Thursday, April 24, 2014

Discovering Pope Francis' Message of Hope: "The Church of Mercy" (And a Giveaway!)

Hot off the press from Loyola Press, The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church by Pope Francis is a beautiful book, full of joy, hope and confidence in the unfailing love of God.  It's a message sorely needed in our times. It's a message, however, that comes with a challenge to give up our own personal agendas and take ownership of the agenda that Christ has given each of us at our baptism.

Consisting of excerpts from his homilies, addresses and official teaching documents, this collection, authorized by the Vatican and compiled by Giuliano Vigini, professor at the Catholic University of Milan, offers the reader comfort, refreshment and challenge, as well as an occasional healthy dose of papal humor.

Pope Francis' pastoral message is that there is hope - for everyone, most especially sinners - in Jesus Christ, and because God is patient, loving and merciful to us, we should be so with one another - especially to the poor and the stranger. We are called to come out of ourselves, abandon our will to that of Christ and simply serve - telling others about Jesus in word and deed - never afraid to show our hope and joy in the process.

We are asked to be an antidote to the evils of the culture by bringing that message out of the walls of churches to the very margins of life, in solidarity with those who have been pushed there - "to the outskirts of existence."  We are called to sensitize the world to the poor and the "uprooted" - refugees - "those who are obliged to flee their own country and exist between rootlessness and integration."

Francis' vision of a "Church of Mercy" is in tune with the social justice teachings of the Church - one that reaches out in love to the poor, the unwanted and those who suffer, in Jesus' name.  Our motivation for that, he says comes from our confident trust that God has already reached out in love to us. When we are able to abandon ourselves to Jesus, we will become a Church that fills the world with his love, one that is not afraid to testify to the message that God loves us all.

But, Francis tells us, before we do any of  this we have to let go of our cultural idols - power, violence, money, and yes, clergy careerism - to be "free from personal projects" and ambition. The Church must "divest herself of the danger of worldliness."  It is that, he says that kills the Church - and the person.  Once we let go, we will be free to choose the good and to become, like Mary, people of "listening, decision and action."

This is quite simply a "must read" book for every Catholic, lay and clergy alike. It proposes a reformed Church much closer to Jesus's intentions and asks us to steer away from worldly trappings - inner and outer - that prevent us from abandoning ourselves to Jesus's call to embrace the love of God and spend ourselves for the sake of others, sharing that love. This is how Francis explains why he himself has chosen not to wear full papal regalia, but to don simpler garb and go out into the world as often as he can, seeking the lost and the broken.  This is the Pope Francis who washed the feet of the disabled on Holy Thursday - Christian and Muslim, men and women - serving as an example, he is the very model of what he calls the Church to become.

Make no mistake. This is not just a "feel-good" book about the warm fuzziness of God's love. It is a real challenge to abandon ourselves to that love.

OK -  Here is The BIG Giveaway! 
You can win a FREE copy of this marvelous book from Loyola Press.  Make a comment here on the blog between now and Tuesday, April 29th and I will pick one out of a hat.  Be sure to include your name and an obvious way to find you when you "choose your identity" for the comment box. I will announce the winner on the blog on April 30th. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tonight: Jesus is BAA-AACK!

During Holy Saturday, we prepare and we wait. Jesus has gone into the grave. Knowing what we know, that this is not the end of the story, unlike the disciples, who are readying themselves for the end of the Sabbath, when they can anoint the body and complete the burial, we spend the day readying for Christ's return.  

Many of us will be at our parish churches later this morning decking the altar with our most splendid altar cloths, masses of beautiful flowers and candles which will be fully revealed tonight when out of the darkness of the Vigil, the light returns at the lighting of the candles and the church as we sing the Glory to God on this "truly blessed night," when we see Christ rising from the dead.

But before that can happen, we will go, with Christ, into the darkness. After the sun sets, we light the Easter fire and stand around it as we bless the Paschal Candle. Moving into the church, we each receive a lighted taper and stand together to hear the great proclamation of the Exsultet, a hymn about the candle itself, which explains the connections between the candle and God - who appeared to our ancestors in faith as a pillar of fire and who now appears as the Morning Star.

To prepare for tonight, read through this magnificent text. There is absolutely no better way to get ready.
The Easter Proclamation (Exsultet)
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
(Therefore, dearest friends,
standing in the awesome glory of this holy light,
invoke with me, I ask you,
the mercy of God almighty,
that he, who has been pleased to number me,
though unworthy, among the Levites,
may pour into me his light unshadowed,
that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises).
(V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.)
V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up to the Lord.
V. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R. It is right and just.
It is truly right and just,
with ardent love of mind and heart
and with devoted service of our voice,
to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father,
and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father,
and, pouring out his own dear Blood,
wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These, then, are the feasts of Passover,
in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb,
whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night,
when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children,
from slavery in Egypt
and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night
that with a pillar of fire
banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night
that even now, throughout the world,
sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin,
leading them to grace
and joining them to his holy ones. 
This is the night,
when Christ broke the prison-bars of death
and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain,
had we not been redeemed.
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer! 
O truly blessed night,
worthy alone to know the time and hour
when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night
of which it is written:
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me,
and full of gladness. 
The sanctifying power of this night
dispels wickedness, washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty. 
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands,
an evening sacrifice of praise,
this gift from your most holy Church. 
But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious.
O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord,
we pray you that this candle,
hallowed to the honor of your name,
may persevere undimmed,
to overcome the darkness of this night.
Receive it as a pleasing fragrance,
and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.
May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets,
Christ your Son,
who, coming back from death’s domain,
has shed his peaceful light on humanity,
and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
R. Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cross - Sign of Wondrous Love

Today, as millions around the world venerate the wood of the Cross, we remember the great love that God showed us -  in spite of ourselves - that he gave his only Son to suffer and die for our sins.  St. Paul got it exactly right:
For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-10)
We acknowledge our unworthiness, but claim that love when we venerate the Cross - but we also accept that the Cross has a place in our own lives at the times we are called to our own suffering - and to the sure knowledge that not only do we not bear those sufferings alone, but we, too, can be transformed by our suffering because of Christ's Paschal Mystery. His death and resurrection prove that God has the power to create good and set us free from evil and assures us that is possible in our lives if we believe.

Love, lifted on the cross for me
My Lord, my God, my salvation
Love, lifted high to set me free
My Lord, my God, my salvation...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Coming Soon: The Most Important 3 Days of the Church Year

As we move into the final days of Lent, it's not too early to start planning one's activities around the events of Holy Week, particularly Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. These three days, called the Easter Triduum, are simply the most important in the entire Church year, as we follow Christ through his last supper with his disciples, his arrest, condemnation, suffering, death on the cross and resurrection, i.e., the Paschal Mystery.

I always tell people who only show up on Easter Sunday that they actually missed the main event:  Jesus has already risen. Sure, it's great to celebrate that, but if we are present at the Easter Vigil on Saturday, we witness Christ's rising among us as we pass from darkness into light. I have written before about the importance of the Triduum, but I simply cannot say it enough.
Triduum (pronounced TRID-YOO-UM, not TRID-EE-UM, as many people say it) means 3 days. Since Pius XII restored the Easter Vigil in 1955 (based on ancient practice), the Church has celebrated these three days as a time apart - an experience of Paschal Mystery for the entire community. It is meant to be on every Catholic's calendar as a time to set other concerns aside.  Even though it is less common for employers to suspend work during the period between noon and 3 p.m. on Friday, Catholics should still be able to find ways to participate in all three days, as many parishes provide an evening service.

Jesus loved you enough to go through his suffering and death, so the least you can do is acknowledge that with your presence at the important liturgies of the Triduum. Thursday night is beautiful as we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist and wash feet as he did.  On Friday, we remember the great the love of a God who gave his only Son to suffering and death for our sake. On Saturday night, we witness the lighting of the fire of renewed life and hear about God's great plan for our salvation as we wait for the proclamation of Christ's Resurrection.

Maybe it's just me, but I have never once missed a day of the Triduum since I became Catholic. I cannot imagine not being there, and I certainly cannot understand why anyone would stay home or carry on with normal life activities while something this important is happening. Humor me, please, if you are one who has not typically attended the celebrations of the Triduum. Mark your calendar now - or as soon as the times for the liturgies of the Three Days are announced at your parish.  I guarantee you will not regret it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

No Sympathy for the Devil: The Scrutinies and Sin

My best guess is that the people in the pews this weekend who witness the First Scrutiny - a purification rite for those preparing for baptism - have no idea they are actually witnessing a liturgical exorcism.  The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults states the scrutinies are intended to
....uncover then heal all that is weak, defective or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good. For the scrutinies are celebrated in order to deliver the elect from the power of sin and Satan, to protect them against temptation, and to give them strength in Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. These rites therefore, should complete the conversion of the elect and deepen their resolve to hold fast to Christ and to carry out their decision to love God above all. (RCIA 141)
If their preparation has been what the Church desires, the elect have already been "instructed gradually about the mystery of sin." (143).   The explanatory material before the rite continues, mentioning that the elect "have already learned from the Church as their mother the mystery of deliverance from sin by Christ" (144)

Most already-baptized adults in the pews received this kind of instruction on sin in 2nd grade, and perhaps again in 8th grade or high school. At best, the last time they thought about it was when they talked about it again in the context of the preparation for baptism of their children.

Do we really understand what is meant by "the mystery of deliverance of sin by Christ?" "Mystery" is not a word we hear often in relation to sin. Just what does this mean for the catechumens, and for us, the baptized, as we watch the ritual casting out of the demons of sin over the next three weekends?

Remember that those over whom the priest or deacon will pray the Prayer of Exorcism over the next three weeks are not yet baptized, and are therefore subject to the full effects of Original Sin and seduction by the Devil.  At baptism, they will put on Christ and receive the blessing of eternal life and the strength to resist temptation. In the meantime, the exorcism and our prayers will strengthen them in their last days as unbaptized people moving toward baptism. It has been said that the closer a person gets to the font, the more the Devil tries to keep him or her away. The prayers of the scrutinies are designed to combat that.

We are talking about "sin" here - with no "s", not "sins" - which, of course, still are committed after baptism by even the best of us.  "Sin" - the consequence of the Fall of Adam and Eve, condemned us to eternal death. Christ's coming reversed that. And THAT is the mystery. The fullness of this mystery will be revealed at the Easter Vigil, when, during the Exsultet, we sing:
O wonder of your humble care for us!
O love, O charity beyond all telling,
to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam,
destroyed completely by the death of Christ!
O happy fault
that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer.
This is the mystery - that God could bring something wonderful - eternal life - out of the darkness of sin and death. That Christ's rising from the dead conquered Satan, sin and death for all time.

So, this weekend, as the elect come forward to have their demons exorcised, we the baptized should rejoice that we have been saved in Christ by our own baptism and are no longer subject to the full effect of Original Sin. For us, this is part of preparation for our renewal of baptismal promises at Easter, when we will once again reject Satan and his empty promises.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

First Sunday in Lent: What We Pray is What We Believe

This Sunday we hear in the Roman Missal how Christ set the pattern for Lent and how we today are to take it to heart. When we really listen to what the presider prays we can learn much about the attitudes and expectations of the season. This is not surprising. Lex orandi, lex credendi is an ancient saying, meaning literally "the law of prayer is the law of belief" - or what we pray (in the liturgy) is what we believe (see CCC 1124.)  Let's take a look at what the texts of the First Sunday in Lent say.

In the Collect, we hear:
Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observances of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ,
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects...
In the Prayer over the Offerings:
Give us the right dispositions, O Lord, we pray,
to make these offerings,
for with them we celebrate the beginning
of this venerable and sacred time.... 
 In the Preface:
...By abstaining forty long days from earthly food,
he [Christ] consecrated through his fast
the pattern of our Lenten observance
and, by overturning all the snares of the ancient serpent,
taught us to cast out the leaven of malice,
so that celebrating worthily the Paschal Mystery,
we might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast. 
In the Prayer after Communion:
Renewed now with heavenly bread,
by which faith is nourished, hope is increased,
and charity strengthened,
we pray, O Lord,
that we may learn to hunger for Christ,
the true and living Bread,
and strive to live by every word
which proceeds from your mouth... 
Finally, in the Prayer over the People:
May bountiful blessing, O Lord, we pray,
come down upon your people,
that hope my grow in tribulation,
virtue may be strengthened in temptation,
and eternal redemption be assured.
What do we learn? That Lent is about not only right actions, but right attitudes (dispositions). That Christ himself, in his 40 days in the desert, is the model for Lent. That all of Lent is focused toward our celebration of the Easter Triduum (the Paschal Mystery) and that the Eucharist we receive at Mass strengthens and nourishes our ability to live the Cardinal Virtues - faith, hope and charity - as well as our ability to resist temptation. All of this, of course, is with reference to our eternal salvation and the eternal banquet in heaven.

So, convoluted though they may be, the prayers at Mass have a lot of catechesis about Lent in them. Listen this weekend, and take them to heart. How will you allow Jesus in the Eucharist to help you with your Lenten journey?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ashes - The Sacramental that Points to the Sacraments

Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments: they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church's intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.  (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 60)
We begin Lent with ashes, a sacramental made from the burning of the blest palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday.  By the definition above, the ashes should resemble the sacraments, but which ones?

The cross of ashes on our forehead is placed exactly where the cross of oil was placed on our heads during Baptism and Confirmation. Yet, made from ashes instead of holy oil, this mark is clearly visible - a public statement that we belong to Christ.

When an adult preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation is first signed with the cross, at the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechism, it is an invisible sign, traced on their forehead by their sponsor or catechist: a foreshadowing of the cross of oil they will later receive at Easter. These are the words spoken:
Receive the cross on your forehead.
It is Christ himself who now strengthens you
with this sign of his love.
Learn to know and follow him.  
Words to remember today. The cross of Ashes is a renewed call to follow Christ, who first called us at our baptism and calls us every day of our lives to keep learning to follow him. It is the visible connection to the baptismal character of Lent that that Constitution laid out:
The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. Hence:
a) More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of them, which used to flourish in bygone days, are to be restored as may seem good.
b) The same is to apply to the penitential elements...   (SC 109)
So today, consider how your Ashes recall your baptismal invitation to follow Christ in everything. It began when oil was used to make that cross on your forehead...