Ode to a Mother

I am a convert to Catholicism; born and baptized in the Methodist Church but lived a life as a suburban secularist – God just wasn’t important. But, as I was trying to understand better why the Catholic church was an anathema to the human race I began to realize the great lie of secularists.  The only way that God wasn’t important is if you ignored Him.  He was and is there, He was and is in love with me.  He was and is who always makes me more human. This process of coming to terms with, and growing in the real truth was my road home to Catholicism.

That road was paved with great people and great words.  I owe my understanding of the faith to, primarily, the writings of Pope St. John Paul the great, Dr. Peter Kreeft, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger among others.  The authors of my conversion were the great points of clarity.  But as great as they were (and are) they are points in time.  I step back from life to read and understand.  But as Peter, James and John had to come down from Mt. Tabor I needed to put the books and papers down and go back into my life. This connection, this taking the truths and using them in my life was helped by another – a little nun in Northern Alabama.  Mother Angelica’s EWTN was the connection between these great writers and leaders and living a life in society.  Her enthusiasm for our God radiated through her television station and deep into my soul.  Through her and the programming of EWTN, I found that life could be lived within the faith joyfully. I came to know that my life lived in Christ didn’t mean a life of repression and boredom but a life of true freedom and vigor. The great truths of our faith didn’t hinder me but gave me fullness.  And of course, her ministry showed me that entertainment could be more than mind numbing titillation that left you empty and hungry, it could be life altering and empowering.

Thank you Lord for the gift of Mother Angelica from the very first years of my conversion and for her EWTN legacy.  May I, in some small way, pass forward what she and her community gave to this former ‘suburban secularist’ – a life in Christ.

Requiescat in pace Mother Angelica

It’s Personal

The Gospels we read on the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord are powerful – in them we witness Christ ascending bodily to the right hand of the Father.  On this day we are reminded how Christ has elevated the human body to the heights of heaven.  But, I think, because this event, of Christ ascending bodily is so powerful we miss another very important realization of His ascension.

This year we read the short version from Matthew, but in Luke the ascension story ends in a rather strange way: ‘They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.[1]  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI comments on this in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth. He says: ‘This conclusion surprises us. Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure. We would expect the opposite. We would have expected them to be left perplexed and sad.[2] If someone we know, an important person in our life, leaves us and we never expect to really see them again our reaction is melancholy at least – but not so with the disciples. How is this so?

It might help to look back at a peculiar line from the Gospel on Tuesday in the octave of Easter. Mary Magdalene, having recognized Jesus, moves to embrace him when: ‘Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.[3] Christ needed to ascend to do something He can’t do while bodily on earth – be close to everyone!  The disciples were not acting as we would expect because they know that Christ, having ascended to heaven, is now closer to them than when He was here.  He hasn’t left them alone; He is within each of them. Their relationship with the Lord is more intimate and personal than it ever had been; which leads us to another important realization from today’s celebration.

It is personal.
Holy Mother Church is built; our faith is built; indeed our salvation is built on this very important aspect of Christ – we must have a personal relationship with Him.  To many Catholics this idea smacks of Protestantism; the idea of a personal relationship makes some of us, probably many of us, uncomfortable; but it is the core of Catholicism. It has been proclaimed by Holy Mother Church for millennia but lost to the faithful in recent generations even though our Holy Fathers have continually proclaimed it.

Pope St. John Paul the Great said in 1993: ‘Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ personally: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’.[4]

Pope Benedict wrote in his first encyclical: ‘We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.[5]

Pope Francis has continued this proclamation of the importance of having a personal relationship with Christ saying: ‘It is the joy of faith, the joy of having encountered Jesus, the joy that only Jesus gives us, the joy that gives peace.[6]

This is foundational to all we hold in our faith.  Our faith is not a set of rules to be lived out, a great philosophy that we strive to hold on to.  It is a personal relationship with God.  He desires it, He offers it – but do we work at it?

A problem and solution.
That we have to ask this question at all is due, mostly, to the Church’s fault; we clergy are guilty of not emphasizing this most important grace God gives to us, relationship.  Most Catholics, indeed most Christians are not even aware that having a personal relationship with God is something that can happen.  It is no wonder that church life is thinning, activities are being attended by the same few people; that many wander in and out of their faith.  To them their faith is a cultural phenomenon; it is something to do; a routine; one more activity in their life.

If that is how people view their faith then the results are understandable: we prioritize our activities, whereas we hold tightly to special relationships. Family and friends come before activities because we hold these people dear.  We do for them, we help them, we encourage them and they us – relationships make our lives dynamic – worth living! It is the same and even more so with our Lord.  All these activities: the liturgy, the devotions, the readings, the praying come to life when we understand and embrace it as part of our relationship with Christ.  What to some might seem rote and mechanical, to those within this personal relationship they shimmer with the energy of a friendship, shine with love, they are alive!

How many of you desire this type of living faith?
How many of you are trying to build this relationship but are at a loss in how to?
How many of you want insight and help; companionship in this all important part of your faith life and feel left out in the cold?

I am sorry; we have failed you; but let’s stop this now.  Today, on this feast of the Ascension; on the day when we celebrate Christ rising to heaven and thus making Himself close to everyone, let’s start finding our way close to Him.  Let’s join with each other and grow in our relationship, our personal relationship with our Lord, let’s allow Christ to be our best friend, our brother.  Let’s grow in our faith; a dynamic, interactive and personal faith. You want someone to talk to about this? We are here.  Would you like help in getting to know our Lord better, personally? Let’s find ways to help each other.  I am willing to listen, I am willing to help and so are others.

Brothers and sisters, together let’s find ways of nurturing our faith by deepening our personal relationship with Christ. Let’s come together and share our journeys; let’s build a faith community on our relationships with God and each other. Let’s bring to life our faith. All it takes is our action because as Jesus says in today’s Gospel: ‘lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.[7]

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[1] Luke 24:52-53
[2] Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two (Holy Week) pg.280 – Pope Benedict XVI
[3] John 20:17
[4] Pope St. John Paul the Great – L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition) pg 3 – March 24, 1993
[5] Pope Benedict XVI – Deus Caritas Est #2
[6] Pope Francis – April 2013
[7] Matthew 28:20

The Future Starts Today – Divine Mercy

Divine Mercy Sunday 2014  – Canonization of Popes John Paul the Great and John XXIII

Octave of Easter
Holy Mother Church celebrates her highest Holy Days in a most special way.  She deems them so powerful that they can’t be celebrated in 24 hours.  They celebrate them for 8 days – an Octave.  So, Easter, which started last Sunday – actually the Saturday evening prior ends today – the eighth day. What Christ did for us, deserves our total and continual celebration.  Like Christmas; Easter, even more so, it is that powerful and special.

What Christ did for us last weekend.
Easter the culmination of the Sacred Triduum, which started Holy Thursday evening with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, brings us into Christ’s battle and victory with Satan, with evil. We are strengthened with the knowledge that Christ is all powerful; God did battle with Satan and defeated him and death.  With the cross and the resurrection evil no longer holds power over mankind – we can be free from it. But, just as important is the knowledge that in spite of our failings and our arrogance God loves us, totally; the cross shows that better than anything else.  That Christ climbed up on that tree of death and changed it into a throne of unconditional love gives us an undeserved banner to hang onto to. By His Pasch we are at the center of God’s loving plan. In spite of our continual turning from Him, He still forgives us and gives us His love.

How can we celebrate this gift in one day? So the Church will take 8 days; of course she takes the next 5 five weeks, up to Pentecost, unpacking its meaning.  But on this 8th day Holy Mother Church celebrates the gift of Easter with two words.  Two words to explain Jesus’ actions; two words tells us what our Heavenly Father is all about.

Mercy and Love
Many years ago, Father Benedict Groeschel once stated that God’s primary personality trait is truth and justice, but He has one personality flaw that goes with it – mercy. He was telling us in a humorous way what God is about – what Easter brings to us – what those two words are that Holy Mother Church uses today – Divine Mercy.

Because of the God’s Love, or better said – because God is Love, He radiates mercy. Mercy is, in an important way, synonymous with Love.  For to love, truly love, we must continually forgive anything that falls short of love.  We pardon everyone for we love everyone. Today’s second reading we hear St. Peter tell us ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope…’[1] This is what we celebrate especially today – the living hope of eternal salvation through God’s mercy.

St. John Paul II
God is mercy, Divine Mercy and through it (as I said) evil is defeated – it will never have a permanent hold on us. I say permanent, because even though it can’t take control of us (if we don’t allow it), it can still affect us.  Evil is still around us, Satan still holds court in this world and he constantly strives to erode our ability to live the gift Christ died to give us; again, evil is still a reality.

St. John Paul the Great, in an interview, was asked if evil had a limit. His response was a profound yes! The limit of evil is Divine Mercy[2]. The effects of evil in the world can go no farther than Mercy.  Through God’s Mercy (Divine Mercy) on the Cross Satan and death were defeated. Christ faced Satan and his evil and absorbed it as it was thrown at Him (in the false testimony, the kangaroo court, the torture and abuse, the crucifixion, and mostly our sins) and returned love; He forgave, He returned mercy for each act of evil that pounded upon Him.  The evil couldn’t go any farther because it was washed away.  The limit of evil is Mercy.

Mercy is a verb
Christ’s actions of mercy are just that – actions.  Mercy isn’t a noun; it isn’t a talisman that He hanged around His neck and it brought Mercy.  Mercy is a verb, it is action, Christ worked mercy.

We are called to do the same.
But Christ isn’t here in the same way to work His mercy.  How does it continue against the evil of our time? Because it is our action as well.  We, Christ’s disciples, followers of His Way, are the vehicles of His Mercy.  By our actions we can show God’s mercy. How? By following Christ’s example and absorbing the evil thrown towards us and radiating back love.   In the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter 6) we witness the Sermon on the Mount.  This is our game plan on how to live Christ’s example.  In it Christ tells those around Him ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’[3] This is God’s plan for His message of mercy. We are God’s plan for His message of mercy.

Evangelize
In 1959 St. John XXIII called for the great ecumenical council we now call Vatican II.  Most councils, throughout history, were called to discern and answer some great question of dogma or respond to a crises – this council was different – it was called together in 1962 to discern how the Church could relate to the people of the day – to look within Herself and renew what needed renewing and modify what needed to be modified so it could proclaim the timeless message of Christ.  Vatican II was convened to revitalize its most important mission – how to meet the world where it was and bring mankind to where God wanted them to be. In short how to evangelize within and without.

Live, radiate, attract
Our part in the Church’s evangelizing mission is the most important – it is to affect it.  The structures and hierarchy of the Church are there to protect the message and to teach, strengthen, and encourage us – but it is up to the faithful to put it into action – we are the verb! And we do this best by how we live our life; this is how we are most effective in our ministry.  People read and listen for only so long about the Gospel – but they will take notice and be more curious about it by how we live it; proof is in the pudding, so they say.

As I mentioned earlier we are Christ’s vehicle for Mercy today. But to truly proclaim this by our lives we need to interiorize, make our own this Divine Mercy, and only then will it radiate out, in a believable way, to those around us. Wow – not a small task! I ask myself how can we do this; how can we become vessels of mercy?  With all the societal pressures, opinions and influences how can we hope to know what living a life of mercy is truly like?

Our Guides
My brothers and sisters, today we celebrate the Canonization of two modern Popes: St. John XXIII called ‘Good Pope John’ for his humor and humility, and also called ‘The Council Pope’ for initiating Vatican II; and of course St. John Paul the Great called ‘The Divine Mercy Pope’, and ‘The Pope of the Family’; names that try to summarize the flavor, if you will, of their papacies.   They are fresh in many of our minds, they are current examples of what it means to live a life in Christ; let us look to them for insight in how to live this life as well.  They were world leaders, true, but they were still men. They still looked to God for strength in living a life well; look to them as mentors.  Let’s celebrate their lives by living as they did – living a life of Mercy, Divine Mercy. When we do then we will find a future that is built on what Jesus wished for His disciples in today’s Gospel “Peace be with you.”[4]

It is this peace, Christ himself – Divine Mercy, none other, that will bring mankind the future he was intended to have. Friends, let Christ find us, find us with hearts open to His Divine Mercy; the future depends on our decision and our actions, and as St. John Paul the Great said: ‘The future starts today, not tomorrow.’[5]
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[1] 1 Peter 1:3
[2] St. John Paul the Great: Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium
[3] Luke 6:36
[4] John 20:19
[5] St. John Paul the Great

Marching Orders

St. Paul, in today’s second reading, gives us marching orders.  His words mandate us to a life of service to Christ:  ‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.’  For those of us who accept Christianity in its entirety these words are not shocking or ominous; we know that, as followers of Christ, we have no other choice – or rather we have only two choiceswith our lives.

1. Follow Christ who is our center, or
2. Go another way; away from Christ and become mired in confusion, despair, loneliness.

Pope Francis in a homily on September 7th said that ‘If Jesus is not at the center, “other things are”(1).  We can’t allow other things to take the place of Jesus in our lives; today’s Collect (Opening Prayer) is a petition to have just that,

Almighty ever-living God,
grant that we may always conform our will to yours
and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart.

But as St. Paul proclaims and the Collect asks God for help with – it more than just interior change that we will be judged on; we are called to go to society and bring Jesus back into the public life of society if it is to thrive and help its members realize their true dignity and worth.

In the past decade we have witnessed a rapid disintegration of civility in this country.  In politics, entertainment, business – in every aspect of life; the respect and concern given to each other has devolved into indifference, isolation and disinterest.  This leads mankind to view each other, when our paths do cross, with annoyance, irritation, antagonism.  We look at the other not with the dignity of a child of God but with the lenses of utilitarianism.  And of course, deep down we start to look at ourselves with those same lenses – a grayness sets into our souls.

However, with Jesus at the center, we bring back the light, we feel the warmth of worth.  When, by our words and actions, we proclaim the word we start to heal the malady of modernity.  The grayness of life, that is so pervasive, fades and life becomes colorful.  Father Barron, in his new series on the new evangelization tells a story about a tour through Germany; as they left northern Germany and entered Bavaria in the south, their guide mentions they will notice how much happier and brighter the region is and its people are. The guide also mentions that they are passing from predominately protestant and modern Germany into the mostly Catholic and traditional Germany.  Bavaria is known for its strong Catholic faith, its Marian devotion; society there is very centered on Jesus.

What is the word that we must proclaim, what message is to be witnessed to?  ‘Christ risen from the dead’! This is the Good News, the Evangelium.  This is the reason for our hope, for our joy.  This is the central message of Holy Mother Church.  Our God has defeated death for us, has paid the ransom for our sins; has turned the monologue of man trying to reach up to God on his own terms back to a dialog of love where God and man reach to each other, and man reaches out to fellow man.  We preach the meaning of fellowship, of love.

But the biggest hurdle to this plan of healing is that we need to start; plain and simple, we need to begin.  Each of us needs to take that step and start proclaiming ‘Christ risen from the dead!’ ‘Be not afraid’ Blessed John Paul the Great told us – and this is true.  For with us at every moment is God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We are never alone, we are always and forever a team: you, me and God.  No matter what situation we find ourselves in we should be joyful, knowing our Lord’s opinion of our worth and His love for us; and we can if we only open ourselves up to it every day.  This why constant, consistent prayer is so important – it keeps us in the loving dialog with God and prevents the prince of the world from gaining a foothold in our life.

Every day, for years, I recite in my prayers the following:

‘Lord may my vocation burn ever brighter in my heart,
may I grow to love you more each day
and conform more and more to your will.’

As we see in today’s Collect the Church herself asks the same.

At the end of Mass we are dismissed with: ‘Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.’ – let’s do just that. May Christ be at the center of our lives.  May we all respond to St. Paul’s charge and bring God to society and society to God. Let’s push back the grayness of modernity and bring the color of Christ to our world.

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(1)    L’osseratore Romano 9/11/13 english edition pg.10

Suffice

At 1pm, our time, this Thursday, something will happen that hasn’t happened for over 600 years; the Church will go into a period of Sede Vacante; without the death of a Pope.  Sede Vacante, Latin for Empty Chair, is the term used when the Chair of St Peter is vacant.  Pope Benedict, due to failing health; and understanding that he can’t serve the demands of the Chair has decided in all humility to step down.  This great act of love for Christ and his bride, the church, resounds throughout the Catholic world.  Pope Benedict stepped into the shoes of Blessed John Paul the Great during the Year of the Eucharist and is leaving during the Year of Faith, which speaks strongly of this Pope’s ministry.

These two Popes have led the church back into a stronger understanding of what it means to be catholic.  They have urged us, and given witness to, that being Catholic is more than just a description of who we are; it is integral, foundational to our very existence.  If we don’t live our faith to best of our ability then we don’t really understand what Catholicism is about.

Throughout his whole life Pope Benedict has spoken strongly about the prevailing attitudes in the world, especially in the 1st world nations of Europe and North America.  He has alerted us to the dictatorship of relativity, where nothing is absolute and truth is subjective.  Pope Benedict and Blessed John Paul the Great both lived through the horrifying times of the 20th century when man felt no need for God – when man felt that they were the answer to every question and problem.  They saw first-hand that when mankind has no need for God, then mankind fails to understand the beauty and dignity of themselves.  When mankind ignores the absolute truths then truths are just what the powerful think they are.  Pope Benedict’s legacy will be, in part, his drawing a line against the attack on God and his children; his standing up for the truths of our faith.

But another aspect of Pope Benedict’s ministry, and maybe the most important, is his teachings on what Christianity is foundationally about. From the first paragraph of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, he says: ‘“God is love, and He who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. ..We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should … have eternal life” (3:16).

Being Christian is, first of all, being in a personal relationship with God!  We don’t follow abstract ideas and self-help improvement strategies; we follow God, who loves us.  We walk with him; we talk with Him; we live with Him.  We are His as He is ours! And more to the point; we follow someone who we see, know personally. From his first book about Jesus of Nazareth: “The great question…: (but) what has Jesus really brought, then, if he has not brought world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. He has brought God! He has brought the God who once gradually unveiled his countenance first to Abraham, then to Moses and the prophets, and then in the wisdom literature—the God who showed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the peoples of the earth. He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about where we are going and where we come from: faith, hope, and love.”

Brothers and sisters, this is what our journey of faith should be about, this is the real Catholicism, not multivalent theologies that address political and social wrongs in the world; but a personal loving relationship with our creator and savior.  From knowing this Love within us we can go out and address the ills of the world, but without it? Well, we will just repeat the past century’s ideologies about truth that relegate truth the whims of the powerful which never satisfy; never address the source of ills; never produce lasting fruit.

In today’s Gospel we once again go up Mount Tabor with Jesus and Peter, James, and John where we witness the greatness of our Lord in his transfigured body.  We can see the Mass ‘typed’ in this event and we can see the beauty of Jesus both on Mount Tabor and on the Altar.  But at the end of today’s Gospel we hear: ‘After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.’  In Mark: ‘they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.’ And in Matthew we hear: ‘they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

Jesus alone – that is what we are given, Jesus alone.  Pope Benedict comments on this in his February 28th 2010 Angelus: “Jesus alone is all that the disciples and the Church of every epoch have been granted; and this must suffice on the journey.  The only voice to listen to, the only voice to follow is his, the voice of the One going up to Jerusalem who was one day to give his life to “change our lowly body to be like his glorious body”’ This is who we have a relationship with, the real God, the God made man, the God who wants man to be like himself.  This is what Christ’s Church is foundationally built upon.

A loving dialog with a family member who urges us on, leads us.  With Him we are strengthened.  And no matter what stage of life we are in we always have this relationship, our talents and strengths might change but Jesus with us never changes.  We can rest assured and at peace that with Jesus we are whole.  And maybe this is Pope Benedict’s last teaching moment as Pope, by renouncing the Petrine Chair he put into action what he spoke about in in his first encyclical: “In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).”

At 1pm this coming Thursday we will be without a Pope, but we will always have our Lord, and he alone will suffice!