As I sit in the office, looking back at where we have been in the past year (thinking about what we will soon be facing for Holy Week, Easter, Confirmation, Graduation…tired and wondering about a nap…I want to say a few “thank yous”. I want to thank all the people who have dropped off cookies and cakes and other sweets as well as a great surprise of shrimp of all things (for my Fridays). Thank you from the bottom of our stomachs! Thank you also to the others who gave us gifts, too. It is overwhelming to feel the generosity of so many people.
I’d like to thank the folks who decorated all the churches for the Christmas season. They both came out beautifully and the hard work is appreciated, and the wonderful music during our Concert and Christmas celebrations…music lifts us up when performed well. Now that Lent comes to an end, the somber will be replaced with awesome glory. Those who plan and execute the music for the churches mightily lift us up!
I mention now just those who are directly involved in the Church and the liturgy celebrations. Now, thinking of those who do so much outside the Church. Those who volunteer at the Treasure Hut, those who help at the Food Bank, the hospital, the nursing homes, and pro-life causes merit recognition. The witness is often lived (and tends to be just “assumed” that’s the way it should be).
Thanks to the rest of the staff and CCD volunteers of both St. Anthony and St. Augustine for all their hard work this past year. There is so much that needs to get done behind the scenes and the folks that work for us do a great job, every day, all the time. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, they bring me back; when I need to see the good in others, they show me. When I feel sad about something, they cheer me up and there is something to be said for good people who do good things just because it is the right thing to do. On top of all that they are crackerjack at their respective jobs…all of them. Next time you see or interact with a staff member or volunteer, tell them they are awesome, because they are…and so much more.
There are many more people I could thank, but I think I’ll stop with the last but not least, God…Who we tend to forget when thanks givings are going around. God in the Trinity has blessed me so much and I know He has blessed you too. I thank God for the many blessings, but I truly thank God every day that I am here as your pastor and while I’m not perfect…I hope you will join me in this prayer as we journey together on the road home.
This week we celebrate the lives of three men of great importance to the Church. Thursday is the memorial of St. Patrick (died 461), who brought Christianity to Ireland. Then Friday is the memorial of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), who became Bishop of the Holy City in 348 and is remembered for brilliant catechetical essays and homilies on the sacred liturgy and the sacraments. And Saturday is the Solemnity of St. Joseph: Spouse of the Virgin Mary; Foster Father of the Lord Jesus; and Patron of the Universal Church!
In 1997, NBC and the Wall Street Journal conducted a national poll on the place of religion in the lives of Americans, and that same poll was conducted in 2014. In 1997, 14% of Americans reported that religion was “not that important” in their lives, and in 2014 the number of those who gave that same answer has risen to 21%. This falling away from religion is an illustration of what is often called secularization — the trend away from a worldview formed by religious faith towards one in which religion has no place or only a marginal place, and it cuts across all segments of our society. When confronted with this trend, too many Christians begin to look for ways to make the Gospel and the Church “more attractive” by trying to change the Mass, the doctrine of the faith, our organizational forms (like marriage), etc. But such a response to secularization assumes that we are offering a product in the marketplace and that we must increase our market share. Like the line in the movie Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, “We just need to tweak the product line and get better advertising.”
To think that way is to reveal that one has not heard and understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Who promised us that we would be opposed, rejected and persecuted just as He was. By our Baptism we are called to friendship with Jesus and a share in His Cross. During this Year of Mercy, we should remember more keenly than ever – Christ sends us in the Great Commission to continue His work among the nations by proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the Sacraments and caring for the least of His brethren until the Last Day. Want to resist the trend of secularization? Invite someone to come with you to Mass. Ask a friend to pray the rosary with you. Invite someone to Eucharistic Adoration. Give a good book about our faith to a neighbor or colleague who is searching for…well, for something or Someone not yet known. Volunteer to serve someone in need. This is how we proclaim the Gospel.
Lent is coming close to an end. In the coming weeks, the Church enters the final part of Lent: Passiontide. Next week…until the Vigil of the Resurrection in the night of Holy Saturday – crosses and statues are veiled and the Mass of each day takes us more deeply into the heart of the Paschal Mystery, as the Church cries out in faith: “Save us, Savior of the world, for by Your Cross and Resurrection You have set us free.”
The veiling of sacred images during Passiontide is a custom with roots in Christian antiquity, and it prepares us for the great sundering of Christ’s atoning death. But even in Passiontide, stained glass windows and the Stations of the Cross remain visible, and these artistic catechisms can teach us a great deal about the dignity and difficulty of being disciples of the Lord Jesus. This is true in any Catholic church, but it is most especially true in St. Anthony and St. Augustine, where we are blessed with sacred art of great beauty and power.
Running through the nave are the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, a devotion made popular by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. (Interestingly enough, St. Francis made popular the tradition making of the Nativity Scene at Christmas too.) At a time when Christians could not travel safely to Jerusalem because the Holy City was under Islamic rule, St. Francis devised a simple method for Christians to follow the Lord Jesus in the Way of the Cross in their own churches. The fourteen traditional stops or stations on the Via Dolorosa are depicted in works of art that invite pilgrims to pause and pray while meditating on Christ’s passion and atoning death on the Cross.
We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You…because by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world!
Before my priestly ordination, I traveled back by car from the East Coast. Driving through Pennsylvania, I met “the Amish” for the first time. The Amish was a community formed in the 17th century by a schism within the Mennonite movement in Switzerland. They are best known for their radical separation from the world: they will not use modern technology, they dress differently from their neighbors, they cease formal schooling after the 8th grade, they refuse to serve in the armed forces, they will not participate in Social Security or purchase medical insurance, and so forth.
These behaviors are regarded as odd by most people, and with good reason: Such a way of life is not required by the Gospel, and in many ways it is contrary to the Gospel. And that is why Catholics cannot live like the Amish.
We do not dress differently than our neighbors. We do not fear technology or the benefits of modern science. We do not separate ourselves in politics, commerce, education, military service, or civic responsibility from those who do not share our faith. And we do not do these things because to do so would make it impossible for us to fulfill the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28. 18-20) We are called to be salt and light in the world, not to hide behind a barricade for fear that we will be polluted.
The impulse to flee from “the world” is, of course, also a part of Christianity, if by “the world” we mean that part of the created order (starting inside of us) which is in rebellion against God. For this reason, religious life has been with us since Christian antiquity, and all Christians need a deep formation for genuine holiness of life. But that is not the same as the Amish refusal to live in the world, something that Catholics cannot accept as compatible with Christian discipleship. The Letter to Diognetus (written in the 2nd century) explains it: “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life…With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven…To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.”
Are we living as the “soul of the world”?
On Ash Wednesday we heard the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Joel: “Return to me with your whole heart…rend your hearts not your garments.” We need to return to God with our whole heart because our hearts are divided, and all of us have experienced the struggle between the desire to do what is right and the desire to do what we want.
That interior division and struggle between the man I am and the man I should be is at the heart of all Christian conversion and discipleship, and there is zero possibility of being a disciple of Jesus Christ without a life-changing commitment to continuing conversion from sin and selfishness. But to be open to such ongoing conversion requires that we accept the truth of the Gospel and surrender to that truth in the obedience of faith, and that is why the Lord Jesus insists that being authentic disciples demands our acceptance of his saving doctrine. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Our conversion from sin begins at Baptism, but it must continue all the days of our lives. In this Year of Mercy, we can come to better appreciate that four of the seven sacraments confer the forgiveness of sins, and they are: Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, the Anointing of the Sick, and Penance…Confession. After Baptism, the only ordinary way in which grave sins are forgiven is by receiving the Sacrament of Penance, by going to Confession. Catholics are bound (remember the power of binding and loosing, given by the Lord Jesus to his Apostles?) to go to Confession at least once each year as part of their Easter duty, and any Catholic who has not been to Confession in at least a year is no longer in full communion with Christ and His Church. Please use these 40 Days of preparation for Easter to go to Confession. I invite those who have been away from the Sacrament of Penance to heed the Word of God: “Return to me with your whole heart.”
(An essential preparation for making a good Confession is an examination of conscience. If you search the Internet for “Catholic Examination of Conscience,” you’ll find several entries, including one for the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), and that will help you prepare “to rend your hearts, not your garments.”)
The etymology of the word “Lent” is inspiring…going to what we celebrate for over 40 days as a Christian church. “Lent” comes from the old English “Lencten”, meaning, “Early Spring” or “Spring Coming”. As such, it is a special time for prayer, sacrifice, almsgiving and fasting as Scripture invites a Christian to live with seasons of more intense spiritual work, on the one hand, and times of festivity on the other (eg: Hebrews 12).
The purpose of Lent is to have us exercise spiritual muscles we haven’t used for awhile (an Early Spring training…if you like). The goal is to demonstrate not only to the world; but also, to actualize faith in ourselves…we can control and sacrifice worldly desires and wants to God and for God’s sake. By doing so, we prepare for the lean times that may present themselves in a soul’s lifetime.
When I have a loss…when I experience desolations and emptiness…when I am seriously hurt (or a member of the family is hurt)…when I am challenged by things of this world – my practices in Lent train me to know how temporary these situations actually are. I learn I can and do endure for the sake of something greater than myself. Having Jesus as our Model and Guide at Lent, we realize as Christians, He is able to transfigure this world (and our lives) for the greater glory of God.
When a soul prepares well: a good Lenten practice will make for a good Holy Week celebration. A good Holy Week celebration then makes for a wonder-filled Easter Season.
And, remembering that God will never be outdone in love – I can tell you – when Easter comes around…WOW! I discover how wonderful a treat the item that was sacrificed, when returned to me at Easter, is a great and true blessing.
Last week ending with the comment: Let’s examine the traditional works of Mercy (forever old…but…forever new (due to their lack of use)). And, it’s quite TRUE. Like a present that is constantly re-gifted (and passed to someone else to open and keep)…the Works of Mercy is treated the same. But, you know, in this coming Lent, let’s open this gift and put Mercy to work in our lives in an extraordinary way.
A primary focus for the Year of Mercy are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These are lists of concrete actions that Christians can do to bring God’s compassion and mercy, love and charity to others. We’ll look at the corporal works of mercy in this article.
Roughly, seven weeks of Lent…let’s practice one a week to start. You pick the order.
We call them “corporal” because of the Latin root meaning “relating to the body” and our physical (visible) world. These are acts of physical care for others and are traditionally listed as: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned (maybe – for us – homebound); and, bury the dead. Jesus gives us six of the seven of these in the Gospel of Matthew 25:34–40 where He tells us that those who are saved do these for others (faith AND GOOD WORKS) and those who are not saved…don’t. (The seventh, bury the dead, comes from the Book of Tobit 1:16-18).
Why these seven? Because while they cover the ordinary parts of everyday life–food, drink, shelter, etc.–providing them to those who lack them awakens in us extraordinary wellsprings of love for others. When we do these things for others, our hands become the hands of Christ and our eyes become the eyes of Christ. Our voice is the voice of Christ. We are Christ for others in our giving.
But mercy flows both ways. We are changed too. Mother Teresa once said, “Every person is Christ for me.” She said that the work of her sisters in the streets of Calcutta, caring for the sick and dying and the poor, was “only the expression of the love we have for God.” On a purely human level, such work may not make sense: the people we help may continue to be poor or sick or die or make bad life decisions. That’s okay. We do not love only when we assured of the “right” result. Like a mother with her children and God with us, we love because it is what we do. (And…again…do remember – God will never be outdone in love in return.)
We show love and mercy to others to make us more loving, to become more like God who overflows with love, but also to bring His love to more of the world.
The form of our corporal works of mercy do not have to match the words literally for them to be loving and merciful. If you can’t go to the streets where the hungry beg for food, perhaps you can gather up food that can be donated to the Food Bank for the hungry. Perhaps go one better, skip a meal, and buy a gift card from the money you saved and donate it to the food bank. The average home meal is $5.
Or, you may wonder how to bury the dead. It doesn’t mean literally digging holes in the cemetery, but if you can or if you’re presented with the death someone you know, go to the wake and (or) funeral. When you are not assigned…offer to substitute and help anyone who needs to make such arrangements in a time of loss. Or, call and ask how to step up and step in to help maintain the cemeteries the parishes are responsible. By the way…how many cemeteries are we directly responsible to maintain? (If you don’t know…this speaks to the point of lack of mercy we have developed…the Answer to come later in this bulletin).
Opportunities to practice the works of mercy are all around us, even in our neighborhoods, if we only look hard enough. There are people suffering their own private deprivations who desperately crave the warmth of helping hand and loving heart…the time God gave us.
Pope Francis said in introducing the Year of Mercy that he hopes that our reflection on the Works of Mercy will “be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty.” Let’s see our brothers and sisters in need with eyes newly awakened in mercy especially during this coming Lent.