WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington spoke of new life offered by Christ through the Church in the May 10 presentation of Nothing More Beautiful.
At the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy, after the priest has consecrated the bread and the chalice of wine, he genuflects in adoration and then proclaims "The mystery of faith" to which the people respond with a profession of faith. One popular acclamation is: "We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again."
It is the faith of the Catholic Church that Jesus Christ will return to claim his own. As the Creed announces: "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end."
In this article of the Creed, we encounter the revelation that Jesus, who is risen from the dead and desires us of sharing his new life with us, will return. This time he comes not to proclaim his kingdom among us but to bring it to its fullness.
We, according to our faithfulness to the Gospel, will be ushered into glory. First comes the individual judgment at death and then will come the final judgment at the end of time when the resurrection of each of us in the flesh – as did Jesus on that first Easter morning – will take place.
The call to holiness is the welcome to new life in Christ, a fullness of life as he said, "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10.10).
This share in the divine life through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit begins now. Only in heaven will it reach its fullness.
The glorious Second Coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is depicted in many ways, but none more familiar than the scene in the apse of the Sistine Chapel. Here Michelangelo presents the powerful image of Jesus coming as the great and final judge to whom all things have been entrusted.
In the end, all of us must pass through the doors of death to face the great final judgment. As Jesus describes this moment, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats" (Matthew 25.31-32).
How we accept the grace of new life and how well we manifest the kingdom in its beginnings will determine if we are with those to whom the king will say, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 26.24).
We are invited to live according to Jesus' way. How is it that we can be so certain of the truth of that way of life – of our faith? How do we recognize the beginning of the kingdom among us? How do we manifest that kingdom so that Jesus can claim us when he returns? How can we live in the serene confidence of the Creed?
In our reflection today, I want to begin with the communion of faith that is our home – the Church. This is the reality that connects us with the apostles and, therefore, with Jesus.
The Church is the beginning of the kingdom of God. It is precisely this kingdom and its members that Christ will claim. We, in the meantime, try not only to live as citizens of this new way of life, but we actually help to manifest it.
Jesus began his public life with a clear proclamation that the kingdom of God is present in him. St. Luke recounts how "Jesus came to Nazareth, when he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day."
He read the scroll containing the messianic prophecy and then, "Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down . . . and said to them, 'Today this scriptural passage is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4.16-21).
As Jesus ended his earthly life, he charged his followers and that includes us: "And you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8).
CNS PHOTO FROM CATHOLIC PRESS PHOTO
Michelangelo's image of Jesus as the great and final judge is in the apse of the Sistine Chapel.
In October 2008, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, convoked a general assembly of the Synod of Bishops to address The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. That gathering brought together over 200 bishops from around the world for three weeks of prayerful reflection and discussion.
One of the things we take for granted when we gather for the synod is an element in the life of the Church that should still cause us to rejoice. Even though we are bishops from all over the world, when we begin discussions, as we were at this Synod on the Word of God, it is clear almost immediately that on all of the elements of the faith we are of one mind.
For example, in the preliminary discussions on the Word of God, when we deal with doctrine such as revelation, the Incarnation, the meaning of faith, the Church, its teaching office and Sacred Scriptures, we are all united.
You might ask what is so surprising about that. As bishops of the Church who have the responsibility of protecting and passing on the faith, we should all be and are all one in that faith. Nonetheless, it does remind us of the action of the Holy Spirit in the work of the Church.
No purely human institution could sustain this reality. The very fact that all of the bishops who are gathered in the synod hall are one in the faith of the Church is a testimony to the enduring gift of the Holy Spirit and God at work in his Church.
The Catholic Church is that living continuity – the Body of Christ – with its foundation on the apostles whose message is confirmed, protected and sustained by the Holy Spirit.
How does the teaching of Christ get from him to us? How can we claim truly to know Jesus? The reality through which we ensure our continuity with the Lord is called apostolic tradition. It is best described as the passing on under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit what Jesus said and did.
What makes it unique is that the very passing on in this way guarantees that the saving story of Jesus is not forgotten, misunderstood or lost from age to age, from generation to generation, from person to person.
We believe that revelation continues in the sense that the living God remains present to his people. In sending Jesus, God not only revealed his message to us but established the way in which it would be passed on from age to age. Jesus proclaimed the full saving message and gave it to his people through the apostles whom he chose, commissioned and charged with this task.
Often, in preparation for and during the synod, the question was raised about Catholics reading the Bible. I think it is important to distinguish between reading the Bible and being familiar with the content of the Bible.
Catholics are very familiar with the content of Sacred Scripture. They hear it over and over again at Sunday Mass. When you begin a parable, the Catholics in the pew know how it ends. When you begin referencing specific Scriptures, many of them can complete the sentence. Most of our familiarity with the Scriptures comes directly from hearing rather than reading the texts.
The synod also highlighted the blessings that come from opening the Bible in situations other than the liturgy so that the Word of God can nurture us in our homes, workplaces or wherever else we gather and have access to the Sacred Scriptures.
The Church urges us to read the Bible and to do so in the full context of centuries of reflecting on its meaning under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The study of the Bible by groups or individuals remains an occasion of God's continuous grace and enlightenment.
It is also an aid to our response to the call to holiness. This is why the Church so strongly urges that studying and praying from the Bible should be the lifelong project of every Christian.
Our growth in holiness – closeness to Christ – follows on our hearing his word spoken to us today. Christ is our teacher. He offers his people the words of truth and everlasting life. "For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (John 18.37). Today his teaching mission endures in those whom he sends.
The words "You are my witnesses" echo in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1.8) where we find an account of the early Church.
In living continuity since those days, the Church has passed on the word – the revelation – that introduces us to Jesus of Nazareth, who is Mary's son and God's Son, to Jesus who is the Logos – the Word – come among us. Our faith and call to be witnesses are intrinsic elements of our self-definition as disciples of Jesus.
The Logos – Word of God is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. This is the Word we find described in the prologue of St. John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." This Word becomes flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. We know him as the Incarnate Word.
"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." This is God coming into our world so that the ineffable transcendent Word might become visible and speak to our world.
But we also refer to the Word of God as Jesus' words, his proclamation, his teaching. St. Peter said to Jesus: "You have the words of everlasting life" (John 6.68). These words continued to be passed on in the believing community – the Church. St. Paul, in his letters and explicitly in the First Letter to the Corinthians, makes reference to passing on what he himself had received.
The revelation of Christ, proclaimed in his teaching, received by his apostles and announced by them, came to be written down. As the Christian community spread and new generations were added to the Body of Christ, the message – the Gospel of Christ – came to be written down.
CNS PHOTO | NANCY WIECHEC
Then Archbishop Donald Wuerl (left rear) walks with Pope Benedict into the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the pope's 2008 visit to Washington.
Here we find the gradual composition of a canon of Scriptures recognized as inspired and containing the Word of God. It is precisely the understanding of how the Scriptures came to be that provides the reasoning for how they are to be understood.
As it began its deliberations, the synod turned its attention to the great dynamic of divine-human dialogue. God speaks and we respond in an act of faith. How does the Word of God speak to us today? How – where – does this encounter with God take place today?
At its core, the profession of faith expressed in such words, as "I believe" or "we believe" is a response to God. God calls us and we answer. God speaks to us and we reply. We refer to God's word to us as "revelation" and our response as "faith."
In anticipation of his return in glory – his Second Coming – and as a memorial to the salvation he has won for us, Jesus instituted the Eucharist – the great gift of God – the presence of Christ with us in anticipation of his glorious return.
Jesus would remain with us as a pledge of his kingdom and our new life in the most unique and supreme way – in the Eucharist. The night before he is to undergo his Passion and death, Jesus established a new memorial – a new way to recall and to remember what he was about to endure.
As Paul so beautifully describes the Last Supper in his First Letter to the Corinthians, we read: "For I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'
"In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11.23-26).
In an age before technology, where there were no cameras, photographs, phone cameras or camcorders, the ways in which events were remembered and passed on were through the celebrations and ritualized reminders that formed the history, frame of reference and calendar for a people, in this case, God's people.
This was the way people recalled what happened to them in the past, its significance for them in the present and why it is important to continue the memory in the future.
Unlike the Passover meal that was the context of the Last Supper and which was intended to remind the Jewish people of their formation as God's people and therefore their identity, the Eucharist was intended to be a memorial that would actually make the event it memorialized present – not as a memory but as a reality.
In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ's Passover and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever-present.
In his last encyclical on the Eucharist, Blessed John Paul II reminds us of the ancient faith of the Church: "When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord's death and resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and 'the work of our redemption is carried out'" (11).
All was to be new. But first Christ would have to die on the cross and rise to new life. As a perpetual memorial to his death and resurrection, at the Passover meal with his apostles, he took the bread and made it his body and took the cup and made it the cup of his blood and then challenged us to "do this in remembrance of me."
We are not simply bystanders at this memorial, at this Eucharist. We are participants in the new Passover. This new ritual instituted at the Last Supper transforms us into God's new people.
The Eucharistic banquet we enjoy now is already a sign and presence of that heavenly banquet to which we are invited to share for eternity. Heaven is described as that great liturgy of the lamb. We already taste of its goodness now. But someday all the signs and symbols will give way to vision and presence.
As we anticipate the great heavenly liturgy of eternal life – light, peace and joy - what do we bring to our Eucharistic banquet, to our paschal celebration and to our lives still lived in sign and mystery?
As guests who have been invited not only to witness the memorial of our redemption but actually enter into it within our lives, what do we bring? Certainly, we do not come empty-handed to the table of the Lord.
The first gift we bring as we approach this extraordinary memorial is our own lively faith. Like Peter, we can reply when Jesus asks us, "Who do you say that I am?" that "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16.15-16).
It is this faith that someday will give way to vision. As we read in the Book of Job, "I know that my vindicator lives, and that I myself shall see with my own eyes . . . from my flesh I shall see God" (19.23-27).
We also bring the gift of hope. Because we believe, because we see with the eyes of faith, because we place our trust in the words that Jesus has spoken to us, we can with confidence live out our faith.
As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in Spe salvi, his encyclical on Christian hope, "The one who has hope lives differently; the one who has hope has been granted the gift of new life" (2).
Our hope, too, shall be transformed into realization. We will lay hold forever to that substance that the Letter to the Hebrews refers to as, "The realization of what is hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11.1).
We can also approach the altar with hearts filled with love. At that Last Supper Jesus taught us that since we were sharers of his Body and Blood we were members of the same family and brothers and sisters to each other.
Because we see with the eyes of faith, we see in the Church and in her sacraments Christ continuing to be with us, to touch us, to change us, to transform us.
Flowing from the Eucharist is not just the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ but the strength we derive from it to be a whole new creation, people alive with the Holy Spirit with the power to bring about God's kingdom of truth, justice, compassion, kindness, peace and love.
As we await the Second Coming of our Lord and his return in glory to claim his kingdom, his Church, we are reminded that it falls to us to announce that kingdom, to be witnesses to the revelation and to manifest the glory of God unfolding in our world.
This brings me to the final point in these reflections: our role in the New Evangelization.
Pope Benedict XVI calls all of us to "re-propose the Gospel." Somehow in what we do and how we express our faith, we have to be able to re-propose our belief in Christ and his Gospel for a hearing among those who are convinced they already know the faith and it holds no interest for them.
Blessed John Paul II, reminding us that evangelization is "the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity," took up the commitment begun by Pope Paul VI to an evangelization, "new in ardour, methods, and expression" (Redemptoris Missio, 2, 3, 30).
The New Evangelization is not a program. It is a mode of thinking, seeing and acting. It is a lens through which we see the opportunities to proclaim the Gospel anew. It is also a recognition that the Holy Spirit is actively working in the Church.
The context of the New Evangelization and the very reason why we need to re-propose our Catholic faith to the world around us and of which we are a part is the secularism that is now rapidly enveloping our society and our Western culture.
During Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States in 2008, he said that in sowing the seeds of the Gospel we need to clear away some of the barriers to an encounter with Christ, and he noted three in particular: "the subtle influence of materialism, which can all too easily focus attention on the hundredfold which God promises now in his age, at the expense of the eternal life which he promises in the age to come" (cf. Mark 10.30).
The pope also reminded us that "while it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless colour the way people allow their faith to influence their behaviour."
Finally, he noted that "in a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church (cf. Spe salvi, 13-15)."
Each one of us is invited to be a voice of the Gospel, a witness to the kingdom and a testimony to the presence of the Risen Lord in our world.
In answer to the question, "Why the New Evangelization now?" I think we can say with assurance that there is an awakening of the Spirit in the hearts of many people, young and not so young, that the pretensions of the secular order are not able to satisfy the longings of the human heart.
We can profess with pride and conviction the Gospel message continues to be the answer to our needs and longings today.
At the heart of our conviction is our faith that we proclaim at every Mass: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.