25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
This Monday, 9/21, is the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle. St. Matthew is not just one of the 12 Apostles, he also the author of one of the Gospels, and he includes his own conversion story in his account of the life of Christ. We know that before encountering Christ, St. Matthew worked as a tax collector for the Roman Empire. Since it was common practice of tax collectors to extort extra money from non-Roman subjects of the Empire, he would have been considered a traitor by his Jewish brethren. In the 9th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel he describes the moment when Jesus was passing by the customs post where he was sitting, engaged in his work. Our Lord said to Matthew, “Follow me.” At that, Matthew “got up and followed him.”
Interestingly, Matthew places the account of his conversion immediately following Our Lord’s healing of a paralytic. Seeing the faith of the friends of the paralytic, Jesus first forgives the man’s sins before commanding him to rise and walk home. It is unlikely that the pairing of these stories is accidental. The movement of Christ is contrasted with Matthew’s sitting at his post. It is implied that Matthew is “stuck,” that he is rendered paralyzed by his sinful life. The encounter with Christ liberates him from his sins, and he is able to get up and follow the Lord along the way. Just as the faith of the friends of the paralytic led to his healing by Christ, we must not underestimate the power of our prayers for the conversion of loved ones who are also stuck in sin and find themselves far away from God. Christ is always passing by, calling out to us: “Follow me.” We pray that, like St. Matthew, all might notice Him and hear His voice, and rise from our place to follow Him along the way.
Here’s an interesting video about the artist Caravaggio that gives a very good analysis of his masterpiece: The Call of St. Matthew.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most remarkable places in the world. The current church dates back to the 11th century, and is built on the ruins of one that dates back to the 4th century. Within this church are the sites of Our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. I remember the first time I went there, climbing the steps to the chapel on the site of Calvary, and venerating the place where Our Lord was crucified. There, under the Altar of the Crucifixion, is a small holy image – an icon – depicting Jesus at the moment when the soldiers vested Him in a purple cloak, placed a reed in His hand, and a crown of thorns on His head. His face bears a sad but loving expression. The title of this icon, I later learned, is “Christ the Bridegroom.” At the time, I thought it a strange title. But it actually makes perfect sense, if we consider the significance of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
Marriage is something that has existed since the dawn of humanity. In the Creation story found in the Book of Genesis, God creates the man and the woman, giving them to each other, and after blessing them He instructs them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). In the next chapter, describing the relationship between Adam and Eve, the scripture speaks of marriage, saying: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). From there, marriage becomes a running theme throughout Sacred Scripture, and the relationship between God and His People is described using the imagery of a suitor wooing His bride – especially in the books of the Prophets and the Song of Songs. In the New Testament, Our Lord speaks of the indissolubility of the marriage bond between husband and wife – “what God has joined, let no man separate” (Mt 19; Mk 10). He also makes use of many parables that describe the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a wedding banquet (Mt 22; Lk 14). Finally, in the Book of Revelation, the Sacred Scriptures conclude with a vision of heaven that is described as the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb,” the lamb referring to the one who had been sacrificed, and yet was living and victorious over the enemies of God’s people (Rev 19). St. Paul connects all of the dots in his letter to the Ephesians, where he describes marriage between husband and wife as “a great mystery,” revealing the relationship between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride (Eph 5). The word “mystery” can also be translated “sacrament,” and we know that one definition of a sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” So, the marriage between husband and wife was established by God to be a visible sign to the world of the invisible bond between Christ and the Church.
When it comes to Jesus’ relationship with the Church, we say it is three things: 1) faithful, 2) fruitful, and 3) forever. Our Lord is faithful to His Bride, the Church. In the Old Testament, despite Israel’s infidelities, the Lord never abandons His People, He remains faithful. That is true for Christ’s fidelity to the Church, which is the fulfillment of the Chosen People of Israel. Despite the sins of the members of the Church, the Lord always remains faithful to us. The relationship between Christ and the Church is also fruitful – it is life-giving. It was through Christ’s sacrifice, His death and resurrection, that we are able to receive new life in grace. Reborn in Christ through our entrance into the Church through baptism, we are filled with the new life of the Risen Christ, and receive a share in His victory over death. Finally, the relationship between Christ and the Church is forever. Nothing can break the bond that Christ enjoys with the Church. The union is permanent, surviving the threat of sin and death, and lasting for all of eternity.
The fidelity, fruitfulness, and permanence of Christ’s relationship with the Church is revealed and made visible in Holy Matrimony through the relationship between the husband and wife. Their relationship, like that of Christ and the Church, is faithful. The husband and wife promise to give themselves exclusively to each other, saying “I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” This expression of fidelity through the wedding promises is then expressed bodily through the marital act, where husband and wife give themselves to each other totally, to the exclusion of all others. Thus, polygamy is not compatible with the fidelity intrinsic to Holy Matrimony. Interestingly, the Lord often likens the idolatrous practices of the Israelites, who often gave into the temptation to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors, to adultery – an act of betrayal against the promise of fidelity in marriage. By being true to their promise of fidelity to each other, the spouses reveal the perfect fidelity of Christ to the Church.
The relationship of the spouses is also fruitful. The Incarnation of Christ, His becoming man, allowed Him to offer Himself in the flesh as a sacrifice for the sake of our redemption. Through that sacrifice, we have new life. This too is made visible in the relationship of the husband and wife in Holy Matrimony. Having made their promises to each other before God and the Church at the wedding, the two become one in the flesh. Through this union comes new life in the form of children, whom the spouses raise together as parents, and whom they raise to know, love, and serve the Lord. Thus, we see that sexual intercourse within marriage is created by God to be a great good, for it is the bodily expression of the loving union of the spouses, from which springs forth new life. That’s why actions that intentionally reject the good of procreation, and which preclude the possibility of new life, are always sinful, for they do not resemble or participate in the life-giving union of Christ and the Church which was made possible by the wedding of Christ’s humanity to His divinity through the Incarnation.
Finally, the relationship between the husband and wife in Holy Matrimony is permanent. At their wedding, the spouses promise each other: “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” Nothing can dissolve the sacramental bond of Holy Matrimony, including a civil divorce decree – except the death of one of the spouses. Holy Matrimony ends with death because the marriage bond between the husband and wife is no longer necessary in Heaven, where the invisible reality of the eternal bond of love between Christ and the Church, of which Holy Matrimony is a sign in the world, is made fully manifest. This does not mean, of course, that the love of those who were spouses in this life comes to an end with death – far from it. The love that they had for each other, which grew and matured through their lifelong fidelity to each other, is perfected in the presence of the One who is Love itself. They who were spouses in the world love each other all the more in Heaven, expressing eternal gratitude to each other for their mutual help in attaining their eternal reward.
Marriage, of course, is not easy even in the best of relationships. Sometimes it is heart-breakingly difficult. But marriage is always good. God loves marriage, creating it to be a visible image of His love for us. As a sacrament, Matrimony is a source of grace for the spouses, revealing His desire that they become holy through their life together. But because of the effects of Original Sin, spouses can hurt each other, disappoint each other, and betray each other. Thus, it is important to pray for married couples, that they might persevere in loving fidelity to each other. It is also important for spouses to stay close to the Church, learning their faith, availing themselves of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), and seeking out the support of other couples who are striving to live their marriages well. The Lord Jesus understands intimately what it means to bear the cross for the sake of love, and He wants spouses to invite Him into their marriages, so that He might help them bear the crosses that come their way in life as they steadily make their way together to the Eternal Wedding Banquet of Heaven.
What is a priest? A priest is one who offers sacrifices on behalf of a group as an act of worship to God. As long as human beings have roamed the earth, there have been priests. We see them in the most ancient days of the Old Testament. Adam was a priest, as were the Patriarchs – Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Originally, in the Biblical tradition, the father of the family was the one who would make sacrificial offerings to the Lord on behalf of his family as a priest. The sacrifice could be grains and cereals, but was often a blood sacrifice of an animal, offered on an altar and then burned as an act of thanksgiving or atonement for sin. In the Book of Exodus, when the people rebelled against the Lord by worshipping a golden calf, it was the Tribe of Levi alone that remained faithful. For this reason, the priesthood was then limited to the men of the Tribe of Levi, who alone could offer sacrificial offerings to God on behalf of the rest of the Israelites. This was the origin of the Levitical priesthood that eventually took responsibility for the Jerusalem Temple. In the time of Christ, the Temple was the only place where one could offer sacrifices in accordance with Jewish law, and they were offered day and night. Some historians have speculated that during the Passover celebrations, up to a million animals would have been sacrificed in a single day in the Temple. These Temple sacrifices came to an end with its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D., but if you have ever met someone with the last name Cohen (which means “priest” in Hebrew) or Levi, it is likely that they are descendants of the Jewish priestly class associated with the Temple sacrifices.
Interestingly, Our Lord was not a member of the Tribe of Levi. He was born into the Tribe of Judah, which was not a priestly tribe. But Jesus is a priest. Indeed, He is THE priest, for He offered the perfect sacrificial offering to God on our behalf. Unlike the priests of the Temple, and all the priests that came before Him, Our Lord is not only the One who offers the sacrifice, He also is the sacrifice that is offered. Christ is both priest and victim, offered not in the Temple but on the cross. His great sacrifice, offered once 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, would be perpetuated through time by a new priesthood that He established the night before His sacrifice. Christ instituted the new priesthood at the Last Supper when He told the Apostles to “do this in memory of me.” Since then, those who have been ordained priests of Jesus Christ have made present again at Mass the sacrifice of Christ. They are able to do this because they have received the sacrament of Holy Orders, and have been configured in a special way by their ordination to Christ the High Priest, which also gives them the power to forgive sins. Bishops, who are successors to the Apostles, have received the fullness of the priesthood and also have the power to ordain new priests, so that future generations of Catholics might be sanctified and strengthened by the ministry of their priests.
We say that the priest offers the Mass in persona Christi – in the person of Christ. When He speaks the words of consecration, He is speaking as Christ Himself. He stands as Christ before God the Father, with the baptized faithful united to him in the offering. Thus, the members of the congregation are able to unite themselves to the sacrificial offering of Christ to the Father through the priest who stands in the person of Christ. As one conformed to Christ the High Priest, the ordained priest not only sanctifies the people through the sacraments, but he also has a special authority as a teacher of the truths of the Faith and as the leader of the community. These are special graces that come with the sacrament of Holy Orders, but how well they are exercised and used very much depend on the virtue of the man ordained. It is important for the faithful to pray for their priests and also for the young men that the Lord is inviting to serve Him and His people as priests, that they be happy and healthy men who are filled with desire to be holy priests.
A common question that people ask is why the Catholic priesthood is restricted to men. The reason for the all-male priesthood is not due to an understanding of women as being inferior to men or deficient in their humanity. Men and women are equal in their humanity and in their dignity. Christ shares a human nature with all of us – male and female alike. But God entered His creation as a man, and in the entire history of Biblical priesthood, priests were always men. In the ancient world there were priestesses in other religions, but never in the Hebraic religion. Moreover, Christ chose men to serve the Church as Apostles, who were His first priests, and throughout the history of the Church, only men have been ordained to priesthood. These are significant facts about our history and tradition, which led St. John Paul lI to conclude definitively in 1994, after lengthy debates among prelates and theologians, that it appears to be the will of God that His ministerial priesthood be all-male, and that the Church does not have the authority to do otherwise.
But why would this be God’s will? One cannot say for sure, but Sacred Scripture does provide some indications. Throughout both the Old Testament and New Testament, God likens Himself to a bridegroom and refers first to Israel and then the Church as His bride. This “nuptial mystery” sheds light on God’s will regarding the all-male priesthood. As a baptized member of the Church, the priest is associated with the Bride of Christ. But as one who has been ordained to the ministerial priesthood, he is also associated with Christ the Bridegroom. The Incarnation of the Lord God gives deep significance to the human body and how we relate to each other as men and women. This relation between man and woman is an image of the relation between God and His People, Christ and the Church. It is something that is made visible in the man who stands in the place of Christ as His priest, in relationship to the Church who is the Bride of Christ.
Finally, it is not only Bishops and priests who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders – Deacons receive it too. While Priests are conformed through their ordination to Christ the High Priest, Deacons are conformed through their ordination in a special way to Christ the Servant. Although they cannot offer Mass or hear confessions, Deacons may preach, preside at Eucharistic Benediction, serve at the altar during Mass, as well as serve as the ordinary minister of baptism. They, like priests, promise at their ordination to pray the Liturgy of the Hours every day on behalf of the Church. We must keep our Deacons in prayer along with our priests, that they might be faithful servants of Christ Jesus by faithfully serving and praying for the Church.
Mass of the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Embracing the Holy Cross
The Cross is the most distinctive sign of Christianity. This is because, as we say to Our Lord during the Stations of the Cross devotion, “by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.” I remember the beautiful bronze Stations of the Cross that we had in seminary. The first station, of course, depicts Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus. There was Pilate, a representative of Caesar, ruler of the world, sitting in judgment of Christ, Lord of Heaven and Earth. In the second station, He who would redeem the world is presented with the very worst the world has to offer – the cross. The artist who created the second station depicted the cross as being unveiled by the soldier who is presenting it to Him. The soldier seems to expect a reaction of horror, but the Lord Jesus appears instead to step forward to tenderly embrace the cross with all His heart.
This Monday, 9/14, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. It originally was a celebration established to commemorate the discovery of the True Cross in 320 AD by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. Fifteen years later a great basilica commissioned by the Emperor himself was dedicated on the site of Calvary, the place of Our Lord’s sacrifice. It is a great irony that a successor of Caesar would establish a place where the world could go and venerate the Cross, the means of its redemption, approaching it as tenderly as the Lord Jesus did 300 years earlier.
In the gospel, Our Lord said to all of His listeners: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Lk 9:23). In this way, He associates with the cross all of the inevitable trials of life that come our way. By uniting our crosses to His cross, we participate in the work of His redemption – of us and the whole world. This participation was done with unique perfection by His greatest disciple, the Blessed Mother, whom we commemorate this Tuesday (9/15) as Our Lady of Sorrows and who walked all the way to Calvary with her Son, bearing the weight of His cross in her heart, offering her sufferings to Him for you and me.
The cross seems to loom over everything in our troubled times, unveiled before our eyes by the world that dares us to take it and embrace it as the cross of Christ. In those rare moments when I have the presence of mind to consider the sufferings of others as I wrestle with my own crosses, it puts things into perspective. Even though it doesn’t make the cross feel any better, I ask for the grace to bear it well. Our Lord wants us to allow Him to live in solidarity with us, which involves taking up the cross and following Him. In doing so, we also live in solidarity with others as they try to bear the cross well too. To help us, let us turn to the one who accompanied Our Savior during His Passion, and ask her for encouragement and consolation as we try to embrace the path of our redemption, which is the Way of the Cross.
Anointing of the Sick
The other day I was perusing my bookshelf and rediscovered a book that I hadn’t picked up in a while. It’s called The Faith Explained by Fr. Leo Trese, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and a best-selling author who died in 1970 at the age of 68. Leafing through it, I was reminded how well Fr. Trese explains the nuts and bolts of the Catholic faith, with lots of good analogies and a straightforward writing style. Knowing that I was going to be writing something about Anointing of the Sick this week, I figured I’d take a look at what Fr. Trese had to say about it, and I immediately learned something new. Prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, this sacrament was referred to as “Extreme Unction.” It’s a pretty intense-sounding name, derived from the Latin, which means “last anointing.” All this I knew. What I didn’t know is that the reason it was called “last” is because it would usually be the last in the sequence of anointings that a Catholic might receive over the course of his or her life. One is anointed as part of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, with Extreme Unction typically taking place after one has received those other sacraments. That’s why it’s “extreme” in the sense that it’s “last.” In popular usage, however, it started to be associated with the very last moments of life. People came to believe mistakenly that you received it only when you were expected to die. As the sacrament was referred to as “Extreme Unction” only starting in the 12th century, it was decided in the post-Conciliar period to restore its earlier name, Anointing of the Sick, so that people would understand that it is intended for broader use than just before death. Thank you, Fr. Trese!
We find the origins of this sacrament in Sacred Scripture. In the Gospel of Mark, Christ sends out his Apostles in pairs of two. “So they went and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12-13). In the Epistle of St. James we hear: “Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and the priests will pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up” (James 5:14-15). The priest who anoints the sick uses Oil of the Sick, which is pure olive oil that has been blessed by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass, which takes place in our diocese on Holy Thursday. The priest confers the sacrament on the sick person by anointing the person’s forehead and the palms of his or her hands, while saying: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up.” This sacrament unites the sick person more closely to Christ, especially in Our Lord’s redemptive suffering which saves us from sin and death. It strengthens the sick spiritually, so that through their sufferings they might participate even more in their own salvation and in Christ’s work of redeeming the world, even if their illness renders them otherwise helpless.
This terrible feeling of helplessness in the face of grave illness can cause great fear and anxiety in the heart of someone who is sick. The sacrament of Anointing provides a special grace that quiets anxiety and dissipates fear, and thus strengthens the resolve of the sick person to embrace God’s will, resisting the temptation to doubt or despair in the last moments of life. On many occasions I have visited people who were gravely ill who were greatly troubled and afraid, terribly upset by their failing health. With the anointing, you can see all of the anxiety drain out of them. They often sigh as their spirits are filled with peace. The anointing also provides the benefit of forgiving venial sins, and can even forgive mortal sins if the person is critically ill and unable to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation because they are unconscious, not lucid, or simply unable to speak.
Anointing is not appropriate in every instance where there is a health issue, however. There must be an underlying serious illness for someone to receive the sacrament of Anointing. Where someone is preparing for joint replacement surgery, for example, Confession is probably more appropriate than Anointing of the Sick. But in the case where someone has received a serious diagnosis, but doesn’t yet feel very sick, it’s a good idea to receive the Anointing (and go to Confession!), perhaps even regularly over the course of treatment. It’s also appropriate for those who are simply experiencing the frailties of old age to receive the sacrament – to lift their spirits, to unite them more closely to Christ, and to give them the courage to persevere in faith and confidence in Our Lord’s love and mercy.
If you know someone in the parish who is suffering with a serious illness, ask them if they would like a visit from a priest. Now that you understand that the Anointing of the Sick is not just for those who are actively dying, you can ease any concerns they might have about the nature of the sacrament and you will be doing them a great service, really an act of Christian love. And if you’re interested in ordering a copy of Fr. Trese’s terrific book, you can order a copy here.
If you ever visit a seminary you will find that they are places where there is much laughter. I really enjoyed the comradery I found among my classmates, which was healthy and joyful. While most of our formation sessions involved moments of levity and laughter, there was one particular experience that I remember we took with absolute seriousness, and that was the confession practicum, where we learned and practiced to be confessors.
The sobriety with which we approached confession was due, I think, to our personal familiarity with how it feels to enter a confessional – nervous, perhaps embarrassed and ashamed, to confess something we had done. We all knew the penitent’s hope to find kindness, wisdom, and mercy there. “Only God forgives sins,” the Catechism tells us (1441). Yet He shares this power with men who are sinners, while withholding it from the angels and the Mother of God herself. It is not personal worthiness of the priest, but the will of God that it be so.
As a priest, it is a humbling experience to be the mediator of God’s mercy. In the confessional I am often convicted of my own moral failings as I hear penitents confess their sins with the simple confidence of faith. At the same time, I am reminded of the goodness of God when I speak the words of absolution as His priest: “I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Any concern that someone might have that the confession of a particular sin might diminish them in the eyes of the priest confessor should be set aside, for I have found that the opposite is in fact true. The confession of sin in the context of the sacrament reveals the faith of the penitent, which should elevate the person in the personal esteem of the priest. But even if for some reason it did not, it would have nothing to do with the joy that it brings Our Lord to lavish His mercy upon a soul that entrusts itself to the care of one of His priests.
There is a common objection that one often hears – “Can’t God forgive me without confession?” Well, yes, of course He can. In fact, sacramental confession is never strictly necessary for the forgiveness of venial sins. An act of contrition, the recitation of the penitential rite, use of sacramentals like holy water, prayer, the sign of the cross – these things will absolve our venial sins. Confession is ordinarily necessary only for the forgiveness of mortal sins – those serious sins through which we cut ourselves off from the life of grace. It is possible to be forgiven for mortal sin by making what’s called a perfect act of contrition, motivated by love of God and not fear of punishment, with the intention to go to confession as soon as possible. The problem with relying on making a perfect act of contrition, however, is that you have no certainty of its perfection and whether you actually received forgiveness for your sins.
How different it is to speak aloud our confession to another, to acknowledge the reality of our particular sins, to make ourselves vulnerable and lay bare the burden of guilt that we carry on our consciences, and then to hear the words spoken by the Lord through His ordained priest: “I absolve you.” The Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us total assurance of mercy. There is no wondering if you’re really forgiven, or if that sin will ever be held against you by God. What a consolation! It reveals the Lord’s intimate knowledge of our need for personal encounter, and His familiarity with the incarnational reality of what it means to be human.
Sadly, many have fallen out of the habit of going to confession. I believe this has had a profoundly negative effect on the way people treat each other, and the severe lack of mercy and forgiveness on display everywhere. When we go to confession, we acknowledge that we are sinners in need of mercy. When we are aware of our struggle with sin and our need for mercy, and when we experience God’s mercy in the sacrament, we should become more merciful towards others. We are able to forgive them more readily because we know our need for forgiveness, and God’s desire for our reconciliation with Him and with each other.
If you’ve been away from confession for a while, I invite you to return. Catholics are supposed to go to confession at least once a year. But I encourage people to come to confession monthly, even if they have only venial sins to confess, and to not allow three months to go by without confession. Parents should bring their children to confession, setting good example by going to confession themselves. Regular confession keeps our consciences sensitive, and it takes the mystique out of confessing our sins that would otherwise make us reluctant to go. You can find a helpful pamphlet for preparation to make a good confession here.
Priests will tell you that they never feel so much themselves as priests as when they are saying Mass and when they’re hearing confessions. Those encounters in the confessional are the most important conversations in the world. And based on what I saw during those formation sessions in seminary, I can say that the vast majority of priests take our responsibility as confessors with great seriousness, while we marvel with joy at the unmerited privilege of being Christ’s chosen instruments of mercy.
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Litany of Humility
Rafael Merry del Val was a very influential figure in the Catholic Church in the beginning of the 20th Century. Born into a family of Spanish nobility in 1865, he spent much of his childhood in England before moving to Rome to study for the priesthood, to which he was ordained in 1888. From there he began serving in the Vatican’s diplomatic service, rising to the position of Secretary of State at the age of 38, an office that led to his being named a Cardinal by Pope Pius X in 1903. He later served as the Secretary of the Holy Office (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), another very important position in the Church. Cardinal Merry del Val was by all accounts a very successful churchman, who knew how to work the levers of power and influence. For all his accomplishments, however, he is most closely associated with a prayer called “The Litany of Humility,” which he either authored or popularized. The litany is as follows (the bold-faced phrases being repeated at the end of each line):
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled…
From the desire of being honored…
From the desire of being praised…
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted…
From the desire of being approved…
From the fear of being humiliated…
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes…
From the fear of being calumniated…
From the fear of being forgotten…
From the fear of being ridiculed…
From the fear of being wronged…
From the fear of being suspected…
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I…
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…
It is an extraordinary prayer. That it is associated with a man who wielded so much temporal power and influence in the Church is remarkable. It reveals the heart of someone who was very honest with himself and who desired the freedom that comes with true humility. In this regard, Merry del Val is a very good example to all of us who find it a challenging prayer to offer – and to mean.
The Most Blessed Sacrament
We have come to the third “Sacrament of Initiation,” which is the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist. While Baptism is the first Sacrament and the doorway to the supernatural life of grace, the Eucharist is the greatest of the Sacraments. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council refers to the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life…. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch” (Catechism 1324).
That final word, “Pasch,” is essential to understand the significance of the Eucharist. It refers to the Passover, the meal consisting of a sacrificial lamb that the ancient Israelites shared the night before their Exodus from Egypt. To this day, their Jewish descendants celebrate each year the Passover meal as a commemoration of their liberation from bondage under Pharaoh – which culminated with their passage through the Red Sea.
The Passover meal was the context for Our Lord’s Last Supper, which took place the night before His Passion and death. This was, of course, no accident. In fact, it was the fulfillment of that which the Passover and Exodus foreshadowed. The Passover anticipated the event of the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea. The annual commemoration of the Passover meal is the way in which the Jewish people participate in the Exodus, the event of God’s salvation of their Israelite ancestors. So, these three events are fundamentally connected: 1) Passover, 2) Passage through Red Sea, 3) Annual Passover meal.
Now, when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with His disciples, He adds something new to the Passover ritual. He takes bread and tells them: “This is my Body, which will be given up for you. Do this in memory of Me.” Then He takes the chalice and says: “This is the chalice of my Blood… Do this in memory of Me.” In this way, Our Lord institutes the Eucharist on Holy Thursday in anticipation of His sacrifice on the cross on Good Friday, and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. For the past 2000 years, Catholics have celebrated the Mass, at which we commemorate Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. So, these three events – 1) Last Supper, 2) Christ’s sacrifice, passage through death, and resurrection, 3) the Mass – are fundamentally connected, and are the fulfillment of the three Old Testament events mentioned above. Thus, the mystery of the liberation of the Israelites under Moses’ leadership from slavery to Pharaoh finds its fulfillment in the liberation of the Church by Christ from slavery to sin and death. We receive a share of Christ’s death and resurrection through Baptism. We are perfected through Confirmation in our reception of the gifts of the Spirit of Christ. Through the Eucharist we are united bodily as the Church to Christ Our Savior. This is what happens at Mass.
And so, we begin to understand the central importance of the Mass. We are never so much the Church as when we are at Mass, for it is at the Mass that the Church, the Bride of Christ, encounters Christ the Bridegroom – not merely in the Spirit (we can encounter Him anywhere and everywhere in the Spirit) but in the flesh. At Mass, bread and wine become His flesh and blood. We know that for sure because Jesus told us so. By giving Himself to us as food, He allows us to enter into Holy Communion with Him. Though it is small and silent, the little white Host radiates with the life of God, for the Lord Jesus died only once on the cross 2000 years ago, never to die again. We receive a share in that when we receive Him at Mass.
In these days when it is hard for many people to come to Mass because of the pandemic, we who are able to come to Mass should spiritually bring our brothers and sisters who can’t come and make them an offering to the Lord by uniting them to the offering of the priest who stands in the person of Christ. That is something that we also can do for those who, for whatever reason, won’t come even under normal circumstances. The glorified wounds on the Eucharistic Body of Christ heal the wounds of sin on the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
In conclusion, along with attending Mass, I would like to encourage you to consider coming to regular Eucharistic Adoration at our parish. We expose the Blessed Sacrament for quiet devotion each day during the week – M,Tu,Th, F from 12-1pm, and Wednesdays from 7:30-9pm, with confessions available. The answer to all the world’s problems is Christ Jesus, and He offers Himself to us in the Eucharist.
What is the sacrament of Confirmation? What does it do? When Bishop Curtis confirmed me many years ago, I don’t think I would have been able to give a good answer to those questions. I knew Confirmation had something to do with the Holy Spirit. Even better, it meant you got presents AND you didn’t have to go to religious education classes anymore. I remember hearing it described as the Catholic equivalent of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a rite of passage that accords one the status of an adult in the Jewish community. But that’s not really what Confirmation is, especially if you consider the fact that Byzantine Catholics receive Confirmation (and Eucharist) as infants – immediately following their Baptism. Along with Baptism and Eucharist, Confirmation is one of the three “sacraments of initiation,” which means that as soon as you receive those three sacraments you are a fully-initiated member of the Church, even if you’re not old enough to talk.
Even though in our contemporary practice we receive Confirmation as our fourth sacrament, I decided this reflection should follow the reflection on Baptism since the two sacraments are so closely connected. Valid reception of the sacrament of Confirmation requires the following: 1) a baptized person, 2) a bishop (or a priest under certain circumstances), 3) a specially-blessed fragrant oil called Chrism. As the bishop administers the oil on the head of the person to be confirmed, he says: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In the reflection on Baptism, we saw how the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea foreshadowed both Christ’s passage through death and His resurrection, as well as our Baptism. Likewise, Confirmation is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, where it was common practice to anoint kings and priests with fragrant oil when they received their office. As time went on, the Jewish people lived in anticipation of the coming of One who would be their Savior, who would be both priest and king. They called Him the Messiah, which is translated “Christos” in Greek, and means “the Anointed One.” As Christians, we profess faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, God Incarnate, who as the Anointed One reigns forever as King and High Priest.
If Jesus is the Christ, when was He anointed? There are episodes in the gospels where Our Lord receives an anointing from Mary of Bethany and from an unnamed sinful woman. In two of the accounts, she anoints His head with oil. In two others, she anoints His feet. Our Lord speaks of the anointings as a good thing, a preparation for His burial. But the anointing of Christ by the Holy Spirit, that which fulfilled the Old Testament anointings and which foreshadows our reception of the sacrament of Confirmation, takes place at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The passage tells us that when Jesus emerged from the waters of the river, “behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him” (Mt 3:16; cf: Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32).
It’s important to remember that Our Lord wasn’t baptized for the same reason that we’re baptized. As the Incarnate Lord, He did not have Original Sin. While the waters of baptism serve to sanctify us, Jesus’ baptism had the effect of sanctifying the waters of baptism, establishing them as the means by which we receive a share in His death and resurrection. The anointing of Confirmation configures us to Christ anointed by the Holy Spirit. As the great theologian Jean Danielou explains it: “The Baptism of Christ, followed by the descent of the Spirit, is thus seen to be a prefiguration of His death followed by His royal enthronement, of which the Christian in turn partakes by means of the two sacraments of water and of the anointing.” Through Baptism, we die and rise with Christ. Through Confirmation we reign with Him.
Confirmation is not the first time we receive the Holy Spirit – that takes place at Baptism. Danielou explains: “In Confirmation there takes place a new outpouring of the Spirit having for its object to bring to perfection the spiritual energies called forth in the soul by Baptism.” These “energies” are the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Fortitude, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. Confirmation perfects and strengthens what is first received at Baptism.
In the scene of Jesus’ anointing by the woman in Bethany, the gospel tells us that when she poured the oil over the head of Christ the sweet fragrance of it filled the room. The rich fragrance of the oil of Chrism, through which we receive the sacrament of Confirmation is a reminder to us that our lives as members of the Church, sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, are to fill the earth with the sweet fragrance of Christian charity and set the world ablaze with the love of the Anointed One.
22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Brain Heart World
Recently, I watched a 3-part documentary series called Brain, Heart, World. It was produced by an organization called “Fight the New Drug,” which describes itself on its website as: a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts, and personal accounts. Use of pornography in contemporary society is disturbingly widespread, and it has affected in obvious ways the content of mainstream entertainment as well (just try to watch a show on Netflix without fast-forwarding!). To understand the extent of the problem, consider the fact that 40 million Americans regularly visit pornographic websites, and that 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography. The world’s largest purveyor of online pornographic content reports that it gets 28.5 billion visits per year and has 68 years’ worth of content uploaded on its site. The Huffington Post has reported that the average age at which people are first exposed to pornography is 11 years old. So, the statistics reveal that the use of and exposure to pornography is pervasive, especially among young people – though not just among the young. Yet, the nature of the issue makes it difficult to talk about. That’s why I think Brain, Heart, World is a helpful resource for those who want to understand why pornography is so harmful.
The series is effective because it features doctors, scientists, and sociologists who share clinical research that demonstrate the powerful bio-chemical effect that pornography has on the human brain (Part 1: Brain). It also introduces the viewer to people, both men and women, whose pornography viewing has affected their self-worth and threatened to ruin their relationships with others (Part 2: Heart). Finally, the series concludes by showing the ripple effects of widespread consumption of pornography, including human trafficking, violence, and the dehumanization of those involved in the pornography industry (Part 3: World). Far from harmless, the use of pornography ruins lives. It changes people, threatening marriages and families. It coarsens our culture. It leads to loneliness, sadness, and heartbreak.
Brain, Heart, World intentionally does not treat pornography as a moral issue. It’s important to remember, however, that the use of pornography is always immoral. That’s because every human being is made in the image of God. When we use pornography, we reduce the image of God to an object for our own possession, thereby distorting and degrading it. At the same time, we must acknowledge that a large number of men and women are struggling with the use of pornography. So many of them want to be freed from it, but the addictive nature of pornography and its ubiquity online, makes it very difficult to overcome. But it is possible, especially with the help of others. In recent years I have been very impressed by the number of young people, including high school-aged kids, who have formed accountability groups with their friends, in which they encourage each other to avoid pornography and to strive for growth in chastity. They speak about the importance of the sacraments in the struggle – especially frequent confession and the Eucharist. They seem to know that the virtue of chastity leads to greater happiness, because it helps us to see the fullness of the humanity of our neighbor, freeing our hearts to love them as Our Lord commands us.
If you’re interested in watching Brain, Heart, World you can view it for free at https://brainheartworld.org/ It’s probably not appropriate for children or more sensitive viewers. But parents should seriously consider watching it with their teenagers (screen it first!) so that they understand that pornography is not harmless and certainly not healthy. It is in fact a grave threat to building up a good society, consisting of healthy people in healthy relationships, and to growing in personal sanctity, the very thing for which we are made.
Baptism is the first sacrament. Typically, within a couple months of a child’s birth, the family will bring the baby to the church, and the priest (or deacon) will pour water over the child’s head while saying the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But why do we do this? The most obvious reason is that the Lord Jesus commanded it. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Our Lord instructs His disciples to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). For two thousand years, baptism has been a central part of the mission of the Church. But why? Why is baptism so important to Christ?
To understand why, it’s helpful first to look at the Old Testament account of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh. They had been in bondage for centuries, and when they cry out to the Lord for help, He raises up Moses who becomes the Lord’s appointed ambassador and who gets Pharaoh to let the people go. But when the people are leaving Egypt, Pharaoh repents of his decision to free them, so he sends his army after the Israelites to wipe them out. With the armies of Pharaoh bearing down on them, the fleeing Israelites find their escape blocked by a natural barrier – the Red Sea. So they are stuck, and their destruction seems immanent. When we consider the inescapable situation of the Israelites, we should stop to consider the inescapable reality of our own mortality. All of us will die someday, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Thus, we understand to a certain degree the dreadful feeling of the Israelites in that moment. But then, God commands Moses to raise his hands over the waters, and a great wind blows on the sea. The waters are split in two, revealing dry land. The Israelites pass through the waters of the Red Sea to the other side, and when the armies of Pharaoh try to follow them, the waters close over them, swallowing them up. The people are thus saved from the power of Pharaoh by the saving power of God.
This central event of the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the sacrament of Baptism. Like the Israelites who passed through the waters of the Red Sea, the person who is baptized passes through the waters of the baptismal font. Water is an ancient symbol of both death and birth, and both come into play in baptism, which is the passing through death to new life. When the child (or adult) is baptized, they receive new life – the life of the resurrected Christ. That’s because the passage through the Red Sea doesn’t just foreshadow Baptism, it more importantly foreshadows Christ Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Our Lord passed through death when He was crucified on Good Friday, and then rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. He shares with us that new life through the sacrament of Baptism. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the waters of the earth received the power to confer upon us a share in Christ’s death and resurrection. The waters of the font become the means by which we pass through death in Christ to new life in Him. Not just symbolically, but actually.
All the baptized receive a share in the life of the risen Christ. With Baptism, His life suddenly flows through us, washing away Original Sin and binding us together supernaturally as members of the Church. The Israelites were a nation bound together by blood ties. The members of the Church, however, are bound together in grace, which transcends such things as ethnicity, language, race, making the Church truly Catholic, ie: universal.
Interestingly, after their liberation from the power of Pharaoh and before they entered the Promised Land, the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, where they learned what it meant to be a member of God’s chosen people. There, the Lord cared for them by giving them the Law as well as bread from heaven and water from the rock. There, He healed them from the deadly bites of serpents. After our liberation from the power of sin and death by our Baptism, the members of the Church spend this time in the wilderness of the world, learning what it means to be followers of Christ. Here, we avail ourselves of all that the Lord gives us to sustain us along the way, including the teaching authority of the Church and the life-giving power of the sacraments, so that when our lives in this world come to an end we might enter the Promised Land of Heaven.
We call Christ Jesus our Savior, because that is what He is. He saves us from the power of sin and death and frees us from the terrible oppression of Satan. Through our baptism, we become members of God’s family and are transformed from God’s beloved creatures to God’s beloved children. We cannot overstate the importance of Baptism, which is the “gateway” sacrament, introducing us to the life of grace and allowing us to receive the benefits of the other sacraments. And that’s why Our Lord commanded His disciples, and Christians throughout the ages, to Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Do the Right Thing
On June 3, 2017, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit celebrated a Mass during which he attempted to ordain five new priests, but failed to do so. Only four of the five men were actually ordained that day, since one of them, Fr. Matthew Hood – a young man who had just spent 6 years in seminary formation – had never in fact been baptized. This came as a shock to Fr. Matthew, whose family has a video of his baptismal ceremony that took place when he was an infant. The reality of his situation came to light earlier this month when he read a newly-issued notice from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), that concluded after investigation and deliberation that changing the formula for baptism in certain ways makes it invalid. The words that the minister is supposed to say as he pours water over the head of the person to be baptized is: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” According to the CDF’s findings, the phrase: “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is invalid. Fr. Matthew recalled that, while watching the video of his baptismal ceremony, the deacon celebrant used the invalid formula. Subsequent review of the video confirmed it. And so, unbeknownst to him and his family, Fr. Matthew was never validly baptized.
When he realized it, Fr. Matthew immediately contacted the Archdiocese to let them know. In short order, he was baptized, confirmed, and received First Holy Communion. Then he was ordained a deacon, and finally a priest – after 3 years of living and working in a parish, believing himself to be a priest. An unfortunate effect of Fr. Matthew’s invalid baptism and ordination is that, while done in good faith, the Masses that he offered during those three years and the confessions he heard were also sacramentally invalid, since you have to be a priest to confect the Eucharist and to absolve sins, as well as confirm and anoint the sick. In its statement regarding the matter, the Archdiocese of Detroit addressed the question of confession. It said: “we can be assured that all those who approached Father Hood, in good faith, to make a confession did not walk away without some measure of grace and forgiveness from God.” It also stated, however, that those who remember confessing grave sins to Fr. Matthew should bring those sins into their next confession in order to receive absolution. In cases where they did not remember if they confessed a grave sin to him, people should explain the situation in their next confession in order to be absolved and receive peace of mind. Happily, the baptisms that Fr. Matthew performed are valid since non-baptized persons can validly baptize, and are allowed to do so under certain circumstances. But it is likely that at least some of the marriages over which he presided were also invalid, and will need to be remediated.
So, basically, the fact that Fr. Matthew was not validly baptized created a big, fat mess. Some might argue that the response to the situation was overly legalistic, that we shouldn’t get upset about a slight deviation from the sacramental formulas. But, as the statement from the Archdiocese explains: “According to the ordinary plan God has established, the Sacraments are necessary for salvation: baptism brings about adoption into the family of God and places sanctifying grace in the soul, since we are not born with it, and the soul needs to have sanctifying grace when it departs from the body in order to spend eternity in heaven.” The Lord Jesus instituted the sacraments as the normal way to share His life with us. Of course, God is not limited by the sacraments and can share His life with anyone in any manner He desires. That being said, we can rely uniquely on the efficacy of the sacraments as a means for receiving the grace we need for salvation. If done properly, according to the guidance of the Church, we can be certain that they do what Christ instituted them for. That’s why they are such a great gift to us. The Church’s intervention in this situation serves to protect the faithful, who have a right to valid sacraments, and to remind ordained ministers of our grave responsibility as stewards of the sacraments to do them correctly. The sacraments aren’t just symbolic rituals that are unnecessary in themselves. The sacraments do something. What exactly that is, I hope to write about over the next few weeks.
If you’re interested in learning more about the story of Fr. Matthew Hood, Catholic News Agency has done a helpful job explaining what happened and why it’s important.
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Several years ago, someone gave me a book called Regaining Sight. It is a compilation of articles from a magazine called Imprint, published by a religious community, the Sisters of Life. The articles are stories about different people, the challenges they face, and how their relationship with God helped them through a particular struggle. They feature people like the late Steven McDonald, who was a member of the NYPD that was shot in the line of duty and left a quadriplegic, and Dr. Michael Brescia, who is renowned for his ground-breaking invention of the Brescia-Cimino fistula and for his work in palliative care. The book also features the vocation stories of some of the sisters, profiles of married couples who have raised children with special needs, stories of conversions to the faith, and testimonials of women who got pregnant and were helped by the Sisters – both those who had their children and those who came to the sisters for help to heal emotionally and spiritually years after having suffered abortion.
I remember lending the book to one of the high school students who was a member of the youth group at my last assignment. She was a really likeable and impressive kid – always asking lots of honest and tough questions. I asked her to take a look and let me know what she thought. The following week, she brought the book back and said: “I read the whole book. And I loved it.” I asked her why she liked it so much. “I really liked the stories.” I asked her what she liked about them. Pausing a moment to think, she said: “They show that… there’s always hope.”
It was a good insight. It also revealed the hunger everyone feels for reasons to hope. Hope allows us to stay faithful and to persevere when things seem bleak. In his first letter, St. Peter writes: But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:14-16). We Catholics are people of hope. In days when hope is in short supply, it’s helpful to hear stories about real people that strengthen us in hope, that help us to keep our chins up and not give into the spirit of despair that tries to make us give up.
So, I told her I was glad she enjoyed the book and found it helpful, and I told her to keep it and to share it with others whom she thought might like it too. My only regret was that I didn’t have more copies of the book to give to other kids to read, since the book was no longer in print. Recently, however, I was thrilled to learn that the Sisters of Life have made it possible to purchase copies of Regaining Sight through their website: https://orders.sistersoflife.org/ It would be a great gift to a young person going off to college, or someone who is preparing for confirmation, or someone who could use a little boost of hope. They also have some other excellent books for children, including their latest publication, Finding You, which is a beautiful little book about the Eucharist. I highly recommend it.
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Struggling with Sadness
In the gospel this coming Monday we hear about a rich young man who approaches Jesus, asking Him: “what good must I do to gain eternal life?” Our Lord instructs the young man to keep the commandments. When the young man tells Christ that he already observes them, He responds: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Disappointed, the young man goes away sad, for he had many possessions.
There are many times in which sadness is the proper response to a situation. When someone we love dies, it is normal to be sad. When we see terrible things happening, it is fitting to be sad about it. When something we were really hoping for doesn’t come to pass, we can expect to feel sad. But we should be on guard against excessive sadness at the disappointments we experience in life, because it can easily turn into self-pity. We recognize self-pity in phrases like: “Why me?”, “Why won’t anybody help me?”, or “I never seem to catch a break!” Self-pity is dangerous because it blinds us to reality. What I mean by that is we become so consumed with ourselves that we can’t see the larger picture. The rich young man walks away from Christ, even though Our Lord told him what he needed to do to attain what he most desires. His attachment to something (in this case to possessions) is the cause of his disappointment, which is the cause of his sadness. Perhaps someday he was able to overcome his attachment to wealth and become a disciple of Christ. But it’s also possible that those possessions retained their grip on his heart, leading him to ever greater sadness as well as resentment toward the One who revealed to him that he had to let them go in order to have perfect happiness.
Self-pity comes from thinking that, ultimately, we are alone, that God is not with us, that He does not love us. It saps us of charity toward our neighbor because we become fixated on our own troubles. Preoccupied with ourselves, we neglect those around us, including those whose crosses are greater than our own.
If we struggle with this tendency toward self-pity, there are certain things we can do to overcome it. One important practice is to regularly count our blessings. Typically, when we do our examination of conscience before we go to bed at night, we take a moment to call to mind our sins and our failures to live virtuously that day. But along with that, we should also take a few more moments to identify the graces we experienced – a difficult task accomplished more easily than expected, a smile received when we felt down, a kind word spoken when we needed it, a temptation resisted, a surprise encounter with a friend. Recognizing these things as gifts, we say “thank you” to God. As we develop the habit of acknowledging graces, we will become more sensitive to the presence of the Lord in our lives. We will be able to reflect on our past and recognize that He was with us even in those times when we felt lost, when we felt alone, when we felt sad. It broadens our vision, and allows us to see reality more clearly – including the needs of our neighbor. This leads to another important response to the temptation to self-pity, which is to do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Performing works of charity liberates us from self-absorption, shifting our gaze away from our own disappointments, breaking the hold they have on our hearts.
This is crucial, since our disappointments can consume us like the possessions that the young man could not give up, that led him to walk away sad. We have to resist the temptation to self-pity that robs us of the joy that life with God promises – a joy that is possible even when things that have taken hold of our hearts are stripped away from us. A joy that comes with recognizing that He, and nothing else, is the fulfillment of all desire.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, Missionary
Tomorrow (8/14) is the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan priest who is best known for volunteering to die in place of another prisoner at Auschwitz in August, 1941. He was canonized a saint in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, who declared him a “martyr of charity” for offering his life out of love for his neighbor. Perhaps less well-known was his missionary work in Japan in the 1930s. In 1931 he established a Franciscan monastery in the outskirts of the port city of Nagasaki, which became the center of his apostolate in promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother among Catholics in Japan. Eventually, because of poor health, Kolbe had to return to Poland in 1933
It was four years after Fr. Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom at Auschwitz that the United States military dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing 35,000 residents almost instantly. The monastery that Kolbe built survived the blast, however, because it was built on the side of a mountain facing away from the explosion. Interestingly, Kolbe had the monastery built there against the advice of locals who, based on their Shinto beliefs, suggested that the other side of the mountain was a more fitting location, being more in harmony with nature.
Working in Nagasaki at the time of the bombing was a radiologist named Dr. Takashi Nagai. When the bomb hit the city, he was in his office at Nagasaki Medical University, a hospital located only half a mile from the epicenter. The hospital, built of reinforced concrete, was not completely destroyed, though 80 percent of its occupants were killed. Dr. Nagai survived the blast, but was severely injured when the impact threw him across the room and covered him with broken glass. Despite his own injuries, he tried to attend to the wounded, which exposed him to high levels of radiation that made his condition even more grave. Soon after, while being treated for radiation poisoning in the hospital, doctors told him he had a short time to live. But Dr. Nagai heard a voice in his mind that he attributed to his guardian angel that told him to pray, asking the intercession of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, whom Nagai knew well during the priest’s time in Nagasaki. Dr. Nagai did what the voice told him, and he was miraculously cured. Sadly, Nagai’s wife had been incinerated by the atomic explosion in her home, where Nagai found her remains clutching her rosary beads. Their children survived with their grandmother at her home in the countryside. Nagai would go on to write several books about the experience of the bombing of Nagasaki before his death in 1951, the overall theme of his writings always being the peace of Jesus Christ that one receives through the acceptance of God’s will, including the cross of suffering.
St. Maximilian Kolbe spent his life promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother. His feast day leads us into the great Solemnity of the Assumption on 8/15. May this great missionary of the Mother of God lead us to turn to Our Lady and ask her to pray for peace and healing in our world, and may his example inspire us to be more charitable to one another each day.
Deliver Us from Evil
I have a cousin named Ray who is about 6-7 years older than I am. Being a really nice kid, Ray was happy to play with his little cousins, even though we were much younger than he was. When our families got together, there would be major wrestling matches going on in the family room as the adults enjoyed dinner in the dining room. It was pretty much everyone against Ray. But Ray was so much bigger and stronger that, despite being outnumbered, he handled us with ease. Finally, bruised and exhausted, we turned to the only one we knew could defeat Ray – my dad. We would run into the dining room in a panic and call on my father to fight Ray on our behalf. “Hold my beer,” he’d say as he excused himself from the table and proceeded to the family room. We cheered him on as he whupped up on poor Ray, who never stood a chance. Having reduced Ray to a disgraced and crumpled mess on the ground, my father returned in triumph to his place at the table. And to his beer.
We have come to the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from Evil.” The evil to which the petition refers is not generic evil. It is a personal evil – the “Evil One,” who is the Devil. Tradition tells us that the Devil is a fallen angel, originally created good, who led a self-destructive rebellion against God which left him twisted and evil. The Devil hates God, but knowing himself to be powerless against Him, Satan directs his wrath against those whom God loves, namely, us. The Evil One is far more powerful than we are, so we are foolish to engage him on our own. Indeed, we should resist the temptation to be fascinated by the things of the Evil One, such as the occult, which promise power and freedom, but which deliver nothing but slavery and destruction. Satan is merciless. He is ruthless in his efforts to separate us from divine mercy and to make us despair of God’s love for us. Praying this petition, writes Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, “is an urgent appeal that God enter the arena where our destiny is being fought out in a life-and-death struggle, that he engage combat as our Hero and Deliverer, since we have already given up all pretense at being able to save ourselves.”
I think of my father pushing back from the table to enter the arena against my cousin Ray on our behalf, and then returning to the banquet after accomplishing his great victory, and it reminds me of Our Lord’s great act of redemption. “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11). The Evil One is confounded by the saving action of Christ because Our Lord saved us in a way inconceivable to him – not through the exercise of power, but through weakness. Christ Jesus became weak and accepted death out of love for us. He rose from the dead because He is more powerful than death, and shared His resurrection with us because He desires to spend eternity with us in heaven. The Devil only knows power. But the love of God is more powerful than power. And with this last petition, we call upon Him in our weakness, knowing that Our Father is infinitely more powerful than the Evil One, whom He conquers on our behalf through His weakness.
Mass of the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sick of Coronavirus
I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of sick of Coronavirus. And when I say sick, I don’t mean I have Coronavirus, but that I’m tired of it. I hate how it has forced us to live. I dislike wearing masks and social distancing. The plexiglass barriers at every cash register, the closed storefronts. In darker moments I get angry – angry at the people who are responsible, the people who allowed this to happen. I get angry at what it has done to our community, the suffering inflicted on workers and small business owners, the fear felt by the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Not knowing when this will end adds to the frustration.
I’ve found some consolation these days from a book by the English spiritual writer and mystic, Caryll Houselander, entitled: This War is the Passion, in which she reflects on the experience of living in London during the blitz of 1940-41. Houselander writes that “those who suffer most through air raids, or the apprehension of them, are people who think they have nothing to do during them.” The intense fear of being bombed was made worse by the terrible tedium of sitting helplessly at home, often in dimly-lit rooms to maintain the mandatory blackout. Far from being wasted time, Houselander argues, “a raid gives the opportunity of countless little acts of love, such as making a cup of tea, giving up the best place, controlling our own feelings in order to help others to be calm and plucky, and when it can be done without irritating, reminding people that they are in the hands of God, or contriving to make them laugh.” She continues: “If you cannot do anything else for people during raids, you can pray for them. You can remember all the people who will be more afraid than you are, all those whose lives are as precious as yours, and as useful, all those who are in a far, far worse plight than you are, because they are without faith. You can pray for each one by name and so make an act of love.”
The pandemic has left no one untouched, but I think among those who suffer most are those who do not feel safe leaving their homes or going into public spaces. Houselander’s words remind us that time stuck at home does not need to be wasted, that every moment is an opportunity to perform acts of love towards others. That includes praying for family members, friends, and even anonymous strangers who are suffering because of what’s going on. Some speculate that much of the social turmoil that we see around our country has been intensified by people’s frustration with life under COVID-19. I think that’s true. In a similar way, Houselander saw how the sight of innocent suffering during the war had the effect of filling people with a kind of violent energy, almost like an adrenaline rush, that could easily turn into hatred – especially for the enemy. But, she writes, it can also be turned into love. “Instead of working ourselves up into a fury and exhausting the extra energy we have got, we can spend [that energy] in doing something to relieve the suffering that provoked it.”
It is tempting in this time of pandemic to seethe in our self-pity, and to look for someone on whom we can pour out our frustrations, including the people we live with. If we give into this temptation, we can end up inflicting more wounds on people instead of healing them. Houselander encourages her readers in their frustrations to turn to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. “If all the energy, the spiritual adrenalin, given to us to face the war, is used up in acts of love, there will be nothing left to hate with, and moreover, we shall cease to have the capacity for hate.” This pandemic is the Passion. Instead of letting it fill our hearts and the hearts of others with sadness, anger, and hatred, we must ask for the grace to bear this cross well, that it might be an opportunity to learn to love better. Otherwise it will have been wasted time.
Lead Us Not into Temptation
In the first installment of The Lord of the Rings, there is a scene in which Frodo Baggins, who has been entrusted with the task of bearing the Ring of Power to Mount Doom in order to destroy it, has a conversation with the powerful Elven Queen Galadriel (non-fans, please bear with me). The burden of the ring weighs heavy on Frodo, and he sees how good and how powerful Galadriel is. He thinks that perhaps it would be better if she were to take the ring, and he offers it to her. She is greatly tempted, and speaks of the power she would wield as its owner. But she resists the temptation, and does not take the ring for herself. She knows that the ring can’t be used against the great enemy, Sauron, because the ring belongs to Sauron, and the power it gives is his power. To try to use it yourself to defeat him is to be defeated by him and enslaved by him. But the temptation is terrible – so desirable and attractive is the power of the ring that the story is filled with characters who start out good and noble and who end up seduced and twisted, corrupted by the ring. There is great relief on the face of Galadriel when she resists the temptation, and she accepts her fate as one whose power would diminish.
We have come to the seventh petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” It is a mysterious petition that makes us wonder about God. Would God ever lead us into temptation? Why would He do such a thing? It’s tempting to explain this petition away or to change its meaning to suit our own neat conception of God. It remains, however, an unsettling petition. What we can say for certain is that God does not tempt us to do evil. The Tempter is the devil. The petition, however, suggests that God might lead us to the place where we are left exposed and vulnerable to the power of the evil one. Could that be true?
If we look at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, immediately following His baptism in the Jordan River, the gospel tells us that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt 4:1). So here we have an example of the Holy Spirit leading someone to be tempted. But Christ is unique. He is Lord, and infinitely more powerful than the Tempter. Christ suffers in the experience of temptation, but is left unscathed.
For us, however, temptation is dangerous because we suffer the effects of Original Sin. We can be seduced more easily than we realize or like to admit. We pray this petition – which is a revealed petition, one that is given to us by Christ Himself – as an acknowledgement that we are not the heroes of our story. Christ is. If we seek to overcome evil, and to attain holiness and goodness and salvation on our own, we are like the fools that pursue ownership of the Ring of Power in order to destroy the enemy. Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis says that, at the very least, this petition “is a profoundly humble admission of incapacity, the avowal of our nature as failed heroes, unable to rise on our own to the image of us God has in His Heart.” We ask the Lord not to lead us into temptation as Christ was led into temptation. Unlike Him, we are useless on our own against the power of the enemy.
That said, all of us experience temptation. Often temptation comes because we expose ourselves to it, putting ourselves in what’s called the “occasion of sin.” Sometimes it takes us by surprise. Although God doesn’t directly tempt us, He does allow us to experience it. The trials that we experience in our lives, including temptations to sin, are permitted by God so that we might grow and mature in our faith. Benedict XVI writes: “Just as the juice of the grape has to ferment in order to become a fine wine, so too man needs purifications and transformations; they are dangerous for him, because they present an opportunity for him to fall, and yet they are indispensable as paths on which he comes to himself and to God.”
As for The Lord of the Rings, its hero is not a great Elven Queen, warrior, or wizard. Rather, it is a Hobbit, a lowly creature, unsure of himself, who knows he is small and weak and that the adversary is great and powerful. Like Frodo, we accept the mission, knowing that there will be trials ahead, but also knowing that Our Father never abandons us, but remains with us along the way, even in the midst of temptation.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
In my last assignment there was a women’s group in the parish that would host a brunch each year to which they would invite a speaker. One year they invited a woman named Jennifer Hubbard. Jennifer is from Newtown, CT and in December 2014 her daughter Catherine Violet was murdered along with 19 other children and 6 staff members by a disturbed young man at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Jennifer writes a regular column in the publication Magnificat, sharing her experience of working through the terrible grief of losing her daughter, but also sharing the hope that she professes in God’s love that somehow makes things whole again in the end. Her writings are remarkable, and the women who had gathered to hear her speak that morning hung on her every word. After she gave her talk, she gave them the opportunity to ask her questions. One of the women said to her: “You talk a lot about forgiveness. But… how could you forgive the man who did this?” With a smile that betrayed some sadness, Jennifer responded: “How could I not?”
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We usually pray these words unthinkingly. When we examine them more closely, however, we realize how challenging this petition is. To ask the Lord for pardon is a pretty straightforward thing. But to realize that we must forgive in order to receive forgiveness is something altogether different. We might imagine ourselves standing before Him, our consciences greatly burdened, our sins revealed to us, as we say: “Have mercy on me, Lord.” Then we hear Him say to us: “But what about x? What about y? Will you have mercy on them for what they did to you?” In this petition it is as though He is inviting us to stand in His place, and grant to those who have hurt us most the very thing we seek from God for ourselves.
There is great suffering involved in forgiving those who have truly hurt us, especially when they exhibit no interest in reconciliation or regret for what they have done. Jennifer’s words that day about forgiveness did not gloss over the pain that she experienced because of the terrible evil done to her child, pain that threatened to destroy everything in her life. She confessed that there are still days in which she can’t get out of bed. Yet, she continues to ask for and receive the grace to persevere in her commitment to forgive. She bears that mercy as a cross, something that hurts but which united to Christ liberates us from the destructive power of hatred and heals all things.
From the cross, Our Lord cries out: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Unless we agree to bear the cross of mercy ourselves, we cannot begin to understand these words and what they mean for us. If we do accept the grace to bear the cross of mercy, we will begin to understand them. But it is a grace. We need the help of Christ to pray this petition and mean it. We find that grace in a special way in the sacrament of Reconciliation. When we go to confession and confess the effects of the struggle to forgive – and confess it over and over again – a beautiful thing happens. We understand our need for mercy more. We recognize how helpless we feel against our sin. And, please God, we will resolve again and again to come to the help of those who are helpless in their sins against us, and forgive them.
Here is a reflection on Lent by Jennifer Hubbard that was published in Magnificat a while back. If you do not subscribe to Magnificat, I highly recommend it. It’s a great publication.
The Season of Lent by Jennifer Hubbard
Year after year, something about the brilliant light beaming off every surface took my breath away. As it did then and still does, its radiance and warmth fills me with an indescribable peace. There was a time when I convinced myself that if my home shone in a similar fashion then my restless soul would be settled and then, then, I would feel whole. In my naiveté, I resolved Lent would be focused on making my home shine like the church on Easter Sunday. I worked my way through the house, perplexed with beautiful treasures that had been hidden away, saddened by things broken and not yet fixed, and surprised by the mars and scratches I had stopped noticing. At times the mess I created in my quest for peace overwhelmed. At others, I was determined only to see my plan through. Over time I realized—it was not my home I wanted made brilliant; it was my heart. I have come to understand that the state of my heart is not defined by my actions, my striving, or even my accomplishments, but by my willingness to seek the mars and scratches, by acknowledging my brokenness, and by my readiness to surrender to the only One who can make my heart anew. Our loving Father awaits me in these moments, meets me in my vulnerability, and forgives me my trespasses. Lent offers us all a time to reflect, recognize, and repent—to lean in, draw closer, and to make ready our hearts to receive the brilliance and grace which Easter morning brings.
(Jennifer Hubbard resides in Newtown, Conn. The younger of her two children, Catherine Violet, was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.)
Mass of the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy
It was on March 16, 2020 that Bishop Caggiano, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, issued the decree that temporarily suspended all public celebration of Masses in the presence of the lay faithful throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport. Thankfully, the suspension ended on May 21st, and it has been great to see people beginning to return to Mass in the church. I’m very grateful to all of our volunteers and staff who have done a great job making the church safe and inviting. The pandemic has made people understandably hesitant to gather in enclosed public spaces. Seeing the number of people at weekend Masses grow assures me that we are doing things well here at the parish. But I think it’s important to reassure you that the Bishop’s dispensation from the normal obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains in place, especially since current attendance restrictions would not allow us to accommodate all the parishioners in our churches.
Under normal conditions, the Church’s law states that, “on Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2180). Of course, one also fulfills this obligation by going to the vigil Mass on Saturday evenings. One may be excused from attending Sunday Mass if there is a “serious reason,” such as illness, the need to provide care for someone who cannot be left home alone, or if leaving one’s home would pose a significant risk to one’s health and/or safety. Being on vacation, however, is not a valid reason for missing Mass – unless you’re in a place like Saudi Arabia where, unlike Orlando or the Jersey Shore, it is very difficult to find a Catholic church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (Catechism, 2181). In such an unfortunate situation, one should go to the sacrament of confession before going again to Communion.
This way of talking about Sunday Mass, as an obligation the neglection of which is a sin, is not the most edifying way of considering the great gift that the Mass is. When we gather together for Sunday Eucharist we testify to the world and to each other that we belong to Christ and His Church. Gathered together, we strengthen each other, revealing God’s holiness and our hope of salvation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism, 2182). The Holy Eucharist that we receive through the Mass is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism, 1324), and through our communal encounter with Christ at the Mass, the lay faithful are strengthened to fulfill their blessed privilege to bring Christ into the world. Mass is the greatest thing that human beings can participate in. But that’s something that we have to learn, because love for the Mass doesn’t come naturally. That’s why the precept that imposes the obligation exists, to help us (please, God) to learn to love the Mass, and to miss it deeply when we are not able to attend.
It was out of pastoral concern for the faithful that the Bishop exercised his authority to lift the obligation of the faithful to attend Sunday Mass. Interestingly, however, the Bishop does not have the authority to dispense us from the precept to honor the Lord’s Day. That’s because this is a divine mandate (3rd Commandment) and not Church law. Attending Mass is the ordinary way in which we honor the Lord’s Day. But when we can’t do that we should – or, more accurately, we must – observe and honor the day in another fitting way. That means it should be something intentional and communal, if possible. Many families watch Mass together online or on television, participating in the responses, familiarizing themselves with the readings beforehand. To enter into the experience more deeply, they might print out a copy of the Eucharistic Prayer and follow along as the priest transforms bread & wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Alternatively, families could read the readings for Mass together, followed by the recitation of the rosary. People could pray the Liturgy of the Hours – office of readings, morning prayer, evening prayer – together. Under present circumstances, how you choose to pray on Sunday is up to you. The important thing to remember is that, even though the obligation to attend Mass has been suspended, we still are supposed to honor the Lord’s Day.
A priest whom I knew in college once told us that, since Sunday Mass is the minimum required of Catholics, if the only time during the week that we pray or think about God is Sunday Mass, then we are essentially on spiritual life support. One of the great difficulties for those who are not able to attend Mass right now is the challenge to keep the Lord’s Day holy, and to continue the essential practice of religion while deprived of its greatest expression. Although the circumstances may force us to have to be more intentional and creative about the way we honor the Lord on Sunday, we trust that He is with us, and that through our alternative Sunday devotions He offers us what we need to enjoy not just the minimum but the fullness of life with Him.
Thy Daily Bread
There’s a reality television show on cable called Hoarders, which depicts the struggles of people who suffer with Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, which leads them to pack their homes with things such as newspapers, cans, books, and clothes. Their compulsion makes their living situation unhealthy and unsafe and causes great distress to their families. The show brings psychologists and counselors to speak with people who are dealing with the disorder in order to help them to recognize their problem and to help them overcome their compulsion to hoard. Many tragically resist the help, sometimes expressing their despair of ever being freed from the disorder. But there are also some success stories. The show is entering into its eleventh season this fall, revealing our society’s morbid fascination with this condition. But in a certain way, all of us struggle with a compulsion to hoard. The people on the show hoard things most people would consider junk. But we tend to hoard things like money, power, pleasure, health, knowledge, and social status. We’re not so troubled by these things because they’re not so obviously grotesque as hoarding old newspapers. But we do it for essentially the same reason. We are afraid of our existential poverty – our smallness, our weakness, our fragility. Thus, we relentlessly pursue things that give us a feeling of control over our lives. But even when we realize that the control they provide is illusory, the thought of giving them up – or having them taken away – terrifies us.
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is: “Give us this day our daily bread.” This phrase is an acknowledgement of total dependence on God for everything, including the most basic needs that sustain our existence. A stark illustration of this is in the Book of Exodus, when the Lord provides food for the Israelites in the wilderness, giving them Manna – the mysterious bread from the sky. Per the Lord’s instruction, each Israelite was to gather only as much Manna each day as was needed to feed their families. Those who disregarded this instruction discovered that the Manna was inedible the next day. This was to teach the people radical dependence on the Lord who had liberated them from bondage in Egypt, who had chosen them to be His people, and who wanted His people to trust Him.
In the wilderness, the Israelites experienced universal poverty, and thus had to learn to live in solidarity with one another to survive. Our Lord instructs us to make the petition collectively (“our” daily bread) to remind the Church to live in solidarity with the materially poor and those who do not have enough to eat. The material assistance we provide to our brothers and sisters is a way in which God works through the Church to care for the needy. But our needs are not just material, for we are also spiritual creatures – we are bodies and souls. Our physical hunger for material bread is great. But our spiritual hunger for the food that nourishes our souls is even greater. So as we ask the Lord to give us the bread that is necessary for our existence, we come to understand that the greatest food He gives us is the bread that has been changed into His flesh and blood. Like the Manna, the Eucharist cannot be hoarded, not because it decays but because it is superabundant, like a cup that overflows. As we pray this petition, may we be liberated from the fear that leads us to “hoard” worldly things and instead approach Him with hands that are empty and hearts that are open to receive what God wants to give us, what we most need.
Thy Will Be Done
The fourth petition in the Lord’s Prayer is: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” What is heaven like? Popular culture often depicts it as a dreadfully boring place filled with clouds and angels quietly playing harps. When we think of heaven, we know it to be the place where God’s will is always done and always done perfectly. Those popular depictions of heaven as eternal tedium are probably the result of thinking that heaven is a place without freedom. Having finished their time on earth and no longer capable of sinning, they conclude that the creatures who live in heaven – the angels and the saints – must simply move about as glorified automatons, mindlessly going about their business, blissful but unfree. The reality, however, couldn’t be more different. The angels and saints who do the will of God perfectly in heaven enjoy far greater freedom than we do. They are unencumbered by the effects of original sin which cloud our judgment and weaken our willpower, making it difficult to know and to do what is truly good. Sin diminishes our freedom. It makes us less free. Just as a normal person feels no desire, as he walks through his yard, to stoop down and start eating handfuls of grass, the angels and saints, as they enjoy the light of God’s glory, feel no desire to do anything but the will of God. The man who has to exercise restraint as he walks across his lawn lacks perfect freedom because he feels compelled to eat grass. We, for whom doing the will of God is difficult, lack perfect freedom because we continue to struggle with sin.
This petition of the Lord’s Prayer is fulfilled perfectly in the One who gives us this prayer to pray – Christ Jesus Himself. In Christ we find the One who always does the will of the Father. Thus, we can say that in Christ we encounter heaven, where the will of the Father is always done. Pope Benedict XVI says that, “looking at [Christ], we realize that left to ourselves we can never be completely just: the gravitational pull of our own will constantly draws us away from God’s will and turns us into mere ‘earth.’ But He accepts us, He draws us up to Himself, into Himself, and in communion with Him we too learn God’s will.”
The Lord is the Creator, the Maker of all things. The effect of Original Sin is our tendency to rebel against the way God willed to create the world, including the way He willed to create us. We crave mastery of all things according to our will, just as the madman craves grass to fill his hungry belly. Gently, Our Lord enters His fallen creation in order to redeem it and open up the way for us to be saved from the madness of sin and to know, as St. Paul calls it, “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” This freedom comes from learning to do God’s will, and willing to do His will. By praying this petition, Pope Benedict explains, we express the desire to “come closer and closer to [Jesus], so that God’s will can conquer the downward pull of our selfishness and make us capable of the lofty height to which we are called.”
Mass of 17th Sunday
The Pilgrimage of St. James
Going on pilgrimage is an ancient Christian practice. There are old texts from Bishops encouraging the practice of pilgrimage among the faithful going back to the 4th century. Pilgrimages are not vacations, but physical journeys that manifest the spiritual journeys of those who desire to encounter God in the places where He has made His presence known in a particular way. The most important pilgrimage destinations in our tradition are the Holy Land and Rome, but there are many others. The ancient pilgrimage to visit the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England was immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In more recent times many people have made pilgrimages to the sites of Marian apparitions, such as Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima. But perhaps the most dramatic Christian pilgrimage still popular today is the ancient Camino de Santiago (the “Way of St. James”), in Spain.
For over 1000 years, pilgrims from all over the world have made the journey to northwestern Spain to visit the tomb of St. James the Apostle, whose feast day we celebrate today (7/25). St. James was a member of Our Lord’s inner circle, along with Peter and James’ brother John. These three were the only ones among the Twelve privileged to witness Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor as well as His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The gospels describe James as a man who could be hot-tempered and impetuous. On one occasion, he and his younger brother earned Jesus’ rebuke when they expressed their desire to call down fire from the sky to destroy a Samaritan village that would not welcome them. James’ ambition is revealed in the gospel reading for today’s feast, in which his mother approaches Jesus and asks that her two sons be granted the greatest positions in his Kingdom, one seated on His right and the other on His left. Our Lord gently denies her request, as those places were destined for others. These passages reveal to us that St. James, like every follower of Christ (with the exception of the Blessed Mother), struggled with sin. Yet, over the course of the years during which James followed Christ – listening to Him, watching Him, getting to know Him – something changed in him. Less than 15 years after his mother made that awkward petition on his behalf, James’ ambition to be first among the disciples of Christ was fulfilled, albeit in a very different way, when he became the first among the Twelve to glorify the Lord by his martyrdom.
Pilgrimages are transformative because they are incarnational – they engage the whole person, body and soul. Walking 500mi (one-way) over the rugged Spanish landscape of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one experiences in the body the spiritual and moral struggle of life in the world. Sore muscles and blisters are part of life for the pilgrim on the Camino. They are visible signs in the flesh of the invisible hurts and wounds in the heart that every person experiences as part of life in a fallen world. When they finally arrive to Compostela, pilgrims greet with an embrace the relics of the saint who walked as a pilgrim before them. Like St. James, they can say that they know the experience of poverty, weariness, and humiliation that come with life on pilgrimage – embracing the challenge in hope of transformation, and the marvelous realization of the great things that Christ does for those who follow Him along the way.
Thy Kingdom Come
This third petition of the Lord’s Prayer is an expression of longing that God the Father’s reign extend over all things. It’s a curious petition, considering we profess faith in God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and omnipresent. That means His reign must already extend over all of His creation. Yet, it is obvious that things are not as they should be. You don’t have to be religious to see that. The old-school Marxist also decries the injustice he sees in the world. There is, therefore, a tension between the reality that God is already Lord of all things and the reality that things in the world do not yet acknowledge it. Jesus instructs us to pray this petition because Our Lord knows that it is beyond our power to impose His reign on the world ourselves. Ultimately, He must bring it about.
And this is what we resist. The Lord God is sovereign over all things, but the human heart mysteriously remains disputed territory. On the road to Damascus, when Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul) encountered the risen Christ, Our Lord said to him: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Goads were sharpened sticks that farmers would use to prod livestock, to get them to move as they plowed the field. Sometimes, a cow or ox would respond to the prodding with a kick against the goad, which would end up being more painful to the animal than the farmer’s prodding. Saul’s persecution of the early Church was his resistance to Christ’s call for his conversion, and ultimately it was hurting Saul. We kick against the goad too when we cling to sovereignty over the world (even in the name of God), wanting it to be our kingdom, made according to our liking, even as we pray “Thy Kingdom come.” To decry the disorder and the madness, the injustice and depravity that we see in the world around us, but not the presence of all those things deep within, is to betray the petition and to kick against the goads.
Only the Lord God is sovereign over all things. Every social order and structure that exists in the world is subject to His judgment. As His subjects, we have a responsibility to protect and foster all that is good in the social order, and to resist and correct those things that contradict what we know to be the Lord’s desire for us and the things that offend the dignity with which He made us. But to pray this petition in good faith, we must express it as a desire that His Kingdom extend to the deepest depths of our being. We pray it recognizing that His creation is one single whole, and that our hearts are part of the fallen world, part of the fallen order, and that we need Him because we are helpless against our own fallenness. He must reign over our hearts if He is to reign over society because they are all part of the one Kingdom of God.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, the Times of London posed a question to a number of well-known contemporary writers, and asked them to write a response to it for publication in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the paper. The question was: “What’s wrong with the world today?” The newspaper received many lengthy responses that pontificated on the great questions of politics and economics and the challenges facing society. In his response, G.K. Chesterton simply wrote: “I am.”
When we acknowledge this, we begin to pray “Thy Kingdom come” with greater understanding and greater trust, that the Lord God who loves us will be kind and merciful to us as He ushers in His Heavenly Kingdom.
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Familiarity and awe, in tight conjunction, are the mark of Christian prayer.– Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis
In this second petition from the Lord’s Prayer, Christ Jesus instructs us to say: “Hallowed be thy name.” It is the expression of a wish that the name of God be treated with reverence, as something holy. It is in the Book of Exodus, where Moses encounters the Lord in the burning bush, that we first receive the name of God. After giving Moses the task of demanding that the Egyptians let the Israelites out of bondage, Moses anticipates that Pharaoh will demand to know which of the gods is making such a demand, so Moses asks God to reveal His name. But the Lord God is not one god among the gods. He is God, and He reveals to Moses that His name is mysterious: “I am who am.”
Names make things accessible to us. They establish the existence of a relationship, and reveal that we know another person, that we might even enjoy influence over them. Consider the practice of name-dropping. It can be tempting to refer to the names of people we know as a way of gaining access to people and places, or of getting ourselves out of trouble. There are times when it is appropriate to speak the name of someone in conversation. But when we develop the habit of dropping names, it can end up emptying the names of their power to “open doors” for us. People no longer pay attention when they hear the name of someone spoken so freely in this way.
Thus, the Lord gives us His name, but it’s a name that remains mysterious, outside our grasp. The Commandment: “Thou shall not use the name of the Lord in vain”, exists to preserve and protect the holiness and the power of the name of God. The ancient Israelites treated the name of God as a word so sacred that it is rendered unpronounceable in the scriptures as YHWH. Liturgically, the name was uttered only once a year by the High Priest in the holiest part of the Temple. To this day, when they read the scriptures aloud and come upon it, pious Jewish people always substitute “The Lord” for the name of God. So, while God makes Himself accessible to the Israelites by revealing His name to them, He warns them through the Commandment that it is not a name to be spoken or treated casually.
Yet, in this petition, we are told to speak of it as “thy name.” To our modern ears, “thy” sounds very formal. But, in truth, it’s informal. In the grammar of many other languages, there are two ways of addressing people – a formal way and an informal way. In Spanish, when we address someone formally, we say “usted,” the informal address being “tu.” The French equivalent is “vous/tu.” In Italian, it’s “lei/tu.” As English has developed, that distinction between formal/informal address has fallen out of usage, but it still exists. “You” is actually the formal address, whereas “thou” is the informal way of speaking to someone. “Hallowed be your name” is actually more formal than “hallowed be thy name.” So, while we are instructed to express our desire that the name of God be set apart, kept holy in our treatment of it, we are nonetheless invited into an intimate relationship with Him, addressing God familiarly.
With the Incarnation of God the Son, we can and do speak the name of Jesus in our prayer. By revealing to us His name, Our Lord opens the possibility of intimate relationship with us, but He also takes the risk of His name being abused. When we pray this petition, “Hallowed by thy name,” it should it remind us also to treat as precious the Holy Name of Jesus. By speaking His name with tender devotion and love, may it be a way of making reparation for the all-to-common abuse of that name – the only name by which we are saved (Acts 4:12).
Mass of the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1985. The grandson of immigrants who worked in the coal mines of West Virginia, George is known as one of the nation’s leading conservative intellectuals. As a practicing Catholic who holds views considered “conservative” on many issues, George’s outspoken critiques of abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, pornography, large-scale government welfare programs, and human trafficking often put him at odds with his colleagues. But he has a gift for being able to engage with those who disagree with him in a respectful and constructive way and has earned widespread respect among his peers. As a teacher, what George does exceedingly well is challenge students to be more introspective and to subject their typically conventional beliefs to critical analysis. During the recent wave of attacks on monuments erected to historical figures, George posted the following on his Twitter account:
“I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it. Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it.”
“So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing: (1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and (5) that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness. In short, my challenge is [for them] to show where they have – at risk to themselves and their futures – stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.”
George believes that these kinds of thought exercises are essential in the university setting, since he believes that the intellectual life is about truth-seeking. “The spirit of truth-seeking is first a spirit of humility,” George has argued. “It’s a spirit that recognizes one’s own fallibility, that whatever one’s convictions, beliefs, or judgments, they are fallible.” And once one begins to take truth-seeking seriously, he or she will then discover (hopefully) the need for courage to live in accord with the truth, as well as the need for mercy and grace. George has attributed his own moral formation to the example of his parents. His father was a man of “simple piety, generosity, humility, integrity, and compassion.” His mother “stressed the ways in which living up to the demands of Christian faith was a noble challenge.”
Prof. George’s parents taught him well, imparting to him the qualities of a good teacher, one who seeks Truth and who, out of love for his students, wants to help others seek it too. Good teachers are a great gift. Pope St. John XXIII, in his social encyclical Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”) points to the Church as our essential formator, teacher, and guide in building up a good society, which we are called as Catholics to do with humility, charity, and love for Truth.
I remember like it was yesterday. I was in fourth grade and me and my friends were watching The Empire Strikes Back, which everybody knows is the best of all the Star Wars movies. In the climactic scene, an under-prepared Luke Skywalker has just had an epic lightsaber fight with Darth Vader, who has cornered him and cut off his hand (super-traumatic!). And then it happened – Darth Vader, pretty much the most terrifying villain ever – tells poor Luke (whose hand he’s just cut off) that he’s his father! If you had been there, you would have heard a horrified gasp escape our 9-year-old lips, for it was pretty much the worst thing my buddies and I had ever seen. Absolutely devastating. So it might sound strange, but I think this seminal episode in pop culture history actually helps us to reflect on the first phrase of the prayer that Our Lord teaches us to pray. As shocking and awful as the discovery of Darth Vader’s fatherhood was to poor Luke Skywalker, so Jesus’ revelation that God is “Our Father” should shock us and fill us with joyful amazement.
We can understand the Fatherhood of God in a couple of ways. First, He is our Father in the sense that He is our Creator. We owe our existence at every moment to His desiring that we exist, and not just in some vague and general way. Indeed, He knows each one of us intimately, and wills that each one of us exist personally. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Lord God is always referred to as “Father” and never “Mother.” The reason for this is not explicit or totally clear in the scriptures. After all, God the Father is pure spirit, and has no physical characteristics of fatherhood. In fact, there are instances where the love that God has for the people is compared to the love that a mother has for her child. Then why is He always referred to as “Father?” In the ancient societies that would have surrounded the people of Israel and the early Church, worship of mother deities was very common. But these deities always implied a kind of pantheism, in which the difference between Creator and creature disappears. This makes sense if you consider the way an unborn child lives and is nourished in its mother’s womb. The God of Israel, however, is distinct from creation. He is “other,” which reflects the relationship of a father, who is always distinct from his child. Although this is theological speculation, and not a definitive answer, ultimately we always refer to God as Father and not Mother because that is the language of Sacred Scripture, including the language Jesus always uses to address God.
That being said, there’s another, and more awesome sense in which God is Our Father. When we think about Christ Jesus’ relationship to the Father, it is the relation of the First and Second divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity – God the Father and God the Son. Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Jesus is ‘the Son’ in the strict sense – He is of one substance with the Father. He wants to draw all of us into His humanity and so into His Sonship, into His total belonging to God.” Jesus is Son of the Father by nature. You and I are children of the Father by adoption, which occurs when we are reborn in Christ at our baptism. As adopted Children of God, we are given a full share in everything that Christ receives from the Father, including the right to address the Lord of Heaven and Earth in the tenderest of terms that a child uses to address its father – Abba, papa, dad.
If you’re still reeling from the trauma of Darth Vader’s paternity reveal, let me give you a different image to consider that I hope illustrates the second sense of God’s fatherhood. Imagine you’re someone who has no family of your own and have spent your life basically alone. You fall in love, and you end up marrying into the best family ever. At the wedding, your new father-in-law – of whom you’re in awe (and who is the opposite of Darth Vader) – puts his arm around your shoulder and says: “please call me dad.” In a small way, the joy that this would bring is like the joy that we should feel as members of the Church, the Bride of Christ, who at the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching dare to call God “Our Father.”
The Lily of the Mohawks
Today is the feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized a saint. St. Kateri was born in 1656, the daughter of a war chief of the Mohawk tribe and a Christian Algonquin mother, near present-day Auriesville, NY. It was in that same area, 10 years earlier, where the French missionaries, St. Isaac Jogues and his Jesuit companions were killed by Mohawk tribesmen who resented the presence of missionaries in their lands. When she was a small child, Kateri’s family died during an outbreak of smallpox. The disease left Kateri’s eyesight damaged and the skin on her face disfigured with scars. She was raised by relatives in a nearby village who adopted her into their family and raised her as their own.
When she was 14, a Catholic mission run by members of the Society of Jesus was established in the area and she sought baptism there at the age of 20. The priest there understood that this could cause serious problems, for she was the daughter of a war chief, and it would be very controversial for someone of her exalted social status to become Christian. Nonetheless, he acquiesced to her desire and discovered a young woman who had a deep understanding of the Catholic faith and the spirituality of a contemplative that he said was singular among the people he encountered in his missionary activities. Her baptism made her an outcast among her family members and tribesmen, especially for her refusal to marry, a decision they considered shameful. They also didn’t understand her disinterest in festivals and community gatherings, preferring the solitude of the wilderness where she would go on her own to pray. Out of frustration with her, they accused her of failing to perform her domestic duties. Because of their harsh treatment, the local priest helped her to leave her home and move to a mission community near Montreal, where she would live with other members of the Mohawk tribe who had converted to Christianity. There, she publicly made a vow of virginity, consecrating herself to Christ, on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1679. A year later, on Wednesday of Holy Week, she passed away from illness. When she died, witnesses said that her appearance changed, and the scars on her face, which she had borne since childhood, disappeared. A priest who was there, wrote about this miraculous transformation, and described how Kateri’s face, “so disfigured and so swarthy in life, suddenly changed about 15 minutes after her death, and in an instant became so beautiful and so fair that just as soon as I saw it (I was praying by her side) I let out a yell, I was so astonished.”
I was in seminary when Pope Benedict XVI canonized St. Kateri Tekakwitha in St. Peter’s Square in October 2012. A college friend of mine, whose father is a member of the Mohawk tribe, came to Rome with her family for the celebrations. There were members of many other Native American tribes in Rome for the great occasion, but my friend’s family felt particularly proud since St. Kateri, like them, was Mohawk. During the canonization festivities, a religious sister from the Mohawk tribe, who had taken St. Kateri’s name in religion, was quoted as saying: “With the elevation of one of our own to the altars, the universal Church will know that we have a person from our community who has climbed to the heights of holiness and attained a deep relationship with God.”
St. Kateri Tekakwitha is the patroness of the environment, of those who have lost their parents, and of Native Americans. What a beautiful thing it is that this young woman who enjoyed no great accomplishments, who left no spiritual writings, who was poor and disfigured and treated as an outcast most her life, has become not just a source of pride to members of her Mohawk tribe, but also a source of pride to all native peoples, as well as a source of hope for Catholics everywhere.
Mass of the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today, July 11, we celebrate the feast day of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe. Benedict was born in the Italian town of Norcia (Nursia) in the year 480. This was a period of serious cultural decline in the waning years of the Roman Empire, and when Benedict was sent by his wealthy father to study in Rome he was put off by the dissipated lifestyles of his schoolmates and the general moral corruption he found in the city. He longed to find a quiet place far from the urban center where he could pursue the spiritual life. At the age of 20 he left school and withdrew to the mountains outside of Rome, where he lived an austere life as a hermit in a place called Subiaco. His obvious virtue and wisdom, as well as his reputation as a wonder worker, drew other men to Subiaco to live with the future founder of several monasteries in that area. But it was at Monte Cassino in the year 530 that Benedict founded the greatest of his monasteries, the place where he would compose what became known as the Rule of St. Benedict. St. Benedict’s Rule is the standard guide for Christian monastic life in the western world. It regulated life in the monastery, establishing a familial structure with the abbot as the father of the community in which it was understood that through their life together the monks would help each other grow in holiness.
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, he took the name Benedict XVI because of his devotion to St. Benedict. In one of his homilies about his patron saint, the pope emeritus points out that, unlike other great monastic movements of his time, St. Benedict’s community did not have as its principle mission the evangelization of pagan tribes. The primary focus of life in the Benedictine monastery was to seek God. St. Benedict knew “that when the believer enters into a profound relationship with God, he cannot be content with a mediocre life under the banner of a minimalistic ethic and a superficial religiosity.” In the monastic community the monk would spend his life in work and prayer, silently listening as he entered more deeply into relationship with the Lord.
As the Roman world was breaking down, Benedictine monasteries became centers of stability and order. Monks preserved the wisdom of civilization by copying manuscripts, they drained swamps and cultivated the land, and their monasteries became refuges for the poor and sick. In many places, villages sprang up around the monastery, making them centers of commerce. This was all happening within the shell of the civilization that was passing away, allowing a new civilization to spring up from the ashes.
It is common to compare our age to the decadence of the sixth century and the period of Rome’s decline. The institutions of society that used to provide guidance have lost credibility, and many people find themselves adrift. The life of St. Benedict reveals to us the need to go back to the basics and seek out a relationship with God. So many people are dissatisfied with mediocrity in the spiritual and moral life and want more, but don’t know where to turn if they haven’t already despaired of the possibility. Everyone needs the help of a community to seek God. My hope is that our parish might be such a community of communities – families and groups of friends who, as St. Benedict would say, “prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” By living and learning and praying and worshipping together, calling each other on to go deeper in our relationship with the living God, who knows what might happen? We might even become saints.
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today we celebrate the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which we recognize as the birthday of our nation. Although the celebrations of this great holiday must be relatively quiet this year, I hope you get to enjoy the weekend with family and friends as best you can. Our nation is obviously not perfect, but it’s a great country and we are truly blessed to live in the United States. We should give thanks for the many blessings we enjoy as Americans, even as we pray for greater concord among the people of our nation.
It was also about a year ago that Bishop Caggiano issued his decree that brought the parishioners of our parish together. I’m sure that most of the members of the parish understood that there would be some challenges during the first year, but no one could have foreseen the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic that would prevent us from being able to come together as a parish community for over 3 months. The response of our parish to the crisis has been edifying. You have been attentive to the needs of your neighbors, especially the elderly and the sick. You have come to the church to pray before Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament. You gathered food at our Drive Thru Food Drive to care for the growing number of people in our area who find themselves in need. You have inquired often about the welfare of me, Fr. Mariusz, and Anh. And you have generously provided the material support necessary to maintain the operations of our parish, in some cases at great personal sacrifice. I’m very proud of the way our community has come together during a time in which we’ve been forced to remain apart.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we work together to build up our Parish of St. Cecilia-St. Gabriel through our prayers and mutual support. The things that we see happening in our society might trouble our hearts. But we are people of hope and we reject that which would tempt us to despair. Instead, we recommit ourselves to discipleship as members of the Church. By living our lives as Catholics, as members of this parish, we seek to reveal the presence of the Lord Jesus to each other and to the world. He is the fulfillment of all our hopes, the hopes of every human person. As we enter our 2nd year as a parish family and 245th year as a nation, I ask that you please pray for our parish community and our country, that we might become holy through the challenges we face and be beacons of Christian hope to our neighbors and each other.
Today’s gospel is St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in the town of Capernaum (Mt 9:1-8). The afflicted man is brought to Our Lord by his friends, lying on a stretcher. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.’” I wonder if there wasn’t some feeling of disappointment at these words. The man and his friends clearly want a physical healing. They’re certainly not expecting Jesus to forgive the man’s sins. It’s important to remember, however, that Jesus knows what we need most. During His days on earth He healed many, curing them of illness, restoring strength to their bodies. But He did not heal every physical ailment or cure every disease. This was not His primary mission, for what good is it to walk about freely if your heart is enslaved and your soul is dead in sin? The scribes standing nearby, think Jesus’ expression of forgiveness was blasphemous, for God alone can forgive sins. In response, Christ demonstrates His power by telling the man, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home,” and the man does.
If we think about it, this passage helps us come to greater understanding of the sacraments. One common definition of a sacrament is: “a visible sign of an invisible grace” (St. Augustine). Our Lord heals the man physically after forgiving his sins as a visible sign of the invisible grace of forgiveness that He has bestowed upon him. The man is able to receive the grace, thanks to the assistance of his friends, who are an image of the Church. Because they loved him, they brought him to Jesus. Jesus forgives the man when He sees the faith of his friends, and then proceeds to heal his body as well.
Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis notes that the stretcher can be read symbolically as both a funeral bier, something upon which a corpse is placed, and a crib, something upon which a newborn is placed. Thus, it is an image of Baptism and of Reconciliation. The man who had been dead in his sin is brought to new life again, reborn through his encounter with mercy of the Son of God. The stretcher might also be thought of as a kind of paten (the little metal plate the priest uses at Mass for the Communion host), upon which is placed the lifeless piece of unleavened bread. At the words of the priest who speaks them as Christ, that lifeless object becomes the very Source of Life, who is invisible to our eyes but present in a way that we can receive His living flesh and blood as food.
These images reveal the power of the sacraments. At the Mass, we can imitate the friends of the paralytic as members of the Church and place our loved ones on the paten of the priest. It might be someone who is suffering from an illness or some other kind of trial. But most especially we offer to God in this way those who find themselves far from the Lord, who might even be dead in their sins. In loving faith, we entrust them to the care of the Son of God, and in hope, we pray that He might have mercy on them. How can the Lord reject such an offering, which so closely resembles the offering of love He made of Himself on the cross, which is the same offering of love He makes through the priest at the Mass on the altar? Through the sacraments, the Lord shares His divine life with us and with those we entrust to His care.
St. Junipero Serra
Tomorrow, July 1, is the feast day of St. Junipero Serra. In recent weeks, we’ve seen statues pulled down by activists decrying what they understand to be crimes committed by historical figures. Even prior to his canonization by Pope Francis in September 2015, St. Junipero Serra had been the subject of harsh criticism and the defacement of his image, especially in California, the place where he worked as a missionary. As I was looking for information about Serra, I came across an interesting 2018 essay entitled “Padre Mestizo” by the writer Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez was born in San Francisco as the son of Mexican immigrants to the United States and has become well-known by his regular contribution of video essays to the PBS News Hour program.
Serra was born in 1713 on the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean Sea. He became a Franciscan priest and was on track to spend his life in Spain as a scholar, but he found himself dissatisfied with his easy life. He told his superiors that he desired to go to the New World and work in the missions, “to be with the Indians who did not yet know Christ.” Eventually, his petitions were granted, and he was sent to the missions of New Spain. According to Rodriguez, “the remarkable achievement of Roman Catholicism was its proclamation – in an encyclical of Pope Paul II in 1537, Sublimis Deus – that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational beings with souls. Therefore, Indians deserved conversion. Indians were not to be enslaved by Spanish colonists. Indians were spiritual equals to the king of Spain.” Of course, this does not mean that the native populations were not poorly treated by the colonial powers. It does mean that no one could seriously deny the evil of such abuses. Christ died for these native peoples, just as He had died for the people of Spain and all peoples of the world. Thus, Our Lord’s great commission to His Apostles to share the gospel with the nations applied to the people of the New World. They had a right to know what God had done and what He desired for them.
Rodriguez calls Serra “the postlapsarian prophet of a coming age.” The world the native peoples knew was coming to an end. “Serra understood the Indians would be decimated if they were unprepared for the settlers’ ways. He was not protecting the indigenous people from Spanish civilization so much as preparing the Indians to live in communion with the Spaniards.” This “communion” is something that those who pull down statues of Serra resent, especially those who accept the myth (Rodriguez doesn’t) that California, prior to the arrival of the colonial powers, was a paradise, untouched by Original Sin, in which the indigenous tribes had lived in perfect harmony with each other and with nature. Rodriguez refers to the historian Carey McWilliams who wrote in the 1930s and 40s about the history of California, and who is largely responsible for the negative depictions of Serra that proliferate today. He described the California missions as “picturesque charnel houses.” Rodriguez says that “when McWilliams regarded the California missions, he could only make out a story of the victimization of the Indians,” in which the native peoples were unwilling converts who were forced to adopt new ways and who were punished harshly if they resisted or ran away.
Rodriguez does not spend time denying or justifying the harsh treatment of natives by colonials, by missionaries, or even of St. Junipero Serra. Indeed, he writes: “The most popular saints are those whose humanity clings to them. The process of canonization requires a devil’s advocate to seek out the reasons – and there are sure to be reasons – why the candidate should not be venerated. To my mind, Mother Teresa is a saint of greater allure precisely because her faith was disturbed by the silence of God.” Acknowledging the imperfections of Serra, he nonetheless seems to think that the legacy of Serra is much greater than his critics understand, and that his motivations were more noble than they can comprehend. “As a mestizo, like most Mexicans alive today, like my ancestors,” writes Rodriguez, “I was made by the missions.” As for Serra, “his great ambition, his deep desire, was to join his soul to the souls of Indians, many of whom fled his presence.”
Rodriguez’s essay is, I think, an invitation to consider Serra’s role in the emergence of the mestizo people – the ethnic communion of native and European peoples – and the influence that Mexican culture has had on California and beyond, including in the Church. The ethnic communion is ultimately surpassed, however, by the supernatural communion that is enjoyed by the baptized who are bound together not by blood but by grace. This is the communion that St. Junipero Serra cared about most. The goodness of both of these communions, ethnic and spiritual, is embodied by the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared as a mestiza and spoke in the Aztec language to St. Juan Diego and sent him to the local archbishop, “thus reversing the dynamic of Spanish Catholicism by making a sincerely bewildered Indian the ambassador of the Mother of God.” Through the intercession of St. Junipero Serra, may this time of division and the pulling down of monuments become instead a time of communion and the building up of peoples, all under the watchful eye of Our Blessed Mother.
Mass for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
St. Peter & St. Paul
This Monday, June 29, is the Solemnity of St. Peter & St. Paul. These two saints are the patrons of the city of Rome, where they died as martyrs for the Faith. It’s traditionally the day on which new archbishops go to Rome to receive something called the “pallium” from the pope. The pallium is a white piece of woolen cloth, woven in the shape of a yoke and decorated with six crosses. The archbishop wears the pallium around his neck as a sign of his office. Significantly, the wool that’s used to make the pallium comes from a lamb (a symbol of the sacrifice of Christ) that is shorn on Holy Thursday, the celebration of Our Lord’s institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist. The pallium thus connects the office of the archbishop to the sacred priesthood and the sacrifice of Christ, to which the bishop as a successor of the apostles is called in a special way. As the pallium is hung around the neck of the new archbishop by the pope on the Solemnity of St. Peter & St. Paul, the point is made that the apostolic faith owes its life not to the trappings of worldly power, but to the witness of the martyrs whose blood was shed for the sake of the Faith.
There’s an ancient Christian hymn that says: “O happy Rome, consecrated by the blood of the two Princes of the Apostles; dyed with their blood you shine more resplendently than all the glory of the world.” St. Peter and St. Paul were two very different men, both called by Christ to be leaders in the earliest days of the Church, both giving their lives for the Faith. There is a tradition in the Church that holds that the two saints died on the same day during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero. While this is historically unlikely, the tradition serves to emphasize the important symbolic connection of the two saints, which is highlighted by their shared feast day. St. Peter is the rock upon which Our Lord built the Church (Mt 16:13-19), and it is Peter and his successors the popes whose teaching authority ultimately preserves the Church from falling into error regarding the truths of the faith and how we are to live in accord with those truths. As such, he represents institutional integrity. St. Paul is the great missionary whose travels led to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Paul represents dynamic growth and development through evangelization and the sharing of the Faith with others. Considered together, St. Peter ensures that the Faith is grounded in the Truth of Christ, and St. Paul ensures that the Faith flourishes and expands as it is shared with the nations through the ages. These two roles complement each other, allowing Catholicism to remain ever-vibrant and relevant while staying grounded in its eternal truths.
It is fitting that on the Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul the new archbishops are reminded that theirs is an office of service. Like St. Paul, they are to serve Christ by sharing the gospel with all peoples without fear. Like St. Peter, they are to serve Christ by sharing the gospel with integrity, entirely devoted to the deposit of faith that they have inherited. Our bishops need our prayers, for their responsibilities are grave. May they be guided by the prayers and example of St. Peter & St. Paul, unafraid to make their lives a sacrificial offering in imitation of Our Lord for the sake of sharing Christ with their flocks.
Images of God
When I was a kid, I liked to read the copy of The Children’s Bible, which was first published by Golden Press in the 1960s. Even before I learned to read, the pictures depicting the Bible stories fascinated me, especially those of the Old Testament. In my mind I can still see the picture of the animals entering Noah’s Ark as the rains began, the picture of the blinded Samson collapsing the Philistine temple by pushing on its supporting pillars, and the picture of David defeating Goliath. But one thing I thought was kind of strange, even as a little boy, was how Jesus looked. The artist who drew the images depicted him as blonde and blue-eyed. I never thought of Him looking that way, and I wondered about it.
There’s a lot of noise these days about depictions of Jesus in art and in churches. Some rather confused people suggest that depictions of Jesus as European are somehow racially insensitive, if not outright expressions of white supremacy. Even if we were to assume these are good faith assertions, they’re still kind of silly. Our Lord was born into a Jewish family not far from the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Physically, He almost certainly looked like the people around Him. He would have resembled His Mother most of all. It is highly unlikely that He had blonde hair and blue eyes. But the gospels provide no physical description of Jesus. What the scriptures do tell us, what we know beyond doubt, is that He had a human nature, a human nature just like every other human being who has ever lived – except without sin.
Because God made Himself visible to us through the Incarnation, “graven” images depicting God were suddenly permissible, whereas previously they had been prohibited under the Mosaic Law. Over the past 20 centuries, Our Lord has been portrayed in a multitude of ways, usually resembling the people of the culture that produced the piece of artwork. In the Mediterranean, Our Lord looks Mediterranean. In northern Europe, He looks northern European. In the far East, He has Asian features. In Africa, Our Lord is depicted with dark skin. In the Americas, we see the same thing. This is, in fact, a beautiful expression of the universality of our Faith. Christ Jesus did not enter the world only to save a particular ethnicity, or speakers of a particular language. He took a human nature for Himself as the means by which He would save human beings who were under the power of sin and death. It is something that transcends language, ethnicity, and culture – but which at the same time does not deny the goodness of language, ethnicity, and culture. Our Lord spoke a particular human language (probably more than one during His life on earth), He had a particular ethnicity, He was raised within a certain culture. These things enrich the human experience and they reveal the universality of our Faith.
I’m not a fan of the tearing down of statues by mobs. I think the removal of statues and other images that depict historical figures that people find offensive should be subject to existing peaceful and legal processes. To do that well, we need to be able to distinguish between a statue that honors someone for something evil they did (these, I would argue, should come down), and a statue that honors someone for something great that they did, despite their human failings (which we ought to acknowledge as we acknowledge our own struggle with sin). But images of Christ as European, Asian, American, African are good because they serve to remind us of our shared humanity, which we also share with the Son of God. Moreover, images of saints from every part of the world remind us that the Catholic faith is universal, and that no matter what we look like or the language we speak or where we come from, all of us are capable of great holiness with the help of grace. Indeed, these images should foster peace among us by helping us to recognize the image of God in our neighbor.
The Narrow Gate
The first reading for today’s Mass is from the Second Book of Kings (2 Kings 19:9-36). It is an account of the siege of Jerusalem that took place about 700 years before the birth of Christ. The ruler of the Assyrian Empire, King Sennacherib, had already conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and sent 10 of the Israelite tribes into exile where they were lost to history. Now he was focusing his attention on the southern Kingdom of Judah, where the last two tribes of Israel lived. Sennacherib’s empire had expanded very quickly and in the scripture passage he sends a letter to King Hezekiah of Judah informing him that, like the gods of the other nations that fell to him, the God of Israel would not be able to protect the people of Judah from defeat at his hands. Feeling completely helpless, King Hezekiah takes the letter from Sennacherib and goes to the Jerusalem Temple. He lays the letter out on the ground, and asks the Lord to deliver them from their enemies. In response to the prayer of Hezekiah, the prophet Isaiah tells his king that the Lord would deliver Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah from the Assyrian forces. The prophet speaks of the faithful remnant of Jerusalem, survivors from Mount Zion, and that the Lord would “shield and save this city for my own sake, and for the sake of my servant David.” The passage ends with the angel of the Lord going into the Assyrian camp laying siege to Jerusalem, and striking down 185,000 men. Plague had miraculously broken out among the Assyrian army, and they were forced to withdraw. Jerusalem was saved. But just 100 years later, Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians and its people sent into exile. What happened?
With the miraculous liberation of Jerusalem rose a mentality among the people of the southern Kingdom of Judah that the Lord would never let the City of David fall to its enemies. They came to presume on the special protection of the Lord, whose Temple was in the Holy City. So, the rulers of Judah paid a kind of lip-service to God, making sure the sacrifices were offered in the Temple, but not living lives that were faithful to Him. They lived like their pagan neighbors, engaged in international diplomacy and intrigue. They even decided, against the warnings of the Lord’s prophets, to make an alliance with Egypt, the nation from which the Lord delivered their ancestors from slavery. They felt invincible because of their belief that the Lord had obliged Himself to protect Jerusalem against defeat. But when they were conquered and sent into exile, the Lord revealed His fidelity to them in an unexpected way. Forty years after Jerusalem fell, the new ruler – Cyrus the Great of Persia – allowed a faithful remnant in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. A few centuries later, Our Lord would be born from the faithful remnant and reveal to the world the extent to which God always remembers His promises.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord tells His disciples: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:12-14). He is warning against falling into the perennial temptation to which the ancient peoples of the Kingdom of Judah and their cousins to the north succumbed. Mere external observance is not what the Lord is asking of us. He is not like the pagan idols that demand animal sacrifices as “protection money.” Saying our prayers is necessary, worshiping Him at Mass is necessary, doing good things for our neighbor is necessary – but these things are insufficient on their own. We must do it with a humble heart that is aware of our struggles with resentments, with dishonesty, with envy, greed, and lust, but more importantly a converted heart that is aware of His goodness, His love for us, and His mercy. Aware of our fallenness and of His goodness, we strive for the narrow gate by ceasing to pay lip service to the Lord and by taking up the cross of faithful discipleship that He helps us carry and which requires us to know Him and to trust Him always.
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Just want to wish a Happy Father’s Day to the fathers in the parish. Forgot to do it in the video! Hope you enjoy a nice day with your families.
Also, in case you were wondering….
Immaculate Heart of Mary
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. There are two references in the Gospel of St. Luke to the heart of Our Lady. The first is the account of the shepherds who visited the place where the newborn Christ was in response to the message they had received from the angels about His birth. In response to what she was witnessing, the scriptures say: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). The second takes place about 13 years later, when she and Joseph spent three days looking for Jesus and find Him among the teachers in the Temple of Jerusalem. After they found Him, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51).
Our Lady ponders everything in light of God’s Providence. She is human just like us, but preserved from the stain of Original Sin. As a human being, she is not all-knowing. But because she is free from the effects of Original Sin, she has tremendous intuition. In the midst of disorder and hardship, Our Lady perceives the unfolding of Providence. Whereas we can look around and wring our hands, asking: “What is going on?” or “What does all this mean?” or “Why is this happening?”, the Blessed Mother asks the same questions, but without a trace of discouragement, frustration, or anxiety. She was steeped in the Tradition of her Jewish people. She knew the scriptures; she knew the Psalms. Although she doubtlessly suffered, nothing in our manifestly fallen world surprised her. But her faith allowed her to be surprised by God’s response to the world’s rebellion and the mystery of His workings in the world.
The Feast of the Immaculate Heart is an important celebration for us who live in confusing and disturbing times. We should ask Our Lady to pray for us, that our hearts might be kept from anxiety and fear. May she help us instead to recognize the workings of the Lord in the world, and to marvel at His mysterious plan for our salvation.
Over these past three months we all have been waiting eagerly for a return to normality. We’re certainly not there yet, but there are hopeful signs that things are heading in the right direction. This is the second weekend in which we will have Masses in a church, and we have begun to offer weekday Masses too. Although there are regulations in place, such as social distancing and disinfecting requirements and the dreaded masks, the return to the celebration of Mass with you in person has been immensely gratifying to me and to Fr. Mariusz. With these developments, however, come the return of some other responsibilities that I have as pastor, things which do require my attention and time. For this reason, I have decided to discontinue the daily reflections on this website. Instead, I will try to post something 2-3 times a week, plus the video recording of Sunday Mass. Thank you for your kind feedback about the reflections. I hope you found them helpful during these past three months. Not having the opportunity to preach regularly during the suspension of public Masses, the reflections gave me an opportunity to prayerfully consider everything that’s been going on in light of the liturgical seasons, the readings of the day, the lives of the saints, and current events. They were also a way in which I could stay in touch with you during our time of separation. Let us continue to pray for each other and for an end to the pandemic.
Sacred Heart of Jesus
On a hill overlooking the city of Paris is the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is a modern structure, whose construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. Because of the outbreak of the First World War, it was not consecrated until 1917. Probably the most remarkable thing about Sacre-Coeur is that there has been perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament there since 1885. For 135 years, people have been able to go to that place any time – day or night – and pray before the Eucharist exposed to public view in the sanctuary.
It is fitting that there has been perpetual adoration in that basilica named for the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a devotion in which we are invited to meditate on the fact that God loves us with a human heart. Because of the Incarnation, we can say that the infinite love of God is mediated through the fleshy Heart of Christ. The Eucharist is God in the flesh, hidden under the appearance of bread. In this way, we see that there is a powerful connection between the Sacred Heart and the Eucharist which helps us to love Our Savior more.
When we contemplate the image of the Sacred Heart, we see the dramatic wound from the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the cross. The Gospel of St. John tells us that from the pierced side of Christ flowed forth blood and water. The saints have associated the water with the sacrament of Baptism, which gives us new life in Christ, and the blood with the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is food for the faithful that nourishes us and strengthens us. The wound on the Sacred Heart of Jesus will never heal. It will be on the Heart of Christ for all eternity. We know this because the gospels tell us that the risen Christ still bears the wounds of His crucifixion on His hands, feet, and side. It is God’s will that these wounds remain available to us as the source of life and healing. From the pierced Heart of Jesus flows forth God’s love for us, and as we sit before Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament we bask in that love as He heals the wounds that we bear because of our sins and the sins of the world.
On this, the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, we should pray for greater awareness of this devotion. Our poor world suffers such turmoil because it is desperately seeking a solution to the problem of human unhappiness. There are so many hearts that are oppressed by sadness, anger, confusion, meaninglessness, and despair. There are so many that are burdened by wounds caused by the cruelty, selfishness, indifference, and violence of their neighbors and the societies in which they live. It is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, offered to us in the Most Blessed Sacrament, that we must turn to if we are to know peace and the healing that comes from His merciful love.
Blessed are You
I had a music teacher in high school named Mr. Guzzi who had regular gigs playing piano in a jazz band. During one class one day, he told the story about the trumpeter in his band, who was obsessed with Louis Armstrong. More than anything, he wanted to play the trumpet like Armstrong. So, Mr. Guzzi said, the guy listened to nothing but Louis Armstrong recordings. During set breaks, when the other musicians were hanging around, having a drink or a smoke, the trumpeter would sit by himself with his headphones and listen to Louis Armstrong. Over time, it had an effect. And Mr. Guzzi said that there came a point that, if you were to close your eyes and listen to this man play the trumpet, you would swear that you were listening to Louis Armstrong.
“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.” In this final Beatitude, the Lord Jesus shifts away from speaking in general terms. Rather than speak of the “Blessed” as “they,” Our Lord now turns to His listeners and says with a startling directness, “Blessed are you…” Thus, we see that the Beatitudes are not mere poetry – they are meant to be lived. He then lists the struggles that make one blessed, with the condition that they be suffered “because of me.” Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis says that in doing so, Our Lord “transforms the whole rationale for such sanctity from categorial moral injunction to commitment through personal relationship with Himself.” Moral precepts have their role to play, but Christianity in the end is not about rules, but relationship. Fr. Simeon: “The Christian is not presented an exalted spiritual program that will make him a virtuous man, one who attains happiness through virtue. When He preaches the Beatitudes, Christ is providing an intimate commentary of who He himself is, and the disciples are to be fortunate and blessed in this precise way in which the Son of God is fortunate and blessed.”
My teacher’s story about the trumpeter who wanted to sound like Louis Armstrong helps us to understanding what our lives are supposed to be like. We are called to be holy, because holiness is the blessed and happy life that God wants for us. But we cannot enjoy that life without Christ. We cannot be holy without Him. Apart from Christ Jesus, the Beatitudes are just platitudes, easily dismissed as lovely sentiments. But as we have learned through our reflections this past week, Our Lord embodies the Beatitudes. They speak of Him and who He is, and what we are invited to through our lives lived with Him. How can we be Catholics without getting to know Christ? How can we be Christian if we have no relationship with the Lord? He gives us everything we need to know Him, and He invites us to enter into that relationship. By spending time with Him in prayer, reading the Sacred Scriptures, serving Him in others, receiving Him in the Sacraments, and doing the hard work of loving our neighbor as members of His Bride the Church, we take on the savor of Christ. This is what the Beatitudes reveal to us. Like the musician who, through practice and imitation, takes on the characteristics of his favorite musician, the one who loves Our Lord wants to know Him and imitate Him and become Him – so much so, that those who encounter the disciple would swear they were encountering the Lord Himself.
Persecuted for the Sake of Righteousness
Blessed Franz Jagerstatter was born in Austria in 1907. As a young man, his Catholic faith wasn’t very important to him, but he later had a profound conversion through the influence of his deeply devout wife. He developed a love for scripture, the stories of the saints, and the Mass. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the vast majority of Austrians were in favor of it. But Jagerstatter was disturbed by the evil he recognized in Nazi ideology. His open opposition to the German regime made him very unpopular among his neighbors. Though conscripted, he refused to fight in Hitler’s army. This showed tremendous courage, for there were many Catholics, including priests and bishops, who were unsympathetic to Nazism but who tended to look for ways in which they could justify compliance rather than resist. But Jagerstatter accepted imprisonment rather than give in, even though it meant being separated from his wife and three children. His wife admired his principled stance and was supportive, but in some of her letters to him in prison she expressed her hope that he would change his mind and serve in the German army so that he might be free. The recent film, “A Hidden Life,” depicts with realism what Jagerstatter’s principled stance cost him. At first, he displays naïve confidence that the Lord would protect him. But this gives way to misgiving, disappointment, fear, and anguish. Finally, there comes a growing acceptance that even this part of the experience and part of the suffering can be entrusted to God and His renewal of all things. In July 1943, Jagerstatter was executed by the Nazi government as a traitor, his principled stance admired by almost no one among his contemporaries.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, the Kingdom of God is theirs.” We like to think that righteousness is appreciated and valued. But it’s often self-righteousness that enjoys the esteem of the world. The self-righteous are the Pharisees who admire themselves for being good and upright as they observe the external precepts of the law (or the accepted social conventions of their age), all the while condemning those around them whom they perceive to be less observant. They take a certain satisfaction from being resented by people they see as their moral inferiors, and when criticized would make themselves out to be martyrs. These are not those whom Our Lord describes as blessed. Those who suffer for the sake of righteousness are. Christ tells us: “The Kingdom of God is theirs.” If we look at the other Beatitudes, Our Lord says the same thing about the poor in spirit. That’s because these qualities are connected. Those who are persecuted truly for the sake of righteousness are poor in spirit.
Jagerstatter knew that he was nothing without God, on Whom he depended for everything, including righteousness. To go along with something that contradicted the goodness of God, something that propagated terrible lies and evil on a massive scale, would be to turn away from Jesus – the One he loved and Whose Spirit filled his heart like the breath in his lungs. He knew that to cooperate with the evil of Nazism would be to deny the Source of all truth and life in order to embrace death. His steadfastness brought Jagerstatter the resentment of the world, but to live any other way was intolerable to him because of his poverty of spirit. This made him a coheir to the Kingdom of God, for Our Lord shared with him His whole inheritance as the Son of God – including persecution for the sake of righteousness.
In a world where there are so many differing points of view, what makes for peace? It’s a crucial question because peace is important to Our Lord and His mission. He is, after all, the Prince of Peace who teaches us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis writes that “Christian ‘peace’ is not merely the cessation of conflict, the reaching of an understanding among people that makes life more bearable. Nor is [it] the result of Stoic apathy, an absence of passion that produces spiritual tranquility.” Some people think that conflict is just the product of misunderstanding and that if people were to engage in dialogue they would come to realize that their differences aren’t actually so great, and certainly not worth fighting over. There are others, however, who take extreme positions, who see their competing worldviews as fundamentally incompatible, and who believe the worldview of the other is not just mistaken, but evil. In this camp is the radical – and the Christian. A friend of mine, Fr. Matthew Fish of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, has said that the conflict between these two fundamentally opposing worldviews cannot be overcome by dialogue and mutual understanding but only through a kind of violence. They just differ on the kind of violence that is necessary.
This probably sounds shocking in a reflection about peace, but to illustrate Fr. Matthew’s point it might be helpful to look at the lives of St. Paul and St. Stephen. As a young man, St. Paul – who was then known as Saul – was a radical when it came to his Jewish faith. He believed with all his heart that if he were to protect Judaism, he would have to root out Christianity using extreme measures. He went so far as to obtain state authorization to put Christians in chains and even to death. Saul was not interested in dialogue or re-education that would lead to mutual understanding between adherents of Judaism and the new Christian sect. In his mind, “mutual understanding” would be to deny the importance of what was as stake – his whole understanding of reality. Saul knew that ultimately violence was needed.
So did Stephen. For Stephen, however, violence would come in a different form – not the sword, but the cross. He knew that when he preached the gospel of Christ Jesus that he was making himself vulnerable to violence. He ended up the victim of Saul’s violent mob, which was absolutely convinced of its righteousness. As he died under a barrage of stones, Stephen echoed the words of Christ from the cross, praying: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
The differences between Saul and Stephen were not due to a misunderstanding – they understood each other perfectly. Their differences were rooted in an irreconcilable understanding of reality, which would not be papered-over with niceties, or explained away. Both knew that only violence would settle their dispute. And here we find the radical insight of Christianity. Jesus is the peacemaker, par excellence. Through the violent event of His sacrifice on the cross, He establishes peace between God and humanity. He also reconciles human beings with each other. By our baptism into the Church, we become adopted children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. The Christian knows that evil is not just present in the heart of the other person. It’s in himself, it’s in everyone, and it needs to die a violent death. Not by the violence of the sword, but by dying in Christ and accepting the cross of self-denial, the evangelical counsels, and the works of mercy. “The work of peacemaking,” says Fr. Simeon, “is accomplished by the shedding of one’s life-blood in imitation of Christ.”
In the end, Saul only changed through conversion, a graced form of violence that shook him to the depths of his being, and which convinced him that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, who accomplishes the redemption of humanity through the cross. St. Paul was compelled to share the message of the gospel with the world and became the greatest missionary in the history of the Church. He never used the violence of the sword again, but instead preached the reconciling violence of the cross of Christ, and ultimately received a share in that cross through his own martyrdom in Rome. What a moment of joy it must have been for Stephen to receive Paul at the gates of heaven as brothers who had been reconciled to each other and to God through the cross of Christ.
The Clean of Heart
I remember the first time I saw the waters of the Caribbean in person. I was used to swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and New England lakes. To be able to stand in the water, look down, and count the grains of sand on the bottom was a new experience for me. I wondered why the water looked so different from what I was accustomed to, so I looked it up. Water, in its pristine state is perfectly clear. But suspended particulates, including plankton, prevent light from penetrating the water, making it appear murky. The Caribbean Sea has coral reefs that act as barriers to the movement of sediment and there is very little plankton, so the light penetrates the waters easily, making it crystal clear.
“Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” In its pristine state the human heart, like water, was created clean and pure. Adam and Eve were clean of heart before the fall, and the scriptures speak of how they enjoyed regular interaction with God. But that changed with their rebellion. When they ate the fruit that was forbidden them, it affected their vision: “The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” There is an irony in this passage. It says that their eyes were opened, which implies an improvement of sight. Indeed, they noticed their nakedness. But at the same time, they felt the need to cover themselves because of the disorder introduced into their mutual gaze. It was suddenly harder for them to see the dignity of their shared humanity. Lust narrowed their vision; it blinded them, and they had to cover themselves to defend against being reduced to an object of possession.
The lustful heart is like the murky waters of the ocean. Things and people are collected as a means of self-satisfaction and self-fulfillment. The light of God has a harder time penetrating the lustful heart because it is filled with stuff. It has a harder time recognizing the humanity of others, and loses sight of its own humanity. It leads us to identify ourselves with the cloudy particulate, the stuff we fill our hearts with, the fallen and disordered desires that distort the image of God in us and in others.
Untouched by the sin of our first parents, the Lord Jesus is the clean of heart. His vision is not obscured by any selfish tendency to objectify and possess others. He is completely self-forgetful, completely absorbed in adoration of the Father. And He wants to share His vision of the Father with us. He wants us to be clean of heart so that we can see God, with nothing obstructing or obscuring the view. How do we receive a share in Christ’s purity of heart that grants us such vision? Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis says that a clean heart “has been purified from an attachment to the profane by being washed in the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God.” It is the sacrifice of Christ that reorders our relationship with God, freeing us from disordered attachments and consecrating us to the service of God. Our Lord shed His blood for each person that we encounter. This reminds us of the supreme dignity that we share with our neighbor and which our lusts threaten to obscure. Sins like the use of pornography, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, consumerism, racism, ruthless ambition – they are the consequence of narrow vision. Our neighbors’ humanity obscured, we reduce them to objects for our consumption and/or obstacles to be disposed of, and we lose sight of our own humanity in the process.
“A clean heart create for me, O God; renew within me a steadfast spirit” (Psalm 51). A clean heart allows the love of God to radiate through it. Jesus shares His Sacred Heart with us, which acts like a filter for our poor hearts – clearing out the clogs and the clutter and leaving us awash in the purifying Blood of the Lamb. Our narrowed vision can make it easy for us to get discouraged and even despair of being free of the things that pollute our hearts. But the Lord sees us perfectly, and still finds us worthy of the shedding of His Blood. Despair and discouragement have their root in self-obsession and pride. We must be steadfast in our trust of the Lord, who wants nothing to prevent our hearts from being dazzled by the beauty of the Beatific Vision.
Mass of Corpus Christi
It’s with great happiness that we welcome parishioners back to celebrate the Mass in church this weekend. For now, we will be celebrating our parish Masses at the church of St. Cecilia, but soon enough we will return to celebrating Mass together at the church of St. Gabriel as well. These past several months have been marked with great difficulties, but it has also been a time of grace and I pray that through this ordeal your faith has grown, your appreciation for our parish community and the Church has increased, and your desire for Mass and the sacraments has intensified.
As we welcome parishioners back to the church, we also welcome one of our catechumens into the Church. Rhiannon will receive the Sacraments of Initiation this weekend, becoming an adopted child of God, a full heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. All the treasures of our faith, the patrimony of the saints, and a full share in the life of grace will be hers. During a recent conversation with another person who was preparing to enter the Church this year, he was telling me about his hope to visit his daughter who would be studying abroad in Rome next year (if all goes well). It dawned on us during that conversation that all that Rome is and represents would be his with his entrance into the Church. St. Peter’s would be his. The Sistine Chapel would be his. The pieta of Michelangelo would be his. And not just those treasures of art and architecture, but also the lives of the saints who would become his family – his brothers and sisters in Christ.
In my life I’ve had the privilege of traveling to different countries. There were times when I was travelling alone and felt the loneliness that comes from being by oneself in a foreign land. In those lonely times I always found comfort by making a visit to Catholic churches. There, I’d see the familiar images of the saints, as well as the confessionals and the baptismal font. But most comforting was the red glow of the tabernacle lamp that indicated His Presence. I knew that Our Lord was there, and that home is wherever He is. With that in mind, it seems truly fitting to welcome you home this Sunday, when we gather to celebrate the great Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the feast on which we remember that Jesus has made His home here with us in the Eucharist, to help us on our way to our eternal home in Heaven.
On September 6, 2018 a 26-year-old man named Botham Jean was shot and killed in his Dallas apartment by his neighbor, Amber Guyger. Guyger, an off-duty member of the Dallas Police Department, claimed that she entered Jean’s apartment thinking it was her own, and that she mistook Jean for a burglar. Initially charged only with manslaughter, Guyger was later charged and convicted of murder for a crime that had racial overtones, with the victim being an unarmed black man who was killed in his own home by Guyger, a white police officer. At Guyger’s sentencing hearing, Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt spoke from the witness stand and told Guyger that he forgave her for killing his brother, and asked the presiding judge if he might give Guyger a hug. The judge granted the unusual request, and in a very emotional moment, Brandt Jean embraced his brother’s murderer. The video of Brandt Jean’s testimony is below.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” Jesus places mercy in the middle of the list for, it would seem, mercy is at the heart of Our Lord’s moral teachings. He is telling us to give the very thing of which we are most in need. Recognizing our need for mercy, we are to give mercy to others. Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis notes that the mercy of which Our Lord speaks is not sentimental, “feel-good,” mercy. The mercy of Christ “is the spontaneous, creative movement of life-bestowing love that bends down wherever it detects misery.” He goes on to say: “Having mercy means bestowing life.” It is an imitation of Christ who is Creator of all things and Redeemer of all things. Humanity’s rebellion against God leads to our misery. Out of love for us, Our Lord enters into our misery and offers us His mercy. Taking upon Himself the burden of sin (though innocent), He becomes the sacrificial offering that atones for our rebellion. From the depths of His suffering on the cross, with His arms spread opened wide as if to embrace us, He cries out: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” And thus, Our Lord transforms the worst sin ever committed into the means of our reconciliation with God.
Mercy breathes new life into the heart of the one who is dead in his sin. We can imagine Amber Guyger sitting in her place as the convicted murderer, helpless and miserable in the face of the crime she committed. An innocent man killed in his home at her hand. The murdered man’s brother, who is also a victim of her act of violence, embraces the cross of mercy and speaks words of forgiveness to her. He offers to her the embrace he cannot give to his brother. She who is weighed down in her guilt, stands erect again, the burden having been lifted by the mercy shown her by a victim of her sin.
It is something that we should consider for ourselves, too. For all of us are subject to judgment. And when we stand before the Lord we will see everything, our whole lives and the effects of all of our actions, in the piercing light of His gaze. The magnitude of our sins will be crushing in its weight, and we will ask Jesus for mercy. Much will depend on the mercy we showed to others, for we are to give the very thing of which we are most in need. We will cultivate a habit of mercy if we first recognize our own need for mercy. The sacrament of Confession is a vital component in the development of a merciful heart. For there, new life in Christ is breathed into the heart of the penitent. That new life must be shared with our neighbor in our own acts of forgiveness and our willingness to embrace the cross of mercy.
For my senior year of college, my friends and I rented an apartment just across the street from campus. When my parents came to visit at the beginning of the year, my mother told me how much she liked my apartment, and she spent the evening in the kitchen making a big senior year celebratory dinner for me and my friends. When my parents came back about 10 months later for graduation, they were horrified at what had happened to my apartment. My mother wouldn’t even sit down, she was so grossed out. I couldn’t understand it, and, frankly, I was offended. I didn’t mind living there. My roommates didn’t mind living there either. And the hundreds of college kids who regularly came over to our apartment for, ahem, social gatherings, never expressed any sentiments of disgust at our living quarters. Looking back, however, I acknowledge that my friends and I were living in squalor. The problem was that we had become so used to it that we didn’t notice the mess anymore. We needed someone to point out to us what was wrong and to give us some housekeeping tips like: “you should probably take out the trash once a week and not once a month,” and, “there shouldn’t be mushrooms growing on your bathroom wall,” and, “vacuum.”
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” As we reflect on the Beatitudes, we find that all of them find their perfect fulfillment in Christ. Our Lord is poor in spirit, He mourns, He is meek. He is also the One who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. In the great story of our salvation, the Lord sees His creation fallen into disorder because of humanity’s rebellion against Him. To restore order, He reveals to the world what true righteousness looks like. He does it through the Chosen People of Israel – giving them the Law, sending them the prophets. And finally, He enters the world Himself and lives the perfect life of righteousness, which culminates in His sacrifice on the cross for the sake of restoring the broken relationship between God and humanity. He gives us the teaching authority of the Church to guide us and to form our consciences so that we don’t mistake error for truth. He gives us the sacraments, because we still struggle with the effects of Original Sin and we need the healing and strengthening power of grace that the sacraments provide us.
The great models of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the prophets and the saints. They find themselves in the midst of the world’s disorder and help the rest of us recognize it. Prophets and saints often experience suffering because of the resistance of the world to their words and actions, but their hunger and thirst for righteousness moves them to persist in their loving fidelity to truth and goodness. Like me and my friends who couldn’t really see the disorder of our apartment because we had become used to living that way, all of us tend to be drawn into the conventional morality of our age. It took my mother’s reaction to reveal that there was something wrong, and to be honest, even though it hurt my feelings I knew deep down she was right. The Church is like our mother in the sense that she speaks the truth to us, including the hard truths, with love. And when we have ears to hear it and hearts to accept it, we discover a deep desire, a hunger and thirst, to live in the truth. We realize that the ways of the world are ultimately unsatisfying and we are willing to embrace the hunger and thirst that only will be perfectly satisfied in the eternal presence of the Source of all righteousness.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Dallas in the 1990s, the city of Waco was known for three things: 1) Baylor University, 2) fire ants, and 3) Branch Davidians. Fast forward 20 years and suddenly Waco is the center of the “home improvement” movement, with Chip and Joanna Gaines basically transforming Waco into an interior design destination city. I had never seen their show, “Fixer Upper,” until recently. According to the description of the show, “the couple turn dilapidated but potential-rich houses into showplaces that are helping revitalize whole neighborhoods throughout central Texas.” Moreover, the couple “also act as part-time counselors to clients who can’t see a structure’s beauty beyond the blemishes. Combined, Chip and Joanna save homes that look hopeless, renovating the imperfect, and revealing them as what they were always intended to be.” Chip and Joanna are very talented people, and it’s amazing to see how they are able to turn a building that is an absolute mess into a beautiful home that is a joy to live in.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” We don’t usually think of meekness as a desirable trait. Maybe because it sounds so much like “weakness” that we associate it with being a pushover. But according to Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, meekness is related to the Greek word for the virtue of “ever-vigilant openness, a disposition of goodwill that is always ready to encounter a situation with a view to building it up and re-creating it.” Like Joanna and Chip, who find houses that are total wrecks and use their gifts to recreate them, the meek are those who find themselves in the midst of the messiness of the world and become vessels of the Christ’s goodness, mercy, and power – through which the world is transformed.
The meek are not revolutionaries in the conventional sense. They do not hatch plans by which they seize the levers of power in order to impose their will on others. As disciples they take seriously the words of Our Lord: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. And you will find rest for yourselves.” The Lord redeemed the world and began the great work of renewal not by razing civilization to the ground, raining the fires of destruction upon the earth, but through a life of sacrifice offered for us, that culminated on Calvary. Thus, to be truly meek requires great courage because it is to remain steadfast in the midst of a world that does not value the gospel of Christ. The yoke of Christ is the cross that comes with being honest, generous, dutiful/faithful, and pious. It is the cross that comes with being chaste according to our state in life (single, married, consecrated), and which comes with being merciful, and humble. Learning from the Master, the meek rejoice in the truth, and burn with compassion for those trapped in darkness. Rather than take the wrecking ball to society, they patiently and courageously do the unglamorous work of loving God and neighbor in the midst of the wreckage. Thus, the meek become the instruments of the Lord in building up the Kingdom of God which is their inheritance.
Servant of God Dorothy Day used to get annoyed with many of the young people who joined the Catholic Worker movement. She found that they gladly spent hours passionately debating how to change the world, but when it came time to prepare the soup for distribution to the hungry, they refused to chop the vegetables. The meek understand that it is in chopping the vegetables that the world is truly changed.
Those Who Mourn
Dr. Michael Brescia is a co-founder and the Executive Medical Director (emeritus) of Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. Calvary Hospital was founded to be a place that would provide palliative care to those with advanced cancer and other terminal illnesses. For Dr. Brescia, who is a well-respected physician and devout Catholic, it was essential that the hospital be a place that fulfilled its mission with compassion, respect for the dignity of every patient, and attentiveness to patients and their families. “Our doctrine is succor, compassion, love, gentleness,” he says.
I remember hearing Dr. Brescia give a speech a few years ago in which he spoke about his own experience of mourning the death of his wife, and the emotional toll of grief. “I was married for 53 years. Beautiful, wonderful wife, perfect partner, six kids. We’re going out to a special dinner, her and I, and I’m going to tell her I love her. I’m waiting in the family room, ‘Come on Monica, let’s go.’ And she steps out of the bathroom and falls down on the ground. Ruptured aneurysm in the brain. The way she went down I knew. I knew. I said, ‘Monica, don’t go. Take me with you. Please, don’t leave me here. Don’t go.’ She left. She was gone in 10 seconds. Now that’s grief. Grief is brutal. Grief stays. It modifies, but it doesn’t go away. From the time it happened to now it’s different. But anytime anything happens in our family, I hear a knock at the door. It’s a man in a black suit, and he says, ‘Hello, I’m Grief. I was in the neighborhood. I saw you laughing, smiling with your children. I just want to let you know I’m around.’ We all went through a terrible time. But you have to come to terms. ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ That’s it. You either accept that or not. I know Monica is in heaven. I know that. Someday the curtain will open, and she’ll be there with some of my favorite patients, and she’ll say, ‘It’s time.’ I told Monica, ‘I’ll never forget a hair on your head.’ And I haven’t.’”
Our Lord says: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Why are those who mourn blessed? It seems counterintuitive, but to mourn is to refuse death its claim of supremacy over life. Death is not simply a physiological experience that should be accepted and treated no differently than any other human experience. It is not a “health issue” that technology will someday solve. We shouldn’t try to train ourselves to be resigned to the ultimate reality of death, making the best of our lot in this life, and not allowing the sadness of loss to distract us from the enjoyment of life.
It is important to see how Our Lord reacts to the death of a loved one. When He hears the news that His dear friend Lazarus has died, He goes to the place where he is buried and He weeps before the tomb. This is mysterious, for Jesus knew all along that He would raise Lazarus from the dead. Still, He weeps, He mourns the one who has died. The reaction of Christ Jesus to the death of His friend confirms for us something that human beings have suspected all along – that death is not supposed to happen, it ought not be. Our Lord sheds genuine tears of sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus before calling him forth from that place of death, and then rejoices once more in the living company of His friend. The Lord Jesus is the One who mourns and is consoled. He reveals the terrible tragedy of death but also the ultimate power that He has over death. Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis: “True mourning is a profound act of faith…. Though it feels like despair, it has a deeper and more authentic name: hope.” Dr. Brescia is a man who has seen much death in his life, and he has experienced personally the terrible suffering of mourning. His faith in Christ, however, gives him hope in the resurrection, when (please God) he and all who have died in Christ will know the consolation of a love that will never be interrupted by death again.
Poor in Spirit
The gospel reading for today’s Mass is St. Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes. Everyone is familiar with the Beatitudes, but what actual effect they have on our lives is unclear. They can seem poetic and obscure – beautiful, but not really helpful in a practical sense. It’s a lot easier to “get” the 10 Commandments, which seem straightforward. But rather than mere slogans and nice sentiments, the Beatitudes reveal what it is to live in the blessedness of God and to flourish as His children in a world that suffers the effects of Original Sin. Over the next several days, I intend to reflect on the different Beatitudes, primarily as a way of deepening my own understanding of what Our Lord is calling us to in response to them. I hope you find it helpful as well.
In St. Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, the first is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” We might hear this and liken it to when someone says, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” As heart-felt that sentiment might be, it is an expression of detached empathy, in the sense of supporting someone from a distance because you can’t be physically present. If we read it in this sense, Jesus seems to be saying that people are blessed when they express and show concern for the plight of the poor, even if not poor themselves. But this isn’t really a good understanding of what it means to be “poor in spirit.” Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis, in his commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, reminds us that the word “spirit” is related to the word “breath.” When think of words like “respiration” and “inspiration,” we realize that breath and spirit are connected. So, he says, we might think of “poor in spirit” as one who is having difficulty catching his breath. Under normal situations, we take breathing for granted. But when we experience respiratory problems, or when we climb a bunch of stairs and realize how out of shape we are, we discover how desperately we need air. In a similar way, when Our Lord speaks of the “poor in spirit” he is referring to those who understand and acknowledge their existential poverty – their nothingness and total dependence on God for everything.
To those who acknowledge and accept their poverty in spirit, God offers the fulness of existence in His Son, Christ Jesus. We who are “out of breath” are filled with the Breath of God. When we recognize our nothingness, He gives us everything. Consider Jesus hanging on the cross. The cross was designed to kill by asphyxiation. Over the course of hours, even days, the crucified would slowly suffocate. Christ, who emptied Himself of His eternal glory to become man, is emptied of everything else as He hangs there bleeding, gasping for air. St. Matthew describes Our Lord’s last moments on the cross, saying: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” Thus, He becomes the poorest of the poor in spirit in order to pour forth upon us the Holy Spirit, the breath of grace that fills us with supernatural life.
Unlike the sentiment, “I’ll be with you in spirit,” there is nothing detached about the Lord’s relationship with us. Christ did not “social distance” Himself from us, and we are not to live solidarity with each other from afar. Catholics must not be “do-gooders” that simultaneously fail to acknowledge our own fundamental poverty. Pope Francis has used the expression: “we are all beggars before God.” Yet, Our Lord takes those who acknowledge themselves as such and He makes them heirs of the great fortune of the Kingdom of Heaven – not in some distant future, but in the here and now.
Mass of Trinity Sunday
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
This Sunday the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The truth that God exists is something that one can reasonably deduce through the exercise of one’s natural intellectual gifts. The inner life of God as a Communion of Three Divine Persons, however, is something that we know only through divine revelation. Our imaginations are not much help in contemplating the Trinity, since it surpasses our power to conceive the truth that there is One God and that in the one God there are three Divine Persons – Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. In fact, when we try to work it out visually, we always make a mistake to some degree because of our natural limitations. Each of the Three Persons is God and all of them are God, and they are truly One God. It is an exercise in futility to attempt to perfectly comprehend the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Thus, we do better to rest in this greatest of mysteries which, please God, we will spend eternity contemplating and praising with the all the angels and saints.
Since the 4th century, the Church has prayed a hymn called the Te Deum on its most important feasts. It gets its name from the first line of the prayer: “You are God.” It is the basis of the well-known hymn: “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” I share the Te Deum with you below, that you might pray it on this great solemnity, and express the joy of worshipping the Lord – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are God: we praise you;
You are God: we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:
Father, of majesty unbounded,
Your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
And the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
The eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
You did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death,
And opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
Bought with the price of your own blood,
And bring us with your saints
To glory everlasting.
There are times when I’ll be at a family gathering, the adults sitting at the dining room table and the kids playing somewhere (everywhere) else, and inevitably one of the children will come over and bury himself/herself in the side of his/her mother or father. It could be for a multitude of reasons. It could be the kid is unhappy because someone was mean. It could be frustration at not getting her way. It could be to make a secret request to do something special. It could be because he saw something on TV that scared him. It could also be just a random moment in which the child is moved with affection. But it’s always this gesture of pressing into the side of their mother or father.
It reminds me of the moment in the Last Supper (Jn 13:21-25), where Jesus announces to those gathered that one among them would betray Him. Surprised and disturbed, Simon Peter signaled to the Beloved Apostle, whom the passage says “was reclining next to Him,” to ask Our Lord which of them it was that would betray Him. Some translations describe the posture of the Beloved Apostle as “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” Like a little child, John the Beloved Disciple, felt free enough in his love for Christ to bury himself in the side of Jesus. There, expressing his love for the Lord he asked the question that troubled his heart: “Who is it, Lord?”
It is the same disciple, John, who was standing with the Blessed Mother below the Cross of Christ on Calvary. As He was dying, Jesus said to Mary: “Behold, your son.” And to John: “Behold, your mother.” We’ve all seen this moment depicted in art and in film. Often, we see John put his arm around Our Lady in a gesture of protection. But we might also imagine it the other way around, with Blessed Mother putting her arm around the suffering John, as he mourned with her the death of Our Lord. Like a child who finds refuge in the side of his mother when he is sad, perhaps John found such a place on the bosom of Mary. There he would have found a heart that beat in a familiar way, with a familiar sound, and a familiar rhythm as the Heart he listened to as he leaned against the side of Christ in the Upper Room – the Heart that Christ received from His Mother.
At a certain point in our lives we stop pressing ourselves into the sides of our mothers and fathers. As adolescence complicates us, we leave that gesture behind, mistaking child-likeness for childishness. But a large part of the spiritual life is learning how to do that again – to approach with child-like freedom, finding refuge next to the side of Christ, near the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Mother.
St. Therese and the Greatest Commandment
In the Gospel for today’s Mass (Mark 12:28-34) a scribe asks Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Our Lord responds: “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This greatest commandment reveals the deep desire that God has for our love. He is not looking for mere admiration or sycophancy, like the pagans treated their gods. Our love is a response to the love He has for us, which always infinitely exceeds our love for Him.
In his meditations on the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux, Fr. Jean d’Elbee remarks on how the saint “sees the Heart of Jesus overflowing with tenderness and mercy for poor sinners, for all men; from this Heart escapes floods of love which Jesus the Savior cannot contain any longer.” Such is the love that Christ has for us. “But,” he continues, “men in their ingratitude do not want this divine love. They reject it; they raise the rampart of their indifference, of their contempt, and even of their hatred, so that the saving flood will not reach them.” This is such a sad observation. He offers us all the love of His heart, and we prefer to pursue other things. What becomes of all this love that humanity rejects, that causes Jesus such sadness? St. Therese wanted to take this unwanted love for herself. She wanted God to make her heart like a catch basin for all of the love that humanity is rejecting. “Thus I shall console my divine Savior. Thus I shall die a victim of love, immolated in this ocean of flames.”
D’Elbee explains that St. Therese lived out this desire to accept the love of Christ that others reject through perfect abandonment to His will. She wanted to accept everything that came her way as a sign of His love for her – both the consolations and the crosses – and then offer everything she received back to Him. All of her sufferings and joys, she accepted and offered to Him, especially at Mass, where Jesus continues to offer Himself as a sacrifice of love to the Father for us. This is a beautiful reminder of how we can live out the first commandment through our participation in the Mass, making ourselves with Jesus an offering of love to the Father through the priest.
Our Lord also speaks of the second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, the spirituality of Therese is helpful. Observing the widespread indifference to, and distrust of God’s love, she feels no bitterness to those who do not love the One she loves. Rather, she loves others all the more. Fr. d’Elbee remarks: “when this love which men refuse has passed through the heart of little Therese and others victims like her, consuming them, men are no longer able to refuse it! By being a victim of love, she becomes an apostle of love.” St. Therese, like all the saints, makes the love of Christ harder to resist because it is the love of Christ that she shows them. Christ’s love makes her lovable, making her a window through which we encounter the Source of all love. And it’s contagious. By making herself an offering of love to God, St. Therese helps her neighbor (us!) love God and neighbor more too.
This is why it is true that to love God and neighbor in this way “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The true and perfect acts of reparation are not those offered in the Jerusalem Temple, or even in good works done with unconverted hearts. It is to be wholly receptive to the love that Jesus gives to us at every moment, and to offer ourselves to Him in response – both at Mass and through the love we show our neighbor.
The Ugandan Martyrs
Today is the feast day of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, 22 young Ugandan men who were put to death for the faith in 1886. While doing some research on these young saints, I came across a video that Bishop Robert Barron did on the Ugandan Martyrs and it’s much better than anything I could come up with. So, I’ve included it below along with a photo of St. Charles Lwanga and the others who died with him for the faith. The one thing I will say about the story of the Ugandan Martyrs is that it reveals the power of faithful Christian witness in the face of worldly pressure to capitulate. Christ Jesus changed the lives of these men so much that they were willing to accept a violent death rather than deny Him. What did they discover in Christ? What did they find so compelling? Why do our own efforts at spreading the Faith seem so uninspired and uninspiring? There’s an ancient saying that Bishop Barron refers to in his video: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” They are the ones who remind us what authentic renewal in the Church requires in every age.
The Human Heart
When he was arrested in February 1945 on a trumped-up charge of having committed crimes against the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was forced to march along with several other detained Soviet soldiers and a German civilian from the jail where they had been processed to the prison which would be their new home. Solzhenitsyn, an officer in the Soviet Army, was outraged at his arrest. Still attired in his officer’s uniform he refused to carry his own suitcase and insisted that the German prisoner carry it. As they marched, Solzhenitsyn could see the German man struggling with the weight of the suitcase. When the man could carry it no further, Solzhenitsyn watched as the Soviet prisoners who were marching in formation with them took the suitcase from the German. Each prisoner took a turn carrying the heavy suitcase – except for Solzhenitsyn, who was ruminating all the while about the injustice of his situation. He was innocent. And he understood that his innocence was an indictment of Stalin and the corruption of the Soviet system. Along the way, Russian soldiers saw him, an officer, being escorted under armed guard. They stared at him with hatred as one accused of treason. Powerless to explain to them that he was not a spy but their friend, he tried to share with them a smile, which they took as mockery and they began cursing and shouting insults at him. He continued to smile, thinking that he might be able eventually to effect some change to the system through his experience. As he patted himself on the back for his unselfish dedication, “all that time my suitcase was being carried by others.”
Reflecting on that episode in his life in his epic work The Gulag Archipelago, he famously writes: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being…. During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.” But, he concludes, it is the same heart and the same person who is capable of good – but also of terrible evil.
The Gulag Archipelago, did much to reveal to the world the evil of the Soviet system. It showed how arbitrary and unjust things were and how quickly you could lose your freedom and be sentenced to death or hard labor under false charges. It gave vivid descriptions of the horrific conditions of life in the gulag. But perhaps the most important contribution of this important work was its account of how the experience opened Solzhenitsyn’s eyes to the truth that he was not simply a victim of an oppressive system, but also a contributor to the oppression of others.
The events of the past several days have been very disturbing. I don’t pretend to be able to explain it or to have any deep insights into it. There just seems to be so much evil manifesting itself out there, and I have no idea how we will find our way out of it or how things will look when they settle down. But this episode from Solzhenitsyn’s life is a reminder that while we rightly look for ways to fight against the evils that we encounter “out there” it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the reality that each of us struggles with the effects of Original Sin “in here”, in our hearts.
May Our Lord have mercy on us, and may we recognize this as a time in which each of us is being called to deeper conversion.
Mother of the Church
There’s a couple I’ve known for many years – I’ll call them Fred and Jane. They met each other not long after the untimely deaths of their first spouses. Jane had children with her first husband, and Fred also had children, including a young son with severe disabilities. I remember a conversation with Jane when she told me about the time she first met Fred’s family. While others might have been daunted at the prospect of becoming part of a family with someone with significant special needs, Jane told me that when she met Fred’s son Jimmy she immediately fell in love with him. Fred and Jane got married and this little boy who never knew his natural mother received a mother in Jane who was intensely devoted to him and cared for him as if he were her own. His struggles, his helplessness, moved her heart. And still, all these many years later, whenever she speaks his name she always refers to him as “my Jimmy.”
Today the Church celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title “Mother of the Church.” The gospel for this feast is John 19:25-34, where Our Lord is hanging on the cross and He sees Our Lady and the Beloved Disciple standing nearby. To His mother, Jesus says: “Woman, behold, your son.” Then to the disciple He says: “Behold, your mother.” In this moment Our Lady became Our Mother. When we think about the motherhood of Mary, we must remember that she has only one natural child, Jesus. But in this saddest and most painful of moments, she receives the disciple as her son. Traditionally, we identify the Apostle John as the disciple who took the Blessed Mother into his care. The gospel doesn’t name him, however, and we understand him to represent all of the members of the Church. Though we are not her natural-born children, we are her children by grace. And we become so through our baptism into the Church.
A good mother will say that she loves all her children. But there is a special place in a mother’s heart for the child that has struggles – the child who can’t seem to get things right, who suffers because of the unkindness of others, who has a hard time fitting in. We think of the mother who loses sleep with worry over her child who is lost, who has gone astray, who is in trouble. We think of the concern the mother has for the child who is sick and the compassion she has for the one whose heart has been broken. We think of the mother who is ferocious in her defense of the child who is threatened or attacked.
When the Our Lady looks at us, this is what she sees – little ones who are helpless, who have great struggles in the world. Her heart is deeply moved with love, and she is completely devoted to us. She looks to console us when we are sad, to encourage us when we are down, to protect us when we are under attack. Her heart breaks for the broken-hearted, and she weeps for her children who find themselves lost and in trouble.
Fred’s family received a great gift when Jane came into their lives. Her witness helps us to understand better the great gift that we received from Our Lord on the cross, when He shared Mary with us and made her the Mother of the Church.
Mass of Pentecost Sunday
The Gift of Fear of the Lord
As a kid some of my favorite books were C.S. Lewis’ series, The Chronicles of Narnia. If you’re familiar with the stories you know that the greatest of the characters in the novels is, of course, Aslan the Lion. The philosopher Peter Kreeft has said that Lewis accomplished something remarkable when he created a literary character who makes the reader feel like it must have felt to be in the presence of the Lord Jesus. When the child heroes of the stories first hear about Aslan in The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe from the talking beavers who have given them shelter, one of the children nervously asks: “Is he safe?” To this, Mr. Beaver responds: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
The last of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit for us to examine in this time leading up to Pentecost is the Gift of Fear of the Lord. Perhaps it’s strange to think of Fear as a gift. That’s because we know that not every kind of fear is good. Christ Jesus Himself often tells the disciples not to be afraid. The fear that Christ dispels in the hearts of His followers is a certain kind of fear – worldly fear. Worldly fear is that which makes us dread physical evil above all else. Worldly fear can lead us to abandon Christian discipleship when it becomes difficult or inconvenient. Worldly fear can make us seek out human respect, even if it means betraying the faith. This is not the kind of fear that we receive as a gift from the Holy Spirit. The Gift of Fear is the sense of awe we feel in the presence of the power and greatness of God. We see it in the gospel account of Jesus in the boat with the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. As they are crossing the sea, a violent storm suddenly overwhelms them and the boat is in danger of capsizing. The disciples call out to Christ, who is asleep in the stern, telling Him: “We are perishing!” Our Lord rebukes the storm and all becomes still. And the gospel says: “they were filled with awe and were amazed and said to one another, ‘Who is this who commands even the winds and the sea, and they obey Him?’” (Luke 8:22-25). The terror they felt at the overwhelming power of nature is supplanted by their awe of Him who demonstrates even greater power than the wind and the sea.
The Gift of Fear helps to keep us from domesticating the Lord. It gives us a sense of God’s greatness and fills us with sorrow for our sins and the desire to avoid evil. Because of the effects of Original Sin, we can treat God very casually, as though He were a divine vending machine or a kind of genie that we keep bottled up, summoning Him only when we feel like we need Him. We domesticate Him by calling into question the authenticity of gospel passages that mention judgment, or where Our Lord seems to treat someone in a way that confuses us (ex: the Syrophoenician woman in Mt 15:21-28). Like Aslan, the Lord Jesus is not “safe” in the sense that He is not “tame” – but He is good, and He loves us. Knowing this, we should be filled with awe when we enter a church where the Blessed Sacrament is reposed, and when we process to the sanctuary to receive Holy Communion. We should be filled with genuine contrition for our sins when we enter the confessional. And we should fear eternal separation from the love of God more than we fear the powers of the world. The Lord God is infinitely greater than we are, but we acknowledge that reality along with the truth that we are precious in His eyes. In this way, the Gift of Holy Fear and the Gift of Piety work together. Fear of the Lord allows us to love Him properly, with awe and eternal amazement at His goodness.
Come, O Spirit of holy Fear, penetrate my inmost heart, that I may set Thee, my Lord and God, before my face forever; and shun off things that can offend Thee, so that I may be made worthy to appear before the pure eyes of Thy divine Majesty in the heaven of heavens, where Thou livest and reignest in the unity of the Ever-blessed Trinity, God, world without end. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
The Gift of Piety
Sometimes on my day off I will go to visit one of my sisters who lives in Fairfield. She has five children, so bedtime is not usually the best time for me to stop by. But it’s very nice when the kids are all settled in and I get there in time to say prayers with the family before going to sleep. Two of my nieces, Nora (10) and Mae (7), share a room. Both of them have little shrines on their nightstands. Nora has statues of the Blessed Mother and Padre Pio. Mae has the Blessed Mother, St. Michael, and St. Francis. Included in both shrines is a very silly photo of me on my 40th birthday, holding a red balloon and wearing a party hat. Neither Nora nor Mae has received Confirmation yet, but they nonetheless demonstrate the Gift of Piety through their simple love of the saints, and their love for their ridiculous uncle. This love for the Blessed Mother and the various saints reveals the hearts of children who recognize the goodness of their heavenly Father. Nora and Mae might not be able to articulate that in a sophisticated way, but I think my little nieces know that their pious hearts desire to have the saints close to them because the saints bring them closer to the Heart of Christ.
The Gift of Piety perfects the Virtue of Religion, which is related to the Virtue of Justice. Justice is giving someone what they are due. Religion is giving to God what He is due as God – namely, our worship. There is an exchange at Mass where the priest says to the people: “Let us give thanks to the Lord, Our God.” And the people respond: “It is right and just.” To worship God at Mass and participate as a member of the Church in the Holy Sacrifice of Christ, is a great privilege, but also a matter of giving to the Lord what we owe Him as His creatures whom He has adopted as children through our Baptism. But worshipping the Lord can sometimes feel arduous. Prayer might seem difficult or boring. When we do it, we might do it out of a sense of obligation. This is certainly not the worst reason to do it, since it at least acknowledges our need to give praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty God. But the Lord desires our worship not merely as the fulfillment of strict justice. He wants us to know the profound joy of being in relationship with Him. The Gift of Piety makes the worship of the Lord sweet. It fills us with devotion when we see holy images and objects that make us think of Him. It also makes us more charitable and kind to our neighbors (and uncles), since we see them as those who are loved by the One that we love. And so we should work to cultivate the conditions in our hearts that make us more sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit that prompt us to greater piety. We do this by being more intentional in the way we say our prayers – thinking about the words we’re saying, trying to mean them more. We can do that by “offering up” the little inconveniences of the day, such as household chores and listening to others when we might not want to, thereby making these things offerings of love for the sake of the poor souls in Purgatory or for renewal in the Church. These things help us to develop “devotion muscles” that clear the way for the movement of the Spirit to soften our hearts and help us to live more easily as God’s children in the world.
When I first entered seminary, I noticed that one of the other guys seemed to have a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother – and I realized that I wanted one too. So I asked him how to cultivate a devotion to Mary. He told me that the first thing to do is express that desire to her, and that if I wasn’t saying a daily Rosary by then I should start. And from there, do little things, like touching your heart as you walk by an image of her, or lighting a candle at a shrine dedicated to her, or placing an image of her near my bed. Loving the Blessed Mother is a surefire way to cultivate the Gift of Piety because her greatest desire is to help us love the Lord and one other as brothers and sisters in Christ and children of the Father. Through her intercession, may the Holy Spirit fill us with tender, child-like devotion through a greater share in the Gift of Piety.
Come, O Spirit of Piety, possess my heart; incline it to a true faith in Thee, to a holy love of Thee, my God, that with my whole soul I may seek Thee, and find Thee my best, my truest joy. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
The Gift of Knowledge
Several winters ago, my sister went to a place called White Horse, Canada with her husband. While they were there, she took a bunch of photographs, including some of the Northern Lights, which were on full display. She had a copy of one of the photos blown up and framed, and it now hangs on the wall of their home. It’s a very beautiful image. But as beautiful as the photograph is, if you think about it, the image on the wall derives its beauty from the original photo that she took. And if you think about it some more, the original image that she took derives its beauty from the Northern Lights themselves. But what if you took it one step further? Where does the beauty of the Northern Lights come from? It comes from the Source and perfection of all beauty, who is God.
I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron on the Word on Fire Show podcast the other day, and he was talking about a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Why the Big Bang Produced Something Rather than Nothing.” He was expressing frustration with the article, because the author insisted on approaching the question only from a purely materialist perspective – the Big Bang was caused by neutrinos and the imbalance of matter and anti-matter, etc. But this merely raises the question of how we explain the existence of those things? Bishop Barron argued that the article reveals the limitations of science in its attempts to explain the whole of reality. While science is an amazing tool that helps us to understand the world and how things work, it cannot answer the foundational question: “why is there anything at all?”. That, Barron argues, is a question for philosophy rather than the natural sciences. It is what’s called a metaphysical question, that goes to the very mystery of “being” itself. When one treats science as the only field that can give us a true understanding of reality, it is to claim that the beautiful things of nature are the cause and the source of their own beauty. But there’s something deeply unsatisfying about that, because it seems to cut short the inquiry and to restrict our desire for knowledge to only that which can be subjected to the scientific method. This begs the question, of course, since one cannot use the scientific method to explain the scientific method and why it works.
St. Josemaria Escriva says that the Gift of Knowledge allows us to perceive and understand that “all creation, the movement of the earth and the other heavenly bodies, the good actions of creatures and all the good that has been achieved in history comes from God and is directed toward him.” This Gift of the Holy Spirit allows the one who has it to participate in God’s knowledge. It allows even those without fancy academic degrees to see with ease the relationship between Creation and the Creator and how Creation serves to bring us closer to God. The Gift of Knowledge also helps us to recognize more easily when things that are good in themselves are twisted and treated in a way that does not lead to our supernatural end. For example, the beauty and goodness of marital love, which leads to the sanctification of the husband and wife, is distorted and twisted when those acts that are reserved to marriage are done outside of that context.
The Gift of Knowledge perfects our natural faculties of reason to help us recognize that the world is more than a bunch of subatomic particles interacting in random ways that stimulate our sensory receptors to give us an experience that we have come to describe through the evolution of culture as “beautiful.” The Northern Lights are more than just disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind. The beauty of the world is a window into the transcendent and perfect beauty of God, who shares His beauty with His Creation, as well as His goodness and His truth. It does not conflict at all with the power of science to describe and explain how things in the world work. Instead, it works on a deeper level, allowing us to see the fingerprints of the Creator in the truths that science reveals to us, moving us to give Him thanks and glory for the gift of this amazing world in which we live.
Come, O Spirit of Knowledge and make us understand and despise the emptiness and nothingness of the world. Give us grace to use the world only for Thy glory and the salvation of Thy creatures. May we always be very faithful in putting Thy rewards before every earthly gift. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
The Gift of Fortitude
Maximilian Kolbe was a man who demonstrated great courage and charity throughout his life. Born in Poland in 1894, he went on to be a Franciscan priest. He established several monasteries and was also a very successful publisher of religious pamphlets promoting devotion to the Blessed Mother. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kolbe used his publishing house to speak out against the Nazi ideology, which led to his arrest and eventual imprisonment in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. There, Kolbe showed compassion and care for his fellow prisoners even under brutal conditions. In July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp. In response, it was announced that ten prisoners would be selected at random to be sent to die in the starvation bunker. The last man chosen, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began crying and pleading for his life. At that moment, Kolbe stepped out of formation and approached the camp commander. Stunned by this audacious act, the commandant asked him who he was. Kolbe said: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” Incredibly, the commandant allowed it, and Kolbe processed into the cell where he would die with the 9 other inmates.
Kolbe’s offer of himself in place of the other inmate was an act that reveals the supernatural Gift of Fortitude. The natural virtue of courage that he had cultivated over the course of his life was perfected by the movement of the Holy Spirit in his heart, which allowed him in that moment to simply step forward, even though he knew it meant a terrible death. By nature, all of us have a powerful aversion to the possibility of suffering and death. Even Our Lord experienced that revulsion during the Agony in the Garden, when He contemplated his impending Passion: “In his anguish… his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44). Kolbe most certainly experienced that natural fear of suffering, yet during the two weeks he spent in the starvation bunker, Kolbe continued to demonstrate remarkable fortitude and pastoral charity as he ministered to the other dying prisoners, leading them in prayer and the singing of hymns as he prepared them for death. A witness to what happened there said that Kolbe had turned that place of horror into a kind of chapel, thus revealing to the world through his example that the love of God was not absent amidst the horrors of Auschwitz.
If we look around, fear seems to pervade contemporary society. We see it manifested in the widespread fear of commitment. We are terrified of making mistakes and of being ridiculed. We are constantly worried about losing everything. To live as a faithful Catholic, however, requires courage. It takes courage to reveal to others that we are believers, that we love Christ Jesus, that we love the Church. It takes courage to live in accord with the teachings of the Church, which are often thought strange and even ridiculous. It takes courage to offer correction to loved ones, friends, and co-workers when we see that they are heading down a bad path. It takes courage to tell the truth despite the consequences. To be courageous doesn’t mean being without fear. It means acting despite our fear – out of love. Kolbe was able to do what he did because he loved God and his neighbor more than he feared death. When we consider his sacrifice we marvel at it, as we do at the sacrifices of all the martyrs.
Their sacrifices were made possible by the supernatural Gift of Fortitude. It is a gift that we also have received, and which we must foster in our own lives. We do this by humbly acknowledging our weakness and dependence on God’s grace. We also do this by developing a habit of prayer and sacrifice, as well as a devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist. The Holy Spirit who moved the heart of Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz is the same Holy Spirit that we receive at Baptism and then again at Confirmation. It is the Holy Spirit who comes to our aid in the midst of trials and gives us the fortitude to remain steadfast in faith, hope, and charity despite our fears.
Come, O Spirit of Fortitude, and give fortitude to our souls. Make our hearts strong in all trials and in all distress, pouring forth abundantly into them the gifts of strength, that we may be able to resist the attacks of the devil. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
Please don’t forget to reserve a place at this weekend’s Masses if you are able and want to attend. You can make a reservation through the homepage of this website.
The Gift of Counsel
When a priest hears confessions, there are occasions when he hears himself say something to the penitent that surprises him. When that’s happened to me, I think to myself: “Whoa! Where did that come from?” There have also been times when I’ve gone to confession and the priest says something that seems to express exactly the thing I needed to hear – even if it wasn’t the thing I wanted to hear! These are, I think, experiences of the Gift of Counsel. The Gift of Counsel is a perfection of the virtue of Prudence, which is the ability to know what is the truly good thing to do in a particular situation, as well as when and how to do it. Prudence is not to be confused with cunning, which is self-seeking and is used to manipulate or take advantage of a situation to get what one wants. Prudence is also different from timidity, which is also self-seeking and used to rationalize the avoidance of doing what is good out of fear. Prudence is about discerning what is truly good so as to do it. To develop the virtue of Prudence it’s important to form your conscience well, to get help in knowing what is good and what is evil and in distinguishing between what is true and what is false. We do this by learning what the Church teaches us, by seeking the company of people who demonstrate the virtue of Prudence, and by trying to act prudently.
Through the Gift of Counsel, the Holy Spirit helps us to choose a course of action and make decisions about what to do, especially when circumstances demand an immediate response. Because they both are ultimately ordered to our sanctification, we can say with certainty that anything that suggests that we commit an evil act can never be the fruit of Prudence or of Counsel. As we develop our ability to see everything in light of God’s love and His desire for our eternal salvation, we will understand all the more that it is never prudent to sin, and that the Holy Spirit never tells us to do what is evil. But it’s not always easy to recognize evil; it is sometimes easy to be deceived into thinking that it is good, or that we have no choice but to do evil. That’s when the gift of Counsel is most important, because it acts like a supernatural instinct for knowing what action (or inaction) in a particular circumstance is truly good and gives most glory to God.
We cultivate this gift by learning the moral teachings of the Church and approaching our relationship with the Lord Jesus with humility and docility. When we have a decision to make, we should consider our options in the presence of God, asking Him to help us to know what we should do. Sometimes He will help us to discover an alternative course of action that we hadn’t considered before, one that might not be easier but which we recognize to be the best thing to do in light of our relationship with Him and those around us.
Come, O Spirit of Counsel, help and guide me in all my ways, that I may always do Thy holy will. Incline my heart to that which is good, turn it away from all that is evil, and direct me by the path of Thy Commandments to the goal of eternal life for which I long. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
The Gift of Understanding
The last full-length novel that Mark Twain ever published was his book The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And of all the great stories he ever wrote, he thought this one was his very best. Twain was not Catholic, he grew up in the South at a time when there was much anti-Catholicism there, and he was intensely skeptical about organized religion of all kinds. Yet, the “Maid of Orleans” was someone who had captured his imagination. He spent years researching her story, which was well-documented by contemporary sources. Joan was a simple peasant from a small town in eastern France in the 15th century, a period in the Hundred Years’ War when France was in grave danger of falling to the invading English forces. At the age of 13 she had visions of St. Michael the Archangel and other saints and received a mission that would have her leading the armies of France against the English by the age of 17. Inspired by Joan’s leadership, the French broke the siege of the city of Orleans and retook several other English fortifications, filling the people of France with hope after years of demoralizing defeats. What made Joan so amazing to Twain was that his natural skepticism had no explanation for the seemingly-irrefutable evidence of the supernatural power working through her.
This was not only evident in her amazing success in battle, but also during her trial at the hands of her enemies. She had been captured by English forces during the battle of Compaigne, and put on trial for the charge of heresy. The trial was politically-motivated, the tribunal composed entirely of corrupt Church officials who were sympathetic to England. Twain himself distinguishes between the politicking French clerics and the Church: “Rome had no interest in the destruction of this messenger of God. Rome would have given her a fair trial, and that was all her cause needed. From that trial she would have gone forth free and honored and blest.” Twain marvels at the way the completely uneducated peasant warrior was able to respond to the theological traps set by her sophisticated accusers. Attempting to draw her into the sin of presumption, one of the magistrates asks her if she is in the state of Grace, knowing that one cannot ever know this answer with absolute certainty. The transcript of the trial reveals Joan’s famous answer: “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it, I pray God keep me so.” That Joan could answer in such a simple and perfect way reveals the Gift of Understanding. Somehow, at that moment the Holy Spirit gave her an insight into a deep mystery which she was able to articulate to the amazement of the court. This is how the gift manifests itself, even in the ordinary lives of the faithful. One who has grown sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit through a life of fidelity and prayer will somehow find himself able to grasp the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, the life of grace, and the presence of Christ in the sacraments – almost instinctually.
Despite her perfectly orthodox answers, the magistrates nonetheless convicted Joan and condemned her to death in 1431. She was burned at the stake in Rouen at the age of 19. When the war finally ended, the pope ordered an investigation into the trial of Joan of Arc and declared her innocent in 1456. She was eventually beatified in 1909, a year before Mark Twain’s death, and she was canonized in 1920. Many have wondered about Twain’s fascination with St. Joan of Arc. Perhaps she allowed the famously cynical author to leave the door to faith open a crack. If so, it shows that even over the distance of centuries, the spiritual gifts are not intended for the benefit of those who exercise them only, but also for the benefit of those who witness them in others. St. Joan of Arc’s feast day is this Saturday, 5/30.
Come, O Spirit of Understanding, and enlighten our minds, that we may know and believe all the mysteries of salvation, and may merit at last to see the eternal light in Thy light; and in the light of glory to have the clear vision of Thee and the Father and the Son. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
Mass of the 7th Sunday of Easter
On the Mass
As we make preparations for the resumption of public Masses this weekend, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 62 days since the last public Mass in our parish and throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport. Perhaps now is a good time to consider why, in the absence of the faithful, priests continued to say Masses over these past three months – not just in front of a camera, but also in empty churches and chapels throughout our diocese and the world. The Mass is not just a prayer meeting that ends with the distribution of the Eucharist. If it were, it wouldn’t make sense to have Mass in the physical absence of the congregation. To understand what the Mass is, it might be helpful to consider again John Paul II’s teaching about work, which I wrote about in an online posting about month ago.
As creatures made in God’s image, human beings reflect the action of God as Creator of all things through our application of reason and physical effort to develop and cultivate what we’ve received from Him – think of a wine-maker or a carpenter, who take what is given in nature and make things from it. Moreover, when we are united to Christ as members of the Church by our baptism – which gives us a share in the royal priesthood of Christ – the toilsome aspects of work can become a participation in the sufferings of Christ Himself. We can “offer them up” as a sacrifice for our sanctification and the sanctification of the world. It’s a foundational insight that applies even more to what we do at the Mass. Why? Because the Mass is the perfect sacrificial offering of Christ (God the Son) to God the Father. As those who have been grafted onto the Mystical Body of Christ, we are united to Jesus, whom St. Paul often describes as the “Head of the Body” (Col 1:18; Rom 12:4-5; Eph 4:15-16). That means we can unite ourselves to the sacrifice that Christ offers, and offer ourselves to the Father through the Son’s sacrifice. The priest, who shares in Christ’s royal priesthood by his baptism, and Christ’s ministerial priesthood by his reception of Holy Orders, stands in the place of Christ and the Church, the head and the body, offering the sacrifice of Christ as Christ to the Father. Dr. Denis McNamera of the Liturgical Institute at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary explains: “Whether celebrated in an empty church or with 10,000 faithful, every Mass is the eruption into time of the eternal offering of Christ to the Father, involving every member of the Mystical Body, both in heaven and on earth.” At those Masses we offered in our empty churches, you all were with Fr. Mariusz and me sacramentally, as were all of the members of the Church throughout the world and throughout the ages, in heaven and on earth.
That’s why your spiritual Communions were and continue to be so important and powerful. By uniting yourselves to the sacrificial offering of Christ at the Mass, even from a distance, you participated as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ in Our Lord’s supreme work of glorifying the Father and sanctifying the world. Of course, reception of the Eucharist at Mass is objectively the greatest and most perfect way in which we enter into communion with Christ’s Real Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament. That cannot be overstated. And the spiritual suffering that the faithful have experienced during this time of involuntary fasting from the Blessed Sacrament is definitely real. But we should not downplay the significance of a contrite heart offered to God, united to the sacrifice of Christ, even when the faithful cannot receive the Eucharist for some reason, such as: they haven’t yet received First Communion, they haven’t observed the Eucharistic fast, they find themselves in a state of serious sin or irregular marital circumstances, or they are forced to stay home in time of pandemic.
I pray that the fruit of this fasting will be an increase of our desire for worthy reception of the Eucharist. I also hope it helps us to understand the Eucharist better – that it’s not simply the Body of Christ that we get when the priest (finally!) finishes saying the prayers, but the culmination of our act of self-offering joined to the perfect offering of Christ at the Mass.
See you at Mass!
The Gift of Wisdom
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25)
Two months before she died from tuberculosis, one of the nuns in her community said to the 24-year-old Sr. Therese of Lisieux, “you are a saint.” In response, Therese pointed to the tops of the trees in the garden of the convent which were illuminated by the light of the setting sun and said: “My soul appears to you to be all brilliant and golden because it is exposed to the rays of love. If the Divine Sun stopped sending me His fire, I would immediately become dark and full of shadows.” Therese’s insight reveals a soul that enjoyed the supernatural Gift of Wisdom.
The Holy Spirit’s gift of Wisdom is the ability to see the world and ourselves as God sees it. Life in the world can be kind of like a labyrinth. You’re trying to make your way to the end, but it’s hard because your perspective is narrow and you can only see a small fraction of your surroundings. When you’re trying to navigate a maze with other people, there can be discord among the members of the group over the best way to make it out as you hit one dead end after another. And sometimes when you feel really lost you might wonder if there even is a way out of the labyrinth, and that maybe the labyrinth is all there is. If life in the world is like a big labyrinth, Wisdom is what gives us a birds-eye perspective on the whole of the maze. Wisdom enables us to see the world, and all the things and people in it, under the light of God’s plan for us. It helps us to see the way through more clearly and make our way with greater confidence in God’s goodness and charity towards those with whom we make the journey.
Those around her recognized the sanctity of St. Therese. Perhaps, in their admiration for her, they thought her holiness made her less in need of the mercy of God. What Therese recognized, the insight she wished to share with the other nun in their exchange, was that her sanctity itself was a mercy shown to her by God. She knew that without this gift, she, like the tree touched by the sun, would have been filled with darkness. This supernatural Wisdom protected Therese from claiming ownership of her holiness, which might have led her to haughtiness and a sense that she was better than her sisters in the convent. Instead, she was filled with charity and love for her Carmelite sisters, even the crankiest and most difficult ones, certain that the Lord had blessed her so abundantly precisely because she was the least among the community and the most in need of His mercy. Wisdom also helped her to persevere through the terrible sufferings, both physical and spiritual, she experienced at the end of her life. Despite the agony of her illness and the harrowing feeling of the total absence of God, she persevered in faith. With the help of the Holy Spirit, she was able to see her suffering as a sign of His love for her and a special participation in His own suffering for the salvation of souls. Such is the wisdom of the saints.
Come, O Spirit of Wisdom, and reveal to my soul the mysteries of heavenly things, their exceeding greatness, and power, and beauty. Teach me to love them above and beyond all the passing joys and satisfactions of earth. Show me the way by which I may be able to attain to them and possess them, and hold them hereafter, my own forever. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit
During this 9-day period between the Ascension and Pentecost, it is fitting to reflect on the significance of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. We first receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism, but at Confirmation we receive a full share in the Holy Spirit and a strengthening in the Spirit’s Gifts. I have vivid memories of my own Confirmation at the hands of Bishop Curtis back in 1990, including the sad fact that it didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t understand the significance of the sacrament and how it was supposed to affect my life. I probably wasn’t alone among my classmates. It’s only been in recent years that I started to have a sense of how remarkable the Gifts are. This has helped me to recognize the reality of how the Holy Spirit works in my life and helps me with everything I do.
There are 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they are easily remembered using this awkward acronym: PUFWACK. This stands for Piety, Understanding, Fortitude, Wisdom, Awe, Counsel, and Knowledge. Over the next week, I’m going to try to post something about each one of the gifts along with a prayer to ask the Holy Spirit to make us more sensitive to the movements of the Spirit within us. Too often we forget the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is God, no less than the Father and the Son, so it’s very important that we know the Spirit and ask the Spirit to guide us and make itself known.
An image that might be helpful in understanding the way the Gifts of the Holy Spirit help us is the activity of riding a bicycle. To ride a bike requires effort. When we put effort into it, we get into better shape and we can ride for longer and go faster. Even hills don’t pose much of a problem for an experienced cyclist. The cyclist is an image of a person who has grown in the virtues and who strives to live a righteous life. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are like an electric motor connected to the bicycle, which allow the cyclist who has developed his cycling skill to ride faster and longer than he could have imagined otherwise. Even mountains that had been impossible to scale before are climbed with minimal effort. In a similar way, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are supernatural assistance offered to us that enable us to respond to situations and do things in a way that we could not otherwise. The one who has received the Gifts will be given insights and perspective, as well as courage and wonder that manifest through him the glory of God in the world. But for us to make use of the Gifts, we must be in a state of grace. Serious sin prevents us from availing ourselves of the Gifts. It would be to disconnect the electric motor from the bike’s gears, thus losing access to the power that would propel us forward. As we set aside attachments to serious sin and live habitually in a state of grace, we will become more sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit and learn how to recognize and respond to the Spirit’s promptings in our daily lives.
In the Gospel of John, Our Lord tells Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Spirit sometimes moves within us in an easily sensible way – like a breeze that refreshes us. Other times the Spirit moves slowly and imperceptibly, but powerfully within us like the deepest currents of the oceans. But it is always mysterious, and the one who is attuned to its movements will never fail to be surprised by what the Spirit wishes to do through him.
Come, O Holy Ghost, the Lord and Lifegiver; take up Thy dwelling within my soul, and make of it Thy sacred temple. Make me live by grace as an adopted son of God. Pervade all the energies of my soul, and create in me a fountain of living water springing up into life everlasting. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
Mass of the Ascension
The Love of God
The wallpaper image on my smartphone is a photo that I took of another photo that was part of an exhibit during World Youth Day in 2016. It’s a black and white image of a young Missionary of Charity bathing the emaciated body of a woman whom the sisters rescued from dying on the streets of an urban slum somewhere in the world. Above the sister is a framed picture of the deposition of Christ from the cross, and written on the wall is the phrase “Body of Christ.” It’s a powerful image, and reminds us why that young sister is doing what she is doing for the sick person lying before her. For her, it is Christ. Her love for the Lord allows her to spend her life doing for others what seems impossible.
Looking at that image again, I thought of how parents do things like that all the time for their children. The love they have for their kids enables them to change dirty diapers, wipe runny noses, and clean up when someone gets sick – things that might have turned their stomach before, now they suddenly can do. It’s because they love their children.
But as every parent knows, sometimes a kid doesn’t want you to change their diaper. It could be a horrendous mess, and yet the kid fights you and squirms around, trying to kick you off. It tries your patience, but you still love them. And if you’ve ever been to a convent run by the Missionaries of Charity, you know that the people they care for can be very difficult. Sometimes in their misery they shout curses and blaspheme as they resist the kindness the sisters are trying to show them. But the sisters still strive to love these poor souls, reminding themselves and each other that this is Christ.
The image of the sister bathing the sick person on the floor of the convent is particularly moving because it’s not like that. Rather, you can see how the poor woman has surrendered herself to the care of the sister. There is a tenderness in the expression of the sister, and a look of peace on the face of the woman. It reminded me of the times I’ve seen my sisters and their husbands changing the diapers of their kids, exchanging smiles and laughter.
These things give some insight into the way God loves us. In the Lord’s eyes, we are the ones with the dirty diaper, with a runny nose, covered in our own sick. We are the ones lying on the street of some slum. He finds us there, looks at us with loving concern, desperately wanting to help us. Gently, He calls our name and reaches to lift us up – even as we resist, kicking and screaming all the while. What joy there is when we finally surrender our hearts to Him, looking at Him with love and gratitude, and say: “What a mess I am, Lord! And how kind You are to care for me.”
The Strong Back of Christ
“Cast all your worries upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
I have always found these words of St. Peter deeply consoling. They remind us that we are never alone in the things that we suffer. But, strange creatures that we are, there are times when we decide that we should just go it alone anyway. We might look around and decide that our struggles are not as great as others, and that we shouldn’t bother God with our troubles. Maybe we picture Christ carrying the cross – bleeding, sweating, dying – and the last thing we want to do is add to His burden.
This is, of course, a mistake. As He walks by on the way to Calvary, He is telling us: “Give it to me. Please. I have come to take this from You, and in exchange give you myself.” How often must St. Peter have thought about the great responsibilities that he had received, the enormity of the task, all the people depending on him, and thought about his own limitations and deficiencies, his own struggles with sin. But then he would catch himself, recall his time with his friend, his teacher, his Lord – and turn over everything, no matter how great or small, to Christ.
The back of Christ, ravaged by the scourge and weighed down with the wooden beams, is strong enough to bear all the burdens of our hearts. It is the reason He did what He did for us. There is nothing He would rather do.
St. John Paul II
On this day in 1920, Karol Wojtyla was born in the Polish town of Wadowice, the youngest of the three children of his parents. Today the world knows him as Pope St. John Paul II, who led the Church from 1978-2005. His family life was marked by tragedy, his siblings and his mother all having died by the time Karol was an adolescent. His father, with whom he was very close, died in 1941. Of course, this was a period in which his native Poland also experienced great trauma – first with the invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany followed by decades-long oppression under a Soviet-controlled totalitarian regime. Throughout the hardships he suffered, Karol Wojtyla was a man of deep faith, filled with a passion for life. Shortly after his father’s death, Wojtyla began formation for the priesthood and was ordained in 1946. He loved the intellectual life, but he was also gifted pastorally, especially when it came to the care of young people. In 1958, at the age of 38, he became the auxiliary Bishop of Krakow, and was appointed the Archbishop there in 1964 while he was participating in the Second Vatican Council. He was elected pope in 1978, the first non-Italian to hold that office in 455 years, taking the name John Paul II in tribute to his predecessor who reigned as pope for only 33 days.
John Paul II was an exceptionally charismatic leader of the Church. His biographer, George Weigel, has said that John Paul II “embodied the cardinal virtue of courage.” This courage came from his supreme confidence in the transformative power of the Gospel. In a homily given during his 1995 visit to the United States, he told the people gathered: “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question posed by every human life, and the love of Christ compels us to share that great good news with everyone. We believe that the Death and Resurrection of Christ reveal the true meaning of human existence; therefore, nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.” John Paul loved being human because he knew that Christ Jesus his Savior shares in that same humanity. This is what he was always trying to remind the world – those who were suffering under the various dehumanizing systems of totalitarianism as well as those who were suffering because of the dehumanizing ethos of moral relativism, that degrades human action and empties it of meaning. John Paul taught us over and over that we are loveable, that we are capable of giving ourselves to others in self-sacrificial love, that our actions matter, that we can come to know truth, and that we are called to heroic sanctity. He did this always by pointing to Christ and making Him the center of all things.
While John Paul II was an inspiration to so many throughout his life, he was inspired by the example of his own father. Recalling his childhood, especially after the death of his mother, the pope said that he often saw his father kneeling in prayer and that through his witness he came to understand that “being a man means being a man of prayer.” He continues: “My father was the person who explained to me the mystery of God.”
On this centenary of his birth, may we thank God for the fatherhood of Pope St. John Paul II, who introduced himself to the world in 1978 with the words: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!”
Mass for the 6th Sunday of Easter
Also, here is a recording of “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis, which sets the words of Christ from today’s gospel to music.
If ye love me,
keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,
and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may ‘bide with you forever,
e’en the spirit of truth.
During this season of Easter, the Church gives us readings for Mass taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts tells us about the earliest days of the Church and the missionary work of the Apostles, especially St. Paul. This past week featured a remarkable passage (Acts 14:5-28) about the experiences of Paul and Barnabas as they preached the Gospel in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey.
The passage begins by telling us about Paul and Barnabas’ flight from the town of Iconium because pretty much everyone there wants to kill them. From there, they decide to go to the region of Lycaonia, and they come to a town called Lystra. There, Paul heals a man who the scriptures say was “lame from birth.” When the crowds see what Paul had done, they go wild. They think that Paul and Barnabas are the gods Hermes and Zeus in disguise and they try to worship them. Even the local pagan priest presents oxen to be slaughtered and offered in sacrifice. Horrified, Paul and Barnabas plead with the people to stop. They try to tell them that they should turn away from their idols and worship the living God. “Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.”
Shortly after this, a group of enemies from previous stops show up at Lystra and they turn the crowds against Paul and Barnabas. The same people who just had tried to worship them as gods were suddenly stoning Paul and dragging his lifeless body out of the city. But when the disciples gathered around Paul, he gets up and goes back into the city – the very place where all the people wanted him dead! The next day, he and Barnabas travel to a town called Derbe. There, the scripture tells us, they proclaim the gospel and make a considerable number of disciples. From there, Paul and Barnabas retrace their steps through hostile territory. They return to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch in order to encourage the local Christian communities and to strengthen their spirits. Before moving on, Paul and Barnabas ordain priests to serve them and explain to the members of those communities that “it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”
This passage reminds me of a quote that someone recently shared from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years as a prisoner of the Soviet Union. He wrote: “Bless you, prison. Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” The terrible experience of the Gulag somehow forged Solzhenitsyn into the man whose writings did much to expose the horror of the Soviet system.
There’s so much in us that craves worldly peace. We want to be left alone, to have no obstacles in the way of our living as we want. That includes our relationship with God, and our ability to worship Him. But when we consider what Our Lord suffered and what the Apostles endured, why would we think it should be easy, that we should be left undisturbed by other people or by nature? The challenges that we face are probably not as severe as those of Paul and Barnabas. They are probably not as severe as those of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. But they are our challenges, the ones we must endure and even embrace if, like Paul and Barnabas, we are to enter the Kingdom of God.
Since my posting about the apparitions at Fatima a couple of days ago, some have expressed concern about Our Lady’s revelation to the visionaries that one of their friends who had recently died would be in Purgatory until the end of the world. It’s certainly a sobering message, and might be a very terrible one if we don’t have a good understanding of what Purgatory is.
We know that when we die we will stand before the judgment seat of God and everything about us will be revealed as we learn our eternal fate. In his encyclical on hope (Spes Salvi) Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, on one hand “there will be those who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.” These are the condemned. On the other hand, “there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.” These are the saints. But for most of us, he speculates, “there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” These are the holy souls who go to Purgatory in preparation to enter the fullness of joy in Heaven. So, what happens to them there?
I think the film The Wizard of Oz provides a good illustration of what Purgatory is and how it prepares for the Beatific Vision those who are counted among the blessed. In the movie, Dorothy and her friends make their way along the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard in the Emerald City. Along the way they have many adventures and face many dangers as they find themselves under constant threat from the Wicked Witch of the West. Finally, they reach their destination and receive the good news that the Wizard will see them. But they don’t go directly to meet him. They first have to be made presentable, since over the course of their journey they have accumulated the dirt and dust and the wearying effects of travel. Dorothy and the Lion go to the salon, the Scarecrow is re-stuffed with fresh hay, the Tin Man is buffed and polished. Only then can they stand in the glorious presence of the one they traveled so far to meet. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the experience of Purgatory. If you think about it, it’s not very much fun to be scrubbed with bristle brushes, have the knots combed out of your hair, be re-stuffed or burnished with great big buffing machines. But the heroes of the story endure it joyfully because they know that it is preparing them to meet the great and powerful Wizard that they’ve longed to see. That’s kind of what Purgatory is like. And it’s important to keep in mind that the souls in Purgatory are much more splendid people than we are because they have finished the race, they have been judged, and they know with certainty that they will go to Heaven, while you and I are still working out our salvation and our final destination is yet to be determined.
To build on the Wizard of Oz analogy, the members of the Church on earth are like the workers in the Emerald City who help Dorothy and her friends get ready for their audience with the Wizard. For by our prayers, our sacrifices, and the Masses we have said, we can and do help prepare the holy souls in Purgatory for their entrance into Heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “from the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the Beatific Vision of God” (1032).
If we consider the important role we play in helping the holy souls in Purgatory we must take with grave seriousness Our Lord’s admonition against judging others. Only Christ sits in judgment of souls. Besides the canonized saints, whom we know for certain are in heaven, we do not know the eternal fate of any particular soul. For this reason, we must never presume to say anyone who has died is suffering eternal separation from God in hell. In the same way, however, we ought not presume to say that a loved one who has died is already enjoying perfect happiness with God in heaven. No matter how wonderful we thought them to be, we are not their judge, only God is. And to make such a judgment would be to deprive the holy souls in Purgatory of our prayers, our sacrifices, and the Masses which they so greatly need as they joyfully await entrance into the halls of Heaven.
“You shall love… whether you like it or not.” This is a line from the beautiful homily given by the priest character in the film To the Wonder. The film’s director Terrence Malick is famous (infamous?) for his artsy movies that have beautiful images but plots that are extremely difficult to follow – some might say they are incomprehensible. Because of this, I won’t recommend the movie to you, but I will recommend the trailer which provides the homily in its entirety. You can find it posted below.
We get this commandment to love in the Gospel for today’s Mass (John 15:9-17). It seems a strange thing, this commandment to love. How can we make ourselves love other people? This would be impossible if love were merely a feeling. As the priest in the film explains: “Emotions, they come and go like clouds. Love is not only a feeling – you shall love.” Consider the promises that a man and woman make at their wedding, among which they say: “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” If love depends on feelings, this promise is absurd, since our feelings for someone can change from moment to moment.
The promise to love is possible because love is an act of the will. Our Lord says to His disciples: “Love one another as I love you.” He loves us always, even when we ignore Him or deny Him; even when we are driving the nails into His hands and feet. Somehow, He wants us to love that way too. He makes Holy Matrimony a sacrament to help the spouses love as He loves. St. Augustine defined sacraments as “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” As a sacrament, marriage is intended by the Lord Jesus to make visible His love for the Church through the witness of the love that the spouses have for each other. The exchange of promises at the wedding, sealed in the flesh through the marital act, is a sign of the Incarnation – the eternal and unbreakable bond of Christ’s divinity with His humanity. The gift of children is a sign of the new life in grace that comes from Him. And when spouses persevere in their love, even through disappointment and heartbreak, they manifest something true about the love that Jesus has for us as He hangs on the cross, saving us from our sins.
“You shall love.” He gives it to us as a commandment because, well, we tend not to be so good at it. But He does not abandon us to try to fulfill this command on our own. “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love.” Jesus shares His love with us as we try to follow Him, that we might love with His heart when we find it difficult to love with ours alone.
On this day in 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared for the first time to three children in Fatima, Portugal. The three visionaries were Lucia dos Santos (10) and two siblings, Francisco (9) and Jacinta (7) Marto. While playing in a place called Cova da Iria, the children saw two flashes of light, after which they saw “a Lady dressed in white, more brilliant than the sun.” She was indescribably beautiful, with an expression on her face that was “neither sad nor happy, but serious.” Her hands were joined together in prayer and she held a rosary in her right hand. She told the children that she was from Heaven and asked them to return to see her at that same place at the same time on the 13th day of each month for six months.
During the first apparition, Lucia asked her if she and her friends would go to heaven. Our Lady said they would, though Francisco would have to say many rosaries to get there. Lucia then asked her about the fate of two of their friends who had recently died. One, Our Lady said, was in heaven. The other, she explained, “will be in purgatory until the end of the world.” She asked the children if they wished to offer themselves to God and accept the sufferings they would experience “as both an act of reparation for the sins with which He is offended and an act of supplication for the conversion of sinners.” When they responded yes, Our Lady said, “you will have much to suffer. But the grace of God will be your comfort.”
The visionaries at Fatima experienced many trials because of the apparitions, including arrest by the local Communist officials and disbelief by their families and local clergy. Over the following months, the children received many troubling messages about the dangers facing the world because of the evil of sin, including a terrifying vision of hell. The purpose of these messages, Lucia explained years later, was to call us to conversion, that we might return to the right path, “because God does not wish sinners to perish but rather that they be converted and live.” The Blessed Mother reminds us that we can help in that cause by our prayers and sacrifices and our merciful hearts which “will draw [sinners] back into the arms of God.” To that end, Our Lady of Fatima exhorts us to pray the rosary every day.
In the familiar prayer of the “Hail Mary,” we say over and over again: “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” These are the two crucial moments of our lives – the present moment and the moment of our death. For we know that getting to heaven is not simply about presenting to God a kind of balance sheet that shows that our good actions outweighed the bad we did in life. The good works we do certainly matter, but ultimately it is God’s grace that saves us. Thus, we believe that one who has misspent his life can be saved by grace in the last moment of his life – consider the Good Thief to whom Our Lord promised paradise. We should therefore pray for those who have no faith, never despairing of the possibility of their salvation by the grace of God. The moment of death is also of decisive importance for those blessed with faith. Ronald Knox writes that those blessed with the gift of faith “ought to pray for perseverance, and for the grace of a Christian death, even when the event seems remote and our spiritual state gives us no special cause for anxiety.” He continues: “Life doesn’t just depend upon being good and being bad; God’s grace is what we want to pray for, and pray for all the more earnestly in proportion as we are humble enough to realize that we cannot do without it.”
Francisco and Jacinta both died as victims of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. He was 10, and she was 9. Before their deaths, the children spent their lives praying and making sacrifices for the conversion of sinners and of the world. They were officially declared saints by Pope Francis on this date in 2017. Lucia also made her life an offering to God as a cloistered Carmelite nun for 57 years before her death in 2005. Her cause for sainthood is currently underway.
The story of Fatima is fascinating. If you’re looking for a good book about it, one of the best is Our Lady of Fatima by William Thomas Walsh. There’s also a movie about Fatima that will be released in August. I’ve posted the trailer below.
A Weird Catholic
Recently, a friend of mine very thoughtfully gave me a new biography about Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who was one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, along with her friend and mentor Peter Maurin. I became interested in Day when I was in seminary through a friend of mine who had a great love for her. He recommended that I read her spiritual autobiography, The Long Loneliness, as an introduction, and now I share his love for Day. A caution to the reader: Dorothy Day is not for the faint of heart. If you take the risk of reading her writings, be prepared to have your comfortable life challenged!
As a young woman, Day was intensely concerned about the plight of the poor and the injustices committed against workers. She worked as a journalist, covering radical politics, and was a regular on the Greenwich Village social scene, hanging around with playwrights and Communist agitators, living a life that many have characterized as “bohemian.” Her two attempts at suicide, that were likely the result of a dysfunctional and abusive relationship that led to an abortion, are well-documented. Healing came through a subsequent relationship that led to the birth of her daughter and a discovery of God through her discovery of the beauty of creation while living near the beach in Staten Island. She who had abandoned the religion of her youth became Catholic, even though it meant having to break off her relationship with the father of her child who refused to marry her because he would not betray his anarchist principles.
Day was drawn to Catholicism because it was the religion of the working class and the immigrant, and because it transcended culture, language, and ethnicity. Her faith truly deepened, however, when she met Maurin, who introduced her to the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition, including the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. These writings revealed to her that her political and social views were not necessarily in conflict with her Catholic faith. Maurin helped her to see that they in fact would be most fully expressed when shaped by her Catholicism. Day remained politically an anarchist, who spoke out against society’s tendency to abandon the poor and needy to the welfare state and bureaucratic organizations, decrying it as an abdication of our personal responsibility to care for our neighbor. She was also a strong defender of traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality. She was a pacifist, opposing entrance into the Second World War and Vietnam. She protested often against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. She was arrested for picketing with Caesar Chavez’s farm laborers in California. She deplored consumerism and lived a life of voluntary poverty with other members of the Catholic Worker Movement in the slums of lower Manhattan. She could be strong in her criticisms of worldly priests and prelates. She was a daily Communicant who prayed the breviary and loved the Latin prayers and elaborate ritual of the Tridentine Mass.
Larry Chapp, a retired professor of theology and member of the Catholic Worker Movement in Pennsylvania has lamented that Day’s orthodox Catholic faith and her obedience to the magisterium of the Church has been treated as a strange and even embarrassing quirk by many of her more secular fans. They don’t understand how her criticisms of the state and adherence to the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception can be reconciled with her fierce advocacy for the poor, for peace and justice. Chapp writes in a recent book review that “her orthodox Catholicism was not an ornamentation or a superficial piety, but the very food of her soul…. If one ignores the central role played by her deep orthodoxy, one simply does not understand Dorothy Day on even the most rudimentary level.” He continues, saying: “Dorothy Day was a radical in her political and social views because she was first a truly radical Catholic in her appropriation of the deepest currents in the Church’s ancient Tradition. Day’s obedience to the magisterium, in other words, was so deep, that it allowed her to critique that very same magisterium when it failed to live up to its own teachings.”
I thought of Day when I read an opinion piece from last Sunday’s New York Times called “The Future of Christianity is Punk.” The author, Tara Isabella Burton, writes about how many young people seem to be turning to “old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.” She calls them “Weird Christians” and they are repulsed by the toxicity of contemporary politics, fearful of economic uncertainties, and saddened by the spiritual emptiness of our culture. So, they seem to be drawn to the otherworldly aesthetics of beautiful churches, high liturgy, challenging ethical systems. Many “see Christianity as a bulwark against the worst of modernity, but they are more likely to associate modernity’s ills with the excesses of capitalism or with a transactional culture that reduces human beings to budget line items, or anonymous figures on a dating app.” They desire authenticity, and associate it with traditional forms of religion. But her article seems to reveal a danger that this is being driven (even unawares) by a consumerist mentality, where one makes selection of a religion based on how well it meets one’s perceived needs rather than whether or not it’s actually true. And so this new “trend” as described in the article approximates but falls far short of what makes Dorothy Day so compelling. For Day was fundamentally a realist. And she knew that at the foundation and the heart of reality is the Incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ, who founded the Church as the community that helps us to live in accord with reality. Day saw that with a clarity that tends to elude us. That’s why her writings unsettle the easy political binaries of right-left politics with which we tend to identify. I hope that the young people described in the article who are searching for “more” come to discover Dorothy Day. Her “weirdness” might be just what we need.
On Oct 7, 1860, Damien de Veuster (1840-1889) lay prostrate on the floor as he was covered with a funeral pall as part of the traditional ritual for religious profession for the Belgian religious community, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Thirteen years later, when he responded to the local bishop’s call for volunteers to serve in the leper colonies on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, Father Damien came forward and told the bishop: “Remember that I was covered with a funeral pall the day of my religious profession. Here I am, Bishop, ready to bury myself alive with those poor unfortunates.”
In the second half of the 19th century, the Hawaiian Islands quickly had become an important commercial hub and a source of desirable natural resources. There was a huge influx of peoples from different parts of the world who brought with them diseases to which the native people had no natural immunity, including leprosy. The response of local officials to the dreadful illness was to establish a “leper colony” on the island of Molokai in a town called Kalawao. Anyone discovered to have the disease, including children, were detained and sent to Molokai. But the government barely provided the people with any shelter, food, or medicine, and those who were sent there knew that it was essentially a death sentence. Seeing themselves abandoned in such a callous way, the society there quickly broke down and there was widespread immorality. As one writer put it: “Treated like animals, they quickly began to act like animals. Losing all human joys, they feverishly grasped at those of the beasts and subsequently gave themselves over to a sinful life.” As the conditions at Kalawao became more widely-known, the people of Hawaii began requesting help for them. And that’s how Fr. Damien ended up in Molokai.
When he arrived to Kalawao, he immediately began to work to build more shelter for the people who were constantly exposed to the great winds that swept the island from off the Pacific Ocean. He taught them to farm and he began a ministry of burying the dead and providing funeral Masses for them at the little Church of St. Philomena. One of the most difficult things, however, was tending to the physical sufferings of the people. Leprosy ravages the body with disfiguring and foul-smelling sores that, according to Damien, “poisoned the air.” Damien found, however, that all of his “repugnance toward the lepers [had] disappeared” not long after his arrival.
As much as he desired to help the lepers with food and shelter and their medical needs, far more important to Damien than tending to the leprosy of the body was tending to what he called the “leprosy of the soul” with which many of the members of the community suffered. He expressed his spiritual concern for them in various ways: “In one place I speak only gentle, consoling words,” he explained, “in another I have to be harsh, to stir the conscience of some sinner; at times I have to thunder and threaten unrepentant sinners with eternal punishment.” Damien’s corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, burying the dead –were intended to remind the inhabitants of Kalawao of their dignity as creatures made in God’s image. His spiritual works of mercy – instructing the ignorant, admonishing sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses – were intended to help the people of Molokai to become holy, to live their lives in accord with their status as children of God, those purchased with the Blood of Christ. And they responded, because they knew he loved them. He had given up everything to be with them and had become their friend. Eventually, he officially joined their ranks, discovering his own leprosy in December 1884, an illness from which he died in 1889 at the age of 49.
The saints reveal the holiness of the Church, which has its source in the holiness of Christ. They are a gift to the world, and to us, because they reveal that holiness in the world is not just possible but also intensely desired by Christ for each of us. It’s true – God wants us to be saints, just like He wanted Fr. Damien to be a saint, because a life of holiness is a life of happiness.
If you’re interested in learning more about St. Damien, whose feast day was yesterday (5/10), I’ve posted below a YouTube video of the terrific film about his life called Molokai.
Mass for the 5th Sunday of Easter
On behalf of the priests, Deacon Larry, and the parish staff, we wish all mothers a happy and blessed Mother’s Day.
Last week, Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, passed away at the age of 90. Shula is best known for being the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, leading them to two Super Bowl titles, including a perfect undefeated season in 1972. He also won an NFL championship in 1968 as head coach of the Baltimore Colts, but then went on to lose Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, whose quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed a Jet victory over the heavily-favored Colts.
Shula was famous for his intense single-minded focus on football and his commitment to excellence. In a 2012 interview he remarked: “We took a lot of pride in working harder and always feeling better prepared than our opponent. That helped us win a lot of games.” He also demonstrated his leadership skills by adapting the team’s style of play to the strengths of his players. He was able to design an offense both around the punishing running ability of Larry Csonka in the 1970s and the uncanny passing ability of Dan Marino in the 1980s. His interests outside of football, however, were somewhat narrow. There’s a story about him meeting the actor Don Johnson in the mid-1980s, when Johnson was the star of the hugely popular show “Miami Vice.” Shula had no idea who Johnson was, and thought he was meeting a real detective. Recounting the story of the meeting, Shula said: “I told him, ‘You guys are doing a great job cleaning up Miami. Keep up the good work. If there’s anything we can do, let me know.’ I didn’t know who he was, I was just so consumed with football.”
Shula was also a serious Catholic. He grew up in Ohio with six siblings, the children of a mother who was a devout Catholic and a father who became Catholic as an adult. When Shula would speak about his experience of the Church as a young man, he would explain that his parents instilled the faith in him and that the family never missed Mass on Sunday. As a young man he gave serious consideration to joining the priesthood but decided instead to pursue sports. He continued to practice his faith, remarking in his 1995 autobiography: “Even today, I try to attend Mass every day. … Attending Mass and looking to God for guidance aren’t just habits for me. They matter deeply to me. … It makes a real difference to me when I start off each day by giving thanks and asking for help from God. … There’s something good about kneeling down, asking for help, and listening for answers.”
Shula’s approach to life is compelling. He was a man who recognized his natural abilities as gifts, he worked hard to develop them, demanded excellence from others, and enjoyed tremendous success. But he also lived his live under the gaze of God, which made him humble and decent. One of his former players, John Offerdahl, said of Shula: “He symbolized not only perfection, but what the pursuit of perfection looks like – looking steadfastly forward to a victorious goal with hard work, an integrated team and a singular purpose… it was what we all needed then and still to this day need: a belief that in life – as in football – we can do and be better as we strive to reach a victorious goal.” Don Shula knew what life was about. May he rest in peace and enjoy a share in Christ’s victory forever.
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I remember a conversation with a man named Jim who was sharing with me his life story. He told me that he grew up as a Protestant, but during his young adulthood he found himself kind of lost, drifting from the faith of his childhood and wondering what life was about. After some years of real struggles and some darkness, he found himself reading a lot of philosophy and history and theology. During his lunch break at work, it was his habit to go for walks around the parking lot, during which he would contemplate the things that he was reading. One day, during his walk, he asked himself: “Jim, do you believe in God?” So, he went through all the different arguments he had encountered in his research about the question of God’s existence, and finally he said, “Yes. I do believe in God.” Then the question came to him, “What about Jesus, Jim? Do you believe in Jesus?” So, he continued to walk, considering the question of the identity of Christ. What does the historical evidence indicate? Are the scriptures reliable? What do they say about Him?” Finally, he said: “Yes. I believe in Jesus. I believe that He claimed to be God and that His claims are true.” Then he said to himself: “Ok Jim. What are you going to do about it?” Soon, Jim started to go back to his old Protestant services. But then, because he believed in the Eucharist, Jim decided to start attending Catholic Mass. He eventually enrolled in RCIA and was received into the Church, becoming Catholic. Several years later Jim was telling me this story as a seminarian. Now he is a priest of our diocese.
Jim’s story reveals in a powerful way the nature of faith. You often hear people say that faith and reason are somehow incompatible, even that they contradict each other. As Catholics, we don’t believe that to be true at all. The famous 20th century convert and apologist Msgr. Ronald Knox once wrote: “As a matter of common sense no thinking man will make Christ the center of his life unless he is intellectually convinced that Christ was God, or will make the Church the focus of his loyalties unless he is intellectually convinced that the Church’s origins are divine.” Our faith does not violate reason. The intellect is a gift from God and we have the obligation, when we have a question, to consider the evidence, learn the claims of Catholicism, and see that the faith professed by the Church is not unreasonable. It is not unreasonable to believe in God. It is not unreasonable to believe in Christ. It is not unreasonable to accept the authority of the Catholic Church as that which was founded by Christ as the unique guardian and transmitter of His revelation.
One can come to the conclusion that all of these things are reasonable to believe, however, and still not believe. There is still the act of faith to be made. It is to make the move from, “This is believable” to “I believe.” It is to make the move from “this is credible” to “Credo.” As Catholics we know we must use our intellect, our rational powers, to evaluate. But is an act of the will, not the intellect, to assent to it. “Christianity,” Pope Benedict XVI used to say, “is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is an encounter, a love story; it is an event.” Using his intellect, Fr. Jim came to believe in the truth of God’s existence, that Jesus is God incarnate, and that the Catholic Church is what it claims to be. Moved by the significance of this, he fell in love with the One he’d discovered, and chose to give his life to Him.
When I was a kid there was an unwritten (though oft-spoken) rule in our house that when you came home from Tashua Pool in Trumbull you were to hang out your towel to dry in the backyard. I usually complied with this rule, through there were times when I would just leave it on the floor in the car, rolled up in a ball. But I did learn the reason for the rule when I wanted to go to the pool again and my towel was still there on the floor of the car. Although the parts of the towel that were exposed to the sunlight were dry, the places inside the folds of the towel were still damp. Worse, if a few days had gone by, those damp areas started to get a little funky. And so I realized that if I wanted my towel to be refreshed, I’d have to stretch the towel out flat, so that every part of the towel could be touched by the rays of the sun.
This might sound strange, but I think the funky towel is a helpful image for the spiritual life. In our relationship with God we can treat our hearts like a beach towel. Maybe we allow the Lord into some of the places in our hearts, but then keep other parts hidden in the shadows. This is foolish, of course. God knows what’s there, and He knows that those places that we keep hidden are the places most in need of His healing and strengthening grace. Like the beach towel, we need to stretch our hearts out and expose every part of them to Him.
I find this to be an especially helpful practice in Eucharistic Adoration. The monstrance in which the Host is displayed is shaped like the sun for a reason. Like the sun, the Host radiates the life of God upon us, like the sun radiates light and heat and makes life on earth possible. Sitting before Him, we expose ourselves to Him, allowing Him to touch those parts of us that need healing, things that we have hidden from our own eyes, that have become musty and funky from their time hidden in the shadows.
This is good prayer. It is reminiscent of the Lord’s parable about the Pharisee and the Publican found in the Gospel according to St. Luke (8:9-14). Christ addresses the story to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” He tells a story about two men who go to the Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, who takes his special place in the Temple and prays thus: “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” The other man, a tax collector, stands far off with his eyes lowered, beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And the Lord says that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, returned home justified. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Humbling ourselves means revealing ourselves to the Lord. But, again, the Lord knows everything about us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. It’s silly to treat our conversations with the Lord as a kind of job interview, trying to put our best foot forward. To do so is to expose only the superficial parts of ourselves to Him, to show him only the outer folds of the beach towel. That’s why we must ask for the confidence to expose to His gaze even those dark and hidden things about ourselves, realizing that when we do that we are really just allowing ourselves to consider them within the unassailable refuge of His love. There we share our lives with Him in a living relationship, that heals us, transforms us, and refreshes our souls.
Lessons from Mustard Seed
There’s an organization in Jamaica called Mustard Seed Communities that provides homes for people with severe disabilities. In my last assignment, the members of the parish youth group would go down there each year to volunteer as part of a mission trip. It was not easy work, but it was very rewarding to see how the teenagers from the parish learned to interact with the residents of the Mustard Seed homes. Many of the children they were helping suffered with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities, so our kids couldn’t really converse with them or interact with them in the way they were accustomed to with their peers back home – no clever jokes, no sports, no games. At the beginning of the week, you could see that our kids were very uncomfortable; confronted with those twisted little bodies in their wheelchairs, they had never felt so helpless in their lives. But it wasn’t long before they learned that the children in the residence weren’t so different from them – they liked music, and to be tickled; they liked normal things like birthdays and cake. By the end of the week, our kids were taking the children out of their wheelchairs and holding them for hours on end, they were smiling and laughing as they took the time patiently to feed them, and they were saying their prayers for them as they put them to bed at night. Through the experience, they discovered the humanity of the children of Mustard Seed and their own humanity as well.
In every Mustard Seed community there is a chapel. As part of the daily schedule, the full-time caretakers bring each child into the chapel to sit before the Blessed Sacrament for an hour. It’s perhaps understandable that people might wonder what the point of that is. After all, these children would have no real understanding of what the Eucharist is or how to pray. It’s a remarkable demonstration, however, of faith in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It doesn’t matter whether or not the children actually understand what they’re sitting before. Our Lord is there in the Blessed Sacrament, He delights in having them there with Him, and like the sun He radiates His love upon these beloved children of His.
At some point during the week, the supervisor of the community where we stayed told me in conversation that all of the children at Mustard Seed had received the sacrament of Baptism. Thus, the wound of Original Sin that they inherited from our first parents had been washed away and their souls were filled with the life of God. Through the sacrament, they were grafted into the family of Christ, the Church, and enjoy status as sons and daughters of God. As I watched these children in the chapel and saw our kids caring for them that week, it dawned on me that these children, because of their cognitive disabilities, were incapable of personal sin. That means they were perfect souls, little saints among us, who when they die are certain to go directly to heaven. We cannot say the same for ourselves. Unlike them, we can and do sin. We are not perfect souls and must work out our salvation, with the help of grace, during our lives in the world. It was then that I realized that by going there to work at Mustard Seed, these little saints were actually helping us more than we were helping them. For when, please God, we encounter our friends again in the perpetual light of God, their eyes will light up with perfect recognition and they will thank us for the small kindnesses we showed them during our week on mission, and we will thank them for helping us poor sinners get to heaven.
Acedia: take two
So, let me tell you how my life has been ever since I published my reflection on the sin of acedia yesterday. I wasted at least an hour watching YouTube videos and checking my Twitter feed, I fell asleep during my holy hour in church, I mindlessly snacked on junk food in the rectory kitchen instead of making a proper dinner for myself, and this morning I hit the snooze button. Ugh. Acedia.
Almost everyone struggles with acedia to some degree. The beginning of success in the struggle against it is to recognize it, because then we can engage in the battle against it. G.K. Chesterton used to say: “An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.” There’s something in that which helps us in the struggle with acedia because if we start to consider our lives as adventures, things will start to change. We will begin to recognize that every moment is lived under the loving gaze of the Lord who is inviting us, through the epic adventure of our life to become more like Him. It is all about living our lives more thoughtfully and with greater intentionality.
Our Lord’s parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30) illustrates for us what acedia is. The master goes on a journey and calls three of his servants, entrusting each of them a sum of money, according to his abilities. One receives five talents, the other two, the third receives one talent. The first servant goes “at once” and traded with the money and made another five talents. The second does the same, and also doubles his investment. The third dug a hole in the ground and hid the master’s money. When the master returns and demands a settlement of their accounts, he praises the first two servants. But when the third servant reveals what he’s done, that out of fear of the master he buried the treasure in the ground, the master gets angry. The master points out that his fear should have moved him to at least put the money in a bank where he would have received some interest. He punishes the servant, sending him out into the darkness.
When we give into acedia, we treat what God has given us the way the third servant treated the master’s money. The third servant buried what he had received, the same way one would bury a dead thing in a tomb. He went on living his life, trying to distract himself from the feeling of dread that would come over him when he thought about the master’s return. Not even doing the minimum to avoid punishment. In the mind of the servant, receiving the talent from the master was a burden and the worst thing that could have happened to him. It does not occur to him to see it as an opportunity for adventure. He is trapped in the vice of acedia.
We shed the chains of acedia by loving Christ. We can cultivate greater love for Him by simply stopping at various moments of the day to remind ourselves that He is with us. We do it by making little aspirational prayers, such as: “God, come to my assistance,” or “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me,” or “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee.” Knowing He is present, that He loves us, and has a plan for us has a transformative effect. Instead of craving idleness, novelty, and distraction (signs of acedia), our hearts will begin to thirst for the things of God. He does not want us to fail. He wants us to succeed. He gives us everything we need to become holy and free from those things that try to hold us back and make us approach life as a dreadful inconvenience rather than the adventure that it is.
Please join us for a “drive-thru” FOOD DRIVE on 5/16 from 11am-1pm in the parking lot of St. Cecilia Church at 1184 Newfield Ave. in Stamford. Donations will help Stamford’s own New Covenant Center. Drop off food for the needy and Fr. Olbrys and Fr. Connaughton will give you and your family a blessing!
When I was the Vocation Director of the Diocese one of the things I was expected to do was have what’s called a “social media presence,” which meant posting content on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. I quickly realized how social media can easily suck up all your attention and waste huge amounts of time with things that are not very edifying. While using it, I’ve said to myself countless times, “ok, just one more article” or “just one more video” or “let me just check to see of so-and-so has posted something new.” Rather than focusing on the work that I need to do, I end up wasting time with these things. It was ironic, then, that I recently came across the Twitter account of someone who was posting information about the sin of acedia.
Acedia is one of the seven deadly sins, more commonly known as sloth. Acedia is a better term, however, because the word sloth is too closely associated with laziness and acedia is more subtle and complex an affliction than just being lazy. In his helpful book The Noonday Devil, Fr. Jean-Charles Nault, OSB explains that the word acedia has its roots in a Greek word that denoted the lack of care that people showed when they failed to bury their dead, thereby neglecting a sacred duty. With the rise of Christianity, acedia took on a different meaning. It no longer referred to the lack of care shown to the deceased but a lack of care given to one’s own spiritual life and one’s salvation.
Acedia is the deadly sin that no one talks about. We all know about pride, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, greed. Acedia seems to fly under the radar. But it’s pervasive. Cardinal Schristoph Schonborn of Vienna once said: “the deepest crisis in the Church today is that we no longer dare to believe in what God can do for the good with those who love him. The spiritual masters traditionally call this torpor of mind and heart acedia.” It is the habitual disposition that stifles the desire to contemplate God and the things of God. What makes this sin so devastating is that we are made to contemplate God. It is in contemplating God, ultimately in the Beatific Vision of heaven, that we know greatest happiness. Acedia attacks this desire to contemplate God, and this leads to deep sadness. It is the feeling of dissatisfaction with everything, accompanied with a lack of interest in the one thing that can satisfy us.
Acedia, according to Nault, manifests itself as an interior restlessness. This restlessness makes you feel like you constantly need a change of scenery because you feel trapped where you are. It’s this restlessness that leads us to mindlessly surf the web, seeking novelty to distract us for a few moments, before we get bored again. It can manifest itself as an aversion to work, which is why it’s often associated with laziness. But work can also serve as a distraction that feeds acedia, and so unreflective hyperactivity can also be a sign of acedia. A general feeling of discouragement with one’s life and situation is also a sign of acedia. Unfortunately, acedia is so subtle and elusive that the one who suffers with it often doesn’t recognize it for what it is, which makes it difficult to root out of our lives.
Fighting the “noonday devil” requires making frequent acts of the will to resist it where we find it. There are some things we can do to help in the struggle. We should get out of bed promptly when the alarm goes off (no snooze button!). We should try to set aside our phones and avoid the distraction of screens for an hour at a time. This actually might be harder than we realize, but doing it helps us develop a taste for living in the moment and being present to others, ourselves, and God. Another thing we can do is to be intentional about what we eat rather than mindlessly snacking or grazing. We also should be intentional about our leisure, planning to watch a particular movie or show, rather than surfing around for entertainment. Setting aside time each day for prayer – maybe 30 minutes, preferably in the morning – is essential. It could be quiet time reflecting on the scriptures, or daily Mass, or the rosary, or some spiritual reading. And we should do that especially when we don’t feel like it.
The fight against acedia is a long battle. As with any other sin, if we fail in our struggle against acedia, we must resist discouragement and turn back to God. We ask Him for help, go to confession if needed, and start again. Acedia keeps us from treating our existence as a great gift (which it is even when life is hard), and living our lives under the loving gaze of God (which He offers us even when we struggle with sin). The poet Leon Bloy famously said: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Acedia is the terrible sin that saps us of our desire to be a saint, and that’s why we must strive to recognize it and resist it with all our strength, with the help of God.
Mass of the 4th Sunday of Easter
Music for the 4th Sunday of Easter
The Good Shepherd
When I was in seminary, one of the priests on the faculty told us a story about his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he was a seminarian. He and the rest of the group were near the Sea of Galilee and as the tour guide was telling them about the site they were visiting, they noticed that there was a shepherd on the nearby hillside tending a flock of sheep. Suddenly, a little lamb broke away from the larger flock. Seeing what was happening, the shepherd started walking in the direction of the would-be escapee. The tour guide was still talking, but at that point no one was paying attention. All eyes were fixed on this young shepherd who was moving to rescue this lost sheep. Would he, like the Good Shepherd himself, gently scoop up the lost little lamb and place it safely on his shoulders? To their horror, they saw the shepherd bend over, pick up a handful of rocks, and start chucking them in the direction of the lamb, shouting in Arabic words that sounded French in the ears of the young seminarians. But, the shepherd’s tactic worked, and it sent the lamb scurrying back to the safety of the fold.
Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak, some have raised the question whether the pandemic is a form of divine punishment – “tough love” for sin. Hopefully such speculation is done in charity, but I’m not sure that kind of talk is helpful, especially when we look to apply it to the sins of others rather than the particular sins with which we struggle and to which we might be blind.
I was listening to a recent lecture by Fr. Dominic Legge, O.P. in which he examined the question of whether the Coronavirus is a punishment from God. Fr. Dominic pointed out that in the Bible there clearly are instances where God is depicted as sending plagues on the nations for their sins. The Egyptians and the Israelites both suffered these kinds of punishments from the Lord. So, we can’t say absolutely that it’s not a punishment on some level. On the other hand, in the Gospels, Our Lord clearly says that the suffering people experience is not due to personal sin (Luke 13:1-5; John 9:1-3). So, we can’t say with any certainty that a particular state of hardship is due to a sin someone committed – after all, there are many good people who suffer greatly and many people who live profoundly evil lives who know nothing but ease and comfort.
Is Coronavirus a punishment from God? Who can know for sure? But we do know that death was not part of God’s original plan for humanity, that it is the consequence of the sin of our first parents. We also know that human suffering couldn’t happen unless God permitted it to happen, though He might not directly want it to happen. We also know that the Lord does not want the experience of suffering to drive people away from Him. In fact, He Himself took on the suffering of humanity even to the point of death, so that it might be transformed into the path of sanctification, the way of the cross.
The shepherd on the Galilean hillside lived his life with the sheep, walking the rough terrain with them, enduring exposure to the elements with them, risking his own personal danger for them. He did not throw the rocks at the lamb to drive it away, but because he knew that there is grave danger outside of the fold. The suffering that comes with rocks being thrown in your direction is not as bad as being eaten by a wolf. May this time in which we are confronted with the reality of our mortality lead each of us to reconsider the way we are living, that we might repent and place ourselves more firmly under the care of the Good Shepherd.
Rev. Canon Albert Watts, R.I.P.
It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Rev. Canon Al Watts yesterday at Stamford Hospital. He was 88 years old. Canon Watts was the younger brother of Msgr. Roger Watts, former pastor of St. Cecilia Church, who passed last week. Canon Watts was not just familiar to the people of St. Cecilia as Msgr. Watt’s brother, but also as a priest who spent time serving the community as parochial vicar. These brothers were priests of the Diocese of Bridgeport for over 60 years, having been ordained to the priesthood by then Bishop Lawrence Shehan on the same day, June 5, 1959. Information about funeral and burial arrangements for the Watts brothers has not been publicized by their family at this time. May he and his brother rest in peace.
Athanasius Contra Mundum. This is a famous Latin saying that means: “Athanasius Against the World.” The man to whom this refers is St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a 4th century bishop from Egypt who found himself embroiled in the great Arian controversy of that period. Now, it’s important to understand that 4th centry Arianism has absolutely nothing to do with the 20th century racist ideology of Aryanism. It is named after a man named Arius, who was a North African priest who sought to solve a problem. The problem was the relationship of Christ to God the Father. If there is only one God, how are we supposed to understand how the Father and the Son relate to each other? To preserve monotheism, Arius argued, the Son couldn’t be God in the same way that the Father is. If He were, then there would be two gods. So, Arius concluded, the Son is not divine in the same way that the Father is divine. He must be a creation of the Father – the greatest of God’s creatures, the mediator between God and Creation, but a creature nonetheless. Arius’ conclusion became widely accepted at that time, enjoying the support of the emperor, which led to its popularity among the most influential people in the empire, including many if not most of the Church’s bishops. There was even Arian propaganda in the form of sailors’ sea shanties which led to the spread of the heresy throughout the Mediterranean. Arianism, like all heresies, was attractive because it sought to solve a mystery by demystifying it.
But this solution didn’t sit well with Athanasius. He argued that the Son cannot be a creature, that He must be just as divine as the Father, and no less eternal than the Father. Citing the Nicene Creed (the same one we recite each Sunday), Athanasius defended the orthodox Catholic belief that the Son is consubstantial – of the same divine substance – with the Father. His outspoken defense of the co-equal divinity of Christ with the Father was so intense and unwelcome, that Athanasius suffered great persecution at the hands of his political and theological enemies. He was sent into exile five times because of his stubborn refusal to endorse Arianism. Why was Athanasius so obstinate in taking this theologically extreme position regarding Christ’s divinity? Because he understood the stakes involved. If the Son is not God in the same way that the Father is God, then His sacrifice on the cross is of insufficient value to benefit us, and that which is central to our faith – God’s redemption of His fallen Creation – is lost. Arius’ “solution” would drain the Incarnation of its power.
It might be difficult for us to understand the intensity of the struggle over Arianism in the 4th century. The average person in our day gives little consideration to theological controversies. For some reason we don’t seem to have an appreciation for how important it is to have a proper understanding of the nature of God and the nature of humanity and how those seemingly obscure questions directly impact the way we order our lives. In the 4th century, the debate over the divine nature of Christ was something that almost everyone in that period would have had an opinion about – like politics and sports in our age. They understood that religion was wrapped up with reality and vice versa.
Improbably, considering the power and influence of his antagonists, Athanasius was ultimately vindicated. Remaining steadfast, he preserved true Catholic teaching, revealing that sometimes the extreme position is the only orthodox one. This extreme position preserves the central mystery of our faith, allowing us to marvel at what God has done for us in becoming man and offering Himself as a sacrifice to reconcile us to Himself. St. Athanasius is truly one of the great men in history. His feast day is tomorrow (May 2).
I remember some years ago, to celebrate the beginning of Our Lady’s month of May, we were giving out rosary beads to people as they were leaving church. One of the parishioners, a very good man in his 40s, who brought his family to Mass every Sunday, accepted a few sets of beads. Thanking me, he said the beads reminded him of his grandmother who used to pray the rosary. Then he asked, “do people still pray the rosary?”
Today is the feast day of Pope St. Pius V who died on May 1, 1572. He led the Church from 1566-1572, during very difficult times. Christianity in Europe had been deeply wounded by the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church had just gone through the great Ecumenical Council of Trent, which took almost 20 years of fits and starts to complete. And the Ottoman Empire was trying to expand its rule and its religion into the west, threatening an invasion of Greece from modern-day Turkey. Anticipating a decisive confrontation with the Ottoman navy at Lepanto in October 1571, Pius V ordered the churches of Rome to be open day and night and encouraged the faithful to recite the rosary, asking Our Lady’s intercession in the impending struggle. At the great Battle of Lepanto, the fleet led by Don Juan of Austria defeated the Ottoman navy, effectively ending its aspirations for control of the Mediterranean Sea. In gratitude for the victory at Lepanto, Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory (Oct 7), which would later be known as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
This is among the most dramatic historical examples of the power of the rosary, but countless saints over the centuries have spoken of its importance in the struggles we face in a fallen world. It most likely began in the 13th century as a way for the lay faithful, who were largely illiterate, to participate in the prayers of the monks in their monasteries. The recitation of the “Hail Mary” salutation 150 times over the course of the full devotion was likened to presenting the Blessed Mother a wreath of roses, thus giving the devotion its name.
Almost every pope in the past 150 years has spoken of the power of this devotion. In the face of the dehumanizing threats of 19th century industrialization, Leo XIII spoke of his conviction of the importance of praying the rosary. When Nazism began to seize power in Germany in the 1930s, Pius XI called upon families to pray the rosary for the conversion of the enemies of God and religion. St. John XXIII remembered newborn children in his daily rosary, and asked people to pray the rosary so that the Second Vatican Council would usher in a blessed time of renewal in the life of the Church. Paul VI exhorted families to pray the rosary, contemplating together the mysteries of the life of Christ. The rosary was St. John Paul II’s favorite prayer, and he lamented that people were no longer praying it. He spoke often about the power of the rosary in the struggle against the multitude of overwhelming threats facing family life in the contemporary age. Benedict XVI encouraged the rediscovery of the rosary among young people, noting that in a fragmented age suffering from a crisis of meaning the rosary helps us put Christ back in the center of all things. Pope Francis, who has a deep devotion to Our Lady and prays the rosary daily, has encouraged the faithful to rediscover this great prayer and has composed two prayers that he will recite this year at the end of his daily rosary during the month of May in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. You can find the prayers here: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200425_lettera-mesedimaggio.html
Over and over we hear that we should be praying the rosary. And not just from popes. Our Lady herself has told the world that we need to pray the rosary. At Lourdes, Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette holding rosary beads, counting off the Hail Mary prayers with Bernadette as she recited them. At Fatima, the Blessed Mother told the children to pray the rosary every day for peace in the world.
Perhaps during this month of May we might try to make the rosary a part of our lives. If we’ve tried in the past but failed, this is the time to start again. If five decades is too much at once, start with a decade. If you have no one to pray it with, find a rosary app for your phone, or even better – ask someone to join you in person or on the phone.
Do people still pray the rosary? “Yes, of course!” I told the gentlemen outside the church that day. If I could go back in time, I would have added: “But not enough people do.”
“Do you know, daughter, who you are, and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed.” So spoke Our Lord to St. Catherine of Siena in a vision. Our Lord continued, revealing to her the answer: “You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in you and the enemy will never deceive you.” It is a very mysterious message. What does the Lord Jesus mean by it? In his dialogue with Catherine, Christ is speaking as the Creator of all things, and He is explaining the essential difference between Him and all of Creation – a difference that makes all the difference.
As you are probably aware, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York made a controversial statement last week about the success of the measures they’ve taken in New York against the spread of Coronavirus. He said: “the number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that….” In a subsequent interview, Cuomo repeated: “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus. And what we do, how we act, will dictate how that virus spreads.” Bishop Robert Barron gave an excellent explanation of the error that Cuomo makes when he speaks this way, and I’ve posted his response below. But the words of Christ in His appearance to St. Catherine also help us to understand Our Lord’s relationship with His Creation, and why Gov. Cuomo’s misunderstanding of the nature of God is significant.
“You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is.” God is not a being in the sense that you and I are beings. We are beings, while God is the act of being. In other words, we are beings while God IS being. Everything that exists in Creation exists because it receives a share in the Lord’s perfect act of being. In the Gospel of John, we hear: “All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be” (John 1,3). So, Our Lord is reminding Catherine that He is the Source of all being and that without Him she has no existence. Her existence, like the existence of everything else, depends entirely on Him. And that is true for us – in fact, it is true for us at every moment. Poor Andrew Cuomo has a distorted conception of God, apparently thinking of God (if He believes in God at all) as a being among the many beings in the universe; an old man floating around somewhere in space – unreliable, capricious, maybe even cruel. As Bishop Barron explains, if God is just one being among the multitude in the universe, then He becomes a competitor to us, a bully to stand up to. But that’s not Who God is. God is He who is. We are they who are not. It is evidence of the goodness of God that we are, that He shares His perfect act of existence with us. And our existence is at all times a gift from God, and by existing we give Him glory.
In the 3rd chapter of the Book of Daniel, there is a beautiful song sung by the three Jewish youths who are saved miraculously from the fiery furnace of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. It is a song that calls out to all of creation to give praise to the Creator. “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord. Praise and exalt Him above all forever.” Such a hymn of praise is possible only when we have a proper understanding of the Lord’s relationship to His Creation. This is the necessary foundation of the virtue of humility – seeing ourselves as we truly are. It is humility that protects us from the deceptions of the enemy, who tries to convince us that we exist in the same way that God does and to resent Him for it. It is humility that allows us to marvel at the fact that we exist and that we are so wonderfully made, enjoying the ability to know how viruses work, to work together to fight the spread of disease, and even (wonder of wonders!) govern states. May God be praised.
Liturgy and the Spiritual Life
In yesterday’s reflection, I wrote about the importance of liturgy in our lives, distinguishing liturgical prayer from devotional prayer. Devotional prayer is important, but liturgical prayer is necessary. In the context of liturgy we pray collectively and uniquely as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. When we pray in this way, we actually participate in the interior life of Jesus Christ. The more intense our union is with the Church in liturgical prayer, the more intense our participation in Christ’s interior life will be. This is something that we should take a moment to reflect upon. To participate in the inner life of God is a wondrous thing. And that’s what’s offered to us through liturgy. I remember a priest in seminary said to us: “If you think Mass is boring, YOU must be boring.” When we actually begin to understand what liturgical prayer is, we realize how right he was.
Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, in his book The Soul of the Apostolate, writes beautifully about the vital importance of cultivating a “liturgical life.” We often hear about people desiring a spiritual life, and Chautard argues that the liturgy is essential to an authentic spiritual life. A reason for this is that spirituality, detached from liturgy, runs the risk of becoming excessively individualistic. When this happens, the spiritual life can devolve into navel-gazing, the worship of a god made in our own image. Chautard explains how an authentic liturgical life as a member of the Church protects against that tendency. By participating as a Catholic in a liturgical ceremony, he writes, “I am united to the whole Church not only through the Communion of Saints, but by virtue of a real and active co-operation in an act of religion which the Church… offers as a society to God. And by this notion the Church like a true Mother helps dispose my soul to receive the Christian virtues.” The Church’s liturgy reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, something that precedes us and shapes us in right worship of the Lord God who shares His life with us through the same liturgy.
Liturgy, in a privileged way, allows us to share in the life of the Church. By sharing in the life of the Church we share in the life of Christ. It’s important for us to become familiar with the liturgical seasons and the calendar of feast days as a way of entering more deeply into the life of the Church and the life of Christ. I remember as a child being fascinated by the different vestments the priests wore during Mass, and the different colors that indicated the liturgical seasons. I loved learning about the lives of the saints on their particular feasts, and hearing the passages from scripture read during the Mass. These things feed the imagination and open the heart to receive the outpouring of grace that comes to us through liturgical life. Chautard addresses the Lord Jesus when he writes that, through the Liturgy, each year “I witness the mysteries of Your hidden life, Your public life, life of suffering, and life in glory; and with her, I cull the fruits of them all. Besides, the periodic feasts of Our Lady and the saints who have best imitated Your interior life bring me an increase of light and strength by placing their example before my eyes, helping me to reproduce Your virtues in myself and to inspire the faithful with the spirit of Your gospel.” Thus we see that authentic progress in the spiritual life, desired by so many, is achieved by allowing our interior life to be grounded in the treasure that is the liturgical life of the Church.
The Importance of Liturgy
In my conversations with members of the parish, it is common to hear people express their desire to receive the Eucharist. It is certainly one of the great sufferings of our current circumstances that the faithful are deprived of the reception of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Holy Communion. But I have come to realize that it is not just the Eucharist that people are hungering for. I do not think that if we were to dispense the Eucharist to people as they drove by in their cars that the faithful would find that arrangement satisfying. There’s a reason that in ordinary circumstances the reception of the Eucharist takes place within the context of Mass. There is something lacking when we receive Communion outside of Mass – not in the Sacrament itself, of course. What is lacking is liturgy. The faithful are not just being deprived of the Eucharist right now, they also are being deprived of liturgy. And this is a terrible effect of the pandemic.
What is liturgy? We can define it as the public, official worship given by the Church, such as rites, ceremonies, and sacraments. Liturgical prayer is essentially different than devotional prayer like the Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Those are good things to do, but they are not as important and necessary as liturgy. The religions of the pagans and the worship practices of the Jewish people in the Temple were highly liturgical, with priests who offered the standard prayers and performed the standard rituals which typically involved some type of sacrifice. In the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus – whom the Letter to the Hebrews describes as the “Eternal High Priest” – offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice by which we are redeemed, and He instituted the Sacraments as the ordinary means by which He shares His life with us. He also established the Church. St. Paul describes the Church as a kind of supernatural organic reality – a body with Christ as its head. The Church is the custodian of Christ’s Sacrifice and the Sacraments, and over the centuries it has developed authoritatively the official ceremonies, prayers, and symbols that make up the context in which the Sacrifice is made present again in our midst and the Sacraments are dispensed. Liturgy is not private prayer. It is public prayer by which, as the Church united to Christ, we enter into the eternal act of praise, glory, and love that is shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all of eternity.
There is a story from the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola that helps to illustrate what this means. Ignatius was travelling with his companions from the Society, and there was a man who travelled with them, having offered to carry their baggage. The man noticed that when the priests rested from their journey they went off to the side, knelt down and recollected themselves before God, and he joined them, doing what they did. Eventually, Ignatius asked the man what he did when he recollected himself in prayer with them, and he answered: “All I do is say: ‘Lord, these men are saints, and I am their packhorse. Whatever they do, I want to be doing too.’ And so that is what I offer up to God.” In a way, when we worship in the context of liturgy, we are like that man, for we unite ourselves as the Church to the perfect prayer of Christ Himself to the Father.
In the coming days and weeks I hope to write occasionally about the liturgy – what it is, what it does, and why it is so vital to our life with the Lord God.
Mass – 3rd Sunday of Easter
If you’re having trouble accessing the above video, you can watch it on our YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/-jL5RCILRdI
Prayer of Spiritual Communion: My Jesus, I believe that You are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I long for You in my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though You have already come, I embrace You and unite myself entirely to You; never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine was born in Siena, Italy in 1347. Her family was large (her parents had 25 children) and wealthy (her father was a prosperous wool-dyer). From an early age it was apparent that Catherine was different than the people around her. She had a vision of Christ at the age of six and made a private promise of virginity at the age of seven. When she was fifteen, her parents tried to force her to marry. In response, she cut off her hair and convinced the local community of Dominican sisters to allow her to be associated with their order, and spent three years living a life of solitude in a room in her family home where she practiced a severe asceticism, leaving her makeshift cell only to attend Mass. At twenty-one, she emerged from her room and began an intense life of service to her family and the poor and sick in Siena. She became beloved in that city when she took the lead in caring for the victims of the plague which broke out in 1374. Reading about her life, the strangeness of Catherine can make us uneasy, and it made her contemporaries uneasy too. Many of her fellow religious thought her zeal excessive and questioned her motives. But those who confronted her and called her to repentance often found that they were the ones who needed repenting.
This sort of thing tends to happen when you encounter a saint. Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian author and convert to Catholicism who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, wrote about how getting to know the saints was instrumental in her deciding to enter the Church. “By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those strange men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness, his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity.”
Catherine was extraordinarily gifted, her natural abilities having been elevated to a remarkable degree by grace. Limited in her ability to read and completely unable to write, she improbably authored through dictation major works of spiritual theology as well as hundreds of letters to various political leaders. An unlikely diplomat, Catherine nonetheless mediated between warring parties in Italy and most famously travelled to Avignon, France to visit the pope and urge him to end the 70-year period of papal exile and return to his rightful place in Rome – which he did. At the request of the pope, she and her community moved to Rome where she spent the last few years of her life ministering to him and his curia. She died in 1380 at the age of thirty-three.
Undset authored a famous biography of the St. Catherine, in which she writes: “Well-meaning people were always criticizing her travels over Italy, not to speak of those in foreign lands—even to the Papal court in Avignon, at the head of a company of priests and monks, young and old men and women and God knows who else besides… They considered that a virgin consecrated to God should stay at home in her cell, say the daily Office, do good in secret, and otherwise hold her tongue. As for less well-disposed critics, all with their private reasons for being upset and annoyed—when they saw a young woman, the daughter of respectable but quite ordinary people, mixing herself up in affairs which concerned governments and prelates, stepping into the arena where complicated party interests and matters of state were decided by force of arms—what could they say, but that in spite of all her fine words about humility and the love of Christ, conversion and all kinds of spiritual things, they realized that behind all the pious words and excuses for daring to give advice to men who held the fates of countries and peoples in their hands, was an unbending will; and beneath all the fine words they heard a tone of steely determination.”
This force of will was the fruit of Catherine’s having espoused herself completely to Christ whose grace liberated her from all self-concern and worry about the good opinion of others. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she was able to act with daring and determination in obedience to God’s will and His desires for the world. Like St. Paul, love of Christ made St. Catherine unstoppable. She was (is!) a remarkable woman and a remarkable saint. She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI, and her feast day is this Wednesday, April 29.
Please remember to continue to pray the novena, found below, to St. Joseph the Worker in anticipation of his feast day on May 1.
Last year my sister was looking for a nice show that she and her husband could watch with their children. Remembering how much she enjoyed the show Little House on the Prairie as a kid, she decided she would introduce them to it. Unfortunately, the first episode she played for them was the one in which the family’s barn burned down in a terrible fire, which was probably one of the most traumatic episodes of the series. I can still remember the horror I felt when I watched that episode for the first time and saw the charred, lifeless body of a horse that didn’t make it out of its stall fast enough. Apparently, that scene has retained its power to horrify children. So, my sister decided that maybe the kids weren’t ready for Little House. In recent months, however, she got the kids to give the series another try. This time, my sister was more judicious in her choice of episodes, and soon she was pleased to report that her kids LOVED the show. In a conversation she had with my 13-year-old niece, who is her eldest, the two of them talked about how different the relationships were in the Ingalls family than in the typical shows made for adolescents today. My niece noticed that the children in Little House looked to their parents for wisdom and guidance, that there was little-to-no wisecracking or disrespect shown. The pace of life was slower, but they worked incredibly hard. Ma and Pa loved each other, they taught their children how to live and to work and to pray. They had only the basics. And they were happy.
A few days ago I was reading an article by Amanda Knapp published on the Ascension Press website, in which she talks about Little House on the Prairie. In it, she contrasts the pressures of contemporary life to the lives of the characters from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, on which the series is based. She points out how so much of what we typically do is imposed on us by external structures as opposed to the more inward-turning life of the Wilder books. “The goals in nineteenth-century pioneer life were survival, faith, family, and friendship. They weren’t running around trying to compete with the well-to-do Olsen family. They weren’t trying to make their house the most spectacular, their land the most beautifully cultivated, their coffers the most padded.” These types of things somehow have come to dominate the way we approach life. But that ends up hollowing out our existence, obscuring the things that make life truly beautiful and fulfilling. Some of that is being rediscovered under the current circumstances, as difficult as they are. In the current lock-down situation, she writes, “we don’t play outside because we have a few free moments before violin practice that we can spend. Rather, we play outside because it brings joy and expresses our desires. We don’t pray to God because that is the time Mass is occurring at our church. Now we read Scripture, say our prayers, and gather together as a family because we want God to be at the center of our lives. We don’t wake up at a certain time, go to bed at a certain time, and eat lunch at a certain time because that is what the world has scheduled. Now we do those things when we do them because it works for our family.”
In normal times we allow the external structures to shape our lives because they promise success. And, in many ways, if we live in accord with them we will have this worldly kind of success. That form of success, however, can lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction, an emptiness that we can try to fill with more of what the external structures and social conventions tell us will give us fulfillment. The current circumstances in which everything is shut down and we have to recalibrate our daily lives together are hard and stressful, but they also offer an opportunity to reconsider the external structures that we typically allow to order our lives and whether they really lend themselves to human flourishing. I do wonder if our buying into them whole-heartedly has something to do with popular culture’s common depiction of grown-ups as fools in the eyes of their children.
Knapp concludes her thoughts, saying: “The more I try to navigate this new world, the more I think back to the old ones and the more I recall those lessons learned from that small family on the prairie. It’s comforting to know that we aren’t the first to live lives centered mainly and mostly around family, and if we work hard during these days, I think we can find that the world we wake up to in the future may be much more kind and humane that the one with which we started.”
Living the Mass
“To those who are used to daily Mass there is no privation more terrible than that of having to do without it.” These words are from the book This War is the Passion by Caryll Houselander. Houselander was born in England in 1901 and became Catholic at the age of six, when her mother entered the Church. She had several mystical experiences in her life and became a popular spiritual writer. Many of her reflections were written during the Second World War, the war referenced in the title of the above work. Her writings are penetrating and are filled with images that linger long after you’ve read them. The Reed of God is one of my favorite books about the Blessed Mother.
Houselander continues her above meditation on the experience of being deprived of the Mass as a member of the faithful. She likens it to being deprived of ordinary bread. “We do not realize what bread is to us until we have to do without it, but then we know well enough that it is indeed life to us.” The circumstances of the Second World War made it difficult in her day for many to attend daily Mass. And she warns that, “the time may come, and come soon, when for an indefinite time war conditions make it more and more difficult for any of us to hear Mass at all, even on Sundays, and we shall all understand why our forefathers in the days of persecution were willing to give up everything – property, honors, freedom, even life itself – for the glory of being present even at one Mass.” Her words certainly resonate in our current situation, when the hunger for Mass and the reception of the Eucharist is intensifying in the hearts of the faithful as we wait for the eventual reinstatement of public Masses.
In the meantime, Houselander offers a suggestion to her readers as to how the faithful might prepare themselves for the possibility of being completely deprived of the Mass. She writes about how important it is to understand what the Mass is. “It is not only a set of old, beautiful prayers offered each morning in our parish church. No, it is a sacrifice which is always being offered and in which we can always take part at any time and anywhere…. It is a sacrifice which gathers every circumstance of our life to itself and is the very core of our being” (emphasis added). Because we know that the Mass is always being offered somewhere in the world and always will be, according the Our Lord’s promise to us, we can unite ourselves to the Mass even from a distance. “There is never a moment when the Host is not being offered up for us, never a moment when we cannot lift ourselves up with Christ crucified.” We can do that, she says, by internalizing the structure of the Mass and participating in those elements throughout the day, namely: 1) expressing sorrow for sin, 2) making ourselves an offering to God, 3) allowing the Lord to take our offering and change it into Himself through the consecration, and 4) accepting the Lord’s gift of Himself in Communion. “Keeping these elementary facts of the Mass in mind we can, without a missal, join in any Mass going on, and be really present to Christ on some secret altar. And such a habit can weave itself all through our life and absorb all our life into itself.”
In these days, as the faithful are deprived of attending Mass, it is possible to unite yourselves to the Masses that continue to be offered in our parish and throughout the world. It is a habit that we can develop in times when we don’t have access to the Mass, but it is a habit that need not be given up once public Masses are restored. It should be, in fact, a habit of being, where our whole lives are acts of sorrow for sin, offerings for sanctification, consecration, and Communion. Thus, our whole lives will be united to the Mass until the day when we enter into the fullness of the great mysteries, the eternal banquet of heaven, at which the faithful are always perfectly fulfilled but never satisfied.
Again, for your convenience, I am also posting the novena prayer to St. Joseph:
Novena Prayer to St. Joseph the Worker
Joseph, by the work of your hands and the sweat of your brow, you supported Jesus and Mary, and had the Son of God as your fellow worker. Teach me to work as you did, with patience and perseverance, for God and for those whom God has given me to support. Teach me to see in my fellow workers the Christ who desires to be in them, that I may always be charitable and forbearing towards all. Grant me to look upon work with the eyes of faith, so that I shall recognize in it my share in God’s own creative activity and in Christ’s work of our redemption, and so take pride in it. When it is pleasant and productive, remind me to give thanks to God for it. And when it is burdensome, teach me to offer it to God, in reparation for my sins and the sins of the world.
O good father Joseph! I beg you, by all your sufferings, sorrows and joys, to obtain for me what I ask.
(Here name your petition).
Obtain for all those who have asked my prayers, everything that is useful to them in the plan of God. Be near to me in my last moments that I may eternally sing the praises of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Amen.
(Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be)
For several years in my 20s I worked for the State of Connecticut. It was a great job, and its regular hours made it perfect for someone going to school at night. I also learned a lot through my daily interactions with the public, which were often very challenging. For the most part, I found my co-workers to be extremely dedicated and hard-working and they took great pride in the service they provided. There were, of course, some who did not like their jobs and who spent a depressing amount of time calculating the benefits that they were accruing for retirement. It was as if they couldn’t wait to be old. One of my co-workers, who was a nice man but who had acquired this bad habit, when I told him that I had decided to enter seminary and study for the priesthood, couldn’t understand how I could walk away from the state benefits. Then he stopped himself, considered the path that I was going to pursue, and said: “Well, I guess you work one day a week and they give you a place to live… that sounds like a pretty good deal. Do they give you a car?” The poor guy had developed a philosophy of work that saw it as an interruption to life, a necessary evil for survival, something to be avoided if possible. But as Catholics, we have a different perspective on work.
In 1981, John Paul II issued an encyclical entitled Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”) in which he points out that in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings in His image, He commands them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). St. John Paul II understands this as a command to work and he says that through our work, done in accord with the divine instruction, we reflect God’s action as Creator of the universe. But when work is reduced to a commodity, an object or action done merely as part of an economic exchange, something is lost. People can end up being treated like anonymous cogs in the machine of the economy. But the pope reminds us that work is not just economic action. It has economic consequences, but is primarily about the human person. Through work, a person shapes the environment around him as he is shaped by his work. Thus, we give glory to God through our work, and the inevitable hardships that we experience in work are transformed into a share in the cross by which we are saved.
I remember in seminary, one of the spiritual directors liked to refer to the seminarian’s desk as a kind of altar. As students, we were called to make our studies an offering to the Lord in preparation for the day when we would offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass. And that is true for all kinds of work, whether it be in an office, at home, in a kitchen, in a truck, in a classroom, in field, or in a shop. Work that respects the fundamental dignity of human beings is not an interruption to our lives or a necessary evil. It is an essential part of what it means to be human – the Incarnate Lord Himself worked alongside St. Joseph and learned the trade of carpentry. He desires to make us holy through our work.
These are hard times for working people. The pandemic has caused extensive economic damage and people are suffering with the consequences, which likely will linger for some time. Today we begin the nine-day period leading up to the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker (May 1). I ask that you join me in this novena either at home or by coming to the Church of St. Cecilia to light a candle at the shrine of St. Joseph. May those who must work to support themselves and their families not only find work, but also discover the inherent nobility of work by which we give glory to God and become saints.
Novena Prayer to St. Joseph the Worker
Joseph, by the work of your hands and the sweat of your brow, you supported Jesus and Mary, and had the Son of God as your fellow worker. Teach me to work as you did, with patience and perseverance, for God and for those whom God has given me to support. Teach me to see in my fellow workers the Christ who desires to be in them, that I may always be charitable and forbearing towards all. Grant me to look upon work with the eyes of faith, so that I shall recognize in it my share in God’s own creative activity and in Christ’s work of our redemption, and so take pride in it. When it is pleasant and productive, remind me to give thanks to God for it. And when it is burdensome, teach me to offer it to God, in reparation for my sins and the sins of the world.
O good father Joseph! I beg you, by all your sufferings, sorrows and joys, to obtain for me what I ask.
(Here name your petition).
Obtain for all those who have asked my prayers, everything that is useful to them in the plan of God. Be near to me in my last moments that I may eternally sing the praises of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Amen.
(Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be)
Msgr. Roger Watts, R.I.P.
It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Msgr. Roger Watts this morning at Stamford Hospital. He was 91 years old. Msgr. Watts was the third pastor of St. Cecilia Parish, where he served the community from 1984-2000. Please join us in praying for the repose of his soul and for the consolation of his loved ones, especially his brother, Rev. Canon Alfred Watts.
Growing up I had a friend named Darren whom everyone called “Doc.” Everybody liked Doc. He was very friendly and had a great sense of humor. He was always telling funny stories, most of them made up, and would make fun of you in a way that you couldn’t help but laugh as you thanked him for the insult. One summer when we were in college, Doc found an old pair of clippers and decided to try his hand at barbering. He didn’t charge for his haircuts, but wasn’t above accepting tips. He called his little quasi-business, “Another Happy Customer.” Now, Doc was gifted in a lot of ways, but he was more of a butcher than a barber. But you enjoyed your time with him so much, that when he held up the mirror when he was finished, despite looking like one of the Three Stooges (Moe Howard, if you were lucky), you’d inevitably have a big smile on your face. “Another happy customer!” he’d declare as he wiped down the metal folding chair he had set up in his garage.
I thought about Doc when I was reading a recent article in the online Catholic magazine Crux that cited a study showing that young people are experiencing heightened levels of loneliness and isolation. That, of course, is no surprise. What was surprising – and encouraging – was that they are not experiencing a decline in their faith. Describing them as “one of the loneliest and isolated generations that has ever existed,” the study indicated that in this time of social distancing, many young people are actually experiencing an increase of faith and developing new religious habits in the face of increasing isolation. At the same time, however, they feel disconnected from the Church. They crave relationships and mentors, but they are suspicious of institutions. One of the experts cited said: “Young people express strongly how they need to be accompanied to choose the right course in this complex and uncertain world. They look for mentors who can walk with them and help them to discern how to live a meaningful life, that is for most of them a life of encounters, a life of friendships and fraternity.” Pope Francis, like his predecessors, has said repeatedly that the Church should be a place where they find these relationships.
Looking back, it was remarkable how people would entrust themselves to Doc for a haircut. You literally could go anywhere else and get a better haircut. Literally. The reason people went to him was because it was a place where you knew you were going to encounter goodness and a joy that was infectious. There’s something in that which I think points to where renewal comes from. It’s not by imitating contemporary styles and trends or secular marketing formulas, which easily become a distraction. Rather, it’s as the great spiritual writer Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard once wrote: “The best way to get men to listen to you is to hold out to them the secret of carrying the Cross, which is the lot of every mortal, with joy. This secret lies in the Eucharist and in the hope of heaven.” So many young people, but not just young people, are carrying the cross of loneliness and the feeling of existential aimlessness because they don’t know the Lord and are confused about themselves. Christ Jesus established the Church as the means by which we would know Him and encounter Him in the Word, in the Sacraments, and in the community. He gives us the treasures of the Church as the way to enter into friendship with Him, a friendship that is nourished by regular prayer, frequent reception of the Sacraments, and care for our neighbor. Unless we have a living relationship with Our Lord, it will be impossible for us to trust Him. And if we don’t trust Him, how will others trust Him? If we don’t know Him, how will others know Him? If we don’t love Him, how will others love Him? We cannot give what we don’t have. Doc never pretended to be a good barber and no one went to him expecting to get a stylish haircut. He was a friend. It is friendship that people crave. It is to friendship with Him that Our Lord is calling us. That is where we find greatest joy and fulfillment, which enables us to bear the crosses of life together in Christian friendship and fellowship because we know the way to our final destination is with Him.
Fr. Mariusz’s Homily on Divine Mercy
We are coming here today, like every year, on this Divine Mercy Sunday at 3PM to celebrate the Hour of Divine Love and Mercy. In today’s Gospel, St. John tells us twice that Jesus came to his disciples despite the locked doors. He came to bring his peace to them. This was situation not unlike the one that we have today when so many people are locked behind the closed doors because of COVID-19. So many of us are fearful and scared because of the pandemic. And this is rightly so. But Jesus comes to us and gives up His peace and love. He comes to us to take away our fear and sin and brings us his mercy and forgiveness. Knowing that he is always present and giving us of himself without limits.
God created us not because he needs us but because he wants us. Many people may need us and use us for their own selfish needs, but God is not selfish, He created us for ourselves, out of the sheer love for us. Not only that, he also sent his own Son to redeem us. I often ask children when I am talking to them, “How much God loves them?” Then I stretch out my hands wide to imitate Christ on the cross. “This is the kind of love that God has for us,” I say. God loves us so much that He sent his own begotten Son to die for us. But then he has risen from the death to conquer sin and death.
Thus, when we look at the image of the Divine Mercy, the image that was given to sister Faustina Kowalska in Poland, just a few years prior the beginning of the World War II, we see Jesus walking toward us. Jesus is not standing, is not waiting for us, but rather, Jesus is walking directly at us and pointing to His heart. From his heart come two rays, one is white and one is red, symbolizing two most important sacraments, the Baptism and the Eucharist. Jesus points to where our biggest strength lives, in the sacramental life of the church, especially in Baptism and the Eucharist, the two sacraments who are right now probably the most missed by the faithful Catholics, they still remain the most vital.
The Divine Mercy image, I feel, was painted for the times like we have today to remind us that God still loves us and that he is in total control of everything. God desires us beyond anything else. Again, he doesn’t need us because he is already in a perfect relationship, the Holy Trinity. Nonetheless, he desires us for our own selves. What a love! May God bless us and the whole world from this image. Amen.
Divine Mercy Chaplet – Live-stream
Please join us today at 3pm as we complete the Divine Mercy Novena. Fr. Mariusz will lead us in the recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet and speak to us about the importance of the devotion to Divine Mercy. If you can’t access the live-stream below, you can watch it on our parish YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/AB0MPuhHdFI
Praying the Chaplet
It is easy to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet. All you need are rosary beads (or your hands if you have ten fingers). On the first three beads above the crucifix pray, one Our Father, one Hail Mary and The Apostles Creed.
Then on the Our Father beads say the prayer: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Thy dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.”
On the ten Hail Mary Beads say the following prayer: “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
When you finish the five “decades” you say the following prayer three times: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
Final prayer: “Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion — inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.”
Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday
Prayer of Spiritual Communion: My Jesus, I believe that You are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I long for You in my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though You have already come, I embrace You and unite myself entirely to You; never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
If you are having trouble with the above video, you can watch it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diltJDPhsoc
I will post the link for today’s 3pm Divine Mercy Chaplet live-stream shortly.
How do we conceive of the mercy of God? It’s an important question because everything depends on His mercy. There are two tendencies against which we have to be on guard because they distort the reality of His mercy. We might think that He is stingy with His mercy, that He gets tired of hearing us confess the same things over and over, or that we have committed so horrible a sin that there’s no way He would ever forgive us of it. We almost imagine Our Lord sighing in exasperation at our confession, or looking at us with an expression of deep disappointment at letting Him down yet again. Do we think that our sins shock Jesus? That if He only knew how depraved we can be He would never love us? These are expressions of despair, and despair has its root in pride. The Lord knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves. He is never disappointed in us, He is never shocked by our sins. In our pride, we disappoint ourselves and our sins shock us, because we like to think we’re above them. But we are not above anything, and under the right circumstances each one of us is capable of committing every sin in the book. And yet, the Lord loves us enough to die for us on the cross. No matter how embarrassing or vile our sins are, we must never despair of the Lord’s mercy. Instead, we must approach Him in the sacrament of confession with the humble confidence of one who knows he is loved intensely and whose salvation is desired with God’s whole heart.
The other problematic tendency, which is probably more common these days, is to presume on God’s mercy. Presumption can lead us to abuse the sacrament of confession by confessing sins as a kind of transaction, with no desire for conversion or intention to avoid sin. But it can also make us think that we don’t really need the sacrament of confession. We tell ourselves that God loves us no matter what we do, so he’ll probably let everything slide in the end. We can live the way we want on earth and we will go to heaven when we die. But these expressions of presumption are as mistaken and harmful as expressions of despair, because like despair they subscribe to the error that our actions are ultimately meaningless. Despair says: “no matter what I do, I won’t be saved.” Presumption says: “no matter what I do, I will be saved.” But human action is meaningful, and how we live matters. The perfect expression of the meaningfulness of human action is Our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross. The crucifix reveals the lie of presumption and despair. It reveals the horror of our sins and it reveals the beauty of God’s merciful love. Our sins matter. But Jesus’ mercy matters even more.
On this Divine Mercy Sunday, it’s helpful to remember that Our Lord loves us more than we will ever comprehend. Under the devotional image of Divine Mercy is the phrase “Jesus, I trust in thee.” Trusting in Him is the key to unlocking Divine Mercy, because it gives us the confidence to open our hearts to Him, and to see in the light of His love the truth of what our sins do to us and our relationship with Him and others. St. Therese of Lisieux said that all of our offenses, in comparison to the mercy of Christ, are like little drops of water thrown into a flaming furnace. So let us cast our sins upon the mercy of God which is offered to us in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Confessing our sins in the context of the sacrament matters. When we do it with humble confidence in the love that God has for us, He lavishes His mercy upon us and gives us the grace to avoid sin and grow in holiness.
Divine Mercy Devotion – Sunday 4/19
Please join us tomorrow (Sunday 4/19) for a special live-stream of the recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet and a preached reflection on the devotion by Fr. Mariusz. It will take place at 3pm in the Church of St. Cecilia. You will be able to access it through this site or the parish YouTube channel. A link will be provided tomorrow.
When I was in my mid-20s I spent some time living in Spain. Before I arrived I had signed up to take some language courses at a school in Madrid to improve my Spanish, which I hadn’t studied since my sophomore year of college. I remember one day, around lunchtime, I was walking up and down one of the main streets of the city. I was very hungry and there were plenty of casual little diners on the street, but I was hesitant to go in to any of them. My reluctance wasn’t because I was on a tight budget, but because I was very self-conscious about my limited language abilities. My Spanish was bad. For about 40 minutes I paced up and down the street, getting hungrier and hungrier. Finally, my hunger got the best of my pride, so I entered one of the “cafeterias” and sat at the counter. The waiter handed me a menu and as I fumbled with my dictionary to figure out what was on offer, the man smiled and explained the menu of the day, speaking very slowly so that I could understand. He took my order, which I managed to give (it wasn’t pretty), and at the end of the meal he presented me with a big piece of flan, on the house.
I’ll never forget that experience. It taught me that we must never be afraid to ask for help when we need it. Even Our Lord tells us we should share our needs with Him in our prayers: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). But it is not easy to ask for help, especially if we’re used to being able to take care of ourselves. That’s one of the great trials of getting older, when your mind tells you that you’re able and your body begs to differ. But we are all dependent on others to a certain degree, and it is an important exercise in humility to let people take care of us when we need it. It also creates opportunities for our neighbors to perform corporal works of mercy – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are imprisoned (these days, for some, one’s home can be a sort of prison). For this reason, I would say that when we find ourselves in need during these times we shouldn’t be afraid to let others know – especially when they ask: “Is there anything I can help you with?”
At the same time, if we are in a position to offer help we should be attentive to the needs of our neighbors. There is something beautiful about anticipating someone’s needs, to have eyes that recognize when someone might be in difficulty and who might be struggling to ask for help. This is different than being nosy, of course. It is the recognition that real help seeks to preserve the dignity of our neighbor as we’re helping them. It is, in a word, to be thoughtful. Sometimes when we ask generically: “Is there anything you need?” it places a burden on the person asked. But if someone says to us: “I’m going to the store this afternoon – if you have a list, I’d be happy to pick some things up for you” it’s much easier to accept that offer, because it reveals a solidarity in our need. After all, everyone needs stuff from the store from time to time.
In order to help those in need we first must be aware that there’s a need. So, when we are the ones in need, we must pray for the humility to reveal our need to those in a position to help. When we are the ones in a position to help, we must ask for the grace to grow in thoughtfulness so that we might anticipate the needs of others, to spare them unnecessary humiliation, and grow in true solidarity with our neighbor. Mother Teresa famously said: “Thoughtfulness is the beginning of great sanctity.” Those of us who have experienced the thoughtfulness of others know how true that statement is.
Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the terrible fire that threatened to completely destroy the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Before the fire, Notre Dame was one of the most-visited places in the world. Jason Baxter, a professor at Wyoming Catholic College, noted in a recent article in America magazine that Notre Dame had 12 million visitors each year, more than twice that of the Lincoln Memorial or the Colosseum in Rome. Baxter wonders, however, whether the throngs of people who would go to the great church actually knew or appreciated the significance of what they were experiencing. The perfection of the architecture of the cathedral, revealed through careful examination of the hidden details of its structure, helps us to understand why the church is so important. For the medieval person, it would have been a feast for the senses that is tragically underappreciated in a modern world that is oppressed by hyper-stimulation. “The experience of the riotous and playful shapes that are found all over the walls and on the floors and ceilings created a kind of release from the ordinary preoccupations of the day. They free the mind from its cares and lead it to a sense of being lost, immersed in wonder, overwhelmed by the hilarity of joy.” Baxter uses a surprising image to help us understand what makes a great gothic church like Notre Dame feel sacred. “Imagine the feeling that you would have walking into a haunted house on Halloween: rickety old boards, unusual light coming from under the doors, occasional eerie laughter. If you can, maintain the uncanny feeling but flip it, so that it is positive, and you might have a sense of the spiritual porousness of the cathedral in the medieval experience.” Notre Dame, and great gothic churches like it, give us an experience of the transcendent. God reveals Himself to us through the beauty of nature. A beautiful church is the application of the ingenuity of man to the things of creation to build a space that helps us experience the reality of the permeable membrane that separates the world from the heavens. In Baxter’s words, Notre Dame was “a mystical laboratory for making visible the love of God.”
Among the photos of the aftermath of the fire, the one that stands out in my mind is that of the high altar that remained pristine in the midst of the rubble. The sculpture adorning the altar is Nicolas Coustou’s pieta, Our Lady with the dead Christ lying on her lap, her eyes and arms lifted up to heaven in sorrowful supplication. Above them hovers the cross. In the ruins of the great church, the love of God remains visible, and we are reminded of how precious we are in His eyes that He would offer His Son as a sacrifice for our sake and share with us His Mother. She is Our Lady, Notre Dame, an image of the Church and the Holy Gate through which God entered His creation and through whom it pleases Him to draw us near to His Sacred Heart.
The gospel for today’s Mass gives the account of the encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). It takes place on Easter Sunday, when two disciples of Jesus are leaving the city of Jerusalem to go to a nearby town called Emmaus. As they are engrossed in their conversation, Christ draws near and walks with them, but “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.” He asks them what they’re talking about, and with that “they stopped, looking downcast.” They are sad, mourning the death of their Master. They wonder that this stranger doesn’t seem to be aware of the things that have just happened in Jerusalem. Our Lord asks them: “What sort of things?” In his reflection on this episode, Archbishop Fulton Sheen points out the gentle way in which Our Lord eases the sorrows of the two men. “A sorrowful heart is best consoled when it relieves itself…. If they would but show their wounds, He would pour in the oil of His healing.”
In these past several days, a growing number of people have told me how sad they are about not being able to receive the Eucharist. Have we, like the men on the Road to Emmaus, told Jesus about our sorrow so that He might help us to enter more deeply into the mystery of what we are experiencing?
As they continue along the way, the men tell Him what happened – how Jesus had been betrayed and crucified, and how they were crestfallen because they thought He would be “the one to redeem Israel.” But then they tell Him that some of the women who were among His followers went to the tomb earlier that very day and instead of finding His body in the tomb, they found it empty and saw angels who announced that Jesus was alive. Christ, still unrecognized, says to them: “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” Our Lord then proceeded to connect the events of His sacrifice and resurrection to all of the events of the Sacred Scriptures – from the beginnings of the Hebrew Bible through all of the prophets. He helped them to understand all that had happened and how everything found its fulfillment in Christ. He helps them to see, Fulton Sheen says, that “the cure for their sorrow was in the very thing that disturbed them.” The cross had not frustrated the victory of Christ, but was instead “the condition of glory.”
As they approached Emmaus, the two men invited the Lord to stay with them for the evening. While they were at table, “He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” With that, “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, but He vanished from their sight.” It has been speculated that Our Lord did this to condition us to look for Him in a new way – not as they had become accustomed to seeing Him in His public ministry, but mystically in the Church and in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
Why are we sad about not being able to receive Communion? Is this experience of sadness an unexpected blessing? When we are separated for a time from someone we love deeply it is a cause for sadness, but in that sadness there is also a sense of anticipation for the reunion. During the separation we reflect on the relationship, which allows us to identify regrets and make resolutions. Perhaps this is a time in which we might offer the suffering that comes with the separation as reparation for all the times that we and others have received Communion with no love in our hearts. We can offer it for all of the indifferent Communions, the sacrilegious Communions, the faithless Communions, and all the outrages committed against Him in the Most Blessed Sacrament. On the Road to Emmaus, Our Lord approached the two disciples, whose hearts were crestfallen because they were blind to what had taken place before their eyes – the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people. We must believe that the Lord is also approaching us in our sadness and asking us to participate in His great mission of re-kindling the fire of faith, hope, and love in the hearts of humanity through the recognition of the mystical reality of what the Eucharist is.
Art & the Incarnation
I read an interview yesterday that Catholic News Agency did with the artist Osamu Giovanni Micico. Osamu was born in Tokyo in 1982 and from a young age had always been interested in art and drawing. In order to please his parents he originally planned on pursuing a career in the sciences, but while in university an artist encouraged him to pursue his passion, which was painting. Osamu mostly painted landscapes, but he would occasionally try to develop his technique by copying the works of the Italian Rennaissance. Eventually, Osamu decided to intensify his study of Rennaissance art by moving to Florence. Although he was very familiar with the technical mastery of artists such as Leonardo Di Vinci and Michelangelo, he knew virtually nothing of the subject matter that made up most of their compositions. He had never read the Bible, he was unfamiliar with the life of Christ, and he had never heard of the Apostles. Osamu says that he would go to an exhibit and ask his friend, who was Catholic, “Who are those fishermen?”
The art became his gateway to faith. “I think like music, those paintings spoke to me with harmony and it animated my soul. It was not just technique – that they made a realistic painting – but there was something else that was very holy there.” In 2010, Osamu was baptized, and his godfather was the Irish sculptor Dony MacManus. It was MacManus who introduced Osamu to St. John Paul II’s catechesis, which is known as “Theology of the Body.” This made a lasting impression on Osuma. John Paul II emphasized in his teachings that our bodies reveal us to others and that we encounter and know the world and each other through our bodies. The central Christian mystery of the Incarnation is so remarkable because it means that God revealed Himself to us through His sacred humanity, that is, He revealed Himself to us bodily. And so we know that our bodies are not just shells in which our spiritual selves reside; we are not ghosts inhabiting machines. Our bodies are central to who we are, and the fact that God has a human nature, which includes a human body, means that our bodies are sacred – like His. The material world is not an obstacle to our encounter with the divine. It is actually the way in which we encounter Him. This is a distinguishing feature of our Catholic faith. For example, both Judaism and Islam, which do not believe in the Incarnation, prohibit the artistic depiction of God and often throughout history have discouraged figurative sculpture and painting, associating it with the Lord’s prohibition of graven images and idolatry. As a Catholic artist, however, Osuma can say that through art, “one can intuit the beauty of a creator.” He continues, noting: “Ultimately, God the merciful was represented in the painting… that’s what spoke to me.” This representation is only possible because of the Incarnation.
As I reflected on Osuma’s story, it made me think that this current “fast from encounter,” in which we are deprived of each other’s company, is revealing more and more the central importance of the Incarnation and the truth of John Paul II’s insights. Technology may allow us to communicate and see each other through Skype and Zoom and other forms of media. But that experience is completely different than sitting in the same room with someone. Those technologies are simulations of presence that cannot remedy our feelings of loneliness and isolation. We crave true presence, which is bodily. It is this that makes us miss Mass so much, and the gift that is Holy Communion, where we encounter the risen Lord of mercy not just in the Spirit, but bodily.
A Word of Thanks
I just want to thank all of you who have been so thoughtful and generous in your material support of the parish at this time. I know things are not easy and there is much uneasiness about the future these days, so please know that I really appreciate it. God bless you.
Life in Eastertide 2020
So here we are. We have made it through the 40 day journey of Lent, we have celebrated the sacred liturgies of the Triduum, and now we find ourselves in Easter. I must admit to you that I find it harder to accept the current quarantine/social distancing situation during Easter than I did during Lent. In a way, the sacrifices that the precautionary measures have required of us were kind of appropriate for Lent, which is a time of prayer and self-denial. But Easter is a feast – the greatest feast of the year. It is a time of celebration. But it is much harder to celebrate the holy feast when you can’t be with loved ones, when you can’t worship together at Mass. Lent is over and Easter is here, but it still feels like Lent!
Stuck in this strange Easter funk, I spent some time yesterday with the gospel reading for Easter morning (John 20:1-9). In it, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early in the morning and finds the stone removed. She runs to get Peter and John, who run to see what has happened. Peter goes into the tomb and sees the burial cloths but there is no body. John follows Peter into the tomb and the gospel tells us: “he saw and believed.” The gospel ends with a line that reads like a non sequitur: “For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” But I think that line helps us grapple with the tension of knowing we should be rejoicing but still feeling weary of the burdens we’re forced to bear this year.
On that first Easter morning, the followers of Christ knew that something amazing had happened. But they did not yet understand. It would take time for them to work it out with guidance from the risen Lord. Although they rejoiced when they saw Jesus in their midst, they would remain frightened and confused even after the resurrection. There were days when they even felt nostalgia for their pre-Christian lives, those days that they spent fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Only with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost would the disciples of Christ finally be set on fire with zeal for spreading the gospel, a fire that burned away any trace of fear or bewilderment.
Our period of lock-down continues for now, even though it is Easter. It is not easy. But even though we are working through the current reality, and we long for the day when we might be able to worship together as before and gather together with friends and family as before, we must not forget that this IS a time of rejoicing and celebration. Through our daily and intentional contemplation of the significance of the resurrection, we ask the Lord to prepare us for the day when we can finally emerge from our rooms, our hearts aflame with renewed devotion, ready to celebrate together the freedom that we have received from our faith in the risen Christ.
The Easter Vigil is the greatest and most noble of all solemnities, for it is the night in which we keep vigil for the risen Christ who is symbolized at the beginning of the liturgy by the Paschal Candle, which is blessed and then lit with the flame that represents His risen life. The lighting of the Paschal Candle is followed by the chanting of the Exultet, or the “Easter Proclamation,” in which all of creation is encouraged to rejoice over the great victory of Christ who has risen from the dead. After the Exultet, we enter into the Liturgy of the Word. There are nine readings from sacred scripture at this liturgy, each revealing the saving action of God in the world, culminating with the Gospel of St. Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. After the homily, the priest blesses the holy water, the faithful renew their baptismal promises, and are sprinkled with the water. From there, the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins and the Mass continues as usual.
If you cannot access the video on this page, you can watch it on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8oQZ2Vo2gk&feature=youtu.be
Holy Saturday is a strange “in-between” day. Our Lord’s suffering has ended, but He is not yet risen. His body lies in the tomb, observing the Sabbath rest. But where is Our Lord’s soul? Where is His spirit? Christ Jesus is God, but also man – so He has a human soul that in death was separated from His body (“… and then bowing His head, He gave up His spirit” John 19:30). Where did it go?
Holy Saturday is the day on which Our Lord descended into Hell. This is an article of our faith, which we Christians have professed in the Creed since the early days of the Church. When we refer to Hell in the Creed, it is important to understand what that means. It refers not to “Gehenna,” the place of Satan and the damned, but to “Sheol,” the Hebrew word meaning the place of the dead. It is the “waiting room” of those poor souls who couldn’t go to Heaven until Christ died for our sins.
The following is a text from an ancient (2nd century?) homily that is a reflection on Our Lord’s descent into Hell after His death on the cross. He goes there to find Adam and Eve to proclaim to them the gospel and to reveal the fulfillment of God’s plan for them and their descendants. It is strange and beautiful and an excellent meditation on the significance of this mysterious “in-between” day. I’m also posting below a YouTube link to the live-stream of the Shroud of Turin which will begin at 11am our time.
“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.
Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
Shroud of Turn Live-stream
Stations of the Cross
Good Friday Service
If the above link does not work for you, please click the following and it should bring you to the page with the live-stream of the liturgy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQsILYeEr_E&list=UUF3sGVzPTT5C-WG1XJGWoBA&index=6
Today, Good Friday, is the day on which we contemplate the suffering and death of Our Lord on the cross. It is also the first day in the Divine Mercy novena. In the year 2000, St. John Paul II designated the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. He did that on the day that he canonized a Polish nun named Sr. Faustina Kowalska. St. Faustina died in 1938 at the age of 33. During her time in the convent she had mystical visions of Christ and reported her conversations with Him. In her conversations with Christ, Our Lord told her of His desire to pour out His mercy upon sinners and the terrible tragedy that, despite the Passion He suffered for us, people do not turn to Him to receive His mercy. Christ told St. Faustina that He wanted a particular image painted of Him that depicts the vision of His merciful divinity being poured out from His Sacred Heart upon the world. Around this devotion to Divine Mercy sprang up something called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which people pray on their rosary beads. The prayer that is repeated on the beads of the rosary is: “For the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” If you are interested in learning how to pray the chaplet, here’s a helpful website to check out: https://www.thedivinemercy.org/message/devotions/pray-the-chaplet
There is an excellent series on Divine Mercy hosted by Fr. Michael Gaitley, which all of our parishioners have access to (for free!) through our FORMED account. It’s called “Divine Mercy with Fr. Michael Gaitley” (https://watch.formed.org/divine-mercy-with-fr-michael-gaitley). He is an excellent speaker and his presentation lays out the historical, theological, and spiritual background to what he refers to as “The Second Greatest Story Ever Told,” and it involves saints, popes, Nazis, and Communists. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that it’s an 11-part series. The episodes are only about 30min each and you can watch one or two a day over the next week in preparation for Divine Mercy Sunday. Please take a look and allow the mercy of God to change your life.(Please note, purchasing full-color guides is optional).
If you’ve never accessed the parish’s FORMED account, all you need to do is go to https://formed.org/, click on the “sign up” link, and then click the option that says: “I belong to a parish or organization.” You can find our parish by typing in our ZIP code, which is 06905. From there, they’ll send you an email and you will have access to all of the materials on the FORMED website. From then on, all you’ll have to do is “sign in” to the account.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Please join us at 7:30pm tonight (4/9/20) for the live-stream of this evening’s liturgy. And pray that the technology cooperates!
Prayer of Spiritual Communion: My Jesus, I believe that You are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I long for You in my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though You have already come, I embrace You and unite myself entirely to You; never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
Today is Spy Wednesday, the day on which the Church gives us the gospel reading that describes the conspiracy between Judas and the chief priests to have the Lord Jesus arrested and condemned to death. “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” Judas said to the chief priests. The gospel tells us that they paid him thirty pieces of silver, “and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matt 26:14-16)
When did Judas, whom Our Lord called to follow Him as one of the Twelve Apostles, turn against Jesus? Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his great book The Life of Christ, says that the seeds of Judas’ act of betrayal were planted with the Bread of Life discourse, towards the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. The Bread of Life discourse took place the day after Our Lord’s multiplication of the loaves and fishes, when He miraculously fed an enormous crowd of five thousand. Knowing that the people wanted, as a result of the miracle, to carry Him away and make Him king, Our Lord withdrew and hid from them. When they came looking for Him the following day, He told them that He had a greater food for them that would satisfy forever their deepest hunger. “I am the bread of life,” He said (John 6:48), and “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you.” (John 6:53) Many who had sought Him out became disillusioned, and even disgusted by the strange words of Christ, and decided not to follow Him anymore. When Jesus asked the Twelve if they would leave Him too, Simon Peter said: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So the Twelve remained with Him. But Our Lord, in response to Peter said: “Did I not choose you, the Twelve, and one of you is a devil?” The scripture continues, explaining: “He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was to betray Him.”
Although Our Lord knew at that moment that Judas’ heart had turned against Him, He did not send Judas away. He kept Judas close. And as Judas hid his own disdain for the Lord, the Lord also kept the sin of Judas hidden, treating him with gentleness, patience, and love. For when the Lord announced at the Last Supper that one of the Twelve would betray Him, they “looked at one another, uncertain of whom He spoke.” (John 13:22) Even when Judas leaves the Last Supper early, the others think it’s in order to perform some work of charity, since Judas kept the community purse. (John 13:28-9) Archbishop Sheen remarks that Our Lord’s protection of Judas was contrary to the world’s affinity for the spread of scandal, and was a suffering that Christ bore for the sake of his betrayer whom He never ceased to love.
How bitterly ironic that Judas would commit his final act of treachery the same night on which the Lord Jesus instituted the sacred priesthood and the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life by which He gives us His flesh and blood as food and drink. Our Lord’s gestures to Judas of friendship and love were met with the scorn and hatred that Judas had harbored and nurtured over time, so that when Christ Jesus made it plain that He knew exactly what Judas was about to do, His betrayer feigned innocence to the human face of God while in his heart he was fixed in his determination to do the evil deed.
When we reflect on Judas’ betrayal of Our Lord, it should move us to examine our own consciences and how we might harbor hardness of heart towards God and our neighbor. We are often mysteries to ourselves, and are easily drawn into habits of action and thought and disposition in which our wills are set against that of the Lord – and we are barely aware of it. And there might be a moment, please God, when the sickness of our souls is revealed to us plainly. Even though it’s painful it is always a grace, a gift from God, to discover the peril in which we’ve placed ourselves because of our sin. At that moment we will have to make a decision – do we double down on our willfulness as Judas did, or do we cast ourselves upon the loving mercy of Christ, who offered His flesh and His blood as the sacrifice by which we, who are all His betrayers by our sin, are saved?
Making Our Way Home
I was talking with one of our religious education teachers yesterday, a man very committed to that ministry, and during our conversation he told me about the last class he had before everything was suspended. By then there was already a feeling of unease about the growing threat of the Coronavirus and speculation on what measures would be taken in response to it. And so he reminded the kids in his class that “this world is our temporary home.” That’s such an important lesson to learn, because if you believe that to be true (as we Catholics do) it affects the way you approach life.
Obviously, it’s not as though we are the only ones who are aware of the fact that death comes for us all. Our mortality has been the impetus for reflection on the meaning of life throughout the history of human civilization. Our time on earth is so relatively brief – what is it all about? How are we supposed to use this time? Does it mean anything, or is it ultimately absurd, an accident in the evolution of a cosmos that is indifferent to our existence and which will continue long after our sun goes out and life on this planet is extinguished?
The events that we commemorate this week reveal to us that human action is not meaningless. The sin of Adam & Eve meant something. It had the effect of bringing disorder into the world and setting humanity in a state of rebellion against God, rendering us incapable of reconciling ourselves with Him. But then the Lord entered His creation and became man. And in His human nature He redeemed us through His sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. That meant something. It reconciled humanity with its Creator who out of love for us also became Our Savior, and who offered us a share in His great Easter victory through baptism, which fills us with His resurrected life. This is pure gift – but it requires a response on our part. The 12th century abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this saying: “Children re-born in baptism are not without merit, but possess the merits of Christ; but they make themselves unworthy of these if they do not add their own – not because of inability but because of neglect; this is the danger of maturity.”
What a tragedy it is to waste our baptismal grace by making the attainment of worldly glory or comfort and pleasure the aim of our lives. We are instead called to spend these days in our temporary home preparing for entrance into our eternal home. Christ makes that possible. He shares with us the merits of His sacrifice so that we can participate in the work of our salvation and the salvation of others. How we do that is no mystery. We avail ourselves of everything that Christ gives us for this purpose – the teaching authority of the Church, the Sacred Scriptures, our natural capacity to know the truth, the sacraments that strengthen us and heal us, the intercession of the saints, the aid of the Blessed Mother, as well as the innumerable opportunities that everyday life provides to perform works of mercy for our neighbor. By helping each other know this truth and recognize the opportunity that life in grace affords us to participate in Christ’s salvation of the world, is to acquire the necessary coin to enter the Kingdom – it is to acquire merit.
I pray that the young people who received that lesson from their teacher have given thought to what he taught them, that they might approach life with a Catholic imagination that helps them to see what a gift this time in the world is and how meaningful each action is when done with God in grace.
Yesterday the Archdiocese of Turin announced that the mysterious Shroud of Turin will be displayed for veneration on Holy Saturday. This will be just the 20th time in the known history of the shroud that it will be on display for public viewing. The Shroud of Turin is a rectangular piece of woven linen measuring 14ft.5in. x 3ft.7in. which has a faint, brownish front-and-back image of a man who bears the marks of scourging and crucifixion, as well as a wound in his side. Prior to the 14th century, the history of the shroud is obscure. But there is a long tradition that speaks of a cloth with mysterious healing properties that was brought to the city of Edessa, located in modern-day Turkey, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70A.D. With the persecution of Christianity by the Roman authorities, the cloth was hidden in the fortified wall that surrounded Edessa. The shroud remained there for 400 years and was rediscovered in the 6th century when the city walls were being rebuilt. It was at this time called the “Image of Edessa” and the likeness of the man on the cloth became the template for traditional iconography depicting Our Lord with long hair, beard, large eyes, and flattened nose.
With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Edessa eventually came under the control of the Caliphate. Byzantine armies invaded Edessa in the 10th century, and were able to recover the shroud and bring it to Constantinople. The cloth disappeared during the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, and it is thought that it was secretly in the possession of the Knights Templar until the 14th century, when it reappeared in France. A fire in the 16th century damaged the shroud, leaving some burn marks on the linen but not affecting the image itself. The shroud finally arrived to Turin in 1578.
Scientists only started to apply modern technology to the shroud with the advent of photography at the end of the 19th century, which revealed that the faint yellowish-brown pigmentation on the cloth is actually a negative image that, when developed, reveals a detailed black-and-white positive image. Medical examiners have found that the image is anatomically perfect and a scientific examination of the shroud in the 1980s led to the conclusion that the image is not the product of an artist and the bloodstains are authentic. The presence of the image on the cloth remained a mystery. Moreover, analysis of pollen samples found on the cloth in the 1990s revealed samples of plants, some of which are found only in the region around Jerusalem. Decay analysis done in the past 10 years dates the fabric to a time range that includes the 1st century A.D.
There is, of course, no way of proving beyond doubt that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Christ. But the fact that it has been an object of veneration for so many centuries, and the inability of modern science to explain how the image on the cloth came to be, and the possibility that it could be 2000 years old, allow us to believe that it just might be the burial cloth that the gospel tells us was found in the empty tomb on Easter morning (John 20:1-9).
If it is Our Lord’s burial cloth, then the Shroud of Turin is both the garment of both our Lord’s death and His resurrection. It is the baptismal garment par excellence, for it is through baptism that we receive a share in Our Lord’s death and resurrection. The white garment that the newly-baptized wear is an image of our rebirth in Christ. The funeral pall (the white cloth placed on the casket of the deceased) is the sign that the one who has died had received through baptism the life of the risen Christ and thus a share in His victory. In these days when, especially in northern Italy, sickness and death seem to loom over everything, it is a beautiful gift from the Archbishop of Turin to display the mysterious image to the world that gives us hope in the faith that we profess in a man who rose from the dead, and a God who offers us a share in His eternal life.
If you are interested in viewing the Shroud of Turin this Saturday, the livestreamed service will begin at 11am our time on 4/11.
Palm Sunday Music
Michele Schule, the Director of Music Ministry at the Parish of St. Cecilia-St. Gabriel, put together this compilation of the music for the Mass of Palm Sunday that is helpful as we enter into Holy Week. Many thanks to Michele and her son John who is the cantor.
Mass of Palm Sunday 4/5/20
One of my enduring memories of Palm Sunday growing up is my father’s expressions of exasperation at the amount of palm my sisters and I would bring home from church. At the time I didn’t understand it. Why wouldn’t you want to get a big handful (or two) of palm? But looking back, I kind of get it because by the end of Palm Sunday there would be pieces of palm everywhere – in the car, in the kitchen, in the sofa cushions. In my parents’ house, it’s possible to open cabinets and drawers in the kitchen or the bedrooms and find dried-up palm fronds from the 1980s.
But Palm Sunday was exciting! There were big crowds, a procession, red vestments, and a long reading of the Passion Narrative in which the people played a part. It always seemed to take a little while for the congregation to speak in unison, but by the time we spoke the words, “Crucify Him,” everyone seemed to be into it. It was physically taxing, to stand through the recitation of the Passion, but you kind of understood that it was your share in what Jesus suffered and that it was only right to accept that relatively small discomfort.
This year,however, there is no palm. There is no procession. There is no big congregation to speak the terrible words: “We have no king but Caesar!” What are we to make of this? In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew that begins the liturgy of Palm Sunday this year, we hear: “And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds replied, ‘This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.”
When I think about this Gospel scene of Christ’s entrance into the City of Jerusalem, I think that perhaps this year we are less the crowds that walk along the road with Our Lord and more like the Holy City itself. We are walled-in, unable to move. We carry no palm, we sing no hymns. We are troubled and confused. And like the Holy City we are being invited in this experience to ask the question: “Who is this?” If, with the help of grace, we recognize this as the time of our visitation from God, this Holy Week will be most memorable as the one in which we discovered our reason for rejoicing.
Friday of Sorrows
Today we find ourselves in the Friday of what’s called “Passiontide,” which refers to the final two weeks of Lent. Passiontide begins in dramatic fashion, with the veiling of images in our churches on the 5th Sunday of Lent. If you visit St. Cecilia Church, or watched the video of the parish Mass in St. Gabriel’s last weekend, you will notice immediately that the crucifix and the statues of the saints are covered with purple cloth. The sudden deprivation of the images that typically comfort us forces us to enter into the experience of Our Lord’s passion more deeply.
The Friday of Passiontide is called “Friday of Sorrows” and is traditionally dedicated to the Blessed Mother. The Mass of the day has a special opening prayer, or “Collect,” which states: “O God, who in this season give your Church the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ, grant, we pray, through her intercession, that we may cling more firmly each day to your Only Begotten Son and come at last to the fullness of his grace.” Sometimes we can make the mistake of thinking of the Virgin Mary as a kind of china doll, and her perfection as somehow inhuman. But Our Lady’s perfection means that she was more perfectly human, and that perfection meant that the suffering she experienced in her life was greater than the suffering of anyone save her Son. To understand this, we might imagine someone with perfect hearing living in a retirement community where everyone has misplaced his or her hearing aids. Everyone in the community is used to shouting at each other and listening to the radio and the television with the volume all the way up. They don’t notice anything out of whack. But the one with perfect hearing does, and suffers in the midst of her hearing-impaired neighbors.
Our Lady’s experience of the Passion of the Christ was that of the most terrible suffering. Firstly, because she was witnessing the torture and execution of her beloved child. But her suffering was increased exponentially because she understood the gravity of the sin that was being committed. She felt the full weight of the horror that was happening before her eyes. The Roman soldiers who beat Him and drove nails through His hands and feet felt no compunction. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes delighted in seeing Him die. Passers-by on Calvary cursed Him as a criminal, and the men crucified with Him reviled Him in their own despair. All the while, Our Lady’s heart was being pierced with sorrow as she watched her biological Son be rejected and brutalized by the children given to her in grace. The New Eve witnesses Cain slaughter his brother Abel.
Today’s Collect tells us that, in this time of Passiontide, God gives the Church “the grace to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary in contemplating the Passion of Christ.” When we contemplate the Passion we grow in self-knowledge, understanding the horror of human sinfulness, and we grow in knowledge of God, who loves us so much that He suffers and dies on a cross for our sake. Our Lady of Sorrows perfectly contemplates this two-fold reality. We turn to her today and ask for her help to contemplate it more clearly so that we might repent more perfectly and love the Lord with more heartfelt understanding.
Accepting God’s Will
The first reading from yesterday’s Mass has stayed with me all day, and I find myself continuing to think about it. It was a passage from the Book of Daniel and tells the story of three young Israelites who are living in exile in Babylon about 550 years before the birth of Christ. They are among the Jewish nobility and because of their exceptional talents they were selected to serve in the royal court of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. It comes to the attention of the king, however, that these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, will not worship the statue the king had made. This makes the king very angry. If they continue to refuse, the king warns, he will have them cast into the white-hot furnace. King Nebuchadnezzar taunts them: “And who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands?” The three young men respond to the terrifying words of Nebuchadnezzar, saying: “There is no need for us to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up.”
It is a remarkable expression of faith. The young men are indifferent as to whether the Lord intervenes to save them in this moment. It does not affect their conviction of the truth that only the Lord is God. They do not wonder if the Lord has abandoned or forgotten them. They express their natural hope that He will save them. But their faith is not contingent on whether God does their will. Rather, their faith allows them to understand that it is their part to remain steadfast to what they know to be true, what they know to be real, even if they do not understand what the Lord might be doing in that moment.
The 19th century English saint, John Henry Newman, composed a prayer that expresses a contemporary response to the experiences that one faces in life as a follower of Christ and how we are to respond with faith. He writes: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it – if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
In the passage from Daniel, Our Lord intervenes and miraculously preserves the young men from the effects of the fire. But our lives tend to be like John Henry Newman’s, in which the Lord often allows us to experience trials and disappointments and sadnesses among our joys and triumphs. The experience of struggles does not mean He doesn’t exist, or that He doesn’t know us, or that He doesn’t love us – the crucifix should dispel any notion of God’s indifference to us. But we must approach our lives with humility, acknowledging the truth that we are small creatures whose time on this earth is so very brief. It is in heaven that, please God, we will spend an eternity marveling at the breadth of the fabric of Providence and finally come to understand the vital role we played in its unfolding by remaining steadfast in faith.
When I was in seminary I was introduced to the work of the author Walker Percy. Percy was a native of Alabama and after finishing college at the University of North Carolina went to study medicine at Columbia University in New York. While working as an intern at Bellvue Hospital in 1942, Walker contracted tuberculosis and was forced to spend an extended period of time resting in a sanitorium in the Adirondacks. Walker grew up an agnostic, and his family history was marked with tragedy – his grandfather, his father, and his mother all having taken their own lives. During his convalescence, Walker read extensively in the fields of philosophy and literature and began to question the ability of science to explain the basic mysteries of human existence. Influenced by the example of a friend, Percy began to attend daily Mass. He became Catholic in 1947 and published several novels, including The Moviegoer which won the National Book Award in 1962. Percy died in 1990 at the age of 73.
I’ve read several of Percy’s novels and I find them to be, well, kind of odd. Invariably when I finish one I’m not sure what I’m supposed to have learned from it. But I do find it very helpful to read commentaries on Percy’s work, which illuminate the important points that Percy is making through his stories about life in the contemporary world. The main characters in Walker’s novels are always people who suffer from spiritual loneliness and alienation. They’re trying to figure out what life is about – if it has any meaning at all. They are oddballs in their societies because they feel restless and sad in a world where the people around them seem perfectly content and apparently unconcerned with the aimlessness of their existence.
A friend of mine recently shared with me an essay by a professor of literature named Jessica Hooten Wilson. She describes Percy’s characters as men “who know they are pilgrims, that human beings are essentially wayfarers, yet they are none too sure about the destination.” They long for earth-shattering and apocalyptic events because “if there are only moments left to live, these characters feel the urgency to love well, be good, do something that matters.” In ordinary times, however, they wrestle with the banality of life. “How to go on existing during an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?” Most of the time, she writes, Walker Percy is arguing that we walk around in a death-like state, distracting ourselves by convincing ourselves that unimportant things are vitally important. Quoting C.S. Lewis, she writes: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
Walker Percy’s novels try to help us to see that we expend too much of ourselves obsessing about small and meaningless things and end up losing sight of the miracle of existence and the possibility that God – God! – desires a relationship with us. All it requires is a slight shift in perspective, to recognize that God is present to us in this very moment and that everything we have is a gift given. Jessica Hooten Wilson poses the question: “What changes when we look for God in our daily activities or when we seek his face in those around us? Does it not make a great deal of difference to how you treat your child? For instance, if you see her as participating in God’s incarnation, a fellow pilgrim on the road to paradise, versus your property, your image, and thus your charge to form into a success story? And, when we consider the day before us not as an empty schedule to be filled, but God’s gracious and gratuitous gift of time, how then might we live differently?”
Maybe it seems strange to feel gratitude in the midst of a pandemic. But perhaps in these days we should consider, as Wilson writes, “attending more to the bounty than the deprivation,” that in the midst of uncertainty we might find the One who is the destination of our earthly pilgrimage, and Who walks with us along the way.
Dealing with Anxiety
This afternoon I was listening to a lecture by a priest named Fr. Dominic Legge, who is a member of the Order of Preachers (known also as the Dominicans) and lives in Washington, DC. His topic was Grace and Anxiety, and it was about the spiritual and emotional struggles that people feel in times of pressure and uncertainty and how we encounter God’s grace in them. Dominican priests love making philosophical distinctions among terms, so much of the lecture was spent parsing definitions. Fear, he said, is our response to a future evil that is known and difficult or impossible to avoid. Anxiety is a particular type of fear. It is a response to an unknown threat that weighs on the mind. When we are anxious, we are trapped in fear of what might happen, rather than a threat that is known and apparently inevitable. When we are anxious or afraid we can easily fall into despair or sorrow. Sorrow, he says, is the sadness at the presence of evil, and this sadness has the effect of sapping our body’s vitality. So the person who is deeply sad doesn’t want to do anything.
Fr. Dominic then offered some remedies for sorrow, which he says could be anything that restores vitality, such as indulging in something pleasurable (and morally good). A bowl of ice cream can, in fact, make you feel better. Watching a Marx Brothers movie can pull you out of a funk. Taking a nap followed by a shower is restorative. He says that allowing yourself to cry can also be helpful.
But there are spiritual pleasures that restore our spirits as well, such as the sympathy and company of good friends. When we talk to people we know and love, they help to carry the burdens we bear in our hearts. The sympathetic words of friends are consoling to us, because they reveal to us that we are loved. One of the sufferings of the present moment is that the nature of the challenge we face requires isolating ourselves, making it difficult to get together with friends. Fr. Dominic reminds us that the most important friendship for us is our friendship with Christ. Our Lord never engages in “social distancing” from the soul that is in a state of grace. Fr. Dominic recommends that the one who is wrestling with the sadness that comes from anxiety should seek to contemplate the Truth, which puts all things into perspective and reveals the most important reality that God loves us. And that love is given to us no matter our situation and no matter how we feel.
The lecture reminded me of a quote from St. Francis DeSales who wrote: “Do not anticipate the unpleasant events of this life by apprehension, rather anticipate them with the perfect hope that, as they happen, God, to Whom you belong, will protect you. He has protected you up to the present moment; just remain firmly in the hands of His providence and He will help you in all situations. And at those times when you find yourself unable to walk, He will carry you. What should you fear? You belong to God who has so strongly assured us that for those who love Him all things turn into happiness. Do not think of what may happen tomorrow, because the same eternal Father who takes care of you today, will take care of you tomorrow and forever. Either He will see that nothing bad happens to you, or, if He allows anything bad to happen to you, He will give you the invincible courage to bear it.”
I hope that the contemplation of this vital truth brings you consolation, and takes away any anxiety that might be burdening your heart today.
The gospel for today’s Mass is the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11). Scribes and Pharisees bring a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, who is teaching in the Temple area in Jerusalem. They try to test Him, wanting to know if He will make a judgment in accord with the law of Moses, which prescribed a penalty of death by stoning to those caught in the act of adultery. In response to their demands for an answer, the Lord says to them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In response, the gospel says that “they departed one by one, beginning with the elders.”
The Lord helps us to see that we should not be so eager for the condemnation of sinners, since all of us fall into that category. It is more fitting to pray for the conversion of sinners. But there, too, we should take care not to lose sight of our personal need for conversion. It’s an odd effect of Original Sin that we see the need for the conversion of others more clearly than our own. In the end of the passage it is only the one who acknowledged her guilt before the Lord who heard the words of mercy. ‘“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”’
In the gospel, sinners present a sinner to Christ for judgment. The guilty bring the guilty to Him for condemnation. In the sacrament of Confession, we the guilty present ourselves before the Lord, deserving of condemnation. Alone, with no one else to condemn us but our own burdened consciences, we receive clemency and forgiveness. Would that those who brought the woman to be condemned, with the realization of the truth, did not walk away but instead cast themselves at the feet of the Lord – weighed down not with stones to throw but with the burden of their sins to confess. Like her they might have known the relief and the joy of souls absolved from their sins, washed clean in the mercy of Christ.
Mass of the 5th Sunday of Lent
This Strange Sabbath
The Holy Father’s Urbi et Orbi blessing yesterday was very beautiful. I was particularly struck by the solitary image of him walking up the steps to the podium, and then by the moment in which he led Benediction, blessing the city and the world with the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance.
In his prayer, the pope said: “It is not the time of your judgment, but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.” This is really at the heart of everything we’re going through right now. It makes me think of the Sabbath, the day of the week set apart as holy by the Lord in the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was given to the people of Israel as a gift, as a limit to the claim that the affairs of the world could have on them. It was the necessary aid to help them to stay grounded in what is fundamental and necessary. But it was often not seen that way, especially as the people knew prosperity. The Hebrew prophets point out over and over again how the people, especially the elite members of the society, came to resent the Sabbath as an interruption in the important business to be done – there were deals to be made, crops to be harvested, buildings to be built, meetings to be had. They couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to end so they could get back to engaging in the “more important” things of the world.
It seems that the Holy Father is calling on us to take this time to re-evaluate our lives. How have we made unnecessary things so necessary to us? How have we made things that really don’t matter so dear to us?
I have heard from various people that this has been a time for their families to spend a lot more time together. They’re eating together, playing games, going for walks, praying together. People are also checking in with each other more and looking for ways to help each other and expressing concern about each other. Yes, there is great concern over the threat of illness and what will happen to the economy, and we pray for a rapid end to the epidemic and the recovery of those who are sick. But are we really anxious to get back to the way we were living before? Do we really want to simply pick up where we left off? In a way, this might be a strange kind of Sabbath, one in which the Lord is inviting us to shed the idols that seek to consume us and learn again from Him what it means to truly live.
Urbi et Orbi
Today at 1pm our time, Pope Francis will give what is called an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. “Urbi et Orbi” is Latin for “To the City (of Rome) and to the world.” Popes traditionally give this blessing upon their election as pope, and on Christmas and Easter. It is a unique privilege of the pope to give this blessing, since he is not just the Bishop of Rome, but also the Universal Shepherd of the Church. And so his pastoral care extends beyond the boundary of his diocese to the ends of the earth. It is unprecedented for a sitting pope to give this blessing outside of Christmas or Easter. What will make this event even more unusual is that as he gives the blessing, St. Peter’s Square will be completely empty.
I read today that the pope has requested that a particular crucifix be placed in the square during the blessing. This crucifix is from the Church of St. Marcello and was first processed through the city of Rome during the outbreak of plague in 1522. By the end of the 16-day procession, the plague had disappeared from the city. Since then, the crucifix has been used in the Jubilee Year processions of the City of Rome every 50 years. A Jubilee Year is a special occasion that has its roots in ancient Israel. It was a time in which debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. Jubilee Years are now times in which we receive special opportunities for the remission of sins and universal pardon. The last Jubilee was in the year 2000, during which St. John Paul II opened the doors of mercy in St. Peter’s Basilica, granting a plenary indulgence to pilgrims who passed through them.
The special Urbi et Orbi blessing and the placing of the crucifix in the square reveals the concern of the Holy Father for the welfare of the world. Not just for the physical health of those who are suffering because of Coronavirus, but also the spiritual and moral health of the nations. We ask the Lord to grant us relief from the virus, yes. But even greater than our need for physical healing is our need for His mercy. As with every Urbi et Orbi address, today’s blessing from the pope offers us an opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence. I’ve posted an old video below by Fr. Mike Schmitz about indulgences, which gives a good explanation of what they are (and what they’re not). Please take advantage of this great act of paternal love on the part of the pope, through which we gain access to the infinite wellspring of God’s mercy, which we so desperately need at this time.
I got a call today from my friend Fr. Andy Vill. Fr. Vill might be familiar to you since he served as the assistant at St. John’s downtown for several years. He’s currently living in Spain, discerning whether he is being called to join a religious community there. My friendship with Fr. Vill goes back to our time in formation together at St. John Fisher. Notwithstanding the fact that I am significantly older than him, we hit it off almost immediately. I like to attribute it to his maturity. He likes to attribute it to my immaturity.
Fr. Vill has a great devotion to the Angelus. If you are in his presence at the hours of 9, 12, or 3, he will politely interrupt whatever is going on around him and invite everyone to join him in the recitation of the Angelus. Even if you don’t particularly feel like saying the Angelus at that moment, you end up joining him because you know it’s the right thing to do.
I first learned the Angelus as a student at St. Theresa School in Trumbull. The kids would take turns each day at noon leading it through the P.A. system. It was only later that I understood the significance of the prayer. The Angelus is a meditation on the Incarnation through the event of the Annunciation. When we pray it, we call to mind the announcement of the Angel to the Virgin Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Savior. And after we recite Our Lady’s “Fiat” (Let it be done to me according to your word) we then speak the famous phrase from the Gospel of John: “And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” At this, we genuflect or bow our heads or make some sign of reverence, acknowledging the significance of that moment in the history of, well, everything. Because it was then that the Creator entered His Creation as the means of redeeming it. By taking a human nature, Our Lord made it possible for human action to be redemptive; He made it possible for us (in grace) to participate in our own sanctification – even through the seemingly insignificant actions of our daily lives. For we also remember through the Angelus that the first 9 months of Our Lord’s life in the world were spent in silence in the womb of His Mother. Dependent on her for nourishment and protection, He seems to be doing nothing. Yet His mere presence in our midst was changing everything.
As many of us find ourselves forced to “do nothing,” or at least what might seem like nothing productive, perhaps the Angelus is a worthy devotion to help us to reorient our thinking about how to approach our current reality.
Rosary & Consecration of the Parish
to the Immaculate Heart of Mary
“O immaculate, Mother of the Church and Queen of Heaven, we join together as a parish family to consecrate ourselves to your Immaculate Heart. We consecrate to you all that we are, all that we have, all that we love, our bodies, our hearts, our souls. To you we consecrate our families, our priests, our religious and all who serve in our parish ministries. We entrust to you the sick and dying, and the souls of the faithful departed of our entire parish. We desire that everyone may come to know you more fully and share in the benefits of your intercession of love. So that our consecration may be truly effective and persevering, and so that it may bear the fruits of a rich interior life, today we renew our consecrations as Christians through the Baptismal promises. We promise to follow with joy and humility the truths of the Catholic Church, always showing fidelity to the teaching of the Holy Father, our Bishop and the Magisterium. We promise to show you faithful devotion, to listen to the word of God and to read it attentively, to obey God’s commandments, to participate in the feast of the Church, to seek the strength of the sacraments, specially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. We pray that we may always be ready to offer our prayers, sacrifices and sufferings to bring about the triumph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in our souls and in those is our sisters and brothers, in our parish and the entire world. Amen”
Tomorrow, 3/25, is the Feast of the Annunciation on which we celebrate the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary that God had chosen her to be the Mother of the Savior. It’s a special day for the people of our parish for a couple of reasons – first: St. Gabriel is one of our patron saints, and second: because the Annunciation is a “solemnity” in the Church’s calendar. That means that it’s an important enough celebration that we suspend our Lenten disciplines for the day. Just like the Feast of St. Joseph, on the Feast of the Annunciation we should treat ourselves to the thing that we gave up for Lent. I will be having some ice cream and a beer.
Tomorrow I will try to post a video around 7pm of the recitation of the Rosary in the Church of St. Cecilia, at the end of which I will consecrate our parish to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I will include the prayer in tomorrow’s posting so that you can pray along at home. If you decide to make a visit to the church of St. Cecilia tomorrow, please visit Our Lady’s shrine and offer a prayer for a resolution to the current situation. We must not underestimate the power of the Blessed Mother’s intercession.
Finally, Pope Francis has asked that Catholics around the world pray the Our Father at noon tomorrow. Please set your alarms to join the Holy Father in his prayer for mercy.
“Sometimes I think that those who have never been deprived of an opportunity to say or hear Mass do not really appreciate what a treasure the Mass is.” – Fr. Walter Ciszek
For the past month or so I’ve been making my way through a book called He Leadeth Me, which is the spiritual autobiography of Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ. He was an American priest and member of the Society of Jesus who responded to the world-wide request from Pope Pius XI in 1929 for priests to volunteer to be missionaries in the Soviet Union. Ciszek eventually made it to Russia, where he was quickly captured by the Soviet secret police. He spent 5 years in solitary confinement at the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow before being sentenced to 9 years of work in the slave labor camps of Siberia. After 23 years in the Soviet Union, Ciszek was eventually returned to the United States in 1963 through a prisoner swap.
As a young seminarian preparing for missionary work in the Soviet Union, Ciszek and his classmates knew that there would be times when they would be deprived of the Mass. But, he writes, in those seminary days “the thought that it might someday be difficult to be able to say Mass was really only a daydream. It was something you talked about, something you read about in the history of the Church persecutions, but not really something you had ever had to suffer or experience.”
During his five years in solitary confinement, Ciszek was completely deprived of the consolation of saying or attending Mass. While in the gulag, the prisoners devised clever ways of smuggling in the bread and the sacramental wine necessary to have Mass. But offering Mass in the camps was very difficult. One challenge was the general state of borderline starvation among the prisoners. In those days, priests and those who wanted to receive the Eucharist at Mass had to observe a strict fast, taking no food or water from midnight the night before until the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. “I have seen priests pass up breakfast and work at hard labor on an empty stomach until noon in order to keep the Eucharistic fast, because the noon break at the work site was the time we could best get together for a hidden Mass.” Informers were always a threat, and the authorities would severely punish the priests they caught offering Mass in the camp. “But the Mass to us was always worth the danger and the sacrifice; we treasured it, we looked forward to it, we would do almost anything in order to say or attend a Mass.”
Ciszek’s determination to offer Mass was rooted in his understanding of what the Mass is as well as the desire that the other prisoners expressed for the Mass. “I was amazed at the devotion of these men. Most of them had really had very little formal religious training; for the most part they knew little of religion except the prayers and beliefs that pious parents or grandparents had taught them. And yet they believed, and were willing to make unheard-of sacrifices for the consolation of attending Mass or receiving Communion.”
Over the past 12 hours or so, I’ve been moved by the outpouring of gratitude from parishioners for posting yesterday’s parish Mass on our website. Based on the feedback, I will continue to post Sunday Masses on the website each week. Usually, we priests get (let’s just say) a little annoyed when we hear about people missing Mass without serious reason. Fr. Ciszek’s insight about how under normal conditions we take Mass for granted really hits home at a time where the faithful are forced to miss Mass. It is tragic that we are not able to have Mass together in person, but there is consolation in the fact that we are talking about how much (rather than how many) people are missing Mass.
Holy Mass of the 4th Sunday of Lent
Love in the Time of Coronavirus
In the year 165 AD plague broke out in the Roman Empire. Now referred to as the Antonine Plague, historians believe it originated in China and that Roman soldiers came into contact with it while on campaign in modern-day Iraq. It quickly spread into Gaul and the Germanic territories held by the Empire and even down into the Italian peninsula. Based on contemporary descriptions of the epidemic, it seems that the plague was a variation of smallpox – and it was devastating. Some writers from the period estimated that 2000 people a day died in the city of Rome at the height of the crisis. All told, historians think that about 60-70 million people died from the plague, numbers that represent a quarter to a third of the entire population of the Empire. Among the victims was Lucius Verus, who reigned as co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius, and died in 169.
Many in the Empire thought that the plague was a punishment sent from the gods – due to either a violation of a sacred oath or an act of sacrilege. Marcus Aurelius attributed it to the refusal of Christians to pay homage to the pagan deities. Ironically, the average Roman’s sympathy for Christianity was growing alongside the hostility of their rulers toward the relatively new sect. The reason for this was that, unlike adherents to the polytheistic system of the Roman Empire, Christians believed that they had a moral duty to care for those in need, including people affected by the plague. While pagan nobles fled the urban areas where the disease was wreaking havoc, Christians remained and provided the sick with basic needs of food and water, as well as compassionate care. The people noticed that Christians provided care to everyone, including non-Christians. Furthermore, Christianity taught people that life has meaning even under the most difficult circumstances, and that death is not the end of existence. As a result, many people became Christian. Some historians trace the eventual establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire to the way Christians comported themselves during the time of this terrible plague.
Like the ancient Romans, we find ourselves in the midst of a public health crisis. Thankfully, the Coronavirus is far less dangerous than the plague outbreak of 165. But we are no less called as followers of Christ to imitate the charity of the Catholics in the Roman Empire. Part of the charitable response is to be conscientious about not taking unnecessary risks that might expose ourselves or others to the virus. It is a sign of prudence to observe “social distancing.” At the same time, it’s very important for us to keep tabs on each other and to check in with people whom we know are alone and who might be feeling anxious, to console them, and to ask them if there’s anything we can do for them. And most importantly we should be using this time to pray for each other. Our Lord is with us. We must put our trust in Him.
With everything being cancelled, people seem to have more time on their hands than they’re accustomed to. I think a lot of people are looking for ways to distract themselves from the stress that comes with the daily reports about the pandemic on cable news. Web streaming services like Netflix are probably seeing their traffic increase significantly, with people “binging” on their favorite shows and movies. But how much cable news and how many episodes of “Better Call Saul,” “Madmen,” and “Parks and Recreation” can you watch before you start sensing that creeping feeling of shame that tells you that you’re wasting the day?
This made me think of the life of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was a young soldier from the Basque region of modern-day Spain who dreamed of attaining glory in battle. He was, by all accounts, vain and quick to respond with violence to any perceived insult. During the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius was seriously injured when a cannonball ricocheted off a nearby wall and shattered his right leg. His injury required surgical intervention, but because the first operation left his leg unsightly, he insisted on a second surgery. As this was an age without anesthetics, it was either madness or extreme vanity to demand such elective surgery!
While healing from his surgery, Ignatius resided in a hospital run by a religious community. Spending all day in bed bored him, so he asked for things to read. At the hospital there were none of the books that Ignatius was accustomed to – stories about knights and battles and chivalry. Instead, there were pamphlets on the lives of the saints and, in particular, a book about the life of Christ. As he read these things he would ask himself: “What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did?” As time went on, Ignatius began to reflect on his experiences reading these books about Christ and the saints and how they were different from his experiences reading books about knighthood and battlefield glory.
A contemporary biographer describes Ignatius’ resulting insight: “When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy. And this was the first time he applied a process of reasoning to his religious experience. Later on, when he began to formulate his spiritual exercises, he used this experience as an illustration to explain the doctrine he taught his disciples on the discernment of spirits.”
How are we spending our time these days? With what are we filling our hearts and our minds? May I suggest that we take advantage of this disruption in our daily lives to learn more about our faith? To facilitate this, please make use of the FORMED subscription that parishioners can access through our parish website. There are movies, children’s programming, and lectures that are intellectually and spiritually edifying, unlike much of what popular culture offers. The website Word on Fire, hosted by Bishop Robert Barron, also provides great content for those interested in learning more and going deeper.
We can fight boredom with things that are ultimately boring – or we can fight it by filling our minds and hearts with the stories and truths that help us to live great and holy lives.
Today, March 19, is the feast of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Mother and the Universal Patron of the Church. It’s a day that I look forward to each year because it usually serves as a needed respite from the discipline of Lent. The Feast of St. Joseph is what’s called a “solemnity” which means it’s one of the most important celebrations of the year, and should be celebrated accordingly. A common way to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day is by eating sweets – specifically zeppole. I usually try to give up sweets for Lent, so when March 19 rolls around it feels like I’m getting away with something when I dig into one of those big balls of fried dough filled with jelly or sweet ricotta. It’s exhilarating! But it’s also fitting, since the husband of Mary is one of the greatest men who ever lived, and a testament to the mysterious ways of God.
Joseph was a working man. The gospels tell us that he was a carpenter. He was also a descendant of King David. Despite his poverty and the life that he lived in obscurity, royal blood flowed through the veins of Joseph. Though Our Lord was not his biological son, by adopting the child Jesus as his own he would give Our Lord a share in his royal lineage. He would be the protector of the Messiah and the Mother of God. Why would God choose Joseph as the guardian of the Incarnate Son and His Mother Mary? Surely, there were men in those days who had greater means with which they could offer them protection from the powers that threatened them. But none of them were as faithful as Joseph. The fidelity of Joseph to the will of God – even in the face of enormous difficulty – made him the most fitting choice as the one to take Mary and Jesus into his home.
I love the statue of St. Joseph that we have at the Church of St. Cecilia. It depicts him with his carpentry tools – strong, silent, ready to act. We will be keeping the candles on either side of the statue lit in honor of the great saint. As we face our own challenges and difficulties these days, it would be good to visit that shrine of St. Joseph and say a prayer for our families. And then go and have a guilt-free zeppole!
Being Close from Afar
I received a text message from an old friend of mine this morning and she shared with me the ways in which the current health crisis has affected her family. Everything is cancelled and people are trying to figure out what to do with themselves as they move forward into a future that feels uncertain. She then said: “I’m sure more than ever you feel like a shepherd to the flock!”
I had to reflect on those words for a little while. To be honest, one of the things I’ve been struggling with these days is a feeling of distance from the people of the parish. Under normal conditions I see parishioners at Mass, at evening meetings, while on Communion calls, at religious education and youth group, and even the occasional dinner at someone’s home. But now, all of that has come to a halt and it feels strange. How does a shepherd tend to his flock when they seem so far away?
This website is one way in which I can share with you what is going on in the local Church, but also share with you the fruit of some of my reflections on our current situation. I hope to update it daily – please sign up on the homepage if you would like to be notified when new things are posted. Perhaps it will give you some comfort and allow the members of the parish to feel connected to the community. We might not be able to gather together physically, but we can gather together virtually online.
But even more importantly, we can gather mystically as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. By our baptism, we are grafted onto the Mystical Body, like a branch is grafted onto a vine. The life of grace flows through the faithful like life-giving sap. In this way, the Lord unites us as the Church in Himself. Thus, we can offer our prayers, our penances, our work, our celebrations and sufferings for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Central to this mystery is the way in which we gather mystically at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Yes, it is true that public Masses have been cancelled and so we priests must offer Masses in private for the time being. But even though there’s no congregation physically present, one is never alone at the Mass. In fact, we are most present to each other at the Mass. All the members of the faithful, all the members of the Church throughout the ages, are present at every Mass – where we encounter Christ Incarnate, Sacrificed, Risen, and Glorified. Fr. Mariusz and I will remember you especially at the altar as we offer Mass, ministering to the flock from afar, but also in the most intimate way possible.