Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monday of the First Week of Advent - St. Francis Xavier

Many will come from the east and west,
and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
at the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Matthew 8:11

In the First Reading and Gospel of today’s Mass, we hear, as if for the first time, the promise of the Lord’s Advent: “For over all, the Lord’s glory will be a shelter and protection.” The promised Messiah, the Long-Awaited One of Israel, comes to offer salvation for all God’s children. Isaiah saw the vision of a world cleansed from its fear and sin, a world where God’s glory would be manifest to all. In Jesus, this promise is fulfilled.   

Opening our hearts to hear this promise in a new way this Advent, we remember the great missionary, Saint Francis Xavier. Inspired by no other motive than a desire to spread the Gospel, this holy, simple priest left the security of his Jesuit community to set out on a mission that took him to India, numerous islands in the South Pacific, Japan, and finally, to a small island off the coast of China where he died alone, watching and waiting for the Lord he had loved so much.

Enflamed with a desire to see the Good News of the Lord’s Coming proclaimed in a new land, Francis Xavier, recognized his responsibility to evangelize and share the light of faith. On this first Monday of Advent, pray that the Holy Spirit will renew the flame of faith within your heart, so that you, like this missionary-priest, may be generous enough to pass along the light of faith that has been entrusted to you.
 
 
Prayer for Monday of the First Week of Advent +
Keep us alert, we pray, O Lord our God,
as we await the advent of Christ your Son,
so that, when he comes and knocks,
he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The First Sunday of Advent - What are We Waiting For?

Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: “Watch!”
—Mark 13:35-37

If there is one thing that can be said about the season of Advent, it is this: Advent is not Christmas. The blue-purples of vestments, hangings, and candles, the emphasis on preparation and expectation in Advent Scripture readings and carols, and the pervasive themes of judgment, restoration, and re-creation have little to do with the sights and sounds that fill shopping malls, homes, too many churches, and most hearts these days. We love Christmas and our secular culture, which really only gives a polite nod to the seasons and feast of the Christian Year, has enabled us to forget that we can really only celebrate the new-born light of Christmas after we have dwelt in the darkness of Advent.

Sadly, we church types aren’t all that better at keeping Advent than our secular neighbors.

The distinctive nature of Advent is really driven home if we pay attention to the Readings chosen for this First Sunday of Advent. This is a season of encounter and Incarnation. As I stress when I’m giving Advent retreats and times of reflection, this season isn’t really about little baby Jesus lying in the manger. That’s because, during Advent, our attention should be focused on preparing to meet Christ not only as the infant of Bethlehem, but also as the Lord of Time who will bring to completion the transformation that was begun in the Incarnation. In his Preparing for Christmas, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., explains this Advent waiting in this way:
“Come, Lord Jesus,” the Advent mantra, means that all of Christian history has to live out a kind of deliberate emptiness, a kind of chosen non-fulfillment. Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves. This is exactly what it means to be “awake,” as the Gospel urges us! We can also use other a words for Advent: aware, alive, attentive, alert, awake are all appropriate! Advent is above all else, a call to full consciousness and a forewarning about the high price of consciousness.

Like every season of the Christian Year, Advent is really a celebration of the Paschal Mystery—the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Each season allows us to approach these mysteries with a slightly different view, like the facets of a jewel. As the light and perspective of each season plays off the stone, we are able to recognize colors and even textures or shapes that are always part of the jewel, but which we can miss if we only ever look from one angle or point of view.

Advent is the season that reminds us that we are still waiting for the fulfillment of what was begun in the Incarnation and continued in Jesus' Death and Resurrection (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 671-672). Unfortunately, this sense of incompleteness - "until he comes again" - is crowded out by our pre-Christmas decorations and festivities. And so, when Christmas finally comes, the great Christmas Season lacks the real sense of fulfillment and joy that it might otherwise have. Living in the tension of Advent isn’t easy and few of us want to spend time waiting in darkness.

Chapel of Thanks designed by Philip Johnson
with windows by Gabriel Loire
in Thanks-Giving Square, Dallas, Texas

And so, we’re left with a question: What are we waiting for this Advent? Are we—are you—waiting for anything?

Advent is concerned with the future, not the past. Christ has already been born and all of creation was changed when Jesus was born of Mary so many centuries ago. And so, if our Advent waiting is only about looking forward to a celebration of Jesus’ “birthday” on December 25, then both Advent and even Christmas itself have little purpose, beyond being just another anniversary on the calendar. But, because Advent is about looking within and recognizing those places within us and in our world where the darkness of sin, fear, hopelessness, and grief still flourish, we need these blessed days to pray and watch for the coming of the dawn of that day when the Sun of Justice will drive the darkness away. And so, we watch and wait. We light candles to remind us that the darkness is being conquered by the One who is the Light of the World. Above all, we hope.

In a wonderful booklet called “Waiting for God: The Grace of Advent,” spiritual writer Alice Camille observes,
If we wait for nothing, then it’s not Advent waiting. If we’ve grown past the nostalgia and commercial-driven aspects of the season, that’s not a bad thing. The ghost of the past is not our only visit this season, as Charles Dickens reminded us in A Christmas Carol. We’re not simply looking backward at another year gone, along with its opportunities, companions, and choices. Even the babe in his cradle of straw—Christ in the rear-view mirror—isn’t the only Savior on the horizon. When we Advent together, our focus is primarily forward.

God promises a new creation of justice and peace. And the fulfillment of this promise is the focus of our Advent waiting and prayer. This is precisely what we’re praying for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.” How have so many of us missed this?

So, don’t be passive this Advent and let this season be more than a pre-Christmas. Advent is a season of discipleship and change. Watch! Pay attention! These aren’t empty ideas—these are the instructions we have received from Jesus himself. Watch for the ultimate coming of the One who has promised to restore all things, but also pay attention to the ways in which he is being born for and in you each and every day. Make time this season to sit in the quiet and the darkness and, with Mary and the prophets of old, watch for the coming of the Light so that at Christmas you can truly sing Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
 
 
Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent +
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming,
so that, gathered at his right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


*A special note: Each day of Advent I will be posting a special reflection drawn from the Mass readings for the day and the life of saint or beati whose life embodies the virtues and teachings of the season.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Kingdom of God: Thanksgiving, English Martyrs, and Ferguson

I, John, saw in heaven another sign, great and awe-inspiring:
seven angels with the seven last plagues,
for through them God’s fury is accomplished.

Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire.
On the sea of glass were standing those
who had won the victory over the beast
and its image and the number that signified its name.
They were holding God’s harps,
and they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God,
and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and wonderful are your works,
Lord God almighty.”
—Revelation 15:1-3b

In these final days of the Church Year, the daily Readings present images of plagues, persecution, and parousia. They certainly stand in stark contrast with the festive Thanksgiving spirit that we try to claim as a nation, even as families hurry through their holiday meals to rush out for Black Friday deals… on Thanksgiving.  

The mix of the end-of-times language and imagery presented by our liturgy and the abundance of Thanksgiving reflects the very real tensions that exist in each of our lives. We have much to be grateful for, but we live in an imperfect, often unjust world. But the imperfection and injustice are not the end of our story. We have hope in a God who is always guiding history and who has given each of us a role to play in the salvation of the world. 

November 26 marks the anniversary of the execution of two English martyrs: Blessed Hugh Taylor and Blessed Marmaduke Bowes. Little is known of these two men, who were beatified with 83 other martyrs from England, Scotland, and Wales in 1987. But, as I was reflecting on these two holy men, I was struck by how their witness captures the tensions of this time of year, especially in these days when so many in America are protesting unjust systems and government processes. 

Hugh Taylor, a priest, had been born in Durham, England, around the year 1559. Because of the deadly persecution of English Catholics under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, he had studied for the priesthood at the English seminary in Reims, France. Ordained in 1584, he was immediately sent to work in secret among England’s recusant Catholics. 

Little more than a year later, he encountered Marmaduke Bowes. Bowes was a husband and father who had outwardly conformed to the laws that demanded that English Christians take part in the services of the government-sanctioned Church of England. It is unclear if Father Taylor had actually stayed in Bowes home, or if he had simply been given a drink at the door. 

A short time later, Taylor was arrested and, upon hearing the news, Bowes went to York to see if there was something he could do to help free the priest. As a result of his efforts, he too was thrown into prison. Together, Taylor and Bowes were hanged, drawn, and quartered in York on November 26, 1585. They were the first to lose their lives under the newly passed “Act Against Jesuits, Seminary Priests and Other Suchlike Disobedient Subjects.” This law made it high treason for any priest ordained since the first day of Elizabeth’s reign to return to or remain in England and Wales, and for anyone to harbor or help such a priest.
 
"Christ in Majesty"
Stained glass window by John Piper
St. John's Hospital, Litchfield, UK
 

When I think about those Christians who have lived during times of persecution, I often wonder if they thought of passages like those chosen for the end of the Church Year. In the Gospel for today (Wednesday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time), we hear Jesus warning his disciples of coming persecution, but also assuring them: “You are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute… they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

For those Christians, the dark days they lived through may have seemed to be the end of time—just like many people we know might compare the disturbing images in Scripture with terrible things happening in the world today. But, we often forget that the harsh images used in Jesus’ teachings and texts like the one from Revelation quoted above were originally intended to build up the suffering believers’ hope and trust in God’s ultimate triumph. God was with them, regardless of what they were experiencing. (And, of course, we can also think of those Christians who are suffering for their faith today, especially in the Middle East.)

As Sr. Katherine Howard, O.S.B., observed in a reflection on these readings: “Our world, our neighborhoods, and our own lives confront us with many deeply troubling events. People suffer oppression and violence, as does the earth and sea and all their creatures. Our faith, hope, and love are tested. The good news is that God’s reign of justice and love will triumph in Christ who is with us and in us bringing ‘the divine work to fruitful completion,’ as we pray in today’s Collect. Our part is to stay faithful in prayer and to live in such a way as to make this a reality” (from Give Us This Day, November 2014). 

We can look to the great saints of the past for inspiration and encouragement—including Blessed Marmaduke Bowes, who, like one of the righteous in this past Sunday’s Gospel, welcomed the thirsting Christ and offered him refreshment and rest. Jesus assures us that he will always be with us and whatever challenges and trials we might be experiencing, suffering and death will never have the final say.

This is an important lesson for us this Thanksgiving, especially as we watch the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, continue to unfold. For the grieving families and citizens of that city—and so many like it across our nation—this Thanksgiving will be marred by the darkness of grief, loss, anger, fear, and a sense of betrayal. Only time will tell how true justice can come from this sad situation. But, like Blessed John Thayer and Blessed Marmaduke Bowes, we must also place our trust in Providence, commending all things to God’s Wisdom, while doing our part  to help make the healing power of the Kingdom of God more present in every corner of our broken world.

In a letter written days before his last missionary journey, Blessed John Mazzuconi, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (P.I.M.E.) who was martyred in 1855 on Woodlark Island in Papua New Guinea, wrote these words: “I only know one thing: that God is good and that He loves me immensely. All the rest, calm and storm, danger and security, life and death, are nothing more than momentary and changing expressions of the eternal and unchanging love.”

These reflections should remind us that we always have reasons to give thanks for all the blessings we’ve been given. Even when the world seems to be spinning out of control or when it seems the darkness will prevail, we do not have to be afraid. “The Lord has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice… Let the sea and what fills it resound, the world and those who dwell in it; / Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy. / Before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth; / He will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:3a, 7-9).


A prayer for the end of the Church Year +
Stir up the will of your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
that, striving more eagerly
to bring your divine work to fruitful completion,
they may receive in greater measure
the healing remedies your kindness bestows.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal,
Collect for the 34th Week of Ordinary Time)

 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Blesseds Luigi and Maria: Holding on to What Is Good

Let love be sincere;
hate what is evil, hold on to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
anticipate one another in showing honor.
Romans 12:9-10
 

 
During the Entrance Procession of the opening Mass of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis stopped for a moments to pray before three reliquaries that had been placed in St. Peter’s Basilica especially for the Synod. Two of the reliquaries were quite large and decorated with detailed figures and inscriptions—these reliquaries held the remains of Saint Thèrése of the Child Jesus and her parents, Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin. The 2008 beatification of the parents of the beloved “Little Flower” was a widely publicized event and was celebrated as a time to reflect on the holiness that is possible for married women and men. Placed alongside these ornate reliquaries, however, was a smaller, simpler one containing relics of another husband and wife who had been beatified seven years before the Louis and Zelie Martin: Blesseds Luigi and Maria Quattocchi. Like the Martins, Luigi and Maria have been held up by the Church as models for married couples.

Born in Catania, Italy, in 1880, Luigi Quattrocchi married Maria Corsini (who was born in 1881) on November 25, 1905.  Although Maria was initially the more devout of the two, she soon convinced her husband to accompany her to daily Mass. The couple eventually had four children with one son becoming a diocesan priest and the other a Trappist monk, while their elder daughter became a Benedictine nun. 
 
Luigi was a successful lawyer and he served as Deputy Attorney General of Italy. Maria, who was remembered for her love of education and music, volunteered with the Red Cross during the First World War and was a prominent member of Women’s Catholic Action. During the Second World War the couple opened their apartment to refugee families. 

Luigi died on November 9, 1951, and Maria followed on August 26, 1965. The couple had been married for forty-three years. As devotion to the couple began to spread among the faithful, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints decided that their causes would be considered jointly because, “It was impossible to distinguish their experience of sanctity, lived together so intimately.”  At the time of their beatification in 2001, it was decided that their commemoration would be celebrated on November 25—the anniversary of their marriage. Of their children, three were present for the ceremony, with their two sons concelebrating the Mass.

In his homily at the beatification of Blesseds Luigi and Maria, Pope Saint John Paul II declared: “Drawing on the word of God and the witness of the saints, the blessed couple lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way. Among the joys and anxieties of a normal family, they knew how to live an extraordinarily rich spiritual life. At the center of their life was the daily Eucharist as well as devotion to the Virgin Mary, to whom they prayed every evening with the Rosary, and consultation with wise spiritual directors… The riches of faith and love of the husband and wife Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, are a living proof of what the Second Vatican Council said about the call of all the faithful to holiness, indicating that spouses should pursue this goal, "propriam viam sequentes—following their own way" (Lumen gentium, n. 41). Today the aspiration of the Council is fulfilled with the first beatification of a married couple: their fidelity to the Gospel and their heroic virtues were verified in their life as spouses and parents.”
 
A photo taken of the Blesseds Luigi and Maria
near the end of Luigi's life.
 
The recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family highlighted the challenges that married couples and families face in our day, including a culture that seems to place little value on permanent commitments. Luigi and Maria Quattrocchi faced the challenges of marriage and parenthood as they also fulfilled their religious and professional obligations during two world wars, the rise of fascism in Italy, and, ultimately, failing health, and the separation that comes with death. They were not cookie cutter saints and their lives serve as a powerful reminder that holiness is available to us, whatever our state of life might be. As Pope Francis reminded all of us at a recent General Audience: “Holiness is not just for bishops, priests or religious... No. We are all called to become saints! So often, we are tempted to think that holiness is granted only to those who have the opportunity to break away from the ordinary tasks, to devote themselves to prayer… Indeed, it is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to become saints.”
 


A Prayer in honor of Blessed Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi +
Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that the example of your Saints may spur us on to a better life,
so that we, who celebrate the memory of blessed Luigi and Maria,
may also imitate without ceasing their deeds.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Living in the Kingdom

Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come.
—Psalm 23:5-6

When Pope Pius XI instituted a special feast honoring Christ “the King” in 1925, he lamented a world that had been ravaged by the First World War and which had begun to bow down before the lords of exploitative consumerism, nationalism, secularism, and new forms of injustice. The old power structures in Europe and the Middle East were fading into memory (including the colonial system that allowed European nations to claim holdings in Africa, South East Asia, and South America) and a new and uncertain world was rising in their place.


Pope Pius XI opening the "Holy Door"
for the 1925 Jubilee Year,
during which he instituted
the Feast of Christ the King
It would seem that Pope Pius began to understand that, for the Christian, the passing empires and colonies did not define who or whose they were. Instead, he reflected that the kingdom to which Christians belong is “spiritual and concerned with spiritual things… it demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross” (from the Enclyclical Quas primas, 15). Pope Pius envisioned “a dominion by a King of Peace who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be served but to serve.” (20) The reign of Christ embraces all people (cf. Daniel 7:14; Revelation 5:9-10).

Although the annual celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time has been part of my life for many, many years, last year I had an opportunity to experience this celebration in a very different context: with a Protestant community celebrating “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Their celebration provided a new perspective on what Pope Pius XI intended when he created this feast and for what it can mean for all of us today.

The idea of a “king” is very foreign to most people. In fact, there are only 29 sovereign monarchs in the world today. (This number would be 30, if we include Pope Francis as the sovereign head of Vatican City.) And yet, in our communities, many of us will sing great hymns like “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King” and “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” By limiting the focus of this feast to the kingship of Christ, we risk losing the broader view of what we are really celebrating today: our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. And the message that we hear today is that we can no longer identify simply ourselves as “American,” “Navajo,” “Italian,” “Dutch,” “Sudanese,” or “Thai.” We have been claimed by and for Christ in our baptism and our true home is in the Reign of Christ—a reality that surpasses the limits of boundaries, ethnicities, and even time itself. We are co-citizens of God’s Kingdom with all of the communion of saints.

The image of the Shepherd-King that we find repeated in the Readings for this year’s celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe give us a wonderful perspective not only on the reign of Christ, but also on our place within his Kingdom. As our shepherd, Christ claims each of us as a member of his flock.
 
I was struck as I reflected on this reading by the huge amount of press Pope Francis received last Holy Thursday when he reminded the Church’s pastors that they should have the smell of their sheep (after all, pastor is the Latin word for “shepherd”). But, as I reflected on this further, I realized that it isn’t just that the pastor should have the smell of the sheep… the sheep also smell like one another. Each of us, regardless of who we are, shares a common humanity and dignity. None of us can ever be separated from or placed above any other member of the human flock. That is what today’s celebration is about. We have one home and one identity—we are Christ’s and our true home is in the reign of our Shepherd-King. The celebration of the Solemnity of Christ the King is also a celebration of who we are as a people of faith, obedient to the One who rules all of creation in justice and mercy.

In a commentary on this Sunday’s celebration, Dr. John W. Martens observed:
Part of what made the shepherd-king imagery resonate is that sheep were not primarily intended for slaughter. Although sheep were food, their true economic value was found in their wool, a renewable resource. As a result, the shepherd was concerned not only to feed, care for and protect his sheep from predators but to increase his flock. So a shepherd had to know his flock intimately and had to protect the weak and the vulnerable in his flock from internal and external threats.

This intimacy with this flock is celebrated in the texts from Ezekiel and Matthew chosen for this feast. This is the reason why the Shepherd-King can also stand in judgment, separating the sheep from the goats. As we read in Matthew, the sheep will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” and the goats will be told to depart “into eternal fire.” Regardless of how we might understand words like “kingdom” and “fire,” the point is clear: those who will be rewarded are those who cared for the hungry and thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick and those imprisoned. Our Shepherd-King knows what is in the heart of each of us, including not only the times when we have lived up to our commitment as disciples, but also the times when we have failed to do the work that has been entrusted to us.  

"The Last Judgement"
in Ravenna's Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire in Classe (6th century)

In his book, The Dwelling of the Light, Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, shared these words:
To be in relation with Jesus is to be “in the truth,” even when we cannot formulate this in tidy philosophical language. And this also tells us that there is something in the being of God that is appropriately expressed in a vulnerable life, in the self-forgetfulness that brings ultimate truth to us in the limits of suffering and mortality. The nature of God is both irreducibly mysterious and completely expressed in God’s putting himself unreservedly at our disposal and our mercy in becoming embodied in human life.

The vulnerability and self-forgetfulness that Williams describes are the qualities of those who live in Christ’s Kingdom—his Reign—not in a hypothetical way or in some far-off future. Instead, the citizens of this Kingdom live lives that follow the pattern of the Shepherd who took on the “smell” of his sheep and who walked among them and who still walks among us.

As for the judgment and the time of separation…Saint Robert Bellarmine summarized all we need to know: “On the last day, when the general examination takes place, there will be no question at all on the texts of Aristotle, the aphorisms of Hippocrates, or the paragraphs of Justinian. Charity will be the whole syllabus.”

 
Prayer for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe +
Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the Universe,
grant, we pray,
that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
may render your majesty service
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Presentation of Mary: Celebrating Something that Never Happened

Mary calls me back to where I most want to be: to the heart of God which, as you know, is also the heart of the world. She calls me to let the passion of Jesus become my passion and his glory to become my glory. She calls me to move beyond the dos and don’ts of the morally correct life into an intimacy with God where I can live the sadness, pain, and anguish of this world while already tasting the gladness, joy, and peace of the glorified Lord.
—Henri Nouwen
 
Several years ago, I was attending daily Mass with a community of Benedictine monks. After making the Sign of the Cross and extending the greeting, the celebrant declared, “Today we are celebrating something that never happened.” It was November 21, the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The name for this particular feast of Mary is based on a tradition found in the Protoevangelium of James. This is an early Christian text which was circulating at the end of the second century and which became enormously popular in the Middle Ages. "Protoevangelium" means "First Gospel" and in this text we find stories about events that took place before the birth of Jesus, and special attention is given to the birth and childhood of Mary. It is in this “gospel” that we find the names of Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary. We also find many details surrounding the birth of Jesus that are absent from the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  

According to the text, Mary was offered to God in the Temple by her grateful, aged parents when she was three years old. This was done to fulfill a vow that Anne had made when an angel appeared to her, telling her the she would become the mother of a child who “will be spoken of throughout the entire world” (Pr. James 4:1). When the appropriate time came, the child Mary was presented in the Temple and received by the priest, who blessed her, saying, “The Lord has made your name great for all generations. Through you will the Lord reveal his redemption to the children of Israel at the end of time” (7:2). The text goes on to describe how, when the priest set Mary on the third step of the altar, God cast his glance down upon her and she “danced on her feet, and the entire House of Israel loved her” (7:3).   
 
"The Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple"
16th century Russian Icon

The images of this quaint and unusual story remind us of Psalm 45:10-15:

Listen, my daughter, and understand: pay me careful heed. Forget your people and your father’s house, that the king might desire your beauty. He is your Lord: honor him, daughter of Tyre.

All glorious is the king’s daughter as she enters, her raiment threaded with gold; in embroidered apparel she is led to the king. The maids of her train are presented to the king.

Despite the details provided by “James,” liturgists and Scripture scholars are quick to point out that the story of Mary’s presentation in the Temple is not based on actual events: there is no historical evidence that daughters were ever offered to God in the Temple (although firstborn sons were). And if we look at the readings and prayers that the Church uses in the liturgies for this celebration, we immediately notice that no mention is made of this story from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James 

In fact, what we are celebrating each November 21 is the anniversary of the dedication of a church, St. Mary “the New,” in Jerusalem. Dedicated on November 21, 543, the church was located on the southern side of the Temple Mount. That original building was destroyed in 614 following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. Today, the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands on the site. Whatever its origin, this special celebration of Mary on November 21 is an official part of the Church’s prayer… so, what can we learn from the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary? 

For centuries, members of certain religious communities have renewed their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience on this day, as a way of honoring the memory of the offering of Mary to the Lord’s service. As Saint Augustine says, “The blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood. Hers was the happiness of first bearing in her womb him whom she would obey as her master.” 

Each of us, as members of the Church, can imitate Mary in this mystery. God has called all of us, in our baptism, to dedicate ourselves to lives of service through our work and prayer. And Mary, as the icon of a perfect disciple, is the model of obedience to God’s will. Remember—through her Fiat, her “let it be,” at the Annunciation—she set out on a path that took her away from the security of home, family, and tradition, into a life of service to the God whose handmaid she was to become. As Pope Francis has reflected, "She who was blessed because she believed, sees blossom from her faith a new future and awaits God's tomorrow with expectation." We must, like Mary, pray for the courage and faith to continue along the paths God has mapped out for us, if we are to become the kind of disciples we are called to be.

 
A Prayer for the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary +                                                   
As we venerate the glorious memory
of the most holy Virgin Mary,
grant, we pray, O Lord,
through her intercession,
that we, too, may merit to receive from the fullness of your grace.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


*This post was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and posted on their blog on November 17, 2014.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Henriette Delille - The Subversive Power of Love

Recent movies like "Amistad," "Django Unchained," and "12 Years a Slave" help keep the scar of slavery alive in the conscience of Americans. The fury that surrounds the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the events that followed, is another reminder of racial and socio-economic inequality in the United States and the pain, frustration, and anger that so many people carry within them.  

It’s never permissible for Christians to support systems that prey on the weak and vulnerable or to allow unjust policies and ideologies to prevail. In our quest for peace and justice, we rely on women and men who are able to really see the world around them for what it is—the good with the bad—and who can name its wounds and the grace that is always at work in the world. These people are prophets. And, as Pope Francis has observed, the prophet is the one who says, “you are on the wrong path, return to the path of God!” Theirs is a message that “does not please the people in power on the wrong path” (Homily for April 4, 2014).

Prophets aren’t necessarily fiery Old Testament types, clad in animal skins à la John the Baptist decrying power and predicting doom with powerful speeches and mystical visions. Prophets can also take the form of faithful women and men who take it upon themselves to act in ways that effect change in the world. We might think of St. Francis quietly beginning a movement in the hills around Assisi, creating a new way of life which forever shaped the way Christians understand spiritual poverty and the presence of Christ in the poor. A more recent example is Dorothy Day. A gifted writer, she combined the power of words with a fierce dedication to serving the poor and marginalized in her Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality.

When we think of our nation’s struggles with racism and income inequality, there is a largely unsung prophet who has much to say to our situation today, not through voluminous writings or innovative teachings, but through the witness of her actions and the legacy she left behind. Remembered today as the “servant of slaves,” Venerable Henriette Delille confronted systems of corruption and exploitation in her native New Orleans because she was able to envision a different way of life for herself and for both free and enslaved women.

The only known photograph of
Venerable Henriette Delille
Born in New Orleans in 1813, Henriette’s father was white and her mother was a “free woman of color.” As a free woman, she could own property but she was also born into the system of plaçage, in which European men would enter into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of color, including those of African and Native American descent. This system reduced the women to the status of concubines and neither they nor their children had many rights under the law. Trained by her mother, who was part of the plaçage system, Henriette was trained in literature, music, dancing, and nursing—all skills which would have made her a desirable companion to the wealthy white men of New Orleans. Although not poor herself, she was nonetheless part of a system that objectified women and saw them only in terms of the pleasure they could bring to men. A late-19th century "Guide to New Orleans" recalled the famous "Quadroon Ballroom," the site of "Quadroon Balls," during which women of color of mixed ancestry would be put on display for wealthy white men. Its offensive language betrays a romantic longing for the days of plaçage: "No women were more beautiful than the quadroon women of New Orleans. The slight negro taint was betrayed only in the soft olive skin and deeply increased brilliancy of the eye, while no one, not versed in the signs by which the Louisianan recognizes at once the person of mixed blood, could distinguish in feature, hair or form any resemblance to the African type."

As a young woman, Henriette began to work with the poor in New Orleans and, in 1836, she experienced a somewhat intense religious conversion and outlined a way of life for a community of Christian woman. An inscription by Henriette on the fly leaf of a book of Eucharistic devotions is the only written testament we have to her simple, profound faith: “This book belongs to Henriette Delile [sic]. 2 May 1836. I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I wish to live and to die for God.” Soon after, she began to bring together other women of color, living according to a simple rule of life, although they took no kind of religious vows and did not live in community. These “Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary” were to be united “in imitation of the First Christians, of whom the Blessed Virgin after the Ascension, was the mother and model.” The aim of the group was to care for the sick and the poor and to teach. The sisters were also to watch out for one another. If one of them became ill, she could rely on the others to care for her or her family. Should a member of the group die and leave behind children, the members of the union were expected to assume their care. In time, this loosely organized group of lay women became more structured and eventually evolved into the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family, which celebrates 1842 as the year of their official foundation. The ministry of the sisters continued to be focused on caring for the poor, sick, and elderly, and the education of children; the sisters continue this work today. In a turn of events that truly reflects the change Henriette and her Sisters of the Holy Family brought about in New Orleans, the famed Quadroon Ballroom (mentioned above) became the Motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy Family in 1881.
 
An illustration from
Picayune's Guide
to New Orleans depicting
a Sister of the Holy Family
 
Mère Delille died of tuberculosis on November 17, 1862, at the age of fifty. For more than half her life she had quietly and diligently ministered to both slaves and free people of color and the integrity of her life and faith brought into focus the limits of white “benevolence” on behalf of the enslaved and exploited people of New Orleans.

In The Subversive Power of Love, Dr. M. Shawn Copeland reflected:
When Henriette Delille stepped outside the system of plaçage, she did so publicly and waged her body for the freedom of the body of Christ. She refused to be acted upon by male and female others, to allow them to seal her fate. She took control of her body, its situatedness in time and place and circumstance. That body functioned as a text on which she inscribed with authority her own vision of new life and love. She wrote herself vividly into the Communion of Saints…
In her struggle to live and die for God, Henriette Delille defied social convention and cultural custom, rejected the tepid religiosity of so many, and incarnated extraordinary moral audacity and spiritual courage through the subversive power of love.

Pope Benedict XVI declared Henriette Delille “Venerable” on March 27, 2010. May her prophetic witness inspire each of us to work for true freedom and equality for every person.


Prayer for the Beatification of Venerable Henriette Delille +
O good and gracious God, you called Henriette Delille to give herself in service and in love to the slaves and the sick, to the orphan and the aged, to the forgotten and despised.

Grant that inspired by her life, we might be renewed in heart and in mind. If it be your will may she one day be raised to the honor of sainthood. By her prayers, may we live in harmony and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
(provided by the Sisters of the Holy Family)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Using the Time We Have

What is the purpose of the Christian life?

Or, we might ask even more simply: What’s the point?

As the Church Year comes to an end, this essential question is brought into sharp focus. The answer is as simple as it might be unpopular: because we’re waiting for the fulfillment of time and of hope-filled promises of an untold future. We are awaiting the return of Christ. I would go so far as to say that if we’re not watching and waiting in hopeful expectation, then something vital is missing from our individual faith.
 
The Last Judgment from the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo
depicts Christ the Judge surrounded by Mary and the Saints

Many Christians become immediately uncomfortable with talk of Heaven and hell, death and judgment. And, while the naïve concepts of heaven's “streets paved with gold” and hell’s "fire" shape the lives of some believers, these simplistic Sunday school images (could we say "threats"?) aren’t what we are about as Christians, and they certainly aren’t enough to build a way of life around. So, we have to be very careful that we don’t allow our end-of-time imagination to overshadow the truth of God’s Kingdom.  

The tension of “now, but not yet” is a reality for Christians. Our mandate from Jesus is to live in the here and now in such a way that we will be fully prepared for the future, which includes standing face to face with our merciful and just God. Altogether, this means living in constant expectation. Christians don’t get to take a day off from being Christian. As Saint Paul reminds us, “You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night… Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 6).  

The end of time. We find it permeating the Church’s prayer and Scripture readings during the final weeks of the liturgical year. And yet, for many of us, this might seem unnecessarily negative and even macabre. For Americans, late November is the time of Thanksgiving and the start of the pre-Christmas rush. And so, the prospect of a coming judgment and the notions of watching and being prepared aren't exactly welcome. Some might try to dismiss these ideas as being antiquated theology or even as a misreading of Scripture. Sadly, too many Christians have also had the threat of judgment used as a weapon against them, like a sort of divine stick always hovering just above their heads, always ready to strike. But to deny or ignore the prospect of judgment and of the promise of the fullness of God’s Kingdom is to deny that our faith has an end and a goal. It amounts to saying that what we experience in every moment of our life is ultimately irrelevant and that humanity and all the rest of creation is simply adrift and without purpose or destiny. But we do have a purpose and destiny: union with God and one another in the reign of Christ. As the Jesuit priest, philosopher, and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

This Sunday's reading of the "Parable of the Talents" (Matthew 25:14-30) offers us important insights into what our expectant waiting should be like. In the parable, a wealthy man gives talanton to his slaves, five, two, or one, “according to their ability.” One “talent” was worth 6,000 days’—or 16 years’—wages. The slaves with five and two talents succeeded in doubling their master’s money; the slave with the single talent buried it in the ground to avoid the risk of losing it. The master in the parable rewards the first and second slaves, but the third slave who buried the money out of fear was condemned as being “wicked and lazy” and thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”  

Detail from the Achim/Eliud Lunette,
one of the images of the ancestors of Christ
in the Sistine Chapel
While there might be some who would use this passage from the Gospel as an opportunity to reflect on economic inequality (after all, it is an absurd story about a corrupt system), we can’t ignore that the Church has chosen this text at the end of the year and paired it with a passage from Proverbs which praises the productive activity of the God-fearing woman. She stands in stark contrast to the timid servant of the Gospel who was so frightened of failure that he chose not to act at all. 

The point of these two texts is that we are supposed to use the time we have to do something.  We not only have to foster and develop the unique gifts that have been entrusted to each of us, we must also allow those gifts to enrich the world around us. Each day is itself a gift and, if we are truly living for the future, then we have an obligation to make the most of today. But these last days of the Church Year should also inspire us to act with urgency because, as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, the Lord will return “as a thief in the night.” We will hear the same theme repeated in Advent, as we watch and wait for the coming of Christ in the celebration of his birth in history, in his presence among us today in mystery, and in his final coming in majesty.  

There is lots of talk about the decline of Christianity and of a post-Christian society. I would argue that the reason many flavors of Christianity are in decline is because many of us Christians have lost our sense of purpose and our sense of now. We don’t have the luxury to live out our faith in idle speculation and passivity. That isn’t the Gospel that Jesus preached and it isn’t the faith that has been handed down to us. We also can’t take for granted that others will do the work that has been entrusted to us: feeding and clothing the poor, comforting those who mourn, protecting the innocent and the victimized, healing the sick and addicted, and raising up those who have fallen down. Acts of  selfless charity and hospitality are the most effective means of spreading the Gospel and of helping others come to know the Christ who loves in and through us.
 
The Gospel places demands upon us and requires us to be open to change and to a way of life that is far different from what we might choose for ourselves. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship" and what Søren Kierkegaard was thinking of when he wrote of admirers and followers of Christ: "A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires." Yes, these days of the Church Year provide the answer to our question of the "point" of all this—we fulfill our commitment to follow Christ, with all the graces and burdens that entails, because this is what it means to be a true follower of the One whom we believe will come again in mercy and judgment.
 
But, as we think about when we will meet God, whether at the time of our own passing or in the Final Judgment, we can also take comfort in the words of the Basil Hume, a Benedictine monk and Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster, who is remembered as a wise, faithful, and compassionate pastor:
A priest started his homily at a funeral by saying, "I am going to preach about judgment." There was dismay in the congregation. But he went on: "Judgment is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell." It is a very great encouragement to think of being in the presence of God who is both merciful and full of compassion, because God knows me through and through and understands me far better than I could ever know and understand myself, or anyone else. Only he can truly make sense of my confused and rambling story...
The time will come for each of us to appear before our God to render an account of our lives. It will not be a frightening moment, unless to the bitter end we have turned away from him or consciously ignored him. Instead it will be a moment of deliverance and peace when we can whisper into his merciful and compassionate ear the story of all our years, and be forgiven and made whole.  

A prayer for the end of the Church Year +
God of righteousness,
you overcome those who abuse their power
and lift up those who suffer.
Even now, when evil seems to hold sway,
we know that you will have the last word.
Keep us faithful as we wait and watch for your coming realm,
when you will welcome all your children
into your kingdom of justice, peace, and love. Amen.
(from Feasting on the Word: Liturgies for Year A, volume 2)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Pray that everyone will love Him" - Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

Do not be satisfied with loving God by yourselves alone; make all those around you love him also, and pray that everyone will love Him.
—Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini

There have been a lot of things vying for our attention these past few weeks: the Ebola crisis (both in Africa and closer to home), Halloween, All Saints/All Souls weekend, and election day, to name but a few. When we add to this all the day-to-day responsibilities we each bear—especially family and professional obligations—our faith can become more and more remote and the special days that pepper the Church’s calendar can seem quite insignificant or, perhaps, quaint, at best.  

Certainly the saints can seem remote. Most of the saints—even the best known—have names that sound strange to our ears and lived centuries ago in places which we will never visit. And yet, this week, we have the opportunity to reflect on a saint who is very close to us, not only in terms of when she lived her life, but where, as well—here in the United States. But the life and witness of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini are even more important for us at this point in our country’s story because beyond being the first American citizen to be listed among the saints, she was also an immigrant and she is honored as the patron saint of immigrants. 

Born in Lombardy, Italy, in 1850, Frances dreamed of being a missionary in Asia and twice tried to enter a religious community, but she was refused because of her poor health. In time, she became a schoolteacher and dedicated her life to God through a private vow of virginity. In 1880, she received permission from her local bishop to bring together a group of women to form a new religious community for the Asian missions. Her hope was to establish a new community of sisters who would live out the virtues of humility and simplicity, while living a balanced life of prayer and service. In 1887, the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was officially recognized by Pope Leo XIII. However, Mother Cabrini's dream of serving the peoples of Asia was transformed after she bet Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, a bishop and the founder of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, who had been moved by the plight of poor Italians who were seeking a better life in America. Bishop Scalabrini encouraged Mother Cabrini to take her sisters to the "Little Italies" of the United States and serve the Italian immigrants who were barely surviving in cities like Boston and New York. Pope Leo XIII approved her request to travel to America to take on this special work. 

Mother Cabrini and six sisters arrived in New York in 1889 but, despite their Papal commission, they received little support from the local clergy. In fact, the archbishop of New York, who desperately wanted Italian priests, thought that the women were unsuited for work among the immigrant-poor and went so far as to tell Mother Cabrini that the ship that had brought them from Italy was still in the harbor and that they should return home on it because there was no need for her or her sisters. She very simply informed the bishop, “I have letters from the Pope,” and she stayed. Despite unspeakable hardships, including living in a tenement filled with cockroaches and bed bugs, the sisters immediately began ministering among the immigrants, teaching their children, visiting the sick, and feeding the hungry. With no support from the diocese or the well-established religious communities, these first Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart were supported by the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Bon Secours. Soon, however, they began to win the respect of the local community and it is reported that shopkeepers in Little Italy would give the sisters food as they passed by, providing the sisters with both a means of survival for themselves and additional resources to feed and clothe the poor. 
 
Despite her small size (she was only 5 feet tall) and her limited English, Mother Cabrini was respected for her fierce sense of determination and her staunch belief that she was doing God’s will. After establishing her first orphanage in New York, she began to expand her community’s missions. She understood that she was called to serve the entire Italian community and soon there were sisters working in Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Buffalo, St. Louis, Denver, San Francisco, and New Orleans, operating orphanages and teaching in schools. Mother Cabrini would later found a series of hospitals in a number of other American cities.  
 
In later years, Mother Cabrini extended her mission work to Latin and South America, where she established convents in Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, and Brazil. By the time the Rule of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart was approved by Rome in 1907, Mother Cabrini’s sisters had also established houses in England, France, Spain, and, of course, Italy. That same year, Mother Cabrini became a naturalized citizen of the United States.  

This holy woman, known for her warmth, humility, and practicality collapsed while wrapping Christmas gifts on December 21, 1917; she died the next day. Frances Xavier Cabrini was canonized in 1946. There is a statue of Mother Cabrini in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and her liturgical memorial is celebrated on November 13.  

Sister Mary Louis Sullivan, a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart and biographer of Mother Cabrini, observed, “Mother Cabrini saw divine love epitomized in the person of Christ. Her particular devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus took the form of an adherence to the loving Christ… hers was a spirituality of love which drew her toward God by living a life of love of neighbor” (Deacon Digest Magazine, May 2012). This devotion inspired her to cultivate a spirit of hospitality and generosity that knew no bounds. She was able to do this because, for her, there was no stranger—everyone, regardless of their race or social class, was her brother or sister in Christ. Aware of the needs of immigrants in her own day, she reminds us that caring for the poor and outcast—especially those who are alone—is a fundamental facet of our Christian vocation.
 

A prayer in honor of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini +
God our Father,
who called Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini from Italy
to serve the immigrants of America,
by her example,
teach us to have concern for the stranger, the sick, and all those in need,
and by her prayers
help us to see Christ in all the men and women we meet.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

 
*This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their blog on November 11, 2014.