Walking with Francis on Our Pilgrim Journey

September 18th, 2015

Soon Pope Francis will begin his apostolic visit to the United States in Washington. As we prepare to welcome our Holy Father, it seems fitting to reflect on his journey and ours.

In his first homily after being elected, Pope Francis spoke of life as a journey and he reminded us cardinal-electors of the importance of always walking together in the presence of the Lord. One day earlier, the new pontiff had stepped onto the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica to ask the crowd below – and the millions watching around the world – to pray for him and one another as the Church undertook a journey of solidarity and love.

Throughout his ministry, our Holy Father has asked the faithful and all of society to walk together, side-by-side, towards a future of hope and charity. This desire is also reflected in the theme chosen for this visit to Washington – “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis.” The path we take, and our destination too, is Jesus Christ, who is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” affirms the Pope. “Whenever we take a step toward Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms” (Evangelii Gaudium, 1, 3).

Our Holy Father wrote beautifully about this pilgrim journey in his first encyclical. Describing how the star led the Magi to the Lord in Bethlehem, he noted, “For them God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery. . . . Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises” (Lumen Fidei, 35).

Having received God’s light and experienced his love, we cannot now keep this gift to ourselves. Pope Francis reminds us that all of the baptized are called to share their Gospel joy as missionary disciples and Spirit-filled evangelizers (Evangelii Gaudium, 262). Like Mary, who set out on the road in haste, and like the first disciples whom Christ commissioned to go and bring the Good News to the whole world, “it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear” (Id., 23).

While some may serve as missionaries in foreign lands, for most of us, our mission territory in sharing Christ’s love is closer to home, perhaps at the family dinner table, the office coffee machine, or in our community or neighborhood. In this, like the Good Samaritan, the Church and her members must necessarily have a preferential option for those poor persons who are suffering on the side of the road. “Put them at the center of the Church’s pilgrim way,” urges Pope Francis. “We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voices to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them” (Evangelii Gaudium, 198).

Tens of thousands of people, young and old, have answered that call through efforts such as “Walk with Francis,” which I have written about often. By their prayers, charitable service, and active labors toward the common good, taking one step at a time in solidarity with the Holy Father, they bring Christ’s love, mercy and hope to others, especially those on the margins of society.

Individuals, parishes, schools, businesses and community organizations across the region have said, “Yes,” they will “Walk with Francis” on this Gospel journey. There are too many to list here, but as an example, young adults from the Church of the Annunciation are joining parishioners and members of other faith communities to bag 8,000 pounds of potatoes for area food banks. The students of Don Bosco Cristo Rey high school, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have pledged to serve the homeless through the Cup of Joe program with Catholic Charities and they also made this an evangelization opportunity by making a video of their pledge. And students from Our Lady of Mercy School are participating in a “Footsteps with Francis” project, pledging to do things like playing basketball games with children who have disabilities and visiting the elderly at Byron House.

The Second Vatican Council underscored our call to manifest God’s kingdom in today’s world as we Christians continue on a pilgrimage toward heaven. In this journey, we never walk alone – united in Christ, we are led by the Holy Spirit (Gaudium et Spes, 1). As we prepare to welcome Pope Francis, walking with him in faith and in prayer, in the mercy we show others and in our efforts to increase the kingdom, let us also invite those we encounter along the way to join us and share in the joy of the Gospel.

Share the Joy!

September 16th, 2015

Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lippelmann for the Catholic Standard

All summer long, as our local Church and entire community have prepared for the upcoming arrival of Pope Francis, I have been struck how this visit is not simply for Catholics, but a moment to share the joy that we have found in our Catholic faith with the whole city and region.

We know how popular Pope Francis is for the joy he exudes and for his example of love and compassion. Some may wonder at the source of his joy. You and I know that source is Jesus Christ. Our Holy Father shares this joy so freely because he has been given a mission and his mission is love – more specifically – to share the love of Jesus with the world and, in a more particular way next week, with the people of the United States.

Just as Pope Francis is charged with being the continuing example of Jesus’ mission here on earth, with bringing the Good News to all people, we also are called to bring the Good News to people we meet. All of us, Saint Paul teaches, “are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Another way Pope Francis likes to describe how we join him in being ambassadors is to call us missionary disciples. He writes “by virtue of their Baptism, all members of the People of God have become missionary disciples” (Evangelii Gaudium, 120). The Pope will depend on us to continue the mission of sharing the joy of the Gospel in the days, months and years after he departs the United States.

All across our archdiocesan social media, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other media, people have been sharing their excitement, rejoicing in the love of God in this time of grace. That joy is shared too in several videos which have been produced by our archdiocesan multimedia team and can be seen on the WashArchdiocese YouTube page. Here we see the New Evangelization in action, bringing the Gospel to people in new and exciting ways.

Over the summer, we have also been preparing in our parishes to invite all within our communities to share in our celebration of Pope Francis’ visit through invitational door hangers. More than 80,000 of our neighbors have found an invitation at their door to visit their local parish, join a bible study, or lend a hand in a service project. Through this initiative, we want to let people know that all are welcome to visit any one of our parishes.

We are also inviting any person who feels inspired by the example of the Holy Father to “Walk with Francis.” In this shared program through Catholic Charities and our parishes, we are enabling people to practice missionary discipleship through deepening their prayer life, expressing their commitment to help make God’s love and compassion more real in our local communities, or by applying the good news of the Gospel to some of the most important issues and question of our times through advocacy. Such social action may include something as simple as writing an elected official to call attention to a concern in your local community or as bold and courageous as testifying before the D.C. Council or the Maryland General Assembly.

The beauty of the #WalkwithFrancis campaign is that through it Catholics are sharing the joy they have found in Jesus with their brothers and sisters in the Lord and with people of other faiths or no faith. It is such a clear reminder of the Catholic impact in our local communities.

This is our commitment, not simply to be ambassadors while the Holy Father is here with us, but to assure him of our commitment to always and everywhere be ambassadors for Christ. We are the family of God and love is our mission.

Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive

September 14th, 2015

Logo for 2015 World Meeting of Families

As Pope Francis begins his apostolic journey to the United States next week in our nation’s capital, the Eighth World Meeting of Families will open in Philadelphia. After proclaiming God’s love and mercy here and in New York, our Holy Father will join this week-long event on that Saturday for a Festival of Families and prayer vigil. The Pope will then conclude the Meeting with an open-air Mass on Sunday, which also caps his visit to our country.

The theme of the meeting is “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” reflecting God’s plan for the family, a community of love and life in the image of the Trinity. It is in love that married couples and their families find their meaning – in experiencing love and in radiating love to the world, a visible sign of God’s lasting love for his people.

The world needs this witness of love if humanity is to be fully alive. We all find our origin in love. Love is our final destination too, and all points in between. As Saint John Paul II explains, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (Redemptor Hominis, 10). It is in love, and only in love, that the world will be redeemed.

It has been my privilege as a priest and bishop to help women and men to share a life of enduring love together, from those couples at the very beginning of preparing for marriage to those who are celebrating significant wedding anniversaries. In those who come to the Church to be married, I sense a sincere search for values, meaning, love and commitment. Even couples who barely know their faith are hoping for a marriage that lasts, that fulfills them, and that ensures they will be loved to the end of their days.

They know, as we all do, that marriage and family life can often be difficult today. There is no need to cite statistics about troubled marriages, divorce, children born outside of marriage alongside a mentality that views children as an unwanted burden, and myriad other challenges. We all know someone who has been in that situation. None of us is untouched by these things.

Yet we also know that there are couples who have made a reality of the dream of a lasting, shared life together. There is an abiding admiration for these couples who hold fast to one another through all manner of difficulties, for those who have been married for 25, 50 or more years. Theirs are the stories that inspire.

How do they do it? How does their love endure amidst the stresses of life, particularly in our time when marriage and family face so many societal and cultural challenges? When I talk with these couples and their families, I am struck by how many tell me about the quiet, constant giving of time, attention, consolation and affection, the difficulties endured with a smile, the scrimping and saving, the small ordinary gestures done for the other, and the realization of how much the other sacrifices each day. These gestures are the summary expressions of a gift, the gift of love.

The human love between a man and woman, and between family members and friends and neighbors, is a beautiful thing, yet when our human love is combined with divine love, it is still greater. When God is included, our own love is magnified.

While we live in a culture where commitment is valued less and less, nevertheless there is a deep-seated longing of the human heart and a hope for fulfillment in human love. Christian families can respond to that need with the testimony of their lives, which shows that love can indeed bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

The family is meant to be an essential element in a civilization of love. In this respect, the family – husband and wife, parent and child, sister and brother, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – are meant to be a model, a microcosm, of all of humanity. As important as this task is, it requires no special programs or burdensome budgets. It requires small and simple acts of self-giving. It requires that families be true to what God, who is Love, made them to be.

Papal Visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008

September 10th, 2015

Photo Credit: Paul Fetters

As we prepare to host Pope Francis as he comes to the United States later this month, the exhilarating visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 still remains in our memories as a moment of grace for the Church of Washington and for our nation.

The theme of Pope Benedict’s apostolic journey to the United States was “Christ our hope,” that in the Risen Jesus, we are saved, and he proclaimed this hope in his homily at the Mass at Nationals Park. “As the successor of Peter, I have come to America to confirm you, my brothers and sisters, in the faith of the Apostles,” he said. “I have come to proclaim anew, as Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost, that Jesus Christ is Lord and Messiah, risen from the dead.”

Throughout his visit to our city and to our country – indeed throughout his pontificate – Pope Benedict was truly a witness to Christ our hope. “Through the surpassing power of Christ’s grace, entrusted to frail human ministers, the Church is constantly reborn and each of us is given the hope of a new beginning,” he continued. “Let us trust in the Spirit’s power to inspire conversion, to heal every wound, to overcome every division, and to inspire new life and freedom. How much we need these gifts!”

With his message of Christian hope, everywhere Pope Benedict went, he was greeted with cheering crowds. Catholic schoolchildren serenaded the Holy Father outside the Apostolic Nunciature, singing “Happy birthday” to him in German on the morning of his 81st birthday, and people lined the streets to see him in the Popemobile. Later, I heard from so many people – including many who are not Catholic – of how his presence and message so positively affected them. I was told that many people decided to return to the practice of the faith, and many were inspired to vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

When Pope Benedict met with President George W. Bush at the White House, he spoke of how freedom, particularly religious freedom, has marked the American experience. Later, the Holy Father told the U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that, in the face of the serious challenges of secularism, materialism and individualism, “any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”

Urging us to the New Evangelization, the Pope then said, “What is needed above all, at this time in the history of the Church in America, is a renewal of that apostolic zeal which inspires her shepherds actively to seek out the lost, to bind up those who have been wounded, and to bring strength to those who are languishing.” Pope Benedict likewise beseeched Catholic educators to bear witness to hope by revitalizing the Catholic identity of their institutions. In this way, he said, our Catholic schools “become places in which God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ’s ‘being for others.’”

Pope Benedict would also participate in an interfaith prayer service at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (now the Saint John Paul II National Shrine). After traveling to New York, he addressed the United Nations, celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium, gave hope to young people with disabilities, inspired seminarians and young people at a rally, and offered prayers at Ground Zero.

The Holy Father’s pastoral visit to Washington and to the Church in the United States in 2008 was a blessing for all of us, offering a time of spiritual renewal as he brought us Christ and his Gospel of love and hope. Each of his talks and homilies are worthy of continued reflection.

We still remember and hold in our hearts his words at Nationals Park: “Those who have hope must live different lives! (cf. Spe Salvi, 2). By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way toward that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior. To him be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen!”

Pope Benedict inspired us to continue the challenge to make all things new in Christ, our hope. Like the Apostles before us, we are Jesus’ witnesses to the world, and we can share his love and truth in our everyday lives in our homes, our schools, our workplaces and our communities.

Our Gift to Mary on the Feast of Her Nativity

September 7th, 2015
Nativity of the Blessed Mother

The Birth of the Virgin Mary by Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Tomorrow is an unusual observance in the life of the Church. We celebrate the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Why is this unusual? After all, it seems absolutely natural to celebrate a birthday, in fact, some might say it would be unusual not to celebrate the birthday of a beloved family member or friend. On the other hand, in our liturgical life, it is more typical for saints to be honored for the day they were “born” into heaven, rather than when they were born into the world.

Since Mary was always sinless, she is honored even for her birth on earth and her Immaculate Conception, which we celebrated nine months ago, on December 8, as well as her entry into heaven on the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15. Like every Marian feast, we celebrate Our Lady’s nativity because it tells us something about Jesus.

The Church’s attention to Mary – our love for her – is based on her relationship to Jesus Christ. Her son is God’s eternal Word who came to dwell among us, when he was born of Mary. Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord, is the feast we celebrate to tell the story of how Jesus came to reveal to us who God is, to teach us the meaning of life, and to help us live.

One of the reasons we celebrate birthdays is to honor what makes the person with the birthday so special to us. Last year, on this feast of the Nativity of Mary, Pope Francis took up this theme and pointed out that one special gift of Mary is what she teaches us about being helpful.

We learn in the Gospel of Luke that after her visit from the Archangel Gabriel, Mary “went with haste” to be with her cousin Elizabeth and to lend a hand in all of the preparations that come along with preparing for the birth of a baby. Pope Francis points out that this “helpfulness” is an act of discipleship. Jesus too, calls all of his followers to be ready to help. “Making a difference and helping others does not have to be done on a grand scale, he said, but entails doing everyday things ‘with tenderness and mercy’” (Angelus Address, September 7, 2014).

We also celebrate birthdays by offering gifts, and so I would like to invite you to consider giving Our Blessed Mother a very special gift this year. Many of you learned at Mass this past weekend of the present we hope to give Pope Francis in the form of a pledge to #WalkWithFrancis. If you made a pledge, thank you! If you were out of town over the weekend, I invite you to visit WalkWithFrancis.org and make a gift of prayer, service or action in love of Jesus and to honor Mary by following her example. Whether you made the pledge at Mass or online, I encourage you to ask a friend to accompany us in celebrating Mary’s birthday by also joining our pledge drive.

When Pope Francis spoke of Mary’s attitude of helpfulness, he pointed out how easy it is when we see something that needs to be done, when we are faced with the reality of very serious and large challenges – such as the care for the environment or the violence plaguing our cities this summer or the persecution of our Christian sisters and brothers in the Middle East – to sit back and think that someone else will take care of it. The giving of ourselves through the #WalkWithFrancis initiative is an opportunity to be that someone else. Moreover, helping the people we encounter in our neighborhoods and streets or volunteering at Catholic Charities or praying for suffering Christian refugees and urging public leaders to act to protect them or helping to bring peace to our neighborhoods are all small but important steps in imitation Jesus’ life of self-giving love.

What a wonderful gift it would be in honor of Mary’s birthday if each of us was to take a few minutes today to thank our Lord Jesus for the gift of his Mother and then model our own lives after her life of love and service.

Papal Visit of Saint John Paul II in 1979

September 3rd, 2015
Photo Credit: The Catholic University of America

Photo Credit: The Catholic University of America

The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to the nation’s capital will mark the third time the Archdiocese of Washington has been honored to host our Chief Shepherd, following the visit of Saint John Paul II in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI seven years ago in 2008.

In October 1979, just one year after becoming pope, Saint John Paul undertook a breathtaking apostolic journey to the United States, visiting six cities, including a two-day visit to Washington. Cardinal William Baum – who died this past July 23 at the age of 88 – was Archbishop of Washington at that time. He summarized the visit here as a “moment of grace.” Meanwhile, the cover of Time magazine was emblazoned with Pope’s picture and the words “John Paul, Superstar.”

While here, Saint John Paul became the first pontiff to visit the White House, where he was welcomed by President Jimmy Carter, and he spoke with diplomats at the Organization of American States as well. At a Mass for clergy at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle, the Holy Father urged people to look to Mary as our model and mother, just as, during a visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he entrusted the Church in this country to our Blessed Mother. The Pope also met with women religious there, in addition to addressing Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America, and praying with ecumenical leaders at Trinity College’s Notre Dame Chapel.

Throughout his visit, Saint John Paul would hear the electric cheers, “JP2, we love you,” particularly when he met students of Catholic University who held an all-night prayer vigil awaiting his arrival. In the face of the many social and personal challenges that he knew weighed on their souls, he said to them, “It is only in God – in Jesus, God made man – that you will fully understand what you are. He will unveil to you the true greatness of yourselves: that you are redeemed by him and taken up in his love.”

The culmination of the Pope’s visit was the historic Mass he celebrated on the National Mall with 175,000 people. Visitors to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine who view a special exhibit on his life and legacy can look at a video monitor and see and hear the Pope give his homily during that Mass. With a strong yet caring voice, he encourages people to stand up for the dignity of human life in all its stages, and also to stand up for marriage and family life. It was Respect Life Sunday and, like Pope Francis today, Pope John Paul was preparing at the time for an upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family.

“I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life – from the moment of conception and through all subsequent stages – is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God,” said the Holy Father. “And so, we will stand up every time that human life is threatened. When the sacredness of life before birth is attacked, we will stand up and proclaim that no one ever has the authority to destroy unborn life. . . . When the institution of marriage is abandoned to human selfishness or reduced to a temporary, conditional arrangement that can easily be terminated, we will stand up and affirm the indissolubility of the marriage bond. . . . When the sick, the aged or the dying are abandoned in loneliness, we will stand up and proclaim that they are worthy of love, care and respect.”

At a time when human life, marriage and family are so threatened, we need to hear again Saint John Paul’s timely and timeless message on our mission to proclaim the Gospel of life. His words likewise show, as we prepare to welcome Pope Francis to our nation’s capital, how fitting it is for all of us to take up the challenge to “Walk with Francis” through prayer, charitable service and action to build up the common good.

Saint John Paul II left us a great legacy from his visit here. Looking back at that time of grace, we are inspired to join with this great Pope in proclaiming the Good News to our broader human family: “through Christ, all human life has been redeemed” (Mass on the National Mall).

World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

September 1st, 2015
PHOTO CREDIT: CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, EPA

PHOTO CREDIT: CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, EPA

“Praise be to you, my Lord.” With these prayerful words, Pope Francis begins his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, which he concludes also with prayer. Now our Holy Father has instituted a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation to be celebrated annually on September 1 in conjunction with the custom of the Orthodox Church.

In his letter establishing this day, Pope Francis says that it “will offer individual believers and communities a fitting opportunity to reaffirm their personal vocation to be stewards of creation, to thank God for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care, and to implore his help for the protection of creation as well as his pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live” (Letter of August 6, 2015). Accordingly, in communion with our Holy Father, the parishes, schools, ministries and faithful of the archdiocesan Church of Washington are asked to observe this day in an appropriate way.

We may be tempted to believe that the environmental challenges before us – including pollution, water shortages, and other forms of ecological degradation which have profound effects on the human family – are beyond our ability to make a difference. All of us, however, can at least pray. Moreover, if we are to be faithful stewards and protectors of our common home and each other, before anything else, such prayer is essential.

As Pope Francis explains: “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (Laudato Si’, 66). How effective would our efforts be if God were relegated to secondary status or left out of this equation altogether?

Pope Francis affirms that the “ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things,” and he teaches us that “human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator” (Laudato Si’, 83). Our efforts must begin and end with communion in the Lord.

Our small acts of prayer, seemingly insignificant, find power in the fact that we pray in Christ’s name. When Jesus offered his disciples the instruction on prayer to the Father, he revealed to them the generosity of his love. “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-15). We do not endure the struggles of the human condition alone, with success or failure depending entirely on our own personal efforts. Through the gift of the Spirit, the Lord gives us help to meet the challenges of the day.

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation.” There are many ways that each of us can observe this World Day of Prayer. We find the fullest expression of the Universal Church at prayer in the Mass. Here also we see how the Eucharist “embraces and penetrates all creation” – through God’s goodness, the gifts we offer, fruit of the earth and work of human hands, become for us the Body and Blood of Christ (Laudato Si’, 236).

Our Holy Father is asking that we orient our hearts to cooperate with God’s design in our relationship with one another and with the natural world. Another way to observe this day is to simply find some time to get out amongst nature, even if it is a small city park. Behold the birds in the sky and the wild flowers in all their splendor (Matthew 6:26-28), see in the person by you a sister or brother, and sing praise to God for the glory of his creation (Psalm 104). You might also take this opportunity for a reflective and prayerful reading of sacred scripture, Laudato Si’ or other Church teachings on the environment.

The Archdiocese of Washington has prepared a number of resources, including a study guide on the encyclical, to help people learn how they can better respond to the call to take care of creation, our common home. These may be found at www.adw.org/creation. Join us also on social media, using #CultivatingCreation, as we share our commitment and experience the solidarity that comes from praying as a community. Through our prayers, and God’s grace, the world can be transformed.

Who is the Pope?

August 31st, 2015

Pope Francis

The anticipation is growing for the visit of Pope Francis in just a few short weeks. Indeed, from the moment he first greeted the world from the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, our Holy Father has generated excitement.

He has been featured on the covers of many magazines, including Rolling Stone, he was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, he very nearly was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and millions of people have come out to see him, pray with him, and celebrate Mass with him during his apostolic journeys. His visit here in the United States will be no exception.

Why is Pope Francis so popular? Why does he continue to have this drawing power even when admittedly not everybody lives out the faith fully?

To be sure, part of it is because he is Francis, a man with an engaging personality. He is a modest, good, gentle pastor and people sense that he is “one of us.” But it is more than personality. He is popular also because he is Pope. And that raises the question of: What is the Pope? Why is he so important?

Around the magnificent and imposing Michelangelo dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, above the place where tradition and excavation tell us Peter himself is buried, is the Latin inscription proclaiming the words of Jesus to Simon the fisherman: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

Saint Peter was the first pope, and the Lord established his Church on this foundation rock to ensure that each subsequent generation would have the opportunity to hear of his kingdom, to know his Gospel and to receive his invitation to follow him. Jesus chose him and the other Apostles and charged them and their successors with the responsibility of teaching the true faith, making sure that it is presented clearly and applied it to the problems and needs of the day.

The word “pope” is derived from the Italian “papa” or father, and throughout the Book of Acts, we see Peter acting consistently as a father in his role as chief shepherd. When Peter was martyred in Rome during the time of the persecution by the Emperor Nero, a successor as pope was chosen, Saint Linus. When he died, another successor was chosen, and so on through the ages.

Today, Peter bears the name Francis, who has his own particular style, but the Petrine ministry and teaching remain the same. The pope is the one we turn to when we want to know what it is that Jesus says to us, and he offers us direction and guidance so that we will be able to be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our faith.

With this understanding that the pope, as Successor to Peter, is the touchstone that keeps us in contact with the truth of divine revelation entrusted to the Apostles, an unbroken line of continuity, who is this particular pope? Who is Francis?

The former Archbishop of Buenos Aires was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. When asked by a journalist to describe himself, he responded, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner” (America magazine, September 25, 2013). Pope Francis’ words are not empty humility but the true posture required of any follower of Jesus Christ. We are sinners in need of a savior.

This description of himself also explains our Holy Father’s great emphasis on God’s mercy and our need to go out to others, particularly those who are wounded in this world, and bring them an experience of God’s merciful love. This humility, together with Pope Francis’ example of living the Gospel in a great simplicity, is a beacon of hope and encouragement to people all over the world.

Our Holy Father is also the first Pope who comes from the New World. The word “Catholic” is from the Latin meaning “universal,” and to have a Chief Shepherd from the Americas demonstrates how the focus of the Church is worldwide. The Church is involved in and concerned with every part of the globe, with providing an outreach and care for people with many types of needs, both material and spiritual.

This is an exciting time as we look forward to the arrival of Pope Francis. This great joy and hope come from the continuity that he has with Peter and therefore Jesus Christ, and also from the freshness in which he lives the Gospel – ever ancient, ever new.

Saint Augustine and the Seeker of Today

August 28th, 2015

St. Augustine

Today’s saint is one that people of the modern age can readily identify with. To hear the story of his early life, you might think he was living today. In fact, he lived 1,600 years ago. He is Saint Augustine.

Born and raised in North Africa to a Catholic mother, Saint Monica, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, and a non-Christian father, young Augustine was a seeker. Like many young people of our time, or any time, he wondered about the meaning of his life. He wanted above all to know truth and to love and be loved.

Augustine is now honored as one of the great saints of the Church. It was he who laid theological foundations for so much of the Church’s doctrine and is the writer most often cited in the Catechism. All of these achievements, however, would have surprised the neighbors and friends of the young Augustine. As he recounts in his autobiographical Confessions, he had scoffed at the Catholic faith and put off his baptism even though he was told early in life that he could find all his answers in Christ and his Church. Meanwhile, he searched for those answers in all the wrong places.

Though brilliant even in his youth, Augustine was prideful and inclined toward trouble. He took up the student occupation of carousing in addition to study, and sometimes did what he knew to be wrong just for the thrill of it. In his thirst for love, he was caught up instead in worldly desire. When he started to settle down, instead of marrying, he and his girlfriend moved in together and they had a child out of wedlock. At the same time, in his hunger for truth and meaning, he embraced a succession of falsehoods, taking up one belief system after another only to reject them when he found their promises empty.

Through all of this, Augustine did not find happiness or fulfillment, but misery. Sound familiar? How many people today are similarly on the throes of despair upon finding that what the culture offers – secularism, materialism, and individualism – is actually shallow and unsatisfying?

Augustine described his situation this way: “I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in God but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion and error” (Confessions, I:20, (R.S. Pine-Coffin translation)). Eventually, thanks to various influences, not the least of which were the fervent prayers of his mother, Augustine would turn in the right direction.

The scriptures he had so quickly dismissed in his youth began to speak to him when he heard them explained in a new way by Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. When he began to open his heart, he discovered that the Catholic faith was not what he erroneously supposed it to be (Confessions, V:10, VI:3). Here he would find the truth that he was searching for – or more precisely, he allowed himself to be found by the Truth.

Augustine had at last discovered, as he would famously say, that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him (Confessions, I:1). “Make your dwelling in Him, my soul,” he cried. “Entrust to Him whatever you have, for all that you have is from Him. Now, at last, tired of being misled, entrust to the Truth all that the Truth has given to you and nothing will be lost. All that is withered in you will be made to thrive again. All your sickness will be healed” (Confessions, IV:11).

After a long odyssey, at the age of 32 in the year 387, Augustine was baptized. He would go on to be one of the greatest of theologians in the Church, as well as the bishop of Hippo.

The story of Augustine’s conversion has touched people for centuries. For those young men and women in today’s culture who are seeking answers to the great questions of life – only to feel all too often as if you are being “tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery” (Ephesians 4:14) – Augustine offers great hope and encouragement. We can see in his Confessions and other works that he understood the struggles that people go through. Writing in a psychologically and morally astute way, he also spoke often and beautifully of God’s mercy and grace.

If we simply trust and believe, Augustine advised, the Lord will help us to understand (Tractate 29:6). If we simply open our hearts to God, he will give us the truth and love we so desperately seek and need.

Teachers with Soul

August 24th, 2015

Back to School Mass

Today, I have the great privilege of marking the opening of the academic year by celebrating the Mass of the Holy Spirit with teachers and administrators of our Catholic schools. This joyous celebration is an opportunity to invoke the blessings of the Spirit and also for me to express my gratitude for the thousands of teachers and school employees who work with great effort to make our schools excellent institutes of learning and formation. While the teachers differ in their specific areas of expertise, what they share in common is that they are some of the most important witnesses to the faith that our young people encounter.

Pope Francis emphasized this influence when he shared with a group of teachers that “the influence of a Catholic educator depends more on what he is as a person and the way he lives than what he says” (Message on the Occasion of the International Study Seminar, May 14, 2015). Our Holy Father reminds us that the vocation of teaching is rooted in the baptismal vocation of the Christian witness. Baptism gives each believer an apostolic vocation. In his apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, we read that a defining characteristic of a witness is the sense that their work is part of their identity and mission. Pope Francis calls teachers with this sensibility, “teachers with soul,” teachers who testify to the Gospel by words and by acts (Evangelii Gaudium, 273).

The more active one is in the apostolate to which we are all called – for example, as a teacher, catechists or as a parent – the more important it is that one’s work be rooted in the obedience of faith, in full openness to the teachings of Christ and his Church. This year at the Mass, we will highlight the mission of our educators through a commissioning rite that provides an opportunity for each teacher to renew his or her own commitment to the Lord and his Church. The teachers will be able to affirm their commitment to serve and continue to grow as missionary disciples of the Lord, recognizing their important role participating in the ministry and mission of his Church. This affirmation in word will be accompanied by a commitment to act.

Educators will also be asked to join the thousands of people across the archdiocese who have taken the Walk with Francis Pledge. In partnership with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, we want to make a gift to our Holy Father when he visits us here of all the pledges to follow him in being generous in our service and care of the most vulnerable and our common home, and of our souls in prayer and worship.

Our hope is that teachers will pledge to serve together as a faculty, with their students and with their friends and families. In this way, they model for all of our young people the joy of service and the vitality of a church that brings the joy of the Gospel to all parts of our communities.

If, like me, you are inspired by the dedication of our Catholic educators, join me in offering a prayer today that God blesses the work of the upcoming academic year. Please also visit WalkWithFrancis.org and consider honoring the teacher that most inspired you by taking the pledge in his or her honor. And then pass the word on social media, including #WalkwithFrancis, and encourage a friend, neighbor or co-worker to do the same.