In high school we had a religion teacher, named Mr. Matthews, who used to tell us not to worry about memorizing anything from his class but these words: “Love God with your whole mind, heart, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
He would say, “If you come back and see me twenty years from now, I’ll be happy if those words are all you remember.”
Mr. Matthew’s motto was inspired of course by Matthew 22:34-40, which happens to be today’s Gospel reading for the [Optional] Memorial of Saint Louis of France. In this text, Jesus clarifies that love of God and love of neighbor are the two greatest commandments on which everything else depends. To put in another way – without love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians).
The pandemic has shown just how much we need this love in our world. And while it may be challenging to connect with one another right now, there are still ways we can share love with others from wherever we happen to be.
Three Small Ways of Loving God
Three Small Ways of Loving Neighbor
Remember also, we are called to “love your neighbor as yourself.” During this unique and challenging time, are you taking care of your own spiritual, emotional, and physical needs? If you aren’t sure, it may be worth spending some time today writing down a short list of ways you can practice healthy self-care.
If you liked this article, be sure to check out “Living the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy During COVID-19” and “Mental Health and Coronavirus.”
Music and art can be some of the most comforting outlets the world has to offer in times of uncertainty. They can bring joy, nostalgia, and excitement while reminding us of the best parts of humanity. They point our eyes toward God, beauty itself.
I’m a musician, as are many of my friends. We sing for liturgies, we teach, we perform, we write. While so much of the world gets to work from home, we’re stuck in a sort of limbo. Our talents, our professions, have been shelved because there’s no one to physically perform for. Back in March, when the majority of my engagements had been cancelled indefinitely, I put my music on a shelf. I sat on the couch in a self-pity party. I became stagnant. What was the point of growing in my skill while I was sitting in my house all day? It left me feeling very empty and unfulfilled. Singing for Mass, while it is my job, has also become integral to my spiritual life. When that went away, I struggled to cultivate my spiritual life. Without my work, I felt unseen.
It made me think: if I were never able to perform again for others, would I still make music? My first thought was, “Yes!” After months of feeling invisible and unproductive, I started to see that these were lies. God gave me gifts, and He sees me. When I’m sitting at my piano in my house, God is watching me. He is cheering me on as I practice and struggle and doubt. I realized it wouldn’t matter if no one ever heard me again.
As we are safely and carefully starting to get back to a sense of normal, I am learning to be grateful again for music and art more than ever. They bring us out of ourselves and our struggles and remind us that while things have been bad in the past and may be difficult in the future, there is still so much beauty and goodness present. Our God, pure beauty Itself, is present in all these things. Even though it might seem that creating art, like so many things, has been paused for the time being, it lives on in times of change and crisis. It is shaped and inspired by times like these and by the better, happier times to come.
I cannot wait to sing for Mass again, to perform again, and to create with my friends and colleagues again. But in the meantime, I am comforted remembering that God hears me no matter what. He is still using me for His purpose every time I use my gifts for His glory. Even if it feels fruitless, let us always try to praise God by using our gifts -- God uses all things for good.
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.
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.
Throughout my studies at The Catholic University of America, I had the opportunity to witness and participate in the sacred traditions and rites of various religious orders I would never have encountered back at home. A great blessing of my place of study was the constant flux of various clergy, seminarians, and religious throughout campus who were undertaking a degree program or simply passing through campus in their respective ministries. God bless the Franciscans, Little Sisters of the Poor, Marians, Sisters of Life, Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, Pallottines, and the Missionaries of Charity, to name a few, who joyfully lived out their vocations—inspiring observers to get to know them and their spiritualties and facilitating an encounter with the Lord.
In God’s providence, I frequently found myself at the Dominican House of Studies at the far side of campus and was able to join the community of brothers and priests in their night prayers and certain liturgical celebrations which were open to the public. Personally, I found the house to be a commanding presence and a bit daunting on the inside: the intellectual prowess of the Order of Preachers and its faithful carrying out of its mandate to preach conveyed a certain spiritual seriousness which drew me in all the more. How striking were the resonating, unified, and almost haunting tones of the sacred chants of prayer, together with the corresponding gestures and postures and the dimmed lights! And yet, in wonderful moments of levity, the very same Dominicans could be found performing excellent bluegrass music as “The Hillbilly Thomists”!
Before Dominic’s mother conceived him, she dreamt a dog leapt from her womb and set the world on fire. Dominic went on to become a priest and ultimately founded the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans. The Dominicans rose to the forefront of the intellectual life of the Middle Ages as they announced the Gospel, combatted heresy, gave quality spiritual and scholastic instructions, and contributed unmatched gifts to schools of theology and philosophy. They are lovingly nicknamed “the hounds of the Lord.” The Order has raised up many saints and conferees who ministered to every corner of the world, advocating for the rights of Native Americans, standardizing the liturgy of the Mass, compiling the Church’s canonical laws, composing timeless sacred hymns, caring for the poor, advancing the correlation of faith and science, and promoting the holy Rosary. Western civilization owes a debt of gratitude for the contributions of Dominicans such as Saints Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Pope Pius V, Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima, Louis de Montfort, and Martin de Porres.
Participating from time to time in the life of that religious community gave me a lovely insight into the incredible mysticism of the Order and of the Church Universal. Such a powerful instrument of personal and theological devotion is not the closely held property of one religious order or vocation, but a gift available to anyone who seeks to enhance their personal spirituality with deeply historic and touching methods. This involves realizing the soul as something more sacred than just consciousness; the soul is able to love which helps to better relate to God, who is Love incarnate, emotionally and ecstatically rather than merely intellectually. And you don’t need the philosophical and theological background of a Dominican to similarly enhance your own prayer life! You can begin by quietly placing yourself in the holy presence of God and focusing on the love He offers and the ways He is being loved (or not) in return. Going deeper, it could be beneficial to read the thoughts and reflections of various Dominican saints who embraced a similar spirituality.
How good God is to have called upon Saint Dominic hundreds of years ago to begin such an incredible religious order committed to promoting Truth and the mandate to praise, to bless, and to preach (In fact, that is one motto of the Order!).The work of the Dominicans is especially needed today in our society of moral relativism and secularism. Let us pray that many more answer God’s ongoing call for holy religious and priestly vocations. And may we, as lay people, continuously support the Church which offers so many varied spiritual treasures for our sanctification.
"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.
*This post was originally published on the Ad Infinitum Blog on June 2, 2016.
Contemporary Western culture seems to promote nothing but pride these days; it insists that only those who are proud, selfish, and disobedient can effect change or succeed in life. But salvation history and the lives of the saints tell us a different story—namely, that pride is the downfall of mankind, and that humility is what ultimately exalts us.
Humility is a difficult virtue to embrace because it is such a quiet one and is often mistaken for what it is not. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas describes humility thus: “Truly, the virtue of humility consists in this, that one keep himself within his own limits; he does not stretch himself to what is above him, but he subjects himself to his superior.” Being humble does not mean debasing yourself and refusing to acknowledge that you have any gifts or talents whatsoever—and some would argue that in fact, such an attitude is actually hidden pride! The truly humble man understands that he is not the greatest at anything, and that while he is better at something than others might be, his gift ultimately comes from God and is to be used for the glory of God, not for personal accolades. The prime example of this is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was a young woman without wealth or powerful connections, and yet her submission to the will of God altered the course of human history and opened the door for the divine Messiah to enter the world He would one day redeem. She did not attempt to argue that she was utterly unworthy of the grace bestowed on her, but rather submitted with her humble fiat, “May it be done unto me according to your word.”
The truly humble man knows his own limitations—he submits to the authority not only of God and of the Church, but also to the legitimate authority of the government and the workplace. A humble man does not go looking for opportunities to gain power and prestige. He dies to himself for the sake of others—he harbors no resentment when others’ work is extolled while his goes unnoticed, and he uses those moments of humiliation to draw closer to Christ. The humble man continues to use his gifts even if no one but God is going to see or acknowledge them. And when his gifts and accomplishments are acknowledged by the world, the humble man turns that praise back to God instead of focusing it on himself. The humble man does not need to project an Instagram-perfect image of his life to the rest of the world: he accepts that he is a work in progress, can admit when he is wrong, and can accept criticism with grace.
Sometimes true humility seems impossible to achieve. Because we are fallen creatures wrapped up in ourselves, we have to constantly work toward selflessness. One method of doing this is by praying The Litany of Humility. This prayer asks Jesus to deliver us from desires and fears fueled by pride—from the desire of praise, to the fear of being wronged. But the beauty of this litany is that it not only asks that we be freed from our pride, but it also asks for the grace to desire that others may be better than we are, loved more than we are, holier than we are. True humility is not downplaying our own roles, but is setting aside our own desires so that others can rise higher and do more for Christ than we ever could. It’s being the Andrew to someone else’s Peter and the Barnabas to someone else’s Paul—calling forth someone to the good or encouraging their potential, even if means that person becomes greater than ourselves.
Matt Maher has his own take on the Litany of Humility in his song “Every Little Prison.” What I like about Maher’s version is that he adapts the prayer to be more recognizable for the modern Christian. Pride takes many forms in this era of Instagram followers, Facebook “likes,” and the 24-hour news cycle—we spend time “wondering if I am relevant and liked” and “wanting to be seen.” Ultimately, humility requires us to turn to God instead of other things and to trust in him, in his mercy and his wisdom, rather than becoming slaves to our fears of being judged, or of not being loved, or of having to let go. By praying for freedom from the prisons created by pride, may we live more confidently in the love of God and in doing his will.
“I have no gift to bring…that’s fit to give the king.” -The Little Drummer Boy
What do I have to give to the Lord this Christmas? It’s a question I find myself asking as we hum along the Advent season. Amidst the beautiful lights, the Advent wreaths, the Christmas trees, and the dark nights, I turn to different types of Christmas music to help me prepare for the coming of Jesus.
I love the enchanting songs and hymns written specifically to prepare us for this season. I love songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “What Child is This?” and “O Holy Night.”
But lately, as I’ve been reflecting on what I have to give the Lord this Christmas, I think of another of my favorite songs: The Little Drummer Boy.
It’s a simple song. A little drummer boy is invited to meet the Newborn King and offers to play for him. It’s a touching story that has become almost like a Lectio Divina meditation of the birth of Christ for me throughout the years. This song places me easily within the scene: a cold, dark night, the smell of strewn hay, the breath of cattle, a humble couple, a group of shepherds, and then, a manger holding Christ Himself: the Creator, the Savior of the World, the King of Kings.
In my meditation, I take the place of the little drummer boy. He, like Jesus, is poor and humble. Upon seeing the gifts of the magi and the recipient of the gifts, he reflects, “I have no gift to bring…that’s fit to give the king.” He has no frankincense or myrrh, no gold or silver. He has only himself and his drum.
Most of us are like the little drummer boy. The question he asks is the question that resounds in each of our hearts. What could we possibly give to the God of everything? What gift could we bring that’s fit to give the King?
The drum of the little drummer boy symbolizes his gifts and talents. It is perhaps his singular greatest treasure. And so, in his humility, with love and tenderness, he offers the Christ Child all he has: a song on his drum. The song almost prefigures the coins of the widow in the Gospel of Mark. The little drummer boy, like the widow, gives his greatest treasure. In response to the widow’s offering, Christ says, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest.” Christ’s smile in the song of the Little Drummer Boy seems to signify the same.
These are the greatest gifts the Lord asks of us: what we hold most dear, the beautiful gifts and talents he has bestowed on us, what makes us ourselves. We love him best, we glorify him best, when we give of ourselves and strive each day to become the man or woman he has created us to be.
What can we give the Newborn King this Christmas? Our hard work, our sleepless nights, our chores around the house, the virtues we’re working to perfect, our acts of faith, hope, and love. We can give him our time in prayer, our offerings at Mass, our acts of service to those around us, our talents in art, business, and sports.
The little drummer boy’s reward for his performance is the smile of Jesus. What a touching, beautiful reward! It has led me to wonder what I can do for God each day to make Him smile. Imagine if this were what motivated each member of the Body of Christ – what a vibrant Church of missionary disciples we would have! May this be our goal during the Advent season: to make the Christ Child smile in the giving of ourselves. As we continue to prepare for the coming of Jesus on Christmas, I invite you to reflect on what you have to give the Newborn King. What is your drum? What can you do throughout this season to honor Christ? What are a few ways you can make the child Jesus smile?
For more resources to guide you through the Advent season, click here.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a marvelous performance of the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. This was the first visit of the choir, one of the oldest in the world, to the United States in over thirty years, and was sponsored in part by the National Shrine, The Catholic University of America, and the latter’s new Catholic Arts Council. After I arrived, I noticed that it was not long before the nave of the Basilica was filled to capacity. The time before the performance afforded me the opportunity for private prayer and reflection. As I looked around the church, I was awed by the works of art surrounding me and, despite the growing crowd, could sense the spiritual beauty and ambient serenity characteristic of God’s House.
The concert itself was no less awe-inspiring. While the choir’s reputation and skill preceded it, from the very first note, I found myself enraptured by a beauty like no other. The sacred notes were uplifting yet never overpowering, as if they were directing our focus away to something greater. Listening to the notes being individually pronounced captivated the congregation and invited the audience to be placed in a calming yet spiritually-driven mindset. Each work called our attention to God, His works, and His eternal presence. The Catholic Church recognizes music’s beautiful and historic role in the liturgy as an invitation to participate in the mystery of God Himself. As Pope Francis said in his Address to Participants in the International Conference on Sacred Music, “Sacred music and liturgical chant have the task of giving us a sense of the glory of God, of his beauty, of his holiness which wraps us in a ‘luminous cloud.’”
Think about the psalms prayed at Mass each day. They are ancient prayers the Church has preserved in Her liturgies! In the psalms, the people of God are able to express the full range of their emotions to Him, such as their joys (like Psalms 98 and 100), sorrows (like Psalms 69 and 88), exhaustion (like Psalm 6), uncertainty (like Psalm 23), and even abandonment (like Psalm 22). The psalms are not simply performances; they convey, guide, and evoke an emotional response from the people of God back to Him Who is the focus of the entire liturgy. By extension, the other hymns we sing at Mass should move us to participate more fully in the liturgy rather than passively watch the processions and preparation of the altar—the Mass is not meant to be watched like a secular performance! Pope Francis expands upon this, saying,
[Sacred Music] is therefore firstly a matter of intense participation in the Mystery of God, in the “theophany” that occurs in each Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord manifests himself in the midst of his people... Active and conscious participation consists, therefore, in knowing how to enter profoundly into this mystery, in knowing how to contemplate, adore and welcome it, in grasping its sense, thanks in particular to religious silence and to the ‘musicality of the language with which the Lord speaks to us.’
Hymns have also been recognized by the Church as an effective means of catechizing the faithful, including the youth. Pope Francis continued, “The various key figures in this sphere, musicians, composers, conductors and choristers of the scholae cantorum, with liturgical coordinators, can make a precious contribution to the renewal, especially in qualitative terms, of sacred music and of liturgical chant.” The works that are crafted by their hands can indeed be a beautiful means of engaging those whose ears the notes fall upon. But in order to be truly esteemed as noble and sacred, they must be holy. “In order to foster this development,” Pope Francis said, “an appropriate musical formation must be promoted, even of those who are preparing to become priests, in a dialogue with the musical trends of our time, with the inclusion of different cultural areas and with an ecumenical approach.”
The next time you hear music at Mass, I suggest uniting your voice with the cantor as a prayer to God. The act of doing so invites us to offer to God a part of ourselves that we may regularly try to keep private. Done reverently, it becomes an offering of love to our Lord, as Pope Benedict XVI observed:
The singing of the Church comes ultimately out of love. It is the utter depth of love that produces the singing. “Cantare amantis est”, says St. Augustine, singing is a lover’s thing. In so saying, we come again to the trinitarian interpretation of Church music. The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing. He is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who draws us into love for Christ and so leads to the Father.
Questions for Reflection: How can music impact your experience of the liturgy or of God? Can you remember a time when music helped deepen your faith?
"From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;"
~St. Alfonso Liguori 1732
In a few short days, millions of children will wake up excited to see what is under the Christmas tree. Many will be eager to wake up their families so they can unwrap these gifts. There is a sense of pure joy and excitement that radiates from these children. I have a young Goddaughter, who was explaining to me over Thanksgiving about all the different things she hopes to receive. Her eyes lit up at just the mere thought of Christmas morning. It made me stop and wonder about my own excitement and joy for Christmas. I get caught up in all of the trappings of the season and not the very reason it exists. I started to question if I had that childlike excitement for the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have lost part of that joy.
Advent and Christmas provides one the time to stop and think about how the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Messiah, did not come in some powerful show of force or splendor. Rather, God chose quite the opposite. He came to us as a child, born in a manger. The human embodiment of love and mercy came to us in the form of a helpless baby. In the middle of the holiday season, you rarely take the time to stop and think about how perfect that is.
Being a godfather has taught me about the amazing ability of a child's capacity to love and forgive. Many a family function, I will walk in and my goddaughter drops what she is doing and runs over to give me a big hug. Her face lights up with joy and excitement. One can only imagine a young Jesus showing the same sort of love to Mary and Joseph.
The beauty of this simplicity has inspired the Church for two thousand years. A wonderful example of this is the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. At the end of Mass, the pope carries a small statue of Jesus to be placed in nativity scene as the choir sings the carol "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle". This carol was written by Saint Alphonso Liguori in 1732 and translated from Neapolitan into Italian by Pope Pius IX. This hymn is about Christ as a child who descends from heaven out of love for us.
"Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant, Dire this state of poverty. The more I care for Thee, Since Thou, O Love Divine, Will'st now so poor to be."
I think it is the perfect hymn for these last few days of Advent.
For these next few days, I invite you to join me in a quest to be like a child. A quest to seek the joy of Christ's birth of in a pure, whole hearted, and simple way. Pope Francis tweeted about a year ago "to be friends with God means to pray with simplicity, like children talking to parents." For the next few days, as prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us embrace peace, love, joy, and mercy just like a child who runs to greet you with open arms and an open heart.
For more information on Advent, check out our resources and devotional material here.
Praise God in his holy sanctuary; give praise in the mighty dome of heaven.
Give praise for his mighty deeds, praise him for his great majesty.
Give praise with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre.
Give praise with tambourines and dance, praise him with strings and pipes.
Give praise with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath give praise to the LORD!
- Psalm 150
Back in high school, my primary extracurricular activities were band and drama club. I’ll always remember how our band teacher, Mr. Crocken, would begin every concert by reciting Psalm 150. Before any announcements or accolades, any thanks or congratulations, he would acknowledge the one from whom all our gifts and talents flow. Before all else, he gave a gentle but profound reminder of the importance of thanking God for our blessings at all times, especially through music.
As one would expect in a Catholic school, we began every meeting, whether a class, club, or team practice, with prayer. Our after-school drama club rehearsals were no different. Concluding prayer with the school’s traditional litany to our three patrons, the drama club also always added Saints Genesius and Cecilia, the patrons of actors and musicians. I’d always wondered why Cecilia was patroness of musicians and, since her feast day is today, I finally investigated.
Saint Cecilia, one of the most venerated of the Roman martyrs, is most well known as patroness of musicians. Despite having consecrated her maidenhood to God, she married a man called Valerian. During their nuptial Mass, she sang to God in her heart, asking for an angel to protect her virginity. When Valerian asked his bride for proof that she was protected by an angel, Cecilia sent him to the Appian Way to be baptized. There, he saw the angel and quickly became an evangelist, converting many to the faith before being martyred some time later. Cecilia’s martyrdom soon followed, ministering to the poor even on her deathbed. Since her canonization, Cecilia has been very much defined by that story of her singing on her wedding day. There’s even a musical conservatory in Rome, one of the oldest in the world, named after her.
It’s always struck me how music is consistently referred to, particularly in Church circles, as a means by which to glorify and praise God. When I think of the moments when my soul has been most moved, they frequently involve music. Pieces like Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and especially Schubert’s Ave Maria, move me even to tears more often than not. Why? They are beautiful works of art, to be sure, but the reasons they were written are far deeper. The composers used their craft to elevate the listener closer to God in a way that no other media seems able to match.
Pieces of music like those just mentioned seem to take root in people’s hearts in a very profound way. That’s why they’ve been integrated into everyday life over the ages. From the Gregorian Chant used in the Mass, to folk songs sung at table or around the fire, even to modern popular music, the common thread is that humanity is united by that universal language that speaks directly to the heart. In my own life, Handel’s Messiah is very dear to me. We sang it in choir when I was in college, I listen to it every year while trimming the Christmas Tree and “decking the halls”, and I join a group of friends every December 23rd for a sing-along performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Something about the piece moves me in a way I can’t really explain. But that’s the beauty of music!
St. Cecilia gave thanks to the Lord in her heart and with her voice. This Thanksgiving, as we reflect on the blessings God has bestowed upon us this year, let us follow the example of St. Cecilia and the Psalms and join everything that has breath and praise the Lord.
St. Cecilia, pray for us!
Summertime in the United States brings about a lot of great traditions. It brings longer days, shorts, flip-flops, trips to the beach, barbecues, and processions. Processions are large public demonstrations of faith and piety that have been handed down from generation to generation. In Italian American communities, processions are filled with music, color, and, of course, great food—lots and lots of great food. We celebrate in this way because our fathers did before us, and their fathers did before them. This summer I've already been able to attend to two processions and I look forward to a few more. I attended the 107th annual Festa Dei Ceri in Jessup, Pennsylvania, and the 112th feast of St. Anthony Italian Festival in Little Italy Baltimore, Maryland. Each has a long tradition and there are as many differences as there are similarities. At the core, each is a faith that is embedded within its community that is rich and deep.
Festa Dei Ceri, or simply St. Ubaldo’s Day, is a tradition that was brought from Gubbio, Italy by immigrants to Jessup, PA in 1909. Tradition states that in the early 1100s, Ubaldo Baldassini, the Bishop of Gubbio, met with Frederick Barbarossa , the Holy Roman Emperor who was on a military campaign in Italy, and convinced him not to invade and to spare the town from destruction. When the bishop returned with the good news, he was raced through the streets on a platform to reassure the town’s safety. The residence commemorated this event by racing a statue of him, along with statues of St. George and St. Anthony, through the narrow streets of the medieval town. Immigrants brought this tradition with them when they emigrated to Jessup in large numbers in the early 1900s. The Running of the Saints occurred from 1914 to 1952, then from 1976 to 1990, and has consistently been held since 2000 after being revived by local high school students. The day begins with the high school marching band waking the town up and calling them to Mass. After Mass, the statues which are about 30 inches tall are placed in 15 foot wooden structures that are designed to carry the saints and weigh about 400 pounds each. The saint statues are then blessed with holy water, first by the parish pastor or the Bishop of Scranton, then by the team captains and carried through the town by three different teams of men. A relic of St. Ubaldo is also processed and venerated with a significantly larger statue of him throughout the town. In the late afternoon, the three statues are then raced through the town at breakneck speed and over steep terrain. St. Ubaldo always wins, followed by St. George and St. Anthony. After the statues are removed and the platforms are disassembled, they are brought back to the church. The whole weekend is an expression of faith, family, and tradition.
A few weeks after that, I was able to attend the St. Anthony Festival in Little Italy in Baltimore, Maryland, which dates back to the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. While massive fire raged in parts of the city, parishioners gathered at Saint Leo the Great Church in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore. The parishioners prayed to St. Anthony for the protection of their neighborhood. Luckily, the neighborhood was spared. Many attributed this to the intercession of St. Anthony. The parishioners celebrated his feast day with a Mass, procession, and street fair which has continued ever since. Just five years after the beginning of celebration of the feast, the parish became a ministry of the Pallottine Fathers and Brothers. This year, I attended the events along with two Pallottine students in formation. The three of us served Mass and partook in the procession through the streets. Many people came out of their houses and cars to watch us. It was great fanfare with a full band, 4th Degree Knights of Columbus color guard, and a highly decorated statue of St. Anthony. Many people pinned money to strips of cloth tied around the statue as a small offering and prayer to St. Anthony. There was food, music, and an intense bocce ball tournament.
Each of the celebrations has a few core elements that all processions have. Processions are about faith and community. Processions help increase our faith by publically displaying various statues and images. It is a form of evangelization in the streets. At the same time, they help build community by calling all those together for a common cause. They reinforce not only our proud heritage and traditions, but also our faith. They promote our faith being celebrated together. Processions are also about the individuals' participation. Attending a procession invites us to feel that we are a part of the community and reinforces our own faith. When I go to procession, for example, I not only enjoy the fanfare, but am also reminded that my faith is connected to those around me.
I encourage you to seek out processions and bring your friends and family. Pray, eat, and enjoy each other's company. Processions can be beneficial for every group that continues the practice, not just the Italian American community. Ours just happen to have a bit more tomato sauce and wine than most! As the summer goes on, I look forward to many more processions and I invite you to go out and either attend or partake in a procession.
When I was young, I thought that strength was something you could only have from going to the gym and building muscle. I used to see people who were physically strong and think to myself, “Wow I want to be strong like they are!” Later, I realized that strength comes in many different forms and physical strength is only one of them. There are three forms of strength I have noticed that I would like to unwrap and reflect on: physical strength intellectual strength, and spiritual strength.
Our society likes the idea of being strong. Many build their bodies to withstand enormous force, pressure, and endurance. There are contests for strong people, strength is applauded in sports, and generally those who are stronger win out and become the victor. Strength to some people is building muscle, but it can also be about the power of thought and intellectual strength. Lifelong academics, philosophers, theologians, and other great minds spend their lives thinking, keeping their brains agile and “in good shape.” These are the ones who can create, invent, and solve the world’s problems because of perseverance in learning.
After considering these two forms of strength, let’s think about one more that I’ve intentionally left for the end: spiritual strength. This one is a big part of my life because I have faith in God’s plan for my life, trust in his mercy, and have learned what I can from the Psalms. One Psalm that rings true for me when things are difficult is Psalm 28: Praise be to the Lord, for he has heard my cry for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.
From this perspective of faith, my own spirituality can blossom. I can find strength in the Lord who answers my prayers, knows my heart’s desires, and will always know what is best for me. In my own life, I have experienced trials and hardships that channeled thoughts and feelings into becoming stronger within. I learned to stay positive and seek God’s help when times were tough. This spiritual strength has also helped me to grow in compassion.
One way I am still growing in strength is through daily reflection. A prayer I use with my class is called an Examen, a prayer that St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged. The Examen involves looking at things that went well, things that went wrong, analyzing the day on the whole, speaking to God, and asking for his strength to take on the next day and grow. Here’s an Examen that provides three minutes of quiet reflection and is quick for my busy schedule, but meaningful and thought-provoking as well.
Where does my strength come from? A compliment. The Psalms. Quiet reflection. A long run. Peaceful music. Adoration in a quiet chapel. A good night’s sleep. Eating well. A good book. The Eucharist. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, and varying degrees of each. Where is this strength found for you? How do you build strength? When we are aware of Christ’s presence in our lives, we are strengthened by knowing we can always improve and be better tomorrow. So I challenge you now, to build your prayer muscles and become spiritually fit.
Start here, with Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
For more resources on prayer, please click here.
“I will wait; I will wait for you.”
Call it my theme song. It’s a chorus I’ve been repeating to God for months now. Whenever I get impatient or frustrated, I begin to pray with these words from the Mumford and Sons song. It’s less of a prayer that implies God is not working in my life and more of a concession to not knowing exactly how. It’s a surrendering of control, a transfer of the ego away from the self—and trying to be alright with the process.
The past 10 months have been a time of both joyful anticipation and relinquishing control. I am engaged and will be getting married in about one month’s time. For the majority of our relationship, my fiancé and I have been praying about where to live, discerning everywhere from Denver to San Antonio to Washington, D.C. We’ve been doing all of this in the midst of something most find insane: long-distance. It’s a journey we felt called into rather than one either of us would have chosen.
There are times when I’ve felt like the Israelites wandering the desert sands. I’ve looked up at God and shouted, “where are we going!?” I’ve picked up the flakes of hoar frost on the ground, this food from heaven, and said to Him, “what is it?”—the literal translation of the Hebrew word manna. I haven’t always liked the manna the Lord has given me, nor can I claim to have responded with the confidence and joy that Our Blessed Mother had in her “fiat” to God at the Annunciation when she said, “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38). Most of the time, I have to fight the temptation to join the hungry and tired Israelites’ grumbling. I have to fight to say words that don’t come naturally to me as a human being: “I will wait,” “thank you,” and “fiat.”
Jesus and Mary teach me the appropriate human posture in response to God’s plan: surrender and thanksgiving in the midst of the unknown or in times of suffering. The most beautiful example of this occurs right before Christ’s Passion. At the Last Supper, knowing fully of his impending torture and death, Christ gave thanks, blessed bread and broke it (cf Mt. 26:27). Moments later, at the height of his spiritual and emotional passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ uttered words akin to those of his mother about thirty-three years earlier, “not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).
Meditating upon Jesus and Mary’s examples throughout my engagement and long-distance relationship has enabled me to say many, many times, “I will wait,” “fiat,” and “thank you”—sometimes feebly, sometimes resolutely. I have come to learn that these words are the foundation of the Christian life. They are the manna which helps move us forward in our desert wanderings. They enable the waiting period, the time of desolation, to be not only bearable, but fruitful, joyful. They are the wellsprings of life, the oases in the desert that refresh our souls.
Living eucharistically and receptively has given me the strength to say, “Yes, Lord. I will wait; I will wait for you and your plan for my life. I will wait joyfully, with hopeful anticipation as your plan unfolds—knowing that through suffering you lead me to resurrection. And I will live attempting always with your help to give thanks in the midst of the waiting, just as Christ gave thanks before his Passion. I will say ‘your will be done’ with Mary. I will wait for you to turn the desert before me into the Promised Land. I will wait; I will wait for you.”
The first time chant roused my senses occurred on a 5 day Ignatian Silent retreat. I remember being entranced by the music—the repetition, the words, the rhythm. We were allowed to sing only for Mass and during the Stations of the Cross. It was a small chant from the ecumenical Taizé community that mesmerized me as we walked in the candlelit night from station to station. I remember singing it to myself over our winter break and in the weeks after.
What was this Taizé community? I researched Taizé online and, to my surprise, was bombarded with YouTube videos and hundreds of songs from the community located in the Burgundy region of France. I ordered two of their CDs online and soon listened to nothing else.
I grew more and more in my love for anything monastic: silence, routine prayer, chant, the Divine Office. I began starting my days with silent prayer, going to daily Mass and listening to chant rather than my usual list of Top 40 Hits. The music had a way of easing my heart, elevating my soul, transporting me to a higher world. I remember telling my bewildered roommate once as I got ready for the day, “You just don’t hear music like this anymore. This brings you to contemplate something bigger than yourself!”
I continued to intersperse monastic spirituality into my days throughout the rest of my college experience and thereafter. While in Paris the summer after graduation, I stopped into the Church of St. Gervais for evening vespers and got lost in the beauty of the chanting of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, an order which entered the old church in white robes that glimmered underneath the stained glass windows. From there, I spent a week at the Taizé community I had come to love. My spiritual quest continued that summer after I flew back to the United States and spent a month at a Benedictine monastery who chanted the Divine Office in Latin. The music became the breath and heartbeat of my prayer life, an easy medium through which I could converse with God. The chants enabled me to praise and thank God with phrases that frequently came straight from Scripture, giving me words often better than my own and breathing new life into Word of God.
Gregorian chant takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, whose feast we celebrate today. Though historians argue over his precise role in the history of chant, Gregory the Great has been named a Doctor of the Church—joining St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. Gregory, who entered a Benedictine monastery in Rome and eventually became an abbot, was the first pope to be elected from a monastery. During his life, he founded 6 monasteries on his estate. Though Gregory’s association with Gregorian chant is disputed, his love of the monastic life cannot be. (American Catholic)
I can’t help but connect with Gregory’s monastic background; and I understand his love of it. I spent much of my summer after graduation as a pilgrim or guest at several spiritual havens because my soul yearned to spend time with God amidst nature, the sacraments and routine prayer. The music and chant were the glue that held these beautiful pieces together during my journeys—adding an almost mystical quality to my prayer life. As a result, I learned what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “pray without ceasing.”(1 Thess. 5:17). The words of chant often stuck in my head, I learned how to sing, to pray, unceasingly without ever having to open my mouth. Chant has a way of ingraining itself into your very heartbeat.
We can learn much from the monastic life, which has guided thousands of men and women like Pope Gregory the Great towards holiness. By incorporating silent prayer into our days, we are better able to dialogue with God. I invite you this week to start or end your day with 5 minutes of silence in the presence of the Trinity. Rather than asking God for anything, try instead to simply thank, praise or accompany Him. Below is a link to one of my favorite songs from the Taizé community. May it help you in your journey towards praying unceasingly.