The Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Mission of the Church

October 6th, 2014

D31 OLQP_2

The task of living our Catholic faith as missionary disciples is particularly challenging today with all the currents of secular culture and the pressures that confront us. But as our Archdiocesan Synod understood, we have not been left alone. The Holy Spirit has come to dwell with us as Advocate, Consoler, Truth and Love, as promised by Jesus (John 14:16 et seq.).

“The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us,” writes Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans (5:5).

What does this means for us? “The ‘living water,’ the Holy Spirit, the Gift of the Risen One who dwells in us,” Pope Francis explains, “purifies us, illuminates us, renews us, transforms us because he makes us participants in the very life of God that is Love” (Audience of May 8, 2013).

We need not “go it alone” in life, with success or failure depending entirely on our own personal efforts. In responding to the universal vocation to holiness, the call to be perfect in love and truth, in seeking to do good and avoid evil, we need not fend for ourselves.

The Lord offers us help, he offers his grace to enable us to meet the challenges of the day. Through this gift of the Spirit, by the love of the Crucified and Risen Christ, we are perfected in God and with God, no matter what our human limitations.

In addition to various special charisms we might receive, the Prophet Isaiah speaks of seven gifts in particular – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2-3). The Catechism teaches that these gifts “complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them” (CCC 1831).

The gifts of knowledge and understanding allow us to transcend the superficial, to apprehend and grasp with our mind a fuller truth than what we can hear, taste, touch and smell. Wisdom and counsel, coupled with our reverence for human reason, can direct us and guide us in the awesome struggle to decide from all that we know how to do what we ought to do. Meanwhile, with piety and what we call “fear of the Lord,” there is a humble sense of awe and respectful appreciation for God’s presence. This helps us to gratefully recognize that God is greater than we are and that we rely upon his providence and blessing.

Beyond the usual trials of the human condition, which may tempt us to discouragement, are pressures from our secular culture to give in, to simply go along with what we know is not right. With the gift of fortitude, however, the Lord frees our hearts from fear, giving us the strength to persevere.

Next week, we will see these gifts on display in the early Church as we begin a series on the Acts of the Apostles. Prior to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles and other disciples often struggled with understanding Christ’s teachings. They were also unsure of themselves, timid and frightened after his arrest and crucifixion. All that changed when the Spirit descended upon them. Then they became bold, confident, courageous witnesses of all that Jesus revealed. Setting off in all directions, these missionary disciples brought the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

“This mission is still only beginning,” said Saint John Paul II, and “we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service” (Redemptoris missio, 1). Thus, we pray always that the Spirit empower us with his gifts so that we continue to manifest the kingdom of God and help him renew the face of the earth.

Each of Us is a Masterpiece of God’s Creation

October 5th, 2014

life issues

Like the Child Jesus, who is “forever the sign of God’s tenderness and presence in our world . . . today too, children are a sign. They are a sign of hope, a sign of life,” said Pope Francis during his visit earlier this year to Bethlehem. “Wherever children are accepted, loved, cared for and protected, the family is healthy, society is more healthy and the world is more human.”

When we speak of respect for human life, it is easy for us to get caught up in abstractions, and our response can seem somewhat theoretical. But our obligations are quite concrete. Lives depend on us.

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a maternity hospital in Peru that was supported and sustained by the Church in this country. It operated in an impoverished area with a large, struggling population of poor and needy people.

One of my greatest joys is when young parents give me their newborn baby to hold, so I was delighted when the sisters running the maternity ward invited me to hold one of the children under their care. As I gingerly picked up a one-day-old infant, the baby latched onto my finger with all his strength and held tight.

That infant is a parable to me – a representative of countless unborn children reaching out to hold onto you and me, reaching out with all their strength. In their struggle to find a place, a home, a life in this world, the most vulnerable among us depend on us to work for a culture of life.

We have witnessed in many societies a diminishment of respect for human life. Accordingly, as the working paper for the Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family says, “in her pastoral programs, the Church needs to reflect on how to encourage a mentality which is more open to life” (Instrumentum Laboris, 130).

In what we do and how we express ourselves, we have to find ways to proclaim the good news of every human life for a hearing among those who have been led to believe that some life is not worth living. The New Evangelization impels us all to use the grace of the Holy Spirit to discover fresh resources and summon new strength to advance the message of the Gospel of life.

None of our lives is meaningless or not worth living. We are all needed. Each of us is here because a loving God wills us to live. Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation.

“The fullness towards which every human life tends is not in contradiction with a condition of illness and suffering,” Pope Francis affirms. “Therefore, poor health and disability are never a good reason for excluding or, worse, for eliminating a person; and the most serious privation that elderly persons undergo is not the weakening of the body and the disability that may ensue, but abandonment and exclusion, the privation of love” (Message to the Pontifical Academy for Life, February 19, 2014).

It cannot be denied that there are hardships in life. Whether experienced in a crisis pregnancy or late in life, in a physical illness or a bout of mental depression, the human condition is for us all beset with trials and tribulations. And the answer we give to these challenges in the reality of our human weakness is love, and not to give in to the temptation to despair (Evangelium Vitae, 66-67, 76-77).

When hardship and suffering arise for ourselves or others, we can confront them with God or without him. It is a lot easier with God. In his compassion, God does not abandon us but he stands with us. By the power of his love, he transforms our fear and gives us hope.

The Church’s Mission of Mercy to Families

October 2nd, 2014

D10 Bernadette

“This saying is hard, who can accept it?”  Here in John’s Gospel we read the response of many disciples to Jesus’s beautiful exposition on the Eucharist. Jesus is telling the crowd that eternal life will be found by those “who eat his flesh and drink his blood” (John 6:60).  In the face of one of the deepest expressions of God’s plan for salvation, many followers seem to all but give up trying to understand.

It is a very human response. What the disciples learn and what we ourselves come to learn is that in the face of the mystery of our faith, we have to trust God.  In the Catechism we read, “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says” (CCC 150).

In our age, it is often the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage that make people ask, “Who can accept it?” It is for many a moment of crisis. This is touched on in the working paper for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization. “Often, when the lay faithful sense the great distance between the ideal of family living and the impossibility of achieving that goal, the couple’s crisis in marriage and the family gradually becomes a crisis in faith” (Instrumentum Laboris,  62).

There is a common theme that has emerged from the broad consultation conducted by bishops in local churches all over the world in preparation for the Synod.  In challenging pastoral situations related to relationships, marriage and family life, the work of the Church must at all times be marked by compassion and mercy. The working paper itself notes that no person or situation is beyond the reach of God’s love.

“The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open, [...] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (The Joy of the Gospel, 47). Real pastoral attention is urgently needed to care for these people and bring them healing so that they might continue their journey with the entire ecclesial community. The mercy of God does not provide a temporary cover-up of personal misdeeds, but rather radically opens lives to reconciliation which brings new trust and serenity through true inward renewal. The pastoral care of families, far from limiting itself to a legal point of view, has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling (Instrumentum Laboris, 80).

With so much attention focused on this Synod and its many challenging topics, we have the chance to share our trust in God in the face of teachings that some find hard to accept.  It is incumbent on all of us to be ambassadors of faith to  our family members, friends and co-workers as all different types of news outlets seek to interpret the work of the Synod.  I encourage all of us to read and listen with the eyes and ears of faith, knowing that the work of the Synod under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will manifest a fuller understanding of God’s plan for marriage and family life.

All of us have to be open to the Holy Spirit. No one can rightfully claim to know already what must be the outcome of the deliberations called for by our Holy Father. Certainly no one is able now to say in advance what the Synod “must say.” While we stand in the truth we stand there humbly.

As ambassadors, we also have a wonderful opportunity to remind people that the doors of the Church are open to all. We can invite to Mass or the Sacrament of Reconciliation those we know who may be separated from the Church or afraid to face Our Lord. We can put them in touch with a priest we know manifests God’s compassion and mercy. We can be the first to share that, no matter our situation, we are all called to live “radically open lives” in fidelity to the Gospel.


The Fundamental Vocation of the Family

September 30th, 2014

The Holy Family by Francisco Bayeu y Subias

One of the most well-known and often repeated statements of Saint John Paul II – “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” – rings as true today as when he wrote it in 1981 in the conclusion of his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (The Christian Family in the Modern World, 86).

That exhortation resulted from a synod of bishops convened one year earlier, the first synod at which Pope John Paul II would preside as pastor and shepherd of the Universal Church.  The core of his message was that God has a plan for marriage and the family, a message sorely needed at a time when family life is facing so many pressures in our world and culture.

Now this fall, Pope Francis will preside at his first synod of bishops, and just like his holy predecessor almost 35 years ago, he has called this worldwide gathering to help families strengthen and share their faith amid the challenges they face in today’s world.

The working paper for this Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization speaks to the fundamental vocation of the family, which is in a sense “a school of humanity, love and hope for society. The family continues to be the privileged place in which Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the person” (Instrumentum Laboris, 31).

The family home is “the everyday place to encounter Christ” (Id., 36).  What Christ reveals, Saint John Paul reminded us, is that it is love that is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (Familiaris Consortio, 11).  As such, parents are the first and most important teachers of the faith for their children, offering an example of love and fidelity to God and to each other.  The most sublime model, of course, is the Holy Family, which reveals to all other families what they are meant to be – a loving communion of persons, in the image and likeness of the Trinity (Redemptor Hominis, 8; Letter to Families, 6-7).

In that context, the Christian home is a domestic church, where practices such as praying before and after meals, reciting the rosary, reading Scripture and attending Mass together foster knowledge of and friendship with Jesus, who should be at the center of each family.  With this witness of faith and love, parents “realize their vocation to be God’s collaborators in the development of the human family” (Instrumentum Laboris, 37).

As the foundation of society, the family is also the place where values are learned and transmitted.   “In a family, a person learns a sense of the common good and experiences the goodness of living together. Without the family, a person is unable to emerge from his individualism, since it is the only place to learn the power of love to sustain life” (Id., 33).

One key point of discussion at the Synod will be the importance of families being active in parish life, and of parishes supporting families, especially through ministries that promote evangelization.  Parishes as a “family of families” offer a crucial place for the pastoral care of families facing difficulties who are in need of God’s mercy and love and should provide “ongoing formation on the value of marriage as a vocation and the rediscovery of parenting, motherhood and fatherhood, as a gift” (Id., 49).

This spring, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the world’s families, asking them to pray for the success of the Extraordinary Synod and I join with our Holy Father in requesting your prayers. As Saint John Paul said and as Pope Francis also teaches us, the future of humanity does indeed pass through the family.

This is part four of a series on the family.

A Voice Proclaiming the Truth of Human Sexuality

September 27th, 2014
Nicole and Leonard Wathen and their sons pose with a cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis at the Catholic evangelization booth at the recent St. Mary’s County Fair. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Nicole and Leonard Wathen and their sons pose with a cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis at the Catholic evangelization booth at the recent St. Mary’s County Fair.    (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Today more and more young people are reported to be engaged in sexual activity at an ever younger age. Increasing numbers also report that they have been sexually abused.

The data presents a very alarming picture.  But is there not something much more radical at the core of these statistics than what the media reports as the reason for them?

From our Judeo-Christian and specifically Catholic tradition, we recognize the human condition. This is the label we put on our fallen human nature and its tendencies toward self-satisfaction, egoism, lust and the rest of the seven deadly sins.

This reality, combined with our eons-long awareness that men and women are sexually attracted to each other, is precisely why, over the centuries, cultures around the world built in ways to help people cope with human sexual appetites and reinforce the need to respect and treat others with dignity. The Catholic Church today continues to teach that sexual activity should be confined to marriage and that young people should be taught principles of self-respect, self-discipline and moral values which recognize our fallen human nature, sexual appetites and the call to rise above simple passion and casual sex.

The fact that we have had separate bathrooms for men and women, boys and girls says something about the realization that physically, and therefore sexually, we are not identical. That goes for changing rooms at swimming pools, locker rooms and a host of other decencies that have reinforced the understanding that boundaries are necessary to sustain proper relationships.

Now fast forward to today. The information-entertainment industry focuses on what it promotes as the “excitement” of casual sex, the imperative that people engage in sexual activity as often and with whomever and in whatever situation they please. Contraceptives become a government mandate, sexual activity merely an exercise of pleasure, and voices of sexual morality are viewed as archaic impositions on the new freedom.

Is it any wonder that with the indiscriminate and encouraged mingling of boys and girls, young men and women, in washrooms, dressing rooms, same-sex dorms and even shared apartments – not to mention the mixed messages of books and films such as the forthcoming “Fifty Shades of Grey” – we see hormones and sexual aggression winning out over the nebulous secular call to “be nice?”

The Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization will of course talk about family, marriage, morality and all of the activities connected with those basic elements in human life, personal and societal. One lesson I think we can anticipate that will come out of the Synod and sound very familiar to all of us is the recognition that there is a difference between male and female, that there is a right order for the relationship of men and women, and that sexual activity, as beautiful as it can be, is intended for an enduring committed stable relationship between one man and one woman, which has historically been named marriage.

Another thing we can anticipate will be the ridicule of this position in much of the secular information-entertainment industry. We will still hear from that sector that the real value of human life is best expressed in passing out contraceptives, encouraging sexual activity and then expressing shock and horror when it takes place in a way that is offensive to personal integrity, dignity and freedom.

We should not be surprised by either outcome. The Church’s message is rooted in truth revealed by both human reason and God’s Word. The rejection of that vision and the substitution of a different understanding of what life is all about is also a very real and loud part of our lives, our communities and our world.

It still falls to each one of us to make a choice. I am pleased to say that a growing number of young people have discovered that there is little real joy or freedom in the view of morality that the secular culture offers. They are turning to the vision of human life, sexuality, marriage and family that the Catholic Church has espoused for two thousand years. The Synod will be one more voice supporting the great revealed tradition and encouraging the next generation of believers.

The Natural Law and the Family Today

September 25th, 2014


In the beginning, God placed within the works of his hand a law that would govern creation.  The natural physical law – expressed in something as simple as the law of gravity – is built into creation.  So it is with the natural law that governs his human creations.

People today are often uncomfortable with the idea of law.  They want to be able to do whatever they want and, increasingly, they want to be whatever they want.  In today’s climate of relativism there is no longer any acknowledgement of objective truth – everything is open to subjective choice.  Some even want to choose their own reality and impose it on the rest of society.

But there are certain universal precepts, certain permanent realities imprinted upon our being as humans, made male and female.  They are inescapable truths that are intrinsic to our human nature, and they are knowable to all by right reason whether or not one chooses to acknowledge their existence and conform to them.  If we choose to ignore these laws which prompt us to do good and avoid evil, an adverse effect will inevitably follow just as sure as something bad will happen if we ignore the law of gravity and step off a cliff.

We need look no further than the state of marriage and family today to see that this is so.  In the working paper that is intended to guide the discussion at the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family, we read that “the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible [and] perceived as an outdated legacy” (Instrumentum Laboris, 21, 22).  In turn, “the demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today” (Id., 26).

We live today in a world that is constantly substituting our way for God’s way.  As a result of this lack of appreciation for the created order and our human ability to grasp it, many areas of societal life have collapsed, leaving many wounded and broken victims.

Many today resist what the Church has to say about the natural order because they have a different understanding of the meaning of “natural” or because they think it limits their freedom.  But in expressing the original truth about the good of the person, the natural law indicates the path that leads to the authentic realization of freedom.  As Pope Benedict XVI said during an ad limina visit with American bishops in 2012, the natural law “is not a threat to our freedom, but rather a ‘language’ which enables us to understand ourselves and the truth of our being, and so to shape a more just and humane world.  [The Church] thus proposes her moral teaching as a message not of constraint but of liberation, and as the basis for building a secure future.”

Perhaps one contribution of the deliberations of the Synod will be to recognize that we need a new vocabulary. We have to find words intelligible to our secular culture to describe the reality of God’s creative love and how we are special manifestations of that love. The challenge is to express the truth in a way that it can be heard and appreciated.

As the Synod, and as our society as a whole, confronts the issues facing families and the human person today, we need to consider the manner in which the voice of faith serves our world.  In our culture which suffers increasingly from individualism and materialism, the voice of faith – the voice of the Church – has been a constant beacon in the darkness, a light for those seeking the right path and a support to those who have nowhere else to turn.

This is part two of a series on the family.

Thinking with the Mind of the Church

September 23rd, 2014

The Holy Family with the Little Bird by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, c.1650.

In a few weeks, I will have the privilege of participating in the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. The topic of family life is one in which all of us have a great deal of interest and indeed experience!  Many of us know how important this topic is to our own lives and the life of our community.

Much has already been written and people have set many expectations during the consultation process in preparation for this assembly.  But it is important that Catholics and all interested people understand the starting points for the prayer, reflection and discussion that will be part of the Synod process.  Over the next couple of weeks, this blog will introduce readers to some of the fundamental principles that will guide the work of the Synod.

Unlike secular commissions or task forces that are assembled to address a particular problem and whose starting point is the problem itself, the Church’s starting point is always God’s love for his people and the unfolding plan of his salvation.  The Synod will not identify some new truth about the meaning of marriage, the gift of human sexuality, the role of family in society.  All of this has been revealed in the preaching and teaching of Jesus Christ and in the truths of our faith.  What will be new is how we live and express these truths in the context of this time and the concrete reality faced in the world today.

One important starting point for understanding the family is Christian anthropology, which is the study of the human person and God’s love for us.  The word “anthropology” comes from the Greek word “anthropos” which means “man” in the generic sense. Central to this study, and thus to the Synod, is the truth that man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God and called to share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

“God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  We are made in the image and likeness of God because God has taken the goodness of his physical creation and breathed into it an immortal spiritual reality called the soul.  Because of that principle of life, we, like God, are capable of knowing and loving.  We can mirror the knowledge and love that lie at the very core of God’s being; hence, we are called images of God.

“It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Just as God is three in one and enjoys the marvelous communion of the three divine persons, so too human beings, made male and female, are called to life in community. Man and woman were made for each other so that they would not be alone but would form a communion of mutual love and support.

The locus of this experience of community is the family.  Our Lord came into the world and was raised in a family.  Saint John Paul II reminds us that the family is the first school of love and makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the good of society. “The family, as a community of persons, is thus the first human ‘society’” (Letter to Families, 7).

In essence, the Synod on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family will take up the question of how the family is called to be a sign of the divine communion of the Holy Trinity to the world.  “Established by the sacrament of matrimony, the Christian family as the domestic church is the locus and first agent in the giving of life and love, the transmission of faith and the formation of the human person according to the values of the Gospel” (Synod on the New Evangelization, Proposition 48).  This is the family’s place in the evangelizing mission of the Church.

Homily: 75th Anniversary Mass of the Archdiocese of Washington

September 21st, 2014

Welcome to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Three-quarters of a century ago, Pope Pius XII issued his papal bull decreeing that Washington should be “adorned with the splendor of an archiepiscopal throne” and thereby erecting the new Archdiocese of Washington.  A few months after that, on the same date, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, that our Catholic ancestors first came to this land three centuries earlier, Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore walked into and across the sanctuary here.  In the presence of the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, he then proceeded to the chair we see today etched with his personal coat of arms and formally took possession of his new See.

He sat in the teaching chair, the cathedra of this new archdiocese, as the outward sign of his new spiritual duties and leadership of our portion of God’s family.  Those few short steps of Archbishop Curley were part of a much longer journey with many markers along the way.

Today, I would like to reflect on a few significant events that are embedded in our history because we are part of the great pilgrimage that began when Jesus commissioned the Apostles and disciples to go out into the world.  “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-19).

For two millennia it has been the work of the whole Church, all of the people of God, every member of the Body of Christ, to show forth to the world the presence of our Savior and Lord, one of us who is also the Son of God.  We are called to be, in our very lives, an epiphany of the Lord to those we encounter.  To us, as to those first disciples, Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  Manifesting the kingdom of God – this is the mission and blessing given to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Milestones of the great pilgrimage of faith dot the face of the earth.  In the East, the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and eventually Constantinople bore witness then and now to the Gospel.

Peter and Paul traveled to Rome, the center of a vast and coherent empire.  From there the faith spread to all those lands evangelized by a litany of later-day Apostles: Saint Augustine to England, Saint Boniface to Germany, Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavic lands as well as Saint Patrick to Ireland, Saint Francis Xavier to India and Matteo Ricci to China.  And the list – the litany – can go on and on.  These were the markers that were the sign posts for those who then crossed the Atlantic Ocean to reach the New World.

Spanish missionaries arrived in Mexico, Peru and across Central and South America and the Caribbean as early as 1520.  French priests came to Canada, to Quebec which by 1674 was already a diocese.

On Sunday, June 29 of this year, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass at Saint Clement’s Island, where on March 25, 1634, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the first Catholic Mass in the English speaking colonies was celebrated.  When the Ark and the Dove landed in Maryland in that year, the colonists held a ceremony to take possession of the land and read Lord Baltimore’s instruction aloud which included the first policy of religious tolerance in America.  Father Andrew White, S.J. celebrated Mass and afterwards the settlers erected a large cross.  Today a 40 foot white cross stands at the southern end of the island honoring the arrival of these brave Catholic colonists and the establishment of religious freedom of America.

All of us, as spiritual descendants of these intrepid women and men, can rejoice and take pride in their vision, courage and faith.

The day before, on Saturday, June 28 of this 75th anniversary year, I also had the joy of celebrating Mass at the reconstructed Brick Chapel in nearby Saint Mary’s City.  In 1667, the Jesuit missionaries and the new residents of Maryland built a brick chapel in Maryland’s first capital.  The chapel, the grandest building in Maryland at the time, stood as a sign of our Catholic faith and the religious freedom in the colony, as inscribed in Maryland’s original charter and codified in the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649.

Now we fast forward to another milestone on our archdiocesan pilgrimage of faith.  In 1789 the first bishop for the Catholics in the English speaking colonies was selected.  The designation of Bishop John Carroll as first Bishop of Baltimore took place in Sacred Heart Chapel – now a part of Sacred Heart Parish in Bowie, Maryland – a part of this archdiocese.  Earlier in the spring we commemorated that event that took place 225 years ago because it became a cornerstone of the hierarchy for the United States.  In a sense, the Catholic Church in the United States had come of age.

Our journey of faith has been a long one.  From Jerusalem to Rome to England to Southern Maryland to Baltimore to this cathedral we trace our steps – the pathway of faith.

While our portion of this lengthy pilgrimage is relatively short – we are only 75 years old – it is equally and fully a part of this grand march of faith that manifests God’s kingdom now and someday will glory in its fullness in the eternal realm of heaven.

In 1938 a few months after he established the Archdiocese of Washington, Pope Pius XII wrote a letter observing the 150th anniversary of the appointment of Bishop John Carroll and the establishment of the first diocese in the United States.  In this document, the Pope cited many of the good fruits of the Church in our local area and across the nation observing that, “In your country there prevails a thriving life which the grace of the Holy Spirit has brought to flower in the inner sanctuary of your hearts” (Sertum laetitiae, 6).  However, the Pope went on to describe some of the challenges of the time.  Many of those problems we also face today only more acutely, including secularization, neglect of the moral life, challenges to marriage and family, and threats both to religious freedom and to social justice.

A major focus of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, who presided over the Vatican Council after the death of Saint John XXIII, who had succeeded Pope Pius XII, was the implementation of its teachings.  Recognizing that the objective of the Council was to make the Church in this age “ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel” to the people of our day, he called for “a new period of evangelization,” adding that “the conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 2-3).

In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of the Americas, Saint John Paul II said that this historic moment would achieve its full meaning only if it became a commitment to a New Evangelization.  This he famously described as a sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is “new in ardor, methods and expression” (quoted in Ecclesia in America, 6 and 66).

Likewise in continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis calls us to work for the New Evangelization.  “Those who have opened their hearts to God’s love, heard his voice and received his life cannot keep this gift to themselves,” he wrote in his first encyclical (Lumen fidei, 39).

Our celebration of the 75th anniversary, therefore, is not confined to looking back on our history, however inspiring it may be.  This anniversary year gives us opportunity to look forward as we renew our mission and ministry.  We are committed to being the heralds of the New Evangelization and the agents of a new Pentecost.

The outpouring of the Spirit upon the whole Church happened in a dramatic and visible way on Pentecost.  The Church continues to receive that great Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit.  Indeed, our very identity as Christians, as members in communion in the one Body of Christ that is the Church, comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit builds up and animates the Church.  Without the Holy Spirit, the Church is just a human structure.  But with the Spirit, the Church is formed into Christ’s new Body.

With this and the challenges of our day in mind, participants in the first Synod of the Archdiocese of Washington were asked to assess just exactly how well we, as a Church, are doing and to help formulate a plan for the future in light of, among other things, the New Evangelization.  The enduring fruit of our long preparation work over the past two years was a celebration this year of the first Synod which concluded on the Solemnity of Pentecost.

This Archdiocesan Synod, assembled in the Holy Spirit, clearly was a moment of grace to look at the life of our local Church, to evaluate areas where the ministry of the Church is successful and areas where there may be need for more improvement.

The outcomes of our Archdiocesan Synod are both tangible and spiritual. Among the spiritual results we must include the many graces and blessings bestowed by God on all those who participated in the entire synodal process. The tangible outcomes include an affirmation of our Catholic faith, directives for future pastoral programs, and statutes to guide us into the future that were promulgated at the closing Mass.

As we celebrate our 75th anniversary, we recognize that first Synod of the Archdiocese of Washington belongs to all of us.  This was the work of our moment just as we can look back and see the splendid achievements of those who went before us.

With the Synod statutes and recommendations there is also another visible sign of the vitality and vibrancy of our local Church.  The 2014 anniversary issue of Catholic Impact, copies of which are available in the back of church and through our communications department, tells the story of the works of the faithful and their generosity in areas such as education, healthcare, housing, Catholic Charities and social service outreach.  We have received feedback from those who have read this publication or seen the video version on our archdiocesan YouTube channel  and have  been impressed by all of the ways the Church contributes to this community, ways they were not aware of, and they have been inspired to share this information with others.

Today, then we can truly rejoice as Saint Paul tells us – in the Spirit.  In our history we see great blessings, courage and witness.

Throughout these 75 years, our Catholic family of faith has made a significant impact on our community, manifesting Christ’s kingdom of truth and life, justice, love and peace.  We have prayed and worked for justice by marching for civil rights and for the right to life, supporting programs for the homeless and the poor, advocating for newly-arrived immigrants, and expanding housing for the elderly and ministries to people with special needs.

In the now that is ours, we are challenged to continue along this pilgrimage path of faith and love.  Finally, as we turn our face to the future we can do so with great abiding and serene confidence.

Grateful for our Catholic heritage, we look to the future.  It is our moment now.  We, too, must always be open to the promptings of the Spirit.  Our commitment to religious liberty, to human freedom, to our faith, does not rest on our individual resolve or limited resources.  The First Letter of Saint Peter reminds us, “You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and the abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23).

The Holy Spirit is working in our age just as he has in every age.  But there is much to do.  So we continue to voice the prayer, “Come Holy Spirit” today and every day. We pray that we may continue to be a part of a renewal that will ensure for generations yet to come the ability of this Church to manifest the kingdom of God in our world.

And so as we celebrate our 75th anniversary as an archdiocese, we do so with gratitude for the past, with resolve for the present moment and with confidence as we look to the future.  We are convinced that as God was with those who went before us and on whose shoulders this Church stands, so, too, will God continue to be with us.  God bless you!

Teaching about God’s Gift of Forgiveness

September 19th, 2014

reflection with catechetical leaders

This week I was delighted to celebrate Vespers with the parish catechetical leaders of our archdiocese. We gathered as our catechists begin a new year of religious education and as the Church in the United States prepares to commemorate Catechetical Sunday on September 21 and we, in this local Church, celebrate our 75th anniversary as the Archdiocese of Washington.  On this day we will not just ask God’s blessing for our catechetical teachers and their students, but also recognize how these catechists participate in the mission and ministry of the Church. We also thank them for the tremendous contribution they make to the Church’s mission of education and the vitality of our parishes.

This year’s catechetical theme, “Teaching About God’s Gift of Forgiveness,” also presents us with an opportunity to affirm that all of us by virtue of our baptism share in the responsibility to hand on the faith. We are all called to tell others the Good News of Jesus Christ, who heals us and brings us to new life.

Every catechist, I believe, would agree that their work is all the more fruitful when whole families and all parishioners are involved in actively sharing our faith. For example, preparing children for the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and teaching older children to be regular participants in Confession are all the easier when forgiveness and reconciliation are practiced at home, in the school yard and between friends.  It is in these experiences that we realize one of the fruits of reconciliation is peace.

After Jesus had risen from the dead, he gave the Apostles the grace they would need to carry on the super-human task of forgiving sins.  He said to them, “‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21-23).

Here we see how Confession is a restoration of peace. It is an essential part of the Church’s mission to the world and one for which individuals and communities hunger.

Christ’s mission on earth was to save us from our sins and from the many evils that flow from sin. Though he cured bodily ailments and though his compassion for every kind of suffering was real, he used such cures as signs of a more radical moral and spiritual therapy which he desired to extend to all. The Gospels portray him as specially declaring that he healed the body “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10).

In this wounded world, it is not uncommon for people to seek healing through psychological counseling or therapy.  Yet, many Catholics have forgotten that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they encounter Jesus the Divine Healer who offers both forgiveness and peace.  We all need to hear the message of his saving love again and again.

Do you know someone who has been away from the sacrament and with whom you can share your experience of God’s mercy?  Might you and/or your family prepare to celebrate Catechetical Sunday by setting aside some time to go together to Confession?  Can you share these words that Saint John Vianney put on the lips of Christ – “I will charge my ministers to proclaim to sinners that I am ever ready to welcome them, that my mercy is infinite” (see Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to Priests for the Year of Priests (2009))? As Pope Francis teaches us, “The Lord never tires of forgiving.  We are the ones who tire of asking forgiveness” (Angelus, March 17, 2013)

For more reflection on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Church’s teaching on forgiveness, please visit the USCCB webpage on “Teaching About God’s Gift of Forgiveness,” as well as our own archdiocesan website, “The Light is ON for You.”

The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics

September 16th, 2014

The Feasts (cover)

To be Catholic is to have a faith that marks our hours, counts our days, and measures our months and seasons. Our liturgical calendar is marked by special days – feasts – which are all celebrations of Jesus Christ, reminding us who we are as people of faith. These feasts form a kind of catechism, a rich depiction of Jesus’ life which represents the fullness of creation and redemption.

In a new book released today, The Feasts: How the Church Year Forms Us as Catholics, my coauthor, Mike Aquilina, and I explore the meaning behind these feasts and the role they play in our life of faith. Mike and I collaborated on two other books – The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition, and The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home. We conceived this new work as a companion to those two earlier volumes, in which we invited readers to take a fresh look at the things most familiar to us as Catholics.

So many of the key events in Jesus’ life occurred around feasts, from his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, to his being joined by his closest followers and friends, the Apostles, around a table at the Last Supper, to the supper at Emmaus, when the risen Lord revealed himself by the words he proclaimed and by the bread that he broke.

As we celebrate feasts today, we remember the past, and anticipate the future – the heavenly destiny to which we are all called. Thus, past, present and future converge when we celebrate the feasts.

From the Creation account in the book of Genesis, we know that God rested on the seventh day, establishing it as a day set aside for spiritual renewal. Thus the Sabbath became the original religious festival, the prototype of all the feasts. The biblical feasts are times of great joy, yet they are only a foretaste of the true feast to come – the heavenly and eternal banquet to which our Father invites us.

The Gospel’s pre-eminent feast, of course, is the Last Supper, at which Jesus established the Eucharist as his memorial, to be observed till the end of time. We experience that gift at each Mass, at church, the place we Catholics call home.

Offering a walk through the Church year, The Feasts examines how we commemorate the key events in Jesus’s life. We examine how, through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Christ continues to live and act in His Church. We also look at the feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Solemnity of All Saints. The book offers a closer look at the seasons of Advent and Lent, and explains how the three days of the Sacred Triduum – Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday – illuminate the whole Church year, and all of the feasts.

The feasts form us. They help to make us and remake us according to the pattern of the life of Jesus Christ. We number our days as we walk in his footsteps, from his birth to his baptism, from his baptism to his resurrection, from his ascension to his sending of the Spirit to make us saints. We do this faithfully every year, and it defines us.

As they have for 2,000 years, the feasts bring Christ to us, day in and day out. The feasts are days set apart, but they give life to the whole year. They bring Christ’s life to us, a life we are meant to celebrate, and they enrich our faith, a faith that we are called to share.