Friday, March 30, 2007

Pope Benedict On Confession

Pope Benedict recently preached on confession to young people in preparation for World Youth Day during a penitential service. He said that "The heart of all mankind ... thirsts for love". "God's love for us which began with the creation, became visible in the mystery of the Cross. ... A crucified love that does not stop at the outrage of Good Friday but culminates in the joy of the Resurrection ... and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love by which, this evening too, sins will be remitted and forgiveness and peace granted."

The Sacrament of Confession is a beautiful sacrament. It is humbling as a priest to hear confessions. With sincerity, the penitent tells of the faults and failings, their sins. They seek to be restored to the love of Christ. Whatever their sins, no matter how seemingly minor to the most extreme, they feel the separation from God. To celebrate the sacrament with them, and to speak the words of forgiveness, is to encounter Christ's love for both confessor and penitent.

Bishop Vasa's column on Vocations

Bishop Vasa of Baker, OR, recently wrote a column on vocations. He writes "I am convinced that there is no shortage of young men being called to a life of service to Christ’s Church as priests. The shortage rests not in the number being called but only in the number responding to the invitation." He speaks of the noise that fills our culture that drowns out the voice of God calling young men to the priesthood, and the need of parents to allow their children to respond to that call. Like our own Bishop Nienstedt, Bishop Vasa calls all to pray for vocations.
"... Some of the young men in this class have considered and are considering a possible vocation to the priesthood as an option for them. Whether their initial hearing of that gentle call will ultimately result in a definitive affirmative response depends upon parental support, pastoral encouragement and prayers; lots and lots of prayers. Vocations do come from families but vocations also come from Parishes. It often happens that several vocations will come from the same Parish several years in a row. It often happens that small rural Parishes produce three of four priestly vocations in a span of as many years. It often happens that a number of religious vocations will spring from the families of one Parish. It is, in part, a mystery of God’s grace but it is also a sign that, in those Parishes where vocations are prayed for, esteemed and actively encouraged young men are more likely to hear and heed the Lord’s invitation to be priests and young women are more likely to hear and heed the Lord’s invitation to serve as Religious. The promotion of vocations to the priesthood and religious life needs to be a routine activity of every Parish, a routine activity of every parishioner."

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Annunciation

Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation, c. 1472-75

Normally, the feast that we celebrate today, the Annunciation, is celebrated on March 25, but because the 25th is on a Sunday and the Sunday of Lent has precedence. This feast is, of course, the celebration of the announcement of the Angel to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she was to bear the Son of the Most High. Without knowing how this was to be, she places her trust in the Lord and the message of the Angel. Her response, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me, according to your word" (Ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbus tuum in Latin.)

The Blessed Mother is the model of vocation. She places her trust, and indeed her whole life, in God. She responds, not knowing the fullness of how, the mechanics perhaps, but knowing that God's plan was good. She is willing to become a virgin mother.

We might have questions about the mechanics of what God is inviting us, but the Blessed Mother shows us that it is in responding to the will of God that we come to understand.

Dear Blessed Virgin Mary, you are full of grace.
We celebrate the message of the incarnation of your Son,
and your Fiat to the message of the angel.
Help me to respond to God's loving will as you did.
Help me to let go of the questions,
the worries that prevent me for saying yes with self-abandonment.
Be my strong advocate
as you take my intercession to know God's will
to our King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Reflection on the Fifth Sunday of Lent

The story of the woman caught in adultery is a powerful story on which to reflect, especially in light of vocations. The unknown woman, 'caught in the very act of adultery', is brought before Jesus for his judgment. The Pharisees and scribes are setting a trap - is Jesus going to dismiss her to continue on her way (a misguided notion of Mercy), or is he going to consent in her death (an equally misguided notion of Justice, after all, the man was also guilty).

Jesus begins writing on the ground with his finger - what he wrote no one knows, but perhaps this does not matter. He was writing just as the Father did when He inscribed the Law on the stone tablets on Sinai. Jesus was writing a new law, tempered in love. He states simply that the one without sin is the one who is to carry out the sentence. He returns to his scribbling. All walk away, leaving the woman. Jesus does not simply dismiss her, but calls her to conversion, to sin no more. He, who is all holy and sinless, could have carried out the sentence, but calls her to repentance.

Many young men, feeling the call, allow the condemnation that results from their sins to forbid them from responding. But in the same way, Jesus invites us to trust in his mercy, to seek forgiveness of our sins and the grace to go forward. As so many have said and repeated, there is no saint without a past, and no sinner without a future. Our sins are never as great as God's mercy, and if we are willing to seek forgiveness and sin no more, we can go on, to respond to God's grace freely.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Priestly Celibacy By Cardinal Hummes

Cardinal Hummes, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy, recently released an article on priestly celibacy to mark the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In the article, the Cardinal summarizes the Pope's letter.

The Cardinal writes: "Celibacy is a gift that Christ offers to men called to the priesthood. This gift must be accepted with love, joy and gratitude. Thus, it will become a source of happiness and holiness. Paul VI gave three reasons for sacred celibacy: its Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological significance." It is a great summary, easy to read, and well-footnoted. Check it out.

The Necessity of Assent

Diogenes, republishes an address by C.S. Lewis to Anglican clergymen regarding the necessity for assent to Church teaching among the clergy for proper Church order. Lewis and Diogenes lead us to the edge to understanding that to attempt to be a dissenter from within the Church is to place oneself outside the Church, usually above the Church in judgment.

For this reason, the Church teaches what she believes, and requires her priests to profess it. If God is calling a man to the priesthood, the man is being called to the fullness of the truth, and to teach it to the best of his ability. This does not mean, perhaps, that the priest knows everything and understands with perfect clarity the faith, but that he gives his full assent to the faith, and willingly submits to the Church. Anything else is less, and certainly to say that one can know better than the 2000 years of Tradition is to yield to a spirit of arrogance!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pope Benedict on Pope St. Clement of Rome

In the recent months, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has been focusing his Wednesday Audiences on the apostles and early witnesses to the Christian faith. On March 7, 2007, his audience address focused on St. Clement of Rome, the third successor of Peter. Pope Benedict states that St. Clement's letter to the Corinthians was addressing a recent controversy regarding the role of priests in the community. He wrote:
"The clear distinction between the "laymen" and the hierarchy does not mean, in any way, a contraposition but only the organic connection of a body, of an organism with different functions. In fact, the Church is not a place for confusion and anarchy, where someone can do whatever he wants at any time; each one in this organism with an articulated structure practices his ministry according to the vocation received.
As pertains to the heads of the communities, Clement specifies clearly the doctrine of apostolic succession. The laws that regulate this derive from God himself in an ultimate analysis. The Father sent Jesus Christ, who in turn sent the apostles. These then sent out the first heads of the communities, and established that they would be followed by worthy men. Therefore, all proceeds in "an orderly way, according to the will of the word of God"
With these words, with these phrases, St. Clement underlines that the Church has a sacramental structure, not a political structure. God's actions that come to us in the liturgy precede our decisions and our ideas. The Church is above all a gift of God and not a creature of ours and therefore this sacramental structure not only guarantees the common order but also the precedence of the gift of God that we all need. "

We can take at least a little comfort to know that the modern day struggles with those who think that the priesthood is outmoded due to the heightened awareness of the role of the laity is not so modern. Some men are ordained to the priesthood for the service of God and His Church. They are configured to Christ in such a way that they are in persona Christi capitis, and as such is 'ordered in his very being' to provide the sacraments. This not a slight to the laity - each and every human being has a vocation, and will be held responsible for putting that vocation to use in the Church.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Baptism requires a decision to Follow!

Diogenes, in his fine blog Off the Record linked on Catholic World News, provides commentary on a recent interview with Fr. Ron Rohlheiser by US Catholic. In the interview, Fr. Rohlheiser addresses the two 'schools' of thought in the Church today, the school of what I would call "the Church is for those who desire to follow Christ" versus "the Church is for all who hope for salvation whether they know Christ or not". By way of example, Fr. Rohlheiser references an Episcopalian parish that baptized anyone who wished to be, with numbers a "couple hundred", out of which they gained 60-70 "good Episcopalians". Such a practice is completely out of sync with the Catholic Church's understanding of Baptism. Baptism requires a conscious decision to follow Christ and to adhere to the teachings of the Church of baptism. Yes, as Catholics, we believe in infant baptism, but it is the parents who choose for the child, and stand in proxy of sorts, that this child will follow Christ. Baptism is not a magic formula that provides a free pass to heaven, but rather a Sacrament which covenants one to God and the Church. That covenant must be lived out. While this Episcopalian Church may have gained a few good members, they also gained quite a few members that perhaps have no idea of the gift and vocation they just received in being baptized! Are the newly baptized going to be invited to respond to God's will?

As we approach Easter and the great Mystery of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, we are to see this as a great time of grace to renew our commitment to Christ and the Church, to respond to God's will for our lives, and to move beyond ourselves into greater faith.

Monday, March 19, 2007

St. Joseph and Vocations

On the March 19th of every year, we mark the Solemnity of St. Joseph, foster father of the Lord. I offer for your reflection the following article. It is an excerpt taken from "Life with Joseph", by Fr. Paul J. Gorman (A priest of the New Ulm Diocese who died in 2001), published by The Leaflet Missal Company. Copies of this book may by found by contacting the Institute on Religious Life, Box 41007, Chicago, IL 60641.

The remarkable and multifaceted character of St. Joseph made it possible for him to be declared the example and patron not only of Christian families, but also of those involved in other forms of vocational or professional endeavor. Consider the following:

Totally Committed to Christ: Although a family man by divine appointment, Joseph's intimate association with Jesus and Mary during the years at Nazareth qualified him for the position of patron of those committed to Christ in the priestly and religious vocations. Who more than St. Joseph knew the meaning of poverty, chastity and obedience? Who, more than he, was totally committed to the interests of our Blessed Lord and His Immaculate Mother? Joseph was united to Our Lady by the bond of matrimony yet he, like his virginal Spouse, placed his love, life and energies at the service of the Child Jesus. At no time was there a diminishing of his gift of himself to the One who, though He was God, had accepted a position of obedience and submission to His foster-father. For Joseph, no sacrifice was too great for the fulfillment of his responsibilities toward Him whom the angel had said: "They shall call him Emmanuel, a name which means 'God is with us.'"

Like Joseph, a priest is placed in an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As he stands at the altar, he holds in his hands the same Jesus who was born in a stable and laid in a manger. At consecration time, a priest once again envelops Jesus in the swaddling clothes of the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. He bends his knee in adoration and allowance to the One to whom he has chosen to commit himself in a life of loving service. Like Joseph, the true priest will never compromise nor diminish his total commitment to Jesus and to His Mystical Body, the Church. Joseph should always be for the priest an attractive and a powerful intercessor in his efforts to live his sacerdotal commitment with unflagging zeal and limitless generosity.

Virtues Perfectly Practiced: What is said of the priesthood applies also in general to the religious life. The evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience were practiced perfectly in the home of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The Holy Family therefore becomes the pattern for religious life in monasteries and convents. Those who seek perfection in a religious community should cultivate a special relationship to St. Joseph and Mary; he can--by his example and intercession--bring to those in religious life to an ever-deepening union with Our Lord and His Blessed Mother.

Look to Joseph: St. Joseph is a patron par excellence of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. In this period of vocational shortages everywhere, it never ceases to be a source of wonderment that bishops and religious superiors seem to be totally unaware of the value of devotion to Joseph as an effective means of finding worthy candidates to fill half-empty seminaries and novitiates. Instead of spending time in useless complaining about vocational problems, Episcopal and religious authorities would do well to direct their concerns--in urgent prayer--to a presently untapped source of unfailing and efficacious assistance, St. Joseph. He who dedicated his life to the service of God's Son will hardly show less interest in obtaining suitable candidates for the service of His Church. If the great St. Teresa of Avila, doctor of the Church and specialist in mystical and contemplative prayer, did not hesitate to enlist the intercessory power of St. Joseph in the work of spiritual reform of the Order of Carmel and in the establishment of many new monasteries under the powerful patronage of the Head of the Holy Family, should there be reluctance on the part of church leadership to use Joseph's help in solving the problem of a vocational shortage?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reflection on the Fourth Sunday of Lent

This Sunday, we hear perhaps the most well-known parable of the New Testament - the Prodigal Son. This parable is perhaps misnamed. The word 'prodigal' means extravagant. The son was extravagant with his father's money given to him as his inheritance to the point of ending up feeding pigs and wishing for the pigs’ food (indeed, a bad situation for a Jewish man who became ritually unclean by his proximity to the swine.) But it was the Father who was truly extravagant. But justice, he was not obligated to give the son his inheritance, but he did. Further, he was not obligated to take the son back, but he does. He waited, watching for the sign of his son to return to him, and rushes to the son brought low by his reckless lifestyle. The father gives the son a ring, a robe, and sandals, all of which are symbols of status and identity. The father restores his son to his former status as a son through the extravagance of his mercy and love.

Of course, the elder son is angry, but he himself did not know who he was. In the context of the story, one could get the sense that he saw himself as only a servant. He could not share in his father’s joy, because he did not see himself as a son. In leaving the parable hanging with the son outside, Jesus is hinting that the listener is the elder son - is he going to go in and not only share his father's joy, but also 'claim' his own identity as a son? Is he going to stay bitter, and remain outside in the dark?

In our vocations, those questions are ours to ask. We may be like the younger son. We may have walked, perhaps even run, away from our Heavenly Father's love. We squandered His riches to the point of ending up alone and hungry. We are invited to return, and when we do we find that God waiting to bestow an identity on us. With that, we can submit ourselves in love to His extravagance . But perhaps even more important for most of us is to become aware that we might be the elder son – that we might not know that God loves us, but see ourselves as only servants. The invitation for us with this is to know God’s love of us as his children. Yes, God gives us our dignity and identity, and when we live it out, we know the extravagance of His love.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Pope Benedict's Post-Synodal Aposotlic Exhortation

Pope Benedict issued his first Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist entitled Sacramentum Caritatis today (Find it here). Long expected, it came in God's appointed time, I believe, to give the Church time to deeply pray on this during our Lenten journey toward Easter, in which every Eucharist is a participation. In one particularly sticking passage, he addresses the current situation of the priest 'shortage' (I will try to address this in a later post), and its effects on the Eucharist.
The clergy shortage and the pastoral care of vocations

25. In the light of the connection between the sacrament of Holy Orders and the Eucharist, the Synod considered the difficult situation that has arisen in various Dioceses which face a shortage of priests. This happens not only in some areas of first evangelization, but also in many countries of long-standing Christian tradition. Certainly a more equitable distribution of clergy would help to solve the problem. Efforts need to be made to encourage a greater awareness of this situation at every level. Bishops should involve Institutes of Consecrated Life and the new ecclesial groups in their pastoral needs, while respecting their particular charisms, and they should invite the clergy to become more open to serving the Church wherever there is need, even if this calls for sacrifice. The Synod also discussed pastoral initiatives aimed at promoting, especially among the young, an attitude of interior openness to a priestly calling. The situation cannot be resolved by purely practical decisions. On no account should Bishops react to real and understandable concerns about the shortage of priests by failing to carry out adequate vocational discernment, or by admitting to seminary formation and ordination candidates who lack the necessary qualities for priestly ministry. An insufficiently formed clergy, admitted to ordination without the necessary discernment, will not easily be able to offer a witness capable of evoking in others the desire to respond generously to Christ's call. The pastoral care of vocations needs to involve the entire Christian community in every area of its life. Obviously, this pastoral work on all levels also includes exploring the matter with families, which are often indifferent or even opposed to the idea of a priestly vocation. Families should generously embrace the gift of life and bring up their children to be open to doing God's will. In a word, they must have the courage to set before young people the radical decision to follow Christ, showing them how deeply rewarding it is.
Sacramentum Caritatis,¶25

Pray for the Holy Spirit to rekindle in the hearts of all priests the burning love of the priesthood and the Eucharist, to be living flames that attract young men to say yes to the Call of God themselves. Pray for the Holy Spirit to enliven families to be open to a vocation from their midst. And pray that the Holy Spirit will speak to all to give their lives generously to the mission of Jesus Christ. This alone is the remedy for the Church's situation.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Reflection on the Third Sunday of Lent

Our readings this weekend focus on two bushes, both of which are entail a vocation. Moses sees a burning bush, and hears a God calling him, instructing him to return to Egypt and to lead the people Israel out of slavery. Through this call, God promises to be with Moses, to continue to give him the words to speak to Pharaoh, words that in the end will turn Pharaoh’s heart.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree that is unproductive being given the mercy of another year, to be challenged to begin to bear fruit. The context of the parable was two news items of the day (coincidentally, neither of which is known of except in this passage of Luke’s Gospel) – the fall of the tower at Siloam, and the bloody slaughter of the Galileans by Pilate in the Temple area. Jesus asks if they deserved such a gruesome and untimely death more than any else, and answers that repentance is necessary for all people. The Greek word is metanoia which means conversion or change of mind. It is a conversion that changes our perspective on life, a conversion that leads to the renewal of our minds to Christ. This parable demonstrates the need for this repentance. Such conversion is the fruit of the human heart responding to the saving grace of God. Just as prayer makes the person more charitable, this kind of repentance leads to fruits of good works.

In our response to the God’s call, we need to bear fruit to share with those around us. A vocation is not given to the individual for his or her own good, but for the good of all. Moses would not have lived his vocation out if he had not returned to Egypt to lead out the nation, just as the unproductive fig tree was not in essence fulfilling its mission by bearing figs. This fruitfulness is the test of our faithfulness to our vocation.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Vocations 101 - What is a vocation?

A vocation is the call of God to know, love, and serve Him. It is a call to be the person He has created us to be. It is saying yes to His grace.

So many see a vocation as if only those who are priests or religious have one. But God calls every person. Whether we believe in God or not, He has a plan for each of us. For those who do not explicitly know Christ, or even God, through responding to the Grace of God as they understand it and living in accordance to the natural law, they may find salvation through the unique action of Christ. No one is left out of God’s plan.

For those who know Christ, we are called to a deeper life (and invited to bring others into the faith). In our baptism, we receive our first Christian vocation – to be Catholics, to live the faith as we have received it and professed it, even if it was our parents who first responded for us. We enter into the Church and the sacramental life (visible signs of invisible grace). The baptism liturgy demonstrates a basic reality in vocations. We are identified by name (“What name to you give your child?”), and claimed for Christ by His cross. We are asked to reject Satan, all his works, and all his empty promises. We adhere to the Creed more fully only because of the full rejection of all that is false. We say no to lower things in order to say yes to the One that matters most! In the name of the Trinity, we are recreated and renewed.

God calls us to be His children, and to live as priests, religious, married, or a generous single life. But He calls us by name! He calls us as individuals with all of our uniqueness. But to follow Him, we need to say no to certain things. Many see a vocation as a set of no’s (no money, no spouse, no freedom, etc.) Like the rich man in the Gospels, they simply walk away, thinking the treasures they have are too great to let go. As a result, fail to seek God’s grace to live out their true vocations. They fail to see that every vocation has its own set of no’s. One who is married says no to all others for the sake of his or her spouse! Yes, priests and religious promise or vow to a life of poverty/simplicity, to celibacy, and to obedience, but they are saying yes to much more! Like the baptismal vows, they are willing to renounce some things in order to more fully adhere to and rely on Christ. God, who is faithful, responds by giving not only His grace, but of providing what is necessary for life and human thriving, of giving true and lasting love, and of finding a freedom in the obedience we give to those in authority.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Reflection on the Second Sunday of Lent

This Sunday, we hear from Luke's Gospel the Transfiguration. In the other gospels, we hear that Jesus lead them up a mountain, a place of encounter with God. Christ's appearance changes, He takes on His divine radiance. He is speaking about His 'exodus' with Moses and Elijah, the most 'powerful' prophets in the Old Testament. (They were succeeded by Joshua and Elisha, respectively, and these names mean the same as "Jesus" - that God Saves.) Jesus is about to complete the work they started - that through His Cross and resurrection, he was to free us and initiate us into a new covenant. Peter and the other disciples wake up to see it, and Peter knows he is in the presence of the Holy One of Israel. He desires to stay in the moment, to stay on the mountain. But, with all encounters, they must leave.

We are invited by Christ to a personal encounter, and all of our Christian lives depend on our being awake to notice the working of Christ. But just as the disciples, we cannot stay in the moment of encounter, but we can go back to plumb the depths of the encounter in our prayer. St. Peter did this, as he spoke of when he wrote, "We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, 'This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-19). He tells us that he knows the certainty of the faith because he was there, and how often he most have brought it to mind. Between the Transfiguration and the Resurrection, St. Peter found the grace to respond to God.

Permit me to list some steps for discernment based on the Transfiguration events. Such a process can help us be aware our own vocation.

1. Become aware of the presence of Christ (and wake up if we are 'asleep'). Read Scripture, attend Mass attentively, participate in the other Sacraments, adore the Blessed Sacrament. Christ is present and is waiting for us to come into His presence, He longs for us to encounter Him.

2. Listen to His Voice. Christ will speak to us, drawing our hearts in love. A Catholic spiritual director may be of assistance to help you hear and listen to Christ.

3. Be aware we need to move on, but also revisit the encounter in our prayer. St. Ignatius of Loyola suggested a practice he called 'repetition' - of returning to the experience through our prayer.

4. Respond. If we are only aware of the encounter, but do not let the experience move us to action, we render the encounter empty. We are asked to live differently, even if it means simply feeling a little more joyful.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Snow Day Mass

With the recent blizzard, most things are closed, canceled, or postponed. Honestly, I think that this is the worst blizzard we have had since I was ordained. Even in the parishes, all things are canceled except Mass.

As a priest, I know that the most important thing I do is celebrate Mass with deliberateness, decorum, and dedication. Whether Mass on Sunday or weekday, whether the Church is full or empty, the Mass is still sacred and efficacious. The parishioners I serve (and all Catholics of all time and space) deserve it. After all, as so many have reminded us, the Mass is not the priest's nor the parishioners. It is the Church's, past, present, and future. It is not just offered in this place, but is united with all places. Yes, truly this is the mystery. His Holiness Pope John Paul II wrote so beautifully in his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (find it here), that the Eucharist is a cosmic event:
This varied scenario of celebrations of the Eucharist has given me a powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak, cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation, in one supreme act of praise, to the One who made it from nothing. He, the Eternal High Priest who by the blood of his Cross entered the eternal sanctuary, thus gives back to the Creator and Father all creation redeemed. He does so through the priestly ministry of the Church, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity. Truly this is the mysterium fidei which is accomplished in the Eucharist: the world which came forth from the hands of God the Creator now returns to him redeemed by Christ. EDE ¶8

While so much of what His Holiness writes in this excellent Encyclical is powerful, I find this paragraph as inspiring. Whether are celebrating Mass in an empty Church or with a congregation of millions, we are never alone. We are joined by the saints and angels, though unseen, no less than present. And Christ, Himself, is no less present!

What greater act of praise can we offer than to celebrate Mass!