Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. In the Eastern Churches, it’s called the Meeting or Encounter with Simeon and Anna. I like that title better.
An encounter with an “other” is so much richer than a presentation. A presentation sounds a bit too showy. I feel as if there should be an announcer in a coattails and top hat booming into a megaphone in front of audience. But an encounter… An encounter speaks of something intimate, something quiet, something small yet powerful enough to require your whole attention. Pope Benedict XVI said in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Simeon and Anna encountered the baby Jesus and it changed their lives. The joy that was born in their hearts was unlike anything they had experienced. Simeon and Anna can teach us how to encounter the Lord with joy.
Simeon and Anna represent the whole of Israel and us, the Church. They are the male and female representatives of their nation, and in them, Jesus meets all of Israel who have been longing for a savior. They were both advanced in years. They, and all of the people of Israel, were familiar with waiting. In the same way, Simeon and Anna represent us, the Church, who seek the face of the Lord and redemption. Not everyone was privileged to be there in Jerusalem to see the month-old incarnate God, but through Simeon and Anna we all participate in this encounter in preparation for our own unique meeting with Christ.
We must ask, where do we encounter Christ? Simeon and Anna were in the Temple, and that is where we can seek him as well. Not necessarily the Temple in Jerusalem, but the house of God. In the liturgies of the Church, in Mass, in prayer, we find the one whom our soul desires. It is specifically in the Eucharist that Jesus keeps his promise literally, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” I was blessed to grow up in a diocese that deeply valued Perpetual Adoration chapels. It seemed as if every other church had one. If we seek Christ where we know he will be, we are sure to encounter him. The Eucharist is a great place to start. It is also possible to have a spiritual experience in nature, and praying on a mountain peak is one of my favorite things to do. But if I want to be with Jesus physically, I go to Church. If I want to hear him speak to me, I read the Bible. I also encounter him in my spiritual companions, who are temples of the Holy Spirit as a result of baptism. As C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.” These are some of the places we can encounter Christ, where he waits to meet us and give us rest.
Let us also look to these two elders of Israel, Simeon and Anna, to teach us about preparing for an encounter with the Lord. In them, we see examples of patience, attentiveness, longing, hope, and joy. Simeon’s reaction to seeing and holding the child Jesus was “Now You may let your servant depart in peace.” He was ready to die, to sleep, to rest in the peace of his forefathers. He has seen the one for whom he had hoped, the savior of his people, and his hope was fulfilled. Finally, he can rest. Anna recognizes Jesus and His mission, and proclaimed it to all who would listen, sharing her knowledge and her joy. Anna was a prophetess, one who was known to speak of God’s will for his people. Because she was so close to God in prayer, she was able to see Him when He entered into her world. She was ready for her Lord to share His life with her, even in such a small way.
We can emulate them by being attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, by accepting the gifts we are given in their due time, and by sharing our joy with others as witnesses of God’s work in the world. By preparing our hearts in this way, we too can encounter our Savior in the imminent and intimate manner which He desires to share specifically with us.
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?
As I write this, the weather is gray and cold. It has been raining for what feels like forever, though more accurately it’s been about a week. I miss the summer. I miss a lot of things, and people, when October rolls around. It seems to be a month made for melancholy.
Perhaps it is because two of my grandparents died during separate Octobers in my childhood. This month has always been a time of missing them, remembering the past, and grieving. I was eight the October my paternal grandmother died, and she was the dearest person in the world to me.
Grief is a word we use to describe the feeling of missing someone or something after they are lost to us forever. We grieve days that are behind us, relationships that never grew, opportunities that we missed. But most of all, we grieve persons. Death seems to be the end of all that is, the end of all who is. It is unbreakable, unbreachable, unending.
As Christians, we do not think in those terms because they have been proven false. Jesus Christ, as well as Mother Church, tells us that death is not the end. It is an act of hope to believe this. Death only appears to be final and absolute and unknowable. Through Christ’s resurrection, God has revealed that death is not our final end. It is often hard for us to trust what happens next because we simply cannot know it with the certitude with which we know this world. The Church speaks of the Four Last Things, with Death being the first or entryway to the other three: Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. But that is another topic. What about those of us who remain on earth while a loved one has gone ahead? What do we do? How do we live with loss?
C.S. Lewis told a friend who had recently lost his beloved wife, “Sad you must be at present. You can’t develop a false sense of a duty to cling to sadness if– and when, for nature will not preserve any psychological state forever– sadness begins to vanish” (A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken). Of course we feel sad as a result of someone’s death. A loved one who brought joy and lightness into our hearts has gone, and our sadness is a natural response. There is no Christian commandment forbidding sadness. It is an emotion, which is neither good nor evil. Emotions just are. They come and go, washing over us. If we choose to take them too deeply within ourselves, however, emotions can become dangerous. We can drown in grief, for example, if we make it our cosmology. And the Christian is commanded to have the same mind as Jesus Christ. He sees the world with the eyes of resurrected love.
While we may not always be able to choose our emotions, we can choose our attitude and our response to them. Joy, even in the midst of sadness, “comes of being loved” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est. And love has conquered death in a singular act. Jesus, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead, the Son of the Father, died on a cross to redeem us from an unredeemable bondage because he loved us and desired us to be with him. It is to that reality that we must orient ourselves. Grief can too easily turn us inward. Like a black hole, it can devour everything surrounding it so that it is the only thing left. Love perpetually calls us out of ourselves, and asks us to give ourselves as a gift, even and especially in the hard times. I do not doubt that God’s heart broke when humanity sinned the first time, and breaks again at every subsequent sin. But God did not become consumed by grief at our fall. God is love, and love gives of itself to the beloved unceasingly. Therefore, God acted in order to redeem mankind.
I want to tell you more about the process of grief, of going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, of reaching acceptance, but I don’t know your process. I don’t know your specific loss, which we all must face at various times of our lives. That’s okay. We can hold a space for each other as we go through the process of grieving. We can let each other remember and smile and laugh and cry and long for the missing one, repeating this process as necessary. As a recent homily reminded me, our God does not tolerate idols in our lives. Our grief cannot consume our love, or else it makes a golden calf of our beloved. May our love of God, united with the love our dearly departed, orient us to the loving heart of the Father. May we know that this present sadness is not the end.
Question for Reflection: Have you grieved the loss of something in your own life? How has your faith impacted your experience of grief?
"I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them." -Ezekiel 11:19
I hold my son Leo closely, rocking him back and forth in the quiet of the night. He throws his head back, pushes against me, and babbles to keep himself awake. As his mother, I must be patient and persistent. The fruit of my efforts results in his deep breathing, dangling arms, and heavy eyelids.
Leo is now ten months old—crawling, pulling himself up, climbing. While he still looks to me for assurance and affirmation, he much prefers exploration to stillness. Not wanting to miss a thing about this big world, he wrestles with me as I put him down for naps and at bedtime.
I often think as I sing to Leo and soothe him to sleep: This is how I am with God. I wrestle with him, pushing back, filling my life with distraction. I prefer my will—my way—to his own. I forget to rest in his stillness.
In my graduate program, a professor once shared a particularly beautiful insight that still strikes me today. He said that if two human beings rest long enough on each other’s chests, their hearts sync up and beat in rhythm with one another. As a mother, this insight is especially poignant and beautiful to me—I think of my son’s heart slowing down and mine speeding up to embrace and beat as one. Then I apply this truth to God: have I allowed myself to rest in him? Do our hearts beat as one?
The Gospels tell us that John, the Beloved Disciple, reclined on the chest (kolpos in Greek) of Christ at the Last Supper. Applying my professor’s insight to the Gospel, we can gather from this image that John’s heart beat in time with Christ’s, whose own heart beat perfectly with his Heavenly Father’s.
As Christians, we are all called and invited to become the Beloved Disciple. This is not a privilege for a select few. Resting on the kolpos of Christ and allowing our hearts to beat in time with his gives our lives true meaning and fulfillment. As Pope Francis said, “The Heart of the Good Shepherd tells us that his love is limitless; it is never exhausted and it never gives up. There we see his infinite and boundless self-giving; there we find the source of that faithful and meek love which sets free and makes others free; there we constantly discover anew that Jesus loves us even to the end’ (Jn 13:1), without ever being imposing.”
This intimacy with God, however, does not happen overnight. The Gospel does not say that John rested on the chest of Christ right after Jesus called him to discipleship on the Sea of Galilee. This intimacy was the fruit of years spent in the presence of Jesus. It is the fruit of a deep relationship with him—sitting at his feet, sharing meals, listening to his preaching, witnessing his miracles.
We do not rest on the chest of a stranger. We are called, therefore, to grow in intimacy with God by opening our hearts to his. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “It is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.” Though Christ opens his heart to all of his children, we are called to build that intimacy with him, as John did, through prayer, stillness, the sacraments, and service.
The famous quote of St. Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And so we will not feel satisfied in this world until we have allowed ourselves to rest in the heart, on the kolpos, of Christ. “God’s heart calls to our hearts, “ Pope Benedict XVI observed in his homily on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When we allow ourselves to rest in the heart of Christ, he invites us “to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties, to trust in him and, by following his example, to make ourselves a gift of unbounded love.” Our encounter with the heart of the Good Shepherd, therefore, is what strengthens us to go out in our respective vocations and live as missionary disciples.
May we rest on the kolpos of Christ and experience his perfect charity so that we may become “gifts of unbounded love” to the world. As we deepen our intimacy with God, let us look to John’s childlike trust and ask for his intercession in order to become who we were created to be: beloved disciples.
Questions for Reflection: Do certain things keep you from growing in your relationship with Christ? How might God be calling you to rest in him?
For resources on prayer, please click here.
Each year on the first Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, also known as Trinity Sunday. Although it wasn’t until 1334 that Pope John XXII officially established the feast for universal observance in the Western Church, the mystery of the Holy Trinity has been the pulse of the Church’s life since the very beginning. The Trinity is “the central mystery of Christian faith and life…[and is] the source of all the other mysteries of faith” (CCC 234). The whole of the Church’s life flows from the central belief that the one true God exists as three divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since the very beginning of time, God has gradually revealed and communicated the truth of who he is as Trinitarian through what he has done in salvation history (see CCC 53-67). Although God gradually revealed himself throughout different stages of the Old Testament period of salvation history, mankind had no way of knowing the full truth of God’s inner life of the Trinity before the time of Christ, since this mystery of our faith is “inaccessible to human reason alone…before the Incarnation of God’s Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 237).
In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI poses a challenging question: “So now we must ask explicitly: is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope…which shapes our life in a new way, or is it just ‘information’” (Spe Salvi 10) that doesn’t change us? Furthermore, what difference does this central mystery of our faith make in our daily lives?
Trinity Sunday is an invitation to remember that “[being] Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est 1). In revealing himself as Trinitarian, God hasn’t merely shared impersonal facts about himself; rather, God has shared himself with us, and has invited us into his own inner life and communion of love, which alone is the origin, goal, and meaning of our life. As we read in the Catechism, “By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (CCC 221). On Trinity Sunday, the Church proclaims the truth about God—that God is love (1 John 4:8)—and the truth about us: we are made for this love. We eternally belong to God—we have an eternal home!
St. Elizabeth of the Trinity leads us more deeply into this reality by saying that “The Trinity—this is our dwelling, our ‘home,’ the Father’s house that we must never leave.” When speaking with his disciples before his Passion, Jesus directed the gaze of their hearts towards this truth: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms…and when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3). Jesus continued to reveal more of the Father’s loving plan: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you…If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:18, 23). Jesus reveals to his disciples the Father’s breathtaking desire. He desires not only that we be at home in him when we get to heaven in the future, but he desires us to be at home in him now—and so, he comes to us, he makes his home among us (c.f., John 1:14) in order to make his home in us. Thus, with the Feast of Pentecost and the sending of the Holy Spirit, God fulfills his promise to never leave us orphans. This is why the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday the week after Pentecost: On Pentecost, “the Holy Trinity is fully revealed” (CCC 732).
“I will not leave you orphans!” If Jesus has promised to never leave us orphans, then that means we have a permanent home—we eternally belong to the Father as children of his heavenly household! This is the mystery into which the Church invites us more deeply on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. Yet this truth is also the very gift that that we are invited to share with all whom God entrusts to us in our daily lives: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Every human heart longs for its eternal home. Today, we invite the Trinity to be more at home in our hearts in order to make them a more welcoming home for others—that through our smile, our gentleness, our availability of heart, everyone whom the Father entrusts to us may experience the Love that is their eternal home.
Question for Reflection: Today, will we allow our hearts to be touched and changed by the reality into which Trinity Sunday invites us more deeply?
Deep Breath In, Deep Breath Out
Have you had a chance today to think about God’s love? No? Well, do this with me… Deep breath in. Deep breath out. With every breath we take, we know we were made for here, for right now, this time, this century, not by accident, but for a purpose.
The first paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully explains, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, and to love him with all his strength.” (Emphasis added.)
Did you read what the Catechism reminds us? God draws close to man! Can you believe this? No? Hey that’s ok! It’s hard for me to comprehend too, but do this with me…
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
It is unnerving that we, His children, can go day-to-day and not really live out of the understanding that we were made by love, for love, to love.
At the graduate school I attended, the chaplain for our program would constantly remind us of this fact. On days when my mind was worn down, when I was struggling with anxiety or doubt, I would stumble into his office and explode the complexities of my mind onto him (poor fellow). Ever so gently, he would stop me in my rambling and say, “deep breath in, deep breath out.” He explained to me that the mere fact that we can breathe is a clear sign of the Father’s love, “because if He forgot about you for a millisecond, you would not exist.” He is loving us into existence with every breath we take.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
Do we really live as though the creator of the universe, the creator of love, the Father of heaven and earth has made us, loves us here? If I lived in this simple, yet mind-blowing truth, I think the day-to-day would be less burdensome and my exterior circumstances would not define my level of contentment. My life would be colored with purpose because I was made for love, by love.
Are you stressed? Does the state of our world or society bring you fear? Are you looking for fulfillment? Do you desire to be loved? Are you waiting for your vocation? Do this now…
Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
You were made for here, you are necessary for now, and you are loved into existence because the Father loves you.
“We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of is necessary.” –Pope Benedict XVI
I distinctly remember at the Baptisms of both of my goddaughters the moment where the priest poured water over their heads and uttered the words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” On both occasions, I choked back tears, in awe of the reality of spiritual childhood and the life of grace that is ours for the taking.
The Church places the feast of the Baptism of our Lord precisely at the end of the Christmas season – the same joy that was found in Bethlehem as God became a baby is experienced a few decades later as John the Baptist baptizes his cousin in the Jordan River. The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’" Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his 2013 homily on the Baptism of the Lord elaborates on this and says,
“The heavens are also opened above your children and God says: these are my children, children in whom I am well pleased. Inserted into this relationship and liberated from original sin, they become living members of the one body that is the Church and are enabled to live their vocation to holiness in fullness, so as to be able to inherit eternal life, obtained for us by Jesus’ Resurrection.”
As Catholics, we believe that Baptism leaves an indelible mark on our soul – that we are really, truly changed the moment the water is poured over our heads and those sacred words are said. Not only are we freed from original sin, we are forever claimed for Christ and made beloved sons and daughters of God the most high. To be baptized is not just something that happens when we are a baby, it is a promise that is to be lived each and every day, and a call that requires a response from us.
What does that response look like? A life lived in and for Christ should change us, our hearts, and those around us for the better. Our daily actions should reflect our Christian identities - from the way we treat others, to constantly seeking the Lord in prayer - Baptism is a commitment to a way of life. It’s also a commitment to community – a commitment to showing up through life’s ups and downs for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s amazing to think about – through our Baptism, we become living members of the one body that is the Church. In essence, we are promised at our Baptism that we will never, ever walk alone. As members of the Body of Christ, we can continually turn to each other for friendship and support and the Church for the fullness of the sacramental life.
This feast day reminds us that our most important identity is always as beloved sons and daughters – He has claimed, chosen, and called each one of us. Just as I experienced unspeakable joy at my sweet goddaughters Baptisms, our Father in Heaven rejoices each time we remember that we are first - before anything else - His children.
Over the past week (November 13-19), many parishes in America have been celebrating National Bible Week, annually organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to help us grow deeper in love and knowledge of the scriptures in service of our faith. It’s also a fitting way to cap off the Jubilee of Mercy which officially ends on November 20. To commemorate the occasion, the bishops have chosen as the week’s theme, “The Bible: A Book of Mercy.”
The Bible is not just a moral guide, a historical document, or literary achievement. While it may be all those things, it’s so much more for us as Catholics. As the Catechism states, the Bible is where “the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength” (CCC 104). I’d like to reflect on three areas in the Word of God where we can all find nourishment: prayer, study, and mission.
“When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray you speak to God”. – St. Augustine
The same Holy Spirit who inspires the scriptures also awakens the desire in our hearts to pray. In my experience, it’s often the case we hear (rightly) about the importance of reading and praying with the Bible, but we’re not exactly sure how to do so. That’s where the time-tested practice known as Lectio Divina, or “Sacred Reading,” is a truly wonderful spiritual gift to the Church. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made a special point of mentioning lectio divina in Verbum Domini, n.86-87.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I shared the method of lectio divina with the RCIA class I lead and challenged them to give it a try. The next week, one of the participants said how much it helped his experience of praying with the Bible, especially how to begin and conclude a time of prayer, and how to spend the time between.
If you don’t know where to start or passage to choose, try just using the Gospel of the day in the Church’s calendar of readings at Mass. That’s a great way to provide continuity day-to-day as well as connect us to the prayer of the universal Church.
“Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” – St. Jerome
While it’s certainly true that knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus, the saints and great teachers of the Church through the ages constantly testified that a faithful study of the Bible leads to real intimacy with God. Undertaken in a spirit of humility and truth, study is even an act of love.
In this spirit, the USCCB highlights that this year marks the 51st anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, which was a monumental statement on the place of the Bible in the life and teaching of the Church. National Bible Week provides us with a good reason to read Dei Verbum, or at least part of it. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, check out the first section on “Revelation Itself”. It contains the essential foundation of our faith that God is the source of all revelation and that “through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men” (n. 6). In other words, if we want to know the Lord’s will for us, we have to turn to the scriptures.
“Faithfulness in mercy is the very being of God.” – Pope Francis
In Pope Francis’ Wednesday catechesis series quoted above, our Holy Father makes the point that the Bible is truly a book of mercy, and that mercy is always accompanied by a call to mission. The words of scripture resist our all too human and artificial attempts to separate beliefs from action. One of the things my bishop, Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, is fond of repeating is, “Just because it’s the end of the Year of Mercy does not make it now the Year of Judgment or Severity!” If we lose contact with the words of scripture, we run the risk of losing touch with the concrete Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy that the Bible continually challenges us to make an everyday part of our lives.
If you are looking to go deeper in the Bible or just need help getting started, you can check out the great resources available at places like the Catholic Apostolate Center Prayer and Catechesis page and the USCCB’s National Bible Week website to help guide your journey.
On the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2015, Pope Francis established the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” to be celebrated annually on September 1. In doing so, the Holy Father shared his concern for creation with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who initiated a similar day of prayer in the Orthodox Church in 1989. For Pope Francis, the World Day of Prayer for Creation reminds Catholics of our “vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork,” a calling and responsibility which is “essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si’ 217).
As we celebrate this second annual World Day of Prayer for Creation, it is fitting to reflect on our vocation as Catholics to care for creation. Though we have a long-standing tradition of caring for creation that goes back to the early Church Fathers and has been promoted more recently by Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis has brought this aspect of our faith into the limelight. I believe there are two main reasons for this: conversion and evangelization.
The ecological crisis, the Pope tells us, is a summons to profound spiritual conversion that leads to developing a deeper relationship with the world around us and recognizing that “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them in communion with all that surround us” (LS, 216). We are called to live in the world, not apart from it. We get to the spiritual through the physical. Pope St. John Paul II also taught us this in his Theology of the Body.
This conversion also involves recognizing our sins against creation. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself” (LS, 66). Our faith exhorts us to live well, not only with God and with our neighbor, but also with the earth. One practice for this World Day of Prayer for Creation could be to examine our consciences and consider how we have treated the created matter with which we have been entrusted. Have we been selfish and unconcerned for the needs of others, consumeristic, gluttonous, unaware of the gift that creation is to us? Perhaps we have wasted food, water, or energy unnecessarily. Perhaps we watched hours of Netflix when we could have been outside walking with a friend, serving the poor, or contemplating nature. Do we feel compelled to have the latest iPhone or the largest car? Our Holy Father points out that we need to “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing,” and he quotes Patriarch Bartholomew in exhorting us to cultivate “an asceticism which ‘entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs.’” (LS, 9). In our process of conversion we can follow the example of Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, in doing the inner work needed to embrace creation as “Brother” and “Sister.”
I believe that Pope Francis, like the two popes preceding him, also sees our Catholic concern for ecology as a path into the New Evangelization. The beauty of creation speaks to the heart and can awaken human persons to a deep interior longing for the divine source, for the Creator God. Great spiritual writers like St. Bonaventure called the created world the “book of creation,” because the created world is constantly speaking to us of God. As humans we learn to understand the language of creation by spending time outside, by developing a heart for creatures, by learning to see the vestiges of God’s love in the beauty, diversity, and extravagance of the natural world. In doing so, we come closer to God and to understanding his plan for us and for the world. It’s a two-way street: We need to learn the language of creation in order to better care for the created world. At the same time, in that conversation, we are drawn into a deeper relationship with God, the Creator. As we experience this ourselves, we are driven to share the experience with others in a new kind of evangelization.
In our fast-paced world, being attentive to creation reminds us that “we are not God” (LS, 67), for if we pause and look at the beauty surrounding us, we experience a beauty that transcends anything we humans can create. At the same time, we become aware of our unique creation as humans and the moral structure inscribed into our very nature (LS, 155). Being outdoors is also a healing tonic to assuage the effects of technology and the pressures of the virtual world in which we spend so much of our time. It is an antidote for the “technologization” of society and keeps us in touch with true reality.
Let us then, as we celebrate this World Day of Prayer for Creation, embrace with joy the opportunities for conversion and evangelization that lie ahead!
Click here for more resources on ecology, the World Day of Prayer for Creation, and Laudato Si.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Bl. Pier Georgio Frassati. In reading about him, I also came across St. Kateri Tekawitha as another patron saint of World Youth Day (WYD). I quickly delved into her fascinating life. A woman who defied others to remain true to her beliefs, St. Kateri Tekakwitha has become known as the “Lily of the Mohawks.”
St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother in what is now upstate New York, near Albany. While a young girl, Kateri contracted smallpox. Although she survived the disease, she was left with poor eyesight and scars on her face and eyes. Because of this, she was given the name "Tekakwitha," which in Mohawk means, "She bumps into things." When she was 8 years old, her foster family arranged for Kateri to be betrothed, as per Iroquois tradition. Kateri refused to marry, stating that she wanted to dedicate her life to God. At the age of 18, she started to learn more about the Christian faith through Jesuit missionary Father Jacques de Lamberville. Her uncle eventually gave her permission to become a Christian as long as she did not leave the village. Kateri began incorporating aboriginal concepts into her understanding of Christianity, such as the presence of God in nature.
At the age of 21, Kateri was baptized and received First Holy Communion on Christmas Day in 1677. After being rejected by her community for her conversion, she walked to the St. Francis Xavier Mission near Montreal, Canada, to join a community of Native American women who had also converted to Christianity. Kateri, who attributed her name to Catherine of Siena at the time of her baptism, died on April 17th, 1680. Tradition holds that her dying words were "Jesus, I love you” and that after her death, the scars on Kateri’s body began to heal—restoring the radiant appearance of her face. She was canonized on October 21st, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. She has been named the Protectress of Canada and patroness of the environment, environmentalists, Native Americans, and several diocese, to name a few.
As someone who is interested in Native American culture and the environment, I enjoyed learning about Kateri and her dedication to the natural world and her faith. I was also surprised to learn that she was the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. It was interesting to learn about her dedication and devotion to her faith, even when it meant rejection from her community. Kateri bravely stayed firm to her belief in Christ when she was pressured to reject her faith in Christ and adhere to the traditional native beliefs. She knew that her faith in Jesus was not misplaced, so these demands only reaffirmed her beliefs.
Kateri blended her faith in Christ with a respect for nature. She maintained a deep devotion to nature and its beauty after her conversion. In his second encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis emphasized the imminent need of protecting the environment. I also invite you to imitate Kateri’s respect of nature. I have personally found this greater call of environmentalism to be reinvigorating. As the world’s young people prepare to gather in Poland for WYD, we realize in a special way that we are all on this planet together. We are called to see how our actions affect the world, and that we can work together for a stronger response to protect God’s great gift of creation. The air, water, trees, birds, plants, and other animals are not confined to national borders and neither should our approach to protecting the earth. Kateri inspires me to take action to protect the environment. If we each do our part by recycling, taking public transportation, and keeping vigilant about our energy consumption, then we have a greater chance of protecting our world. In addition, we are called to educate ourselves by reading more about environmental issues. I recommend starting with Laudato Si.
As we pass down our faith from generation to generation, so do we also pass down our responsibility towards this Earth. It can be hard to keep in mind that this is the same Earth that Jesus Christ walked on. Kateri, “Lily of the Mohawks,” combines this love of nature and Christ. It is my hope, as we approach WYD later this month, that we will also consider how we are protecting the environment. May we be inspired by this phenomenal saint.
To learn more about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, click here.
For more information on World Youth Day 2016, click here.
"During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’" -Luke 1:39-45
Year after year, we hear this reading in the days leading up to Christmas. As we prepare for the day on which we celebrate the Son of God entering the world, we tend to hear this passage and focus on Elizabeth’s words: “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and “blessed are you who believed.” Rightfully so, we concentrate on Mary’s fiat and, thus, the beginnings of the life of the one who would save us all. However, we may tend to overlook another thing Elizabeth exclaimed: “the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
John the Baptist would go on to be the great “forerunner of Christ.” As we commemorate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, we remember that it was he who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John preached the coming of the Kingdom of God to the thousands that flocked to the desert to hear his preaching. It was he who baptized Christ in the Jordan, thus anointing him for his ministry. John the Baptist’s own ministry goes back to the moment when John, in his mother’s womb, hears the voice of Mary calling. That voice is not just that of a young woman, but a young woman who is the Mother of God. Thus, John, leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, seems to be recognizing and acknowledging the fact that the Lord Himself is present in Mary’s womb.
Several years ago, then-Pope Benedict XVI made a comparison to John’s leap for joy: “Mary, expecting the birth of her Son Jesus, is the Holy Ark that contains the presence of God, a presence that is a source of consolation, of total joy. John, in fact, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, just as David danced before the Ark.” Benedict reminds us of the scene in 2 Samuel 6 when David dances excitedly as the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem. In both cases, the Word of God is physically present. Before John, the Word is Jesus in the womb of Mary. Before David, the Word is in the form of the Ten Commandments within the Ark. For them, being in the presence of the Lord was not something they took lightly. They were not afraid or saddened, they were filled with a joy so immense and so uplifting that the only way they could express themselves was by jumping and dancing.
These Biblical events point to the line at the heart of Pope Francis’ exhortation: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.” Faith in Jesus, who is the Word of God incarnate, is not something that should bring us down. It is not something that should feel like an overwhelming burden. When we go to a sports game or another competition, for example, we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting and hoping that our side will come out on top. When our team scores, we jump to our feet and cheer loudly. We clap and sing and even shed some tears. How much more, then, are we call to be excited when we are in the presence of God in the Eucharist or spreading the Good News to those we encounter?
We are invited to witness to our faith gladly, for we believe in a God who loved us so much that He gave His only son to die for our sins so that we might be able to have eternal life with Him (cf Jn 3:16). That kind of love reminds us to live our life of faith happily. Pope Francis once commented, “I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile.” He was correct. How could a true believer exemplify the love of God with a frown? Let us follow the examples of David and John the Baptist who show us that true faith does not bring about sadness or dread, but instead brings us joy and peace. When we encounter someone who may challenge our beliefs, do not yell and scream back, but face that opposition with grace and a smile. When we go to Mass and notice that those around us may be mumbling their way through the hymns, I invite you to sing loudly and proudly, remembering that you are glorifying God. And when we get tired in our faith lives, let us be reminded of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us and, like John the Baptist, “leap for joy” ourselves.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
If you attended an Easter Vigil Mass this year, then you participated in what St. Augustine called the “mother of all holy Vigils”(Sermo 219)—the day the Church receives many new Catholics through the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.
The newly baptized, or “neophytes,” (a Greek word meaning “new plant”) begin a fourth and final period of formation called mystagogy, which lasts the Easter Season until Pentecost. If you haven’t personally participated in the formal process of becoming Catholic as an adult (called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, in parishes), chances are you haven’t heard this word recently… or maybe ever.
What is Mystagogy?
Our faith needs mystagogy first and foremost because of one simple reason: we celebrate and proclaim a mystery.
As evangelists and catechists, I think it is important to recognize that for some people, the idea of religious “mystery” prima facie, conjures up images of a Da Vinci Code-esque Church shrouded in secrecy, New Age spiritualism, or even a pre-scientific belief in “magic.” But the sacraments do not initiate us into a special club or secret society. Through them, we are made participants in the life of Jesus Christ.
Faith begins and ends in mystery, most especially the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, “the central mystery of Christian faith and life . . . the source of all other mysteries of faith” (CCC 234). In the scriptures, liturgy, and sacraments, we truly encounter and participate in the Triune life of God. But no matter how intelligent or insightful we are, we will never fully wrap our minds around God’s glory or totally experience it with our five senses.
Mystagogy comes from the Greek word meaning, “to lead through the mysteries.” The Catechism describes mystagogy as a “liturgical catechesis that aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ” (CCC 1075). Mystagogy leads us from the external signs and rituals of the liturgy to the inner, spiritual meaning of the divine life they signify. Mystagogy is the form of catechesis that helps us unpack and explore the spiritual treasures contained in the sacraments by continuously reflecting on their meaning and significance in our personal lives of faith.
Mystagogy was the way the early Church Fathers embraced and trained new Christians in the practices and beliefs of the faith. Perhaps the most well known teacher of mystagogy was St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 CE), who delivered a famous series of sermons, known as “mystagogic catecheses,” during the time of Lent through the Easter Octave. After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church revitalized this ancient practice, especially in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But mystagogy isn’t just for the newly baptized; it is the way every Catholic can continually deepen their relationship with Christ by daily drawing on the grace of the sacraments.
Significance for our New Evangelization
Just as Catholics are rediscovering the importance of the “kerygma” (Greek for “proclamation”) for evangelization, mystagogy is incredibly important in our approach to catechesis in the New Evangelization. John Paul II wrote, “Through catechesis the Gospel kerygma is gradually deepened . . . . and channeled toward Christian practice in the Church and the world” (Catechesi Tradendae, n. 25), specifically the form of mystagogy. Additionally, mystagogy serves as a trustworthy guide when reflecting on ways to improve our catechetical methods.
Living the Mystery Daily
Ongoing mystagogy is important because our relationship with the sacraments change as we grow and mature as individuals and meet new life challenges and circumstances. In turn, the sacraments really change us. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The mature fruit of mystagogy is an awareness that one's life is being progressively transformed by the holy mysteries being celebrated” (Sacramentum Caritatis n. 64). By reflecting regularly on the sacraments, we access an incredible strength for our daily tasks.
Developing a practice of Eucharistic mystagogy can combat the routinization that often sets in to our receiving communion. For those who are married, or preparing for marriage, there is a mystagogy of marriage. With ongoing mystagogic reflection, you may discover new fruits of that sacrament in every season of life.
Studying theology and the Bible is often an undervalued way of developing our spiritual life. Learning about someone or something is a sign of love, and we truly become what we behold (cf 2 Cor. 3:18). Reading the great books and sermons of Catholic authors and theologians greatly expands our hearts and minds to experience the truth and depth of our faith.
The great Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel is attributed as stating, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” Mystagogy is the path leading Christians to learn to live the mystery of our faith. I encourage you to follow the path trod by St. Cyril up through popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, in making this incredible tradition and gift called “mystagogy” a part of your life.
To learn more about Catechesis, please consider reading the General Directory for Catechesis or the National Directory for Catechesis.
For more resources on Prayer and Catechesis, click here.
Vivat Jesus! In the proclamation “Jesus lives!” which originates from St. Francis de Sales, the Church finds and experiences for herself the mystery of salvation. This then energizes and animates all her works. Because Christ has risen from the dead, we are assured of a most glorious hope that God loves us and that no trial nor any tribulation can overshadow the truth of such saving grace.
Doesn’t it feel so liberating to once again be able to exclaim, “Alleluia!”, or burst into the Gloria at Mass? That innate feeling of wanting to, needing to, and being compelled to praise God in these ways reflects a deeper desire to share this incredible Good News with others—there just isn’t any room for passivity in the Christian life. Certainly, the Resurrection event gained for us the eternal reward in Paradise that we could not achieve ourselves. But to really benefit from it, the experience needs to change us, that is, to make us marvel at God’s merciful love and then continuously reveal that to all the world. Donald Cardinal Wuerl made this observation back in January for the occasion of the dedication the new altar of the Pallottine Seminary at Green Hill, home of the Catholic Apostolate Center:
In His command, “Do this in memory of Me,” Jesus invites each one of us into the Mystery of His Death and Resurrection. We’re not just going to be passive bystanders who come to know Him. We’re not just going to be someone who looks on the merry-go-round and says, “Isn’t that wonderful?” We’re invited into the Mystery itself.
In doing so, we manifest the glory of the Lord; it is our mission as Christians. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us at his installation Mass, “the purpose of our lives is to reveal God to men.”
The Resurrection cannot be confined to a mere moment in history two thousand years ago. All that it accomplished cannot be measured; its effects continue to affect and move us even now. Today we are truly experiencing the great joy that the Risen Lord promised His disciples. And this authentic joy does not fade in times of mourning or despair. Especially in those times, we can look up in hope, knowing the same Risen Christ is with us at every moment to offer courage and mercy. It is in this reality—not mere speech and daydreams—that the Church exists and works from. As Benedict XVI continued, “The Church is alive — she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.”
As Christians, we bear the Name of the Savior through Baptism. We invite the world to encounter Christ, Whose presence we manifest through the charitable actions of our lives. Just as we share with one another the light from the Paschal candle during the Easter Vigil, so, too, do we share the light of hope and faith with those in darkness. By the grace of God and the support of each other, may we, at every moment of our lives, join with the whole Church and the heavenly host to praise God for His mercy and goodness. As Timothy Cardinal Dolan reminded us “‘Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has destroyed death, and brought us light and life!’ No wonder we [reply], ‘Alleluia!’”
“Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.” This line is chanted three times by the celebrant of the Good Friday service; after each time, a covered cross or crucifix is partially unveiled until after the third time when the full cross or crucifix is exposed. The faithful then are invited to reverence the cross, usually with a kiss.
For many, the most memorable part of the Good Friday liturgy is the reading of the Passion Narrative. We are once more transported back 2,000 years to relive the moment when “[God] gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). The moment that has always stood out to me is the Veneration of the Cross. To me, the simple act of embracing the Cross of Christ is one of the most beautiful things one can experience.
The Veneration of the Cross has been celebrated in Rome since the seventh century and in Jerusalem since the fifth. It has since become a universal practice in the Church. Many can recall the image of a priest, bishop, and even the pope humbling himself before what was once the symbol of oppression, seeing it instead as a symbol of hope and life.
When we embrace the cross and reverence it with a kiss, we in effect adore Christ himself, for the cross is the representation of Christ and his sacrifice. In that act, we then embrace the cross as our own and give ourselves fully to our Lord and Savior. Pope Benedict once remarked, “Entrusting ourselves to Christ, we lose nothing, we gain everything. In his hands our life acquires its true meaning.” Thus, when we embrace the cross, we accept that, through Christ’s sacrifice, we are saved and able to enter into eternal life. We also transform the cross from that instrument of death into the method by which we can now enter God’s heavenly kingdom.
As the phrase used in the Stations of the Cross states, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you…because by your cross you redeemed the world.” In venerating the Cross of Christ, we make those words active in our own lives. We leave the church on Good Friday knowing that we have reaffirmed our faith in the Lord’s redeeming power. We join ourselves with those who were present at that first Good Friday and believed that the story of salvation did not end that day. In fact, it was only the beginning. And so, when the celebrant chants, “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world,” let us, with all our heart respond, “Come, let us adore.”
For more Lenten Resources, please click here.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
I am a social monastic. On the Myers-Briggs test, I score almost evenly as an extrovert and introvert. I need my personal, quiet time of reflection, as well as quality time with family and friends. Those who know of my profound love of all things monastic chuckle over my role as the Social Media Coordinator at the Catholic Apostolate Center, while those who know my social side nod their head in understanding. It is this relationship between my introvert and extrovert sides that I feel can be deepened and strengthened in order to promote effective communication and evangelization as the Church envisions them in our world today.
In our modern world of social media and globalization, silence and communication seem to be at odds. The two, however, are completely intertwined. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “silence is an integral element of communication.” This connection between silence and communication is beautifully portrayed by the fact that we spend nine months in our mother’s womb—in silence and yet in continual communication. It is here that we begin to learn the meaning of communication and what it means to be human. Pope Francis went as far as saying that the womb “is the first ‘school’ of communication.”
Anthropology then, shows us from the beginning of our existence that silence is fundamental to communication. Silence enables us to communicate with God, within ourselves, and with the outside world. Our communication must include these three aspects if it is to be effective and fruitful. Pope Francis wrote that the modern world needs “to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.” If we are called to dialogue as witnesses of the Gospel, we must be effective listeners. We must be able to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives, to listen to the stirrings of our hearts within us, and to listen to the needs, fears, hopes, and joys of the people around us.
May silence and the practice of listening be our foundations for promoting a culture of encounter! This encounter is the entire point of the Christian life, of what it means to be human. In a word, “communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God,” Pope Francis wrote. We cannot live closed in on ourselves, but must be open to encountering the gifts of those around us.
As the Social Media Coordinator at the Catholic Apostolate Center, I believe that social media and technology can help us bring the Gospel literally to all the ends of the earth. Social media fails, however, if it foregoes encounter, if it diminishes dialogue. Our achievements in the world of media are inadequate if they do not call to action, stir hearts, promote dialogue, or champion the true, the good and the beautiful.
On January 24th, we received Pope Francis’ message for the 50th celebration of World Communications Day. This day was established by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council and is celebrated each year on the Sunday before Pentecost, which falls on May 8th this year. This day is meant to help us ponder the significant role of communication, technology, and social media in our world today. It is the fruit of a Church that is willing to read the signs of the times, step outside of itself and engage with the modern world—all of which are embodied in a special way in the papacy of Pope Francis.
The Holy Father challenges us to use our communication efforts and channels as bridges that create unity and a space for encounter. He writes:
“Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world. The Church needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ. She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way. The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.”
Let us go forth boldly!
To learn more about Catholic Media, please visit our resource page here.