Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Upright Conscience

This is my sermon for the Mass of the Fourth Sunday of Advent (extraordinary form) based on the epistle 1Cor. 4:1-5. Please note that a sermon is quite a bit more didactic in style than a homily.

"Nihil enim mihi conscius sum; sed non in hoc justificatus sum: qui autem judicat me, Dominus est." 1 Cor. 4:4

These days people invoke conscience for every immorality claiming to be "following my conscience," or "free to choose" or "free choice." Saint Paul says he is not guided by human judgment and that he has nothing on his conscience but...that that in itself is not enough: "...I am not conscious to myself of anything: yet am I not hereby justified, but He that judgeth me is the Lord." What matters is how God sees me. One's conscience might be in error, even in grave error. Each person has an obligation therefore (to prepare to receive Christ to the [your] world) to examine himself, not on the opinions of men, nor simply on one's own opinions, but before God Himself: before the Truth, reviewing the ten commandments and the precepts of the Church because "every man is prone to evil, having countless corrupt propensities, since he tends downwards and is carried with ardent precipitancy to anger, hatred, pride, ambition, and almost every kind of evil." (Roman Catechism, 530) Scripture convicts every man: "All alike have gone astray; they have become perverse; there is not one who does good, not even one." (Ps. 52:4)

It's time for Advent confessions. Those who do not honestly examine themselves before God end up distorting morality by calling bad good and good bad. Isaiah condemns this perverse judgment "Woe to you that call evil good and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness..." (Is. 5:20)
There are two types of perverse judgment (as opposed to rash judgment which is false being too quick, perverse judgment is false after deliberation): one type is judging a good man to be evil. But the other type of perverse judgment is much worse; in it the judgment of things themselves is perverted, for instance, claiming virginity to be evil or fornication to be good. (Aquinas, In 1 Cor, 194) We must measure goodness according to the "One Who alone is good," the Lord, not according to our own opinions.

Every man has a grave obligation to ensure that he properly form his conscience, therefore, and not let himself be deceived. And pastors of souls, parents, governors of people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, counsellors, etc., anyone in authority must teach people (those under their care) what is right and what is wrong, or else they are perverting judgment by their negligence to guide. It is not just a matter of religion, it is a matter of basic humanity.

That is why, every time I have a sweet sixteen ceremony I require all the teenagers involved to go over the examination of conscience (on the ten commandments, detailing all the major sins under each commandment) and go through the confessional: Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Jew, atheist--they all need to know right from wrong and admit it, in order to live. The ten commandments are for everyone. Explaining it that way no one objects. It makes sense. They are the God given guidelines for all humanity, THE guidelines for true humanity. Last time (a couple of weeks ago), as I read the question under the sixth commandment "Have I used any method of contraception or artificial birth control" a girl raised her had and respectfully and innocently asked (the youth are great, their innocence makes them so transparent), obviously repeating the perverse mantra she has so often heard in the context of procreation "Isn't it just a choice?" I patiently and briefly explained the meaning of carnal love and how unity and openness to procreation are two inherent and inseparable aspects of the acts proper to marriage, and that the Bible itself condemns contraception right in Genesis 38:8, the sin of Onan: Onanism. And I though to myself, "yes, it is a choice, a bad choice, based on a perverse judgment." That is what sin is, a wrong choice. We need to know the difference between right and wrong, lest we be wrong! We need to know the difference ourselves and to teach others, in order to receive Jesus Christ as He deserves, in goodness, and that people might know Him and love Him thereby, in freedom.

At Christmas, the Light came into the world, Christ our Lord, to show us Himself, to show us God, His Goodness, His Truth for all men of every time and place; because His goodness is the only ultimate Good and His Truth is all truth, excluding all error. Those who would be rid of the darkness and confusion of life must receive, celebrate and worship Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father: God from God, Light from Light, true God from True God. He alone is God in the flesh, the manifest, definitive and immutable meaning of man: the eternal Word.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Homily Ideas

At his general audience last Wednesday the Holy Father gave this catechesis on the meaning of Christmas which provides great material for Christmas preaching on the value and beautiful meaning of childbirth and on the reality of God with us today.

Natale: la Festa che Canta il Dono della Vita
(On the Meaning and Value of Our Lives)

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 17, 2008 ( Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered during today's general audience in Paul VI Hall.

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters:

Precisely today, we begin the days of Advent that immediately prepare us for the nativity of the Lord: We are in the Christmas novena, which in many Christian communities is celebrated with liturgies rich in biblical texts, all oriented toward nourishing hope for the birth of the Savior. The entire Church, in effect, turns its gaze of faith toward this approaching feast, readying itself, like each year, to unite to the joyful song of the angels, who in the heart of the night will announce to the shepherds the extraordinary event of the birth of the Redeemer, inviting them to draw close to the cave of Bethlehem. There lies Emanuel, the Creator made creature, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a poor manger (cf. Luke 2:13-14).

Because of the environment that characterizes it, Christmas is a universal feast. Even those who do not profess to be believers, in fact, can perceive in this annual Christian celebration something extraordinary and transcendent, something intimate that speaks to the heart. It is the feast that sings of the gift of life. The birth of a child moves us and causes tenderness. Christmas is the encounter with a newborn who cries in a miserable cave. Contemplating him in the manger, how can we not think of so many children who even today see the light from within a great poverty in many regions of the world? How can we not think of the newborns who are not welcomed and are rejected, of those who do not survive because of a lack of care and attention? How can we not think, too, of the families who desire the joy of a child and do not see this hope fulfilled?

Under the influence of a hedonistic consumerism, unfortunately, Christmas runs the risk of losing its spiritual significance to be reduced to a mere commercial occasion to buy and exchange gifts. In truth, nevertheless, the difficulties and the uncertainties and the very economic crisis that in these months so many families are living, and which affects all of humanity, can be a stimulus to discover the warmth of simplicity, friendship and solidarity -- characteristic values of Christmas. Stripped of consumerist and materialist incrustations, Christmas can thus become an occasion to welcome, as a personal gift, the message of hope that emanates from the mystery of the birth of Christ.

All of this, nevertheless, is not enough to assimilate fully the value of the feast for which we are preparing. We know that it celebrates the central event of history: the incarnation of the divine Word for the redemption of humanity. St. Leo the Great, in one of his numerous Christmas homilies, thus exclaimed: "Let us exult in the Lord, my dear ones, and open our hearts to the most pure joy. Because the day has dawned that for us means the new redemption, the ancient preparation, eternal bliss. Thus in the yearly cycle, the elevated mystery of our salvation is renewed for us, which, promised at the beginning and fulfilled at the end of times, is destined to endure without end (Homily XXII).

St. Paul returns to this fundamental truth many times in his letters. To the Galatians, for example, he writes: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law … so that we might receive adoption" (4:4). In the Letter to the Romans he sets forth the logic and consequent demands of this saving event: "And if [we are] children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (8:17).

But it is above all St. John, in the prologue to the fourth Gospel, who meditates profoundly on the mystery of the Incarnation. And it is because of this that the prologue has been part of the Christmas liturgy since ancient times: There is found, in fact, the most authentic expression and the deepest synthesis of this feast, and of the base of his joy. St. John writes: "Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis" -- And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

At Christmas, then, we are not limited to commemorating the birth of a great personality; we do not celebrate simply and in the abstract the mystery of the birth of man or in general, the birth of life; neither do we celebrate only the beginning of a great season. At Christmas, we remember something very concrete and important for man, something essential for Christian faith, a truth that St. John summarized in these few words: "The Word was made flesh."

It is a historical event that the Evangelist Luke concerns himself with situating in a very determined context: in the days in which the decree of the first census of Caesar Augustus was issued, when Quirinius was already governor of Syria (cf. Luke 2:1-7). It is therefore a night dated historically, in which was verified the salvation event that Israel had been awaiting for centuries. In the darkness of the night of Bethlehem, a great light was truly lit: The Creator of the universe incarnated himself, uniting himself indissolubly with human nature, to the point of really being "God from God, light from light" and at the same time, man, true man.

That which John calls in Greek "ho logos," translated in Latin "Verbum" and in Italian, "il Verbo" (the Word), also means "the Meaning." Therefore, we can understand John's expression in this way: the "eternal Meaning" of the world has made himself tangible to our senses and our intelligence. Now we can touch him and contemplate him (cf. 1 John 1:1). The "Meaning" that has become flesh is not simply a general idea inscribed in the world; it is a "word" directed to us. The Logos knows us, calls us, guides us. It is not a universal law, in which we fulfill some role, but rather it is a Person who is interested in each individual person: It is the living Son of God, who has become man in Bethlehem.

To many people, and in some way to all of us, this seems too beautiful to be true. In effect, here it is reaffirmed for us: Yes, there is meaning, and this meaning is not an impotent protest against the absurd. The Meaning is powerful: It is God. A good God, who is not to be confused with some lofty and distant power, to which it is impossible to ever arrive, but rather a God who has made himself close to us and to our neighbor, who has time for each one of us and who has come to stay with us.

Thus the question spontaneously arises: How is such a thing possible? Is it worthy of God to become a child? To try to open one's heart to this truth that enlightens all of human existence, it is necessary to yield the mind and recognize the limits of our intelligence. In the cave at Bethlehem, God shows himself to us as a humble "infant" to overcome our pride. Perhaps we would have submitted more easily before power, before pride; but he does not want our submission. He appeals, rather, to our heart and to our free decision to accept his love. He has made himself little to free us from this human pretension of greatness that arises from pride; he has incarnated himself freely to make us truly free, free to love him.

Dear brothers and sisters, Christmas is a privileged opportunity to meditate on the meaning and value of our existence. Approaching this solemnity helps us to reflect, on one hand, about the drama of history in which men, wounded by sin, are permanently seeking happiness and a satisfactory meaning to life and death; on the other hand, it exhorts us to meditate on the merciful goodness of God, who has gone out to meet man to communicate to him directly the Truth that saves, and make him participate in his friendship and his life.

Let us prepare for Christmas, therefore, with humility and simplicity, readying ourselves to receive the gift of light, joy and peace that irradiates from this mystery. Let us welcome the nativity of Christ as an event capable of today renewing our existence. May the encounter with the Child Jesus make us people who do not think only of ourselves, but rather open to the expectations and necessities of our brothers. In this way we too become testimonies of the light that Christmas radiates over the humanity of the third millennium. Let us ask most holy Mary, the tabernacle of the incarnate Word, and St. Joseph, silent witness of the events of salvation, to communicate to us the sentiments they had while they awaited the birth of Jesus, so that we can prepare ourselves to celebrate in a holy way the coming Christmas, in the joy of faith and enlivened by the determination of a sincere conversion.

Merry Christmas!

[Translation by ZENIT]

[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we commence the Christmas Novena of Advent by contemplating the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies in the coming of the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary in the stable of Bethlehem. Christmas speaks to everyone; it celebrates the gift of life – often fragile or endangered – and the fulfilment of our deepest hopes for a world renewed. The present economic crisis, causing so much suffering, can however help us to focus on the spiritual meaning of Christmas, and to welcome into our hearts the hope brought by God’s coming among us as man. The Word became flesh to offer humanity the salvation which can only be received as a gracious gift from God. The same Word by whom the universe was made, the Word which gives all creation its ultimate meaning, has come to dwell among us: he now speaks to us, he reveals the deepest meaning of our life on earth, and he guides us to the Love which is our fulfilment. In the Christ Child, God humbly knocks on the doors of our hearts and asks us freely to accept his love, his truth, his life. As Christmas approaches, let us rekindle our hope in God’s promises and, in humility and simplicity, welcome the light, joy and peace which the Saviour brings to us and to our world.

[Al final de la audiencia, el Papa saludó a los peregrinos en varios idiomas. En español, dijo:]
Queridos hermanos y hermanas:
Hoy comienza la novena de Navidad, que nos prepara inmediatamente para la fiesta en la que conmemoramos el nacimiento del Señor, fiesta que canta también el don de la vida. La contemplación del Niño Dios en el pesebre nos hace pensar en los niños pobres, en los que, concebidos, son rechazados o, apenas nacidos, no tienen medios para sobrevivir. Descubramos los auténticos valores de la Navidad, dejando de lado todo lo que ensombrece su genuino significado. En estos días santos, los cristianos no conmemoramos el surgir de un gran personaje, y menos aún el comienzo de una nueva estación. La Navidad recuerda un hecho fundamental: en la oscuridad de la noche de Belén se hizo una gran luz. El Creador del universo se encarnó uniéndose indisolublemente a la naturaleza humana y, sin dejar de ser realmente Dios de Dios y luz de luz, se hizo al mismo tiempo verdadero hombre. El Verbo encarnado es una Persona que se interesa por cada persona, es el Hijo de Dios vivo, que se hizo pequeño para vencer nuestra soberbia y hacernos auténticamente libres, libres para amarlo.
Saludo con afecto a los peregrinos de lengua española, en particular a los alumnos del Instituto "Ángel de Saavedra", de Córdoba, y a los demás grupos venidos de España, México y otros países latinoamericanos. Pidamos a la Virgen María y a san José, que nos ayuden a prepararnos a la celebración de la Navidad con el gozo de la fe, y que el encuentro con el Niño Jesús nos haga personas abiertas a las necesidades de los hermanos.
Feliz Navidad.
[Traducción del original italiano por Inma Álvarez
© Copyright 2008 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana]

Opera and Catholic Culture

A very Catholic friend (a priest, in fact) recently declined my open invitation to the Metropolitan Opera because he thought opera is too sensual. This was my response is defense of opera as a very high form of art.

That's fair. But all art and entertainment have gratification as part of their purpose, with the higher forms being for the up-building of the human person.

My introduction to the opera was the oratorio: Handel's Messiah. I attended a Messiah sing-in with my father when I was eighteen, and then some fine records of operatic Masses, Magnificats, etc. came into my hands. From there I became captivated with the beauty of sung drama with full orchestra without amplification and often in a foreign language (especially Italian and French, the sacred music usually in Latin) sung by the greatest voices of the world often in magnificent sets, dress and choreography: opera.

Before participating last year as a minister in the Solemn High Traditional Mass I saw the opera as the highest art form, incorporating all of the other arts into it. But after experiencing the sublime beauty of the Solemn High I see that the stage is a manikin in comparison with the flesh and blood living and divine reality of the Mass. Some say that the operatic Mass is opera applied to the Mass. I think that is a bit exaggerated. Music, the development of tales, performing come only from the heart that is in love, and especially from the heart in love with God. Only the lover sings. The saints are the true singers! The historical development of opera and orchestra comes from the Catholic civilization and not the other way around. Opera is one of the fruits of Christianity. First Gregorian chant, then polyphony, then oratorio, then opera, and all are most perfect in the divine worship.

I love opera for it's enlistment of the greatest talent in the expression of the deepest human and supernatural ideas and emotions. In general, it is great art. There are base operas and composers and even opera companies, but I have found that most of the operas are very decent and most edifying. I'll give you one example.

Last spring I went spontaneously with my aunt and cousin (from North Bergen) to the Met for Manon Lascaux by Puccini. First, it served as a first class occasion to get together with my relatives. We got great prices ($20 each) for orchestra seats. The show was good and the plot was edifying (Manon, a girl who was going to the convent, falls in love, but runs away with a rich man instead of her young lover, then leaves the wealth (to which she could never adjust) to live and die in exile with her impoverished original lover. The moral of the story seemed to be, she should perhaps have gone to the convent, or parents should not force their children into religious life, that wealth cannot buy virtue, and that neither can passion alone cannot make one happy). Additionally, I really appreciated seeing that show because it introduced me to the tenor Marcello Giordani whom I would see and hear again at Yankee Stadium for the Papal Mass. He is an excellent young talent, an even and strong tenor voice.

It's art, at least that, and as such it is at the service of the human person and of humanity for the glory of God. It is certainly a higher art form than the Broadway "musical" which, in general, is a cheap, Hollywoodish imitation of opera.

That is my spontaneous explanation. Let me know if or when you consider revisiting the opera stage!
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