Devotion to Mary on the Solemnity of the Annunciation

March 25th, 2014

Blessed John Paul II’s devotion to Mary was no secret.  His coat of arms carried a large “M” beneath a cross and bore his motto, Totus Tuus, short for “Totus tuus ego sum, et omnia mea tua sunt (I am all yours, and all that I have is yours),” reflecting his complete self-giving to Mary.  Throughout his pontificate, he repeatedly lifted up for our attention and veneration the Mother of God, whom we celebrate today on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.

From the start, there has been profound veneration of the mother of Jesus everywhere Christianity has spread – prayers in which Mary is invoked, generations of children bearing some form of her name, and countless chapels, churches, shrines and sanctuaries dedicated to her.  Among these is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

The Church in America has always been devoted to Mary.  In fact, it was on this very day of the Annunciation in 1634 that the first Catholic settlers aboard the Ark and the Dove landed on Saint Clement’s Island and celebrated Mass for the first time in this land with Father Andrew White.  Later, in 1792, Bishop John Carroll consecrated our nation to the Immaculate Conception and her patronage was formalized by Pope Pius IX in 1847.

Why has there always been such deep devotion among the followers of the Lord for his mother, Mary?

As Blessed John Paul explains in describing his own personal attachment, “true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption,” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 213).  Jesus, Mary’s son, came to reveal to us who God is, to become one of us, to teach us the meaning of life and help us live.  This could not have happened without her and her “yes” to God’s proposal, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Mary put a human face on God.  By cooperating with God through her faith, the Blessed Virgin set in motion the divine plan of salvation in Christ, the establishment of the Church and sanctification in the Holy Spirit.  This explains why Mary has such an important role in the life of faith.

But beyond corresponding to doctrinal truth about the Mother of God, Marian devotion also addresses a need of the heart.  Just as Christian faith is not simply about a set of ideas, but is fundamentally a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, so too is devotion to Mary about relationship.  Blessed John Paul recounts that during the suffering of Poland under the Nazis, “I was already convinced that Mary leads us to Christ, but at that time I began to realize also that Christ leads us to his Mother” (Gift and Mystery, 28).

Thus, the Church rightly looks to the Mother of God in gratitude for her “yes” and as our model of faith, but we also love her personally.  Mary is our mother too and with maternal affection, she plays a role in our lives and our liberation from evil and death.

Mary’s participation in the victory of Christ became clear to me above all from the experience of my people,” revealed John Paul.  “After my election as Pope, as I became more involved in the problems of the universal Church, I came to have a similar conviction: On this universal level, if victory comes it will be brought by Mary. Christ will conquer through her, because He wants the Church’s victories now and in the future to be linked to her” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 220-21).

As this testimony of Blessed John Paul shows, and that of witnesses like Juan Diego, Mary continues to play a role in salvation.  She accompanies us on our pilgrimage of faith and, as she did at Cana, lovingly watches out for us, intercedes for us and brings us comfort.

“Behold your mother,” Jesus said from the Cross.  What a precious gift the Lord has given us.

Encountering the Lord’s Tender Mercies and Forgiveness

March 23rd, 2014

On Ash Wednesday, for the Responsorial Psalm at Mass, the Church sang the Miserere, which is also said on Fridays throughout the year for Morning Prayer.  So named for the opening words in Latin, this 51st Psalm sets the motif for the entirety of Lent – Have mercy on me, God . . . for I have sinned.

The sobering and sad fact of life is that all of us at times carry heavy “baggage” that we would like to unload. While we are capable of marvelously good actions, we do not always live as we should.  We sin and we suffer the inevitable hardship of alienation and guilt.  Jesus knows this and, in his mercy, he came to give us rest from our burdens and free us from the baggage of sin.

In the Sacrament of Penance, we meet Christ in his Church ready and eager to absolve and restore us to new life.  To let people know of this great marvel of God’s love and make his forgiveness readily available, once again “The Light is ON for You.”  In addition to the usual times for Confession, every Wednesday evening during Lent the light is on in every Catholic church throughout the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington so that people know that God’s mercy is inside, waiting to heal those who avail themselves of this gift of forgiveness.

The New Testament is filled with references to Jesus’ abundant compassion and his challenge to his followers – to us – not to judge others, but to forgive and love one another.  For one thing, we should be merciful and forgiving with others, rather than cast stones, because we know that the Lord has been merciful and forgiving with us.  For another thing, life is usually more complex than it might seem.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, we must “enter into the mystery of the human being,” says Pope Francis. “In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”

In the Gospel for this third Sunday of Lent, we hear of the Samaritan woman who came to the well and encountered Jesus there.  In their ensuing conversation, Jesus notes that she has had five husbands and is now living with yet another man outside of marriage.  He does not condemn her, but neither does he justify.  His judgment is merely to state the truth.  He understands human frailties and knows that there is always more to the story.  Whatever personal faults this woman may have had, when she comes to the well, she is blessed by an encounter with Jesus.  In the conversation it is clear that she is aware of her failings.  In the midst of this experience, rather than condemnation, Jesus offers her living water, a spring within her that would satisfy her yearning and well up to eternal life (John 4:4-26).  She does not keep this exchange to herself, but immediately goes to tell others of the Lord.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is precisely that we do not endure the struggles of the human condition alone, but rather we are accompanied by a Redeemer who pours his love into our hearts, giving us comfort when we suffer and forgiveness when we sin.  When we face hardships brought on by circumstance, the frustrations and disappointments of life, the pain of being mistreated by others and our own struggle to do good and avoid evil, we should recall the woman at the well who found the Lord in his mercy waiting for her there to satisfy the real thirst that we all have – the need for genuine love, a love that does not disappoint, a saving, nurturing love that heals our wounds.  Saved by Christ’s grace, we are made a new creation and given the fullness of life.

Saint Joseph’s Essential Presence in the Life of the Church

March 19th, 2014

St. Joseph the Carpenter, by Georges de La Tour, 1640s.

Today, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Saint Joseph.  What strikes us when we look at the pages of scripture and see the figure of Joseph is that he was a just and righteous man who loved God, loved Mary and loved Jesus with a generous heart.

As with Mary, God chose Joseph for an essential role in salvation history.  And, as with Mary at the Annunciation, the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation hinged on Joseph’s response.  Being a man of great faith, rather than listen to the voices of doubt and human pride, Joseph decided to place his trust in Mary and his faith in God.  This “reveals to us the greatness of St. Joseph’s heart and soul,” says Pope Francis.  “Joseph was a man who always listened to the voice of God, he was deeply sensitive to his secret will, he was a man attentive to the messages that came to him from the depths of his heart and from on high.”

With an unfailing presence and complete fidelity, Joseph placed himself entirely at the service of Mary and Jesus, taking them into his home and into his heart, protecting them, caring for them and providing for them, as Pope Francis noted at his Mass of Installation, which we celebrated one year ago today.  As the head of the Holy Family, when Mary and the young Jesus encountered the hardships of everyday life, it was Joseph who stood at their side, providing them help and encouragement.

Joseph’s love and his service to the mission entrusted to him stands as an exemplary model for us all, but particularly for men and fathers.  In a special way, this vocation will be explored in the archdiocesan men’s conference, “Man on a Mission 2014,” which will be held on Saturday, March 22nd, at Bishop McNamara High School.  The conference speaker will be well-known author and professor Dr. Edward Sri, who will speak about the New Evangelization and offer practical insights from Christ’s Passion.

Given Joseph’s importance to the Church and her mission, in 1870 he was proclaimed Patron of the Universal Church.  Since then, devotion to him has only grown among the faithful.  This includes Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose given middle name in English was Joseph (Giuseppe, in his native Italian).  In naming Saint Joseph patron of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope explained that “since we need a heavenly protector on high during this period of preparation and of development to ask for that divine power that will enable it to live up to its promise and be an epoch-making event in the history of the Church in our times, there is no saint in heaven who can better be trusted with the task than St. Joseph, the stately head of the Family of Nazareth and protector of the Holy Church” (Apostolic Letter Le voci).

Pope John also later directed that Joseph’s name be inserted into the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.  And then, last year, a decree was issued under the authority of Pope Francis adding the name of blessed Joseph to the other Eucharistic Prayers, II, III and IV, after the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

No other person in history, aside from Mary, was closer to Jesus or knew him better than Joseph.  As we go forward in the New Evangelization, fruit of the Council, joyfully sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, let us join our prayers to those of Pope John XXIII, soon to be called Saint John.  “O St. Joseph! Here, here is where you belong as Protector of the Universal Church!” he implored.  “Always be our protector. May thy inner spirit of peace, of silence, of good work, and of prayer for the cause of Holy Church always be an inspiration to us and bring us joy in union with thy blessed spouse, our most sweet and gentle and Immaculate Mother, and in the strong yet tender love of Jesus, the glorious and immortal King of all ages and peoples. Amen.”

Ask the Cardinal: Helping the Poor

March 16th, 2014

Michael Mzuli with his daughter, Stephanie, 3, and wife, Janet live in the Kariobangi District in Nairobi, Kenya. Michael is a member of the Samba Youth Group, a project started by CRS and the local Catholic Church to provide job opportunities and a support forum for youth in Kariobangi.

Recently we observed the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty.”  Yet, in many ways, it seems we have just as much, if not more, poverty today.  What does Catholic social teaching have to say about eradicating poverty?

Jesus taught us that we have a relationship with each other.  We are to love God, but we are also to love one another.  Christ raises our relationship to an even higher level when we share the sacrament of baptism and become spiritual sisters and brothers.

Catholic social teaching is based on the understanding that we are one human family.  Thus we have an obligation to each other because we are all God’s children.  We are not free simply to turn away from the poverty, suffering and weakness of the human condition.

We should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the challenges we face.  While Jesus pointed out that the poor would always be with us (Matthew 26:11), he did so in the context of a life that proclaimed his special love and care for the poor.  As followers of Christ, our actions should reflect his.  Make no mistake about it – Jesus tells us that we will be judged by how we have responded to the hungry, the thirsty, the needy, the lonely and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46).  We may not be able to eradicate all poverty, but that does not absolve us from our personal obligation to alleviate the sufferings and poor conditions of others.

The Church reminds us during Lent of the need for almsgiving, which we are obligated to do as a matter of fraternal charity and justice.  There are many ways to give, but I would like to highlight two particular initiatives in our local Church to provide help for the hungry.

Last year in the United States, nearly 48 million people needed federal supplemental nutrition assistance, while millions more children received food assistance through other programs.  In our own area, many families had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.

One of the initiatives to fight hunger is the 2014 Lenten Food Drive, spearheaded by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.  In addition to ongoing food drives throughout the year, this special massive collection in archdiocesan schools and parishes provides over 50 tons of food to local food banks and parish pantries each year.  The Lenten Food Drive will be held over two weekends.  First, next weekend, March 22 and 23, collections will be accepted in Northwest and Southwest D.C. and Montgomery County, and then the following weekend of March 29 and 30, food will be collected in Northeast and Southeast D.C., and the Maryland counties of Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s.  For more information, please visit the Catholic Charities website.

Another helping hand extended by the Church is the CRS Rice Bowl for Lent 2014.  With parishes, schools, faith formation programs and other communities participating in recent years, the Rice Bowl provides tangible assistance to our brothers and sisters in need throughout the world while deepening our spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  Operated on the national level by Catholic Relief Services with a local coordinator, the CRS Rice Bowl is a contribution-sharing program – 75 percent of our gifts go to Catholic Relief Services to address global poverty and hunger and 25 percent will remain in our archdiocese to support parish food pantries.  Last year, the Archdiocese of Washington collected nearly $82,000 overall thanks to your generous support.  For more information on how you can help this year, please visit our archdiocesan CRS Rice Bowl website.

In the face of a large hungry crowd, Jesus told the Apostles that they should give the people something to eat themselves.  Looking at their meager supply, they had their doubts, but with the Lord all things are possible (Mark 6:35-44).  If we work to help those in poverty, even though we might think our loaves and fishes inadequate, Jesus will multiply our efforts with his love and the world will be satisfied by the banquet he brings.

The Church Celebrates the First Anniversary of Pope Francis

March 13th, 2014

Pope Francis bows as he appears for first time on balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in 2013 (Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring, February 27, 2014)

It has been a year since the white smoke appeared from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, and what a year it has been.  Inside the conclave moments earlier there had been intense silence and prayer as the cardinals opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit.  Now, outside was a frenzy of excitement in a roaring Saint Peter’s Square as people cheered first, “Habemus Papam! (We have a Pope!)” and then “Viva il Papa!  (Long Live the Pope!)”  Since they did not even know who the next pontiff was, these voices highlighted people’s understanding of the Pope’s importance.  He is the living continuity with Peter and therefore with Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was not well known before, but when he stepped out as Pope Francis, the 265th Successor to Peter, from that moment until now, he has set a vibrant tone and become a focal point of faith renewal in the lives of many people.  Our Holy Father, who began by bowing down and asking for our prayers, has captured the popular imagination, from being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year to being featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.  Everywhere we turn, people are abuzz about Francis.

Who is this Pope?  During the interview published in America magazine he humbly answered, “I am a sinner.”  This self-identification should not be news to anyone – we are all sinners.  Yet everywhere we see Pope Francis’ smile reflecting joy.  The reason for his joy?  It is, he tells us, the overwhelming blessing of God’s love as we journey through life.  Although sinners, we are sinners “whom the Lord has looked upon,” as he further said.

This truth we cannot keep to ourselves, the Pope emphasizes in his Message for Lent 2014 – “wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.”

So attractive is this timely message that three million people came out to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last year.  In his Message for World Youth Day 2014, which is celebrated at the local level, our Holy Father again reveals the joy of the Gospel, “We face so many challenges in life: poverty, distress, humiliation, the struggle for justice, persecutions, the difficulty of daily conversion, the effort to remain faithful to our call to holiness, and many others. But if we open the door to Jesus and allow him to be part of our lives, if we share our joys and sorrows with him, then we will experience the peace and joy that only God, who is infinite love, can give.”

By what he does and how he does it, by what he says and how he says it – calling us to fraternity, solidarity and the imperative of seeing Christ in others, particularly the marginalized, saying “go out,” “invite,” “welcome,” “embrace,” “be there with and for others” – Pope Francis offers a new moment of grace, outreach and renewal.  He is not changing the teaching of what is the Gospel, he is emphasizing how you do the Gospel – how you live the saving message of Jesus.  What Pope Francis is doing is the New Evangelization – re-proposing the perennial truth of the Good News in ways that are new only in ardor, methods and expression, speaking to the hearts of others so as to attract and stir up in them a new awareness and familiarity with the uncomplicated and tangible treasure of Christ’s love.

In this providential moment, people seem to be more open to receiving that message, especially those who have been disaffected from the Church.  This, we believe, is the Holy Spirit in action.  From the Pope’s election until now we can recognize the Spirit at work as the principal agent of an inviting and engaging evangelization initiative.

The invitation of Pope Francis to a fresh way of living the Gospel is a bright beacon of hope in our world.  Let us offer thanks to God for this pastor of souls.  Viva il Papa!

The Light is On for You

March 11th, 2014

Reconciliation, also called Confession or Penance, lavishly benefits the one who confesses.  It requires little time and costs nothing.  Yet recent surveys show that many Catholics only rarely if ever go.  Why?

While I was waiting to board an airplane one day, a young man told me that he had been raised Catholic – “more or less” – and he wanted to ask me about Confession or, as he put it, that Catholic way of “getting rid of excess baggage.”  He told me ruefully that he just didn’t “know how to use it” – no one had ever really told him the facts, nor had he ever had a chance to experience the grace of having his burdens lifted.

That young man is hardly unique.  Whenever I visit parishes or schools, give talks, and even when I am traveling, people ask me questions.  They ask about the Church, about the Pope, about our Catholic faith.  Many of the questions I receive are about Confession.  Clearly, part of the reason so many do not go is a simple lack of knowledge.

In this season of Lent, as the Church calls us to conversion, I prepared a small book entitled The Light is On for You:  The Life-Changing Power of Confession, which I hope might help with a renewed appreciation of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In this book, The Light is On for You, I address many of the questions that people ask:  Why should someone go to Confession?  What do you get out of it?  Why confess to a priest, rather than simply ask God to forgive us directly?  By what authority does the Church claim the power to pronounce people absolved of sin?  How do you “go to Confession”?  What do you say?  What do you do?

Confession serves a real human need that has not diminished with the passage of time.  The human race has, unfortunately, not outgrown its tendency to sin.  Pope Francis famously admitted that he is a sinner.  So am I.  So are you.  Everyone sins, and I for one am grateful that I can make that admission in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  It makes for a happier life.  That is the promise of Jesus.  It is the experience of the saints; it is the message of the Church.  And it is the subject of this new book, which I hope can be a practical guide, with stories to make the Church’s principles clear and more memorable, including personal stories of everyday Catholics at the end of each chapter.

The love of the Lord is greater than our sinfulness and this sacrament of mercy is a consolation and joy.  However, our joy is complete only when others know of this mercy as well.  In his Message for Lent, which I also commend to your reading, Pope Francis implores us to bring the liberating news of forgiveness to others.  “The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness.”

The need to tell people about the great gift of God’s forgiveness in Confession – and provide opportunities to receive that mercy – was also the impetus for the “Light is ON for You” Lenten pastoral initiative, which we began here in the Washington DC metropolitan area in 2007.  In addition to regularly scheduled times for Confession, under this program, every Catholic church throughout the Archdiocese of Washington and the Diocese of Arlington is offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation every Wednesday evening during Lent.

It is because of the darkness in people’s lives that the light is on.  “Leaving the light on” is what family members do for one another.  If someone is out, the light stays on until they arrive home, no matter how late.  The light is a beacon of love, care, concern and safety – the good things we associate with home.  The light says to everyone that God and family are there inside, ready and waiting to embrace you and welcome you home.

New Creations in Christ

March 9th, 2014

In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which is the second reading at Mass for this First Sunday of Lent, we are reminded of how all of us are both marked by the sin of Adam and, through the grace of Baptism, reborn by sharing in the life in Christ. “Just as through one transgression condemnation came upon us all,” Paul explains, “so through one righteous act, acquittal and life come to all. For just as through the disobedience of the one man, the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19).

In the waters of baptism, sin – personal and original – is washed away so that we can truly say spiritually we have died with Christ and were buried with him. As the Rite of Baptism, says, “those who have been baptized are engrafted in the likeness of Christ’s death; they are buried with him” (Rite of Baptism for Children). Again Saint Paul tells us, “We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Romans 6:6).

Culminating in the  celebration of the Easter sacraments, Lent is a traditional time of preparation for many to come into the Catholic Church. Specifically, it is a time of instruction for “catechumens,” those men, women and children preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil – Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist – as well as “candidates” who have already been validly baptized in either a non-Catholic ecclesial community, or in the Catholic Church as an infant, and are now preparing for Confirmation and Eucharist.  During this time of formation, there is a calling to a conversion of heart through penitential acts, prayer and works of love so that one may die with Christ, die to everything within oneself that is hostile to new life in Christ, in order to rise with Christ.

Today and next Sunday, in a special rite, I will welcome more than 1,300 catechumens and candidates who are preparing in our parishes all over the archdiocese to become full members of our Church. During a Celebration of Election, each of the catechumens will be called by name and one by one they will fill the great sanctuary of the Upper Church at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I will ask them to declare their desire to be baptized and, their names having been previously enrolled in a special book during a rite of sending from their home parishes, I will officially declare them “the elect,” those in the final days of preparation for Baptism.  Then, during a Celebration of the Call to Continuing Conversion, the candidates will be presented for an affirmation of their readiness to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Lent is not just for those who wish to be received into our family of faith. It is a summons to us all to that total, ongoing conversion that is called for by Baptism. As members of the Church, we are members of the body of Christ and part of his new creation, we have put on Christ. During these forty days of Lent, we are asked to “put aside” all that is not Christ-like in our lives.

In Saint Paul’s words, we are asked to consider how we might be a slave to sin. For some, it may not be a particular sin or a pattern of sin, but rather the knowledge that we have drifted away from a close relationship to Jesus. Like the catechumens and candidates – even inspired by them, we who are in full communion with the Church, through acts of prayer, penance and charity can also reconfigure ourselves to Christ. We can resolve today to make the most of the season of Lent, enabling us to enter fully into the great feast of Easter, ready to renew our own baptismal promises and be filled with the grace of having become new creations in Christ.

Raising the Voice of Women in the New Evangelization

March 7th, 2014

“You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”  These words are taken from the diary of a young mother, Perpetua, who along with her friend Felicity, was martyred in ancient Carthage (modern-day Tunis, Tunisia) in the early third century and whose feast we celebrate today.  The word “martyr” is from the Greek, meaning “witness,” and the story of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, which has been passed down through the centuries, is one of the earliest accounts of women raising their voices in testimony to God’s love and in witness to their Christian faith.

Pope Benedict XVI once reflected, “In the past, as in our day, the blood of the martyrs, their tangible, eloquent testimony, touches human hearts. It makes them fertile, capable of bringing forth new life within them, of welcoming the life of the Risen One in order to take resurrection and hope to the surrounding world” (Message to the Pontifical Academies, November 30, 2011).

This feast of Perpetua and Felicity reminds us that the Church has been shaped by the witness of many great women whose voices continue to be heard today. Recalling the story of these holy women is also a good beginning for the annual archdiocesan women’s conference at Trinity Washington University on Saturday, March 8, for which the theme will be “Raising Women’s Voices in the New Evangelization.” As women from all across the archdiocese gather to consider how they can serve the mission of the New Evangelization in all aspects of their lives – family, work and parish – one source of inspiration is the lives of women martyrs and saints.

With the confidence expressed by Saint Felicity who wrote, “I knew that I could speak with the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience,” participants will have an opportunity to spend time in quiet prayer with Our Lord, reflecting upon how the Lord is calling them to be witnesses to the life of the Risen Christ and how life is lived through the virtue of hope.  Also included in the day is time for fellowship and sharing stories of the Lord’s blessings, as well as discussing the need in our families and in our communities for the leadership of strong faithful women.  The two keynote speakers, Dr. Sandra Keating and Dr. Lucia Luzando, are women who serve their parishes and dioceses and have served the Church internationally as educators.

Pope Francis has asked that the Church reflect on how it can “create broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (Evangelii Gaudium, 103), and I welcome his invitation to reflect on the gift of the “feminine genius.”  Women have been a generous and stable presence throughout our Church, making enormous contributions here in the Archdiocese of Washington and the Church Universal.  Especially given the questions currently being considered in society, the Church and the world need to hear the voice of women – and in particular women speaking in unison, grounded in a common faith.

Catholic women have a message of hope to share.  In this, they become agents of the New Evangelization who bear witness that our relationship with Our Lord is not a private one.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him and to ‘evangelize’ and to lead others to the ‘yes’ of faith in Jesus Christ’” (no. 429).

 

Return to the Lord with Your Whole Heart, for He is Merciful

March 5th, 2014

Today in many of our churches, the words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel,” from the Gospel of Mark (1:15) will be repeated as Catholics have their foreheads signed with ashes to mark the beginning of the 40 days of Lent.  This holy season is a penitential summons to that total conversion called for by our baptism, in which we were made suitable to share in the mission of Christ.   This call is an ongoing process – conversion of the heart is never completed in this life.  As works in progress who tend to stray off the path at times, we never fully achieve that complete inner renewal that leads us to think, judge and arrange our entire life under the impulse of the charity revealed to us in Christ.

Thus, the witness of Scripture and the life of the Church will not let us abandon corporal penances.  But these penitential practices are not meant to impose a burden on us, rather they are meant to allow us to put down our burdens, to get rid of the heavy baggage we carry.  “When Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist,” Pope Francis reminds us in his Message for Lent 2014, “he did it to be among people who need forgiveness, among us sinners, and to take upon himself the burden of our sins.  In this way he chose to comfort us, to save us, to free us from our misery.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance (No. 1430, see also Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).  Three particular forms – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – best “express conversion in relation to oneself, to God and to others” (Catechism 1434).

Prayer calls us to a closer relationship with God.  I have heard some people say that they have come to the Sacrament of Confession to “set things right with God.” Prayer is part of keeping things right with God as well, to stay close to our loving Father with our minds and our hearts.

All Fridays in Lent are days of abstinence, that is, days on which meat is not eaten. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting in addition to abstinence from meat.  Fasting reminds us that we are at our healthiest, spiritually and physically, when we practice moderation with regard to life’s pleasures and treat our bodies with care and respect, knowing that they house Christ’s love within them.

Almsgiving reminds us that to love God is to love our neighbor.  During Lent we consider our neighbors who are in need and how we can most generously come to their aid.

Ultimately penitential practices lead us to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  Here we enter more fully into the experience of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection, remembering that all of us, by our own personal sins, were in some way responsible for Christ’s Passion.  “In her Magisterial teaching and in the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that ‘sinners were the authors and ministers of all of the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 598, quoting the Roman Catechism I, 5-11). Through our sins, which he took on himself, and by his holy Cross, Jesus redeemed the world.

For this reason, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important part of our Lenten observance.  Once again, in this archdiocese through The Light is ON for You initiative, Confession will be celebrated every Wednesday evening in all of our parishes.  I hope that you might take this opportunity to experience God’s mercy. The deepest joy of the Christian is to come to the celebration of Easter renewed, refreshed and reconciled with Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

Bringing the Love of Christ to Our Sisters and Brothers in Need

March 1st, 2014

Through our works of mercy, care and compassion, each of us can make the love of Jesus Christ present in our world.  One way of sharing the Gospel that is much appreciated, but which often goes quietly unnoticed except by those who are touched by it, is the Church’s ministry to those persons who are homebound or living in a care-giving facility due to sickness, infirmity, injury, age or other debilitating condition.

Being limited in what we can do is frustrating, but even worse is diminished social interaction and solitude. Out of sight to others, there is a very real risk of feeling as if we were out of mind as well – abandoned or forgotten.  But those in this situation do not have to face the struggles of the human condition alone, without the consolation of others or, most particularly, without the sacraments.  Aware of our human frailty, Jesus Christ, the divine physician of our souls and bodies, has willed that his Church’s mission is to go out to people and bring comfort and compassion which show that we are all a part of God’s family, no one is to be excluded.

Remembering how the Lord went to meet people in need wherever they were and how Mary went in haste to Elizabeth’s home to help tend to her needs, with love the Church invites her members to go out to visit and minister to people in homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing centers, and every place that people live, especially the most vulnerable.  This ministry is made explicit in canon law, which provides that a pastor is to visit the people within his parish, sharing in their cares, anxieties and griefs, strengthening them in the Lord, and refreshing them with the sacraments (Canon 529 § 1).  In this, the pastor is assisted by lay ministers who, together with their prayers, can bring Christ in the Eucharist to the homebound and those in care-giving facilities, as well as by associate priests who can additionally hear confessions, provide an anointing, and give blessings.

In his apostolic exhortation “The Sacrament of Charity,” Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the pastoral imperative of going out and providing this spiritual assistance to those who cannot attend places of worship. “These brothers and sisters of ours should have the opportunity to receive sacramental communion frequently. In this way they can strengthen their relationship with Christ, crucified and risen, and feel fully involved in the Church’s life and mission by the offering of their sufferings in union with our Lord’s sacrifice” (58).

For such a visit by a priest, deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a special vessel called a pyx.  A liturgical rite is followed, but it is fairly brief to accommodate the possible limitations of the person receiving.  In a home, this ordinarily includes introductory rites, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Communion and a concluding rite, while in the hospital setting, a shorter rite can be used.  If the person is unable to receive, or chooses not to, prayers may be offered instead.  Afterward would be an appropriate time for friendly socializing, showing pastoral concern and interest in their welfare.  Beyond the Eucharist, this loving action may be the greatest gift they can receive.

Another component of this ministry is the Sunday TV Mass produced by the Archdiocese of Washington.  Here, those who are unable to be physically present with a local worshipping community are given the opportunity to receive the word of God, merciful and full of love.

Those who minister to persons who are homebound or in care-giving facilities will tell you how personally rewarding it is.  However, all of the baptized share in this call to do all we can to help and show love for them.  Spending time with them, helping them with meals or housework, telephoning them – all of these provide a comfort.  Even just sending a card saying “get well” or “thinking of you” can brighten their day.

We are not bystanders in God’s plan for a world of healing, wholeness, kindness and love.  We are participants who answer Jesus’ call to meet the needs of others.