"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


Lenten Homilies. A Single-Author Anthology
Exercises in liturgical preaching for Ash Wednesday and for the five Sundays in preparation for Easter. From the archive of Benedict XVI. In obedience to Pope Francis

ROME, February 17, 2015 – Eight days ago he promulgated a “Homiletic Directory” to reeducate the clergy of the whole world in preaching:

> Direttorio omiletico

> Homiletic Directory

And on Thursday February 19 he will dedicate precisely to the art of preaching the traditional meeting at the beginning of Lent with the priests of his diocese of Rome. 

Pope Francis cares deeply about the homily. In the agenda-setting document of his pontificate, the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” he dedicates a section of many pages to it. And with his daily homilies at Saint Martha’s House, he himself proposes a concrete model of preaching. Very efficacious from the perspective of communication, to judge by the attention that it garners.

With this, Francis is aligning himself in perfect continuity with the perennial Church. The literature of the Fathers of the Church is to a large extent made up of liturgical homilies. And the return to the biblical and patristic sources that flowed into Vatican Council II has helped a great deal in restoring to the homily its proper character as part of the liturgical action, or rather as liturgy itself, the word of God that becomes flesh, “et Verbum caro factum est.”

Below are links to the Lenten homilies of a pope who was a great homilist and liturgist, and in this sense perhaps the greatest of the past century: Benedict XVI.

The series begins with a homily for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Roman rite, selected here from the eight delivered year after year by the same pope on the same occasion, which in any case have links provided.

These are followed by three homilies and two “Angelus” for each of the five Sundays of Lent in cycle B of the liturgical lectionary, the one used this year in all the Masses of the Roman rite throughout the world.

The “Angelus” are those little homilies - sometimes genuine jewels - that both Benedict XVI and his successor Francis address to the faithful and pilgrims at noon on Sundays in Saint Peter’s Square, commenting on the readings of the day’s Mass, whenever they do not celebrate this in public.

For the 4th Sunday of Lent in cycle B, in addition to the relative “Angelus” of 2012, there is also a link to the homily delivered by Benedict XVI at that Sunday’s Mass during his journey to Angola in 2009, marked by numerous references to the local context. 

The homilies for Lent of cycle B do not represent the summit of the homiletics of Benedict XVI, which is instead found in those of the Christmas and Easter season.

But the eight evocative homilies for Ash Wednesday deserve to be read on their own merit, in order to penetrate the deep meaning of Lent, which each of them explains from a different and sometimes unexpected point of view




Basilica of St Sabina 
Ash Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Venerable Brothers,
Dear Brothers and Sisters

With this day of penance and fasting — Ash Wednesday — we are beginning a new journey to the Resurrection at Easter: the journey of Lent. I would like to reflect briefly on the liturgical symbol of Ashes, a material sign, a natural element, which in the liturgy becomes a sacred symbol, very important on this day which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. In ancient times, in the Jewish culture, it was common practice to sprinkle ashes on one’s head as a sign of penance, and often also to dress in sack-cloth or rags. Instead, for us Christians this is a special moment which has considerable ritual and spiritual importance.

Firstly, ashes are one of the material signs that bring the cosmos into the Liturgy. The most important signs are those of the Sacraments: water, oil, bread and wine, which become true sacramental elements through which we receive the grace of Christ which comes among us. The ashes are not a sacramental sign, but are nevertheless linked to prayer and the sanctification of the Christian people. In fact, before the distribution of ashes on the heads of each one of us — which we will soon do — they are blessed according to two possible formulas: in the first, they are called “austere symbols”, in the second, we invoke a blessing directly upon them, referring to the text in the Book of Genesis which can also accompany the act of the imposition: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Gen 3:19).

Let us reflect for a moment on this passage of Genesis. It concludes with a judgement God delivered after the original sin. God curses the serpent who caused man and woman to sin. Then he punishes the woman telling her that she will give birth with great pain and will have a biased relationship with her husband. Then he punishes the man, saying he will toil and labour and curses the ground saying “cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen 3:17) because of your sin. Therefore, the man and woman are not cursed directly as the serpent is, but because of Adam’s sin; cursed is the ground from which he was taken. Let us reread the magnificent account of how God created man from the Earth. “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen 2:7-8); taken from the Book of Genesis.

Thus the sign of the Ashes recalls the great fresco of creation which tells us that the human being is a singular unity of matter and of the Divine breath, using the image of dust moulded by God and given life by the breath breathed into the nostrils of the new creature.

In Genesis, the symbol of dust takes on a negative connotation because of sin. Whereas before the fall the soil was a totally good element, irrigated by spring water (cf. Gen 2:6) and through God’s work was capable of producing “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9).

After the fall and the divine curse it was to produce only “thorns and thistles”, and only in exchange for the “toil” and the “sweat of your face” would it bear fruit (cf. Gen 3:17-19). The dust of the earth no longer recalls the creative hand of God, one that is open to life, but becomes a sign of an inexorable destiny of death: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

It is clear in this Biblical text that the earth participates in man’s destiny. In one of his homilies, St John Chrysostom says: “See how after his disobedience, everything is imposed on man in a way that is contrary to his previous style of life” (Sermones in Genesis 17:9: PG 53, 146). This cursing of the ground has a “medicinal” function for man who learns from the earth’s “resistance” to recognize his limitations and his own human nature (ibid.).

Another ancient commentary summarizes this beautifully, saying: “Adam was created pure by God to serve him. All creatures were created for the service of man. He was destined to be lord and king over all creatures. But when he embraced evil he did so by listening to something outside himself. This penetrated his heart and took over his whole being. Thus ensnared by evil, Creation, which had assisted and served him, was ensnared together with him” (Pseudo-Macarius, Homily 11, 5: PG 34, 547).

As we said earlier, quoting St John Chrysostom, the cursing of the ground has a “medicinal” function: meaning that God’s intention is always good and more profound than the curse. The curse, indeed, does not come from God but from sin. God cannot avoid inflicting it, because he respects man’s freedom and its consequences, even when they are negative. Thus, within the punishment and within the curse of the ground, there is a good intention that comes from God. When he says to man, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, together with the just punishment, he also intends to announce the way to salvation, which will pass precisely through the earth, through that “dust”, that “flesh” which will be assumed by the [Incarnate] Word.

It is in this salvific perspective that the words of Genesis are repeated in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy: as an invitation to penance, humility, and to have an awareness of our mortal state, not to end in despair, but rather to welcome in this mortal state of ours the unthinkable closeness of God who beyond death, opens the way to resurrection, to paradise finally regained. There is a similar text by Origen that says: “What was initially flesh, from the earth, a man of dust (cf. 1 Cor 15:47), and was destroyed by death and returned to dust and ashes — as is written: you are dust, and to dust you shall return — is made to rise again from the earth. Later, according to the merits of the soul that inhabits the body, the person advances towards the glory of a spiritual body” (Sui Prìncipi 3, 6, 5: S.Ch, 268, 248).

The “merits of the soul” of which Origen speaks, are necessary; the merits of Christ, the efficacy of his Paschal Mystery are fundamental. St Paul has summed it for us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, today’s Second Reading: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:11). Our possibility of receiving divine forgiveness depends essentially on the fact that God himself, in the person of his Son, wished to share in our human condition, but not in the corruption of sin.

The Father raised him through the power of his Holy Spirit and Jesus, the new Adam, became, as St Paul says: “a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), the first fruits of the new creation.

The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead can turn our hearts from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh (cf. Ezek 36:26). We invoked him just now in the Psalm Miserere: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51[50]:10, 11). That same God who banished our first parents from Eden, sent his own Son to this earth, devastated by sin, without sparing him, so that we, as prodigal children might return, repentent and redeemed through his mercy, to our true homeland. So may it be for all of us, for all believers, and for all those who humbly recognize their need for salvation. Amen.

© Copyright 2012 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Great Lent: A Time for Morality or a Time for the Heart

There is certainly nothing wrong with people trying to do the right thing and to be moral and upstanding citizens. The problem is that salvation and transfiguration are not a matter of morality. The publican and the prodigal were not moral people. They did all the wrong things, but yet they came to themselves, they discovered their hearts, and in so doing found the way, not just to moral goodness, but to holiness, to righteousness, and to feasting in the Father’s household. In the West, many speak about Lent as a period of struggle whose goal is for Christians to become better people. For the ancient fathers, however, it is not just about “the good being preserved in their goodness and the crafty becoming good” (anaphora of Saint Basil the Great), although these are things to be prayed for. Rather, it is about discovering the heart, being honest about oneself, being humble before God, and in repentance beginning an incredible journey in which the soul seeks to be clothed in Christ, so that thoughts, desires, the will, all become holy, all become bent on salvation, all become an expression of His forgiveness and His love. No frail human morality can ever hope to contain the overflowing fullness of life with which Christ desires to rejuvenate the faithful.

Unfortunately, an emphasis on morality apart from Christ, apart from repentance, apart from humility can lead to conditions like the Pharisee or the elder son, conditions that are ultimately foreign to the spirit of Lent. This is the problem with morality that Father John Romanides points out with trenchant clarity: “The biblical tradition as preserved by the Fathers cannot be identified with or reduced to a system of moral precepts or Christian ethics. It is rather a therapeutical asceticism which is not daunted by any degree of malady of the heart or noetic faculty short of its complete hardening. To take the shape of this asceticism without its heart and core and to apply it to a system of moral precepts for personal and social ethics is to produce a society of puritanical hypocrites who believe they have a special claim on God’s love because of their morality, or predestination, or both. The commandments of Christ cannot be fulfilled by any simple decision to do so or by any confidence in having been elected.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky takes up this theme in many of his novels and concludes that the humanism derived from a moral code on its own cannot serve as man’s ultimate salvation.  The world will not be saved by optimistic humanism that believes human progress and morality will eventually save the world.   For Dostoevsky and the church fathers, man’ deepest problems are not moral, nor even psychological, but ultimately existential and ontological. It’s not about following the rules or feeling balanced. It is a matter of choice and it is a matter of human nature being touched by the hand of God Himself.  Only by daring to leap towards God in spite of the good and evil that exist in the heart can the believer hope to get beyond the contradiction of the human condition. In order to avoid descending into nihilism, Dostoevsky offers his readers another path: the acceptance of suffering and affliction in the context of a relationship with God. It is only in this context that man is able to recognize a path out of his fallen condition.  It is only this Love that is able to transform suffering into salvific joy.

This is the goal of Great Lent, a journey through the acceptance of ascetical toil and struggle culminating in the joyous feast of Pascha where we celebrate the Risen Lord as One Who trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestoweth Life.  The journey of Great Lent is not about “doing this” or “avoiding that,” but about cleansing our hearts in repentance by reaching out to touch the Lord Jesus. Then, we will do what is truly good, forgiving and loving, then we will avoid what is truly bad, pride, judging, and hatred, not because of a moral precept, but because we will feel Christ’s mercy in our heart, so that with Saint Paul, each one of us might say, “yet not I, but Christ that liveth in me.” Amen.

Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915–1968), was one of the best known Christian writers of the 20th century. One of his early books, New Seeds of Contemplation, has become a source of life giving inspiration for many people. Recently republished in 2007, much of this edition is available online HERE.
I share with you today, from that book, the following prayer. Part of Merton’s reflection on the Seven Deadly Sins, it is very appropriate for Lent:

Justify my soul, O God, but also from Your fountains fill my will with fire. Shine in my mind, although perhaps this means “be darkness to my experience,” but occupy my heart with Your tremendous Life. 

Let my eyes see nothing in the world but Your glory, and let my hands touch nothing that is not for Your service. 

Let my tongue taste no bread that does not strengthen me to praise Your great mercy. 

I will hear Your voice and I will hear all harmonies You have created, singing Your hymns. 

Sheep’s wool and cotton from the field shall warm me enough that I may live in Your service; I will give the rest to Your poor. Let me use all things for one sole reason: to find my joy in giving You glory.

Therefore keep me, above all things, from sin. 

Keep me from the death of deadly sin which puts hell in my soul. 

Keep me from the murder of lust that blinds and poisons my heart. 

Keep me from the sins that eat a man’s flesh with irresistible fire until he is devoured. 

Keep me from loving money in which is hatred, from avarice and ambition that suffocate my life. 

Keep me from the dead works of vanity and the thankless labour in which artists destroy themselves for pride and money and reputation, and saints are smothered under the avalanche of their own importunate zeal. 

Stanch in me the rank wound of covetousness and the hungers that exhaust my nature with their bleeding. Stamp out the serpent envy that stings love with poison and kills all joy.

Untie my hands and deliver my heart from sloth. Set me free from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me, and from the cowardice that does what is not demanded, in order to escape sacrifice.

But give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. And possess my whole heart and soul with the simplicity of love.

Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for You alone.

For there is only one thing that can satisfy love and reward it, and that is You alone.

Fr Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)
Father Alexander Schmemann
1921 - 1983

The following is an extract from Fr Alexander Schmemann's book, "I Believe" (the first book in his series "Celebration of Faith.") This is really a collection of talks that were beamed into the Soviet Union through Radio Liberty, well before the Iron Curtain fell. As such they are addressed to people who struggle with an imposed "official" atheism. Fr Schmemman's simple yet profound way of putting things is so helpful these days in the west, when in its own way our culture is trying to do the same thing to us.

With spiritual thirst longing,Wearily I wandered in a desolate desert waste,And a six-winged seraphAppeared to me at the crossing of the ways . . .

- from "The Prophet"
by Alexander Pushkin (1799 - 1837)

Years and centuries have passed since Alexander Pushkin wrote the remarkable words of his poem, yet they remain an appropriate inscription to man's destiny on earth: "With spiritual thirst longing..." Civilizations have followed one after another, the external forms of human life have changed, the face of the earth has changed, but this spiritual thirst remains ever indestructible, ever unquenchable. It is a gift, given to human beings alone as the sign and essence of their very humanity, and it is both precious and tormenting: precious because it always draws men and women upward, not allowing them to find peace in the exclusive pursuit of animal pleasure, and enabling them to taste communion with transcendent joys that cannot be compared to anything else; tormenting because it so often contradicts their earthly instincts, and transforms their entire life into struggle, search, restlessness.

Almost everything in this world seems to tell us: give up this spiritual thirst, renounce it and you will be full and satisfied, healthy and happy. "Just be satisfied with your life, be meek and mild ... " wrote Alexander Btok (1880 - 1921) in one of his darkest poems at this century's dawn. And sure enough, complete ideologies have sprung up, based on the rejection and renunciation of spiritual thirst, on hatred toward it-ideologies striving with all their might to get us to suppress within ourselves the very source of this thirst, to admit its delusion and self-deception, and then to join in building a life now purified of all searching whatsoever. If anything sets apart our 20th century from all previous centuries-fundamentally and not just on the surface-then above all it is the extreme sharpening of two opposing, antithetical understandings of human life and of man himself. One view affirms that man is man precisely because of the spiritual thirst within him, a searching, a restlessness for transcendence. For the other, man begins his human destiny only after having killed this thirst. In this battle everything else, all that is occurring in the contemporary world, is ultimately secondary. For everything else flows from the depths of this primary question: politics, economics. culture, everything people argue about so passionately, and in the name of which they fight each other.

Thus, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, the religious question is at the heart and very centre of contemporary life. For religion, by its very nature, is in fact the sign and presence in this world of spiritual thirst. Just as the smell of smoke tells us there is a fire nearby even if we do not see it. so religion's presence in the world, whatever its forms, is reliable testimony that man's spiritual thirst, spiritual search. has not ceased to live within him.

True, there are those who try to prove to us that religion is a comforting escape, a refusal to struggle, man's self-betrayal, dead and immovable dogmatism leading us away from hard questions and searching. However, those who make such claims invariably suppress words which describe the very heart of religious experience and religious faith: "'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst ... " (Matthew 6:6); "Seek and you will find..." (Matthew 7:7); "1 came not to bring peace, but a sword..."(Matthew10:34). It is significant that those who hate religion always base their attack on this crude and elementary deception, for without this lie their assault on religion would be impossible to sustain for even a single day. This deception is so obvious today, that perhaps speaking about it no longer serves any purpose. What we do need to speak about is the spiritual thirst itself. What is it a thirst for? What is its longing about? With what search is it filled? It is these questions we need to address because at this moment in the world there is no subject more important. The world now stands at the very "crossing of the ways"9 of which Pushkin spoke. Today, the various appeals directed to man collide with each other in the world with unprecedented force; the various "ways" constantly intertwine, cross and then diverge. And above them all, looming ever more terrible and striking. is the spectre of unimaginable catastrophes, unprecedented upheavals. "If anyone has an ear to hear, let him hear..."(Revelation 13:9).

It is already too late for us to resolve all this by partial measures, by patching material that is now threadbare and rotting. Again we begin to understand why the Gospel proclaims salvation-precisely salvation-and why it is directed to those who are perishing. Christ says: "I came to cast fire upon the earth, and how 1 long that it were already kindled" (see Luke 12:49). Religion is truly religion only when it concerns what is most essential, when it reveals simultaneously both man's spiritual thirst and the response to that thirst; when it is fire, a fire that both purifies and transforms our weak and shameful life. We do not have the strength of the to six-winged seraph who revealed himself to the prophet at "the crossing of the ways." But each of us, according to the measure of his strength. is called today to be a witness to that "One thing needful" (Luke 10:42).

The New Testament ends with these terrifying, yet joyful words: "Let the evildoer still do evil and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. Behold I am coming soon . . . Let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price . . . " (Revelation 22:11,17). If only we would not betray this gift of spiritual thirst and exchange it for something else. if only we would open our eyes and open our ears to that shower of light, love and beauty pouring on us eternally. May God help all of us to be truthful and steadfast, humble and loving, for then it will he impossible to hide the ever-shining light, the salvation given to the world.


            “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness, the righteousness of God.” We have just heard these remarkable words from St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, words we must take to heart because they reveal the deepest meaning of Lent. There’s a real danger of trivializing Lent with our penances and observances.

            Lent is a time for repentance and conversion, but the prophet Joel insists, “Let your hearts be broken not your garments torn. Turn to the Lord your God again, for he is all tenderness and compassion, slow in anger, rich in graciousness, and ready to relent.” God wants to speak to our hearts and he wants our hearts to speak to him. “Heart speaks unto heart,” in the famous words of Blessed John Henry Newman. The problem is that we try to replace our hearts, i.e. our real selves, which are full of anger, pride, jealousy, envy, resentment, lust, greed and impatience, with a false image of ourselves when we stand before God, an image characterised by our church face and Sunday best. In order to turn to God so that heart can speak unto heart, we need to be our real selves in the presence of God, because it’s only the real me who can be forgiven, healed and saved.

            In the Gospel, Jesus tells us the same thing. Whether we’re fasting, praying or giving alms, we should do it “in secret”, so that God alone sees what we’re doing. “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men… you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.” The living out of our faith is not a show; it’s not something we put on for others to see. That would be superficial and pointless. The fact that God knows everything about us should fill us with confidence and hope. We can keep secrets from others, we can even fool ourselves, but God knows us through and through. In the words of that lovely Roman collect so perfectly translated by Cranmer, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.”

            Salvation is God’s gift: it is not of our making. We cannot save ourselves by our good works, even less by our Lenten penances. Any goodness and righteousness we have are God’s work, God’s gift to us in Christ. For our part, we must learn to accept God’s gifts with humility. The danger of Lent is that it can foster our obsession with ourselves rather than help us to focus on God. It is in Christ, and only in him, that we can become the goodness, the righteousness of God. Remember the words of St Paul, “We beg you not to neglect the grace of God that you received.”

“For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.” To end with, a few words of St Bernard, often repeated but wonderfully encouraging. “Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God.” Let us focus on that loving kindness as we begin the Holy Season of Lent today.

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