If you’re used to communicating with others via text message, then you’ve probably, at some point, received a message and interpreted it out of context. A curt reply with a period at the end could be misinterpreted as either passive aggressive or as an irritated response. This happens to me occasionally, and I always have to remember that without hearing a person’s message verbally, it can be difficult to understand what they’re really saying or implying. Maya Angelou’s quote rings true here: “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”
Our voices add a unique depth and fullness to our communications by revealing emotions, nuances, and subtle meanings more sharply than words alone can communicate. On this feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, I am struck by St. Augustine’s words from this morning's Office of Readings: “Today we remember that Zechariah’s ‘tongue is loosed because a voice is born.’”
St. John the Baptist was born to be the final prophetic voice who proclaimed the Word made flesh. Like the Old Testament prophets, John foretells the coming of the Messiah and calls sinners to repentance with words that cut to the heart (Luke 3:1-29). But, unlike the Old Testament prophets, John identifies the Messiah for the first time in salvation history. John points Jesus out and encourages his followers to pursue him (John 1:29-37). He is confident that his cousin is the foretold Christ, and by his proclamation John fulfills the mission of all the prophets as he straddles the boundary of the Old and New Testament.
John’s historical mission of giving voice to the Word is also our mission. At our baptism, we were anointed as a priest, prophet, and king. We share uniquely in Jesus’s ministry, and we are called to be lay prophets who proclaim the good news of repentance and redemption. We must, like John the Baptist, spend time coming to know the promises of the Messiah so that we can recognize Him when we see him. And when we see Him present in the sacraments, or when we encounter Him as we are accompanied by a spiritual mentor, or when we experience Him through the fullness of our prayer, we must point Him out for all to see. To fulfill our baptismal call to be prophets of the Gospel of Christ, we must give voice to our experiences of God. John’s words must be our words to the world, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize two great church leaders who helped shape Catholicism across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. In reflecting on their lives, I cannot do justice to the complex and controversial circumstances that forged these extraordinary men into the saints they are. Instead, I’d like to reflect on something common and fundamental to us and them: Baptism.
Baptism sets the foundation for a lifelong calling and mission. The Catechism calls Baptism “the basis of the whole Christian life” and “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213). A saint is someone who lives their baptismal identity to the full. The three fundamentals we are called to live and practice “on entering the People of God through faith and Baptism” (CCC 783) are what we call the “three offices of Christ”: Priest, Prophet, and King. What made Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero saints was the integrity and fullness with which they lived out their baptismal vocations as priest, prophet, and king.
Both Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero were ordained Catholic priests, but by virtue of their Baptism they shared what we call the “priesthood of the faithful.” What is this priestly vocation? We live it by offering prayer and sacrifice for others. At the heart of every saint is a love for and commitment to prayer. Archbishop Romero lived his priestly vocation in a powerful and tragic way when he was martyred on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass in Divina Providentia Hospital—uniting his prayer and sacrifice with Christ’s into eternity.
Paul VI and Oscar Romero excelled at the way they lived the prophetic vocation of their Baptism. A prophet, in the biblical sense, is someone called by God to deliver a message of truth through either words or actions. One of my favorite descriptions of a prophet is one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. During their lifetime, prophets are often inconvenient, unpopular, or even attacked, but history proves they shared the right message at exactly the right time.
Both Paul VI and Oscar Romero faced harsh criticism, and Romero (as did many other prophets through history) suffered martyrdom. When Paul VI issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968), which affirmed traditional Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, he faced a wave of criticism and dissent in the Church. Fifty years later, many Catholic moral theologians and historians see that his analysis and predictions were right on target. Archbishop Romero, standing in the tradition of Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, stood up and spoke out to the government (known as the Junta) in his home country of El Salvador, as well as other world governments (including the United States), on behalf of the poor and marginalized who were being treated unjustly. Like Paul VI and Romero, every baptized person is called to stand up and speak out for truth and justice, especially when it is unpopular or inconvenient.
While we gravitate toward thinking of the “royal” or “kingly” role as one of being above or served by others, it is actually the exact opposite. A true leader is one completely dedicated to serving others through his administration and decision-making. I can think of few more monumental or difficult tasks a church leader faced than Pope Paul VI when he was called by the Church to steer the conclusion and implementation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has been called the single most important religious event in the twentieth century. Archbishop Oscar Romero was often criticized for his ecclesial administration getting mixed up with the political situation. Yet Romero recognized that in order to effectively lead and serve the church under his pastoral care, he needed to engage the civil government around him.
We, like Paul VI and Oscar Romero, do not become saints by being perfect administrators or leaders, but by bringing God’s spirit of wisdom into the challenges and opportunities that come our way. I would guess that at their baptism and even priestly ordination, Paul VI and Oscar Romero had no idea how God had planned for them to exercise their royal vocation. Under extraordinary times and circumstances, these saints modelled for us how we all are called to exercise leadership in ordinary, everyday circumstances with humility and whole-hearted devotion to God and others.
On October 14, let us rededicate ourselves to living our own priestly, prophetic, and royal vocation of Baptism with the same spirit and integrity as Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Please click the following links for more information about the canonization and lives of Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero.
“She said yes!” is commonly heard in engagement stories, echoing the excitement and joy of making the decision to have one’s life forever complemented with another in marriage. As we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation on Saturday, the Church rejoices in Mary’s acceptance of God’s place for her in His divine plan of the salvation of mankind. Of course, Mary’s “yes” to God is not the only such instance in Scripture; on the contrary, each protagonist’s story within its pages involves his or her responding to the will of God throughout history, from God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” to Adam and Eve through his instruction to the exiled St. John the Evangelist to “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Just like each person in Scripture, we too can share in the delight of accepting God’s will for us through our faith and the surrendering of our personal desires and wants to Divine Providence.
Every book of the Bible recounts at least one instance of God calling a prophet, judge, king, or another figure, no matter their status, to a higher purpose. I particularly enjoy the story of the boy Samuel, whom God called three times before the future judge and prophet, finally understanding Who kept waking him, answered. All of these accounts are more than nice stories—they serve to illustrate the different ways of answering God’s call as well as how God continues to guide us after we answer. The biblical theme still rings true today: “I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
On the occasion of the Annunciation, Mary’s “yes” undoes Eve’s “no” to God. Through Mary, the Word was made flesh and she became the new “Mother of the Living” (CCC 489). This motherhood extends to us all! As a result of Mary’s “yes,” she became a tabernacle of the living God now made man. Christ’s complete embrace of humanity during His earthly ministry still affects us today. We are called to allow Him to more fully enter into our lives just as He did in the Virgin’s womb. By creating space for Christ, as Mary did, we are enabled to fully surrender to the Divine Will; our “yes” to God can then echo Mary’s crucial response, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
How shall we respond?
At the Archdiocese of Washington’s Rite of Election this past month, I was blessed to observe over a thousand adults, teens, and children be presented to Cardinal Wuerl in order to be baptized or confirmed as Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington this Easter. They, like Mary, have said “yes!” to God’s invitation. It’s a beautiful witness to see the participants’ formal expression of their desire to become Catholic before their loved ones, sponsors, and the Church. The Rite of Election kicks off a final period of intense spiritual preparation much like our experience of Lent. This call to conversion, Donald Cardinal Wuerl noted, “is a visible sign that women and men, young and old, from all walks of life, are continuing to respond to our Lord’s invitation: ‘Come, follow me.’” As baptized members of Christ’s Body, we are called to offer our support, love, and prayers for these catechumens and candidates as each continues his or her faith journey, that all may strive to remain close to the Lord Who has called them to Himself.
Our “yes!” does not occur in a vacuum. Even the already baptized are called to be a light for each other as each of us experiences darkness in our lives. No matter our insecurities or doubts, no matter our past failings or unworthiness, God still continuously calls to us, ever lovingly, ever patiently, ever gently, ever earnestly. Mary had her own questions when the archangel Gabriel dramatically announced God’s plan for her. If you’re like me, you want all the details before making a decision! But, as we read throughout scripture, one’s trust in God is never misplaced. God can—and does—do great things through us if only we allow ourselves to be like “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.” May we, then, always share the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection, the hope that we share as we receive Communion, as we journey to the Cross, and as we profess—and experience—God’s love. By the grace of God and the support of each other, may we, at every moment of our lives, join with the whole Church and the heavenly host to praise God for His mercy and goodness: “‘Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has destroyed death, and brought us light and life!’ No wonder we [reply], ‘Alleluia!’”