Monday, October 6, 2008

Benedict XVI: Escriva knew that we cannot make ourselves holy

Homily of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, at the thanksgiving Mass for the beatification of Josemaría Escrivá, In the Church of the Twelve Apostles, Rome, May 19, 1992

St John’s Apocalypse, which tells us of so many terrible events both past and future, also opens up Heaven upon the earth and shows us that God still holds the world in his hands. However great the power of evil, God’s victory is assured in the end. From the depths of the world’s misery there rises a song of praise. God’s throne is surrounded by an ever-growing choir of souls who have achieved salvation, who, forgetful of self, have made their lives into a movement of joy and glory. This choir does not sing only in the next world, but is being prepared in the midst of the history of this world, and is already present among us, though hidden. This is clearly shown by the voice that comes from the throne of God himself: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great” (Apoc 19:5). This is a call to our world, a call to commit ourselves to the one thing that matters and so form part of the eternal liturgy here and now. The beatification of Josemaría Escrivá tells us that this priest of our times now forms part of the choir that is praising God in Heaven, and that in him too the words of today’s reading are fulfilled: “Those whom he predestined (…) he also glorified” (Rm 8:30). This glorifying does not belong to the future but has already taken place, as beatifications remind us. “Praise our God (…) small and great”: Josemaría Escrivá heard this voice, and understood it as the vocation of his life, but he did not only apply it to himself and his own life. He considered it his mission to pass on the “voice which comes from the throne”, and make it heard in our times. He invited great and small to praise God, and by that very fact he glorified God.

Josemaría Escrivá realised very early on that God had a plan for him, that God wanted something of him. But he did not know what it was. How could he find the answer, where should he look for it? He started his search primarily by listening to the Word of God, Holy Scripture. He read the Bible not as a book of the past, nor as a book of problems to be argued about, but as a word for the present, that talks to us today: a word in which we are each the protagonist, and need to look for our place in it, so that we can find our way. In this search, he was especially moved by the story of the blind man Bartimaeus, who, sitting at the roadside on the way to Jericho, heard that Jesus was passing by and shouted out his appeal for mercy (cf. Mk 10:46-52). While the disciples tried to make the blind beggar keep quiet, Jesus turned towards him and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “Lord, that I may see!” Josemaría recognised himself in Bartimaeus. “Lord, that I may see!” was his constant cry: “Lord, make me see your will!” People only begin to see truly when they learn to see God. And they begin to see God when they see his will and are ready to make it their own. The desire to see God’s will and to identify his will with God’s was always the basic motivation of Escrivá’s life. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This desire, this unceasing plea, prepared him to answer, in the moment of illumination, like Peter: “Lord, at your word I will let down the nets” (Lk 5:5). His “yes” was no less audacious than the Apostle’s, on Lake Genesareth, after a long and unproductive night. Spain was convulsed with hatred for the Church, for Christ, and for God. People were trying to rip the Church out of the country at the time when Escrivá received the call to let down his nets for God. From that moment on, and throughout his life, as a fisher of God, he kept throwing out the divine nets tirelessly in the seas of our history, to bring great and small to the light, to return their sight to them.

The will of God. Saint Paul says of it to the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God: your sanctification” (I Thess 4:3). The will of God is, ultimately, very simple, and at its core it is always the same: holiness. And holiness means, as today’s reading tells us, becoming like Christ (cf. Rom 8:29). Josemaría Escrivá considered this call as addressed not to himself alone, but above all as a message to pass on to others: to encourage them to seek for holiness, and to gather a community of brothers and sisters for Christ.

The meaning of the word “holy” has undergone a dangerous narrowing in the course of time, and this certainly still influences it today. It makes us think of the saints whose statues and paintings we see at the altars, of miracles and heroic virtues, and it suggests that holiness is for a few chosen ones, among whom we cannot be included. Then we leave holiness to the few, the unknown number, and content ourselves with being just the way we are.

Amidst this spiritual apathy, Josemaría Escrivá issued a wake-up call, shouting: “No! Holiness is not something extra, it is what is normal for every baptised person. Holiness does not consist of the sort of heroism that is impossible to imitate, but has a thousand forms and can become a reality anywhere, in any job. It is normal, and it consists of directing one’s ordinary life towards God and filling it through with the spirit of faith.”

Conscious of this message, our new Blessed journeyed untiringly through different continents, speaking to everyone to encourage them to be saints, to live the adventure of being Christians wherever their lives took them. In that way he became a great man of action, who lived by God’s will and called others to it, without ever becoming a “moralizer”. He knew that we cannot make ourselves holy. Just as love presupposes the passive – being loved –, so too holiness always goes together with the passive: accepting the fact of being loved by God.

The Work he founded was called Opus Dei, not Opus nostrum: the Work of God, not a work of ours. He did not want to create his work, the work of Josemaría Escrivá: he wasn’t aiming to build a monument to himself. “My work is not mine,” he could and did say, in line with Christ’s words and in identification with Christ (cf. Jn 7:16): he did not want anything of his own, but to make room for God to do his Work. He was certainly also aware of what Jesus tells us in St John’s Gospel: “This is the work of God, that you believe” (Jn 6:29); in other words, to surrender ourselves to God so that he can act through us.

Thus we come to another point of identification with the word of Sacred Scripture. The words of St Peter in today’s Gospel were something Josemaría Escrivá also made his own: Homo peccator sum: I am a sinful man. When our new Blessed saw the abundant catch he had achieved with his life, he was appalled, like St Peter, on seeing his own wretchedness in comparison with what God wanted to do in and through him. He used to call himself a “founder without foundation” and “a clumsy instrument”. He knew and saw clearly that all of this was not done by himself, that he could not do it, but that it was God acting through an instrument which seemed totally disproportionate. And that is what “heroic virtue” ultimately means: making a reality of what God alone can do.

Josemaría Escrivá recognised his own wretchedness, but surrendered himself to God without worrying about himself, holding himself ready, instead, for whatever God wanted. He got rid of self, and of all self-interest. Again and again he would speak of his “madnesses”: the madness of beginning without any means, beginning in impossible circumstances. They seemed to be madnesses that he had to stake everything on, and he ran the risk. In this context, the words of his great compatriot Miguel de Unamuno come to mind: “Only madmen do what is reasonable: the wise can only do foolishness.” He dared to be something like a Don Quixote of God. After all, does it not seem quixotic to teach, in the middle of today’s world, about humility, obedience, chastity, detachment from material possessions, and forgetfulness of self? God’s will was what was really reasonable to him, and that showed that the most seemingly irrational things were really reasonable.

The will of God. God’s will has a specific place and a specific shape in this world: it has a body. The Body of Christ has remained in the Church. Hence, obedience to God’s will cannot be separated from obedience to the Church. Only if I include my mission in my obedience to the Church do I have the guarantee that my own ideals can be considered God’s will, the guarantee that I am really following his call. So for Josemaría Escrivá the basic measure of his mission was always obedience to and union with the hierarchical Church. This does not imply any kind of positivism or dictatorship. The Church is not a power-structure, nor is she an association for religious, social or moral purposes that has to work out methods of achieving her aims better, updating and replacing those methods as necessary. The Church is a Sacrament. That means that she does not belong to herself. She does not do her own work, but has to be ever available to do God’s. She is bound up with God’s will. The Sacraments structure her life, and the centre of the Sacraments is the Eucharist, in which we touch the real presence of Jesus Christ in the most direct way. And so, for our new Blessed, ecclesiality meant first and foremost living in the centre of the Church, which is the Eucharist. He loved and proclaimed the Eucharist in all its dimensions: as adoration of our Lord present among us in a hidden but real way; as a gift in which Jesus gives himself to us again and again; as a sacrifice, in accordance with the words of Scripture, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me” (Heb 10:5; cf. Ps 40:6-8). Only Christ can share himself out, because he has offered himself up in sacrifice, because he has surpassed himself out of love, because he has surrendered himself, and surrenders himself still. We will only manage to become like the Image of the Son if we enter into this movement of self-giving love, if we become sacrifice. Love is not possible without the passive aspect of the passio which transforms us, opening us up.

When Josemaría Escriva fell seriously ill at the age of two and was despaired of by the doctors, his mother decided to dedicate him to Mary. Despite huge difficulties, she took her son up the steep, rough path to the shrine of Our Lady of Torreciudad, and there she offered him to the Mother of the Lord, asking her to be his mother. So all his life Josemaria knew that he was under the protection of our Lady, who was his Mother. In the room where he worked, opposite the door, there was a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe; whenever he went in, his first glance was for her. And his last glance of all was also for her. At the moment he died, he had just gone into that room and looked at the picture of his Mother, when he collapsed on the floor. As he died, the Angelus bells were ringing, announcing Mary’s “fiat” and the grace of the Incarnation of her Son, our Saviour. Under that sign, which had been there at the beginning of his life and had shown him his road, he returned to God.

Let us thank God our Lord for this witness of faith in our times, for this untiring herald of his will, and let us ask, “Lord, may I also see! May I recognise your will and do it!” Amen.

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