Archive for June, 2007


June 27, 2007
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May 2007

June 27, 2007

Origen’s Teachings on Prayer and Church

June 22, 2007

“The Privileged Path to Knowing God Is Love”


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Last Wednesday’s catechesis was dedicated to the important figure of Origen, the Alexandrian doctor of the second and third century. In that catechesis we looked at the life and literary works of the Alexandrian master, focusing on his “three-pronged reading” of the Bible, which is the animating center of all of his work.

I left out two aspects of Origen’s doctrine, which I consider among the most important and timely, so that I could speak about them today. I am referring to his teachings on prayer and the Church.

In truth, Origen — author of an important and ever relevant treatment “On Prayer” — constantly mixes his exegetic and theological works with experiences and suggestions relating to prayer. Despite the theological wealth found in his thought, his is never a purely academic treatment; it is always founded on the experience of prayer, on contact with God.

In his view, understanding Scripture requires more than mere study. It requires an intimacy with Christ and prayer. He is convinced that the privileged path to knowing God is love and that one cannot give an authentic “scientia Christi” without falling in love with him.

In his “Letter to Gregory” he writes: “Dedicate yourself to the ‘lectio’ of the divine Scriptures; apply yourself to this with perseverance. Practice ‘lectio’ with the intention of believing and being pleasing to God.

“If during the ‘lectio’ you find yourself in front of a closed door, knock and the guardian will open it for you, the guardian of whom Jesus said: ‘The advocate will teach you everything.’ Apply yourself in this way to ‘lectio divina’ — search, with unshakable faith in God, the sense of the divine Scriptures, which is amply revealed. origen1.jpg

“You must not be satisfied with only knocking and searching: To understand the things of God, ‘oratio’ is absolutely necessary. To encourage us to do this, the Savior did not only say: ‘Seek and you shall find,’ and ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you,’ but he also added: ‘Ask and you shall receive'” (Ep. Gr. 4).

One can see clearly the “primordial role” that Origen played in the history of “lectio divina.” Bishop Ambrose of Milan — who would learn to read the Scritpures from Origen’s works — introduced it in the West, to hand it on to Augustine and the successive monastic tradition.

As we mentioned earlier, the highest level of knowing God, according to Origen, comes from loving him. It is the same with human relationships: One only really knows the other if there is love, if they open their hearts. To show this he illustrates the significance given at that time to the verb in Hebrew “to know,” used to show the act of human love: “Adam knew Eve, his wife and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1).

This suggests that union in love procures the most authentic knowledge. As man and woman are “two that become one flesh,” in the same way, God and the believer become “two that become one in the spirit.”

In this way, the prayer of the Alexandrian reaches the highest mystical levels, as is shown by his “Homilies on the Song of Songs.”

In one passage of the first homily, Origen confesses: “Often — God is a witness to this — I felt that the Bridegroom drew very near to me; afterward he would leave suddenly, and I could not find that which I searched for. Again I have the desire for his presence, and he returns, and when he appears, when I hold him in my hands, he leaves again and once he is gone I begin again to search for him” (Hom. Cant. 1:7).

I recall what my venerable predecessor wrote, as a true witness, in “Novo Millennio Ineunte,” where he showed the faithful “how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart … becoming,” John Paul II continued, “a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications. But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as ‘nuptial union'” (No. 33).

We come to Origen’s teaching on the Church, and precisely — within it — on the priesthood of the laity. As the Alexandrian affirms in his ninth Homily on Leviticus, “this discourse is important for all of us” (Hom. Lev. 9:1).

In the same homily Origen — referring to Aaron’s prohibition, after the death of his two children, to enter the Holy of Holies “at any time” (Leviticus 16:2) — he admonishes the faithful: “From this we can see that if one enters the sanctuary, without the proper preparation, not dressed in priestly dress, without having prepared the prescribed offerings and having offered them to God, he will die. …This discourse is meant for everyone. It guarantees that we know how to approach God’s altar.

“Or do you not know that the priesthood was given to God’s Church and to all believers? Listen to how Peter speaks to the faithful: ‘Elect race,’ he says, ‘royal priesthood, holy nation, a people bought by God.’ You have priesthood because you are a ‘priestly people,’ and therefore you must offer sacrifice to God. … But so that you may offer it worthily, you need pure vestments, distinct from the common vestments of other men, and you need the divine fire” (ibid.).

priestly-vestment.jpgOn one hand the “girded loins” and the “priestly vestments,” which represent purity and honest living, and on the other the “perpetually lit lamp,” which represents the faith and science of the Scriptures — these become the necessary conditions for the exercise of the priestly ministry. These conditions — right conduct, but above all, the welcoming and study of the Word — establish a genuine “hierarchy of holiness” in the common priesthood of all Christians.

Origen places martyrdom at the top of this path of perfection. In the ninth Homily on Leviticus he alludes to the “fire for the sacrifice,” that is, the faith and knowledge of Scripture, which must never be extinguished on the altar of he who exercises the priesthood.

He then adds: “Each one of us has within us” not only fire, but “also the sacrifice, and from his sacrifice he lights the altar, so that it will burn forever. If I renounce everything I possess and take up the cross and follow Christ, I offer my sacrifice on God’s altar; and if I give my body over to be burned, having charity, and meriting the glory of martyrdom, I offer my sacrifice on God’s altar” (Hom. Lev. 9:9).

This path of perfection “is for everyone,” so that “the eyes of our heart” will contemplate wisdom and truth, which is Jesus Christ. Preaching on the discourse of Jesus of Nazareth — when “the eyes of all in the synagogue were upon him” (Luke 4:16-30) — Origen seems to be speaking to us: “Even today, if you want, in this gathering, your eyes can gaze upon the Savior.

“When you turn your heart’s gaze to contemplate wisdom and truth and the only Son of God, your eyes will see God. O happy gathering, that of whom Scripture speaks as having their eyes fixed on him! How I would like that this gathering receive a similar witness, that the eyes of all, of the unbaptized and of the faithful, of women and men and young children, not the eyes of the body, but those of the soul, look at Jesus! … Impressed upon us is the light of your face, O Lord, to whom belongs glory and power forever and ever. Amen!” (Hom. Lc. 32:6).

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Last week we looked at the life and writings of Origen of Alexandria. Today, I would like to consider two significant themes in his work. Origen’s teaching on scripture greatly influenced the Church’s rich tradition of lectio divina. Through the prayerful and faith-filled reading of the scriptures, we are drawn in love to mystical union with God. Just as a man and a woman become “one flesh” in marriage, so — in prayer — the Church and each of her members become one in the Spirit with the divine Bridegroom. Regarding the Church, Origen teaches us the importance of the priesthood of all the faithful. As a member of this common priesthood, every believer is called to put on “priestly attire” by living a pure and virtuous life. Loving intimacy with God through prayer and the offering of an upright and moral life — these are two of Origen’s most important lessons for us; these are the ways we keep the “gaze of our hearts” fixed on the “Wisdom and Truth who is Jesus Christ.” God bless you all!

* * *

I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today’s audience, especially the Delegates to the Nineteenth General Assembly of the Society of African Missions, and also the girls and staff from Hekima Place, Karen, Kenya. May your pilgrimage renew your love for Christ and his Church, and fill your hearts with joy in the Lord. God bless you all!

On World Day for Vocations

June 22, 2007

“At the Service of the Church as Communion”


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. All the faithful are exhorted to pray in a particular way for vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life.

This morning in St. Peter’s Basilica I had the joy of ordaining 22 new priests. As I greet with affection these newly ordained men and their families and friends, I invite you to remember in your prayers those whom the Lord continues to call by name — as he did one day with the apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee — that they may become “fishers of men,” that is, his more direct co-workers in the proclamation of the Gospel and the service of the Kingdom of God in our time.

Let us pray for the gift of perseverance for all priests: May they remain faithful to prayer, may they celebrate the holy Mass with ever renewed devotion, may their lives always be a listening to the word of God and that day after day they assimilate the same sentiments and attitudes of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Let us pray, then, for those who are preparing for the priestly office and for the instructors in the seminaries of Rome, Italy and the whole world; let us pray for the families, that they continue to allow the “seed” of the call to the ministerial priesthood to mature and blossom.

This year the theme for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations is “Vocation at the Service of the Church as Communion.” The Second Vatican Council, in presenting the mystery of the Church in our time, favored the category of “communion.” In this perspective the rich variety of gifts and offices of the people of God is highlighted. All the baptized are called to contribute to the work of salvation. In the Church there are, however, some vocations that are especially dedicated to the service of communion.

The one who is primarily responsible for Catholic communion is the Pope, Successor of Peter and Bishop of Rome; with him the bishops, successors of the apostles, are caretakers and teachers of unity. The bishops are helped by the priests. But consecrated persons and all the faithful are also at the service of communion. The Eucharist is at the heart of the Church as communion: From this greatest sacrament the various vocations draw the spiritual strength to continually build up the one ecclesial body in charity.

We turn now to Mary, Mother of the Good Shepherd. May she who readily responded to God’s call, saying “behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), help us to welcome with joy and availability Christ’s invitation to be his disciples, always animated by the desire to form “one heart and one soul” (cf. Acts 4:32).

I extend a cordial greeting to the English-speaking pilgrims! Today, on this “Good Shepherd Sunday”, the Church observes the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In my message for this occasion, I emphasized that the call to ordained and consecrated life in the Church is a call to communion — a communion rooted in the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). Today, I invite you to join me in praying that young people will answer this call to communion and the service of the Church by responding generously to Christ’s call to priesthood and religious life. May God bless you all!

On Origen of Alexandria

June 15, 2007

“He Was a True Teacher”

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our meditations on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we will get to know one of the most outstanding. Origen of Alexandria is one of the key people for the development of Christian thought. He draws on the teachings he inherited from Clement of Alexandria, whom we reflected upon last Wednesday, and brings them forward in a totally innovative way, creating an irreversible turn in Christian thought.

He was a true teacher; this is how his students nostalgically remembered him: not only as a brilliant theologian, but as an exemplary witness of the doctrine he taught. “He taught,” wrote Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, “that one’s conduct must correspond to the word, and it was for this reason above all that, helped by God’s grace, he led many to imitate him” (Hist. Eccl. 6,3,7).

His entire life was permeated by a desire for martyrdom. He was 17 years old when, in the 10th year of Septimius Severus’ reign, the persecution against Christians began in Alexandria.

Clement, his teacher, left the city, and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son ardently yearned for martyrdom, but he would not be able to fulfill this desire. Therefore, he wrote to his father, exhorting him to not renounce giving the supreme witness of the faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, young Origen felt he must follow the example of his father.

Forty years later, while he was preaching in Caesarea, he said: “I cannot rejoice in having had a father who was a martyr if I do not persevere in good conduct and I do not honor the nobility of my race, that is to the martyrdom of my father and the witness he gave in Christ” (Hom. Ez. 4,8).

In a later homily — when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of Emperor Philip the Arab, the possibility of ever becoming a martyr seemed to fade — Origen exclaimed: “If God would consent to let me be washed in my blood, receiving a second baptism by accepting death for Christ, I would surely go from this world. … But blessed are they who merit these things” (Hom. Lud. 7.12).

These words reveal Origen’s nostalgia for the baptism by blood. And finally, this irresistible desire was, in part, fulfilled. In 250, during the persecution by Decius, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Severely weakened by the sufferings he endured, he died a few years later. He was not yet 70 years old.origenalexandria.jpg

We mentioned earlier the “irreversible turn” that Origen caused in the history of theology and Christian thought. But in what did this “turn” consist, this turning point so full of consequences?

In substance, he grounded theology in the explanations of the Scriptures; or we could also say that his theology is the perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In truth, the characterizing mark of Origen’s doctrine seems to reside in his incessant invitation to pass from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in the knowledge of God.

And this “allegoristic” approach, wrote von Balthasar, coincides precisely “with the development of Christian dogma carried out by the teachings of the doctors of the Church,” who — in one way or another — accepted the “lesson” of Origen. In this way, Tradition and the magisterium, foundation and guarantee of theological research, reach the point of being “Scripture in act” (cf. “Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa,” tr. it., Milano 1972, p. 43).

We can say, therefore, that the central nucleus of Origen’s immense literary works consists in his “three-pronged reading” of the Bible. But before talking about this “reading,” let us look at the literary production of the Alexandrian.

St. Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately most of those works are now lost, but the few surviving works make him the most prolific author of the first three Christian centuries. His array of interests extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, to apologetics, to asceticism and to mysticism. It is an important and global vision of Christian life.

The inspirational core of this work is, as we mentioned earlier, the “three-pronged reading” of the Scriptures developed by Origen during his life. With this expression we are alluding to the three most important ways — not in any order of importance — with which Origen dedicated himself to the study of Scripture.

He read the Bible with the intent to understand the text as best he could and to offer a trustworthy explanation. This, for example, is the first step: to know what is actually written and to know what this text wanted to say intentionally and initially. He carried out a great study with this in mind and created an edition of the Bible with six parallel columns, from right to left, with the Hebrew texts written in Hebrew — Origen had contact with rabbis to better understand the original Hebrew text of the Bible.

He then transliterated the Hebrew text into Greek and then did four different translations into Greek, which permitted him to compare the various possibilities for translation. This synopsis is called “Hexapla” (six columns). This is the first point: to know exactly what is written, the text in itself.

The second “reading” is Origen’s systematic reading of the Bible along with its most famous commentaries. They faithfully reproduce the explanations give by Origen to his students, in Alexandria and Caesarea. He proceeds almost verse by verse, probing amply and deeply, with philological and doctrinal notes. He works with great attention to exactness to better understand what the sacred authors wanted to say.

In conclusion, even before his ordination, Origen dedicated himself a great deal to the preaching of the Bible, adapting himself to varied audiences. In any case, as we see in his Homilies, the teacher, dedicated to systematic interpretation of verses, breaks them down into smaller verses.

Also in the Homilies, Origen takes every opportunity to mention the various senses of sacred Scripture that help or express a way of growth in faith: There is the “literal” sense, but this hides depths that are not apparent upon a first reading; the second dimension is the “moral” sense: what we must do as we live the Word; and in the end we have the “spiritual” sense, the unity of Scripture in its diversity.

This would be interesting to show. I tried somewhat, in my book “Jesus of Nazareth,” to show the multiple dimensions of the Word in today’s world, of sacred Scripture, that must first of all be respected in the historical sense. But this sense brings us toward Christ, in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, how to live.

We find traces of this, for example in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen compares the Scriptures to nuts: “The doctrine of the Law and of the Prophets in the school of Christ,” he affirms, “is bitter reading, like the peel, after which you come to the shell which is the moral doctrine, in the third place you will find the meaning of the mysteries, where the souls of the saints are fed in this life and in the next” (Hom. Num. 9,7).

Following along this path, Origen began promoting a “Christian reading” of the Old Testament, brilliantly overcoming the challenge of the heretics — above all the Gnostics and the Marcionites — who ended up rejecting the Old Testament.

The Alexandrian wrote about this in the same Homily on Numbers: “I do not call the Law an ‘Old Testament,’ if I understand it in the Spirit. The Law becomes an ‘Old Testament’ only for those that what to understand it in terms of the flesh,” that is to say, stopping at the mere reading of the text. But, “for us, we who understand it and apply it in the Spirit and in the sense of the Gospel, the Law is ever new, and the two Testaments are for us a new Testament, not because of a temporal date, but because of the newness of the meaning. … For the sinner on the other hand and those who do not respect the pact of charity, even the Gospels get old” (Hom. Num. 9,4).

I invite you to welcome the teachings of this great teacher of the faith into your hearts. He reminds us that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in a coherent way of life, the Church is renewed and rejuvenated.

The Word of God, which never ages or has its meaning exhausted, is a privileged way of doing this. It is the Word of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, which leads us always to the whole truth (cf. Benedict XVI, international congress for the 40th anniversary of the dogmatic constitution “Dei Verbum,” in Insegnamenti, vol. I, 2005, pp. 552-553).

Let us ask the Lord to enable us thinkers, theologians and exegetes of today to find this multidimensional nature, this permanent validity of sacred Scripture.

We pray that the Lord will help us to read the sacred Scriptures in a prayerful way, to really nourish ourselves on the true bread of life, his Word.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Our catechetical journey through the early Church brings us to the remarkable figure of Origen of Alexandria. This great teacher of the faith was highly esteemed by his students not only for his theological brilliance, but also for his exemplary moral conduct. His father, Leonides, was martyred during the reign of Septimius Severus. Though Origen himself always had a deep yearning to die a martyr’s death, he decided that the best way to honour his father and glorify Christ was by living a good and upright life. Later, under the emperor Decius, he was arrested and tortured for his faith, dying a few years later. Origen is best known for his unique contribution to theology: an “irreversible turn” which grounded theology in Scripture. He emphasized an allegorical and spiritual reading of the word of God, and demonstrated how the three levels of meaning — the literal, the moral, and the spiritual — progressively lead us to a deeper prayer life and closer relationship with God. Origen teaches us that when we meditate on God’s word and conform our lives to it, we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to the fullness of truth. May we follow Origen’s example by praying with scripture, always listening attentively to God’s word.

I extend a cordial welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims. I am pleased to greet those attending the Thirteenth World Seminar for Catholic Civil Aviation Chaplains and Chaplaincy Members, as well as pilgrims from the following countries: England, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States of America. May God bless you all!