The Corporal Works of Mercy: Shelter the Homeless

August 29th, 2016
Pope Francis visits Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington PHOTO CREDIT: Jaclyn Lipplemann for the Catholic Standard

Pope Francis visits Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington PHOTO CREDIT: Jaclyn Lipplemann for the Catholic Standard

In a beautiful address at Saint Patrick’s church last year, Pope Francis assured those present who live on the street or depend on the kindness of others that the Lord identifies with them and all who suffer material and/or spiritual hardship. Noting that when Mary was about to give birth, there was no room in the inn, he said, “The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head.”

Then the Holy Father asked, “Why are we homeless, without a place to live? And those of us who do have a home, a roof over our heads, would also do well to ask: Why do these, our brothers and sisters, have no place to live? Why are these brothers and sisters of ours homeless?”

We have been asked to reflect upon these and similar questions during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, and they remind us that as Christians, we have been specially charged with providing for those who lack, food, shelter, clothing, and housing (Matthew 25:35-40). These are questions for all of society as well. “I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope,” Pope Francis said to Congress. “The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts.”

Driving around our nation’s capital, you can get a sense of the scope of homelessness in our area. In fact, recent reports show that the District has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. There are tents perched underneath overpasses, alongside the highway and in parks around the District and adjacent counties. Growing numbers of people in Southern Maryland have also set up camps and try to stay there for as long as possible into the late fall and winter. Do we notice these struggling people in the busyness of our lives?

Meanwhile, many people who are not in poverty are nevertheless challenged by the high cost of living in this region, where it is becoming harder for them to find housing that is affordable on their paycheck. For some low- to middle-income workers, that means that they are at risk of homelessness themselves.

In his address at Saint Patrick’s, Pope Francis said, “There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”

The Lord is not indifferent to those in need; he hears the cries of the poor (Psalm 34). He comes to their aid and works his love through his disciples – through you and me and the whole body of Christ. Continuing a practice traced back as far as the first Christian community, as a local Church we are trying to address each piece of this problem through a number of programs.

For example, Catholic Charities staffs several shelters for men and women, together with health and employment services, and transitional housing for individuals and families able to move from homelessness toward independent living. Victory Housing is a non-profit agency of the archdiocese that focuses on building and managing affordable housing for seniors and families. In addition, organizations like Saint Ann Center for Children, Youth and Families allow us to both address immediate needs and to be part of a longer-term solution.

These programs offer invaluable relief and hope to those in need. This Year of Mercy, however, prompts us to ask, “Are we doing enough?” It is this kind of reflection that helps us assess the caliber of our practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

The charitable programs of Catholic Charities and other organizations can always use more support, including the protection of our religious liberties to provide such critical assistance without regulations that would require providers to violate their faith. There is also a need to make sure there is sufficient affordable housing available and if there are people living on the street, that they are helped to find their way to shelter. As Pope Francis reminds us, pointing to the words of Jesus himself, it is upon such service in love and mercy to others as this that we ourselves will be judged (Misericordiae Vultus, 15).

Sharing the Love and Joy of the Gospel at Faith Day at National’s Park

August 26th, 2016

Nats-FaithDay

Have you been following our Washington Nationals this summer? If so, you know that for most of the season they have been in first place in their division thanks to strong pitching and excellent hitting.

Going into the final weeks of the regular season, it will be exciting to see if they can remain at the top and how far they can go. As we cheer the team on, I am hoping you will join me for an early afternoon game tomorrow, August 28, which is Faith Day at National’s Park. Bring your family and friends, and then stay after the game for a special presentation of player testimonials and a live concert featuring local area choirs.

For every ticket purchased through this special website, five dollars will be donated to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. Learn more here.

As part of our #DrivewithFrancis outreach, we are bringing the Fiat 500L used by Pope Francis when he came to visit Washington and if you go by the centerfield main gate, you can snap a photo of the car. Inspired by our Holy Father’s call to always be aware of the needs of the most vulnerable, we are also going to invite people there to be a part of the Catholic Charities work team.

On the main concourse, Catholic Charities will be setting up a table highlighting their Cup of Joe program, which provides “breakfast to go” for people at area homeless shelters. We need your help in filling bags for our neighbors who spend their days on the street. Then the bags will be packed into the papal Fiat to be taken to help feed our sisters and brothers in need.

Both the game and the work of Catholic Charities highlight the good things that happen when we work as a team. In baseball, the individual talents of each player contribute to team success. It is not easy for a pitcher to earn a win without the support of good defense – and even the best defense needs to be matched by timely offense at the plate. Sometimes, a sacrifice is even asked of a batter in order to advance a runner already on base!

Extending the team analogy to the work of Catholic Charities – and the Church as a whole – we could never be effective without each member working together and praying together. Clergy and laity, employees and vast numbers of people young and old who volunteer their time and talents, all working together as a team. In recent years, Catholic Charities and individual parishes have teamed up to address the most serious needs of our communities. In addition to the players on the field, this ministry of love and mercy also depends on the generosity of donors, partnerships with agencies that specialize in certain areas, and the prayerful support of the large community.

A Time for Local Young People to SOAR

August 24th, 2016

SOAR Act

This summer has seen some positive steps taken by politicians from both sides of the aisle, but more remains to be done. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that, among other things, includes the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Reauthorization Act of 2016 (SOAR), which would extend the highly popular D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) through 2021. We hope for final passage of the overall legislation this fall.

The OSP program offers underprivileged families the opportunity and freedom to obtain the best education they can for their children. It is a proven means of providing for an equitable distribution of the education monies which we all contribute to through our taxes; it also has been demonstrated to bring greater academic success for the young people who participate. Specifically, the OSP program provides financial assistance to low-income parents so their children, instead of being consigned to a failing public school, can receive an indispensable quality education at a non-public school if they so choose.

Recognizing the fundamental right of parents to guide their children’s education, OSP is part of a three-pronged effort under the umbrella of the SOAR Act to increase educational opportunities for low-income families in the nation’s capital. Under this legislation, first inaugurated in 2004 through a bipartisan effort among District leaders and congressional legislators, annual federal funding is authorized equally for each of the three educational sectors that parents might send their children – public schools, charter schools, and non-public schools.

Maryland’s leaders demonstrated a similar bipartisan spirit earlier this year in approving the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program, which will fund scholarships for children from low-income families to attend non-public schools beginning in this upcoming school year. Again, parents have the choice and they have eagerly applied for the scholarships, reflecting the broad appeal of a program to provide fairer and more equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Since the inception of OSP in 2004, more than 6,600 District children – many of whom live in the city’s poorest neighborhoods – have received scholarships that have enabled them to receive a quality education at a non-public school. About 87 percent of these young people come from zones with public schools classified “in need of improvement.”

The OSP program opens the door to a brighter future for those who otherwise might be denied the key component to the opportunities for a better life: a good education. In a community where too many public school children drop out before graduating, studies have shown that OSP students achieve high academic scores and high graduation rates, and in turn more than 90 percent go on to college. Not surprisingly, the scholarship program has widespread support among people throughout the District. OSP parents themselves report high satisfaction rates and the number of applications each year exceeds the number of scholarships available.

In expressing support for reauthorization of SOAR and specifically OSP, the Washington Post states, “The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given. And because the program results in more federal money for D.C. public education and not less – another myth advanced by opponents – it’s time for Congress to act.”

Significantly, Mayor Muriel Bowser and eight members of the D.C. Council have urged congressional leaders of both parties to reauthorize the SOAR Act soon. Otherwise, this initiative which is so critical to young people’s futures will expire.

As Congress resumes work, it is only right that members consider the hopes of the children in this community so that they might SOAR as high as they can. SOAR reauthorization would be a win for public school students, a win for those who go to charter schools, and a win for disadvantaged families who seek a better future for their children through the OSP program.

Homily: Opening of Catholic Schools Mass

August 22nd, 2016

CSO-Homily3

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Monday, August 22, 2016

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord. It is a great joy for me to welcome all of you to this Mass for the Opening of Catholic Schools as we begin another academic / pastoral year in this archdiocese.

The importance of your role in the life of this archdiocesan Church and its charge to pass on the teaching of Christ is visibly demonstrated by the fact that we have all come together in huge number to ask God’s blessings on what we are about to undertake, once again, this year.

How appropriate that this opening Mass would take place as the Church celebrates the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We look to this quiet, gentle woman to see a unique person of faith who brought the light of Christ into our world.

The first reading for our Liturgy today is taken from the Prophet Isaiah. Here we are told that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

The contrast between darkness and light is found throughout the whole of Sacred Scripture. In the First Letter of Peter we are told how we have been brought out of darkness into his marvelous light. Paul, writing to the Romans, tells us to put aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “I am the light of the world” and we should walk while we have the light.

The Gospel story so familiar to all of us is the Annunciation to Mary that she was to be the bearer of the light. She herself was not the light but thanks to her faith and her willingness to serve the Lord God, she brought into this world the light in which you and I now walk. Is that not what our Catholic faith is all about and what our efforts at Catholic education are all about? We recognize Christ is the light and we want to share that light with the next generation – those who have been entrusted to our care.

This year’s opening Mass is one more testimony on the part of all of us that we continue the extraordinary mission of helping the next generation walk in the light.

It was less than a year ago that on the portico of this very Basilica, Pope Francis celebrated Mass and challenged all of us to “keep moving forward!”

A visible sign and remembrance of Pope Francis’ visit and message is his car – now christened “Pope Car 1” – that is parked outside this Basilica.

If you want to see it, you might want also to pass through the Holy Door of the Jubilee of Mercy at the main entrance to the Basilica. The door is a reminder of Pope Francis’ message that God’s mercy is always there for us, we simply have to walk through the entrance of God’s welcome.

Celebrating the first ever canonization on US soil, Pope Francis praised the example of Saint Junípero Serra, the famous 18th century Spanish Franciscan missionary to California. Father Serra’s motto, “Keep moving forward,” inspired his life and work and should likewise inspire our work in Catholic education. Our task is to bring the light and joy of the Gospel to those entrusted to our care. Pope Francis said, “The joy of the Gospel is something to be experienced, something to be known and lived only through giving it away, through giving ourselves away.”

Is that not what we attempt to do in Catholic education?

What Catholic education brings to the young people entrusted to our care is the perspective of faith. When we ask, How shall I live, what is the purpose of life, how should I direct my actions, we find our response in Jesus Christ. His Gospel gives us a perspective inspired by the wisdom of God.

Catholic education is a ministry of the Church. As a visible and enduring sign of your share – your participation in that mission and ministry – you are commissioned today, as some of you have already experienced. The certificate testifies to your acceptance by the Church of your role in the great teaching ministry of the Catholic Church which participates in the work of Christ, our Divine Teacher.

Jesus offers his people the words of truth and everlasting life, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). Today his teaching mission endures in those whom he sends.

The Church brings to us today what it has brought to the world for two thousand years.

It brings us the encounter with Jesus. It offers us an invitation to faith. It proclaims Christ’s words of truth and life.

It does this in a world not always prepared to hear and accept the message. We carry out our mission even though there are those who oppose the Gospel message and want to take Catholic identity out of our schools and replace it with a new politically correct, state supported morality.

When asked what does Catholic education provide and why do people work so hard to attend a Catholic school, my answer is three-fold: a Catholic school provides academically excellent education, it provides faith-based formation that allows each student to develop a moral foundation on which to stand for the rest of your life and thirdly, it gives us the vision and hope beyond the limits of a politically correct version of morality.

At the heart of our schools is Catholic identity. They exists to provide a structured context where students can experience what it means to say that each of us has a relationship with Christ and therefore, because of that, we share a bond with one another.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus came to tell us of a truly good, wholesome and right way to live. He taught us that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that there is a God-given plan to human living and that we are all capable of making our way through life as a family — responsible for each other and responsive to God’s law.

Even some who do not share our faith come to this school because they know that at its heart there is the acceptance of values motivated by our faith – values that present a specific vision or view of human life.

We should expect our schools to be different. Part of the reason they exists and why we gather in celebration of them today is because here we find a community that accepts values, that recognizes the importance of virtue, and that attempts to model what a good and just, caring and faithful society would be like.

In reality Catholic schools are a gift to the whole community and are recognized as centers of learning that foster personal development and growth enriched with a sense of self-fulfillment and worth and guided by basic and essential moral values.

Looking to the future of Catholic education, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm knowing that we bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus. Like Mary, who brought the light of Christ into the world by her faith filled response, “Let it be done to me according to your Word,” so, too, do all of us – all of you who are here today – offer the same faith filled answer, and do our part to share the light.

May God bless you and all who support Catholic education in the effort to make the Church’s vision of life come true.

The Psalms of Mercy

August 19th, 2016

psalm

Throughout history, the Psalms have been an important part of Jewish and Christian life, prayed in the liturgy and as part of personal devotion, together as a community and individually. The Psalms are traditionally chanted or sung, but they can be spoken as well, and they are a school of prayer for the way they recall the saving works of God and the experiences of his people and have turned them into prayer (CCC 2585-89).

In Hebrew, the Book of Psalms is called “Praises,” and looking through them, we see that they include various forms of prayer – praise, adoration, thanksgiving, petition and repentance. From at least the time of David, the people Israel have sung the Psalms and they were sung too by Jesus with Mary and Joseph when he was growing up, with his disciples during his ministry, and prayed even by the Lord on the Cross (Psalm 22:2).

Thousands of years after they were written, it is surprising how well the Psalms continue to capture feelings of joy or despair, fear or exultation. In fact, the Church father Saint Athanasius observed that the Psalms contain “all things human” – joy, thanksgiving, lamentation, cries for help, pleas for justice and appeals for mercy.

The Catechism explains that the prayer of the Psalms “recalls the saving events of the past, yet extends into the future, even to the end of history; it commemorates the promises God has already kept, and awaits the Messiah who will fulfill them definitively” (CCC 2586). At the same time, in a special way “the Psalms bring to the fore the grandeur of God’s merciful action,” said Pope Francis in calling for this Jubilee Year of Mercy (Misericordiae Vultus, 6).

For example, when we are troubled, discouraged, or anxious, we might turn to Psalm 103, which enjoins us to not forget the bountiful gifts of God, whose “mercy is from age to age” and “who pardons all your sins, and heals all your ills, who redeems your life from the pit [and] who fills your days with good things, so your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (103:17, 3-5). Psalm 145 also reassures us that “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy. The Lord is good to all, compassionate toward all his works” (145:8-9).

Another Psalm says, “Blessed is the one whose hope is in the Lord, who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, who gives bread to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord protects the resident alien, comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked” (146:5-9).

One very special hymn of praise, thanksgiving and hope in God’s mercy is Psalm 136, known as the “Great Hallel,” which “is traditionally sung at the end of the Jewish Passover meal and was probably also prayed by Jesus at the Last Supper celebrated with his disciples,” taught Pope Benedict XVI during his Wednesday audience series on prayer. The Psalm “unfolds in the form of a litany, marked by the antiphonal refrain: ‘for his mercy endures forever.’” The goodness of God in his many mighty works on behalf of his people are then recounted.

Pope Francis reflects that to “repeat continually, ‘for his mercy endures forever,’ as Psalm 136 does, seems to break through the dimensions of space and time, inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love. It is as if to say that not only in history, but for all eternity man will always be under the merciful gaze of the Father.” Furthermore, adds the Holy Father, “Knowing that Jesus himself prayed this psalm makes it even more important for us as Christians, challenging us to take up the refrain in our daily lives by praying these words of praise: ‘for his mercy endures forever’” (Misericordiae Vultus, 7).

Remembering the Divine Mercy of the Lord, we can confidently pray the Psalm called Miserere, which is Latin for “mercy” – “Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions. Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me. . . . Restore to me the gladness of your salvation; uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:3-5, 14).

The Psalms are a blessed gift for us to remember the goodness of God and his tender mercy. This sustains us in hope and challenges us to be merciful too.

Ben-Hur and the Impact of an Encounter with Christ

August 17th, 2016

For thousands of years, artists and writers have used their talents to bring to others the experience of the human condition encountering the transcendent. In particular, they have sought to depict in paint and stone, words and music, live theater and film, the mystery of faith in Jesus Christ – the events of his ministry, Passion, Resurrection and more. Responding to people’s lively desires as much as their own inspiration, they have also imagined what it would have been like to personally meet Jesus in those days and come to realize who he really is.

This led to numerous dramatic stories and artworks set in biblical times that attempt to portray the history of that era and the effect of being in the presence of Christ. One such story is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), the best-selling American novel of the 19th century that was written by Lew Wallace in the aftermath of the bloody American Civil War.

Now comes a new telling of this classic story of vengeance and forgiveness, alienation and reconciliation, and the impact of even a brief personal encounter with Jesus and his love. Opening this weekend in theaters across the country, Ben-Hur puts us face-to-face with the excitement of how being touched by Jesus in the midst of all our troubles and travails can change hearts and make our lives new again. The movie is co-produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the same team who made the feature film Son of God and the television mini-series The Bible, which saw record-breaking ratings.

Ben-Hur (2016) transports you back to the days of the Roman Empire and all its failings and glory to tell the riveting tale of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur and his once close and brother-like friend, a Roman named Messala. This new major motion picture is not intended to be a remake of the epic 1959 version starring Charlton Heston. Instead, the film presents this soul-searching story in a fresh light which engages in a range of human passions in such a way that we recognize ourselves in the characters and are inspired by the redemptive power of Christ’s mercy.

Throughout history, Christians have made use of the elements of popular culture to spread the message of the Gospel. In the early days of the Church, it was Greek and Roman art, architecture and philosophy. Today in the New Evangelization, those cultural elements include movies, television programs, podcasts, blogs and the ever-expanding universe of social media.

Mainstream films like Ben-Hur (2016) provide a wonderful occasion for us to both deepen our personal faith and also to begin to evangelize others in an engaging way by prompting reflection and discussion about the moral themes of the story and how, as with Judah and his family, Jesus can bring hope and healing to people. As part of that effort, selected religious leaders across the country, myself included, have offered short video commentaries on various scenes in the film, which I invite you to view. The archdiocese’s Father William Byrne has provided “A Catholic Take on Ben-Hur” as well. My reflections and those of Father Byrne may be seen here and here.

For the first people who encountered Jesus Christ, life was never the same. The same is true for us today. The ongoing Christian adventure continues.

The Assumption of Mary: A Bridge Between Earth and Heaven

August 15th, 2016

Assumption

Today we joyously celebrate the bodily assumption of our Blessed Mother into heaven. All of us who have ever turned to Mary as source of hope and solace know we can trust our prayers to her because of her maternal love for us and because of her closeness to Jesus.

When he taught the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, Pope Pius XII noted that from the beginning of the Church, and in every age, a devotion to Mary was part of the life of Catholics. “The holy Fathers and the great Doctors, in the homilies and sermons they gave the people on this feast day,” he said, “did not draw their teaching from the feast itself as from a primary source, but rather they spoke of this doctrine as something already known and accepted by Christ’s faithful. They presented it more clearly. They offered more profound explanations of its meaning and nature, bringing out into sharper light the fact that this feast shows, not only that the dead body of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained incorrupt, but that she gained a triumph out of death, her heavenly glorification after the example of her only begotten Son, Jesus Christ” (Munificentissimus Deus, 20).

As Pope Pius explained, because Mary was joined to Jesus in a unique and definitive way in the way she bore him in the womb, it would make sense that like her Son, she would share in his triumph over death by her immediate entry into heaven both spiritually and bodily.

In this way, in her assumption, Mary bridges for us our earthly and heavenly reality. Saint John Paul II affirmed also that “Mary contributes in a special way to the union of the pilgrim Church on earth, with the eschatological and heavenly reality of the Communion of Saints, since she has already been ‘assumed into heaven’” (Redemptoris Mater, 44). Mary, as Mother of the Church, is for us a sign of hope and a source of solace that the promise of eternal life is real, that the journey of this life will end for those who are faithful in the joy of heaven (see Lumen Gentium, 69).

This year’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Assumption is a special one here in the Archdiocese of Washington because it also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Washington D.C. Over the past century, as this part of the world experienced many challenges, the parish has been a sure sign of hope and a source of support for parishioners and all those who live nearby.

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of blessing the newly renovated and expanded Pope Francis Outreach Center at the Church of the Assumption. Growing out of the original Helping Hand Program established there in 1967, the Center provides food, clothing and material support for an area which has high unemployment and a 35 percent poverty rate. In the heart of the Pope Francis Center, visitors can also find spiritual assistance and comfort in the peace and quiet of a small chapel, close to the Lord and under the maternal embrace of our Blessed Mother.

The evangelizing mission of this parish inspired by Mary, assumed body and soul into heaven, is to invite residents of Congress Heights to find hope that the corporal and spiritual struggles of daily life can be transformed. In addition to the ministries at the church, Assumption’s pastor and parishioners engage in “street evangelization,” in which they walk through the neighborhood greeting neighbors and sharing with them the pearl of great value they have found, inviting them also to come and experience the love of Jesus.

Just as Blessed Mother Mary points the way toward Jesus, the parishioners of the Church of the Assumption are pointing the way to the presence of the Risen Christ, following the example of her perfect discipleship. Mary is, in fact, the model for us too. So, like her and in communion with her, let us also help and pray for our sisters and brothers in the world and commend them to her Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Trust in Jesus, Trust in Prayer

August 11th, 2016
Detail depicting Saint Clare from a fresco (1312–20) by Simone Martini

Detail depicting Saint Clare from a fresco (1312–20) by Simone Martini

Communities around the world have been touched by violence over the past spring and summer. Here in our own country, one repercussion of this experience is a lack of confidence. Many people wonder if they can rely on their neighbors, our elected leaders, or those whose job it is to protect us and our communities. Some lack the conviction that peace and security can be established or sustained.

This is not something new to our time, in fact, Saint Clare, the 13th century holy woman whose feast we celebrate today, had to confront the reality of an army that was set on plundering the religious places of Assisi, but she knew there was someone we could rely on. In the face of this danger, Clare chose to place her trust in Jesus and to seek his protection.

Years before, with the assistance of Saint Francis, Clare had founded a contemplative religious order that came to be known as the Poor Clares. They lived according to a rule of strict poverty and prayer – yet that was enough.

As the plundering army drew near to her monastery, Clare went out with the ciborium containing the Eucharist, placed it where it could be seen by the soldiers, and prayed, “Does it please Thee, O God, to deliver into the hands of these beasts the defenseless children whom I have nourished with Thy love? I beseech Thee, good Lord, protect these whom now I am not able to protect.” She then heard a voice saying, “I will have them always in my care.”

Clare continued to pray and then said to her nuns, “Have no fear, little daughters; trust in Jesus.” Consequently, the forces that were about to enter the monastery fell back and left.

This story of Saint Clare demonstrates in a dramatic way the power of prayer that flows from being close to the Blessed Sacrament. From the first generation, in fact, the devotional life of Catholics has been intensely Eucharistic.

When Jesus established the Blessed Sacrament, he gave a command: “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19). The Acts of the Apostles then reports that the people of the early Church “held steadfastly to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers (2:42). What is more, Jesus made it clear that the Eucharist is not something optional in Christian life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

The Second Vatican Council describes the Eucharist as being the source and summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, 11; CCC 1324). It is Jesus – and so it is the source of our life and love. Further, the Eucharist is not just the focus on our liturgical worship. We also need to keep the Eucharist at the center of our prayer life because that is how Jesus himself designed our prayer life.

As Catholics, we will always feel a kind of gravitational tug toward Jesus’ Real Presence. If you do not have a practice of visiting our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and you yearn to feel closer to him, to draw strength from him, the doors of our parish churches are open for you to come be near him and pray. Many of our parishes have a number of hours every week for Eucharistic Adoration, but we can also benefit from Jesus’ nearness in the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle. When we come before him in this way, we are making an act of faith. We are acknowledging the effort he has made to remain with us.

Prayer in communion with Saint Clare and all the saints, and entrusting our communities and cities to the Lord, is a practical way to respond to the uncertainty we may feel in the midst of social turmoil. Visiting with the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is trusting Jesus when he said, “I am with you always.”

The Treasures of the Church

August 10th, 2016
Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Francesco Trevisani

Martyrdom of St. Lawrence by Francesco Trevisani

One of the most enduring legacies of our faith is the memorialization of outstanding Christian men and women whose stories have been passed down from generation to generation, even when we know little about their lives or even the exact years in which they lived. This is the case with Saint Lawrence, martyr, whose feast we celebrate today and who lived in the third century under Pope Sixtus II, but of whom we know little of his life before the last days leading up to his death. What we do know is that the story for which he is remembered exemplifies the best of Christian living and for that reason it resonates in every age.

Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome who was entrusted with the oversight of the material assets of the Church, in particular the distribution of money and goods to the poor and needy. However, shortly after Pope Sixtus was arrested in the Catacombs of Saint Callixtus and summarily executed under the edict of Emperor Valerian, the Roman prefect demanded that the goods of the Church be given over by him to the state.

Saint Ambrose relates in a later account that Lawrence then gathered the poor, blind, lame, orphaned and widows. When the official asked where all of the promised riches were, Lawrence responded, “These are the treasures of the Church” (De officiis ministrorum, II:28).

According to tradition, Lawrence was then condemned to death by roasting on a red-hot gridiron. In time, a small shrine and then a basilica church were built over his tomb.

Saint Lawrence lived during one of the persecutions of Rome and by his charitable spirit and supreme witness, he exemplifies why the Church only grew in number and size by the end of the fourth century.

Those who follow Christ lead lives full of charity. Tertullian, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the martyrs, noted that Christians were most famous for the indiscriminate kindness they showed to their neighbors (Apologeticum, ch. 39). They lived lives of generosity, justice, and purity; and such a life made them happy. Christians had happy homes, and their pagan neighbors more and more wanted to have what Christians had.

“Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members,” teaches Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, 186). The Christian life is not a solitary experience. The social teaching of the Gospel is an essential part of its whole message.

This social dimension of the Gospel is very important to the conversation that we are having across the country about what unity of community looks like. A community is bound together by a “common good,” that is, by a goal that is shared, loved and sought after together by its members.

From Christ himself the Church learned that we should not selfishly seek earthly treasures. Rather, as children of the one Father, we should share property generously, show special solicitude for the poor and afflicted, and seek to structure our earthly lives in such a ways that the kingdom of God may begin to appear in our midst.

This is what the deacon Saint Lawrence embodied and it is what he proclaimed to the Romans in presenting those in need as the treasures of the Church. It is also what we in the body of Christ continue to embody today in our emphasis on charitable works.

The Value of a Single Human Life

August 9th, 2016

auschwitz

During his journey to Poland for World Youth Day, Pope Francis visited the notorious death camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau to offer up prayers for the more than one million people killed there under the Nazi program of extermination. For all who go there, it is an experience that stays with them forever.

Many of those sent to Auschwitz II-Birkenau and its two adjoining camps were condemned to the infamous gas chambers upon arrival. Others were murdered more slowly through starvation, exposure and disease during forced labor. Meanwhile, some prisoners were subjected to brutal medical experiments carried out by a medical profession that had long been corrupted.

Nine out of ten of the dead at Auschwitz were Jewish, among them Edith Stein who was consigned to the death chamber when she arrived in a crowded rail car. She was at the time a Discalced Carmelite nun who had taken the name Sister Teresa Blessed of the Cross, having entered the Catholic Church twenty years earlier. When the SS came for her, her sister Rosa who also joined the Carmelites, and other Jewish Christians in August 1942, she met her destiny with faith and calm, saying, “Come, we are going for our people.”

Today, we celebrate the feast day of Edith Stein, who was canonized a saint in 1998. Yet, in remembering this “eminent daughter of Israel” and “bride on the Cross,” as Saint John Paul II referred to her at her Canonization Mass, “we must also remember the Shoah, that cruel plan to exterminate a people – a plan to which millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters fell victim.”

One place dedicated to keeping that memory alive is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington, D.C. The permanent exhibition includes personal testimonies, a rail car used to take women, men and children to the camps, a model of the gas chambers, a replica of the crematorium ovens, and much more, including 4,000 shoes and other personal items of the victims. To personalize the experience, you are invited at the beginning to take an identification card of a real person who was persecuted by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

There is much to be learned at the Holocaust Museum. Nevertheless, ultimately “this Museum is not an answer. It is a question.”

Jews were the primary targets of Nazi genocide, with about six million systematically killed in the Shoah, also called the Holocaust. Others, including Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, enemies of the state, and other social undesirables were also persecuted and killed as the Nazi regime put into practice its ideology of racial hygiene, biological superiority and hate, including programs of forced sterilization and euthanasia carried out by the medical profession against those found to have a “genetic disease,” the disabled, mentally ill and the incurable sick.

How does this barbarism happen? What leads a civilized and enlightened people to do such inhuman things to other people? How could they go along with it and cooperate with it?

It begins with accepting or acquiescing in the idea that there is such a thing as a human life not worthy of life. It happens because of the belief that we, individually or collectively, have power over life and death, and that it can be morally acceptable or justifiable to end, or help end, another person’s life if that life is inconvenient or if the person fits into a certain category. It happens when a person is dehumanized or deemed useless in what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” In this depreciation of the sacred inviolability of human life, the German people under Nazism are not alone.

One of the lessons to be learned from a visit to the Holocaust Museum is that we cannot lay such crimes solely at the feet of a collection of depraved and sadistic ideologues – ordinary people have a responsibility too for what happens in the community and nation. One of the special exhibitions, “Some Were Neighbors,” explores this question of how otherwise decent people could become complicit in evil.

Infamy happens too when there is a numbing of conscience in those who might do something to stop it. In the face of evil, wherever and whenever it occurs, we cannot simply avert our attention – we must confront it and think about it and speak about it. Silence and inaction are the allies of atrocity.

Every person has an obligation to respect and protect human life and dignity. The intentional ending of innocent life does not need to rise to the horrific proportions of the Nazi genocide before it becomes wrong and before we speak and act. The evil begins with the very first person who is oppressed or killed.

In their visitor’s brochure, the Holocaust Museum asks, “What is your responsibility now that you’ve seen, now that you know?” As the late Elie Wiesel says in response, “Each individual must answer that question for himself or herself.”