Proclaim a Fast

February 26th, 2018

The Lord calls us to return to him with our whole heart, we heard on Ash Wednesday as the prophet Joel said to us, “Proclaim a fast!”  With this instruction, the Church began the season of Lent.

From the very beginning, fasting, together with prayer and almsgiving, became the way of preparation to celebrate the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus. These penitential practices give us the opportunity to recognize the sinful patterns and practices that have become obstacles to a deeper relationship with God and a closer relationship with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

This year I suggest for your consideration that you offer your acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving for our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa who continue to face their own Passion and hardship as they struggle to recover from the genocidal violence of recent years and, in some places, are still being persecuted and even martyred for their fidelity to Christ and to the Church.

While on the surface, the desire to return to our heavenly Father through a period of more intense prayer and fasting may seem to be highly personal and individual, the practice of the disciplines of Lent is meant to bear fruit for the whole community.  Any type of Christian penance can be a spiritual homecoming when those efforts move one toward “reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints and the practice of charity” (CCC, 1434).

All acts of penance are part of that total conversion called for by Baptism, a whole inner renewal leading one to think, judge, and arrange one’s entire life under the impulse of the charity revealed to us in Christ.  Acts of penance without this inner spirit are lifeless.  Moreover, the inner spirit ought to be embodied in deeds. In this vein, keeping persecuted Christians close in our minds and hearts draws attention to three essential dimensions of Lent.

First, scripture and the Church Fathers teach us that the most radical forms of penance are Baptism and martyrdom (CCC 1434).  The Christians who have been martyred are a source of grace for the life of the Church. Tertullian, a Church Father of the second century, preached that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church (Apology, ch. 50). These Christian witnesses remind us that martyrdom is the supreme expression of what it means to die and rise with Christ. They are for us teachers of the truth of the faith and Christian doctrine (CCC 2473).  In this, they are a source of encouragement for our own resoluteness in keeping our Lenten promises.

Second, we strengthen our brothers and sisters through acts of solidarity and prayer. Those who live in danger in these days, through the power of Jesus and his mother Mary’s intercession, will be fortified by our prayer. Our prayer strengthens the bonds of fraternity among the people of God.

Third, in scripture, fasting is commonly associated with almsgiving (cf. Tobit 12:8; Matthew 6:1-8). When the well-fed fast, they are to share with those most in need; and this sharing by charitable giving is surely an act of love. If you would like to direct this fruit of your fast to Christians living in the Middle East and Africa, please follow this link to learn more about how the Church through Catholic Relief Services and the Knights of Columbus is on the ground providing tremendous aid and support to our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

In keeping in mind the suffering of the people of God and our own suffering, we come to understand more deeply the meaning of Saint Paul’s cry that “if, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8).  In our own suffering, because of the Paschal Mystery we become “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Throwback Thursday: Love and the Priesthood

February 22nd, 2018

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, giving thanks to God for the mission he entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors, including now, Pope Francis.

Above all else, the Petrine ministry is one of love.  Indeed, while God calls people to a variety of walks of life – the priesthood, marriage, consecrated life and the single life – this is the primary calling of us all, the vocation to love.

After his Resurrection, Jesus revealed himself to Peter and the other apostles on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.  John’s Gospel recounts the stirring exchange.  Three times, Jesus asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  And each time, Simon Peter replied, “Lord you know that I love you.” Jesus’ three questions about love were followed by three commands: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.  Then Jesus said, “Follow me” (John 21:15-19).

Giving the point particular emphasis, Jesus spoke of love three times.  But what is love?  Pope Benedict XVI explored the question in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.  Specifically, given all the ways that love might manifest itself, how are we to understand the question of love with respect to the priesthood?  How might we characterize the relationship of a priest to Christ, the Church and the people?

One of the more obvious things about a priest is what we call him – “Father.”  This is not incidental.  Priests are called to show a paternal love and affection for those entrusted to their care, protecting and providing for them.  And this love should be so dynamic that it displays a spiritual fruitfulness such that, like a father, with Mother Church through the sacraments, new spiritual children are brought into the fold (cf. Matthew 28:19).

A priest is not only a spiritual father, he is also a son and like the Son, he has an everlasting love for God our Father in heaven.  Also as a child of God, he has a fraternal love for his fellow brothers and sisters in the human family.

In all the various expressions of his love, a priest is not confined to extrinsic functions.  His ministry is more than a job.  Rather, a priest finds the full truth of his identity in being united to Christ so that in his priestly ministry he manifests a unique participation in and continuation of Christ himself.  By the sacrament of holy orders, he is configured to the Lord in a profound manner that affects his being so as to be the living image of Jesus Christ.

One of the great legacies left us by Saint John Paul II is an apostolic exhortation which has guided priestly formation for over two decades.  I had the privilege to participate in the 1990 Synod on Priestly Formation under the month-long guidance of Pope John Paul II.  This gathering of bishops undertook the study of the formation of future priests.  Out of this effort came much of the material that the Pope used to produce the apostolic exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, that continues to guide that task today.  In that teaching, he explains that “Christ’s gift of himself to his Church, the fruit of his love, is described in terms of that unique gift of self made by the bridegroom to the bride”  (Pastores dabo vobis, 22, see also Ephesians 5:23-32).  In the outpouring of the Spirit, the priest walks united with Christ in that gift of himself to his Bride, the Church.

The ramifications of that teaching are shown by Jesus in the Paschal mystery.  On the night before his Passion, Jesus asked the apostles to be like him, to love as he loves, which is fully and unconditionally, adding, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  Christ the Bridegroom made such a complete gift of self, laying down his life for the Church on the Cross.  Then, after he rose, Jesus said, “Follow me” (John 21:18-19).  The priest’s participation in the extension of Christ’s mission also requires a love of complete and permanent self-giving.

At every ordination, this free giving of self to Christ by a new priest is always a source of great encouragement and profound joy for me and all of us.  May God bless our priests, our seminarians and all those discerning a vocation to the priesthood.

The Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion

February 18th, 2018

Many times in the Gospels we hear Jesus say, “Come, follow me,” and people did, setting out on the path of new and eternal life.  In our time, Christ’s voice continues to be heard, and today and next Sunday, a special group of people answering his call are gathering at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the celebration of the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.  The catechumens among them are coming to publicly express their desire for baptism and the other sacraments of initiation – the Eucharist and Confirmation. Then candidates who have already been baptized in non-Catholic Christian communities will similarly declare their desire to join in full communion with the Catholic Church.

Traditionally, the Rite is celebrated only on the First Sunday of Lent. So many people have wanted to join our Catholic family in recent years, however, that we now need two Sundays to accommodate them all. This year, we expect over 1,200 catechumens and candidates, each accompanied by godparents, sponsors, family and friends.

Ahead in their Lenten journey is final preparation and purification through prayer, spiritual direction, self-searching and repentance. For the catechumens, subsequent Sundays will also include the “scrutinies,” which invoke the Holy Spirit together with the Church’s prayers to heal what is weak or sinful in their hearts and to strengthen in Christ all that is upright and good in them. Catechumens are also presented during this time with the Creed, which they will profess before their baptism at the Easter Vigil, as well as the Lord’s Prayer which will be recited before their First Communion.

For me, these are some of the most inspiring days of the year as I greet our soon-to-be new family members.  Coming from all backgrounds and walks of life, yet sharing a common path, a mosaic of peoples as beautiful as the Trinity Dome above them, these aspiring Catholics have much to offer us.  We each can learn from their witness of seeking Christ while we ourselves seek “to come back to the Lord wholeheartedly and in every aspect of our life,” as Pope Francis urges in his 2018 Message for Lent.

As we accompany our catechumens and candidates in this journey and support them with our prayers and encouragement, each of us can respond positively to that divine voice in our hearts, rededicate ourselves to our baptismal promises and deepen our own faith with a life of ongoing conversion.  Not only would it bring us greater joy, but we could make the world around us just a little better if each day we were to say “Yes” to God with our whole lives.


Throwback Thursday: The Sacrament of Conversion

February 15th, 2018

In what has become a tradition during Lent in our parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, as well as in the neighboring Diocese of Arlington, our churches are open for the Sacrament of Reconciliation with The Light is ON for You campaign. These special moments to receive God’s mercy are in addition to the usual times for Confession at our parishes.

Reconciliation is integral to the season of Lent during which the Church enters into a period of penance and renewal.  These forty days are also the final period of instruction for our catechumens, those men, women and children who will be welcomed into full membership in our Church at the Easter Vigil, with the sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and first Communion. Since the time of the earliest Christian communities, the catechumens were (and are) an important part of the celebration of Lent. They vividly dramatize in their conversion and baptism the meaning of dying and rising with Christ at Easter.

Also welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil are candidates who have already been validly baptized in a non-Catholic Christian faith community.  For many of them, Lent is also the time in which they make their first Confession so as to be properly disposed in a state of grace to receive Confirmation and first Communion.  Because baptism forgives all sins, catechumens will make their first Confession sometime after receiving that gateway sacrament.

As you can imagine, the first time going to Confession is a source of anxiety for some. In preparation for the sacrament, they ask questions like – “Do I have to confess all the sins I committed in my whole life?”  “What if I confess something and then I commit the same sin again?”  “How often should I go to Confession?” And quite practically, “Are there tissues in the confessional?”  “What constitutes serious sin and should be confessed?” “What about those sins I seem to commit over and over again?”

Their questions reflect the concerns of many of us with regard to the sacrament. Confession is not easy for any of us.  The feelings of these candidates and catechumens following their first Confession are a beautiful reminder of the grace of this sacrament.

When asked about their experience of their first Confession, many say things like – “I feel like I have set things right.” “I feel like I have a chance to start over.” “I didn’t expect that I could really feel like I have been forgiven.” All of these sentiments point to the grace in which we find new life in Christ.

For many coming into the Church, the celebration of this sacrament makes real for them the experience of conversion and the gift awaiting them in the celebration of all the other sacraments. The opportunity for regular confession is one of the things they are most looking forward to in being Catholic. 

A sobering and sad fact of real life is that we all make mistakes. None of us is perfect. We do not always live as we should.  Our Lord knows this and comes to us as a healer. Aware of our human frailty, Christ the divine physician of our souls and bodies, has willed that his Church continue the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about his work of healing and salvation.

It is this healing that we wish to offer in a special way through The Light is ON for You initiative. The joy of a person’s first experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the same joy for all of us who receive the sacrament. We are once more made new in Christ. We can set things right and resolve to address what it is that makes us fall repeatedly into the same pattern of sin. As Pope Francis has said so beautifully from the very start of his papacy, “The Lord never tires of forgiving” (Angelus, March 17, 2013).

The light is on in our churches on Wednesday evenings in Lent for you to visit and allow the Lord to heal you of all your sins for which you are truly sorry.  With the help of his grace, may you commit to finding new patterns that keep you from recommitting those sins. To help you make your plan, parish Confession schedules may be found at

Ash Wednesday: Beginning Our Lenten Pilgrimage

February 14th, 2018

Today, our Lenten pilgrimage to the Paschal Mystery begins with people receiving ashes imposed on their foreheads in the sign of the cross, indicating a humble awareness of our human frailty and need to be cleansed and reconciled to God our Creator with all our heart.

For forty days, we walk with the Lord Jesus who is our destination as well. “The mark of the ashes with which we set out reminds us of our origin: we were taken from the earth, we are made of dust,” says Pope Francis.  “Yet we are dust in the loving hands of God, who has breathed his Spirit of life into each one of us – and still wants to do so. He wants to keep giving us that breath of life.” Thus, God gave us his Son, who came so that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Lent is part of our preparation for the new and eternal life of heaven. So that we might get there, the path on this pilgrim journey has special “hospitality stations” along the way, namely the sacrament of Confession, where we can get rid of the heavy baggage of sin that weighs us down. These stops are marked with special beacons, and once again as part of our traditional “The Light is ON for You” campaign, the welcoming door of the confessional is open on Lenten Wednesdays in area churches.

In addition to leaving behind the negative and unhealthy things in our lives, such as sin and near occasions of sin, this penitential experience includes too the time-honored practice of fast and abstinence, giving up something positive so we can personally experience in some small way the suffering of Jesus in his passion and better appreciate what life would be like without God’s gifts.  Going against a worldly tide that tempts us to forget our relationship with the Lord, it is clear that human beings intuitively recognize the need for some spiritual discipline, some sacrifice. Lent serves to meet this need, which is one reason why the Ash Wednesday liturgy is so popular, even with those who otherwise are not particularly active in the faith.

Just as exercise, sleep and eating create a healthy rhythm and strengthen our bodies, so do the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving strengthen our souls. Rather than simply marking off these forty days, we are asked to think about this time as the pathway to a renewed and enlivened spiritual life.

May this holy Lenten journey, which we begin today, be an occasion to renew ourselves in the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Our goal is that we are ever more prepared to celebrate with purified hearts the coming glorious Easter morning.

World Day of the Sick 2018

February 11th, 2018

Dedication and blessing of Catholic Charities Susan Denison Mona Center. credit: J. Lippelmann, Catholic Standard

The Gospels recount many examples of Jesus as a healer, and for two millennia the Church has continued his ministry of love, compassion and healing to those who are ill, infirm, disabled and vulnerable. For example, the Book of Acts tells how people brought the sick to the Apostles (5:15) and according to tradition, Saint Luke was himself a physician.  Later, when an epidemic struck Rome in the early third century, historians recorded the story of how Christians remained with the afflicted to feed them, wash them, clothe them and pray with them.

Indeed, it can be argued that institutionalized health care arose for the most part within and around the Church. For instance, Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century built a network of hospitals and hospices in what is today Turkey. In the mid-seventh century, the landmark charity hospital Hôtel-Dieu was founded by Saint Landry, Bishop of Paris, providing medical care, food and shelter to the sick and poor of that city for well over a thousand years.

This ministry of bringing Christ’s healing to the sick continues to the present day, and it “is aimed not only at providing quality medical care, but also at putting the human person at the center of the healing process,” as Pope Francis affirms in his Message for today’s World Day of the Sick 2018Here in our own community, this happens through numerous Catholic health care providers serving hundreds of thousands of people each year:  Catholic Charities operates primary care medical and dental clinics, the Sanctuaries for Life pregnancy support program, Behavioral Health Services, Anchor Counseling mental health care and the emergency response Child and Adolescent Mobile Psychiatric Service.  Loving nursing care is provided at the Jeanne Jugan Residence, the Carroll Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the Sacred Heart Home, and the Gift of Peace HouseIn addition,  Providence, Holy Cross and MedStar Georgetown hospitals provide world-class in-patient, emergency and specialty care, while The Catholic University of America, Trinity Washington University and Georgetown University are each forming the next generation of Catholic caregivers.  Then there is a legion of Catholic doctors, nurses and technicians now in private practice, including many who volunteer their services as part of the Catholic Charities Health Care Network.

In a society that may not fully appreciate the indispensable presence and positive impact of Catholic health care, today’s World Day of the Sick is a prime opportunity to remember and share with others all the good accomplished in this ministry.  At the same time, I hope you join me in a well-deserved “thank you” to all of those who have made their own the extraordinary legacy of making present in our world the love, compassion and caring of Christ the Healer.

Throwback Thursday: Saint Josephine Bakhita, Witness of Hope for Victims of Human Trafficking

February 8th, 2018

Saint John Paul II canonized Saint Josephine Bakhita in the Great Jubilee Year 2000 and her journey to sainthood was a remarkable one.   Abducted and sold into slavery as a young girl, she endured beatings and brandings, but eventually she found freedom from enslavement.  Her family name unknown, upon her baptism into the Catholic Church, Bakhita took the additional name of Josephine and later became a member of the Daughters of Charity of Canossa in Italy.  Known for her sanctity and common sense wisdom during her 50 years as a religious sister, Saint Josephine Bakhita died in 1947.

At Bakhita’s canonization, Saint John Paul called the first saint from Sudan “a shining advocate of genuine emancipation” for women victimized in today’s world. “The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance, but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights,” the pope said.

Bakhita has been lifted up specifically as patron saint for the victims of human trafficking, the modern-day form of slavery that includes forced labor and many women and children of both sexes being forced into prostitution. Her feast day today, February 8, has been designated as an international day of prayer to raise awareness of, and to help end, the scourge of human trafficking.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has decried the evil of human trafficking.  Human trafficking is “a crime against humanity,” he has said, emphasizing that we “must not allow these women, men and children to be treated as objects, to be deceived, raped, often sold and resold for various purposes, and in the end either killed or left devastated in mind and body, only to be finally thrown away or abandoned. It is shameful.”

The severity of human trafficking cannot be underestimated.  It has been estimated by the United Nations that there are tens of millions of victims at any given time worldwide, and that five million of these trafficked and enslaved people are children.  The evil is unfolding not only in foreign countries.  A 2017 report from the U.S. State Department confirms that the United States is “a source, transit, and destination country” for men, women, and children – both U.S. citizens and migrants – who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking (p. 420).

Our Catholic teachings on social justice, human rights and the God-given dignity of all human life offer a moral and philosophical foundation for confronting the modern evil of human trafficking.  In a world where too many people, especially the young, are treated like objects, even as merchandise to be used and discarded, our faith offers a beacon of hope, based on our belief that all people in our one human family are children of God and are our brothers and sisters.  Beyond being a voice of conscience, agencies like Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network are also working to bring material help, hope and healing to the victims of human trafficking.

In the face of this daunting evil, Saint Bakhita does indeed offer a shining example of true freedom. In his 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted her, noting that as a slave she endured daily floggings that caused her to bleed – she bore 144 scars from her suffering – but she found hope in the living God who knew her and loved her (Spe Salvi, 3-5).

Later, as a woman religious, Bakhita shared her faith and the liberation she received from Jesus.  Such an encounter with the Lord of all lords, who suffered and died on the cross and rose to new life, was “an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within,” Pope Benedict wrote (Spe Salvi, 4). As Saint Josephine Bakhita shows us, that hope can lead humanity to true freedom.

A Church that Accompanies

February 6th, 2018

On the Road to Emmaus

Pope Francis has raised up to greater heights and renewed emphasis a practice that has long been a part of pastoral ministry – accompaniment.  Particularly in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia, accompanying others with loving concern is central with respect to how the Church – in its institutional ministries and in the lives of the lay faithful – supports, nurtures and cares for married couples and families.

Active accompaniment is a way we share in the Lord’s ministry, says Pope Francis, noting that Jesus “looked upon the women and men whom he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps in truth, patience and mercy as he proclaimed the demands of the Kingdom of God” (Amoris Laetitia, 60). In Baptism, we not only become followers of Jesus, but are called to share in his ministry by acting the way he acted, both in giving testimony to God’s love and in building up the Church on earth.

The upcoming National Marriage Week, February 7-14, is a good time to look at the ways in which this local Church accompanies engaged couples, married couples and families at all stages of life in light of the pastoral teaching of Amoris Laetitia.  One aspect of marriage that became very clear in listening sessions leading up to the Synod on the Family, and more recently in preparation for the Synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, is that preparation for marriage begins long before a couple is engaged.  Young people need the witness of joy-filled marriages, they need couples in their lives who will walk with them and speak honestly of the ups and downs of marriage and family life and the important role that faith plays in married life.  We have learned that engaged couples and newly married couples would welcome having mentor couples with whom they can pray, reflect and share their joys and challenges.

Accordingly, our archdiocesan Office of Family Life has developed a formation program for couples who are interested in being mentors with engaged couples.  There are also a number of ministries that invite married couples in all stages of family life to come together to form faith-sharing communities. For example, we are blessed in this archdiocese with groups such as Teams of Our Lady and Couples for Christ.  For couples whose marriages need to be strengthened and their love renewed, we offer the Retrouvaille support group. There is also support for separated or divorced men and women who seek to be full and active participants in the life of the Church, such as At the Well, which invites people together for prayer and fellowship.

All these ministries highlight that the personal pastoral care we offer in our parishes and through the work of the Office of Family Life takes account of the real, actual and concrete experiences of marriage and family life. We want to assure couples and families that we are here, in good times and during serious challenges, to accompany them with God’s mercy, love and compassion.

Presentation of the Lord

February 2nd, 2018

Along Route 107 in upper Montgomery County, Our Lady of the Presentation Parish offers a distinctive landmark with its brick exterior adorned by a colorful mosaic depicting the Presentation of the Lord.  Today is the feast day of that joyous occasion in the life of Jesus that is also the subject of one of the joyful mysteries of the Rosary.

As Saint Luke recounts the story behind the mosaic, Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with the newborn Jesus to fulfill the ritual laws required of Jews after the birth of a child (2:22-38).  According to the law, Jesus as a firstborn son had to be presented in the Temple to be consecrated to God. Luke’s Gospel then tells us of a joyful encounter between the Messiah and his people, represented by the elderly Simeon and Anna, who prophesy regarding the Child’s life and mission.  Simeon was a steadfast man of faith and the Holy Spirit was upon him, and he recognized Jesus as a light to the nations.  Anna was a woman of prayer who likewise had eyes to see Jesus as Lord, offering thanks to God and telling others about her encounter with the Redeemer.

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Saint John Paul II wrote that sacred art can offer a bridge between God and humanity.  The artwork on the outside wall of Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Poolesville does just that, revealing an important truth about our relationship to Christ. The dynamic depicted in the mosaic is two-fold – Joseph holds two turtledoves as his offering to God, standing beside Mary as she tenderly presents the infant Jesus to Simeon and Anna, who accept and recognize the Messiah.

Like Mary and Joseph, we too can present Jesus to the world by sharing his love with others by what we do and say.  And like Simeon and Anna, we can stop to recognize Christ in the moments of everyday life and prayerfully offer thanks to God for our encounter with the Lord.  As Pope Francis said during his 2015 visit with clients, volunteers and staff members of Catholic Charities at Saint Patrick Church in Washington, “I would like to invite you to pray together, for one another, with one another. That way we can keep helping one another to experience with joy that Jesus is in our midst.”

Throwback Thursday: Women Religious Manifest the Faith and Love of the Virgin Mary, Bride and Mother

February 1st, 2018

When we look to the scene of the Annunciation, we find the archangel Gabriel sent by God to a humble daughter of Israel, Mary.  She is told of God’s plan for her, and on her response would depend the fate of all mankind.  Here was the focal point of all creation, “the fundamental event in the economy of salvation,” said Saint John Paul II (Redemptoris Mater, 39).  Her answer would change forever her life and that of the world.

The mystery of the Annunciation brought humanity to the pivotal moment.  Pope Benedict XVI explained that after a long period of courtship, then came the definitive moment, the establishment of a new and everlasting covenant – “[I]t was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said yes.” Her acceptance was essential because the Word would enter the world by taking on human nature through the very flesh and blood of the Blessed Virgin.

In her fiat, her “yes” to God, Saint John Paul says, Mary was “guided by spousal love, the love which totally ‘consecrates’ a human being to God. By virtue of this love, Mary wished to be always and in all things ‘given to God’” (Redemptoris Mater, 39).  In humbly accepting God’s call, Mary is forever the example of what we mean by faith – true, profound faith – and love for the Lord.

Throughout human history, in the divine teaching set out in scripture, God’s love is presented in the image of the nuptial love of a husband for his bride (CCC 1602-17).  In the book of the prophet Hosea, the Lord says to his people, “I will betroth you to me forever” (2:21).  Christ, the Bridegroom, embodies this love in his union with his Bride, the Church.

Mary is the model for us all, but consecrated religious view her in a special light.  “The consecrated life has always been seen primarily in terms of Mary – Virgin and Bride,” wrote Saint John Paul, and the “spousal dimension, which is part of all consecrated life, has a particular meaning for women, who find therein their feminine identity and as it were discover the special genius of their relationship with the Lord” (Vita Consecreta, 34).

In a culture that struggles to understand the consecrated religious life, that wonders why anyone would want to become a nun or religious sister (or religious brother) instead of getting married, we might pause a moment on the World Day for Consecrated Life, which is celebrated on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, to reflect on the vocation of consecrated life as a living sign of the nuptial union of the Church as Bride with her Spouse, particularly with respect to women religious (Vita Consecreta, 3).

When we speak of the personal quality of the solemn profession of vows, the “yes” to God that is given, we highlight the declaration of each sister to unite herself to the Lord Jesus in a bond of commitment, dedication and love that marks this profound level of discipleship. Each religious sister is reminded, in the language of spousal love, how complete and total is their self-giving to Christ in a love that focuses totally on him.  He, in turn, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, embraces each sister in a love that makes it possible for his presence to be manifest in each of them.

A long tradition helps us to grasp in human terms the reality of this love through the use of symbols and images.  As a sign of their union with Christ, many women religious wear a habit, and some wear a ring to explicitly identify themselves as a “spouse of Christ” and a “mother of souls.”

Through their lives consecrated to the Lord, in their religious communities and out in the world, in a blessed and particular way, each religious sister becomes fruitful, fostering the spiritual “birth and growth of divine life in people’s hearts” and contributing to the growth of a new humanity (Vita Consecreta, 34).  In turn, let us all express our thanks to God for our women religious, for all those we happily call “Sister” who show in their lives the love of the Virgin Mary, Bride and Mother, handmaid of the Lord.