The Enduring Impact of the Papal Visit

September 24th, 2016


Nationals Park will always bring back special memories of Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass there in 2008, shortly after it opened. The cheering crowd of 50,000 people in their diversity offered the Holy Father a view of the face of the Church in America, and he stretched out his arms as if to embrace them and our country.

Last month, I had the joy of returning to Nationals Park for Faith Day and as I walked along the concourse, I was reminded of another papal visit to Washington – the time of grace we enjoyed when Pope Francis came here one year ago. Just inside the centerfield entrance of the ballpark, the Papal Fiat was parked and nearby was a table for Catholic Charities’ Cup of Joe program, reflecting the pope’s call for us to care for one another, especially the poor and marginalized. Baseball fans were lined up to fill breakfast bags so that some of the homeless people in our community might have something to eat.

More than 550 meals were packed and then placed in the “Pope Car.” After the game, the Fiat was driven across town to deliver those breakfast bags to Catholic Charities’ Adam’s Place shelter. It was a true home run hit not by Nationals’ players, but by their fans to reach out to their brothers and sisters in need.

When Pope Francis himself rode in the Fiat, he asked to roll down the window, so he could be closer to the people here. Now that little black car has become a ubiquitous symbol of the enduring impact of the papal visit to Washington, and it even has its own social media hashtag, #DriveWithFrancis. The day before its Nationals Park appearance, the Papal Fiat was parked by Our Lady Star of the Sea Church to highlight the work of Southern Maryland Community Resources, a program that serves people with developmental differences and was having a benefit boat race that weekend. In addition to being filled with food for the homeless, the Fiat has also been packed with donated baby items that it delivered to a crisis pregnancy center in Washington.

This iconic Pope Car and the more familiar Popemobile took the Holy Father to many places to see many people, from meeting with the President and the Congress to praying with our nation’s bishops and touching our sisters and brothers in need to celebrating the Canonization Mass for Saint Junípero Serra. Each of these was important in its own way, but really the most important aspect of the Pope’s visit was not any of these, but the time afterward, the legacy he leaves behind.

The enduring takeaway from the Pope’s visit, what all of us will carry with us, is the recognition that there is so much more yet to be done. Pope Francis’s mantra of “Go out, encounter, accompany,” should become our own call to action. The Walk with Francis effort, in which more than 100,000 people joined before he arrived, was a call for us to renew our personal faith in Jesus, be confident in its truth, and then go out as Christ’s disciples in our community and our world and share his Good News in word and deed. At the Canonization, the Pope said that new saint’s motto should be ours: “Keep moving forward!”

Like the Papal Fiat, we ourselves can be an inspiring reminder of Pope Francis’ visit with us, renewing and sharing our faith, and inviting others to experience it, especially in our service to others.

A Video Look Back at the Apostolic Visit of Pope Francis

September 22nd, 2016

There are so many great memories of the time we spent with our Holy Father Pope Francis in our midst last year at this time.  Thanks to our highly talented archdiocesan communications staff, many of these images have been recorded for posterity.  As we look back at the papal visit and give thanks to God for that blessing, I invite you to view above a wonderful video recap of the visit produced by our staff.  May it be a reminder to you of the joy of the Gospel we and the whole community experienced then and are called to continue to share with all we encounter.

Celebrating the First Anniversary of the Apostolic Visit of Pope Francis

September 21st, 2016


The visit of Pope Francis one year ago, September 22-24, was electrifying, jubilant and a moment of grace for our local Church, the greater metropolitan community and our nation.

Excitement for the Vicar of Christ among us was evident everywhere he went.  It began when his plane landed and he was greeted with cheers and song from more than five hundred schoolchildren and young adults from around the archdiocese. This scene played out repeatedly while he was here.

The local theme of the papal visit was “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis,” and both were on display as people rejoiced and wanted to be near him.  This special attention that Pope Francis received and the extraordinary media coverage that followed him were a recognition of his unique role.  Whether it was the reception he received when he arrived, at the White House or Congress, or the vast multitudes praying with him and for him, it is evident that people are hungering for the Gospel message of love that the Pope shared with us.

Each time the Holy Father came and went from the Apostolic Nunciature where he was staying, he was met by cheering schoolchildren – who were even more elated when he invariably walked over to greet them in a personal way.  This enthusiasm was met or perhaps even surpassed by the thousands of glowing young seminarians and religious novices and postulants from around the country who greeted the Successor of Peter at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception or during his special stop at our archdiocesan Saint John Paul II Seminary.

In fact, the joy began and was building for many months before.  By the time our guest arrived, more than 100,000 people had joined in the “Walk with Francis” initiative, offering him the gift of special acts of prayer, service and works on behalf of those in need.  Added to this were more than 531,000 messages on social media sharing our faith in Jesus Christ.

This elation and affection continued with special sunrise Masses downtown, followed by a gathering of people at the Mall, where Pope Francis came by to greet them in the Popemobile after his visit to the White House.  When our Holy Father rode instead in the papal Fiat – which was later donated to the archdiocese and may be seen at various #DriveWithFrancis functions – he insisted on having the window down, as if to say by example that if you are going to reach people, remove the barriers so you can see and hear and touch them.

Following this encounter, Pope Francis met with this country’s bishops as a brother among brothers.  Praising God and praying the liturgy of the hours with us, our Chief Shepherd noted the discord in the world and reminded us how essential it is that the Church work for unity and “be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love . . . and not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morning.”

At the center of the visit was our celebration of the Holy Eucharist on the steps of the Basilica, where Pope Francis could see the universality of the Church and the multicultural diversity of our nation in the people assembled there.  This beautiful liturgy included the historic canonization of Saint Junípero Serra, which continues to summon us to be missionaries disciples as he was, with the Holy Father urging us to “keep moving forward” to encounter others and share with them the merciful love of Christ.

Throughout the visit, you could really sense the Holy Spirit alive in our family of faith.  People were inspired by the message of this holy pastor that this would be a better place if we simply came together and saw in others a brother or sister, and it prompted many to ask a very good question afterward – “Why can’t it always be the way it was when the Pope was here?”

Demonstrating the depth of his pastoral concern, Pope Francis met with those who walk the halls of power and with those who live in the streets.  He reminded our nation’s leaders, “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. . . . You are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”  Right after, this pastor of souls went out to touch the homeless and hungry and sustain them in hope saying, “In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness.”  He then assured our sisters and brothers in need, “God is present in every one of you.”

This visit of Pope Francis as the successor to Peter and the Vicar of Christ was a reminder to each of us with our own personal gifts, talents and abilities, to do what we can to manifest Christ’s kingdom with works of love and truth, justice and peace.  Renewed by our recollection of the Holy Father’s presence with us, now it is time for us to shine more brightly and bring to others the joy of being loved.

Prayers and Best Wishes for Bishop Martin D. Holley

September 20th, 2016


When Jesus had concluded his earthly ministry, before ascending to heavenly glory he sent out his Apostles to continue his work of bringing the Good News of salvation to humanity. The Lord told them to “go into the whole world” and be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” to teach all that he has taught and to “make disciples of all nations” (Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:19).

This notion of “being sent” is one of the marks of an apostolic Church. This is a commission given to us all as disciples of Christ by virtue of our baptism, but it applies in a particular way to the successors of the Apostles, those who have been consecrated as bishops and entrusted with the care of a portion of God’s flock in local churches around the world, which together in communion with the pope as Peter make up the one Church Universal.

During his visit here one year ago this week, Pope Francis spoke of “a Church which goes forth, a Church which sets out to bring everywhere the reconciling tenderness of God.” He pointed particularly to newly-canonized Father Junípero Serra, who “was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He learned how to bring to birth and nurture God’s life in the faces of everyone he met; he made them his brothers and sisters.”

Now Bishop Martin D. Holley joins Saint Junípero as he goes forth himself from our spiritual home in the Church of Washington to proclaim anew the Good News of Jesus Christ in his new calling as the fifth Bishop of Memphis. This Sunday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception we will celebrate a special Mass of Thanksgiving, praising God for the blessing of Bishop Holley’s time with us, and I invite you to join us.

In bidding Bishop Holley farewell, personally and on behalf of the Archdiocese of Washington, I would like to express to him our gratitude. During his twelve years here as auxiliary bishop, he provided dedicated service to the Lord and his Church, including his work as Vicar General and Chairman for the College of Deans which oversees the archdiocese’s fourteen deaneries, and his care for the pastoral ministries to the many ethnic and language communities in the archdiocese, where he experienced first-hand the universality of the Church. In a particular way, I want to thank my brother bishop for his always kind assistance in my own episcopal ministry and for his friendship.

The news from Pope Francis last month that Bishop Holley was “being sent” to shepherd the Diocese of Memphis was met here with great joy for him and for our sisters and brothers there in western Tennessee, knowing that they are receiving a talented and caring pastor in these times of the New Evangelization. He has demonstrated pastoral sensitivity and administrative ability that should serve his spiritual flock well. Certainly all who have been touched by him during his time here will attest to his engaging warmth and many gifts of mind and heart.

Bishop Holley’s choice for his episcopal motto, “His Mercy Endures,” is testimony of his humble appreciation of God’s love in his life, as well as his profound awareness of the critical need in our world today for people to know, experience, and trust in the Lord’s tender care and healing mercies. As he explained when he was first named a bishop by Saint John Paul II twelve years ago, “as a bishop, the Lord was calling me to experience the profound graces of his mercy and to extend his mercy to others.”

Now the Lord is calling Bishop Holley to lead the Diocese of Memphis in its mission of mercy to be “a Good Samaritan on the banks of the Mississippi,” proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s saving love and liberating truth amidst the human condition. While we will miss his presence here, as people of faith we know that in the Lord we remain in communion with him and all our spiritual sisters and brothers in Memphis as together we seek to manifest the kingdom of God coming to be.

Please join me in offering Bishop Holley your prayers and spiritual support. We wish him every grace and blessing as he now undertakes his new ministry.

“Prayer: The Faith Prayed”

September 17th, 2016


Who first taught you how to pray? For most, the answer is “my parents.” The earliest memory of prayer for many people is praying at meals or before going to bed. This was probably the experience of Jesus too, with prayer being the constant background of his life growing up with the premier models of faith, Mary and Joseph, and throughout his days.

We know from scripture that Jesus prayed privately and communally. He prayed the divinely inspired prayers that are the heart of the Jewish tradition, especially the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4), the Sabbath prayers, and the Psalms, which collectively include the various forms of prayer of praise, adoration, blessing, thanksgiving and petition.

John the Evangelist explains Jesus’ continual prayer to God in light of his special relationship to the Father (cf. John 8:12-59; 10:29-38; 12:27-28). Raising Lazarus from the dead, he thanked the Father for hearing him (John 11:41-42). After the Last Supper, the Son specially commended his followers to the Father. “Consecrate them in the truth,” he pleaded, desiring that we all be one with and in God and his eternal love (John 17:1-26). In his prayerful agony in the garden, he adhered in “his human heart to the mystery of the will of the Father” (CCC 2603). Then on the Cross, he prayed, “Father, forgive them,” before crying out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Tomorrow, the Church celebrates Catechetical Sunday and the theme for this year, “Prayer: the Faith Prayed,” recognizes how learning to pray is fundamental to believing. Throughout the Gospels, we read how often Jesus went off to pray. Seeing this, the disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, so he taught them and us the Our Father, a perfect form of prayer (Luke 11:1-4). As a teacher of prayer, Jesus frequently highlighted its importance in our lives and in the life of the Church (CCC 2607-15). Luke recounts how the Lord told his followers to be persistent, “to pray always without becoming weary,” assuring them, “I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:5-13; 18:1).

Jesus teaches us the spirit in which we should pray and he invites all of us to make prayer the background of our lives. He also gives us the gifts of parents and family members who are our first teachers of prayer. Catechists and other educators join them in the awesome responsibility of teaching children – and adults – how to pray.

Catechists share in the Jesus’ ministry of teaching because they “exemplify the manner in which we cooperate with God’s grace to ensure the growth of the faith” (National Directory of Catechesis, ch. 53). On Catechetical Sunday tomorrow, pastors in parishes across the archdiocese will call forth catechetical leaders and catechists and commission them to pass on the faith to children, young adults and adults in religious education and faith formation programs. The National Directory of Catechesis reminds us that such commissioning “expresses the Church’s call, recognizes the catechist’s generous response, and confidently sends them out to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (ch. 55).

Critical to this ministry of catechesis is a life of prayer since you cannot bear personal witness to God if we do not really have a personal loving relationship with him. As Pope Francis has explained, “Being a catechist is not a title, it is an attitude: abiding with Jesus, and it lasts for a lifetime! It means abiding in the Lord’s presence and letting ourselves be led by him” (Address of September 27, 2013).

Most particularly, “to be a catechist requires love, an ever stronger love for Christ,” emphasizes our Holy Father. “This love comes from Christ! It is Christ’s gift! And if it comes from Christ, it also starts with Christ” (Id.).

On this Catechetical Sunday, for all those catechists and other teachers of the faith who help unwrap that gift of Christ’s love and freely put it to use, we start with Christ. We ask the Lord that, through our prayer and the catechists’ own, their love for Jesus will be strong and the witness of their faith will be a gift to the parish, the entire Church and the world.

The Renaissance of Consecrated Life

September 14th, 2016
(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There is a renewed youthfulness and vibrancy in consecrated religious life today.  The signs are all around us.

At the recent Mass of Canonization for Saint Mother Teresa, there was a sea of young faces in the many Missionaries of Charity assembled in Saint Peter’s Square.  Likewise, those attending World Youth Day this summer were joined by many religious sisters and brothers of their generation, as there are at all of these international gatherings.  In our corner of the world, thousands of young novices and postulants for religious life from around the country came to spend some time with Pope Francis, the Successor of Peter, when he visited last year.

Whenever I look around and see all these young consecrated women and men who serve others in diverse ministries, I am always heartened in my realization that they are the future of the Church.  It is one of the blessings of my ministry to work with our sisters and brothers in consecrated life since they speak with such happiness of the life they have found in Christ.

Earlier today, on this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, I was similarly blessed and honored to celebrate Mass where five sisters of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará religious community made their perpetual vows.  What characterizes these young newly-professed brides of Christ, or any of their sisters in this order, is immense joy and love.  They radiate with enthusiasm and vitality.  And thanks be to God, they are not alone – they are only a representative sample of the vibrancy and renewal being seen in many other religious communities.

During his visit last year, Pope Francis expressed a special esteem and gratitude to the women religious of the United States. “What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel,” he said. “To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you,’ a big thank you, and to tell you that I love you very much.”

On the flight home, the Holy Father further remarked, “People in the United States love the sisters.”  He is right.  Many of us in older generations remember growing up with “the nuns” (and religious brothers) playing a significant role in our lives.  They taught us, cared for us, prayed for us, nurtured us and helped prepare us for adulthood and to figure out what God had planned for us in our lives.  Many children who grew up in later years, however, missed out on that wonderful experience when, in the wake of social change beginning in the 1960s and 70s, there was a decline in religious vocations.  Then with youths having fewer examples of the beauty of consecrated life, fewer entered into it.

In wintertime, it seems that the field is desolate and bereft of life.  But now we are seeing a new springtime for consecrated religious, with new sprouts beginning to emerge.  As they grow and bear fruit, they are providing the seeds for more sprouts and growth.  Seeing their contemporaries in religious life, more young people today can envision themselves as a religious sister (or brother) and are actively considering and entering this life consecrated to the Lord, whereas before, the idea would have never even occurred to them.

The more young people are exposed to young religious, simply seeing them present in the world and meeting them and getting to know them personally, the more these encounters will blossom into new religious vocations.  For example, one young woman said of her exposure to them in college, “The sisters made me almost envious of what they had. I was attracted by their ‘normalness’ and their joy. They were all amazing! Now I am a member of that congregation and I know that they were a deciding factor.”

A religious community is not simply an association of people like some secular society.  The religious vocation is primarily a call to generosity of spirit, and these orders share in the life and mission of the Church as they help weave into the fabric of our society the threads of an encounter with Jesus Christ and his transformative love.  This is indispensable in our culture today which can leave people empty and impoverished.  And as we see in other areas of the Church, young people are attracted to a strong Catholic identity that is confidently and enthusiastically lived.

As you come to better know our consecrated sisters and brothers and the vibrant lives they lead, maybe you too might be called.  If you would like to learn more and perhaps participate in a discernment meeting or retreat, or maybe even visit a congregation – there are nearly 70 communities of women religious and more than 40 men’s communities present in the Archdiocese of Washington – please contact Sister Gilmary Kay, RSM, in our archdiocesan Office for Consecrated Life at this link and she will be delighted to talk with you.

Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta

September 11th, 2016


Today we praise God in a special way with a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Like we saw in Saint Peter’s Square last Sunday, the scene at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception prominently featured the distinctive Missionaries of Charity, who are themselves a manifestation of Saint Mother Teresa’s spiritual presence in the world as they continue her blessed work of bringing to those in need the love of Jesus Christ.

We give thanks to God for this holy woman who offered a sign to the world of the Lord’s loving and merciful grace active amidst the human condition today. We are reminded also of our own vocation, our own calling in helping to realize God’s Gospel plan of new life.

How appropriate in the Gospel reading for today from the Gospel of Luke, we hear how Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners and tax collectors – people who were considered unclean and were socially ostracized (Luke 15:1-32). Does this not describe what Mother Teresa did in going to the outcast and poor dying in the streets, taking in orphans who were abandoned and unwanted, washing the sores of the diseased, and embracing the untouchables, touching those who no one else would, the physical and social lepers around us? And is not her example, which reflects that of Jesus, what we are called to do as well in our own way?

The Gospel reading goes on to recount Jesus’ parables about the man who went out to find the lost sheep, the woman who searched for and found a lost coin, and the father who ran to and embraced his prodigal son, and how they rejoiced when those who had been lost were found. Here too, the life and ministry of Mother Teresa reflects the Gospel as she went out each day to find the lost, those whom society deems worthless, and seeing instead their great value in the eyes of God, reaching out to the material poor and the poorest of the poor, those who have squandered the blessings given them by our heavenly Father.

This saintly woman whom we celebrate today rejoiced in helping the unloved to know love, which was simply love for Christ in action. Her message heard at every level in our society and world was clearly an echo of the words of Jesus himself: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34).

Each person Mother Teresa touched was for her touching the Lord himself. Whatever she did, she did for Jesus (cf. Matthew 25:34-40). And she exhorts us to be missionaries of love too, urging us to open our eyes to see Christ in the poor, the unwanted and uncared for around us – perhaps even in our own families – to respect and defend all human life and dignity beginning in the womb, and to simply allow the power of God’s love to work in and through us.

Before she began her work serving the poorest of the poor, Mother Teresa was a teacher and she continues to offer us many valuable lessons. One thing we could learn is her straightforward approach to ministry.

Mother Teresa seeing a person in need would simply take the personal initiative and go over to help her right there and then. Like Mary, who went in haste to the aid of Elizabeth, Mother Teresa understood the urgency of now. “To us, what matters is an individual,” she said of herself and her Missionaries of Charity. “Every person is Christ for me, and since there is only one Jesus, there is only one person in the world for me at that moment.”

Each part of the body of Christ, each of us in our own particular way and calling, has a role to play in the mission of love. Mother Teresa reminds us of the need to acknowledge the person in front of us at the moment and show them now the love of Jesus. Even a smile, a friendly “hello,” can make their life a little brighter and thus make the world a better place. In this simple way, we can be like a saint.

Thanks be to God for the canonization of Saint Mother Teresa. To learn more about the blessed gift of her life, ministry and example, please see here my recent Catholic Standard article and previous blog posts here.

National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities

September 9th, 2016


The word pontiff comes from the Latin word pontifex, meaning bridge builder. During his historic address to Congress last year, Pope Francis was just that, encouraging our political leaders to work together for the common good of all Americans. In his talk, he emphasized that our response to division and strife in our communities must “be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice,” with a renewed spirit of cooperation.

Praising the life and legacy of another bridge builder, the Holy Father said, here “I think of the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all.”

Building bridges is at the heart of the National Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities, which dioceses across the country are observing today.  This moment to take some time and beseech God for the blessings of peace was called in response to recent incidents of violence and racial tension across the United States.

In announcing the day of prayer and a related bishops’ task force to examine those issues, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, emphasized the need to build bridges, saying, “By stepping forward to embrace the suffering, through unified, concrete action animated by the love of Christ, we hope to nurture peace and build bridges of communication and mutual aid in our own communities.”

Last year, Bishop Martin Holley – whom Pope Francis recently named as the new bishop of Memphis to our great joy – joined his nephew and other marchers in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma toward Montgomery to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous civil rights march alluded to by the pope in his address to Congress.

Bishop Holley, who has served as an auxiliary bishop of Washington since 2004, noted that the anniversary march, like the historic walk that it commemorated, brought together women and men of all ages, religions and ethnic and racial backgrounds.  He was especially inspired to see the participation of many students, from middle schoolers to collegians, joined in solidarity.  “They were there unified, (offering) one voice in terms of peace and harmony,” he later said of the experience.

Blessed Pope Paul VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Our prayers for peace should motivate us to work for justice in our great country. “A nation can be considered great,” Pope Francis told Congress, “when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do.”

Pope Francis also praised the legacy of three other great Americans – President Abraham Lincoln, for working so that this nation might have “a new birth of freedom,” Dorothy Day, for her service to the poor and forgotten, and the Trappist monk Father Thomas Merton, for sowing dialogue and peace. All those qualities are needed as our nation confronts the challenges facing us. We honor the legacy of all four of those Americans when we pray together and work to promote educational and job opportunities for the disadvantaged and take steps to reform our criminal justice system and prevent violence.

Our country has experienced so much sorrow these past months.  “The need to place ever greater value on the life and dignity of all persons, regardless of their station in life, calls us to a moment of national reflection,” said Archbishop Kurtz following one violent incident.  “Let us pray for the comfort of everyone affected and that our national conversation will bear the good fruit of healing and peace.”

The need to come together for prayer and action, to build bridges, is urgent. The bishops’ conference has prepared some suggested prayers for today, including intercessory prayers which can be offered at Mass or in our personal prayer.

As the Church comes together this day, let us pray that a summer of sorrow spurs us to ongoing prayer and action for peace and racial healing and justice. As Christians, we are all called to be bridge builders, joining our earthly lives with our eternal destiny, walking, praying and working together on the journey toward our shared ultimate destination of heaven.

Working to Preserve Christianity in the Middle East

September 7th, 2016
 (CNS photo/Ali Mustafa, EPA)

(CNS photo/Ali Mustafa, EPA)

Six months after the United States officially acknowledged that ISIS is perpetrating genocide against Christians and other religious groups with an aim toward eradicating them from the Middle East, how does the situation fare?

Despite official claims of degradation of Islamic State forces due to military strikes against their strongholds, life has not improved for our sisters and brothers in Christ in many lands where the Christian faith first took root and where Christianity has existed for two millennia.  Refugees are still displaced from their homes and those few Christians holding out in these areas continue to suffer systematic violence in the form of physical attacks, murders, kidnappings, rapes, sex trafficking and other atrocities.

While this state of affairs may appear dark, Pope Francis urges us to be resolute: “We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians, who for 2,000 years have confessed the name of Jesus, and have been fully integrated as citizens into the social, cultural and religious life of the nations to which they belong.”

To address the present crisis, the organization In Defense of Christians (IDC), which I have tried to make better known, support and be involved with, is beginning today a three-day National Advocacy Convention on the theme of Beyond Genocide: Preserving Christianity in the Middle East.  The gathering kicks off with an afternoon panel discussion of experts on finding a way forward.  Then, this evening at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Northwest D.C., religious leaders and people of all faith traditions will join together for an ecumenical service to pray for Christians in the Middle East.

Tomorrow and Friday will be dedicated to raising public awareness about the ongoing persecution and to urging our nation’s leaders to take prompt and effective action to provide humanitarian relief and bring an end to the aggression so that these Christians and other religious minorities might return home to once again live in peace with their neighbors.  The convention concludes with a special showing of the documentary Our Last Stand, presenting an Assyrian-American woman’s personal journey to reveal the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier this year, IDC co-hosted the conference #WeAreN2016 with the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, which heard reports and personal testimonies of the extreme suffering and crimes against humanity inflicted upon people by ISIS.  You can watch one session here.  To listen to or read these accounts of girls as young as seven being raped, sold or given away as sex slaves, of torture and forced conversions is disturbing and heart wrenching and this should strike at the consciences of people everywhere.

At the same time, the strength of witness of those who have suffered even unto death inspires.  “Christians are beheaded every day. Christians are crucified. Women are raped. Children are buried alive in front of their mothers,” said one religious sister who is a missionary in Syria. “But they want to give their lives before denouncing Christ.”  In fact, far from denying him, they manifest Jesus’ living presence in the world like one girl who said, “Forgive them,” before dying after ISIS militants set her house on fire.

Some in this country today have justified not doing much of anything because they say the violence does not affect U.S. national interests.  The #WeAreN2016 conference also heard from the parents of a young American aid worker who was held in captivity by ISIS for 18 months before being killed last year.  She had similarly been told to leave Syria because it was not her fight.  “You are right, this is not my war. And any time the world is not responding to such things because it is not their concern, it becomes my concern,” was her response.  “There should be no ‘my people, your people’ mentality in this world,” she added. “There should be no greater value placed on anyone’s life for any reason.”

We cannot cover our eyes and ears to what is happening.  We cannot be indifferent, we dare not be silent.  Knowing what we know, we cannot say that it is not our problem, either personally or as a nation.  We have a solemn duty to defend the helpless and preserve life.

Our sisters and brothers from the land where it all started are suffering for Christ and with Christ.  As a sign of our own solidarity and communion with them 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 leaders and the persecutors to stop the genocide and so that toleration and genuine peace reigns in every land.

Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta

September 4th, 2016
Missionaries of Charity present a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta as Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Missionaries of Charity present a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta as Pope Francis celebrates the canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Earlier today Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta, declaring the sainthood of a woman who in her lifetime never felt comfortable with the world describing her as “a living saint.”

In a certain way, many would say that the name “Mother Teresa” is synonymous with a saintly life and to now call her “Saint Mother Teresa” is redundant.  For many decades now, she has been sign of holiness and a reminder of our own vocation. We are all called to be saints, and we find sanctity by walking with Jesus as his disciples in today’s world and sharing his love and truth with others.

Both Pope Francis and Saint John Paul II, who celebrated her Beatification Mass in 2003, have called Mother Teresa an icon of God’s love, mercy and charity.  As an icon of the Lord’s love, she inspires us to reflect on and continue her work in bringing Christ’s love to the poorest of the poor.  In this way, those who serve and those being served both encounter Jesus.

Mother Teresa often said that her mission, and that of her Missionaries of Charity, was not to serve the poor as much as it was to see the face of Jesus in them, sometimes in “a distressing disguise.” Born in Macedonia to ethnic Albanian parents, she had first become a Sister of Loreto and was teaching at a school for girls in India when on a train ride in 1946 she received her “call within a call” to go to into the streets and bring Christ’s love to the poorest of the poor.  After securing permission to leave the school, she began serving the poor of Calcutta.  Four years later, she left the Sisters of Loreto and officially established her Missionaries of Charity order.

What unfolded next seems inconceivable in the world’s eyes. A diminutive nun who could have lived and died in obscurity serving lepers and the dying on the streets of Calcutta somehow became a world-renowned figure.  Revered by popes and the public, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and other honors.  Amidst all the secular impulses of the age, people were drawn to the goodness in her that the hearts of all of us desire.

Mother Teresa visited Washington many times over the years.  She spoke here at her first-ever high school graduation ceremony in this country in 1988, encouraging the graduates of Gonzaga College High School to “go out and be carriers of God’s love. Never be afraid to do small things with great love.”

In 1981, she came to help settle nine Missionaries of Charity in a house in a poor neighborhood in Southeast D.C., saying that the sisters were there “to bring the joy of loving and being loved so that every person – man, woman, child, born and unborn, knows the love of God.”  Today, they continue to pray as contemplative nuns and serve the poor.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass for the Missionary of Charity Sisters at their Gift of Peace home in Washington, where since 1986 they have been serving the dying and poor. At the Mass, I thanked the sisters for manifesting the new saint’s presence in the world today, as her spiritual daughters bringing Jesus’ love to those in need, noting that they see in all the people they serve, and those people see in them, the face of Jesus.

Mother Teresa’s vocation was love, and she was not afraid to challenge the world to recognize and protect the God-given dignity of all life from conception to natural death.  Notably, at her 1979 Nobel Prize ceremony and later at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Mother Teresa said abortion was the greatest threat to peace because if people can destroy life in the womb, then all life is at risk.

This little woman of God who spoke to the conscience of the world also taught the greatest poverty is not lack of money – it is the lack of love.  She encouraged people to bring Christ’s love not only to the homeless on the streets, but to the lonely, the forgotten, the unwanted and unloved in our communities and in our own families.

When Mother Teresa died 19 years ago tomorrow at the age of 87, her Missionaries of Charity were serving the poor and suffering around the world.  Today, 5,300 active and contemplative sisters continue her work of prayer and service, as do Missionary of Charity priests and brothers.

Both the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception have statues of Mother Teresa serving the poor, and her Missionaries of Charity here are a living memorial to her. But our new Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta should inspire all of us to become icons of Jesus’s love to the poor and forgotten. As she famously said, “Together, let us do something beautiful for God.”