“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:25).
For about three months, culminating on Easter Sunday, I took part in a spiritual program for Catholic men focused on prayer, ascetism, and fraternity. During this program, men ‘unplug’ from the world, deny themselves, and live in a specifically intentional way for the Kingdom of God.
This journey requires men to participate in fraternity with other men, read Scripture and reflections each day, spend at least 30 minutes in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament, and then other things, including: no social media, no computer or phone if not for work or other mandatory tasks like paying bills, taking a cold shower every morning, no sweets, no snacking between meals, no alcohol, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, no watching sports, and fasting and abstaining from meat every Wednesday and Friday.
This is a journey through the Book of Exodus alongside Moses and the Israelites as they escape slavery in Egypt and learn how to live in true freedom in the Promised Land. The Book of Exodus is a brilliant metaphor for the modern man, called to a freedom rooted in the ability to choose the good for the sake of God and His Kingdom as opposed to a having a ‘false freedom’ and being a slave to desires and passions.
Receiving screen time reports on my iPhone each week made me realize how much of a slave I am to my cell phone – to social media, to sports, to instant gratification. I desired to free myself from my phone in a radical way, which this program helped me achieve. This is just one example of how this journey invited me to restructure my day and rid myself of lazy habits.
This journey was hard: the first few weeks were hard; the last few weeks were hard. I wasn’t perfect at maintaining all of the disciplines of the program. I can recall starting the cold water for the shower in the morning and letting it run for 5 minutes trying to pump myself up to jump in. This happened many times. But after 3 or 4 weeks, I was jumping right in. The old adage is true: First we make our habits, then our habits make us. The more we exercise true freedom – denying ourselves and making choices that counter our desire for comfort – the easier it is to live in freedom.
Feeling much more liberated, I still do not have any social media apps on my phone, I take a cold shower from time to time, and prayer time is a staple of my daily routine. Making these types of continued choices is not easy, and that is why participating in community with the Body of Christ – much like the disciples did— is essential to continued spiritual growth. Though each choice and discipline of this program is deeply personal, a community of like-minded men working through the same disciplines in their own right was a crucial element of this process. This community allowed me to give and receive motivation and encouragement and ensured that the disciplines were being completed in a physically and spiritually healthy way. This is why the Church, in her wisdom, has encouraged the formal development of many religious communities – such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Pallottines. I believe this is also why the Church today is stressing Collaboration and Co-Responsibility in ministry. The journey to heaven is not one that should be walked alone. I would encourage you, in whatever spiritual journey you undertake for God and his Kingdom, to do so in community.
Question for Reflection: Have you ever participated in a spiritual program, conference, or retreat that had a positive impact on your faith?
This Sunday the Church celebrates the Feast of Divine Mercy, a fairly new feast day in the Church. Pope St. John Paul II, who declared Divine Mercy Sunday formally in 2000, stated that, “This [day] is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.” I never understood that phrase more than when I went on pilgrimage to Poland.
In the summer of 2016, I had the privilege of going to Krakow for World Youth Day. The pilgrimage was filled with many graces that I am still unpacking today. 2016 was declared an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis, and World Youth Day was held in the country where the Divine Mercy devotion was birthed. Mercy and grace surely abounded that year.
Early in the trip, we experienced a day that weighed heavy on our hearts. Our group leader announced that we would make a morning trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum. As a group we made the decision that, as a sign of respect for the more than one million people who lost their lives at that dark place, we would not speak while we were on the grounds. The silent walk through the memorial shook me to the core. The sadness was hard to comprehend, and the absence of God felt real. As we were nearing the end of the memorial, we came upon a tablet that read the same quote in different languages from all over the world. The quote began like this, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…” That was my experience of the memorial: a cry of despair.
After we returned to the bus, we departed for the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy, where St. Maria Faustina Kowalska lived and is now buried. A basilica has been built as a shrine for Divine Mercy at the Sanctuary and was named “the Capitol of the Divine Mercy devotion” by St. John Paul II. The juxtaposition between Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Divine Mercy Shrine were too extreme for my heart. I was unprepared for the transition from a witness of utter despair to complete hope.
Still in agony over our morning visit, I waited in line to get into the chapel where St. Faustina was laid to rest. In the chapel, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was also taking place. I was apprehensive to sit in the quiet with Our Lord and at the same time ready for some answers from Him. I walked into the chapel and received my answer from a familiar image hanging inside. In the chapel where St. Faustina is buried was a huge image that seemed to be made exactly for my desolate heart: the image of Divine Mercy; the image which came to St. Faustina in an apparition. It displays Christ in his glory blessing the world with one hand and touching his heart with the other. Two large rays beam out from his heart: one red and one white.
There was Jesus with His open hands and open heart, summoning me. Jesus looked as if He was walking towards me, coming to me with His merciful love. The rays of red and white, representing the blood and water that come from His wounds, revealed His heart that desires to reach all of His children and reached me in that moment. Flowing from the heart of Jesus was the hope that was seemingly lost at Auschwitz and in the hearts of millions during WWII. For me, this was the answer to despair.
At that moment I realized that although I have never experienced—and could never fathom—the suffering within the walls of that concentration camp, I could see that Christ’s mercy triumphs over all despair. It was triumphant during His perfect sacrifice on the Cross, and three days later at His Resurrection. Christ’s mercy does not hesitate to pierce our hearts, especially during times of suffering or despair in our lives. He only asks us to trust in that perfect mercy.
Jesus asked St. Faustina to share with the leaders of the Church his desire that the first Sunday after Easter be declared and celebrated as the Feast of Mercy. It is no coincidence that St. Faustina died less than one year prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Perhaps Jesus appeared to her when He did because he anticipated the great need for mercy to flow over the world. Christ knows us, and longs to let His love and mercy pierce our hearts. He only asks us to trust in His sacrifice, His love, and His desire to know us and to be known by us deeply and intimately. When Christ revealed the image of Divine Mercy to Faustina, He asked for the image to be inscribed with three words: “Jezu, ufam Tobie” – “Jesus, I Trust in You.” As we celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy this Sunday, let us trust in His infinite mercy and in His infinite love.
Question for Reflection: How do you see God’s mercy alive in Scripture, history, or everyday life?
To learn more about the Jubilee Year of Mercy, please click here.
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."-John 6:51
This Sunday, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the feast commemorating the institution of the Eucharist.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus says the words above after performing the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. When he states these words, Jesus has already been preaching and healing as part of his ministry for some time. He has performed many miracles and healed many people. He has taught in synagogues and given the Sermon on the Mount. He has accrued a steady following and fostered great interest throughout Judea and Galilee. Now, Jesus takes his teaching to the next level by beginning his discourse on his real presence in the Eucharist.
In this discourse, Jesus says exactly what he means. He does not haphazardly preach or simply say what the people wish to hear. Jesus is not concerned about whether his teaching will offend others or be misinterpreted—so much so that he does not recant his words even after many of his followers decide to abandon him because of this teaching. When he is questioned about his words, rather than hastily coming up with an explanation or saying that he is only speaking figuratively, Jesus instead becomes even more precise in his language.
In order to ensure that those around him fully understand the seemingly baffling words he has just stated, Jesus reiterates and continues more solemnly, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” If those listening to him had any misconception or misunderstanding, Jesus makes his point abundantly clear. The same God who created the world through the Word now speaks words that will ultimately form a new creation: bread and wine transformed into his Body and Blood. As St. Ambrose asks, “Could not Christ's word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before?” (CCC 1375)
Why did Jesus institute the Eucharist, which we celebrate today?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that he did so “in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet 'in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.'"
Christ’s words come before the sacrifice on the Cross but are meant to instruct his followers regarding God’s promise of salvation. Just as Adam and Eve fell by the consumption of food, we are saved by the consumption of food—bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s a beautiful similarity. Although his Passion completely took on the burden of sin and opened the doors of heaven back to mankind, Jesus loves humanity so much that he cannot bear to “leave us orphans” (cf John 14:18). As a result, he remains with us in the Eucharist, which renews his sacrifice on the Cross at every Mass and allows us to consume him. Christ knows that, “Besides physical hunger, man experiences another hunger, a hunger that cannot be satiated with ordinary food. It’s a hunger for life, a hunger for love, a hunger for eternity.” He appeases this hunger for life by giving us life itself, this hunger for love with love itself, this hunger for eternity with eternity itself. We need God himself in order to be satiated.
Pope Francis said in his Corpus Christi homily in 2014 that, “The Eucharist communicates the Lord’s love for us: a love so great that it nourishes us with Himself; a freely given love, always available to every person who hungers and needs to regenerate his own strength.”
This communication of love for us is abundant and humbling. Christ gives us himself every single time we attend Mass or visit the Blessed Sacrament in order to regenerate our strength on the journey towards heaven. Having taken “the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance,” Jesus knows the struggles and hardships of mankind. Jesus knows our hunger (cf Phil 2:7). And so he feeds us, sustains us, and nourishes us with himself.
“The Church and the world have a great need for Eucharistic worship. Jesus awaits us in this sacrament of love,” John Paul II wrote in Dominicae cenae. Will you meet him there? Will you allow him to satiate your hunger?
Let us close with this prayer from Pope Francis:
Jesus, defend us from the temptation of worldly food which enslaves us, tainted food; purify our memory, so it isn’t imprisoned in selfish and worldly selectivity, but that it may be a living memory of your presence throughout the history of your people, a memory that makes a “monument” of your gesture of redeeming love. Amen.
Question for Reflection: What are some worldly foods that may be preventing you from more fully receiving Jesus in the Eucharist?
Smart and good looking, “Norbert’s eyes and ears were open only for things of the world,” as one biographer put it. That ended one summer day when a sudden storm dropped a lightning bolt at the feet of the horse Norbert was riding. The lightning scorched the grass and spooked his horse, throwing the young German nobleman to the ground.
Waking up an hour later, Norbert felt the emptiness of his life flash before his eyes. Norbert said, “Lord, what would you have me do?” The answer he heard was, “Turn from evil and do good; seek after peace, and pursue it (Ps 34:14).” Norbert traded his velvet overcoat for a hair shirt—and a saint was in the making.
Norbert went on to become Archbishop of Magdeburg (Germany) and founder of the Order of Praemonstratensians (named for Prémontré, France)—also called Norbertines.
Norbert is known as the Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament and is often portrayed holding a ciborium. This portrayal is fitting because Norbert spent his life promoting devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist during an age in which this truth was challenged. It’s also fitting because Norbert became what all Christians are called to be—a living ciborium in whom Jesus has increased while we have decreased (cf John 3:30).
As we anticipate next week’s Feast of Corpus Christi, we look to Norbert as an example of what a Eucharistic life looks like. Norbert modeled the Eucharistic Jesus in four powerful ways.
The Eucharistic Jesus is Hidden
Jesus hides himself as a little piece of bread in the Eucharist. Following a vision of the Blessed Virgin, Norbert built his first monastery in what one historian called “the desert of Prémontré,” north of Paris. Everyone thought he was foolish to found the Order in such a remote, hidden, and barren place, but he trusted that it would, in God’s time, bear abundant fruit for the Kingdom.
The Eucharistic Jesus is Humble
After his election as Archbishop, Norbert made his way in penitential attire to the Episcopal Palace, where the porter rudely shut the door in his face, thinking he was a tramp. When the porter realized his mistake, Norbert only smiled and said, “Fear not, my good man, for you know me better than all those who have raised me to this high dignity.”
The Eucharistic Jesus is Vulnerable to Misunderstanding
Norbert was fearless in speaking truth in an era of laxity. Shortly after his conversion, he told his confreres in the monastery in what ways they were not living up to the holiness of their calling. He converted some and, not surprisingly, was attacked by many. When he was Archbishop, a resentful mob even threatened to kill him. “Calumny,” Norbert told his followers, “is the test of a patient and generous heart, which bears with it rather than to give up working for God.”
The Eucharistic Jesus Gives Himself to be Consumed by Those He Loves
Norbert’s perseverance in self-giving is legendary. He walked barefoot in the winter from Germany to France (where he received a mission to preach from Pope Gelasius himself), never taking food until evening except on Sundays and never going anywhere except to preach conversion of heart and reform of morals. At the end of his life, he was in extreme pain and emaciated from fasting and fever, having spent himself for the glory of God and the good of souls. Still, he roused himself to celebrate Easter Mass, the last of his life.
Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” St. Norbert’s life was a thanksgiving for God’s stunning mercy in having saved him from the hell-bound path of his youth. He reminds us to remain grateful for God’s mercy so we become ever more inspired to pour ourselves out in imitation of the Eucharistic Jesus.
St. Norbert, pray for us!
Who was it that claimed the Church is irrelevant to young people? Who was it that claimed young people did not seek or yearn for Christ? My experience of World Youth Day (WYD) has shown me otherwise. WYD is the largest gathering of Catholic young adults in a series of events sponsored by the Church. First initiated by St. John Paul II in 1985, WYD is celebrated at the diocesan level annually and at the international level every two to three years at different locations around the world. People do not attend as tourists, but rather as pilgrims, since the nature of the composite events are religious in character. Typically, pilgrims will arrange lodging in the host city before participating in the opening ceremonies, catechesis, and cultural exhibitions. Taking advantage of all the host city has to offer, pilgrims will usually also spend time exploring the region (especially churches), shopping for religious souvenirs, and tasting the local cuisine… and very rarely alone! As the locals are quick to notice, the host city will be absolutely inundated with pilgrim groups, each identified by various flags, shirts, and chants. In spite of the inconveniences experienced (such as crowds, traffic, and long lines), for the most part, the locals are excited to greet so many peoples; local businesses are especially happy to cater to the pilgrims’ needs.
The focus of WYD events centers around the arrival of the pope: everyone wants to hear what the Holy Father has to say to the young pilgrims at various sites and events. Traditionally, the Holy Father will address crowds from his residence, during Masses, Stations of the Cross, and the overnight vigil during which millions camp out together in prayer. The conclusion of the Vigil Mass the following day signals the end of the official WYD program, though at that time the next host city is formally announced.
I’ve been blessed to have been able to attend two World Youth Days, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013 and in Kraków, Poland this year. So much more than a sightseeing trip, WYD for me has been all about seeing how God’s love for us manifests itself in each culture. Encountering millions of young believers (in addition to curious observers) who are inherently joyful in their witnesses to the Lord, I am especially delighted to see them interact with each other through songs, chants, prayers, and games during scheduled events or out in the streets. For me, some of the most powerful witnesses given happened outside of the official program (though seeing millions kneel before the Blessed Sacrament with lit candles during the vigil was indescribably moving). I remember seeing a group of Italian pilgrims run over to help a local disabled man carry groceries up a number of street stairs; another group immediately rushed to comfort a female pilgrim who had broken down during our 12 kilometer (about 7.5 miles) hike from the site of the overnight vigil. Simple acts of love like that really touched me as being authentically Christian: to love in even the smallest matters and, by doing so, answering the call given at the end of Mass, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Pope Francis gave many beautiful and encouraging addresses to those assembled in Poland, but I was most impacted by an action of his. At the beginning of Mass at the great Shrine of Czestochowa, Pope Francis missed a stair step and fell, thankfully uninjured. He later explained that, "I was watching (an image of) the Madonna, and I forgot the step." He literally fell for Our Lady. When I heard the news, I remembered a similar experience of my tripping on the stairs upon seeing a lovely peer of mine go by. To have that ineffably tender and peaceful focus on the Blessed Mother, to be in awe of the Virgin, reflects the perfect love God has for her and for each of us.
WYD may have ended, but the mission entrusted to the young pilgrims by Pope Francis still burns in our hearts:
Launch us on the adventure of mercy! Launch us on the adventure of building bridges and tearing down walls, barriers and barbed wire. Launch us on the adventure of helping the poor, those who feel lonely and abandoned, or no longer find meaning in their lives. Send us, like Mary of Bethany, to listen attentively to those we do not understand, those of other cultures and peoples, even those we are afraid of because we consider them a threat. Make us attentive to our elders, as Mary of Nazareth was to Elizabeth, in order to learn from their wisdom.
May each of us always endeavor to accomplish it!
To learn more about World Youth Day, please click here.
For more World Youth Day reflections, please click here.
In his final words as Supreme Pontiff, Benedict XVI reminded us from the balcony of Castel Gandolfo that he was “simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on Earth.” In doing so, he reminded us, the faithful, that we too are on an earthly pilgrimage. Benedict’s goal, as well as ours, is the Kingdom of Heaven. As pilgrims, we travel around and seek the ways that will lead us to our destination. Though at times we go down the wrong path, we trust that, having faith in God, He will always bring us back to our goal, to be with Him. Thus, we are truly a “Pilgrim Church,” a community of believers on a voyage to Christ.
This past Sunday, we celebrated the great solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, also known as Corpus Christi. The history of the feast goes back all the way to the early 1200s in modern day Belgium. St. Juliana of Liege, a Norbertine canoness, had a vision of a full moon with a dark spot. The spot, she believed, represented the absence of a feast dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament outside the season of Lent. After reporting her visions to her confessor and bishop, the bishop instituted such a feast in the diocese in 1247. Several years later, Pope Urban IV extended the celebration to the universal church in 1261. It was he who requested St. Thomas Aquinas to write hymns for the feast day. We know them today as the Pange Lingua and Panis Angelicus. Urban successors, most especially Clement V in 1311, reinforced the original decree and promoted the observance of the feast.
One of the most beautiful and traditional aspects of the celebration is the procession of the congregation behind the Eucharist encased in a monstrance. On a personal note, this day has always been one of my favorites growing up. I loved walking with my family and friends around the church building (often stopping traffic!), all following our pastor holding the monstrance up as high as he could.
In many ways, the Corpus Christi procession mirrors our pilgrimage (our procession) on earth. Together, with other members of the faithful, we are led toward God, whose real presence on earth is in the Eucharist. The Most Blessed Sacrament is the point in which heaven and earth meet. Not only is it our guide on earth, but also our guide to heaven. Processing around, following the Eucharist is a reminder that what we do on earth can lead us to an everlasting reward. By receiving the Eucharist, we are given the strength (both spiritual and physical) to continue on our earthly journey. As St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “Per tuas semitas duc nos quo tendimus, ad lucem quam inhabitas” (By your ways lead us to where we are going, to the light where you live.)
Victor David is a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.