World Day of the Poor

November 18th, 2017

From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has implored us to go and share Christ’s love and hope with those on the margins of society, especially the poor.  Now, to promote this culture of encounter even more, the Holy Father has established a World Day of the Poor, the first of which is being observed tomorrow, November 19.  Appealing to people’s consciences, he encourages “men and women of good will everywhere to turn their gaze on this day to all those who stretch out their hands and plead for our help and solidarity. . . . everyone, independent of religious affiliation, is invited to openness and sharing with the poor through concrete signs of solidarity and fraternity” (Message for the First World Day of the Poor).

Lifting up for us the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, the pontiff who took his name urges us to welcome the grace of God’s merciful charity into our hearts so as to shape our lives in the Christian imperative of love of God and love of neighbor.  In particular, Saint Francis recognized that it is not enough just to embrace lepers or give them alms – instead, the saint chose to stay with them and get to know and love them.

In the same way, Pope Francis tells us that thinking of the poor “simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience” is insufficient.  “We are called,” he says in his Message, “to draw near to the poor, to encounter them, to meet their gaze, to embrace them and to let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude.”

The Holy Father demonstrated that message of love during his pastoral visit to Washington in 2015 when, in addition to meeting the powerful in Congress and at the White House, he traveled to Saint Patrick’s Church to meet and pray with some of the poor helped by Catholic Charities, as well as with volunteers, staff members and benefactors.  Each year, this ministry of mercy of our archdiocese serves about 120,000 of our sisters and brothers in need, offering not only material assistance, but loving concern and the hope of knowing that someone is there for them.

As we look forward to Thanksgiving next week, when many of us will feast on more food than perhaps we should, Pope Francis reminds us that, having received God’s bounty, we cannot be indifferent to those in poverty whose faces are marked by hardship, suffering and the denial of human dignity. Instead, “we need to hear the cry of the poor and commit ourselves to ending their marginalization,” including welcoming them “as honored guests at our table,” praying together and sharing the Eucharist.

Each of us can do something.  Whatever we do for those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless or afflicted, we do for Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46).

Throwback Thursday: Seek First the Kingdom

November 16th, 2017

We read in the Gospels how Jesus urges his listeners to not be anxious about worldly concerns, but to “seek first the kingdom of God” and God in his providence will provide the things we need (Matthew 6:25-33).  “Do not be afraid any longer,” he says, “for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

John the Baptist heralded the coming of this kingdom (Matthew 3:2) and Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his public life, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  Throughout his ministry, in fact, the Lord would preach the Good News of the kingdom.

It is clear from what is recorded in the New Testament that the announcement of the kingdom was not intended to be for one generation alone.  So what is this “kingdom” that Jesus says should be a priority in our lives?  Why did I think the kingdom so important that I included it in my episcopal motto, “Thy Kingdom Come,” as well as in the title of this blog, “Seek First the Kingdom”?  Where is this kingdom?  What are its distinguishing characteristics?

In our day, the kingdom is often misunderstood and misconstrued. Some think of it as a metaphor – a symbol of what the world would be like if more people would be nice to one another. People should be nice to one another, but God’s kingdom is not reducible to niceness.  Furthermore, when Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom is at hand, he was not simply speaking symbolically. It is a living reality.

To help us grasp the mystery of God’s kingdom, Jesus spoke in parables and worked miracles to confirm the truth of what he had to say.  For example, he says that the kingdom is like a priceless pearl or a field where a treasure is hidden; it is like yeast causing dough to rise or seed sown in a field to yield a harvest (Matthew 13:24-46).  Interspersed throughout the teaching on the kingdom, the Gospels abound with stories of Jesus healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the multitudes, driving out evil spirits, calming storms, and raising the dead.

All this comports with Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom when, at the beginning of his ministry, he entered the synagogue and read a scroll from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (61:1-2).  Then he announced to the people that the prophecy was being fulfilled in him (Luke 4:16-21).  What he was saying, in terms everyone could recognize, was that the kingdom had come.

What then is the kingdom?  As we see in Jesus’ teachings, it is a kingdom of life, truth, goodness, peace and love, which continually tries to break into our closed and too often narrowly focused world.  In other words, and before all else as the Second Vatican Council taught, “the kingdom is clearly visible in the very Person of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 5).  The kingdom is the living presence of the Lord himself, God who is Love and Truth. Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom of God is at hand” because he is at hand. 

Throughout his public ministry, Jesus laid the foundation for the enduring presence of God’s kingdom in the Church, his Body in the world today, which would continue his saving work of the Gospel.  The challenge of Jesus to his Church, to you and me, his disciples, is that in the midst of all the things that make up our daily life, we keep our hearts clearly focused on something that is not as visible as the creation around us, but is every bit as real – the presence of God in our lives.  He asks that we seek this kingdom first, and that we seek to share this “priceless pearl” with those we encounter and thereby renew the temporal order.

Pope Francis puts it this way:  The Gospel we are called to proclaim “is about the kingdom of God (cf. Luke 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity” (Evangelii Gaudium, 180).

In seeking first this kingdom and proclaiming the Good News, in what we say and what we do, we offer humanity a different way of seeing life and the world around us.  We bring a fuller vision of life than what the world by itself has to offer, we bring a kingdom of light and love, salvation and peace.


Serving the Ministry of Bishops and the Portion of God’s Flock Entrusted to Them in the United States

November 13th, 2017

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) gathers for its fall general assembly, this week also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of this country’s national conference of bishops in service to the Church.  What we know today as the USCCB has its roots in the National Catholic War Council, which was formed in 1917 to facilitate contributions of the Catholic faithful for the care of troops during World War I.  This was succeeded soon thereafter by the National Catholic Welfare Council, which subsequently became a conference, to focus on such concerns as peace, education, immigration and social action through the lens of Catholic social teaching.

Later, the Second Vatican Council placed renewed emphasis on collegiality and affirmed the good and value of associations of bishops from a given area working together (Christus Dominus, 36-41).  The bishops here responded with the creation in 1966 of the dual National Conference of Catholic Bishops to attend to Church affairs and the United States Catholic Conference, which also utilized religious and lay staff to address issues of concern in the larger society.  In 2001, these structures were combined once again to become the USCCB that exists today.

Like the college of bishops as a whole, the U.S. national conference has taken its lead from the preaching and teaching of the Holy Father.  In turn, it has invited all Catholics to active participation in the building up of the kingdom of God through the implementation of these shared priorities. 

Over the last century, the bishops’ conference here has focused on such wide-ranging issues as catechesis, including publication of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, health care and guidelines for Catholic facilities, peace, labor and economic justice, faithful citizenship, migrants and refugees, multi-cultural diversity, and the sin of racism.  In addition, the USCCB last year adopted a strategic plan that identifies five areas of priority today: evangelization, marriage and family life, human life and dignity, vocations and religious freedom.

These priorities, which pick up key themes of the pontificate of Pope Francis and are being carried out through the work of diocesan and parish ministries, point to the unity that binds this archdiocese and other local Churches with the Church Universal.  In fact, the Holy Father has asked that conferences see their work as an action of the whole Church – that is pastors and flock, walking and working together to explore the needed pastoral responses to the challenges of today.

Throwback Thursday: Communion in Service to Jesus Christ and His Church

November 9th, 2017

As Catholics, we live not simply as individuals, but also in the unity of the Body of Christ that is the Church, which is meant to be a reflection of the communion of persons in the Holy Trinity.  “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body,” teaches Saint Paul. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:20, 13).

Thus, individual Catholics and Catholic institutions like schools, universities and charities should not see themselves as autonomous entities, but as parts of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, sharing in her life, mission and tradition (cf. Lumen Fidei, 22, 39, 47).  As Paul adds, “If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body” (1 Corinthians 12:15).

Together, we form a unity, with a co-responsibility for the mission given to the Church to be a sign and instrument of salvation in the Risen Christ (Lumen Gentium, 1).  Within this communion with the Lord and one another, the essential and primary role of every constituent part of the Church – including each of the clergy and laity, orders and institutions – is to invite people to encounter Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6).  However well we may excel at other things, if we do not do this, we have failed in a fundamental purpose.

The work of the evangelizing disciple, to which Pope Francis calls all of us, unfolds through a wide range of efforts appropriate to each part of the body, but the goal is always the same.  In living continuity with the Lord, we are each summoned to bear witness to him, passing on to others the truth he reveals about God and ourselves as human persons.

At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of the intense unity that makes him one with those who love him:  “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  The vine is what gives life, and the vine and branches are one living reality.

The branches that are Catholic individuals and institutions will live and bear fruit only insofar as they are attached to the vine which nourishes them.  If they are cut off from the vine that is the Lord who gives us our being and identity, if there is discontinuity with Jesus and the Church and the teachings that have been revealed to her, then they will cease to flourish.

But connected to the vine, in communion and solidarity with the Magisterium, the Pope and local bishop, we receive the richness of Truth, of God’s word, which has the power to nurture and sustain each aspect of our society and thereby blossom and bear fruit.  So it is with the members of the Church and Catholic institutions, and with those serving in ministries as paid employees or volunteers, as well as with those students attending Catholic schools and universities.  In order to thrive, each of these and all of us need to remain in communion with Christ, the Church and her mission including advancing his Gospel message.

Some may say that this way is not for them.  They might want to tread a different path or otherwise pursue worldly priorities instead.  They are free to do so, but they are not free to demand that the Church’s institutions or teachings change to suit their beliefs.

Others might maintain that the values of academic freedom and engaging in dialogue with the world means accepting into institutions of learning all ideas as equally valid, that everything is up for grabs and there are no norms and lasting guides to help us through life.  However, one should not “confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible,” Pope Francis tells us (Amoris Laetitia, 34).

There is truth.  It is only if we remain in that truth, which is Jesus Christ and his teaching, that we are set free (John 8:32). Indeed, human freedom is corrupted and Catholic schools and ministries are disfigured when pressed into the service of ignorance, prejudice, or contempt for the revealed truth, particularly truth about the human person.

In these times, it is an urgent task for us to stay connected to the transcendent reality of our existence as one body in Christ so that we can radiate his light to the world.  This is a common responsibility, a common mission, and it requires that each live and act in communion and solidarity.  This is the charge and the means given to us by Jesus so that his work, accomplished in his death and Resurrection, might be re-presented in our day and applied to our generation.

Black Catholic History Month: Celebrating Steadfast Witness

November 7th, 2017

Fittingly, the same month in which we commemorate the communion of saints, the Church in the United States also celebrates Black Catholic History Month, remembering and honoring the historic legacy and steadfast witness of the faithful with African or Caribbean heritage.  In fact, this proud faith history can be traced back to antiquity long before other nations heard the Good News as popes, saints and martyrs from Africa helped shepherd the early Church and make it what it is today.

In this land too, men and women of the African diaspora have helped shape the life of the Church in ways that all of us can find inspiration, whatever our ancestry. Our Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach offers resources recounting this remarkable movement of faith which has included times of great joy, but also sorrow.

The archdiocese is celebrating this rich heritage with our annual Mass this Friday evening at Saint Joseph Church in Largo.  Bishop Roy E. Campbell, Jr., will be the celebrant at this liturgy, which will also honor the archdiocese’s Gospel Choir and their steadfast witness in music.

The local history of Catholics of African and/or Caribbean descent is one of great achievements, vibrant community, social ministry and heroic Christian witness.  For example, Saint Augustine Parish – the “mother church” of African-American Catholics in Washington – was founded first as a school in 1858 by a group of emancipated men and women who left a legacy of dedication and the strength that is found in God.

Many of these courageous people in history suffered grave evils and insuperable obstacles, including slavery, segregation, oppression and indifference, to the everlasting shame of our nation. Yet, as I note in my pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, they persevered in constant faith.  As we face prejudice and injustice today, we must remember their stories and firm hope that the Lord walks with us.

Black Catholic History Month is an invitation to learn more and share this history which enriches our family of faith, including the stories of those being promoted for canonization: Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), known for his charity; Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (1794-1882), founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; Venerable Mother Henriette Delille (1812-1862), founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family; Julia Greeley (c.1835-1918), an evangelizer and model of mercy; and Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897), the first U.S.-born African-American priest.

Added to these holy ones are countless others who have made invaluable contributions to the life of the Church.  In the Spirit who makes us one people, our family of faith rejoices in, and gives thanks to God for, this manifestation of the kingdom in our midst.

Violence And Death Will Not Have The Last Say

November 5th, 2017

It was only a few short weeks ago that the nation mourned the horrific violence in Las Vegas and today we are again confronted with the news of another mass shooting, this time at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  Initial reports indicate that more than two dozen worshipers were killed and another two dozen injured.

As we continue to learn more, our first response is and must be to pray for the fallen and their loved ones.  May the God of all mercies, who comforts us in our afflictions, welcome those who have died into the light of his heavenly kingdom, bring healing to the wounded, and console their family and friends with his peace and love.

In recent years, we have offered up so many such prayers – too often – and I have written far too many similar blog posts about the tragedy of lives that have been shattered because of deadly violence in this nation and in the world.  Amidst so much evil and suffering, as those personally touched seek to persevere through the anguish and we struggle to try to make sense of it all, we can only find solace in the Lord.  We know that he loves us and that he will see us through these dark days.

While we may be confronted by death, destruction and suffering yet another time, as Pope Francis has said often, let us not be robbed of our hope.  We must never let ourselves, our vision of life, our understanding of the ultimate goodness of humanity, be overwhelmed by momentary violence, by sporadic hatred and by the encroachment of the power of darkness. We must ask God to give all of us the strength to walk in the light of God’s love.

Throwback Thursday: The Universal Call to Holiness

November 2nd, 2017

Yesterday, the Church celebrated All Saints Day, a solemnity for all the saints in heaven, known and unknown.  Today is All Souls Day, which the Church sets aside for us to remember and cherish those members of our spiritual family who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.  In particular, we offer special prayers for the souls of all the faithful departed that they be counted among the saints in heaven, whose special feast we celebrated yesterday.

When we profess our belief in “the communion of saints,” we do not mean only those who have ended their earthly pilgrimage and are now with God.  In our journey through life, each of us is called to grow in holiness and be a saint here and now.   Indeed, we must become saints if we are to enter heaven.

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church tells us that “all Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives – and indeed through all these – will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will” (Lumen Gentium, 41).  In this way, we are known to Jesus as his family (Matthew 12:48-50).

But what is the divine will?  What does God ask of me and you?

Saint Paul urges us to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). We should put away the old self of our former way of life, speak the truth and be compassionate and forgiving (Colossians 3:5-13).  “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory,” he says, “rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

The one word that describes these teachings is “love.”  As revealed by the Lord Jesus in his life and teachings and throughout salvation history, “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him” (1 John 4:16).  To rest in God, to see God, to be fully alive – this describes the saints.  It is through communion with the Holy One that are we sanctified. To abide in him, to be a saint, we need only love.

“Charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness,” the Council Fathers confirm. “It is charity which guides us to our final end. It is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor which points out the true disciple of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 42).

Such love is a challenge in a world that urges us to think only of ourselves, of our own wants and desires.  It has been this way since the original sin of the first man and woman choosing to return God’s love with infidelity (Genesis 3:1-13).

But the Holy Spirit helps us to change.  The Spirit of Love and of Truth makes conversion from a sinner into a saint possible – if only we say “yes” to his grace and apply it faithfully in our lives.  We are sanctified in a particular way through the gift of the Spirit in baptism and the other sacraments, which free us from death in sin and renew us to the fullness of life in grace as children of God.

This conversion, this turning to holiness, is a necessary part of Christian life.  Our purpose is to be transformed into Christ.  This is why Jesus came among us, and nothing could be more transformative than this “divinization” of the human person.  Through loving acceptance of the grace of the Spirit, by the love of the Crucified and Risen Christ, we are perfected in God and with God.  We are sanctified and made saints.

“The Challenge of Racism Today” Pastoral Letter

November 1st, 2017

Today, I have issued a pastoral letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, which I invite you to read, reflect upon and share with others.  It is my hope that all of us in this archdiocesan Church might then join together in a renewed effort to confront what continues to be a grave evil and sin in our society, and to drive it and other intolerance out of our hearts, our lives and our community.

As I discuss in this letter, our faith helps us to see each other as members of God’s family, but that the divisive force of racism continues to be felt in our land and society.  We are called to face, confront and overcome this evil which has wounded so many in our nation’s history and still today.  It is imperative also to address other forms of intolerance and prejudice that are likewise a denial of fundamental human dignity and are obviously not a part of God’s plan that we are made equal in his image and likeness as part of one human family.

In this struggle to remove the attitudes that nurture racism and the actions that express it, we must show how the differences we find in skin color, national origin or cultural diversity are enriching.  Each person should be seen in his or her uniqueness as a reflection of the glory of God and a full, complete member of the human family.

Intolerance and racism will not go away without a concerted effort on everyone’s part.  But as members of the Church, failing to do so is not an option – we are called to be witnesses to the unity of God’s family and, therefore, to be a living testimony to the inclusiveness that is a graced sign of our oneness.  In this effort, we place our confidence in the Lord with the conviction that in some personal way ways we can help to resolve it.

One Family in the Communion of Saints

October 31st, 2017

Halloween is traditionally a day in our country for children and others who are young at heart to dress up in costumes and have a bit of frivolous fun.  Of course, in the Church, the day points to something far greater: The origin of the word “Halloween” is from the old English “All Hallows Eve,” that is, it is the Vigil of All Saints Day.

On this day tomorrow, November 1, we celebrate the saints, those holy and heroic women and men who have gone before us virtuous and undaunted.  They have given us examples of what it means to follow Christ, and this solemnity reminds us how through perseverance, faith, love and grace, they have now arrived at full communion with God in heaven. They have achieved the goal to which we all are called.

Though we on earth may still be far from heaven, we can feel a closeness to the saints because we are all members of the same family.  This is why we feel comfortable invoking their names – Saints Thérèse, Francis, Augustine, Bernadette, Padre Pio and many more – and asking their intercession.  While we can call on any of the holy ones now in heaven, there are some who have a special connection to us here in America and, in recognition of the role they have played in the life of the Church, their images now adorn the Trinity Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  In addition to our Blessed Mother Mary, Patroness of the United States, they include Saints Juan Diego, Junípero Serra, Kateri Tekakwitha, Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, Katharine Drexel, Rose Philippine Duchesne, Frances Cabrini, Damien de Veuster, Marianne Cope, Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres, Lorenzo Ruiz, Josephine Bakhita, Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, as well as Blessed Pope Paul VI.

There are countless more saints who may not be officially canonized, but their names are known to God and they also intercede for us. Residing now in the communion of the One who is the fullness of Love, all the saints bid us all to follow them, to be holy ourselves here and now, not merely at the end of our earthly sojourn.

All Saints Day teaches us that the communion of saints is not limited to those in heaven.  Each member of the Church is called to be a saint during his or her own pilgrim journey on this earth.  No one says it is easy.  But through faith, perseverance, prayer and love, by the grace of God, we can grow in holiness in our lives until that day we arrive at full communion with him, able to stand before his throne of justice, interceding for others like the saints in heaven now do.

Discerning the Call of God

October 28th, 2017

God intimately dwells within us by the gift of his Holy Spirit, which also unites us to one another by the divine love that is poured into our hearts.  By the grace of the Spirit, we can trust as well that the Lord will answer when we find ourselves asking, “What is it that God wants of me?” Learning how to receive the answer is called discernment.

The spiritual practice of discernment, which is an important part of every Christian’s life, is often connected in people’s minds to a decision related to one’s state in life. For example, “discerning a vocation” is one way we talk about a person praying, thinking and speaking with a vocations director about the priesthood or consecrated religious life.  However, there are other kinds of discernment. For anyone who desires to love God above all things, such prayerful reflection and listening to the Spirit is a part of everyday life as we seek to make the kind of choices that bring us closer to the Lord.

Discernment is not just limited to individuals but is also the gift and responsibility of the Christian community.  For this reason, it will feature prominently in the discussions today at our biannual Catechetical Day, which has as its theme, “Vocations and Holiness: I am a Mission.” Presented by our archdiocesan Office of Catechesis, this gathering will offer a number of workshops that focus on the practice of discernment and on the varied roles that parents, catechists, school teachers and pastoral leaders can have in the life of our young people. Our prayer is that this will be a grace-filled experience of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our community.

Pope Francis reminds us that youth need the tools to practice good discernment –  prayer, time for quiet reflection, understanding of the faith and the accompaniment of adults.  In turn, he says to young people,  “Jesus looks at you and invites you to go with him.” Then he adds, “I am sure that, despite the noise and confusion seemingly prevalent in the world, this call continues to resonate in the depths of your heart so as to open it to joy in its fullness. This will be possible to the extent that, even with professional guides, you will learn how to undertake a journey of discernment to discover God’s plan in your life. Even when the journey is uncertain and you fall, God, rich in mercy, will extend his hand to pick you up” (Letter presenting preparatory document for 2018 Synod on “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”).

The goal of all good discernment is to make decisions that reveal our love for God and our trust that as a loving Father, he truly knows what is best for us. While God may invite us “to set out towards a future which is unknown,” we should not be afraid.  As Pope Francis affirms, the journey the Lord calls us to undertake is “one which will surely lead to fulfilment, a future towards which he himself accompanies us.”