and all men and women of goodwill, hear the consoling voice of the Lord Jesus: “Peace to you!” (Lk 24:36). “Fear not, for I am risen and I shall always be with you” (cf. Roman Missal, Entrance Antiphon for Easter Day).

Pope Francis’ Easter Vigil Homily

Here is the English translation of Pope Francis’ homily from tonight’s Easter vigil in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Happy Easter, everyone! Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Tonight is a night of vigil. The Lord is not sleeping; the Watchman is watching over his people (cf. Ps 121:4), to bring them out of slavery and to open before them the way to freedom.

The Lord is keeping watch and, by the power of his love, he is bringing his people through the Red Sea. He is also bringing Jesus through the abyss of death and the netherworld.

This was a night of vigil for the disciples of Jesus, a night of sadness and fear. The men remained locked in the Upper Room. Yet, the women went to the tomb at dawn on Sunday to anoint Jesus’ body. Their hearts were overwhelmed and they were asking themselves: “How will we enter? Who will roll back the stone of the tomb?…” But here was the first sign of the great event: the large stone was already rolled back and the tomb was open!

“Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe…” (Mk 16:5). The women were the first to see this great sign, the empty tomb; and they were the first to enter…

“Entering the tomb”. It is good for us, on this Vigil night, to reflect on the experience of the women, which also speaks to us. For that is why we are here: to enter, to enter into the Mystery which God has accomplished with his vigil of love.

We cannot live Easter without entering into the mystery. It is not something intellectual, something we only know or read about… It is more, much more!

“To enter into the mystery” means the ability to wonder, to contemplate; the ability to listen to the silence and to hear the tiny whisper amid great silence by which God speaks to us (cf 1 Kings 19:12).

To enter into the mystery demands that we not be afraid of reality: that we not be locked into ourselves, that we not flee from what we fail to understand, that we not close our eyes to problems or deny them, that we not dismiss our questions…

To enter into the mystery means going beyond our own comfort zone, beyond the laziness and indifference which hold us back, and going out in search of truth, beauty and love. It is seeking a deeper meaning, an answer, and not an easy one, to the questions which challenge our faith, our fidelity and our very existence.

To enter into the mystery, we need humility, the lowliness to abase ourselves, to come down from the pedestal of our “I” which is so proud, of our presumption; the humility not to take ourselves so seriously, recognizing who we really are: creatures with strengths and weaknesses, sinners in need of forgiveness. To enter into the mystery we need the lowliness that is powerlessness, the renunciation of our idols… in a word, we need to adore. Without adoration, we cannot enter into the mystery.

The women who were Jesus’ disciples teach us all of this. They kept watch that night, together with Mary. And she, the Virgin Mother, helped them not to lose faith and hope. As a result, they did not remain prisoners of fear and sadness, but at the first light of dawn they went out carrying their ointments, their hearts anointed with love. They went forth and found the tomb open. And they went in. They had kept watch, they went forth and they entered into the Mystery. May we learn from them to keep watch with God and with Mary our Mother, so that we too may enter into the Mystery which leads from death to life.

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Conference Talks Now Available!

I’m very happy to announce today that all the talks from the recent Faith Explained Conference are now available for you to purchase and download in digital format by clicking here:

https://gumroad.com/l/aESf

This resource features a presentation by the great Cardinal Thomas Collins. Speaking as only he can, he enlightens minds and sets hearts on fire with his brilliant talk on discipleship. We are so grateful to His Eminence for taking the time out of his busy schedule to join us and celebrate Mass that day.

There are also two full-length presentations from the incomparable Dr Craig Evans. One talk is on the reliability and authenticity of the New Testament documents, with a special focus on what modern science can tell us. Evans also presents us a talk on Jesus and Archaeology, and how discoveries in this field can shed light on the Scriptures.

This series also includes my talk on the Resurrection of Jesus, which will help you explain the reality of Easter to your friends and family who have fallen away from the faith – or who perhaps have never known the living Christ.

I decided to release these talks as a set first – keeping the costs low, at only $6.75 per talk. Hey, that’s less than a fast food meal, and more nourishing to your faith! Please note that prices are in US dollars.

Happy Easter!

Pope Francis’ Chrism Mass Homily

At 9:30 Roman time this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis presided at the Mass of Chrism, which takes places in all the Cathedrals of the world this week. During the Eucharistic celebration, the priests renewed the promises they made at the moment of their ordination.  Holy Oils were then blessed: the oil of the sick, the oil of catechumens, and the sacred chrism.  Below is the homily delivered by Pope Francis after the proclamation of the Gospel, on the theme of overcoming weariness and obtaining the Lord’s strength.

“My hand shall ever abide with him, my arms also shall strengthen him” (Ps 89:21). This is what the Lord means when he says: “I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him” (v. 20). It is also what our Father thinks whenever he “encounters” a priest. And he goes on to say: “My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him… He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God and the rock of my salvation”’ (vv. 24, 26).

It is good to enter with the Psalmist into this monologue of our God. He is talking about us, his priests, his pastors. But it is not really a monologue, since he is not the only one speaking. The Father says to Jesus: “Your friends, those who love you, can say to me in a particular way: ‘You are my Father’” (cf. Jn 14:21). If the Lord is so concerned about helping us, it is because he knows that the task of anointing his faithful people is demanding; it can tire us. We experience this in so many ways: from the ordinary fatigue brought on by our daily apostolate to the weariness of sickness, death and even martyrdom. The tiredness of priests! Do you know how often I think about this weariness which all of you experience? I think about it and I pray about it, often, especially when I am tired myself. I pray for you as you labour amid the people of God entrusted to your care, many of you in lonely and dangerous places. Our weariness, dear priests, is like incense which silently rises up to heaven (cf. Ps 141:2; Rev 8:3-4). Our weariness goes straight to the heart of the Father.

Know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is well aware of this tiredness and she brings it straight to the Lord. As our Mother, she knows when her children are weary, and this is her greatest concern. “Welcome! Rest, my child. We will speak afterwards…”. “Whenever we draw near to her, she says to us: “Am I not here with you, I who am your Mother?” (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 286). And to her Son she will say, as she did at Cana, “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3).

It can also happen that, whenever we feel weighed down by pastoral work, we can be tempted to rest however we please, as if rest were not itself a gift of God. We must not fall into this temptation. Our weariness is precious in the eyes of Jesus who embraces us and lifts us up. “Come to me, all who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Whenever a priest feels dead tired, yet is able to bow down in adoration and say: “Enough for today Lord”, and entrust himself to the Father, he knows that he will not fall but be renewed. The one who anoints God’s faithful people with oil is also himself anointed by the Lord: “He gives you a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (cf. Is 61:3).

Let us never forget that a key to fruitful priestly ministry lies in how we rest and in how we look at the way the Lord deals with our weariness. How difficult it is to learn how to rest! This says much about our trust and our ability to realize that that we too are sheep. A few questions can help us in this regard. Do I know how to rest by accepting the love, gratitude and affection which I receive from God’s faithful people? Or, once my pastoral work is done, do I seek more refined relaxations, not those of the poor but those provided by a consumerist society? Is the Holy Spirit truly “rest in times of weariness” for me, or is he just someone who keeps me busy? Do I know how to seek help from a wise priest? Do I know how to take a break from myself, from the demands I make on myself, from my self-seeking and from my self-absorption? Do I know how to spend time with Jesus, with the Father, with the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, with my patron saints, and to find rest in their demands, which are easy and light, and in their pleasures, for they delight to be in my company, and in their concerns and standards, which have only to do with the greater glory of God? Do I know how to rest from my enemies under the Lord’s protection? Am I preoccupied with how I should speak and act, or do I entrust myself to the Holy Spirit, who will teach me what I need to say in every situation? Do I worry needlessly, or, like Paul, do I find repose by saying: “I know him in whom I have placed my trust” (2 Tim 1:12)?

Let us return for a moment to what today’s liturgy describes as the work of the priest: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners and healing to the blind, to offer liberation to the downtrodden and to announce the year of the Lord’s favour. Isaiah also mentions consoling the broken-hearted and comforting the afflicted. These are not easy or purely mechanical jobs, like running an office, building a parish hall or laying out a soccer field for the young of the parish… The tasks of which Jesus speaks call for the ability to show compassion; our hearts are to be “moved” and fully engaged in carrying them out. We are to rejoice with couples who marry; we are to laugh with the children brought to the baptismal font; we are to accompany young fiancés and families; we are to suffer with those who receive the anointing of the sick in their hospital beds; we are to mourn with those burying a loved one… All these emotions can exhaust the heart of a pastor. For us priests, what happens in the lives of our people is not like a news bulletin: we know our people, we sense what is going on in their hearts. Our own heart, sharing in their suffering, feels “com-passion”, is exhausted, broken into a thousand pieces, moved and even “consumed” by the people. Take this, eat this… These are the words the priest of Jesus whispers repeatedly while caring for his faithful people: Take this, eat this; take this, drink this… In this way our priestly life is given over in service, in closeness to the People of God… and this always leaves us weary.

I wish to share with you some forms of weariness on which I have meditated. There is what we can call “the weariness of people, the weariness of the crowd”. For the Lord, and for us, this can be exhausting – so the Gospel tells us – yet it is a good weariness, a fruitful and joyful exhaustion. The people who followed Jesus, the families which brought their children to him to be blessed, those who had been cured, those who came with their friends, the young people who were so excited about the Master… they did not even leave him time to eat. But the Lord never tired of being with people. On the contrary, he seemed renewed by their presence (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 11). This weariness in the midst of activity is a grace on which all priests can draw (cf. ibid., 279). And how beautiful it is! People love their priests, they want and need their shepherds! The faithful never leave us without something to do, unless we hide in our offices or go out in our cars wearing sun glasses. There is a good and healthy tiredness. It is the exhaustion of the priest who wears the smell of the sheep… but also smiles the smile of a father rejoicing in his children or grandchildren. It has nothing to do with those who wear expensive cologne and who look at others from afar and from above (cf. ibid., 97). We are the friends of the Bridegroom: this is our joy. If Jesus is shepherding the flock in our midst, we cannot be shepherds who are glum, plaintive or, even worse, bored. The smell of the sheep and the smile of a father…. Weary, yes, but with the joy of those who hear the Lord saying: “Come, O blessed of my Father” (Mt 25:34).

There is also the kind of weariness which we can call “the weariness of enemies”. The devil and his minions never sleep and, since their ears cannot bear to hear the word of God, they work tirelessly to silence that word and to distort it. Confronting them is more wearying. It involves not only doing good, with all the exertion this entails, but also defending the flock and oneself from evil (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 83). The evil one is far more astute than we are, and he is able to demolish in a moment what it took us years of patience to build up. Here we need to implore the grace to learn how to “offset”: to thwart evil without pulling up the good wheat, or presuming to protect like supermen what the Lord alone can protect. All this helps us not to let our guard down before the depths of iniquity, before the mockery of the wicked. In these situations of weariness, the Lord says to us: “Have courage! I have overcome the world!” (Jn 16:33).

And finally – lest you be wearied by this homily itself! – there is also “weariness of ourselves” (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 277). This may be the most dangerous weariness of all. That is because the other two kinds come from being exposed, from going out of ourselves to anoint and to do battle (for our job is to care for others). But this third kind of weariness is more “self-referential”: it is dissatisfaction with oneself, but not the dissatisfaction of someone who directly confronts himself and serenely acknowledges his sinfulness and his need for God’s mercy; such people ask for help and then move forward. Here we are speaking of a weariness associated with “wanting yet not wanting”, having given up everything but continuing to yearn for the fleshpots of Egypt, toying with the illusion of being something different. I like to call this kind of weariness “flirting with spiritual worldliness”. When we are alone, we realize how many areas of our life are steeped in this worldliness, so much so that we may feel that it can never be completely washed away. This can be a dangerous kind of weariness. The Book of Revelation shows us the reason for this weariness: “You have borne up for my sake and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:3-4). Only love gives true rest. What is not loved becomes tiresome, and in time, brings about a harmful weariness.

The most profound and mysterious image of how the Lord deals with our pastoral tiredness is that, “having loved his own, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1): the scene of his washing the feet of his disciples. I like to think of this as the cleansing of discipleship. The Lord purifies the path of discipleship itself. He “gets involved” with us (Evangelii Gaudium, 24), becomes personally responsible for removing every stain, all that grimy, worldly smog which clings to us from the journey we make in his name.

From our feet, we can tell how the rest of our body is doing. The way we follow the Lord reveals how our heart is faring. The wounds on our feet, our sprains and our weariness, are signs of how we have followed him, of the paths we have taken in seeking the lost sheep and in leading the flock to green pastures and still waters (cf. ibid., 270). The Lord washes us and cleanses us of all the dirt our feet have accumulated in following him. This is something holy. Do not let your feet remain dirty. Like battle wounds, the Lord kisses them and washes away the grime of our labours.

Our discipleship itself is cleansed by Jesus, so that we can rightly feel “joyful”, “fulfilled”, “free of fear and guilt”, and impelled to go out “even to the ends of the earth, to every periphery”. In this way we can bring the good news to the most abandoned, knowing that “he is with us always, even to the end of the world”. Let us learn how to be weary, but weary in the best of ways!

Hat tip to Fr Rosica and the Vatican Press office for the translation – ed.

Q and A on the Resurrection: Just the (minimal) facts

An Empty TombQ. This Easter season, how can I convince my friends that Jesus physically rose from the dead? It’s been especially difficult for me to do this because my friends are either a) not Christians, or b) they don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. They simply think it’s a merely human book that contains things Christians believe.

A. The good news is that it is possible to show your friends plausible evidence that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. And you can do this without even appealing to the authority of the Church, or to the Bible as the Word of God. It’s called the “Minimal Facts” approach, popularized by Dr. Gary Habermas. There are five historical facts concerning the Resurrection of Jesus that must be accounted for, no matter what one believes. They are:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion. This is an event of history that is recorded outside the Bible. Many non-Christian historians, such as Josephus and Tacitus, wrote about it.

2. The tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday. All parties, both Christians and the enemies of Christ, agree that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Easter Sunday. The fact that opponents of the Christian message admit this gives us the very best type of evidence for our case, called “enemy attestation”.

3. Jesus’ disciples were willing to suffer and die for their belief in the Resurrection.  While many people are willing to die for what they believe is true, no one willingly dies for what they know to be a lie. The Apostles knew whether or not they had encountered the Risen Jesus in the flesh.

4. The Church persecutor known as Saul the Pharisee converted to the Catholic Christian faith, became Paul the Apostle, and was martyred for his faith in the Risen Jesus. This is an unimpeachable historical fact.

5. The skeptic James, a relative of Jesus, converted because the Risen Jesus appeared to him. James became the Bishop of Jerusalem and a martyr.

There are many more facts that we could mention, such as the evidence of the appearances of the Risen Jesus in his physical body to various individuals and groups , including 500 people at one time. This shatters the erroneous theory that Jesus’ disciples were ‘hallucinating” when they thought they saw Jesus. Hallucinations are individual occurrences and cannot be shared. Plus, they do not account for the empty tomb.

Whatever explanation one comes up with to attempt to explain our “minimal facts” listed above, one’s explanation must account for all of these facts, and must do so more persuasively than alternative arguments. The only explanation that accounts for all of these facts in such a manner is the conclusion that Jesus was Resurrected.

 

Pope Francis on the “Clear Test” of a Good Priest

f1cm4HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
HOLY THURSDAY CHRISM MASS
ST PETER’S BASILICA
28 MARCH 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters, This morning I have the joy of celebrating my first Chrism Mass as the Bishop of Rome. I greet all of you with affection, especially you, dear priests, who, like myself, today recall the day of your ordination.

The readings of our Mass speak of God’s “anointed ones”: the suffering Servant of Isaiah, King David and Jesus our Lord. All three have this in common: the anointing that they receive is meant in turn to anoint God’s faithful people, whose servants they are; they are anointed for the poor, for prisoners, for the oppressed… A fine image of this “being for” others can be found in the Psalm: “It is like the precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down upon the collar of his robe” (Ps 133:2). The image of spreading oil, flowing down from the beard of Aaron upon the collar of his sacred robe, is an image of the priestly anointing which, through Christ, the Anointed One, reaches the ends of the earth, represented by the robe.

The sacred robes of the High Priest are rich in symbolism. One such symbol is that the names of the children of Israel were engraved on the onyx stones mounted on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, the ancestor of our present-day chasuble: six on the stone of the right shoulder-piece and six on that of the left (cf. Ex 28:6-14). The names of the twelve tribes of Israel were also engraved on the breastplate (cf. Es 28:21). This means that the priest celebrates by carrying on his shoulders the people entrusted to his care and bearing their names written in his heart. When we put on our simple chasuble, it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs of whom there are many in these times…

From the beauty of all these liturgical things, which is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics than about the glory of our God resplendent in his people, alive and strengthened, we turn to a consideration of activity, action. The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges”. The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone. The ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid … and the heart bitter.

A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed. This is a clear test. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality, when it brings light to moments of extreme darkness, to the “outskirts” where people of faith are most exposed to the onslaught of those who want to tear down their faith. People thank us because they feel that we have prayed over the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes. And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem”, “Bless me”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into prayer. The prayers of the people of God. When we have this relationship with God and with his people, and grace passes through us, then we are priests, mediators between God and men. What I want to emphasize is that we need constantly to stir up God’s grace and perceive in every request, even those requests that are inconvenient and at times purely material or downright banal – but only apparently so – the desire of our people to be anointed with fragrant oil, since they know that we have it. To perceive and to sense, even as the Lord sensed the hope-filled anguish of the woman suffering from hemorrhages when she touched the hem of his garment. At that moment, Jesus, surrounded by people on every side, embodies all the beauty of Aaron vested in priestly raiment, with the oil running down upon his robes. It is a hidden beauty, one which shines forth only for those faith-filled eyes of the woman troubled with an issue of blood. But not even the disciples – future priests – see or understand: on the “existential outskirts”, they see only what is on the surface: the crowd pressing in on Jesus from all sides (cf. Lk 8:42). The Lord, on the other hand, feels the power of the divine anointing which runs down to the edge of his cloak.

We need to “go out,” then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the “outskirts” where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.

A priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, our people take our oil from us anyway – misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, “has already received his reward”, and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with “the smell of the sheep”, shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men. True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets. It is not a bad thing that reality itself forces us to “put out into the deep”, where what we are by grace is clearly seen as pure grace, out into the deep of the contemporary world, where the only thing that counts is “unction” – not function – and the nets which overflow with fish are those cast solely in the name of the One in whom we have put our trust: Jesus.

Dear lay faithful, be close to your priests with affection and with your prayers, that they may always be shepherds according to God’s heart.

Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his Spirit in our hearts, that this anointing may spread to everyone, even to those “outskirts” where our faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it. May our people sense that we are the Lord’s disciples; may they feel that their names are written upon our priestly vestments and that we seek no other identity; and may they receive through our words and deeds the oil of gladness which Jesus, the Anointed One, came to bring us. Amen.

Debunking the Debunkers

Here’s my latest article from the June issue of Catholic Insight magazine. Hope you like it!

Debunking the Debunkers

by Cale Clarke

Just as surely as the lillies bloom every spring, each Easter season brings with it some new theories about what really happened at the first Easter. Martin Luther’s dictum describing early Protestantism comes to mind: “There are as many interpretations as there are heads”. Here are a couple of this year’s takes:

First, on Holy Saturday, the National Post ran a piece about a new book by art historian (and amateur theologian) Thomas de Wesselow, The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection. And what, pray tell, is that secret? According to de Wesselow, the shroud really is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ – but get this: he thinks it was the shroud that the Apostles encountered after the death of Christ, not his resurrected body. Huh? So, when “doubting” Thomas stuck his hand in Jesus’ side, was he only wiggling his fingers through a hole in the sheet? Not sure this is the sort of stuff that inspires martyrdom.

And then there’s the perennial publicity hound Simcha Jacobovici (TV’s The Naked Archaeologist), who, along with James Cameron (whenever the latter is not tied up making bad movies about blue people or sinking boats), spends a lot of his time looking for the lost tomb of Jesus. It’s a project that has as much potential as the maiden Titanic voyage.

As real biblical scholar Craig Evans pointed out recently in The Huffington Post, the archaeological community scoffs at the idea that the tomb in the Jerusalem area that Jacobovici shows off in The Jesus Discovery belongs to Jesus of Nazareth. And, if Jesus’ bones are still in a tomb, then how does Jacobovici explain the fact that even the enemies of the early Christian movement say it’s empty? It seems as if The Naked Archaeologist has no clothes.

The fact is that the disciples claimed to have encountered the resurrected Jesus. People who days earlier had denied even knowing Jesus (like Peter) are, post-Easter, quite willing to lay down their lives for their conviction that Jesus lives. Skeptics, even persecutors like Saul the Pharisee (better known now as Paul the Apostle) claim to have had the same experience. After his death and burial, Jesus is said to have appeared to numerous individuals and groups of people over a 40-day period, including 500 people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6). Forget about mass hallucinations – you can’t catch a hallucination like a common cold. And what these folks claimed was not even that they had seen a “vision” of Jesus – a category well accepted in Jewish circles.

No, what they claimed was not that they had seen a ghost, or even – sorry, Thomas de Wesselow – a shroud. They claimed to have experienced Jesus’ physical body, back from the dead. Transformed, yes, but still him, still sporting the crucifixion wounds as a type of I.D. Able to be touched, able to scarf down some food to make a point of his being corporeal (cf. Luke 24:36-43; Acts 10:41). A resurrection is a lot harder to prove than a vision. A “vision” of Jesus, encouraging the disciples to continue the mission, wouldn’t require an empty tomb. And preaching the resurrection in the very city where Jesus was crucified would have been impossible if the tomb were occupied. This is even more evident when one considers that the location of the tomb was no secret, not waiting thousands of years to be discovered by Cameron and Jacobovici – it belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, the very council which condemned Jesus to death, and a known public figure.

Could the disciples have stolen the body? That was, after all, the explanation proffered by the enemies of the nascent Church as to how the tomb came to be empty. But this view overlooks an important fact: the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection. True, many have died (and continue to do so) for what they believe to be true – suicide bombers, for instance. But no one in their right mind willingly would give their life for what they knew to be false. If the disciples really had Jesus’ body locked in the trunk of a car somewhere, I doubt they’d be in a hurry to get themselves crucified upside-down, or sawed in two.

Whatever one’s theory is about what happened that first Easter, one ought to at least take into account all the known facts of the case. But, unfortunately for a gullible public, the Jacobovicis and de Wesselows of the world have never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Cale Clarke is the Director of The Faith Explained Seminars (TheFaithExplained.com), and the creator of The New Mass app.

My CBC Interview is Now Online

In case you didn’t catch my interview on CBC’s The National on Easter Sunday, the segment on religion and technology has now been posted online here:

I thought the piece was pretty thought-provoking. Different religions obviously have varying takes on the limits of technology in one’s faith journey. I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments box below!