Marked with the Seal of the Living God

Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints

Deacon D. McManaman

In the first reading from Revelation, we read: “I, John, saw another angel come up from the East, holding the seal of the living God. He cried out in a loud voice to the four angels who were given power to damage the land and the sea, “Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.””

In the ancient world, a seal represented the person whose seal it was and his authority. In the gospel of John, we read that the Father has set his seal on Christ. He has been consecrated as Son of God (Jn 10, 36). As such, he has authority over everything in the cosmos; for the divine seal represents his power over all creatures and over history. In him we are marked with the seal of the living God; all those so marked belong to Him and share in the divine nature. That seal is the mark of the servants of God, and it is our safeguard during the time of the ultimate testing; it is our protection, as the first reading makes clear. And that is why we need not be afraid. As the Psalm says: “You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, you it will never approach; his faithfulness is buckler and shield” (Ps 91, 7). Christ came to deliver us from the fear of death, as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews: “… that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life” (Heb 2, 15).

From the first reading, we also learn that salvation comes not from our own efforts, but from God and from the Lamb. We cannot save ourselves. The Lamb of God is savior. He is not merely a role model for us, someone we choose to emulate—there are countless role models for us to emulate. In fact, that’s what the saints are. Christ, on the contrary, makes saints. He is the cause, the fount of all holiness. He brings salvation in the here and now; he makes us a new creation. We are not born in a state of grace; we are born spiritually dead, which is why we need to be washed clean in the waters of baptism, which is an entering into the tomb of Christ, into the Passover (Pasch) of the Lamb. 

Furthermore, the first reading points out that this multitude in white robes are the ones who have lived through the time of the great tribulation, not a time of great peace. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb. The world is at war, and Christ is at the center of that war, that is, the reason for it. He is the perpetual sign of contradiction. That’s what Simeon said to Mary when he beheld the child Jesus: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed (Lk 2, 34). And so, Christians are not dreamers. We don’t dream of a day when the world will be at peace as a result of our own efforts. On the contrary, we hope for the Second Coming of Christ, the Parousia, when Christ will bring about a new heaven and a new earth: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. …He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Rev 21, 1-2).

Christ makes all things new, not us. Peace on earth outside of Christ’s Second Coming is impossible. If we could bring about peace on earth through our own efforts, then Christ lied when he said: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (Jn 15, 18).

The world will always hate those marked with the seal of the living God. The reason is that those who belong to Christ are radically different; the fundamental orientation of their lives is different, their thinking is different because their hearts are different, and the Beatitudes in today’s gospel are the basic contours of the heart of one who is a new creation in Christ, marked with his seal. They are poor in spirit, which means they know their utter need for God; those not marked with the seal of the living God are oblivious to that radical need. Those marked with the seal of the living God mourn, for they are not at home in this world, which is characterized by sin and opposition to Christ, and it is this sin and opposition to him that is a constant source of sorrow for them. It does not mean they cannot rejoice—they rejoice in the hope of Christ’s victory, not in the delights and false promises of this world; they are meek, slow to anger like Christ, the Lamb of God, unlike those who are of this world, quick to dismiss and seek the ruin all those who are not part of the world’s ever changing and current “group think”; they hunger and thirst for what is right, with the hunger and thirst of a first century Palestinian under desert heat, unlike those who are less concerned for what is truly right and good than they are for revenues; they are merciful, because they know mercy has been shown to them in the forgiveness of their own sins, unlike the world, which is relentless in the pursuit of the destruction of those who are not of the same mind; they are pure of heart, undivided in their love for God, unlike the world that has made itself its own god; they are peacemakers, because they love all who belong to God, unlike the world, that aborts or euthanizes inconvenient life and that is at perpetual war, a lucrative racket; and finally they are persecuted on account of Christ; they are not tolerated by the world, and any Christian who is loved by the world is probably a Christian in name and appearance only. For all its talk of tolerance, the one thing the world will not tolerate is anyone who stands for Christ and proclaims him as savior of mankind and Lord over all.

There is a price to pay for befriending the world, and that price is a loss of power in the proclamation of Christ, and a serious weakening of our ability to move others to conversion. Christians who try to befriend the world inevitably reduce Christ to suit the world’s taste, to something the world can live with, a Christ that is not the Lord of this world, but one subservient to it. The Church is not a means to world peace, but the means of salvation, the sacrament of Christ’s kingdom. What drives us is not optimism, but the theological virtue of hope in him. Christ is Lord of history, and our task is to allow ourselves to be transformed in him and to be used by him according to his plan in the bringing about of his kingdom, the day and the hour of which only the Father knows (Mt 24, 36).

Pope Francis, Civil Unions, and Infallibility

The following is a homily that a priest friend in Ottawa is delivering this weekend.

Pope Francis recently made headlines when a new documentary on his life entitled “Francesco” premiered at the Rome Film Festival on October 21.  The documentary includes footage of the Pope saying that homosexuals have “a right to a family” and that he “stood up” for the creation of “a civil union law” for them.

The statement received international news attention.  Soon afterward Archbishop Prendergast sent a memo to pastors cautioning that “in addressing this matter with the faithful to avoid the extremes of either seeing this as a bold new move (it isn’t as [Pope Francis] has spoken before on these matters and he isn’t changing the Church’s teaching on marriage) or as a heretical move (the Church’s magisterium is not formulated in sound bites in a documentary).”

About a week later the Vatican Secretariat of State, at the request of Pope Francis, issued an explanatory note.  (The full text of the document will be posted on the parish website with my homily.)  So, what I am about to say takes into account both the advice of our Archbishop and the official explanation given by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The director of “Francesco,” Evgeny Afineevsky, originally told reporters that the comments were made to him by Pope Francis.  But journalists later discovered that the Pope’s remarks actually came from a 2019 interview with Mexico’s Televisa broadcaster. Some of the Televisafootage had not been previously aired.

Afineevsky apparently obtained the original, uncut footage from the Vatican archives. He then edited two different answers that Pope Francis gave to two different questions in the Televista interview into one statement, removing much of their context.  

In one answer, the Pope was referring to homosexual persons as having a right to be accepted by their own families (i.e. by their parents and siblings). After all they too are children of God. He was not referring to homosexuals having a right to create their own families (through adoption, invitro fertilization, or the use of surrogates).

The other comment, about same-sex civil unions, did not follow the first but came from a different part of the Televisa interview. There Pope Francis was referring to a position he took as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when in 2010 the Argentinian government was seeking to legalize same-sex marriage. As Archbishop he strongly opposed same-sex marriage, but favored extending certain legal provisions to homosexual couples “so that they would be legally covered” under what was understood in Argentina as a civil union law. As he says in the documentary, “I stood up for that.” 

So, this episode offers a good cautionary tale against accepting what you hear on the news at face value.  That said, I must admit that even without the documentary’s questionable editing, Pope Francis’ manner of speaking is not always precise, especially when speaking casually, and so can cause understandable confusion as to what exactly he means?  If it were not so, there would not be these controversies and a need for the Vatican to issue later clarifications.

But this controversy offers a great opportunity for me to say something about the Church’s teaching on papal infallibility.  It is a commonly misunderstood dogma.

Infallibility is not the same as inspiration.  Inspiration is a special gift of the Holy Spirit given to the human authors of the Bible, so that they wrote the things God wanted written down. The Pope is not inspired.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were inspired.

Papal infallibility simply means that when the Pope invokes the full authority of his office as successor of Peter (Matthew 16:18-19; John 21:15-17), with the intention of declaring something to be held as true by the whole Church on a particular matter of faith or morals, he is protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error. And it only applies to matters of faith or morals, not other human disciplines like politics, economics, history or science.

It does not mean everything the Pope says is infallible or that he cannot err when giving his personal opinion on something. Also, it does not mean that he is free to declare something a matter of Church teaching that contradicts the sources of divine revelation: Sacred Scripture and Tradition.  In fact, papal teaching must be rooted in Scripture and Tradition.  The Pope is the servant of the Faith not the master. 

It was at the First Vatican Council in 1870 that papal infallibility was definitively taught.  In its declaration we read: “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His [the Holy Spirit’s] revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

For example, a Pope cannot declare, “As of today, all Catholics must believe that Jesus was not the Son of God” because the sources of divine revelation teach us that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.  

Neither does infallibility mean perfection. Infallible statements are not perfect statements; they can be improved upon.  Future Councils of the Church or subsequent popes may improve on a statement with better or more precise language.  Yet infallible statements, once proclaimed by the Magisterium (i.e. the teaching authority of the Church), can never be contradicted or rejected.  They can only be further clarified and their implications probed more deeply.

How often has the Pope invoked the full authority of his office and declared something infallibly true?  Very rarely.  While there is some disagreement among scholars, all agree that it was used at least once since being defined in 1870.  That was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven as a dogma of the Church.  Once in 150 years!

We need to remember that the Pope invoking papal infallibility is not the ordinary way that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in all truth (John 16:13).  Papal infallibility is an extraordinary means (i.e. beyond the usual) – just like Ecumenical Councils – that is used in special circumstances.  

The ordinary way the Church proclaims the Faith in its entirety and with integrity is by the constant and consistent teaching of the same truths by the popes and all the bishops of the Church from year to year, down through the centuries, and around the world, repeating them and applying those same truths to new circumstances and questions as they arise.  As St. Vincent of Lérins put it in the 5th century: “That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Commonitorium). In this sense, infallibility is a charism of the Church as a whole.  Amen.

The Vatican’s Clarification of Pope Francis’ Comment in the Documentary “Francesco”

[Taken verbatim from the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall website, under “News Releases”]:

At the request of the Holy Father, the Secretariat of State of the Vatican has prepared an explanatory document (in Italian) in response to the release of the documentary entitled Francesco.

The document, received in Ottawa on October 30, 2020, clarifies the context of certain statements made by His Holiness and contained in the documentary.

Here below is the CCCB’s unofficial translation in English. The original words in Spanish were not translated because they are textual in the documentary.

Unofficial translation of the CCCB:

Some statements, contained in the documentary “Francesco” by director Evgeny Afineevsky, have given risen to different reactions and interpretations in recent days. Therefore, here are some useful points in order to bring about, at his request, a correct understanding of the words of the Holy Father.

Over a year ago, in an interview, Pope Francis answered two distinct questions at two different times which, in the aforementioned documentary, were drafted and published as a single answer without due contextualization, which led to confusion. The Holy Father had firstly made a pastoral reference on the need that, within the family, the son or daughter with a homosexual orientation should never be discriminated against. These are the words in reference to it: “Las personas homosexuales tienen derecho a estar en familia; son hijos de Dios, tienen derecho a una familia. No se puede echar de la familia a nadie ni hacerle la vida imposibile por eso”.

The following paragraph of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family Amoris Laetitia (2016) can illuminate these expressions: “During the Synod, we discussed the situation of families whose members include persons who experience same-sex attraction, a situation not easy either for parents or for children. We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided,276 particularly any form of aggression and violence. Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” (n. 250).

A subsequent question in the interview was instead inherent to a local law of ten years ago in Argentina on “matrimonios igualitarios de parejas del mismo sexo” and to the opposition to it by the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In this regard, Pope Francis affirmed that “es una incongruencia hablar de matrimonio homosexual”, adding that, in this precise context, he had spoken of the right of these persons to have legal protection: “lo que tenemos que hacer es una ley de convivencia civil; tienen derecho a estar cubiertos legalmente. Yo defendí eso”.

The Holy Father expressed himself in the following way during an interview in 2014: “Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular States want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of living together, driven by the need for regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. These are living together agreements of various kinds, of which I cannot list the different forms. It is necessary to see the different cases and evaluate them case by case”.

It is therefore evident that Pope Francis was referring to particular State measures, certainly not to the doctrine of the Church, which has been reiterated numerous times over the years.