Imagine four graduate students passionate about ministry and ready for new experiences. We pulled up to a ranch house in New Hampshire in August 2012 and unloaded our packed cars. Our next two years were devoted to serving in local parishes while earning our degrees in theology through the Echo Graduate Service Program.
Our first community prayer took place on the Feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast day we celebrate on Thursday. The translation for “Clairvaux” is “Valley of Light”; we didn’t know a great deal about Bernard, but the theme of light clicked. We were accumulating candles as welcome gifts from our parishes, so of course, it was a sign! We pieced together his biography and reflected on his dynamic writings. We asked St. Bernard to be the patron of our house and bless our time together.
St. Bernard was a monk who lived in 11th century France and became a Doctor of the Church. From an early age, he was considered devout and well-educated. The third of seven children, Bernard took a particular interest in poetry and had a special devotion to Mary. He notably authored the Memorare prayer. He became a respected abbot of what are now the Cistercians in the Diocese of Langres. Bernard is credited with naming the monastery he began Claire Vallée, in an area originally named Vallée d'Absinthe, or Valley of Bitterness. He was known for his influence among clergy and political leaders. St. Bernard died in 1153 and was canonized in 1174.
Now imagine a young family. My husband, one-year-old son, and I prepared to “hunker down” for quarantine in March 2020 in Indiana. Five months later, we are still amid a global pandemic that can feel overwhelming, oppressive, disheartening, and confusing all at once. The virus has also revealed some of the most beautiful elements of community and compassion.
While I can’t compare the virus to the challenges Bernard faced as a young adult starting a monastery with a “band of monks,” I appreciate how he held fast to the deeper purpose of Benedictine life. He cultivated habits of work, leisure, and rest while counseling his fellow monks, clergy, and politicians. COVID-19 forced me to recognize how I create space to listen and be with God both inside and outside my home, much like Bernard’s contemplative life.
Eight years ago, the patron of candlemakers introduced what it means to practice a type of “spirituality of home” where home is not only a place for living, but also one of brightness, hope, and intentionality. I can see hope daily in our little boy, doing the hokey pokey many times over, reading books, and playing chase. We intentionally set up a prayer table in our living room where we say morning and evening prayers as a family and filled walls with icons and pictures to remember who it is we say thank you to! These habits took time, but they have been a source of security in such a time of uncertainty.
I’m grateful to St. Bernard for bringing light to all the “unknowns” in our little ranch house in New England and my first home in the Midwest. He is a guide who shows us how to cultivate habits that lead to a deeper relationship with God, our true home!
Reflection Questions: How might we practice a “spirituality of home”? Where is the light in our individual “valleys of bitterness,” i.e. isolation, loss, anxiety, or despair?
Inspiration for this article came from the book Theology of Home.
If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to read Creating an Inner Monastery During the Coronavirus Pandemic.
I watched her curly little head bounce away from me further down the hiking path and around a bend, out of my sight. I knew her older brothers would slow down so she could keep up with them, taking her under their wings. In the midst of a global pandemic, the woods were a safe space, open and free from the danger that seems to lurk everywhere these days. Nonetheless, my heart rate picked up along with my pace. What if a stranger was on the path? What if she fell and got hurt? I couldn’t see the path ahead, and I was afraid.
I hurried along, my anxiety increasing as my steps forward failed to lead me to a view of my children. My thoughts turned dark while the woods around me became bright. Trapped in my own head, I failed to notice the sun breaking through, filtering light through the treetops. Until—there! The sunshine reflecting off of my little girl’s sequin covered sneakers allowed me to catch a glimpse of my babies. “Red light!” I yelled, in our family shorthand for “stop-moving-your-body-immediately.” The birds scattered, startled. My children froze in place as they waited for me to catch up with them. As I knew they would be, the boys were watching closely over their little sister. Taking her by the hand, they coached her through the mud and over the fallen branches.
“See, Mama? Pretty!” my curly little girl exclaimed, joyfully depositing semi-crushed wildflowers into my hands. After rubbing her nose against mine, she joined her brothers on a moss-covered log, not registering my fear for even a moment. Exhaling a sigh of relief, I praised God in joy for great big brothers, my safe little girl, and a Father who is Light, illuminating the way.
In this season of uncertainty, I find myself living that moment on the hiking path time and again: rushing forward, afraid, unable to see what is ahead. My days are filled with research and passionate conversation about schooling, and what the right choice for our family will be this fall. We deliberate over each barbecue invitation and mourn the loss of birthday celebrations that will never come to life. Parenting in a season where change is the only constant is overwhelming.
I’m living that moment on the hiking path again: where I could not see, there was light. Though I was afraid, the Father was before me, protecting my little ones. So now, instead of remaining trapped by my thoughts, I am pursuing His power and protection. I am practicing seeking the light.
In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul reminds us that we can live in joy even in the midst of hardship, and he shows us how: “[We are] strengthened with every power, in accord with His glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom[...]”(Colossians 1:11-12).
Joy is a pursuit. By God’s great mercy, we are called out of the darkness and into the light. We are invited to share in the inheritance of the saints, if only we can pursue His power and glorious might instead of depending upon our own. When left to myself, I abandon joy for the hopelessness and despair that seems to permeate the world during this pandemic. However, when I pursue the heart of Christ, I am promised endurance and patience. I am equipped to face the reality of a sick and broken world and to remain unbroken by its weight. In His power alone, joy still abounds.
Joy is a practice. Turning hands full of crushed wildflowers to praise comes with intentionality. So: let us train ourselves to joy. When we feel the dark closing in on us, we are called to joyfully give thanks to the Father and to seek His fingerprints that so graciously mark our lives—to acknowledge His many gifts.
When the trees block our view, let us enjoy the sunshine filtering through their branches. When the path is rocky and unsure, let us acknowledge that He walks alongside us, and before us. When we suffer through sickness, hardship, and isolation, let us hope in God who has overcome suffering once and for all.
This is joy. Grace-filled moments of contentment, happiness, peace, safety, and hope that we open our eyes to experience, even in the midst of the dark. Where happiness is fleeting and circumstantial, joy is ours to keep no matter the circumstance.
Along this path I will stumble and fall. Joy will evade me as I am burdened by fear and uncertainty. But I will allow the Lord to raise me up, seeking the joy He offers me despite my skinned knees.
Like my curly girl, I choose to trust that I am not alone. I choose wildflowers and light. I chase joy.
The principle of God’s Infinite Love is consoling in prayer, encouraging in our personal darkness, and a bright light for preaching and teaching. But when it comes to pastoral care, this Infinite Love can feel overwhelming, idealistic, and impossible. On a more personal level, Infinite Love care can lead to feelings of guilt at not having done enough and shame at not being enough.
Consequently, the idea of accompaniment can quickly appear to be wishful thinking. How am I to walk with people when I am just one person with one sunrise and one sunset each day? There are dozens or hundreds of people who need care in my community, but I can barely finish my homily, or you can barely get the kids to school on time.
The problem is with two false thoughts. First, we are not God. We are not the source of Infinite Love, and we shall never be. Second, accompaniment does not mean that I have to walk with each person all day. This is impossible.
Honestly, many good Catholics have difficulty letting go of control. The worst example of this is the savior complex. We are not the saviors, Jesus is. The reality is that the Lord God is the principal Accompanier, not us! And, out of His goodness, He has chosen myriads of intermediate accompaniers. In other words, and hear me well, WE do not, nay, we cannot try and do it all on our own. And isn’t it ironic that right after we priests preach and teach that to people that they cannot do it on their own, then, as spiritual caretakers we immediately set aside our theological principle of interdependence and try to do it all on our own.
Thoughtful accompaniment lies in deploying a sophisticated network of groups and individuals to care for, to check on, to talk to, to bring communion to those in need. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, just saints. Let the lesson of accompaniment be your lesson today: just do what you can, but don’t go at it alone. Only God is Infinite Love.
“Out of darkness, God has called us, claimed by Christ as God’s own people. Holy nation, royal priesthood, walking in God’s marvelous light.” -Christopher Walker, Out of Darkness
At some point or another, almost everyone lives in one kind of darkness. For some, that darkness can come with the loss of a loved one or a job. For others, darkness can creep into our lives when we move for a job, start college, have an unexpected medical diagnosis, or just seem to have everything go wrong in our lives. Right now, we are all living in the shadows and darkness of another kind—one that includes loss of life and jobs, but that is also much more. The current pandemic seemingly brought darkness upon the world just as we got ready to celebrate the Sacred Triduum, three days that culminate in our proclamation that Christ is the light of the world. The darkness, for many, is made even darker without being able to go to church, without a physical community of faith, and without the reception of the Eucharist. And yet, as St. Peter said in his epistle, we are all “‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Pt 2:9). We are called to live in the light, not in the darkness that we find ourselves in. Right now, that may seem impossible. The light seems to be out without a definite end in sight. ,
I have been lucky over the past few months to be not only living in community, but to also have regular access to the celebration of the Eucharist. Mass is celebrated daily at the seminary, so my own personal darkness does not include the absence of a community or the sacraments. For me, darkness creeps in as a result of not being with those I love. I couldn’t go to visit my family in New York in between the end of the semester and the beginning of my summer assignment. I am limited to phone calls here and there with those I love, and the occasional FaceTime video with my goddaughter and her brother. This has been my own personal cross to bear, but it’s one that I know has made me appreciate the people in my life more than I did before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. But there are other things that are hard too, especially right after Archbishop Aymond suspended public Masses in New Orleans. Other things such as this have entered into my own darkness and tried to snuff out the light of Christ.
In the Eucharistic liturgy, right before the distribution of Communion, the priest, holding the Body and Blood of Christ, says “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sin of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” But, right now, those called to the supper of the Lamb can’t come. To pray this prayer, to hear this prayer every day, is not easy to hear while many of the people of God aren’t able to be nourished through the Eucharist. This chosen race is wandering in the desert, seemingly alone. And yet, Jesus is there with us in our tombs. He is there with us in our darkness. He is there with us--waiting to bring us out of that darkness into the wonderful, marvelous, light. God is with us even if we can’t seem to pray right now. God is with us even if we can’t receive him physically right now. God is with us even if all we can do is yell and cry with despair and loneliness. God is always with us, preparing the dwelling place for us, his chosen race, his royal priesthood.
And so, as we dwell in our darkness, let us remember that we are made for more. We are made to live as the children of the light, not as the children of the darkness. Jesus entered the tomb as a dead man and walked out of it alive. Let us pray, in a special way, asking Jesus to enter our darkness. That we, his chosen race, his holy people, his royal priesthood, may no longer dwell in darkness, but in his wonderful light.
Out of the darkness of missing the Eucharist, God is calling us.
Out of the darkness of loneliness, God is calling us, for we have been claimed by Christ.
Out of the darkness of uncertainty, God is calling us, for we are his own people.
Out of the darkness of sadness, God is calling us, for we are to live in his marvelous light
“Out of darkness, God has called us, claimed by Christ as God’s own people. Holy nation, royal priesthood, walking in God’s marvelous light.”
As I write this on May 9, it has been 54 days since the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, New York suspended all liturgies, devotions, meetings, and non-essential activities in parishes. This was the second major announcement for our parish family in East Patchogue in a 3-week period. At the beginning of March, our Capuchin Province of St Mary announced that we will be withdrawing our friars from the parish this summer. So, not only would we be without public Masses, we wouldn’t even have a chance to grieve our departure with the community. And if that wasn’t enough, only four days after beginning to stream Masses on Facebook Live, our pastor tested positive for COVID-19. This development put a halt on our community’s ability to be in common spaces and thus ending the live communication with our parish family. Although I tested negative, the four of us friars isolated ourselves in our rooms, staggered our meals for 45-minute periods three times a day, and wore masks and gloves any time we shadowed the friary halls. Many parishioners were asked to self-quarantine as well since they had come in contact with our pastor at Masses the previous weekend. During this time, several faithful parishioners passed away, both COVID and non-COVID related deaths. We couldn’t assist at their burials. We couldn’t anoint or reconcile those who requested the sacraments. In a word, we felt helpless.
Unfortunately, one of our senior friars living here began experiencing symptoms. I needed to drive him to be tested for the virus, exposing myself again. He tested positive and a few days later was admitted to the hospital. With two days remaining in my 14-day isolation period, the count turned back to zero. As a community, for 34 days we never gathered, prayed, shared a meal, or even saw each other for more than a moment.
I don’t share this with you so that you may feel bad for us or think how strong we are, because we all have our stories of how life is different now. For our parish community, the time in isolation in the midst of an impending transition and a world-wide pandemic offered us priests an opportunity to do what we could do rather than what we would do. The Code of Canon Law states, “in order to fulfill his office diligently, a pastor [& his vicar] is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care” (Can. 529 §1). The Code offers specific tasks of a pastor so that he can know his “flock,” almost all of which no one on Long Island is permitted to do at this time. Because of this, many suffer. They endure loneliness in the midst of death without a proper funeral Mass for a loved one. They crave the Eucharist and long to be in His presence in Adoration. They yearn for the words of absolution of their sins. Parents of children making First Communion and Confirmation wonder uneasily when their child will receive the sacraments and how that will be done. The fact is, we share in their suffering. We share in their suffering using the communication tools at our disposal in two ways:
The first is the use of the telephone and visual communication. We listen to our parishioners’ emotions, encourage them to pray, and offer a joke now and then. For us, this has been our most effective ministry to personally “know” our parish family during this time. I also have a weekly Sunday Mass for friends and family from literally the four corners of the country (Maine, Alaska, San Diego, and Tampa). A simple call brings tremendous light into the darkness many experience in these times.
Secondly, our lives as Christians, particularly in ministry, can often be characterized using Martha and Mary’s example (Luke 10). In a parish setting, Martha’s example of service tends to be the model. We as ministers have had a unique opportunity to partake in Mary’s ministry of contemplation. With time not often available, God has provided this opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen, pray, ponder, reflect, petition, grieve, laugh, cry, and wonder. In a time of uncertainty and pain for our little parish, it’s the best thing we can offer them.
As Christians, we know that suffering is inevitable. It’s the cross. But, if the story ends there, we aren’t Christians. Because from death came life. From the brokenness, the sadness, even despair, life abounded in the Risen Lord. We, as Christians, MUST witness to this. We, as parish families, do not suffer alone. We suffer together. We suffer with Christ. We may at times feel helpless, but never hopeless.
*a final note to say that everyone in our local friary is now healthy.
"Humanity will never find peace until it turns with trust to Divine Mercy" (Diary, p. 132).
Here we are, with Divine Mercy Sunday this weekend, and instead of being in our churches with our communities, we are at home figuring out how to make this day still sacred. What do we do? Have we entered into the joy of this holy Easter season in the Church, or are have we fallen into despair that we remain in this time of “shelter in place”? Maybe it’s both?
For me, I was sort of giving God an ultimatum during the Lenten season: “Lord, we will endure Lent separated from our communities, but shouldn’t you show your power and end all of this when Easter comes?” I have truly wrestled with embracing our new normal at home and fully entering into the joy of the Resurrection—the joy that comes from knowing I have been freed from the bondage of sin and death although it’s completely undeserved. We know this physical separation during the coronavirus pandemic is a way to love our fellow man, and we embrace it for the sake of love. Yet still, have our hearts embraced the message of Divine Mercy?
When the message of Divine Mercy was given to Sister Faustina (and then to the world), the world was in a terribly dark place: war, hatred, and brokenness abounded. Jesus knew the world needed hope, a reminder of the infinite love He has for humanity, and to trust in His Mercy. And now, here we find ourselves in a different kind of darkness—a darkness of disease, isolation, blame, and fear. And still in this time and in this place in which we find ourselves separated from our communities, away from our physical Churches, and isolated in our homes, the Lord has gifted us the beautiful message of Divine Mercy. As Bishop Robert Barron said, “Into all the dark corners of our human experience, God’s mercy has come.”
The message of Divine Mercy reminds us that no matter how dark it is, or how deep our sin runs, Jesus’ great love for us is greater still! He has defeated sin and DEATH. What more can we fear? He desires to be with us, for us to embrace Love itself.
Divine Mercy is summarized by Jesus’ first words to His disciples after returning from the dead: “Peace be with you” (John 20: 19). After greeting his disciples this way, he says it again: “Peace be with you” (John 20: 21). The disciples, like us, needed to embrace the message Jesus brought, a command of peace and trust.
When we trust, surrendering our hearts and lives to the one we are meant for, true peace reigns. Peace that cannot be stolen by disease or fear but that is rooted in our identity as beloved sons and daughters of the one who can conquer all things, even death.
As we prepare to celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy, may we surrender ourselves to Jesus, embracing the message of Divine Mercy— that His love on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, His love for me and for you can truly reign over our world in a time of uncomfortable uncertainty. Let us shout with joy, “Jesus we trust in you!” and allow His peace to rule in our hearts once more.
The ashes of our Lenten journey were more pronounced this year—not fading with Ash Wednesday but thickening in the following weeks with the outbreak of COVID-19. Each of the plans we had for Lent—the sacrifices, the resolutions, the acts of charity—were rearranged, making room for more sacrifices than we thought possible.
We sacrificed control, physical freedom, the assurance that our pantries would be stocked or that our bank accounts would be replenished. We sacrificed our physical friendships, birthday celebrations, anniversary milestones, family vacations, date nights. We’ve lost friends, family, or neighbors to a virus that until a few months ago was hardly known about or discussed. We’ve sacrificed our liturgical lives, being able to receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, attendance at weddings or baptisms, pastoral formation, the journey into the Church on Easter via RCIA.
Pope Francis likens this pandemic to the evening storm experienced by the disciples in the boat, saying, “For weeks now it has been evening.”
This evening has been long, dark, full of the unknown. Throughout this “evening,” we have had to confront our vulnerabilities and experience our littleness. We’ve had to realize that without light, we cannot see. Perhaps we’ve grappled with fear in this darkness—a fear of the unknown, a fear of isolation, a fear that the dawn may never come.
Perhaps our minds have been left to imagine: Lord, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
This time of quarantine, social distancing, and pandemic has been our evening storm which,
“Exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules…shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities… [and] lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls.”
We thought “we would stay healthy in a world that was sick,” but the storm has awakened us from our personal slumber. And we need light.
This realization is the seed of faith—a faith which recognizes the need for salvation, for one another, for the light of God. The realization of our littleness, our helplessness, our dependence, our mortality, is the perfect place from which to enter into the Triduum and await the lighting of the Easter candle—the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
God has provided flickers of hope, reflections of grace, throughout our journey at sea: livestreams of Masses, daily Scripture reflections, broadcasts of Adoration, priests hearing Confessions in drive-thrus, virtual retreats, Pope Francis’ blessing of the entire world.
We have seen a “creativity of love”--the production of ventilators in car factories, the making of masks in workplaces, the donations of money, food, and supplies across the world, the video chats to those in quarantine facing death alone. We see dancing from porch balconies. Teddy bears in windows. Embraces in hospitals. Birthday drive-bys with signs and honking. People on their knees.
Yes, the light of Christ exists even in the darkness. And the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it. It will shine ablaze all the more radiantly this year in the midst of our utter darkness, sparkling in the gloom. The darker the night, the better able we are to see the light. And in the darkness, we look up.
Let us welcome the light of Christ this Easter by first lighting his love in our hearts.
When Christ’s life lives within us, we can enkindle it in the souls of others and set alight all we encounter. “Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons,” Pope Francis reminds us.
Wake up, Lord! The disciples shouted in the midst of the storm.
Wake up, Lord! The world shouts again today.
Let us awaken the Lord through our prayers and service. Through our acts of charity to those suffering, tired, or scared. Through our cries and supplications. Through our fasting in these unwelcome sackcloths and seemingly perpetual ashes.
Cry out with me again this Triduum, “Wake up, Lord! We are perishing.”
Christ’s response to our cries this week is open arms embracing us through nails and scourging. His response to our cries is a head beaten, bruised, and crowned with thorns. His response to our cries is silence to jeers, taunts, mockery, and abandonment. His response to our cries is the relinquishing of his spirit in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.
He who cried out to his Father, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” also knows the darkness intimately. He knows what it feels like to be alone and perishing. But by his words do we find the light: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” ….“My Father…not as I will, but as you will.”
Our cries are never unheard. “The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith,” Pope Francis said. “We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.”
The goal of our Lenten journey is transformation—to be transfigured. This is also our prayer throughout this pandemic. Yes, we pray that it ends, that healing comes, that daily life can resume, that economies will be restored, and that suffering will cease. But even more than all of that, we pray for transfiguration. Because when we are transfigured by the love and light of Christ, when our faith has awakened and we have realized our need for salvation, then the storm can rage on while we rest knowing we will not perish—for we will know deep in our hearts that with the “dawn there is rejoicing.”
Then, and only then, “In the silence of our cities, the Easter Gospel will resound.”
For more Easter and Lenten resources, please click here.
For more resources and reflections on COVID-19, please click here.
We often hear that the saints must have been uncomfortable to be around. Their tendency to get straight to the point, to stop in the middle of a conversation to pray, to ask pointed, personal questions, to inquire about your relationship with God, and to be sincere about it all, might cause most people to be uncomfortable. Around these people who are striving to live authentic lives, you might find yourself itching to break eye contact, and to maybe talk about something a little lighter like the new TV show you’re watching or how it is supposed to be sunny all weekend.
Though we may not all have encountered saints, many of us can point to people striving to live authentic lives. These people are often unrelenting. Uninterested in frivolities, they are interested in your soul. They want to get to the real you - the you that God made. The you without all the defenses, insecurities, wounds, and fears. But if they find those things, authentic people are also gentle in dealing with them.
This is why a saint or an authentic person might make us uncomfortable. Truly authentic Christians allow the light of Christ to shine through them. And Christ is in the business of loving people. So when you are around these people, you are facing Christ through them and, all of a sudden, your real self—the one you have been avoiding and hiding—comes to the forefront. And there is a reckoning.
This is what it felt like for me when I watched the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the true story of the journalist Tom Junod (known as Lloyd Vogel in the movie). Lloyd, who is portrayed as a cynical and unkind workaholic, is assigned to profile Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Mr. Rogers for the magazine Esquire. The relationship that unfolds between them is a beautiful example of what happens when you let an authentic person into your life. I think all of us have at least one of these people in our lives; and if we don’t, we routinely search for, or try to become one.
Throughout the movie, Lloyd, who comes from a broken family, struggles in his job of interviewing Mr. Rogers. Due to his cynical nature and a very strained relationship with his own father, he assumes that Mr. Rogers’s on-screen personality is just an act. He spends most of the movie resisting Mr. Rogers’s probing questions and his father’s attempts at reconciliation. Many of the scenes portray an awkward dialogue, with Lloyd becoming frustrated at Mr. Rogers for asking him so many questions!
The story continues and the climactic scene shows Lloyd and Mr. Rogers in a restaurant, where he asks Lloyd to spend one minute “thinking about all of the people who have loved you into being.” Here, for a full minute, the camera pans to Mr. Rogers’ face, where he’s looking straight at you. For 60 full seconds you feel completely seen and known.
After this moment, Lloyd lets down his guard and lets Mr. Rogers into his family brokenness. He comes to grips with himself, his past, and how all of that will affect his future. What happens is completely transformative. Once he forgives his father, he then accepts his identity as a father himself, and becomes more available to his wife and more supportive to his sister. The film quite beautifully shows that forgiveness has a ripple effect—once you forgive the cause of your largest wound, you experience healing, the people around you are unified, and everyone is able to love others better and more authentically.
Lloyd was able to do this after he came to understand what Mr. Rogers was doing all along: searching for and loving people for who they really are, and engaging with that person, no matter how many walls they put up. Being seen and loved in this way then enables you to forgive quickly, heal faster, and love more. By following the example of Mr. Rogers, we can create families and neighborhoods that are more unified.
Mr. Rogers, a beloved figure in American culture, understood what it meant to see, know, and love people at their very core, just as Christ and the saints did. People felt understood by Mr. Rogers and loved him in return. At the beginning of the movie, Lloyd felt uncomfortable with Mr. Rogers’ piercing gaze, personal questions, and spontaneous prayer; but as a result of Lloyd’s friendship with Mr. Rogers, Lloyd and his entire family came to experience healing and joy. In these ways, Mr. Rogers imitated Christ, who accompanied men and women throughout his ministry and encountered them in the midst of their brokenness and sin. Christ healed others by stepping into their brokenness with a love that inspired them to change and lead lives of holiness themselves.
As we enter into the New Year, what changes can we make to better love our neighbor? How can we follow Christ and the example of Mr. Rogers and see, know, and love people in the midst of their brokenness?
Today we celebrate the 83rd birthday of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We thank God for the gift of his life and pray for his continued health and leadership in our Church.
Having a birthday near the holidays must be pretty hard to bear as a child, and maybe even sometimes as an adult. Birthdays are meant to be celebrated, and sometimes they can be overshadowed by other holiday celebrations! My sister has a birthday on Christmas Day and she never seemed to be able to celebrate the same ways I could (my birthday is over the summer). I always felt bad and try to still make it special for her - even now that we are adults. Although we know Pope Francis for his humility and selflessness, I’m sure even he has found it hard to celebrate his special day from time to time. We celebrate birthdays as a way to mark our growing one year older, but I’m sure with a birthday so close to Christmas, his focus has often been on Christ. I would imagine, in his ministry, our pope has reflected on the significance of their birthdays being so close and how he can look to the purpose of the season over his own celebrating.
Let’s also reflect on this now. How can we make Jesus’ birthday especially meaningful this year? In what ways can we strive to “celebrate” with Christ? What implications does Christmas have on my upcoming year as I continue to grow in my faith?
“The reason for the season” is a common phrase we hear at this time of the year— a helpful little rhyme to keep us thinking about Jesus’ birth. The purpose of the Son of God coming to Earth was to save us all from our own sins, yet we so often confuse this time with shopping deals and stressful holiday travel plans. Our Lord doesn’t need any of that. He doesn’t need physical gifts—he needs our hearts. He doesn’t need perfection—he yearns for our humble, raw, and disheveled selves. He doesn’t need displays of lights and blow-up snowmen—he needs us to shine his light in the darkness.
In order to celebrate his birth, we must first put aside the distractions and concerns that keep us away from prayer and peace at Christmas. The meaningful celebrating that we should be doing for Christ isn’t wrapped up with bows and shiny paper, but includes finding time to appreciate and pray about our Lord’s coming. The celebration for an ordinary person may be tied to cake, candles, and presents, but as Pope Francis would likely agree, celebrating Christ comes from the heart.
One way I’ve found to celebrate Christ’s birthday amidst the hustle and bustle of the season is by listening to joyful, instrumental Advent and Christmas music. Something about it makes me feel so peaceful and filled with the joy of Christ that I almost prefer it to lyrical Christmas music on the radio or Spotify! Another practice I’ve found to be helpful is focusing on the giving aspect of Christmas. I feel better giving rather than getting things. My favorite way to celebrate the birth of Jesus is to share the gift of the Christmas story with my young Pre-Kindergarten students. Having been blessed to work in a Catholic school, I’m able to share the incredible birth story of Jesus Christ and to teach those beautiful little minds about God’s promise of love to the world. When I sit back and realize the gravity of my role as a catechist to these children, I feel humbled by it. My heart soars, it prepares my soul for Christmas, and I’m reminded of this holy birthday from so long ago in Bethlehem.
As we look toward a new year, both for Pope Francis and for us Catholics, we are reminded that Christmas is only the beginning of Christ’s work on Earth. His ministry will begin at a wedding as an adult farther down the line, and his death and Resurrection happen even later than that.
We know Christ’s birthday was celebrated by angels sharing the Good News. We know there were shepherds who also heard about Jesus’ birth, and finally three wise men who followed the star to where Jesus was born. This new year has so much faith-filled potential to allow us a chance to listen closely to how the Gospel message tells us to love and to share our love with those we meet. We can show God’s love to all by living out each day as apostles who share the Good News.
So today, on this 83rd birthday of our pope, keep him in your prayers. Pray for continued faithful leadership in our Church at this tumultuous time in our world. Pray for his health, that he may find strength in Christ and remain well.
Feliz cumpleaños, Papa Francisco!
For more resources to accompany you this Advent and Christmas, please click here.
From Amoris Laetitia to Christus Vivit, one of Pope Francis’s greatest gifts to the Church has been his emphasis on spiritual accompaniment. Pope Francis has exhorted the Church to make use of accompaniment in response to sensitive pastoral situations, ailing youth ministries, and even to a humanity suffering from isolation and anonymity. Accompaniment, to Pope Francis, is a way of being in intentional relationship with another in order to lead them “ever closer to God” (EG, 170). In addition to being oriented towards leading others into closeness and intimacy with God, Pope Francis also describes accompaniment as healing, liberating, gradual, encouraging growth, and fostering freedom. Perhaps the most beautiful words that Pope Francis uses to shape the Church’s understanding and practice of accompaniment is an “art…which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (EG, 169).
What does it truly mean to “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” in terms of accompaniment? How does this shape the apostolate of a mentor? A key to understanding this meaning lies in the scriptural story found in: Exodus 3—the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush. In this story, Moses beholds an awe-inspiring sight, a bush that is on fire but unconsumed by it. He then turns to look more closely at the bush, from which comes a theophany, or an instance of God revealing God’s self to a human person. God calls out to Moses by name, to which Moses responds, “Here I am!” Before Moses can come any closer to the bush and consider it further, God exclaims to him:
“Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:5-6).
What are we to make of this scripture passage, especially in light of Pope Francis’s understanding of accompaniment? Firstly, the Exodus reference exhorts us to view the other we are accompanying not only with respect, but with reverence. As we begin to accompany others, we must look upon them not as receptacles to be filled with knowledge, passive recipients of teaching, or soft clay to be modeled into our own images and likeness as ministers. Instead, in accompaniment, we are called to witness to another’s belovedness as a child of God. When we enter into a relationship of accompaniment with another, we must have a posture of humility and honor before those we accompany. This posture of reverence is fundamental to a mentor’s practice of accompaniment, rendering them better able to foster a relationship that is truly transformative.
Secondly, the theophany in the Exodus story gives us another clue into understanding more fully the duties of accompaniment. We must respect the accompanying relationship as a legitimate place where God reveals God’s self to both mentor and the one accompanied. Accompaniment takes seriously the fact that human experience is a space where God reveals God’s self; in other words, accompaniment affirms that the life experience of the one accompanied is “a locus for the manifestation and realization of salvation, where God consistently with the pedagogy of the Incarnation, reaches man within his grace and saves him” (General Directory for Catechesis, #152c). In a relationship of accompaniment where a mentor is asked to “remove their sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” mentors must help the ones they accompany interpret their experiences in light of scripture, discern more fully the action of God in their lives, and wait with full anticipation to respond to God’s voice in the midst of their daily life.
Finally, this scriptural passage exhorts mentors to maintain and cherish the mystery of the one they accompany. As Moses hides his face before God present in the burning bush, so too must mentors respect with holy fear that which is mystery in the life of those they accompany. Though we might come to know those who we accompany well or even develop a deep bond with them, they never belong to us completely, but are instead placed in our path for a period of time so that we might help them foster connection and intimacy with God. Though we might have plans, hopes, or desires for those we accompany, we must always ensure that we respect the work of the Holy Spirit in the relationship of accompaniment. Accompaniment cannot be reduced to a neat list of objectives or learning outcomes; rather, it is a “pedagogy which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery” (EG, 171). True accompaniment wrestles with the intricacies of human life, cautioning mentors that “realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without” (EG, 172). As mentors, we cannot assume that we are the ones that ultimately decide how or why the Spirit moves the way it does in the life of those we accompany. Instead, we must continually reflect on how the person before us in the relationship of accompaniment is being formed not by us, but by the Holy Spirit.
Accompaniment, when contemplated as an “art” that “teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other,” calls us to have a posture of reverence before the ones we accompany, regard their human experiences as privileged places for God to reveal God’s self, and maintain a sense of mystery in the relationship of accompaniment. How are we being called to remove our sandals before others in our life and ministry? How might removing our sandals before those we accompany allow us to travel more readily on the journey towards growth in holiness and transformation in the Person of Christ?
We’re well into the first week of Advent, and if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of all the Christmas displays and music and consumerism that has bombarded our senses since November started. As an American, it’s always been easy for me to get pulled into the secular world’s excitement about Christmas, its eagerness to get started with all the partying, eating, gift swapping, caroling, and general Christmas cheer. But as I’ve deepened my faith as a Catholic, I have found that the more focus I put on Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, the easier it is to block out the unending secular Christmas noise and ready my heart, my home, and my family for the coming of the Christ child.
For most people, the phrase “preparing for Christmas” probably evokes memories of setting up Christmas trees and hanging lights outside, wrapping gifts, or organizing the ideal Christmas classics playlist. And while those things certainly count as preparation for Christmas, won’t we suffer burnout—or what I have seen referred to as “the holiday hangover”—if we spend all of November and December with our house decked out for Christmas and with Christmas music playing all day long? I know I would.
A few years ago, as I was researching Catholic Advent traditions that I could incorporate into my family’s liturgical life, I decided that I ought to shift our emphasis from when to set up the Christmas décor and instead focus on the spiritual longing and the growing excitement for the arrival of the Messiah. Traditionally and liturgically, Christmastide lasts many days—at the very least until the Epiphany, but usually until the Baptism of the Lord. Why not leave the Christmas celebrations until Christmastide and focus on the preparation during Advent? Israel spent countless years in hopeful anticipation of the savior—is it really so difficult for me and my family to spend four weeks emulating that same sense of joyful expectation?
The Catholic Church has so many symbols and traditions from which we can draw to prepare our hearts and homes for Christ. In our house, we not only light the Advent wreath every night, but we darken the dining room lights in order to emphasize the light that Christ brought when he came into the world. We also recently implemented the Jesse Tree—a tradition I did not grow up with, but one that I have come to love because it condenses salvation history into a timeline that is easy even for my children to follow. We don’t listen to Christmas music during Advent, choosing instead to listen to Advent music. We read children’s books that discuss the animals’ preparing the barn before the Nativity, or the journey that Mary and Joseph took before Jesus was born.
When we experience Advent in this way, the anticipation for Christmas builds with each passing week. As Christmas Day draws closer, we start baking and freezing the Christmas cookies to be eaten during Christmastide and to be given as gifts at Christmas parties. I take time to plan out special activities for us to do during the twelve days of Christmas, or special meals I know everyone will enjoy during that time. We pray the O Antiphons. We make or buy gifts for our loved ones, and we talk about how giving gifts to our loved ones is a reflection of the great gift of Jesus, who was given to us on Christmas Day.
In this way, when we finally decorate the house on Christmas Eve, we are all practically bouncing with excitement—and not just about presents, but about the miracle of Christ’s birth. Our children’s—and our own—sense of wonder is bolstered and preserved by our not celebrating too early. By steeping ourselves in the history of the first Christmas and by maintaining that same sense of watchful hoping and waiting, we can more fully appreciate the wonder of the arrival of the promised Messiah.
There’s something wonderfully intimate about entering an empty chapel or secluded church and embracing it for personal prayers. Our Lord continuously invites each of us to set aside our daily activities and distractions to spend some time gazing, discerning, and listening to Him who knows each of us better than we could ever understand ourselves. The ancient promise of Christ to “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” assures us of the great love freely offered to us when we recall we are always in God’s holy presence. In doing so, the troubles and challenges we face in the world are trivialized and surrendered to God’s holy will so that our focus can be firmly fixed upon worshipping and honoring the One who calls us to Himself.
Whether it was in a parish church during the day, the school chapel in between classes, or even the private chapel of a religious community, my experiences of being able to utilize the simple intimacy and quiet of the moment offered me peace and sanctuary from the world. Of course, the Almighty is not restricted to the tabernacle of a church; His presence is infinite and forever available to us. There is, however, something affirming about entering into a space conducive to prayer and spirituality. The design and furnishing of a sacred space can draw our senses into an experience to better appreciate God’s presence in our lives. The light from outside may reflect colored light from stained glass windows upon the wall, the smell of candles or incense being burned convey that space is specially oriented to a higher purpose than what you just stepped out of, and the silence and lack of technology, advertising, or electronic distractions enable you to be more aware of your surroundings as you seek to hear God speaking to you. Encounters with the living God are not typically a Burning Bush or Annunciation experience; recall that the prophet Elijah sought to encounter God on Mount Horeb and found Him in the “sheer silence” rather than a strong wind, fire, or earthquake.
We are all aware of the daily bombardment of digital content and of the professional, social, or academic obligations and expectations we face. They compete for our time and attention, can wear us down in routines, and force us to prioritize what is important for us to achieve. In our busy lives, we must actively choose to answer God’s constant and gentle call to “Abide in me as I abide in you.” He pours out His love for us freely, even when we are not always actively seeking Him or discerning His will for us. The Christian journey, then, is one of encounter and service; the love God extends to us is to be shared and offered to our neighbors, the marginalized, and even—especially—enemies. No matter our vocation in this life, our ultimate goal must be Heaven in the next. The saints are excellent role models in embracing the love of Christ and committing their lives to bringing that love to others.
And while there is something beautiful about being the only person before the Lord in prayer and adoration, there is an even greater joy in bringing others to share in the experience and to worship God together. We do not walk the Christian way alone. As a wise friend of mine observed:
"[W]e have to remember that the journey to heaven is not a solo trek. You seek to bring everyone with you. If one person falls, you travel to him or her, and help them get up, and you carry along together towards the destination. This is what God has entrusted us to do, to reveal such love as His love. Within our families, jobs, school, or wherever God calls us to be, we must give everything of ourselves in bringing others on the adventure, and helping them endure. Think of the image of exhaustively falling down on God’s doorstep after the journey is over. You look back, and see no one, because the ones traveling with you have gone inside already."
 Joseph Cuda (lecture, Knights of Columbus Council #9542 business meeting, Washington, DC, November 3, 2013). http://knights.cua.edu/res/docs/Knights-Lecture-5-November-3-2013.pdf
There are few sights like a church on fire. The fire which raged from the roof of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris on the evening of April 15, 2019 was different: thanks be to God that it (at this time of writing) does not appear to be caused by anything more than renovation negligence and that no one was killed in the blaze. The evening of the fire, the attention of the world focused on the smoke billowing above the Parisian skyline as first responders battled the flames to save the most iconic church in France. In the scenes broadcast from the River Seine, I not only saw the intensity of the fire that toppled the historic spire, but I also observed the more subtle fanning of the embers of a faith long thought to be extinguished in the hearts of the French people.
Watching a tragedy stirs up strong emotions within even the most hardened of hearts. Many scenes of prayers being offered or sacred hymns being sung—despite perhaps intense feelings of helplessness—were reported by passers-by, pilgrims, and tourists alike. Furthermore, support was expressed around the world for the Church and her members in France. The sight of the beautiful cathedral of the capital city apparently being irreparably damaged was a very sad one indeed, especially during Holy Week. The many treasures at risk included the Most Holy Eucharist and relics of Christ’s Passion. Different people took different meanings from that incredible sight: many were shaking their heads and crying at the destruction of a landmark cultural icon, others mourned the apparent loss of a grand local spiritual refuge, and some saw a Church which has long suffered against secularism appear in danger of collapse.
Here’s what I observed: seeing a church burning on live television is indeed a heart-stopping scene, but I am—and dare I say God is—more interested in seeing hearts burn within a person! Seeing a man fully alive and in touch with his values, faith, or beliefs rather than suppressing them when inconvenient or unpopular is inspiring and a great witness. The voices of the people in Paris were publically lifted in singing ancient hymns and prayers for the salvation of the physical church building and the Catholic Church overall. Secularism has long been taking root in France, so seeing this active and public embrace of faith was incredibly touching. In times of despair or tragedy, people have been historically observed to seek sanctuary and emotional healing in churches and places of worship. Just think of cities in Europe, at risk of invasion or disease, in which people flocked to pray together for deliverance or divine mercy. Even in the United States after 9/11 and other heinous acts of violence, the churches with formerly empty pews were crowded with voices raised together in hopeful prayer to counter bowed heads of sorrow. As Christians we do not mourn like those who have no hope, but even in our sadness we can lift our eyes to God, breathe to calm ourselves, and confidently pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
From these collective acts of faith, the hope of spiritual renewal can be strong. The seeds of faith instilled in youth but unnourished later in life may suddenly be rediscovered and re-cultivated by God’s grace and perhaps the shock of the sudden end of the status quo. Intense personal reflection and the reevaluation of priorities may ensue to further sustain spiritual growth and comfort. Imagine the state of the Church had the apostles not been inflamed with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just as those followers of Christ rediscovered God in the Upper Room thousands of years ago, so too can we encounter the fire of the Holy Spirit to bring light to the confused, healing to the broken, and peace to the conflicted. The fires of faith have not been extinguished, as we have beautifully seen, but rather the embers are still hot and glowing, just needing to be stirred up again to blaze towards Heaven. As Pope Francis tweeted, let us “unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction. Holy Mary, Our Lady, pray for us.”
May Notre-Dame, our Blessed Mother, pray for us!
The candy has gone on sale, the post-Thanksgiving “leftover sandwich” has been eaten, but it’s not time to deck the halls just yet. As many prepare for the joyful season of Christmas, complete with mall Santas, holiday movies, and plans to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Church prepares during the season of Advent. This time isn’t just for buying gifts and putting up the tree, but to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of Christ. This season of preparation can be traced back to 4th century France, though the Advent we are familiar with can be traced back to Pope Gregory I and Rome in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Whereas Lent is a time of penance for Christians, Advent is a time of preparation and hope. Not only do we prepare for the birth of the Lord, but we also look to the Second Coming of Christ. The first coming of Jesus at Christmas opened the doors for our salvation and prefigures his Second Coming. It is because of this hope that Advent focuses on light and not darkness. This light can be symbolized in the Advent wreaths that adorn Churches and the houses of the faithful. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent, three purple and one rose. The purple candles represent prayer and sacrifices that are undertaken in preparation for the coming of Christ. The rose candle, lit on Gaudete Sunday (the third Sunday of Advent), is a symbol of rejoicing as the faithful have reached the midpoint of the season.
When we thank God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the chance to be with him for all eternity in Heaven, we often think of Easter, but Christmas is necessary in the plan for our salvation as well. Before Christ could suffer and die for us, achieving our redemption and the path for our salvation, he had to become man. What a gift this is! If you follow the Franciscan theology of the incarnation as proposed by Bl. Duns Scotus, Christ would’ve become man with or without the original sin of Adam and Eve, but his mission of salvation makes his Incarnation that much more special for us. As Pope Benedict XVI said at a General Audience, “[Bl. Duns Scotus] reaffirmed that the Incarnation is the greatest and most beautiful work of the entire history of salvation.”
Jesus, the God of all the universe, became man. But he did not just become a man—he became a vulnerable baby born in a manger. As we encounter him every time we partake in the Eucharist, let us pray and meditate upon the fact that God became vulnerable for us. God loved us so much that he became man. Years after his birth in a manger, he took on our sins so that we may be with him forever. Just as we prepare to receive him into our bodies when we receive the Eucharist, let us prepare to receive the Lord into the world this Advent and make ourselves more worthy of him.
Advent is our time to come closer to Christ, to meditate on how he is present in our lives, and to see how he has called us to live with our fellow man as we await his Second Coming. While prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are certainly emphasized during the season of Lent, they can also be integral parts to our preparation for Christmas. May we pray for Christ to be present in our lives and for us to do his will at all times; may we fast from the things that lead us away from him; and may we give alms to those who are less fortunate than us. In these ways we prepare for Christ during Advent as we await both his Nativity and his Second Coming.
Question for Reflection: What are some Advent traditions that have helped you prepare for the coming of Christ?
For more resources to help you throughout the Advent season, please click here.
Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved Midnight Mass. As a student of the Church's liturgy, some of the externals certainly contribute to this: darkness, incense, singing, a full church. Yesterday was no different. The outside air was cold, the church full, the music beautiful as always. With the exception of a blaring fire alarm because of of a smoking thurible being placed too close to a sensitive smoke detector, Mass went off without a hitch!
But why do we gather in the middle of the night on one of the longest nights of the year? Why do we celebrate this great solemnity year after year? What can we continue to learn from "Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father...born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary" (Proclamation of the Birth of Christ)?
The collect (opening prayer) from the "Mass during the Night" beautifully illustrates the reason that we gather on that holy night:
O God, who have made this most sacred night
radiant with the splendor of the true light,
grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries
of his light on earth,
may also delight in his gladness in heaven.
God's light came to earth as an infant over two thousand years ago. The Incarnation is miracle and pure gift, but it is also human. "Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis—And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Word, Christ himself, was, as the Nicene Creed says, "incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man."
In his Midnight Mass homily, Pope Francis said, "The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey." Emmanuel, God with us, was born in a manger fully human and fully God. Jesus Christ is not some distant, historical figure. He experienced the joys and sorrows of daily living just as we do today, and is as alive today as he was in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
As we celebrate the octave of Christmas, let us not forget the great miracle of the Incarnation of the light of the world. "The Word became flesh, and we have seen his glory" (John 1:14). May the glory and joy of Christmas remain alive in our hearts and in our lives today and every day.
Alex R. Boucher is the Program & Operations Manager for the Catholic Apostolate Center. Follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexBoucher.