Saint John Bosco and Promoting Educational Opportunity with the Maryland Education Tax Credit

January 30th, 2015

Don_Bosco

This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Saint John Bosco, whose memorial feast day is tomorrow. Popularly known as “Don Bosco,” which is Italian for “Father Bosco,” he dedicated his life to the education of disadvantaged young people. To advance his educational ministry, he founded a society that became known as the Salesians of Don Bosco, which is now a worldwide order and network of schools and educational programs, particularly in service to the underprivileged.

Here in our area, in 2007, the Salesians teamed with the Archdiocese of Washington to open Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School. In the great tradition of their saintly namesake, a vital part of the school’s mission is to provide excellent educational opportunities that otherwise would not be available to students from low-income families.

Don Bosco reminds us that not only are children a treasure whose future is to be nurtured and informed with both learning and grace, but they are a sign of our own dependence – our dependence on God’s providence and on one another. When we look upon children from disadvantaged families or children with no avenue for a quality education, what we should see is a young sister or brother who is in need of our help.

We all have a role to play in providing the opportunity of an authentic, quality education to young people. Education is a necessity for most anyone to find sustained gainful employment and be a builder of his or her own future. Implicit in any system of true quality learning is the freedom and power of parents to choose the best schools – public or private – for their children. Regardless of wealth or income level, all families should have an equal opportunity to choose where their children attend school.

However, there is no equal opportunity or real choice in education if parents do not have the money to act on their choices. To address this inequity, many smart solutions have been offered around the country, including the proposed Maryland Education Tax Credit, which would remove current obstacles to educational success and help low- and middle-income families access the best schooling they can find for their children at a private school or public school of their choice. This bipartisan measure has been introduced before in the Maryland General Assembly and now is the time to make it a reality.

Like the highly successful District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, enacted more than ten years ago, the Maryland Education Tax Credit would help level the playing field for students and close learning gaps, allowing them to pursue a better life. This initiative, if enacted, would allow businesses to use the funds that otherwise would be paid to the government as taxes and instead apply those funds to finance scholarships for children who are most in need. This would not reduce the amount of money paid by businesses, much less take money away from education. It would in fact promote education by allowing that money to be invested in the futures of our young people.

All of society would benefit from the enactment of the tax credit. According to reports, Maryland’s nonpublic schools currently save the state more than $1.5 billion in per-pupil expenditures each year. Catholic schools alone save taxpayers about $710 million annually. Because private institutions of learning like our Catholic schools are typically able to provide a quality education at a lower cost than public schools, the people of Maryland would save even more with the tax credit.

Educational tax credits have been implemented on the federal level and in many states. They are a proven way to allow for a fair and equitable distribution of education monies, not to mention historically bringing greater academic success for recipients.

As we remember Don Bosco, we are also invited to embrace his mission to help young people gain the educational opportunity they need to realize their potential for a fuller, more meaningful life.

Catholic Schools Week

January 26th, 2015

Last year, Pope Francis told a gathering of 300,000 students in Saint Peter’s Square that he learned to love school as a first grader and continued to love it as a teacher and as a bishop. He said schools prepare students to graduate speaking three languages – “the language of the mind, the language of the heart and the language of the hands.”

That sentiment is expressed in the theme of National Catholic Schools Week – “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service” – which is observed this year January 25th-31st. Our Catholic schools are illuminated by the light of faith, and they teach students to love and serve others as Jesus did, through the work of their minds, their hearts and their hands.

Our 68 Catholic elementary schools, along with our 20 Catholic high schools and seven early childhood centers in the Archdiocese of Washington are serving approximately 27,000 students this school year. These communities of faith, knowledge and service have an incredible impact on the minds and hearts of our students and in the nation’s capital and five surrounding Maryland counties.

Catholic identity is central to every one of our Catholic schools. In addition to crucifixes, statues of Mary and pictures of saints, Jesus is present in every classroom through the example of teachers and by the lessons that students learn about their faith.

During last year’s bitterly cold winter, students from Catholic schools across the archdiocese helped bring warmth to the homeless. Students from 45 Catholic schools, along with local parishes and church groups, collected 9,000 coats for Catholic Charities’ “Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors” drive. That same spirit is reflected in the annual Thanksgiving food drive at Archbishop Carroll High School, one of the largest such efforts in the country, where last fall students collected 18 tons of food for the region’s poor.

Academic excellence is another hallmark of Catholic schools here. Twenty-seven schools in the archdiocese have been named as National Blue Ribbon Schools in the 30-year history of the award.

Catholic schools in our community have adopted innovative academic programs to help students succeed in life and build a better world. Saint Jerome Academy in Hyattsville has developed a classical curriculum that has revitalized the school. To help students succeed in an increasingly interconnected world, Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring offers a global learning curriculum for its students, who have family roots in more than 50 countries.

Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, which is co-sponsored by the archdiocese and the Salesians of Don Bosco, helps students work toward their dreams by participating in an innovative corporate work study program whereby they gain professional experience and help earn the majority of the cost of their education through their jobs. The school, which serves primarily immigrant and minority families, has a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its students, most of whom are the first members of their families to go on to college.

In the District of Columbia, the four elementary schools of the Consortium of Catholic Academies provide a beacon of hope to families in their neighborhoods. Consortium students have strong test scores and a 100 percent on-time graduation rate. Sacred Heart School offers a bilingual English/Spanish immersion program for students from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade. Other consortium schools include Saint Francis Xavier Academy, Saint Anthony School and Saint Thomas More Catholic Academy.

The future of Catholic schools depends on all of us working together, though.  Following an extensive consultative process, the archdiocese adopted new policies in 2009 to strengthen and sustain Catholic schools. Now, Catholics at all local parishes support Catholic education, and 112 out of 139 parishes have entered into regional school agreements. With the support of local Catholics and other community members, the archdiocese has greatly expanded its tuition assistance to families, awarding $5.7 million for the 2014-15 school year. Millions more are provided by other sources, including parishes and schools.

Our Catholic schools are recognized as an invaluable blessing and many people work very hard to sustain them in the face of various challenges. Still, I am sad to say, the need for tuition assistance far exceeds what we are able to offer to those parents who want to send their children to Catholic school. Thus, no longer can we automatically assume that the future of every school will be guaranteed. Rather, it is necessary that we all work together – parents, parishes, archdiocese and government – so that our schools are affordable and accessible to as many students as possible. For example, it is important to support reauthorization and full funding of the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, as well as enactment of the proposed Maryland Education Tax Credit.

Looking to the future of Catholic education, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that we bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus and his words of truth and life, which transform lives and help build a better world by manifesting God’s kingdom in our community.

Saint Francis de Sales: A Saintly Spiritual Guide for All People in Every State of Life

January 24th, 2015

saint francis de sales

In the life of Saint Francis de Sales, who has inspired many people over the centuries, we find the quiet urgings of grace, the response to his calling by the Lord, and the experience of his mission unfolding over a long period of time.  He saw his ministry as one of inviting people into the experience and knowledge of Christ in a way that they could know God in their daily life – in all the things that make up our ordinary activity, our human condition, our daily living out of life’s joys, sorrows, challenges and glories.

Named a Doctor of the Church in 1877, Saint Francis undertook to bring the gift of spiritual direction into the lives of working lay people.  His most famous book, Introduction to the Devout Life, was, in fact, written for ordinary people and it reminds us that the transcendent, all-powerful, all-holy God is present in the routine experiences of grace at work in our hearts and in our day-to-day activities.

This book, first published in 1609, remains a spiritual classic. It has been a treasured source of meditation for me since I was fifteen years old, and I continue to keep a copy in the chapel of my residence to this day. In this work, there is almost no aspect of what makes up our waking hours that this saint for ordinary people does not help us examine and utilize in growing closer to the Lord. Saint Francis reminds us that we can hear God at any moment of the day and he is always ready to meet us.

As a young man born to a noble family, however, Francis was plagued with worries over his own salvation, dwelling on his many faults. Then one night, he cried to God in a prayer that would become famous, “No matter what happens, Lord, you who have everything in hand, and whose ways are justice and truth, whatever you have established in my regard… I will love you here, O my God, and I will always hope in your mercy, and I will always repeat your praise” (I Proc. Canon., vol. I, art. 4). Saint Francis gained the confidence that faith is the answer to the challenges of life, and that God’s word and grace can both fill us and make us fruitful instruments of God’s love.

Of all the great spiritual authors, Saint Francis is known for his gentleness, which he conveyed through his work in caring for the poor and through his great love for nature. During one particularly trying time, he took comfort in the glory of creation, telling his friend Jane Frances de Chantal, who would later be declared a saint herself, “I found [God] full of sweetness and gentleness among our highest and roughest mountains, where many simple souls loved and adored him in all truth and sincerity” (Letter of October 21, 1606).

In another one of Francis’ works, Treatise on the Love of God, he wrote, “God is the God of the human heart” (Book I, chapter XV). Francis never failed to emphasize that God knows our whole heart perfectly and our best response to his absolute love for us is to abandon ourselves with utter confidence to him.

Long before the Church focused on what we would call today the spirituality of the laity, Saint Francis de Sales recognized the significance of spiritual direction in the lives of ordinary men and women. Pope Pius IX, who named him a doctor, said that his teaching has inspired true piety in people from every social background (Dives in misericordia Deus, November 16, 1877), and so he can help guide us as well as we live out the call to holiness and intimacy with the God who loves us.

The Future is Life

January 20th, 2015

group-istand4life

#iStand4Life is the rallying cry of our young people who will gather early Thursday morning, January 22, for the 2015 Youth Rally and Mass for Life. This inspiring event, which drew tens of thousands last year despite a heavy snow, will be held at two locations again this year – at the Verizon Center and the D.C. Armory – with the March for Life to follow.

The hashtag #iStand4Life will also be splashed across smart phones, tablets and video screens of all sizes as young people board buses in church parking lots as far away as Oklahoma and as close as Hyattsville. #iStand4Life will alert family, friends, and fellow marchers that the young person tweeting it is a messenger for life.

When I see this hashtag, I think of Saint John Paul II’s challenge to take up the mission of the New Evangelization, using means that are new in “ardor, methods and expression” (Ecclesia in America, 66). The speed and versatility of digital media, so loved by young people, is an example of a new method for preaching the Gospel of Life that suits young life and has proven to be a powerful voice in society.

At last year’s Youth Rally and Mass for Life, the hashtag #Mass4Life trended nationally, I have learned, meaning that of the more than 500 million tweets that are sent every day, this one was among the most popular topics on that particular day. Additionally, #Mass4Life trended at the number one spot in ten U.S. cities. Young people in attendance at the Rally and Mass for Life and those back home were united in one common mission – to share the good news that every child is cherished and created for a purpose. Pope Francis even joined in solidarity with us with a tweet of his own!

Youth leaders speak of reading Saint Paul’s admonition to “not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). In this, as one group of leaders recently reflected, they are emboldened to cast aside their fear (1 John 4:18) and work to steer society away from a future in which no life is guaranteed.

This young generation of marchers understands better than previous generations the reality of what it means that their own mothers and fathers could have chosen differently. They can read the statistics about the number of abortions performed annually and realize those lost lives would have been classmates, neighbors, and friends. They articulate a profound desire to be a voice for the babies who have no voice.

They are indeed missionary disciples for a New Evangelization. The Rally for Life is an exuberant celebration of music, dance and prayer, with an opportunity to meet Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Mass is a celebration of thanksgiving for all God’s gifts and most especially for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And the March for Life literally is their response to being sent from Mass to “go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

Adopting a stance for life is the strongest indication we have that future generations will nurture a moral vision for society. The fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the protection and promotion of the dignity of human life. Without this foundation, family life, communal life and the protection of individual rights, all suffer. We can see an encroaching instability in society as questions related to marriage, family life, abortion and assisted suicide are continuously debated in a culture growing deaf to the voice of truth.

In the numbers, energy and profound message of our young marchers I see such hope for the truth of the Gospel of Life to be heard once more – new in method, expression and ardor. With our young people, #iStand4Life! Will you join us?

“That They May All Be One”

January 18th, 2015
The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well by Angelika Kauffmann

The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well         by Angelika Kauffmann

For more than 100 years, the Catholic Church has joined with other churches and Christian communities in the celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which is observed from January 18th to the 25th.

On the night Jesus gave himself to us in the Eucharist, he prayed for his disciples, “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). We recognize, however, that contrary to what the Lord wants for us, certain divisions have arisen over time within the Christian family. Thus, this week is specially set aside to join in his prayer “that [we] may all be one.”

As Catholics, we have a special responsibility to be agents of unity since we profess that the oneness Christ bestowed in his Church subsists in the Catholic Church. “Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 820).

The promotion of unity among Christians is called “ecumenism,” and we practice it in a variety of ways in our daily lives. Many of our families are made up of Christians of different faith traditions and we have prayed together at family celebrations confident in our shared belief in Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. As parishes we join neighboring Christian communities for ecumenical Thanksgiving celebrations and other services. In many of our schools, students come from a variety of Christian backgrounds and learn to pray and study together. We can also take pride in the number of charitable ministries that are partnerships among neighboring Christian groups. All of these experiences are the fruit of the renewal of the Church’s commitment to ecumenism following the Second Vatican Council’s call for increased commitment to dialogue, collaboration and fraternity.

This annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, though, is a more contemplative form of ecumenism. This year’s theme, “Give me a drink,” was chosen to highlight that unity can only be achieved in and through Jesus Christ. “Give me a drink” is the request of the Samaritan women that Jesus encountered at the well (John 4:4-42). Like the woman, whose mind and heart begin to open to the gift Jesus offers her, we know that unity sometimes requires a change of mind and heart – a conversion. In addition to shared ministry and dialogue, a shared commitment to a more fervent prayer for unity is a call to conversion.

Now, more than ever, as we expand our evangelizing efforts we must see that the lack of unity among Christians is itself an obstacle to evangelization. Pope Francis writes, “The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity (universality) proper to her in those of her children, who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 244, quoting the Decree on Ecumenism, 4). Moreover, our Holy Father adds, our efforts toward Christian unity, journeying alongside one another as fellow pilgrims, “can be seen as a contribution to the unity of the human family” (Evangelii Gaudium, 244-5).

May we set aside time in our own lives to pray more fervently that we who call Jesus ‘Lord and Savior’ may be one in a more perfect communion.

“A Heart Open to the Whole World”

January 15th, 2015
Pope Francis blesses a cross during his weekly audience at the Vatican April 9. The cross is made from wooden boards recovered from the wreckage of boats carrying migrants from northern Africa to Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island. (CNS photo/L'Osser vatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis blesses a cross during his weekly audience at the Vatican April 9, 2014. The cross is made from wooden boards recovered from the wreckage of boats carrying migrants from northern Africa to Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. (CNS photo/L’Osser vatore Romano via Reuters)

Again and again, in the face of a migration crisis that affects every country around the world, Pope Francis has called on nations to greet immigrants and refugees not with closed doors, but with open hearts.

In July 2013, for his first official trip outside Rome, our Holy Father celebrated Mass on the small Italian island of Lampedusa near the waters of the Mediterranean Sea where over the past quarter century about 20,000 African immigrants have drowned. The pope said the tragic plight of those who died seeking a new life in Europe felt to him like “a thorn in the heart,” and he decried a “globalization of indifference” toward the suffering of immigrants.

Pope Francis in recent months has also decried the “inhumanity” that has caused hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria to flee as refugees from rampaging Islamic State militants who have given them the choice to convert, pay a heavy tax or be killed. That wave of forced migration, he recently said, “impoverishes the Christian presence in the Middle East, land of the prophets, of the first preachers of the Gospel, of martyrs and many saints, the cradle of hermitages and monasticism.”

Our own nation’s southern border also became a focal point last year when it was reported that 60,000 unaccompanied minors have fled gang and drug violence and extreme poverty in Central America, seeking a new life in the United States. Yet many of these vulnerable youngsters ended up being victimized along the way, including various forms of human trafficking.

In his Message for the 101st World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which we will observe on Sunday, January 18, Pope Francis urges that instead of worldwide indifference, this global challenge of migration should be met with “the globalization of charity and cooperation.” Nations and international organizations need to work together to address this issue, he said, adding that the Catholic Church has a special role to play, because since its beginning, it has been “a mother with a heart open to the whole world, and has been without borders.” The Holy Father said that the Church sees the solution as not simply greeting migrants and refugees fleeing war and famine with “tolerance,” but instead with “a culture of encounter,” and treating them with solidarity and respect as children of God.

For this reason, agencies such as Catholic Charities in our area and across the United States have been on the front lines attempting to help immigrants. Following Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger, we see immigrants as brothers and sisters and fellow members of God’s family. That sentiment was at the heart of National Migration Week last January 4-10, which had as its theme, “We are One Family under God.”

But it is important that everyone in society remember that we all at some point in our family history were strangers who wished to be welcomed and that our nation has a legacy of welcoming newcomers. Such a culture of inclusion is historically what has made the United States great, making neighbors of strangers and welcoming their contributions to our country. Our history as a nation of people from every land has been enriched by the gifts, talents and ethnic heritage that immigrants have brought and continue to bring.

As Americans and as Christians, we are heralds of this blessing, calling others to remember also our common humanity, that we are all one human family. Thus, the bishops of the United States support government efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform and policies that respect the rule of law, that protect human life and dignity and that do not tear apart families. As Pope Francis has said, we can no longer be indifferent to the plight of immigrants – they are our sisters and brothers.

The Holy Father concluded his recent message by encouraging migrants and refugees not to lose faith or hope. “Let us think of the Holy Family during the flight in Egypt,” he said. “Just as the maternal heart of the Blessed Virgin and the kind heart of Saint Joseph kept alive the confidence that God would never abandon them, so in you may the same hope in the Lord never be wanting.”

The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a Celebration of Every Christian’s Baptism

January 11th, 2015
Baptism of Christ by Giotto di Bondone

Baptism of Christ by Giotto di Bondone

In a deeply Trinitarian vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, Saint John sees the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1). John then hears an invitation to come share the life of the Trinity, “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water” (Revelation 22:17, see also Revelation 7:17).

Jesus had spoken often of the water of life. He said to the Samaritan woman at the well that he gives “living water,” which becomes in the person a spring welling up to eternal life (John 4:10-14). Later, during Sukkot, the Jewish feast of booths, when the people remembered how God provided for them in the desert, Jesus invited those who were thirsty to come to him, saying that “rivers of living water” will flow from within whoever believes in him (John 7:37-38). Also, on the Cross, water would pour from Christ’s heart when his side was pierced with a lance (John 19:34).

This “living water” is an image for the life of the Holy Spirit. In the vision of Revelation, the Spirit is a “river” of love that flows in heaven, proceeding from the Father and from the Son. Moreover, this love of the Trinity, this river of love, overflows to earth in the waters of baptism.

John the Baptist is witness to this as he saw a manifestation, an epiphany, of the Blessed Trinity at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, which we celebrate today. When Jesus came up out of the water after submitting himself to baptism, John saw the Holy Spirit descend visibly in the form of a dove and hover over Jesus as the voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

The Spirit had moved over the waters at the dawn of creation as well (Genesis 1:2) and after the great flood, Noah had released a dove to find evidence that God had renewed creation and given the world another chance (Genesis 8:8-12). The Holy Spirit’s descent at the Jordan also signified a new creation (CCC 1224).

By his immersion in the water leading to the Promised Land, Jesus led the way for our own baptism, whereby every Christian is newborn into divine life in the Spirit, cleansing us of sin and giving us the grace to lead a holy life (CCC 1213). This sacrament of baptism not only creates new life in communion with the Trinity, but communion with our sisters and brothers in the Church. Baptism then is necessarily relationship.

We belong to our own natural family and then because of baptism we also belong to God’s family, with the mission of adding to this family. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 28:19).

One of the great joys of any priest is to confer the Sacrament of Baptism. Whether it is an infant in the arms of young parents who comes to the baptismal font, or a person advanced in years, it is sure to also warm the hearts and bring smiles to the faces of the people throughout the church.

For those who see with the eyes of faith, every baptism is a dramatic and sudden manifestation of God’s power. In the fruitfulness of the love of the Spirit, the Church like a mother has given birth to new children in Christ. As when any new birth is announced, baptism is a reason for celebration. It is reason for a feast.

This blog post is adapted from my book “Open to the Holy Spirit: Living the Gospel with Wisdom and Power” (2014).

The Calling of Saint Brother André Bessette

January 6th, 2015

SAint_André_1920

“What do I do with my life?” This is a question we all ask growing up, but Alfred Bessette was obliged to ask it more urgently and at a much younger age than most. Born in 1845 to a modest family in Canada, he was orphaned at 12 years old and, although taken in by his aunt’s family, it became necessary for him to work.

Young Alfred took a variety of jobs over the ensuing years, including apprentice shoemaker, baker, farmhand, itinerant laborer, and factory worker. He was confronted throughout with the question of his future, but he found comfort in prayer, often meditating on Christ’s Passion, and in his devotion to Saint Joseph.

Many people had commented on his piety over the years until finally Father André Provençal spoke to him about the religious life. After the young man said he was most happy in church and at prayer, Father Provençal prophetically wrote to the superior of the nearby Holy Cross brothers in Montreal, “I am sending you a saint.”

Key to the consecrated life or the priesthood is the call and then the response. Each of us has a role to play in that process, helping others to recognize their vocation.

When he entered religious life in 1870 at the age of 25 and was given the name Brother André, he immediately felt the joy and comfort of a stable community, of family, that had been lost to him as a young boy. He also found fulfillment and purpose, while those he encountered found in him a blessing. When he died, 78 years ago today at the age of 91, an estimated one million people came to his funeral. In 2010, this humble man was canonized a saint.

The community was the Congregation of Holy Cross, which had been founded in 1837 by Blessed Father Basil Moreau in Sainte-Croix, France. Today the Holy Cross family includes distinct societies of religious brothers and priests bound together in one brotherhood, as well as three groups of sisters. Among the Congregation’s works in our country is the founding of the University of Notre Dame in 1842 and, closer to home, the establishment of Silver Spring’s Holy Cross Hospital by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1963.

It should not surprise us, as people of faith, that Brother André realized his fulfillment in giving of himself to others. While he did any odd job that needed doing, he is perhaps best known for two things – his boundless hospitality to the sick and the founding of the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montreal.

Beginning with his service as doorkeeper at the Congregation’s school for boys in Montreal, and later for the rest of his life during his travels, Brother André often visited the sick and afflicted, offering them consolation and prayers. With zeal for their souls, he spoke to them with simplicity about God and his mercy, encouraging them in their faith.

When many of the people Brother André prayed for were restored to health, he acquired a reputation as a healer. Thereafter, a steady stream of ailing people came by the school to lay their misery before him, while thousands more wrote to him asking for his prayers. The lowly Brother André, who was himself always in frail health, strenuously denied that any good was because of him, insisting that any healing was due to the Lord through the intercession of Saint Joseph.

During this time, Brother André would look across the street at Mount Royal and envision there a shrine dedicated to Saint Joseph. After the Congregation acquired the land, he was given permission to proceed. Taking the money he had saved from giving haircuts for five cents apiece, in 1904 he built a small chapel on the hill, but he had in mind something greater still – the towering Oratory that stands nearby today. This magnificent house of prayer is the world’s largest shrine dedicated to the foster father of Jesus and spouse of Mary, attracting more than two million pilgrims a year. The lower level near the tomb of Brother André is filled with the crutches of those who attribute their healing to his prayers and the intercession of Saint Joseph.

Like Saint Joseph, Brother André found his calling in life as a humble servant. “Wholly inhabited by the mystery of Jesus, he lived the beatitude of pure of heart,” said Pope Benedict XVI at his canonization. “It is thanks to this simplicity that he enabled many people to see God.” May Saint Brother André help you to know what God has in store for your life.

Homily: Mass for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

January 5th, 2015
PHOTO CREDIT: Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

PHOTO CREDIT: Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

Recently I reviewed some startling photos. I was struck by the pictures of the small Christian community made up of a number of families including elders and infants all huddled in relative darkness and in imposed silence as they tried to celebrate Christmas – Nativity – the birth of our Lord.

What struck me was the fear that was necessarily a part of this clandestine Liturgy and what inspired me was the defiance of those who while frightened of the consequences were determined to hold on to and even celebrate their faith.

The photos were of a small persecuted Christian community in Syria but it could just as well have been almost anywhere else in the Middle East.

What a contrast to our celebration today in this magnificent cathedral full of light, heat, joy and freedom.

The liturgy speaks of light, a light that is come among us, the glory of the Lord that shines upon us. Just as the star of Bethlehem led the wise men, symbols of the Gentiles, to Christ so we are reminded every Epiphany that we are also to be a light to those around us, a light reflecting Christ by reflecting our discipleship – our commitment to him.

Today I would like to reflect with you not just on our challenge and obligation to be a reflection of Christ’s light in the world, but also our obligation to pray for those who are struggling to keep that light of Christian faith alive, even as attempts are made to see that it is extinguished in their lives.

We take for granted not only the great gift of faith that enables us to profess our discipleship in Jesus Christ, our acceptance of him, his Gospel and his way, but also the great gift of freedom that allows us to profess our faith, to live our faith, to practice our faith openly and freely, and to have recourse to the courts when we feel that our freedom is being compromised.

Today I ask you to reflect with me and pray for those who see the light of their Christian faith being challenged and in some instances violently extinguished.

In the fall of last year, September 2014, an ecumenical summit of Christian leaders, representatives of Churches and faith communities from all over the Middle East, the Holy Land, Iraq and Syria met here in Washington. Organized by an association of scholars and dignitaries called “In Defense of Christians,” this Inaugural Summit was to call attention to the gradual eradication of Christianity in the very land where it all began.

Representatives from the Holy See, the Maronite, Melkite and Syriac Catholic patriarchs, as well as representatives of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Church and the Patriarchates of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and many others gathered to point out the plight of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East.

Here it was noted that institutional oppression from governments and the violence of organizations such as ISIS, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” have dramatically reduced the number of Christians in all of these lands, made them second class citizens, obliged them to forced conversion, and exhibited a violence manifested in beheadings and mass executions.

If it were not for the immediacy of the presence of these atrocities one would be tempted to think that reference was being made to something of a thousand years ago, when in various parts of the world some religious faiths were spread by the sword. But my brothers and sisters, we are speaking about today.

We must pray for and speak up on behalf of those whose light that began to shine at Epiphany is being forcefully but really and truly extinguished.

But in other parts of the world, the light of faith is also challenged as the ever present darkness that the light of Christ came to dispel threatens to encroach. In Nigeria we hear of Christian children being kidnapped by the classroom full and forced to reject their faith and accept Islam.

A recent report from the Diocese of Maiduguri in troubled Borno State in northeastern Nigeria pointed out how Catholic Nigerians displaced by violence and the threat of suicide bomb attacks by Islamist insurgents celebrated Christmas not knowing when they might return home. A veil of darkness descends over whole communities that once were alive in the light of Christian faith.

In Sudan, in West Africa, in parts of India regularly are Christian Churches and homes burned in the hope of putting out the light of faith.

The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India recently criticized the forced conversions of Christians to Hinduism. Some Hindu leaders have said that India is a Hindu nation and thus forced conversion of Christians is justified.

In ancient Christian communities that have for centuries lived side by side with their neighbors who come from a variety of faith commitments the darkness of violence intrudes.

Pope Francis, in his Message for the World Day of Peace, which we observed last Thursday, speaks also of the “Many people [who] are kidnapped in order to be sold, enlisted as combatants, or sexually exploited, while others are forced to emigrate, leaving everything behind: their country, home, property, and even members of their family.”

For all of these we need to offer our prayers, our support and on behalf of whom we need our voices.

Brothers and sisters, Epiphany is the great celebration of light, Christ the light come into the world. We are called to be children of the light, to walk in the light, to live in the brightness of that light and to make every effort to reflect it and even share it.

Would that we could simply rejoice today in the great blessing of Epiphany, but as our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminds us, to ignore the suffering and evil around us, to turn away from the efforts to envelope our brothers and sisters in darkness – to extinguish the light of faith is to act in a way not worthy of our calling.

This year when we rejoice in the light of faith, let us also remember that our brothers and sisters in various parts of the world are paying an extremely high price to keep that candle of faith lit. And let us simply remind ourselves of the words from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that were part of the first reading today: “darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the people,” “upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory” so that nations might “walk by your light.”

As children of the light, let us never forget our brothers and sisters who attempt to walk in the light and who suffer so grievously for their faith. In this festival of the manifestation of our Lord, let us do our part, remembering our brothers and sisters, praying for them and standing in solidarity with them by speaking out whenever we can, reminding ourselves, our friends, our neighbors – everyone – that what they are suffering is simply wrong and that what they are enduring is an unjust violence.

Perhaps our faith, our prayers, and our words might help to lift a little of the darkness that covers these atrocities “so that nations might ‘walk by the light.’”

Epiphany: The Public Revelation of the Savior of the World

January 4th, 2015
The Nativity by Franz von Rohden, 1853

The Nativity by Franz von Rohden, 1853

Before the invention of satellites or digital compasses and the Global Positioning System, travelers, navigators and mariners looked to the stars for guidance. The Gospel of Matthew tells us about one particular star, the Star of Bethlehem, which pointed to the Lord Jesus and guided the Magi from the East (Mt. 2:1-2, 9-11). Following the star, the Magi found their way to the place where the infant Jesus lay. They fell to their knees, worshiped him and offered him gifts.

The Solemnity of the Epiphany, which we celebrate this year on January 4, is the feast that represents the completion of the Christmas story. It celebrates the manifestation of the newborn Christ as Savior of the world and commemorates the public revelation that Jesus – God with us – came not only for the chosen people, the Jews, but for all peoples of the world.

The shepherds were Jews, the people Israel whom God had called throughout salvation history. The Magi were Gentiles. God saw that they too were seeking a higher wisdom, so he called them from afar as well to find salvation. As the Magi and shepherds before them each approached the Child and his mother, they represented all the peoples of the world. They received the Good News, the Gospel, on our behalf. Here is seen the universality of the Church, the Church’s inclusion of all peoples.

“Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “showing” or “manifestation.” Without a showing, without a manifestation, Jesus could have gone through life without being recognized as God’s Son – and therefore, without accomplishing his goal. For Christ to have an effect in the world – in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our lives – he has to be recognized. For Christ to be recognized, he has to be manifested. This is why Epiphany and our remembrance of it are so important.

For 2,000 years, it has been the work of the Church, of all of us, every member of the Body of Christ, to show forth the presence of Jesus Christ our Savior and King, one of us who is also the Son of God. This showing takes place in many ways.

Just as there are countless stars in the sky that form all kinds of constellations, so too are there many, many holy lives, many kinds of dedicated people, women and men, disciples of Jesus, who replicate the work of the great Star of Bethlehem. The Church continues to rely on that constellation of stars to manifest Jesus today and to lead people to him.

Who are the lights that manifest the kingdom of God for all to see? They are ordinary people who are doing the work of the kingdom in the places they find themselves, shining Christ’s light in their homes, their communities, and in our parishes, schools and Catholic ministries. They form a great constellation that manifests the kingdom of God in today’s world.

When the Magi found the Child Jesus, they presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Every person in the Church, each member of the heavenly constellation, has rich gifts to offer: your talents are yours, given by God, and the same is true of your time, your energy, and above all else, your love. These are your own personal gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh” to give, and only you can give them.

Pope Francis titled his first encyclical Lumen Fidei – Latin for “The Light of Faith” – and he said that light “is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.” Faith, he said, “becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time” (Lumen Fidei, 4).

Just as Jesus came to be known in their homage and in the gifts that were given by the three Magi, so he becomes known and more clearly visible because of your presence, your gifts, your witness. Like the Star of Bethlehem once guided the Magi in the night sky, the light of your faith, and of your love, can lead others to Jesus, and this “epiphany” can transform their hearts and their lives.

This blog post is adapted from the book that Mike Aquilina and I wrote, “The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics” (2014).