Your Holiness, Welcome to Washington!

After meetings at our diocesan Pastoral Center with recently ordained priests, Bishop DiLorenzo departed for Washington, DC to prepare to welcome Pope Francis to the United States!  And, in keeping with my promise of obedience…I’m following my bishop!  This afternoon I’m also heading to Washintgon before the Holy Father celebrates Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at which I’ll have the tremendous joy of concelebrating.  I’ll also get to watch the pope address a joint session of Congress from the overflow seating outside the Capitol.

  
I’ll try to share some of my adventures along the way, but to get things started, a prayer for the Church here in the United States, taken from the Roman Missal:

O God, who in each pilgrim Church throughout the world

make visible the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,

graciously grant that your faithful may be so united to their shepherd

and gathered together in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Eucharist,

as to worthily embody the universality of your people

and become a sign and instrument in the world of the presence of Christ.

Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen!

Lowly, yet Chosen

“The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio, displayed in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome

In many ways this week will be “all about Francis,” as the Holy Father makes his first visit to the United States.  The media, secular and religious alike, will be abuzz with play-by-play commentary and analysis as the “pope of surprises” makes stops in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.  He’ll speak to the United Nations and to a joint session of Congress (a papal first), canonize Blessed Junipero Serra (the first canonization on U.S. soil) and attend the World Meeting of Families convening in the City of Brotherly Love.

How fitting that the work week begins on the Feast of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist, a day (and a saint) that has special significance to Pope Francis.  It was on this day as a 17-year-old boy that Jorge Mario Bergoglio would have an encounter with the Lord’s mercy that would change the course of his life, prompting him to pursue religious life in the line of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  When he became a bishop, Bergoglio chose as his motto: “Miserando atque eligendo,” loosely translated “Lowly, yet chosen.”  This beautiful phrase, taken from the writings of St. Bede the Venerable, describes the calling of St. Matthew, depicted above, in which the Lord entered the customs house where Matthew was working and said simply, “Follow me.”  And as directly as the Lord extended the invitation, Matthew rose and followed.  The intersection of this Gospel passage and the ministry of Pope Francis reveals a few themes worthy of some reflection, as we recall the gift of St. Matthew and prepare for the Holy Father’s arrival on our shores.

Openness to the Lord’s call. St. Matthew, like the rest of us, was a sinner — as a tax collector, he made a living by cheating.  But when Jesus entered the customs post with his simple but direct invitation, Matthew followed.  It has been widely reported that then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio did not expect to be elected pope in the 2013 conclave, telling his friends and colleagues in Buenos Aires that he was looking forward to returning home to his unassuming life.  In fact, the Lord called him to a new ministry, as successor to St. Peter and Vicar of Christ.  The Lord has called each and every one of us, and he continues to do so!  The example of St. Matthew and the ministry of Pope Francis remind us of the need for ongoing discernment, being prayerfully attentive to the Lord’s work in our lives.

The abundance of the Lord’s mercy.  Mercy has been a persistent theme in the ministry of Pope Francis, most notably in his calling for the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy, which begins on December 8.  At every turn, the Holy Father has sought to manifest the mercy of God in his own ministry, while encouraging others to be agents of mercy in their own lives.  This desire to be merciful comes from the pope’s own prayer and contact with the Lord and his lived experience in ministry.  We see in Jesus’s calling of the apostles, Matthew and the others, that he chose sinners, replete with quirks and imperfections.  The very call, this personal and loving invitation by Jesus — “Follow me” — is itself a gesture of tremendous mercy, and it is a gesture that he extends to you and me.  The saints and our Holy Father both show us the importance of recognizing God’s mercy at work in and for us, but also how we must give thanks and glory to God for that love.

An invitation to generous discipleship.  Recognizing that we have been called by the Lord, and in thanksgiving for the mercy that comes with that call, we are then invited to say “yes,” to accept this gracious invitation with humble gratitude.  This means offering our entire selves in service to God according to our own vocations.  Our “yes” is not just a single event, but a choice that should be reflected in our entire lives, our very being.  Following the example of the Blessed Mother, whose generous “yes” and holy life serve as a model of discipleship, each of us can offer our lives as a hymn of praise to the one whose mercy we encounter in our call.  By being authentic, faithful and merciful disciples of Jesus, we pray that our example might invite others to the kind of encounter with Christ that we’ve had and treasure so much.

Pope Francis’s coat of arms

Entrenchment and Encounter

When I first heard that a member of the House of Representatives was planning to boycott Pope Francis’s address to Congress next week, I was a bit surprised.  Perhaps, I thought, this was some kind of misunderstanding, remarks taken out of context (shocking in Washington, I know) or an example of exaggerated media hype.

  
In fact, the reports were true.  In a Townhall column entitled “Why I Am Boycotting Pope Francis’ Address to Congress” (and thus removing all doubt), Rep. Paul Gosar explains his thinking and decision.  Certainly, members of Congress are well within their rights to attend or not attend congressional addresses.  These gatherings should not be the grown-up version of mandatory school assemblies, in which the administration rounds up stragglers and issues demerits for truancy.  But Congressman Gosar’s column points to a widespread illness plaguing our politics and church alike.  If I were to give it a name, I might call it a “culture of entrenchment.”    

A culture of entrenchment

Mr. Gosar begins by conveying his initial excitement at hearing the news that Pope Francis would address Congress, explaining that he saw the address as an opportunity to confront issues such as promoting religious freedom at home and stopping the violent persecution of Christians abroad, defending the right to life, and combating a culture of moral relativism.  These would all be obvious and laudable topics for a papal address to Congress, and they very well may come up.  But the congressman is unconvinced.  After identifying the issues he would like to hear about, he follows:

Media reports indicate His Holiness instead intends to focus the brunt of his speech on climate change–a climate that has been changing since first created in Genesis. More troubling is the fact that this climate change talk has adopted all of the socialist talking points, wrapped false science and ideology into “climate justice” and is being presented to guilt people into leftist policies.

I find it disappointing that a member of Congress would base his decision to attend such an event on unidentified “media reports” about a speech that has yet to take place and which will be delivered by a man who is predictably unpredictable.  But this is a habit in our “culture of entrenchment,” selecting analysis that aligns with our point of view and acting upon that alone, rather than doing the more difficult and “dangerous” work of research and consulting perspectives that differ from ours.  We can see it in the increasingly caustic and partisan tone of the media and perhaps political discourse more generally.

This entrenchment, manifest perhaps most clearly in our politics but present in many parts of society, prizes isolation and defensive posturing, naturally leads to name-calling and caricature.  It should come as no surprise then that we then see politically-charged terms and labels thrown about in the Church, as if we were at some kind of political convention or cable news talk show.  Such an attitude of enrenchment deprives us of the opportunity to engage differing opinions in a meaningful way which, while making us open and thus somewhat vulnerable, ultimately will help us develop our own opinions and share the truth with those we encounter.  

In theory, the congressman should be familiar with this kind of discernment and deliberate intellectual engagement.  He cites in his article being the proud product of Jesuit education, an environment where he “was taught to think critically, to welcome debate and discussion and to be held accountable for [his] actions.”  Perhaps exercising some of those skills would allow Mr. Gosar to engage the work of another product of Jesuit education, namely Pope Francis.  After all, if Congressman Gosar had consulted the Holy Father’s recent encylical, Laudato Si’, he might’ve been surprised to learn that in the midst of a discussion heavily focused on environmental issues was a substantial treatment of the dignity of the human person, God’s only creation he described as very good.

An invitation to encounter

Pope Francis has often spoken about encounter in his pontificate — Jesus Christ encountering us and our encounter of Him, as well as our responsibility as people of faith to encounter one another in charity.  Granted, this project is not easy.  To open ourselves up to an encounter with Jesus is, as the pope has often said, to admit that we are sinners, that we so often fall short of God’s call, and that we are in constant need of the Lord’s mercy.    

  
Encounter comes with a certain degree of unpredictability, which might explain our occasional hesitance.  To open ourselves up to encounter the Lord means putting ourselves in his hands, operating on his terms, not ours.  Similarly, when we open ourselves up to encounter others in love, following the example of Jesus, we run the risk of being hurt or misunderstood.  But to take this step, to make ourselves vulnerable in love, is to live the life of our Lord!  There is no more striking, beautiful image of vulnerability than that of Christ crucified, arms outstretched in love as he offers himself for the salvation of the world.  Yes, this vulnerability came with tremendous pain, embarrassment, and isolation, but its effects were salvific, an expression of pure love.  So too are we called to imitate the vulnerable love of Jesus as we encounter our brothers and sisters.

Pope Francis has also encouraged this culture of encounter on the level of the church, using poignant imagery as he so often does in his preaching and public remarks.  He often cites the image of the Church as a “field hospital,” welcoming the wounded and offering healing in the midst of surrounding chaos.  He also frequently speaks of preferring a Church that is wounded because of its openness than sick because of its isolation.  These images are also invitations for reflection, to consider how we might help to promote this openness and welcome in our own communities.  Authentic encounter does not mean watering down the truth, or settling for the “least common denominator” in our discourse.  Rather, it is an opportunity to engage the truth in a new way, to share the truth as the great gift that it is, and to open ourselves up to conversion of heart guided by the Holy Spirit.

In Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis offers an encouragement to encounter worthy of our own prayer and consideration:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.[1] The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. (no. 3)

The challenge of discipleship
In the “Great Commission” Jesus gives his disciples direct instructions — go, make disciples, baptize and teach — all with the promise of his presence through the very end.  These directions apply to each of us according to our own vocation.  We are called to open ourselves up to the Lord each day, to allow him to meet us in the depths of our hearts and in the life of the Church, and to take the beautiful fruit of that experience into the world.  In short, we are called to encounter Christ and, transformed by that meeting, to encounter others.  May we never tire of asking the Lord for the strength and zeal to carry out the work he has entrusted to us, giving glory to God in all things!

“What are you seeking?”

The last time a pope came to these shores, I was a government major studying at George Mason University discerning the priesthood with moderate seriousness.  For me, at that time in my own life and discernment, the papal visit was a moment of particular grace.  I had the privilege of joining members of the university’s Catholic Campus Ministry for Mass with Pope Benedict at Nationals Park in Washington. It was a beautiful day and a profound moment of prayer.

  
I enjoyed following the various events of the papal visit, many of which had memorable moments and rich insights from the Holy Father.  Aside from Mass, though, there was one moment that still stands out among the rest.  Deeply moving was Pope Benedict’s address to young people and seminarians, delivered at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie.  These lines from the conclusion of his English remarks still linger in my heart:

Friends, again I ask you, what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ. The saints show us the selfless love of his way. As disciples of Christ, their extraordinary journeys unfolded within the community of hope, which is the Church. It is from within the Church that you too will find the courage and support to walk the way of the Lord. Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine his light upon this great city and beyond. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.

  
After watching the pope’s address and hearing these words, I was moved to tears.  I realized at that moment that it was time to take my discernment of the priesthood to the next level, to be more prayerfully intentional about asking the questions Pope Benedict had just posed.  These remarks helped shape my prayer and discernment, a process which ultimately led me to apply as a diocesan seminarian.  I would share these lines with members of my home parish in some remarks of gratitude and farewell before receiving a blessing and heading off to the seminary.

Next week, I’ll have the privilege of joining thousands of faithful in welcoming Pope Francis to the United States.  This time around, I’ll be attending Mass as a concelebrating priest.  So as I pray with the Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ, I’ll be fondly remembering and giving thanks for his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict, whose fatherly prompting helped nurture the seeds of vocation and articulate the prompting of the Holy Spirit that has brought me to the altar of God.  Let’s pray that this visit by Pope Francis will be similarly effective, and that many young men might be encouraged by the Holy Father to consider serving Christ and His Church as priests.  

Mercy Minute: The Church’s Life

  

Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy.”8 Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. It some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope. (Pope Francis Misericordiae Vultus, 10)

Subtle Strength

 

Occasionally during the summer months if I found myself channel surfing I would come across NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, a show in which competitors perform ridiculously challenging obstacles in obscenely fast times while I watch with a mix of disbelief and horror, jaw on the floor and snack mix in hand.  

These are dramatic examples of human strength — physical, mental, and emotional.  The display of athleticism and discipline, on huge sets with bright lights, sharply dressed commentators, and cheering crowds, instill in viewers a sense of amazement at what these men and women can accomplish by physical power and unhindered determination.  No doubt, these people are strong.

We would be remiss, however, if we thought that displays of strength were limited to the prime time hours on NBC.  In fact, some of the greatest examples of strength do not involve elaborate sets, camera crews, or even the Salmon Ladder.

Strength is a soldier making the decision to seek counseling and support after a traumatic tour of duty.  Strength is a young person, mired in sin, deciding to begin anew and return to the sacraments. Strength is a caffeine-deprived couple wrangling their young children in the wee hours of the morning to get them to Mass. Strength is a single parent balancing work meetings, parent-teacher conferences and soccer games, all while managing fatigue and anxiety.  Strength is a young woman discerning a vocation as a religious sister, responding to God’s call amid peer and societal pressure to do otherwise.

And today, as we celebrate the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, we celebrate and give thanks for a subtle, saving strength.  We see that strength looks like Jesus Christ, bloodied and bruised, hanging upon the cross in tremendous suffering yet even greater love.  Strength looks like His mother Mary — our mother — enduring the deepest of sorrow and pain as she remains by her son.  By this strength, the power of Jesus and the prayerful intercession of our Blessed Mother, we are made strong.  

We ask the Lord today, through our Mother’a intercession, to fill us with the strength we need to be courageous and faithful disciples, witnessing in matters great and small the powerful love of Jesus.

  

Eyes of Love

  
A thought for the day from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est:

Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. 

Friendship and Francis

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; those who fear God will find them. Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship, for as they are, so will their neighbors be. (Sirach 6:14-17)

When I was a boy I was told, “If you have one true friend in your life, you’re lucky.”  At the time, that saying didn’t make much sense:  “Only one friend?  Surely I’ll have far more than that!”  With years, the wisdom of that saying has become clearer, as friendships from various circumstances have developed and matured.  

Unfortunately, it seems that the word “friend” has come to be used in so many ways in so many contexts that we risk eroding its meaning.  We talk about having thousands of “friends” on Facebook, for example, but are they all truly friends?  Maybe we claim to be friends with someone, at least when it comes to being invited to parties or into certain social circles, but do we behave as faithful friends in the difficult times, when there is little if anything in it for us?
vision-of-st-dominic-and-meeting-of-st-francis-and-st-dominic-660x350

These thoughts about the blessing of true friendship came to mind early this morning after a lengthy conversation with my best friend of many years.  Despite geographical distance and different demanding schedules, we have managed to maintain and grow a friendship that has provided tremendous joy and consolation throughout life’s twists and turns.  The friendship has been, as Sirach says, priceless.

Apparently friendship was on the mind of Pope Francis as well, as he recently shared in an interview with a friend and radio personality he knew as archbishop of Buenos Aires.  From Vatican News:

Pope Francis emphasized the holiness of true friendship, saying “Friendship is something very sacred.  The Bible says ‘keep one or two friends’.  Before considering someone your friend, let time test him, to see how he reacts in your regard.”

At this point, Pope Francis introduces a more painful, personal note about false friends, saying that he has been used, or instrumentalized, by some who have claimed to be his ‘friends’.  “But the utilitarian sense of friendship – to see what I can get out of being close to this person and making myself his friend – this pains me.  I have felt used by some people who have presented themselves as ‘friends’ with whom I may not have seen more than once or twice in my lifetime, and they used this for their own gain.  But this is an experience which we have all undergone:  utilitarian friendship.”

We are blessed by our friends and the many ways they enrich our lives, even drawing us closer to the Lord Himself.  Perhaps we might each take a moment today to get in touch with a friend and let them know how much they mean to us, and to pray for our friends as well as for ourselves, that we might grow in friendship with Christ and one another.

The Big Question

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance.  The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. — C.S. Lewis

Who do you say that I am? Jesus poses this question to His disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi, part of a conversation in the midst of a journey. So it is with each of us, as Jesus presents us with the same question as we travel on our own journey of faith.

Gratefully, we have the opportunity through Scripture to benefit from the answer of the disciples, spoken by Peter on behalf of the group: Jesus is the Christ. This beautiful reality has wide-reaching consequences for Jesus and us. As Jesus tells his followers, for the Son of Man it means that He will suffer persecution and rejection before being killed, only to rise from the dead after three days. So confounding was this teaching to Peter that he tries, however unsuccessfully, to rebuke Jesus. Jesus the Christ, be rejected? Suffer? Die? Rise again? How confounding!

But Jesus’ teaching doesn’t stop there. After all, this reality, that Jesus is the Christ, transforms the lives of each of us, and so He shares what this means for those who might wish to follow him: they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. A life of denial? Taking up our cross? Another confounding teaching.

At this point, you might expect the disciples to be absolutely bewildered, and yet there is still something more. Jesus concludes this teaching with a puzzling statement: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” So, to gain life, I must lose it? Even more confounding still.

Having been presented with this big question, today we answer by echoing the confession of Peter: Jesus is the Christ. Amen and alleluia! But this truth is so profound, so beautiful, that we can’t merely let it pass our lips. We have to let it permeate our hearts and transform our lives, precisely by giving ourselves entirely to the Lord.

We give ourselves to the Lord in prayer – by plunging into the depths of His love in the sacraments, particularly as we are nourished by the Holy Eucharist and healed in the sacrament of reconciliation. We open our hearts each day, bringing to the Lord our hopes, fears, and desires, asking him to fill us with His Spirit and lead us closer to His heart.

We give ourselves to the Lord in service, as St. James so beautifully expresses, by putting our faith into action. By seeking out and serving the least among us, by performing routine tasks with tremendous love, we help to make Christ present to others, revealing a love that knows no bounds.

To gain life we must lose it – give it back to the one who first gave it to us. A daunting task, perhaps a bit intimidating, but we need not be afraid! Isaiah reminds us that the Lord is our help, our guide, our strength.  Big questions deserve big answers, and this one is no exception.  So this week, as we answer the Lord’s question, may we be given the courage and strength to answer with our entire selves, giving all glory to the one who gives us all good things.

Mercy Minute

“The Return of the Prodigal Son,” Artist Unknown

From Misericordiae Vultus by Pope Francis:

We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.