The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter

February 22nd, 2017

St Peter's Basilica

The purpose of sacred art in any Catholic church is to teach us something about our faith and ultimately lead us to Jesus. In Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s soaring masterpiece at the Altar of the Chair shows what is traditionally presented as Saint Peter’s “cathedra,” which is Latin for “chair,” encased in gilded bronze and being lifted to heaven by four Fathers of the Church – Saints Ambrose and Augustine from the West and Saints John Chrysostom and Athanasius from the East.  At the top of the dramatic work, rays of light and angels swirling in clouds surround an alabaster window depicting a dove that symbolizes how Saint Peter and his successors are guided by the Holy Spirit in leading people to heaven.

This artwork, which is behind the papal high altar directly below which lie the bones of the fisherman, and the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter that we celebrate today both offer a reminder to all of us of how we are connected to the leader of the Apostles who was the first pope.  Today, he bears the name of Francis, the successor of Peter who like him and every pope since remains the touchstone of our faith and the “rock” upon which Jesus promised to build his Church.

From “cathedra” is derived the word “cathedral,” the place where sits the chair of a bishop as a successor of the Apostles.  The pope’s chair symbolizes his enduring teaching authority, just as the bishop’s chair does in every cathedral around the world, including the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, which is the mother church for the Archdiocese of Washington.  In explaining what the chair of Saint Peter and a bishop’s chair represents, Pope Benedict XVI said, “From this seat, as teacher and pastor, he will guide the journey of the faithful in faith, hope and charity.”

Last year on this feast day during the Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis urged pastors to make their own the words of Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) and to keep their thoughts fixed on Jesus, “the beginning and the end of all actions of the Church.” From this profession of faith, he added, each pastor takes up his charge to care for that portion of the flock entrusted to him.

The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, inspired by Bernini’s artistry, offers a reminder of that fisherman who dropped his nets to follow and walk with Jesus on a journey to heaven that the Successors of Peter, from Linus to Francis, have continued to lead us on for nearly two millennia.

The Definitive Blessing of Life in the Glory of Heaven

February 19th, 2017

Last Things - Heaven

What lies beyond death is shrouded in mystery, something that we cannot fully comprehend, but Jesus Christ offers us the Good News of heaven, of new and everlasting life even after our earthly bodies have died and our temporal existence has ended. Still, all human attempts to describe precisely what heaven is like will fail.

This much we can say with complete assurance – despite popular imagining, in heaven, we do not become angels and we do not spend our time playing harps on clouds. Nor is it just like this world lived in time, only forever, to be experienced as “an unending succession of days.” Most would agree that would be monotonous and even boring (Spe Salvi, 10, 12). Instead, God and heaven are in eternity, that is, they transcend the progression of time and are an ever-present reality where all is ever fresh and new.

In the Creed, we allude to the end, but we speak of it as a beginning, something we “look forward to.” While this earthly life is a great gift from God, we were made for something greater. God’s plan is that our old flesh be taken off and our bodies resurrected in Christ, to be given new glorified bodies fit for eternal life in heaven.

Scripture describes heaven “in images: life, light, peace, wedding feast, wine of the kingdom, the Father’s house, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise: ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’” (CCC 1027). In the heavenly kingdom, “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Theologians have also traditionally spoken of “the beatific vision,” of the happiness of seeing the essence of God intuitively and face to face, rather than by faith (CCC 1028; cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12, 1 John 3:2), but the blessings of heaven go beyond even this.

In its most fundamental sense, to be in heaven is to live in the fullness of the life of God and his infinite love and truth (CCC 1024-25), which we received as a seed in baptism. This blessed communion and resurrected eternal life with God and in God brings perfect peace and joy. It is like “the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality,” expressed Pope Benedict XVI. “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy” (Spe Salvi, 12).

God implores us to choose this life; he does not will for anyone the “second death” that is hell. God wants the entirety of his human creation to have eternal life with him in heaven and we have been given his Son Jesus, the Church and the sacraments to help us attain it. For our part, ultimately when we get right down to it, just as people have questions about the Last Things, God has one of his own for each of us. And here Blessed Mary is instructive. The Lord asks us a simple question which calls for a straight answer – Yes or no?

Do we want God in our life, yes or no? Realizing that there is no eternal life or heaven apart from the Lord, we answer by what we believe, profess and do. If one has fashioned a life of goodness and love fit for heaven as shown by their conduct here, if they have accepted and cooperated with God’s grace as best as they understood it – that is, if their answer is “yes” to God – we have his trustworthy promise of heaven.

Hopefully, by being mindful of the Last Things, we will make our life a “yes” to God and his love and truth. It is my hope too that this brief exploration of the Last Things in this blog series will inspire you to learn more about and prayerfully reflect upon these realities and then have discussions with others and continue to ask questions.

This is the sixth entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.

The Mystery and Tragedy of Hell

February 17th, 2017
"Visit to hell" by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega

“Visit to hell” by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega

As much as we might prefer to deny it, hell is a reality (CCC 1034-35). But exactly what hell is like and how it is experienced is couched in imagery and mystery.

Scripture uses two very different pictures to describe hell – unquenchable fire, yet also cold darkness. Dante’s The Inferno depicts hell with various levels, with Satan at the center, frozen in ice. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, envisions a gray town where residents increasingly turn inward as they move farther apart. In Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, where the characters are forced to spend eternity together, “hell is other people.”

Far worse than these images is the reality of hell. Furthermore, contrary to wide belief, God does not send anyone to hell. No one who might be in hell is there because God willed it. Rather, people send themselves to hell by their own choice.

To begin to grasp it all, we must start with the understanding that heaven is eternal life with God who is Love and Truth and Life itself. It is precisely because God loves humanity that hell is even possible. Love by its very nature is voluntary – to be love it must be freely given and freely received.

God wants to share his love and life with all, but because he loves us and is Love, he does not compel anyone to love him back. Rather, we each have free choice of the will and God will respect our choices. We can choose to live in God’s love, grace and truth, or we can choose not to. God will not impose his love or salvation upon anyone and this cannot be said to be unjust. God will not force anyone to be united with him in heaven if they do not indicate they want a relationship with him in this life.

This is the essence of hell – definitive self-exclusion and eternal separation from God, and thus separation from love and from truth (CCC 1033-37) – and there could be no worse fate. Yet, if we always think about ourselves and choose to live our way rather than God’s way, believing that we do not want or need him, if we choose not to genuinely love God and our neighbor and live against truth and the Holy Spirit’s voice in our conscience, which is called “sin,” we injure our relationship with God (CCC 1849-50). Ultimately, one’s actions and choices might rupture entirely that relationship with the Lord who is Life, so that they are “doomed to die” if reconciliation with God is not sought before death. God will forgive any sin no matter how grievous if the person only turn to him, but this cannot happen if forgiveness is neither contritely sought nor accepted for whatever reason.

The mystery of hell remains disturbing. We have every good reason to dread the possibility that persons created for eternal life could shape their wills in a way as to be forever apart from God. We take consolation, however, in the recognition that Jesus died on the Cross to save us from such an end if we are willing before death to open our hearts to his love, grace and truth and set aside what would separate us from him.

This is the fifth entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.

The Questions of Purgatory and Limbo

February 16th, 2017

Purgatory-LastThings

Any discussion on the Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – is incomplete without taking up the matters of purgatory and “limbo.”

In the popular imagination, purgatory is thought of as a place not unlike a waiting room. In fact, purgatory is not so much a location as it is a temporary state of being or process.  Furthermore, while some have objected to the concept of purgatory, properly understood it should not be that controversial. Nor should it be feared. In fact, if one is “in” purgatory, they can rejoice because they are on their way to heaven (CCC 1030).

When someone dies in mortal sin, that is having deliberately acted in a way that now separates them from God, that separation continues after death, a state which is called hell.  Meanwhile, some people die burdened with lesser or venial sins, imperfections and failures which wound love and mar spiritual life.  But such persons are still in the friendship of God. Because heaven is a place of pure holiness, this impurity of sin must necessarily be removed from the soul to enter. Only if healed and purged of impurities can we enter into that life which is blessed communion with God, rejoicing in his infinite goodness.

This process of purification is called “purgatory,” in which we are transformed and purified in a way that may be experienced as suffering, but “it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God” (Spe Salvi, 47). This purification is entirely different from those in hell who suffer eternally the pained anguish of being separated from God and his love; it is not “hell-lite” (CCC 1031).

The Church’s teaching on purgatory finds a solid foundation in scripture, which also speaks of the practice of praying for the dead. In the Second Book of Maccabees, we encounter the tradition of praying for those who have died so that they might be cleansed of their sins. Since the communion of those in purgatory with the faithful on earth is not broken, when the last breath is taken, it is a “holy and pious thought” to pray for the departed “that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:45-46).  This is the greatest charity we can do the deceased.

Quite different from the teaching of purgatory is the idea of “limbo,” which in the past was advanced by some to address questions about God’s mercy and justice toward unbaptized babies, understanding that the grace of baptism is necessary to remove the impediment of Original Sin.  Today, as noted in a 2007 report from the International Theological Commission, this theological hypothesis – which has never been doctrine – has largely been disfavored in favor of a greater prayerful hope of a way of salvation in the mercy of our Lord who desires that all should be saved (95-103).

This is the fourth entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.

Judgment and Getting a Good Judgment

February 14th, 2017

Last-Judgement-Michelangelo

In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Jesus stands as the awesome central figure. This reminds us of the Gospel’s final rendering of justice depicting those who have been found worthy and those who have not (Matthew 25:31-46).

We know that two kinds of judgments will be rendered and we cannot help but ask how we might be judged. The short answer is that the Lord who extended us mercy from the Cross will simply reveal the truth about what we have made ourselves to be in our earthly life. At the point of death, our choices become final and we become the result of those decisions made of our own free will. All the illusions and falsehoods that we now clothe ourselves with are stripped away and we are seen in divine light.

First is the particular judgment where each is judged according to their free acceptance or rejection of the Gospel and God’s gifts, including the grace of baptism which heals the stain of Original Sin and by which we become God’s adopted children. Jesus will not judge how successful we were in business, how much wealth or power we acquired, or how popular we were. We will be judged on our love – of God and neighbor – and on whether we sought to live in goodness and truth (CCC 1021-22). Basically, Christ will determine whether we have shown that we want an eternal relationship with him or not. Those who genuinely do will have it in heaven. Those who do not, the Lord will respect their choice also – this is called hell. Since our will becomes fixed at death, there is no changing our minds and thus no changing the judgment after we have died. This should serve as a wake-up call for how we lead our lives here and now.

With respect to the “hard cases,” like those who die ignorant of Christ’s Gospel and unbaptized children, the Church entrusts to the mercy of God who desires that all should be saved (CCC 1260-61). Regarding those who in their final moments might commit what is objectively mortal sin, such as suicide, the Church also commends to the mercies of God, recognizing their subjective responsibility might be diminished by psychological disturbance or other factors, and that by ways known to him alone, God might provide an opportunity for repentance and salvation (CCC 2283).

At the end of time, Christ will return in glory to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil and establishment of his kingdom, the dead will be raised up and there will be a general judgment. This will not simply be a repeat of all the particular judgments. Rather, in this Last Judgment, the Lord will bring all to completion. The old order will pass away and a new creation will be established. Those who have accepted God’s call will be granted incorruptible life to their bodies to live in Christ.

To this eternal life that we now understand so poorly, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let the hearer say, ‘Come.’ Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water” (Revelation 22:17).

This is the third entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.

The Mystery of Death and the Blessing of Christian Hope

February 13th, 2017

Last Things

Eventually, bodies give out, all biological processes cease and then . . . utter and unsettling stillness of the flesh. Facing the reality of death is one of the hardest moments in life. When it arrives for someone we love, there is a host of emotions to work through; fear, sadness, despair, anger to name just a few.  Seeing the deceased lying in the casket at a wake, we might wonder as people have throughout the ages: What is death?  What happens when we die?  Will I see this person I love again?

Some have answered the question of death with emptiness, saying that death means “the end” and the person simply ceases to be.  Most cultures across history, however, have had a notion of the afterlife.  One tradition believes in incarnation, another views the afterlife in terms of worldly and sensual delights and material riches, while others believe in ascension to another plane to exist as disembodied pure thought and energy.

Christ’s answer to this question and death’s arrogant claim of finality – the Good News he offers the world if it will only accept it – is that death does not have the last word.  Jesus died too.  He truly died and his body laid in the coldness of the tomb.  But then he rose again, truly alive. Jesus returned victorious from the dead. His death was as real as our own will be.  But if we die with him, we will rise with him who is life itself.  If we die without him, however, we will remain in death eternally.

Jesus challenges us to believe that he is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and that he makes “all things new,” so that “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Revelation 21:4-5).  Nowhere is this more beautifully said than in the Christian funeral liturgy where we are poignantly reminded, “Life is changed but not ended.  When the body of our earthly dwelling lied in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

Christian faith neither denies the profound reality of death nor yields to despair because of it.  Rather, it is more powerful than death.  Trusting in the Lord, a Christian mourns but faces death with confident hope, “by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in God’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817). In this hope, we are already saved and in a sense already begin the new life.

Death brings us face to face with the last great experience in our earthly life.  No one escapes this inevitable reality.  Yet when our worldly flesh is dissolved in death, something of our very being most proper to us can still live.  This is the Good News of Christ.  Worldly death is not the evil which we should fear the most. Our life on this earth is not an end in itself – in fact this was never our final destination in God’s plan (cf. Hebrews 13:14) – but is a preparation for what is to come.

This is the second entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.

Ask the Cardinal: The Last Things and the Mercy of God

February 11th, 2017

Last Things

If you ever teach a class, you come to appreciate people asking questions, even those that are quite challenging. Understandably, some of the most challenging questions deal with life and death.  The Church treats these matters under the heading of the Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – which in a sense are really a new beginning (CCC 1020-50).

One reason it is good that questions about the Last Things are asked in class is that all too often they are not asked in everyday life. Young people still think they are invincible and older people may avoid the topic of their mortality as too unpleasant to think about. Thoughts of death are unavoidable at the funeral of a loved one, but while we should then accompany those who mourn and offer consolation and an unassuming witness of hope, that is not the time for an extended catechesis. Instead, now and throughout our pilgrim journey is the time to reflect on these matters.

Consideration of the Last Things is very helpful in ordering our lives, so I thought I should do an entire blog series on them. This would supplement a blog series on end-of-life issues covering some of these matters that I wrote in the fall of 2013. In taking up people’s questions, however, we should note that some stem from mistaken ideas and it is important to enlighten people as to the true revealed teaching of the Church.

A few of the things commonly asked of catechists are:  What are heaven and hell like?  What do we do in heaven – eternity is a long time, will we be bored?  What do I need to do to go to heaven? If God is love, why is there hell?  Why doesn’t everyone go to heaven?  Why does God send people to hell?  What about people who commit suicide, is there hope for them? Can I change my judgment after I die?  What is purgatory, is it like a waiting room, or is it “hell-lite” for the not so bad?  Why pray for the dead?

When death is approaching – and it some day comes for us all – and these questions become more pressing, or simply when we contemplate death and what comes next, it is a pious thing to turn to our Blessed Mother and implore her maternal accompaniment and intercession, asking her to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” We turn to Mary in a special way today, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes.  It is on this day that the Church also observes the World Day of the Sick.

As we experience sickness, even terminal illness, and think about the Last Things, there is no need to do so with fear and trepidation.  Our God is a God of mercy and he delights not in anyone’s death.  He made us for life, and in his infinite love for each of us, he wants to renew and purify us so that we might have eternal life with him.

This is the first in a multi-part series on the Last Things.

The 2017 Cardinal’s Appeal

February 10th, 2017

School Mass at St. Jude Regional

One of my greatest blessings as the archbishop of Washington comes when I visit our parishes, schools and Catholic agencies and I see how every day, people in our community encounter Christ and experience his love and hope through the great array of ministries and programs in the Archdiocese of Washington.

Much of this outreach is made possible by the generous support of our family of faith to the annual Cardinal’s Appeal, which provides a key source of funding for the archdiocese’s educational and charitable outreach.  The theme of the 2017 Cardinal’s Appeal, “Seek First the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33), summarizes our calling as Jesus’ disciples today, to help build God’s kingdom here and now. Every dollar given to the appeal reaches programs and charities serving people in our community. By giving to the appeal, local Catholics invest in the future and allow people today to be touched by Christ’s merciful love and light.

The Appeal supports the formation of our 75 seminarians studying to be the next generation of priests who will provide the sacraments to our families in years to come, and provides educational opportunities for our children so they can be the caring leaders of tomorrow. This annual effort also offers a way to say thanks to the priests who dedicated their lives to serving our people, through support for elderly priests who are retired or sick.

Thanks to your generosity, our ministries of service offer help to those in need throughout our area and hope for a brighter future. Your gifts help feed and shelter people, provide assistance to people with disabilities and women facing crisis pregnancies to help them choose life, and support our archdiocesan family life ministries as well as chaplains who minister to students on our college campuses, the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, and people who are imprisoned. The Appeal also supports outreach to young adults and our multicultural communities, and makes possible innovative communications programs to bring the Good News of Jesus to people on many different media platforms.

Through stewardship – the sharing of our time, talent and treasure – we answer Jesus’ call of discipleship. Your gift to the 2017 Cardinal’s Appeal will truly make a difference in someone’s life, and in yours.

Cardinal's Appeal

Something Greater than Ourselves

February 6th, 2017

Genesis

The readings for daily Mass this week and next from the Book of Genesis speak to us of origins and meaning.  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth . . .,” we hear today (Genesis 1:1). Here and in later blog posts, I would like to explore certain aspects of this book on humanity’s beginnings and God’s plan for us.

From time to time many of us find ourselves thinking about the big questions in life. A child may ask of us, “Where do trees come from?” A friend may ask, “Do you really believe there is life after death?” We may ask ourselves, “Why am I here?”

It is hard to answer these questions without speaking about the existence of God, whom our faith confirms created us and everything good that exists, and who therefore gives meaning to life and the whole universe. When God is part of the answer to these kinds of questions, we discover a certain order in creation.

Believing in God separates us from those who erroneously conclude that all of creation, including ourselves, is somehow a result of chance or our own efforts and not the initiative of the One who when asked by Moses his name, said, “I am” (Exodus 3:14). When we pray the Creed, we begin by stating this belief and recognize that there is a power and a reality far greater than ourselves to whom we are responsible.  God is the name we give to this reality, who is not merely a transcendent, all-powerful, spiritual force, but a personal being.

Pope Francis, in his encyclical on caring for our common home draws our attention to how the creation account in Genesis teaches us something of the reality of human existence in the world. “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (Laudato Si’, 67).  These relationships remind us that the magnificence of God’s creation is a gift to be shared by all generations and so we all share in the responsibility to care for the gifts of nature as we care for one another.

What the Holy Father is spelling out is the primacy of an “authentic human ecology,” a relationship of the person, of the environment, and of social-economic development, understanding that as humanity advances, together we need to be respectful of the environment. This brings a Catholic worldview to bear on the discussion and helps us to see more clearly the moral lesson woven into the story of creation.

Men and women are called to live in peace with God and in the natural world.  As we proceed as a society, nation and people in the world in efforts to improve the human condition, there should be a clear harmony between efforts to promote integral, including economic, human development and those on behalf of our common home.

This is the first post in a series on the Book of Genesis.

Giving Students a BOOST

February 3rd, 2017
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann

Both the name and the corresponding initials of a new Maryland state initiative describe a cooperative effort to provide students with a brighter future.  It is the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today scholarship program, known by the acronym BOOST and enacted this past spring, which gives a “boost” to low-income families across the state, empowering them with the equal opportunity to choose the school that is best suited for their children.

Last spring, hundreds of students from across the state, from schools representing many different faith traditions and from urban, suburban and rural areas, descended upon Annapolis to urge legislators to support programs that would expand educational opportunities and provide for an equitable expenditure of educational funds.  The following month, the BOOST legislation was passed and signed into law as part of a bipartisan effort.

In the program’s first year, nearly 2,500 scholarships were awarded and accepted, worth a total of about $4.8 million. The new scholarship program served families throughout the state, with students in 20 of Maryland’s 24 counties receiving BOOST scholarships and with more than half of the scholarship recipients coming from minority families.

An important aspect of school choice programs is that they do not take away funding from public schools.  For example, in the District of Columbia, the successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is part of a three sector approach that provides increased funds for public, charter and non-public schools. And in Maryland, the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget includes a record $6.4 billion state investment in the state’s K-12 public schools, while also calling for the BOOST program’s funding to increase by $2 million to a total of $7 million for the new fiscal year.

The Maryland Catholic Conference is holding a “Catholics in Annapolis 2017” gathering on February 15, offering participants an opportunity to meet with legislators and discuss key issues such as continuing and expanding the BOOST scholarship program. To join in or to stay informed, please visit the website www.mdcatholic.org/JoinCAN.

As the students who successfully lobbied legislators this past year demonstrated, together we can give a BOOST to our state’s children and help them achieve their dream of a better education.