Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

God called Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall (Jer 1:18); a tester and refiner of metals, a tower and fortress (Jer 6:27); a man through whom He would speak against false prophets and shepherds who mislead their sheep. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29) Jeremiah would be the voice of that word. Hated and feared by many, yet secretly sought by the king, He belonged to no one but God, was indebted to no one but God. He was totaliter aliter (totally other).

Indeed, Jeremiah was the best kind of prophet, a reluctant one (Jer 1:6). Beware the eager prophets, the self-appointed ones who seize the mantle as a pretext for their anger and opinions. They claim to speak for God, but He says of them, I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied (Jer 23:21).

God had always known Jeremiah and had laid the foundation for his ministry: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).

Jeremiah ben Hilkiah was born in 640 B.C. in Anathoth, a small town just three miles north of Jerusalem. At age twelve or thirteen he had a mystical experience in which God spoke to him:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:5-10).

Jeremiah’s early years were his happiest and it was of these that he likely wrote, When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, LORD, God of hosts (Jer 15:16). The rediscovery of the Book of Deuteronomy and the sober example of the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.) had spurred a religious revival led by King Josiah, beginning in 622 B.C. Foreign entanglements and the religious errors that accompanied them were eliminated. These days of reform would be brief, but for this short time there would be one Lord, one temple, one worship. It was a kind of Jewish renaissance, the best since the days of King David.

But then came disaster. Instead of trusting God, Josiah engaged in a foolish war against King Neco of Egypt, who was marching to assist Assyria against Babylon. Josiah was killed at Megiddo in 609 BC. The kings that followed were puppets of Neco, and foreign entanglement and religious syncretism resumed.

Jeremiah wrote of Israel’s infidelity and Judah’s failure to learn from Israel’s poor example:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Yet her treacherous sister Judah does not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Israel took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord (Jer 3:6-10).

Jeremiah’s next forty years would be spent laboring under four different Kings (Jehoiakim, Johoiachin, Zedekiah, and Gedaliah). None of them would trust God, instead compromising with the world for a false peace. For them, Jeremiah had only scorching denunciations about a coming catastrophe for their religious laxity and political cowardice.

Even as a boy he had seen disaster coming from the north:

I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north. Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. … each king shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me (Jer 1:13-16).

Against the priestly class who trusted merely in the location of the Temple and in sacrifices offered without obedience of the heart, Jeremiah railed:

Do not trust in your deceptive words, chanting, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For only if you really change your ways and deeds, if you act justly toward one another and no longer oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods to your own harm, only then I will allow you to live in this place, in the land I gave to your fathers forever and ever. But look, at you, you keep trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which bears My name, and say, “We are delivered, so we can continue with all these abominations”? Has this house, which bears My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Yes, I too have seen it, declares the LORD. But go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for My name and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel (Jer 7:4-12).

An even greater source of distress to Jeremiah were the court prophets and priests who lost their way in the halls of power and told the king what he wanted to hear and what was expedient rather than what God had to say. To them he said,

All are greedy for gain; from the prophet to the priest, all practice deceit. They dress the wounds of the daughter of My people with very little care, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all, not even enough to blush. … But the snorting of enemy horses is heard from Dan. At the sound of the neighing of mighty steeds, the whole land quakes. They come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who dwell in it (Jer 8:10-12, 16).

Such talk, such an action, is sure to generate a reaction. Jeremiah was soon assailed by foes, family, and friends alike as an enemy of the state and of the Temple. He was labeled a doomsayer and “no friend of Judah.” A prophet’s lot is not a happy one.

Was Jeremiah simply an angry man, unpatriotic and hypercritical of his people and the leaders of the day? Time would tell. Too often people and cultures that are heading toward ruin become locked in avoidance, lies, denial, self-deception, and half-truths; they cannot envision a love that is anything other than approval. Dysfunction and disordered drives become the norm.

Jeremiah loved his people and sought their repentance. The medicine they needed was reality, not the smoke and mirrors of lies and half-truths. Jeremiah would pay dearly for his disclosure of the truth. To a people used to darkness, the light is obnoxious.

The king’s officials, including Pashur the priest, convinced King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be put to death because his prophecies were discouraging the soldiers as well as the people. Zedekiah did not oppose them, and so Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, where he sank down into the mud. They intended to starve him to death, but Ebed-melech the Cushite rescued Jeremiah by pulling him out of the cistern. However, Jeremiah remained imprisoned until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.

The tide had turned against Jeremiah:

And the LORD informed me, so I knew. Then You showed me their deeds. For I was like a gentle lamb led to slaughter; I did not know that they had plotted against me: “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name will be remembered no more” (Jer 11:18-19).

Pursued and opposed, Jeremiah went into a dark place and lamented his role and the constant pain of hatred directed against him. He was isolated and sensed no consolation from God:

Woe to me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and conflict in all the land. I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me (Jer 15:10).

You have deceived me, O LORD, and I was deceived. You have overcome me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim violence and destruction. For the word of the LORD has become to me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones, and I become weary of holding it in, and I cannot prevail. For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror is on every side! Report him; let us report him!” All my trusted friends watch for my fall: “Perhaps he will be deceived so that we may prevail against him and take our vengeance upon him.” But the LORD is with me like a fearsome warrior (Jer 20:7-11).

Prophets suffer because they love and care for the ultimate well-being of God’s people, not merely their present comfort. They suffer because they do not fit into tidy political or tribal categories. They speak for God, who transcends such groups. Yes, although the prophet is totaliter aliter (totally other), the human cost is high, and he comes to resemble Christ on the cross. The prophet’s own notions of grandeur must be crucified. The idea that most people will ultimately accept the truth must be crucified. (I have written more about Jeremiah’s struggle here.)

Just before the end of Judah, King Zedekiah summoned Jeremiah from prison and asked for a prophecy regarding the war he proposed against the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied against it, implying that the present Babylonian oppression was punishment for Judah’s sin. He told the king that God would spare Judah the worst if they accepted this and did not take matters into their own hands.

This is what the LORD, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: If you indeed surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned down, and you and your household will survive. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be handed over to them. They will burn it down, and you yourself will not escape their grasp (Jer 38:17-18).

Zedekiah did not listen, and the end came swiftly:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against Jerusalem with his entire army and laid siege to the city. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city was broken through. … [The] king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he also killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze chains to take him to Babylon. The Chaldeans set fire to the palace of the king and to the houses of the people, and they tore down the walls of Jerusalem (Jer 39:1-8).

Jeremiah was freed from prison and likely spent the remainder of his days in Egypt (against his will). The remnant of Judah refused his prophecy and made alliances with Egypt. Jeremiah spent the rest of his life there trying to dissuade the Jewish people in Egypt from foreign alliances and from being enamored of the Egyptian gods. His warnings went unheeded and the remnant in Egypt received the following condemnation from God through him:

The Lord says, “Those who escape the sword to return from Egypt to Judah, will be few in number, and the whole remnant of Judah who went to dwell in the land of Egypt will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs (Jer 44:28).

It was likely in Egyptian exile that Jeremiah died, although there is no certain account of his death. He died preaching and warning.

Yes, he was a pillar of brass against a stubborn people. He suffered greatly for his work; he had the often-thankless task of summoning people away from worldly thinking and political alliances that compromised their devotion to God.

This work must continue both in and out of the Church. In our world there is a great darkness, but Jeremiah would warn us that the problem should be seen within before we look outside. We can surely hear the echoes of warning to shepherds who mislead their flock. Collectively, we are compromised; we are too politically aligned with secular agendas and prone to giving God lip service rather than wholehearted obedience.

From the depths of Jeremiah’s dark period come some of the most beautiful promises of all from God:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with loving devotion. Again I will build you, and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out in joyful dancing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant and enjoy the fruit. For there will be a day when watchmen will call out on the hills of Ephraim, “Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God” (Jer 31:3-6).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:31-34).

Yes, Jeremiah, you were like a brass wall and a pillar of iron among a shaky people. Your name means “The Lord founds.” May the Lord who has founded us find us again in His word through you.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

Was St. Paul a Poor Preacher?

For many years, the image I had of St. Paul was that of a bold evangelist who went from town to town teaching and preaching powerfully about Christ. I envisioned his audience mesmerized as he preached and took on his opponents.

I ultimately altered my view a bit based on scriptural descriptions, some of which we are currently reading in the Office of Readings. I have no doubt that he was a brilliant theologian. Paul was reputed to have been one of the greatest students of one of the greatest rabbis of the time, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). I also do not question his zeal for Christ, and I can picture that fervor reflected on his face as he preached and taught. However, it would seem that Paul was not in fact recognized as a particularly gifted preacher. Consider the following texts from Scripture:

    • Now I myself, Paul, urge you through the gentleness and clemency of Christ, I who (you say) am humble when present in your midst, but bold toward you when absent … (2 Cor 10:1)

The key element to glean from this passage is that people regarded Paul as rather humble in person but in contrast quite bold and assertive in his letters. This does not paint the picture of a bold, fearsome preacher.

    • For someone will say, “His [Paul’s] letters are severe and forceful, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10).

Here is even clearer evidence that some (though surely not all or even most) thought of Paul’s presence and preaching as weak and of no account. The Greek phrase λόγος ἐξουθενημένος (logos exouthenhmenos), translated here as “speech contemptible,” can also be translated as “words or speech of no account,” or “words or speech to be despised.” Of course, because Paul himself is reporting this, he may well be exaggerating the perception of his preaching out of a kind of humility. However, this is further evidence that Paul may not have been a highly gifted or bold preacher, at least from a worldly perspective.

    • For I think that I am not in any way inferior to these “superapostles.” Even if I am untrained in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things (2 Cor 11:5-6).

The identity of the “superapostles” is debated, but there is wide agreement that it does not refer to the twelve apostles chosen by Christ. Rather, Paul is likely alluding to itinerant preachers of the time, most of  whom were well known for their oratorical skills. Some of them may have been Judaizers who opposed Paul, but it would seem that they could draw a crowd. Perhaps they are somewhat like the revivalists of today. Paul seems to acknowledge that he is not a great speaker but refuses to concede that he is inferior to anyone in knowledge of the faith.

    • For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the cleverness of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning (1 Cor 1:17).

Paul claims no “clever” oratorical skill; rather, he underscores his lack of eloquence to emphasize that the power is in the cross of Christ.

    • On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. … Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive.” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread (Acts 20:7-11).

Luke describes Paul as talking “on and on.” The sermon seems to have put the young Eutychus right to sleep, and results in his falling three flights to his death. Paul runs down and raises him from the dead. (All in a night’s work, I guess!) Paul then goes back upstairs to complete the Mass. It is a humorous and touching anecdote in many ways, but it is also a story that illustrates the somewhat soporific effect of Paul’s preaching.

So, it would seem that Paul did not possess great oratorical. This is somewhat surprising given his astonishing missionary accomplishments, but we must avoid superficiality in understanding the power of God’s Word. The power is in God; the battle is His. We may prefer to listen to skilled speakers, but God can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey (see Num 22:21), He can speak through us, too.

Avoiding Superficiality – As a priest, I work hard to develop my preaching skills because I think the people of God deserve this. In the end, though, none of us should ignore the fact that God can speak in and through the humblest of people and in the most unlikely circumstances. Paul may not have had the rhetorical skills we think he should have had, but he was blessed with many other gifts. He was a brilliant theologian, had amazing zeal and energy, and was committed enough to walk thousands of miles and endure horrible sufferings so that he could proclaim Christ crucified and risen. Paul was also a natural leader and one of the most fruitful evangelizers the Church has ever known. We tend to prize oratorical skill and force of personality, but there is obviously more to evangelizing effectively than eloquence and charisma.

Our culture—particularly since the advent of television, radio, and the Internet—has come to focus primarily on personal magnetism and the ability to “turn a phrase.” The ability to communicate well is surely a great gift, but there are many others as well. In valuing certain gifts over others, we risk injustice and superficiality. The Church needs all our gifts.

What gifts do you have? God can use them!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Was St. Paul a Poor Preacher?

Investment Advice from St. Basil the Great

In the Breviary this week, we read a reflection from St. Basil the Great that amounts to an “investment strategy,” not just for the near future but for eternity. Challenging though his thoughts are, they are also sensible and consoling.

St. Basil’s words are shown below in bold, black italics, while my comments appear in red. I have changed the order of his remarks somewhat from the original; the complete text of St. Basil’s commentary, in its original order, can be found here: On Generosity.

St. Basil begins with a challenge, rooted in a blessing:

Man should be like the earth and bear fruit; he should not let inanimate matter appear to surpass him. The earth bears crops for your benefit, not for its own, but when you give to the poor, you are bearing fruit which you will gather in for yourself, since the reward for good deeds goes to those who perform them (Hom. De caritate, 3, 6: pp. 31, 266-267, 275).

Here is St. Basil’s “humbling” challenge: Do not let dirt/soil (humus) be more virtuous and beneficial than you are! In a way it is a play on the Lord’s image that if we, who are called to be salt of the earth, become flat, we are good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (see Matt 5:13).

In a magnificent description of grace and mercy, St. Basil reminds us that God in His mercy allows His grace to become our merit. That is to say, God, who will never be outdone in generosity, will not let our deeds of mercy go unrewarded, even though they are the result of His grace rather than our unaided flesh. God will not forget the mercy we have shown, and if we stay in the grace of friendship with Him as a member of Christ’s Body, we will not lose our reward. Scripture says,

        • Give and it shall be given unto you (Luke 6:38).
        • Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy (Matt 5:7).
        • Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done (Prov 19:17).
        • A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. (Prov 11:25).

Those who remain faithful will be rewarded for their generosity to the poor. Do not be afraid to be generous, for God will not be outdone in generosity. He will reward; He will repay!

Give to a hungry man, and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. As the sower profits from wheat that falls onto the ground, so will you profit greatly in the world to come from the bread that you place before a hungry man. In the presence of the universal judge, all the people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor, and tell of your generosity and kindness.

St. Basil invokes the “investment strategy” given by the Lord Himself and echoed by St. Paul:

        • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Mat 6:19).
        • I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).
        • Command [the wealthy] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:18-19).

The investment strategy works like this: We do not store up treasure in Heaven by putting it in some sort of balloon or rocket and sending it up, but by placing it in the hands of the needy and poor. What we give generously does not just go away; it goes up and is “stored” in Heaven for us, where it earns heavenly interest. Scripture says, Cast your bread upon the waters: after many days it will come back to you (Ecclesiastes 11:1).

Not only is it “stored up” in Heaven, but it also acts as an assurance on the day of judgment. Jesus says that we ought to make friends through the generous use of our wealth.

Who are these friends? The poor and the needy! They are our “investment brokers” for the day of judgment and the world to come. The Lord says that when our wealth ultimately fails us (and it will fail us at death), they (the poor) will welcome us to eternal dwellings.

Imagine that as you go before the judgment seat, multitudes of poor cry out, “Have mercy on this one, Lord, for he was merciful to us.” Yes, the Lord says that they (the poor) will welcome you to eternal dwellings, and St. Paul affirms that the wealthy who bless the poor will lay up a firm foundation for the coming age.

To be sure, generosity to the poor will not be the only thing upon which we are judged, but it certainly will help on that day when we stand before the Lord. Frankly, most of us are going to need all the help we can get!

You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish to or not. On the other hand, you will take with you to the Lord the honor that you have won through good works.

Here, St. Basil echoes Scripture, which says, Henceforth, blessed are those who die in the Lord. Let them rest from their labors, for their good deeds go with them. Even so, saith the Spirit (Rev 14:13).

Do you not see how people throw away their wealth on theatrical performances, boxing contests, mimes, and fights between men and wild beasts, which are sickening to see, and all for the sake of fleeting honor and popular applause? If you are miserly with your money, how can you expect any similar honor?

Pay attention here. We do well to consider whether we throw a lot of money away on passing, foolish, or empty things. What are our versions of theatrical performances, boxing contests, and mimes?

The Lord is not saying that we should never go see a movie or watch a sports event, but if we are willing to spend a lot of money on such things, why not on things that are more important and from which we will profit eternally? We all have questions we should ask ourselves: Is everything I spend my money on necessary? Does my extravagance harm the poor and needy? Do I use my money wisely from an eternal perspective?

Your reward for the right use of the things in this world will be everlasting glory, a crown of righteousness, and the kingdom of heaven; God will welcome you, the angels will praise you, all men who have existed since the world began will call you blessed. Do you care nothing for these things, and spurn the hopes that lie in the future for the sake of your present enjoyment?

What is more important to us: comfort here in this world or glory in Heaven?

Come, distribute your wealth freely, give generously to those who are in need. Earn for yourself the psalmist’s praise: He gave freely to the poor; his righteousness will endure forever.

How grateful you should be to your own benefactor; how you should beam with joy at the honor of having other people come to your door, instead of being obliged to go to theirs! But you are now ill-humored and unapproachable; you avoid meeting people in case you might be forced to loosen your purse-strings even a little. You can say only one thing: “I have nothing to give you. I am only a poor man.” A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God, and hope for eternal happiness.

Don’t be poor in things eternal, in what matters to God.

This song sums it up: “You may have all this world …. Give me Jesus.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Investment Advice from St. Basil the Great

St Charles Borromeo – A Model for Clergy in Troubled Times

St. Charles Borromeo, by Orazio Borgianni
Sunday was the feast day of my patron saint, Charles Borromeo. The times in which he lived were not so different from the current ones, and leadership like his is sorely needed today. Although I am not a bishop as he was, I am a pastor. I pray that in some small way I may be like him.

St. Charles Borromeo was born in 1538, a time when the Church was in the midst of perhaps her greatest crisis. Martin Luther had begun his revolt in 1522 with the publication of his 95 Theses. In the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, some 12 million Europeans (a very large number for those days) left the Church; more would follow in successive waves.

The medieval Church was breaking up and suffering schism. Indeed, the whole medieval synthesis of Christendom was in turmoil, hopelessly intertwined with politics and intrigue both within the Church and outside.

The clergy especially were in crisis and in tremendous need of reform. It was an era of absentee bishops and clergy. Wealthy European families collected parishes, monasteries, and other benefices more as a kind of stock portfolio than out of any spiritual love or interest. It was common that benefices were given to the sons in these families. Although ordained as priests, they seldom served as such, instead farming out the pastoral duties of their many parishes (and even dioceses) to other priests (often poorly trained ones). Knowledge of Latin, Scripture, and indeed the Lord Himself, was notably absent in many of these “clergy for hire.” Preaching was poor, the moral life of the clergy was degraded, and the faithful had little leadership. In this climate it is no wonder that Luther and other so-called reformers were so easily able to attract large numbers of the laity, who were not only poorly served but poorly catechized.

The Council of TrentRecognizing the criticality of the revolts (by Luther and others) and her own need for internal reform, the Church summoned the Council of Trent, which met sporadically between 1545 and 1563.

Into this period of crisis for both Europe and the Church, St. Charles Borromeo was born. He was the third of six children in a noble family in Milan. His parents were pious and well known for their care of the poor. Their sober and religious demeanor goes a long way toward explaining the piety and appetite for reform that St. Charles would later develop.

Reform starts at home. The wealthy and prominent Borromeo family was well woven into the difficulties and problems of the late medieval Church, owning many ecclesiastical benefices. At a very young age Charles Borromeo was given a large and wealthy Benedictine abbey by his uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo. So, at the tender age of 12, Charles Borromeo found himself the abbot of a large monastery. His age and the fact that he was not even an ordained priest are representative of the serious abuses that were common at the time.

Despite these impediments, St. Charles showed an inclination toward reform. He specified that the income he received from the abbey should be only enough to support his education, with the sizeable remainder given to the poor. Further, he promoted reform at the monastery by insisting on a return to a purer monastic environment.

At the age of 16, he was sent to Pavia to study Canon Law. Although he found his studies difficult, he was noted for his piety, his refusal to indulge in the frivolities of university life, and his devotion to the rosary and private prayer. He even dismissed two of his tutors (both of them priests) because he considered them too secular, found them lax in saying their Office, and objected to the fact that they did not wear clerical attire.

Papal Secretary of State at the age of 22! Just after Charles completed his studies, Pope Pius IV was elected. The new pope was Charles’ uncle, and as a gift to his nephew, he summoned him to Rome to become his Secretary of State. So, at the age of 22, although only a sub-deacon not a priest, Charles Borromeo became the Secretary of State at the Vatican and personal assistant to the pope and was named a cardinal deacon. It is a bit ironic that all this was technically a result of nepotism because Charles would become one of the leading proponents of Church reform.

Perhaps his chief work (under the direction of Pope Pius IV) was to reconvene the Council of Trent, which had been suspended due to war. After many months of difficult negotiation and political intrigue, the Council reconvened in 1561. Charles Borromeo not only coordinated the activities of the Council sessions but also engaged in many delicate negotiations as the Pope’s personal representative. He had to work carefully to overcome the differences among certain delegates. The Council of Trent finally concluded in December of 1563, just prior to the death of Pope Pius IV.

The importance of the Council of Trent cannot be overstated. Its decrees rejuvenated the huge and complex medieval Church and would serve as a guiding light for the next four centuries. Then, as now, the decrees of a council are not always welcomed, understood, or well applied. The work of Charles Borromeo was just beginning.

St. Charles lost no time in applying the decrees of the Council wherever his authority extended.

The next step for Cardinal Borromeo was to have a catechism written and published. He appointed three Dominican theologians to work under his supervision and the Catechism of the Council of Trent was completed within a year. He then ordered it translated into the vernacular in order that it be taught to the faithful by all pastors. Charles also set to work founding seminaries and colleges for the clergy, who were woefully undertrained.

St. Charles was also involved in implementing liturgical norms and even took a hand at reforming the music, encouraging the development of sacred polyphony. It needed a guiding hand to ensure that it did not become too florid and that the sacred text did not become buried in musical flourish and performance. In this matter he worked closely with Palestrina.

Time to get personal – Having used his position of influence in Rome to help implement the Council, he now petitioned Pope Pius V that he might implement it in his own life, for although the Pope had named him Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, he had been an absentee bishop, remaining in Rome as papal Secretary of State. Such absenteeism was common at the time, as already noted. In fact, it was rare in the larger cosmopolitan dioceses that the bishop would be present at all. These larger dioceses were usually benefices for rich families whose sons merely collected the income and did not actually serve in any pastoral capacity. Dioceses were usually administered by underlings.

It does not take much to understand why abuses flourished under this system. With no actual resident bishop, no true shepherd in place, errors went unaddressed and corruption abounded.

After some months of negotiation with the new pope, Pius V (who was resistant to the idea), St. Charles was finally permitted to take up residence in his diocese of Milan. He went with great eagerness to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. He called several local councils of the Church there and set up seminaries for the training of clergy. Charles insisted that priests be present in, and minister to, their own parishes. He also established the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine (CCD) for the training of children in the faith, enrolling some 40,000 children in the first few years. He set about visiting every parish in his archdiocese, even the small ones up in the remote alpine regions.

Not everyone appreciated the reforms Charles sought to institute. Some of the greatest resistance came from his own clergy and monks, one of whom pulled out a gun and shot him at Vespers (luckily, the bullet only grazed him)! Despite the resistance, St. Charles began many successful reforms in the Church at Milan. These reforms centered on the liturgy; the life, training, and discipline of the clergy; and the training of the laity in the ways of faith.

St. Charles Borromeo died at the age of 46, in the early hours of November 4, 1584. He had been on his way to visit a parish in the Alps and was stricken with a high fever. I have written more about him here: St Charles Borromeo.

As can be seen, St. Charles lived during difficult times for the Church. Millions had left and corruption abounded in what remained. Many people would have despaired in the face of so many deep problems. Indeed, many would have wondered how the Church could ever recover from such losses in numbers and regain her capacity to preach the Gospel and reach the faithful.

It goes without saying that the Church is crisis today. Millions have left the Church. Confusion among the faithful and the clergy abounds. Many of the faithful are poorly catechized. There have been grave moral, spiritual, and leadership issues among the clergy.

Yet as the example of St. Charles shows, reformers can and do make a lasting difference. Changes for the better may come slowly, but they eventually do come. Pray for zealous pastors and reformers like St. Charles Borromeo.

God still has His saints, His reformers, His St. Charles Borromeos. Many of them are already known to us and many more are yet to come. But come they will, for God will reform, establish, and cause to flourish the Church He so loves.

St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us.

Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

Jeremiah, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

God called Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall (Jer 1:18); a tester and refiner of metals, a tower and fortress (Jer 6:27); a man through whom He would speak against false prophets and shepherds who mislead their sheep. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29) Jeremiah would be the voice of that word. Hated and feared by many, yet secretly sought by the king, He belonged to no one but God, was indebted to no one but God. He was totaliter aliter (totally other).

Indeed, Jeremiah was the best kind of prophet, a reluctant one (Jer 1:6). Beware the eager prophets, the self-appointed ones who seize the mantle as a pretext for their anger and opinions. They claim to speak for God, but He says of them, I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied (Jer 23:21).

God had always known Jeremiah and had laid the foundation for his ministry: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).

Jeremiah ben Hilkiah was born in 640 B.C. in Anathoth, a small town just three miles north of Jerusalem. At age twelve or thirteen he had a mystical experience in which God spoke to him:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:5-10).

Jeremiah’s early years were his happiest and it was of these that he likely wrote, When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, LORD, God of hosts (Jer 15:16). The rediscovery of the Book of Deuteronomy and the sober example of the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.) had spurred a religious revival led by King Josiah, beginning in 622 B.C. Foreign entanglements and the religious errors that accompanied them were eliminated. These days of reform would be brief, but for this short time there would be one Lord, one temple, one worship. It was a kind of Jewish renaissance, the best since the days of King David.

But then came disaster. Instead of trusting God, Josiah engaged in a foolish war against King Neco of Egypt, who was marching to assist Assyria against Babylon. Josiah was killed at Megiddo in 609 BC. The kings that followed were puppets of Neco, and foreign entanglement and religious syncretism resumed.

Jeremiah wrote of Israel’s infidelity and Judah’s failure to learn from Israel’s poor example:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Yet her treacherous sister Judah does not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Israel took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord (Jer 3:6-10).

Jeremiah’s next forty years would be spent laboring under four different Kings (Jehoiakim, Johoiachin, Zedekiah, and Gedaliah). None of them would trust God, instead compromising with the world for a false peace. For them, Jeremiah had only scorching denunciations about a coming catastrophe for their religious laxity and political cowardice.

Even as a boy he had seen disaster coming from the north:

I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north. Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. … each king shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me (Jer 1:13-16).

Against the priestly class who trusted merely in the location of the Temple and in sacrifices offered without obedience of the heart, Jeremiah railed:

Do not trust in your deceptive words, chanting, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For only if you really change your ways and deeds, if you act justly toward one another and no longer oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods to your own harm, only then I will allow you to live in this place, in the land I gave to your fathers forever and ever. But look, at you, you keep trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which bears My name, and say, “We are delivered, so we can continue with all these abominations”? Has this house, which bears My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Yes, I too have seen it, declares the LORD. But go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for My name and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel (Jer 7:4-12).

An even greater source of distress to Jeremiah were the court prophets and priests who lost their way in the halls of power and told the king what he wanted to hear and what was expedient rather than what God had to say. To them he said,

All are greedy for gain; from the prophet to the priest, all practice deceit. They dress the wounds of the daughter of My people with very little care, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all, not even enough to blush. … But the snorting of enemy horses is heard from Dan. At the sound of the neighing of mighty steeds, the whole land quakes. They come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who dwell in it (Jer 8:10-12, 16).

Such talk, such an action, is sure to generate a reaction. Jeremiah was soon assailed by foes, family, and friends alike as an enemy of the state and of the Temple. He was labeled a doomsayer and “no friend of Judah.” A prophet’s lot is not a happy one.

Was Jeremiah simply an angry man, unpatriotic and hypercritical of his people and the leaders of the day? Time would tell. Too often people and cultures that are heading toward ruin become locked in avoidance, lies, denial, self-deception, and half-truths; they cannot envision a love that is anything other than approval. Dysfunction and disordered drives become the norm.

Jeremiah loved his people and sought their repentance. The medicine they needed was reality, not the smoke and mirrors of lies and half-truths. Jeremiah would pay dearly for his disclosure of the truth. To a people used to darkness, the light is obnoxious.

The king’s officials, including Pashur the priest, convinced King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be put to death because his prophecies were discouraging the soldiers as well as the people. Zedekiah did not oppose them, and so Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, where he sank down into the mud. They intended to starve him to death, but Ebed-melech the Cushite rescued Jeremiah by pulling him out of the cistern. However, Jeremiah remained imprisoned until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.

The tide had turned against Jeremiah:

And the LORD informed me, so I knew. Then You showed me their deeds. For I was like a gentle lamb led to slaughter; I did not know that they had plotted against me: “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name will be remembered no more” (Jer 11:18-19).

Pursued and opposed, Jeremiah went into a dark place and lamented his role and the constant pain of hatred directed against him. He was isolated and sensed no consolation from God:

Woe to me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and conflict in all the land. I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me (Jer 15:10).

You have deceived me, O LORD, and I was deceived. You have overcome me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim violence and destruction. For the word of the LORD has become to me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones, and I become weary of holding it in, and I cannot prevail. For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror is on every side! Report him; let us report him!” All my trusted friends watch for my fall: “Perhaps he will be deceived so that we may prevail against him and take our vengeance upon him.” But the LORD is with me like a fearsome warrior (Jer 20:7-11).

Prophets suffer because they love and care for the ultimate well-being of God’s people, not merely their present comfort. They suffer because they do not fit into tidy political or tribal categories. They speak for God, who transcends such groups. Yes, although the prophet is totaliter aliter (totally other), the human cost is high, and he comes to resemble Christ on the cross. The prophet’s own notions of grandeur must be crucified. The idea that most people will ultimately accept the truth must be crucified. (I have written more about Jeremiah’s struggle here.)

Just before the end of Judah, King Zedekiah summoned Jeremiah from prison and asked for a prophecy regarding the war he proposed against the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied against it, implying that the present Babylonian oppression was punishment for Judah’s sin. He told the king that God would spare Judah the worst if they accepted this and did not take matters into their own hands.

This is what the LORD, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: If you indeed surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned down, and you and your household will survive. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be handed over to them. They will burn it down, and you yourself will not escape their grasp (Jer 38:17-18).

Zedekiah did not listen, and the end came swiftly:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against Jerusalem with his entire army and laid siege to the city. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city was broken through. … [The] king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he also killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze chains to take him to Babylon. The Chaldeans set fire to the palace of the king and to the houses of the people, and they tore down the walls of Jerusalem (Jer 39:1-8).

Jeremiah was freed from prison and likely spent the remainder of his days in Egypt (against his will). The remnant of Judah refused his prophecy and made alliances with Egypt. Jeremiah spent the rest of his life there trying to dissuade the Jewish people in Egypt from foreign alliances and from being enamored of the Egyptian gods. His warnings went unheeded and the remnant in Egypt received the following condemnation from God through him:

The Lord says, “Those who escape the sword to return from Egypt to Judah, will be few in number, and the whole remnant of Judah who went to dwell in the land of Egypt will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs (Jer 44:28).

It was likely in Egyptian exile that Jeremiah died, although there is no certain account of his death. He died preaching and warning.

Yes, he was a pillar of brass against a stubborn people. He suffered greatly for his work; he had the often-thankless task of summoning people away from worldly thinking and political alliances that compromised their devotion to God.

This work must continue both in and out of the Church. In our world there is a great darkness, but Jeremiah would warn us that the problem should be seen within before we look outside. We can surely hear the echoes of warning to shepherds who mislead their flock. Collectively, we are compromised; we are too politically aligned with secular agendas and prone to giving God lip service rather than wholehearted obedience.

From the depths of Jeremiah’s dark period come some of the most beautiful promises of all from God:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with loving devotion. Again I will build you, and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out in joyful dancing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant and enjoy the fruit. For there will be a day when watchmen will call out on the hills of Ephraim, “Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God” (Jer 31:3-6).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:31-34).

Yes, Jeremiah, you were like a brass wall and a pillar of iron among a shaky people. Your name means “The Lord founds.” May the Lord who has founded us find us again in His word through you.

Five Lessons on Faith From Peter’s Time in Jail

On today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.

I. The Persecution of Faith Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warned, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

Therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.

We should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. This passage describes the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. During this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed. Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.

Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. Outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wow! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in fear!

As we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred reserved for Christians, especially Catholics. In the public school system, it is permissible to speak about almost anything: homosexuality, how to use condoms, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened, and television cameras appear! What drives this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face such hostility!

While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. In a certain sense, we can take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is driven by the fact that, deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is the truth.

The prince of this world hates Jesus and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether they follow him consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.

II. The Prayer of Faith In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means “fully stretched.” The word evokes the image of a taught rope. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time and effort are invested. This is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.

There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer in His own time. It is up to us to keep praying, to pray without ceasing, to resist discouragement and just keep on praying.

III. The Prescription of Faith In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith. We note it in five stages:

Rise! The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.

Restrain The angel then tells him to put on his cincture (belt). The belt is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed and gluttony. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down.

Ready Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This symbolizes readiness to make a journey. When I was young, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey, with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on. They must be ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven: up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!

Righteous Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the cloak or robe often symbolizes righteousness. For example, the Book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of the baby’s Christian dignity. He says that the infant is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus, the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.

Run! – Finally, there is the command of the angel, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”

IV. The Procession of Faith Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:

Not easy The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. Similarly, in our journey there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; there are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them; we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.

Narrow The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never talk about struggles and difficulties. Avoid them. The tuning fork, the A440 of the gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.

Need an angel As soon as Peter emerges from the prison into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears, but until this point, he needed an angel! So do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us and many other angels are along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in His grace.

V. The Product of Faith There comes finally the product of faith through which Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11).

Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced Him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!

 

A Most Vivid Description of St. Athanasius

A couple of brief thoughts about St. Athanasius whose feast we celebrate today.

I have served in African-American parishes for most of my priesthood and have often wondered why there don’t seem to be any black parishes named for this North-African saint. There are many named for Augustine and Cyprian, both of whom were likely of Berber stock despite hailing from northern Africa. Athanasius, on the other hand, while certainly not a sub-Saharan African, is described as having dark — even blackish — skin. Yet almost no African-American Catholic community claims him. It just seems curious to me. I once wrote to a rather prominent historian who has written on African-American Catholicism to ask why this was so, but I never received a response.

My favorite description of Athanasius comes from The Holy Fire, by Robert Payne, whose writing style I just love. In my opinion he is at his best in describing St. Athanasius. Enjoy this vivid excerpt:

There are times when the dark, heavy syllables of his name fill us with dread. In the history of the early Church no one was ever so implacable, so urgent in his demands upon himself, or so derisive of his enemies. There was something in him of the temper of the modern dogmatic revolutionary: nothing stopped him. The Emperor Julian called him “hardly a man, only a little manikin.” Gregory Nazianzen said he was “angelic in appearance and still more angelic in mind.” In a sense both were speaking the truth.

The small, dauntless man who saved the Church from a profound heresy, staying the disease almost single handed, was as astonishing in his appearance as he was in his courage. He was so small that his enemies called him a dwarf. He had a hook nose, a small mouth, short reddish beard which turned up at the ends in the Egyptian fashion, and his skin was blackish. His eyes were very small, and he walked with a slight stoop, though gracefully as befitted a prince of the Church. He was less than thirty when he was made Bishop of Alexandria. He was a hammer wielded by God against heresy.

There were other Fathers of the Eastern Church who wrote more profoundly or more beautifully, but none wrote with such a sense of authority or were so little plagued with doubts …. He wrote Greek as though those flowing syllables were lead pellets …. His wit was mordant. He did not often employ the weapon of sarcasm, but when he did, no one ever forgot it. When Arius, his great enemy died, he chuckled with glee and wrote off a letter to Serapion giving all the details of Arius’ death, how the heretic had talked wildly in church and was suddenly “compelled by a necessity of nature to withdraw to a privy where he fell, headlong, dying as he lay there.” As for the Arians, Athanasius hated them with too great a fury to give them their proper names. He called them dogs, lions, hares, chameleons, hydras, eels, cuttlefish, gnats, and beetles, and he was always resourceful in making them appear ridiculous …. At least twice Athanasius was threatened with death, and he was five times exiled. He was perfectly capable of riding up to the Emperor and holding the emperor’s horse by the bridle while he argued a thesis.

In the end he had the supreme joy of outliving all his enemies and four great emperors who had stood in his path, and must have known, as he lay dying, that he had preserved the Church …. It was a long triumph of one man against the world—Athanasius contra mundum! (pp. 67-68)

What the Story of St. Mark Teaches Us About Reconciliation

Today’s Feast of St. Mark (also known as John Mark) reminds us that the Gospel occurs within the human setting and condition. Mark was at the center of the tension between Paul and Barnabas; their differences were so severe that it led to a parting of ways.

Yet St. Mark, despite his less-than-stellar beginning in Church leadership came to prove his worth and was reconciled to St. Paul.

To fill in the back story, let’s begin by St. Barnabas and then turn our attention to St. Paul.

St. Barnabas was a Jew, a native of Cyprus, and of the tribe of Levi. As such he likely served in the Temple as a priest, depending on his age at his conversion to Christianity. His given name was Joseph, but the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement” (cf Acts 4:36).

He was probably a wealthy man, for St. Luke describes him early in Acts as a generous man who sold land to support the growing Church.

Most critically, it was Barnabas who vouched for the new convert, Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul. Paul was viewed with suspicion by those in Jerusalem, including the apostles, who only recently had been targets of his persecutions (cf Acts 9:26).

Talk about one of the most pivotal introductions in history! Indeed, it may be argued that this changed the course of Western history and surely that of the Church. Barnabas smoothed the way for St. Paul, the Church’s most zealous missionary and greatest biblical theologian. After Barnabas’ introduction, Paul was able to move freely around the disciples.

Sometime after this, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch, which was home to both Jews and Gentiles. It seems that he was not yet considered to be of the rank of apostle or bishop (Acts 13:1 calls him a teacher). Rather, he went more to observe and be of help. Under the leadership of Barnabas and others, the Church in Antioch thrived and grew quickly.

So, Barnabas sent for Paul to come and join him. They worked together for at least a year, and it was at Antioch that the disciples were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26). Barnabas continued to advance and build up Paul’s ministry in the Church. Barnabas gave us a stunning moment in Church history; it is not wrong to call St. Paul his protégé.

At a certain critical point, leaders at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. While some debate this, to me it is the clearest moment when it can be said that they were ordained and given the rank of bishop and the title “Apostle.”

Missionaries – Having done this, the Church leaders at Antioch, directed by the Holy Spirit, sent Barnabas and Paul forth on missionary work. This journey is what is now known as Paul’s first missionary journey. It is interesting to note that early in the journey described in Acts, Barnabas is listed first, followed by Paul. By Acts 13:43, however, the order changes and Paul is listed first. This suggests a change in leadership.

They took with them on this first journey the Barnabas’ cousin John, who was called Mark. Somewhat early on the journey, Mark decided that he could no longer go on and turned away from the missionary trip. Later on, this would prove to be significant.

The last major role for Barnabas was in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem, which was convened to decide whether Gentile converts could become full members of the Church without converting to Judaism. Barnabas, along with Paul, provided important testimony to the zeal and conversion of the Gentiles.

A sad moment – After the Council in Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch in triumph, their ministry vindicated. They planned another missionary journey together, but then came a critical, sad moment:

Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left (Acts 15:36-40).

Although it was a sad moment, it illustrates the human situation. Here were two men who had been like brothers. Paul owed his inclusion in leadership largely to Barnabas. They had taught together. They had journeyed hundreds of miles by ship and then by foot into the northern mountains, making converts in effective ministry. More recently they had just returned from Jerusalem, their vision and ministry approved and vindicated against naysayers among the brethren. Yet at this magnificent moment, Paul and Barnabas argued and parted company over Barnabas’ cousin Mark.

One of the things I admire most about the biblical text is that it does not whitewash things like this. Heroes are not perfect men; they are flawed and representative of the human condition. They are gifted and strong but struggle with the same issues and demons that haunt us all.

What is the lesson to be learned? God uses us even in our weakness. Who was right and who was wrong here? It is difficult to say. Two gifted men were unable to overcome an impasse. Alas, that is the fallen human condition. God will continue to work, however. He can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines.

Even sadder, this is the last we hear of Barnabas in any substantial way. He who had been so instrumental in the life of his protégé Paul, and in the early Church now exits the stage in the heat of an argument. The text says that Barnabas and Mark sailed for Cyprus, and then there is silence.

Barnabas is mentioned in Galatians, but given the vague timeline, it is difficult to assume it took place after the disagreement described in Acts. It likely took place earlier and may illustrate that there were already tensions between Paul and Barnabas before the “Mark incident.” In Galatians we see that Barnabas was following Peter’s weak example of not eating with Gentiles, which was clearly upsetting to Paul (cf Gal 2:13).

Healing? It would also seem that Barnabas continued to labor as a missionary for Paul, who makes mention of him to the Corinthians (cf 1 Cor 9:6). Although Paul’s reference to Barnabas is a passing one, it gives no indication of a rift between them. This suggests that there was some healing of the division, even if they did not labor together again.

More healing? Even for John, called Mark (likely the same Mark who became secretary to Peter and authored the Gospel of Mark), it would seem that he and Paul overcame their difficulties. For St Paul wrote to Timothy, likely about the same Mark, Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry (2 Tim 4:11). There is something of a redemption here for Mark and a healing for Paul. The “useless” deserter Mark is now one who is helpful to Paul.

Although the loss and seeming disappearance of St. Barnabas is sad, there is still the story of St. Mark’s growth to greater maturity and to leadership. Though less-than-reliable at first, Mark later proves his worth. It would seem we have St. Peter to thank for that, taking Mark as his secretary and aide. We also owe thanks to St. Barnabas, who did not give up on Mark. In the end, John Mark proves himself helpful in the ministry and St. Peter called him “my son” (1 Peter 5:14).

Yes, God can make a way out of no way. Even in our weakness (and often only because our weakness keeps us humble), God can do great things.