Our First “Venerable” Washingtonian

March 15th, 2015
Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz

In an undated photo, Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz is shown with children at an outreach program that the missionary priest started in South Korea. PHOTO courtesy of ASIAN RELIEF

Just weeks ago, we learned that Pope Francis had signed a decree that Monsignor Aloysius Schwartz, a native son of Washington who became a missionary priest, had lived a life of “heroic virtue,” meaning that he has been declared as “Venerable,” becoming the first Washingtonian to achieve that title. The priest’s cause for canonization has been promoted by the Archdiocese of Manila in the Philippines because, in addition to serving there for many years, that is where he died and is buried.

The news that one of our own who became a priest has been declared as “Venerable” is a great joy and inspiration.

Venerable Aloysius Schwartz was born on September 18, 1930, to devout Catholic parents who had eight children. He attended Holy Name Church in Washington, where he was baptized, received his First Holy Communion, was confirmed, and graduated from Holy Name School. From the time he was a boy, he dreamed of being a missionary priest and serving the poor.

That heartfelt desire was confirmed years later when, as a seminarian, he visited the shrine of the Virgin of the Poor in Banneux, Belgium, and he was inspired to dedicate his priesthood to the Virgin of the Poor and to serving the poor with Mary’s tender love.

Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1957 at Saint Martin of Tours Church in Washington, Father Schwartz went to the Diocese of Busan in South Korea, where there was extensive poverty and misery because of the recent war.

Many of the people Venerable Aloysius served in Korea lived in shacks, and so for many years he also lived in what he described as a hovel, with a tarpaper roof and mud walls. “One’s surroundings definitely conditions one’s thinking,” he explained. “By living more or less poor, I discovered it was easier to think poor, to feel poor, and to stay on the same wave length as the poor.”

It was with Gospel zeal that “Father Al,” as he was affectionately known, then founded the Sisters of Mary and established programs that would provide care, education and hope for a brighter future to children who were orphaned, abandoned or otherwise impoverished. Later, he also founded the Brothers of Christ, who serve the poor and people with disabilities in South Korea.

Venerable Aloysius’ legacy lives on today in Boystown and Girlstown programs that the Sisters of Mary operate in South Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and Honduras, where they are educating more than 20,000 poor children. The sisters’ motto remains, “Let us serve the Lord with joy,” and that joy permeates their work. Over the years, more than 100,000 children have graduated from those programs and gone on to a variety of successful careers after having once been street children.

In To Live Is Christ, his book of spirituality for the Sisters of Mary, Monsignor Schwartz wrote that “Christ not only gives the poor priority. He identifies with the poor and becomes one of them. Henceforth, whatever you do to the poor, you do to Christ. Whatever you give to the poor, you give to Christ.”

The priest noted that Christ calls all his disciples to follow the way of the cross. Monsignor Schwartz bore his own cross – terminal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) – with joy, faith and perseverance, even helping to supervise the planning of a school for girls in Mexico when he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Venerable Aloysius died in Manila on March 16, 1992.

Pope Francis often tells us to go out, meet people where they are – especially the poor and those on the margins of society – and accompany them. He urges us to walk with them and to help them, and ourselves, grow closer to Jesus. That is just what Venerable Aloysius Schwartz did. Like him, we can be missionary disciples of Jesus in today’s world, sharing his Good News by what we say and do.

The Rose Mass: A Celebration of the Ministry of Healing

March 14th, 2015
2014 Rose Mass

2014 Rose Mass

This past September, I saw a truly memorable sight I will never forget – the transformation of a basketball arena into a state-of-the-art mobile dental clinic, where 400 dentists, hygienists, oral surgeons and many more volunteers served poor clients seated at 100 dental chairs. It was the Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy and Health Equity Festival at the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center. This two-day event was co-sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and by the university’s School of Public Health. During the clinic, 1,200 patients received much needed treatment, demonstrating the difference that community partnerships and caring can make in the lives of the poor.

Some observers said the dental clinic was the greatest victory they had ever witnessed in that basketball arena. It certainly put a lot of smiles on the faces of the patients and volunteers that day.

Those who work in the field of health care have an exalted vocation. They are called to do the work of Christ the healer, who healed lepers, the blind, the deaf and the lame, but most importantly, he healed people’s hearts. Catholic health care demonstrates God’s mercy and love at work among us and in us, through human hands, words, actions and hearts.

Tomorrow morning, at the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, I will celebrate the 24th annual Rose Mass to seek God’s blessings on the medical, dental, nursing and allied health care workers in the Archdiocese of Washington, as well as the many health care institutions here. This special Eucharistic celebration takes its name from the rose-colored vestments worn on Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. The rose has also come to symbolize life, whose care is entrusted to the healing professions.

After the Mass, which is sponsored by the John Carroll Society, that group will present its Pro Bono Health Care Awards recognizing volunteers from Catholic Charities’ Health Care Network, whose 300 volunteers provided $9.8 million worth of charity care to nearly 1,900 patients this past year.

Our Catholic health care institutions carry out the work of Christ the healer in our community every day. Last fall, I blessed the new Holy Cross Germantown Hospital, the first new hospital in Montgomery County in 35 years. That hospital builds on the legacy of Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, founded by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1963, which is also expanding to better serve our community. Joining with those hospitals in providing millions of dollars in charity care each year is Providence Hospital in the District, which was established by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in 1861, as does MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, also in the nation’s capital.

That work of preserving and safeguarding human life in all its stages also unfolds in an array of Catholic health ministries, including Catholic Charities’ Sanctuaries for Life program serving women facing crisis pregnancies, and the Jeanne Jugan Residence, where the Little Sisters of the Poor care for the elderly poor.

Catholic health care institutions are guided by the perspective that all human life is sacred. The extra dimension of Catholic health care is the understanding that along with state-of-the-art medical care, Christ’s love as it is given and received provides the ultimate healing.

That perspective is crucial in our world and in our community today, as the District of Columbia Council and the Maryland General Assembly consider bills to legalize assisted suicide, which would transform the role of doctors from healing patients to hastening their deaths. Pope Francis has decried such a “throwaway culture” that regards the sick and disabled, the unborn and elderly, as useless and “disposable.” He warns against a “false compassion” that would justify acts against human life such as assisted suicide, euthanasia and abortion. In a world which cites “quality of life” as reason to end life, our Holy Father says, “[i]n fact, in the light of faith and right reason, human life is always sacred and always has ‘quality.’ As there is no human life that is more sacred than another: every human life is sacred!”

Our Holy Father urges those in the health professions to serve as Good Samaritans, especially in caring for the poor, the elderly and people with disabilities. At the Rose Mass and every day, let us pray for Catholic health care workers entrusted with carrying out the work of Christ the healer in our community and our world.

Walking with Peter – The Pope

March 11th, 2015

St. Peter - Pope Francis

Although it was a long time ago, I find myself reflecting on lessons learned when I was still a seminarian preparing for priestly ordination in Rome. It was the time of the Second Vatican Council. Pope – now Saint – John XXIII had convoked this Ecumenical Council because, as he put it, the Church was in need of “aggiornamento,” updating.

Together with fellow students and so many others, I eagerly anticipated the Council sessions and felt that the Spirit was at work in the Church. The Vatican news releases with their meager content on each day’s Council deliberations generated even more conversation outside Saint Peter’s Basilica than inside where the Council was unfolding.

Looking back I feel particularly blessed because the bishop of my home diocese was an active participant in the Council sessions as well as in a number of preparatory commissions. Bishop, later Cardinal, John Wright was a wise, witty, articulate and impressive personality who shared a lot of insight with the young seminarian who served as what we would call today a “gopher”.

One conversation I recall with great poignancy now. There were reports of diverse views on the reform of the Liturgy as well as the very important working papers on Divine Revelation and on the Church. I asked if all this wide-ranging debate (at least within the Basilica and outside in the press accounts) would work against the unity of the Church. I pointed out, with all of the “theological expertise” that every seminarian feels he commands, that so much of what the Council was discussing was already, according to some, “settled Church practice and teaching” that could never be altered or adapted. I also noted that we had heard from friends at the Lateran University about the professor there who warned them that Pope John XXIII might be leading the Church “astray.” My question was, is not the very discussion contrary to Church unity?

My good, thoughtful and really kind bishop stopped what he was working on, a text he was writing, turned to me and asked me to tell him what I knew of the Council of Nicaea. This was the Council that chose to use a whole new field of language and concept to develop, to penetrate the revealed truth in Sacred Scripture that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God, homoousion – one in substance with the Father. This was a word to define Jesus found nowhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The bishop’s lesson was clear. The Second Vatican Council under the leadership of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI was doing today what bishops in communion with Peter have always, in one format or another, done. They have gathered to speak with clarity, listen with humility, and be open to the Spirit. Speaking about how best to proclaim and live the Gospel is not a threat to Church unity. The challenge comes from those who will not accept the validity of the discussion, want to impose their own views as if they alone were in possession of the one true faith, and call into question the fidelity of everyone else.

Years later as a Cardinal, the same John Wright served in the Vatican. Those earlier conversations were then repeated with greater frequency and urgency. In the 70s all kinds of aberrations surfaced under the banner either of “the spirit” of the Council or an outright rejection of some of its positions. There was even the assertion actually published with some regularity that Pope Paul VI was really an imposter and the Church was facing a “sede vacante,” in other words a time when there is no pope.

I remember today Cardinal Wright’s wise words to a very young priest, “Stand with the Pope. Transitions are always challenges but if you walk through the discussion and implementation of the Council alongside the successor of Peter, you will not go astray.” He would use the example of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (a bishop who attended the Second Vatican Council and later dissented from some of its teaching and eventually broke away from the Catholic Church) as what happens when you place your own judgment above that of the rest of the bishops and the Pope.

From the other extreme of the Church spectrum came a flood of liturgical, catechetical and pastoral exaggerations that brought great harm to the faithful and the vitality of the Church. One enduring and sad legacy of that turbulent time is the hermeneutic either of discontinuity or suspicion that is still a plague. The former fails to recognize the need for continuity in the development of Church practice and teaching, and the latter envisions intrigue and ulterior motives for much of what happens in the Church.

The same advice remains equally applicable today. Stand with Peter. Make the faith pilgrimage with Peter, this is to say journey in fidelity with the pope as he leads the people of God. Work always with and never without him. Perhaps the journey will not move as fast as one would like or might seem to be moving more rapidly than another would appreciate. But one lesson has certainly been validated in these fifty years – the last half century – since the close of the Council: Peter has not led us astray, into error. Walking with Peter, journeying with the bishops in communion with him may have its own challenges and the outcome in every detail may not always be crystal clear. But it is the way given us by Christ.

Celebrating the Genius of Masculinity and Femininity

March 10th, 2015

In the image of God, male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). In this beautiful line in the book of Genesis, we learn of God’s crowning act of creation. The Genesis account with so much subsequent revelation proclaims the divine origin and sacredness of the human being. It does not discuss the physiology or psychology of the first human beings. But it does teach that each human person is of surpassing dignity, essentially different from every merely material being in this world.

The Church has always spoken of each human person as made in the image of God, wonderful in body and soul, and of God’s design in creating and in giving profound unity of the whole human race. Both in our individual being and in our social reality we mirror the God who made us.

Scripture stresses the equality and complementarity of man and woman. They complete each other, relieving the loneliness of the human condition. They see each other as equals, so that in marriage they may become more deeply one. This complementarity does not just exist in married love but also in society. To become more fully what we are, to develop our powers and our possibilities, we need to live in social friendship and cooperation with fellow humans.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has reflected on the distinctive nature of the Christian understanding of the relationship of women and men, teaching that “‘complementarity’ is a precious word, with multiple values. It can refer to various situations in which one component completes another or compensates for a lack in the other. However, complementarity is much more than this. Christians find its meaning in the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, where the Apostle says that the Spirit has endowed each one with different gifts in order that, as limbs join the human body for the good of the organism as a whole, so the talents of each one contribute to the benefit of all” (cf. 1 Cor 12, Address to Participants in the International Colloquium on the Compelmentarity of Men and Women, Nov. 17, 2014).

The Church has always been a place that has been enriched by the complementary gifts of men and women. In the fields of education and healthcare it has been the great work of numerous men’s and women’s religious communities that built the Catholic education and health care systems that exist in our country today.

In parish life it has been the shared work of both men’s groups like the Knights of Columbus and women’s groups such as the Marian Sodality that have nurtured the lay vocations of their members and have contributed to the vitality of our parishes.

Other groups, such as the St. Vincent DePaul Society and Legion of Mary, bring together the complementary gifts of women and men to address some of the most urgent needs of our neighbors and to nurture the faith in married and family life. All of these organizations are models of the importance of nurturing the masculine and feminine dimension of discipleship and working together for the good of the Church.

Over the last couple of years, we have gathered men and women from across the archdiocese for a day of prayer and reflection on the lay vocation and mission and perhaps to discover new models of complementary service.

The biblical image of man is the theme of the annual archdiocesan men’s conference, which will be held this Saturday, March 14, 2015. The following Saturday, on March 21, 2015, archdiocesan women will gather to reflect on how they can incorporate the wisdom of our women saints in their daily lives. Gathering for Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, personal prayer, and reflection on the lay vocation both inspires and strengthens our women and men to live fully their individual vocations as single adults, spouses, widows and widowers. It is equally as important as a day of fellowship.

We also come together to celebrate our communion in the Church of Washington and to learn how we can carry out the mission of the Church through shared initiatives that enhance our sense of community and promote the unique and complementary gifts of women and men.

We hope you can join us for one of the conferences. If you cannot attend in person, please join us in prayer as we gather to reflect on both the uniqueness of the gift of masculinity and femininity and the shared mission of men and women in the Church and in the world.

Seeing Jesus in the Face of Migrants

March 9th, 2015
Eritrean refugees hold candles during memorial gathering to mark first anniversary of Lampedusa migrant shipwreck.

Eritrean refugees hold candles during memorial gathering to mark first anniversary of Lampedusa migrant shipwreck. (CNS photo/Tiksa Negeri, Reuters)

Lent offers a time for reflection and examination of conscience. We are invited to meditate on the infinite mercy of God and how we might in our lives manifest that mercy in our world today. As we make our Lenten pilgrimage, I invite you to keep present in your thoughts and prayers our sisters and brothers who feel compelled to leave their homelands in search of a better, safer, more secure life.

At the end of his General Audience on February 11, Pope Francis again called the world’s attention to the need for solidarity and humanitarian assistance to address the continuing crisis in migration. His appeal came amidst news reports of more than 300 people from Africa drowning or dying from hypothermia while attempting to cross the sea in small boats to seek refuge in Italy. This tragedy is only the latest of many as a growing flow of migrants brave treacherous conditions in an attempt to reach other lands, with many losing their lives in the process. We have seen such tragedies before, as with the Vietnamese, Haitian and Cuban “boat people.”

A few days earlier, our Holy Father visited a shantytown called “Camp Rainbow” on the outskirts of Rome which accommodates displaced families from many different countries – Peru, Ecuador, Eritrea, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere. With this simple caring gesture, as with his July 2013 visit to Lampedusa, the Pope brought a little bit of joy and hope into their hearts.

This concern for migrants, which Pope Francis has shown throughout his pontificate, has a particular resonance for the Lenten season. This time that the Church lifts up for us is often referred to as a journey which helps us to re-experience important chapters of the mystery of salvation. We recall the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert and, as heirs to the covenant, we are invited to identify with the Israelites who were strangers in Egypt and who journeyed as strangers in the desert for 40 years after leaving slavery in Egypt.

“Each year during Lent,” Pope Francis said in his Message for Lent 2015, “we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.” Our Holy Father has shown himself to be such a voice, continually speaking to our hearts to remember those on the peripheries of society – the poor, the young and elderly, the disabled and the stranger in our midst, the migrant who seeks a better life and needs our help.

In Holy Scripture, the Lord tells his people, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34, see also Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Old Testament prophets cried out to show kindness and compassion toward resident aliens and do them no wrong or violence (Zechariah 7:9-10; Jeremiah 22:3). We are warned that we will be judged for the way we treat the foreigners among us (Ezekiel 22:29; Malachi 3:5), and if we are harsh to them, we cannot enter into the land God has promised his people (Jeremiah 7:6-7).

Concern for those who are strangers, those who are downtrodden, vulnerable and marginalized is among the essential qualities that the Lord expects of his good and faithful people. This regard must be more than mere obligation. It should be a response of gratitude that flows from our hearts for the blessings we have received ourselves, for our deliverance from bondage and being gifted with the Promised Land.

In confronting the phenomenon of widespread migration, and the global indifference often shown to migrants, we should understand that often times they are more or less forced to leave their homes. They would prefer to stay, but violence, persecution, extreme poverty or other suffering – like we see with Christians in the Middle East – compel them to leave and seek refuge elsewhere.

Similarly, the vast number of people coming across the southern border of the United States do so with hope for a better, more secure future for themselves, many of them fleeing harsh or oppressive conditions. We need to be alert to their essential needs and insist that their fundamental human dignity be respected.

As Christians, we are all sojourners ourselves, strangers in the land. At the same time, we are a Church without borders. The kingdom of which we are subjects is universal, transcending national boundaries. Consequently, from the Christian perspective, the person from Mexico or Central or South America, Africa or Asia is not a stranger to us in the U.S., but a brother or sister, a fellow citizen of God’s kingdom.

Over and over again Pope Francis has said to us something we already know but need to hear with great regularity. He tells us, “God loves you” and we should see in others the face of his Son. In a special way, he says, “Jesus Christ is always waiting to be recognized in migrants and refugees, in displaced persons and in exiles, and through them he calls us to share our resources, and occasionally to give up something of our acquired riches” (Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2015).

As a matter of good conscience, we know what we should do going forward on an individual and social level. Beyond raising awareness and urging national leaders and the whole international community to implement humane policies and take concrete steps to address the migration crisis, we can show solidarity with migrants through our prayer and support of humanitarian relief efforts by Catholic Charities and other ministries.

If migrants are the face of Christ, then we are obligated to treat them as we would treat Jesus himself. What we do for them, we do for him (Matthew 25:40). What we do not do for others, we do not do for Christ (Matthew 25:45).

The Christian Approach to Social Injustice

March 6th, 2015
Photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. (The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965) http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3d02329

Photo from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3d02329 (The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965)

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma campaign for voting rights led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This effort, capped by a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, played a pivotal role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

After the Civil War, slavery was abolished and the right of black people to vote was officially guaranteed by the 13th and 15th Amendments respectively. Federal civil rights laws were also enacted during the Reconstruction period. However, many black citizens were effectively disenfranchised because officials largely refused to allow them to register. This not only denied them the vote, it excluded them from serving on juries, denying them justice in the courts as well.

For many decades, many good people had worked long and hard for civil rights, for justice, and for basic human dignity. But for many black people, little changed in their daily lives – and little changed with respect to racist attitudes in much of the greater society – until Dr. King assumed leadership of this struggle. It was thanks to his persistent and convincing voice that America began to change.

Why did the civil rights movement succeed under Dr. King’s leadership? How is it that his dream began to be realized?

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel,” Dr. King explained. “This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry” (Sermon of August 27, 1967). His Christian faith is what animated his life and kept him going day after day in the face of numerous challenges and hardships, including opposition from all quarters, death threats, bombings of his home, and other violence.

Under the leadership of this man of great faith, the civil rights movement was an expression of the Christian faith in action. Dr. King succeeded for the same reason that early Christianity succeeded in transforming western civilization. And both provide valuable lessons as we face today’s challenges to the dignity of human life.

The aim of the movement, Dr. King said at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, was “a society of justice where none would [prey] upon the weakness of others . . . a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality” (Address of March 25, 1965). He said this after the first attempted march ended with the marchers being viciously attacked by state troopers on March 7, 1965, a day nicknamed “Bloody Sunday.”

The brutality was covered on national television, and when Dr. King called on religious leaders from across the country to join the marchers, hundreds of people of all faiths and all races came to Selma in solidarity. But even more amazing, throughout his ministry, Dr. King did not stop at seeking solidarity with those who agreed with him. He wanted those who opposed him, those who oppressed him, to eventually come together in solidarity as well.

In the face of violence, instead of offering hate for hate, instead of militant revolution, as some urged, Dr. King used the strength of love, believing that there is some spark of good in even the worst oppressor and that love has within it a redemptive power that eventually transforms individuals (Sermon of November 17, 1957). Similarly today, some people think we should use brute strength to try to change the structures of the world, but that is not our way. We are called to loving, patient persuasion rather than imposition by force. The Lord’s will is that we love one another, even those who hate and persecute us, so as to make friends of adversaries and renew the world.

Hearing these words of Jesus, Dr. King sought reconciliation with the instigators of violence and racial oppression, appealing to conscience to transform hearts. History shows that hearts were indeed changed as a culture where racism was rampant began to embrace the social harmony that this man of God worked for.

We have made great strides in many ways since then, but we must also admit that there is work yet to be done for the fundamental dignity of the human person to be respected everywhere. So it is the task of each of us to continue the march, to make the effort, to recommit to manifest in our world the love of Christ. In this way we can change hearts and, ultimately, the world.

Faith, Deafness and Disability Conference

March 4th, 2015
aron Hying and his son Ethan present the offertory gifts at the 2015 Youth Rally and Mass for Life at the Verizon Center. (Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard)

Aaron Hying and his son Ethan present the offertory gifts at the 2015 Youth Rally and Mass for Life. (Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard)

Regular readers of this blog know that on Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014, the Archdiocese of Washington held its First Archdiocesan Synod. On that day we published the statutes and recommendations from the Synod that will carry forward the work of the Church of Washington into the future.

The recommendations relate to five core areas of church life: worship, education, community, service and administration. Over and above these are a set of seven recommendations that are to be implemented across all five focus areas. Recommendation Five for all areas of our local Church proposes that “the Archdiocese and parishes identify, seek out and minister to those not fully involved in the life and mission of the Church, and that efforts be undertaken to ensure the meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of the life of the Church.”

As part of the on-going implementation of this recommendation, the archdiocese will sponsor its Conference on Faith, Deafness and Disabilities on Saturday, March 14th. The conference takes its vision from the National Directory of Catechesis which states, “Persons with disabilities…are integral members of the Christian community. All persons with disabilities have the capacity to proclaim the Gospel and to be living witnesses to its truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts. Their involvement enriches every aspect of Church life.  They are not just the recipients of catechesis—they are also its agents” (NDC, 4).

The focus of this conference is this two-fold theme: 1) making resources available for all people to grow in faith, and 2) teaching families and parish leaders how persons with special needs can be prepared for full and active participation in the sacramental life of the Church and parish-based ministries.

Of special note this year is the day’s Special Education Summit which will address innovative strategies for inclusion of children with special needs in our Catholic schools and in our parish religious education programs. Picking up on the theme of persons with disabilities as agents of the New Evangelization, another area of focus is a new program that places adults with disabilities in classrooms and administrative offices as aides, coordinators of classroom activities and leaders of prayer.

There is an increasing sense of urgency in making known the Church’s unequivocal commitment to the protection and promotion of human life. In the face of studies showing that 90 percent of all pregnancies where the unborn child is given a diagnosis of Down Syndrome end in abortion, it is critical that we redouble our efforts to let young couples and families know that a community exists who will welcome their child and assist in helping them thrive at every stage of life.

Over and over again, we hear that couples faced with an unexpected diagnosis feel alone and without support. We are working to make known how welcoming our Church – individual parishes as well as the archdiocesan administration – is to persons with special needs and to connect families to a network of support and resources to assist them in caring for their children and loved ones.

If you know someone who might benefit from learning more about our growing community of persons with special needs, please share with them news of this conference on Saturday, March 14, and all that our family of faith offers to our sisters and brothers with special needs.

Silencing the Church’s Voice

March 2nd, 2015

sharing the light

As we make our way through Lent, we remember that Jesus calls us to see God in the face of others, especially the poor, to be compassionate, to respect human life and to be forgiving, chaste and loving. He said in challenging us to live a life that fully reflects God’s plan for us, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill…[W]hoever obeys and teaches these commands will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19). But we also are reminded of just how different are the values of the Christian way of life from those so often described today as “secular” or “modern.”

One area where the contrast between the revealed word in Sacred Scripture, the teaching of the Catholic Church and the current politically correct practice of today is most evident is our teaching on human sexuality and how we are to live that gift. There is nothing new in the Church’s teaching today. We can start with the Book of Genesis, continue on through the proclamation of Jesus and see today in the words of Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis the same essential points. God created us – male and female. Our sexual difference is a good that we must respect. Marriage is that first human community willed and blessed by God. Sexual activity is meant to be exercised in marriage. Children are the fruit of that blessed human love.

This is not new teaching – but it is challenging. Human sexuality is a gift and every generation finds the desire for sexual activity to be strong and inviting. For some, it can be even overpowering. Often the teachings of the Church flowing from the words of her Lord strike some as confining, even distasteful. So it has always been. Saint John the Baptist reminded King Herod that he could not just take his brother’s wife. The woman and the king had John put to death.

The Church presents a splendid vision for life. Yet, we also struggle to live it. The tension between what we know we should do and what we actually do is something referred to as the “human condition.” Nonetheless, we are called to strive to reach our potential, to manifest our faith in our actions. This is particularly true for those who minister in the name of the Church and teach and provide charitable and social services on behalf of the Church.

But today there is a new challenge. Some who reject the Church’s teaching – who choose to live by another set of values – not only find the voice of Christian values annoying, they would like to see it silenced or at least muted. Thus we have a whole new upside down version of words like “discrimination,” “freedom” and “human rights,” and laws to enforce the new meaning.

Today, many would have us believe that to present marriage as the union of a man and a woman is “discrimination” and as such should be punished. They would tell us that our rejection of abortion offends their sense of personal liberty and we must change our position if we intend to participate in the works of the common good.

This increasingly loud position implies that freedom extends only to those who share this new “moral code,” a redefinition of human life, marriage, sexual activity, and morality. For them it is not bigotry to challenge Catholic teaching. It only becomes bigotry and discrimination, they say, when Catholics assert our beliefs.

We all know that the faithful are to bear witness to the Gospel in both word and deed. We hear this expressed in the colloquialism, “We need to both talk the talk and walk the walk.” Yet increasingly Catholics are being told that we cannot – should not – be allowed to present and follow our beliefs if they offend politically correct thinking.

We are being told that in our schools, social service ministries and other Church programs we may not insist that those who teach the Catholic faith and carry out Catholic ministry should do so in word and the manner they live their lives. Nor should we be allowed to require that those who share in our teaching, healing and charitable ministries would also bear witness to the faith in their actions as well as in what they say.

In recent legislation in the District of Columbia, we are about to be forced to accept on our teaching faculties, Church staff and charitable services personnel those who live in a way that publically repudiates the teaching of the Church. The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act of 2014 (RHNDA) would deprive the Church of its right to ensure that those whom it entrusts to carry out its mission are faithful to its teachings on human life and sexuality. The law would instead force the Church and its ministries to hire and retain employees who obtain abortions, conceive via surrogates, and so on. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Amendment of 2014 (HRAA) would require Catholic schools to formally recognize, endorse, and support student groups dedicated to promoting homosexual behavior. The new law says that for the Church to do otherwise in either case is unjust discrimination.

This reversal of the understanding of the freedom to present one’s position has now taken on the form of coercive public policy. Basically it says only some people are free to express and live their lifestyle. The rest of us have to conform in some way to that new morality. The Church does not require others to believe or live by her teaching. We simply ask for the freedom to do so ourselves and to insure that those who minister in our institutions also do so.

This Lent is a time to reflect on what the new social order means to each of us. It is a moment to ask ourselves if we are prepared simply to put aside our faith, moral conviction and understanding of human integrity and accept what someone else tells us must now be ours.

But there is even more. This Lent we all need to ask ourselves if we are prepared to stand up for our beliefs and to speak up on behalf of our schools, parishes and charities.

Yes, Lent is always a time of renewed conviction and deepened faith. This Lent is also a time when we have to deepen our courage not just to hold to what we believe but to be able to speak up on behalf of that faith.

God’s Covenant with His Children

February 27th, 2015
Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Anyone who reads the Book of Genesis carefully will notice the prominence of the theme of “covenant.” As summarized in the Catechism, God repeatedly makes covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, with Abraham’s son Isaac, and with his son Jacob (CCC 54-73). Indeed, the theme pervades the Old Testament, as God makes covenants with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and with David, and then promises a definitive “new covenant.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). On the night he was betrayed, Jesus himself, through the institution of the Eucharist, established this New Covenant (Luke 22:20). If we are to understand God’s word, then we must have some understanding of this important term.

Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best. It is through a covenant that God binds himself to his people in a relationship of fidelity and care. As a husband pledges fidelity to his wife, God pledges fidelity to his people Israel, both the historic Israel of the Old Testament and the renewed Israel of the New Testament, made up of Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22). The prophet Hosea even describes the Lord’s relationship with Israel as that of husband and wife (Hosea 2:21-22). This binding to his people is a solemn one and God remains faithful even when his people are not.

In his covenant with Abraham, God promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham (Genesis 12:2 et seq.). The call of Abraham takes place immediately after the destruction of the tower of Babel and the scattering of the builders. One of the purposes of this bond with Abraham was to reconcile the peoples of the earth, reuniting them in one family. The Old Testament provides hints at how this reconciliation would come about, but it is only in the light of Christ that we can see more clearly God’s plan to heal his wounded creation.

On Ash Wednesday, we read from the prophet Joel, who calls the people to repentance: “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:13). Later in the same chapter, Joel portrays a vision of the time of restoration: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). The prophets frequently speak of the Spirit in connection with God’s care for Israel. According to Isaiah 63, the Spirit accompanied the Israelites during the Exodus, and Ezekiel connects the outpouring of the Spirit with the gift of new life (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

The New Covenant would be ratified by Jesus in his blood, and the Lord’s promises of the Spirit would find their fulfillment on the day of Pentecost, as testified to by Peter (Acts 2:16-21). After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he poured out the Spirit upon the people, and when they spoke, all those in Jerusalem could understand them in their own language (Acts 2:7-11). Here was the sign that the Lord was at last beginning to undo the scattering of the tower of Babel, that he was fulfilling the promises of the outpouring of the Spirit, that at last by keeping his covenant with Abraham he would bless the whole world.

As we continue our Lenten journey in preparation for the Paschal Mystery, it is important to understand that God’s covenant with Abraham is not just a partnership with an ancient wanderer. Jesus himself attested that Abraham rejoiced to see his day (John 8:56).

The Lord’s covenant of love extends to all of Abraham’s descendants, and we become a part of Abraham’s family in the same way that those first witnesses to the outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem did: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

Through our baptism we become “Abraham’s descendant, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29) and receive the pledge of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:22) as a promise of his faithfulness. The covenant with Abraham, fulfilled in Christ, is God’s assurance of his never-failing love for us.

The Sacrament of Conversion

February 24th, 2015

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, Wednesday evenings are set aside 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 says so beautifully, “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 thelightison.org.