Over the last several years of my life, I have read, studied, and written hundreds of pages about what Pope Francis meant when he said in Evangelii Gaudium that “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (169). However, nothing has ever taught me more about accompaniment than one of the most special people I have ever known in my life: my grandmother.
My grandmother, Edith Lauritzen, was born a second-generation Irish Catholic in 1928 in Queens, New York. She was soft-spoken but had a hearty laugh that made an appearance in most conversations. Her favorite food was Chicken Parmesan, and she taught me the first prayers I ever learned. Sometimes, my grandmother would pick my sister and me up after school and treat us to ice cream. She would ask us about our day at school, and listen generously, as if the happenings of my sister’s and my days at elementary school were the most riveting and important things she could devote her time to.
I spent a good bit of my early childhood with my grandmother, and when my grandfather passed away, she moved in with my family to a small bedroom on the first floor of our home. In our house, my grandmother was a steady presence in my life; her warmth, laughter, and joy were always a comfort. I enjoyed spending time with her and would sometimes wake up early in the morning if I heard her making her breakfast of toast and coffee in the kitchen just so that I could spend time with her.
As I grew up, our shared Catholic faith became a topic of frequent conversation. In middle and high school, I remember spending hours talking with her in her bedroom. My grandmother’s room was small, with space only for her bed, dresser, and an armchair. The feeling of my foot falling asleep sticks with me as I reflect on talking with her, as sometimes our conversations lasted hours as I sat cross-legged on her wooden floor. Beyond some vague memories of the topics of prayer, the lives of the saints, and my hopes to visit St. Peter’s basilica one day, I do not remember anything specific about the topics of conversation. Rather, what rises to the surface in my memory of those conversations with my grandmother is her listening, her interest in my thoughts, and her joyful, warm presence that created the space for me to speak up and share my insights with a woman with 65 more years of life experience. Now, I look back and know that I might have spoken with a little too much certainty about God and the things of faith, and probably mused a little too grandiosely about my reflections on what certain Gospel readings meant. However, that didn’t matter to my grandmother.
This was the gift that my grandmother gave to me: taking my faith, questions, and thoughts seriously. My grandmother could have seen my early, inexperienced love of my faith as childish or naïve. Instead, I think she saw my faith as wisdom, blooming and in process, attempting to make sense of God and life. In front of my grandmother’s armchair and unbeknownst to us both, my vocation as a theologian and woman of faith was being nurtured and cultivated.
After my first year at college, my family had to move my grandmother to an assisted living home as she needed more care than we could provide at my house. I was devastated. My home felt like it lost a little bit of warmth. However, that first summer after my freshman year of college, I made it part of my daily routine to visit my grandmother. I spent afternoons with her, listening to her thoughts and reflections on her life, her stories about growing up with the other children in her neighborhood in Queens, and her relationship with my grandfather. We laughed as she told stories about living in New York, what it was like to go to Mass in Latin, and why she loved St. Thérèse (her favorite saint).
Before moving to the assisted living home, my grandmother had never lived away from home, so sometimes, she would cry. I learned in those moments that what was important was not me offering some nugget of wisdom from our faith that would help her to reframe her thinking, but for me to be there, hold her hand, and be present. In the days after those afternoons where there were more tears than laughter in her voice, I would make sure to bring her a cup of chocolate ice cream to lift her spirits. It did not take long for me to realize it was now my turn to accompany my grandmother, just as she had accompanied me in my childhood and teenage years.
Two summers later, my grandmother passed away. It was one of the most painful days of my life. At the same time, I was overjoyed at the thought of my grandmother getting to experience something so much better than our hours of conversation together about our faith: God himself. At my grandmother’s funeral Mass, one of the hymns my family selected was “O God Beyond All Praising.” While the entire hymn is a perfect way to describe the gift that my grandmother was to everyone she encountered, the words of the second verse have always particularly stuck out to me when I think about her:
“The flower of earthly splendor
in time must surely die,
its fragile bloom surrender
to you the Lord most high;
but hidden from all nature
the eternal seed is sown -
though small in mortal stature,
to heaven's garden grown”
In reflecting upon my relationship with my grandmother, I think about how her accompaniment of me planted seeds in my life that continue to bloom and grow. Though she was older and weaker, my grandmother passed on to me the gift of faith, a gift that is an eternal reality that we share, and that I hope will bring us together in the next life. Even when my faith was more composed of immature certainty and over-zealous explanations of Scripture, my grandmother saw more than that. And, when it was my turn to accompany my grandmother in the last years of her life, she gave me the gift of continuing to grow these seeds of faith through my own cultivation of patient listening and presence.
For me, my grandmother is a model of accompaniment, and was a witness to what Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium of the listening and patience required in accompaniment: “Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives (171).” Through my grandmother’s love, I learned to listen to God and respond to His love. I know the seeds of my faith are continuing to grow and bloom even after my grandmother’s death as she accompanies me with her prayers.
For more resources on accompaniment, please click here.
Over the past year as I helped develop the Catholic Feast Days website, I was always struck by the number of saints whose feast days were in July. As we enter into this July, I found myself reflecting on the lives of the saints whose feasts are celebrated this month. From apostles to saints in our era and everywhere in between, the lives of the saints celebrated this month have offered great spiritual nourishment to me.
Three well-known Saints:
This month we get to celebrate three powerhouse saints: St. Benedict, St. Bonaventure, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Sometimes I find it hard to relate to some of these well-known saints. St. Benedict helped found modern monasticism. St. Bonaventure was one of the greatest theologians of his time. St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits. Together they set a pretty high, almost discouraging, standard that feels hard for me to reach. But, as I continue to learn more about their lives, I realize that throughout their ups and downs, they offered themselves to God, no matter how high the mountain or low the valley. Likewise, God is calling us to follow Him. He is calling each of us individually, wherever we are in our lives, to do the same.
Four Saints on the Way:
Starting later this week, we get to celebrate four ‘Blesseds’ in the Church: Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, Bl. Maria Romero Meneses, Bl. Stanley Rother, and Bl. Solanus Casey. Even among these four Blesseds, I can see the beauty in how God calls each of us personally. Whereas Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassait was a young Italian known for his social activism, Bl. Maria Romero Meneses was a Nicaraguan sister who devoted her life to teaching and helping all throughout Central America. Whereas Bl. Solanus Casey was a humble American Capuchin known for his spiritual counseling, Bl. Stanley Rother was an American pastor who volunteered for mission work in Guatemala for 15 years until he was martyred in 1981. Through the witnesses of their lives, these four Blesseds inspire me to live my life striving for holiness in whatever way God is calling me.
Families of the Saints:
Throughout this entire month, we are reminded of the importance of family in the lives of so many saints. Sts. Louis and Zellie Martin are the parents of two saints, including the well-known St. Therese of Lisieux. St. James the Apostle is the brother of St. John the Evangelist, also one of the Apostles. Sts. Joachim and Anne are the parents of Mary, the grandparents of Jesus, and the patron saints of grandparents. St. Bridget of Sweden is the mother of St. Catherine of Sweden. All of these saints helped me reflect on the importance of our families in our journey of faith. For many of us, let us follow the model of these saints and take advantage of the easing pandemic restrictions to get to see family members we may not have seen in well over a year.
Not as well-known Saint for the Month:
One saint in July who I wasn't very familiar with was St. Camillus de Lellis. I eventually learned that he was one of the patrons of the sick. The religious order he founded, the Camillians, is known as the Ministers to the Sick. What I find particularly inspiring about his life was that St. Camillus himself was sick most of his life and was in a state of constant suffering, yet he still devoted himself to this ministry. There are stories of him being unable to walk. Instead, he would crawl to visit the sick. Even as there is a light of hope to the eventual ending of the pandemic, let us continue to hold in prayer those who are sick with any ailment and those who care for them, and let us as the People of God pray for the intercession of St. Camillus.
As we go throughout this July, let us walk with the saints as role models for offering to God all of our highs and lows while trusting Him wherever He leads us.
To learn more about the saints, visit our Catholic Feast Days Website by clicking here.
To view a calendar of the feast days in July, and each month, click here.
Faith is a gift. The ability to practice that faith, to worship freely, to share our faith in the public square, is also a gift. Each year, the Church in the US observes Religious Freedom Week. This year, we focus on Solidarity in Freedom. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes, “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community” (Fratelli Tutti, 116). The theme of Solidarity in Freedom forces us out into a global mindset, to one of community and fraternity. I’d like to focus on Religious Freedom Week through the stories of two men 400 years apart, Safa Al Alqoshy and St. John Southworth.
At the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, Safa Al Alqoshy, the only youth delegate from Iraq to the Synod, shared the story of the struggle of Iraqi Christians. While I didn’t meet Safa in my time at the 2018 Synod, I was around him during the 2019 Post-Synod Forum in Rome on Christus Vivit. His stories from the Synod followed him back to Rome where he was met with great admiration. Even though he had to arrive at the Forum late, the community that formed with him was immediate.
Safa said to Crux, “It’s very important to pay attention that there is not only persecution by killing, there is a persecution by psychology, by feelings. You feel that you are alone, that you are not supported” (Crux). Safa expressed the reality of friends and family fleeing from Iraq, likely not to be seen again. He wasn’t just speaking generally about the people of Iraq, but from his own personal experience. He shared about two of his friends who were killed in a car bombing in 2009 and how Safa and his friends shared the common experience of saying, “see you next week” only to never see one another again.
The temptation can be to take Safa’s story, and the story of so many Christians like him across the world, and to use it for our own advantage. To share it as an example, but one devoid of the personal reality which courses through its proverbial veins. When we share Safa’s story as just another example of the terrible persecution that Christians face, even worse as a “look what could happen to us next” story in relation to religious freedom in the US, we fail to show solidarity. We dehumanize those who have died, those who have been separated by the flight for freedom and safety, and we turn our suffering brothers and sisters into objects whose story we use for our perceived gain. No, instead, Pope Francis urges us to be in true solidarity with Safa and his friends and family, to think and act in community. We must pray for them, we must give when we can give, but we cannot use them as pawns in a game of politics that is antithetical to true solidarity.
About 400 years before Safa there lived an English priest by the name of John Southworth. John was born around 1592 and was ordained in 1618 at the English College, Douai in France. St. John was arrested and imprisoned multiple times throughout his life, all for being a Catholic priest. Between his imprisonments, St. John would serve the plague victims of Westminster and provide sacraments to the sick and dying. St. John was arrested for the final time in 1654 and was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. His body was returned to France in 1655 and buried after having been, literally, put back together. During the war between the English and French in 1793, St. John’s body was buried in an unmarked grave where it remained until 1927 when the grave was discovered. He was canonized in 1970 by Pope St. Paul VI.
John’s story is one of perseverance and solidarity. He was arrested multiple times and, eventually, killed for his Catholic faith. All throughout that time, he remained in solidarity with the English people, serving them through the sacraments, refusing to allow his own persecution to stand in the way of his Gospel mandate to be Christ to the world around him.
Religious Freedom Week invites us to be, like St. John, fervent in our faith. It reminds us that, even in times of persecution, we carry on in sharing the Gospel. The week also invites us to remember those in our days who are persecuted, such as Safa and our brothers and sisters in Iraq. Solidarity means that we are united with them in prayerful community, but never using them for our own means- detaching their story from their persons. May we pray for all persecuted Christians and reflect upon the meaning of religious freedom this week with the hope of growing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across our Universal Church.
Have you ever evangelized in the streets? St. Vincent Pallotti did in the Rome of his day. He would go to a piazza and begin preaching. People would gather around. Some priests even judged him for engaging in this type of evangelization because they considered it beneath his dignity as a priest. However, he knew that many people did not come to church. Pallotti believed that the Church needed to go to people and not wait for people to come to church. These truths hold firm today. This is the call of all the baptized. We are sent by Christ into the world to preach his Gospel by word and deed – to be his witness in the world as his apostles or missionary disciples. Pallotti wanted to preach not only to those who did not believe, but also to Catholics in order to revive their faith.
It may seem strange to evangelize in the streets, but in my hometown of Hammonton, New Jersey, Catholics have been doing so for 145 years. Every year, Catholics in the community have participated in an annual procession through the streets of the town in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, whose feast day is today. This is a very public display of faith that spills out from the church building and into the streets—mirroring the work of Pallotti.
We are told “Go” at the end of Mass, but go and do what? Go into the streets, not only the literal ones, but also the ones online. We are moved outward by Christ. Our faith in Jesus Christ and our experience of his infinite love and mercy is not our private matter. Nor is it ours to decide the quality of another’s life of faith. Our mission is to witness Christ to all we encounter and accompany them into an encounter with him, in and through the community of faith, the Church. Through good accompaniment, sincere community, and deeper conversion, all can come to know that they are sent by Christ.
May the charity of Christ urge us on!
When I was a senior in high school in the diocese of Joliet, then-Bishop Peter Sartain came to celebrate one of our monthly school Masses. I was asked to assist the Bishop for the day, and throughout the day he and I had many warm conversations. I received a piece of mail a few weeks later from Bishop (now Archbishop) Sartain containing a handwritten note and several prayer cards with Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati’s image on them. Little did I know that the young Blessed would soon become one of my dear patron saints.
In my opinion, anyone who offers their life as an apostle on mission—including lay and ordained ministers, Catholic school employees, catechists, and all spiritual guides—should keep Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati as their patron saint and their example to combat despair and to joyfully share the Gospel. Blessed Pier Giorgio shows us the Christ-like demeanor and personality that the Church and her ministers and missionaries should possess as they evangelize the world.
Blessed Pier Giorgio makes an excellent spiritual guide and mentor because he was an ordinary young man with a profound commitment to the poor and to justice. There are countless books and articles that describe how Pier Giorgio spent hours serving the poor and the homeless, often giving away the money he had for bus fare and even his own jacket! His parents misunderstood his great actions of charity, and often scolded him when he returned home late without his coat. He was never distracted from the missionary imperative of the Gospel. Instead, he served those on the margins as Jesus commanded. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. recently stated in a webinar, “The Church lives in society. The Church does not live behind the four [walls] of the structures where we worship.” Just as Pier Giorgio Frassati befriended the poor and sought justice as a “man of the beatitudes,” we too must go beyond the four walls of our churches, homes, and offices into the margins of our society to serve our brothers and sisters and work for justice.
Blessed Pier Giorgio also accompanied others in their pursuit of God. He maintained unlikely friendships and was neither bound up by cynicism nor weighed down by scandal. Instead, he actively worked against these in his interactions with all. Many stories detail his love for pranks, making bets with his friends over games and making the stakes be attending Mass or Adoration. Like this soon-to-be-saint, we must live in the world while encouraging others to return to Christ in the spirit of friendship. As apostles on mission, we must live, work, and play with a renewed spiritual vision, driven by the practice of spiritual accompaniment.
The quality I most admire in Blessed Pier Giorgio is his ultimate trust in God’s plans. He did not try to take control of his life’s plan nor did he envy God’s authority. Rather, he allowed God to guide him as he discerned his future and his mission in life. Pier Giorgio brought Church doctrine to life through his service and actions. He lived with a gospel-inspired freedom. He spent time in deep prayer, contemplating the mission God had laid before him, discerning to serve the poor as a lay man with expertise in mechanical engineering rather than as a priest. Pier Giorgio trusted God. As Alfonso Nebreda, S.J. wrote, “We must not forget that man cannot nourish his spirituality with orthodoxy alone … there is more to Christianity than this … for faith is life” (Kerygma in Crisis?, Nebreda). Blessed Pier Giorgio embodied the Gospel, and he lived it out according to his mission from God.
As we consider the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, I invite those who serve the Church as lay or ordained ministers, catechists, educators, and spiritual guides to adopt this young saint as a guide for our spiritual lives and our ecclesial missions. Let us invite the same Spirit who lived in Blessed Pier Giorgio and who makes the Church vibrant to renew our hearts, minds, and missionary efforts.
Blessed Pier Giorgio, pray for us!
Interested in learning more about becoming an apostle on mission? Click here to learn more.
The other day I drove past a grocery store that had people waiting in line to get inside and stock up on food and other supplies due to the continuing spread of COVID-19. Most of us have seen pictures of empty store shelves devoid of food and medicine as people make a mad rush to make sure they have what they need to self-quarantine for an extended period.
An equally startling yet vastly different image is that of empty church pews during the numerous Sunday Masses being livestreamed from Catholic parishes around the world. Whereas the emptiness of store shelves suggests the preparedness, albeit over the top at times, of consumers, the emptiness of Church pews suggests the possibility of the Christian Faithful not having the spiritual support which they need during this pandemic. Fortunately, the Church has been through pandemics before, and an examination of our past offers insight for our days ahead.
At the outset of the Bubonic plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, Europe’s faithful sought heavenly aid to withstand the suffering caused by the plague. Various communities invoked the Blessed Mother and the saints for protection against the plague. One of the most interesting and enduring of such devotions comes from Western Germany where 14 “auxiliary saints” were venerated together as the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
The Fourteen holy helpers were:
Pious legend tells of a shepherd boy receiving a vision of the 14 Holy Helpers in a field near the German town of Bad Staffelstein. After this, a church was erected on this spot and miraculous healings began to occur on account of the intercession of the Holy Helpers. A shrine church still stands in Bad Steffelstein to this day where pilgrims continue to go and seek the help of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. As this group devotion spread to other countries, new helpers were added for more popular saints in any given region including St. Nicholas, St. Sebastian, and St. Rocco (Roch). Regardless of which saints composed the group of helpers, the people of Europe implored the Helpers’ aid against the harsh symptoms of the Black Death.
Today, the world once again suffers from a pandemic, the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus. Though medicine and science have surely advanced and we know much more about diseases and how they spread than medieval Europeans, maybe those Christian faithful of the past can teach us an important lesson: the lesson of faith and trust in God.
As we adapt our lifestyles to work from home, social distance ourselves, and view Mass via livestream, let us not forget the great cloud of witnesses who watch over us from heaven. May we turn to their help during these challenging times.
Fourteen Holy Helpers, Pray for us!
Joseph Basalla is a graduate from The Catholic University of America living in the Washington, DC area.
In the movie The Farewell, the central plot hinges on the question of an individual vs. communal approach to the burden of end of life care. One of the central characters has cancer, and the issue surrounding the family is whether the person with the disease should know or not. In the US, as the movie acknowledges, such duplicity would not be likely to happen, but in China, where the movie takes place, society often allows for such things because they believe the burden of suffering is to be carried by the family and friends rather than the sick or afflicted. I found that to be a fascinating concept because most of us have experienced the loss of someone due to cancer, and the question of death and mourning is a very present concern to all of us. I would recommend viewing the movie, if for nothing less than to understand the potential hardships of walking with someone who is about to die and with those that love them.
Our faith acknowledges that our time on earth is not all that there is, but rather that we are made for heaven and joining God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community (CCC 1684).” As Catholics, we believe that there is life after our life on earth. So the funeral and death itself serve as reminders of the Paschal Mystery and our hope for all—and in particular, those who have just died—to have eternal life in heaven with the Lord. The prayer spoken while receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a poignant reminder of this: “Remember you are dust and from dust, you shall return.” Time on earth is fleeting, but time in heaven is eternal.
As Catholics, we are part of a community of believers. We must not only accompany the one who is preparing to die, but also those who the deceased is leaving behind. This is not the responsibility solely of the priest or deacon presiding over the funeral rites, but rather a shared responsibility of all the church. The Catechism goes further to explain that funeral ceremonies have the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a critical component because: “It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communication in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him” (CCC, 1689).
It is essential as a community of faithful to also accompany those left behind who are grieving the loss of a loved one. This grief is normal and completely human, but it means that we need to accompany those grieving and serve as a living reminder of Christ’s presence in their lives. We are called to serve as witnesses to those we encounter daily, whether we know them well or not. As stated in the book the Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church: “Witnessing can be effective even if a deep, committed relationship is not yet formed…witnessing demonstrates an example of an integrated Christian life within the one who witnesses. … Witnesses are essential to the process of spiritual accompaniment because, ‘modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses (Evangelii Nuntiandi)’ (Art of Accompaniment 16)” Times of suffering and hardship are especially profound moments for evangelization and witness. As a Church, we can offer hope and healing to those who are dying or grieving the loss of a loved one.
For more resources on Accompaniment, please click here.
I’m blessed to be a part of a family which includes three different vocations: marriage, religious life, and the discernment of the priesthood. The annual March for Life, which occurred this year on January 24th, provided my wife and me an opportunity to host not only her sister who joined a religious order, but also several members of the religious community. As they are part of a semi-contemplative order, the sisters made the most of their time in DC touring the city, visiting historic and spiritual sites, and learning in museums—all while sharing a public witness to their vocation.
As their hosts, my wife and I had a unique vantage point which allowed us to see the reactions of passersby, both the bewildered and the curious, who are not accustomed to seeing women religious in public. The sisters are used to it, and more importantly, realize they have an opportunity to evangelize and share with others who they are and what their vocation is. Often a chat or introductions will be made, prayer cards will be given, and some pictures are taken (whether stealthily or outright). I noticed the sisters made the most of these moments, probably because they realize they can bring anyone they meet into an encounter with the Lord. The sisters and their joy witness to God’s fidelity in ways often unknown.
At the Vigil Mass for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the sisters were just a few of the many women religious present. Though each order’s habits are different, I noticed many pilgrims came up to the sisters after the Mass to inquire about their order and their distinct purple habits. The same happened at the March for Life the next day: many people simply took photos of or with the sisters, others exchanged pleasantries, memories, and prayer cards, and others ran up to the sisters and thanked them for their vocations or wanted to learn more about the order. Returning home with them across town that afternoon, however, we left the massive crowds who shared our values and encountered the daily commuters of DC. I was amused to watch them look up in surprise from their smartphone screens. The sisters would happily engage with their fellow passengers, chat about religious life, and in one case, ask a practicing Hindu about their bindi, or a vermilion mark.
Similar scenes occurred over the weekend. but it wasn’t all like a celebrity sighting: on more than one occasion, the sisters would go up to a homeless or mentally-ill person and, after chatting a bit about Jesus and Mary, share a miraculous medal and holy card to remind them about faith and invite them to trust in God. These were people used to being passed by on the sidewalk each day as they begged for food or for someone to listen to and be with them. Imagine the shock they experienced when “strangely dressed” women were suddenly engaging with them and treating them with respect and compassion!
There is no way of knowing just how God may have used the sisters as a means of planting the seeds of faith in various encounters. Certainly the unusualness of the situation might shake someone out of their complacency and eventually cause them to recall a positive memory of faith from youth or simply remember consecrated persons live and act in the world as a beautiful witness to… something. That something may lead to a renewed quest for truth or personal peace. In God’s good time, this yearning may be a motivation to reconnect with God and embrace a life of faith and holiness.
But all of us, especially laypeople, are similarly called to holiness by virtue of our baptism in Christ Jesus. We need not depend on wearing a religious habit to draw others into an encounter with the Lord, but can invite others in our schools, workplaces, social gatherings, and homes to participate in religious practices such as grace before meals, going on a pilgrimage to a holy site, reading books by the saints, or simply starting a meaningful conversation. The options for spiritual accompaniment are endless. Given time, prayer, and trust in the Lord’s will, each of us can instill the smallest seed of faith which can grow into a towering wonder.
For more resources on Vocational Discernment, please click here.
To learn more about spiritual accompaniment, please click here.
I lead the Catholic Volunteer Network (CVN) – but am not Catholic. My journey to this unique place has not been overnight or accidental. It comes from years of commitment to unity.
CVN is the leading faith-based service organization fostering full-time, faith-based lay mission service. Our membership consists of 155 Christian volunteer programs serving throughout the U.S. and in over 100 countries. In any given year, up to twenty percent of our programs may be identified as Protestant. In addition, volunteers who serve in CVN programs range from cradle-Catholics to spiritual seekers. Recently, the CVN Board of Directors affirmed the importance of witnessing to our identity as Catholic and ecumenical.
This approach works because, to a great degree, both CVN programs and volunteers respect each other’s identities and goals. As they learn about each other via extensive application processes, a relationship of understanding and trust begins. The result is clarity about needs and expectations, and in many cases a willingness to engage with “the other” for a significant amount of time. When a year-long volunteer community is ecumenical, learning that enhances and transcends that experience can transpire. CVN thinks that is good—that faith and mission throughout life in a complicated world requires an openness to understand other approaches to faith, community, and service.
Openness to different experiences put me on a path of fostering Christian unity. Therefore, when a role with CVN became a possibility, I was drawn to it not despite it being Catholic – but because it is Catholic. I wanted to be part of a network discerning how a commitment to Jesus Christ unites us and enhances witness to his Gospel in the world. But I did not get to that place without a mixture of providence and intention.
Years ago, I was the Director of Public Policy for Call to Renewal (CTR), a diverse network of national churches and faith-based organizations united to overcome poverty. CTR’s vision was that Christians from across the theological spectrum working together could inspire other Christians to foster relationships across denominational affiliations, as well as inspire political leaders to work together across the aisle. It was an attempt to break down the divides created by labels such as liberal and conservative, and to honor a range of anti-poverty strategies often considered to be at odds with each other (e.g. strengthening families and supporting government programs).
Members of CTR included Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Peace Churches, and more. National leaders from these churches agreed that progress could be made to reduce domestic poverty if they chose not to allow theological and doctrinal differences on other matters to prevent collaboration. Because of this, many Christian leaders met counterparts for the first time and nurtured relationships grounded in openness and a willingness to learn. Many found a new respect for different approaches to faith, as well as different views on how to reduce poverty.
That experience and others broadened my theological and political perspectives. Since then, I have sought to build relationships and bridges. I still have convictions and disagree with others, but am less likely to judge quickly or to shut doors. I am more likely to be curious about how God wants me and others to engage despite differences.
Sometimes unity means affirming a shared connection to Christ, getting to know another, and seeing where that leads. Sometimes it is a strategic partnership to pursue change. I just try to witness to what I believe – and pray God can act through me and others.
I pray that you, too, find special ways of witnessing to the strength of Christian unity. I pray that openness and experience will transform you. The world needs our example.
To learn more about Christian unity, please click here.
To learn more about faith-based service opportunities with the Catholic Volunteer Network, please click here.
As we embark on yet another faith-filled adventure of a New Year and with it the thought of all those New Year’s resolutions, I would like to invite you to reflect with me on Jesus’ words offered to the Pharisees in the Gospel of Mark:
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins are ruined. Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.
Jesus, throughout the Gospels, is always inviting us to examine and “re-view” the condition of our hearts above everything else. His words above, albeit confusing at first, shed light on His Heart and His promise to us: “I have come that they might have LIFE and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
I think we would all agree a more abundant life is what we pray and hope for at the beginning of each New Year. The rising question, however, is “how do we get there?” The answer, I believe Jesus offers us, is contained in His advice given to the Pharisees. He says the pathway to an abundant life lies within the condition of our hearts – the readiness of our “wineskins.” Our hearts like the wineskins, Jesus says, must be constantly renewed and “refreshed” ready to hold that new wine or grace He is always willing to give to us – and thus become for the world a witness of “grace at work.”
You see, the Pharisees were so concerned with the do’s and don’ts on their list that their identity, as children of God, was lost in a sea of narrow-minded laws and disciplines. They gave up the opportunity for new wine and new hearts! Even though the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed that God wanted to give them New Hearts all along (c.f. Ezekiel 11:19), they didn’t want to give up their “old wineskins” (old hearts) and place the “new wine” (grace) Jesus was offering them into “fresh wineskins” (converted hearts).
In fact, this is what happens to many people and their “New Years resolutions” when their hearts remain unchanged and unaffected by Grace. They sometimes end up rejecting their resolutions because they had nowhere to store the new wine that Jesus offered them. They couldn’t see beyond the “do’s and don’ts” – the “idols” they had created for themselves are powerless towards true change. We must never allow our resolutions to become idols separated from the truth and light of Grace within our hearts. For only those who are pure in heart will see what God is truly offering them (c.f. Matt 5:8).
And so, in this sense, I would offer that the goals and resolutions we set every year are re-viewed according to the condition of our hearts. “Re-viewed” so that we’re careful the “new wine” (grace-filled change) Jesus offers us this New Year isn’t going to be poured into the same old “wine-skins” or wasted in a bucket of “empty promises” we often leave ourselves with. But, that our hearts are truly renewed and store within them the new wine, the new life, the new truth of who we are and meant to be.
Thus, in keeping our hearts renewed, we prevent the grace-filled resolutions (“new wine”) we accept from Him for this New Year from becoming just another space to fill up on the old “to-do” list (“old wineskins”) that is quickly abandoned and lost altogether.
Jesus, this New Year, is offering us an opportunity to really accept something completely new and re-energizing –a new heart ready for His grace to fill it and complete it. I’m talking about experiencing a real encounter with Jesus and a true conversion of the heart!
I believe that understanding our New Year’s resolutions from this perspective will inevitably lead us to a deeper relationship with Him and most certainly place us on the road to becoming the person we’re meant to be – physically, mentally, spiritually, the best version of yourself! At last, new wine in fresh wineskins!
Bart Zalvetta is a member of the Theology Department of Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, Nebraska
Missionaries around the world were excited on October 22, 2017 when Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary Missionary Month in October 2019. The fruit of that month lacks luster, but the seeds are heavy with promise.
Some of us were grieved by the lack of attention given to mission, hoping that the Church would give it more time and energy. Mission always leads to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The beauty and power of mission is so often seen in the lives of the saints. Missionaries themselves know they need to expand and deepen their own human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation in order to address the hopes and dreams, the griefs and anxieties of every human being. We hoped the people of God would be generous with their spiritual and financial support of mission.
Considerable efforts were made by Mission Directors from around the country to lift-up mission within the local church. There were some wonderful celebrations – remembering the missionary roots of the diocese, sharing the missionary story, promoting all the ways the faithful are engaged in mission. Regrettably, we are not always aware of how our faith stems from the faithful, and often heroic, efforts of missionaries who witness the Gospel in our hometown.
Some learned new things about mission they did not know before, particularly the lives of saints who embodied the missionary spirit. Perhaps the story of Sr. Dorothy Stang, S.N.D de Namur, who taught catechism and justice to the indigenous people of the Amazon, and the stories of many others moved lay people to learn more about these missionaries and the importance of the Amazon for our common home.
There were efforts to deepen and expand the formation of missionaries – a few conferences, some webinars. USCMA focused on reconciliation as an aspect of mission and explored the missionary task of reconciliation among those who suffer from racism in America and the spirituality needed to sustain the mission and ministry of reconciliation.
Roger Schroeder defines mission as “proclaiming, serving, and witnessing to God’s reign of love, salvation and justice.” Sometimes “evangelization” replaces the word mission. Too often, evangelization is understood in very narrow terms – as the verbal proclamation of the Gospel. As Catholics, we know in our bones that words – even very good words expertly crafted and amazingly articulated – are insufficient. Words need integrity that flows from lives lived in service to others purely out of the love of God. As St. Francis is often quoted as saying, “preach always and, if necessary, use words.” Mission is evangelization embodied. Pope Francis said in Joy of the Gospel, “I am a mission.”
Mission is rooted in the very heart of God. Anthony Gittins, a leading missiologist, said “Mission is God’s job description, it is what he does and who he is.” Jesus is the preeminent missionary. He was sent by the Father to bring love, salvation, and justice to the world. Jesus continues this mission – everyday – through those of us who are baptized and sent into the world. The missionary goes beyond themselves, steps outside their comfort zone, crosses some type of border, and risks a personal encounter with another human being in the name of God’s inexhaustible love.
There are wonderful signs of hope that the people of God are beginning to move from maintenance to mission. Parishes around the country are creating partnerships to build bridges and relationships of solidarity with people in other cities, states, and countries. Dioceses are forming partnerships with other dioceses. Catholic high school students are cultivating relationships with other students around the world through video technology and social media.
Bishop Barron, at the recent gathering of the US Bishops, stressed the need for the church to reach out to the growing number of the “disaffiliated;” people who do not affiliate with any religion. Two of his three points speak directly to mission – engage people in the work of justice and create parishes to be “missionary societies.”
What if every parish had a mission commission or team that would organize the missionary activities of the parish? Some parishes have a neighborhood mission to the homeless, regular mission trips to the poor in Appalachia, or a long-standing partnership with a parish in another country. Not all parishes can be completely dedicated to mission, but every parish can, in some way, be a missionary society.
All are called to be missionary disciples, but not all can be missionaries. A missionary is a ministry of the Church – just like a catechist. Most of us have had some type of missionary experience where we reached out beyond ourselves, for the good of another, with only their good, their blessing, as our goal. All of us can come together, share our missionary experiences, and discern where Jesus is sending us.
We are the seeds of the Extraordinary Month of Mission. We who heard Jesus say to us personally, “The Father has sent me, now I send you.”
It is fitting that as I write this blog in anticipation for National Vocation Awareness Week, the liturgical calendar has us moving through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this letter, we find Paul emphasizing that we are now entering into a ‘new exodus.’ Just as Israel was liberated from Egyptian slavery, we are now liberated from the slavery of sin. The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are the means by which Catholic Christian believers are joined to the new Exodus. Baptism is prefigured by the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, and the Eucharist is prefigured by the manna and the water from the rock in the desert.
As we know well, the story does not end at our baptism. Rather, it is there that the story begins. Israel, having escaped from Egyptian slavery, quickly discovered that serving the Lord was even more demanding on the will than serving Pharaoh. In order to reach the Promised Land, the people of Israel had to take a path through a wilderness of trials and temptations. This path required a valiant conquest of all the obstacles of sin that stood in their way. In fact, the difficulty of the journey had some yearning for the days when they were slaves in Egypt.
As children of the ‘new exodus’, our vocation in life is to travel through the wilderness of human life. Our exodus differs from the old in some ways, though. Our proclamation of the freedom found in Christ occurs while we travel. Our baptismal vocation calls us to ongoing sanctification, but it also calls us to witness this great exodus from sin and the new freedom in and won by Jesus Christ.
We often desire the commitment to this ‘new exodus’ after seeing the commitment of others. This is a point that Fr. Luigi Giussani makes in his book titled, Is it Possible to Live this Way?. Fr. Giussani stresses the necessity of faith by which one encounters Christ indirectly through the witness of another. This witness tugs at our hearts to the point where we have no choice but to respond. Witnesses are therefore crucial to our discovery of this vocation - a vocation to partake in the new exodus.
In my own life, my first example of such witnesses began with my parents. They not only gave me life, but they witnessed the faith by making the home a domestic church. Their marriage provided a template for me in my own vocation. They helped me see that the expression of freedom from the tyranny of selfishness comes through a spousal love. This spousal love is not exclusively expressed through the sacrament of matrimony, but it is also expressed through the sacrament of holy orders. As a diocesan priest, my local church in Harrisburg, particularly St. Francis Xavier in Gettysburg, is in a sense my spouse. I could not have such an understanding were it not for the witness of my parents.
In addition, every seminarian and newly ordained priest can think of at least one other priest who first witnessed the presence of Christ to them through their own ministerial priesthood. In my case, I watched and learned first from my childhood pastor in New Hampshire, Fr. Marc Montminy. He was, and continues to be, a witness of Jesus Christ and a faithful spouse of the Church. Other priests who have taken on a similar role in my life are Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C. (the Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center), priests of the Diocese of Harrisburg, faculty priests at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, and priests elsewhere.
As a priest, I seek (despite shortcomings and failures) to always be attentive to this desire - a desire to reach the promised land of eternal life through this new exodus. This is only possible because I have encountered people who not only accompanied me in discovering this desire, but who also witnessed it. This is, in essence, what it means to be a ‘humana viator’ (a wayfaring pilgrim). This is what it means to be an apostle. This is what it means to imitate Jesus Christ, the apostle of the Father. This is what it means to fulfill our baptismal vocation.
During this National Vocation Awareness Week, may we be more attentive to this desire. May we recommit ourselves to this new exodus, which we have already begun through our baptism. May we also maintain and express our gratitude for those who have (and continue to) accompany us as witnesses.
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Our lives are unmistakably touched by the actions and values of our personal heroes. Many of us looked upon our parents as our first heroes, later adding to their exalted ranks the likes of athletic legends, first responders, teachers, coaches, and others whose passion and commitment went above and beyond in order to make a difference. Even today, heroes walk among us in their duties to God, country, and community: many have answered the call to serve in the armed forces, some are called to religious ministry, and others seek to defend and uphold life through witnessing to life and serving on the margins of society. Many live their lives simply, with no fame or fanfare, as they faithfully seek to better their own little corner of the world and love their families, neighbors, and friends.
As Catholics, we have no limit to the heroes to whom we can lift our aspirations (and intercessions!); they are the countless saints of the Kingdom of God and Church Triumphant who, even now, urge us to live more fully for Christ. They are incredible examples that bring others into an encounter with the living God through their lives. All are called to be saints. As Mother Angelica always urged her EWTN viewers, “Don’t miss the opportunity!” Mother Angelica is one of my favorite heroes: her wisdom and insight, coupled with her iconic sense of humor, was so easily accessible on TV and the internet. When she looked into the camera, she was looking at me, speaking to me, urging me to be a better Christian.
Sainthood is not just the attainment of spiritual perfection; what is heroic is recognizing and repenting of one’s spiritual shortcomings, returning to the merciful embrace of the Lord, and committing to be a better witness to Christ. Mother Angelica would similarly observe, “Faith is what gets you started. Hope is what keeps you going. Love is what brings you to the end.” Never let personal difficulty or worrying that it’s too much for you to handle scare you from addressing your hunger and desire for holiness.
The saints came from all walks of life, meaning that each of us can fully answer the universal call to holiness no matter the circumstances. The demands of the spiritual life require a uniquely formed system of accountability, determination, and humility. While God is forever patient with us, we may become frustrated at ourselves or compare ourselves to our peers. That is why we can turn to the saints as guides and intercessors; they can shape our unique circumstances in life to better identify ways of living out our Christian witness in the world.
With all the turmoil of the world, how critical it is for us to live boldly and authentically as Christians! And if we are viewed and treated suspiciously by observers, may we patiently embrace all that for the glory of God! How heroic are the martyrs of Holy Mother Church who “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the Name [of Christ].” Especially when the negativity of the news tempts many to lose hope in the apparent darkness of the times, how necessary, then, it is for us to bring the brilliant Light of Christ and His Gospel message to expel the darkness and bring peace to those awaiting salvation. May the saints of heaven always remain sources of heroic inspiration throughout our lives, and may we be found worthy to one day join them in the eternal feast of the Kingdom of God!
Today is the celebration of the Feast of St. Januarius, lovingly known in Italy as St. Gennaro. Januarius was an Italian bishop and martyr who died around the year 305. Not much is known about him other than what has been passed down in tradition, which tells us that the bishop of Benevento died under the Christian persecution of Diocletian along with six companions. After being thrown to wild beasts, who did not attack them, the Christians were beheaded.
The accounts and lives of the martyrs always serve to build up the Church. As Tertullian’s saying famously states, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." We recall the accounts of martyrs throughout the ages such as Felicity and Perpetua, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Miguel Pro, Blessed Richard Henkes, S.A.C., and most of the Apostles themselves. How diverse and rich is the witness of the martyrs and saints! In each generation, the martyrs demonstrate heroic faith in a culture of opposition that culminated in the sacrifice of their very lives.
In the case of St. Januarius, his witness continues in a special way today as a result of his relics. Not only is his witness of martyrdom powerful, so is the miracle associated with his blood. After Janurius’ beheading, a woman named Eusebia collected the bishop’s blood in a vial. This was brought to Naples and has been venerated for centuries. Most extraordinarily, for the past recorded 400 years starting in 1389, the dried vial of Januarius’ blood liquefies typically on three dates a year: “in the spring during celebrations of the feast of the transfer of the saint’s relics to Naples; Sept. 19, his feast day; and Dec. 16, the local feast commemorating the averting of a threatened eruption of Mount Vesuvius through the intervention of the saint.”
Most recently, his blood half-liquefied on a date outside of the normal dates with a visit from Pope Francis in March of 2015. In his typical humble fashion, Pope Francis responded to the applause from the crowd saying, “The bishop said the blood is half liquefied. It means the saint loves us halfway; we must all convert a bit more, so that he would love us more.” Through his words, Pope Francis reminds us that the purpose of miracles is to draw us closer to Christ and to increase our faith. Jesus performed miracles not for spectacle, but for healing and conversion.
The miracles of holy men and women continue to this day and serve the same purpose: to inspire profound faith in the ongoing work of God that causes us to strengthen our love of Him in word, action, and service. May they inspire our own faith and lead us closer to the One who modelled perfect martyrdom in charity—Jesus Christ—whose martyrdom we commemorate at every celebration of the Eucharist. Nourished by his Body and Blood, may we emerge from our parishes strengthened to answer persecution with love, hatred with forgiveness, apathy with zeal, ignorance with truth, and selfishness with compassion. In doing so, we will be everyday martyrs—literally, witnesses—proclaiming the Gospel with our lives.
St. Januarius, pray for us.
Throughout my studies at The Catholic University of America, I had the opportunity to witness and participate in the sacred traditions and rites of various religious orders I would never have encountered back at home. A great blessing of my place of study was the constant flux of various clergy, seminarians, and religious throughout campus who were undertaking a degree program or simply passing through campus in their respective ministries. God bless the Franciscans, Little Sisters of the Poor, Marians, Sisters of Life, Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, Pallottines, and the Missionaries of Charity, to name a few, who joyfully lived out their vocations—inspiring observers to get to know them and their spiritualties and facilitating an encounter with the Lord.
In God’s providence, I frequently found myself at the Dominican House of Studies at the far side of campus and was able to join the community of brothers and priests in their night prayers and certain liturgical celebrations which were open to the public. Personally, I found the house to be a commanding presence and a bit daunting on the inside: the intellectual prowess of the Order of Preachers and its faithful carrying out of its mandate to preach conveyed a certain spiritual seriousness which drew me in all the more. How striking were the resonating, unified, and almost haunting tones of the sacred chants of prayer, together with the corresponding gestures and postures and the dimmed lights! And yet, in wonderful moments of levity, the very same Dominicans could be found performing excellent bluegrass music as “The Hillbilly Thomists”!
Before Dominic’s mother conceived him, she dreamt a dog leapt from her womb and set the world on fire. Dominic went on to become a priest and ultimately founded the Order of Preachers—the Dominicans. The Dominicans rose to the forefront of the intellectual life of the Middle Ages as they announced the Gospel, combatted heresy, gave quality spiritual and scholastic instructions, and contributed unmatched gifts to schools of theology and philosophy. They are lovingly nicknamed “the hounds of the Lord.” The Order has raised up many saints and conferees who ministered to every corner of the world, advocating for the rights of Native Americans, standardizing the liturgy of the Mass, compiling the Church’s canonical laws, composing timeless sacred hymns, caring for the poor, advancing the correlation of faith and science, and promoting the holy Rosary. Western civilization owes a debt of gratitude for the contributions of Dominicans such as Saints Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Pope Pius V, Catherine of Siena, Rose of Lima, Louis de Montfort, and Martin de Porres.
Participating from time to time in the life of that religious community gave me a lovely insight into the incredible mysticism of the Order and of the Church Universal. Such a powerful instrument of personal and theological devotion is not the closely held property of one religious order or vocation, but a gift available to anyone who seeks to enhance their personal spirituality with deeply historic and touching methods. This involves realizing the soul as something more sacred than just consciousness; the soul is able to love which helps to better relate to God, who is Love incarnate, emotionally and ecstatically rather than merely intellectually. And you don’t need the philosophical and theological background of a Dominican to similarly enhance your own prayer life! You can begin by quietly placing yourself in the holy presence of God and focusing on the love He offers and the ways He is being loved (or not) in return. Going deeper, it could be beneficial to read the thoughts and reflections of various Dominican saints who embraced a similar spirituality.
How good God is to have called upon Saint Dominic hundreds of years ago to begin such an incredible religious order committed to promoting Truth and the mandate to praise, to bless, and to preach (In fact, that is one motto of the Order!).The work of the Dominicans is especially needed today in our society of moral relativism and secularism. Let us pray that many more answer God’s ongoing call for holy religious and priestly vocations. And may we, as lay people, continuously support the Church which offers so many varied spiritual treasures for our sanctification.