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Habemus Papem! The Strength of the Church Made Visible

In the weeks since Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation I’ve heard that the Church is in the midst of an identity crisis and that the new Holy Father would need to work hard to bring the Church up to speed with the modern world. In case you’re not clear as to what constitutes an identity crisis, it’s defined as: a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

Uncertain. . . confused . . . insecure about one’s role in society.

It would be so much easier for the world, wouldn’t it, if there really were an identity crisis, so much easier to see the Church as a toppling medieval edifice, beaten down by the blast holes of scandal and internal conflicts, visibly weakened and unable to withstand the pressures of a new world order which demands the right to live outside her shadow, indeed which often seems to suggest that perhaps it would be better for everyone if she simply ceased to exist at all.

Remembering Who’s in Charge

Without Christ, the Church can do nothing. This has been shown time and again, all too painfully, in recent years and throughout her history. However, the opposite is also true — firm rootedness in Christ in the very midst of great weakness and turmoil leads to great strength. This paradox is impossible for a secular world to understand, but it is this foundational paradox which has been illustrated so beautifully and brilliantly in recent weeks by the extreme humility of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and our new Holy Father, Pope Francis.

In his final Wednesday audience after announcing his resignation of the papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI  echoed a sentiment that has perhaps been echoed in the hearts of all of the faithful in recent years. Benedict said that during his papacy he often felt like one of the apostles in the boat with Jesus during the great storm on the Sea of Galilee: “The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light wind, days in which the catch was abundant; there have also been moments when the waters were agitated, and the wind blew contrary, as in all of the history of the Church, and the Lord appeared to be sleeping . . . But I have always known that in that boat there was the Lord and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine; it is not ours; but it is his [Christ’s]. And he does not let it sink. It is him who steers its, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because he has wanted it this way.”

When Christ told St. Peter that he would be the rock on whom he would build his church, he also said that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. That includes the hell of our own weakness and sinfulness, as well as the the malice and hostility of statesmen, ideologies, and other entities that would seek to destroy her. Christ, and not men, control the Church. His presence is never absent, despite the obstacles our human weakness raises to His attempts to steer.

Weakness + Purification = Humility > STRENGTH

Contrary to the what the world defines as strong, useful and worthy of respect, the Church finds her strength in an acknowledgement of her weakness, her brokenness. These things lead to the necessary acceptance and admittance of the truth that those entrusted with her care and keeping — in effect, all of the faithful — are but weak, sinful, and fragile vessels capable of doing great damage when they seek success and progress apart from fidelity to Christ. In spite of this truth, or perhaps even in some way because of it, the Church stands. We, the faithful, participate in the life of the Church in some sense to the extent that we live with a deepening awareness of this truth and bind ourselves more and more strongly to Christ. To the extent that the faithful work towards living a deeper humility is the extent to which the Church is strong. Her strength is made perfect in our weakness. Its when we forget this that the threat of what the secular world terms an “identity crisis” might loom, when we forget that we are fragile vessels, desperately in need of God’s grace and help, when we think we can do it our way and do it alone.

Catholics believe in the purification that comes through confession, through open acknowledgment of sin in the sacrament of penance. The Church is being purified, no doubt about it. And this purification must go on in each of the faithful, continually, through ever deeper examination and admission of the ways in which each individual obstructs the work of God’s grace in the world and the ways in which we each turn away in infidelity. This ongoing process of purification does not mean the Church is weakening or no longer knows who or what she is. A diamond in the rough is quite ugly and is a diamond in its essence regardless of what it looks like on the outside. When refined and cut deeply and polished roughly by the master jeweler, the ugly rock takes on a lustre unknown and becomes what it was always meant to be, its essence revealed. The Church, and the faithful who comprise it, is just such a diamond. Its essence is total lustrousness, pure beauty, and absolute truth, but our human sin and weakness can block God’s work in crafting it. Sin and the admission of it opens the door for God to get in and do some intensive work on the facets that will lend even more brilliance over time. The Church has no identity crisis – we know it to be a diamond in the rough, striving for perfection in the hands of the One who is all perfection, all truth, and all beauty.

As Flannery O’Connor said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” The truth is, the Church exists and is strong and vital. The truth is the Church is being purified and refined through just discipline that will clarify and beautify her in her essence. The truth is we have a Pope and he has set an example of humility which, while it is early to speculate, seems one he intends to be a signature focus of his papacy. The truth is that Pope Francis has already declared the path he intends to follow as he leads the Church and shepherds his flock. It is the same path his namesake, St. Francis, walked hundreds of years ago in his faithful effort to rebuild a Church weakened by sin. In his letter for Lent written prior to his election to the papacy, Pope Francis wrote:

“Lent is presented us as a shout of truth and certain hope that comes us to say ‘Yes, it is possible to not slap on makeup, and not draw plastic smiles as if nothing happened.’  Yes, it is possible that all is made new and different because God remains ‘rich in kindness and mercy, always willing to forgive’ and He encourages us to begin anew time and again.”

The path of humility, of walking humbly with God, can only lead to the Cross, which leads surely to Christ, and so also to true strength and greatness. Pope Francis shows the world that the Church is completely certain, clear, and confidant in her identity. Viva il Papa! Viva il Chiesa!

Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter's Square after his election. -- Photo credit: Associated Press

Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square after his election. — Photo credit: Associated Press

The First Sunday of Advent

Today is the first day of a beautiful season of waiting, hope, prayer, and, reflection. I always love Advent. I love the time of waiting and anticipation. I love how entering this time as the season changes, with the days growing shorter and the nights colder. It’s a time to enter in to the dark night, to look for the Light to come, and to wait with steadfast patience for the angels to sing Gloria.

The Church received a beautiful gift today in anticipation of the birth of the Christ Child, the Word made flesh — today we celebrated Mass with the new translation of the Roman Missal. The prayers of both the people and the priest have been revised to more closely reflect the original Latin translation. Reading over the prayers, I was struck by how reverent the language is, and how it fosters a stronger sense of humility and awe in the liturgy. There is a great deal to reflect on, especially in the priest’s prayers. In a culture which so often twists words to mean things that lead us far away from the truth, it is a beautiful gift that we have this new translation to lead us more deeply in to the truth of our faith.

My instinct at this time of year is to slow way down and to pay attention, to be more watchful. This is in contrast to the flurry of shopping and decorating and the general hustle and bustle going on around me. I find as I get older, I am less inclined to hustle and more inclined to hibernate. But I hope to at least be able to cultivate an inner space where I can remain quiet in the midst of activity, to await the miracle that is to come in the arms of our Blessed Mother, and to be more attentive and grateful for the gift of faith.

Wishing you a blessed, holy, and peace-filled Advent season.

Viva Christo Rey!: The Feast of Christ the King

“God does not have a fixed plan that He must carry out; on the contrary, he has many different ways of finding man and even of turning his wrong ways into right ways… The feast of Christ the King is therefore not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.” — Pope Benedict XVI

Today, as the Church closes out the year in preparation for the beginning of the new liturgical year next Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent, it is only fitting that we celebrate the truth that Christ is Lord: of all on earth and above the earth, of all people and of all concerning them, of all life and of victory over death. This is true regardless of whether people believe He is or not, whether they acknowledge His existence or not. As we prepare to spend the next four weeks reflecting on the meaning and purpose of the Incarnation and Birth of the Lord of All, this feast is a comforting and blessed reminder that when all is said and done, Christ is the one and only King, present now and forever, until the end of time.  

Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit that I only just found out the circumstances surrounding the induction of this beautiful feast by Pope Pius XI as a way to combat the rising tide of secularism and hostility towards the Church that was beginning to flourish in the last century and continues on to today. If this is news to you, or if you need a refresher, you might like to read this mindful and enlightening article by Dan Burke.

Remember to Pray For Priests

Sadly, this week I also learned a wonderful and truly gifted priest from a nearby parish has left the priesthood. This was a devastating and sober reminder to me of the great need and responsibility we have to pray for our priests. While it is true that one of the duties of a priest is to be a model of holiness in leading the people in his care to Christ, it is also true that we are all indelibly marked as “priests, prophets, and kings” through our Baptism. It is not just the job of a priest to be holy so that the people he serves may be holy; it is also the job of the people to make every effort to grow in holiness and to support the priest in his service to the people of God and in the gift of his entire life in service to the Church. The priest is like a soldier on the front lines of a very great battle. To leave him to fight alone, without prayer and the individual effort to grow in holiness in response to God’s universal call, is to leave him prey to the enemy and many evils.

It is true that many are reeling from the abuse crisis in the Church, and rightfully so. But we cannot forget or abandon the many, many priests who continue to fight each day for the people of God, who continue to sacrifice unfailingly even in a climate that has made it extremely difficult to do their jobs with any dignity. St. Therese, in her autobiography Story of a Soul, reminds us of both the humanity of the priest and of his special need of prayer:

“I understood my vocation in Italy . . . I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, though their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in His Gospel calls the “salt of the earth,” show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn’t Jesus say too: “If the salt loses its savor, wherewith will it be salted? How beautiful is the vocation, O Mother, which has as its aim the preservation of the salt destined for souls! This is Carmel’s vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls through their words and especially their example.” [Emphasis in the saint’s original text]

St. Therese mentions the great need priests have of prayer, those who are holy, those who are lukewarm, but what of those who have walked away and are lost? She was no stranger to this experience: all of the nuns in her Carmel grieved over a French Carmelite priest who left the priesthood. St. Therese especially offered many prayers and sacrifices for his conversion.  She teaches us emphatically that all priests need our prayers, desperately. As one Body in Christ, each one of us is affected by the actions — good and bad — of all the rest. But we also all share in the graces each receives through prayer and sacrifice. This is the beautiful treasure of the communion of saints which we share in even now.

"When the priest is on the altar, he is always Jesus Christ on the cross." -- St. Bernadette Soubirous

As we celebrate this great feast of Christ the King, it would be well if we remembered in a special way those who have given their lives to ensure that we are able to receive the graces God intends for each one of us through the sacraments instituted for the Church through His Son, Jesus Christ. It would be well if we remembered to pray in a special way for those who have given their lives to ensure that each and every day, in every Church throughout the world, Christ is able to become truly and really present — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity — in the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, to be present to each one of us in the most special way. By His own design, Christ can only be present in the Eucharist through the anointed hands of the priest. It would be well if we remembered and prayed for these men, and if we were mindful of our own responsibility to grow in holiness so that through our own example others may see that Christ is the Light of the World.

St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila)

Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus, also known as St. Teresa of Avila. She has long been a favorite of mine and is the namesake of my dearest sister, St. Therese of Lisieux. They share a refreshing sense of humor, down-to-earth practicality, and great confidence in God and love for Jesus, all of which I need to deepen in my own life. And apart from that, St. Teresa is the patroness of headache sufferers, which I experience chronically.

In case you don’t know much about this beautiful sister in faith, Benjamin Mann wrote this well-researched and lively article in recognition of her feast for the National Catholic Register. Its definitely worth the few minutes it will take to read and you might just find a new friend in heaven to walk the journey with you in the process.

Words to live by………….

Let nothing trouble you, let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end. . . Hope, O my soul, hope. You can know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes away quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain and turns a very short time into a long one. — St. Teresa of Avila

Our Lady of Sorrows

“Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Lk 2:34-35)

O Mary . . . a terrible sword has pierced your holy soul. Except for God, no one knows of your suffering. Your soul does not break; it is brave, because it is with Jesus.  Sweet Mother, unite my soul to Jesus, because it is only then that I will be able to endure all trials and tribulations, and only in union with Jesus will my sacrifices be pleasing to God. Sweetest Mother, continue to teach me about the interior life. May the sword of suffering never break me. O pure Virgin, pour courage into my heart and guard it. –Prayer of St. Faustina to the Sorrowful Mother (Diary 915)

A Meditation on Woman, in Celebration of the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was a prominent Jewish philosopher, writer, teacher, and professor in pre-WWII Germany. After reading The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued to write and study. During the war, Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. St. Teresa Benedicta was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. Her feast day is today, August 9.

Much of St. Teresa Benedicta’s work was given to illuminating the role of women and their vocation. She has much to say to us today and deep reading gives echoes of the writings of Blessed John Paul II. The following is taken from “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” a lecture given by Dr. Stein at a meeting of the Catholic Association of Academics in Salzburg, Austria, on September 1, 1930. The entire text can be found in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 2: Essays on Woman.

“Only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth. Whoever wants to preserve this life continually within herself must nourish it constantly from the source whence it flows without end — from the holy sacraments, above all from the sacrament of love. To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others. Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

Something else is related to this. When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them. Then our soul is free to participate in the divine life. Then we walk by the side of the Savior on the path that He travelled on this eath during His earthly existence and still travels in the mystical afterlife. Indeed, with the eyes of faith, we penetrate into the secret depths of His hidden life within the pale of the godhead. On the other hand, this participation in the divine life has a liberating power initself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to the transformation in God’s hand is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Curch in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.”