Today we celebrate the 83rd birthday of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We thank God for the gift of his life and pray for his continued health and leadership in our Church.
Having a birthday near the holidays must be pretty hard to bear as a child, and maybe even sometimes as an adult. Birthdays are meant to be celebrated, and sometimes they can be overshadowed by other holiday celebrations! My sister has a birthday on Christmas Day and she never seemed to be able to celebrate the same ways I could (my birthday is over the summer). I always felt bad and try to still make it special for her - even now that we are adults. Although we know Pope Francis for his humility and selflessness, I’m sure even he has found it hard to celebrate his special day from time to time. We celebrate birthdays as a way to mark our growing one year older, but I’m sure with a birthday so close to Christmas, his focus has often been on Christ. I would imagine, in his ministry, our pope has reflected on the significance of their birthdays being so close and how he can look to the purpose of the season over his own celebrating.
Let’s also reflect on this now. How can we make Jesus’ birthday especially meaningful this year? In what ways can we strive to “celebrate” with Christ? What implications does Christmas have on my upcoming year as I continue to grow in my faith?
“The reason for the season” is a common phrase we hear at this time of the year— a helpful little rhyme to keep us thinking about Jesus’ birth. The purpose of the Son of God coming to Earth was to save us all from our own sins, yet we so often confuse this time with shopping deals and stressful holiday travel plans. Our Lord doesn’t need any of that. He doesn’t need physical gifts—he needs our hearts. He doesn’t need perfection—he yearns for our humble, raw, and disheveled selves. He doesn’t need displays of lights and blow-up snowmen—he needs us to shine his light in the darkness.
In order to celebrate his birth, we must first put aside the distractions and concerns that keep us away from prayer and peace at Christmas. The meaningful celebrating that we should be doing for Christ isn’t wrapped up with bows and shiny paper, but includes finding time to appreciate and pray about our Lord’s coming. The celebration for an ordinary person may be tied to cake, candles, and presents, but as Pope Francis would likely agree, celebrating Christ comes from the heart.
One way I’ve found to celebrate Christ’s birthday amidst the hustle and bustle of the season is by listening to joyful, instrumental Advent and Christmas music. Something about it makes me feel so peaceful and filled with the joy of Christ that I almost prefer it to lyrical Christmas music on the radio or Spotify! Another practice I’ve found to be helpful is focusing on the giving aspect of Christmas. I feel better giving rather than getting things. My favorite way to celebrate the birth of Jesus is to share the gift of the Christmas story with my young Pre-Kindergarten students. Having been blessed to work in a Catholic school, I’m able to share the incredible birth story of Jesus Christ and to teach those beautiful little minds about God’s promise of love to the world. When I sit back and realize the gravity of my role as a catechist to these children, I feel humbled by it. My heart soars, it prepares my soul for Christmas, and I’m reminded of this holy birthday from so long ago in Bethlehem.
As we look toward a new year, both for Pope Francis and for us Catholics, we are reminded that Christmas is only the beginning of Christ’s work on Earth. His ministry will begin at a wedding as an adult farther down the line, and his death and Resurrection happen even later than that.
We know Christ’s birthday was celebrated by angels sharing the Good News. We know there were shepherds who also heard about Jesus’ birth, and finally three wise men who followed the star to where Jesus was born. This new year has so much faith-filled potential to allow us a chance to listen closely to how the Gospel message tells us to love and to share our love with those we meet. We can show God’s love to all by living out each day as apostles who share the Good News.
So today, on this 83rd birthday of our pope, keep him in your prayers. Pray for continued faithful leadership in our Church at this tumultuous time in our world. Pray for his health, that he may find strength in Christ and remain well.
Feliz cumpleaños, Papa Francisco!
For more resources to accompany you this Advent and Christmas, please click here.
O God, Thou art my God, I seek Thee, my soul thirsts for Thee; my flesh faints for Thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. -Psalm 63:1
There are seasons in the spiritual life in which you feel parched, as if you’re wandering the desert without refreshment. Silent reflection is filled with distraction. Prayer seems awkward, difficult, or boring. Your heart feels lifeless.
Lately, despite my attempts to find escape, this sums up my prayer experience. It doesn’t matter that I infuse my days with the Mass readings, a Rosary, Catholic podcasts, or spiritual books. Right now, it seems so much easier to turn on a show or scroll through social media than to pray. Any time I resolve to do the latter, all the things I need to do bombard my mind, or the texts and notifications come in streaming. At Mass, I hear the beautiful words of Scripture and the homily but feel hollow in the pew.
Am I a bad Catholic? Is something wrong?
During times like these, many people of faith get disheartened. They think they have done something wrong in the spiritual life, that God has abandoned them, or that their faith must not be relevant anymore. But all people of faith will experience this to some degree at one point or another! It is often hard to trudge through when warm feelings are absent and prayer requires intentionality and effort, but these times in the spiritual life can be the most fruitful of all.
Our hearts can grow cold and tepid for two reasons: either we’ve slackened in the spiritual life and slowly let the cares of the world take over – like the weeds that choke out the good seed in the parable – or God is calling us to deeper faith and growth. If it’s the latter, this is often a time of spiritual maturation that deepens our faith and love. We choose to cry out to God in prayer not because it makes us feel good or holy or satisfied, but because we trust in God and love him despite how we might feel. We’ve often heard that love is a choice, not a feeling. Therefore, when feelings are absent, God is inviting us to choose him with a love that is selfless and trusting. The feelings that are lukewarm, indifferent, or distracted are part of the spiritual dryness St. Ignatius of Loyola called “desolation.”
According to St. Ignatius, there are moments in the spiritual life of both consolation and desolation. In times of consolation, we feel especially close to God, find prayer easy, fulfilling, and natural, and have peace and joy. I remember one time talking to a priest in spiritual direction who asked how things were going spiritually. I told him I almost felt guilty because all was going smoothly. He chuckled and told me to enjoy this time of consolation because it wouldn’t last forever—advising me to write down my feelings and spiritual observations as something to look back on in times of dryness or sorrow. A quote attributed to St. Philip Neri sums up this ebb and flow: “As a rule, people who aim at a spiritual life begin with the sweet and afterward pass on to the bitter. So now, away with all tepidity, off with that mask of yours, carry your cross, don’t leave it to carry you.”
How can you carry your cross during this time? Below are some tips to reinvigorate your faith and get you through this time of spiritual dryness.
It is important if you feel indifferent to your faith right now not to give up. I encourage you to re-double your efforts in prayer, seek help from your community and the saints, and persevere. Know that this is a completely normal phase of the spiritual life, that even the saints felt arid at times, and that you are not alone.
Over the last two weekends, in the midst of an ongoing sexual abuse scandal in the Church in the United States and throughout the world, I have had the privilege of concelebrating at three Masses of ordination of men I have known since their first month of college at The Catholic University of America due to my pastoral work there. They were also instrumental in the growth and development of the Catholic Apostolate Center in its early years. Deacon Alex Boucher of the Diocese of Portland, Deacon Joseph Hubbard of the Archdiocese of Boston, and Father Andrew St. Hilaire of the Diocese of Harrisburg, along with another Catholic University alumnus and Center colleague, Father Brett Garland of the Diocese of Columbus, who was ordained last year, are men of steadfast prayer, selfless service, and great integrity. They strive to live lives of joyful holiness.
Each of them, in their own way, has helped me to be a better priest and a better Pallottine. They and many young people who are devoted to Christ and his Church give me much hope, not only for the future, but now. I see it every day in ministry, especially with the Center team, many of whom witnessed along with me the ordinations of these men.
Pope Francis has this hope as well when he says in his Apostolic Exhortation, Christus Vivit:
“The Lord cannot fail in his promise to provide the Church with shepherds, for without them she would not be able to live and carry out her mission. If it is true that some priests do not give good witness, that does not mean that the Lord stops calling. On the contrary, he doubles the stakes, for he never ceases to care for his beloved Church” (275).
Deacon Boucher and Deacon Hubbard will be ordained priests next year, God willing. Please keep them and Fathers Garland and St. Hilaire in your prayers as they minister to and with the People of God. May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Apostles and Mother of the Church, and St. Vincent Pallotti, zealous and faithful priest of the Diocese of Rome and Founder of the Union of Catholic Apostolate, intercede for them and for our Church!
May the Charity of Christ urge them and us on!
I remember sharing an odd insight with my fiancé as we walked briskly up to the cathedral where we would soon be married. “This is going to be hard,” I said, referring to marriage.
This might have caught most people off guard. It’s not common for a young, blissful couple about to embark on a lifelong journey of commitment to think about its difficulty. I didn’t know at the time how true these words were, only that they were necessary for understanding some of the implications of any lifelong commitment.
It’s a lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable, to think about all the beauty involved in marriage: visions of your spouse bringing you breakfast in bed, selflessly offering to do the laundry, bringing home flowers “just because,” going on countless adventures, experiencing the thrill of starting a family, buying homes, building careers, and doing it all as a team, forever.
In February, the United States celebrates love on Valentine’s Day. The Church celebrates a form of love as well, with February 7-14 being National Marriage Week in the US and February 10 being World Marriage Day.
Celebrations of love are appropriate and beautiful, but I think we do love and marriage an injustice if we only celebrate what we consider to be positive and only on certain days. My husband and I continue to learn—after three years of marriage and two children—that true love is sacrifice. More romantic to me than any bouquet is my husband getting up early with one of our sons, taking the trash out, or working to improve our almost 100-year-old home. The moments when he gives of himself in quiet ways are what make marriage beautiful. And our journey of learning the selfless love Jesus modeled for his disciples is a lifelong one.
We are learning we must choose to love each other after being woken up 3 or 4 times a night, after 2 hour-long commutes a day, after changing countless diapers, mediating children’s fights, trying to solve the latest home issue, and working on a budget. This--this is what makes marriage hard: the choice to give of oneself in the midst of imperfect and less than ideal circumstances. This is the tip of what I meant that day when I told my husband that marriage would be hard. I didn’t know all the details, just that it was a reality we would need to grapple with in the years to come.
Pope Francis speaks often of the realities of marriage throughout his preaching. He said in one homily that marriage is not fiction, acknowledging that “the path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human…It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life.” I love that he is so down to earth and realistic in his observations. Yes, marriage is sacred and beautiful and designed by God. But it is also hard work, something I think may need to be more addressed in our culture – especially today when this lifelong commitment seems less and less possible.
The fact that marriage is hard is not cause for fear, despair, or surrender. The fact that it’s hard means your marriage is normal and human. Simply because it is comprised of two people with past hurts, wounds, weaknesses, and imperfections, marriage will always be complicated.
But it is within the context of a lifelong commitment that these wounds and imperfections can be transfigured. This is the beauty of marriage: when seen in the light of the eternal, it enables each person in the relationship to be sanctified. What transfigures marriage is prayer, grace, and, yes, hard work. Marriage is the daily choice to give of oneself, to surrender, to submit mutually to one another. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “After the fall, marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one's own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving” (CCC 1609).
Pope Francis has made note of this as well, saying that a healthy marriage requires the mutual gift of self and the grace of Christ. In a dialogue with engaged couples on Valentine’s Day in 2014, Pope Francis advised those present to entrust themselves “to the Lord Jesus in a life that becomes a daily spiritual journey, made up of steps – small steps, steps of joint growth – made up of the commitment to become mature women and men in the faith.” He continued, “The more you entrust yourselves to Him the more your love will be ‘forever,’ capable of being renewed and it will overcome every difficulty.”
As we continue to reflect on love and marriage in our culture, let us remember that this call to love is not reserved for married couples, but for all Christians. Every act of service and sacrifice made for others is the living out a life of discipleship. Love is hard. But the same Christ who knelt before his disciples and washed their feet, the same Christ who multiplied the wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana, enables us to live this love as we pick up our crosses, daily, to follow him. Let us entrust ourselves and our relationships to the Bridegroom who makes all things new.
Question for Reflection: How can you practice the sometimes difficult love Christ calls us to in your life today?
For more resources on Marriage and Family, please click here.
What does it mean to be a faithful Catholic? We are often quick to answer this question with things like Mass attendance, frequent confession, respect for all life, serving the poor and vulnerable, and advocating for those without their own voices. In other words, we might answer this question with action verbs, or phrases that suggest doing. However, identifying as a Catholic requires just as much being as doing; as Catholics, we are called to be in right relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Being in right relationship means that in all parts of our lives, there is an order to what we do, love, desire, value, and move towards; this order is one that is rooted in God, sustained by constant conversion to him, and ultimately fosters lasting communion with him in this life and the next.
There are many things in our lives that prevent us from being according to this pattern and order. For many of us, things like tragedy, addiction, animosity, violence, mental illness, polarization, and trauma have weakened our trust in God and the goodness of others. Our hearts can be exhausted by divisions within our own families, numerous transitions in our careers or geographical locations, failed plans and dreams, and the restlessness that comes with the seasons of waiting in our lives. Sometimes, we find that our hearts have become worn down and afraid in all that life has asked us to carry.
Like illness or a disease, leaving these wounds of the human condition untreated poses a hazard to our being. Trying to live out our faith without seeking some form of psychological and emotional healing for these wounds causes our views of ourselves, God, and others to become distorted, preventing order and harmony from forming in our lives. Untreated emotional and psychological injuries and pain show themselves in the ways in which we seek to serve God and others. We sometimes put up “walls” around our hearts and push others away because we’ve been so damaged by close relationships. We might become obsessively self-interested because we see our value and dignity only in relation to our careers and material success. We might see God as angry, malevolent, and seeking retribution because we haven’t forgiven ourselves for our past sins or mistakes. All of these feelings and responses are part of being human. Thankfully, because they are part of being human, they can be healed and redeemed.
This is why it is crucial to form ourselves not only spiritually, but also through emotional and psychological healing. The parts of us that have a large role in being - our emotions, mental state, and psychological health - are invaluable to living out our vocations to holiness. We cannot give life, love, and mercy to others if we don’t first have a sense of those things within our own selves.
Certain tools can help with this type of human formation: conversations with trusted and wise friends, support from a mentor, spiritual direction, counseling, and therapy. As Catholics, it is important to reflect often on the journey of our lives, look at the cuts and scrapes we’ve acquired along the way, and participate in God’s healing by seeking tools that foster our ability to be. It is through the nurturing of our being that we are then able to bring life through our doing.
As Catholics, we are part of a Church that calls us to “go forth” to serve God and others. Individually within our hearts, what kind of place are we “going forth” from? One that is broken and acts out of insecurity, self-interest, anger, or pain? Or one that is undergoing healing, characterized by a desire to live in the freedom of God with others? What kind of healing might we be called to seek?
Preparing for Hurricane Irma has given me a fresh perspective on what matters most. With each alert, evacuation notice, and email telling me that work would be canceled for “x” amount of days, my panic level rose. The uncertainty of the storm’s path falling on my city and then my family’s city kept us all in constant contact reviewing our emergency plans. Social media messages from friend to friend with notes of encouragement and “hurricane hacks” brought us all closer together around the state. Thankfully, I am located in north central Florida, where Hurricane Irma caused less damage than its two landfalls near Naples and The Keys.
Prepping my house and selecting the most important items to protect for survival is very humbling. While packing, I thought of my fellow Floridians who evacuated south Florida not knowing if they will have a home to come back to. I thought of those in the Caribbean who received the brunt of Hurricane Irma’s force. I thought of the victims in Texas who battled Hurricane Harvey and continue to cope with its aftermath. These natural disasters remind us of the sanctity of life, what is most important.
With the hurricane covering the entire state of Florida, I thought of how small I am—especially in comparison to what God can accomplish. During times of natural disasters, reliance and trust in him increases. One of my neighbors reminded me of the story in Matthew 8:23-27, when Jesus calmed the storm at sea. Jesus told his disciples, “‘Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?’ Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm.” My neighbor told me, “He did it once, and he can do it again!” Her faith was inspiring to me and instantly calmed my nerves.
When someone asks, “Where is God in this storm? Why did he create this?” my answer is that God is in those who help others and respond with service and compassion during times of trial and suffering. 1 Corinthians 12 tells us that we are Christ’s body and form individual parts of it. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. We may not see the ways God is helping at first because these ways may not necessarily be our ways.
I truly believe acts of kindness, such as neighbors checking in on one another and helping one another prepare their homes and families, provide hope during times of fear or suffering. The selfless love of fellow citizens encourages each of us to do what we can for others, in this case, those affected by these recent storms. There are students, faculty, and staff from the University of Florida, where I work, who are ready to jump into action after the storm passes to help others by donating food and clothing, assisting displaced pets, and more. We grieve with those who hurt and find ways to help alleviate their suffering.
Rather than filling my thoughts with why this storm has happened, I instead thank God for the blessings he has provided my family and me. Ultimately, God does not cause the storm (or evil), he simply permits the natural way of the world, just as he does with the free will of human beings. Romans 8:28 tells us that God is always working for our good or working to bring about good and turn even a bad situation into a blessing. I am comforted by this thought. During this time of hardship for many in our country, I pray that we may come together and serve one another in order to bring good out of suffering. May we continue to be the hands and feet of Christ to our brothers and sisters.
This past weekend, I had the honor of attending a beautiful wedding for a couple I have known since my freshman year in college. The two had a lovely Mass followed by a fun reception, and many college-friends and family were there to celebrate them. These two were not the first couple I’ve seen get married this year, and they won’t be the last - in fact, I have 4 more to attend in the next year already! It all got me thinking about how these men and women are such amazing examples of love and devotion for those of us around them.
As millennial Catholics, we have many people to influence us or to learn from, especially in this digital age of constant communication. Our peers who are getting married set a new model for us to follow. These peers are examples of commitment and true love, and are models for us as we discern our own vocation in life. Sometimes, it seems like “everyone” is getting married, and it’s “cool” to have a perfectly Pinterest-ed wedding. We also get pressure from others who note that “It’s that time in your life”. But, there is so much more to the sacrament of marriage than having a trendy reception in a fancy venue. The example of love that we see from those around us can help us look deeper at the love that we, too have with others.
Marriage at any age is a testament to the selflessness and devotion that one person gives to someone else. In the midst of a culture built on so much focus on the individual, it is joyful and inspiring to me for to see so many people devote themselves to another person and to God through the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. But it doesn’t stop there! People who are not married, engaged, or still dating still also can follow the example of love given to them by their peers by focusing on their love of God and strengthening their bond and relationship with Him. The single life can be even more of a beautiful and fruitful time for those who serve the Lord. It is a time to build a stronger prayer life, spiritual life, and overall well-being. Discerning the will of God has always been a struggle for people, for instance in Romans 12: 1-2, 9-13, Saint Paul asks the Romans to be selfless and good in their daily lives, his letter still speaks to us today, saying:
"I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. […] Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality.”
Millennials like myself are always trying to change things and improve on the old, so this should be an easy task for us: build-on and improve our prayer life and relationships with God. Let us try to find a new and more invigorating way of serving God and others! While many are called to marriage when they answer their own vocation call, others may try a path of holy orders or religious life to improve their personal relationship with God, and still more may just remain open to God’s will for them in their lives each day.
Krissy Kirby is a teacher for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.