The Ordination of Our Newest Priests

June 16th, 2017
Priest Ordination

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

One of the most joyful days of the year for our family of faith will unfold tomorrow at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as I ordain four new priests to serve Christ, his Church, and all they encounter.

Three of these soon-to-be new priests are pioneer members of our Saint John Paul II Seminary.  They entered when it opened in 2011 and are now its first seminarians to be ordained as priests. They include Ben Garcia, a native of Chile who studied at the naval academy and with a religious community there; Bob Kilner, who grew up as a member of the Shrine of Saint Jude Parish in Rockville and graduated from Catholic University; and Andrew Wakefield, a native of Michigan who earned a law degree and was previously a practicing attorney.  Our fourth candidate, Jorge Ubau is a native of El Salvador and an active member of the Neocatechumenal Way who studied at our archdiocesan Redemptoris Mater Missionary Seminary.

This ordination Mass comes during the 25th anniversary year of Saint John Paul’s landmark apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, which lists the four basic building blocks that guide the formation of our seminarians and the ongoing formation of our priests in its human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral aspects.  These pillars form a way of life for seminarians and priests as they seek Christ and help others know and love him, and journey with people on the path to heaven.

Furthermore, like his predecessors, Pope Francis as a priest and shepherd exemplifies these pillars and he too offers key characteristics for priests as they seek to manifest the ministry of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  He encourages priests to have a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus; to be devoted to the sacramental ministry and a daily rhythm of life that includes time for prayer and ongoing spiritual growth; to remain close to their flock and accompanying them where they are; to be ministers of God’s love and mercy; and to live lives marked by service and humility.

The movement of the Spirit that leads our priests on the path to ordination also continues to guide them as they stand in the midst of the faith community as an icon of Christ. The priest proclaims God’s word in living continuity with the apostolic tradition. He celebrates the sacred mysteries, especially the sacrament of Reconciliation and above all, the Eucharist. He shows a loving concern for those in need and gathers the flock into one and leads these people to the Father.

Please join me and the whole Church of Washington in praying that the Holy Spirit fill the hearts and lives of our newly-ordained priests and those already serving as they continue their formation as good and holy priests, and accompany too the flocks entrusted to them in our pilgrim journey to Jesus and eternal life.

Finding the Happy Life in the Beatitudes

June 13th, 2017

Beatitudes

Occasionally at Sunday Mass, instead of reciting the Creed we renew our baptismal commitments, including renouncing the empty promises of those things that are not of God.  This renunciation of worldly false promises, together with virtue and grace, is necessary to lead a life in the Spirit and have a truly happy and prosperous life.

Jesus – who is the way, the truth and the life – left us a short treatise on how to lead such a happy life, a series of lessons that we call the Sermon on the Mount, which are most fully set out in Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew.  Saint Luke includes similar lessons in Chapter 6 of his Gospel.  The Sermon begins with the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), which sum up the way of Christ and are “the only path that leads to the eternal beatitude for which the human heart longs” (CCC 1697).

The Catechism teaches that the natural desire for happiness has been placed in the human heart in order to draw us to God who can alone fulfill it (CCC 1718).  While the secular culture proposes happiness in terms of earthly desire, the Beatitudes are ordered to the kingdom of heaven and show that “true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievement – however beneficial it may be – such as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love” (CCC 1716, 1723).

In their expression of those who are blessed – for example, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who are persecuted and reviled on account of their Christian faith – the Beatitudes are paradoxical to the empty promises of what the world calls the good life, yet they “sustain hope in the midst of tribulations” and “shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristics of the Christian life,” depicting Jesus’ countenance and portraying his charity (CCC 1717).

Pope Benedict XVI noted in a long exposition on these lessons in his book Jesus of Nazareth (volume one) that the Beatitudes are words of promise that also add depth to the injunctions of the Ten Commandments to love thy neighbor (pp. 70-71).  In a particular way, “the Beatitudes are the transposition of Cross and Resurrection into discipleship,” he wrote.  Displaying “the mystery of Christ himself,” the Beatitudes are “a road map for the Church” and “directions for discipleship” (p.74).

By their contradiction to the ways of the world, the Beatitudes inherently call us to conversion – to turn to the way of the Lord and see with eyes of faith.  And if we seek to live well, to live a good and happy life, we must live this life of beatitude.  If we do this, if we humbly open our hearts to God, showing mercy and compassion to others, bearing witness to Christ in how we live, then we will know the true happiness and blessedness of the kingdom of heaven, beholding God as his adopted children.

A Listening Church and Helping Young People in Vocational Discernment

June 10th, 2017

Photo Credit: Leslie Kossoff for the Catholic Standard

The Church of Washington rejoices today with the ordination of four men as transitional deacons.  While they will now enter into their final year of seminary formation, their pathway to ordination did not begin with their entrance into the seminary.  Their spiritual journey began with their first personal contact with Christ through the sacraments of initiation and it proceeded further at every stage in their human and faith formation.  It is the same for every vocational decision.

Sometimes when we hear the word “discernment,” we think only of a priestly or religious vocation.  But good discernment should be a natural part of the life of every disciple – laity included – who yearns to continually say “yes” to God’s call.  In fact, discernment is such an important part of life that Pope Francis has decided the Synod of Bishops next year will be devoted to young people and vocational discernment.  One of the most important elements of the preparation for this gathering was the call for listening sessions with young people throughout the world.

“By listening to young people, the Church will once again hear the Lord speaking in today’s world,” explains the Preparatory Document for the Synod.  “As in the days of Samuel (cf. 1 Samuel 3:1-21) and Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 1:4-10), young people know how to discern the signs of our times, indicated by the Spirit. Listening to their aspirations, the Church can glimpse the world which lies ahead and the paths the Church is called to follow.”

In this archdiocese, this took the form of listening sessions and an online survey, as I discussed here a few weeks ago.  With this stage now completed, I want to express my gratitude for the more than 1,500 responses that were received in 40 parish listening sessions, with hundreds of young adults also participating online.

The responses show some common areas of concern among young people.  Many feel the pressures of a secularized world, particularly in the area of human sexuality, and a lack of community and authentic friendships in their lives.  Many young adults also feel the pressures of heavy debts and managing finances.  When asked to talk about where they find meaning in their lives, both Catholic and non-Catholics spoke of the importance of service experiences.  Among young people who make the Church a part of their life, they value the invitation and initiation into the experience of personal prayer and those adults who seem “authentic,” and also the opportunity they have for spiritual direction and help with discernment.

As we further study the results of our outreach, we do not want to stop listening to our young people simply because we have completed this initiative. They are our future in the Church and in society, and it is essential that we continue to actively engage with them, hearing what is important to them and sharing what we have learned about life.

Justice and Law

June 7th, 2017

Justice and Law
Every society in history has had some conception of justice and, on the personal level, even from an early age we have an intuitive sense of it.  Like wisdom, temperance and fortitude, justice is a personal virtue, but it is also an obligation in our relations with God and others. As Pope Francis notes, “Justice is a fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law” (Misericordiae Vultus, 20).

While manifested in different ways, “justice” is rendering to others that which is rightly due them and conforming to, or restoring, the right order of things as often symbolized in art with a set of scales.  Pope Benedict XVI attests that justice involves giving “the other what is ‘his,’ what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting,” and that “to desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice” (Caritas in Veritate, 6, 7).  The Catechism further explains that justice calls us “to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good” (CCC 1807).

In discerning what is “rightly due” others, people often look to the civil law as if what is stated by legislatures and courts is necessarily acceptable and just.  However, while there certainly should be a relationship between justice and man-made law, they are not necessarily synonymous.  Some years ago, I was struck when a teenager in trouble was asked why he had so little respect for others, and he responded, “How come you get to draw the line?”  The law is a teacher and what he had seen in man’s law itself was an eroding of respect for human life and dignity.

The problem is that the civil law, the legal system, and human conceptions of justice today have less and less room for transcendent justice, for God’s justice.  Much of society today proceeds as if God and his divine law did not exist, and holds that justice is something that is invented or even remanufactured to fit the desires of the moment.  But without some objective, absolute, eternal reference point that binds all of us, justice is reduced to personal convenience and the tyranny of “might makes right.”  This leads to unjust “law,” which is no law at all in the right and proper sense.

A healthy society, however, affirms that there is a higher law and an order grounded in the wisdom of God, who is himself justice.  In this true and transcendent justice, what others are rightly due from us – and from society and our legal system – includes respect for their rights, freedom and human dignity as made in the image of God, honesty, fairness, equal treatment, setting things right and restoration of the good to make others whole when we have borrowed from them or injured them, and otherwise being faithful to what is right, good and true, putting and obeying God first.

As with wisdom and so much in life, God is our guide in the way of justice.  Only with him can we find true happiness and build a good, just and fruitful society for all.

The Upper Room at Pentecost and in Our Personal Lives

June 4th, 2017

Pentecost

The liturgy at Pentecost vividly takes us again into the Upper Room in Jerusalem. It was there that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with the Apostles, and where the Lord instituted the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders.

The first reading at Mass for this solemnity tells how suddenly the Holy Spirit filled the Upper Room and the whole house “with a noise like a driving wind” and then appeared to the Apostles, Mary and other disciples as tongues of fire and resting on each of them. Having been filled with the living breath of the Spirit, the Church was born. Strengthened now with the Spirit, the Apostles would then and for the rest of their lives go and boldly preach the Good News of the Risen Christ (Acts 2:1-11).

In the Gospel reading as well, we are present in the Upper Room as Jesus appears to the Apostles after his Resurrection and says, “Peace be with you.” The Lord then breathed on them and gave us the sacrament of Penance, saying, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:19-23).

With all this holy activity, the Upper Room is perhaps the most important room in all of Christendom observes Monsignor Peter Vaghi in his recent book, “Meeting God in the Upper Room.” What is more, he adds, each follower of Jesus today can come to the Upper Room themselves and participate in those three moments in the life of the early Church in a way that changes lives. We can come and encounter the Risen Christ and live in the Holy Spirit through prayer and by receiving the Eucharist at Mass, by going to Confession, reading God’s word, and by loving and serving others.

The Apostles once huddled together timidly in the Upper Room, but the Spirit changed everything. From that room, the Apostles – and by extension all of us – actively became missionaries, emboldened to take the Good News to the ends of the earth. Like the early Church at the first Pentecost, we have been empowered as Spirit-filled evangelizers to go forth boldly and bear witness to Jesus to the world (Evangelii Gaudium, 259).

Today, it is important for us to reflect on and indeed to seek the Upper Room in our own lives – it is not simply a historical location and Pentecost was not a one-time historic event. We in the Church today likewise experience an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which can transform lives. The Pentecost story is our story. The early Church’s experience in the Upper Room is our experience. With our own hearts renewed and strengthened, we like the Apostles, can change the world.

Finding the Strength to Overcome Adversity and Live Well in Christ

June 2nd, 2017

It is not uncommon for people to have the wisdom to know what is the right thing to do, and genuinely to want to be virtuous in order to lead a good and truly happy life, and yet they lack the will power to actually do the right and just thing, including fully living our Christian faith. It could be that worldly desires have the better of them, as they did with Saint Augustine before his conversion. Later, he came to understand that sin impairs the will so that instead of being master of his passions, he was captive to them. Saint Paul similarly wrote about an inner conflict where the desires of the flesh are at war with the things of the Spirit (e.g. Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:23, 8:5).

Peer pressure is another factor that might lead people to do something they know is wrong, like Augustine did in stealing pears with his friends. Also, fear of possible adverse consequences might lead one to “go along to get along” in order to avoid ridicule, condemnation, getting a bad grade or losing a job, or even imprisonment or death. For example, many people knew segregation was wrong, but they did not speak out because they feared possible social censure. Today, those who believe in the transcendent moral order, in genuine marriage, human dignity and the value of all human life are told to be quiet or else be disparaged as mean and bigoted.

In view of these struggles in the human condition, the Lord sends us his Holy Spirit to give us strength to rise triumphant over our human weakness. Like the applied wisdom of prudence, such fortitude is also a human virtue, which “strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life” (CCC 1808). Just like you can get physically stronger by lifting weights, so you can strengthen your will and spirit by doing things that involve a measure of firmness of mind and heart.

The good we cannot do on our own, the Holy Spirit helps us to do in grace. We receive the gift of strength in a particular way in the sacrament of Confirmation so that we might better and more fully live our faith and be true witnesses of Jesus Christ even in the face of opposition (CCC 1303). This fortitude was given to the Apostles at Pentecost and to the martyrs who stood fast in the Christian faith unto death, and this strength of the Spirit is given to us in order to meet the challenges of the day.

Typically in the United States, the sacrament of Confirmation is received in the teenaged years, but it is never too late to receive this essential gift if you missed it at that time. On Pentecost Sunday at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, our local Church will celebrate our annual Mass for the Confirmation of adults from across the archdiocese. If you are such an adult who was baptized Catholic, but never confirmed, I encourage you to contact your local parish to begin sacramental preparation for the future. The Holy Spirit is stronger than all our human weaknesses and the evils of the world.

Honoring our Fallen Service Members

May 29th, 2017

Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend is thought of as the “first weekend of summer,” but it is also so much more. Here in and around the nation’s capital, we have many particular reminders of why the day was founded. For example, Arlington National Cemetery and memorials on the National Mall are destinations for many Americans to remember and pray for those who gave their lives – including lost loved ones – in military action so that others might live in security and freedom.

What we know as Memorial Day began after the Civil War as a day to remember those who died in battle, who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for the good of the country. It was in 1971 that this day became a national holiday.

Precisely as Christians, Memorial Day ought to have a special place on our calendars too, just as does All Souls Day in November. Visiting memorials, laying wreaths and praying at grave sites are deeply Christian practices. It is an act of fidelity and of hope to pray that those who have died will be welcomed by our Lord into everlasting life. Praying for those who have given their lives in service to our country is also a reminder of the sacrificial nature of Christian love. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” is the ultimate expression of love as expressed by Jesus Christ in teaching and in example (John 15:13).

War is always a tragedy. As we acknowledge that sometimes defensive war is a just response to protect human life from grave evils, honoring our fallen service members is also a cause for reflecting on the responsibility we share to strive for the common good and the pursuit of peace everywhere (CCC 2263-65, 2302-17). Today the whole human family constitutes an important single society which must be the concern of all nations. We dare not ignore or be silent about those in other lands suffering from the agonies of war thinking that it has nothing to do with us. War is not just a national crisis, it is a human crisis.

Peace is so great a gift, and war is so great an evil, that every effort must be made in pursuit of peace. Such a commitment helps to explain why so many good men and women serve in the military – to bring and keep the peace.

This Memorial Day, in addition to prayers of remembrance, intercession and thanksgiving, we can also honor our dead by our commitment to bring the light of peace and truth, hope and justice to all parts of our lives and communities.

Summer Reading

May 27th, 2017

summer reading

Soon summer will be here as schools complete this academic year, and families and individuals set out on vacations. For many, the summer also offers another kind of getaway. Relaxing at the beach, or in the mountains, or beside a lake, or in the woods, or even a “stay-cation” at home, offers a chance to read a book – digital for many these days, but hardcover or paperback are still available.

Bestseller lists offer ideas for mysteries, thriller or romance novels, or new books about heroes or villains from dramatic eras of history or the world of sports. But I would also recommend that in addition to – or instead of – escapism, you consider looking for some spiritual growth in your reading, which actually can offer more relaxation, peace of mind, and even a change of heart and life.

The best place to start is with sacred scripture. Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to have the Bible with them every day to read and open their hearts to God’s word. Readers can find the entire Bible online at many places and if you wish to follow along with the Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ provides the day’s Mass readings at its website.

Saints’ biographies and writings also offer a treasure trove for today’s readers, as those saints themselves will attest. For example, in 1521, a soldier was wounded in battle after being hit by a cannon ball. As he recuperated from his injury, he read a life of Christ and stories about the saints. That changed the life of that man, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, an order whose educational and evangelical efforts have brought Christ to millions over the past five centuries.

You can find your own spiritual classic to read and treasure. Saints like Teresa of Avila, Augustine of Hippo, and Thérèse of Lisieux wrote poignantly about their spiritual journeys, and biographies of contemporary saints like Saint John Paul II and Saint Teresa of Calcutta also offer great inspiration. Saint Francis de Sales’ “Introduction to the Devout Life” played in important part in my priestly vocation – and still does today.

It is not only non-fiction that qualifies as spiritual classics. Modern Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.R.R. Tolkien and Graham Greene have written masterworks of fiction – from novels to short stories to poetry – with Catholic themes animated by their faith.

Reading traditional summer fare can offer a relaxing diversion. If you make time for spiritual reading, however, you can also open your minds and hearts to God’s word and other rich treasures of our faith, which are not only page turners, but life changers.

Turning to the Lord in Prayer for our Sisters and Brothers in Egypt

May 26th, 2017

(CNS photo/Katie Breidenbach)

The news of the latest attack on Christians in Egypt is still breaking, but this much we know: At least two dozen Coptic Christian men, women and children were killed and dozens more wounded today when a team of gunmen opened fire on their bus which was on the way to a monastery. This follows the bombing of churches in Cairo on Palm Sunday, which itself only added to the wave of violence against Christians seen in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East in recent times.

Our response to this most recent atrocity is to turn to our Lord Jesus Christ, whose eternal love triumphs over suffering and evil and turns the darkness of death into the dawn of new life. We pray that the God of all compassion grant the departed eternal rest, light and peace, and that he heal and comfort the wounded. We ask also that the Lord who is our refuge to grant us and all the Church and all people of good will his Spirit of strength as we endure unjust violence and persecution and work for peace.

The people attacked today were killed and wounded simply because they are Christian. But whether it is Christians in Egypt or innocent young people at a concert in England or travellers at an airport in Fort Lauderdale, we are all one human family. We are all in this together and we must all stand together in solidarity against such violence and evil.

During his visit to Egypt last month, Pope Francis said at an International Peace Conference organized by the Grand Imam there, “We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam. . . . Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God. Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred. Together let us declare the sacredness of every human life against every form of violence, whether physical, social, educational or psychological.”

We may think that as mere individuals, we cannot do much, but as a sign of our own solidarity and communion with those who are suffering, we can look for opportunities to speak out, to awaken consciences and urge a change of heart. At the very least, we can persevere in prayer. Let us pray for the gifts of the Spirit to strengthen us and also to touch the hearts of all to stop the violence and so that toleration and genuine peace reigns in every land.

The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

May 25th, 2017

The feast of Jesus’ Ascension to heavenly glory forty days after his Resurrection highlights for us the unique role of the Church, the sacred task of the sacraments and our own expectation of eternal life.

The Solemnity of the Ascension commemorates the final act of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the necessary prelude to the birth of the Church. He ascended in his visible body to make way for his Mystical Body, turning over to the Church the work he had come do. Filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost ten days later, the Church is the sign and instrument to bring salvation and healing by means of the sacraments and preaching the Good News to a world that needed – and still needs – to hear it.

“Jesus Christ, the one priest of the new and eternal Covenant, ‘entered, not into a sanctuary made by human hands…but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf,”’ the Catechism teaches. “As ‘high priest of the good things to come’ he is the center and the principal actor of the liturgy that honors the Father in heaven” (CCC 662, quoting Hebrews 9:24 and 9:11).

The readings at Mass for this feast speak directly to us. We hear that as he ascended, Jesus commissioned his Apostles for an ambitious task: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And when the Son of God had disappeared, the angles told the Apostles to quit standing there looking to heaven and instead get on with their work! Jesus says the same thing to us with the same urgency: We too are called to evangelize. Pope Francis reminds us often that we are called to “go forth” and be Spirit-filled missionary disciples, bringing Christ’s love and hope to the poor and forgotten, especially those on the margins of society, and also our family members, friends, co-workers, and all the people we meet.

Over the past forty days at Mass, we have heard the story of how the Risen Jesus has been preparing his disciples for the work of preaching the Good News and building the Church. As we move toward the great feast of Pentecost, we too are asked to reflect on how we can be messengers of the Gospel. We can do this by keeping close to Jesus in the sacraments and, in a particular way, we can obtain the courage and strength to do this by cooperating in the gift of the Holy Spirit, entrusting ourselves to the life of grace and virtue promised in the sacraments.

By the grace of the sacraments, we share the Lord’s life intimately in heaven. This is what we celebrate every year on the Solemnity of the Ascension.