I am grateful for the occasion to share just a few reflections on my discernment journey and priestly ordination during the pandemic, the “COVID class” of 2020! It was about one year ago—March 2020—with less than two months before graduation from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, MD and ordination scheduled for June when those plans began to change.
Like the many high school and college students preparing for graduation, my deacon classmates and I (and the rest of the seminary) were sent home to complete our coursework alone online. Like the many engaged couples preparing for their summer weddings and receptions, our priestly ordination dates were postponed and receptions cancelled. While trusting in God’s grace and purpose, how could I help but feel at least a little disappointed and even frustrated? And yet, therein lie some important lessons God wanted to show me about the life we are each called to live.
Every vocation—life’s path and purpose—begins by accepting our way is not always God’s way, and our time is not always God’s time (Isa 55:8-9). And yet, I’ve slowly recognized a great freedom in that fact. A vocation is not about “planning out” your life, or making sure things happen the “right” way. Life does not follow a predetermined script. A vocation is not an intellectual puzzle we work on and hope to “figure out” (or else fail…), but a stepping out in faith day-by-day. Vocation is more about letting go of the controls to be free enough to move in the direction God beckons. A vocation is always a dynamic response to God’s call from a place of freedom and love. And so, while a vocation does involve making a free choice, it’s not about calling the shots in life or predicting the future, but trusting God with the simple question, “where and what next?”
Due to the COVID lockdown of 2020, I realized the date and circumstances of my ordination were beyond anyone’s control. Some suggested having small, private ordinations so we would become priests “sooner,” even if we still couldn’t yet go out and serve in parishes, but respectfully, I personally disagreed with that idea. The pandemic re-affirmed my conviction that we were becoming priests for the people of God, not for ourselves. Compared with the physical and emotional toll of the pandemic, the waiting game was an easy burden to bear.
The background of the pandemic created a new context to reflect on what shape my life and ministry might take. In our society’s fixation on “finding our best selves,” the gospel-centered vocation acknowledges that “whoever loses his life for my [Jesus’] sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). Vocation is part of our personal participation in the great “mystery of faith,” the “Paschal Mystery” of Christ’s death and Resurrection the Church celebrates most powerfully in Lent and Easter. We cannot experience the true Jesus without both his Resurrection and Cross, and so every authentic vocation will have both its cross (struggle and sacrifice) and its resurrection (joy and victory). However you discern, expect your vocation in life to feel like both at times. Amidst the hardship of our world, a small taste of the patient suffering of the Cross leading up to my ordination turned out to be a small but precious gift not to take for granted.
For months during quarantine, I watched medical professionals and other essential workers care for the sick and deliver basic needs—the corporal works of mercy—on the local, national, and international stage. As a deacon waiting in the wings to be deployed to a parish, I felt primed to be sent and make an impact. But all I could do was stay home and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. That summer I did not feel heroic or “essential.” Having been fed a steady diet all through seminary of “the Church needs you!”, I had to accept it wasn’t my moment to be a hero or an influencer. My call was behind-the-scenes mission support, not leading the charge on the front lines.
Following Jesus’ instruction to “watch and pray” (Mt 26:41) as others experienced trial and suffering in hospitals and homes challenged me to rid myself of any pretensions of being a priest as being God’s biggest hero. Vocations—religious or secular—motivated by the muscular desire to save the Church/world and solve Her problems almost always end up hurting people in strongarmed attempts to fix whatever they perceive as broken. Before the Cross, there are times all we can or should do is “behold” the brokenness and hurt (Jn 19:26).
On the eve of ordination, that forced inactivity was excruciating, but it also drove home a humble admission behind every vocation: I need God more than God needs me. The Cross is essential to Jesus, and beholding Jesus in the sick and suffering, God became more essential to me. To “behold” is not to evade responsibility, but to see that our suffering does not go unnoticed and unredeemed. Not coincidentally, it is on the Cross that we truly see Jesus as our eternal High Priest, the model of priesthood, who is willingly sacrificed for the redemption of our sins.
And so, the experience of being ordained a priest during the pandemic, while full of spiritual and personal challenges, also became the occasion for greater reflection on my identity, vocation, and mission. The delay was not lost time, for any time spent with Christ in prayer or service is only counted as gain. I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ on August 22, 2020. Behold and follow the Cross, and who but God knows where it may lead!
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
For more resources to accompany you through the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.
It seems that each day we check the news to discover that another politician, producer, actor, or celebrity figure is being exposed for scandal or abuse. Many of those who have for years been hailed as the main influencers of public opinion, policy, and taste have in a stunningly short span of time lost support or credibility. Many of those who were on top of the world have been, we could say, deflated and dethroned.
I have been pondering this lately as the Church prepares to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. Each Sunday in the Nicene Creed, we profess Christ’s ascension, “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” The ascension is recounted at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-12). Theologically, we do not envision Jesus ascending like a balloon into the sky, but a king ascending a throne. The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the exaltation and enthronement of Jesus as King and Messiah at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.
As many of us may be scientifically literate and democratically-minded citizens of the twenty-first century, we may think all this talk of thrones and kings and heaven may seem like it belongs to a world that has long passed away. But if our recent headlines have proven anything, what has not passed away is the perennial pursuit of power and our tendency to underestimate our willingness to use it in potentially harmful and self-aggrandizing ways.
Power in and of itself is not an evil thing, and watching people fall publicly is not a cause for celebration. I think instead the present reality invites us to pause and reflect on—in light of God’s reality—the pursuit and exercise of power both in society and in our own lives. In truth, power is not something that belongs only to the powerful. Power exists across any human relationship: husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student, boss and employee, and the list is endless. We are influenced vertically by our superiors and horizontally by our peers. Ideally, we work together to achieve the common good and common goals by sharing and exercising power in the right doses and ways. But I think if we’re honest, we all have our own way of being out of balance, tipping the scales. So, what does this all have to do with Jesus, who we call the All-Powerful One?
As exalted King and Messiah, Jesus overthrows the love of power with the power of love. The Ascension is not a power grab that Jesus will use to control people and outcomes. Rather, we hear Jesus tell the disciples that once he has taken his seat on God’s throne, “you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). As disciples, we are not separated from Christ by a glass ceiling.
Yet as disciples, we have to be careful where and how we exercise this power given to us in the name of Jesus. One of the images in Scripture of the Holy Spirit is fire. It is a great metaphor for power. Our stewardship of God’s power can bring light and warmth, yet it can also burn if used irresponsibly. I suspect today that much of what compromises our evangelizing message of Jesus’s kingship stems from the ways Christians have abused earthly power in the name of God.
The Gospel and St. Paul preach a radically different alternative: the conviction that our human exercise of power more fully manifests Christ when it is surrendered than when it is wielded. So, I propose instead: What happens when we dare to profess Jesus enthroned and exalted, to receive the power of his Holy Spirit, and then lay it down in the service of the Gospel?
Question for Reflection: How is Christ’s example of kingship and power different from what we see in the world?
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.
On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize two great church leaders who helped shape Catholicism across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century: Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. In reflecting on their lives, I cannot do justice to the complex and controversial circumstances that forged these extraordinary men into the saints they are. Instead, I’d like to reflect on something common and fundamental to us and them: Baptism.
Baptism sets the foundation for a lifelong calling and mission. The Catechism calls Baptism “the basis of the whole Christian life” and “the gateway to life in the Spirit” (CCC 1213). A saint is someone who lives their baptismal identity to the full. The three fundamentals we are called to live and practice “on entering the People of God through faith and Baptism” (CCC 783) are what we call the “three offices of Christ”: Priest, Prophet, and King. What made Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero saints was the integrity and fullness with which they lived out their baptismal vocations as priest, prophet, and king.
Both Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero were ordained Catholic priests, but by virtue of their Baptism they shared what we call the “priesthood of the faithful.” What is this priestly vocation? We live it by offering prayer and sacrifice for others. At the heart of every saint is a love for and commitment to prayer. Archbishop Romero lived his priestly vocation in a powerful and tragic way when he was martyred on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass in Divina Providentia Hospital—uniting his prayer and sacrifice with Christ’s into eternity.
Paul VI and Oscar Romero excelled at the way they lived the prophetic vocation of their Baptism. A prophet, in the biblical sense, is someone called by God to deliver a message of truth through either words or actions. One of my favorite descriptions of a prophet is one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. During their lifetime, prophets are often inconvenient, unpopular, or even attacked, but history proves they shared the right message at exactly the right time.
Both Paul VI and Oscar Romero faced harsh criticism, and Romero (as did many other prophets through history) suffered martyrdom. When Paul VI issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968), which affirmed traditional Catholic teaching on sexual ethics, he faced a wave of criticism and dissent in the Church. Fifty years later, many Catholic moral theologians and historians see that his analysis and predictions were right on target. Archbishop Romero, standing in the tradition of Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, stood up and spoke out to the government (known as the Junta) in his home country of El Salvador, as well as other world governments (including the United States), on behalf of the poor and marginalized who were being treated unjustly. Like Paul VI and Romero, every baptized person is called to stand up and speak out for truth and justice, especially when it is unpopular or inconvenient.
While we gravitate toward thinking of the “royal” or “kingly” role as one of being above or served by others, it is actually the exact opposite. A true leader is one completely dedicated to serving others through his administration and decision-making. I can think of few more monumental or difficult tasks a church leader faced than Pope Paul VI when he was called by the Church to steer the conclusion and implementation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has been called the single most important religious event in the twentieth century. Archbishop Oscar Romero was often criticized for his ecclesial administration getting mixed up with the political situation. Yet Romero recognized that in order to effectively lead and serve the church under his pastoral care, he needed to engage the civil government around him.
We, like Paul VI and Oscar Romero, do not become saints by being perfect administrators or leaders, but by bringing God’s spirit of wisdom into the challenges and opportunities that come our way. I would guess that at their baptism and even priestly ordination, Paul VI and Oscar Romero had no idea how God had planned for them to exercise their royal vocation. Under extraordinary times and circumstances, these saints modelled for us how we all are called to exercise leadership in ordinary, everyday circumstances with humility and whole-hearted devotion to God and others.
On October 14, let us rededicate ourselves to living our own priestly, prophetic, and royal vocation of Baptism with the same spirit and integrity as Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Please click the following links for more information about the canonization and lives of Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero.
For some, Palm Sunday was a political event surrounding a political person that led to the greatest, most unexpected revolution the world has ever seen happen. Historically, the week leading up to Jesus’ Passion would have been the time of preparation for Passover, when many Jews from all the surrounding villages were in Jerusalem together. The gospels (Mt 21: 1-11) describe Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to the swaying of palm fronds and shouts of “Hosanna!” These were unmistakable prophetic signs of the Messiah-king, the one many Jews expected would finally overthrow their Roman overlords and re-establish Israel’s reign on earth, perhaps even violently—as a group called the “Zealots” expected. Yet there is a further symbol to this story: Jesus riding on a colt or ass, the sign of a humble and meek king. Jesus did not become the king they expected, but instead, the one God wanted. As Pope Francis said in his 2016 homily on the Feast of Christ the King, “The Gospel in fact presents the kingship of Jesus as the culmination of his saving work, and it does so in a surprising way. ‘The Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King’ (Lk 23:35,37) appears without power or glory: he is on the cross, where he seems more to be conquered than conqueror.”
Like Jesus’ followers then, today we are susceptible to temptations of limited expectations. It is possible to see Jesus merely as a political and ethical teacher who died a martyr’s death and nothing else. On the other hand, we might project Jesus’ kingdom to a purely “other-worldly” realm. Since Jesus apparently wasn’t setting up his kingdom on earth (so we assume), we are tempted to sanitize Jesus of any “worldly” political or practical implications, and simply assume political engagement has limited place, or even runs counter to our task of evangelization. As Pope Pius XI wrote in his establishment of the Feast of Christ the King, “It would be a grave error…to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power…although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them.” Both interpretations—that Jesus was strictly political or that his work was merely “not of this world”—fail to take seriously not only Jesus’ public ministry and preaching, but the truly earth-shattering consequences of Jesus’ kingship won at the cross.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Christ, “exercises his kingship by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection.” Jesus’ death and Resurrection are, simply, God’s victory over the world’s powers of sin and death so as to bring about the restoration of God’s people. To say yes to Jesus’ Resurrection is to say yes to life as part of a new creation and kingdom that starts now. Paschal faith involves the risk of making mistakes, being misunderstood or ridiculed, of not conforming to the expectations of the surrounding culture in order to expect something greater. It involves joining in the kingship of Christ in serving others, something we are able to share in as a result of our baptism.
As powers of sin and death today loom heavy on our hearts, it is not enough to “have faith” but to do nothing. Following Christ calls us to witness to our faith in practical ways with full conviction because of Christ’s own experience of suffering, death, and Resurrection that has transformed our fundamental orientation to the world. As Christians, we desire peace, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We serve our King by building up his kingdom on earth. Pope Francis challenges us, “A people who are holy…who have Jesus as their King, are called to follow his way of tangible love; they are called to ask themselves, each one each day: “What does love ask of me, where is it urging me to go? What answer am I giving Jesus with my life?”
For more Lenten and Easter resources, please click here.
Just down the street from where I study and serve in my home Archdiocese of Baltimore is our nation’s first Catholic cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, a visible testimony to the faith of the first Catholics in the newly formed United States of America. Yet every time I visit that holy place, I’m reminded by the physical space that for many years worship was segregated and black Catholics were required to sit in the balcony. Our family of faith in Baltimore included heroic individuals and communities like that of Mother Mary Lange (1794-1882), founder of the first African-American religious order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and the ministry of the Josephites. Their creative witness and ongoing presence in our communities today serve as a constant reminder that their mission lives on and has work yet to do.
Since 1990, the Church in the United States, through the work of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC), has designated November as Black Catholic History Month. In a special way, the testimony of black Catholics reminds us all that as disciples of Christ, we live by memory. Celebrating this month reminds the Church just what it is that we are responsible for remembering. The act of remembering is a moral and spiritual task, part of the Church’s call to combat the sin of racism and seek new forms of reconciliation with sins of the past. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that memory lies at the heart of the Church’s celebration of word and sacrament, and briefly reflect here on why remembering our Church’s black history is so important for faithfully celebrating God’s word and sacrament each and every day.
Those who attend or have attended a parish with a strong black Catholic presence will often recognize the power of the proclamation and preaching of God’s word. In particular, this tradition of preaching reminds Catholics that our Church preaches and teaches a truly liberatory word. Jesus Christ came to deliver God’s people from all forms of bondage and oppression, restoring us to freedom.
Our biblical faith makes clear that participation in the Exodus event is intrinsically connected with our participation in the Passover. As Catholics, this means we are fed by God’s word and sacrament, particularly the Eucharist. At the Institution of the Eucharist at his Last Supper, Jesus instructed his Apostles to “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). The sacrifice of the Mass is an act of remembrance, called anamnesis, that re-presents Christ, making Jesus truly present here and now in the species of bread and wine. (I invite you to read Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s reflection.) That act of remembering is the basis for our act of thanksgiving (literally, “eucharist”). But it is impossible for us to give thanks for what we cannot remember.
Does Christ’s presence at the altar then lead us onward to become more aware of Christ’s presence in our brothers and sisters who remain subject to forms of injustice and oppression elsewhere? To this end, our bishops offer resources on how to respond to sins of racism, an important way to publicly live out the interior transformation we receive in the Eucharist.
While we live by memory, we do not simply live in the past; we are called to faithfully live out of our past. We live by memory as a sign of our hope that since God gave us a past, he promises us a future. Black Catholic History Month serves as a reminder that we have a history worth remembering and celebrating, so that we may go on living in the freedom to which Christ daily calls us.
For more resources, we invite you to visit our Cultural Diversity Resources page and scroll down to the section on African American/Black Catholics.
We invite you to read Cardinal Wuerl's Pastoral Letter, The Challenge of Racism Today, by clicking here.
Questions for Reflection: How does remembering the past help us to live more faithfully and hopefully in the future? How have you seen our Church benefit from the diversity of its members?
In the small German village of Oberammergau, every ten years since 1634, roughly two thousand townspeople from all walks of life come together to stage the world’s most famous “Passion Play,” a dramatic re-enactment of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection. What that one town literally does every ten years, all Christians perform every Holy Week—and it is every bit as real.
The liturgies of Holy Week teach us that we are not merely passive spectators but living participants and actors in the ongoing story of the “Paschal Mystery,” the saving life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our celebrations, we remember not just something that happened, but something that is happening, namely, the redemption of the world through the work Jesus Christ accomplished by His Cross and Resurrection. We are not playing someone else’s role in an entirely scripted fiction, but discovering our own part and contribution within a story that God is still writing.
The basic structure of Christian existence, as a drama and extended experience of Holy Week, was one of the great lessons and insights shared throughout the life of Pope St. John Paul II, himself an actor and playwright. One of John Paul II’s biographers described the pope’s core vision of, “the cosmic drama of divine love being played out in the human quest for a true and pure love” (The End and the Beginning, 413). John Paul II received this vision primarily through his nourishment from Sacred Scripture. He interpreted life in light of the Gospel story of Jesus. The Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John, which some and dark, symbolizing the tension of love and sin that function almost like stage directions.
I think we experience much of our life of discipleship as a drama, which is much different from experiencing all times and aspects of life as dramatic. The drama of life is often slow, ordinary, and unremarkable. There are long periods of waiting, working, growing, and hoping, punctuated by divine breakthroughs that remind us that He has been directing and giving commands all along. I find that I need Holy Week for its power to provide context for every frustrated hope, betrayal to those I love, loss of friends and family, and struggle to stand for what is true and just.
On Holy Saturday, when things seem darkest, Jesus descends into those dark places of our world and our souls and shines a light, giving us the courage to hope that when Jesus says, “It is finished,” it actually means God is not done with us yet. Just when we think it’s over, the veil is torn and the curtain is raised—Christ is resurrected, and invites us not only on Easter Sunday, but anew each day, to live in the hope and joy of his victory over sin and death.
Question for Reflection: What part or contribution is God calling you to in the ongoing story of salvation?
If you could only take three things on a desert island, what would you bring?
A common question at parties, dates, and job interviews, it’s not so different from what we might ask ourselves during the season of Lent. Lent, as our Catechism says, is “a span of forty days when the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.”
Just as the “desert island” question invites us to stop and consider what we really need and want in life, Lent invites us to consider our truest desires, what matters most, when it comes to uniting ourselves to Christ Jesus.
To help us answer this question during Lent, our Catholic tradition gives us three spiritual keys, known as “penitential practices,” namely, Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving.
Before deciding what to “give up” during Lent, first “pick up” a new way to pray. Be specific: pick a time, place, and form of prayer. Don’t commit to more than you can do, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself some.
Lent primarily focuses on the practice of penitential prayer, humbly acknowledging our sins with sorrow and contrition, and turning our hearts back to God’s forgiveness and mercy. One example found at most parishes is the Stations of the Cross, usually hosted every Friday during Lent as a way of reflecting on Christ’s Passion and death. Other daily spiritual exercises might involve reciting the Seven Penitential Psalms, or making a heartfelt Examination of Conscience and Act of Contrition. Don’t forget Lent is a powerful time to receive the Sacrament of Penance (also called Reconciliation, or Confession).
Penitential prayer isn’t meant to leave us discouraged, but should increase our desire to love and serve God. The Psalmist sings, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42:2-3). Lent is a kind of “spiritual desert” that highlights our thirst for God, which may lead us to experience what the saints of our Church call “dryness in prayer,” times when we lack feelings of comfort and consolation. Rather than a sign that God isn’t listening, as Mother Angelica and others have described, dryness in prayer can be a gift and invitation to find our deeper satisfaction in God alone. In the words of Msgr. Charles Pope, dry and difficult prayer teaches us to seek not the consolation of God but the God of consolation.
Fasting is the spiritual practice of voluntarily abstaining from food or some other bodily need or pleasure (now we can talk of “giving something up”). Fasting is rooted in our Church’s scripture and tradition, especially in imitation of Jesus who fasted for forty days in the desert (Matthew 4:2). While the Church only asks members to fast from food on occasion, I’m convinced fasting is more relevant than ever as we live in constant temptation of becoming more gratified while less grateful, more satiated while less satisfied.
Fasting can be a practice of slowing down. This can mean we intentionally consume and do less, thus allowing God to speak to our souls with less interruptions from the myriad distractions and lesser goods that demand our time and attention. Fasting works to curb our appetites—for food and drink, yes—but also excess information (news and status updates), noise and visual stimulation (TV, video games), so as to redirect our thoughts and desires for God and restore relationships with those near us. Spend some time in prayer considering what things or activities God is calling you to fast from.
When asked, “How much money is enough” Industrialist and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller famously replied, “Just a little bit more.” The practice of almsgiving, on the other hand, can actually be freeing—showing that we can be happy with a little bit less.
John the Baptist instructed his followers, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3:11), and Jesus warned his disciples of putting stock in material possessions (Luke 18:18-30).
Almsgiving turns the spiritual fruit we inwardly gain through prayer and fasting outward into material fruit shared with the poor and those in need. One year, I chose one item a day I owned (article of clothing, book, can of food, etc.) to set aside to give to the poor through my local church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society or food pantry. I was shocked (and a little embarrassed) by how much I owned but never used. The point isn’t spring-cleaning or making room in the closet for new summer fashions, but to make room in our heart for the poor and to de-clutter the way that leads to the Kingdom of God.
This Lent, I invite you to pray about incorporating these pillars into your forty-day spiritual journey in the desert.
Leadership is essential for a healthy and holy Church. From St. Peter to Pope Francis where would our Church stand today without the great and gifted leaders through the centuries?
Leadership in the Church, including local parishes, is not immune from the kinds of temptations leaders face in any institution. Based on my experience, I’d like to consider three temptations many leaders face framed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings series. It is my hope that understanding and being aware of these temptations will lead to a stronger, more unified Church grounded in the love of Christ.
The Pursuit of Power
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
Tolkien’s story relies on some rather homely and “weak” characters—hobbits—to carry out a great task: destroying the magic ring to save Middle Earth. We normally identify leaders by their exceptional strengths and talents. We use popular tools like strength and personality finder tests to help us identify our unique gifts. Using our gifts and talents to build up the Body of Christ is prudent and life-giving, but we should not too quickly assume God only wants to use our human strengths to bless or lead his Church. In fact, God often builds up the Church by using our weaknesses. He entrusted the building of His Church, afterall, not to the rabbis and scholars of his time, but to simple men, fishermen. As St. Paul frequently preached, cross-shaped leaders learn to live first out of their weakness and dependency on the power of the crucified Lord:
“Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong… I came to you in weakness… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:26-27; 2:3,5).
Knowing our weaknesses helps us as leaders to not fall into the temptation of the pursuit of power. Christ is glorified in our human weakness and can transform it for the building up of His kingdom.
The Allure of Ambition
“You are so wise and powerful, will you not take the ring?”
“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and too terrible.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)
The allure of the ring is the promise of control, but the great wizard Gandalf understands the power of the ring inevitably ends up controlling the wearer. True leaders develop habits of cooperation and collaboration in ministry and are quick to deflect praise and thanks onto others. Because leaders are in a position to influence outcomes and events, however, some can be tempted to an unhealthy ambition.
Sometimes, it can be tempting to view parish ministry as a stepping-stone to a bigger, better career in the church or name recognition. Unhealthy ambition can also feed a spirit of competition and criticism between churches that undermines our call to communion.
One of my go-to prayers to combat this attitude is called the Litany of Humility. It is a good practice to periodically check our focus and drive. Does our work stem from a love of Christ and His Church? Are we seeking God’s greater glory or our own?
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
(The Fellowship of the Ring)
I had a friend who out of college was given the responsibility of the youth ministry program at his home church. Unfortunately, early on he made a financial mistake that ruined a popular trip and drew harsh criticism from parents and staff alike. Unable to cope with such treatment, he resigned from ministry shortly after.
Rather than seeing failure or mistakes as reasons to give up, these can be seen as important opportunities for growth and maturation. A young church is surely a sign of a healthy and growing church, but that doesn’t make it a mature church. While the freedom to take risks and make mistakes is an indispensable part of learning, leaders should surround themselves with team members who are varied and diverse in their ministry experience.
For those who are relatively new to working for the Church, I suggest finding a faithful mentor or spiritual director with whom you can share struggles and receive encouragement. As Tolkien notes above, the Church needs wise, mature men and women to walk alongside its young, teaching patience and perseverance in order to grow deep roots.
Thanks to many gifted and faithful leaders, our Catholic Church indeed has deep, strong roots. By knowing and understanding a few temptations leaders can face, we can help our Church become more faithful and stronger. Pray for our church leaders, that God may give them the grace to be wise, humble, gracious, and joyful examples of the call to be more obedient followers of Jesus.
The story of Christmas illustrates that there are no perfect families (or parishes) but we can hope to be a holy one. Part of becoming a holy family at Christmas means turning our attention to the spiritually lost among our family and friends. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we look to welcome disconnected Catholics to our churches and homes this season.
Make Room for the Lost and Lonely
For some people walking through the church doors, the Christmas season is a difficult and lonely time, a reminder of the families they don’t have. How do we show hospitality to those without a human family? If you are on a church staff or volunteer, slow down and consider the place you are making for those who feel lost and alone. You could, for example, make sure that the elderly and handicapped are able to find seating appropriate to their needs. Or, personally invite those who are alone to join in any parish fellowship that might be happening after Mass. Perhaps you could even invite a few of these people to bring up the gifts during Mass. A special role in the Mass during this important liturgical season can show those who feel unloved how honored we are to have them as members of our parish family. The goal is not to expose or make a scene around these types of parishioners, but to consider their needs and communicate that they are valued.
Make Occasional Visitors Feel Loved, Not Judged
For those coming to church at Christmas for the first time in a long time, many already carry a mild feeling of guilt that they don’t go to church regularly and expect to feel a little judged. Let us welcome these occasional visitors with open arms and encourage them to return by modeling the joy of the Lord through our actions. Joy is persuasive. If we let the love of Christ beam through us this Christmas season it might just be enough to help these occasional visitors desire more frequent encounters with our Lord in the Mass.
Give a Gift to the Poor
The Christmas gift-giving tradition began with St. Nicholas giving a gift to a poor family. While many church budgets are spread thin during this time of year, consider making room in your budget to help the church provide a gift to a local charity or foreign mission. Not only is this celebrating the authentic tradition of Christmas presents, it a sign of generosity that encourages church communities to remember their brothers and sisters whose basic material needs often go unmet. When we demonstrate charity as a parish family, we send a powerful message about what it means to come together on Sundays. Our faith is what is called a “corporate faith,” meaning, that we are all working toward salvation together. For those who have never been to Mass, or haven’t been in a long time, demonstrating parish-wide charity can show how much we as a community care about individual members of the body of Christ who are in need. For those who feel unwelcome or unworthy of joining the Church, communal Christian charity is a great way to demonstrate that we want them with us on Sundays and that we will work together to make sure their needs are provided for.
Evangelize Through Beauty
The Advent and Christmas seasons are rich with light and melody, in both a sacred and worldly sense. Advent is the liturgical season when we encounter beauty in the sparseness and fragility of the barren winter. The Christmas octave and season is full of color and sounds. Beauty has the effect of lessening our defenses and heightening our receptivity to the message of Jesus. What are the elements of beauty present in your church and home? How can you enhance them? Consider playing some soft sacred music in your home during the holidays or decorating your home with a nativity scene or poinsettia plant. It doesn’t take much, just something small to celebrate what a miraculous time Christmas is for all Christians.
Jesus was born in an “irregular” family situation - not a perfect family by worldly standards, but a holy family in God’s plan for the world. Would we Christians today recognize and welcome this same Jesus? He is among us. He is knocking at the doors of our hearts, homes, and churches in the form of family, friends, and strangers in need of peace and hope. Let us welcome Jesus in!
There’s a fear that’s crippling our call to discipleship today: The fear of failure.
Let me just say, this is hard as Americans. We love success. We’re taught from a young age to dream it, pursue it, seize it. We value success stories; we want to have a greater impact, to change the world, to maximize results. If we can achieve this in our faith and ministry, even better, right?
Well, maybe. This might be the message written into the American narrative, but it’s not necessarily the Gospel. Our assumptions start sounding odd alongside the Beatitudes Jesus gave his followers, and his promise to the disciples foretelling persecution and rejection (Mt 10:16-23).
Moreover, St. Paul claimed to be “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ” (2 Cor 12:10), and even instructed the Thessalonians, “to aspire to live a tranquil life, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands” (1 Thess 4:11). St. Paul’s suggestions are not exactly the keynote themes we have come to expect at most high-energy church conferences these days.
Not surprisingly, we are simultaneously inclined to relish the failure of others. As much as we love the success of a celebrity, we equally revel when the mighty fall. When this happens to church leaders, we assume they are fakes, phonies, or just not very gifted.
What doesn’t easily capture our imagination is the struggle that happens in between — the daily living and dying to self that occupies the majority of time and energy in pastoral ministry. Resolving petty conflicts, preparing talks for kids who probably don’t care, assisting the odd homeless woman who keeps knocking at the door — if only we could eliminate these distractions and move on to the real work of the Gospel! Meanwhile, we eat up sensationalized stories of success and failure in an escape from what is real, and ultimately, redemptive.
Success and failure actually have less to do with the size or location of a church than what values and expectations shape the content of our discipleship. When we inadvertently conflate American pragmatic principles for Gospel virtues, we risk making disciples who measure their faithfulness by a standard of fruitfulness foreign to the Gospel, thus creating a ministry model unhealthy for our souls and our churches.
Failure is not fun or romantic. It’s not something to rejoice, or even proof of our faithfulness. But it prepares the ground for fruitfulness. Fruitful soil is rich with dead and decaying stuff — our failures — that ultimately make us ready to plant the seed of the Kingdom of God. Recovering a “theology of failure,” as Pope Francis and others have spoken of, may be an important step for renewing our Catholic imaginations and acquiring the heart of Jesus.
In order to “ready this soil” there are a couple of things we can do to change the way we think about and approach our daily ministries.
Ministry is a Process, not a Product
When we measure a ministry’s effectiveness, we often desire quantifiable results steadily increasing along a straight line on a graph. There’s definitely a place for this kind of analysis in running a church or ministry. But doing God’s work often follows a slow progression passing through unanticipated hills and valleys. We look at a person’s life and say, “Here’s where Jenny lost her job and had to cut back time and money at church, but here’s where her small group members provided babysitting and cooked meals.” The Church and her members rise and fall by the logic of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not by the laws of the stock market.
Seek Balance, not Efficiency
When we elevate efficiency above balance, disciple making resembles an assembly line that aims to produce predictable outcomes in the shortest amount of time. One corrective measure we can take is to remember to keep holy the Sabbath. Is our ministry bringing us peace of soul, or are we burned out and burdened with too much stuff at church? It’s possible we need to pursue more effective systems or strategies, but maybe what we really need is to recover rest in God’s redeeming love.
Share Stories of Redemption
In the gospels, the opposite of failure isn’t success, but redemption. Pay more attention to stories of redemption than stories of outward success. I love the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a 20th century monk and martyr who lived amongst the Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert, sharing in their daily joys and struggles while representing the love of Jesus. His story and spirituality inspired others, but only years after his death (see his Prayer of Abandonment).
As part of our task for the New Evangelization, I suggest we revisit what we call success and failure and begin pursuing ends not so focused on winning in a religious market, but embodying the example set by our savior, Jesus Christ. In some way, I think we come closest to understanding our ministry in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, i.e., when we are in the valleys our world labels “failure.” In these valleys, we throw ourselves upon the power of the Resurrection, knowing we cannot rise again on our own.
One of the most exciting, profound, yet sometimes awkward and unnerving places of parish ministry involves welcoming new Catholics officially into the Church through what is called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA for short. Many parishes are now gearing up for the next season of RCIA, which generally runs from early Fall and concludes with the Easter Vigil (this year on April 15, 2017).
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve and lead RCIA in a few parish settings and have been blessed to accompany some friends and family members through the process. But every year there are things I learn and need to be reminded of to facilitate a truly transformative time for the candidates and catechumens. Below, I’d like to offer some perspective, as well as a few pitfalls to avoid that have made a difference in the way the teams I’ve been a part of approach this important ministry.
Speak their Language
For those of us who grew up Catholic or actively learn and read about our faith, we become very familiar with the vocabulary and theology of the Church that is typically foreign and confusing to newcomers. Don’t assume people know what you are talking about, or what a word or acronym (even RCIA!) means. People are learning a new language of faith, which requires patience, clarity, and practice. Without patience and clarity, people feel alienated and lost, not impressed, and you risk having your faith come off as pretentious and antiquated, not living and effective.
Teach Them to Pray
Going off the last point, we should remember that prayer is the primary language of the faith. This is based in the ancient Catholic spiritual axiom, “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The truth is, we assume people know how to pray, but prayer takes learning and practice, just like anything else. Prayer is necessary for living out the Catholic life beyond RCIA, but instead of just telling people to pray, we need to actively teach new Catholics how to pray by praying with them. Do some form of prayer together each week—the Rosary, Lectio Divina, a litany—to expose people to the richness of Catholic spiritual life. If we leave participants with anything, let it be the desire and ability to pray.
Learn Their Story
As passionate teachers of the faith, RCIA leaders often love to share their experience and favorite subjects about the Church and our faith. That’s important, but we often risk talking when we should simply be listening. Be mindful in giving the candidates and catechumens plenty of time to speak and share their story with one another, not just for a brief minute the first day, but also as part of an ongoing process that extends the whole course.
Think Outside the Classroom
Learning the content of the Catholic faith is essential, no doubt about it. But often our approach gives the impression that church teachings only live in the pages of textbooks. If all learning about the faith happens in the classroom, it has a tendency to stay there.
Look for ways to make connections between Catholic beliefs and tradition and real action and practices. Learn about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy by scheduling time to go out as a team, do a few of them together, and then reflect on them. In Baltimore where I live and work, we are surrounded by some amazing Catholic historical and religious sites. We decided, “Why not incorporate that into our RCIA experience?” Instead of just reading about the saints, we planned field trips to the churches and homes of local saints. RCIA became a more memorable experience that expanded horizons and made people feel at home in their new faith family.
Build a Strong Team
Your most valuable asset is a dynamic and cooperative RCIA ministry team. I’ve heard of RCIA teams that actually actively disagree and challenge one another over church teachings in front of the class. Different personalities and gifts are important, but they should work in unity. Be mindful of what kind of personalities and gifts will resonate with the experience of people going through your program.
New converts are frequently powerful and fresh witnesses to the joy of their faith and are often ready and excited to get involved. Before the RCIA process is over, start looking for opportunities to move new Catholics into the service opportunities and ministries of your parish.
"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.
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.