Spring is already in the air here in Rome even though the mornings are still cold. Several events have been the occasion for exciting ecumenical encounters in recent days and I will try to give you an overview of them in my next posts.
Archbishop Ian Ernest and I went to the three-day Vatican conference on the priesthood. This conference was intended as a response to the difficulties that the Roman Catholic Church is going through at the moment, especially after priests used their position of authority to abuse the people who were placed under their care. The symposium did not dwell too much on the reasons for the abuses (the study of which was postponed to another possible symposium). The papers mostly sought to address the realities of the priesthood in the Catholic Church in a pastoral and theological way without limiting it (at least that was the original intention!) to the ministerial priesthood (i.e. the priesthood of ordained Christians). The question of the priesthood of all the baptized (baptismal priesthood) came up with a particular relevance as the Roman Catholic Church has launched itself a synodal process about which I’ll talk more in detail in another post. The Pope’s inaugural lesson was certainly the most inspiring of the communications, for, unlike many others, he approached the realities of priesthood from a spiritual and pastoral point of view and not a purely theological or historical one. Here is the link to a transcript of his speech.
Unfortunately, the communication that we expected the most and which was to focus on the ecumenical issues of the priesthood was quite disappointing. Cardinal Koch limited himself to the relations of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox and the Lutherans, brilliantly ignoring the accomplishments of the Anglican-Catholic dialogues. Overall the presentations were very interesting and led to lively discussions between ++Ian and I on the differences and similarities between the Anglican and Roman conceptions of priesthood. The coffee breaks also allowed me to meet Catholic seminarians from the French Seminary in Rome as well as the Rector of Beda College, one of the English seminaries here. They all invited me to visit them, which will give me material for other articles!
Archibishop Ian Ernest, director of the Anglican Centre, invited me to preach at our Tuesday Eucharist. Here is the text of the sermon and a link to the video of the service on the Anglican Centre’s Facebook page.
The readings we just heard are difficult ones, because they talk about conflict, which is something we usually don’t want to hear about in the church or in the world. These readings are about competing attitudes and antagonist worldviews which from a human viewpoint seem unreconcilable. For many of our brothers and sisters at the margin of the Church, and for us, hearing James declare that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” can sound very hard and a radical clash. See these Christians who don’t like our world, who just dream of heaven and judge everything here below as sinful! Some scholars have showed that the current modern ecological crisis can be traced back to certain Christian teachings which have been misused and misinterpreted. The negative prejudice about the world in some Christian religious settings have given rise to a form of sterile opposition between the material versus the spiritual and led to an abusive relation to God’s creation. Using Gilbert Chesterton’s words, we can say that the ecological crisis we’re living in today is the consequence of “old Christian virtues gone mad”.
This misunderstanding of Christian teachings was already possible in James’ time. For the contemporaries of James as for us today, the cosmos in question referred to the universe, the place where we live, our biotope, populated by physical and spiritual realities. As ecological collapse forces us to realize that we are continually abusing the creation that God has entrusted to us, the assertion that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” seems even more outrageous. Why having friendship, compassion for our world suffering from the consequences of climate change could make us enemies of God? How could you oppose to God friendship with this world, which is our environment, the place where we live, where we rejoice and suffer? It really doesn’t make any sense and it’s deeply revolting. It is not only absurd but also contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and the teaching of Jesus-Christ. How can we then understand what James tells us in regard of Christ’s redeeming love for us? The answer to this crucial question is to be found in the way God acts in this world and enjoins us to participate in his redeeming life. The Gospel we have just heard gives us a pathway of transformation which is not one of condemnation but of collaboration.
The attitude of the disciples who discuss on the way to know who the greatest is should not surprise us. It is our normal way of being and thinking when we compare ourselves to each other, when we see qualities or faults that we think we recognize in others or in ourselves. Am I better or worse than my colleague? Better or worse than my friend? Better or worse than this Christian brother or sister sitting beside me? This attitude is found in all circles where humans live together, and even when we are on our own we still think this way. Living together between humans can foster competition and envy: it happens on boarders between nations, in the market between corporations, at schools between students, or in our families. When, like the disciples, we seek to judge ourselves, to evaluate ourselves, we base our judgment on ideas, facts, things which are always small parts of reality. In our communion of Churches, we also tend to vie with each other on questions of liturgy, moral standards and greater faithfulness to the Bible or tradition. We often quarrel with each other about who is the greater. We think that we can judge the whole, that we can judge and evaluate ourselves, grounding our judgement on our petty human understanding of a situation. We think that some cleverly assemble analyses can be an argument against a whole don’t know. But how can we judge, when, contrary to Christ, who reads the hearts of his disciples, we don’t know the heart of humans and the fullness of God’s love?
Christ’s attitude in the Gospel is fully different from this worldly attitude I just described. Christ doesn’t engage in the quarrel between the disciples about who is the greatest. He doesn’t collect judgements, make files like the judges of this world. He doesn’t provide a hierarchy, he doesn’t rank them according to their seniority, their skills, or their gifts. How different from everything we do, everything we say and everything we hear about each other every day! Instead of that, Christ steps aside from the power struggle by going back to the source of all power, that is his own authority realized in service for all. When the disciples were judging each other in an anarchical and futile way, competing and commenting like we do on social medias, Jesus, like the Lord in the prophet Joel, sits down to judge his people:
The kind of play that he performs when he puts a little child among them and embraces him is a leçon de choses. It is a prophetic sign akin to Ezekiel’s prophetic miming or today’s theatrical and political happenings: Jesus Christ does not teach us primarily through ideas, values or categories that we can easily collect and use as weapons. He welcomes us into his kingdom by showing us what is the ultimate, self-revealing God-like reality: the dynamics of service. The prophetic gestures he performs enacts for all of us the reality of eucharistic living, a life ordered by receiving and giving, not by judgement. This prophetic gesture, which is a judgement of God, responds to the disciples’ divisive attitude of competition: it teaches us that we can only compete in being more selflessly obliging to each other, to the point that we become transparent to God selfless offering of himself.
The mystery of the Eucharist that we are about to enter is the food that allows us to grow is Christ’s full stature. It allows us today to indwell in the reality of the Kingdom and its otherworldly sense of service in this world. Just like this little child among the disciples, it is a silent mystery, a very small and simple meal. It is barely a meal as a child is barely a human, but if we welcome it, we are also welcomed in the divine dynamics of love, and become able to share it. Through this small piece of bread, the body of our Lord, through this cup of wine, the blood of our Lord, we can enter the order of magnitude of the Kingdom in which smallness and service restore us. From this altar flows the whole Eucharistic mystery of our lives which sanctifies our relationships, our ministries, and our daily life of followers of Christ. The Eucharist is the mystery in which our broken world is reconciled to God in Jesus-Christ.
This Eucharistic living is dynamically different from what has led to the current ecological collapse. The current ecological crisis is the fruit of a worldly spirit of selfish interests and competition and a profound misunderstanding of what it means to be servants of God in this world. On the contrary, feeding on the Eucharist is the remedy of the world’s competition and division that leads to its ecological destruction and our own death. By giving himself to us, and tracing thence a way back to him, God commands us in Jesus Christ to order our lives according to the smaller servants of this world: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ He became himself the servant of all so that we can be reconciled to him. To do so, he dared to offer himself to us in the species of bread and wine, and be sacrificed as the Lamb of God. As he dared, we can also dare to see today’s “little child” among us in our silent brothers and sisters who are plants and animals. Minerals, plants, animals are our own infancy in God’s self-revelation in the great history of evolution. We are invited, at this altar and in our lives to welcome them in his name in order to welcome him and the Father who has sent him. Being disciples of Christ today is being reminded of the urgency of stopping to compete against each other. We are rather urged to order our lives to Eucharistic living which entails a strong and concrete commitment to ecological service in a spirit of brotherhood. On this common service depends the credibility of our Christian witness in the eyes of those to whom Christ sends us as his disciples.
I was given the opportunity to preach during Sunday Eucharist at à St. Paul’s yesterday. This Sunday was also a milestone in the history of the church community because it was Fr. Austin’s 10-year anniversary at St Paul’s.
You’ll find below the text of the sermon in English as well as the audio recording.
February 13, 2022
Epiphany VI: St. Paul’s-within-the-walls, Rome
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
As a young preacher and a newcomer among you, I am anxious to be relevant, more than I probably should be. It is said that congregations like relevant sermons. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines relevant like this: “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand” but also “having social relevance.” As we don’t know each other you can legitimately wonder how this young French chap could have “social relevance” to preach to us whom he barely knows, in a city he arrived in a brief month ago? I wondered the same thing myself when I started writing this sermon. The Bible gives us more than one example of the fact that relevant public addresses breathed by the Spirit of God (what in church-speak we call sermons) do not depend on a sociological knowledge of the audience. Nor do they on the status, education, or skills of the preacher. How comforting! Especially today when I am filling the pulpit after Jesus Christ himself!
In the Gospel it was indeed Jesus that we heard preaching to us today. This passage is often referred to as the “sermon on the plain” because Jesus comes down from the Mount of Olives to address his disciples, and (it is implied) also to address the crowd and the great multitude that has come to follow him. If Jesus’ sermon is pretty much unlike what a priest would dare to preach, this crowd however is pretty much like us here this morning. It is a composite and cosmopolitan mix of people: “A community of followers who were strong and people who were weak, a community that had people who were faithful and people who were without faith, people who were rich and poor, people who got healed and people who longed to be healed… ” They came, like we do, from different regions, had different mother tongues and different walks of life. This crowd was probably always changing, people coming and leaving, and many amongst this multitude didn’t share Jesus’ Jewish culture. How could someone’s teaching be relevant to such a multitude? How could he speak both to the Judean, the Jerusalemites and the inhabits of the coast? How could he be meaningful to his close disciples as well as to people he is meeting for the first time?
And yet, the way Jesus preaches to this mixed multitude is infinitely relevant, even to us today, in a country he never visited. If it is so relevant, it is because he doesn’t preach it from his own self, but as he often says in the Gospel, from the communion of love he shares both with his Father, and with us, his brothers and sisters. Jesus is relevant because he relates us to each other and to the Father. No ideology, no method, no self-absorption hinders the stream of Jesus’ words that water us all. The four blessings and the four woes he announces to the multitude flow from the same source: they all manifest Jesus’ power to release, or “unstick” those who identify themselves with what they are not. Are you suffering? Take heart, your suffering is not who you are called to be. Are you contented? God has something better for you, your content is not who you are called to be either. But the blessings and woes of Jesus do more than that, they do more than point to our individual selves, leaving each one of us sort out our problems on our own. The symmetry of these blessings and woes invites that crowd – just as it invites us today – to see them as intimately related, to see each other’s needs and gifts as mutually interdependent. If you are, or haveso much, you can give more to others and bemorepresent for them. I you have little and are little in the world’s eyes, you can receive even more and teach better than anyone else how to be grateful. In Jesus’ words, blessings and woes in this world are reconciled to foster healing, just like the miraculous healings of the sick are signs of God’s power and his coming Kingdom.
Jesus makes us relevant for each other, just as his death and resurrection is relevant for all of us, as saint Paul insists. If we treat each other as derisory or irrelevant, we do not believe in Jesus’s relevance, nor in his power to heal this world. Jesus himself never tells anyone that they cannot follow him, that they don’t matter. He tells no-one that they’re not relevant. And what is more, as they follow him together on the way, they’re also invited to follow each other; to see each other’s relevance. That’s the way that a crowd journeys forward and you can observe the same thing with groups of tourists in Rome: even if you are following one guide, you all end up walking one after another, sometimes ahead, sometimes beside, sometimes a bit behind, but never alone.
These people in the plain are given the opportunity to follow Jesus, just like those of us who are here. If we keep showing up, if we keep joining in this crowd, the gap between the blessings and the woes will get smaller. The gap between you and me will get smaller, between each other and between Christ and us too. All of the sermons that Jesus gives in Luke’s Gospel tell us this. Showing up is as relevant and radical as Jesus’s presence among us. Show up, consistently; build the Kingdom.
When you came to gather like that crowd, when you showed up this morning, you probably expected to hear God’s Word shared from someone whose voice you know. Certainly not from me, naturally, as we don’t know each other well. I am talking of Fr Austin, your Rector, who is not on this mountain today, but at a “level place” like Jesus when he addressed his disciples and healed the crowds! Today we celebrate Austin’s 10-year anniversary at St. Paul’s. Those ten years when he has been here for you. Those ten years when he has guided an ever changing and moving crowd of followers of Christ in this city of Rome. Ten years when he has held together in God’s care and prayers such a diverse community as all of you who are here in person or through the internet. Ten years when he has been present to those who are now absent. Ten years when he has shown everyone’s relevance to each other as they advance together the Kingdom of God in Rome, while at the same time sustaining the complementary ministries of the Church and the JNRC. And ten years too during which you, Austin, have given yourself to this people. If you need proof of what I’m saying, all you need to remember is that you now speak Italian like a true Roman gas station attendant, comeun benzinaio vero! You’ll never run out of gas. All of these quiet efforts the Psalmist likens – in a more ecological way – to a tree silently but surely growing roots and branches for people to rest under its shade. Even when the floor seemed covered in snow like the first day you arrived in Rome, deep under this ground, the Lord was making your roots reach his well-spring of life. Everything that you’ve done has been relevant in God’s eyes and in the sight of the people to whom you’ve ministered, though both woes and blessings.
I have not been here for long, but I remember what Austin told me on our first passegiata together, over a month ago. It was the first sermon I heard about the church in Rome which is no small thing! I think it is very relevant to share it with you this morning so that you get three sermons for the price of one: a great cloud of starlings was dancing in the Roman sky, and Fr Austin likened them to the Church, to a beautiful congregation. In their dance, each and every starling is relevant. They show up and fly together in the breeze for all the world to see, and to give thanks to God.
 The Rev. Teddy Hickman-Maynard, “Following without Faith,” The Memorial Church, Harvard, 26 Oct 2021.
Today is the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem, which takes place forty days after his birth. This feast is also sometimes called the Purification of the Virgin Mary because it was customary for new mothers to come to the temple to be ritually purified and the Virgin Mary did it in compliance with the Mosaic law. This feast is also named Candlemas after the candles that are traditionally blessed on this occasion.
In Rome, the beginning of February was already associated with polytheistic festivals of purification such as Lupercalia and Feralia before the arrival of the Jewish and Christian faith. Purification and light are related realities and are found, for example, in all the derivatives of the Latin verb lustro which means both « to purify by a sacrifice », « to examine » and « to enlighten » (e.g. « lustration » and « luster »).
February also marked the end of the Roman calendar which used to begin in March. For the ancient Romans this season heralded a renewal, the return of light and fertility. The Lupercalia festivals that were commemorated at this time recalled the rescue of Romulus and Remus by a she-wolf after they were delivered to the waters of the flooding Tiber River. For the ancient Romans, this unexpected rescue of the future founder of Rome and his brother testified to the divine favor that their City had received. In the return of spring, light and fruitfulness, in the rescue of their founder, they saw celestial providence at work and celebrated it.
When on February 2, 494 Pope Gelasius organized a torchlight procession in the City to commemorate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Romans were invited to reconsider the story of their foundation, their own history, in the light of this new light announced by Simeon, the honorable old man who, on receiving baby Jesus in the temple declared:
Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.
On this feast, in Rome or elsewhere, ancient or new Romans, in blood or in heart, are invited to reconsider their national history, the history of their origins, whatever they may be, in the light of the coming of Christ into this world. . Like Simeon’s long life of expectation, like the story of the feast of Lupercalia, our personal and community history is not canceled by the divine promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ: it is in these stories that God has found what he needs to enter the hearts of the Romans and ours today. Celebrating the presentation to the Temple of Jesus who, not being under the law, yet obeyed the law, invites us to go beyond our own origins, our own limitations, our prejudices and our parochialism. The canticle of Simeon makes us contemplate our own life, our history and our expectations but reminds us that our true identity is ahead of us, in the glory of Jesus Christ and his saints who is expanding on earth and in heaven, more than in any of our exploits or our past trials.
During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we visited several Catholic institutions and communities where we were very warmly welcomed.
The visit that struck me the most was the one we made to the Community of Sant’Egidio in the parish of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The community of Sant’ Egidio is made of lay Catholics and was founded in 1968 just after the Second Vatican Council, which began a great period of renewal and ressourcement in the Roman Catholic Church.
Its founders, who were teenagers at that time, aspired to live in a community modeled on the Acts of the Apostles and the ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi. Every evening they met to pray and help the poorest during the post-war years when many Romans still lived in slums. Subsequently the community expanded to become international and diversified in its work of assistance and reconciliation. Its vocation can be summed up in three Ps:
Preghiera (prayer): it is the main work of the community, based on listening to the word of God and intercession.
Poveri (the poor): they are the brothers, sisters and friends of the community. As their site defines, “Friendship with those in need – the elderly, homeless, migrants, people with disabilities, prisoners, street and suburban children – is a characteristic feature of the lives of those who participate in Sant ‘Egidio on the different continents. »
Pace (Peace): “The awareness that war is the mother of all poverty has led the Community to work for peace, protecting it where it is threatened, helping to rebuild it, facilitating dialogue where it stopped. Work for peace is experienced as a responsibility of Christians, and constitutes a part of the global service to reconciliation and fraternity which materializes in particular in ecumenical commitment and interreligious dialogue in the « spirit of Assisi ». »
As Claudio Betti, one of the early members of the Community explained to us with humor and eloquence, being part of Saint’Egidio has nothing to do with a « ministry » but it is a « vocation », because what counts in the first place is to be « available and present to the wounds and wounds of this world, whatever they may be ». This is why the community has not limited itself to a single type of service. In any case, the community is brought together by prayer on a daily basis, in the evening, in a spirit of freedom and free participation which testifies to the influence of the libertarian thought of the 1960s and of liberation movements akin to the Catholic community of Solentiname, initiated by Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua.
Sant’ Egidio aims to be on the margins of the societies in which they are present and where the most vulnerable are always found. The communities act to restore their health and dignity, thus manifesting the unity and peace that Jesus Christ offers to all those who have been excluded or rejected. He actually reminded us of this in the Gospel last Sunday:
“And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers[d] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24-27)
Prayer and service to the poor work out the peace of the Kingdom: this is the gift of Sant’Egidio. The unity to which we are called in our life as Christians is patiently built when we gather the rejected stones. Claudio, who introduced us to the association, insisted on the fact that programs, theories and committees are of little value if you don’t take the time and have the —truly divine—patience to forge real and incarnate bonds of friendship. Embracing our incarnation is the only way we can join Jesus Christ in working for the healing and reconciliation of our world. Reestablishing the Kingdom of God happens with a patience analogous to geological patience. And that’s why every gesture, every drop of water, every breeze of wind, counts.
The last two weeks have been full of encounters and surprising experiences! As soon as I arrived, I was immersed in the Roman ecumenical world by participating in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which has taken place every year since 1908, between the feast of Saint Peter and the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, in the northern hemisphere. This year’s readings, meditations and prayers were prepared by the churches of the Middle East and invited us to walk together with the text of Matthew 2:1-12 which tells us of the visit of the Magi to the Child Jesus.
The presence of the seat of the Catholic Church as well as the antiquity and the importance of this city in the Christian faith means that many churches are present in Rome. That special week, which is the occasion for many celebrations and ecumenical meetings, culminates with the Papal vespers at Saint-Paul-outside-the-walls on the day of the conversion of Paul, the apostle of the non-Jews.
At the Anglican Centre, this week of prayer was particularly lively this year because we received a group of students from Nashotah House (an Episcopal Church seminary located in Wisconsin) as well as pilgrims who came through The Living Church Foundation. This week has been for them and for us at the Anglican Center a great moment of meeting, conviviality and discovery in prayer and study.
Archbishop Ian Ernest and I accompanied the group on some of their visits. The first of them, which inaugurated this week together, took place in San Gregorio Magno al Celio. San Gregorio is an important place in the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Communion of Anglican Churches. In fact, it was from there in 697 that Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine on a mission. The mission of Augustine (who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury) was to convert the Anglo-Saxons. In 2016 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first visit of an Archbishop of Canterbury to Rome since the 16th century (a very important phase in the ecumenical rapprochement between Anglicans and Roman Catholics), the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis sent out on mission nineteen peers of Catholic and Anglican bishops to be in their jurisdictions ferments of unity and collaboration in the service of the same Lord Jesus Christ.
It was therefore particularly moving, on the evening of our visit to San Gregorio, to celebrate in this same sanctuary an evening prayer according to the rite of the Episcopal Church. Sharing the same history, the same places, the same mission and the same Lord unites us despite our still imperfect communion. We have more in common than the institutional division of our churches would lead us to believe.