Who is the Pope?

August 31st, 2015

Pope Francis

The anticipation is growing for the visit of Pope Francis in just a few short weeks. Indeed, from the moment he first greeted the world from the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, our Holy Father has generated excitement.

He has been featured on the covers of many magazines, including Rolling Stone, he was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, he very nearly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and millions of people have come out to see him, pray with him, and celebrate Mass with him during his apostolic journeys. His visit here in the United States will be no exception.

Why is Pope Francis so popular? Why does he continue to have this drawing power even when admittedly not everybody lives out the faith fully?

To be sure, part of it is because he is Francis, a man with an engaging personality. He is a modest, good, gentle pastor and people sense that he is “one of us.” But it is more than personality. He is popular also because he is Pope. And that raises the question of: What is the Pope? Why is he so important?

Around the magnificent and imposing Michelangelo dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, above the place where tradition and excavation tell us Peter himself is buried, is the Latin inscription proclaiming the words of Jesus to Simon the fisherman: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

Saint Peter was the first pope, and the Lord established his Church on this foundation rock to ensure that each subsequent generation would have the opportunity to hear of his kingdom, to know his Gospel and to receive his invitation to follow him. Jesus chose him and the other Apostles and charged them and their successors with the responsibility of teaching the true faith, making sure that it is presented clearly and applied it to the problems and needs of the day.

The word “pope” is derived from the Italian “papa” or father, and throughout the Book of Acts, we see Peter acting consistently as a father in his role as chief shepherd. When Peter was martyred in Rome during the time of the persecution by the Emperor Nero, a successor as pope was chosen, Saint Linus. When he died, another successor was chosen, and so on through the ages.

Today, Peter bears the name Francis, who has his own particular style, but the Petrine ministry and teaching remain the same. The pope is the one we turn to when we want to know what it is that Jesus says to us, and he offers us direction and guidance so that we will be able to be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our faith.

With this understanding that the pope, as Successor to Peter, is the touchstone that keeps us in contact with the truth of divine revelation entrusted to the Apostles, an unbroken line of continuity, who is this particular pope? Who is Francis?

The former Archbishop of Buenos Aires was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. When asked by a journalist to describe himself, he responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner” (America magazine, September 25, 2013). Pope Francis’ words are not empty humility but the true posture required of any follower of Jesus Christ. We are sinners in need of a savior.

This description of himself also explains our Holy Father’s great emphasis on God’s mercy and our need to go out to others, particularly those who are wounded in this world, and bring them an experience of God’s merciful love. This humility, together with Pope Francis’ example of living the Gospel in a great simplicity, is a beacon of hope and encouragement to people all over the world.

Our Holy Father is also the first Pope who comes from the New World. The word “Catholic” is from the Latin meaning “universal,” and to have a Chief Shepherd from the Americas demonstrates how the focus of the Church is worldwide. The Church is involved in and concerned with every part of the globe, with providing an outreach and care for people with many types of needs, both material and spiritual.

This is an exciting time as we look forward to the arrival of Pope Francis. This great joy and hope come from the continuity that he has with Peter and therefore Jesus Christ, and also from the freshness in which he lives the Gospel – ever ancient, ever new.

Saint Augustine and the Seeker of Today

August 28th, 2015

St. Augustine

Today’s saint is one that people of the modern age can readily identify with. To hear the story of his early life, you might think he was living today. In fact, he lived 1,600 years ago. He is Saint Augustine.

Born and raised in North Africa to a Catholic mother, Saint Monica, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, and a non-Christian father, young Augustine was a seeker. Like many young people of our time, or any time, he wondered about the meaning of his life. He wanted above all to know truth and to love and be loved.

Augustine is now honored as one of the great saints of the Church. It was he who laid theological foundations for so much of the Church’s doctrine and is the writer most often cited in the Catechism. All of these achievements, however, would have surprised the neighbors and friends of the young Augustine. As he recounts in his autobiographical Confessions, he had scoffed at the Catholic faith and put off his baptism even though he was told early in life that he could find all his answers in Christ and his Church. Meanwhile, he searched for those answers in all the wrong places.

Though brilliant even in his youth, Augustine was prideful and inclined toward trouble. He took up the student occupation of carousing in addition to study, and sometimes did what he knew to be wrong just for the thrill of it. In his thirst for love, he was caught up instead in worldly desire. When he started to settle down, instead of marrying, he and his girlfriend moved in together and they had a child out of wedlock. At the same time, in his hunger for truth and meaning, he embraced a succession of falsehoods, taking up one belief system after another only to reject them when he found their promises empty.

Through all of this, Augustine did not find happiness or fulfillment, but misery. Sound familiar? How many people today are similarly on the throes of despair upon finding that what the culture offers – secularism, materialism, and individualism – is actually shallow and unsatisfying?

Augustine described his situation this way: “I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in God but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion and error” (Confessions, I:20, (R.S. Pine-Coffin translation)). Eventually, thanks to various influences, not the least of which were the fervent prayers of his mother, Augustine would turn in the right direction.

The scriptures he had so quickly dismissed in his youth began to speak to him when he heard them explained in a new way by Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. When he began to open his heart, he discovered that the Catholic faith was not what he erroneously supposed it to be (Confessions, V:10, VI:3). Here he would find the truth that he was searching for – or more precisely, he allowed himself to be found by the Truth.

Augustine had at last discovered, as he would famously say, that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him (Confessions, I:1). “Make your dwelling in Him, my soul,” he cried. “Entrust to Him whatever you have, for all that you have is from Him. Now, at last, tired of being misled, entrust to the Truth all that the Truth has given to you and nothing will be lost. All that is withered in you will be made to thrive again. All your sickness will be healed” (Confessions, IV:11).

After a long odyssey, at the age of 32 in the year 387, Augustine was baptized. He would go on to be one of the greatest of theologians in the Church, as well as the bishop of Hippo.

The story of Augustine’s conversion has touched people for centuries. For those young men and women in today’s culture who are seeking answers to the great questions of life – only to feel all too often as if you are being “tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery” (Ephesians 4:14) – Augustine offers great hope and encouragement. We can see in his Confessions and other works that he understood the struggles that people go through. Writing in a psychologically and morally astute way, he also spoke often and beautifully of God’s mercy and grace.

If we simply trust and believe, Augustine advised, the Lord will help us to understand (Tractate 29:6). If we simply open our hearts to God, he will give us the truth and love we so desperately seek and need.

Teachers with Soul

August 24th, 2015

Back to School Mass

Today, I have the great privilege of marking the opening of the academic year by celebrating the Mass of the Holy Spirit with teachers and administrators of our Catholic schools. This joyous celebration is an opportunity to invoke the blessings of the Spirit and also for me to express my gratitude for the thousands of teachers and school employees who work with great effort to make our schools excellent institutes of learning and formation. While the teachers differ in their specific areas of expertise, what they share in common is that they are some of the most important witnesses to the faith that our young people encounter.

Pope Francis emphasized this influence when he shared with a group of teachers that “the influence of a Catholic educator depends more on what he is as a person and the way he lives than what he says” (Message on the Occasion of the International Study Seminar, May 14, 2015). Our Holy Father reminds us that the vocation of teaching is rooted in the baptismal vocation of the Christian witness. Baptism gives each believer an apostolic vocation. In his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, we read that a defining characteristic of a witness is the sense that their work is part of their identity and mission. Pope Francis calls teachers with this sensibility, “teachers with soul,” teachers who testify to the Gospel by words and by acts (Evangelii Gaudium, 273).

The more active one is in the apostolate to which we are all called – for example, as a teacher, catechists or as a parent – the more important it is that one’s work be rooted in the obedience of faith, in full openness to the teachings of Christ and his Church. This year at the Mass, we will highlight the mission of our educators through a commissioning rite that provides an opportunity for each teacher to renew his or her own commitment to the Lord and his Church. The teachers will be able to affirm their commitment to serve and continue to grow as missionary disciples of the Lord, recognizing their important role participating in the ministry and mission of his Church. This affirmation in word will be accompanied by a commitment to act.

Educators will also be asked to join the thousands of people across the archdiocese who have taken the Walk with Francis Pledge. In partnership with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, we want to make a gift to our Holy Father when he visits us here of all the pledges to follow him in being generous in our service and care of the most vulnerable and our common home, and of our souls in prayer and worship.

Our hope is that teachers will pledge to serve together as a faculty, with their students and with their friends and families. In this way, they model for all of our young people the joy of service and the vitality of a church that brings the joy of the Gospel to all parts of our communities.

If, like me, you are inspired by the dedication of our Catholic educators, join me in offering a prayer today that God blesses the work of the upcoming academic year. Please also visit WalkWithFrancis.org and consider honoring the teacher that most inspired you by taking the pledge in his or her honor. And then pass the word on social media, including #WalkwithFrancis, and encourage a friend, neighbor or co-worker to do the same.

Familiaris Consortio and the Gift of Children

August 21st, 2015

blog pic 8.21.15

Thirty-five years ago, early in his pontificate, Saint John Paul II convened a Synod of Bishops to reflect on the mission of the Christian family in the modern world. This 1980 gathering was followed a year later by the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio. This momentous document has guided the Church ever since and will help inform the discussion at the Synod of Bishops in October, which again takes up the question of the family.

In Familiaris Consortio, we find a beautiful vision of marriage and family that corresponds to God’s plan, our true happiness and what we are called to sustain as faithful members of the Church. The family as the foundational building block of society is strengthened by this teaching of the Church and thus the whole human community is helped to thrive. This vision of family life, however, is not always accepted in the secular culture in which we live, resulting in a societal crisis that falls particularly hard on the most innocent and vulnerable among us – the children.

Even from the first moments of their lives, Pope Francis has decried, some children “are rejected, abandoned, and robbed of their childhood and future” (General Audience of April 8, 2015). Where these little ones are not seen as burdens to be avoided or disposed of before they are born, they are viewed as commodities or as objects of experimentation for the benefit of others. In recent weeks, reports of the harvesting and trafficking of body parts of unborn children have come to light. This business, together with the cold banality in which it is described by its practitioners, shocks the conscience.

It is against this background that our whole society can benefit from the teaching of Saint John Paul. The core of his message is love (Familiaris Consortio, 11). When we come to marital love, he affirms, spouses are given “the greatest possible gift, the gift by which they become cooperators with God for giving life to a new human person” (Id., 14).

In our world today, people need to hear again and again what we already know in our hearts, what we know any time we hold a baby in our arms and are touched by the radiant joy of their laughter – children are a gift to be welcomed. They are, attests Pope Francis, “the most beautiful gift and blessing that the Creator has given to man and woman” (General Audience of April 8, 2015).

Each child is valuable and precious in God’s eyes and in our hearts. Each one, created by God, is endowed with a sacred and inviolable human dignity, possessed of the fundamental right to life and to be cared for, including the right to be conceived and born within marriage, not in a laboratory or with surrogates.

When Pope Francis last year visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, he said that children are a diagnostic sign indicating the state of health of our families, our communities, our nations. “Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected,” he said, “the family is healthy, society is more healthy, and the world is more human” (see also Familiaris Consortio, 26). Our Holy Father then asked us to examine ourselves, “Who are we, standing as we stand before today’s children? Are we like Mary and Joseph, who welcomed Jesus and cared for him with the love of a father and a mother? Or are we like Herod, who wanted to eliminate him?”

In our society and culture, especially in those areas where the basic and essential values on which families rest are lacking, the Christian family has a critical mission: “Family, become what you are,” pleads Saint John Paul. Become “a community of life and love . . . a living reflection of and a real sharing in God’s love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride” (Familiaris Consortio, 17).

It is no exaggeration to say, as Saint John Paul does, that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 86). The joyful acceptance of the responsibility and privilege of raising children and helping them to grow in wisdom, age and grace, the personal commitment of a life-long gift of self by spouses in the marriage, the recognition that this action is a graced response to the love of our heavenly Father – all of this helps in the renewal of the world in which we live.

Marriage and Family: A Mission of Love

August 18th, 2015

Logo for 2015 World Meeting of Families

At the heart of every marriage is human love – a love so strong that it brings together a man and a woman who commit themselves to each other in a lifelong journey and to a mission as well. In Church circles, when we hear the word “mission,” we might think first of missionaries – those fearless priests, nuns, and lay people whose stories of bringing the Gospel to faraway lands fascinated us as children and inspire us as adults. How often, though, do we think of families as missionaries?

Each of the popes of the last several decades have spoken of how families today, more than ever, need to think of themselves as missionaries – as visible signs of God’s love. In the human love that brings a woman and man together in marriage, we already hear God speaking to us of the beauty and fidelity of love, its transforming power, and its creative energy. In the sacrament of matrimony, God speaks to us of the fullness of human love.

The family that is formed through marriage, especially when strengthened with sacramental grace, is called to be a school of love, faith and prayer that shapes our communities at their very core. Into the family are born those who constitute the next generation. What is passed on is the heritage of each successive generation. If we are successful in teaching the faith, forming character, and nurturing virtue, then the culture and society that we create will be all the better. To the extent that we fail, so shall it be reflected in our culture. This kind of commitment calls for the bold and courageous spirit of missionaries.

As the working document for the Synod of Bishops in October states, “The family, the basic human community, is showing as never before, through its cultural and social crisis, the great suffering which is being caused by the family’s weakening and fragile character, and, at the same time, the family’s great strength, in itself” (Instrumentum Laboris, 10). This conclusion comes from the joys, hopes, struggles and fears of which individuals and families around the world wrote about last December in a questionnaire developed by the Synod committee. A great number of individuals and families in the Archdiocese of Washington took the time to complete the survey and so it is also inclusive of our own experience. The responses to that questionnaire form the basis for this working document that offers the starting point for the Synod discussion.

The concern for the modern day pressures of family life and the nurturing of a missionary spirit in families will also be expressed during Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. The impetus for our Holy Father’s visit is the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. This triannual gathering of families and organizations that serve the family is one of the fruits of the pontificate of Saint John Paul II. He founded it 1994 as part of the celebration of the International Year of the Family. Since that time the Pontifical Council for the Family convokes the gathering every three years in a different city in the world.

The meeting brings together Catholic lay movements, Christian ministries and individual families to celebrate the gift of family life and to pray reflect and discuss of the mission of the Christian family in contemporary society. This year’s theme picks up on the missionary vocation of families in its theme “Love is Our Mission.”

Soon after Pope Francis returns to Rome, he will gather with the Synod of Bishops to reflect further on the mission of the family and the pastoral care of families. These next months and year will be a very important moment in the life of the Church in regard to marriage and family life. I encourage you and your family to follow the World Meeting of Family’s work as well as that of the Synod in October and make some time to talk over as a family how you can be missionaries of God’s love.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

August 14th, 2015
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BASILICA OF THE NATIONAL SHRINE OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION This mosaic at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington depicting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is based on a famous painting by Titian. Pope Pius XII commissioned the mosaic for the National Shrine, and Pope John XXIII presented the completed work to the shrine in 1960. The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is on August 15.

This mosaic at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington depicting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is based on a famous painting by Titian. Pope Pius XII commissioned the mosaic for the National Shrine, and Pope John XXIII presented the completed work to the shrine in 1960. The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is on August 15.

A gift from two popes to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception offers a reminder of a gift from God which we should all seek. Near the main altar of the Basilica, pilgrims can see a dramatic mosaic depicting the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The artwork, patterned after the masterpiece by the Renaissance painter Titian, was commissioned by Pope Pius XII, with the finished piece given to our national shrine of our Blessed Mother by Pope Saint John XXIII in 1960.

In the Assumption mosaic, Mary’s arms are outstretched as her eyes gaze in wonder toward heaven. Against a backdrop of golden light, she stands gracefully on clouds, her blue mantle swirling, as winged cherubim gently push the cloud bank upward, helping Mary be assumed body and soul into heaven.

The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which we celebrate tomorrow, August 15, commemorates the dogma of faith that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,” as pronounced by Pope Pius XII (Munificentissimus Deus, 44). We also prayerfully remember Mary’s Assumption into heaven every time we pray the fourth glorious mystery of the Rosary.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not a holy day of obligation this year, since it falls on a Saturday, but it is still a day to reflect on Mary’s role in salvation. All the Marian feasts are feasts of Jesus Christ because she is always near her Son and always leads us to him. As Jesus’ first and greatest disciple, she held him in her arms at the stable in Bethlehem, witnessed his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, wept at the foot of the Cross where Jesus commended her to us as our mother too, rejoiced at his resurrection, and was with the Apostles in the Upper Room at the first Pentecost as the wind of the Holy Spirit swept over them, empowering them to continue Jesus’ work through his Church.

Mary was near her Son Jesus when she walked on earth and she is near him now in heaven. Pope Francis affirms that Mary, having entered into heavenly glory, continues also to accompany today’s disciples, helping them to follow Jesus and resist evil, just as she was beside the Apostles in her earthly life. He invites us to pray with Mary, and place our trust in her: “She is our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister, our eldest sister, she is the first of the redeemed, who has arrived in heaven” (Homily of August 15, 2013).

Our Holy Father notes that Mary’s eventual Assumption to the glory of heaven started when she said “yes” to God’s plan revealed to her by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. Likewise, while our own personal redemption will not happen in a definitive way until our earthly pilgrimage has ended, it can begin now. “Every ‘yes’ to God is a step toward heaven, toward eternal life,” says Pope Francis. “God wants us all with him, in his house” (Angelus of August 15, 2013).

Last year, at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Southeast D.C., I dedicated the new Pope Francis Outreach Center. This outreach with food and clothing for that neighborhood’s poor people, rooted in prayer and friendship, which reflects the spirit of our Holy Father, is also a reminder that, like Mary, we can attain the glory of heaven by being close to Jesus, helping him in his work here on earth, and sharing his love and hope with our brothers and sisters, especially the poor and those on the margins of society. Each of us can engage in a similar outreach with the Walk with Francis Pledge, in which, like Mary, we say “yes” to God by praying, serving and take action on behalf of those in need, just as the Pope has ever since he first stepped out onto the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square.

The mosaic at the Basilica depicting the beauty and glory of Mary’s Assumption into heaven should inspire us. While the graces of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are unique to the Blessed Virgin, as our Holy Father reminds us, the journey to heaven is one which God wants all of us to embark upon (Angelus of August 15, 2013). It begins by saying “yes” to God and then walking with Mary and Pope Francis and the entire pilgrim Church, close to our Lord Jesus, each and every day.

Back to School

August 10th, 2015
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Later this month, the annual ritual of going back to school will unfold in families across our community and throughout our country. For many, it will mark an educational milestone as parents will walk hand-in-hand with their small children on their first day of school, or join other parents in sharing carpool responsibilities as their children begin high school, or help move their older children into their dorm rooms at college.

The first day for our Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Washington on August 31 will fittingly be preceded one week earlier by an opening Mass for the school year, which I will celebrate for Catholic school teachers, principals and other staff members at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. That Mass will include a commissioning ceremony for these educators that recognizes their call to teach students to love and serve as Jesus did. That vital work will unfold each and every day for the nearly 27,000 students attending our 95 schools, including early childhood centers, elementary and high schools.

In my 2008 pastoral letter on Catholic education, I noted that our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs “bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus.” That is a story that our world – and especially our children – need to experience, especially today in a world where social, cultural and political forces seek to minimize or even bleach out religion. The Catholic identity of our schools is one of the pillars of our Catholic educational outreach. In addition to crucifixes and statues of Mary displayed in classrooms, students learn about their Catholic faith and they are challenged to live and share it every day.

To help prepare our community for Pope Francis’ historic visit to Washington, students will be encouraged to participate in the “Walk with Francis Pledge” being coordinated by Catholic Charities. By praying, reading more about their faith and sharing it with others, and by serving the poor and taking action on behalf of those in need, our students will be able to reflect the archdiocesan theme of the papal visit: “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis.”

At the Mass of Canonization for Saint Junípero Serra, the congregation will include many students from The Catholic University of America and other young adults studying and working in the Washington area. Their witness of faith, and the works of service that they undertake in honor of the Holy Father’s visit, will allow them also to truly “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis” as they offer our Church and our country great hope for the future.

This Mass elevating the United States’ newest saint offers us a reminder that the walk of holiness, and our journey to heaven, is one undertaken by earlier saints whom we should emulate, like two special patrons of Catholic education – Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and Saint John Neumann. Both are profiled prominently in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults.

In her life and work, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton demonstrated our human quest for God. A widow and mother of five children, she founded the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph, the first order of religious women in America. The schools she began in Maryland in the early decades of the 1800s, which provided free education for the poor and accepted tuition from those who could afford it, laid the basis for the Catholic school system in the United States. Mother Seton died in 1821 and was canonized in 1975, becoming our country’s first native-born saint.

As a priest in the Niagara region of New York, and then as the bishop of Philadelphia, Saint John Neumann demonstrated the importance of devotion to Christ and spreading the Gospel. A native of Bohemia, which is now in the Czech Republic, he served as Philadelphia’s bishop from 1852 until his death eight years later, but in that time, he increased the number of parish schools there from two to nearly 100, and he is credited with founding the first diocesan Catholic school system in the United States. He was canonized in 1977.

This school year, we will all have a special opportunity to “Walk with Francis” as we continue to walk in the footsteps of Catholic saints who demonstrated the importance of living, teaching and sharing the faith. This is the work that happens every day in our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs and is a manifestation of the kingdom in our midst.

A Time of Spiritual Transformation

August 6th, 2015


Today the Church lifts up for contemplation the mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord. The Gospels tell us how shortly after Jesus spoke of his coming Passion, he led Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor to pray. There Jesus “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2; see also Mark 9:2-3; Luke 9:29).

The Lord, who is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), gave these three Apostles a short glimpse of God’s power within him that they otherwise would not see. Jesus was a man, yet he is also “God from God, Light from Light.” He looked and acted like a man, but in this moment his witnesses were allowed to see something of the divine glory of God shining through his human nature (cf. Revelation 1:14-16). The Lord was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, who embody the Law and the Prophets, and then a cloud came and a heavenly voice was heard declaring, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).

The Transfiguration of the Lord, revealing him in his glory, is a mystery that was not fully grasped by the Apostles at the time and even now is one that engenders wonder. Yet what we can see is how it teaches us our own destiny in God’s plan. By our communion with the Lord, we also are meant to be “transfigured,” to be transformed. This change will happen in a definitive way at the resurrection, when we rise again and are glorified in Christ, but the beginnings of this transformation can happen now.

We want to go in the right direction and follow that path that God tells us will bring us to life everlasting. This starts with turning toward Jesus, and asking him to show us what in our own lives needs to be transformed. Open to the work of the Holy Spirit in us, we become children of light.

As we prepare for the visit of Pope Francis in September, this can and should be a time of spiritual renewal. In other words, before our beloved guest arrives, it would be good to clean up our spiritual home.

One of the frequent messages of our Holy Father is that Jesus wants to give us his healing forgiveness, and so this would be a good time to consider seeking God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The word of God assures us that though our sins be like scarlet, we shall be transformed, we shall be made white as snow by God’s merciful love (Isaiah 1:18). The Lord never hesitates or tires of forgiving, so let us never hesitate or tire of asking for forgiveness, Pope Francis often says.

We all need this mercy of God, affirms Pope Francis, “It is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace. Our salvation depends on it” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2). Furthermore, our lives thus “transfigured by God’s presence,” we need to share the Good News of Christ’s merciful love with others (Evangelii Gaudium, 259).

In the Transfiguration, where we see the glory of God embodied in Jesus, we are called to recognize the unfolding of the grace of the Spirit. The Apostles Peter, James and John came down from Mount Tabor aware that they had received a unique revelation, but also that they were still very much in need of their own commitment each and every day to keep alive in their heart the flame of faith.

That is what you and I do in our daily conversion and every time we pray, every time we ask the Lord in Confession to forgive us our sins and fan into flame the ember of faith burning in our heart. In this way, we are transformed by the light of Christ and the kingdom of God comes to be in and through each of us.

The Bread of Life

August 2nd, 2015

Last Supper

During the month of August, the Gospel readings at Sunday Mass will come from Chapter Six of the Gospel of John. Scripture scholars call this chapter the “Bread of Life discourse” because in it Jesus declares “I am the bread of Life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

This is really the invitation of every celebration of Mass – we hear the Word of God proclaimed, we receive our Lord in the Eucharist and we are sent from Mass to bear Christ to the world. As we unfold the Bread of Life discourse, we can think of these next four Sundays as a retreat to ponder the great gift of the real presence of Jesus.

As Catholics we are familiar and even comfortable with receiving the Eucharist, yes it can be hard to explain to others what it means that Christ himself is really present to us. Often, our experience is like the experience of our Lord in today’s Gospel. People were asking for signs so that they could believe in him. It is easy to imagine they wanted proof to take back to their friends and family. But signs and proofs are not the source of faith. Rather, Jesus teaches all that is needed is found in him.

We will hear some of his disciples say at the end of the chapter, “This is a hard saying: who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). How many of us have family and friends who have asked this same question? Perhaps we have even asked it ourselves when presented with a teaching that challenges our way of thinking. We know many people who have walked away from weekly participation at Mass and from active participation in the life of the Church like those disciples who returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Jesus (John 6:66). In my experience, often when pressed to talk more about their belief or lack of belief, they admit they are not really sure who Jesus is or what is really the core teaching of our Catholic faith.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). Here he echoes the first Pope – Peter – who when asked if he and the Apostles also wanted to leave answered, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity or doubt – what he teaches us is trustworthy and while we sometimes might experience difficulties, his teaching is good news. He is the “bread of Life.” The Catechism reminds us that “the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice is wholly directed towards the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through Communion. To receive Communion is to receive Christ himself who had offered himself to us” (CCC 1382).

In the spirit of a retreat, we can take the next couple of Sundays to respond to the Lord’s invitation and deepen our love for the Blessed Sacrament. One good practice that increases our appreciation for the Eucharist is the practice of arriving at church early enough to prepare ourselves quietly for the spiritual experience of the liturgy. In prayer, we can ask the Lord to strengthen our own faith and help us to appreciate more deeply the mystery we are invited to enter as we approach the presence of God with us in the Eucharist. These few minutes of quiet preparation have the spiritual effect of helping us make our heart “an avenue for the Lord.”

Jesus is the true bread from heaven who gives life to the world. As we reflect on the extraordinary gift of the Eucharist, both as the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection and also as our spiritual food, we thank God that such an overwhelmingly generous gift is given to us.

Homily: Mass of Christian Burial for Cardinal William Baum

July 31st, 2015

Cardinal Baum Funeral

Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle
Washington, D.C.
Friday, July 31, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord.

One week ago, William Wakefield Baum, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church and titular of the Church of the Holy Cross in Via Flaminia in Rome, was called to the Father’s house. In response to the call, he passed through the doors of death in anticipation of the life to come.

We gather today so that we might with faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and his pledge to us of new life remember and celebrate the life and ministry of Cardinal Baum, thank God for it and pray to God for our dear beloved pastor and friend.

The first reading today is taken from the Prophet Isaiah and speaks of that day when we will rejoice as we stand before God, all our tears will be wiped away and we will see the Lord and be glad and rejoice in him. Saint Paul expands on this hope-filled expectation. No longer shall we see God merely by faith, but we shall see him “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

This reading was explicitly chosen because some months ago I had a conversation, one of many, with Cardinal Baum at his residence at the Little Sisters of the Poor. The fact that he was able, at the Jeanne Jugan Residence, to continue to receive visitors and have conversations with the same style and ease as he did at his apartment in Rome and later on his retirement here is a tribute to the care and love provided by the Little Sisters.

This time Cardinal Baum raised the question of the beatific vision. There are few people whom I visit with the infirmities he bore who continue to have such a range of interests. All of us who spoke with His Eminence know that his conversations could go from questions about what is happening in the Church today, to reflections on the current culture and, as often as not, to theological matters. This particular day we reflected on what it will mean to say we see God face to face. I have to admit that the question caught me a little off guard and I immediately began mentally to retrieve my old university theology notes.

After some time, we concluded that the only thing we can be certain of is that in God’s mercy there will be such an encounter and that the nature of it is something we will simply have to await.

Now he knows the answer. As Isaiah reminds us, it is in God’s presence prefigured by his holy mountain that the Lord of hosts will destroy the veil that separates us from the face of God.

Cardinal Baum was a man of faith who many times in his life heard God’s call and responded. His journey as a disciple began with a call that was heard not so much with his ears but with his soul. It was in the baptismal outpouring of the waters of salvation that he responded to the call to a new way of life. He began a journey that only over time would he become more and more aware of, committed to and live.

In the second reading we are told that those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death but also into newness of life. “We who are baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…so that just as Christ was raised from the dead…we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:34).

funeral2It was his profound faith in this call that was at the very core of Cardinal William Baum. In this Liturgy, as with all who have been baptized, the Church fondly prays for William. In the waters in the font of salvation we all become simply children of God. All of the accomplishments of life and all the honors and dignities, civil and ecclesiastical, however earned and merited, pale before the designation that in baptism we become adopted children of God.

Saint Paul confirms this unique Christian vocation, “The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…so that we might also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16-17).

As a man of faith, William Wakefield Baum recognized the special role of the Church in this process of adoption and transformation. In the Creed we profess our faith in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It was the wonder of incorporation into the Body of Christ that guided so much of the vision and activity of our late archbishop and cardinal.

The Second Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution on the Church describes this vision that captivated the imagination and heart of Cardinal Baum over fifty years ago. “For by communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constitutes as his Body those brothers of his who are called together from every nation” (L.G. 7).

His ecumenical vision was nurtured by this call to communion. It also grew out of his own personal experience. With a Protestant father and a Jewish step-father, Cardinal Baum was profoundly aware of the implications of interfaith and ecumenical relations. This experience colored his priestly ministry.

In his thirties he was already recognized as one of the Catholic Church’s authorities on interfaith relations. We all with great pride can recall how during the Second Vatican Council Cardinal Baum served as advisor on ecumenical matters to the Fathers of the Council. He was engaged in some of the work in developing drafts of documents that helped reshape the Church’s appreciation of ecumenical and interfaith relations.

Here in Washington he had ample opportunity to apply the new perspectives and directives. From the end of the Council until 1967, the then Monsignor Baum was the first Executive Director of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Closer to home, he was one of the co-founders of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. This was one of the first such institutions in our nation bringing together leadership of many religious traditions.

His life might well be described as some have as scholarly, quiet and cultured. I would add another adjective, “serene.” His serenity came from his profound conviction that the Church is the living presence of Christ in the world and that our efforts to serve the Church and to be open to our brothers and sisters who have different faith convictions is a mark of an adopted child of God.

In this Cathedral Church are many who can attest to the quiet, profound and absolutely unshakable faith in the Church as part of God’s plan that marked the life of Cardinal Baum.

His episcopal ministry began in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau and continued later with his 1973 transfer to lead the Archdiocese of Washington. This was not a quiet time in the life of the Church. He spoke then about the need to bring healing and unity to a Church that was divided in its clergy and faithful over the encyclical of Pope, now Blessed, Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. Some who objected to this teaching asserted that it was an overreach of Papal Magisterium because it dealt with matters that were less than dogmatic. There were those who insisted that it clearly did not enjoy the approbation of those who had expertise in this field. Yet the overriding vision of Cardinal Baum was to do everything possible to sustain and maintain the unity of God’s family.

His episcopal motto, which was drawn from Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, was “Ministerium reconciliationis” – a ministry of reconciliation.

His was a ministry of engagement not confrontation. Nowhere was this more evident than in his ministry here in this archdiocese.

From 1973 to 1980 he carried out this ministry as our archbishop. During those days I came to know him primarily through the work on the catechism, The Teaching of Christ. This was an adult catechism published several decades before the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I recall with affection visiting Cardinal Baum with Capuchin Father Ronald Lawler, God rest him, to ask advice about the possibility of such an adult catechism and how it would be developed. His immediate response was to highlight two elements: the Church as God’s instrument among us, and the need for an ecumenical outreach to try to restore the unity of that Church.

It was during his tenure as our Cardinal Archbishop that he welcomed Pope John Paul II to the capital of our nation during his historic first pastoral visit in 1979.

His deep faith in the Church as the living presence of Christ in the world and the manifestation of God’s kingdom coming to be in our time, I think, is the most remarkable characteristic of Cardinal William Baum. This identification led him gladly to accept the change in responsibilities that caused him to step aside from his beloved ministry in Washington and go to Rome.

Here in 1980 he became the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education where for ten years he oversaw seminaries and Catholic colleges and universities around the world. Here again, his motto of a ministry of reconciliation was evident. As head of the Vatican Office for Education, he was responsible for oversight and relations with Catholic colleges and universities throughout the world. He met regularly and continually with the leadership of Catholic higher education during a decade that witnessed the significant realignment of university governance and structures that continues to be operative today.

Once again, our paths would cross as Pope, now Saint, John Paul II entrusted to Cardinal Baum the apostolic visitation of all of the 220 seminaries and houses of formation in the United States. I had the great privilege of serving under the direction of Cardinal Baum in this vast effort. In every step on that six year process he was involved and encouraging. For him, the institutions of the Church were the manifestations of the life of the Church. Maybe this is why he also served as a member of the Congregation for Bishops, Oriental Churches, Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Evangelization of Peoples.

Underlining this diversity of assignments was Cardinal Baum’s total dedication to a single vision – the vision of the priesthood as Christ at work in the world and his personal, firm commitment to serve the Lord as his priest, which he did for 64 years. He lived the words of today’s Responsorial Psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27). In that light, he responded faithfully to the call to become an image of Jesus, dedicated to maintaining Christ’s love and teaching, leading and sanctifying those entrusted to his care.

How appropriate that after a decade of service overseeing the universities, colleges and seminaries throughout the world Cardinal Baum would become the head of the Vatican Sacred Penitentiary, that office that oversees the realm of sacred space where conscience gives unto the very presence of God in our lives.

I do not know what goes on at the Sacred Penitentiary because it was a topic that Cardinal Baum never addressed. Matters of conscience, privacy, confidentiality were realities he held dear and sacred.

In our day where confidentiality and the respect for others have so greatly diminished, his ministry can be a model for many of us.

His personal spiritual life was focused on the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament. Many of us can remember seeing him at his apartment in Rome or his various residences here in this archdiocese and the visit to the Blessed Sacrament before and after lunch. His prayer that we shared was a very simply one: O Sacrament most holy, O Sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine.

To this day when I say that prayer I can still hear his quiet and gentle voice.

At the heart of all of his wisdom, humility and dedication was the faith of one who experienced and encountered the living Lord.

The Gospel today tells us of that encounter, the encounter between Martha and Jesus at the death of Lazarus. Jesus reminds her that “your brother will rise.” But she replies, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last.” Jesus retort is clear and simple, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” and then he asked her, “Do you believe this?”

Her answer, the answer of William Baum, the answer of his Eminence Cardinal William Wakefield Baum, the answer to the faithful gathered in this Church today is the same, “Yes Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

Those who come to eternal life will enjoy every manner of blessing but at the core of their joy will be the possession of God himself. No longer shall we see God merely by faith, but we shall see him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). It is in that expectation that we pray that we will hear these words of our Lord at our own judgment and pray that it is also the invitation directed now to Cardinal Baum, “Come share your master’s joy” (Mt. 25: 21).

This brings us back to where we began – Cardinal Baum’s room at the Little Sisters of the Poor.

I will always carry in my mind’s eye the scene at his deathbed as together with the Little Sisters of the Poor we offered the prayers for the dying. I administered the apostolic absolution. He had been many times anointed, several times by myself, and most recently by his faithful secretary Monsignor Patrick E. Dempsey.

The Little Sisters who had so well cared for our Cardinal and who do so for so many with such great love gathered around the bed and prayed. I can easily recall the tears in the eyes of some of the sisters who also saw with the eyes of faith and love that it was a holy passing that we were witnessing.

My brothers and sisters, that holy passing is what we also witness. Those tears are wiped away today. We pray with confidence that our brother now may enter the presence of God whom he now sees face to face.

May his life be a blessing for all of us, may his witness be an example to each of us and may his faith and ours be the force that wipes away our tears in anticipation of when we too hope to see God face to face.

Thank you.