As we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas, I find myself grateful that the Church has established the liturgical calendar in such a way as to help shake us out of our spiritual complacency. The high-points of the Church year—and the larger Christian experience— are referenced so much in our Faith that we may sometimes find ourselves on spiritual autopilot. Before we know it, we might find that solemnities are immediately upon us (or past us), and we feel that we could have benefited from more spiritual preparation. This year, I was looking for a clear and direct theme I could really focus on as Christmas approached. I came across some writings of Venerable Servant of God Fulton Sheen that called to mind certain details of Scripture that my eyes (and spiritual life) might typically gloss over. Recalling the helpless innocence of the Christ-child ready to be born of Mary, Sheen related Mary and Joseph’s plight in searching for late-night shelter in Bethlehem to the lack of hearts open to God which can offer the King of Kings and Lord of Lords a place to dwell and reign:
[W]hen finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last word of time, the saddest lines of all will be: ‘There was no room in the inn.’ The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there’s no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is the place for outcasts, the ignored, and the forgotten… The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God-Made-Man is invited to enter into His own world through a back door.
With all the seasonal emphasis on gifts and personal generosity, I am especially touched by that first line and the reality that there was no room made available for the arrival of the long-awaited Son of God. How often do we hear calls to be watchful and ready for the Second Coming of Christ; that is, to be repentant of sin and committed to pursuing holiness? This preparation is what the first part of the Advent season is all about. When we are called before the Final Judgement seat of the Most High, and God Himself shows us what we did or did not do for Him in our earthly encounters with the people in our lives, will we say that it was too difficult or inconvenient to take up what we knew was expected of us? All of the baptized are called to be missionary disciples—people who spread the joy of the Gospel by their very lives. We can bring others into an encounter with the Living God—or at least instill a sense of hope, dignity, and love in those who are in need—in the workplace, at home, in our neighborhoods, in our parishes, and within our families. In doing so, we make room in the inn of our hearts for the Christ-child.
Without Christ present in our hearts and at the core of our being, we will find ourselves serving a different master—be it vices, worldly pleasures, fleeting successes or honors, or other vanities. Just as the innkeepers of Bethlehem two-thousand years ago declined to open their doors to the Holy Family, so too do each of us have the choice either to be seduced by the empty promises of the world or to pursue a life of holiness and of speaking the Truth among the doubtful, suspicious, hateful, or unrepentant.
This Christmas season, let us allow Christ into our lives in order to bring him to others. Let us preach the Gospel with our lives and seek to always make room for him in the inn of our hearts. Christmas is a time for celebration! We rejoice that the Lord God Himself took on human nature and was born as a helpless Child into the world He created in order to free us from sin and death and invite us to live with Him forever. The occasion of Christmas encourages each of us to be a welcoming soul to the Lord rather than one who closed their doors to the Holy Family that holy night:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room.
And let it begin with me. Amen.
 Sheen, Fulton. “Life of Christ” (1954).
 cf. Matthew 25:40.
As I have gotten older, my favorite part about Lent has become the fact that we have the privilege of willingly walking into the desert - into these 40 days - with our Lord. I think there are a lot of times in our lives when we suddenly find ourselves in the desert - desperate for water, nourishment, or companionship. It is in the desert where we not only grow in intimacy with the Lord, but are also able to be strengthened through real repentance.
What is true for us in the deserts of our lives is the same thing that was true for the Prodigal Son in this Sunday’s Gospel: we receive the promise of a Father who receives our repentance with mercy.
The story of the Prodigal Son is an important one for us to reflect upon as we continue on our Lenten journeys - it is through repentance that the very son who squandered his inheritance is welcomed back with open arms into the mercy of his father. And the story doesn’t end there: not only does the father embrace and welcome his son back, he rejoices and celebrates his return for those around him to see.
It is through our repentance that we experience the mercy of God; it is through our repentance that we receive the promise of the desert of these 40 days. This is so beautifully echoed in all the readings that the Church gives us during this season: God the Father rejoices when we are brought back to life again (Luke 15:32).
We as Catholics have the unique privilege of receiving this mercy every time we hear the words of the priest absolving us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our moments of feeling desperate in the desert can be alleviated by honest repentance. After one particularly frustrating time in my life, I remember feeling like the Prodigal Son: convicted that I needed to repent and return to God, but also feeling shame over all the ways that I had squandered what the Lord had given me. And in that moment a priest reminded me that confession is always a place of victory. Like the prodigal son who acknowledged his failures and was welcomed back with mercy and celebration, we too find an outpouring of mercy and grace when we reconcile ourselves to God.
As we journey towards Calvary, we do so knowing that our repentance leads to an encounter of mercy and ultimately to victory.
Questions for Reflection: What are some moments in your life when you’ve encountered the mercy of God and others? How did these moments affect you?
For more resources to accompany you in your Lenten journey, please click here.
The next forty days of Lent are Mother Church’s annual call to intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving oriented towards embracing God as the center of one’s life and repenting of all which distracts us from Him. With the current crisis for the Church in the United States, it seems that the Church could really use a good spiritual renewal, cleansing, and renunciation of sin often focused on during the season of Lent. As parts of the Body of Christ, we are all too aware how an affliction experienced (or caused) by one part affects us all. Recall the words of St. Paul, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep... Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” The Church is suffering but, just as she always has, she will ultimately be restored for the glory of God. As laity, you and I are key to addressing this scourge, along with the Church’s holy clergy and religious, and to affirming God’s presence in our lives not just in the Lenten season, but every day.
Though a time of repentance, Lent is not a time of despair or hopeless suffering; this season reminds us that God, although saddened by our repeated failings, never closes Himself off from offering mercy and love to the broken, the sinner, and the lost. Lent is not a diet, nor a fad of living without something trivial, nor even a temporary spiritual renewal; it must take root—free from the sin which prevents this—and be nourished over the coming weeks to strengthen us throughout the whole year. Above all, Lent prepares us for the celebration of Easter. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again; the Church suffers, the Church is renewed, the Church shall be restored!
The abuse scandal today may cause people to feel abandoned, angry, confused, and sad. “How can this be happening?” is certainly a question in our hearts and homes these days. It is important to remember that Jesus Christ, the same “yesterday, today, and forever,” reigns over the Church. He is omnipotent, divinely good, and eternal; Let us take courage in the truth that our faith is ultimately in Jesus Christ. Because our Lord remains faithful to us and ever close to His bride, the Church, He gives us the strength to recommit ourselves to renouncing the evil in our sight that threatens to drive us away from God and His Church.
Lent is the perfect opportunity to facilitate spiritual renewal, not only for ourselves but also for the greater Church. Following the example of Jesus’ time in the desert before commencing His public ministry, the faithful are invited to reflect on the state of the Church, pray for strength, courage, justice, and healing, and even seek accountability in the governance of the Church. Personal penance can be made for our own failings, but reparation must also be made to address this scandal and to unify God’s people to prayerful and peaceful action in seeking God’s healing grace to move forward.
Over the next 40 days, let us care for the Church by promoting healing among ourselves, supporting the afflicted and needy, addressing sin and divisions, and always proclaiming Christ to each other and the world.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
 cf. Lumen Gentium, 33.
 Romans 12:15, 21.
 Hebrews 13:8.
 cf. 2 Timothy 2:13.
“The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World” is the theme that Pope Francis chose for the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland. One aspect that will be explored is how “the Christian family, by its witness to the life and love of Jesus, is a principal agent of evangelization to the world.” Catholic teaching calls the family, the “domestic church” (Lumen Gentium, 11) and parents are told in the Rite of Baptism that they are “the first teachers of their child in the ways of the faith.”
Others in the Church, clergy, those in consecrated life, and lay people, are supposed to be co-responsible with parents not only for teaching children and young people, but most especially, nurturing them, protecting them, and witnessing to them holiness of life. When this fails to happen whether in the past or in the present, as is once again showing itself in various parts of the world, then repentance, reform and renewal are not only needed, they are necessary. Repentance, reform, renewal, and greater holiness are not possible without co-responsibility among all the faithful in deeper conversion of life in Christ as our patron, St. Vincent Pallotti, envisioned over 183 years ago in Rome. We cannot do this on our own as Pope Francis reminded all in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate:
“Ultimately, the lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth” (GE, 50).
Since we are limited, we are challenged to do, with God’s grace, as St. Vincent Pallotti exhorts us to do: "We must begin to reform our lives by putting all our confidence in God."
May the Charity of Christ urge us on!
In Christ, Apostle of the Eternal Father,
August 27th marks the feast of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Monica spent seventeen years praying for the conversion of her son, whose reputation for hedonism and religious skepticism preceded him. St. Monica is said to have wept for her son Augustine every night. Her devotion to him is an example of what it means to love unconditionally, even when it hurts. As a new mother, I have spent many hours reflecting on the mystery of unconditional love and have recorded some of my thoughts below. Let us turn to St. Monica when our hearts are weak and we need help loving as God calls us to love. St. Monica, pray for us.
“This is my body, which will be given for you” (Luke 22:19).
Christ’s words at the Last Supper never fully resonated with me until I became a mother. From the moment of her conception, I gave up my body to my daughter. Baby books, friends, and other women warned me of the physical tolls of pregnancy--the aches and pains, the nausea, the swollen feet, the labor--but I was unprepared for the physical sacrifices afterward. My body is not my own. It is at service to a squirmy, snorty, sweaty being who doesn’t even realize how needy she is. And yet, this physical sacrifice is good and necessary. It has helped me to remember that God wants all of us. Not just our souls and intellects, but our bodies too.
I am an intellectual person by nature and often use my love of study to learn about God. But learning about God and knowing God are not the same thing. Just like reading about how to ride a bike and actually climbing up on the seat are not the same. It is easy for me to pick up another historical commentary on the gospels and feel like I am improving my relationship with God. It’s hard to deny myself a second cup of coffee. It’s hard to place my phone in another room and walk away. It’s hard to lower myself onto my knees to pray, or even to sustain prayer for longer than a minute. These bodily actions are hard because they require sacrifice. And yet, I suspect the sacrifices I make for God are more important to him than whether I know if Jesus was born in cave or a wooden stable.
Motherhood, too, is a bodily commitment and one that can be difficult to embrace with joy. I sacrifice my body in a small way every time I stop what I am doing to nurse my baby, or to get down on my knees and engage her in yet another game of “rub the belly, rub the belly”. Yet, as I commit to these physical tasks, I hope I also die to self a little more each day. With each physical act, with each twinge between the shoulder blades, I remind myself, that--in a much bigger way--this is what Jesus did for me on the cross.
Ironically, it actually was a book that helped me to understand the beauty of bodily sacrifice. No, it wasn’t the Bible, or Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, it was The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. The gist of the story is that a tree continues to give and give to a boy throughout the boy's life to make him happy. First she gives him her apples so the boy can sell them for pocket money, then she gives him her branches so that he can build a house, then her trunk so that he can build a canoe. Eventually the tree is reduced to a stump and the boy hasn’t visited her in years. And yet the refrain after each gift is, “And the tree was happy.” By the end of the book, my husband found me lying on my back crying while my daughter kicked her feet unconcernedly next to me. Our conversation went as follows:
“I told you not to read that book!”
“It’s just so stupid! The boy is so ungrateful! The tree gave him everything and he never even said thank you. She literally let him cut down her trunk for him. It’s not fair.”
“Would you do that for Elizabeth?”
My answer was immediate. If motherhood has taught me anything, it’s what it means to love unconditionally. And the craziest part is that my bodily sacrifices to Elizabeth don’t even compare to Christ’s sacrifice for me.
Truly, to be loved by Christ is a humbling thing.
Click here for more resources on Marriage and Family.
While on my way to work one morning, I passed a church that had a marquee saying, “Forgive others as quickly as you expect God to forgive you.”
That phrase stuck with me the entire day to the point where I just had to write it down to look back on. Forgiveness can be so difficult when we’ve been hurt or feel we’ve been wronged. That little message to me from God reminded me of the work I need to do during Lent to prepare for Easter.
The season of Lent is centered on God’s forgiveness of our sins and our willingness to be penitent. As we receive our ashes on Ash Wednesday, the priest often says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Especially during this time of the year, we recognize the brief time we have on earth to do God’s will. This is a time in which we reach out to God to experience him in a tangible way through sacrifice, almsgiving, and fasting. On Ash Wednesday, we come together to show remorse for the times throughout the year that we have failed not only God, but also our family, friends, and fellow man.
This month during the Catholic young adult group meeting in my area, a guest speaker shared that, contrary to what we might think, shame or guilt can be positive motivators. Sometimes, we can be so harsh on ourselves in dwelling on our imperfections that we don’t allow God to heal us. Acknowledging our sinfulness through guilt and accepting God’s mercy and forgiveness helps us to move on in striving to fix our wrongdoings. God will always accept us. We do not need to wait to “cleanse” ourselves for him. He will help us to choose right from wrong. If God, our flawless creator, can forgive us, who are we to deny it to others or ourselves?
In Matthew 5:23-24, we are told, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
During Ash Wednesday, let us think of the ways in which we are slaves to sin and look for ways to repent and reflect on this during Lent. How can we be more open to God and seek his guidance? How can we be more forgiving to ourselves and others?
I remember the first time I felt true repentance. It was not because I got caught making a bad decision; not because I simply felt guilty; not because I thought about what others might think of me—all of which might be gateways to repentance, but not sufficient in and of themselves. I remember the first time I felt true repentance out of love of Christ and sorrow for the rejection of His love through my sin.
I was in a small chapel in the hills of Los Gatos on a five-day Ignatian Silent Retreat. The assignment on this particular afternoon was to spend time praying over and reflecting on your past sin, on how you had rejected God’s love and, in so doing, on how you had contributed to His pain on the Cross. It was a heavy day.
I took a deep breath in the chapel and started remembering and reflecting on past sinful decisions. Some, I knew blatantly. Others seemed inspired by the Holy Spirit. I had not even realized how past decisions might have affected other people more than myself, and I was illuminated in such a way that I saw how my sins spread out like a web contaminating the lives of others. Tears flowed unguarded from my eyes. How could I have done such things? I placed myself within the crucifixion narrative and saw that I had joined the Roman soldiers with their whips, their taunts, their hammers. I had pierced my Lord.
I felt terrible—like the scum on the bottom of a lake in the darkness.
And then I felt Him. I felt His gaze from the tabernacle. He beckoned me, inviting my eyes to meet His own.
“I can’t look back at you, Lord,” my heart said. “I’m too broken, too ashamed, too unworthy.” I kept looking down at my lap, afraid to meet His gaze. But the feeling of being looked at persisted, gently. After a few moments, I could no longer bear it. Anything, even Christ’s condemnation, would be better than avoiding Him.
I looked up. And I met Love.
I felt Christ’s presence in the tabernacle and saw Him looking at me as a bridegroom looks at his bride on their wedding day: joy, peace and love filling his face, eyes brimming with pride and tears and awe. The gaze with which Christ looked at me turned my blemishes into radiance. I became a spotless bride because of the overflow of His love. I knew, in the midst of my sin and ugliness, perhaps the ugliest I had ever felt, that I was inherently and infinitely loved, that my dignity was in Him. And so the tears flowed evermore—tears of humility, peace and joy. I had been given yet another chance, which I used to further receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
I assume the joy and freedom I felt after this experience and after going to Confession is how Mary Magdalene felt when she met the Christ and was freed from seven demons. We know with certainty that Mary Magdalene had been cured of seven demons, that she was a follower of Christ and that she was present at the crucifixion. We also know Mary Magdalene, like all of us, was a sinner. When Christ met her, she might have given up. She had been plagued by seven demons and thought that perhaps she would never be free. Christ offers her another alternative: freedom. As a result of our encounter with Christ's forgiveness--both by encountering His love and by being reconciled to Him--we can live in the joy of the Resurrection.
For this reason, it is fitting that Mary Magdalene is cited as the first witness of the Resurrection. St. Augustine called her the Apostle to the Apostles. We find Mary Magdalene in John's Gospel weeping by the open tomb of Jesus three days after His burial, for she thinks His body has been stolen. When Christ meets her, she mistakes him for the gardener. “Mary!” Jesus exclaims to his forlorn disciple, calling her by name (John 20:16). “Kate!” He exclaimed to me in the chapel. He meets us in our despair, our sorrow. Only then can we join Mary Magdalene in looking at Christ, recognizing Him and meeting His gaze. I imagine she grasped her bridegroom’s feet, kissing them in thanksgiving and bowing before Him. We cannot stay there in gratitude. Christ called me to go out from the chapel and to go out after receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as he did Mary Magdalene:
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers” (John 20:17).
The repentant sinner becomes the Apostle to the Apostles. This can only be so after we have encountered the love of God. Today, I invite you to an examination of your own sin, of any time you have rejected God’s love. Do so in a sacred place: a chapel, a Church, a reverent place in your house. I invite you to this in order to surrender these moments over to Christ and to allow Him to transform them by His love. Allow Him today to gaze at His beautiful creation, which has become broken or tarnished by the Fall and by sin, and allow Him to meet you where you are at, to love you there. Only by knowing how infinitely you are loved will you be able to “go to [His] brothers,” to go out to all the world in love—radiant, joyful and renewed.
Kate Flannery is the Social Media Coordinator for the Catholic Apostolate Center