Sunday, April 20, 2008

We Are the Living Stones

On April 19, 2008 Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a votive mass for the universal Church at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In his homily Benedict eloquently weaved together the theological reflection on the mass readings, the congregation, the surrounding art, the architecture and history of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to speak of “the pursuit of holiness, the spread of the Gospel and the building up of the Church in faith, hope and love.” The physical building and spiritual worship of the local community participating in the eternal Divine Liturgy became an analogy of the people of God, the universal Church.

Benedict XVI reminds us that our faith is a continuity of the community that precedes us. We owe a debt of appreciation to those men and women from whose labor we have reaped the fruit. In turn, we have the task to continue the work of faith that has been entrusted to us. At liturgy and in life we are always invited to participate in a reality that transcends time and yet requires our participation as a unique and necessary expression in this time and this space.

"Gathered as we are in this historic cathedral, how can we not think of the countless men and women who have gone before us, who labored for the growth of the Church in the United States, and left us a lasting legacy of faith and good works? In today’s first reading we saw how, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles went forth from the Upper Room to proclaim God’s mighty works to people of every nation and tongue. In this country, the Church’s mission has always involved drawing people “from every nation under heaven” (cf. Acts 2:5) into spiritual unity, and enriching the Body of Christ by the variety of their gifts."

The work of God is always the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes us one in faith and love. We must remember that the strength of the Church lies in our bearing the image of God. The unity and diversity embodied in the very inner-life of the Trinity manifests in the diversity and unity of the faith community. Our individuality and solitude opens us up to God and calls us to make an authentic gift of self to others. The summit of this union occurs during the Divine Liturgy and more particularly during Communion when we eat the very flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. God calls us to break out of the dark prison of the self and into the light of Love.

"This is the message of hope we are called to proclaim and embody in a world where self-centeredness, greed, violence, and cynicism so often seem to choke the fragile growth of grace in people’s hearts. Saint Irenaeus, with great insight, understood that the command which Moses enjoined upon the people of Israel: “Choose life!” (Dt 30:19) was the ultimate reason for our obedience to all God’s commandments (cf. Adv. Haer. IV, 16, 2-5). Perhaps we have lost sight of this: in a society where the Church seems legalistic and “institutional” to many people, our most urgent challenge is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God’s love."

Too often people look at God’s commands as a foreign power that comes to negate our freedom and stunt our personal growth. To the contrary, God’s will is life, for God is the source of life, and all life finds its meaning in God. The reason for God’s commands is to set us free from the snares of sin so that we may fully bear the image of God through choosing life and become fully alive. Sin does not represent life but death, not growth but decay. All saints will the same thing: “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” As long as we see God’s will as some imposing immutable far-off force trying to control us, we will neglect the truth that God only wants to set us free so we may respond freely to the call to love inscribed in the nature of our being. This love is not passive but combats all that separates us from God, and God’s truth is like a sword that prunes us so that we may flourish.

All physical reality has a spiritual dimension. In his homily Benedict XVI turns to the concrete example of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to reflect on the theological meaning of this house of prayer. This cathedral is a symbol of hope in as much as it symbolizes the Church and God’s presence in the world. Furthermore, the elaborate Gothic style architecture represents a spiritual tradition more ancient than the land of America where this Cathedral resides. The purpose of Church architecture and art is to portray mystical realities and theological truths that occur all around us. Church art at its finest always expresses a sacramental vision that lifts the soul to the contemplation of truth. Because Benedict XVI provides succinct and beautiful reflection, I have included all the text pertaining to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

"I am particularly happy that we have gathered in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Perhaps more than any other church in the United States, this place is known and loved as “a house of prayer for all peoples” (cf. Is 56:7; Mk 11:17). Each day thousands of men, women and children enter its doors and find peace within its walls. Archbishop John Hughes, who – as Cardinal Egan has reminded us – was responsible for building this venerable edifice, wished it to rise in pure Gothic style. He wanted this cathedral to remind the young Church in America of the great spiritual tradition to which it was heir, and to inspire it to bring the best of that heritage to the building up of Christ’s body in this land. I would like to draw your attention to a few aspects of this beautiful structure which I think can serve as a starting point for a reflection on our particular vocations within the unity of the Mystical Body.

The first has to do with the stained glass windows, which flood the interior with mystic light. From the outside, those windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendor. Many writers – here in America we can think of Nathaniel Hawthorne – have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light.

This is no easy task in a world which can tend to look at the Church, like those stained glass windows, “from the outside”: a world which deeply senses a need for spirituality, yet finds it difficult to “enter into” the mystery of the Church. Even for those of us within, the light of faith can be dimmed by routine, and the splendor of the Church obscured by the sins and weaknesses of her members. It can be dimmed too, by the obstacles encountered in a society which sometimes seems to have forgotten God and to resent even the most elementary demands of Christian morality. You, who have devoted your lives to bearing witness to the love of Christ and the building up of his Body, know from your daily contact with the world around us how tempting it is at times to give way to frustration, disappointment and even pessimism about the future. In a word, it is not always easy to see the light of the Spirit all about us, the splendor of the Risen Lord illuminating our lives and instilling renewed hope in his victory over the world (cf. Jn 16:33).

Yet the word of God reminds us that, in faith, we see the heavens opened, and the grace of the Holy Spirit lighting up the Church and bringing sure hope to our world. “O Lord, my God,” the Psalmist sings, “when you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). These words evoke the first creation, when the Spirit of God hovered over the deep (cf. Gen 1:2). And they look forward to the new creation, at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and established the Church as the first fruits of a redeemed humanity (cf. Jn 20:22-23). These words summon us to ever deeper faith in God’s infinite power to transform every human situation, to create life from death, and to light up even the darkest night. And they make us think of another magnificent phrase of Saint Irenaeus: “where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace” (Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1).

This leads me to a further reflection about the architecture of this church. Like all Gothic cathedrals, it is a highly complex structure, whose exact and harmonious proportions symbolize the unity of God’s creation. Medieval artists often portrayed Christ, the creative Word of God, as a heavenly “geometer”, compass in hand, who orders the cosmos with infinite wisdom and purpose. Does this not bring to mind our need to see all things with the eyes of faith, and thus to grasp them in their truest perspective, in the unity of God’s eternal plan? This requires, as we know, constant conversion, and a commitment to acquiring “a fresh, spiritual way of thinking” (cf. Eph 4:23). It also calls for the cultivation of those virtues which enable each of us to grow in holiness and to bear spiritual fruit within our particular state of life. Is not this ongoing “intellectual” conversion as necessary as “moral” conversion for our own growth in faith, our discernment of the signs of the times, and our personal contribution to the Church’s life and mission?"

This last paragraph speaks of the importance of faith and reason working together. Great cathedrals represent works of art that unite the content of faith to the novelty of human intelligence and ingenuity from the complex processes of designing to constructing. The questions above (italics mine) remind us of the need to integrate reason into the faith perspective because God has ordered the cosmos according to a Divine plan has given us the capacity to know. Rather than being opposed to each other, faith and reason represent mutual perspectives that help form a cohesive and holistic worldview. The combination of faith and reason in the Cathedral and in the Church represents the upward movement of the soul to discover truth and seek God’s will.

"Dear friends, these considerations lead me to a final observation about this great cathedral in which we find ourselves. The unity of a Gothic cathedral, we know, is not the static unity of a classical temple, but a unity born of the dynamic tension of diverse forces which impel the architecture upward, pointing it to heaven. Here too, we can see a symbol of the Church’s unity, which is the unity – as Saint Paul has told us – of a living body composed of many different members, each with its own role and purpose. Here too we see our need to acknowledge and reverence the gifts of each and every member of the body as “manifestations of the Spirit given for the good of all” (1 Cor 12:7). Certainly within the Church’s divinely-willed structure there is a distinction to be made between hierarchical and charismatic gifts (cf. Lumen Gentium, 4). Yet the very variety and richness of the graces bestowed by the Spirit invite us constantly to discern how these gifts are to be rightly ordered in the service of the Church’s mission. You, dear priests, by sacramental ordination have been configured to Christ, the Head of the Body. You, dear deacons, have been ordained for the service of that Body. You, dear men and women religious, both contemplative and apostolic, have devoted your lives to following the divine Master in generous love and complete devotion to his Gospel. All of you, who fill this cathedral today, as well as your retired, elderly and infirm brothers and sisters, who unite their prayers and sacrifices to your labors, are called to be forces of unity within Christ’s Body. By your personal witness, and your fidelity to the ministry or apostolate entrusted to you, you prepare a path for the Spirit. For the Spirit never ceases to pour out his abundant gifts, to awaken new vocations and missions, and to guide the Church, as our Lord promised in this morning’s Gospel, into the fullness of truth (cf. Jn 16:13)."

We must prepare the way of the Lord! As the Cathedral provides a sacred space for God to dwell in the world, we must likewise allow God to work through us. Benedict XVI encourages us to gaze upwards with humility and confidence for we are the living stones of the temple that God is raising up in the world.

At the conclusion of Mass, the Holy Father added the following:

"At this moment I can only thank you for your love of the Church and Our Lord, and for the love which you show to the poor Successor of Saint Peter. I will try to do all that is possible to be a worthy successor of the great Apostle, who also was a man with faults and sins, but remained in the end the rock for the Church. And so I too, with all my spiritual poverty, can be for this time, in virtue of the Lord’s grace, the Successor of Peter.

It is also your prayers and your love which give me the certainty that the Lord will help me in this my ministry. I am therefore deeply grateful for your love and for your prayers. My response now for all that you have given to me during this visit is my blessing, which I impart to you at the conclusion of this beautiful Celebration."

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