FALL RIVER, MA (Catholic Online). Right at the beginning of his letter announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict wrote, "To profess faith in the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - is to believe in one God who is Love." Pope Benedict then cites St. John from today's first reading, who tells us, "In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only-begotten Son in to the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins."
Our Catholic faith, the faith in which each of us is called to grow during this Year of Faith, is fundamentally a faith in God who is in love with us to the extreme. Given the choice between having us perish in our sins or allowing himself to take on our flesh and be crucified as the Lamb of God to take away our sins, God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - showed his real essence as love by giving up his life to save ours.
To believe in God means to believe in this love. That's the essential message that St. John preached to the first Christians and that Pope Benedict has been trying to communicate to all of us since the beginning of his pontificate. The first encyclical a pope writes is normally a program for his pontificate, an indication of what he thinks is most timely and important for Christians to grasp and to live.
It's highly significant that in Pope Benedict's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), he wrote boldly and clearly about how love is the "heart of the Christian," and the key to understand who God is and who we are. The Pope says that the "summary of the Christian life" of faith, the "fundamental decision" of the Christian life, is found in St. John's expression, "We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us." That's why he wanted in his first encyclical to write to us about "the love that God lavishes upon us and that we in turn must share with others."
We see that love enfleshed in the Gospel reading. When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart exploded with merciful love for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And then he did two things for them. It's easy to focus on the great miracle of the multiplication of the five rolls and two small fish, which is a foretaste of the even greater miracles of feeding contained in the Holy Eucharist and the eternal wedding banquet. But what I'd like to ponder today is the first of the two great deeds Jesus did, the one that in some ways was an even greater priority for him out of love for us.
St. Mark tells us that the first thing Jesus did was to "teach them many things." Jesus had come down from heaven to teach us the truth about God, the truth about God's love for us, and therefore the deep truth about who we are and whom we're called to be. This points to the reality that to teach the truth in love is one of the greatest acts of mercy. Without the truth, one remains blind and lost. This is one of the most important purposes of the Church and for every Catholic.
At St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, this truth is depicted very powerfully in art. At the very back of the basilica, one of the most famous pieces in art history is found, done by the great sculptor Bernini. It's called the "Altar of the Chair" and it was so beautiful and influential that art historians say it launched the baroque era.
At the top of the altar, there is the brilliant translucent image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove surrounded by angels. The Holy Spirit is descending upon a huge bronze chair that houses what in the 16th century was believed to be the actual chair on which St. Peter used to teach the people of Rome. (Much like today when the judge gives his authoritative rulings from the "bench," in the ancient world, kings, magistrates, rulers used to teach and give formal pronouncements seated on a chair, which became a symbol of their authority.)
Peter's chair was the symbol of the teaching authority of the Church and particularly of the Popes, the successors of St. Peter, who are Christ's vicars on earth. The most formal teachings of the Church were called "ex cathedra," meaning literally from the chair. The Holy Spirit is descending upon the chair to depict that, according to Christ's promise, the Holy Spirit teaches the Church everything, leads us into the whole truth and reminds us of everything Christ has taught (Jn 14:26; Jn 16:13).
Sculpted onto the back-rest of the Chair, however, is what is most relevant to today's Gospel: it's a depiction of Peter's feeding Christ's sheep. This is a reference to the end of St. John's Gospel, when Jesus asked Peter three times, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" (Jn 21:15-17). After Peter three times had replied in the affirmative, Jesus responded, "Feed my lambs," "tend my sheep," and "feed my sheep." Peter's love for Christ, his obedience to caring for and feeding Christ's sheep, is seen above all, therefore, in his teaching the truth of Christ authoritatively in his name.
And each of us is called to love the sheep and lambs Christ entrusts to us in a similar way.
Just as Christ, the Good Shepherd, looked with compassion on the crowd and taught them, so the Church's compassion for the crowd is to teach them this truth as well, the truth that sets them free, the truth that helps them become more and more like Christ, who is the Truth incarnate. Our compassion for those in need must involve this element of teaching.
To "instruct the ignorant," is one of the spiritual works of mercy that the Church has carried out from the beginning. It has inspired those in the Church to pass on the truth of Christ, by founding Catholic schools and universities, by doing catechesis, by RCIA, by talking one on one with friends, by leavening the "marketplace of ideas" with the truth that comes from Christ.
Today, in the face of so many people in our culture who are lost, who don't know the purpose of their lives, who often go from one pleasure to the next so as not to confront the most fundamental questions of existence, who don't know the difference between right and wrong, who do not even realize that there is a heaven and a hell not to mention what actions could land them in either place - in the face of so many people who are indeed like sheep without a shepherd, the great act of compassion that the Lord wants from us is to teach them about him, to share our faith, to share the good news of great joy that God is love and that we have come to believe - and are inviting others to believe - in that love that God has for us..
But we cannot give what we don't have. In order for us to be able to give the truth of Christ to others, we first have to know Christ and what he teaches us, and through living that truth come to abide in Him who is the truth. Just as the Good Shepherd goes in search of his sheep, so good sheep must go in search of the Good Shepherd. For us to be capable of bringing Christ to family members and friends, coworkers and fellow students, we need first to bring ourselves to Him, to spend time with Him, to be fed by Him and the Church he founded so that we can in turn feed others. This points to the importance of one of the most important aspects of the Year of Faith now underway.
For us to believe in the love the Lord has for us and to love others as he has loved us by continuing his mission of compassion in the world for all sheep without the Good Shepherd, we need to know the truths of the faith very well. And since - except in the case of a few rare saints - God does not give this knowledge by infusion, we, like the first disciples, need to allow the Master to teach us. How does he do so? He educates us through Sacred Scripture, particularly the Gospels and the writings of his first apostles. He teaches us through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, written for adults in the 1990s, which is the summary of everything the Catholic Church he founded and sent the Holy Spirit to guide believes. He teaches us through the successors of St. Peter, who in their various homilies, encyclicals and other documents, apply the truths of the faith to modern questions and problems. He teaches us locally, through our pastors, through Catholic newspapers and solid websites, through adult education opportunities, through religious education.
To be a good sheep of the Good Shepherd, to receive rather than refuse his compassion, we need to be faithful disciples. The word disciple in Greek means "student." To be a good disciple means to "study" our faith, to sit at the feet of Jesus the Master and allow him to teach us. Recent surveys have shown that very few Catholics, including those who are very faithful, study their faith. One recent poll showed that only three percent of Catholics who come to Mass faithful every Sunday ever read the Bible on their own. I think the percentage of those who have studied the Catechism or read papal encyclicals is much lower. While most American Catholics would never be satisfied with merely an elementary school education in math or reading, many do not seem to be troubled at all if their education in the faith stopped in the eighth or tenth grade with Confirmation.
When "adult issues" come up - like whether it is moral to have recourse to in-vitro fertilization, stop nutrition or hydration for a terminally ill loved one, conduct embryonic stem cell research, support same sex unions, defend torture, do unnecessary work on a Sunday, and so on - many adult Catholics do not know what the Church teaches; after all, these issues are not normally taught in fifth or sixth grade catechism classes.
When friends confronting similar situations are lost and confused and ask for our advice, while we can extend a certain sympathy, we cannot extend Christ's compassion, because we do not know Christ's teachings well enough to do so. All we can give is our "honest opinions," but - and now we have to be honest - often these opinions are formed more by popular culture than by the Gospel.
Rather than imparting the truth revealed to us by God, we, despite our good intentions, often pass on a popular falsehood. On other occasions, even when we know what Christ's teaching is, we do not know it well enough to be able to answer common objections; as a result, lest we embarrass themselves and the Church, we often stay silent. Our friends and family, who are often searchers without a guide, end up remaining lost.
A truly compassionate doctor or nurse seeks to learn everything possible to care for patients and help them get better. A truly compassionate Christian needs to know everything possible about the truth Christ reveals to care for their family members, their friends and acquaintances, their fellow parishioners younger and older and help them not only get better spiritually but get to heaven.
Today Christ the Good Shepherd, the incarnate love of God, looks on us with great compassion and gives us out of love an invitation to make a commitment to study our faith hard and well, so that we may be able to love others as he loved us, by passing onto others all of the truths he has passed on to us. Love and truth go together. We believe in the love God has for us! We believe in the truth he has taught us! We believe in him and all he has done and said!
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, MA and national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA. His homilies and articles are found on catholicpreaching.com.
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