Have you ever wondered why the Church decided to celebrate Mary, as Mother of God, on the first day of each calendar year? After all, we’re still in the midst of Christmas! Isn’t this season already busy and full of Feast Days and devotions? Before she could be revealed as the Immaculate Conception, or celebrated as Our Lady of Fatima, Lourdes, or Guadalupe, or even honored as Lady Poverty by St. Francis, Mary first had to accept God’s will for her in salvation history in order to become the mother of the savior who was born on Christmas Day.
In St. Luke’s Gospel, Mary is first hailed as God’s “favored one!” If this title, bestowed by the Almighty’s messenger, wasn’t honor enough, Mary would later receive the even greater title of “Mother of God.” Her cousin St. Elizabeth would confer this title upon her with the words, “the mother of my Lord.” First, of course, Mary had to agree to what God asked of her! Mary may not have understood just how great the decision was that she made, but, despite her youth, she nevertheless had the great gift of faith in God. Because of her infinite trust in God and her famed fiat, we can definitively venerate Mary, the Mother of God, and ask for her intercession.
Mary fulfills a unique role in the Mystery of Christ and the Church. Hailed as Theotokos (literally, “God Bearer”) by the Church in 431 at the First Council of Ephesus, Mary’s title reflects not only her role in salvation history, but also asserts the divinity of Christ. Just as the moon does not bear its own light but instead reflects the light from the sun, Mary entirely reflects the brilliance and grace of God. While a universal celebration on October 11 of the feast of the “Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary” was not declared by the Church until 1931 by Pope Pius XI, history records similar celebrations as part of the Christmas octave as early as the 13th or 14th century in Rome and Spain. Later celebrations developed in the 18th century in Portugal, Brazil, and Algeria and continued to take root around the world. After this great feast was finally moved to the first day of January by Pope St. John XXIII (in his 1960 revision of the liturgical calendar and rites), the Church would, at the Council Second Vatican, reaffirm Mary’s place in the Church Universal:
Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved. She is “the mother of the members of Christ... having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head.”… The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother.
Even more recently, Pope Francis reflected upon why Mary is thus honored as the Mother of God and not just the Mother of Jesus:
From the moment that our Lord became incarnate in Mary, and for all time, he took on our humanity. There is no longer God without man; the flesh Jesus took from his Mother is our own, now and for all eternity. To call Mary the Mother of God reminds us of this: God is close to humanity, even as a child is close to the mother who bears him in her womb.
As we continue our celebration of Christmas, let us consider how, in His mother, God the Son was made Incarnate not only to be with us, but also to be like us! The Blessed Mother, seen in every nativity scene, faithfully watches over the infant in the manger as the Mother of God and also as mother to each of us! She does so with great love, silently in her heart (cf. Luke 2:51). In Mary we find what really matters—not only during the Christmas season, but in the whole of the Christian life. As her children, may we look upon Mary with love and faithfully call upon her intercession with great affection.
Having experienced the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis for over five years now, it should be of no surprise that the Jesuit former Archbishop of Buenos Aires took the name Francis, the first time that name had been chosen in the 2000+ year history of the Catholic Church. The name was taken for St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century saint who left behind a life of luxury and wealth to pursue a life lived according to the Gospel. One of the more famous stories tells of St. Francis’ public witness of faith when his own father brought him before the bishop on charges of theft. Francis famously stripped off his clothes and announced that "Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, 'Our Father who art in heaven.'"
Much like St. Francis, Pope Francis has also stripped himself of luxurious garments, choosing to present himself in modest, humble clothing that is still fitting to the Papacy. Such action is not solely a living witness of the message of St. Francis, but also the message of Christ who said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In Jorge Bergoglio’s ministry as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his commitment to simple living was made manifest through his actions. He was seen riding a bus with other bishops instead of using his designated private transportation; he cooked his own meals, and he even chose to live in a small apartment outside of the usual bishop’s residence. Pope Francis’ witness teaches us that a simple life does not mean a life lived passively. Simplicity requires action. One must live and act in a way that honors the life of simplicity and humility to which we are called by the Gospels.
In living out the witness of St. Francis and the call of Christ, Pope Francis has also put a great influence on caring for the marginalized—whether migrants, the homeless, or any of those in need. Just recently, Pope Francis surprised Cardinal Konrad Krajewski and around 280 homeless persons at a Vatican dinner where he dined with them for over two hours and listened to their stories. On Holy Thursday 2017, Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates at a prison about 45 miles from Rome, to honor Christ who reminded his apostles that “whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant.” That teaching is one that should resonate deeply with us. Simplicity does exactly that, it allows us to live in solidarity with those most in need and live lives conformed to Christ.
The lives of Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi provide a witness to a life lived as Christ instructed. We’re not expected to exactly follow the path of St. Francis, as his life is a remarkable one, but, as Mother Teresa said, we can serve by performing small deeds done with great love. Let our Holy Father and St. Francis of Assisi continue to be examples to us in living out or vocations of holiness, and may we always pray for our Holy Father and his ministry.
Questions for Reflection: What are some easy ways that I can live more simply? What luxuries is the Lord calling me to give up?
Whenever you think of Christianity, it is next to impossible to overlook the role and importance of love in the story of salvation. God’s love for us is one that is infinitely more enduring than any infatuation or passing attraction. It is one that gives and purifies, sacrifices and yields for the good of another -- again and again and again. God’s love is one that extends through, before, and beyond eternity and is ultimately expressed from Calvary to each and every person, fully, freely, and forever.
The Church has dedicated the month of June to a reminder of the depth of God’s love: the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In His Most Sacred Heart, we see how absolutely consumed with love God is for us — so much so that He was willing to bear those heinous wounds, false accusations and derisions, and even His death in order to grant salvation for all. Artistic depictions of the Sacred Heart remind us of the torment Christ endured on our behalf: the heart is wrapped in a crown of thorns, pierced, bleeding, and aflame with a cross rising from the tongues of fire. The visible wounds of Christ’s heart reveal His invisible love. Thus, devotion to the Sacred Heart is described as “devotion to the love of Jesus Christ in so far as this love is recalled and symbolically represented to us by His Heart of Flesh.” As creatures that have both soul and body, bodily representations of Christ’s love sometimes touch us in ways that words do not. The Sacred Heart teaches us that authentic love incurs great costs, but it also always gives life.
Historically, devotion to the Sacred Heart is believed to have grown from another devotion to Jesus’ body: the Sacred Wounds of Christ from His Passion. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said that the piercing of Christ’s side revealed His goodness and the charity of His heart for us: “How good and pleasant it is to dwell in the Heart of Jesus! Who is there who does not love a Heart so wounded? Who can refuse a return of love to a Heart so loving?” Other religious and saints, such as Francis of Assisi, have themselves exemplified closeness to the love poured out by Christ’s Five Wounds and Sacred Heart.
The devotion as it is most commonly known today is said to have begun with the 1673 appearance of our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. Over a series of visits, Our Lord revealed to St. Margaret Mary the importance of devotion to His Sacred Heart:
"Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love … But what I feel most keenly is that it is hearts which are consecrated to Me, that treat Me thus. Therefore, I ask of you that the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi be set apart for a special Feast to honor My Heart, by communicating on that day, and making reparation to It by a solemn act, in order to make amends for the indignities which It has received during the time It has been exposed on the altars. I promise you that My Heart shall expand Itself to shed in abundance the influence of Its Divine Love upon those who shall thus honor It, and cause It to be honored."
In 1856, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart was officially added to the liturgical calendar — the day before the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The faithful have several options for honoring the Sacred Heart as requested by our Lord:
The Love that Christ continually showers on us should totally consume us. Christ’s death is an infinitely huge debt that we can never repay—but in His infinitely huge capacity to love and be merciful, all our Lord asks in return is our love. As we are invited to share in His Divine Love, we are called to let that love change us to become better disciples and better witnesses. Most of all, let us strive to become authors of great love stories, never ceasing to wonder at the incredible truth that the God of the Universe loves us!
The Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart is also the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. Please pray for the priests in your parish and any other priests who have touched your life!
Dear future volunteer,
Each time I revisit the Ascension stories in the Gospels, I find numerous points that relate to mission and service. Throughout my own time on mission in Jamaica, I see similarities between these verses and my challenges and blessings in a daily life of service. I hope to offer encouragement to you, future volunteer, as you research and discern the many opportunities for service available to you.
“He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart…” (Mark 16:14)
My strongest prompt to mission came as I reflected on a painting of St. Francis gazing at the cross and being told to rebuild the church. The question written with the painting asked, “Am I willing to do God’s will?” For many years, I have read, heard, and tried to practice in small ways, the example of Jesus doing the “will of my Father,” and loving others as God loves me. Now I felt that God had put the nudge toward mission into my heart. Two years of overseas mission service seemed like a very big step into the unknown but I had the stories of Francis and many others as examples, and I felt that if I said “Yes,” God would enable me to shed my worries and, thus, soften my heart and make more room for his Grace! Future volunteer, God will do the same for you.
Mission has taught me to expect the unexpected and to trust in God’s plan. Though I was open to other ministries, there was a pretty high expectation at my future mission site that I would be helping in schools, and that is exactly where I found myself. My first classroom was noisy, chaotic, cramped, and undersupplied, but I found that I had the most difficulty countering the common teaching approaches, which I perceived as overly physical and sometimes belligerent. During the first days and weeks, it was very easy for me to get caught up in the prevalent practice of shouting, derision, and physically putting someone into their chair or the corner. I didn’t like myself doing that. Continually, readings in the Franciscan prayer book kept telling me that Peace IS the path. One time, a student told me that he didn’t like me putting him into his seat. The next day, I got down to his eye level and apologized to him. He listened, we hugged, and I felt that I was on my way toward a better practice. Future volunteer, are you ready to be stretched and molded according to God’s will?
“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.” (Matthew 28:16)
I always notice the number eleven here; it is a particular mention to the fact that someone is missing. Dear future volunteer, are you worried about leaving your loved ones to do service? There are times when I am missing someone familiar from my table. It is different people at different times and my heart misses them. The last phrase—”to which Jesus had ordered them”—strikes me as being particularly relevant to mission and service. What are Jesus’ orders? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, go and make disciples of all nations. Mission is an opportunity to do just that. My heart believes that God does and will take care of me while on mission, and the Almighty and Universal God is also able to care for my loved ones even when they are on a different continent!
“He led them out to Bethany...They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy and they were continually in the temple praising God.” (Luke 24:50-53)
Dear future volunteer, as you discern your service, there is great help to be found in being “continually in the temple praising God.” I couldn’t have made my decision for mission without some serious prayer and reflection. The question of “Is this really God’s will?” was a focus for my Lenten prayer before I began my time of service. Contemplative silence and guidance from trusted friends helped me to find peace in the answer to that prayer. This ending of Luke’s Gospel account shows the disciples returning to the Temple, and I have reflected on how this seems to be the strength they needed before departing to their ministries that are recounted in Acts.
“Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” (John 20:19; 21:22)
Ahhh, my prayers were voiced and answered; my heart found peace, and my decision for mission was made. In John’s Gospel, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. In the next chapter, I see another of my tendencies: my desire to get a quick summation of God’s plan. Peter wants to know about the future for the Beloved disciple…(nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and he is gently reminded by Jesus, “What concern is it of yours? You follow me.”
The disciples encounter the resurrected Jesus in their everyday lives while fishing, walking, eating, and interacting with others. As my mission time unfolds, I also see Jesus in everyday life.
I see him in the faith voiced in the locals that I meet and in new forms of singing and praise. I feel discouragement at the discrepancy of incomes and lack of faith just as Jesus felt while gazing at Jerusalem. I marvel to see God’s hand in creation as I walk by household gardens or explore the hills. And, like the disciples, I see Jesus working through me, giving me a stronger dependence on prayer as I realize that I will not be able to fix systemic problems, and a stronger sense of humility as I realize that I am an outsider here, but I truly have been sent by God.
Jesus ascended and asked his disciples to go and teach all nations. Mission service makes us a viable part of that eternal and mystical plan. Jesus may have disappeared into the clouds, but we are able to make his presence real today.
I really think that He was having a good chuckle as He ascended. He knew how much mission would change us!
Dear future volunteer, are you ready to be changed?
To learn more about service opportunities through Franciscan Mission Service, please click here.
This reflection was originally published on the Catholic Volunteer Network Blog and was posted with permission.
Janice Smullen is a recently returned missioner with Franciscan Mission Service. She most recently served in Kingston, Jamaica.
This year’s Advent was special for me; I have so much to be thankful for. My husband and I celebrated our first Advent season together, and are experiencing both the chaos and joy of the Christmas season. Joy for us is found in the little moments and in reflecting on the birth of Jesus. Something we found particularly joyful during the Advent season was sitting and writing out Christmas cards. Thinking about each of the people we were writing to and sharing our love with them reminded us of the love we give by spreading the Good News. The Christmas miracles of joy and giving are alive in those cards; and we hope they inspired our relatives and friends. For my husband, opening cards is a moment of celebration because he loves getting mail. That is the joy that we wanted others to experience this Christmas.
As we reflect on this Christmas season, we can recognize the things that foster joy in our hearts. I’ve taken time to consider my own generosity and think of those in need. In the Prayer of St. Francis we hear a reminder of how to live with our hearts open. One of my favorite lines from that prayer reminds us that “it is in giving that we receive.” Those are such poignant words. The Christmas season especially reminds us to give of ourselves. We look to the generosity of God Himself, who became man in order to give us the gift of salvation.
When the world is in disarray, let us look to Christ who came to us in absolute humility on Christmas morning. I imagine the hustle and bustle in Bethlehem as Mary and Joseph went through the hordes of people for the census only to find no room for them. They ultimately found a quiet and humble spot for the most important birth in the world; Jesus brought joy to the chaos. In our lives, He brings joy, too. In the chaos of the holidays, in the midst of our planning and scheduling, travel and seeing relatives, we find that same child. The center of our lives is Christ Himself, welcoming us to quiet peace and joy. As we continue to celebrate this Christmas season, turn to the quiet and find Him for yourself. You will find joy there. Turn to the person in need—you will find joy there. Open your hearts to love and giving and you will find joy in the chaos. Merry Christmas!
Question for Reflection: How can you carve out time each day to "turn to the quiet" and spend time with Christ?
For more resources on Advent and Christmas, please click here.
I remember feeling refreshed when Laudato Si’ was published just over two years ago. The opening line the Pope selected, “Praise be to you, my Lord,” echoes St. Francis of Assisi’s framing of the earth as a “sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” For me, an encyclical letter being released carried the same weight as seeing a long-hyped movie on opening night; as the second-highest ranking Church document, encyclicals like Laudato Si’ carry high papal priority and are written in the Holy Father’s own hand so that their views can authoritatively end a theological debate on a particular question. I very much enjoyed reading and discussing its rich contents among my peers. In the light of Christian spirituality, the document links environmental stewardship to both authentic human ecology and also the need to care for and protect those who might suffer from rash and greedy ecological harvesting. These discussions about the encyclical continued during the school year with university-sponsored symposiums, panels, service activities, and curriculum integrations designed to continue to unpack the impressive document from what many might erroneously dismiss as simply a work about climate change and the need to live sustainably.
A few months after he released Laudato Si’, Pope Francis announced in a letter to members of the curia his intention to establish a “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” on the first day of September each year. The purpose of such a day, in my opinion, is to globally unite efforts by the Church and Her collaborators regarding the care of creation—efforts that continue throughout the year and which the Church re-consecrates and re-entrusts to God as a work beyond human hands. The same goes for similar days established by previous popes and the bishops conferences such as the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, the Fortnight for Freedom, the World Day for Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, World Youth Day, World Marriage Day, and others. Through the establishment of these days, the Church seeks to galvanize us with a call to action to refresh our focus and attention to matters which affect us all physically, culturally, and spiritually.
The annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation is geared to unite our prayers with acts of witness:
[It] will offer individual believers and communities a fitting opportunity to reaffirm their personal vocation to be stewards of creation, to thank God for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care, and to implore his help for the protection of creation as well as his pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live.
Anyone can recycle, turn off unnecessary lights, or use public transportation, but what Pope Francis invites us to do (while reiterating the “nobility… [of these] little actions”) is something much more substantial and fulfilling. Laudato Si’ is his personal call for each of us to live out an “integral ecology,” which does not neglect our relationships with God, other human beings (especially those often neglected by society), and the natural creation of Earth. Pope Francis highlights the fact that all are integrated. To allow one relationship to suffer is to allow the others to suffer as well.
The World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation is not intended as a rude awakening to the artificial harm being inflicted upon the planet. The natural creation that surrounds us is inherently “good” because God Himself wonderfully designed and detailed everything… and we human beings are the crowning achievement (see Genesis 1:26). When we behold His wonders, we should be moved to praise Him for everything He has set before us as part of our earthly home (see Psalms 104 and 148)! As we celebrate the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, I invite you to read or reread Laudato Si’. In doing so, may we be moved to want to preserve and protect our world in recognition of its inherent dignity so future generations may continue to marvel and wonder at the works of God.
“May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD be glad in his works!” -Psalm 104
Question for Reflection: How can you live out what Pope Francis calls an "integral ecology"?
For more resources on Laudato Si', please click here.
“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. (2)” – Pope Francis, Laudato Si’
This past weekend in the United States we celebrated Earth Day. Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a call to action to bring greater awareness to environmental issues. It continues to serve as a reminder to us of our place on the earth and our responsibilities as its current inhabitants.
The Catholic Church has taken a strong stance on the importance of preserving our planet and has highlighted the necessity of caring for creation as one of the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching. A document of the USCCB teaches that: “To ensure the survival of a healthy planet, then, we must not only establish a sustainable economy but must also labor for justice both within and among nations. We must seek a society where economic life and environmental commitment work together to protect and to enhance life on this planet.”
Pope Francis has also taken steps to highlight the necessity of caring for our environment. In 2015, he released his papal encyclical on the environment entitled Laudato Si’ – On Care for our Common Home. In this encyclical, he points out our moral obligation as Catholics and as humans to care for our environment.
But what can we do as people of faith to preserve the earth? What steps can we take in our daily lives to protect the world God gave us?
Go outside. Experience the beauty of the earth by taking some time to be in nature. Go for a walk in your neighborhood and look at the diversity of the flowers and trees. Spend some time in prayerful contemplation near water, in the mountains, or in your own backyard.
Read Laudato Si’. Pope Francis’s encyclical highlights the ways we are required as Catholics to work to save and protect the environment. He puts into words the importance, particularly at this point in history, of caring for the earth. He highlights specific problems that threaten the environment and offers suggestions for action. The Catholic Apostolate Center has a resource page on Laudato Si’ that includes a general overview of the encyclical, as well as other helpful links, news articles, and documents supporting or explaining Catholic teaching on caring for our environment.
Pray with the Psalms. In particular, I invite you to pray with Psalms 8, 22, 24, 50, 65, and 84. Adding these words of Scripture to our regular prayer will help to inspire a greater desire to do more to preserve our environment.
Turn off your lights and water when you are not using them. Do these and other small actions in your daily life to minimize your carbon footprint.
Learn about St. Francis of Assisi. When he was elected pope in 2013, then-Jorge Bergoglio took the name of Francis because he was inspired by the life and example of St. Francis of Assisi. When writing Laudato Si’, he again took great inspiration from St. Francis: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.” (11)
Editor’s Note: In the well known Franciscan Peace Prayer, each line contains an invitation to let go of a particular stumbling block in order to receive the grace offered in its absence.
For Franciscans and non-Franciscans alike, the Peace Prayer is often a source of comfort. It’s a prayer for the strength to become an “instrument of peace.” When looked at closer, the prayer is an invitation to let go. Each line presents an obstacle towards God and towards love. When we are full of doubt, it is harder to have faith. When we are weighed down by sadness, joy can seem like a distant and unattainable concept.
However, at the same time, each line immediately reveals what is possible if we let go of these same obstacles. When we let go of hatred, we can sow love. If we let go of despair, then we can find hope.
Thankfully, the prayer shows us that too. Though poetic, it is appropriate that this set of words is recognized as a prayer, not a poem. The words acknowledge the difficulty of the proposition behind them.
Let go of hatred. As we know, it’s not that easy. It’s not supposed to be. Alone, we couldn’t possibly let go of all of these things in order to find and promote peace. It’s no coincidence, then, that the very first word is “Lord.” Immediately, all the subsequent words are directed towards God.
The next stanzas provide the “how” to the “what” question. In order to let go of these stumbling blocks, we have to let go of ourselves in a sense. We have to let go of the idea that we are the center of the universe and the idea that our own needs and desires are always of paramount importance.
The second stanza is the “how.” We must recognize that there are in fact other humans in this world and they deserve as much attention and respect as we ourselves do. Therefore, we should never “so much seek to be consoled as to console.”
The final stanza, then, is the “why.” What is the purpose of all this? In short – eternal life. Ultimate peace with God. We have to re-orient our gaze towards God. When we do this, our vision isn’t narrowed or restricted. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. When we re-focus, we see the world around us and the people in it. Pursuing eternal life with God doesn’t mean ignoring that there are other people in the world, denying the world around us, and spending all day every day in prayer. The people around us are our opportunities to grow closer to God while on earth. Through these interactions, we are filled. For, “it is in giving that we receive.” When we give of ourselves to others, we become filled.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Reflection Question: Which line of this prayer stands out to you? Why do you think that is?
*This post was originally published on the Franciscan Mission Service blog on March 13, 2016 and has been reposted with permission.
I was going to write this as a reflection on the life of Saint Clare, given her feast day is this week (August 11) and that there are so many interesting facts and stories about her life. Then a different, but related, reflection came to mind…
Seven years ago, being a relatively recent convert to Catholicism, I had no idea who the Poor Clares were. However, I gained some new “sisters” when I started a diocesan two-year faith development program that year and was fortunate enough to have two Poor Clare nuns of the Order of St. Clare (OSC) in my class. The Poor Clares take vows of poverty, obedience, chastity, and enclosure and are followers of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, living the simple, Gospel life in an enclosed contemplative community. The variety of Poor Clare expressions includes the Order of St. Clare (OSC), the Colettine Poor Clares (PCC), Capuchin Poor Clares (OSC Cap), and Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration (PCPA). No matter the expression though, the Poor Clare life of prayer is possible because they do live in community. I am now profoundly involved with the Monastery of St. Clare in Great Falls, Montana and count the nuns of the Poor Clares of Montana, who I affectionately call my sisters, amongst my dearest friends. My sisters have taught me a few things…
Sisters Maryalice, Catherine, Jane, and Judith Ann all came to Great Falls 16 years ago at the invitation of the Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, who wanted to bring a monastic presence to the state of Montana. Each sister came from a separate monastery of the Holy Name Federation of Poor Clares along the eastern seaboard. I did not know the sisters then, but I am in awe at their courage, tenacity, and conviction to pull-up their roots and move west to this beautiful, but unknown land, to start the first monastic presence in Montana. They did not know each other well, had never lived in Montana, and had no monastery to occupy. I have moved around a lot in my life, but my horizon was never as uncertain and rocky as was the horizon for these four amazing women. Their story on starting the first monastery in Montana echoes St. Clare, who ran away from her familiar surroundings, wealthy family, and pending marriage in 1212 to join St. Francis in a life dedicated to God. My sisters, you have taught me to trust God’s providence, discern God’s call, and follow that call with all my heart no matter how difficult the road ahead seems.
In the time that I have known them, the Poor Clares of Montana have faced numerous, varying tribulations, and in each of those situations, they relied on the power of prayer (ok, no surprise there, that is their vocation – to pray, to pray with and for all of God’s people). Witnessing the sisters’ trials brings to mind St. Clare herself who faced many struggles including years of difficulty in obtaining papal approval of the form of life she and her sisters lived, a life she called “the privilege of highest poverty.” The effect of St. Clare’s prayers also come to mind as her prayers are credited with obtaining victories in turning back invaders of Assisi as well as numerous healings. My sisters, your witness to the power of prayer and reliance on Divine Providence have helped me to deepen my prayer life and ultimately my relationship with Christ.
Each Poor Clare community is unique as each monastery is autonomous while expressing the Poor Clare spirit of evangelical poverty, prayer, and contemplation, and the nuns of the Poor Clares of Montana reflect St. Clare’s charisms in their own exceptional way. As a small community (the same four who were the foundresses here 16 years ago are the same four who are the community today), each nun has an enormous workload to keep the monastery running as well as to try to grow her community all while keeping her emphasis on enclosure and prayer. You would think enclosure would ensure a level of certainty, but each day is distinctive for these women. Yet, somehow, the sisters maintain their prayerful focus. What they encounter in the work of each day, likely, is not very different from what St. Clare went through in starting the Order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano over 800 years ago – all the responsibility initially falls on a few until the community can grow. My sisters, you have taught me no matter what each day brings to rely on Christ and persevere through prayer.
The Poor Clares of Montana recently started offering contemplative prayer workshops and Christian meditation prayer groups, bringing the Catholic Church’s rich Desert tradition of prayer to the local laity. I am amazed that these women (all who have been involved with prayer for decades longer than I have) continue to expand and deepen their relationship with Christ by embracing various expressions of prayer, adding to their repertoire of vocal and silent prayer methods. I am reminded of St. Clare’s words, “Gaze upon Christ, consider Him, contemplate Him, as you desire to imitate Him.” My sisters, you have shown me the power of praying silently in a group as a way of cultivating my relationship with Holy Trinity, as a way of responding to God’s presence in the world.
My sisters live for God alone, dedicating their whole being to God in a life expressed in community, silence, solitude, and prayer. I am grateful for their prayer, their presence, and the peace that they bring me as well as the whole community of God’s people. The Monastery of St. Clare in Great Falls is the only monastery in the state of Montana, but like the dozens of Poor Clare Monasteries in North America and the over 900 in the world, the Poor Clare nuns, following in the footsteps of St. Clare, are here for all of us – my sisters are our sisters. Thanks be to God.
Fawn Waranauskas teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on August 9th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online.
Lent is a time of reflecting on how to better ourselves in our relationships with our friends, our family, and our God, as well as a time to reach out to those less fortunate than us and show them the love of Christ. Most people probably do not think of this Lenten journey as a time of joy, but I do, for not only does Lent allow us to refocus ourselves on Christ, but it also calls us to share in the suffering of Christ.
During Lent we hear how Christ’s ministry unfolded and how people came to see him as the Son of God, our Savior and Redeemer. Christ’s journey was not easy. He endured pain and suffering for our sins in order that we might be reborn to new life through the sacrifice of his body and blood. St. Francis of Assisi wrote in “True and Perfect Joy” that the sick could be healed and the whole world could be evangelized, yet true joy comes in a mutual suffering with Christ on the cross. But how can suffering be joyful?
Here on earth, in this life, the greatest and most intimate experience with Christ comes from our participation in the Eucharist. However, by also sharing in Christ’s suffering our relationship with him grows even more intimately. Indeed, taking part in Christ’s suffering allows us to more deeply share in the mystical Body of Christ. St. Paul wrote in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” During Lent each of us is called to share in Christ’s suffering in a unique way, whether that be sacrificing our usual daily donut, praying a rosary each day, or taking time to serve meals to the less fortunate. We need to recognize that in these sacrifices we share in some small way in Christ’s suffering, and thus are brought infinitely closer to him. How can this not bring us joy?
Since Pope Francis recently released Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” it seems prudent to also reflect on how we are called to live out his concept of joy this Lent. In the introduction of this exhortation, Pope Francis talks about rejoicing in the cross, “The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice” (Evangelii Gaudium, 5).
The joy of which Pope Francis speaks, joy coming from the Gospel, is a joy that radiates from our love for Christ and our willingness to serve Him and others. It is through our ability and desire to follow the Lord’s commandments and our attempt to imitate Christ’s relationship with the Father that we are able to share in this joy. There could not be a better message this Lent as we try to refocus our faith and to better ourselves before our Lord!
I have challenged myself this Lent to live out these two conceptions of joy each day: sharing in Christ’s suffering and my continued desire to serve Him. It is through each of these that we not only build up our own faith and discipline, but also have the ability to share it with others. We can bring Christ’s joy and peace to His people here on earth. Through this participation in Christ’s mission, we get a small glimpse of Christ’s infinite love for us. Pope Francis says it best as he reminds us of what joy should look like in our lives, “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (Evangelii Gaudium, 6).
Nicholas Shields is a senior and the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus at The Catholic University of America
It was a fairly normal March afternoon and I was at my computer working on my senior project, with a livestream of the Conclave playing in the background from Salt+Light TV. The anchors were discussing all the possibilities facing the Church, which of the “papabile” was the most likely candidate, and reflecting on the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Then I heard it, like a bell suddenly pealing out in the middle of the night:
“And it looks like we have black smoke again… Actually, it’s looking a little greyish… Wait a minute… White smoke! WE HAVE WHITE SMOKE! The Cardinals have elected the next Pope!!”
My heart leapt with excitement as I ran to the TV to watch coverage on the news. Every major network had had their eyes fixed on Rome since the College of Cardinals began arriving for Conclave. Every night the news would show video of that little smokestack on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. But this night was unlike any other night in recent memory. The white smoke, the “fumata bianca," had been spotted: the Church had Her new Vicar of Christ!
My thoughts quickly jumped back to my freshman year of high school, the year Pope Benedict XVI was elected. It was all new to me then, as John Paul II had been Pontiff for my entire life. This time was different: I understood what the Conclave was, how it worked, and what to expect when the new Pope was revealed to the world. When “Cardinal Protodeacon” Jean-Louis Tauran came to the loggia of St. Peter’s, it felt as though the whole world held its breath. Even the news anchors had gone silent until the words “Habemus Papam," which caused the crowd in the piazza to explode with cheers. Though there was confusion as to who this Cardinal Bergoglio was, it was quickly forgotten when his chosen name was announced: Francis, the first Pontiff ever to take the name of one of the world’s most well-known and beloved saints. Clearly, this new Pontiff had plans to set the bar high. St. Francis is, after all, most well-known for his simple lifestyle of meekness and poverty.
When he stepped out onto the balcony, Pope Francis did not disappoint. He looked overwhelmed and nervous, yet very much at peace with the decision of the Cardinals. He warmly greeted the crowd and then, to everyone’s shock, bowed before the whole world to ask each of us for our prayers. It was a poignant gesture, the likes of which the world rarely sees these days. I myself was nearly moved to tears, as this man, whose name I’d never even heard before, was bowing and asking me for my prayers as he took up the hardest job in the Church. It was a touching moment I’ll not soon forget.
In the year that has passed since then, Pope Francis has remained consistent in his message of evangelizing by authentic Christian living. Much like his namesake, who is often paraphrased as saying “preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary," Francis has spent his pontificate challenging Christians everywhere to practice what we preach, in both word and deed. Even in the face of hot-button political issues, he successfully reminds the world that each person and situation we meet is an opportunity to encounter Christ and share His message.
In our meme-driven world of social media, there have been many images created to try and encapsulate various aspects of Pope Francis’s message in both witty and moving ways. There is one, however, that paints a beautiful picture of continuity between Francis and his two predecessors:
It has been said that Pope Francis has a radical new approach to Catholicism. This is a rather naïve analysis; he is presenting a two thousand year old message in a simple and authentic manner. It’s not that Francis is telling the world anything particularly earth-shattering, it’s that he’s challenging the world without us realizing it. His demeanor is warm and inviting, but his message is a true call to action. It isn’t enough to simply profess faith; we must live it daily in order to meet and serve Christ Himself in others.
As we celebrate the first year of Pope Francis’s pontificate, we continue to pray for him and for the Church. May our work model the example set by the Holy Father:
“Let us learn from Christ how to pray, to forgive, to sow peace, and to be near those in need.” –Pope Francis, Feb 18, 2014
Viva il Papa!
Jay Schaefer is the Webinar Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center
It certainly surprised me to find out that one of Christianity's most popular saints never actually said this, nor did he write the "Make me an instrument of Your peace" prayer! While these often-used quotes are very much in the spirit of St. Francis, the sentiment was likely inspired by a line from the Franciscan Rule, in which he said, "Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds."
We all know St. Francis as the saint of simplicity, of appreciation for God's creation, and, of course, preaching to the birds. He was known in his lifetime as a man of great poverty, giving up all that he owned for the poor. In fact, as a young man, he stripped off his clothes in the middle of Assisi and renounced all worldly possessions, including his inheritance from his father. From that point on, Francis spent his life in service to the Gospel and God's people, spreading the message of Christ by the way he lived his life and interacted with others.
It comes as no surprise, then, that our current Pope, a Jesuit, made a nod to this charism of simplicity and authenticity in choosing the name of Francis. It is, I believe, a stark reminder to the Church universal of exactly what the New Evangelization is all about: encountering Christ in our everyday lives and bringing Him to the world in the simplest ways possible. There is no better delivery of the Gospel than to treat every person we meet with simple Christian charity, as though he or she were Christ Himself. We are, after all, made in His very image and likeness!
Two years ago while on pilgrimage to Rome, I had the great blessing of taking a day trip to Assisi. Many of us have heard the story of the San Damiano Cross, through which Francis heard the Lord say, "Rebuild my church, which as you see has fallen into ruin." Spending a day of prayer before that same cross, walking the hilly streets Francis traversed so many times in his life, and praying in the Porziuncola (the chapel Francis built with his own two hands), was like a step right into the life of the Saint. It inspired me in a very profound way to always remember that the goal of our faith is quite simple. If we live our lives with true authenticity to the Gospel, we rarely have need for words.
Looking, then, to the example of Pope Francis and his namesake, today's Feast reminds us to live our faith simply, to find God in the simplicity of nature, the beauty of His creation, and in the face of each person we meet. It is how Christ lived his life, and how we are called to live ours. With that reminder, may we all be the instrument of His peace that our world so desperately needs us to be.
Jay Schaefer is the Webinar Associate for the Catholic Apostolate Center.
Each of us can likely recall a short list of places in which the Lord has spoken to our hearts in a special way. A Eucharistic adoration chapel; one of my favorites, a beach town in the winter; a faraway mountaintop; or even a simple social hall can all be places of encounter with the Triune God. What is one such place for you?
My faraway mountaintop place of encounter with God can be found in Tuscany, three hours north of Rome on the Monte della Verna. This is a sanctuary, now in the care of the Order of Friars Minor, where on this day—September 17, 1224—Saint Francis received the Stigmata, the physical wounds of Christ Himself, on his hands and feet. The place is reached by a switchbacking road—up, up, up you go! The place is impressive for its almost startling peacefulness, a felt reality that this is a place where God is—IS, for sure—you know it, you can sense it from the moment you step off the bus.
La Verna's indelible mark on my own heart comes from one Source—the action of the Holy Spirit, felt and experienced during a brief visit nine years ago. These encounters in awesomely holy places must encourage us to run after Jesus and to place ourselves on the Emmaus Road, so to meet Him there.
Pope Francis has spoken several times of the need for a "culture of encounter" as a foundation for peace and real justice in the world. The first place where this culture begins, I argue, is our own hearts. If what our Lord Jesus says in the Sermon on the Plain is true—"From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45)—we need encounters with the Lord to fill and shape our hearts, thus to be kind in our encounters with others.
Saint Francis' life of encounter with Christ reached a pinnacle in the Lord impressing His own wounds upon Francis' person. You or I might never receive the physical wounds of Christ in our own hands or feet, but we can foster the culture of encounter in our own life of prayer. Ministering and witnessing out of the overflow from our hearts will help build the Kingdom of God on earth!
Patrick Finn serves as Communications Director for the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington, D.C.
This new pope literally had me at “hello” — unimposing, humble hand wave from the balcony and all. And this humble legacy continues; Pope Francis is turning heads left and right of both the “left” and “right,” consistently shunning the traditional trappings the papacy has offered for hundreds of years. His latest press-stunner: he will not be sleeping in the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace, but rather in the Vatican guesthouse—a less luxurious living arrangement that puts him in community with those who will be working with and for him. As a Catholic, I’m shocked and amazed. As a Franciscan (and a Capuchin to boot!) I’m humbled and inspired. “He’s out-Franciscan-ing the Franciscans!” I’ve heard people say. And I must agree. This new pope is certainly living up to his namesake—trading the regality and legality of the position and opting for, in my opinion, something a little more expected of a “servant of servants.”
Fortunately for us “fledgling Franciscans” in studies, we are being given a great example from our new leader. I’m not lying when I say that this pope has made me reflect on my own life of simplicity and ask some tough questions that I can’t necessarily provide ready answers for at the moment. This is how I know when someone is dripping with authenticity: when the example they give calls my own integrity into question. I just didn’t think it would be a Jesuit that would do it!
I have to remind myself that while this pope chose the name Francis (and is living up to the title!), his colors as a Jesuit are shining more true than ever. My experiences with Jesuits are limited, but what I have experienced has been nothing short of impressive. The Jesuits of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia heard my confessions as a bright-eyed Capuchin postulant with utter compassion and sensitivity. The Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio have led myself and thousands of others on spiritual journeys through retreats and programs—sharing with the Church the wealth of Jesuit spirituality and discernment. My uncles and cousins who were educated by them in Toledo, Ohio boast of their Jesuit education with a glowing pride, as I’m sure others can attest to throughout the United States in the plethora of Jesuit institutions of learning. Their missionary zeal speaks for itself in their martyrology. It’s a life given over in love for the sake of the people. Needless to say, these men are made of the stuff of saints—and I constantly remind myself that I’m selling this guy short when I boast of his Franciscan spirit and put aside his life-long service and evangelical influence as a faithful Jesuit.
Our new pope bears the name Francis, loves the poor, lives simply and humbly, and upholds the teachings of the Church—and every one of these decisions of his grow fruitfully, no doubt, from a life given to Christ and His Church in the Jesuit tradition. This pope has, ironically, helped me realize less of what separates Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola and more of what they have in common: a burning desire to serve the poor of this world in charity and humility. Who could have figured that it would take a Jesuit to show me how to be a real Franciscan!
Brother Brian Stacy, O.F.M. Cap. is a Capuchin Franciscan from the St. Augustine Province and is currently studying at The Catholic University of America.