Perfecta Laetitia

One of the joys of living in Rome is the ability to travel to the birthplace and central locales of so many great saints. These last couple days, I have had the grace to make a retreat of sorts in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

I have been to Assisi several times, but it has always been in haste–this time, we were able to spend a day and a night there. What struck me most during this pilgrimage was the idea of Francis’ perfect joy. It is well documented that the merchant son long yearned for the life of the troubadour–a traveling songster. He was known to have the ability to brighten any situation, as he did, for example, when he and several companions were taken prisoner after a local battle (with indomitable spirit, he lifted his fellow prisoners’ hearts with song even while in chains).

Well I suppose I am not surprised to see this joy as a characteristic of the saints. It’s just that he lived with this joy under rather remarkable circumstances.

I often wonder about the bus driver on these tours. I mean, the ones who usually go on these types of trips aren’t usually the ones on greatest spiritual need. During the ride, we pray and sing, and perhaps Father directs a few words exhorting us to a greater faith and trust in God. All the while, the driver has to listen to all of it and who knows what he is dealing with at work, at home…He hears Father’s assurance that all things work towards the good for those who love God, and brushes it off: what does this guy know of hardships? What does he know of really having to trust?

Here’s where I turn back to our Friar. This morning, we drove to La Verna, a mountaintop property which a benefactor donated to St Francis. It was here that the Beggar lived for two years towards the end of his life, and it was here that he received the stigmata. Stepping off the bus, a wall of frozen summit air practically crushed us–it wasn’t like this at Assisi. I walked over to a quiet cave where the saint stayed while he was there. It was very damp and humid, full of puddles, hardly inhabitable even for one of Francis’ dear brother creatures. It was not far from here that he received Christ’s wounds in his own flesh. I certainly didn’t feel Christ’s wounds, but all the same, I could no longer feel my toes either (and I’m guessing shoeless Francis often dealt with this).

Amid all of this, I remembered St Francis’ ideal of perfctae laetitiae. And I remembered the bus driver. And I am sure that for all his troubles, he is devoted to the Joyful Beggar, who continues to brighten hearts even today.

Second Impressions…

Last night, the Chapter Fathers came over to our house (the Center for Higher Studies) for mass. Originally, we had planned on celebrating the 49th anniversary of the Legion’s Decretum Laudis–the Decree of Praise, issued under Paul VI, which declared the Legion a congregation of Pontifical Right (i.e. having the potential to benefit more than just the diocese where the Legion was founded). Fr Eduardo was the principal celebrant, and in his homily, he mentioned that earlier that morning, the fathers hadn’t known that they would receive news from the Holy See regarding the confirmation of the election. In some way then, it was an interesting fact that the confirmation of the election coincided with this anniversary.

Prior to yesterday, I had only seen Fr Eduardo once or twice. Since he gave the homily, directed a few words of gratitude after the mass, and then made the rounds during dinner offering more personal greetings, I was able to define something of a first impression. He seems personable, like Fr Alvaro, yet slightly more reserved. He has a deliberate choice of words. At least from what I could see yesterday, I couldn’t discern whether he has much of a projecting vision for the Legion’s future. On the other hand, he clearly values the Legion’s collaboration with the lay movement, Regnum Christi: while describing the significance of the Decretum Laudis, he asserted that it applied not only to the Legion, but to Regnum Christi (inchoate at the time of the Decree). I don’t yet see him as an expert in communications, but on the other hand he will benefit from the current practices of Fr Sylvester Heereman, our ad-hoc general director during Fr Alvaro’s convalescence (Fr Sylvester seemed to bring a generally more straightforward approach to communication). I couldn’t form an impression regarding his style of governance, but given the favorable opinion of many fathers and brothers who have served under him in Mexico, it is likely to be respectful yet firm.

Later, I wondered if he is something of a compromise candidate. I know a fair number of Legionaries who wanted to place our apostolic charism at the forefront of this general chapter; Fr Eduardo (as yet–of course it is still early) doesn’t seem to represent that view. In particular, his election seems like a compromise in that rather than electing towards a rupture with the Legion’s oft-confusing past, the fathers elected someone who was a major superior for years under the founder, and has continued to be so afterwards. Nevertheless, the Holy See reserved the right to name the vicar general (Fr Jose Arrieta) and one of the general counselors (Fr Juan Sabadell), both of whom seem more inclined towards a charism-reform view. Naturally here again, time will have more to say on the matter.

Overall, I am glad that the Legion has elected a new government, and we continue to move forward in the rebuilding process.

First Reactions on the Election of Fr Eduardo

I posted a couple first reactions to Facebook yesterday:

With the election of Fr Eduardo Robles Gil, the chapter fathers are sending a message that the key to the Legion’s continuation is the faithful living of religious life.

Fr Eduardo Robles Gil has been Territorial Director of Mexico for about six months. Prior to that, he was the Assistant to the Territorial Director for Religious Life. In other words, his task was to assist the religious in his territory to persevere in living the basic commitments we all have undertaken: our life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Notably, he helped several members of his territory to weather the storm of the recent revelations regarding the founder, and the subsequent fallout.

In my opinion, this choice sends a particular message. The fathers could have chosen an apostle par excellence, someone who would help define the Legion in terms of its contribution to the Church and the world. The choice instead highlights the fact that above all, we are disciples, and before we go out and win the world, we’ve got to shore up our personal relationship with the Risen Christ.

It is also a deliberate attempt to fix the Legion’s decline in membership by renewing the very foundations of our day to day life.

Given these points, my first impression is favorable. Time will tell.

 

 

Gaudium Magnum

Words hardly do justice to the sense of joy we had Wednesday night when the white smoke went up from the Sistine Chapel, and the Church received the new Roman Pontiff. I was fortunate enough to be in St Peter’s Square when it happened—and I lack the superlatives to describe how exuberant we all were as a crowd in that moment.

And yet, it soon occurred to me what an interesting paradox we had on our hands: what we applauded, what filled us with a new hope, what gave us such joy that night was that Our Lord was laying upon this man’s shoulders a weight that will assuredly bring him to his death. “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you, and take you where you would rather not go.

It might strike the world as odd. But for Christians, this kind of thing is normal. To rejoice in suffering. To see hope in trial. What is their secret?

I think this is one of the lessons that Christ taught St Peter very personally, in order to prepare him for the role he was to play in the Church. He taught him that it is precisely in this contradiction—grace amid sorrow—that we can most truly see the hand of the Lord at work.

St Peter’s first letter points out how clearly he understood this: “This is a cause of great joy for you, even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials; so that, when Jesus Christ is revealed, your faith will have been tested and proved like gold…and then you will have praise and glory and honor.” (1,6) He saw that as Christ had suffered, so too we will follow: “Set yourselves close to him, so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house.” (2,4) Ours is a joy that in Christ, our sufferings mean salvation: “If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed.” (4,13)

Christian joy will forever confound the world. Ours is not the passing glee of festivity, or a momentary escape from the temptations, misunderstandings, and discouragements which plague us every day. It is the reason the Lent of our earthly lives can be filled with light. It is the source of the Beatitudes. It is Christ’s best kept secret. It is perhaps his most poignant and yet unspoken characteristic—here I close with Chesterton’s well known conclusion to his masterpiece, Orthodoxy:

“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Pope Francis I appears for first time on balcony of St. Peter's Basilica

Pro Eligendo Papam

At this moment, the college of cardinals is united in prayer with the whole Church, asking God’s aid in order to select the Bishop of Rome. Here are a few thoughts from Cardinal Sodano’s homily, which he finished just moments ago.

1. After offering a word of gratitude to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (which received a heartwarming applause), the cardinal spoke of the mission of the bishop of Rome as the continuing of Christ’s mission of mercy. The pope is Christ’s vicar, called above all to “break the bread of the Word of God” offering Christ to all.

2. Call to unity. Referring to the second reading (from Ephesians), Sodano pointed out the pope’s call to protect the unity of the Church: “Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together,” says St Paul. This unity is one of the treasures of the Church, which even Christ himself prayed for at the Last Supper: “that they may be one…”

3. Total gift of service. Like Peter, the holy father is called to a total service of love, offering himself without reserve.

Let us continue to pray as the conclave begins today, that the Holy Spirit continue to guide the Church, and that the next Pope will be ready to live up to this great mission.

Part III: Gift of the Holy Spirit

To be honest, I hadn’t planned on writing a third part to this article. That is until I felt the strong insistence of the Holy Spirit.

In the first place, we began our triduum of renewal last night, and our preacher chose Luke 12,35-38 as the passage for our first meditation. All right, I thought, feeling smugly. Good thing I’ve been reflecting on this passage lately. I evidently didn’t get the message, because today, in the Office of Readings, the Church proposes a passage from St Hilary of Poitiers on Fear of the Lord. I am not kidding, I did not know this beforehand. In fact, it is nice to know that the saints back up what you write. But seriously, St Hilary puts it much more eloquently than I could, and I have included the text below; it is definitely worth taking a look.

All this to say that I think Our Lord wants us to realize that in the end, the Fear of the Lord is a gift, and I think the Holy Spirit is trying to give it to me:  it “make[s] the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… If children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” (CCC 1831)

Let this gift enable us to follow his path, which leads to the fullness of life.

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From a treatise on the psalms by Saint Hilary of Poitiers
The meaning of “the fear of the Lord”
Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways. Notice that when Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord it does not leave the phrase in isolation, as if it were a complete summary of faith. No, many things are added to it, or are presupposed by it. From these we may learn its meaning and excellence. In the book of Proverbs Solomon tells us: If you cry out for wisdom and raise your voice for understanding, if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord. We see here the difficult journey we must undertake before we can arrive at the fear of the Lord.
  We must begin by crying out for wisdom. We must hand over to our intellect the duty of making every decision. We must look for wisdom and search for it. Then we must understand the fear of the Lord.
  “Fear” is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.
  But of the fear of the Lord this is what is written: Come, my children, listen to me, I shall teach you the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord has then to be learned because it can be taught. It does not lie in terror, but in something that can be taught. It does not arise from the fearfulness of our nature; it has to be acquired by obedience to the commandments, by holiness of life and by knowledge of the truth.
  For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection. Our love for God is entrusted with its own responsibility: to observe his counsels, to obey his laws, to trust his promises. Let us hear what Scripture says: And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you except to fear the Lord your God and walk in his ways and love him and keep his commandments with your whole heart and your whole soul, so that it may be well for you?
  The ways of the Lord are many, though he is himself the way. When he speaks of himself he calls himself the way and shows us the reason why he called himself the way: No one can come to the Father except through me.
  We must ask for these many ways, we must travel along these many ways, to find the one that is good. That is, we shall find the one way of eternal life through the guidance of many teachers. These ways are found in the law, in the prophets, in the gospels, in the writings of the apostles, in the different good works by which we fulfil the commandments. Blessed are those who walk these ways in the fear of the Lord.

Part II: Fear and Wisdom

It would be foolish for us to try to come to love God as an equal. Not only are we so far from his perfect love, but considering his transcendence and mystery fill us with awe and reverence. It is easy for us to get tired of working to follow his law…to get tired of getting up, clearing the dust, and starting over after we fall. Why doesn’t God show us his face? That would be enough, then we would be sure, and we could give everything to follow him.

Consider this. What if he were so beautiful that one single glimpse of his face would set our hearts on fire forever. We would be helpless, smitten; we would no longer even think twice before rejecting a temptation. But funny enough, if everything was so clear, there would be no love: our option for God would be a kneejerk reaction to follow the most beautiful fulfillment of all desire.

So he has preferred to remain hidden—though not completely. Little by little, he has revealed himself. Those who have ears ought to hear. And those who love him heed his word.

Fear of the Lord is a realistic way of life. You must stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect…happy the servant if his master’s arrival finds him at his employment. It is worth keeping sober vigil, maintaining a ready alertness. Sure, this will keep us on our toes to avoid sin—but it will also help us to enjoy life more. In fact this is central to the Gospel Message: There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12,32). Christ is not afraid of anyone here, but he does have a filial sense of wishing to always render due respect and love to his Father.

That is what makes fear of the Lord a gift of the Holy Spirit. St Thomas: Thereby [by the gift of fear of the Lord] we revere God, and avoid separating ourselves from him (II-II q19, a9, co.). From servile fear we have come to recognize him as Father; this has led us to a sense of sobriety and vigilance in this life, which directs us towards ascesis and a life detached from excessive pleasure seeking and wordliness—not because we are afraid of sinning, but because now we have set out on the path of wisdom, of attention to God and his ways, in order to be ready for the moment when he calls us to be with him at last.

Fear of the Fear of the Lord

It’s possible that we could grow accustomed to the newfound freedom of the life of grace, to the point of downplaying the fear of the Lord. For the past few days, a group of priests has been performing their yearly spiritual exercises here—the upshot being that during our meals, instead of Christopher Duggan’s History of Italy, we are reading passages from René Voillaume about the spiritual life. At any rate, around the third day, the meditations drifted towards the theme of death, and how our death is likely to be how we have lived. That we ought to maintain a healthy fear of God in our lives. I admit, the theme causes no little squirming on the part of many, myself included. And yet, there are those who would say the fear of the Lord is overrated: why do they have to try to frighten us with these things—why not let us learn to love God for who he is, rather than out of fear?

It is true, at the end of the day, we must love God not out of fear, but out of love. But with all the sin and punishment talk of Lent, perhaps we ought to re-examine our understanding of fear.

The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. (Proverbs 9,10) Is God strongarming us into taking up his path and learning his way? We don’t always understand why God asks us certain things (the Ten Commandments, moral precepts of the Church, etc) but we certainly understand the consequences of not living them. So should we just blindly submit to God lest we be condemned?

First of all, not all fear is bad. St Thomas Aquinas speaks chiefly about two types of fear (II-II q19): servile fear vs. filial fear. Servile fear is a fear that shrinks from punishment—even when due. Filial fear is still fear, it too shrinks from evil. But filial fear shrinks from the evil of fault—i.e. fault committed against someone else.

It is correct to fear the evil of punishment. The whole point of punishment is to correct a fault. Cops slap parking fines to keep us from blocking fire hydrants (and not only to fill a weekly quota). And funny enough, it usually only takes one fine to remind us for the rest of our lives never to park in front of the yellow lines.

So this first fear is not ignoble—it is good, and directs us to avoid the evil of punishment. Filial fear, on the other hand, directs us to avoid offending someone—for the sake of rendering that person due respect.

It is in this sense that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. At first sight, we acknowledge him as he-who-sets-the-standards, and he-who-will-not-be-happy-if-we-don’t-keep-his-rules. That initial, servile fear of punishment gives us pause, and makes us think twice before committing another sin.

But we can never consider fear of the Lord without the full picture of who the Lord really is: mercy in person. Once we experience his mercy in confession, we recognize his patient love; we recognize that his anger (or our servile fear of punishment) is not the last word. He is our Father, and we are his people, the sheep of his flock.

Now with a deeper understanding and respect for who God really is, our approach is different. Now I avoid sin not merely to avoid paying the price, but because I am grateful to God, and I love him; and I want my life to reflect that gratitude to him with all my heart.

(Part II tomorrow…)

Christian Mercy

It has been said that after the French Revolution, a convict released on parole journeyed the countryside in search of a new beginning. Being an ex-con, naturally, led to complications in this search, and he wound up at the gates of a simple prelate, who agreed to host him for the night. The convict, as is well known, takes advantage of the bishop’s generosity: rising early before dawn, he makes off with the bishop’s silver; his escape however is foiled by the local gendarmerie, who present the thief to the bishop for recognition. The bishop, without missing a beat, covers for his conniving guest: my friend, you forgot to take the candlestics as well.

I think Victor Hugo illustrates something of the challenge of today’s Gospel: be merciful, as your Father is merciful.

Perhaps it is easy for us to be merciful when we have the upper hand: if someone comes begging for forgiveness, it becomes a show–of magnanimity, but a show nonetheless–that we are in some way better than that person. One thinks perhaps of the graceful monarchs, who, moments before the execution of a criminal, would issue their royal pardon, thus leaving a lasting impression of benevolence upon the pleading souls.

But if this was all that Christ was teaching us here, why does he phrase it as he did? Why not be civil, as a well-behaved adult is civil or be nice, because no one likes an ogre. Be merciful, because the proper function of society demands it; because you should act only on that maxim which would be desirable as a universal law…

Be merciful as your Father is merciful.

That, of course is how this passage ties in with the message of Lent: how merciful is our Father! It’s not that our faults are insignificant to an infinite God; we have indeed deeply wounded the ties that bind us to him. Yet he still holds out his hand, even bloodied by the nails; even unto his enemies.

So if this measure is measured out to us, our mercy must become much more profound than a mere gesture. Christ today invites us to re-examine our mercy: how deeply do I forgive those who offend me? Do I pray for them, or allow my forgiveness to become a gesture of winning the upper hand? The forgiving bishop not only forgave Jean Valjean’s theft, he sought an excuse for him, and even gave away the last of his treasure, in the hopes that Valjean would be able to start anew.

The spirit which he sent to live in us wants us for himself alone (Js. 4,5). We are God’s own, let us not be afraid to be like our Father. Let our hearts be channels of God’s mercy, knowing that we have been forgiven much, let us express our thanks by being channels of God’s mercy to all.

Benedict’s Vision: Update

It certainly wasn’t a confirmation of my earlier post, but in some way, I think Pope Benedict’s final Sunday Angelus address yesterday did illustrate that above all, he is responding to a call: “The Lord is calling me to ‘climb the mountain’, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation…” That is, before political or bureaucratic practicalities, the Pope’s decision comes principally from his discernment in prayer.

Perhaps it is a lesson we all could learn. Perhaps it is a stronger teaching than what his final encyclical would have shown us.

(Translation via news.va http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-benedict-xvis-farewell-angelus-i-will-never-a)