The Month of the Sacred Heart and the Year of St. Paul

The Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced by a soldier’s lance while Jesus still hung on the cross after his death, is a symbol of God’s infinite mercy. God’s desire to forgive our sins becomes visible in Jesus’ wounded heart; we see God’s infinite love captured in a finite human heart. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us on June 1 that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is traditional in the month of June, and he called for its renewal.Living with an undivided heart means being centered on what is most important and bringing everything in life together in a single-hearted way. Jesus lived and died in order to accomplish his Father’s will. The great saints were men and women of undivided heart, their lives filled by the desire to serve God without reserve.

At the end of June, the feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul will mark the church’s entry into the Year of Paul, June 2008 to June 2009. The pope proclaimed this year in order to help us come to know St. Paul the Apostle and to understand his teaching more thoroughly. Almost half the books of the New Testament are letters attributed to St. Paul, and the second reading of the Sunday liturgy is often taken from them. Yet, looking at my own use of the Sunday Scriptures, I notice that I most often preach on the Gospel of the Sunday and the first reading from the Old Testament, which the liturgy links to the Gospel reading. The message from St. Paul in the second reading is often only cursorily acknowledged.

Perhaps it’s simply easier to rely on the parables and stories of the Gospels and the events recorded in the Old Testament than to work with the more abstract texts of St. Paul. Preachers are more at ease with stories than with arguments. Unlike the other apostles, St. Paul met Jesus only after the Lord had risen from the dead. From this encounter and his consequent conversion, Paul’s life was re-centered. Everything in his life and teaching took on a unified purpose.

Paul got to the essentials about God’s self-revelation in Jesus without having spent time traveling and living with Jesus before he was crucified. Paul didn’t have a lot of personal anecdotes about Jesus. In this, Paul is like ourselves. We meet Jesus in the sacraments of the church and the preaching of the Gospel, and it is the risen Christ who comes to us now and transforms our lives.

One of Pope Benedict’s goals in declaring a Year of Paul is to encourage ecumenical relations. Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith in the epistle to the Romans became a painful source of doctrinal division among Christians that has been re-thought and re-examined in recent years. In 1999, Catholic and Lutheran authorities signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification to reflect the extent to which our two faith communities can agree on what Paul taught.

It was a happy moment for me nine years ago when I could stand next to a Lutheran bishop and say with him: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” This agreement calls for deeper mutual conversion and growth in faith, and Pope Benedict has this goal in mind for the Year of Paul.

The coming year will help us grow spiritually, if we take to heart Paul’s teachings. The coming year should also help us grow as evangelizers, if we take to heart Paul’s example. I have on my desk a small stone from the agora of Corinth in Greece, the market place and city square where St. Paul preached. I look at it each day and ask where the church should be preaching in the world today in order to bring men and women to Christ.

In his homily during the Mass at Yankee Stadium during his recent visit to our country, Pope Benedict preached, “the church’s unity is apostolic. It is a visible unity, grounded in the apostles whom Christ chose and appointed as witnesses to his resurrection, and it is born of what the Scriptures call ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:5).”

Reflecting further on words from St. Paul, the pope explained: “When we put on ‘the mind of Christ’ (Phil 2:5), new horizons open before us! In the light of faith, within the communion of the church, we also find the inspiration and strength to become a leaven of the Gospel in the world.”

The Year of Paul should find us on a common apostolic journey, deepening our unity in faith and our obedience in action. May God bless you with an undivided heart centered on the love of God.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

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Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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