World Day of the Sick in Year of Mercy

February 11th, 2016

World Day of the Sick

Fittingly, the Church celebrates the World Day of the Sick each year on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, as a reminder not only of that holy place of physical and spiritual healing where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared, but also of her role in leading us to Jesus, who brings us true healing through his love and mercy.

This day comes this year during the Jubilee of Mercy, and the theme chosen by Pope Francis is “Entrusting Oneself to the Merciful Jesus like Mary: ‘Do whatever he tells you,’” reflecting on the solicitude of the Mother of Mercy at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-11). This day dedicated to prayer and lifting up the dignity of our sisters and brothers who are ill or dying comes also as we are facing the challenge locally and nationally of a “culture of death” which continues to press for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and other efforts to hasten the deaths of those whose lives have been deemed to be no longer worth living (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 64-67).

In his Message for the 2016 World Day of the Sick, our Holy Father observes that “illness, above all grave illness, always places human existence in crisis.” It is in these situations, when one might despair that things no longer have meaning, that faith “offers a key by which we can discover the deepest meaning of what we are experiencing; a key that helps us to see how illness can be the way to draw nearer to Jesus who walks at our side, weighed down by the Cross. And this key is given to us by Mary, our Mother, who has known this way at first hand.”

The lesson of Cana, where Mary took action when she noticed that there was no more wine, is that our Blessed Mother watches out for us, her spiritual children. Furthermore, our Holy Father says, “In Mary’s concern we see reflected the tenderness of God. This same tenderness is present in the lives of all those persons who attend the sick and understand their needs, even the most imperceptible ones, because they look upon them with eyes full of love.”

In turn, Jesus is ready to “change the water of our lives into precious wine,” affirms Pope Francis. That miracle can unfold in homes, in hospitals and nursing facilities as we obey the words of Mary, “Do whatever he tells you,” the sick and infirm entrust their lives to God, and their caregivers offer them the love and mercy of Christ.

Today, the need to do what the Lord tells us, to love and care for one another, and to especially defend and protect the most vulnerable among us, is ever more pressing as we confront the despair spreading throughout society which has led to an increase in suicide generally and calls for the legalization of assisted suicide.

At the recent Adult and Family Rally for Life, the keynote speaker was Mark Pickup, who has lived with multiple sclerosis for three decades. In his talk, he referred to the campaign for legalized physician-assisted suicide as “cultural poison,” a poison he might have succumbed to himself in moments of darkness. Instead, the love he experienced from his family and from God helped him to understand what true quality of life means. “What gives my life quality today is to love and be loved,” he said. “Our value comes from being image bearers of God and recipients of his immense love.”

Warning against the manipulation of language in the push to legalize assisted suicide and even direct euthanasia, Mr. Pickup noted that phrases like “death with dignity” and “medical aid in dying” were meant to make killing people look compassionate and legitimate. In truth, it is a false compassion, a false mercy, and a fundamental violation of human dignity.

For this reason, the Archdiocese of Washington has been diligently working with a broad coalition of medical experts, family and disability advocates and people of many faiths to oppose proposed bills in Maryland and the District of Columbia that would legalize physician-assisted suicide. Please visit the websites for Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide and No DC Suicide, as well as our own #TransformFear, to learn more about how you too can help.

In a particular way, on this World Day of the Sick let us join with Pope Francis and the whole Church to “ask Jesus in his mercy, through the intercession of Mary, his Mother and ours, to grant to all of us this same readiness to be serve those in need, and, in particular, our infirm brothers and sisters. . . . We too can be hands, arms and hearts which help God to perform his miracles, so often hidden. We too, whether healthy or sick, can offer up our toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana and was turned into the finest wine.”

Lent in the Jubilee Year of Mercy

February 10th, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Each Ash Wednesday, I open the season of Lent by celebrating Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. As the liturgy unfolds here and throughout the area, we see an inspiring witness of faith.

Ash Wednesday is always quite popular, with large numbers of people attending and sometimes an overflow crowd standing outside. It is a sign that people in these secular times still have a humble appreciation for the fact that, as great as life on earth can be, at some point it will end. So, throngs of people come forward to have ashes in the form of a cross traced on their foreheads to remind them both of their human limitations and that Jesus’ act of love and mercy on the Cross and rising from the dead offers them salvation. The ashes offer a reminder that God is with us, God loves us, and God redeems us.

This day begins a forty-day penitential journey of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as we walk with Jesus on a path that leads us to the Paschal Mystery and new life. Our Lenten pilgrimage is especially poignant in the Jubilee of Mercy, which includes the opportunity to pass through the Holy Door at the Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, or other holy places in the area and throughout the world. The doors symbolize our call to seek the Lord’s mercy, which is always open to us, and then share it with others.

When he announced this holy year, Pope Francis said Lent will be a special time to experience divine mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The grace we find here is the story of God’s love that is never lost. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God waits and watches for our return every time we walk away. Like the son who left home, all we need to do to return to our heavenly Father is to recognize our misery, caused by our own doing, and turn towards him.

Our Father waits for us with all of his love, with all of his mercy. In Confession, we find the glory of the Lord’s forgiveness and are renewed in grace and our relationship with Christ. All you need to receive this compassionate healing is contritely ask, then God’s love, mercy and forgiveness is yours.

Once again, the Archdiocese of Washington and the neighboring Diocese of Arlington are encouraging people to receive this wellspring of God’s mercy in the “Light is ON for You” campaign. Desiring to show God’s tenderness to all who seek it, in addition to the usual times for Confession, churches throughout the area will be open Wednesday evenings during Lent for people to receive this healing grace. Please visit our special website to learn more.

The grace given in Confession is a blessing for others as well as ourselves. In this year’s Message for Lent, Pope Francis explains that “God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn. In an ever new miracle, divine mercy shines forth in our lives, inspiring each of us to love our neighbor and to devote ourselves to what the Church’s tradition calls the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”

Jesus said he came to give sight to the blind (John 9:39). How often in our own lives do we fail to really see those around us who are in need of assistance? Lent prompts us to recognize this failing and overcome it through being merciful to others.

“In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy – counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer – we touch more directly our own sinfulness,” Pope Francis writes. “By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need.”

The archdiocese’s special #EncounterMercy website shares resources and reflections on our need for God’s mercy and how that mercy might be extended to others. There you will find information about parish activities, regional missions of mercy, and how to join in the ongoing Walk with Francis initiative.

Lent, like any journey, begins with making sure we are traveling in the right direction. Humbly recognizing our need for conversion, our hearts are opened to receiving the transformative love and mercy of God, which in turn is radiated to those around us. In this way, we can live out the theme of this Jubilee and be “Merciful like the Father,” whose door of mercy is always open us, and who in turn opens our hearts to forgiving and loving others.

Conscience: Our Guide Through Life

February 8th, 2016

Cardinal Wuerl - blog on conscience

In recent months there has been much discussion about conscience. It is said, “Let your conscience be your guide” for the choices we make in daily life. We are also urged to make a frequent “examination of conscience.” And there is increasing talk of the need for conscience protection from governmental and societal burdens, such as the HHS Mandate. But what exactly is “conscience”?

Unfortunately, and to great consequence, in our individualist and secularist culture there is wide confusion as to the question of “conscience.” For example, some people think of conscience as a subjective feeling, “I don’t feel bad about what I’m doing, so it’s OK,” they say. Some attribute autonomy and unassailable supremacy to the individual conscience over and above any objective moral principles. The result is a relativistic conception of right and wrong that descends into people simply doing whatever they want to do, rather than what they ought to do. We now have generations being raised today who were told over and over again that their wishes are basically the norm for right and wrong.

To gain a proper understanding of conscience, we might start with the word itself, which derived from the Latin conscientia, meaning “with knowledge,” specifically the knowledge of objective moral truth, the natural law that says to “do good and avoid evil.” More than mere intellectual knowledge, conscience is the voice of the Holy Spirit within our hearts. Thus, conscience is not the same as one’s opinions, feelings, or personal will – it is not a mere device for making exceptions to objective morality.

The Catechism teaches that moral conscience is “a judgment of reason” that enjoins the human person “at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments” (CCC 1777-78). In short, conscience is that sure orientation of the human heart and mind, our human nature, towards the good and the right.

Judgments of conscience are the outcome of a person’s honest effort to avoid being arbitrary or unresponsive in pursuing true human values. When we are able to set aside our personal prejudices or the biases that may close our hearts to the truth, then the choices we make are right. Then conscience is true and upright, and a person attains what he or she is implicitly or explicitly seeking: the knowledge of God’s design and will.

Now, it is one thing to know that deep within our human nature is a quiet, strong voice urging us to do good and avoid evil. But when we come to specific actions that require the determination of whether the given action is good or evil, we also recognize that we need information.

In a fallen world where error abounds and people are all too easily led astray by voices other than God, conscience needs formation if its conclusions are going to truly reflect God’s plan for us. In other words, we need to be taught what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

Where do we find this guidance as we make our way through life?

In our search for objective norms of morality so that we are able to inform our conscience and do what is good, while avoiding what is evil, we turn obviously to the Word of God. The Lord, in his infinite mercy, speaks to us in sacred scripture and in his Church. The Word made flesh who came to live with us and teach us has left us the gift of his Spirit who guides the Church to all truth and convinces the world in regards to sin and righteousness (John 16:8-13, 20:22). Thus, in the living apostolic Church, we can hear the teaching of Christ today as it is applied to our situation, circumstances and needs.

The task of the papacy, the task of the Magisterium, the teaching authority in the Church, is to preserve and point to the truth so as to inform consciences.   With over 2,000 years of reflection on the human condition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church provides us sure guidance and clear insight. Then, with our consciences formed by this knowledge, we are equipped to choose what is truly right as we make our way through this life on our way to the heavenly kingdom.

Growing Closer to God

February 4th, 2016
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Once when I was traveling, a flight attendant shared with me her feeling that something was missing in her life, saying that she wished she had the sense of wholeness she knew when she was younger and attending Catholic school. It became clear as we talked that it had been a long time since she had significant contact with the practice of the faith. When she told me that she did not even remember how to pray, I told her I would help her.

ways-to-prayIt is not unusual for me or for any priest to have conversations with people about a desire to pray more or better or differently. It is even a discussion Jesus had with his disciples! To help others like this woman seeking more peace and joy in their lives, I recently wrote a book, Ways to Pray: Growing Closer to God. My hope is that with this little book, readers will learn how to better and more deeply enter into God’s intimate presence.

In the Gospel we read how Jesus was praying in a certain place when one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). It is an important question, and even an urgent one. Maybe the disciple felt sheepish about bothering the great Master about such a simple matter, but he got over his inhibitions because he needed to know how to pray.

We all do. We need to learn how to pray and to spend our lives at that task. It is the life-long education of learning to speak the language of heaven. The good news is that God is present and wants to be present in our lives. The Lord wants us apply ourselves to a closer relationship with him in prayer with diligence, passion, focus and endurance because he loves us and he knows that the greatest good is for us to be with him.

In response to the disciple who asked how to pray, Jesus gave us the Our Father, also known as the Lord’s Prayer. This model for all prayer contains the four general types of prayer – adoration, thanksgiving, petition and contrition.

For most of us, the kind of prayer that comes most easily is that of petition – asking something of God. Usually, we are reaching out for God’s help for ourselves or someone we love. Every Sunday, at Mass we ask divine assistance for the Church, for our local parish, for the healing of those who are sick and for eternal life for those who have died.

Pope Francis describes petition as one of three movements of prayer: “gazing on the Lord, hearing the Lord and asking the Lord.” No one would dispute the elements of his sequence: gazing, hearing and asking. Those are basic components in most of our everyday conversations and, as Saint Teresa of Ávila observed, prayer is nothing more than conversation with God. We observe good manners we look in the direction of the people with whom we are speaking, when we listen to them, and when we speak to those whose company we share.

But notice the sequence in the Pope’s instruction: “hearing” comes before “asking.” He tells us to begin by gazing in God’s direction, but the next step is not talking – it is hearing. It is listening to and receiving a word that is given. God has already taken the initiative. “God calls man first,” explains the Catechism. “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (CCC 2567).

In this pattern of prayer, our bonds with God will grow stronger just as ordinary relationships grow stronger through talking and listening. We make time for one another and we proceed to fill that time in a variety of meaningful ways. We exchange customary greetings. We exchange updates, concerns, ideas, hopes, wishes, plans, and fears. This is how we share life with one another. We take what is inside us – what is entirely interior – and we communicate it to another person. At the same time, we make the effort to hear, understand, and respond to the other person.

We know this process from everyday life. In prayer, God wants us to learn how the same dynamic, the same habits and custom, apply to our friendship with him. Through Catholic tradition, God has given you what you need to get started. Now all that remains is for you to pray, to respond to his call in the language of love, one day after another.

The Blessing of Consecrated Life

February 2nd, 2016
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

The infancy narratives in the Gospel of Saint Luke introduce us to two watchful people who are a model for us all, but particularly for those in consecrated life. Simeon “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him,” and Anna, a widow who “never left the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer” (Luke 2:25, 37).

When Simeon and Anna saw Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus into the Temple to present him to the Lord, they both praised God and gave witness that Jesus was the Messiah and a light of revelation to the world. In dedicating their lives so completely to the Lord, and then in proclaiming the Good News they had seen, Simeon and Anna are a sublime example for today’s men and women religious who have consecrated their lives to God.

As we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord today, the Church Universal observes the World Day for Consecrated Life as well, while also concluding an entire Year of Consecrated Life, which began the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014. Giving thanks to God for our religious sisters and brothers this day, we also want to open our hearts to listen for our own personal calling.

The visit of Pope Francis to the Church of Washington last fall was filled with many wonderful moments, but one touched my heart in a special way. It was that time of grace when the Holy Father greeted more than 3,000 novices and postulants for religious life, and seminarians from around the country at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The vibrancy and youthfulness on display there is the future of the Church and it was a wonderful and inspiring sight.

Another moment which always warms my heart and inspires me is when I have the privilege of celebrating Mass for the profession of religious vows. As I look out at the young faces before me, and hear these women and men commit themselves in love to a life in Christ, solemnly promising to reflect in themselves the chastity, poverty and obedience of Jesus himself, I know that our Church is alive in the Spirit.

In our culture today, which all too often marginalizes the Church, there is nevertheless an enduring fascination with, and appreciation for, women and men in consecrated religious life. While it is true that in the wake of the social upheaval of 1960s and 70s there was a decline in religious vocations, today we are seeing headlines in secular newspapers like, “The Comeback of the American Nun,” and “Bucking a Trend, Some Millennials Are Seeking a Nun’s Life.”

Today we are seeing a time of renewal in the consecrated life. There is a sense of vibrancy. And one reason that more and more women and men are drawn to giving themselves, their hearts, their wills, their plans and even their weaknesses to the Lord is because, as one secular feature story relates, “the modern world, despite all its flashy materialism and sexual rewards, ultimately leaves them wanting more.”

The “more” they are looking for, the happiness they are seeking, they are finding in Jesus Christ. One of the blessings of my ministry is to work with these religious sisters and brothers who go on to serve others in diverse ministries. To encounter them is to encounter a person full of enthusiasm, fulfillment and joy.

The religious vocation is primarily a call to generosity of spirit and in response to that call, we find a manifestation not only of the holiness of the Church, but also testimony to the kingdom of God already present in our world. Here in the Archdiocese of Washington, there are 68 communities of women religious and 43 men’s communities providing ministerial witness to the Gospel in a variety of ways, including contemplative prayer, education, healthcare, social work, administration, and communications.

Each of these religious communities is worthy of individual praise, but there is one in particular I would like to mention – the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are providing invaluable service to the Church and our nation by effectively leading the way in defense of religious liberty against the HHS Mandate, which would compel them, the archdiocese and other religious employers to violate our Catholic faith. Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the case.

Today, at the close of the Year of Consecrated Life, we give thanks for the many men and women from our archdiocese and throughout the Church Universal who have responded to the prompting of the Spirit to give themselves in fervent love to the Lord. What a blessing they are. In them, the love and mercy of Christ is made more present and felt in this world.

The Catholic Identity of our Catholic Schools

January 31st, 2016
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Once when I visited one of our Catholic schools, on a particularly cold and blustery day, I asked the assembled students, “Why would you be here on such a miserable day?” One fourth-grader stood with great pride and answered, “I come to this school so that I can get a life.” His schoolmates nodded and applauded.

This enthusiastic youngster is exactly right. Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, as elsewhere, exist to give others a life through formation of the whole person, including that all-important dimension of the spirit, by providing in particular an encounter with the transcendent, with the One who is “the way, the truth and the life” – Jesus Christ (John 14:6). It is not only the young students who are blessed by this encounter, but parents, teachers and administrators too.

Today we begin Catholic Schools Week. This annual celebration in the archdiocese and throughout the nation offers us a special time to highlight the value and uniqueness of our Catholic schools, where young people find academic success as they develop the gifts God has given them to build a better future not only for themselves, but for all of society.

What defines our Catholic schools is a focus on faith formation, academic excellence, moral development, and a strong sense of service. Rooted in the teaching mission of the Church, these places of learning are as diverse as the communities they serve. Students come from the city, suburbs and rural communities, and from families that are financially wealthy, middle income, and some live in poverty. There are also about 3,000 teachers who each and every day both instruct and provide the witness of faith to students, as well as many more administrators and support staff. Each plays a crucial role in the mission of our schools.

Implicit in the notion of Catholic schools is a strong Catholic identity, which manifests itself in an environment permeated by the spirit of the Gospel, visible communion and cooperation with the Church, both universal and local, fidelity to Catholic teaching, and a vibrant sacramental life. Notwithstanding many cultural and legal pressures to change, longstanding policies are in place here to ensure that the schools in the archdiocese remain Catholic. Our schools are committed to seeing that the revealed truth given to us by Jesus Christ is lived out on a daily basis in classroom lessons, daily prayer, service programs, school expectations, extra-curricular activities and, just as importantly, the personal witness of teachers, administrators and support staff.

Parents are thankful, as I am, for this faithful witness by those involved in the operation of our schools. Parents expect Catholic schools to be different, to be distinguishable from secular ones. That is precisely why they have chosen our schools. They want an authentic Catholic experience that provides not only excellent academics, but the moral and faith-based tools that will help their children to succeed in life.

Those who serve in our Catholic schools want this too and, in recent months, they have taken the opportunity explicitly to reaffirm their commitment to strengthening the Catholic identity of our schools through participation in various programs and special commissioning ceremonies. They know that it is particularly through setting a good example in their own way of life, through their own personal witness, that students encounter the transforming love of Jesus Christ.

Students and parents know that in the nurturing home that is a Catholic school, every child matters. Recognizing that parents are properly the primary educators of their children, it is clear why there is so much support for legislative efforts to empower parents to make educational choices for their children in addition to the substantial financial aid we provide ourselves through the Archdiocesan Tuition Assistance Program and other initiatives. In particular, we recognize the efforts of the District of Columbia Catholic Conference and so many others who work together for reauthorization of the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and the engagement of the Maryland Catholic Conference in supporting the enactment of the Maryland Education Credit, for which surveys show high public support.

As we look to the future, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that Catholic schools work. These communities of faith, knowledge and service are a blessing for the students who attend them, their families, the Church and the greater community. As we celebrate with joy the gift of Catholic schools this week, I ask that you join me in thanking all those who make our schools such wonderful manifestations of the kingdom of God. Let us also renew our commitment to work together so that our Catholic educational community continues to thrive.

Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Spiritual Mercy of Instructing Others

January 28th, 2016

Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes by Benozzo Gozzoli

One inescapable experience of aging is reaching the moment in life when, like the rich young man in the Gospel, we wonder how God will judge our lives. On the one hand, not knowing the mind of God, this might seem to be fruitless exercise. On the other hand, our Lord in his teaching has given us some indication of the norms that might be used. One set of indicators is how well we have practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

We may remember from our religious education classes that the spiritual works of mercy focus on ways to offer help to others on the level of the heart or soul. In the appendix of the Catechism they are defined as counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead (cf. CCC 2447).

It is certainly easy to see how prayer, practicing patience and forgiving others are loving spiritual works, but the related mercies of counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant and admonishing the sinner might seem in our day to be rather judgmental and presumptuous. They also sound like they might not be the responsibility of every follower of Jesus, but instead more suited to priests, spiritual counselors and teachers.

However, these spiritual works are indeed mercies that are perhaps needed more than ever in our time. Just as you might give directions on a map to someone trying to reach a particular destination, and just as you might warn them that they are going in the wrong direction or that they are driving with their lights off in the dark, as followers of Christ we do mercy to others by offering them guidance in life. When we fail to do this, allowing them to endanger themselves, not only are we being uncharitable by our silence and inaction, God says he will hold us to account (cf. Ezekiel 3:18, 33:8).

One of the great teachers of the Church, offering instruction on a massive number of subjects, is Saint Thomas Aquinas, the “Universal Doctor” of the Church whose feast day is today. He is called the Angelic Doctor, and his monumental masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, has for more than seven centuries provided instruction to countless popes, bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

The spiritual mercy of instructing the ignorant has a special place in the life of pastors, whose first responsibility is to share the Good News of the Gospel, and in a particular way to those who do not know the teachings of Jesus. This spiritual work also resonates with teachers who educate our children in preparation to make their way in the world.

Instructing others regarding the truth is not reserved however to preaching and formal education. As Pope Francis points out, all followers of Jesus are called to practice these works and so all of us are called to share our knowledge with those who may not know what we know. Here, I am thinking especially about those times when we find ourselves in a conversation in which someone says something about the Catholic faith that we know to be wrong. Even if we may not possess the brilliance of a Saint Thomas, still we must, with humility and grace, offer a correction, or another way to answer the question, or even volunteer to “google the Catechism” and together find the right answer!

Also, with all of the public venues for conversation that are available today – blogs, tweets, online news with space for comment – as Catholic evangelizers, we need to work together to make sure that if someone is talking about the Catholic faith, they are getting their facts right. If we know the information to be incorrect and we know how to correct it, we do have a responsibility to do just that.

In this digital age in which we live, instructing the ignorant can be thought of as a uniquely modern from of evangelization and a way that someone who may not know our Lord or much about the Catholic faith can come to a deeper appreciation of Jesus and the Christian life.

Mercy and the Conversion of Saint Paul

January 25th, 2016

When we first encounter Saint Paul, he is supporting the unjust killing of Saint Stephen, providing aid and encouragement by watching over the cloaks of the stone throwers (Acts 7:58). He was at that time a Pharisee known as Saul and we read in the New Testament how he had wanted to destroy the nascent Church. In his zeal for his own beliefs, he dragged believers in Christ out of their homes, handed them over for imprisonment and even plotted their deaths (Acts 8:3, 22:4).

One day, with a commission in hand to hunt down Christians, Saul was on the road to Damascus when “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He said, ‘Who are you, sir?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:3-5).

Coming as it did from heaven, the voice was clearly indicating that Jesus is in fact the Lord and, further, that he identified with the Church – Christ and his Church are one. Thus, to persecute the Church is to persecute the Lord Jesus himself. We can imagine the apprehension felt by the great persecutor of the Church at that moment. Yet, instead of the worldly justice of punishment and death coming down upon him for the evils done by him, Saul received God’s loving mercy and pardon.

This man who had rejected Christ and tried to destroy his Church would never forget the mercy shown him. He took the name Paul and for the rest of his life professed the Gospel and, in a special way, the wholly gratuitous and undeserved mercy of God. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost,” Paul freely confessed in his First Letter to Timothy, noting with gratitude, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated” (1 Timothy 1:15, 13).

Of the many lessons to be drawn from the conversion of Saint Paul, one of the most important in this Jubilee of Mercy is that there is no sin so great that God will not forgive. None of us should think our sins are just too horrible or awful that they are unforgiveable. God knows that we have sinned; he knows that sometimes these sins are grave and unspeakable.

“When faced with the gravity of sin,” says Pope Francis, “God responds with the fullness of mercy. Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive” (Misericordiae Vultus, 3). That is the whole reason the Lord came among us and suffered for us on the Cross – so that we might be redeemed.

Another lesson for this day is that the Lord is active in seeking our redemption, he takes the initiative. God does not wish to leave us alone in the throes of evil (Id.). Perhaps our experiences are not as dramatic the divine intervention Paul received on the road to Damascus, but the Lord does go forward and reach out to each of us, speaking to our hearts and speaking to us through the Church. God calls us to conversion as well.

Following his conversion, with the grace of God, the great persecutor of the Church became the great missionary apostle. The Lord calls Paul his “chosen instrument” to spread the Gospel to the world (Acts 9:15), and he would travel all around what is now Greece and Turkey before coming to Rome, proclaiming salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. Paul confirms that it was part of God’s plan that through him, the foremost sinner, “Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Thus, we find a third meaning in the conversion of Saint Paul – the Lord will make major saints out of unlikely personalities. He will bring good out of bad. This is the way the Lord works.

Although we might stray from the Lord in sin, although we might oppose the Church’s teachings and even oppress the body of Christ, we are never lost. God never abandons us. In his infinite merciful love, the Lord comes into the world to redeem us and offer us a new life. More than that, he wants to give us his grace to be a great saint, to be a great missionary disciple in our own portion of the world.

Co-Creators with God the Creator: The Miracle of Birth

January 24th, 2016


In his encyclical letter on the care for creation, Pope Francis raises the spiritual dimension of the relationship between creativity and power. “Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads,” he writes. On the one hand, “technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings” (Laudato Si, 102), on the other, “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience,” (Id., 105), and this has sometimes diminished humanity, rather than raise it up.

With the tremendous gift of human creativity comes great responsibility. Matching the power of the human mind with our role as stewards of what belongs to God the Creator is the exercise of discipleship. As disciples, we act in collaboration with the will of God for effecting his plan for the world and its people.

At present, this insight is of utmost importance to the way in which we think about the technology available for the creation of human life and also the manipulation of human life in its origins. Saint John Paul II, in his encyclical on the vocation and mission of the laity wrote that today “humanity is in the position not only of observing, but even exercising a control over human life at its very beginning and in its first stages of development” (Christifideles Laici, 39).

At the heart of the question of the right use of technology in supporting human life and birth is the fundamental truth that God is the author of all human life. It is God who first wills the creation of a new life and invites, through the sacrament of marriage, a man and a woman to be co-creators, but only as sharers in what God has already willed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC 2258, citing Donum Vitae, Introduction, 5).

Pastorally speaking, questions related to pregnancy and the origin of life, particularly those faced by couples struggling with infertility, are some of the hardest and heart-wrenching. As a people of faith, we are pro-life and we rejoice in every baby as a gift from God, welcome even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Nevertheless, while couples may have good intentions, it is neither a moral good nor an authentically human act to separate the act of procreation from the marital act of love, or to otherwise treat life as a dehumanized object of technology created by strangers in a laboratory. It is a violation of human dignity to be made a “test-tube baby.” Every human being has the fundamental right to be conceived by purely human means and within marriage.

Previously, I have written about how in some sectors today children are viewed as burdens to be disposed of, commodities to be trafficked in, or as objects of experimentation for the benefit of others. Now, I want to specifically address surrogacy parenting inasmuch as legislation is being proposed in the District of Columbia, Maryland and elsewhere to regulate the “business” of surrogacy.

Catholic teaching is clear: surrogacy parenting “is contrary to the unity of marriage and to the dignity of the procreation of the human person” (Donum Vitae, Part II, A3). Such commercialization of pregnancy not only compromises the dignity of the mother by treating her as merely a womb for hire, it offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and raised by his / her own parents. Rather than respecting the inviolable dignity of the child that has been created, surrogacy opens up a playing field in which the human person is objectified, bought and traded as any other thing to be acquired.

In being open to life, we have to recognize that we are not the authors of life. Any technological or medical methods for making life possible – to be truly human and respectful of human dignity – must be exercised in a spirit of stewardship for God’s plan for life. As Pope Francis writes, “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality (Laudato Si, 75).

Rallying, Praying and Marching for Life

January 21st, 2016


Tomorrow morning we will gather for the Youth Rally and Mass for Life at the Verizon Center and D.C. Armory. Every year this is an unforgettable experience for the tens of thousands of animated young people who fill the two venues, and for me in my role as the principal celebrant of the Mass at the Verizon Center. This prayerful witness to life precedes the March for Life in our nation’s capitol on or near the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion across the United States.

In our culture, abortion is often cast as a matter of “personal choice,” but that choice does not occur in a vacuum, nor is it entirely personal – it involves the killing of an unborn child, and it has consequences for those who choose it as well. We as a people have a choice too between being part of a culture of death or a civilization of life and love. On this day, we choose to remember and pray for all those affected by the abortion culture including the women and men, family members and friends who are emotionally and spiritually scarred by abortion, and their need for God’s mercy and healing. In a special way, we recognize that the death toll has risen to 56 million unborn children for whom we also pray.

The Rally and Mass present an inspiring scene of youth and young adults from across our Archdiocese of Washington and from throughout the country, all standing together for God’s gift of life. At that very moment, adults and families are attending a special rally and Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle.

In solidarity and communion with each other, we renew our commitment to work for the value and dignity of all human life, and to carry out the call for Christians to manifest Christ’s merciful love in today’s world. These missionaries for life are saying, “Let us embrace every mother, let us embrace every child, let us embrace every life.” In the struggle for the soul of America, they support the best of the American tradition – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Looking out at their faces, I cannot help but be filled with joy and confidence and hope for the future.

A highlight of the Rally and Mass comes when a blessing and a message of support from Pope Francis is read. Just four months ago, we were graced by the Holy Father’s visit to Washington. During his historic address to Congress, Pope Francis reminded us that “every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity” and we all have a responsibility “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

Another highlight occurs when seminarians, religious and those discerning priesthood or religious life stand and receive spirited applause from the youth and young adults. Some of them will rise themselves moments later, when those who are considering a vocation are invited to stand.

The strong faith and joy of those attending the rallies and Masses for life is palpable. Many of them will join the lines to confession areas to acknowledge their own sins and receive God’ mercy. Like last year, they will again give public witness to life using social media on their phones and mobile devices, via #iStand4Life and #Mass4Life, both of which trended nationally last year. In their joyful, loving commitment to life, they demonstrate selflessness in an era and a media known more for “selfies.” They have traveled by buses, cars, trains and planes to come here, and they inspire us and the youth and young adults back home to join the cause.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, as we seek and then share God’s love and mercy, we rally, pray and march for life with renewed conviction that our witness to the Gospel of Life can transform hearts. Together, we can change our culture to a civilization of life and love, inspired by our young people who are leading the way.