When I was in seventh grade, about the age of 12, I decided to plan my life. I thought that I urgently needed to have an idea and start preparing for my future. I decided that I would be a missionary. I wanted to go to Africa and care for the children, especially those in most need. I always desired to adopt many children, including many with different disabilities. However, the missing piece of my life puzzle was that I didn’t even know what “being a missionary” really meant, and I had never thought about how my vocation would fit into my life either. As time went on, I realized that it was true that I loved to be around and work with children, and I had a great desire in my heart to go out to the whole world to help those in most need. However, I also discovered that God had a very special calling and plan for me, to use me as His instrument. As Mother Teresa said, “I am a little pencil in God’s hands. He does the thinking, He does the writing. He does everything and sometimes it’s hard because it is a broken pencil and He has to sharpen it a little more.”
My name is Sister Mary Altar of Sacrifice, and I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas and went to Catholic school my whole life, from kindergarten through college. Thanks be to God, I was given a Catholic upbringing not only at school but also at home. Although I have a truly bad memory, I distinctly remember the different moments of the sacraments in my life, and I believe that it was the grace of the sacraments that opened my heart and led me to discover my religious and missionary vocation. Preparing for First Communion, I remember arguing with my mom about not wanting to wear the fancy white dress. I really disliked dresses because I was a tomboy who grew up with 3 older brothers. However, I understood the importance of the sacrament and was so excited to receive Jesus that I knew that I had to look my very best!
It wasn’t until I was preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation that I began to take my Catholic faith seriously and hold it as my own. Our religion teacher told us “this is the moment (Confirmation) that you become an adult in the Church and have to take your faith as your own, so you must decide what you will do with it!” After that, I continually got more involved in the Church throughout high school by joining the youth group, aiding with junior high youth group, lectoring, being a Eucharistic Minister, leading retreats, frequenting the sacraments of confession and communion, etc. I also had the opportunity to do a 2-week mission trip to Peru, which confirmed my early desire to do mission work abroad. The experience of leaving all behind to go serve another was exciting and invigorating. I could concretely see that these people materially were poorer than I, but to see the richness of the treasure of their faith was enlightening.
Finally, the time came for me to decide which college I would go to. I decided instead that I would do a gap year of service in another country, but my parents had other plans for me, so my “missionary adventure” was put on hold. Thanks be to God, I decided to go to Benedictine College, where I fell even more in love with Jesus and my Catholic faith, discovered my religious vocation, and finished my degrees in Elementary and Special Education. A month after graduation, I entered the convent in Washington D.C. with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, a missionary order founded in Argentina and currently in over 40 countries. When I visited them for the first time during college, there was a moment of actual grace that I understood this is where God was calling me to fulfill my vocation, and here, He would fulfill all the desires of my heart. I could see the puzzle pieces all fit perfectly together.
Now, I am currently a missionary in Papua New Guinea in Oceania and have been here for just over a year. My main apostolate (or missionary work) is in the Primary School of our parish, teaching and working to bring a higher level of integral education to our students. Since I have entered religious life, every day has been a “missionary adventure.” However, being a missionary doesn’t just mean going to another country. Through our Baptism, we have been called to follow Jesus and sent to be missionaries to the world. The first step is to evangelize ourselves. We must look at our life and ask, “am I truly living the Gospel in my daily life and following Jesus in everything I think, say, and do?” Then, we must complete Christ’s mandate to love our neighbors and bring the Gospel to those closest to us.
Sometimes, this is even more challenging than leaving our own family and country to serve someone. We must learn to be missionaries in our daily lives and pray and discern to see where and how God is calling us to fulfill that mission. Some have a special calling to give their whole lives as priests or religious to do this work! In addition, God calls some—priests, religious, and laity—to be missionaries abroad. However, we, as Catholics, are all called to be missionaries. As St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are who you were meant to be, you will set the world on fire!” So, I invite you to pray for the missions and all missionaries in the world in a special way during this month of missions, but also I invite you to take some time to listen and pray about how God is calling you to be a missionary in your life.
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
Sister Mary Altar of Sacrifice serves as a religious missionary in the Diocese of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
This week is National Vocations Awareness Week. When I tell my vocation story, I usually describe my vocation as a response to the great love that God has shown me throughout my life. I talk about what a joy it has been to fall in love with Christ and to give my whole life to him in a specific way in religious life. And that is absolutely true and beautiful. But if I’m being honest, it’s only part of the story.
I am a novice with the Daughters of St. Paul, a congregation of women religious dedicated to evangelization through the media. Shortly before I entered the convent, I was plagued with a series of doubts regarding my vocation. I had discerned that God was calling me to enter religious life, but suddenly the vocation seemed too big for me.
One time in particular, I went to my spiritual director deeply concerned that I had misrepresented myself to the sisters. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a normal 21-year-old. I’d watched The Office more times than I’d care to admit, had a newly acquired taste for craft beer, and had only kicked my swearing habit a few months before. As I prepared to move to the convent and begin my formation, I was worried that the sisters might be shocked to find out that I was still pretty far from being holy.
“What makes you think that you haven’t been honest with the sisters?” my spiritual director asked me.
“Whenever I visit the convent, I find myself acting like a much better person than I actually am. They’re going to find out the truth once they start living with me,” I explained.
“Well,” he began chuckling, “Your vocation is the very thing that is going to make you into the best person you can be. That means you’re not there yet. But look, it’s already making you holier!”
It can be tempting to think that we need to get our life in order before we respond to God’s call. We want to be perfect before we think that God can work through us. But friends, that day will never come on this side of heaven. And besides, that just isn’t God’s modus operandi.
When we look at who God decides to call, it is never the person whom we would choose. Peter denied Jesus three times. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out from her. Paul, whom my congregation is named after, literally persecuted Christians. God is not afraid of our weaknesses or our wounds. In fact, it is often the very things that we view as obstacles to his grace that make us into powerful witnesses to his grace!
The truth is, I’m not worthy of being called to be a religious sister. But no one is really worthy of this calling. That’s the beauty of a religious vocation and of the Christian life as a whole: it’s not about us and what we can do for God. It’s about God and what he wants to do in us.
Every sacrifice that I’ve made in these past three years, every mistake, every time I have had to ask forgiveness or forgiven someone has served to make me into the person God wants me to be. So has every hour of Adoration, every Spirit-filled conversation, and every birthday that we’ve celebrated in community. There are these kinds of moments in every vocation where God uses something that seems strangely normal to bring us ever closer to himself.
Vocation is a totally free gift that God has given to us. We could never earn or deserve it. It requires a response, but it begins with the fact that he has first loved us and desires to give us abundant life. That’s the truth about religious vocation— praise God for that.
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.
When I was younger, one of my favorite things to do was to read about the lives of the saints. My family had tons of little books geared towards children with a one-page summary of the saint’s life, what they are patron of, and a little prayer to them. For me, it was fascinating to see the many different paths to holiness that God has given us as examples to follow. There is no one way to live out a life centered on Christ.
Saint Bridget of Sweden is one of these saints whom I find fascinating. She lived in Sweden in the 14th century, was born into a wealthy family, and was a daughter of a governor. She was married at age 14 and gave birth to eight children (Fun fact: one of her daughters is a saint as well – St. Catherine of Sweden!)
After the death of her husband, Bridget set out to begin a religious community, which is now known as the Order of the Most Holy Savior, or the Brigittines. The order was eventually confirmed by Pope Urban V, after the papacy made its return to Rome.
St. Bridget was a mystic, having her first vision, at age ten, of our Lord hanging on the cross. She continued to have visions throughout her life, including ones of Purgatory. In one of her visions, St. Bridget asked Jesus how many blows he suffered, to which he responded, “I received 5480 blows upon My Body. If you wish to honor them in some way, recite fifteen Our Fathers and fifteen Hail Mary’s with the following Prayers, which I Myself shall teach you, for an entire year. When the year is finished, you will have honored each of My Wounds.” These prayers, also known as the “Fifteen O’s,” became widely recited during the Middle Ages, promising indulgences as well as the release of souls from Purgatory among other graces.
St. Bridget died at the age of 69 and was canonized just 19 years after her death by Pope Boniface IX. She is co-patroness of Europe, along with St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of the Cross.
It is so rare and beautiful to be able to look to a saint who was a wife, mother, and religious sister. Regardless of her state in life, St. Bridget kept her eyes fixed on Christ crucified, and lived her vocation for Him.
“O Lord, make haste and illumine the night. Say to my soul that nothing happens without You permitting it, and that nothing of what You permit is without comfort. O Jesus, Son of God, You Who were silent in the presence of Your accusers, restrain my tongue until I find what I should say and how to say it. Show me the way and make me ready to follow it. It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward. Answer my petition and show me the way. As the wounded go to the doctor in search of aid, so do I come to You. O Lord, give Your peace to my heart. Amen.” – St. Bridget of Sweden
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matthew 16:25).
For about three months, culminating on Easter Sunday, I took part in a spiritual program for Catholic men focused on prayer, ascetism, and fraternity. During this program, men ‘unplug’ from the world, deny themselves, and live in a specifically intentional way for the Kingdom of God.
This journey requires men to participate in fraternity with other men, read Scripture and reflections each day, spend at least 30 minutes in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament, and then other things, including: no social media, no computer or phone if not for work or other mandatory tasks like paying bills, taking a cold shower every morning, no sweets, no snacking between meals, no alcohol, getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, no watching sports, and fasting and abstaining from meat every Wednesday and Friday.
This is a journey through the Book of Exodus alongside Moses and the Israelites as they escape slavery in Egypt and learn how to live in true freedom in the Promised Land. The Book of Exodus is a brilliant metaphor for the modern man, called to a freedom rooted in the ability to choose the good for the sake of God and His Kingdom as opposed to a having a ‘false freedom’ and being a slave to desires and passions.
Receiving screen time reports on my iPhone each week made me realize how much of a slave I am to my cell phone – to social media, to sports, to instant gratification. I desired to free myself from my phone in a radical way, which this program helped me achieve. This is just one example of how this journey invited me to restructure my day and rid myself of lazy habits.
This journey was hard: the first few weeks were hard; the last few weeks were hard. I wasn’t perfect at maintaining all of the disciplines of the program. I can recall starting the cold water for the shower in the morning and letting it run for 5 minutes trying to pump myself up to jump in. This happened many times. But after 3 or 4 weeks, I was jumping right in. The old adage is true: First we make our habits, then our habits make us. The more we exercise true freedom – denying ourselves and making choices that counter our desire for comfort – the easier it is to live in freedom.
Feeling much more liberated, I still do not have any social media apps on my phone, I take a cold shower from time to time, and prayer time is a staple of my daily routine. Making these types of continued choices is not easy, and that is why participating in community with the Body of Christ – much like the disciples did— is essential to continued spiritual growth. Though each choice and discipline of this program is deeply personal, a community of like-minded men working through the same disciplines in their own right was a crucial element of this process. This community allowed me to give and receive motivation and encouragement and ensured that the disciplines were being completed in a physically and spiritually healthy way. This is why the Church, in her wisdom, has encouraged the formal development of many religious communities – such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Pallottines. I believe this is also why the Church today is stressing Collaboration and Co-Responsibility in ministry. The journey to heaven is not one that should be walked alone. I would encourage you, in whatever spiritual journey you undertake for God and his Kingdom, to do so in community.
Question for Reflection: Have you ever participated in a spiritual program, conference, or retreat that had a positive impact on your faith?
Just down the street from where I study and serve in my home Archdiocese of Baltimore is our nation’s first Catholic cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, a visible testimony to the faith of the first Catholics in the newly formed United States of America. Yet every time I visit that holy place, I’m reminded by the physical space that for many years worship was segregated and black Catholics were required to sit in the balcony. Our family of faith in Baltimore included heroic individuals and communities like that of Mother Mary Lange (1794-1882), founder of the first African-American religious order, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and the ministry of the Josephites. Their creative witness and ongoing presence in our communities today serve as a constant reminder that their mission lives on and has work yet to do.
Since 1990, the Church in the United States, through the work of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus (NBCCC), has designated November as Black Catholic History Month. In a special way, the testimony of black Catholics reminds us all that as disciples of Christ, we live by memory. Celebrating this month reminds the Church just what it is that we are responsible for remembering. The act of remembering is a moral and spiritual task, part of the Church’s call to combat the sin of racism and seek new forms of reconciliation with sins of the past. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that memory lies at the heart of the Church’s celebration of word and sacrament, and briefly reflect here on why remembering our Church’s black history is so important for faithfully celebrating God’s word and sacrament each and every day.
Those who attend or have attended a parish with a strong black Catholic presence will often recognize the power of the proclamation and preaching of God’s word. In particular, this tradition of preaching reminds Catholics that our Church preaches and teaches a truly liberatory word. Jesus Christ came to deliver God’s people from all forms of bondage and oppression, restoring us to freedom.
Our biblical faith makes clear that participation in the Exodus event is intrinsically connected with our participation in the Passover. As Catholics, this means we are fed by God’s word and sacrament, particularly the Eucharist. At the Institution of the Eucharist at his Last Supper, Jesus instructed his Apostles to “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). The sacrifice of the Mass is an act of remembrance, called anamnesis, that re-presents Christ, making Jesus truly present here and now in the species of bread and wine. (I invite you to read Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s reflection.) That act of remembering is the basis for our act of thanksgiving (literally, “eucharist”). But it is impossible for us to give thanks for what we cannot remember.
Does Christ’s presence at the altar then lead us onward to become more aware of Christ’s presence in our brothers and sisters who remain subject to forms of injustice and oppression elsewhere? To this end, our bishops offer resources on how to respond to sins of racism, an important way to publicly live out the interior transformation we receive in the Eucharist.
While we live by memory, we do not simply live in the past; we are called to faithfully live out of our past. We live by memory as a sign of our hope that since God gave us a past, he promises us a future. Black Catholic History Month serves as a reminder that we have a history worth remembering and celebrating, so that we may go on living in the freedom to which Christ daily calls us.
For more resources, we invite you to visit our Cultural Diversity Resources page and scroll down to the section on African American/Black Catholics.
Click here to read Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, a pastoral letter from the USCCB against racism
Questions for Reflection: How does remembering the past help us to live more faithfully and hopefully in the future? How have you seen our Church benefit from the diversity of its members?
*This post was originally published on the Ad Infinitum Blog on November 2, 2017
For more information about Black Catholics in the US, check out the resources created by the National Black Catholic Congress in collaboration with the Catholic Apostolate Center:
Everyday Holiness: Ten Quotes from Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation to Help You Be Holy in Today’s WorldRead Now
On April 9, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, Pope Francis released his latest Apostolic Exhortation: Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad): On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World. This is the third Apostolic Exhortation of his papacy, following Evangelii Gaudium, the Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World and Amoris Laetitia, a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family. What was his goal? “To re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities" (GE 2). Without delving too much into a theological or heady definition of holiness, Pope Francis invites us simply and straightforwardly to open ourselves to the specific and unique mission God has created us for. In this, he says, lies true joy and freedom. Our Holy Father takes us back to the Source of Holiness, Jesus Christ, and encourages us to look to the Beatitudes as guides for holiness. Below, I’ve compiled some of my favorite quotes and key take-aways from this approachable, yet profound, exhortation.
1.“The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” -GE 1
Pope Francis echoes his predecessors in reminding us that following Christ leads to an abundant, joyful, and exciting life. We often do not equate holiness to greatness, but that’s what it is. Though God expects a lot from us, he gives us so much more: true life and happiness. Our Holy Father is reminding us that holiness makes us truly happy by calling us to live abundantly.
2. Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church. -GE 9
Many of us might have grown up thinking that holiness is boring and that sanctity is impossible, so why is Pope Francis saying that holiness is the most attractive face of the Church? What does this mean? When we embrace holiness, we become who we were created to be; we become our most authentic selves. This authenticity, this freedom, is attractive. It makes the Church come alive through each of her members. When we are striving for holiness, we are becoming our best and most loving selves. This witness is what evangelizes – it invites others to pursue their own journey of holiness.
3.The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness. -GE 11
Oftentimes, it’s easy to compare ourselves with others. It’s tempting to see the gifts and talents of others and ask ourselves why we do not have the same. The Body of Christ is made up of all different parts – each necessary for the functioning, health, and well-being of the body itself. Here, Pope Francis reminds us that there are as many paths to holiness as there are people. Each of us was designed specifically by God for a unique purpose. We do not have to become St. Francis, St. Vincent Pallotti, St. Mother Teresa, St. Joan of Arc, or St. Francis de Sales. We become saints by becoming most fully and authentically who God made us to be: ourselves.
4.To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. – GE 14
In this passage, Pope Francis reminds us of the universal call to holiness which has its inception in the Gospel and which the Church has explicitly reminded us since the closing of the Second Vatican Council. Holiness is not reserved for those with theology degrees, the ordained, monks, or religious. It is not reserved for those who work for the Church or volunteer with acts of service. It is for each and every one of us: the high school student studying for exams, the single parent, the politician developing laws for his or her constituents, the factory worker, the refugee far from home, the married couple starting or raising a family, the list goes on and on. Whatever vocation, profession, or place in life we find ourselves in, let us infuse it with love in order to become holier each and every day.
5.In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, “like a bride bedecked with jewels” (Is 61:10). -GE 7
Sometimes the journey of holiness seems impossible. We can get tired and beaten down by our own weaknesses and failures, and by the multitude of temptations and trials that seem to present themselves at every step. Here, Pope Francis is reminding us that Jesus Christ gives us everything we need to be holy. Our growth in holiness cannot exist apart from Christ’s Church. Though the Church is not perfect, it is in the Body of Christ that we have access to Scripture, the sacraments, and community, so that we can have the help of others who are also striving for holiness. Do not forget to use these invaluable resources, to go back often and drink from the well of life, in order to get the strength you need to continue your journey of holiness.
6. This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. -GE 16
This quote reminds me of the often-referred to statement of St. Mother Teresa: “…do small things with great love.” Holiness does not happen overnight. It involves millions of decisions and actions – each one leading us closer to or further away from our goal. Pope Francis reminds us that we are called to grow in holiness in a way that may seem small and ordinary. Cleaning a dish can become an act of holiness—so can changing a diaper, writing a paper, tending a garden, submitting a work report, or sitting in traffic. Greatness, then, lies in the little things. This is the little way St. Therese of Lisieux shared with the Church. It can lead to great sanctity.
7.Each saint is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel…Every saint is a message which the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people. -GE 19, 21
Each of us are a product of our times. We were born at a specific time and place in order to live out a specific mission. We don’t often think ourselves as “a mission,” as Pope Francis says, or as “a message,” but these are beautiful ways to think about our lives and the weight and dignity of each one. By thinking about our lives in this way, we see that each of us is planned by the Father at this exact moment in time and that our lives, actions, and interactions with others are invaluable. If we do not share the message God created us to impart, no one else will.
8.Just as you cannot understand Christ apart from the kingdom he came to bring, so too your personal mission is inseparable from the building of that kingdom…Your identification with Christ and his will involves a commitment to build with him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace. -GE 25
After Christ’s Resurrection and before his Ascension into heaven, he gave his disciples a clear command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit.” The same commission resounds for us today. Jesus came not only to overcome sin and death, but to build his kingdom on earth. For this reason, Pope Francis reminds us that we “cannot understand Christ apart from [his] kingdom.” Before joining Christ in Heaven, we’ve got work to do. We join Christ in his mission by working to create a world of “love, justice and universal peace.” Holiness, therefore, is not for us alone, but for society, for others, and for the world.
9.The presence of constantly new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leave no room for God’s voice to be heard…Sooner or later, we have to face our true selves and let the Lord enter. -GE 29
The world today is an incredibly noisy place. Our access to technology enables us to be plugged in at almost every moment of the day. We see screens on our computers, smartphones, and televisions; we are bombarded by advertisements; we spend hours on social media. Without demonizing technology or refuting its benefits, Pope Francis reminds us of the temptation to drown out the voice of God with noise. If we are unable to hear the voice of God, then we will be unable to attain the holiness to which we are called. How can we carve out more time for God today in silence and in prayer?
10.Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self. To depend on God sets us free from every form of enslavement and leads us to recognize our great dignity. -GE 32
Our world often views holiness as boring, enslaving, or downright impossible. Here, Pope Francis beautifully reminds us that holiness leads to true authenticity and freedom. Rather than limit our lives or diminish them with rules, regulations, and boredom, holiness leads to joy and vitality. Embracing who we were made to be leads to true happiness and satisfaction, rather than chasing the empty things of this world or trying to be who we are not. Let us not fear holiness, but strive for it wholeheartedly!
**This is part one of a two-part series of quotes from Pope Francis’ latest Apostolic Exhortation: Gaudete et Exsultate.
For more information and resources on Gaudete et Exsultate, please click here.
Questions for Reflection: Do these quotes from the Holy Father surprise or excite you? How has your perspective of holiness changed after reading some of these words from Pope Francis?
Today, August 8th, is the feast day of St. Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans.
St. Dominic was born around the year 1170, and he came from a noble and devout family. After studying at the University of Palencia for ten years and becoming a priest, Dominic eventually went to southern France to fight the Albigensian heresy. While there, he determined that a return to the preaching style of the Apostles in the time of Christ—to engage with individuals, to go where the Spirit led them, and to live simply—would most effectively preach the Gospel message and bring heretics and converts back to the faith.
After spending several years evangelizing and preaching, Dominic had acquired a small band of followers. With them, he founded a religious order, basing it on the Rule of St. Augustine and giving it the mission of “preaching and the salvation of souls,” with an emphasis on the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation. The Order of Preachers was officially recognized by Pope Honorius III in late 1216.
In a time when opposing sides often resorted to violence, St. Dominic chose to combat the Albigensian heresy through open dialogue rather than bloodshed. By having a deep understanding of Scripture, tradition, and philosophy, and by engaging with individuals on an intellectual and moral level, he was able to bring back into the faith many of those who had fallen into error. The Order of Preachers that he founded continues to embrace these principles by preparing preachers who are “intellectually informed and pastorally competent.”
St. Dominic chose to settle the first members of his order in university cities so that they could gain the intellectual training they would need to become engaging and morally compelling preachers of God’s word. The Order of Preachers, to this day, still heavily emphasizes the importance of spiritual and intellectual formation in preparation for their pastoral work. The Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. continues in the Dominican tradition of establishing communities of Dominicans near universities. Dominicans residing at the House of Studies teach at nearby at The Catholic University of America, assist with Masses at parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, and produce a journal.
Reading about the origins of the Dominicans and their continued success reminds me of the important place that religious study ought to hold in even the layman’s spiritual life. While we cannot all get degrees in theology, feeding the intellectual curiosity about our faith can lead us deeper into our relationship with God and to a better understanding of his truth.
Reading more about our faith, or about the lives of the saints we wish to emulate, can also better equip us to evangelize when the opportunity arises. While we may not be reading the Summa Theologica or the Catechism cover to cover, there is a plethora of material—from papal encyclicals and the core documents of Vatican II, to letters and diaries of the saints—available for us to deepen our own understanding of the faith and to be able to share it with others.
I myself have been inspired by reading about the life of St. Dominic de Guzman and the work of the Order of Preachers. As a result, I have decided to further engage my faith through more rigorous spiritual reading. I think a good place to start is with a course of study on one’s vocation—for me, that means marriage and parenthood, and thus my “to read” list includes Three to Get Married by Fulton Sheen and the papal encyclicals Castii Conubii and Humanae Vitae.
What will you read to engage more deeply with your faith?
Question for Reflection: How can the life of St. Dominic and his emphasis on intellectual formation help you deepen your spiritual life?
Smart and good looking, “Norbert’s eyes and ears were open only for things of the world,” as one biographer put it. That ended one summer day when a sudden storm dropped a lightning bolt at the feet of the horse Norbert was riding. The lightning scorched the grass and spooked his horse, throwing the young German nobleman to the ground.
Waking up an hour later, Norbert felt the emptiness of his life flash before his eyes. Norbert said, “Lord, what would you have me do?” The answer he heard was, “Turn from evil and do good; seek after peace, and pursue it (Ps 34:14).” Norbert traded his velvet overcoat for a hair shirt—and a saint was in the making.
Norbert went on to become Archbishop of Magdeburg (Germany) and founder of the Order of Praemonstratensians (named for Prémontré, France)—also called Norbertines.
Norbert is known as the Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament and is often portrayed holding a ciborium. This portrayal is fitting because Norbert spent his life promoting devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist during an age in which this truth was challenged. It’s also fitting because Norbert became what all Christians are called to be—a living ciborium in whom Jesus has increased while we have decreased (cf John 3:30).
As we anticipate next week’s Feast of Corpus Christi, we look to Norbert as an example of what a Eucharistic life looks like. Norbert modeled the Eucharistic Jesus in four powerful ways.
The Eucharistic Jesus is Hidden
Jesus hides himself as a little piece of bread in the Eucharist. Following a vision of the Blessed Virgin, Norbert built his first monastery in what one historian called “the desert of Prémontré,” north of Paris. Everyone thought he was foolish to found the Order in such a remote, hidden, and barren place, but he trusted that it would, in God’s time, bear abundant fruit for the Kingdom.
The Eucharistic Jesus is Humble
After his election as Archbishop, Norbert made his way in penitential attire to the Episcopal Palace, where the porter rudely shut the door in his face, thinking he was a tramp. When the porter realized his mistake, Norbert only smiled and said, “Fear not, my good man, for you know me better than all those who have raised me to this high dignity.”
The Eucharistic Jesus is Vulnerable to Misunderstanding
Norbert was fearless in speaking truth in an era of laxity. Shortly after his conversion, he told his confreres in the monastery in what ways they were not living up to the holiness of their calling. He converted some and, not surprisingly, was attacked by many. When he was Archbishop, a resentful mob even threatened to kill him. “Calumny,” Norbert told his followers, “is the test of a patient and generous heart, which bears with it rather than to give up working for God.”
The Eucharistic Jesus Gives Himself to be Consumed by Those He Loves
Norbert’s perseverance in self-giving is legendary. He walked barefoot in the winter from Germany to France (where he received a mission to preach from Pope Gelasius himself), never taking food until evening except on Sundays and never going anywhere except to preach conversion of heart and reform of morals. At the end of his life, he was in extreme pain and emaciated from fasting and fever, having spent himself for the glory of God and the good of souls. Still, he roused himself to celebrate Easter Mass, the last of his life.
Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” St. Norbert’s life was a thanksgiving for God’s stunning mercy in having saved him from the hell-bound path of his youth. He reminds us to remain grateful for God’s mercy so we become ever more inspired to pour ourselves out in imitation of the Eucharistic Jesus.
St. Norbert, pray for us!
If you visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., you may recognize many of the titles of the Virgin Mary marvelously illustrated in nearly 50 chapels and oratories throughout what is the largest Catholic church in North America (and tenth largest church in the world!). To me, one depiction stands out from the rest, an image that causes many a visitor to gasp, stop in his or her tracks, and call to mind a particular event in salvation history. Whereas the National Shrine is filled with beautiful images of the Blessed Mother in splendor furnished by various religious orders or benefactors of a national or ethnic devotion to Mary, the Slovakian chapel’s central work of art is not the characteristic mosaic or even a portrait, but rather a statue of the Sorrowful Mother holding in her arms the lifeless body of Jesus.
The image of the Pietà described above is one of the three common artistic representations of a sorrowful Virgin Mary, the other two being Mater Dolorosa (“Mother of Sorrows,” portrayed with seven daggers piercing her heart, often bleeding) and the 13th century hymn, Stabat Mater (which comes from the first line of the hymn “Stabat Mater Dolorosa,” meaning “the sorrowful mother stood”). The feast of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated on September 15th, while a feast of Friday of Sorrows is observed in some Catholic countries on the Friday before Palm Sunday. It’s an opportunity to remember that the Blessed Mother’s life was not without sadness or pain in light of her Immaculate Conception. The popular devotion to Mary’s Seven Sorrows recalls seven such instances in her life (likewise the Pietà in the Shrine’s chapel is flanked by the other sorrows on the wall):
While we may tend to think of Mary’s life as being purely one of perfect serenity and union with God, it is important to remember that she was human— she had emotions, doubts, and pains like the rest of us! In a world where violence and suffering are all too frequent headlines in the news, how much more closely can we relate to and depend upon the Mother of God who was no stranger to anguish and distress? However more quickly can we fly in prayer to our Mother’s tender embrace for comfort and peace when we are faced with great tribulation and uncertainty!
Below is a hymn often used for the Stations of the Cross that is composed with the verses from the Stabat Mater. When sung reverently, this hymn solemnly and deeply touches the hearts of the faithful and helps to place each at the foot of Calvary in vigil with the Blessed Mother:
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
In the end, however, like Mary, we must not dwell solely on the pains of our lives, but look ahead with hope and faith in God (as sculptor Ernest Morenon uniquely depicted in the Shrine chapel with Mary looking towards heaven). For Mary, as well as for each of us, Christ did gloriously resurrect on the third day. How much more confidently, then, can we proceed with our lives, even after great turmoil, as we pray:
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.