For some, Palm Sunday was a political event surrounding a political person that led to the greatest, most unexpected revolution the world has ever seen happen. Historically, the week leading up to Jesus’ Passion would have been the time of preparation for Passover, when many Jews from all the surrounding villages were in Jerusalem together. The gospels (Mt 21: 1-11) describe Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem to the swaying of palm fronds and shouts of “Hosanna!” These were unmistakable prophetic signs of the Messiah-king, the one many Jews expected would finally overthrow their Roman overlords and re-establish Israel’s reign on earth, perhaps even violently—as a group called the “Zealots” expected. Yet there is a further symbol to this story: Jesus riding on a colt or ass, the sign of a humble and meek king. Jesus did not become the king they expected, but instead, the one God wanted. As Pope Francis said in his 2016 homily on the Feast of Christ the King, “The Gospel in fact presents the kingship of Jesus as the culmination of his saving work, and it does so in a surprising way. ‘The Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King’ (Lk 23:35,37) appears without power or glory: he is on the cross, where he seems more to be conquered than conqueror.”
Like Jesus’ followers then, today we are susceptible to temptations of limited expectations. It is possible to see Jesus merely as a political and ethical teacher who died a martyr’s death and nothing else. On the other hand, we might project Jesus’ kingdom to a purely “other-worldly” realm. Since Jesus apparently wasn’t setting up his kingdom on earth (so we assume), we are tempted to sanitize Jesus of any “worldly” political or practical implications, and simply assume political engagement has limited place, or even runs counter to our task of evangelization. As Pope Pius XI wrote in his establishment of the Feast of Christ the King, “It would be a grave error…to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power…although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them.” Both interpretations—that Jesus was strictly political or that his work was merely “not of this world”—fail to take seriously not only Jesus’ public ministry and preaching, but the truly earth-shattering consequences of Jesus’ kingship won at the cross.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Christ, “exercises his kingship by drawing all men to himself through his death and Resurrection.” Jesus’ death and Resurrection are, simply, God’s victory over the world’s powers of sin and death so as to bring about the restoration of God’s people. To say yes to Jesus’ Resurrection is to say yes to life as part of a new creation and kingdom that starts now. Paschal faith involves the risk of making mistakes, being misunderstood or ridiculed, of not conforming to the expectations of the surrounding culture in order to expect something greater. It involves joining in the kingship of Christ in serving others, something we are able to share in as a result of our baptism.
As powers of sin and death today loom heavy on our hearts, it is not enough to “have faith” but to do nothing. Following Christ calls us to witness to our faith in practical ways with full conviction because of Christ’s own experience of suffering, death, and Resurrection that has transformed our fundamental orientation to the world. As Christians, we desire peace, healing, reconciliation, and restoration. We serve our King by building up his kingdom on earth. Pope Francis challenges us, “A people who are holy…who have Jesus as their King, are called to follow his way of tangible love; they are called to ask themselves, each one each day: “What does love ask of me, where is it urging me to go? What answer am I giving Jesus with my life?”
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Last week a friend and I were watching football together and we started talking about how unprecedented of a year 2016 has been. At that moment it seemed like anything was possible—the Cubs were headed to the World Series, a feat that last happened in 1945! My friend even joked that maybe the Bears would win the Super Bowl! Well the Cubs have won the World Series, first time since 1908, and the Bears still look dubious for the Super Bowl. There are countless examples of how different this year has been, but none more so than our current presidential election. This long and winding election will finally be over and our Facebook newsfeeds will return to their usual mix of cat photos and recipe videos. During this election cycle I have often been asked by a lot of my friends what a Catholic is supposed to do. Some people have made up their minds completely independent of the magisterium of the Church, while others have decided to completely remove themselves in the process by not voting.
As faithful Catholics, participating in our electoral system requires a formation of conscience. It demands that one know and understand the different issues and the Church's teachings of various issues. It is not something that can be broken down into a simple check box format, but demands an understanding of the teachings of the Church. In response to this situation, the bishops of the United States have written a pastoral letter, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship outlining several key teachings that are important to today's political climate. We at the Catholic Apostolate Center have created a special portal dedicated to this document. I highly recommend visiting the page and exploring its various topics. Exploring these issues and positions is critical to making an informed decision. The document goes into detail regarding the very nature of Catholic involvement in our politics. This process includes a formation of oneself both as an apostle and a citizen. A few months ago, Bishop Robert W. McElroy, Bishop of San Diego, wrote about this formation. Saying "It is for this reason that the central foundation for an ethic of discipleship in voting for the Catholic community in the United States today lies not in the embrace of any one issue or set of issues but rather in a process of spiritual and moral conversion about the very nature of politics itself."
The other common thing I hear from some people is that "so many people vote, mine can’t possibly matter." These individuals are choosing not to participate in their right to vote as a citizen of this country. Everyone has that right to not participate, but before making this decision there are things to consider. One should remember that the Church encourages our participation. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington expanded on this further last week in a column in The Catholic Standard discussing Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship "Civic participation is not a simple task for faithful citizens It requires a willingness to listen to Catholic social teaching, and then conscientiously apply it to the political sphere. We must pray for guidance in our civic choices so as to uphold the dignity of all life and the common good. We must learn about the issues and where candidates stand. We must vote in recognition of the important contribution that every voice makes on Election Day, and we must remain engaged to build a civilization of justice, peace and caring for one another.
Tonight, we should know the results of the election and a portion of the country will be disappointed. Whoever is elected will have the enormous task of unifying this country and moving forward. That task will not be an easy one, but is possible. One only needs to look at the example Pope Francis gave last week in Sweden. He traveled there to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and spoke of the hope for reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans: “We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” Catholics in the United States are also called to similarly work hard to build bridges to our neighbors. I have no doubt that this country will unify but it will take understanding, prayer, and time.
This upcoming summer, the Church will be celebrating World Youth Day in Kraków. The Church invites all of us, not just those pilgrims in Poland, to celebrate and participate in this great event. The Catholic Apostolate Center announced a few weeks ago that it will be partnering with the USCCB and the Archdiocese of Washington in a number of World Youth Day celebrations both here and abroad, including the event “Kraków in the Capital,” which celebrates World Youth Day stateside in Washington, D.C. As I was helping prepare for the celebration, I came across the fact that the body of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati will be present for the World Youth Day celebrations in Kraków. I knew very little about this extraordinary young man and I decided that I needed to learn about him. I feel like my introduction to him was perfect timing. Much like Pier Giorgio, I have a great love for the outdoors and for sports. I will gladly spend hours watching games and discussing Sidney Crosby and my Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Giants, and why the 1969 Mets were the greatest World Series team. Some of my fondest memories include hiking in the Scottish Highlands, climbing mountains in the Adirondacks, and backpacking in New Mexico. I've always regarded these as great activities, but found it challenging to incorporate them into my spiritual life. I knew that being in nature connected me closer to God, but did not know how that could affect my spiritual journey. This young man showed me how.
Pier Giorgio Frassati was born to a prominent family in Torino, Italy on April 6, 1901. His father was the founder of the La Stampa national newspaper (which is still in print today) and was very active in national politics as a member of left wing parties. Growing up, Pier Giorgio took an active role in his life of faith and developed a deep spiritual life. He could often be found praying before the Blessed Sacrament and reflecting on the Beatitudes. During World War I, he served the sick and helped servicemen reintegrate back into society. Like his father, Pier Giorgio got involved with politics but joined the People's Party, which was based on Rerum Novarum and Catholic Social Teaching. He would often be found climbing mountains, going to the theater and to the opera, but never let these pastimes interrupt his service to the poor and the outcast. He would be seen giving bread and sometimes his own clothing to the beggars in the streets. While still a young man, Pier Giorgio was photographed climbing a mountain. He signed the photograph 'Verso L'Alto', which means 'Go to the Heights'. This would serve as his personal motto and means more than simply mountain climbing. It is also a figure speech referring to the climb towards Christ. Pier Giorgio felt that he was drawn to the heights of the Beatitudes and to the Blessed Sacrament. He encouraged all those around him to also climb to these heights of the spiritual life.
Pier Giorgio's family disapproved of his activities and of his faith. They could not understand Pier Giorgio's passion for the poor and for the spiritual life. As he grew older, he grew deeper in his devotion and eventually joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic (Lay Dominicans) in 1922. Before graduating from university, Pier Giorgio contracted a very aggressive form of polio and grew extremely ill. It was during this short period that his grandmother passed away, drawing ire from his family because they felt that Pier Giorgio did not show enough grief for her death due to his own illness. On the night before Pier Giorgio himself passed away, he requested that his medication be given to a poor man he had been visiting. Pier Giorgio succumbed to his illness on July 24, 1925. His family expected very few people to come to his funeral, only some family and personal friends. When the family departed for the funeral, they were completely stunned to find the streets completely lined with thousands of people whom he had cared for. Simultaneously, the people lining the streets were shocked to find that he was from such a prominent family.
Pier Giorgio's legacy continued not only in Torino, but also throughout the world. While visiting Torino in 1989, Saint John Paul II made a pilgrimage to his tomb. A year later, on May 20th, Pier Giorgio Frassati was beatified in Saint Peter Square. His body was then moved from the family plot and reinterred in the Cathedral of Torino for pilgrims to visit. St. John Paul II said, "He (Frassati) testifies that holiness is possible for everyone". In researching his life, I have found encouragement from this great man. He shows us how to have zeal not only for life, but also for our faith. He gives us courage and inspiration. As I prepare for the World Youth Day celebrations, I look forward to diving deeper into the life and spirituality of Pier Giorgio.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!
Paul boldly reminds Christians, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). In a sense, our single most political act on this earth is not who we vote for in the next election, but our Baptism. In baptism, we discover our truest identity as adopted sons and daughters of God, and together become “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). But as citizens of heaven, we also live as “aliens and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:11).
This Jubilee Year of Mercy issues an invitation and challenge for Catholics to transform what society regards as ‘political problems with political solutions’ into encounters with God’s grace and mercy. Borrowing a phrase from Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, Christians are not simply called to meet issues with more political machination, but greater “prophetic imagination.” When Christians do not actively imagine and enact truthful and merciful alternatives to social evils, pragmatism and deceit can lay deep roots in our society.
In the Book of Leviticus, an important aspect of the ancient Jubilee Year involves extending mercy to a group of people the Bible calls resident aliens, outsiders living among the Israelites who belonged to no tribe. They occupied a vulnerable position in society and were not always welcomed, but God’s law was meant to protect them as legal equals (cf. Ex 12:49; Lev 24:22).
Today our Church takes seriously the responsibility to stand up for the human dignity of migrants and refugees. While speaking on the topic of pastoral care for migrants and itinerant peoples, Pope Francis expressed his hope that, “our Christian communities really be places of hospitality, listening, and communion.”
In Leviticus 19, God instructs Moses and the Israelites about harvesting the land, not to “reap the field to its very edge,” for, “… these things you shall leave for the poor and the alien” (Lev 19:9,10, cf. Deut 24:20-21).
A problem many of us succumb to in a consumerist culture (myself included) is living without margin. We max out our schedules and credit cards so that we simply cannot make room in our day or budget to give freely, or receive someone in need when opportunity arises. As Pope Francis recently put it, “If the Jubilee doesn’t arrive to the pockets, it’s not a true Jubilee.”
The scripture and tradition of the Church prescribe counter-cultural hospitality toward the stranger. Exemplified in monastic tradition, the Rule of Benedict in Chapter 53 puts forth Jesus’ words, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ” (Matthew 25:35). Moreover, in a culture where nearly every human experience is branded and marketed, we should not confuse hospitality with customer service.
“Listen… and administer true justice to both parties even if one of them is a resident alien… Give ear to the lowly and to the great alike” (Deut 1:16,17).
There is no justice or mercy without listening to the oppressed and marginalized. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. . . It is God’s love for us that He not only gave us His Word but also lends us His ear. . . Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either” (Life Together. New York: Harper & Row).
When we listen, we may even discover someone who is no longer a stranger but a friend.
God had to remind the Israelites, “You shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt,” (Lev 19:34). The New Testament reiterates: “Once you were ‘no people’ but now you are ‘God’s people’; you ‘had not received mercy,’ but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).
Pope Francis powerfully stated that communion cannot exist where Christians seek to build walls instead of bridges. Communion happens through solidarity and accompaniment, not the gospel of, “God helps those who help themselves.” As Catholics, our communion is best expressed through the Holy Eucharist, where we “participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice” (CCC 1322). Recent celebrations of the Mass across the USA-Mexico border witness the power of the Eucharist to unite Christians separated along national/political divides. In a climate of fear and self-preservation, the Eucharist consumes us, lest we consume each other.
Political debates will rage this year. As Christians, let us consider how the Jubilee of Mercy cannot be separated from our particular concern for migrants and refugees in the form of the prophetic witness of Christian hospitality, listening, and communion.
To learn more about the Jubilee of Mercy, visit our free resource page by clicking here.
Like many of you, I have been following Pope Francis’ visit rather closely. Undoubtedly, his presence has impacted each of us in different ways, and I am very excited about the words and actions to come in the days ahead. As I sit here in my office with an unusual lull in activity, I am struck by two ideas our Holy Father has articulated, but are getting very little play in the news.
The first idea comes from his address to the U.S. Congress. While highlighting Abraham Lincoln, he emphasized unity, and Lincoln’s great struggle to bring union, freedom, and peace to a divided and war ravaged nation. Francis named the delicate balance of rejecting fundamentalism that threatens these great virtues that Lincoln fought for, while not sacrificing those same liberties in an effort to defeat these threats.
Within that balance, our Pope names the danger of seeing the world in non-negotiable black and white. I am particularly caught by this because I am often far too quick to judge, especially in a political or theological situation. If people don’t think like me, I reject their ideas as closed-minded nonsense. This line of thinking is all too common in our society. 24-hour news channels that cater to particular political views, blogs and podcasts that target niche groups, and seemingly endless gridlock in Washington reiterates to us constantly that dialogue is overrated, and if you don’t agree with me I have no time for you.
Unfortunately, there is a great danger in seeing things in black and white. When we see things in black and white we claim the moral compass; we claim to know what is righteous and what is sin. And when we get trapped in that line of thinking, there is no more room for anyone else in our lives, not even God. We declare our independence from what we view as wrong only to discover that we can no longer discuss and dialogue with those around us. Nothing anyone has to say is worth listening to.
Here is where the Pope’s message strikes deepest. President Lincoln in his first and primary purpose fought the Civil War to preserve the union, to keep these United States from dividing into isolation. Lincoln chose openness and dialogue, and that is where Pope Francis is calling all of us today. For too long I have looked down on those I disagree with thinking they are not as nuanced or educated as I am. Yet God speaks in history, and if I fail to speak with and be open to my sisters and brothers, how can I hear God? How can I grow? And most importantly, how can I live in union as a member of the Church and as a citizen of this country, if I fail to dialogue and work in communion to realize the Kingdom of God and build a more perfect union?
The second chord that struck me came from the address to the U.S. Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. While watching the reflection, I was unsure what the Pope was going to say, but I was deeply moved by the compassionate urgency he had while addressing the mission of the church in the United States. He acknowledged the heavy workload, the damaging reality of the sexual abuse crisis, and the corrosiveness of secular culture. However, he made very clear that it was in this context that all of us who minister to God’s people are charged with finding some way to evangelize, to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ as his disciples.
In my new job I am struggling to engage young adults in their 20’s and 30’s. I have a loose plan, and we are having our first event in a few weeks. However, like anything new, I am having doubts about how successful it will be in bringing young adults back to Christ. I went through all of this training and education and I don’t have a sure answer for how to lead people to discipleship. What if no one shows up?
Through that cloud of doubt, there was the Pope speaking to a cathedral full of bishops, but yet also speaking to my fears. Evangelization is the most important work. We must keep trying. We must keep praying, and we must keep going. Only God builds the Church, but we must keep removing barriers and facilitating encounter, so that the seeds of faith may be watered and eventually produce much fruit.
These last few days have already made for an incredible papal visit. The headlines will undoubtedly continue to be filled with the Pope’s stance on particular issues, and on his discussions at the World Meeting of Families. Through all of that, try to listen to the words surrounding the hot buttoned issues because there Francis is not telling us what to believe, he is rather telling us how to live as human beings. Pope Francis, in his straight talk and unassuming persona, has figured out how to remove those barriers to faith, and in his words over the last few days, I can’t help but feel that Christ has spoken directly to me.
Editor's Note: This post was originally published on Catholic How and was reprinted with permission
Back in 2002, my 8th grade religion teacher assigned my class the task of choosing a saint for Confirmation and then writing about why we chose the person. After deciding that I would research a patron of lawyers and politicians, I came across a name: St. Thomas More. He seemed like an interesting person whose work and faith were integral in his life. His feast day is on June 22, and his life and personality can offer us something to apply to ourselves today.
After researching his life, seemed even more interesting to me, primarily because of how history and faith intertwine in his life. A brief history on him: St. Thomas More was Chancellor to Henry VIII and a personal friend. He was a devout Catholic and criticized the King about his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This was treason, but he was willing to put aside friendship and his life for his convictions, and was not harmed. But, when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, separating himself from the papacy, all in the government were to sign signifying their agreement to this act. Thomas More refused. Because of this blatant act of treason, Thomas was imprisoned in the Tower of London and eventually executed along with Bishop John Fisher on July 6, 1535. In both the Anglican and Catholic liturgical calendars, he is celebrated as a saint for his willingness to being martyred for his faith.
Thomas More is considered to be a “Man for all Seasons” because of his ability to be a philosopher, politician, lawyer, devout Catholic, and loving father of 4 children. The man was considered a model civil politician in English Parliament and respected by some of his most hated rivals for his integrity. It was due to his integrity that he was martyred. Can we willingly give our lives due to our personal integrity and unwillingness to move away from what faith teaches us? Are we willing to deal with the ridicule and criticism for our beliefs? Thomas More was a person of such integrity that he was willing to die instead of lie and go against his beliefs.
St. Pope John Paul II considered him such an important and needed saint for the 21st century that he declared him the patron saint for political leaders. Thomas More’s civility and statesmanship should serve as a reminder for those in political office. Despite differences that people may have with each other as politicians, love and respect of those with different viewpoints is imperative. Thomas More was one who disagreed with many, but was always willing to work with others and be a truly welcoming and hospitable person.
It is my hope every time that I ask for the intercession of St. Thomas More that I and all those who care about political life are willing to listen to those we disagree with and still love the person. It is a difficult task, but with the assistance of the saints, such as Thomas More, we can work for the betterment of society together.
Jonathan Sitko is the Program Manager of the Catholic Apostolate Center.