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
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.
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
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.
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.