Tag Archives: papacy

Deacon Companions

7 Aug

Pope Sixtus and companionsI’ve often wondered about the saints who go down in Church history as “companions.” For example, today the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. Sixtus II and companions, who were martyred in 258 A.D. during the persecution of Emperor Valerian.

Clearly the “companions” are the “supporting actors and actresses” in the drama of Church history, supporting saintly protagonists in bearing witness to their Savior. These humble servants remained faithful to the end, and their blood became the seed for the Church in their respective eras.

But who are today’s companions? Well, Valerian issued a decree to the effect that all bishops, priests, and deacons were to be summarily put to death because of their opposition to the pagan worship of the empire. Pope Sixtus was executed on August 6, 258. His “companions” in martyrdom were six of his seven deacons (cf. Acts 6:1-6). Their names were Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, Stephanus, Felicissimus, and Agapitus.

Who was the seventh deacon? Did he flee from the persecutors? Did he go into hiding? Hardly. It was none other than St. Lawrence, perhaps the most beloved deacon in the history of the Church, who was martyred a few days later, on August 10. The universal Church celebrates his feast on Saturday. While Lawrence was a distinguished servant (diakonos) of the Lord and the “right hand man” of his beloved Pope, I suspect he also took great delight in simply being known as a “companion” of his brother deacons.

Going to the Lost Sheep

10 Jul

calling of disciplesIn today’s Gospel, we hear St. Matthew’s account of the call of the Twelve Apostles (Mt. 10:1-7). Two points really struck me as I listened to the inspired text.

First, the New Testament gives us four lists of the Apostles (Mt. 10:2-4; Mk. 3:14-19; Lk. 6:13-16; Acts 1:13, 26). The four lists are not identical, but they all mention St. Peter first. Three different apostles (Andrew, James or John) are named second, depending on which list we’re reading, but Peter is always first.

This is a fairly simple point, but nonetheless an important one that strongly suggests the recognition of the primacy of Peter among the Twelve. This is completely separate from a study of other significant scenes where Our Lord addresses Peter alone (especially Matthew 16, Luke 5, and John 21) or where Jesus is with His “inner circle” of Apostles (Peter, James, and John) at key moments, such as the Transfiguration or Agony in the Garden.

The other point that struck me today was Jesus’s curious instruction to the newly commissioned Twelve in Matthew 10:5-6: “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Clearly the master plan is to invite all men and women into the New Covenant family–that is, the Church (see Mt. 28:18-20; Mk.16:16; Catechism, no. 543). Yet Jesus instructs His leaders to follow a certain progression (see also Acts 1:8). After all, the Israelites were the chosen people, God’s special possession. Through His relationship with Israel through salvation history, God would eventually fulfill His promise to Abraham to bless all nations through him (cf. Gen. 22:18).

I see a similar dynamic at work in the “new evangelization.” The master plan has not changed: We want to invite all men and women to a relationship with Christ and His Church. Yet there is a sense that we must first reach out to the “lost sheep” in our midst: cradle Catholics, uncatechized Catholics, alienated or disenfranchised Catholics, former Catholics, “cultural” Catholics, or any other sort of Catholic who for any reason needs to hear anew (or for the first time) the good news. It may begin with a smile, an act of friendship or service, or simply a heart-felt invitation to come home.

After all, it’s really not about the Twelve. Nor is it about those of us who are already active in the Church. It is about helping others come to Jesus.

The Original Pope John

17 May

St. John IPerhaps someday, probably decades or even centuries from now, Pope Francis will become a canonized saint. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but approximately 30% of all Popes eventually become “saints,” so it is a realistic possibility. And should it happen, I imagine that when someone says “St. Francis,” most will still think first of St. Francis of Assisi. Then, the speaker will say, “No, I meant St. Francis I, the 21st-century Pope” and proceed to tell us about the beloved Jesuit Pope from South America.

Something similar is at work tomorrow, as we celebrate the feast of St. John. No, not the beloved disciple and author of the Fourth Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Rather, it’s the feast of St. John I, the first of 23 popes by that name, who lived in the sixth century.

Little is known about the life of St. John I, the 53rd pope. We do know that he was an archdeacon at the time his predecessor, Pope Hormisdas, died in 523. Pope John became the first Roman Pontiff to travel to Constantinople, where he was well received by Emperor Justice, the clergy, and the faithful. He even helped to reconcile the Western and Eastern Churches. However, Theodoric, the Arian King of the Ostrogoths and Italy, was suspicious of the Pope’s interaction with Constantinople. He had the Pope arrested and incarcerated during his return to Rome in 526, and Pope John I died a martyr’s death while in custody.

This day, may we turn to the original “Good Pope John” in our prayers:

God our Father,
rewarder of all who believe,
hear our prayers
as we celebrate the martyrdom of Pope John.
Help us to follow him in loyalty to the faith.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. +

To Whom Shall We Go?

9 Apr

Eucharist2Next week my youngest child, Raymond, will make his First Communion. For the first time, my entire family will be able to receive the Eucharist at Mass!

A couple weeks before my daughter Virginia made her First Communion, I took her to lunch and talked with her about the Eucharist. To test her, I said, “Now Virginia, the Eucharist symbolizes Christ, right?” Virginia looked at me partly in horror and partly in surprise at my apparent ignorance. “Oh no, Daddy,” she said. “The Eucharist really is the body and blood of Jesus.”

I affirmed her response and told her that sometimes I go out to speak to groups of people about the Eucharist. So I asked for her “advice” as to what I should tell people. Reveling in her new role as theological consultant, Virginia replied, “Daddy, I would start by telling them about Jesus: Jesus is God. He can do anything. Of course He can make Himself present under the appearance of bread and wine.”

I am so grateful to God for Virginia’s child-like faith that has now continued into her college years. I pray that she continues to deepen her relationship with Our Eucharistic Lord as she matures into adulthood.

Sadly, though, many adults don’t have Virginia’s faith. It is said that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, so I have a healthy distrust of polls that attempt to quantify Eucharistic belief. Even so, despite the welcome resurgence of Eucharistic adoration and devotions and other positive signs of life in the Church, far too many Catholics have an inadequate understanding of the Eucharist.

And how can we love what we don’t know?

When we consider the various problems and scandals in the Church, we most typically point to secondary, external causes and effects. Yet, underlying these things is the perennial mystery of evil and sin. So why does sin seem to be having such a field day right now? I think the heart of the matter is a crisis of faith. And while faith in Christ identifies us as Christians, our belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and the authority entrusted to the successors of Peter and the other apostles is what identifies us more specifically as Catholics.

When Our Lord gave His great Eucharistic discourse in John 6, many of those who were already numbered among His disciples could not accept this teaching and returned to their former, pre-Christian lives (cf. Jn. 6:60, 66). No other recorded teaching of Christ had such an effect.

There are many today who do not believe in God, let alone His Incarnate Son. Then there are Christians whose rejection of the Eucharist sadly perpetuates divisions dating back to the 16th century. And there are those who consider themselves Catholic but who hold out for a different Christ and a different Church.

After many disciples left because of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn. 6:67). And Peter’s response, the response of the Church, was, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe . . .” (Jn. 6:68).

Our Lord’s question–which goes out to each of us–demands an act of faith, an adherence to revealed truth. Indifference about the Eucharist, ambivalence about the Church, is clearly not an acceptable response. Yet the actions of many baptized Catholics manifest such indifference and ambivalence. That’s why today–and always–the Church needs heroic witnesses, indeed martyrs, to the truth about Jesus Christ, to the truth about the Church, to the truth about the Eucharist.

What Is the College of Cardinals?

27 Feb

cardinalsThe college of cardinals refers collectively to the cardinals of the Catholic Church. “College” comes from the Latin word collegium, meaning “society,” from which we derive English words such as “collection” and “colleague.”

Cardinals themselves are the highest ranking Catholic prelates under the Pope himself. Therefore, it is fitting that the cardinals, coming together as a body or “society,” are given the important task of selecting a new Pope in the event of a vacancy in the See of Peter.

According to Church law, the Pope freely selects those who are to serve the Church as cardinals. They are usually bishops or archbishops, though priests are also eligible for this office. In recent times, Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008), a distinguished Jesuit theologian and priest, is an example. Those selected as cardinals are “especially outstanding for their doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action” (Code of Canon Law, canon 351).

Since cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff, no new cardinals may be added to the college during a vacancy in the papacy.

For more on the demographic background of the current college of cardinals, click here. For reliable responses to some common misconceptions about the upcoming conclave, click here or here.

Chair-man of the Board!

22 Feb

Pope seatedToday the universal Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. When I first returned to the Church way back when, I thought this feast sounded really strange. I was okay with celebrating events from the life of Christ, and even with celebrating feasts in honor of special saints. But a chair?

Then I read that ever since the fourth century, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter has been celebrated in Rome as a sign of the unity of the Church founded upon that apostle. Hmmm. There must be more to the story . . .

One thing I learned early on is that the word for “chair” in Latin is cathedra. And so when the Pope teaches authoritatively in the area of faith and morals, he is said to speak “ex cathedra,” or “from the chair,” indicating the binding nature of the teaching on the Christian faithful.

And because cathedra literally refers to the established seat of the bishop, the “mother church” of a diocese that contains this seat is known as a “cathedral.” The chair or seat of a bishop symbolizes his authority as a successor of the apostles, and in a special way it symbolizes his “magisterium” or teaching office, in that he called to guard and proclaim the deposit of faith for the benefit of the local Church.

As Pope Benedict teaches, “When the bishop takes possession of the local Church that is entrusted to him, he, bearing the miter and the shepherd’s crosier, sits on the cathedra. From that seat he will guide, as teacher and shepherd, the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.”

The first “seat” of the Church was the Upper Room where, in all probability, there was a special place reserved for Simon Peter as they awaited the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:13-15).

From there the “seat” of Peter moved to Antioch, the city where “for the first time the disciples were called Christians” (Acts 11:26), as Peter became that community’s first bishop.

From there, providence led Peter to Rome, where his service to the Gospel was crowned with martyrdom.

In this way, Rome came to be known as the “See” of the successor of Peter and the home of the Pope’s “cathedra,” which represents the mission entrusted to him by Christ to shepherd His entire flock. Incidentally, the Pope’s cathedral church as Bishop of Rome is not St. Peter’s, but St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, identified as the “Mother and Head” of all the churches in the world.

Rome’s significance as the See of Peter is attested by the most ancient Fathers of the Church. For example, St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 200 A.D.), described the Church of Rome as “greatest and most ancient, known by all; . . . founded and constituted at Rome by the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul . . . With this Church, because of her outstanding superiority, the universal Church must be in agreement, that is, the faithful everywhere” (Against Heresies).

In celebrating the “Chair” of Peter we recognize its spiritual significance: It is a special sign of the love of Christ who, as one form of the penitential rite at Mass provides, came to “gather the nations into the peace [and unity] of God’s kingdom.”

During this time of papal transition, let us make our own the words of St. Jerome: “I follow no leader save Christ so I consult the chair of Peter, for this I know is the rock upon which the Church is built!”

Can Someone Refuse to Be Elected Pope?

18 Feb
St. Philip Benizi

St. Philip Benizi

It is possible to decline the responsibility of becoming the next Pope. There are many instances of prominent cardinals who have made it clear during the conclave that they would not accept if elected.

One famous case is that of St. Philip Benizi. When he learned that he was being considered for the papacy in 1271, he ran away and hid until the cardinals elected somebody else! Usually, though, the newly elected Pope accepts this office as God’s will for him.

In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II made the following heartfelt plea to those elected after him:

“I . . . ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office” (no. 86).

Once a papal candidate has been elected according to the procedure provided by Church law, the dean of the college of cardinals asks for his consent in the following words: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” And, as soon as he has received the consent, he asks him: “By what name do you wish to be called?” (Universi Dominici Gregis, nos. 87-88).

So the process itself makes clear that even after his election, the papal nominee is free to withhold his consent and refuse this office. Only upon giving his consent does he become the new Pope, assuming (as is usually the case) that he has already received ordination as a bishop.