I’ve just released a podcast episode with a friend of mine, Kale Zelden, in which we have a conversation about a broad range of topics: the self-conscious church; distinctive garb and priestly identity; the church as an expert in humanity; the naked public square and moral unbelievers; self-exploitation, social media and grifters; the institutional and the charismatic; the long wait for renewal; and Catholic identity and liturgy.
In 2020, amidst the pandemic and the conflagrations (both physical and ideological) that have arisen in its wake, I think it’s appropriate to turn our minds to a different kind of blaze, the one desired by the Son of God:
Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:49-50)
Renewal of the world begins with interior transformation. No elected official, political party, or legislation — past, present, or future — has the power to save us. Only Jesus Christ has the power to save; He becomes present to us and renews us in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Him, we become instruments of renewal in the world.
If I could recommend only one book about renewal of life and the renewal of the Church through interior transformation, it would be Fire Within by the late Fr. Thomas Dubay, SM. The book changed my prayer life, and continues to do so. It’s a great summary of the teaching of Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and the Gospel on prayer.
I’m posting the first three paragraphs here, in the hope that it will be enough to coax at least a few of you to pick up a copy and read it:
The Son, radiant Image of the Father’s glory, proclaimed that He had come to cast a fire upon the earth and that He longed for it to burst into blaze. It was in the form of fiery tongues that the Holy Spirit of Pentecost descended upon a timorous group of men and women. Their minds and hearts having been enkindled with a burning love and ardent zeal, those who received the Spirit sparked the astonishing transformation of an unbelieving and corrupt civilization into a community of faith and love.
In our day the divine fire has not been extinguished. The consuming conflagration has not been contained. The proven incapacity of committees and clubs, speeches and surveys, electronics and entertainment profoundly and permanently to change vast numbers of people for the better has to be conceded. As the experience of the centuries attests, true transformations in the world and in the Church continue to come about only through the interventions of men and women on fire — that is, through saints. The evidence is overwhelming. It is also widely ignored, for it contains an otherworldly wisdom that this world does not welcome. For some, taking the evidence seriously presents a snag, since it implies striving for this same kind of transformation within oneself as a starting point for improving the world. Indeed, at this very moment, deep and lasting changes in the Church are being brought about by a faithful few who are burning interiorly as a consequence of the deep prayer given by the Holy Spirit, who renews the face of the earth in ways other than our own. These quiet, humble, unassuming individuals seldom write position papers, and they are not likely to appear on controversial television talk shows or to attract front-page headlines. They are not identified with any “ism,” and they care nothing for a life of luxury or notoriety. They do not achieve popular acclaim by opposing ecclesial leadership and rejecting received doctrine. Rather, they are like the saints have always been. The burning ones are the unflickering light of the world, the savory salt of the earth, the lively leaven in the mass.
Thus, contemplative husbands and wives are examples of holiness to their children not unlike a Hedwig or a Thomas More. Prayerful clergy serve to inspire parishioners through soul-stirring homilies, sound guidance in the confessional and comforting concern in times of need. Teachers who are aflame ignite their students by their contagious enthusiasm as well as by the attractiveness of the truth they proclaim. Nurses close to God have a healing influence on both soul and body. In the home, in the marketplace, in the cloister, the love steadily radiating from these simple ones permeates and invigorates the world around us. It is unmistakable evidence of God living in and among us, a clear manifestation to our world that the Incarnation has taken place. Common folk instinctively grasp this, while it easily escapes the more sophisticated, who often fail to comprehend what transcends the tangible order of meetings and strategies and publicity campaigns.
In the words of the Saint Pope John Paul II, our responsibility is simply to “become saints, and do so quickly.”
As we commemorate the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I think again of the reflection Pope Saint John Paul II wrote shortly afterward on the occasion of the World Day of Peace. It was one of the very first things I posted after launching my website, doxaweb.com, in 2001.
Forgiveness is in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justice, leading to that tranquility of order which is much more than a fragile and temporary cessation of hostilities, involving as it does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts. Justice and forgiveness are both essential to such healing….
No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness: I shall not tire of repeating this warning to those who, for one reason or another, nourish feelings of hatred, a desire for revenge or the will to destroy.
On this World Day of Peace, may a more intense prayer rise from the hearts of all believers for the victims of terrorism, for their families so tragically stricken, for all the peoples who continue to be hurt and convulsed by terrorism and war. May the light of our prayer extend even to those who gravely offend God and man by these pitiless acts, that they may look into their hearts, see the evil of what they do, abandon all violent intentions, and seek forgiveness. In these troubled times, may the whole human family find true and lasting peace, born of the marriage of justice and mercy!
Pope Saint John Paul II
Message for World Day of Peace 2002
Twenty-seven years ago today, Saint Pope John Paul II gave the Church an outstanding gift, his letter on the moral life: Veritatis Splendor.
The letter closed with the following reflection and prayer:
Mary shares our human condition, but in complete openness to the grace of God. Not having known sin, she is able to have compassion on every kind of weakness. She understands sinful man and loves him with a Mother’s love. Precisely for this reason she is on the side of truth and shares the Church’s burden in recalling always and to everyone the demands of morality. Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her Son would thus be emptied of its power. No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life.
Mother of Mercy,
watch over all people,
that the Cross of Christ
may not be emptied of its power,
that man may not stray
from the path of the good
or become blind to sin,
but may put his hope ever more fully in God
who is “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4).
May he carry out the good works prepared
by God beforehand (cf. Eph 2:10)
and so live completely
“for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12).
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 6 August, Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, in the year 1993, the fifteenth of my Pontificate.