"Zeal for your house will consume me" (Ps 69:9)

Thoughts of a parish priest…


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Called to be Saints

Just the other day, one of my parishioners asked me to write about the topic of holiness. With tomorrow being All Saints Day, I figured it was a great time to address this topic.

In the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., there is a large image called the “Universal Call to Holiness.” This image depicts the Holy Spirit in the top center in the form of a dove. Below are the members of the Church of every walk of life, of every national heritage. There are children as well as older people, religious sisters and priests, married people, families, and single people. This image illustrates the teaching of the Church known as the “universal call to holiness.”

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In the Gospel, our Lord tells us that we are to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Throughout the centuries, the Church has understood this “perfection” to be the perfection of charity, which is more commonly referred to as holiness. The Second Vatican Council made clear that ALL the baptized are called to be holy, called to the perfection of charity (Lumen Gentium, 40). Basically, this means that we are all called to be saints!

But what does it mean “to be HOLY?” What does it mean to be “PERFECT?” What does it mean to be a “SAINT”? Does it mean that we follow the commandments? Does it mean that we live out the Beatitudes? Does it mean that we pray a lot and have great trust in the Lord, even in the midst of struggle?

There has often been the awful misconception that only priests and nuns were called to be holy and that the rest of the members of the Church should just try to be “good” or “nice” people. But if we look through the Bible and throughout the history of the Church, no where do we find the imperative to be “good” or “nice” people. Jesus was very clear: we are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. The Church clearly articulated this important teaching at the Second Vatican Council:

All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity: In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that, doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints (LG, 40).

The question that naturally comes to mind is, “WHY?” “Why are we called to be saints?” What if I don’t want to live a holy life? Doesn’t holiness also mean being boring or not being able to do whatever I want because of all those rules of the Church?” These are normal questions that most of us will have at one time or another, especially when we are younger. But perhaps a more positive question to ask is, “why was I created,” or “why do I exist?”

Each of us was created in the “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:27), and as such, we are the only visible creatures (angels are not visible, but can also know and love God) that are able to know and love our Creator (Gaudium et Spes, 12). In fact, the desire for God is written on each of our hearts. Throughout our lives, we are continually in search of something that will give us fulfillment and meaning – ONLY God can completely fill this natural desire because we were created by him and also to be in communion with him. Money, cars, popularity, and other things that seem to make us happy, won’t make us as happy compared to friendship with Jesus Christ.

When most of us think of those who commit themselves to living “holy lives,” we may think of people sitting around in silence, on their knees praying night and day. When others think of “holiness” they may think of people who do not have much fun in life because they are following all of those “rules of the Church.”

Upon his election as Pope, Benedict XVI gave a homily in which he addressed this very point. The pope said,

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 “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.”

Pope Benedict XVI was well aware that most of us are afraid that we might miss out on something that the world offers us if we live as true disciples of Christ. The pope encourages us and reminds us as Christ reminded his first followers – DO NOT BE AFRAID – there is so much more that God wants us to experience and enjoy.

The pope continued:

“And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”

 

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Who is this really all about?

A couple of years ago, just after I had finished celebrating the Holy Mass, I was asked by a member of the congregation, “Father, I noticed that when you say the Mass, you really don’t seem to be looking at us a whole lot, why is that?” My initial reaction and response was “well, when I celebrate the Mass, I am speaking to our Lord and not with the congregation.” In response to this very good question, I attempted to directly clarify this common misconception that the Mass is a dialogue between the priest and the congregation.

With the exception of just a few dialogical parts, i.e., “the Lord be with you,” “Lift up your hearts,” the Mass is not a dialogue between the priest and the congregation as if it were simply a performance reenacting the Last Supper. The Mass is a dialogue between us and Almighty God, a dialogue in which the priest is leading, but one in which everyone is participating.

Maybe we have never thought of it in these terms. Maybe we were formed in a way of thinking that leads us to believe that Mass is essentially about “us,” about what “we” get out of it, about how it makes “me feel. But if we listen closely to the prayers that are said during the Mass it becomes abundantly clear that we are speaking to God the Father.

14632851_10157462026410468_7013482348136625831_n(A parishioner made this after my homily this weekend)

Msgr. Guido Marini, Pontifical Master of Liturgical Ceremonies, spoke of this very topic explaining that,theologically speaking, the holy Mass, as a matter of fact, is always addressed to God through Christ our Lord, and it would be a grievous error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community.”

As we attempt to plunge into the unfathomable and sacred mystery of the Mass, it is crucial that we first understand the very nature of the liturgy and to whom it is being directed. If we are to truly encounter our Lord in the “Breaking of the Bread” as did the disciples on the road to Emmaus, our hearts and minds must be open to and formed by the liturgical actions and prayers themselves. The Mass is ultimately about the worship and adoration of God, not about any emotional response it may invoke.

Msgr. Marini explains on this point that, “the reason why everything in the liturgical act, through the nobility, the beauty, and the harmony of the exterior sign, must be conducive to adoration, to union with God: this includes the music, the singing, the periods of silence, the manner of proclaiming the Word of the Lord, and the manner of praying, the gestures employed, the liturgical vestments and the sacred vessels and other furnishings, as well as the sacred edifice in its entirety.” Everything that is done, or supposed to be done at Mass is directed to helping us lift up our hearts and minds to God.

As a former high school chaplain I often heard from the students, “I don’t get anything out of the Mass” or “it is so hard to pay attention or stay focused.” I don’t believe for a minute that this response is limited to teenagers, even though they may express in a more straightforward manner. The same is true however of any event or activity that we attend. If we are unfamiliar with what is happening or to the real beauty in how it is executed, then certainly, we will not appreciate or be able to enter into it.

For example, I remember the first professional soccer game that I went to in Italy. I knew the basic point of the game was to kick the ball into the opponents net and I knew that you couldn’t use your hands, but that was the extent of my awareness of the game. I didn’t understand strategy or the concept of being off sides or how the individual players functioned together as a team. There was an initial excitement about being in a huge stadium with thousands of screaming Romans, but after that initial excitement faded away, I was quite bored.

I imagine that this feeling is similar to that of those who “get nothing out of the Mass” or find it “boring.” When one is unfamiliar with the beauty and the sacredness of such an encounter with God, then that response is almost natural. The question that I continually asked myself as a high school chaplain, trying to foster in the students an appreciation and love for the Mass, was “how do we reclaim the sense of wonder and awe of the Mass that the generations of Catholics before us experienced?”

Over and over again, I came to the same conclusion which is twofold. On the part of the Church, first we must persistently provide and embrace an ongoing catechesis for Catholics of all ages and states of life. How can we live out our faith and celebrate it liturgically if we are unaware of what we truly believe as Catholics?

The second thing that is necessary is to provide reverent and solemn celebrations of the Mass allowing its natural beauty to lead us into contact with the divine presence of God. There is nothing I or any other priest can do to make the mass more beautiful or engaging or interesting than it already is on its merits – at each Mass Jesus Christ becomes truly present – there is nothing more awesome than that!

These are the things the Church provides. Each of us however has the responsibility to actively seek to grow in our faith and not just go about things as passive members of the Church. If we are to “get more” out of the Mass, we ought to first strive to understand the Mass by reflecting upon how we approach Mass in the first place. We need to ask the question, “is this about worshiping and praising God?” or “is it about me and how it makes me feel?”

 

 

 


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Keeping Holy the Sabbath Day

“This is the day which the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).

As we begin the Columbus Day holiday weekend, I was thinking about when I was assigned to St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth, where we were blessed to have many summer visitors. The number of people that flock to Cape Cod during the summer months make it necessary for so many of the parishes to add extra Masses to accommodate those on vacation. At St. Patrick’s we had the Chapel of St. Thomas that was open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, allowing us to have an additional four weekend Masses. I personally think it was a great witness of faith that so many people see the necessity of attending Sunday Mass, even when on vacation.

However, we shouldn’t get into the frame of mind of thinking that this is something extraordinary. Our attendance and participation at Sunday Mass is something that is central and essential for all Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “the Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice; for this reason, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation” which includes every Sunday of the year (Catechism, 2181).

However, it is no huge revelation that in recent years the number of people keeping the Lord’s Day holy is in a steady decline. Many people may fondly remember the days when Sunday was a day for God and family, when stores were not open, when there were no youth sporting events interfering with morning Mass as a family. It is clear that Sunday has become just another day of the week.

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In response to this ever-increasing predicament, our late Holy Father, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote the Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, on the importance of keeping the Lord’s Day holy. It is clear that the Pope was keenly aware that the crisis of Sunday observance reflects the crisis within the Catholic Church and of Christianity in general.

The “strikingly low” attendance to the Sunday liturgy reflects in the Pope’s view the fact that “motivation of faith is weak” and “seems to be diminishing” (Dies Domini, 5). John Paul II reminded us of the ever-present sacredness of Sunday by tracing through Sacred Scripture the significance and the relevance of Sunday Worship. From the natural creation of the world at the beginning of time to the re-creation of the supernatural order at the moment of the Resurrection, the Lord’s Day is meant to be observed and kept holy. The natural question to ask is why have we lost a sense reverence for the Lord’s command to keep this day sacred, as we find in the 3rd Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11). Where did we go wrong? When did we lose the sense of fulfilling our Christian obligation? Why is Sunday no longer important?

We can spend a lot of time trying to answer that particular question and trying to find the moment or series of events that led us to this point. What is most important, however, is that we reclaim the sanctity and importance of Sunday as both a day of rest and a day of worship. Pope John Paul II explained that “even if in the earliest times it was not judged necessary to be prescriptive, the Church has not ceased to confirm this obligation of conscience, which rises from the inner need felt so strongly by the Christians of the first centuries. It was only later, faced with the half-heartedness or negligence of some, that the Church had to make explicit the duty to attend Sunday Mass” (Dies Domini, 47).

After describing many challenging situations around the world, Pope John Paul II also highlighted the fact that there are “many who wish to live in accord with the demands of their faith that are being faced with surroundings which are sometimes indifferent and unresponsive to the Gospel message.” He goes on to say that, “if believers are not to be overwhelmed, they must be able to count on the support of the Christian community. This is why they must be convinced that it is crucially important for the life of faith that they should come together with others on Sundays to celebrate the Passover of the Lord in the sacrament of the New Covenant (Dies Domini, 48).

It is simply so sad when so many Christians have forgotten about or neglected the importance of Sunday worship. This is the most basic part of our Christian identity and yet it has become one of the easiest things to dismiss. But we can not just shake our heads and agree that this is disappointing. Our Lord calls each of us to invite others back to a regular practice of the faith, especially in the communal observance of Sunday Mass.

Today more than ever, the Church is unwilling to settle for minimalism and mediocrity at the level of faith. She wants to help Christians to do what is most correct and pleasing to the Lord” (Dies Domini., 52). Many have gone astray, especially in their worthy reception of the sacraments and their lack of attendance and participation at Sunday Mass. Some even think that it is no big deal to consciously skip Mass on Sundays or on Holy Days, even when the Church is clear that those who “deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (Catechism, 2181). We can not stand by and allow others to persist in their sin. The Lord calls each of us to be his witnesses (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). The Lord calls each of us to witness to our friends and members of our families the importance of Sunday and this is fundamentally exemplified by our keeping the Lord’s Day holy and sacred.

 

 


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Praying the Rosary in the Month of October

The months of May and October have traditionally been recognized by the Church as months dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and in particular to the devotion of praying the rosary.

I am pretty sure that everyone knows what a rosary is and that many people actually have one, but do we actually pray it? My fear is that we have allowed it to become a symbol of our faith stripped of its meaning and significance. What I mean here is that there is a growing trend to hang a rosary from one’s rear-view mirror or around one’s neck as a piece of jewelry rather than to actually pray the rosary or to mediate upon the mysteries they represent.

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Although ever a topic of tension among Catholics and non-Catholics, “The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Mother is intrinsic to Christian worship,” as Blessed Pope Paul VI explained in “Marialis cultus” in 1974. The Church rightly honors the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times, Mary has been honored with the title “Mother of God” to whose protection, faithful Disciples of Christ Jesus have sought throughout the centuries” (CCC, 971).

“Devotion” to Mary, and all the saints for that matter, should not be confused with “Adoration,” which is essentially different, and given only to the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father and to God the Holy Spirit. When we “pray to Mary,” we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sent his Son to save all humanity. Like the beloved disciple St. John, we welcome Jesus’ mother into our lives, for she has become the “new Eve,” the mother of all the living. The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope (cf. LG 68-69).

Mary first gave her consent of faith at the Annunciation and maintained it throughout her life without hesitation even at the foot of the Cross, where she watched her only Son crucified. Ever since then, her motherhood has extended to the disciples her Son “who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties.” Because of Mary’s singular cooperation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with Mary, to magnify with her the great things the Lord has done for her” (CCC 2682).

Throughout the centuries, many different titles have been attributed to our Blessed Mother, including “Our Lady of the Rosary” which is celebrated on October 7th. The feast was established by Pope Pius V in 1571, attributing the victory at Lepanto to the intercession of the Blessed Mother though the rosary, which prevented the Islamic invasion of Europe.

Pope Paul VI explained that, “the liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and the Marian prayer, such as the rosary which is “an “epitome of the whole Gospel,” express this devotion to the Virgin Mary” (MC 42). Each of these liturgical feasts of Mary invites us to reflect upon the life of our Blessed Mother, who is the most perfect of all of Christ’s disciples.

The Rosary is a centuries-old way of praying. According to tradition, the rosary was given to Saint Dominic in an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary around the year 1214. It seems however, that the history of the rosary goes back to the early Middle Ages when lay Christians began praying 150 Our Fathers and 150 Hail Marys in imitation of the monks who would pray all 150 psalms each day. They would recite these prayers while counting knots that they had tied on a cord. By the middle of the 11th century, beads began to be used.

The rosary is one of the traditional paths of Christian prayer directed to the contemplation of the face of Christ. Although obviously Marian in character (reciting the Hail Mary), the prayer is actually very Christ-centered in the fact that the mysteries which are meditated upon are reflections on the life of Christ.

“Meditation on the mysteries of the rosary as a form of prayer engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of our mental faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our hearts, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Mediation upon the mysteries of the rosary leads us to contemplation. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value to those seeking to deepen their relationship with our Lord. But Christian prayer should always go further, reaching to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus and to union with Him” (cf. CCC 2708)

In his Apostolic Letter on the rosary in 2002, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope John Paul II explained, “The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, which gradually took form in the second millennium under the guidance of the Spirit of God, is a prayer loved by countless saints and encouraged by the Magisterium. Simple yet profound, it still remains, at the dawn of this third millennium, a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness.

The rosary blends easily into the spiritual journey of the Christian life, which, after two thousand years, has lost none of the freshness of its beginnings and feels drawn by the Spirit of God to “set out into the deep” in order once more to proclaim, and even cry out, before the world that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, “the way, the truth and the life” (RVM 1).

Each day in October, and then again in May, I will be praying one day of the rosary with our school children at the beginning of the day to teach them this great tradition.


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Respect Life Sunday (TV Mass)

Here is the link to the recording of the TV Mass that I recorded for Respect Life Sunday. We must all work together to build up the Culture of Life!

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