Let Us Be Children of Light

February 6th, 2015

Forest

Death is inevitable yet we instinctively seek to avoid it, especially if we envision a lingering and painful death. The losses and changes associated with the progression of a terminal illness often contribute to psychological and spiritual distress that may lead to despair. The care available today, though, including both compassionate spiritual support as well as effective pain management, ensures that no one need die a painful death, or resort to suicide to avoid such an end.

Sadly, throughout our country and here in our area, an effort is being made to remove current protections and legalize doctor-prescribed suicide. Underlying this legislative push is a movement that plays upon the despair and fear often associated with serious illness and the end of life, and implies that those who are sick or disabled somehow have lost so much human dignity and worth to be thought of as better off dead.

As we look ahead to the World Day of the Sick on February 11, we are reminded that Jesus offers us a fuller vision of life. He taught us to care for and comfort the sick and dying, to value and protect the lives of the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable members of our community. To do otherwise is to deny the dignity of every person. We encourage the pastoral and medical care of those who are terminally ill in a way that helps them experience the natural progression toward death with dignity, compassion and love – not the desolation of suicide.

For example, around the world, the Missionaries of Charity founded by Blessed Mother Teresa have provided loving care to the sick and dying. Here in the District of Columbia, their Gift of Peace home, since its opening in 1986, has provided residential care for people with considerable nursing needs due to advanced HIV/AIDS, other medical or mental illnesses or advanced age, and who have nowhere else to go. To a culture of ignorance and fear, the sisters brought – and continue to offer – dignity, a loving embrace and the gift of peace in mind and soul.

Society’s response to the sick and vulnerable, who are often burdened with feelings of worthlessness and despair, should not be to confirm these feelings by offering suicide with a lethal dose of pills. Every suicide is a tragedy and already for many years now we have heard of suicide reaching epidemic proportions, with more and more young people, military veterans, celebrities and others afflicted with hopelessness attempting or committing suicide. Whether it is a terminally ill person or a young person suffering from depression, our response should be to draw them away from the edge, to help the vulnerable among us – regardless of their condition or circumstances – with genuine compassion and give them hope, not fear and despair.

At every stage and condition, life is a great gift from God. As darkness threatens our society and culture, we should be as “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). This calls us to lift up our voices for the protection of every human life, especially the sick and the dying, the disabled, the elderly, those suffering from depression and all those at the margins.

Seeing with the Eyes of Faith

February 4th, 2015
The Presentation in the Temple by Pietro Perugino

The Presentation in the Temple by Pietro Perugino

In the Mass reading for today from chapter six of Saint Mark’s Gospel, we read how Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth with his disciples. While there, he taught at the synagogue and spoke with great wisdom. Yet many who heard him took offense. They had no faith in him. Consequently, they did not obtain the benefit of his mighty deeds.

These were people who had known Jesus for years during the time we call his “hidden life.” They would see him during those years, eat and talk with him, but they never noticed anything particularly special about him. They never saw that the Lord was in their midst.

It has been this way often in human history. God is here, the signs of his presence surround us, and yet many people do not see. But there are those who do see.

When Jesus was only a baby, 40 days after he was born, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple to present him to the Lord. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem, most people only saw a mother and father with their child. Simeon and Anna saw something more, something much more, just as the shepherds and Magi had. Seeing Jesus, Simeon rejoiced and blessed God, saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” Anna likewise thanked God telling others that redemption had come in the child Jesus (Luke 2:22-38).

In our world today, we can be like the disbelieving people of Nazareth, who had gone about their lives for years never realizing that the Son of God was with them and then, even when the Lord revealed himself, remained blind to him. When we do not look out at our world – at our neighbors, at our work – with eyes of faith, we do not see things as they really are. The world and the people in it are viewed apart from their divine origin and destiny, and so the world looks disjointed. Moreover, with a lack of faith, not recognizing the Lord in our midst, we also do not allow him to work his wonders in us.

We should not wish to see the world that way, with blinders on. It makes life unnecessarily difficult – for us and for those who must live with us.

When we have faith, however, we are able to see as we are meant to see and as reality truly is. When we have the purity of heart that is open to the Holy Spirit, we are able to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). It was the Spirit that led the shepherds, the Magi, Simeon and Anna to recognize Jesus as our Savior at his birth. It was the Spirit that spoke to Peter who gave witness that Jesus is the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). It was the Spirit who led Martha to similarly profess that Jesus is the Messiah (John 11:27) and who opened the eyes of Mary Magdalene to recognize Jesus after his resurrection (John 20:16).

The Holy Spirit which animates our faith works wonders through us in all we do, helping us to see the Lord’s active presence in the world today, two millennia after he ascended to heaven. The Spirit also turns us toward one another in charity, binding us in communion with the Church, impelling us to apostolic action, and helping us to become in our very lives the presence of Christ and his love in the world.

Let us ask for this grace always – for the purity of heart to see the glory of the Lord in the world around us and in the face of every person we meet.

The Great Gift of Consecrated Life

February 2nd, 2015
 The opening Mass for the Year of Consecrated Life is celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on November 30.

The Opening Mass for the Year of Consecrated Life was celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on November 30, 2014. PHOTO CREDIT: Jaclyn Lippelmann

Forty days after Mary gave birth to our Lord Jesus, she and Joseph brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated to God. Today’s feast of the Presentation of the Lord commemorates this event and shows us the beauty of a life given totally to God. Thus, it is only natural that Saint John Paul II should choose this day for the Church Universal to celebrate an annual World Day for Consecrated Life.

This day dedicated to our sisters and brothers in religious life comes as we are also observing an entire Year of Consecrated Life. Both remind us that even today young men and women receive a personal call from the Lord to give themselves completely to him.

In today’s culture, religious life is often never given any thought since many young people have no familiarity with such a way of life. When it is considered, such a momentous life decision might raise concerns among family and friends who struggle to understand this vocation. We can sometimes fall into thinking of consecrated life only as a sacrifice, as giving things up – material well-being, love, freedom. Perhaps parents think their children will only find real happiness and fulfillment in marriage, or they fear their children are somehow being taken away from them.

However, a vocation to the consecrated life brings with it immeasurable gifts, most importantly a deeper encounter with Christ. The person called to this way of life professes vows which express a fervent love for the Lord. To unite themselves more closely to Jesus – who was poor, chaste, and obedient to his heavenly Father – consecrated men and women commit to live in the way that he did, in poverty, chastity, and obedience. Although these can be difficult renunciations by the standards of today’s culture, such detachment of the worldly way of life results in a far greater gain – Christ himself! Those in whom God’s grace stirs a hunger for this more radical life share with Christ a willingness to give up much that the world offers so that they might love and serve God in a richer freedom.

It is important to remember that the path to a consecrated vocation is a long one. Even after a person takes the first step into religious life as a postulant, he or she still has many years of discernment. Religious life is carefully structured so that there is a minimum period of four years before the person professes permanent vows. This period might be likened to an engagement to be married, but typically not even marriage has such an extensive discernment period before the final commitment! For the religious, this is a period of trying out the life, discerning whether it is truly God’s plan for their happiness. As Saint John Paul II reminds us, though all people are called to communion with God, the call to religious life “presupposes a particular gift of God not given to everyone, as Jesus himself emphasizes with respect to voluntary celibacy (cf. Matthew 19:10-12).This call is accompanied, moreover, by a specific gift of the Holy Spirit, so that consecrated persons can respond to their vocation and mission” (Vita Consecrata, 30).

Today we are seeing a time of renewal in the consecrated life. There is a sense of vibrancy. To encounter a religious sister or religious brother today is to encounter a person full of enthusiasm and joy.

Throughout this Year of Consecrated Life, there will be special opportunities for young people to see this for themselves and learn more about the day-to-day experience of consecrated life. On February 8, many religious communities nationwide will be hosting an open house for people to come meet their sisters and brothers and see their religious life.

Family can be an invaluable support for the young person undertaking this way of life. Their prayers and their availability to open dialogue can help parent and child together pass through the many steps towards this beautiful way of life, the call to which begins as early as Baptism. “In the Church’s tradition, religious profession is considered to be a special and fruitful deepening of the consecration received in Baptism, inasmuch as it is the means by which the close union with Christ already begun in Baptism develops in the gift of a fuller, more explicit and authentic configuration to him” (Vita Consecrata, 30).

Let us thank God for the great gift of consecrated life, which has always been “at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission. . . . It is a precious and necessary gift for the present and future of the People of God” (Vita Consecrata, 3). These countless men and women remind the whole Church that God is our true happiness and our true home.

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).