Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Day of the Four Popes

THERE simply is no question about it. April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, has no parallel in the history of the Church or of the world. A current pope, Francis I, proclaimed before an immense sea of humanity at St. Peter’s Square and billions around the world glued to their television sets and internet-facilitated gadgets two predecessor popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, “to be saints” and enrolled them “among the saints, decreeing that they be venerated as such by the whole Church” while on the sideline his immediate predecessor, almost shy and remarkably self-effacing, Benedict XVI, stood witness to the occasion. A pilgrim in Rome could not help remarking about two papal “saints in heaven” and another two “at St. Peter’s Square”.
Two recognized saints on the one hand; two potential saints on the other?
Fast forward to today. Beyond the jubilation and the cacophony of praise and criticism from both Catholics and non-Catholics, need we not ask the all-important question: What does the event tell us professed Christians of this day and age? Without pretending to have the last word on the matter, I would like to share a few of my unsolicited thoughts.
One, the Petrine ministry, the other name for the role of Roman Catholic Pontiffs among both Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, is healthy and strong. More than two thousand years after Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter (Kephas) and upon this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18), Peter still stands in the person of contemporary Roman Pontiffs, contrary winds or ever-loyal following notwithstanding. It is unfortunate that we still hear this name “Roman Pontiff” to call the successor of the Apostle Peter by. But, like the Incarnation has the Word of God inexplicably and irretrievably intertwined with our human nature, the Shoes of the Fisherman are till now inseparable from the cobblestone pathways of Rome. The Vicar of Christ, like his Master, is in the world though not of it. What’s in a name? Faith and Scriptures answer: “Mission”. The Apostle Peter and his successors have a firm foothold in the Eternal City so as to proclaim and usher in eternity to the world, with the Lord’s flock constantly coming in and going forth to drink in the message in order to later spread it from the house tops of today’s humanity. Two papal saints in heaven and two saintly popes on earth is a big statement of Jesus Christ’s unshakable faithfulness to his promise. Peter may have had lapses and falls from grace; but the love of the Master always sustains him with more than enough strength to lift up and guide the faith of the flock as well as the attention of the world on the ways of the Kingdom.
Two, the practice of venerating saints adds to and not detracts from the following of Jesus Christ. Reviled and at times openly called “idolatry” by non-Catholics, the spiritual activity in which and by which Catholics call upon canonized saints to pray for their needs and intentions, mindful of their gifts and charisms while still on earth, is still alive and kicking, if we are to judge from the immense crowds in Rome before, during and after the canonization of the two popes. Even despite misconceptions perpetrated by secular media, such as Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII being “performer of miracles” (it is never the saint but God who does the miracles at the saints’ intercessions, Catholics constantly are compelled insist to their dismay), the faithful freely share their experiences of having recourse to saints’ intercessions and obtaining answers from heaven, miraculous or non-miraculous. Why does this not detract from the following of Jesus Christ? The answer appears so simple and yet so profound to me. The saints, papal or not, reflect to us the many aspects of Jesus Christ and it is to Jesus Christ that they lead their devotees despite appearances.
Three, four popes in one day to me speak of the diversity in unity that is very real in the Body of Christ that the Church is. The Pauline vision is nowhere more pronounced than in the diverse personalities, emphases and orientations of these four past and present Supreme Shepherds of the Roman Catholic Church. The kindly, well-humored “Good Pope John XXIII”, initially dismissed as a short-term transition pope and yet proving himself a revolutionary by convoking Vatican II already amazes any student of history. Place him side by side with the intellectual contemplative yet hugely charismatic Pope John Paul II who both fervently followed up Vatican II reforms and strongly clarified parameters, who traveled more than any pope in history, wrote more encyclicals, canonized more saints, helped bring down communist regimes in Eastern Europe, chastised dictators as well as radical clergy, remained silent when vilified as an arch-conservative and yet loudly denounced injustices and violations of human rights around the globe. It is extremely difficult to not be in awe of these two saints. In addition, who would not be hard put to explain the obviously un-similar personalities of the mild-mannered intellectual, progressive conservative Pope Benedict XVI who courageously and humbly stepped down from the papal throne so as to make way to a down-to-earth pastor named Pope Francis whose vaunted humility and discomfort with the trappings of power is now attracting immense attention and the opportunity to personalize the New Evangelization in the age of Facebook and Twitter? And yet who would ever doubt the unity these Supreme Pastors exhibit in proclaiming Christ and his Kingdom in season and out of season within the orthodoxy and dynamism of the Catholic faith?
The specter of four popes in one day is not about four spiritual leaders grabbing the spotlight in an ephemeral way. It is about the past and present of Christianity converging and continuing to shed light on humanity from the faith of the Apostle Peter.

And the faith of the Apostle Peter is about Jesus Christ who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev 22:13).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Servant Song

FORMER US President George Walker Bush (yes, the senior) once told a story that I feel was very revealing of his self-deprecating humor. He was at a home for the elderly and he met a very senior man. Attempting at a conversation President Bush asked the man, “Do you know who I am?” The man retorted, “No. But if you go to the people at the front station, they’ll tell you who you are.” President Bush tells the story, I guess, to underline the fact that we can be so puffed-up about ourselves that our ego could easily break into shreds when we discover we are not that important to others. The Servant of the Lord had no illusion of this kind for he was accustomed to be a man of suffering so easily taken for granted and dismissed. But part of his character is that together with being a man of suffering is also a mission to save others by his suffering, his sacrifice ending not in failure but in exaltation.
The Servant Will be Exalted in a Manner Unheard of: a Hint at the Resurrection? (Is 52-13-15)
The fourth Song of the Servant of the Lord begins with the end, not defeat but victory for a suffering person or personification. “See, my servant will succeed; he will be exalted and highly praised. Just as many have been horrified at your disfigured appearance: Is this a man? He has no human likeness. So will nations be astounded, kings will stand speechless, for they will see something never told, they will witness something never heard of” (Is 52:13-15). Suppose you ask one of your children in high school to go with you to his brother’s oath-taking as a new lawyer. As you stand in pride looking at your older son going through the ceremonies, you say to your younger son, “Look at your brother now, how he has overcome. You can also be like that if you also study and work hard.”
Verses 13-15 are like God’s fatherly remarks foreseeing the Servant’s eventual triumph over his enemies and the realization of his goals. But he would have to go through untold suffering, as can be gathered from the words “many have been horrified at your disfigured appearance”. If the Servant imagery is applied to Jesus, as we Christians naturally do, it is easy to associate it with the Transfiguration experience where the vision of the triumphant and glorious Jesus, presented right before his suffering and death, is actually a word of encouragement to the apostles and Christian disciples. They would soon see Jesus going through terrifying suffering and death by crucifixion. The sight of him transfigured is meant to highlight his eventual triumph over suffering and death by his resurrection. It is so easy for a Christian to see this in Isaiah’s prediction of the Servant’s exaltation. “What’s the point of me watching you win this tournament?” a little boy asked his older brother, a tennis player. The answer: “If I win this thing, that means you also win.” The point of our initial meditation on the triumph of the Servant is that he will share it with us. By our Baptism, we share the Servant’s death in order to share in his resurrection as well.
The Servant, Because of his Suffering, is a Man of Unattractiveness and Rejection
“Who could believe what we have heard, and to whom has the strength of the Lord been revealed? Like a root out of dry ground, like a sapling he grew up before us, with nothing attractive in his appearance, no beauty, no majesty. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows familiar with grief, a man from whom people hide their face, spurned and considered of no account” (Is 53:1-3). We remember that for Jews the figure of the Servant refers to a group of faithful Jews during the exile who suffered for the sake of the nation, with a suffering so revolting even to their fellow Jews. For us Christians, it is so remarkable how similar even the physical description of the sufferings of the Servant to those of Jesus (Acts 8:32, quoting Is 53:7, “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearer he did not open his mouth”; or 1 Pt 2:24, quoting Is 53:5, “For by his wounds we have been healed”). By these words some have concluded that Jesus was unattractive; of course, a suffering, crucified man, as he was, would never be physically pleasing the eyes. The bruises and blows, the buffets and spitting alone would have ruined a handsome appearance.
The film The Passion of the Christ tries to make that point. More than once, Mel Gibson the director emphasized that he wanted to shock people into realizing what a real crucifixion was like. Reflecting on this, we must also remember how we in our day and age have worshipped at the altar of physical beauty. How much have we been enamored by the processes done by a Dr. Vicky Belo, how many skin-whitening substances are making a killing in the market, how many ‘artistas’ are treated like gods and goddesses by our physical-beauty-crazy society. The result is we have beautiful people with no substance, unable to deal with life’s ordinary trials and problems, whose petty childish ways we broadcast on national television and print in newspapers or cause ‘trending’ for through the social media. The Suffering Servant is not attractive in appearance because, as the first book of Samuel puts it, “The Lord does not judge as man judges; man sees the appearance; the Lord looks into the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). God’s standard of beauty is, unlike ours, not skin-deep.
The Servant’s Sufferings are a Source of Redemption
“Yet ours were the sorrows he bore, ours were the sufferings he endured…It was for our sins he was wounded, it was for our wickedness he was bruised. Through his punishment we are made whole; by his wounds we are healed” (Is 53:4-5). These words have ambivalent consequences. On the one hand, if the Servant is Israel, an ideal group of faithful Jews or the prophet Isaiah himself, we will tend to agree to the idea of the power of sacrifice for others. The sacrifice of a Rizal or a Ninoy Aquino went a long way in uniting our nation. For Jews, the sacrifices of a Moses, David and the prophets also galvanized the unity of the Chosen People. On the other hand, we ask: Can sacrifices by human heroes be enough to earn forgiveness of sins. This is where only a divine-human Savior figure could fit into the role of the Servant. This is our bias as Christians. And it is understandable because the figure of the Servant as Redeemer through suffering in the sense of his life being “made an offering for sin” (Is 53:10) is beyond comprehension if the Servant is only purely human.
Human heroes may offer their lives for their particular nations or for their causes but only a divine-human Servant hero can fit the characterization by Isaiah the prophet of his value, i.e., “my servant shall take away their sins” (Is 53:11). I once challenged a group of boys who loved Spiderman and other superheroes: “Do you know that  priests and bishops have power greater than Spiderman over evil?” They were incredulous. Their eyes were asking: “Why do you say that? How?” Then I told them the powerful truth: “Bishops and priests can do something over evil greater than the superheroes. Superheroes can rescue you from physical evil. But only a bishop and a priest can forgive your sins through the Sacrament of Penance. They can forgive because it is Christ acting in and through them who brings us the forgiveness of sins.”

The Servant Shuns Violence
“He was harshly treated, but unresisting and silent, he humbly submitted. Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearer he did not open his mouth” (Is 53:7). Martin Luther King, the acknowledged hero of the American Civil Rights Movement, helped achieved so much for the equality and brotherhood of the many races in America and the world through Active Non-Violence. He confided many times that he and his followers were inspired by the Indian hero, Mahatma Gandhi, who led his nation to final independence from Britain by Active Non-Violence. But Gandhi himself confided to many people that his real inspiration was Jesus Christ who never retaliated with violence the inhuman violence he went through by his Crucifixion and death. The image of a Lamb is what we Christians use to remind ourselves of the sacrifice of Jesus that gained for us eternal life: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…” The Lamb faithfully and completely reveals the humility, willingness and gentleness of the Servant. He is at the receiving end of so much violence, but he himself would not inflict it on others, even his tormentors. But is our violent world listening to his witness?

The Servant’s Rescue is From Within      

“For the anguish he suffered he will see the light and be satisfied. Through his knowledge many will be justified; my servant will take away their sins. Therefore I will give him his portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong. For he has been counted among the wicked and surrendered himself to death, bearing the sins of many and interceding for sinners” (Is 53:12). I notice two models of movie hero rescue in Hollywood: one, the Superman model; and, two, the Die-Hard model. The Superman model has the hero coming to a person in distress from without (or from afar). The Die-Hard model has the hero coming from the inside, among the victims themselves, and from there stages the rescue. This second model is more in accordance with the Servant model. The hero is “counted with the wicked” and this we see in Jesus becoming a human being, sharing in our weak sinful nature without sinning, and as a human being with all the weaknesses of human beings in him together with his divinity, rescues us through his Crucifixion, death and resurrection. In a word, our human nature is not entirely hopeless, if only because the Savior, even in heaven, retains his humanity together with his divinity. Although we cannot forgive our own sins, human as we are, yet fellow humans like the priest or the bishop are used by the Savior to continually impart the fruit of his work of redemption—the forgiveness of sins.