Dear brother priests, candidates for Confirmation, parents, sponsors and all of you present at this celebration of two sacraments!
We are approaching the end of the Jubilee Year marking the 2000th anniversary of the birth of St. Paul the Apostle. For this reason we would like to speak today on the event of the great revelation of the Resurrected Jesus of Nazareth to Saul of Tarsus as he was on the road to Damascus. When Saul, who was later on called Paul (Acts 13:13) referred back to that merciful encounter which fundamentally changed his life, which he described in his speeches that are found in the Acts of the Apostles and in his Epistles, he did not speak in terms of “visions”, but rather in the style of the Old and New Testament “apocalypses” or “revelations”, in which the “light” and “voice” give this event a special quality and meaning.
According to the same Acts, St. Paul mentions this encounter and the unforgettable words he heard from the Lord three times. Let us recall parts of this encounter:
Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (26:14) are the question and assertion that Saul heard. The new disciple will soon learn how to submit to God’s goads and to the divine Tiller. Saul, Saul, your heart will not find peace until it rests in Him who you are persecuting!
Saul: “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5), replied the hero with a question while blind and fallen on the ground.
Jesus: “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting” (Acts 22:8) answered the voice of the Lord.
Saul: “What am I to do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10) asked Saul, injured in both eyes. From the brightness of the light, he lost his sight “in midday” (Acts 26:13). He was dazzled by the light near Damascus. He posed a question, ready to go over on the side of Jesus Christ, the Conqueror, “already conquered by him” (Phil 3:12).
Jesus: “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do” (Acts 22:10).
Those who followed Saul in his persecution of Christians were surprised; they had heard a sound, yet they did not see anyone. Even Saul “though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:8-9).
Paul’s heart was pierced by a Divine lightning bolt. His mind was enlightened by God’s light. His eyes were injured by a brightness beyond description. His future mission was announced to him from the mouth of God: “For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles - to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18). This was the exalted mission entrusted to Saul by the Lord. This apparition, equal to a revelation, cannot be considered identical nor comparable to the “visions” that Paul experienced commonly during the night, on only four occasions, again according to the Acts, which were spiritually beneficial for him and his determination, encouragement and witnessing. Let us now briefly reflect on these moments in order to learn some concrete lessons:
1 – In Troas. Acts 16:9-10. “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”
- Before this, Paul and those that accompanied him wanted to go to Phrygia and the region of Galatia, but they were forbidden by Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. Then they had planned to travel to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. Paul listened to the counsel of the Holy Spirit which on one side prohibited the path he had set upon, yet on the other, opened the doors for the preaching of the Gospel where God willed.
Dear candidates! You shall often find yourselves at crossroads during your lives, where you have to make decisions. Pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift of counsel, so that you never make decisions following your own wishes, but according to the will of God, who regularly reveals himself to us not only in a properly educated Christian conscience but especially in his commandments and those of the Church!
2 – In Corinth. Acts 18:9-10. “One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people’“.
- Paul experienced moments of disappointment, persecution and strong reactions in Corinth. Yet he knew well that if God had given him an assignment, then he would also provide him with the necessary wisdom and support. And precisely during the course of one evening he felt God encouraging him not to give up but to preach in that pagan city wisely, courageously and with charity, where there are “many” faithful! Paul obeyed the voice of the Lord and remained in Corinth for another year and a half.
Dear candidates! Various doubts and difficulties will come your way during your lives. These trials are not meant to break you but to strengthen you by overcoming them. Do not let your spirit nor wisdom grow weaker. Instead invoke the Holy Spirit often so that the gifts you receive today of wisdom and prudence may be beneficial in your lives in properly responding to even the greatest challenges.
3 – In Jerusalem. Acts 23:11. “That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome’.”
- Paul, while “captive to the Spirit”, arrived at Jerusalem not knowing what to expect, “except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me” (Acts 20:22-23). Had the Roman tribune Claudius Lysias not been there, the Jews would have lynched Paul in the city. Paul did not know how the calamitous events in Jerusalem were going to end, yet he was prepared “not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). He especially could not have known what his future would have been. The Lord came to his assistance, encouraging him and also announcing to him that he will also have to witness in a similar fashion in Rome! Paul was happy and grateful to the Holy Spirit who accompanied and strengthened him. He then boldly accepted the encouragement and prophecy of Jesus.
Dear candidates! None of us knows what awaits us in the future. Only God knows. Yet today you will receive the gift of the Spirit of the Lord, also known as knowledge, which is necessary for salvation. Pray constantly and cooperate with God so that you may always possess not only the Spirit’s gift of knowledge but also piety, in order to undertake concrete actions in witnessing for Jesus at all times, in each and every place Providence will lead you.
4 – Somewhere in the Mediterranean. Acts 27:23-24. “For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed, God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.'”
- Paul sailed on the high seas for 14 nights, while his ship with 276 sailors and travelers, was being tossed by the waves “across the sea of Adria” (Acts 27:27). While still under custody, Paul prayed to God for the crew and passengers. The Lord God sent him an angel who awoke in him great fear of God and also encouraged him not to falter, because he will have to appear before the emperor. The Apostle took charge of the situation and announced salvation to all the travelers only if they would listen to him, as he on his part listens to the Holy Spirit.
Dear candidates! All of our endeavors are accompanied by various difficulties. Our lives in this vale of tears are never without hardships and trials. Yet it is exactly in these moments when our intellect and honesty are put to the test. Whenever you feel that you are about to be shipwrecked, do not back off, but with great fear of God, pray to the Lord that through the gift of fortitude which comes from the Spirit, you may be able to withstand all of life’s storms and be proven ready for the Judgment day. We too are praying for you.
Let us turn back to the beginning of Paul’s enlightenment. During the experience he had close to Damascus, Paul’s mission was revealed to him, which was entrusted to him not from some ordinary man, but directly from Jesus Christ. Through this event he became an “apostle” (1 Cor 9:1), even though he was not part of the Twelve. As Peter received his mission from the Risen Christ – hence within the framework of the Resurrection – to lead the faithful flock of Christ out of love for God, so Paul too received from the Risen Christ his mission to build up the Church of God. Therefore Peter and Paul, the first amongst the apostles, are united by the missions entrusted to them, by their martyrdom in Rome and by a common liturgical solemnity. Paul seems to place this moment of enlightenment and the apparition of Jesus at a time before the Ascension, thereby providing us with the oldest traditional belief regarding the apparitions of the Risen Lord: first to Cephas, then to the Twelve, then to more than five hundred brothers, to James, to all the apostles and “last of all… also to me” (1 Cor 15:5-8). This revelation and message of Christ to Paul kept him strong from the very first moment and throughout his apostolate.
Finally, a word or two on our local situation. From the 17th to the 24th of January this year I was in Rome and had the opportunity to first of all greet the Holy Father during his General Audience and ask for his blessing for our entire Church in Herzegovina. I also visited the superiors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and thanked them in particular for informing the bishops of the region of Toscana, in Italy, who had asked the Congregation during their “ad limina” visit what position to take regarding the phenomenon of Medjugorje. The then Secretary of the Congregation, Archbishop Angelo Amato recommended that the bishops convey to the priests and faithful of their dioceses the homily that was given here in Medjugorje during the rite of Confirmation, on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ in the year 2006, which they then did. Cardinal William Levada, the current Prefect of the Congregation then told me: “We advise this to everyone who asks us about Medjugorje”. During my visit I could see that the competent Congregation as well as the Secretariat of State are closely following our local events in Herzegovina and we are most grateful to Pope Benedict XVI and the Apostolic See for their charity and concern.
I therefore stand by everything I said and dutifully demanded from this very place three years ago: from the Franciscan fathers who are the pastoral ministers of this parish, from the parishioners and other faithful, as well as from the so-called seers; that the presumed daily apparitions, known as the “phenomenon of Medjugorje”, have not been declared as authentic by the Church. Not even after the investigations of various commissions nor after 28 years of media hype. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we cannot behave as if these “apparitions” are authentic and approved. If as Catholics, loyal sons and daughters of the Church, we wish to live according to Church norms and teachings, glorifying the Holy Trinity, venerating the B. V. Mary ever Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, the Mother of God who was Assumed in heaven and wish to confess all that the Church teaches us in the Creed, then we need not search for alternative “apparitions” and “messages” whose character the Church has not acknowledged as supernatural!
Dear candidates, I implore you to hold strong the gifts of the Holy Spirit which you will sacramentally receive today, as St. Paul held very dearly the gifts and inspirations of the Holy Spirit in his preaching of the Gospels and in bearing witness for Christ the Lord. May your parents, sponsors and the entire parish community help you in your efforts!
And in order to assess how much we are in possession of the Holy Spirit, the best person to help us is the holy Doctor of the Church St. Augustine, who once wrote: “A person has as much of the Holy Spirit as is his love for the Church of Christ” (PL 35,646).
Let us not allow ourselves to be outdone in our love towards Christ and the Church, which is “the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).