Now is the Time

This homily was given at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish, Ashland, OR on the memorial of St. Maria Goretti, July 6, 2022. The audio is available here.

There is one vice students know better than most.


“If it’s due tomorrow … I’ll do it tomorrow.” 

As an undergrad, I wrote the last 20 pages of my capstone project in a marathon all-nighter, the night before it was due. 

But it’s not just students who fall into this trap.

All of us can be tempted to leave off something difficult for another day.

“I’ll start that diet after my birthday.”

“I’ll forgive that person who insulted me when I’m good and ready.”

The problem with procrastination is that what we can postpone one day, we can usually put off for another, and another … and another.

But there does come a last day … a due date for us all.

Jesus Christ has come to seek the lost, to heal us and call us to conversion.

Our whole life on earth, from our first day to our last breath, is our response to that call.

And every day, we choose again, either to follow Him—or another master.

Now it is time to seek the Lord—not tomorrow.

For “the kingdom of heaven is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Today, commit to making a good confession this Saturday.

There will be confessions in Medford at 3:30 or Central Point at 4:00.

Now, in a moment of silence, we open our hearts to Jesus and examine our consciences, saying: “Lord, send your Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds and grant me knowledge of all my sins. Bring forth into the light everything you desire to heal and forgive.”

He’s In the Boat

This homily was given at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish, Ashland, OR on the memorial of St. Irenaeus, June 28, 2022. The audio is available here.

The worst thing was how suddenly the storm came upon them.

They had set out from Galilee on a fine morning amid cheering crowds.

Now, mere hours later, they are perishing amid howling wind and waves.

On Sunday, we heard one wannabe disciple boldly exclaim: “Rabbi, I will follow you wherever you go!”

“Yes … but will you follow me into deep waters in this rickety little boat?”

Every disciple of Christ since has gone through the same test.

No sooner do we place our trust in God and go out upon the waters than our faith is tested by a sudden storm.

We feel out of control and panic, while Jesus sleeps unconcerned!

The storm is not only a test of our faith, exposing how tenuous it really is.

Jesus exposes our deepest fears, our lack of faith, not to rebuke us for failing to measure up to some standard, but in order to redeem them.

The Divine Savior is redeeming his disciples’ fear by making His unshakeable peace as God present, in the same boat, as our frantic despair.

The depths of human fear itself are summoned up in order to transform them, in the encounter with His peaceful presence, into heartfelt, confident trust: “Jesus, save us!”

In every storm, Jesus is the one in control.

He is not anxious; He is at rest.

Today, at this Holy Mass, we place our trust in Him whom even the winds and sea obey, present to us now under the appearance of bread and wine.

He sleeps here in the tabernacle, taking his rest in the midst of our distress.

And his rest is a daring invitation to us: trust in Him, and be amazed. 

Self-Gift or Selfish

This homily was given at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 26, 2022. The audio is available here.

“My body, my choice!”

It’s true, you know.

These are two of God’s greatest gifts to us: that we each have a body, and we each have the freedom to choose what we do with it.

The body is a kind of sacrament of the person.

In and through our bodies, we express the truth of who we are, what we think and believe and feel and choose.

We speak, we listen, we bless, we hug – we care for one another – in and throughour bodies.

But in and through our bodies, we also choose to curse, to wound, to turn a blind eye or a cold shoulder.

Behind all the choices we make daily, in and through our bodies, is ultimately one choice: 

Self-gift, or selfish? 

Now, it’s only natural to be selfish. 

Self-gift is uncomfortable.

When a friend isn’t acting like himself, do we take the time to ask him how he’s doing, and really listen to the answer?

Or do we cut the awkward conversation short?

When that annoying neighbor comes knocking at the door for help after a long day at work, do we answer, or duck under the couch and pretend we’re not home?

And when a surprise comes along—a person in need, an unplanned pregnancy—that derails our carefully scripted plans, do we respond with generosity?

Or do we turn away, preferring our preexisting projects and preoccupations to the inconvenient need of the person in front of us?

St. Paul puts the choice starkly in today’s second reading:

Do I choose to serve others in love, and so glorify God in my body? 

Or do I gratify the desires of the flesh, and put my body to shameful use? 

What we do with our bodies, after all, is really a question of life and death.

The daily decisions we make in this world—self-gift, or selfish—shape our eternal destiny.

If we choose selfishness, over time, we become more and more selfish, curved in on ourselves, hard-hearted, bitter, angry … and unsatisfied.

We become the kind of people, in the end, who are not fit for the kingdom of God, because the currency of that kingdom is love, and our hearts are bankrupt and barren.

But this, dear friends, this is the freedom for which Christ set us free.

Freedom in Christ means we are set free from the natural inclination of our bodies and spirits toward selfish self-preservation, in order to choose freely to give ourselves away in love, as Jesus does.

On the cross, Jesus gave us everything, holding nothing back for himself.

There was not an ounce of selfishness in Him.

He was pure self-gift, to his last breath, to his last drop of blood.

On the night before he died, he faced for the last time that one choice that all of us face every day: self-gift, or selfish.

How did he choose?

“Take this, all of you, and eat of it; this is my body, which is given for you.”

His body given for us, His blood and water poured out for us, His love on the cross, invites a whole-hearted response from us: a gift of self in return, holding nothing back.

And His Spirit in us is like a sword, cutting us free from the downward trajectory of the selfishness of our flesh and setting us free to choose whole-heartedly the glorious way that leads to life.

Today, at this Holy Mass, we commit once again to the way of self-gift.

As we receive the Body of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist, we offer our bodies, our lives, everything we have and everything we are to Him in return as a gift of love.

And as we choose to give ourselves away in love, in daily, little ways, we glorify God in our bodies and become like Him whom we have received.

We begin to taste that peace the world cannot give, because the world does know the secret of peace.

Peace of heart cannot be purchased at any price.

It comes like the dew or manna from heaven only when we are emptied out from loving and giving ourselves away.

On the last day, when we who have chosen self-gift and followed Our Lord on the path to life enter at last into His kingdom, we will delight in the fullness of peace and joys in His presence, and delights at His right hand forever.

Extreme Trust

This homily was given at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish, Ashland, OR on the memorial of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, June 21, 2022. The audio is available here.

Two paths lie open before us.

One is a wide road, easy to take.

The other is the way of extreme trust: a little trail beyond a narrow, old gate, which climbs straight up into the wilderness.

Hezekiah faced this very choice, surrounded by the armies of Assyria.

Surrender was the easy way out, but it would end in ruin just as surely as choosing to stand and fight.

Instead of the broad way of cowardly compromise or stubborn self-destruction, he chose the narrow way of trust.

Taunted by the enemy, tempted to disbelieve in God’s protecting care, still he went up to the temple of the Lord and prayed: “Save us!”

And his extreme trust in God saved him and his people. 

We face the same choice whenever the enemy tempts us to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way of trust.

When bad news comes and we’re tempted to despair—do we believe the Devil, who whispers, “God doesn’t care about you. God won’t save you.”

Or do we cry out in faith, “Jesus, I trust in you! Save me!”

Today, at this Holy Mass, Jesus opens the narrow gate before us.

He says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.”

As we receive Him today in Holy Communion, we enter through the gate of trust and recommit to the little way that leads to life.

And on the last day, when we stand before Him in whom we have placed our trust, we will say with St. Paul and all the saints:

“I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

And Jesus will say to us, with a brother’s kindness:

“Come, you blessed of my Father. Receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

What We Lack

This homily was given at Holy Rosary Parish, Portland, OR on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 22, 2022. The audio is available here.

It’s Holy Thursday in the upper room.

St. Peter looks across the table.

There’s Jesus…

And there’s John, his eyes half-closed, leaning against Jesus’ chest.

“Look at him.”

“He’s so young. So innocent.”

“And me? I’m an old sinner, a blockhead. Just the other day Jesus called me Satan!”

“No wonder Jesus loves him more than me.”

Peter notices something in John that he lacks in himself.

We all notice qualities in others that we lack. 

“My buddy can always get a laugh. People light up just seeing him come into the room…”

“My wife is so kind. I don’t know what it is, but everyone loves her…”

“Father Corwin is such a good preacher. When he preaches, people listen!”

As we notice qualities in others that we lack, envy turns us inward, away from the other person.

We tend to curl up around the hole in our heart, sulking over our inadequacy. 

Notice Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus to look at John — and ends up staring bitterly at himself

Like Peter, we long to be loved, but most of the time, we live as if God’s love is really quite conditional. 

As if his love depends on us meeting some standard of perfection.

And so we obsess over our inadequacy. 

I’m not funny enough, not kind enough, not good enough to be loved.

But there is a fundamental law of the spiritual life: we become what we behold.

The more we fixate on what we lack and spiral inward into shame and self-loathing, the more we loathe and envy others for having what we don’t.

The inward turn suffocates love.

The self-hatred we nurture will spawn hatred for others.

And the downward spiral ends in broken relationships, isolation, loneliness, and despair.

But hear what the Lord says to St. Peter and to each of us in today’s Gospel:

“Whoever loves me will keep my word,

and my Father will love him,

and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

At every moment, at this moment, Jesus, with true sincerity in His eyes, asks:

“Do you love me?

Keep my word.”

And His word is simple: “Follow me.”

Loving Jesus and following Jesus begins with a choice to turn toward Him.

As we turn to Jesus with a simple look of love, we find that Jesus indeed dwells in the innermost depth of our souls, deeper than our sins, deeper than our weaknesses, deeper than our doubts, our insecurities and fears.

God is with us, not when we finally feel we’re “worth it,” but precisely when we feel most low, abandoned, unworthy and alone.

To follow Jesus is first to look at Jesus.

As the Devil tries to get us to fixate on our inadequacies, we simply turn our gaze instead to the love of Christ shining through them from within.

We give thanks to God for our inadequacies, because those are the very places where the radiant glory of His unconditional love for us shines forth most brightly from within.

In the very places we are inadequate, God allows us to see that this ardent love depends not on our merits, but on His own goodness.

And instead of shame, we begin to feel in those places the warmth of His love and the peace of His presence … the peace the world cannot give.

Today, at this Holy Mass, call to mind one place where you feel inadequate. 

As we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, ask Him for the grace to see the glory of His love shining forth from that very place.  

And the next time the Devil tempts us to “compare and despair,” flip the script. 

We shift our gaze from what we lack to the light of Christ who dwells within.

Then, affirmed by the unconditional yes of the love of Jesus, we turn back to our wife, our husband, our brother or sister, and return a blessing.

As we turn from the darkness to the light and return blessings rather than curses, shame fades in us, self-loathing dies in us, and love and peace reign in our hearts.

“Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble.”

And one day, as we meet our loved ones in the Kingdom of Heaven, beholding together the radiant face of the One who loves us so well, we shall hear Him say:

“Well done, good and faithful servants. Enter into your master’s joy.”

An Expanded Petrine Ministry?: The Pope Emeritus and the Petrine Office

On February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world by announcing his resignation from the papacy. The historic moment was described by Cardinal Angelo Sodano as “a bolt from out of the blue,” underlined by a very real lightning bolt which struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica later that evening.[1] With the subsequent election of Pope Francis, the Church has seen—for the first time since the Western Schism­­­—the spectacle of two living Popes, each retaining the title, style, and dress of the Roman Pontiff. Although Benedict has largely remained out of the limelight since the succession of Francis, to whom he has promised obedience,[2] the novelty of the present situation has naturally prompted various attempts at theological explanation for the very existence of a “Pope emeritus.” One theory holds that in renouncing the Petrine office, Pope Benedict has in fact taken up a new office in the Church, a “Johannine office”[3] complementary to that of Peter. Another theory maintains that the papal resignation has de facto effected an “expanded [Petrine] ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”[4]

Although neither theory is entirely satisfactory and all speculation must remain provisional until the Church rules on the question, the better theological explanation seems to be the second. First, there is no such thing as a “Johannine office” in the history of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the words of Benedict at the time of his resignation, as well as the testimony of Archbishop Gänswein, indicate that he understands himself not to have instituted a new office, but to have continued in a limited capacity to exercise the munus Petrinum, the office of Peter, in his service of prayer for the Church. Finally, the official legislation on bishops emeritusissued by the Congregation for Bishops under Pope John Paul II in 2004, offers a possible theological parallel, insofar as those bishops are said also to continue to participate in the munus episcoporum after retirement.

The office of Peter is established by Christ himself: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). As the Second Vatican Council reiterated, Christ “placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion.”[5] The Pope is “the successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the visible Head of the whole Church.”[6] This headship and primacy of Peter, attested since the earliest days of Christianity by such witnesses as St. Clement of Rome (c. 80 AD), is of necessity a unique office in the hierarchical constitution of the Church. As Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam sanctam has it, “This one and unique Church, therefore, has not two heads, like a monster, but one body and one head, namely, Christ, and his vicar, Peter’s successor.”[7] There is neither historical precedent nor theological warrant for a parallel and complementary “Johannine office,” any more than a Matthean, Barnabite or Pauline office, alongside the munus Petrinum. On the contrary, these apostles and their successors exercise the common munus apostolorum cum et sub Petro, with and beneath Peter.[8] Therefore, Robert Moynahan’s claim that Pope Benedict, after his resignation, “would now carry out a slightly different office, a ‘Johannine’ office,”[9] raises more problems than it solves. There exists no such office for Benedict to accept, and the idea that the Pope emeritus “would carry out the office of John, not of Peter”[10] effectively establishes a second “pontificate of John,” giving the body of Christ a second head.

At the time of his resignation, Pope Benedict indicated that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, [were] no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry [munus Petrinum]” and therefore declared his decision to “renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.”[11] He was clear about the juridical effects of his resignation: “The See of Saint Peter … will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked.”[12] However, having once accepted the Petrine ministry, Benedict says, 

I was engaged always and forever by the Lord … The ‘always’ is also a ‘for ever; – there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter.[13]

The active exercise of the munus Petrinum, then, including the power of governance proper to that office for the governance of the Church, belongs entirely to Benedict’s successor in the See of Peter: “The plena potestas, the plenitudo potestatis [full power, incarnate authority] is in the hands of Pope Francis. He is the man who has right now the succession of Peter.”[14] Benedict, however, sees himself as retaining a principal part of the munus Petrinum, “the service of prayer” for the Church. This aspect of the Petrine ministry was bestowed by the Lord in his final commission to St. Peter: “Strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). To pray for the Church as her head is not a new “Johannine office,” but the properly contemplative dimension of the one and only Petrine office. Therefore, Archbishop Gänswein maintains that Benedict “has not abandoned the Office of Peter — something which would have been entirely impossible for him after his irrevocable acceptance of the office in April 2005.”[15] Rather, since the election of Francis, the Petrine office has become de facto an “expanded ministry—with an active member and a contemplative member.”[16] There is indeed one head of the Church, Pope Francis, the legitimately elected Roman Pontiff who possesses the plenitude potestatis and exercises the active ministry of Peter. But there is also one “Pope emeritus,” sharing in the contemplative dimension of the Petrine ministry. 

For his part, Pope Francis has expressed his gratitude for this service: “Benedict is in the monastery praying … He is the wise grandfather. He is the man that protects my shoulders and back with his prayer.”[17] Indeed, Francis has speculated in the future, there may be multiple Popes emeritus “like the bishops emeriti … Possibly there could be two or three.”[18] Therefore, the task ahead for theologians and canon lawyers in the Curia is the official legislation of the ministry of “Pope emeritus,” as the Congregation for Bishops issued in 2004 for bishops emeritus. The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops indicates that the reigning bishop and bishops emeritus are to maintain a fraternal relationship: “The diocesan Bishop will value the good that the Bishop Emeritus can accomplish, for the Church in general and for the local diocese in particular, through his prayer, perhaps through suffering accepted with love, through the example of his priestly life and through his counsel when it is requested.”[19] The bishop emeritus, for his part, is instructed to “avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan Bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community,” since “the diocesan Bishop alone is the head of the diocese, responsible for its governance.”[20]

In summary, to speak of a “Johannine office” is inappropriate with respect to the Pope emeritus. This office does not exist in the tradition of the Church, and its institution would only raise the difficulty of a novel “parallel authority” alongside that of Peter. The better theological interpretation, advanced by Gänswein and indicated by Benedict’s own self-understanding, is that the Pope emeritus continues to be of service to the Church in his prayer, suffering, example, and counsel, exercising the contemplative dimension of the munus Petrinum in strengthening his brethren, including his own successor. This situation, although unprecedented in the See of Peter, closely reflects the reality lived by diocesan bishops and bishops emeritus around the world.

The Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops specifies the “rights of the Bishop Emeritus in relation to the Episcopal Munera,”[21] which include preaching and the celebration of the sacraments, as well as sustenance and a place to live within the diocese he has served. The question to be resolved in future legislation concerns precisely those rights of the Pope emeritus in relation to the munus Petrinum. Will future Popes emeritus be permitted to continue to live in the Vatican after retirement, or to speak publicly and publish written works, as Benedict has done? These are thorny issues that the Church must soon answer, guided by the principles of fraternal relationship and rights of bishops emeritus outlined above by the Congregation for Bishops, always taking care to safeguard the primacy of the one Successor of Peter as the source of unity of the Church.


[1] Diane Montagna, “Complete English Text: Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech,” Aleteia (blog), May 30, 2016,

[2] “Full text: Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia,” Catholic News Agency, June 26, 2016,

[3] Dr. Robert Moynahan, “Letter #44, 2015: Benedict in Prayer,” Inside the Vatican (blog), October 15, 2015,

[4] Montagna, “Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech.”

[5] Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (November 21, 1964), §18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Boniface VIII, Bull Unam sanctam (November 18, 1302), in Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum: Compendium of Creeds, Definitions and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, eds. Peter Hünermann, Robert Fastiggi, Anne Englund Nash, 43rd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 872. 

[8] Congregation for Bishops, Apostolorum successores [Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops] (February 22, 2004)introduction. See also §11.

[9] Moynahan, “Letter #44.”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Benedict XVI, Declaratio (10 February 2013). 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Benedict XVI, General Audience (27 Feb 2013). Emphasis added.

[14] Maike Hickson, “Interview: Archbishop Gänswein on Benedict, The Two Popes, and Prophecy,” OnePeterFive (blog), June 28, 2016,

[15] Montagna, “Gänswein’s May 20 ‘Expanded Petrine Office’ Speech.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Pope Francis’ in-flight press conference from Armenia,” Catholic News Agency.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Apostolorum Successores, §226.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Apostolorum Successores, §227.

The First Key of Prayer

“True prayer, like true love, is a decision, not a feeling.”

Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, “Twelve Keys of Prayer,” in Prayer of the Hours, pp. 231-2

To the Neophytes

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Today, at the conclusion of the Easter octave, we heard this beautiful entrance antiphon: “Quasi modo geniti infantes…” “Like newborn children, cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit!” (1 Peter 2:2). You, my dear brothers and sisters, are those children, who eight days ago emerged from the fount of Baptism as newborn sons and daughters of God. For eight days, we have rejoiced in calling you fellow members of God’s family, the Church! Now it is our task to teach you something of what it means to live this new life in Christ. 

St. Peter has taught us the first and most essential lesson: “Cry out for the clean and pure milk of the spirit!” What is this “spiritual milk” but the grace of the Risen Lord? And how do we cry out for it but by prayer? Little children do not hesitate to cry out to their parents in every need. If they are hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely, sad, or afflicted in any way whatsoever, they naturally cry out for Mommy or Daddy to fix it! 

Crying out is a necessity, not just for newborns and neophytes, but for all who would like to “change and become like little children” (Matthew 18:3)—and all of us must do this if we want to enter into the kingdom of Heaven! Therefore, like little children, cry out to the Lord in every need. Set aside moments of prayer throughout your day to lift your heart to Him, to pour out your heart to God, with all of your experiences, pains, desires, hopes and joys. 

However, there are two truths you must remember. First, “true prayer, like true love, is a decision, not a feeling.” You may go to your prayer and feel that nothing changes. Very well! Feelings come and go. What is important is that you choose to pray and remain faithful to your commitment, continuing to come to Him with childlike simplicity even when it feels dry and God seems far away. It is in the dryness and absence that the gold of faith and trust is forged. 

Second, we do not “‘use’ prayer to deal with crises or passing desires.” The point of prayer is to be with God, “to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (St. Teresa). Like any relationship of love, the point is not what we get out of it. On any given day, prayer may make us feel better, or it may not, just as the company of a friend (or spouse!) may delight us one day and annoy us the next. However you feel, simply tell the Lord about your distress and leave it in His hands. His solution may not look like what we would have planned or designed for ourselves, but isn’t that often the way with children? He knows how to deal with our crises better than we do.  Our part is to cry out … and leave the rest to Him.


“The liturgy requires an artistic transposition, originating in the spirit of faith, of the music of the cosmos into human music that glorifies the Word made flesh.”

Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, pp. 480-93

To the Parish Choir

Let’s be honest: church music has been in a state of crisis for many years now. Those of you who lived through those years after the Second Vatican Council know what I am talking about. One Sunday, there was a parish choir which sang Gregorian chants and beautiful, traditional hymns in four-part harmony. The next Sunday, there was a folk band strumming out feel-good music on banjos and guitars. In this parish, we are blessed to have an excellent choir once again, devoted to singing beautiful music for the glory of God and to leading our people in prayer and praise. Nonetheless, we must ask— What happened in those years? Why did the Church change her music at all? 

On one level, it’s a pastoral question. The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, call for the actual participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Certain liturgists took this to mean that everyone in church must be doing something at all times. They took it as a pastoral need, therefore, to disband the old choirs, with their “elitist” music, and start singing simple tunes so that everyone could join in. Music was reduced to something purely functional, “community-building” at our community meal. Beauty, artistic value, was relatively low on the priority list. 

However, there is a deeper theological reason for the change, and that is a resurgence of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a perennial temptation in the Church. It is as old as the origins of Christianity, when Christians left the Temple to worship in the house churches. Many theologians regarded Christianity as opposed to Temple, cult, and priesthood and concluded that Christian worship must therefore be “profane,” commonplace. The spirit of iconoclasm sprung up in the East in the seventh and eighth centuries with the destruction of icons; it ravaged the West after the Protestant Revolt, when John Calvin and his followers whitewashed churches, toppled statues, and desecrated the Blessed Sacrament in the name of a purer, reformed Church. 

Like the iconoclasts of old, many Catholics today are convinced that “Puritan functionalism” and a liturgy of the commonplace is truer to the original spirit of Christianity. But they are mistaken. “Church music with artistic pretensions is not contrary to the nature of Christian liturgy but, rather, is a necessary way of expressing belief in the universal glory of Jesus Christ” (Ratzinger, 491). Our liturgy, like the Tempe liturgy of old, is supposed to be glorious, “disclosing … the glorification of God that lies hidden in the cosmos and causing it to resound” (ibid).  To do this, sacred music must be beautiful, the words must be comprehensible, and the beauty of words and melody together must draw the hearts of the listeners upwards to the harmonies of heaven. This is noble work. Psallite sapienter!


“The liturgical year is the life of Christ lived out in liturgical time … from his Birth to the Passion, from his Death to the Resurrection, and from his Ascension to Pentecost.”

Fr. Samuel Weber, “Introduction to the Liturgical Year,” 11-12

On a Catholic Radio Program

The Roman Catholic liturgy is made up of sacred signs. Signs point to something beyond themselves. And in the liturgy, all the signs—the sounds, the smells, the sacred music, the vestments, the sacred art and architecture—point in some way to the mystery of Jesus Christ, our beloved Lord, God and man, who suffered, died, and was buried, and rose again for our salvation.

Now there are signs which are more than signs. We call these sacraments. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass contains the sacrament of sacraments, the Body and Blood of Our Lord., which are not merely a sign, but the Real Presence of Jesus. But there are many other sacred signs which, although they are not sacraments, help to dispose us to receive the grace of the sacraments. 

Think of holy water, which reminds us of our baptism, when we were cleansed from sin and born into the new life of grace. Holy water is a sign of our need today, and every day, for repentance, cleansing, redemption and grace. Or think of the ashes sprinkled on our heads at the beginning of Lent: “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The ashes are a sign of our mortality, but also of life. On our own, we are only dust, but it is from this dust that Jesus raises up, making us participants in his glory, if we only allow our lives to be renewed through his mercy. 

The liturgical year is the Church living out of the life of Christ, from his Birth in Bethlehem to the Passion, from his Death on Calvary to the Resurrection, and from his Ascension into heaven to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The season of Lent corresponds to the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism, praying and fasting, acquiring the strength to reject the temptations of Satan and to carry out his ministry of mercy. With Jesus, the Church enters the desert, praying, fasting, and doing works of mercy.

It is no coincidence that this season of Lent occurs in the spring, when the world is waking up again after a long winter. The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, yet in our churches things are more austere. We have no flowers, less music. The priest and the altar are dressed in somber violet vestments rather than joyful white or gold. The Passover is celebrated in spring, and the Lord’s Passion and death on the cross occurred on the Passover Sabbath. The spiritual significance is clear: through death to life. The natural world speaks of the eternal life to come, but the only way to that life is through a prior death. There is no Easter without Lent.

Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Symphony of Sources

Among the greats of modern Catholic theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar stands apart as “the twentieth century’s premier ressourcement theologian.”[1] His theological work, radiating out from its radically Christological and Trinitarian heart, scanning the self-revelation of God according to the categories of the beautiful, the good and the true, and touching upon ecclesiology, missiology, eschatology and all the attendant concerns of the Church in the modern world, actively resists easy categorization. It is perhaps unsurprising that, “when set against the wider background of twentieth-century theology, the figure of Hans Urs von Balthasar comes across as rather isolated, even lonely.” Like the theology of the Fathers, Balthasar’s work is sui generis, occupying a niche of his own creation. However, he is no idle innovator; Balthasar is in fact “both intensely traditional (perhaps the most traditional of all twentieth-century theologians) and yet also astonishingly, startingly idiosyncratic.[2] His thought emerges from deep within the living tradition of the Fathers and of High Scholasticism, the sources from which he sought to renew the Church. This paper will trace Balthasar’s most significant “sources of renewal” among the Fathers, as well as the German Romantics, high culture and contemporary theologians, before concluding with a summary of his contributions to the development of theology today.

Balthasar was born in 1905 into a highly cultured family in Lucerne, Switzerland. His aristocratic origins and cultured upbringing may account in some measure for a deep, lifelong affinity for music, literature and the arts; his doctorate, for example, was in Germanistik, “a compound discipline of literature and philosophy … analyzing and evaluating texts in their philosophical, spiritual, and affective tenor, as somehow indicators of wider cultural trends.”[3]Henri de Lubac is quoted as saying that Balthasar was “probably the most cultured man in Europe” at the time.[4] This is significant since, as Aidan Nichols has it, “the style is the man,”[5] and Balthasar’s unique style is deeply indebted to his cultural background. For example, a key theme of Balthasar’s theology is that “truth is symphonic,” that, just as “all the instruments” in an orchestra “are integrated in a whole sound,”[6] so truth is a “polyphony of revelation,”[7] a multiplicity of voices in a “unity of composition” which “comes from God.”[8]

Balthasar’s lifelong attentiveness to cultural trends and questions may also provide an insight into his preference, when he later began his philosophical and theological studies, for the theological method of the Church Fathers over that of the Neo-Scholastics. The early twentieth century had made a clear “separation between ‘secular’ and theological studies,”[9] resulting in a divorce between the real human questions arising in the broader culture and the abstract, often self-referential answers provided by academic theology. Balthasar, by contrast, felt that the urgent task of the theologian was to “respond,” from deep within the Catholic tradition and the sources of revelation, to the “cultural situation” of the modern world.[10] For Balthasar, “theological questions were not separable from human questions.”[11] It is unsurprising, then, that in addition to his extracurricular reading of contemporary philosophers such as Blondel, Bergson, and Heidegger, Balthasar came to favor the style of Patristic theology over the “sawdust Thomism”[12] which comprised his official theological education: “For the Fathers, as for Balthasar, it was only obvious that Christ would have something to say to the philosophical questions of the day, insofar as, in Christ, God’s dialogue with humanity was now to occur in the context of human language and culture.”[13] In his theology classes as a Jesuit scholastic, he was known to sit through lectures with his ears stuffed, reading the works of Augustine,[14] and his earliest works as a theologian include monographs on Maximus the Confessor, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, among others. 

Far from merely historical explorations, Balthasar’s early efforts at ressourcement were marked very much by his concern to answer the live questions of his day: “Balthasar reads the Fathers from the setting of his own evangelical strategies, tailored as these were to modernity’s cultural situation.”[15] He was critical of a certain naïve nostalgia in vogue among other ressourcement theologians, a tendency to “look on the time of the Fathers” with “an almost Romantic longing.”[16] Rather than giving way to the desire to return to a former golden age of Christendom, Balthasar sought to apply the thought of past generations of Christians to the modern world, assured that the vitality of Patristic theology would take on a new relevance in the light of present questions. 

Inspired by German Romanticism since his Germanistik days, Balthasar was also keenly interested as a theologian in the potential of the affective faculties of the soul to discover truth, or better, to be impressed by the truth through a perception of its splendor. Conscious that “the exact sciences no longer have any time to spare” for beauty, “nor does theology, in so far as it increasingly strives to follow the method of the exact sciences and to envelope [sic] itself in their atmosphere,”[17] Balthasar embarked on a sixteen-volume theological trilogy which would become his life’s masterwork. Beginning with The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Balthasar aimed “to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful”[18] and thereby to restore aesthetics to its rightful place within the science of theology. For Balthasar, beauty (pulchrum) is “the manner in which God’s goodness (bonum) gives itself and is expressed by God and understood by man as the truth (verum).”[19] Beauty compels us, draws us out of ourselves spontaneously; it “brings with it a self-evidence that enlightens without mediation.”[20] Here, too, one detects the Patristic influence on Balthasar, particularly that of Gregory of Nyssa, who understood that beauty is a transcendental and that the attractiveness of the beautiful has the power to draw the soul upward to the contemplation of divine truths:

When the soul is moved towards what is naturally lovely, it seems to me that this is the sort of passionate desire with which it is moved. Beginning with the loveliness it sees, it is drawn upwards to what is transcendent. The soul is forever inflaming its desire for what is hidden, by means of what it has already grasped. For this reason, the ardent lover of beauty understands what is seen as an image of what he desires, and yearns to be filled with the actual substance (χαρακτήρ] of the archetype.[21]

Therefore, Balthasar chose to begin his theological trilogy by considering God’s self-revelation as beautiful, rather than as good or true, which the latter parts of the trilogy, Theo-Dramatics and Theo-Logic, would address. He was aware that “without beauty … the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out,” while the logic embodied in scholastic syllogisms becomes “a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone.”[22] Together, theological aesthetics, dramatics and logic would offer a truly symphonic approach to Christian revelation: “The pulchrum, with which Balthasar opens his trilogy, is the primordial appearing of love’s gratuity, which, as such, contains both the good (the beautiful is an appearing of gratuity) and the true (the beautiful is an appearing of gratuity, which therefore appeals to logos).”[23]

In addition to the Fathers, the Romantics, and the high culture of his youth, Balthasar was profoundly influenced by two contemporary theologians. The greatest influence on his early theological work was no doubt that of Henri de Lubac, the great patristic scholar and Balthasar’s “old friend and master”[24] at Lyons, whose book Catholicisme: les aspects sociaux du dogme he regarded as “the key book of twentieth-century Catholic theology.”[25] For Balthasar, it proposed a compelling answer to the problem of the place of Christianity in an increasingly post-Christian and secularized world. De Lubac traced the roots of modern secularism back to the medieval philosophy of nominalism, which first introduced the concept of pura natura, human nature without grace, and in turn gave rise to “the neo-scholastic notion that human beings have two separate ends, a natural end—happiness in this world—which can be achieved through their natural powers, and a supernatural end—the face-to-face vision of God—which can only be achieved through superadded grace.”[26] For de Lubac, the divide between nature and supernature already contained the seeds of practical atheism; a straight line could be traced from the pura natura of the nominalists through the excessive rationalism and objectivism of neoscholasticism and on to the secularism of modernity. As a remedy, de Lubac proposed a return to the Alexandrian theology of nature and grace, which held that man is “inherently open to the supernatural”[27] and that therefore, while grace is “a good superadded to the natural good,”[28] the divine end to which grace is the means is not a “finality superadded to natural finality,”[29] but present from the beginning. Human beings do not have two ends, but one, namely, to see God. Grace, therefore, was not something extrinsic to human nature, but in fact the fulfillment of that nature, which is “by nature ordered to an end that it is not equipped by nature to attain.”[30]

Balthasar followed de Lubac’s theology closely and appreciated the potential it offered for dialogue with secular modernity: if man had a natural openness to the supernatural, then “the modern period … was not, for all of its forgetfulness of God, any more theologically neutral than any period before it.”[31] However, he was not unaware of the difficulties presented by this revolution in the theology of nature and grace. In a book-length tribute to his former teacher, he offered a cautious critique, saying that de Lubac’s theory of nature and grace was “not completely rounded out,”[32]and later wondered whether it “can hold up when all its implications are thought through to their logical conclusion.”[33]In particular, he observed that it had the potential to undermine the gratuitousness of grace, “somehow making grace a requirement of nature”[34] and collapsing the distinction between the two. 

Balthasar was also influenced by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, whom he came to know during his time as chaplain at the University of Basel and with whom he engaged in a kind of “dialectical relation,”[35] culminating in his publication of a book-length treatise on Barth’s theology in 1951. Barth, like de Lubac, “saw modern secularism as a result of a failure at the level of Christology”[36] and proposed a theology which took the person of Jesus Christ, rather than philosophical first principles or human subjectivity, as its starting point. Balthasar greatly appreciated Barth’s Christocentrism and the dynamic character of his theology, the awareness that “God acts in radical freedom, and is known in his acts … known better in narrated interaction than in abstraction.”[37] On the other hand, he sought to purify Barth’s theology of “a certain disvaluing of creation,”[38] which he detected especially in the latter’s dismissiveness of natural theology and the power of human reason to attain to knowledge of God. This fault arose from a false dualism in Barth’s conception of “the God-world relationship, and the interrelation of God and man in grace,”[39] which Balthasar could correct largely due to de Lubac’s influence: 

Barth responds to an immanentized and secularized account of natural human capacity for God by a fierce assertion of divine grace, failing to appreciate that any such natural capacity cannot be conceived apart from divine grace. Balthasar’s counter-suggestion is that Barth’s objection to a degraded natural theology is better met by reaffirming the unity of nature and grace.[40]

In this book, Balthasar also contributed to a resolution of the problem of nature and grace, still controversial today in Catholic theology, by proposing a reading of nature as a parable of grace: “The whole of creation and its order is undoubtedly the free gift of God,”[41] Balthasar argues, which is not “to be equated [with] the actual grace of God’s supernatural self-disclosure,”[42] but nonetheless is an appearing of the gratuity of love: “God could have ordered the world in many other different ways … That he chose this total arrangement that furnishes so much beneficence to the individual as well as to the whole can certainly be characterized as a ‘grace’.”[43]

Finally, no account of the major influences on Balthasar’s theology would be complete without mention of Adrienne von Speyr, the Swiss Protestant doctor who converted to Catholicism under Balthasar’s direction during these same years of his university chaplaincy. Speyr was a recipient of mystical “graces not seen since Teresa of Avila,”[44]according to Balthasar’s own reports, including the “yearly reliving of the descent of Christ into hell.”[45] Meeting von Speyr introduced a mystical element into Balthasar’s theology and a lived sense of the dynamism of God, “the strange, transformative, and all-demanding impact of God’s self-disclosure on the believer.”[46] It is no doubt due to her direct experience of the descent that Balthasar proposes that the Lord descended truly and fully into hell on Holy Saturday: 

Jesus was truly dead, because he really became a man as we are, a son of Adam, and therefore, despite what one can sometimes read in certain theological works, he did not use the so-called ‘brief’ time of his death for all manner of activities in the world beyond. In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead.[47]

For Balthasar, there was no part of man’s fallenness, even the experience of death, that the Lord did not experience and take up into himself. Most indicative of Speyr’s influence on Balthasar, however, is his own statement at the outset of one of his final works: “This book has one chief aim: to prevent any attempt being made after my death to separate my work from that of Adrienne von Speyr. It will show that in no respect is this possible.”[48]

The scope of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s contribution to the development of theology in the twentieth century is difficult to overstate. During the pontificate of John Paul II, von Balthasar was described by one journalist (perhaps somewhat polemically) as having moved from “an institutional misfit excluded from Vatican II, to the court theologian of today’s Vatican.”[49] The Polish pope certainly held the Swiss theologian in high esteem, elevating him to the cardinalate mere days before his death. There are clear theological affinities between Balthasar’s theology and John Paul II’s magisterium, including the conviction that “beauty … as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal”[50] and the understanding—following de Lubac’s theory of nature and grace and echoing the Christocentrism of Barth—that the saving mission of Christ brings “humanity to its fullness not only in terms of a future or separate eternal life but also as a hundredfold of fulfillment of our natural desire for God in this life.”[51] One might even trace a direct line of influence in one key aspect of John Paul II’s ecclesiology, first proposed by Balthasar in 1986, that “the Church lives both by a Petrine principle of apostolic ministry and by a Marian principle of life and fruitful receptivity. Of the two, the Marian principle is primary.”[52]

The influence of von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics can even be seen in the magisterium of Pope Francis, who claimed in his first encyclical that “every expression of true beauty can … be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” and called for “a renewed esteem for beauty as a means of touching the human heart and enabling the truth and goodness of the Risen Christ to radiate within it.”[53] Of course, the mutual influence and lifelong friendship of Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger is well known; along with Henri de Lubac and other collaborators, the two friends co-founded the theological journal Communio in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The threads of influence between these two great theologians are too numerous and interwoven to enumerate briefly. It must suffice to quote the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI’s remark, on the centenary of his friend’s birth, “that von Balthasar’s life was a genuine quest for the truth, which he understood as a search for true Life. He sought everywhere for traces of God’s presence and truth: in philosophy, in literature, in the religions, always managing to break those circuits that make reason a prisoner of itself and opening it to the spaces of the infinite.”[54]

In a post-modern world increasingly hardened against the Gospel by secularism and atheism, Balthasar provides a compelling witness of the continued possibility of engagement between theology and culture. Twenty-first century man, despite the indifference or outright hostility he might exhibit at times to Christianity, is still made for the vision of God. Priests today would do well to follow Balthasar’s example of “theology on one’s knees,”[55] drawing from the inexhaustible sources—above all in one’s individual life of prayer and meditation upon God’s self-revelation in Scripture and tradition—to address the real questions of post-modern culture with a fresh and vigorous proclamation of the Mystery of Christ. 


[1] Edward T. Oakes, SJ, “Balthasar and Ressourcement: An Ambiguous Relationship,” in Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, ed. Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), 288.

[2] David Moss and Edward T. Oakes, SJ, The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 7.

[3] Aidan Nichols, OP, Balthasar for Thomists (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2020), 14.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 3: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), back cover.

[5] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 31.

[6] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 7.

[7] Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 11.

[8] Balthasar, Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, 9.

[9] Rodney A. Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 2.

[10] Paul Silas Peterson, The Early Hans Urs von Balthasar: Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015), 283.

[11] Howsare, Balthasar, 3.

[12] Moss and Oakes, Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 2.

[13] Howsare, Balthasar, 2.

[14] Peter Henrici, “A Sketch of von Balthasar’s Life,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 14.

[15] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 28.

[16] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Fathers, the Scholastics and Ourselves,” Communio 24 (1997): 350.

[17] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1: Seeing the Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982),18.

[18] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:9.

[19] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:11.

[20] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:36.

[21] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2:231, trans. Anthony Meredith, S.J. (London: Routledge, 1999), 106.

[22] Balthasar, Glory of the Lord, 1:19.

[23] Adrian Walker, “Love Alone: Hans Urs von Balthasar as a Master of Theological Renewal,” Communio 32 (2005): 532, fn. 28.

[24] Hans Urs von Balthasar, My Work in Retrospect, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 48.

[25] Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 71.

[26] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 11.

[27] Oakes, “Balthasar and Ressourcement,” 285.

[28] Henri de Lubac, SJ, “Supernatural and Superadded,” in Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook, ed. Patricia Kelly (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 58-59.

[29] De Lubac, “Supernatural,” 59.

[30] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 15.

[31] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 3.

[32] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac: An Overview, trans. Joseph Fessio, SJ and Michael Waldstein (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 63.

[33] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, trans. Edward T. Oakes, SJ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 297.

[34] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 298.

[35] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 22.

[36] Howsare, Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed, 25.

[37] Ben Quash, “The theo-drama,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. and David Moss(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 145-146.

[38] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 21.

[39] Ibid. 

[40] John Webster, “Balthasar and Karl Bath,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, , ed. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. and David Moss (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 251.

[41] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 277.

[42] Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 279.

[43] Domenico Palmieri, Tractatus de gratia divina actualis (Gulpen: M. Alberts, 1885), 7-8, qtd. in Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 278.

[44] Moss and Oakes, Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, 4.

[45] Nichols, Balthasar for Thomists, 29.        

[46] Quash, “The theo-drama,” 146.

[47] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 148-149.

[48] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Our Task (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 13.

[49] Margaret Hebbelthwaite, “Balthasar’s Golden Touch,” The Tablet (20 September 1997), 1208.

[50] John Paul II, “Letter to Artists” (4 April 1999), §16.

[51] Leahy, “John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar,” 36.

[52] Avery Dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York: Crossroad, 1999)115. See Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Elucidations (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986). 

[53] Francis, Evangelii gaudium [The Joy of the Gospel] (24 November 2013), §167.

[54] Benedict XVI, “Message for the Centenary of the Birth of Fr Hans Urs von Balthasar” (6 October 2005).

[55] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 206.