Summer Excursions: Encountering the Sacred at the National Gallery of Art

August 4th, 2016
The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli

The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli

When going on vacation or a quick trip for the day or weekend, some people like to simply get away from it all and leisurely sit on the beach and perhaps read a good book. Others go to historic sites  or festivals, while still others prefer to spend some time in museums where they might view historical artifacts or works of art.

Here in our nation’s capital, we have no shortage of outstanding museums to visit, including the National Gallery of Art, which this year is celebrating its 75th anniversary. There is no need to travel all the way to Florence, Rome or Paris to see Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Giotto, El Greco, Rubens, and Leonardo da Vinci. You can see them right here, together with works by later artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet, van Gogh, and others.

As people of faith, we can recognize in all genuine art a sharing in the creativity of our heavenly Creator. “With loving regard,” said Saint John Paul II, “the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power” (Letter to Artists, 1). Artists in this respect might be said to have a special vocation which is at the service of transcendent beauty, truth and the ultimate.

This vocation expresses itself in a special way in sacred art, which points to the beyond in a way that heaven and earth touch. Such works can nourish our faith, illuminate the scriptures, and instill fellowship with the saints depicted (CCC 1160, 1192).

Sacred art can also be an instrument of evangelization, exposing people to the beauty of our Christian faith and the mystery of Jesus Christ. This is made abundantly clear when visiting the National Gallery.

Visitors to this art museum on the Mall experience right from the start the irresistibility of the sacred bursting into the secular world. Beginning with the pre-Renaissance period, the first image in the first room is an altarpiece from 1270-75 entitled “The Mourning Madonna” portraying our Blessed Mother Mary at the Crucifixion. Also here are scenes of the Nativity, the baptism of Jesus, the call of Peter, and the Crucifixion. Especially striking is the 1324 “Coronation of the Virgin,” attributed to Paolo Veneziano, where Jesus and Mary seem to jump out at you in a three-dimensional aspect.

One could easily spend an entire afternoon in this first room. What follows is an amazing collection that speaks to the soul. For the next 50-plus rooms, practically the whole of the first wing of the museum, you will see work after work of Christian sacred art. By far the most popular subject for artists and their patrons here is the Madonna and Child, sometimes with Mary holding the infant Jesus, other times she is kneeling in adoration, such as those produced by Botticelli, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Giotto, and others. In some of these works, like the intimate nighttime scene in Giovanni Savoldo’s 1530 “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” the infant Jesus, Light of the world, seems to radiate with a light which illuminates the faces of those around him.

As you view these works, you may notice the same symbolic images again and again – a dove, streaming rays, lilies, the colors red and blue, a key, a book or quill, a peacock and others. What do they mean? Other questions may arise: What is going on in the scene? Who are the people being depicted? This kind of active engagement with the artwork may be a sign for you to go and learn more about the faith.

The sacred art found in the National Gallery invites us to meditate on and deepen our faith. Like last year’s extraordinary “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother and Idea” exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it also offers a wonderful opportunity for those people who do not share our faith to be exposed to its beauty, which might even inspire them to continue the journey toward Christ.

Another example of encountering the sacred is coming soon with the feature film, Ben-Hur, which is co-produced by the same people that made The Son of God. Opening on August 19, this thrilling tale brings us face-to-face with the excitement of an encounter with Jesus and his power to change the world.

Whether painting, sculpture or film, sacred art enriches the believer and society alike as it expresses the inmost reality of the human person and points us to the transcendent. Even in the secular world, with the National Gallery exhibitions, the upcoming Ben-Hur, and elsewhere, the beauty and love of the Lord breaks out to touch people. In this way they can be transformed and, through them, the world.

World Youth Day Pilgrims Leave Mark along the Digital Highways

August 2nd, 2016

This past the week, our eyes were focused on Kraków as Pope Francis joined a reported more than one million young Catholics gathered for World Youth Day. United through prayer, some 1,300 young adults added to that number at Kraków in the Capital, a stateside World Youth Day celebration here in Washington, D.C. Countless more became digital disciples and joined the online conversation sharing a message of hope and mercy.

During the welcoming celebration, Pope Francis called on these pilgrims to utilize all forms of communication to make World Youth Day an authentic Jubilee of Mercy celebration. Throughout the various gatherings and prayer experiences, our Holy Father invited them to find the courage to trust in God’s mercy and leave a mark on history. From my observation, they responded.

Below are just a few examples of the messages shared across the digital highways. It is my hope that you will see in these posts hope for our world, and the inspiration to continue this conversation – both on your personal social media platforms and offline in your daily experiences.

Finding Light in the Darkness

Responding with Joy

Praying for Persecuted Christians

Becoming Missionary Disciples

Charisms and the Mission of the Holy Spirit

July 31st, 2016


The scriptural accounts of the early Church, especially in the Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles of Saint Paul, show that the guidance and grace of the Holy Spirit were central to the life of the early Church. In fact, the early Fathers of the Church recognized that the Church and the Holy Spirit are inseparable. “Where the Church is, there also is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church,” said Saint Irenaeus.

The Holy Spirit is the “soul,” the inner life-giving principle, of the Church which is the Mystical Body of Christ. One sign of the Spirit at work in the Church is the presence of “charismatic” gifts within the community. In addition to the hierarchical and sacramental gifts given to the whole Church to serve unity and holiness, and in addition to the inner gifts that make individuals holy, there are also many charisms.

These charisms are graces not given simply for the sake of the individuals who receive them, but for the benefit of others, that is, “for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). They are signs of the presence of God and sources of encouragement to holiness of life. In a special way, many of us have experienced the fruits of these charismatic gifts in the life of our parishes through such groups as Marriage Encounter or the Legion of Mary, or the Charismatic renewal of the international Focolare Movement.

Pope Francis in his recent exhortation spoke in a specific way of the contribution of groups like those to nurturing family life. He writes, “the main contribution of the pastoral care of families is offered by the parish, which is the family of families, where small communities, ecclesial movements and associations live in harmony” (Amoris Laetitia, 202). Here the Holy Father is speaking of the many diverse movements we find present in our parishes and who contribute to the life of the faith community by helping to support and nourish family life.

These ecclesial movements and groups bring much vitality to our parishes. Some have been part of parish life for a half-century or more, others are newer and perhaps unfamiliar to us and bring new manifestations of the Holy Spirit, for example the Neo-Catechumenal Way, whose members are priests and laity, and whose particular gift is for neighborhood-based evangelization.

A number of these movements and groups are also part of an archdiocesan entity called the Association of New Movements, which comes together in support of the evangelization initiatives of the archdiocese, such as the Adult Mass and Rally for Life, the annual Jubilarian Mass for married couples and our Light the City initiative. Together, they manifest the movement of the Holy Spirit calling the Church to extend its Gospel mission.

In a recent letter to bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states, “The invitation to be a Church which ‘goes forth’ leads to a rereading of the whole Christian life in a missionary key.  The work of evangelization touches every dimension of the Church: from ordinary pastoral ministry, to her proclamation to those who have abandoned the Christian faith and, in particular, to those who do not know Jesus Christ or have always rejected Him.  In the essential work of new evangelization, it is now more than ever necessary to recognize and value the numerous charisms capable of reawakening and nourishing the life of faith of the People of God” (Iuvenescit Ecclesia, 1, citing Evangelii Gaudium, 20-24).

The presence and work of these groups with their particular charisms reminds us that rather than thinking of a charism as something exclusive to an individual or group, which separates the person or group from the rest of the community, charisms serve to build up the kingdom of God. Our prayer today is that God will continue to bless all the ecclesial movements so that all of us together, walking in the light of Christ and empowered by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, might support each other in that great pilgrimage of faith that leads us one day to our eternal home.

The Gift of Universality

July 29th, 2016
PHOTO: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

PHOTO: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

When you ask what is memorable about an international World Youth Day gathering, young Catholics often mention the universality of the Church. There are the sights and sounds of the colorful displays of so many different national flags, so many different languages and the presence of peers of every race and color, all gathered together as one people, one family of God.

All of this diversity that we witness at World Youth Day – or at any holy pilgrimage site around the world – comes together in prayer and worship and creates a unity which is one of the fundamental marks of the Church. We experience a unity that comes from a Church which is one and universal because of her founder, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who came among us to restore the unity of all in one people and one body (CCC 813-16).

The experience of World Youth Day and our local celebration of Kraków in the Capital tomorrow reveal to our young people that the Catholic Church really is one and universal. Through the gift of technology, those gathered at The Catholic University of America will be linked to their pilgrim sisters and brothers from around the globe in Kraków and they will see both the unique language, custom and dress of particular churches that are the presence of the one Church of Christ. This is one of the mysteries of our faith that is best understood through experience.

The Church’s ability to express a unity in diversity is a very important message for our young people who are living in a time that diversity seems to be dividing our communities. What might the Church be able to also teach our young Catholics about finding a unity in community?

First, being a member of the Church incorporates us into something beyond us – greater than ourselves and greater than any man-made group or institution. The mystery of the Church is something into which we enter recognizing that the Church is a unique spiritual reality, the home of God’s Word and sacraments. In the Church, we come to see the deepest source of unity is found in being adopted sons and daughters of God in whom we live and move and have our being.

Second, we learn in Jesus what it means to be a friend. God offers us his friendship through his Son, Jesus Christ, in order to enter into a heart-to-heart conversation with us. Pope Francis speaks of Jesus’ friendship in this way: “He has so many things to say to each of you. Do not be afraid to look into his eyes, full of infinite love for you” (Message for World Youth Day 2016).

In an encounter with the Lord, young people discover the meaning of mercy and can become messengers of his love. “Open yourselves to his merciful gaze, so ready to forgive all your sins,” implores Pope Francis. “A look from him can change your lives and heal the wounds of your souls. His eyes can quench the thirst that dwells deep in your young hearts, a thirst for love, for peace, for joy and for true happiness. Come to Him and do not be afraid! Come to him and say from the depths of your hearts: ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’ Let yourselves be touched by his boundless mercy, so that in turn you may become apostles of mercy by your actions, words and prayers in our world, wounded by selfishness, hatred and so much despair” (Id.).

These words to our young people we can all take to heart and apply to our own lives. May we all be reminded of the grace that strengthens communal bonds when we gather as a community, particularly for the Eucharist.

Tomorrow evening, at the conclusion of the closing Mass for Kraków in the Capital, as the Church does at every Eucharistic celebration, I will invite the young pilgrims there to go forth out into the world to glorify the Lord and proclaim the Gospel. May we in our own lives also be resolved when we are sent at the end of the Mass to “Go in peace,” to be messengers of peace in our families and in the world.

World Youth Day Comes Home

July 28th, 2016

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

Today Pope Francis offered a welcome to young adult pilgrims gathered for World Youth Day (WYD) in Kraków – the city that is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Poland, and the place where Saint John Paul II was a student, priest and archbishop.

In a certain sense, this is something of a homecoming. It was in Kraków that the concept of WYD began in the heart of the future pope, when as a young parish priest he would gather with small groups of young people for prayer, discussion and recreational trips. Those encounters deepened their faith and his faith, and it is no wonder that once he became pope in 1978, his pastoral visits to countries around the world almost always included a special gathering with young adults and youth.

Encouraged by the vibrancy of the young people, Pope John Paul II launched World Youth Day. Following a large gathering in Rome in 1986, the pilgrimage then moved to South America the next year, where an estimated one million young people from around the world gathered with the Successor of Peter in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then another million young people journeyed along the route of the famous pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela in Spain for WYD 1989.

This saintly pastor returned home to Poland for WYD 1991 in Czestochowa, the site of the famous Marian shrine to the Black Madonna, Our Lady Queen of Poland, patroness of that country. Throughout his life and ministry, John Paul looked to Mary as a model of trusting in God’s will and of bringing Jesus to the world, as he encouraged young people to do. The pope was joined by an estimated 1.6 million pilgrims, some of whom walked across the country, including thousands from the former Soviet Union, who experienced along with their Holy Father a new kind of freedom found in following Christ.

Denver was the site for WYD 1993, when an estimated 500,000 young adult and teen pilgrims from around the world joined Pope John Paul for a festival of faith that had the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. Again, he encouraged the enthusiastic crowd who chanted his name to bring Christ’s love back to their homes, schools, workplaces and communities. Blessed to be present there with a group of young pilgrims from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I was then serving as bishop, I will never forget that electric experience of young people’s faith.

World Youth Day came to Asia in 1995, as an estimated crowd of five million young people joined Pope John Paul in Manila, the Philippines. This is believed to be one of the largest crowds in human history, a sign of the deep faith of that predominantly Catholic nation.

Two years later, Paris – the “City of Light” – shone with Christ’s light, radiating from 1.6 million young people who had come for WYD 1997. A highlight of the Great Jubilee Year 2000 unfolded as two million young pilgrims from around the world descended on Rome for World Youth Day, celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

Saint John Paul II presided at World Youth Day for the last time in Toronto, Canada, in 2002. “You are the men and women of tomorrow. The future is in your hearts and in your hands,” the visibly frail pontiff told the 800,000 young people assembled there.

A few months after he became pope, Benedict XVI presided at WYD 2005 in Cologne, Germany. At that joyful homecoming to the land of his birth, 1.2 million young people joined him in prayer, teaching and the sacraments.

Sydney, Australia hosted WYD 2008, which Pope Benedict celebrated with 400,000 enthusiastic pilgrims. That beloved pontiff led his last World Youth Day in 2011 in Madrid, Spain, where he was joined by an joyous crowd of up to two million young people.

Pope Francis came home to South America to preside at WYD 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where an estimated three million young people joined him for the closing Mass at Copacabana Beach. As he has throughout his pontificate, the Holy Father encouraged them with the words, “Go, do not be afraid, and serve,” adding, “Dear young friends, Jesus Christ is counting on you! The Church is counting on you! The pope is counting on you!”

Now this year, World Youth Day comes full circle. WYD Kraków 2016 comes home to the city that shaped the gathering’s patron, Saint John Paul II, and the city where now Pope Francis will encourage the world’s young people to let their hearts and their world be transformed by Christ’s love.

World Youth Day: Blessed Are The Merciful, For They Shall Obtain Mercy

July 26th, 2016

World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland

World Youth Day 2016 begins today. If you are not present for the festivities there in Kraków, Poland, or are not participating locally in Kraków in the Capital on Saturday, July 30, I would nevertheless strongly encourage you to follow the events each day whatever your age. Pray along with Pope Francis and the millions who will be there in person. It would be to our benefit to also listen to and read the profound words of our Holy Father and take them to heart.

In particular, I invite you to take this time to reflect upon the theme of WYD Kraków 2016: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). With this theme, this festival of faith and grace “forms part of the Holy Year of Mercy and so becomes a Youth Jubilee at world level,” says Pope Francis in his Message for WYD 2016.

Looking to scripture, the Pope describes the mercy that we experience from our heavenly Father and are called to undertake ourselves as heartfelt tenderness and “the tangible presence of love that is faithful, freely given and able to forgive.” Turning to Christ, he adds, “Our Lord’s mercy can be seen especially when he bends down to human misery and shows his compassion for those in need of understanding, healing and forgiveness. Everything in Jesus speaks of mercy. Indeed, he himself is mercy” (Message for WYD 2016).

Our Holy Father had posed the question previously, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (Laudato Si’, 160). Perhaps we might ask our young people: What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want to help create and sustain for yourselves and your own children?

It cannot escape our young people that things are not as they should be or could be. Pope Francis in his Message notes that he has met many young people who are tired of the divisions in society and the world. Other times, such as when he visited Washington last year, the Holy Father has said, “we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth.”

Clearly, even within the difficulties of the human condition, this is not the best that humanity can do – and it is certainly not God’s plan for us. All this points to the urgent need for all of us to be instruments of God’s love and mercy in the world.

In this endeavor, young people have their own particular gifts and way of engaging with those around them. “The difficulty that adults undoubtedly find in approaching the sphere of youth in a comprehensible and convincing way could be a sign with which the Spirit is urging you young people to take this task upon yourselves. You know the ideals, the language, and also the wounds, the expectations, and at the same time the desire for goodness felt by your contemporaries,” explained Pope Benedict XVI in his Message for World Youth Day 2008.

The mercy that we are called to embrace “is not an abstract word, it is a way of life,” Pope Francis has emphasized, adding, “It is one thing to speak of mercy, and it is another to live mercy.” Furthermore, this “mercy does not just imply being a ‘good person,’ nor is it mere sentimentality,” says the Holy Father in his Message.

What we want, what this world needs, is for us to live the mercy of God – to be mercy right down to the depths of our soul – in what we say and what we do. As we look now to Kraków, let us ask God to plant within us merciful hearts that are mindful of our own need for the Lord’s compassion and are also attentive to the spiritual and material needs of others, and that we might with his grace be more patient and forgiving as befitting a disciple of the kingdom of God.

Please follow the coverage of WYD Kraków 2016 on our archdiocesan digital platforms and consider spreading the word with family and friends or on social media using #wydDC.

Those who participate in World Youth Day, even when from home, become leaven for our society and culture. We saw this with WYD 1993 in Denver. That was a momentous event that changed the lives of many people in the United States, prompting many vocations to the priesthood, consecrated religious life, and lay ministry.

This is what these joyous celebrations of faith are capable of. They transform people’s lives and inspire them to become a light of the love and truth of Jesus to others, and thereby they help make a better world.

World Youth Day Voices for Peace

July 25th, 2016


World Youth Day 2016 begins tomorrow, but many young pilgrims from around the world are already there in Kraków, including groups from the Archdiocese of Washington and also a special contingent from Iraq. In solidarity with our sisters and brothers from that land where the Church is suffering deadly persecution, and with all others who live in violence, today the USA pilgrims from the archdiocese launched a special social media campaign with the hashtag #WYDvoices4peace.

Poland is a land that has itself known much violence, persecution and suffering, including the horrors of Nazi genocide, followed by the oppression of the Communist regime and the Soviets. Earlier today, the archdiocesan pilgrim group visited the infamous death camp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau to remember and bear witness to the more than one million people who were systematically killed there by the Nazi regime, 90 percent of them Jews, and to also pray for the dead and for those who suffer persecution today, so that we might have peace in our world today.

One of the questions voiced after the Nazi genocide, which should strike at the conscience of us all, is why there was such a silence in the world about the atrocities that were occurring. Sadly, subsequent violence, persecution and genocide since then have also often been met with silence or the effective silence of not doing anything to foster peace and security.

We hear so much today of the word “solidarity.” Solidarity is a particularly fitting word given the history of the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in Poland, which Pope John Paul II recognized as a force for the authentic peace of human rights and freedom. Solidarity takes on added poignancy and urgency with our sisters and brothers from Iraq joining their fellow young people in prayer at World Youth Day.

Today our solidarity with people of faith in places where there is clearly an effort to eliminate them is something that we simply cannot in conscience ignore. We need to raise our voices for peace. Please join our pilgrims in prayer and send a message using #WYDvoices4peace.

Summer Excursions: Day Trips to the Local Roots of Our Faith

July 23rd, 2016


As residents of the Washington metropolitan area, we are blessed to live in a place that is a destination for travelers from across the United States and around the world. These tourists can see the U.S. Capitol and White House and visit landmarks related to our nation’s founders and those who preserved our Union and liberty, including the Washington Monument and memorials honoring presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Visitors and residents alike can also visit local landmarks to our Catholic faith, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, and the Church of Washington’s Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle.

People also have the added blessing of being able to take day trips to heritage sites in Southern Maryland which played critical roles not only in planting our Catholic faith in the United States, but also in the establishment of religious liberty for all people as a cornerstone of our American democracy. Among these are Saint Clement’s Island, Historic Saint Mary’s City, and Saint Ignatius Church at Chapel Point in Port Tobacco.

This coming October, we will celebrate a special Mass at Saint Ignatius to mark the 375th anniversary of the historic founding of the parish by Father Andrew White, S.J. Two summers ago, when the Archdiocese of Washington marked its 75th anniversary in 2014, I had the privilege of celebrating Masses at Saint Clement’s Island and the Brick Chapel in Saint Mary’s City.

Now a 62-acre state park, Saint Clement’s Island is where colonists from England first made landfall in Maryland on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25, 1634, after a harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean on the ships the Ark and the Dove. When they went ashore, Father White offered the first Mass in the English-speaking colonies.

When I celebrated the Eucharist on Saint Clement’s Island in 2014, in a tent set up near a 40-foot white cross erected to commemorate that historic Mass there, I said we had come to that same spot also to celebrate Mass to recognize and pay homage to our roots and our Catholic heritage, which began in this corner of the world. The legacy of Father White and those other intrepid pioneers who came to establish Maryland as a haven for religious toleration and freedom of conscience is ours. Like those first Maryland settlers did, we concluded the Mass by praying the Litany of the Holy Cross, reminding us that, like those who have gone before us in the faith, we find our identity and our strength at the foot of the cross, the sign of Jesus’s loving sacrifice which harkens to his resurrection and promise of new life.

Travelers can start their excursion at the Saint Clement’s Island Museum in Colton’s Point, which offers a film, mural and exhibits about that historic landing in Maryland. On weekends from June through September, people can ride a water taxi from a dock near the museum that will take them to the island itself.

Another remarkable place for a day trip is Historic Saint Mary’s City, the site of the first colonial settlement and capital. There visitors can see a living history area and also go aboard a replica of the Dove docked at the shore. As you stand on deck, you are given a reminder of that journey taken by those first Catholic settlers, along with people of other faiths, who crossed an ocean together in the belief of the importance of religious freedom, a journey that we their descendants in the faith should continue today.

In 1667, a Brick Chapel was built in Saint Mary’s City, but in 1704, when the leadership had changed and Catholics were no longer allowed to celebrate their faith in public, the chapel was permanently locked by the sheriff of Saint Mary’s County on order of the royal governor.

The chapel was subsequently torn down. However, in 2009, I had the privilege of participating in the official opening of a reconstructed Brick Chapel, helping to push open the door after it was ceremoniously unlocked by the modern-day sheriff. Today, the Brick Chapel stands not only as a reminder of our right to religious liberty, but also a reminder that freedom is fragile, and we must remain vigilant in defending it.

When I celebrated Mass there for our archdiocese’s 75th anniversary, I noted that there are sacred spaces that are truly on earth our Father’s house. The land surrounding the Brick Chapel is also holy ground, for many of Maryland’s first Catholics were buried there. The religious freedom that they established there through their faith and vision is our birthright, to cherish and protect as Catholics and Americans.

The Need for Tolerance in the Land of Diversity

July 20th, 2016


Years ago in the days of my youth, when we were so engaged in the effort to establish a more peaceful world and experience more peace in our own country, we heard the often repeated challenge of Pope, now Blessed, Paul VI: “If you want peace, work for justice.” Today, I wonder if we might want to bring that wisdom a step further and add, “If you want justice, work for tolerance.”

This comes to mind as two recent studies from the Pew Research Center confirm what we have witnessed and personally experienced in this country in recent times – there is an increasing lack of civility and toleration in our society and public policy, especially toward religion. One report describes a growing and more intense partisan divide where there are not only differences in political beliefs, but animosity on a personal level. Another report on Trends in Global Restrictions on Religion ranks the United States as “high” on its index of social hostilities involving religion.

To even begin to respond to the undeniable need for a heightened level of tolerance, we must recognize that in a pluralistic society like ours, while we share some values in common, there are also some differing and divergent worldviews. When we turn to people of faith for example, we see things differently than many whose vision of life is determined by a purely secular outlook and experience.

In the past, we as a people were able to fashion a certain unity within this diversity, as reflected in our national motto, E pluribus unum (out of many, one). What we are witnessing today however, is something quite different. Irresponsible and intemperate rhetoric against those who believe differently is not only increasing in use, but apparently in acceptability. Instead of reasoned discourse, political posturing replete with spin and the corruption of language are utilized not simply to persuade, but to effectively tell people that the other side is not worthy of being heard or entitled to their own view – or even existing.

Instead of valuing diversity, this is the new weapon used to force a single worldview on all of society. Words like “justice” are used to justify injustice, “tolerance” is used to be intolerant to those who disagree, and “anti-discrimination” laws are being touted in order to discriminate. We are told by politicians, the media, the entertainment industry, and increasingly corporate America that anyone who dissents from the new order of marriage, human sexuality and the nature of the human person is reductively an “extremist” and “bigot” who engages in “discrimination” and fosters violence against others. This charge directed towards those who disagree with the new order is itself a form of intolerance which undermines the foundations of tranquil human community. However, tolerance needs to be applied with the same measuring rod.

One of the lessons that we as Catholics can offer is our own experience in working for tolerance and respect for all persons. The Church’s on-going involvement in inter-religious dialogue shows that it is possible to deal respectfully with others who believe differently even in the face of deep historical divisions. In that process, we also gain a greater appreciation for how some terms can be offensive to others and we should avoid them. For example, the word “Holocaust” takes on a very specific meaning for our Jewish brothers and sisters – a meaning that needs to be respected.

Among the work I do with some regularity with leaders of other faith traditions is the “Bearing Witness” program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. This initiative lifts up for Catholic teachers and other Christians the uniqueness of the Holocaust experience and why we must always be respectful of that memory.

In the course of preparing for those gatherings, I think of how much language plays a role in tearing down or in building up understanding and harmonious relations. This was certainly the case when people in the United States recognized that the use of the “n word” was demeaning and dehumanizing and invited contempt or even violence directed towards black people. The elimination now of disparaging and branding people who believe differently, in favor of a spirit of civility and basic respect for the other, would likewise be a step forward.

In the public square, we are bound to encounter people who are different from us. Under the banner of “justice for all,” we ought to be able to all live with our nation’s great diversity not just of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but value systems and styles of life that differ greatly. This is a big country, not simply in land, but in heart. There is room for many beliefs and values if we only learn to tolerate true diversity.

Finding the True Source of Happiness: A Novena on the Beatitudes

July 18th, 2016


Next week the Church Universal will celebrate the gift of our young people to our family of faith and the whole world as pilgrims begin to gather for World Youth Day in Kraków and here locally at “Kraków in the Capital” on the campus of The Catholic University of America. This is a special time for our young people – and all the rest of us in solidarity with them – to reflect on the call to discipleship and how to live as witnesses to Jesus’ love and mercy in the world around us.

In 2014, Pope Francis chose the Beatitudes as the basis for the theme of subsequent World Youth Days and this year the theme is: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” In the Catechism we read that the Beatitudes “shed light on the actions and attitudes characteristics of the Christian life” (CCC 1717). Further, at their Confirmation, our young people received in the gifts of the Holy Spirit a disposition toward the blessings that the Beatitudes promise.

In a culture that proposes happiness as something that can be purchased or found only in life on this earth, the Beatitudes help us to understand that happiness is of divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who can alone fulfill it (CCC 1718). As we look forward to these special days with the Holy Father at World Youth Day, let us pray that our young people become a beacon of light to the world by manifesting the beauty of the Beatitudes, which are paradoxical to what the world calls happiness, yet are a reflection of the life of Jesus and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

In a particular way, you might join us on Facebook as we pray a novena that we may all grow in the life of beatitude. For these nine days leading up to World Youth Day, this novena prayer will focus on each of the nine Beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-12). You may also choose to say in addition, or as an alternative, the official prayer of World Youth Day set out below.

On this first day of the novena, we pray:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Lord Jesus, with confidence in your word, grant that I may be freed of the foolish pride of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, and of the allure of worldly wealth and power. Help me instead to recognize and embrace my utter poverty and need for God, from whom all good things come, and to trust in his providence, seeking first in my life his kingdom of love and life, truth and peace. Amen.

2016 World Youth Day Prayer

God, merciful Father,
in your Son, Jesus Christ, you have revealed your love
and poured it out upon us in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

We entrust to you today the destiny of the world and of every man and woman. We entrust to you in a special way young people of every language, people and nation:
Guide and protect them as they walk the complex paths of the world today and give them the grace to reap abundant fruits from their experience of the Krakow World Youth Day. 

Heavenly Father, grant that we may bear witness to your mercy.
Teach us how to convey the faith to those in doubt,
hope to those who are discouraged,
love to those who feel indifferent,
forgiveness to those who have done wrong
and joy to those who are unhappy.
Allow the spark of merciful love that you have enkindled within us
become a fire that can transform hearts and renew the face of the earth.

Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us.
Saint John Paul II, pray for us.
Saint Faustina, pray for us. Amen.