Friday, January 29, 2016

Blessed Margaret Ball

Margaret was born in Cobskill (now Skryne), Ireland, in 1515. Her Catholic family was involved in politics, particularly as the realities of the Protestant Reformation took hold in Ireland. When she was sixteen years-old she married Bartholomew Ball, an alderman of Dublin. The couple had ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Bartholomew was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1553 and the family moved into a large, comfortable home and Margaret used her influence to provide classes for local children in her family’s home. Bartholomew died in 1573.

In 1558, had Queen Elizabeth I imposed harsher penalties for who refused to accept the tenets of the English Reformation, initiating a decades-long period of persecution that claimed the lives of hundreds English, Scottish, and Irish Catholics. In response, the Ball family provided a safe house for any Catholic clergy passing through Dublin. Despite their faith and courage, Margaret’s son, Walter, became a member of the Church of England in order to advance his career. Walter was eventually appointed Commissioner for Ecclesiastical Causes (in support of the Church of England) and later installed as mayor of Dublin. Shortly after taking office, Walther had Margaret and her private chaplain arrested and taken to the dungeons of Dublin.

Although the rest of the family protested, Walter maintained that he would not allow his mother to go free until she “took the oath,” recognizing the English monarch as the head of the Church. Margaret—who was crippled with debilitating arthritis—died in prison in 1584, after years of suffering the effects of the cold, wet environment of the dungeon.

Blessed Margaret Ball was beatified with Bishop Dermot O’Hurley (who had been arrested in 1577 while saying Mass in the Ball home), Francis Taylor (the husband of Margaret’s granddaughter), and 13 other Irish martyrs in 1992.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells two parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, including the Parable of the Mustard Seed. That image of the tiny mustard seed, growing up into a great tree with its large, sheltering branches, is both a metaphor for the Reign of God but also a key to understanding the life and witness of Blessed Margaret Ball. A wife, mother, and woman of faith, her small acts of courage and fidelity not only helped provide safety for bishops and priests, but they helped keep the Catholic Faith alive in Ireland during a time of ferocious persecution.

Reflect today on a time in your life when a kind word or small act of kindness helped you through a difficult time. Ask Blessed Margaret Ball to help you be aware of opportunities for you to be a sheltering support for someone in need.

Prayer +
O God,
by whose gift strength is made perfect in weakness,
grant to all who honor the glory of blessed Margaret Ball
that she, who drew from you the strength to triumph,
may likewise always obtain from you
the grace of victory for us.
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: Common of Martyrs—For a Holy Woman Martyr)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Season of Enlightenment: The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
—Luke 1:1-4
“There are three stages of spiritual development: the carnal, the spiritual, and the divine,” an old monk once explained to a novice.
“What is the carnal stage?” the novice asked.
“That’s the stage,” the old monk said, “when trees are seen as trees and mountains are seen as mountains.”
“And the spiritual?” the novice asked eagerly.
“That’s when we look more deeply into things. Then trees are no longer trees and mountains are no longer mountains,” the old monk answered.
“And the divine?” the novice asked breathlessly.
“Ah,” the old monk said with a smile. “That’s Enlightenment — when the trees become trees again and the mountains become mountains.”

Like the old monk in the story, the Evangelist Luke understood that the enlightenment offered by the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth allowed for a new understanding and realization of the reign of God, a reality first envisioned by Israel’s prophets.

St. Luke the Evangelist
For St. Luke, there was no question that the coming of Jesus initiated a new age and that Jesus was the centerpiece of history, binding together Israel’s hopes and heritage with the future and promise of the Church (which St. Luke wrote about in the Acts of the Apostles). And so when Luke tells us the story of Jesus reading Isaiah’s prophecy in his hometown synagogue (4:16-19; recounted in this Sunday’s Gospel), he was not just recalling vague promises from the past. Instead, Jesus was taking Isaiah’s words as his own: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

This passage could be said to be Jesus’ “mission statement.” And St. Luke understood that Jesus’ mission was for all peoples, especially those on the fringes of society: sinners, the sick, the physically disabled and women and children — all groups given special attention in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was proclaiming that all of God’s promises were now being fulfilled in him. And those who heard him were filled with wonder and awe (cf. Luke 4:20).

The Gospel for this Sunday sets the scene for the remainder of the year, as we journey through the Gospel of Luke. And in a sense, the liturgy of this Third Sunday of Ordinary Time brings to an end our Epiphany reflections on who Jesus is by presenting us with a vision of what it is he would accomplish.

Ordinary Time could be said to be a season of enlightenment when, with Saint Luke the Evangelist as our teacher and guide, we are invited enter more deeply into the truth of who Jesus is and what his transforming mission means for our world.

Words of Wisdom: “A ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ or ‘mercy’: this is what the Lord proclaimed and this is what we wish to live now. This Holy Year will bring to the fore the richness of Jesus’ mission echoed in the words of the prophet: to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed. The preaching of Jesus is made visible once more in the response of faith which Christians are called to offer by their witness. May the words of the apostle accompany us: he who does acts of mercy, let him do them with cheerfulness (cf. Romans 12:8)”—Pope Francis (Misericordiae Vultus: The Face of Mercy, 16).

This post was originally written for and published on their site on January 23, 2016. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Cana and Pontmain: "Do Whatever He Tells You"

In the year 1871, France was being devastated by the brutality of the Franco-Prussian War. On the night of January 17, as German forces approached the mountain village of Pontmain, two young boys, Eugéne and Joseph, were helping their faith in the family barn. Eugéne looked outside and saw an apparition of a woman in the star-studded sky smiling at him. The woman, clothed in a blue gown covered with golden stars, wore a black veil under a golden crown.

A contemporary icon
of Our Lady of Pontmain
As the vision continued, the villagers—including two girls, Françoise and Jeanne-Marie—gathered outside the barn while the parish priest and sisters from the parish school led the people in singing hymns and in reciting the rosary; only the children of the village were able to see the “beautiful lady.” Eventually, a banner appeared beneath the woman’s feet, on which a message appeared: “But pray, my children. God will you in time. My son allows himself to be touched.”

Toward the end of the vision, as the villagers sang a hymn in honor of Jesus, the woman’s expression changed to one of profound sadness and a red crucifix appeared in her hands, with the words “Jesus Christ,” above it. The apparition lasted for about three hours.

That same evening, the Prussian trooped unexpectedly ceased their advance and a peace accord was signed only a few days later; the 38 young men from Pontmain who had been drafted to serve in the French army returned home safely. Pilgrims began to make their way to the site of the apparitions and on February 2, 1872, the bishop of Laval issued a pastoral letter approving the apparition of Mary under the title of “Our Lady of Hope of Pontmain.”

On this Second Sunday of Ordinary Time--the 145th anniversary of the apparition at Pontmain--we hear the story of the wedding at Cana during which Mary told the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you.” Our devotion to Mary should always be leading us to her Son and the Gospel today reminds us that the quality of our discipleship should also always be leading others to follow Christ in a more intentional and faithful way.

Ask Mary, Our Lady of Hope, to help you always be attentive to the voice of the Lord in each moment of life, trusting that her Son has the power to transform the simple moments of life into moments of grace, mercy, and joy.

Prayer +
All-holy Father,
in your divine wisdom and love
you chose that the Blessed Virgin Mary
should pay her part
in the mysteries of our salvation;
grant that by heeding the words of Christ’s mother
we may do what he commands us
in the Gospel he has given us,
for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from the Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1992 edition): Our Lady of Cana)

This post was originally written for and published on their website on January 17, 2016.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Baptism and a New Beginning

In her book, The Jesus Wisdom, Cythia Bourgeault writes:
Seeking leads to finding, yes, but the result of that finding is often to plunge you into confusion and disorientation as the new information rattles the cage of your old paradigm. Only gradually, as you can make room for what this gospel calls "wonder," does a new universe begin to knit itself together around you, and you come to rest on a new foundation.
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the end of the Christmas Season, is a feast that is actually part of the broader celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord. Although we in the West associate the great solemnity of the Epiphany with the three "kings" and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Early Church saw the Epiphany as including three great mysteries in the life of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the wedding at Cana (the occasion of Jesus' first miracle).

But of these mysteries, the Baptism of the Lord often leaves us at something of a loss, because it is a difficult event in the life of Jesus to grasp. On the one hand, we can appreciate the great revelation (the epiphany--manifestation) of Jesus as the Father's "Beloved Son." On the other, however, we can struggle to understand why Jesus would need to be baptized at all. He was, as we believe, the sinless one. So, why then did he feel it necessary to go down into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by his kinsman John?

To put it simply, the Baptism of Jesus is an outward expression of God's willingness to join us in the messiness of life. As Sister Melannie Svoboda, S.N.D., reminds us in her reflection for today's feast: 
[In today's Scriptures] God seems to be saying, "I like being with you." Through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks of "my servant... my chosen one in whom I am pleased." That servant could refer to Israel itself or even Isaiah. But the Christian tradition has identified him with Jesus... God likes being with us too, with you and me--even if we sometimes do unlikeable things. Isn't that what we celebrate at Christmas? God became incarnate in the person of Jesus to be with us and show us how to live. (from Give Us This Day, January 2016) 
The Baptism of Jesus is a feast of revelation, yes, but it is also a feast of who we are... or rather, of what we are called to become: “The Father of immortality sent his immortal Son and Word into the world; he came to us to cleanse us with water and the Spirit. … He breathed on us the spirit of life and armed us with incorruptibility. Now if we become immortal, we shall also be divine; and if we become divine after rebirth in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit, we shall also be coheirs with Christ after the resurrection of the dead” (Saint Hippolytus in Sermon on the Holy Theophany).

There is, however, another element of the Baptism of Jesus that is especially important as we leave behind the Christmas Season and move into the first span of Ordinary Time for this year: Jesus' baptism marks the beginning of his public life. Gone are the years of quiet labor and life in Nazareth. With the Father's blessing, Jesus sets out to begin his mission to be a light for the nations, "to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness" (Isaiah 42: 7).

The days of Ordinary Time provide us with a breathing space after the festivities of Christmas to take a step back and reflect on who the Child of Bethlehem was--and is--and to move through the confusion and disorientation (described by Bourgeault) that we will undoubtedly experience as we continue to open our minds and hearts to the reality of the One who is Emmanuel--God -With-Us.   

This past January 6, the traditional date of Epiphany, I arrived in Wisconsin to begin formation with the Society of the Divine Savior (the Salvatorians); I will be formally accepted as a candidate this coming Friday, January 15. And so, these last days of the Christmas Season have also marked a new beginning in the form of an immersion into a life of service and community, much like that transition Jesus experienced following his baptism. .

Holy Apostles Formation House in Milwaukee,
the home of the formation community for the US Province of the Salvatorians

I remain grateful for the comments and prayers that so many have offered over the past weeks and months. My prayer is that these grace of Christmas Season will continue to be a blessing for you as we enter the verdancy of Ordinary Time and I continue to ask for your prayers as I transition back into religious life, coming to rest "on a new foundation," as a spiritual son of Father Francis Jordan.

A Prayer for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord +
O God, whose Only Begotten Son
has appeared in our very flesh,
grant, we pray, that we may be inwardly transformed
through him whom we recognize as outwardly like ourselves.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)