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.