"Rather than seeing summer as the “down time” at a church, commit to approach the coming months with the intention of fostering experiences of active service, quiet prayer and contemplation, and stimulating intellectual work or professional training."
Having worked at a handful of churches, I have observed that the summer is the slowest time of year for parish life. Parishioner’s schedules are all over the place, especially if there are children or teenagers involved, with vacations, camps, etc. During the summer, parish programs tend to slow down (However, some parishes will run a Vacation Bible School, or similar camp-like program).
But summer doesn’t have to be a long spiritual nap. In fact, the summer can be a very important time and opportunity for a church, especially for church staff. How you approach the summer can greatly shape the year ahead. Besides the celebration of the Mass, the summer provides a number of unique opportunities for spiritual growth in areas that aren’t always possible throughout the rest of the year. Here are a few opportunities for spiritual growth you might consider for your parish.
Parish Mission Trips
Many parishes host mission trips—whether local, national, or international. Consider prioritizing mission trips and extending the opportunities to different ages and areas. Some of my best summer memories are the trips I went on to rural Appalachia in high school. These trips instilled in me a call and love for ongoing service in my faith. Plan opportunities not only for parish staff, but also for families to serve together. Make it memorable and accessible.
Let missions be an opportunity to get beyond the model of Christian ministry as something that only happens at your church. And remember to report back on the trip through photos, stories, or results to your parish. People love hearing about the activity in their parish community. It creates a sense of energy and momentum that can get carried into fall activities, especially in a youth ministry context. A service trip provides something concrete participants can point to and share with friends, family, or parishioners. I’ve also found that the more “on the fence” parishioners that are hesitant to get involved often take that first step after seeing the fruit of service. Most importantly, participants inevitably leave with a transformed, deeper experience of their faith and a lived experience of Jesus in his ministry to the broken places in need of healing.
To find some long-term and short-term mission and service opportunities, click here.
Work at the church never stops, but it does slow down. When is the last time your staff or ministry team spent time away, even just for a day or afternoon, from the office environment together and prayed? There are gorgeous retreat centers and shrines in every state that too often only get visited in the dead of winter.
The Christian writer and philosopher Dallas Willard once said, “The greatest threat to devotion to Christ is service for Christ.” He was talking about our tendency to view prayer and contemplation as less fruitful compared to active ministry. Prayer is essential not only to any parish ministry, but to the Christian life overall. Invite your team to pray regularly or be renewed by attending a retreat. Priests are also required by Canon Law to take a retreat. Make sure your parish priest is getting the time off he needs to pray and reflect. If you or your staff is on retreat, pray for your parish priest throughout that time.
With all the conferences, classes, symposiums, etc., that happen on college campuses or churches throughout the country, summer is a great time to invest in the development of staff and volunteers. Look for opportunities to enhance your team’s intellectual and professional skills. Be flexible and open to new ideas where you and your staff can connect with other professionals or get inspired.
If your parish has room in the budget, propose a conference you are passionate about or that will help your work. If you’re a liturgy or music director, take your ministers or musicians out to see a concert of sacred music or take a tour of a cathedral or museum.
Rather than seeing summer as the “down time” at a church, commit to approach the coming months with the intention of fostering experiences of active service, quiet prayer and contemplation, and stimulating intellectual work or professional training. You might notice that rather than mustering the energy to get “back in gear” as summer draws to an end, you will feel renewed, enriched, and equipped for the “busy time” ahead. Moreover, you may draw closer to other others working at the parish and be more integrated as a staff, youth group, or ministry team. This can be a leaven to your ministry and parish for the rest of the year. Finally, make sure you have some fun while you’re at it; it is summer after all.
I recently watched a movie that’s been on my Hulu queue for some time--a 1966, mostly black and white film by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on the 15th century medieval Russian artist named Andrei Rublev. Sound exciting? Maybe not to all… but it was on the Vatican’s recommended Best Films list, so I thought it was one probably worth seeing.
Of all the magnificent works of Christian art and architecture, I believe the Russian monk and artist Andrei Rublev’s (c. ~1360–1430) icon of the Holy Trinity still stands out. For how influential the icon has been for generations of artists and theologians, it doesn’t look like much. You may have seen the icon but never heard of the Russian monk and artist, Rublev, of whom little information is known (especially after he took his vow of silence!). Those who have seen the icon may never have recognized the Trinity present in the domestic scene of three people sitting around a table. Rublev’s icon is both simple and complex.
Even though the Catechism tells us the, “mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life” (CCC 234), we may still find it difficult to imagine what difference the Trinity makes in our daily life and actions.
The Sunday after Pentecost (this May 22) celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinity Sunday for short. I’m not giving a movie review or a systematic take on the Trinity, but Andrei Rublev did serve as a reminder of the great mystery and gift of God revealed in the three persons of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rublev’s work is not simply a masterpiece of medieval Russian iconography, but also represents one of the most profound and concise theological reflections on the Trinity in history. Known by most non-Western Christians as The Hospitality of Abraham, the three persons seated around a table depicts the Old Testament scene of three angels visiting Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15) that Christian tradition sees prefiguring the Trinity fully revealed at the coming of Christ and the sending the Holy Spirit.
Andrei Tarkovsky produced Andrei Rublev and loosely based it on the life of the artist and his conviction of “Christianity as an axiom of Russia’s historical identity.” Tarkovsky’s hauntingly beautiful film, set in 15th century Russia, is not really a biography, but an exploration of the human longing for transcendence and freedom in God through faith and art in a world often characterized by the chaos and violence of sin. When first released, various scenes were censored or cut out entirely by government officials of the atheistic and authoritarian Soviet Union, whose oppressive ideology the film subtly criticized. Tarkovsky believed his Trinitarian faith led him to take risks for truth, not remain comfortably passive. It was for this reason that he produced such a compelling film.
For Rublev and Tarkovsky, the Trinity wasn’t just an abstract idea, but a power and a presence at work in the world and in every human heart. Their work highlights their belief that when we suppress God in our lives, we are cut off from the source of true freedom, beauty, creativity, and peace. Instead, the Trinitarian character of our faith should empower us to bring these qualities into every aspect of our lives- from art to politics, medicine and healthcare, business, and everything else.
Maybe the most “practical” truth about our belief in the Trinity is how it changes the way we look at things, especially our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Tarkovsky’s movie is in black and white… until towards the end when it shows Rublev’s icons. The Trinity icon is the last, and it stands out in vivid color. Artists like Rublev and Tarkovsky don’t show us what God actually looks like, but they do depict the realities of everyday as they look like through the eyes of faith.
The community of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a model of mutual affection and other-centeredness that we can apply to our relationships with friends, family members, and those we encounter. For example, in our political views, are we seeking power and influence over others, or striving for cooperation in achieving the common good? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in their respective functions of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world. Do our actions and lifestyles imitate this self-giving? By contemplating Trinitarian works of art like those of Rublev and Tarkovsky, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity helps our everyday thoughts and actions beautify and bless the world around us.
“May is Mary’s Month,” began the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, in “The May Magnificat.”
For centuries, the Catholic Church has emphasized the month of May as a time of honor and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Parishes and families often celebrate with special pilgrimages, devotions, or placing a crown on a statue of Mary, traditionally called a “May Crowning.”
On April 29, 1965, Pope Blessed Paul VI promulgated his encyclical Mense Maio (“The Month of May”), which promoted May devotions to the Blessed Mother, knowing that, “the person who encounters Mary cannot help but encounter Christ likewise” (n. 2). Despite being a lesser-known encyclical, its timing and topic are revealing. Released on the eve of the last session of the Second Vatican Council and amid escalating violence and unrest of the Vietnam War and the 1960’s, the help of Mary was “a matter of top priority” considering “the present needs of the Church and the status of world peace” (n. 3). The words of Paul VI are just as relevant today. In our contentious social and political climate, focusing on Mary is not a pious distraction from real issues, but a vital source for grace, truth, and mercy.
A Short History and Practice
May devotions to Mary began in the 13th century, but there is little information to know how it was celebrated. In it’s present form, the practice of May devotions to Mary originated within the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in the 18th century under Father Latomia of their Roman College. Shortly afterwards, devotions were adopted at the Jesuit’s mother church in Rome, the Church of the Gesù, and then began to spread throughout other area churches to the entire globe. (Pope Francis, who is also a Jesuit, has a special devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots, a phrase first attributed to St. Irenaeus of Lyons who said, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosened by the obedience of Mary”).
The image of Mary wearing a gold crown appears in early Eastern and Western iconography, drawing inspiration from the Coronation of Mary as understood in Catholic biblical tradition based on the passage from Revelation 12:1. Some churches and families participate in a special May Crowning celebration. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) first placed two crowns on the Marian icon called “Salus Populi Romani” in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major, but the crowns were later lost. On the Feast of the Assumption in 1838, Pope Gregory XVI once again added crowns in a special rite, officially starting the tradition as it is still performed today.
One reason the devotion has come to extend over the entire month is the abundance of Marian feast days in May: Mary, Queen of Apostles (Saturday before Pentecost – May 14th, this year), Our Lady of Fatima (May 13), Mary Help of Christians (May 24), and the Visitation (May 31).
Mary in May Today
Seeking Peace- Pope Paul VI’s encyclical was especially concerned with peace, invoking the “intercession and protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Peace” (n. 10). Amid ongoing persecutions and violence in many areas of the world, turning to Christ though Mary is an important way to pray that May becomes a month of peace.
Honoring the Family- Mary receives an important role in Pope Francis’ recent Exhortation Amoris Laetitia- The Joy of Love: On Love in the Family. He states, “Every family should look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth” (n. 30). Pope Francis goes on to say, “The treasury of Mary’s heart also contains the experiences of every family, which she cherishes. For this reason, she can help us understand the meaning of these experiences and to hear the message God wishes to communicate through the life of our families” (n. 30). Pope Francis reminds us that by honoring Mary, we honor Jesus and our families.
Honoring the Body- Our culture and Church desperately needs the figure of Mary before our eyes as an exemplar of the dignity and uniqueness of women, especially in light of the real and present danger of pornography. The USCCB has also created a pastoral guide regarding pornography “to raise awareness of its pervasiveness and harms.” This month, ask Mary’s intercession for an end to this destructive force, and healing for those deeply affected.
Honoring Your Mother- For good measure, May also celebrates our biological Mother’s Day (May 8, don’t forget!). Let Mary’s month be a new reason to honor and celebrate your own mother.
There is no lack of reasons to stay close to Mary this month, and throughout our lives. Find ways to honor her with your words and actions by seeking new ways to bring about mercy and peace through our churches into our hurting world.
If you attended an Easter Vigil Mass this year, then you participated in what St. Augustine called the “mother of all holy Vigils”(Sermo 219)—the day the Church receives many new Catholics through the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.
The newly baptized, or “neophytes,” (a Greek word meaning “new plant”) begin a fourth and final period of formation called mystagogy, which lasts the Easter Season until Pentecost. If you haven’t personally participated in the formal process of becoming Catholic as an adult (called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, in parishes), chances are you haven’t heard this word recently… or maybe ever.
What is Mystagogy?
Our faith needs mystagogy first and foremost because of one simple reason: we celebrate and proclaim a mystery.
As evangelists and catechists, I think it is important to recognize that for some people, the idea of religious “mystery” prima facie, conjures up images of a Da Vinci Code-esque Church shrouded in secrecy, New Age spiritualism, or even a pre-scientific belief in “magic.” But the sacraments do not initiate us into a special club or secret society. Through them, we are made participants in the life of Jesus Christ.
Faith begins and ends in mystery, most especially the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, “the central mystery of Christian faith and life . . . the source of all other mysteries of faith” (CCC 234). In the scriptures, liturgy, and sacraments, we truly encounter and participate in the Triune life of God. But no matter how intelligent or insightful we are, we will never fully wrap our minds around God’s glory or totally experience it with our five senses.
Mystagogy comes from the Greek word meaning, “to lead through the mysteries.” The Catechism describes mystagogy as a “liturgical catechesis that aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ” (CCC 1075). Mystagogy leads us from the external signs and rituals of the liturgy to the inner, spiritual meaning of the divine life they signify. Mystagogy is the form of catechesis that helps us unpack and explore the spiritual treasures contained in the sacraments by continuously reflecting on their meaning and significance in our personal lives of faith.
Mystagogy was the way the early Church Fathers embraced and trained new Christians in the practices and beliefs of the faith. Perhaps the most well known teacher of mystagogy was St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 CE), who delivered a famous series of sermons, known as “mystagogic catecheses,” during the time of Lent through the Easter Octave. After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church revitalized this ancient practice, especially in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But mystagogy isn’t just for the newly baptized; it is the way every Catholic can continually deepen their relationship with Christ by daily drawing on the grace of the sacraments.
Significance for our New Evangelization
Just as Catholics are rediscovering the importance of the “kerygma” (Greek for “proclamation”) for evangelization, mystagogy is incredibly important in our approach to catechesis in the New Evangelization. John Paul II wrote, “Through catechesis the Gospel kerygma is gradually deepened . . . . and channeled toward Christian practice in the Church and the world” (Catechesi Tradendae, n. 25), specifically the form of mystagogy. Additionally, mystagogy serves as a trustworthy guide when reflecting on ways to improve our catechetical methods.
Living the Mystery Daily
Ongoing mystagogy is important because our relationship with the sacraments change as we grow and mature as individuals and meet new life challenges and circumstances. In turn, the sacraments really change us. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one's life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated” (Sacramentum Caritatis n. 64). By reflecting regularly on the sacraments, we access an incredible strength for our daily tasks.
Developing a practice of Eucharistic mystagogy can combat the routinization that often sets in to our receiving communion. For those who are married, or preparing for marriage, there is a mystagogy of marriage. With ongoing mystagogic reflection, you may discover new fruits of that sacrament in every season of life.
Studying theology and the Bible is often an undervalued way of developing our spiritual life. Learning about someone or something is a sign of love, and we truly become what we behold (cf 2 Cor. 3:18). Reading the great books and sermons of Catholic authors and theologians greatly expands our hearts and minds to experience the truth and depth of our faith.
The great Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel is attributed as stating, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” Mystagogy is the path leading Christians to learn to live the mystery of our faith. I encourage you to follow the path trod by St. Cyril up through popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, in making this incredible tradition and gift called “mystagogy” a part of your life.
To learn more about Catechesis, please consider reading the General Directory for Catechesis or the National Directory for Catechesis.
For more resources on Prayer and Catechesis, click here.
Paul boldly reminds Christians, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In a sense, our single most political act on this earth is not who we vote for in the next election, but our Baptism. In baptism, we discover our truest identity as adopted sons and daughters of God, and together become “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). But as citizens of heaven, we also live as “aliens and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:11).
This Jubilee Year of Mercy issues an invitation and challenge for Catholics to transform what society regards as ‘political problems with political solutions’ into encounters with God’s grace and mercy. Borrowing a phrase from Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, Christians are not simply called to meet issues with more political machination, but greater “prophetic imagination.” When Christians do not actively imagine and enact truthful and merciful alternatives to social evils, pragmatism and deceit can lay deep roots in our society.
In the Book of Leviticus, an important aspect of the ancient Jubilee Year involves extending mercy to a group of people the Bible calls resident aliens, outsiders living among the Israelites who belonged to no tribe. They occupied a vulnerable position in society and were not always welcomed, but God’s law was meant to protect them as legal equals (cf. Ex 12:49; Lev 24:22).
Today our Church takes seriously the responsibility to stand up for the human dignity of migrants and refugees. While speaking on the topic of pastoral care for migrants and itinerant peoples, Pope Francis expressed his hope that, “our Christian communities really be places of hospitality, listening, and communion.”
In Leviticus 19, God instructs Moses and the Israelites about harvesting the land, not to “reap the field to its very edge,” for, “… these things you shall leave for the poor and the alien” (Lev 19:9,10, cf. Deut 24:20-21).
A problem many of us succumb to in a consumerist culture (myself included) is living without margin. We max out our schedules and credit cards so that we simply cannot make room in our day or budget to give freely, or receive someone in need when opportunity arises. As Pope Francis recently put it, “If the Jubilee doesn’t arrive to the pockets, it’s not a true Jubilee.”
The scripture and tradition of the Church prescribe counter-cultural hospitality toward the stranger. Exemplified in monastic tradition, the Rule of Benedict in Chapter 53 puts forth Jesus’ words, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ” (Matthew 25:35). Moreover, in a culture where nearly every human experience is branded and marketed, we should not confuse hospitality with customer service.
“Listen… and administer true justice to both parties even if one of them is a resident alien… Give ear to the lowly and to the great alike” (Deut 1:16,17).
There is no justice or mercy without listening to the oppressed and marginalized. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. . . It is God’s love for us that He not only gave us His Word but also lends us His ear. . . Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either” (Life Together. New York: Harper & Row).
When we listen, we may even discover someone who is no longer a stranger but a friend.
God had to remind the Israelites, “You shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt,” (Lev 19:34). The New Testament reiterates: “Once you were ‘no people’ but now you are ‘God’s people’; you ‘had not received mercy,’ but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).
Pope Francis powerfully stated that communion cannot exist where Christians seek to build walls instead of bridges. Communion happens through solidarity and accompaniment, not the gospel of, “God helps those who help themselves.” As Catholics, our communion is best expressed through the Holy Eucharist, where we “participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice” (CCC 1322). Recent celebrations of the Mass across the USA-Mexico border witness the power of the Eucharist to unite Christians separated along national/political divides. In a climate of fear and self-preservation, the Eucharist consumes us, lest we consume each other.
Political debates will rage this year. As Christians, let us consider how the Jubilee of Mercy cannot be separated from our particular concern for migrants and refugees in the form of the prophetic witness of Christian hospitality, listening, and communion.
To learn more about the Jubilee of Mercy, visit our free resource page by clicking here.
Many hope to journey through Lent having experienced a true transformation in their spiritual life. But sometimes, innocently enough, we don’t take full advantage of our time when we give up something that we have every intention of picking right back up (or indulging in on Sundays). Don’t get me wrong—it can be spiritually edifying and purifying in a lasting way to give up normally enjoyable things (e.g., chocolate, Netflix, alcohol) for just a period.
A few years ago though, inspired by centuries-old Catholic theology I learned from some introductory college classes, I tried a different approach to Lent. I found the saints were all talking about Lent as a time to grow in virtue. In the Catholic tradition, a virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good” (CCC 1803). You might think of virtues as character traits that describe a holy and happy life. Here are some of the “human virtues” that play a prominent role in the Catholic life:
The Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.
The Cardinal virtues have a special role in the Catholic tradition, and make possible other important virtues like…
The Capital Virtues: Humility, Generosity, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Kindness, and Diligence.
The seven Capital virtues are meant to counteract the Seven Capital Vices, or ‘Deadly Sins.’
One of the best teachers about virtue is the famous Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225-1274. Growing in virtue helps us grow more like Christ, so we can, in St. Thomas’ words “recover the completeness and distinction of mind” that gets lost through sin and vice (Meditations for Lent, 22).
Lent is also a great time to focus on developing a virtue that has become weak in your life. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we grow in virtue by forming good habits and receiving grace.
Habits are important because they tend to shape our overall character and moral decision-making process, and therefore have a role in our relationship with God, others, and our self. Lent is an excellent opportunity to form new habits that we can then carry forward into Easter and beyond. In order to grow in virtue, we need to develop good habits, and we develop habits through repeated actions (See also CCC 1810).
Repeated good action --> Good habits --> Virtue
It’s a little simplistic here, of course. And although it’s a simple concept, admittedly, it’s not always easy in practice. Building good habits can be difficult because we often find ourselves already stuck in bad habits (vices) that may be tough to break. That’s why giving something up isn’t always enough; we need to replace it with a good action.
It also takes focus and developing discipline, which is exactly what we see in the desert experiences found in Scripture as well as the Early Church (CCC 1434).
Interestingly, contemporary psychology reinforces to some degree what theologians have understood about habits. Scientists report that it generally takes between 21 and 66 days to turn a new behavior into a habit. So over the forty days, why not consider choosing a Lenten practice that’s not just temporary, but one you hope will stick?
Take some time in prayer before Lent begins to identity one specific virtue that will help you draw closer to God. Then, consider some actions can you take toward growing in this virtue.
Think in terms of the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For example, fasting can help transform habits associated with our appetite for things, the virtue of temperance. An appetite doesn’t necessarily mean food or drink, though it may. It really covers anything we use to fill our mind and body, like TV and the Internet. Lent is a desert experience where we learn to pursue and subsist on the Word of God rather than our perceived needs.
Or maybe you want to grow in the virtue of kindness. Commit to going out of your way to doing one kind action each day by giving of your time, talent, or treasure. Or you might pray for someone you don’t get along with.
At its heart, Lent is not a course in self-improvement; it is a disciplined journey toward deeper communion with our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Ultimately, the help we need to grow in virtue comes from God’s gratuitous gift of grace. We say yes to this journey as we respond by developing habits of holiness.
For more resources to help you develop your Lenten habits, please click here.
The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy officially began on December 8, 2015, when Pope Francis opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica. Each of the four Major Basilicas in Rome features a Holy Door opened in the Jubilee year.
This Jubilee marks the first in the history of the Catholic Church in which cathedrals and select churches and shrines in dioceses across the world were invited to designate Holy Doors outside of Rome. Pope Francis celebrated this historic gesture by opening the Holy Door at Bangui’s Notre-Dame Cathedral in the Central African Republic. On December 13th, the Third Sunday of Advent, congregations celebrated the Rite of Opening of Holy Doors in local churches.
To promote the visitation of these Holy Doors around the world, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization has compiled a list of the registered Doors of Mercy worldwide. The Holy Doors are prophetic symbols of the mission of mercy of the universal Church embodied in every local parish. For example, even amidst the turmoil in the Middle East, every parish in the Iraqi archdiocese of Erbil will feature a Holy Door. There are Holy Doors covering the globe from the Island of Fiji to a frigid shrine in Alaska.
In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII is inaugurated the first Holy Year in the Catholic Church. Since then, the Catholic Church ordinarily celebrates a Jubilee every 25 years. The last Jubilee Year was in 2000 under the pontificate of Pope Saint John Paul II. Because a full 25 years have not passed, this Jubilee Year of Mercy is considered an “extraordinary” year.
The Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica consists of 16 panels by the Italian sculptor Vico Consorti telling the history of salvation—which is the story of God’s mercy. Cardinal Virgilio Noe, the Master of Ceremony for Pope Blessed Paul VI, likened the Holy Door to “verses of a hymn, which sing of God’s infinite mercy… They enlighten every moment of any situation with the certainty of divine forgiveness.”
The Church’s celebration of the Jubilee and the opening of Holy Doors has developed over time, but the tradition and symbolism find their roots in the Old Testament. Following seven seven-year periods (the number seven representing God’s rest and the Sabbath), the fiftieth was a Year of Jubilee for the Israelites (Lev 25:8-10). This was a time specifically devoted to practicing mercy: debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and the land was given rest by letting it lay fallow. Another symbol of mercy from the Old Testament includes Moses producing water by striking a rock (Numbers 20:11). We too receive abundant grace through our pursuit of mercy.
Crossing the “threshold” of the door has also featured prominently in the theology of the holy door. In crossing the threshold, we pass over from one state in life to another. As Pope Saint John Paul II encouraged the world to “cross the threshold of hope,” Pope Francis similarly enjoins Christians to cross the threshold of mercy. Liturgists and anthropologists call this transforming experience “liminality,” (limina meaning “threshold”). The same symbolism shapes the tradition of Bishops, who are required to make regular Ad Limina (literally “at the threshold”) visits to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul and meet with the Pope so they may prayerfully renew their mission of mercy and love for the diocese they shepherd.
Mercy is a truly transformative. We are changed upon entering and exiting the church through the Holy Doors. We encounter mercy in the Body of Christ gathered in the sanctuary, as well as in the confessional, and are then sent out to show mercy. Our mission is mercy.
Jesus is the one who opens the door to all who seek mercy (Luke 11:9). The door testifies that the Church is always more than just a building; it is testimony that Jesus is “the gate,” (John 10:9), and those who enter find mercy and salvation.
For more resources on the Jubilee of Mercy, please visit our Jubilee of Mercy portal.
January 1, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, one of the holy days of obligation in the Church. This celebration is a special way to celebrate Mary’s special role in God’s plan in the Christmas story, as well as a way to start the year full of grace, ready to tackle those New Year’s resolutions. Although the practice of New Year’s resolutions is not distinctly Christian, our resolutions gain a new significance when we attend to Mary’s story.
Discern Your Resolutions
The story of Mary’s call to motherhood is a paradigm of Biblical discernment. When Mary received Gabriel’s announcement, “She was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). In faith, Mary wrestles with God’s calling. Even after her great “Yes,” and giving birth, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), revealing she is still learning what her vocation means and how to live it.
What’s this got to do with New Year’s resolutions? Discernment is a spiritual, prayerful decision-making process between possible courses of action. What specific habits or practices is God calling you to work on this year? There are plenty of worthwhile resolutions—there’s a million things I need work on—but it’s just not all possible to accomplish in a year, or ever. Prioritize resolutions that strengthen your personal vocation.
Expect Without Expectations
Mary’s faith is “expectant” but without “expectations.” In other words, Mary expects God to act in her life, but doesn’t place limitations on who, what, when, and where. Mary trusts the angel Gabriel’s words, “nothing will be impossible for God” and is free to live and say, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:37-38).
Maybe God will bring about the outcomes of your resolution through unexpected ways or people. That’s the way it often works in scripture and the lives of the Saints. When you give God permission to act on his terms, you are free to boldly expect that God will do new and great things in your life this year.
Make Room For Others
Even free from original sin, God uses other people to accomplish his plan in Mary’s life. Mary’s story was made possible through her reliance upon truthful friends and family. Her cousin Elizabeth speaks truth and hope into her situation (Luke 1:42), and her husband Joseph goes to heroic lengths to let God’s call come to fruition.
Share your resolution with someone you trust. Whether it’s a major lifestyle change or not, ask them to keep you accountable, and always with prayer. Accountability also prevents goals from becoming purely self-centered or even idols from seeking God first (e.g., just to impress people at the beach). No one can accomplish your resolution for you, but you can find people to accomplish it with you.
Resolve to Live the Truth
Mary shows the true path by always making everything about Jesus. “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). A true personal change will always lead us to more fully reflect our true identities as sons and daughters created in the image and likeness of God.
But the truth is, sometimes resolutions are born of self-loathing or lies we’ve bought instead of the desire to more fully reflect God’s truth. This often happens with body or image-related resolutions; to be thinner, smarter, stronger, etc. While these aren’t de facto bad things, the tendency becomes seeking physical solutions for a spiritual or psychological wound that really needs healing. That’s why discernment with spiritual direction and honest accountability is vital. Exercise programs or supplements say we should consult a physician first- but it’s also true when it applies to spiritual exercises for our soul! Mary and the saints save us from spiritual self-medication, which close us off from the Divine Physician.
You don’t need to spend a dime to understand Christmas is all about presence. The Church sings, “Emmanuel- God is with us!” God’s gift to the world is his presence, Jesus our Savior.
During the holidays, however, life tends to get busy and expensive. Presence yields to presents.
When this happens, as it always seems to, I think of Brother Lawrence. Like the great mystic and reformer, St. John of the Cross, Lawrence (1605-91) was a Carmelite monk. But unlike St. John, Lawrence was a lay brother who spent his “unremarkable” life cooking and cleaning. In fact, all that remains are some recollected conversations and a few scattered letters posthumously compiled by another monk into a short, now classic, spiritual work called The Practice of the Presence of God. His conversion happened one winter after “seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear” (First Conversation)
We need Brother Lawrence to remind us that Christmas is all about presence. For Lawrence, this means having a sense of God’s love in the middle of our busy and distracted lives during the Christmas season, a way of “doing our common business purely for the love of God” (Fourth Conversation). He reminds us to be about God’s business during our busyness.
Three of Brother Lawrence’s key insights can help us practice the presence of God this Christmas.
Give Your Time
Christmas is more about being present than buying presents. The most precious gift we have to give someone is our time. As Christmas gets piled high with shopping, decorating, work, or final exams, the gift of time seems to have the highest price tag. Brother Lawrence reminds us that God is present to us in all times and places:
"The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.” (Fourth Conversation)
The Nativity celebrates the presence of God on earth, a God who came as an unexpected, untimely, and therefore unwelcome stranger. I think we all know people like that! Being present to God may mean letting ourselves be interrupted or making time for a family member we’d rather ignore, and letting God speak.
Celebrate Small Things
When we think Christmas, we think miracles. But the great mystery of the Incarnation reveals that God also shows his human face in the smallest, most mundane aspects of life. Brother Lawrence says:
“We can do little things for God. I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him . . . who has given me grace to work . . . It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God" (The Practice of the Presence of God and The Spiritual Maxims).
Brother Lawrence points to the presence of God hidden even among life’s most unpresentable circumstances by faithfully doing unglamorous things for God’s glory.
It’s tempting to scoff at the more trivialized or sanitized secular symbols of “the holidays.” Rather than spending Christmas railing against materialism, we can imitate the example of Brother Lawrence, who presents a more constructive, creative way to counteract the consumer culture without pointing out other’s shortcomings.
Brother Lawrence would turn everyday objects (like pots and pans) into an occasion to praise God. He did this by making them into little actionable reminders. For example, when you see Christmas lights, say, “Christ is my light.” Or pass a snowman and pray for a friend in need. In this way, we “re-symbolize” the world around us. There are a million possibilities. Come up with a few of your own and make it a habit.
Especially at Christmas, the whole world is a reminder of God’s love and presence. All of creation is a conversation starter with God, a conversation called prayer, or as Brother Lawrence would say, “the practice of the presence of God.”
For more ways to prepare for the coming of the Savior this Advent and Christmas, please visit our Advent Resources page.
This week, Nov. 1-7, celebrates National Vocation Awareness Week , a time U.S. Catholics dedicate “to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.” We should always promote vocations, but sometimes we need an explicit reminder! We need more than a day or week; we need a culture. This week is about each of us taking a step toward fostering a culture of religious vocations in the Church.
As many priests, sisters, brothers, etc., will tell you, the best way to support and promote religious vocations involves every one of us personally committing to live our own vocation faithfully and joyfully, whether that be in the priesthood, the diaconate, married life, consecrated life, etc. It’s impossible to be truly pro-marriage and be against religious vocations; they harmonize! Discerning and answering a call is our responsibility to the Church as baptized and confirmed members of the Body of Christ.
Many young people who came face to face with St. Pope John Paul II would ask him: “What is my vocation!?” He used to say, “You must choose!” How disappointing in the moment, yet what a true and wise response! God endows each person with a unique vocation and graciously calls each to respond with the gift of his or herself.
You may be thinking: easier said than done. It’s true; discernment is not always easy, especially when immersed in a consumer culture that frequently substitutes success for faithfulness and material gratification for spiritual wholeness. But discerning a vocation is also not an infinitely hard matter of finding a needle in a haystack. It simply is not true that only God’s “favorites” or the exceptionally smart or good looking end up truly happy.
Below are some great practices the Church recommends for anyone discerning a vocation.
Visit a Spiritual Director or Mentor
One of the most important things you can do to discern and sustain your vocation is develop a relationship with a spiritual director or mentor. They do not necessarily need to be a professional theologian or psychologist; look for someone faithful and joyful in their vocation. Focus on finding someone that can offer practical guidance with whom you will be honest and transparent—someone who will consistently encourage you to pray and grow. If you are considering a religious vocation, it would be helpful to meet with a priest or member of religious life.
Make Prayer a Priority
Prayer is the essential element of discernment. This is probably not a surprise. It’s the time we lay out all our mixed thoughts and emotions before Jesus and let him reveal his way in our life. You can begin simply by praying: “God, help me to know your will for my life and desire it.” Practice going deeper into praying with the Bible and reflecting on passages from Scripture, sometimes called lectio divina, or try to learn or incorporate some part of the Liturgy of the Hours into your schedule.
Solid, faithful friendships go much further when discerning a vocation than having a plethora of worldly or romantic relationships. True friends know our identities are composed of both our weakness and our strengths. I often see my friends as a sort of vocational “litmus test;” they know me well enough to detect when choices or relationships seem in or out of step with my true character or wellbeing. Vocational awareness is a fruit of a culture of friendship, as I tried to suggest here.
Develop a Tradition
The Catholic faith has many rich, diverse, and time-tested charisms (e.g., Franciscan, Ignatian, Dominican, Carmelite, Pallottine, etc.) that can inspire and nourish vocations to religious life and marriage alike. While it’s great to explore and incorporate the tools of many traditions, try to become fluent in one. Different charisms have a special resonance with different people.
Learn Their Story
Are you aware of your pastor’s vocation story or the vocation story of any member of religious life around you? What about your own parents, grandparents, and mentors? Maybe it’s simple and straightforward; maybe it’s long and exciting or even difficult. Ask those around you about their own story. A vocations culture lives and grows by these real-life examples. Every story of God’s love is worth sharing.
If you are anything like me, you find it difficult to discern God’s call, but sometimes Jesus makes it plain and simple in Scripture. For example, Jesus very specifically calls us friends (John 15:15). Friendship is a calling.
In my own faith journey, I continually find this actually a rather strange, startling summons. Jesus’ friendship is an unmerited grace-filled gift, which is desirable, but it also demands something of me, which is a bit frightening. On a day-to-day basis, nothing gives me, or most people I imagine, greater joy than faithful friendships. If we Christians lack Gospel joy, it goes to show among other things, that we are not heeding the call to be faithful friends of Jesus.
Rediscovering friendship as a calling has challenged my paradigm for discerning my personal vocation. Friendship shapes both the context and content of my choices. Let me try to explain what I mean. A culture of friendship is an indispensable context for discerning a vocation. Faithful friends often know us better than we know ourselves. They help us discern our gifts, weaknesses, and purpose, and then encourage or challenge us to act in a way we couldn’t or wouldn’t on our own.
Like the spiritual life in general, friendships are very often difficult to navigate. This is not because the path ahead is overly complicated, but because the next step usually lies in the darkness of the unknown. Friends who know our hearts invite us to step into the vulnerability with courage and bring our darkness into light. One example in my life is the young adult group I attend, the Baltimore Frassati Fellowship. We don’t focus on multiplying social activities, which too easily becomes another way to fill rather than sanctify our time. The Church teaches us to share each other’s time, not compete for it. We focus on cultivating an atmosphere of trust and virtue that counterbalances the typically transitory and fast-paced “young adult” phase of life. Our events are rather ordinary, but they are consistent and dependable: weekly adoration, regular service opportunities, and a larger monthly Holy Hour and social.
Pretty soon, we all have to make decisions (something I’m bad at), so friendship also determines the content of our vocation. Paraphrasing John Henry Newman, each of us is called to some definite and unique vocation, which is centered in some specific friendship(s) (Meditations on Christian Doctrine, I.2).
Here is a question to pray with: What kind of friendship am I called to, and with whom?
I wasn’t always used to thinking about different “kinds” of friendships, so one helpful question I learned to ask while in seminary concerned the call to exclusive or inclusive friendships. Am I called to befriend one person like no other (marriage), to show no partiality and be a special part of many lives (religious life), or some other group? Moreover, since there is no greater love than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13), friendship is also intrinsically sacrificial. Another form of the question is: Who is God calling me to daily lay down my life for: a spouse and children or on the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice?
That’s what makes so special the radical witness of someone like Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier felt called to leave behind an academic career to form a small community with persons with developmental disabilities where they could share their lives in faith and friendship. After 50 years, his original calling continues to grow and inspire others to embrace the joy, virtue, sacrifice, and particularity our friendships in Christ are meant to take.
As part of the universal call to holiness though, evangelization involves going out and befriending others and inviting them to become friends of Jesus. Friendship, though it takes different forms, is an apostolate all are called to.