The Sacrament of Conversion

February 24th, 2015

In what has become a tradition during Lent in our parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, as well as in the neighboring Diocese of Arlington, Wednesday evenings are set aside for the Sacrament of Reconciliation with The Light is ON for You campaign. These special moments to receive God’s mercy are in addition to the usual times for Confession at our parishes.

Reconciliation is integral to the season of Lent during which the Church enters into a period of penance and renewal. These forty days are also the final period of instruction for our catechumens, those men, women and children who will be welcomed into full membership in our Church at the Easter Vigil, with the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and first Communion. Since the time of the earliest Christian communities, the catechumens were (and are) an important part of the celebration of Lent. They vividly dramatize in their conversion and baptism the meaning of dying and rising with Christ at Easter.

Also welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil are candidates who have already been validly baptized in a non-Catholic Christian faith community. For many of them, Lent is also the time in which they make their first Confession so as to be properly disposed in a state of grace to receive Confirmation and first Communion. Because baptism forgives all sins, catechumens will make their first Confession sometime after receiving that gateway sacrament.

As you can imagine, the first time going to Confession is a source of anxiety for some. In preparation for the sacrament, they ask questions like – “Do I have to confess all the sins I committed in my whole life?” “What if I confess something and then I commit the same sin again?” “How often should I go to Confession?” And quite practically, “Are there tissues in the confessional?” “What constitutes serious sin and should be confessed?” “What about those sins I seem to commit over and over again?”

Their questions reflect the concerns of many of us with regard to the sacrament. Confession is not easy for any of us. The feelings of these candidates and catechumens following their first Confession are a beautiful reminder of the grace of this sacrament.

When asked about their experience of their first Confession, many say things like – “I feel like I have set things right.” “I feel like I have a chance to start over.” “I didn’t expect that I could really feel like I have been forgiven.” All of these sentiments point to the grace in which we find new life in Christ.

For many coming into the Church, the celebration of this sacrament makes real for them the experience of conversion and the gift awaiting them in the celebration of all the other sacraments. The opportunity for regular confession is one of the things they are most looking forward to in being Catholic.

A sobering and sad fact of real life is that we all make mistakes. None of us is perfect. We do not always live as we should. Our Lord knows this and comes to us as a healer. Aware of our human frailty, Christ the divine physician of our souls and bodies, has willed that his Church continue the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about his work of healing and salvation.

It is this healing that we wish to offer in a special way through The Light is ON for You initiative. The joy of a person’s first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the same joy for all of us who receive the sacrament. We are once more made new in Christ. We can set things right and resolve to address what it is that makes us fall repeatedly into the same pattern of sin. As Pope Francis says so beautifully, “The Lord never tires of forgiving” (Angelus, March 17, 2013).

The light is on in our churches on Wednesday evenings in Lent for you to visit and allow the Lord to heal you of all your sins for which you are truly sorry. With the help of his grace, may you commit to finding new patterns that keep you from recommitting those sins. To help you make your plan, parish Confession schedules may be found at

Our Suffering Christian Family

February 23rd, 2015
A Coptic Orthodox bishop surveys a damaged church in Minya, Egypt. (CNS photo/Louafi Larbi, Reuters) (Dec. 9, 2013)

A Coptic Orthodox bishop surveys a damaged church in Minya, Egypt. (CNS photo/Louafi Larbi, Reuters)

During this Lenten season, I want to share a few thoughts with you that will take the form of a weekly blog following the First through the Fifth Sundays of Lent. We contemplate in a special way the suffering of Christ and his words to his disciples the night before he was to suffer, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Today I would like to reflect with you on how the Body of Christ continues to face persecution and suffering, and also our obligation to pray for our Christian sisters and brothers who endure this passion.

The resolution recently submitted by the Obama Administration for consideration by Congress affirms that horrific atrocities are being perpetrated against Christians and other religious minority groups in Syria and Iraq. Similarly in other parts of the world, most prominently Nigeria and Sudan, but also places like India, a veil of darkness has descended over whole communities that once were alive in the light of Christian faith.

This is not a new situation. While the names of the Islamist extremist groups are fairly new – ISIL (or ISIS) and Boko Haram – the systematic violence has been going on for some time. At the Synod of Bishops on the Church in the Middle East five years ago, the ominous threats to Christians there were a major concern. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about those who suffer greatly because of their fidelity to Christ and his Church.

Pope Francis too has sought to raise international awareness of the growing crisis of suffering Christians around the world. Last year, our Holy Father wrote to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, appealing to the international community to stir itself to find ways to protect the innocent. Here in Washington D.C., an ecumenical summit of scholars, dignitaries and religious leaders from the Middle East met to call attention to the gradual eradication of Christianity in the very land where it all started and first began to grow. With increasing intensity, religious leaders from these besieged lands have implored the world to help.

Meanwhile, more and more the nightly news includes reports of videos showing the beheading of people taken captive. Included in this horror is the recent mass decapitation of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian hostages in Libya. “They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christian,” Pope Francis said after receiving the news. “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.”

While public awareness of this humanitarian crisis has increased to some degree, in many official quarters it is met with passivity, if not effective indifference, with no sense of empathy or urgency. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremists are expanding their reign of terror and the list of other atrocities committed against Christians and other religious minorities is growing: crucifixion; torture; kidnapping; women and children sold into sex slavery; bombings of homes, schools, and orphanages; imprisonment; and the choice imposed on Christians and others between conversion to Islam, the payment of taxes and second-class citizenship or forced exile, and the list goes on. In addition, churches have been desecrated and destroyed, and holy artifacts have been stolen and sold on the black market.

For centuries, ancient Christian communities in these regions had lived peaceably side-by-side with their neighbors who come from other faith commitments. Now, many of these areas have been emptied of Christians.

“In the face of such unjust aggression, which also strikes Christians and other ethnic and religious groups in the region,” Pope Francis has said, “a unanimous response is needed, one which, within the framework of international law, can end the spread of acts of violence, restore harmony and heal the deep wounds which the ongoing conflicts have caused” (Address to Diplomatic Corps, January 12, 2015). To be indifferent to the suffering and evil around us is to act in a way not worthy of our humanity, much less our calling as Christians. History shows time and again that the longer that we do not act against evil and aggression, the more the situation solidifies and the harder it becomes to act later.

Every day, more people are killed, raped and displaced from their homes. These long-suffering people cannot defend themselves. It is critically important that the United States and the rest of the international community recognize the urgency of the moment. They need to take all necessary lawful action now to protect Christians and others and provide for their security to return to their homes safely. The people who are suffering do not have the luxury of waiting. For them, any further delay will mean that help comes too late.

There is also something we can do ourselves, something just as essential as providing security and humanitarian assistance, and that is prayer. We join in prayer as a sign of our own communion with our Christian sisters and brothers. We pray for all people in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere who suffer so cruelly at the hands of extremists.  And we also pray that peoples’ hearts be touched in those troubled lands and throughout the world so that toleration and religious freedom become accepted characteristics of whatever political order is established.

Last Christmas, our Holy Father wrote a letter to Christians in the Middle East. Offering them the consolation and hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, he said, “The situation in which are you living is a powerful summons to holiness of life, as saints and martyrs of every Christian community have attested. . . . You are a small flock, but one with a great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread. You are like leaven in the dough.”

Reading the stories of Christian refugees who have been brutally forced from their native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times, while heartbreaking, is also profoundly inspiring. These sisters and brothers of ours fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs – and their Christian faith. They could have stayed simply by giving in, by becoming Muslim as demanded by the Islamists, but they gave up everything they had for Christ. When we here are put to the test of remaining firm in the faith or giving in to the contrary demands of others, we should remember the witness of these modern-day martyrs.

During this Lenten season and beyond, please continue to pray in a special way for our suffering Christian family.

Their Lenten Journey – and Ours

February 21st, 2015


One of the most powerful and inspiring manifestations of the Holy Spirit alive and at work in our community today unfolds during the Rite of Election and the Call to Continuing Conversion. As archbishop, I will preside at those ceremonies at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the first two Sundays of Lent, February 22 and March 1. At that time, I will recognize over 1,300 adults, teens and children from throughout the Archdiocese of Washington who will receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil on April 4 and become full members of the Catholic Church.

Their call to conversion is a visible sign that women and men, young and old, from all walks of life, are continuing to respond to our Lord’s invitation: “Come, follow me.” Jesus continues to challenge those who seek God to “come and see” where he is found today, in his Church – among the people of God, in the Body of Christ, within the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Each one of those people who will step forward into the Shrine’s sanctuary has been touched in a special way on their journey of faith. The Holy Spirit, who transforms hearts and changes lives, is the principal agent of evangelization. Each person seeking to enter the Church has a different experience of how they were inspired to take this step. Often the Spirit worked through the witness and example of family members, friends, coworkers or neighbors to bring them to Christ and his Church.

By word or deed, followers of Jesus shared their Catholic faith, and inspired these men and women to seek that life-giving gift. This work of everyday evangelization reminds us that God has made us partners in the work of redemption and wants us to witness to our faith. We must help others to find and keep the joy we have known in the Holy Spirit who leads us and empowers us to share our faith.

In a moving part of the Rite of Election, godparents place their hands on the shoulders of catechumens – people who are seeking Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist – and affirm their readiness. Moments later, I declare the catechumens to be members of the elect. Then in the Call of Continuing Conversion, candidates who have already been baptized and who are now seeking to receive the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist at Easter likewise step forward into the sanctuary. When their sponsors have placed their hands on the candidates’ shoulders, and affirmed their readiness, I will address them, saying that the Church recognizes their desire to be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation and to have a place at Christ’s eucharistic table.

The three sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation – are considered gateways to the life of grace. The Church has always marked entry into communion with the Church by means of Baptism and Eucharist. Confirmation completes the grace of Baptism by a special outpouring of the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts seal the baptized person in union with Christ and equip him or her for active participation in the worship, witness and work of the Church.

During Lent, those seeking to become Catholic bear witness to their desire to follow Christ. They publicly embrace the cross as the pathway not only to eternal life, but also to a richer and fuller experience of life now and, ultimately, to experience the Easter joy of new life in the risen Lord.

As they continue their Lenten journey, the elect and the candidates never walk alone. The godparents of the elect, and the sponsors of the candidates, represent a small part of a very large family of faith that is waiting to welcome them on Easter as they receive the sacraments of initiation. In our parishes and our broader archdiocese, let us accompany and support them.

Their journey of faith reminds us all of that total, ongoing conversion that is called for by Baptism. It calls each of us to open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, and to deepen our faith and share it with others, so they too can experience Jesus alive in his Church and in his people. The Holy Spirit works in us, and through us, to transform our hearts and the hearts of others, so we can all encounter and be forever changed by the risen Christ.

“Remember You are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return”

February 18th, 2015
Photo Credit: Rafael Crisostomo  for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Rafael Crisostomo for the Catholic Standard

Of all the days on the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is one of the most popular. There is something about it that touches us on a fundamental level and it is not unusual to see churches full of people who come forward to receive ashes.

The season of Lent is set aside for us to reorient ourselves, to gain the proper perspective on things and put our priorities in order. We take off our old self so we might be properly prepared for the Paschal Mystery.

The ashes typically are imposed with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” while the sign of the cross is marked on the forehead. This speaks to us of both humility and exaltation, of death and new life. The ashes signify our inner fragility and poverty, and the cross our salvation in the mercy of God.

You are dust. . . .” These are the words that God said to Adam (Genesis 3:19), recalling how earlier the Lord had “formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).

At the start of Lent, we go back to the beginning so that we might go forward to redemption. We are invited to see ourselves as dust again, to detach ourselves from the things of this world and empty ourselves so that we might be filled instead with God’s “breath of life,” that is, with his eternal Spirit. This season is a time to be converted to the very holiness of God as we pray, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me” (Psalm 51:12), and engage in penitential practices like abstaining from food and charitable giving of our material goods.

“. . . To dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Although in creating mankind, God has lifted us up from our lowly origin, we are cautioned against pride. All our earthly goods are destined to be lost. Everything we have, all our worldly possessions, will one day turn to dust, just as the great ancient empires of Egypt and Babylon, Greece and Rome have crumbled. Even before then, time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate or our ability to enjoy a fast car. More to the point, one day our bodies will fail and die.

The beginning of Lent reminds us that this world is passing and that we should put our trust instead in the eternal, in the Lord. The most important thing, the only permanent reality, is God. Rather than storing up earthly treasures, we should seek first his everlasting kingdom (Luke 12:16-34). The blessedness we are promised in Christ’s death and Resurrection “invites us to purify our hearts of bad instincts and to seek the love of God above all else. It teaches us that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement – however beneficial it may be – such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love” (CCC 1723).

All this is part of our preparation for heaven. The things of the temporal order are necessarily temporary and will all be for naught. But if we recognize our humility and empty ourselves, putting the Lord before all else, we receive infinitely more than we fear we might lose. It is in this salvific perspective that the words of Genesis are repeated in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, inviting us to an awareness of our mortal state and our need for penance. By his Cross and Resurrection, though we be only dust and ashes, we will be made a new creation.

The Social Dimension of Sin and of Redemption

February 16th, 2015


The first reading for today’s Mass is the story of Cain killing his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:1-15). It is a tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy and murder. Because of these themes and the fact that it is also the tale of the first human family, it is one of the Bible’s best-known stories which often is retold or serves as an allegory in films, art and poetry. For believers, it captures the stark reality of Original Sin and the consequences of that sin that are felt by all people in every age.

Theologians sometimes substitute muse in place of joke that Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. Everything else requires some measure of trust on our part. But we see the effects of Original Sin all the time – in suffering and death, but also like the story of Cain and Abel, in human selfishness, cruelty, and exploitation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to Original Sin in a memorable way as the “reverse side” of the Gospel (CCC, 389). Jesus came to save; he is our Savior. This is indeed Good News! But he came precisely because we need saving. Humanity could not remove itself from the mire and tangle of sin, which began as we are reminded today with the disobedience of our first parents. This, as we know, had tragic social consequences.

Although sin is proper to each individual, the Catechism explains that “Original Sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’”

Original Sin, personal guilt, redemption and grace, and the hope of final reconciliation with God are supernatural realities. For a person of faith, these are the facts against which the struggle for peace and social justice in our day must be seen.

But just as sin has a social dimension, so too does salvation. “Our redemption has a social dimension,” Pope Francis writes,, “because ‘God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men.’ To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 178, quoting Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 52, and Saint John Paul II, General Audience of April 24, 1991).

As we approach the beginning of Lent, Pope Francis invites us to further reflection on the fullest meaning of reconciliation for the individual and for the community. The Holy Father writes, “This inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love appears in several scriptural texts which we would do well to meditate upon, in order to appreciate all their consequences…. The message is one which we often take for granted, and can repeat almost mechanically, without necessarily ensuring that it has a real effect on our lives and in our communities. How dangerous and harmful this is, for it makes us lose our amazement, our excitement and our zeal for living the Gospel of fraternity and justice! God’s word teaches that our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the incarnation for each of us: ‘As you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:40). The way we treat others has a transcendent dimension: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Matthew 7:2). What these passages make clear is the absolute priority of going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters” (Evangelii Gaudium, 179).

As we prepare to enter into the holy season of Lent, we recognize how humanity is vitally interconnected. In our prayer and penance, with renewed commitment we seek to reconcile ourselves with Our Lord and to be agents of reconciliation for others in the world.

Proclaim a Fast

February 13th, 2015
Christians carry a cross during a procession along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City. (CNS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters) (April 18, 2014)

Christians carry a cross during a procession along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. (CNS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters) (April 18, 2014)

The Lord calls us to return to him with our whole heart, we hear on Ash Wednesday, with the prophet Joel saying to us, “Proclaim a fast!” With this instruction, the Church begins the season of Lent.

From the very beginning, fasting, together with prayer and almsgiving, became the way of preparation to celebrate the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus. These penitential practices give us the opportunity to recognize the sinful patterns and practices that have become obstacles to a deeper relationship with God and a closer relationship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

This year I suggest for your consideration that you offer your acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving for our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa who are being persecuted and, in some cases, martyred for their fidelity to Christ and to the Church.

While on the surface, the desire to return to our heavenly Father through a period of more intense prayer and fasting may seem to be highly personal and individual, the practice of the disciplines of Lent is meant to bear fruit for the whole community. Any type of Christian penance can be a spiritual homecoming when those efforts move one toward “reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434).

All acts of penance are part of that total conversion called for by Baptism, a whole inner renewal leading one to think, judge, and arrange one’s entire life under the impulse of the charity revealed to us in Christ. Acts of penance without this inner spirit are lifeless. Moreover, the inner spirit ought to be embodied in deeds. In this vein, keeping persecuted Christians close in our minds and hearts draws attention to three essential dimensions of Lent.

First, scripture and the Church Fathers teach us that the most radical forms of penance are Baptism and martyrdom (CCC 1434). The Christians who have been martyred are a source of grace for the life of the Church. Tertullian, a Church Father of the second century, preached that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church (Apology, ch. 50). These Christian witnesses remind us that martyrdom is the supreme expression of what it means to die and rise with Christ. They are for us teachers of the truth of the faith and Christian doctrine (CCC 2473). In this, they are a source of encouragement for our own resoluteness in keeping our Lenten promises.

Second, we strengthen our brothers and sisters through acts of solidarity and prayer. Those who live in danger in these days, through the power of Jesus and his mother Mary’s intercession, will be fortified by our prayer. Our prayer strengthens the bonds of fraternity among the people of God.

Third, in scripture, fasting is commonly associated with almsgiving (cf. Tobit 12:8; Matthew 6:1-8). When the well-fed fast, they are to share with those most in need; and this sharing by charitable giving is surely an act of love. If you would like to direct this fruit of your fast to Christians living in the Middle East and Africa, please follow this link to learn more about how the Church through Catholic Relief Services and the Knights of Columbus is on the ground providing tremendous aid and support to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

In keeping in mind the suffering of the people of God and our own suffering, we come to understand more deeply the meaning of Saint Paul’s cry that “if, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8). In our own suffering, because of the Paschal Mystery we become “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

El Papa, la piedra angular de la fe y de la unidad

February 12th, 2015

Feb 12 blog pic

El domingo por la mañana vi al papa Francisco dirigirse a las miles de personas que se reúnen en la Plaza de San Pedro para escuchar sus comentarios antes de rezar el Ángelus. Allí, el popular y venerado sucesor de Pedro les habló de la ternura de Jesús, de su compasión amorosa y, al mismo tiempo, de nuestra necesidad de ser cuidadosos y compasivos con los demás seres humanos. El Santo Padre no sólo es admirado por la multitud de la Plaza de San Pedro, sino por personas de todas partes del mundo. Admiración que, al parecer, no es compartida por todos.

Mientras veía al Santo Padre en la televisión, recibía mensajes de correo electrónicos incluyendo una entrevista y un artículo de hermanos obispos que están menos que entusiasmados con Francisco. Esos correos electrónicos me recordaron mis años de juventud, cuando por primera vez experimenté la disidencia en contra de la enseñanza y la práctica de un Papa. Siendo un joven seminarista, con 20 años de edad, que hacía estudios de posgrado en la Universidad Católica de América, leí por primera vez la carta encíclica de San Juan XXIIIMater et Magistra. Su enseñanza no fue bien recibida por algunos. Uno de los eruditos ofreció la observación que se volvió bastante extendida en esos círculos: “Mater si, Magistra no”, que en latín significa “Madre sí, Maestra no”.

Junto con varios de mis compañeros de clase, recuerdo que estábamos tan escandalizados por este rechazo de la encíclica, que hablamos con uno de los sacerdotes en el seminario. Él gentilmente nos reprendió por nuestra ingenuidad y nos señaló que siempre ha habido una corriente de disidencia en la Iglesia, en algunos casos tan alto como en el Colegio de Cardenales. Fue entonces cuando oí por primera vez sobre el cardenal Louis Billot que era menos que discreto en su oposición al papa Pío XI que había condenado el movimiento político y religioso, Action Française, que involucró a muchas personas que anhelaban la restauración de la monarquía en Francia y un papel más importante para la Iglesia en el gobierno civil. En 1927, como lo indica la Enciclopedia Católica, el cardenal Billot “fue persuadido a renunciar a su dignidad cardenalicia”.

El descontento con la posición de un Papa en cuestiones doctrinales, pastorales, canónicas o tan simples como la vestimenta clerical, parece estar siempre presente de alguna forma. En 1963, San Juan XXIII se convirtió de nuevo en el objeto de la ira de aquellos a quienes no les gustaba su encíclica Pacem in Terris, al igual que el Beato Pablo VI por su encíclica Populorum Progressio en 1967, y sin duda por su encíclica Humanae Vitae en 1968. La disidencia de algunos sacerdotes por la enseñanza en  Humanae Vitae los llevó a su salida del ministerio sacerdotal.

En un nivel menos importante, se produjo, sin embargo, una consternación considerable entre algunos, en 1969, cuando el Secretario de Estado del papa Pablo VI emitió una instrucción relacionada con la vestimenta de los obispos y cardenales. El esfuerzo por simplificar y eliminar cosas como la cappa magna (prenda exterior de obispos y cardenales con una cola larga) irritó a algunos.

Incluso el breve reinado del papa Juan Pablo I no estuvo exento de crítica. Algunos escribieron que encontraban su sonrisa impropia de un Papa, dado que disminuía la gravedad (gravedad o seriedad) de su oficina. Un comentarista se lamentó de que este querido y amable Papa en realidad saludaba a la gente cuando desfilaba para celebrar misa.

Luego, por supuesto, vino San Juan Pablo II. Todo lo que él escribió tuvo algún crítico, ya se tratara de sus encíclicas sociales como Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) y Centesimus Annus (1991), o su encíclica sobre la validez permanente del esfuerzo misionero de la Iglesia, Redemptoris Missio. Hubo algunos que continuamente le criticaron por sus viajes, a pesar de que en sus casi 27 años como Papa ayudó a revitalizar la Iglesia. Personalmente, siempre he encontrado las críticas de San Juan Pablo II dolorosas porque tengo tanto afecto y admiración por él. De hecho, el nuevo seminario en esta arquidiócesis, que se abrió hace apenas unos años, lleva su nombre: Seminario San Juan Pablo II.

No voy a elaborar más hasta el punto de comentar sobre las críticas, los retos, la desaprobación y la disidencia que enfrentó gran parte de lo que enseñó y publicó el papa Benedicto XVI durante su pontificado. Una vez más, me encuentro muy perplejo ante la crítica negativa sobre él, a quien yo vi como un pastor de la Iglesia tan bueno, brillante y santo.

Difícilmente podríamos esperar, entonces, que Francisco sea inmune a lo que parece ser algo que “viene con el territorio.”

Una de las cosas que he aprendido a través de todos estos años, desde aquellos primeros días ingenuos en 1961, es que al examinar más detenidamente el tema hay un hilo común que corre a través de todos estos disidentes. Ellos no están de acuerdo con el Papa porque él no está de acuerdo con ellos y por lo tanto siguen su posición.

Tan lamentable como es, la disidencia es quizás algo que siempre estará con nosotros, pero también siempre tendremos a un Pedro y su sucesor, como la roca y la piedra angular,  de nuestra fe y unidad.

The Pope, Touchstone of Faith and Unity

February 12th, 2015

Feb 12 blog pic

Early Sunday morning I watched our Holy Father, Pope Francis, give his Angelus talk – the comments he shares before praying the Angelus with the huge crowd – tens of thousands – gathered in Saint Peter’s Square each Sunday. Here, this enormously popular and revered successor to Peter spoke about the tenderness of Jesus, his loving compassion and at the same time our need to be caring and compassionate to our fellow human beings. The Holy Father clearly is admired not only by the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square but by people around the world. But apparently that admiration is not shared by all.

As I was watching the Holy Father on TV, my inbox was filling with a number of emails including an interview and an article by brother bishops who are less than enthusiastic about Pope Francis. Those emails reminded me of a much, much earlier time in my life when I first experienced dissent from the teaching and practice of a pope. As a young seminarian (20 years old) doing graduate work at The Catholic University of America, I read for the first time the encyclical letter of Saint John XXIII, Mater et magistra. Its teaching was not well received by some. One of the pundits offered the observation that became rather widespread in those circles, “Mater si, Magistra no,” – Latin for “Mother yes, Teacher no.”

Along with a number of my classmates, I remember being so scandalized by this rejection of the encyclical that we spoke to one of the priests at the seminary. He gently chided us for our naivety and pointed out that there has always been a current of dissent in the Church, some of it as high as the College of Cardinals. It was then that I first heard of Cardinal Louis Billot who was less than discrete in his opposition to Pope Pius XI who had condemned the political and religious movement, Action Française, which involved many people who longed for the restoration of the monarchy in France and a stronger role for the Church in civil government. In 1927, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, Cardinal Billot “was persuaded to renounce his cardinalitial dignity.”

Unhappiness with a Pope’s position on issues whether doctrinal, pastoral, canonical or as simple as clerical vesture, seems always to be present in some form. In 1963 Saint John XXIII again became the object of wrath of those who disliked his encyclical Pacem in terris, as did Blessed Paul VI for his encyclical, Populorum progressio in 1967 and certainly for his encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968. Dissent by some priests from the teaching in Humanae vitae led to their departure from priestly ministry.

On a much less important level, there was, nonetheless, considerable dismay among some in 1969 when the Secretary of State of Pope Paul VI issued an instruction concerning the vesture of bishops and cardinals. The effort to streamline and do away with things like the cappa magna (long outer garment of bishops and cardinals with a long, long train) upset some.

Even the short reign of Pope John Paul I was not without critique. Some wrote that they found his smile unbefitting a Pope since it diminished the gravitas (gravity or seriousness) of his office. One commentator lamented that this dear and kind Pope actually waved at people as he processed to celebrate Mass.

Then of course came Saint John Paul II. Everything he wrote had some critic whether it involved his social encyclicals such as Laborem exercens in 1981 or Sollicitudo rei socialis in 1987 or Centesimus annus in 1991 or his encyclical on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary effort, Redemptoris missio. There were some who continually criticized him for his travels even though he helped in his nearly 27 years as Pope revitalize the Church. Personally, I always found the criticism of Saint John Paul II particularly painful because I have such an affection and admiration for him. In fact, the brand new seminary in this archdiocese that was opened just a few years ago bears his name, Saint John Paul II Seminary.

I will not belabor the point by going through the critiques, challenges, disapproval and dissent that faced so much of what Pope Benedict XVI taught and published during his pontificate. Again, I find myself greatly perplexed at the negative critique of him whom I saw as such a good, brilliant and holy Shepherd of the Church.

Hardly then should we expect that Pope Francis would be immune from what appears to be something that “comes with the territory.”

One of the things I have learned though over all of these years since those early naïve days in 1961 is that on closer examination there is a common thread that runs through all of these dissenters. They disagree with the Pope because he does not agree with them and therefore follow their position.

Dissent is perhaps something we will always have, lamentable as it is, but we will also always have Peter and his successor as the rock and touchstone of both our faith and our unity.

Seeing our Sick Sisters and Brothers with Wisdom of the Heart

February 11th, 2015

World Day of the Sick

Saint John Paul II began his momentous encyclical on the God-given dignity of all human life by noting, “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message” (Evangelium Vitae, 1). Warning of growing threats to human life at its beginning and last stages through legalized abortion and euthanasia, with the term “quality of life” justifying the taking of another life, the Pope wrote that today’s Christians must confront this culture of death by building a civilization of love embodied by Jesus and his Gospel (Id., 26-28).

Those words are especially prophetic today as we see a movement all over the country to legalize assisted suicide. Such laws, if enacted, would in effect decide whose lives are worth living, and whose are deemed too inconvenient or burdensome to continue.

At a time when “the culture of death” encroaches closer to our community, Pope Francis’ Message for the 2015 World Day of the Sick is also one we need to hear. Our Holy Father exhorts us to seek the grace of “wisdom of the heart” so that we might be sensitive to those who are burdened by illness and see in them the image of God. Our brothers and sisters who are sick and suffering will feel more loved and comforted thanks to our closeness and affection, he says, adding, “How great a lie, on the other hand, lurks behind certain phrases which so insist on the importance of ‘quality of life’ that they make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!”

Pope Francis has often noted that sometimes the sick and elderly can be “hidden exiles” in their own homes, too often forgotten or neglected. In our busy, hectic lives, we can get caught up in other things, forgetting about being responsible for others. Yet, through our presence at the side of those who suffer illness, we can bring them Christ’s love. “Time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son,” the Pope says.

Illness and suffering are an unavoidable part of the human condition. What distinguishes the Christian in all of this is that we can put these otherwise unfathomable mysteries into perspective. It is part of the calling of Christ to see in all of the pains and sorrows, frustrations and unfulfilled expectations of life something of the way of the Cross.

The Cross is something many would rather avoid. But again, there is no escape from the reality of pain and eventual death. The only question is whether we go through it with Jesus or without him. Saint John Paul II reminds us that it is precisely in the Cross of Jesus, who was close to every form of human suffering throughout his life, that human suffering has “entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love” (Salvifici Doloris, 18). And by Christ’s love on the Cross, we are saved. Sickness, suffering and death need not have the last word. The season of Lent, which is fast approaching, is a reminder of this truth.

The Cross of Jesus, which for some is a stumbling block or thought to be foolishness (cf. 1 Cor 1:18, 23), is really “the supreme act of God’s solidarity with us, completely free and abounding in mercy,” Pope Francis tells us in his message. Moreover, “this response of love to the drama of human pain, especially innocent suffering, remains forever impressed on the body of the Risen Christ.”

What is the body of the Risen Christ in the world today? The Church. So if we are to call ourselves his disciples, we must be united to the suffering of others. Like Jesus, we must go and offer love and comfort to the sick and dying. Such love begins to mirror in this life the glory of the love of God that is life eternal.

Through a wisdom of heart, we know that Jesus’ Gospel of life and love brings meaning to the mystery of sickness, suffering and death, and real quality of life. Echoing Saint John Paul’s call to transform our hearts and our world from a culture of death to a civilization of love, let us join in Pope Francis’ prayer, “Grant, through our service of our suffering neighbors, and through the experience of suffering itself, we may receive and cultivate true wisdom of heart.”

Divine Revelation in the Creation Story: Humanity is Made for Love

February 9th, 2015
The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

The readings for daily Mass over the next several days tell the story of creation, but the picture they paint is one of the human experience throughout history. As we approach the season of Lent, I invite you to meditate with the Church on the profound revelation about God’s creative plan for humanity contained in these readings. While this exercise might be challenging, it is worth making the effort, especially in our culture where confusion reigns about the truth of the human person, and marriage and family in particular.

The scriptural creation account in the Book of Genesis is less about how the world and humanity were made and is more about why they were made, where we come from and who made us. Revealed to us is who God is and, in turn, who we are, what we are, what the nature of the human being is.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth . . .” (Genesis 1:1). The first thing that scripture tells us is that God exists and that the universe that we see all around us was not always here – and it did not create itself. God created it.

“A mighty wind swept over the waters . . .” (1:2). In Hebrew, the word used here for “wind” is “ruah” and in Greek it is “pneuma,” and in the ancient languages, the same word is used for breath, spirit and ghost. “. . . [T]hen God said, ‘Let there be light’” (1:3). “God said” – God communicates his Word, who is “the Light of the world” (John 8:12) and “through him all things were made” (Creed). Although veiled in mystery, all three Persons of the Trinity act in creation.

After creating the earth and sky, the plants and animals, as an act of love God said, “Let us make human beings . . .” (1:26). Then is revealed to us, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). Forming Adam out of dust, God then took a rib from the man’s side to create the woman Eve (2:22). Furthermore, God blew “the breath of life” – that is, his ruah, his Spirit – into his human creation and said to the man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply” (2:7, 1:28).

These passages reveal to us the deepest truth about the nature of the human person and God’s plan for us, which is that every one of us is made to love and be loved. We are made to mirror the truth and love that lie at the very core of God’s being.

Humanity is explicitly created as male and female and as inherently being in relationship, made in the image and likeness of God the Trinity, who is Love and Truth. Furthermore, God has created us as spiritual beings and thus we are persons, not things. An understanding of this unalterable reality necessitates an acceptance that every human from the moment of conception until natural death is to be cherished and held in reverence and respect.

In a particular way, Saint John Paul II teaches, man and woman appear from the beginning as “a unity of the two” who are made for a mutual gift of self in a loving fruitful “communion of persons” like the Trinity, which is a loving communion of persons in one divine being (Mulieris Dignitatem, 7). This special relationship between a man and a woman, which by nature has the potential for children, is unique and it has historically been given the name “marriage.” No other relationship is like it and no other relationship can truly be called “marriage.”

Nevertheless, the spousal relationship revealed “in the beginning” sheds light on these other forms of human relationship which, in their own different way, are called to a gift of self. None of us is an island. Rather, we are by nature interdependent social beings, members of a single human family who are meant to work together and help one another. In this way, we all can bear fruit in the world.

We know that mankind did not live up to God’s plan and sin entered the world. But God has not given up on us. He calls us now to be what we were made to be – one human family loving and caring for one another in his creation.