Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat given at Sacred Heart Retreat House
“Renewal at the School of Mary”
November 7-9, 2003
I. The Lateran and Rebuilding the Church on Living Stones
•Right at the beginning of the 1200s, the Church was in trouble. Many bishops and priests were absent pastors. Those who were in residence oftentimes were causes of scandal to others by their lax morals and bad example. A man named Giovanni Bernardone was praying in a Church named after St. Damian, in front of a crucifix of the Lord Jesus. Jesus called him by his common nickname, which came from the fact that his Father was French, and told him, “Francis, rebuild my house!” The man who became eventually the great St. Francis thought the Lord was asking him to repair the dilapidated Church of St. Damian. So he went to his father’s clothing store, took some valuable fabrics and sold them along with the horse in order to start repairing the Church. Over the course of a couple of years, he finished the job. But little did St. Francis know that he had misinterpreted the Lord and that the Lord had another rebuilding project in mind.
•It started with Francis himself, who responded to God’s grace to follow the Lord Jesus completely, uniting himself to the Lord by means of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. Soon, many others joined Francis in this pursuit. Eventually they went to Rome to seek the approval of their statutes.
•The night before they were going to have an audience with Pope Innocent III, the pontiff had a dream and saw a man in a simple, poor man’s woolen habit holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral, next to papal residence at the time. The next day during his audience, Innocent III saw the very friar from his dream come on in with his closest followers. Pope Innocent III properly interpreted the dream he had received: St. Francis of Assisi was being called to rebuild the Church as a whole, symbolized by the Cathedral of St. John Lateran. He was being called to rebuild the entire household of God.
•How did St. Francis rebuild the Church? He helped bring the Church back to her foundations so that the Church could be rebuilt stone by stone on the foundation of Christ. St. Peter gave the Church’s architectural plans in his first letter: “Come to [Christ], a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ himself is the foundation of the Church, the cornerstone. And the Church is the spiritual house built of living stones on this foundation. These living stones are those who build their life on Christ, those who are trying to become saints. The Church is made of men, not marble.
•St. Paul stressed the same point in today’s second reading. “Brothers and sisters, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.” Christ is the foundation. There’s a plan and a structure to the Church.
•We see that structure very clearly in the Church whose dedication all Catholics in the world celebrate today, the Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran. Liturgically, this is the most important Church in the world, because it is the Pope’s Cathedral (not St. Peter’s), the first Church built after the legalization of Christianity in the early 300s.
•The importance of the Lateran is shown by two large ovals on the façade of the Basilica, proclaiming, in Latin, “The most holy Church of the Lateran, the mother and head of all the churches of the city and the world!” The Lateran is the mother of every church edifice because it was the first Christian basilica in history; it is the head, because Rome, the see of St. Peter, is the principal local Church in the world, and the Lateran is the principal Church of the Diocese of Rome. The Lateran, not St. Peter’s, is the Pope’s Cathedral, where his cathedra, the chair symbolic of his teaching authority, rests.t. John Lateran is, we can loosely say, the Cathedral of the world.
•And the theology of the Church is depicted very clearly in stone, mosaic and paint throughout the basilica. I can mention a few, which I wrote in my article for Magnificat:
◦At the top of the center of the façade stands the Risen Christ, demonstrating that to enter the Church, we must enter into Christ’s body.
◦Directly underneath this statue is the Papal loggia, from which the Popes address the faithful. The placement is not coincidental: the Popes are meant literally to stand-under Christ as his vicar on earth — “he who hears you, hears me” — so that we might better under-stand what the Lord is asking of us.
◦Directly above the pillars and the pilasters on the façade are 12 bishops of the early Church famed for their teaching of the faith (called “doctors”), to symbolize that the visible face of the Church is found in the hierarchy of bishops throughout the East and West who teach authoritatively in the name of Christ.
◦Each of the huge foundational pillars of the basilica’s interior contains an enormous statue of one of the apostles, to symbolize that the Church is built literally on the foundation of the Apostles.
◦In the baldachino above the altar, there are busts of SS. Peter and Paul, the founders of the Church of Rome, to indicate that the Pope who celebrates Mass on that altar is the living Rock on whom Christ has built his Church and the living Doctor (teacher) of the Gentiles.
◦Finally, above the papal cathedra at the apse in the back of the Church, there is an ancient mosaic with face of Christ the Savior hovering over his Cross, depicted full of precious Jewels. The Papal Cathedra, the symbol of the teaching authority of the Pope, rests therefore directly underneath Christ and his throne — the Cross — on which the King of Kings was exalted.
•This was the Church, represented by the basilica, that God was calling St. Francis to repair and rebuild. But because the Church is made out of men and not marble, the rebuilding project needed to focus on the living stones. As St. Paul says in the second reading: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? … The temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1Cor 3:9-11,16-17). That truth leads to a task, to make sure that we keep that temple of God clean.
•St. Caesarius of Arles, from the 4th century, commented very beautifully on this passage. He makes a reference to Christ’s desire to drive out whatever is evil from our temples, just as he drove out the money changers from the Gospel we heard today. Then he says: “My fellow Christians, do we wish to celebrate joyfully the birth of this temple? Then let us not destroy the living temples of God in ourselves by works of evil. I shall speak clearly, so that all can understand. Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish the basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us, so that he who dwells in the heavens will be glorified. Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: ‘I shall live in them, and I shall walk the corridors of their hearts.’”
•Today, in other words, we celebrate more than a building in Rome. We celebrate the fact that we are living members, living stones, in the Church Christ built and that therefore we’re called to be holy and immaculate, allowing Christ himself to drive out from within whatever is incompatible with this incredible calling. We celebrate Christ’s call of his whole Church back to these true foundations.
•This is where we come back to the Immaculate, most Holy Virgin and the whole theme of the retreat, Renewal at the School of Mary.
II. Mary and the Church
•The Church’s truest nature is seen in Mary. We are called to be temples of the Holy Spirit, tabernacles of the living and real presence of Jesus within, just as witnessed in our Immaculate Mother.
•She was present throughout the ministry of her Son, when the Church was in gestation. She felt the piercing labor pains at the foot of the Cross. The Church was definitively born, however, 50 days later.
•We read in the Acts of the Apostles:
Acts 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. … Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
•Before Jesus ascended in heaven, he told his apostles not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” Jesus said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And they were faithful to his promise and they prayed. They huddled around Mary and prayed the first day. Then the second day. Then the third. Fourth. Fifth. They prayed all together nine days, until, while praying on that ninth day, the wind blew open the windows of the Upper Room and the Holy Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire. That was the first nine-day novena of prayer in Church history. The Church has been praying Marian novenas ever since.
•The apostles were “persevering with one mind in prayer with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” (Acts 1:14). Mary was teaching the apostles the Lord had hand-picked to take the great news of God’s love and the Resurrection out to the world how to pray. This was the first school of Mary. She was training them how to prepare for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. She was instructing them on the pursuit of holiness, how to say fiat to God, how to keep their souls true temples of God.
•As St. Josemaria says, so beautifully, “What an extraordinary lesson each one of the teachings of the New Testament contains. The Master, before ascending to the right hand of the Father, told the disciples: “Go and preach to all nations”, and they had remained full of peace. But they still had doubts: they did not know what to do, and they gathered around Mary, Queen of Apostles, so as to become zealous preachers of the Truth which will save the world.”
•As the Son of God, in the Incarnation, took upon Himself a human body from the womb of the Blessed Mother overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, so now on Pentecost He takes from the womb of humanity a Mystical Body, as the Holy Spirit overshadowed the twelve Apostles with “mary in the midst of them abiding in prayer.” As Jesus once taught, governened and sanctified through His human nature, so now He teaches, governs and sanctifies through other human natures compacted into His Mystical Body, the Church. (Sheen).
•Mary had already experienced all of these events during the course of her pilgrimage of faith. The Church begins her pilgrimage of faith from the Upper Room. Mary’s preceded the Church’s, “leading the way,” “going before them.” Mary was with the Church at the beginning and has walked with the Church along this pilgrimage each day since.
•The Pope says, very beautifully, that Mary was not one of those “sent to the whole world to teach all nations” like the apostles, but she was present in the upper room. The apostles knew she was Jesus’ mother and from his conception and birth a unique witness to the mystery of Jesus. Thus from the first moment the Church “looked at Mary” through Jesus and looked at Jesus through Mary. She was a singular witness of Jesus’ infancy and hidden life at Nazareth, when she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
•Mary’s faith, born in the Annunciation, found confirmation in Pentecost. At Calvary, like Abraham, who “in hope believed against hope” (Rom 4:18), continued to have faith. Jesus was sending the apostles to establish his kingdom in which, as the angel had said, “there will be no end.”
•Mary will alway be present with the Church like she was at the beginning, as an exceptional witness to the mystery of Christ and assiduous in prayer together with the Church. The Church contemplates her in the light of the Word made man. When we contemplate the Incarnation, we think of the Mother of Christ with profound reverence and devotion. She belongs indissolubly to the mystery of Christ and to the mystery of the Church from the beginning. She teaches the whole Church to believe that there will be a “fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This heroic faith of hers “precedes” the apostolic witness of the Church and ever remains in the Church’s heart. All those who share in the mysterious inheritance of God’s revelation share in Mary’s faith. (RM 27).
•Mary’s faith continues to be the faith of the pilgrim People of God, passed on simultaneously through mind and heart and regained through prayer.
•The Church looks to her who brought forth Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin, so that through the Church Christ may be born and increase in the hearts of the faithful also. (RM 28)
•The mystery of Pentecost is continually being accomplished. The Lord’s apostles and disciples, in all the nations of the earth, “devote themselves to prayer together with Mary, the mother of Jesus”.
•The Holy Spirit wants to write a new Acts of the Apostles for the Third Christian millennium, which each of us — and that includes YOU — playing a starring role.
•To be faithful to this mission, we need to learn from the first apostles. To go with Mary to the Upper Room, so that she can teach us how to pray, how to say yes to God, how to respond to the gift of the Holy Spirit — in short how to be a faithful disciple — so that God can send us out as his new wave of apostles.
•The Mass is the Upper Room. It is here that Jesus, 53 days before Pentecost, celebrated the first Mass, in which we’re about to share live. It is here that Jesus ordained his first priests for the mission. It is here that the Church was born when the Holy Spirit came down upon them as tongues of fire, so that they could speak God’s salvific words with ardent passion.
•It is here that Mary beckons us now.