Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

January 1st, 2017

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As people around the world make resolutions for the future and for new beginnings on this New Year’s Day, which is also the octave day of Christmas, it is fitting that the Church lifts up for us the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Celebrating this solemnity on this first day of the year, explained Blessed Pope Paul VI, is meant to commemorate the part played by Our Lady in the ongoing mystery of salvation (Marialis Cultus, 5).

Mary is “the new Eve, the obedient and faithful virgin, who with her generous ‘fiat’ became through the working of the Spirit the Mother of God, but also the true Mother of the living” (Marialis Cultus, 6). She not only gives birth to our Salvation, by her eternal “yes” to God, she continues to point the way for us and, with maternal solicitude, travels with us as we journey through life. To make a good start this year, and to make sure that we stay on the path of goodness and authentic happiness, we want to look to and follow our guiding star Mary.

In this year of 2017, we will be celebrating Mary, the Mother of God who is also our Blessed Mother, in a special way with the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima. From May 13 to October 13 of 1917, she would appear and speak with a mother’s voice and heart to the shepherd children Lucia, Blessed Francisco, and Blessed Jacinta, urging penance, conversion, and prayer for the salvation for souls, while assuring she would be with us through all hardships, ever commending us to her Son.

While it is almost second nature to us today to speak of “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” as we do in the Hail Mary prayer, there was a time when this was disputed in certain quarters when the early Church was discerning who Jesus is exactly. Some, most prominently Nestorius, insisted that Mary, being only a human creature, only gave birth to and was the mother of Jesus in his humanity as the Christ and not in his divine nature. This view, as noted by Cyril of Alexandria and others, effectively divided Jesus into two distinct halves, one human and one divine.

In 431, the Council of Ephesus, the city where according to tradition Mary lived for a time with Saint John, definitively decreed that Mary was rightly called Theotokos (Greek for God-bearer), confirming that Jesus is inseparably true God and true man (CCC 469). Thus, we see that in calling her “Mother of God,” Mary again points us to her Son. In fact, all Marian doctrines ultimately are about Jesus Christ.

As the new year dawns, we continue to venerate Mary as the mother of Jesus and therefore the Mother of God, who is also our mother and mother of the Church.

The Holy Family of Nazareth is the Model for Families of Today

December 30th, 2016

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Usually we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family the Sunday after Christmas. This year, however, because the Sunday after the Nativity of our Lord is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, which takes precedence, the Church is observing this day dedicated to the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph today, December 30.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis published his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which presents the Holy Family as the model and icon of every family and concludes with a Prayer to the Holy Family (30, 325), just as the preceding Synod of Bishops was entrusted by Pope Francis to the Holy Family. Quoting the Synod’s Final Report, he writes, “The covenant of love and fidelity lived by the Holy Family of Nazareth illuminates the principle which gives shape to every family, and enables it better to face the vicissitudes of life and history. On this basis, every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world” (66).

Amoris Laetitia is a special gift which offers married couples, families, and parishes a how-to guide on building holy families today. In the document’s opening pages, the Holy Father offers a moving overview of marriage and family life in Scripture, noting, “The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises” (8). He then goes on to look at challenges faced by today’s families.

With a pastor’s heart, Pope Francis encourages our spiritual family to help renew marriage and family life by offering pastoral accompaniment to families, bringing God’s love and mercy to them at all stages of life. Critical moments for this come in helping couples prepare for marriage, in the first years after the wedding, during times of crises, in cases of marital breakdown, and when families are touched by death.

The vocation and the beauty of the family is love, affirms Pope Francis throughout Amoris Laetitia, and this is exemplified in the family of Nazareth, who had their share of burdens (30). As married couples and families try to live out the Gospel of the family in their lives, he assures that Jesus, who was born into a human family, is with them, particularly in the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony (71 et seq.).

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family is lifted up to show us how the love, care and dedication of Joseph, Mary and Jesus can be reflected in our own homes and communities. May our natural families and the whole human family look to them and become themselves holy families of communion, strength, beauty and fruitfulness.

Beloved Disciple: The Feast Day of Saint John

December 27th, 2016

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When Jesus was arrested and later put on trial, all of his Apostles – except one – deserted him.  Peter followed at a distance after the arrest, but even he would flee after he denied three times knowing Jesus, just as the Lord had foretold.  The one Apostle who remained was John, son of Zebedee and brother of James “the Greater,” and today the Church celebrates his feast day.

At the Last Supper, John had rested his head on Jesus’ chest.  Now after the Lord was seized, John stayed close by outside the house of the high priest as Jesus was questioned and tried.  John was there at the foot of the Cross at the side of Mary and it was to him that Jesus said of her, “Behold your mother,” as he said to Mary, “Behold your son.” Then, after the Resurrection, John ran with Peter to the empty tomb.

In recounting these events in the Gospel attributed to John, the text never identifies him by name.  He is instead called the “other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” John refers to himself as the beloved disciple not in a boastful or exclusive manner, but in a way that invites us to see ourselves in that position.

“The Lord wishes to make each one of us a disciple who lives in personal friendship with him,” affirmed Pope Benedict XVI in his catechesis on Saint John.  In accepting this invitation to be Jesus’ beloved disciple, “it is not enough to follow him and to listen to him outwardly: it is also necessary to live with him and like him. This is only possible in the context of a relationship of deep familiarity, imbued with the warmth of total trust. This is what happens between friends,” added the Holy Father.

Jesus loves each of us to the end.  He laid down his life for us that we might have life and have it more abundantly.  Each of us is the “beloved disciple” if only we love him and one another as he loves us.  Each of us as Christ’s followers can look to his mother Mary as our own Blessed Mother who loves each of us as her own children.

Love is a major theme of John’s writings.  It is John who makes explicit what is illustrated throughout scripture and in our daily lives too – that God loves us, but even more, “God is Love” himself in his infinite very being.

To be one with the Lord, then, is to be one with the fullness of Love not simply as sentiment, but as a living reality.  This is the Good News and this is why we say with Saint John, as he did in concluding the Book of Revelation, “Come, Lord Jesus!

A New Beginning as the Promise of the Ages is Fulfilled

December 25th, 2016

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When a baby is born and his parents look upon him and hold him for the first time, it is a time of wonder and awe at so precious a gift. When Jesus was born that Christmas morning and Mary held him in her arms for the first time, and Joseph too, how much greater was the joy and wonder – and sense of mystery – in their hearts.

Conceived through the Holy Spirit, the newborn Child that Mary and Joseph gazed upon was the long-awaited Messiah, the holy Son of God who would save the Lord’s people from their sins, the angel had told them months before (Matthew 1:20-21; Luke 1:35). The Blessed Virgin then said in thanksgiving, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” when she visited Elizabeth. Now, we can imagine the holy couple similarly singing, “Praise be to God and bless his holy name!”

Meanwhile, outside the stable the heavenly host sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” and light appeared in the darkness. To the shepherds abiding in the field at night, an angel appeared. What astonishment they must have felt when the glory of the Lord shone all about them as the Good News was proclaimed, “Today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”

A new star also brightly shined in the nighttime sky, a heavenly sign to all the nations of the birth of a new king and savior. The Lord God has come to make his dwelling among us.

The world would never be the same.

A blessed and merry Christmas to all!

Meditations on the Vigil of Christmas

December 24th, 2016

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Today you could make the 70-80 mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem in about an hour or two. For Joseph and Mary, however, it would have taken several days – on foot, over difficult terrain. We can suppose though that for Mary, nine months pregnant, they would have acquired the use of a donkey for her to ride on.

After this arduous trek, Joseph and Mary would have been quite tired when they arrived in Bethlehem – only to find that there was no room in the inn. Their long journey would take a little longer.

This would be concerning for anyone, having no place to stay, but Mary was also near her time. Still, the holy couple was not alarmed; they did not fret or worry. They knew the Lord was with them. He had journeyed with them. Indeed, Mary had carried the incarnate Son of God within her for nine months.

Joseph and Mary had no need to be anxious – God would provide. They found shelter in a stable fashioned out of an opening in the side of the earth. Jesus would be born in a cave, just as following his death, the Savior would rise to new life in a cave, in a tomb hewn out of the rock in the earth.

For now, however, Mary and Joseph would simply and peacefully wait, keeping vigil in joyful anticipation of the coming of the Lord.

The Light of the World

December 22nd, 2016

The Light of the World

Inevitably at some point in the busyness of planning for Christmas, we should find ourselves asking “What does Christmas really mean?” We know it is more than exchanging gifts and getting lost in the beauty of a winter night brightened by Christmas lights and decorations.

On this holy day of Christmas and at every Mass, we encounter the living Jesus Christ – the first and most perfect Christmas gift – who “is the fullness of all revelation” (Dei Verbum, 2).   To know Jesus is to know the Father (cf. John 14:9); to know Christ is to live in the Holy Spirit. All that God reveals to us is Jesus, all that God wills for us shines forth in his life and in his words.

Jesus is the Light of the world; he is “Light from Light, true God from true God.”  The life of Jesus is “the light of the human race” – his “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

What the Church offers at Christmas is an opportunity to know God in Christ and in that light to know ourselves as God sees us. All that God wants for us shines forth in Jesus. Listening to the Lord in the readings at Mass, in the homily, and receiving Christ in the Eucharist “brings to light things hidden in darkness and makes plain the secrets of the heart,” as Saint Paul said (1 Corinthians 4:5).

In Jesus, God desired to experience personally and immediately all our trials and to redeem us by suffering death for us.  In coming to know our Savior better, he in turn will help us know ourselves better.  As Saint John Paul II explained, “The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly – and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being – he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ” (Redemptor Hominis, 10).

We draw near to Christ most fully in Holy Communion, by receiving his gift of himself at Mass.  Moreover, through words that speak truly of him and of his Gospel, through sacraments that make his saving power present, by lives that do his work on earth, the Catholic Church teaches the whole message of Christ.

This Christmas, if you wish to give someone the perfect gift – the gift of Jesus Christ – one way is to invite them to join you at Mass.  At our archdiocesan website, there is even an invitation you can use.

Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us

December 20th, 2016

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What is it like to see the face of God?  At the beginning, Adam and Eve had walked with him in the Garden, but they rejected his gifts and without a pure heart, they could no longer see God.  With humanity thereafter affected by sin, Abraham never saw the Lord’s face in all his glory and even Moses could only look upon his back.  Elijah heard him in a small, still voice, but covered his face to conceal the glory of the Lord.

Still the Psalmist calls out to God: “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek his face.’ It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me” (Psalm 27:8-9). Through all of salvation history, Israel cried out to the Lord, longing to see his face. In their failings and in their triumphs, in times of exile and in times of peace, the great desire of God’s people was to once again know their creator face-to-face.

Their desires were fulfilled when Jesus Christ came among us, when the divine became man and God became God-with-us, Emmanuel. But the Incarnation of the Word was wondrously unexpected – the Lord did not come in power and glory, but quietly and humbly. The infinite and all-powerful God entered into our human flesh and was born a small and helpless infant.  He came to save us – and to be one of us.

When the face of God is finally revealed, it is a child’s face born in poverty.  What wonder and joy, what unfathomable blessing to have the God we worship take upon himself our own form.  He lived as one of us, and he died as one of us. He was raised up, and ascended into heaven until he comes again.

But what about us today? Can we see the face of God, or is that lost to us until the second coming?

Our vision of the Lord’s countenance is different from the Virgin Mary’s as she sat beside the holy crib, of course.  But God is not unreachable, because the Incarnation changed everything.  Jesus came to us in the flesh and in a particular way he is now present in his mystical body – we can see God’s face in his body, the Church.  Most of all, he established the sacrament of the Eucharist. Though his presence is hidden in the appearances of bread and wine, the grace of the Holy Spirit allows us to see his Real Presence, to see his face.  As we receive him and go out into the world, having entered into our suffering humanity, the Lord also asks that if we love him, we will see him in those in need, so that what we do for them, we do for him.

Jesus was Emmanuel 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, and he is still Emmanuel today – God with us.  What a perfect gift this is.

Celebrating 50 years of Priesthood

December 17th, 2016

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This year was filled with personal milestones: the thirtieth anniversary of episcopal ordination and tenth anniversary as archbishop of Washington which came earlier this year. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, which occurred at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where I studied as a seminarian.

What better way for a priest to celebrate an ordination than to offer a Mass of thanksgiving at his parish church with his parish family?  The priesthood unfolds day by day yet the primary thing that a priest does is celebrate Mass with his people.

As Archbishop of Washington, the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle is my special church, so tomorrow at the 11:30 a.m. Mass, in a quiet way without fanfare, I will do what every priest does – preach and celebrate the sacred mysteries – with that portion of the flock entrusted to my pastoral care.

When I reflect on these 50 years as a priest and think of my ordination, what comes to mind more than anything is a sense of gratitude to God for the call to priesthood and for the grace to pursue that call and persevere in it. The extraordinary joy of being ordained, being configured in a unique, sacramental way to Christ, is a gift for which I shall be ever thankful.

Every day I offer prayers of gratitude to God for the blessing of my vocation as a priest, for the opportunity to bring Christ to his people through the Gospel and the sacraments, and, at the same time, supporting and sharing in the good works of so many as they manifest Christ’s presence in our community. Of course, I offer prayers for all in this holy Church of Washington.  As we voice together the plea, “thy kingdom come” and share in Holy Communion, please keep me in your prayers and know that you remain in mine.

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Happy Birthday Pope Francis!

December 16th, 2016

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Eighty years ago, on December 17, 1936, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Little could his working class Italian immigrant parents, Mario and Regina, have imagined that their infant son would grow up to be the 265th Successor of Saint Peter and first pope from the New World, taking the name “Francis.”

When the Conclave of 2013 began, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was not well known to the world, but when he later stepped out as Pope Francis onto the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, from that moment until now, he has set a vibrant tone.  He began his papal ministry by bowing down and asking for our prayers as we together make our pilgrim journey, “a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.”

In the days and weeks following his election, in what has become a hallmark of his pontificate, the Holy Father would encourage us in charity to go out, invite, welcome, embrace and, with merciful love care for others, particularly the marginalized, as our sisters and brothers. This theme is voiced in one fashion or another in his encyclicals Lumen Fidei and Laudato Si’, his apostolic exhortations Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia, and also his letter Misericordiae Vultus proclaiming the Jubilee of Mercy.

This appeal of the Holy Father to communion, love and mercy, is the perennial message of the Gospel, the ever-ancient yet ever-new Good News of the love of Jesus Christ.  Yet, in this providential time, it seems that more people – especially those who have been disaffected with the Church – have been more open to receiving that message and with it, God’s mercy and grace.  This we could say is the Holy Spirit at work as the principal agent of evangelization.

In 1958, Jorge Bergoglio entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus and was ordained a priest on December 13, 1969, during a time when the Second Vatican Council was first being implemented.  Pope John Paul II appointed him a bishop in 1992 and at that time he chose as his episcopal motto, miserando atque eligendo, which recalls how Jesus looked upon Matthew the sinner and tax collector with merciful love and chose him.

As extensively discussed in Misericordiae Vultus, mercy and the overwhelming blessing of God’s love as we journey through life have certainly been at the center of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry.  Also, with the choice of his papal name after Saint Francis of Assisi, I think the Holy Father said that as disciples of Jesus who walk with him in our daily lives, we live the Gospel even when it is difficult.

Cheers of affection and love for our Holy Father Pope Francis have been heard at audiences in Rome and at World Youth Day gatherings, during his visit to the Church of Washington and his journeys to other places to the ends of the earth, on magazine covers and in the hearts of women, men and children everywhere.  His invitation to a fresh way of living the Gospel has been a bright beacon of hope in our world.  On this special birthday, let us offer thanks to God for this pastor of souls.  Viva il Papa!

What Children Can Teach Us

December 14th, 2016

Children are at the heart of Christmas. The tree, the exchange of gifts, and all the excitement of the season are more joyful when they involve youngsters. In a more important sense, Christmas brings us the person of the infant Jesus, who among other things reminds us of the simplicity, the hope, the exuberance, the confidence in the future that are so much a part of the make-up of every youngster.

Some of the clearest expressions of the Christian commitment come from children and there is a lot we could learn from them. Playing with these little ones, talking to them, even just watching them, children can teach us many things, including re-teaching us some of the things that we adults forgot as we grew up.

From the very start, holding a young baby in our arms, just as when we behold the infant Jesus lying in the manger, our hearts are touched with love and affection. We learn to give of ourselves to them, to care for them and protect them. In their utter dependence on mom and dad and others, children also offer us a lesson in the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” reminding us of our need to humbly admit our own dependence on our heavenly Father.

Once during a school visit, a young student gave me a package of candy that had been used in class to teach math. As I thanked him, the budding young mathematician looked at me and replied, “You’re supposed to share!” If only more grown-ups learned this lesson with respect to sharing God’s bounty in our common home.

Jesus was asked during his ministry, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” His answer was to call a child over and say, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5).

Many of the saints have understood the lesson of childhood. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus famously pursued the life of a simple soul, a child in the hands of God. This was her “little way,” which recognized that one becomes rich in life and blessed in the next not by acquiring power or by putting oneself first, but by being like a child, poor in spirit and entrusting oneself to God and his grace.

Imagine if this little way – the way that we learn from children – were to permeate the professions of law, medicine, education and the sciences, as well as the great technologies, culture, art and the daily lives of those involved in the trades, building, commerce and industry. The world would be transformed.