Celebrating like it's 1622

May 22, 2022

In March, the Church marked the 400th anniversary of the joint canonization of four of the most influential figures not just in the counter-reformation but in all of Church history — Saints Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, and Philip Neri — together with the one who, at the time, King Philip IV tried to make the “headliner,” St. Isidore the Farmer.

St. Isidore was already devotionally the patron of the new Spanish capital of Madrid, and the Spanish monarch sponsored a theater structure within what is now St. Peter’s Square with scenes and miracles from St. Isidore’s life. Of course, it did not work because even with four Spaniards, they could not collectively match the popularity of the Italian St. Philip, only 27 years after his death. The Romans dubbed the canonization, quattro Spagnoli e un santo!, “Four Spaniards and a Saint!,” a quip that has similarly stood the test of time!

The quatercentenary is something I have looked forward to from the first time I had heard — during my college years — that all of these saints, to whom I had devotion, were canonized together. Perhaps the only liturgical dates I have looked forward to with greater anticipation are April 6-9 in 30 AD, which, if scholars are right, will be the two thousandth anniversary of the Last Supper, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Even though the actual bimillennium of the Resurrection will take place on Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent in 2030, I am planning — if God permits me still to be around — to break the fast and celebrate with the joy befitting such an anniversary. I would encourage you to circle your calendar and, if God permits you, likewise, to be around, to join me!

For this 400th anniversary, I want to focus on how these five saints illustrate for us the call to conversion and holiness. With regard to holiness, St. Teresa showed us an extraordinary hunger for it as a seven-year-old resolving to journey immediately with her younger brother Rodrigo to Morocco to be martyred so that they could become a saint the quickest way possible. Their plan was foiled by a chance meeting with their uncle Francisco coming back from the hunt otherwise, we would have seen how they would have traversed the Mediterranean!

A similar desire for holiness ultimately characterized all five, but it did not come easily. It required conversion. After 19 years of religious life, Teresa needed to convert from laxity, lukewarmness, and a life of deliberate venial sin. Isidore needed to convert from fear in the face of criticism by co-workers. Philip Neri needed to convert from his Florentine desire to become rich. Francis Xavier needed to convert from a desire for ecclesiastical ambition to become, first, a famous priest professor, and, later, Bishop of Pamplona. And most famously of all, Ignatius needed to convert from a desire for worldly fame on the battlefield. After his right leg, however, was shattered and his left calf torn off by a cannonball, as he was biding his time reading lives of the saints during many months of convalescence, he was touched in conscience and asked why he could not respond to grace the way Francis of Assisi and Dominic of Guzman had before him. He eventually did. The Christian vocation is a call to holiness and all five show us how: turning away from sin and being truly faithful to the Gospel.

Each of them, likewise, was a person and a master-teacher of prayer. Through his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius is the most famous teacher of Christian meditation in the history of the Church. St. Teresa, together with her spiritual co-conspirator St. John of the Cross, is the greatest teacher of contemplation and cartographer of the prayerful journey of the soul. St. Isidore taught us how to pray our work. St. Philip showed us how to pray with the saints and to incorporate the beauty inspired by faith into our conversation with God. Finally, St. Francis Xavier taught us how to teach others to pray, as he creatively catechized so many converts in Goa and the Pearl Fishery Coast of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Japan.

They also all gave witness to the greatest form of almsgiving, which is to share the most important gift of all, which is the gift of God. Each was incandescent with a desire to share the gift of faith. The most famous example is that of St. Francis Xavier, the greatest missionary in Church history after St. Paul. His 1544 letter from the trenches has stirred readers ever since. After describing how hard he was working to baptize the multitudes, he commented, “Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again, I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’ I wish they would work as hard at this as they do at their books, and so settle their account with God for their learning and the talents entrusted to them.”

He got that desire from the one to whom he sent the letter, St. Ignatius, whose whole life was a commentary on Jesus’ words, “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing!,” (Lk 12:49). St. Ignatius ignited a spiritual bonfire that lit the flame of generations of Jesuit missionaries who risked and, in many cases, gave their lives to bring the Gospel to the New World. A similar zeal characterized their brothers who founded educational institutions to carry out a deep penetration of the Gospel among those in Europe and areas already evangelized.

St. Teresa founded convents all over Spain on the principle that the first and most important aspect of the Church’s mission is to pray to the Harvest Master. On our own, she knew, we cannot make new disciples because faith is always a gift. We must beg them of God and that is what St. Teresa taught her Carmelites — and the whole Church — to do. St. Isidore sought to evangelize the farmers who worked alongside of him, and, together with his wife, St. Maria de la Cabeza, to spread the joy of faith to other couples, families, and their neighbors.

After having read St. Francis Xavier’s letters, St. Philip approached his spiritual director saying that he believed God was asking him to follow his Jesuit contemporary to India. The wise Cistercian told him, “No. Rome will be your Indies!” And he spent the rest of his life re-evangelizing Rome, cooperating with the gift of the Holy Spirit, through contagious joy, friendship, caring for the poor and sick, fun pilgrimages to different sanctuaries, opportunities for adult education and prayer, the sacrament of penance, and helping them appreciate what was really going on in the miracle of the Mass. Over the course of his time in Rome, the eternal city went from a traumatized moral cesspool to a converted city in which holiness was not only tolerated but seen to be what it really is, the path to the only happiness that endures. His example shows us that to be a Missionary, we do not have to go to far away places, but just as he made Rome his Indies, we are each called to make our neighbor, city, or town.

There are so many other angles we can focus on in their very rich lives. The main point is, however, that if we heed their lessons of conversion and holiness, of prayer and a love of neighbor so deep as to share with them the pearl of great price, the odds are we will be able, at the 500th anniversary, to celebrate with them in person — in that place where Christ, by what he did April 6-9, 30 AD made possible!

A Heart Stronger than weapons

May 15, 2022

On March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation, marking the Incarnation of the Son of God in response to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat, Pope Francis, in communion with bishops, priests, religious, and faithful throughout the world, solemnly prayed in front of the image of Our Lady of Fatima brought to St. Peter’s Basilica: “Mother of God and our Mother, to your Immaculate Heart we solemnly entrust and consecrate ourselves, the Church and all humanity, especially Russia and Ukraine. … Grant that war may end and peace spread throughout the world. The ‘Fiat’ that arose from your heart opened the doors of history to the Prince of Peace. We trust that, through your heart, peace will dawn once more. To you we consecrate the future of the whole human family, the needs and expectations of every people, the anxieties and hopes of the world.”

The consecration was done not only in response to the petition of many faithful but ultimately to a request of Mary herself during her private revelations to the three shepherd children in Fatima in 1917. After showing them an image of the souls of what sinners would experience in hell, she stated, “To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate heart. … I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart and the Communion of reparation on first Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted and there will be peace if not she will spread her errors through the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church, … [and] various nations will be annihilated.”

It is not necessary for Catholics to believe private revelations, but it is hard not to trust the credibility of the Fatima message, considering the incontestable miracle of the sun that occurred on October 13, 1917, as a foretold confirmation of the veracity of the apparitions, not to mention the clear fulfillment of Mary’s predictions to the shepherd children that “the Holy Father will have much to suffer” and a “bishop dressed in white” would be shot, something that happened on, of all days, May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first of the Fatima apparitions. It is clear that the Popes have believed in and acted on Mary’s message in Fatima, consecrating the world repeatedly to her in 1942, 1964, 1982, and 1984.

Pope Francis was clear that he was recapitulating the consecration of his predecessors, saying in a homily moments before the act of consecration, “In union with the Bishops and faithful of the world, … I wish to renew to her the consecration of the Church and the whole of humanity, and to consecrate to her in a particular way the Ukrainian people and the Russian people who, with filial affection, venerate her as a Mother.”

The word “renew” was an unambiguous clarification for those who have never accepted that the consecration had been done properly before, that Pope Francis believes it had been done appropriately — as Sr. Lucia dos Santos, the surviving visionary, had affirmed, when she attested that St. John Paul II’s 1984 consecration was “done just as our Lady asked.”

Against other critics, who deem acts of devotion like a consecration to Mary’s Immaculate Heart as superstitious, Pope Francis responded plainly in his homily: “This is no magic formula but a spiritual act. It is an act of complete trust on the part of children who, amid the tribulation of this cruel and senseless war that threatens our world, turn to their Mother, … reposing all our fears and pain in her heart and abandoning ourselves to her.” He framed it within the context of what Mary herself did in Cana, where she “interceded with Jesus and he worked the first of his signs.” Pope Francis was asking Mary to intercede with that same Son for the gift of peace.

The ultimate meaning of this act of consecration to Mary’s heart was explained by the future Pope Benedict XVI in a commentary accompanying the June 26, 2000, publication the third part of the Message of Fatima. He noted that the remedy proposed by Mary to the shepherd children — devotion to her Immaculate Heart and consecration of Russia to it — might initially seem surprising. But he said that since the heart indicates the center of human life and since Jesus says that the pure of heart see God (Mt 5:8), “to be devoted to the Immaculate Heart of Mary means therefore to embrace this attitude of heart that makes the fiat— ‘your will be done’ — the defining center of one’s whole life.”

When Mary says, “My Immaculate Heart will triumph,” the future Pope Benedict XVI commented, she means to communicate that “the heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind.” The fiat emanating from her pure heart, he continued, “has changed the history of the world, … because thanks to her ‘Yes,’ God could become man in our world and remains so for all time.”

Mary’s heart will triumph because a heart pure like hers is ultimately stronger than all the hearts full of hatred and violence, and ultimately more powerful than bullets, tanks, hypersonic missiles, and even threatened nuclear bombs.

But what Pope Francis led the universal Church to do on March 25, the anniversary of Mary’s initial fiat, must not remain just a one-time extrinsic rite. The consecration he asked all the members of the Church to pray with him is meant to be lived and renewed by believers. Together with the Holy Father, we were asking Mary not only to pray for an end to war and restore peace but to grant each of us a heart like hers. That is an ongoing process, because what Pope Francis did was not a “magic formula but a spiritual act,” one that is meant to lead to a true spirituality of life.

Pope Francis pointed to this as he finished the act of consecration. He prayed: “Our Lady of the ‘Fiat,’ on whom the Holy Spirit descended, restore among us the harmony that comes from God. … In your womb Jesus took flesh help us to foster the growth of communion. You once trod the streets of our world lead us now on the paths of peace.”

The path of peace involves a fiat to God’s will not the will to power. It involves a heart like Mary’s that ponders, treasures, and enfleshes God’s Word. It involves an entrustment to Mary’s motherhood, prayers, and powerful intercession. Let us renew the consecration of ourselves to her heart full of love each day until the war is ended — and beyond.

A Time for Continuing Renewal and Reparations

May 8, 2022

This year, as we mark the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the toxic avalanche of revelations about decades of clergy sexual abuse of minors in Boston and beyond, the two headlines are clear. The first is the unfathomable scope of what had happened and remained hidden prior to that apocalypse: tens of thousands of victims, thousands of clerical molesters, hundreds of bishops, and senior chancery officials who had covered up the abuse and transferred the abusers, and the entrenched culture of corruption that enabled all of it.

Prior to 2002, Catholics in the US were familiar with the notorious cases of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe who admitted to molesting 37 boys in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, and Fr. James Porter who pleaded guilty to abusing 28 children in the Diocese of Fall River, but these were, most thought, isolated priestly psychopaths. They were, instead, just the tip of the satanic iceberg.

I will never forget on Sunday, January 6, 2002, reading the Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s first report of its investigations of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. I could barely breathe. The numbers. The names and faces of accused priests. The questions. The volcano of emotions. The prayers for guidance as I headed to Church as a seminarian and would receive honest questions for which I knew I would have no satisfactory answers.

As a young seminarian, I was not unused to hearing about evil things that people, mainly out of weakness, occasionally commit. Learning about the torture some victims had endured, and the malice and mendacity with which they had been met by some Church officials, was like a second seminary experience, preparing me for a priesthood that I knew would be far different than I had imagined, and filling me with a righteous indignation against what they suffered that has never waned.

There is a temptation, especially with things that cause us shame, to try to put them behind us, to turn the page, to change the channel. That temptation is Himalayan with regard to the clergy sex abuse scandals. But just like the Germans have to wrestle with the difficult, indeed sickening, history of the rise of Hitler, the dehumanization of the Jews, and their industrialized annihilation by one of the world’s most advanced and educated societies, so the Church must confront and never forget that while we were experiencing before our eyes the fulfillment of Christ’s parable of the mustard seed — with the foundation and building up of so many Catholics parishes, schools, universities, chanceries, and other institutions, and even the election of the first Catholic president — something truly sinister was taking place in those same institutions, in the seed-beds (seminaries) and among the sowers.

That is the first headline of the twentieth anniversary, as it should be at the fiftieth, hundredth, and every anniversary. The second is far more hopeful. It is that the evils exposed in 2002 have proven to be reserved, for the most part, to well prior to 2002. The seminary reforms of St. John Paul II in the early 1990s, the rigorous measures taken by the US Bishops in Dallas in 2002, the sanitizing spotlight of the media, the civil lawsuits that have cost the Church billions in assets and more in reputation, the “special attention” given by district attorneys and attorney generals, the clamoring for accountability from lay groups, faithful, and reform-minded clergy, the prayers of the saints on earth and in heaven, and the scourging and merciful grace of God have all played a role.

It is safe to say that since 2002, the cancer of the sexual abuse of minors in the Church in the U.S. has been in remission. New cases have been extremely rare. While it is hyperbole to say that Church institutions are now the “safest places in the world for kids,” it is demonstrably true to say that in Catholic parishes, schools, and programs — because of all of the standard background checks, anti-abuse training, recognition of grooming techniques, mandatory reporting mechanisms and more — are indeed safe places for children and teens, as they must remain. That is the second headline. While the twentieth anniversary is certainly not a cause for celebration, it is an occasion for gratitude and redoubled commitment: protecting kids, caring for victims, and reforming the Church in the virtues opposed to the sinful and criminal vices that brought the Church to one of the lowest points in its history.

Twenty years into the rebuilding process, it is also time to address its by now obvious imperfections. When the U.S. Bishops convened in Dallas in 2002 to draft their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and its accompanying Norms, they did so under panic and pressure from the press, lawsuits, and furious faithful. They got most of the big stuff right in terms of holding offenders accountable, responding quickly to allegations, cooperating with civil authorities, committing to the healing and reconciliation of victims, and ensuring that the priesthood — and parish staffs and volunteer teams more broadly — was no place for those who would harm the young.

But it has become evident that in the atmosphere of hasty duress, some things were left out of balance. It is time for the Church to rectify these shortcomings. One was the bishops’ failure to hold themselves accountable to the Charter and Norms, something that has thankfully been remedied by Pope Francis’ 2019 apostolic letter Vos Estis, precipitated by the scandalous disclosures about abuse committed by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The biggest problem regards justice toward accused priests, to ensure they do not become scapegoated victims of false accusations. The original understanding of the undefined term “credible” allegations was absurdly low: it meant that the charge was not patently “impossible,” that the priest was not already dead when the abuse took place and that the allegation involved a who, what, when, and where. If the priest had a rock-solid alibi and sterling character with youth, if the accuser had a reputation for chronic dishonesty, if the details were incoherent and contradictory, it really did not matter. The priest was removed for the length of an inexcusably glacial investigation, a press release published, the presumption of innocence given lip service, and his reputation effectively ruined.

Bishops have been reluctant to veer from what they committed to in Dallas, lest they seem soft on child sexual abuse, but as every child in first grade catechesis knows, two wrongs do not make a right. Some bishops and review boards have tried to invent an undefined term “substantiated” to get beyond the concerns with the word “credible,” but after too many false accusations, now is the time to ensure that the procedures are fair toward both accuser and accused and rightly foster a swift and just outcome. The classic principle of the Golden Rule would seem to apply: Bishops would do well to treat their priests, Church employees, and volunteers by the same principles by which not only they would want to be treated but actually, sanely and equitably, are.

It is also time to courageously address the real causes of the crisis, the most prominent of which was a widespread culture of episcopal tolerance toward priestly sexual sins with adults within even a wider tolerance among the faithful toward the vices of the sexual revolution. If the clergy are not held accountable to keeping the ten commandments, then no one should be surprised if the forces of Hell lead them to transgress further boundaries and commit sins that cry out to heaven. This twentieth anniversary is a time for reparation and continued conversion in which the Church builds on what we have gotten right and corrects what still needs to be rectified.

Pledge to pray 5,000 Rosaries for DMP and SEAS

May 1, 2022

Dear Parishioners and Friends of Divine Mercy Parish,

In 2017, Matthew Kelly, noted Catholic author, speaker, and founder of the “Dynamic Catholic” movement, began a campaign called “5,000,000 Rosaries for America.” Looking back to the dreams of America’s Founding Fathers for freedom, equality, and lives full of happiness and opportunity, Matthew wrote:
“Amidst the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, we have lost sight of this dream.

Today in America, we have bigger houses, but smaller families better technology, but worse connection fully loaded cars, but empty churches more education, but less common sense. We strive for peace, but violence is rampant. We have more kinds of food, but a greater spiritual hunger. We are quick to judge, but slow to love. We have multiplied our possessions but reduced our values. Something is wrong, isn't it? Something needs changing. One of the most effective ways we can change things is through prayer.”

Matthew Kelly asked people all over the country to join together in praying 5 million rosaries for America! He said “The rosary is an incredibly powerful prayer. It has the power to bring peace the power to heal the power to transform your life, the lives of your loved ones, your community, and our nation.” People then pledged to pray the rosary. Whether pledging to pray one rosary or 100, together, all these prayers make a difference!

In the month of May, pledge to get involved by praying the rosary for Divine Mercy Parish and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School. The Rosary is an incredibly beautiful prayer, with the power to bring peace, to heal, and to transform lives. We are sponsoring a parish-wide campaign during the month of May, a month dedicated to our Blessed Mother, challenging every parishioner and school family to join us and make a positive difference by praying the rosary for the mission and ministry of Divine Mercy Parish and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School. As the family of God here at Divine Mercy Parish and SEAS, we need to always grow in our understanding and appreciation of the parish as a gracious gift from God, as a unique instrument of grace in our lives.

Where the Church’s mission must be most visible and most alive is in the church parish. The parish is the privileged place where people are “gathered in the name of the Lord” and where they receive the challenge to go to the world as active participants in God’s plan and as living witnesses to the one Lord. It is at the parish that inter-personal relationships are born and lived out as in a family. There the members of the parish interact, mutually support, and sacrifice their time and resources for one another. Above all, it is in the parish where we gather to hear God’s Word that sharpens our Gospel vision where we eat the Body and drink the Blood that revitalizes our strength to continue our journey together as pilgrims in a land that is not our permanent home.

As Mary and the Apostles were gathered at Pentecost awaiting the empowerment of the Spirit to spread the Good News, we too stand on the threshold as we continue to hold fast to the mission entrusted to us at Divine Mercy Parish and SEAS. Our Rosary Campaign is the first step in providing people a Church parish and a home for their faith that is marked by more faithful discipleship, a loving community, and an inspired source for witness. Let us see ourselves gathered, gifted, and sent to make our presence as Church a source of blessing to the world.

How will our Rosary Campaign work? Simply follow the THREE Ps!

Pick: Think of how many rosaries you (and your family) wish to pray as you lift up Divine Mercy Parish and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in prayer during that time. (ex: If a family of 4 prays 1 Rosary per week together for the month of May, that family will pray 16 Rosaries total for the month of May and thus should pledge 16 Rosaries.)

Pledge: Head to the narthex of the Church and find the large glass vase on the center table. Grab as many blue glass beads as rosaries you (and your family) will pray together from the small containers and place the beads in the tall vase to show our Parish and School's Progress. Want to pledge from afar? Perhaps you are a friend of Divine Mercy Parish or an out-of-town grandparent of a SEAS student. We’ve got you covered! Simply submit an online pledge form: www.divinemercyparish.org/5k-rosaries. We'll be sure to count your pledges in the large vase for you.

Pray: Spend the month of May in prayer, remembering to honor your pledge. Feel free to pray in our Church before or after Mass, visit our Adoration Chapel when you're stressed, pray using the AMEN App, or even ask some friends or family members to join you (and add their beads into the jar the next time you come to Mass).

Take time to watch the blue beads in the large glass jar grow as the number of pledges continue to pour in so all can see what we can accomplish together. Let us do something bold in our parish! Whether pledging to pray one rosary or 40, all these prayers make a difference because …. PRAYER CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING!

Fr. Robert T. Cooper, Pastor

Divine Mercy Parish and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School

Grace for sinners alone

April 24, 2022

The night Pope Francis was elected, I downloaded a copy of his 2010 book-length interview, El Jesuita (eventually translated into English as Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio) and started speed-reading. About three in the morning, I got to a passage that made me slam on the contemplative breaks.

“For me,” he said, “feeling oneself a sinner is one of the most beautiful things that can happen, if it leads to its ultimate consequences. … When a person becomes conscious that he is a sinner and is saved by Jesus, he proclaims this truth to himself and discovers the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field. He discovers the greatest thing in life: that there is someone who loves him profoundly, who gave his life for him.”

That was the experience he himself had as a 16-year-old boy during confession, when he experienced God calling him to be a priest. It is what caused him to choose as his episcopal and papal motto Miserando atque Eligendo, pointing to how God, who came to sinners, calls us often straight from our sins. It is what prompted him to accept the papacy with the words, “I am a sinner, but having entrusted myself to the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ and in a spirit of penance, I accept.” It is what inspired him to say in his first Angelus greeting, “God never tires of forgiving us, but it’s we who tire of asking for forgiveness” and to pray that we would never tire of asking what God never tires to give. It is what roused him to declare a Jubilee of Mercy and establish the Missionaries of Mercy. It is what triggered him, based on the Parables of the Lost Sons, Lost Sheep, and Lost Coin to proclaim that “God’s greatest joy is forgiving,” to urge frequent reception of the Sacrament of Confession and to ask us to help others to come to receive that same sacramental gift.

Despite the joy that comes both to God and us through feeling oneself a sinner infinitely loved and forgiven by God, the future Pope continued, many Catholics have sadly never had this fundamental Christian experience. “There are people who believe the right things, who have received catechesis and accepted the Christian faith in some way, but who do not have the experience of having been saved,” Cardinal Bergoglio lamented. When we were like a child drowning in a river, Christ jumped into the water to save us, and died so that we might live, he said. But there are people who refuse this analogy, “who always have escape hatches from the situation of drowning and who therefore lack the experience of who they are.”

He concluded, “I believe that only we great sinners have this grace.” Only sinners need a Savior. Only the sick, as Jesus said to the Pharisees, need a physician (Mk 2:17). The only way we will experience “the greatest thing in life” is to recognize that we are “great sinners.” The only way each of us will appreciate the depth of the Lord’s love is to grasp, as we confess at the beginning of each Mass, that “I have greatly sinned … through my most grievous fault.”

The knowledge we gain of God through receiving His mercy makes us, as St. Ambrose taught in the fourth century, even better off than we would have been had we never sinned and needed God’s mercy. “We who have sinned more have gained more,” Ambrose prayed to the Lord in a commentary on the Psalms, “because your grace [of mercy] makes us more blessed than our absence of fault does.” In one of the Ambrosian liturgical prefaces he inspired, the Church praises God because “You bent down over our wounds and healed us, giving us a medicine stronger than our afflictions, a mercy greater than our fault. In this way even sin, by virtue of your invincible love, served to elevate us to the divine life.”

The problem is that many refuse to recognize sin or to admit that they are sinners. There is an eclipse of conscience and a loss of the sense of sin that Pope Pius XI once said was the greatest sin of the twentieth century. Pope St. John Paul II commented that secularism — living as if God does not exist — eventually leads us to seek to eliminate all vestiges of God from our daily life. We reduce sin from what offends God to what offends man. We deny or relativize moral norms we do not like. Rather than take responsibility for our free actions, we blame our failings on our upbringing, or on society or on others.

Many are tempted, John Paul II wrote, “to replace exaggerated attitudes of the past with other exaggerations: From seeing sin everywhere they pass to not recognizing it anywhere from too much emphasis on the fear of eternal punishment they pass to preaching a love of God that excludes any punishment deserved by sin from severity in trying to correct erroneous consciences they pass to a kind of respect for conscience that excludes the duty of telling the truth.”

The world wants sin to be canonized not confessed and absolved. The Lamb of God came into the world to take away sin, not to hallow it. On this point, Pope Francis throughout his papacy has repeatedly distinguished between “sinners” and the “corrupt.” The corrupt, he says, are “sinners like us” but have become “solidified in sin such that they don’t feel the need for God.” A sinner does not want to sin, he states, “but is weak … and so he goes to the Lord and asks to be forgiven.” Someone who is corrupt denies he is a sinner in need of mercy. Jesus, Pope Francis says, “does not call [the corrupt] simply sinners. He calls them hypocrites.” Full of self-deceit, they become like “whitewashed tombs” or “varnished putrefaction.” Though Jesus never tires of forgiving, the minimal prerequisite is openness to receiving that clemency, and the corrupt refuse to acknowledge such a need. “This is also a danger for us,” Pope Francis reminds us, lest we be tempted to pick up stones or point fingers.

The fitting remedy to this hardening of the heart is ardent devotion to Divine Mercy, revealed by Jesus to Saint Faustina Kowalska, and lived in a particular way in the novena between Good Friday and Divine Mercy Sunday. This helps us not only to grow in trust of God’s mercy and in our recognition that we are great sinners deeply loved by God but moves us to come to receive that gift and share it.

Divine Mercy is the path that will lead us to what the Pope calls the greatest thing in life.

Easter Message 2022

April 17, 2022

Easter Sunday – “the day the Lord has made” – the day that defines who we are as believers in Jesus Christ!

From the very early days of the Church, belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was what set His followers apart from others and what changed their lives dramatically. This belief, however, was not based simply on experiences that only a few people had on the first Easter day. Rather, belief in the Risen Jesus was – and is – based on the continual, transforming experience of the power of God present and at work in communities of faith, communities that were given life through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit poured forth into creation through the resurrection of the Lord.

On Holy Saturday night during the great Vigil of Easter, catechumens from our parish were baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and candidates presented themselves for full communion in the Catholic Church. These catechumens and candidates – our relatives, neighbors, and friends – joined with tens of thousands of catechumens and candidates from around the world to publicly profess their faith in Jesus Christ and to assume their place in His body, the Church. Their very presence in our midst affirms the reality of the Risen Christ continually working in and through His daughters and sons, who proclaim His Word, experience His life in the sacraments, and live His Gospel in humble service.

Admittedly, there is often a tension present in our world regarding what we believe lies at the heart of the Easter event and all that it calls us to do and to be. To the cynic who doesn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, there is little that anyone can say to prove the fact that Jesus lives in our midst and that we will rise to new life with Him. But to people of faith who live with this hope, there is nothing that anyone can say to disprove His life, death, and resurrection!

Every one of us lives with a desire to fill the emptiness of our lives with meaning and purpose. We Christians profess the belief that in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we discover the means to a life of deep fulfillment. We celebrate the fact that through the power of God, Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the story of His life. Rather, His death leads to a transformed, new life won through His triumph over sin, death, and the power of evil in our world – a life rooted in the mercy and love of God – and a life that we are privileged to make our own through faith.

The mystery and gift of Easter affirms that as we listen to and reflect upon the Word of God, as we receive the very life of Jesus in the Eucharist, and as we live our lives in loving service of our sisters and brothers as Jesus taught us, we continually encounter the Risen One. At the same time, this encounter imparts to us the mission of evangelization, the proclamation of the Risen Christ through our embrace of His life, His forgiveness, and His selfless love.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, captured the heart of the Easter message and the mission of evangelization in simple words that he shared in his inaugural Mass. “Let us never forget that authentic power is service. … To protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called.”

My dear sisters and brothers, thank you for your dedicated service to the Gospel and for all that you do to build up our parish family here at Divine Mercy Parish and to share the glory of the Risen Christ. Despite the crosses and wounds that so many of you bear, your unquestionable faith and selfless ways, along with your kindness and support of one another, are daily reminders to me and so many others of the living presence of Jesus in our midst. Through lives of faithful service that flow from your encounter with the person of Jesus, our world is richly blest.

Easter Sunday is indeed the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad!

The Choice we face

April 10, 2022

From the time I was a child, participating in the reading of the Passion account on Palm Sunday and Good Friday has always been jarring. The most discomfiting, even interiorly violent, part is the dialogue between Pontius Pilate and the crowd assembled in the praetorium. After parading a scourged Jesus in royal purple with a crown of thorns before them, the procurator asks, as part of the paschal pardon, whom the crowd wants to be released to them, Jesus or Barabbas. I still remember as a young child looking around scandalized as packed Churches full of adults, having been asked whether they preferred the Lord or a notorious prisoner (Mt 27:16), revolutionary (Jn 18:40), and murderer (Mk 15:7), shouted out “Barabbas!” When Pilate asked what they wanted to be done to Jesus and everyone — including my parents — clamored repeatedly, “Crucify him!” I became sick to my stomach. Later, in college, I attended a Good Friday Commemoration of the Passion sung in beautiful polyphony except for that dialogue with Pilate, which was fittingly sung in the most discordant and diabolically shrill ways possible. Since ordination, even though I now say the part of Jesus, it still staggers me, with the visceral disquiet of my childhood, to hear Christians bellow for Barabbas and clamor for Christ’s crucifixion.

How could anyone have shockingly barked for Barabbas and hollered for Jesus’ death? Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his powerful meditations on the Way of the Cross, helps us all to see how in every moral decision we are faced with a similarly momentous choice. “How would I have answered [Pilate’s] question had I been in the courtyard that Good Friday morning?” Sheen asked. “I cannot escape answering by saying that the question belongs only to the past, for it is as actual now as ever. My conscience is the tribunal of Pilate. Daily, hourly, and every minute of the day, Christ comes before that tribunal, as virtue, honesty, and purity Barabbas comes as vice, dishonesty, and uncleanness. As often as I choose to speak the uncharitable word, do the dishonest action, or consent to the evil thought, I say in so many words, ‘Release unto me Barabbas,’ and to choose Barabbas means to crucify Christ.”

Every choice between good and evil, Sheen stressed, is between Christ and Barabbas-in-disguise. If Christ was crucified to take away the sins of the world, every sin, to some degree, is a choice for Him to die. We obviously do not like to think about sin this way. We would prefer to think about our sins, at most, as peccadillos, as a failure in spiritual manners, rather than a betrayal like that to which Judas, Peter, and the other apostles succumbed on Holy Thursday, or like that to which the crowds, five days after hailing Jesus with palm branches, yielded on Good Friday. We may be urged on by popular opinions — like those in the courtyard were swept up by the instigation of those, including religious leaders, who wanted Jesus executed in the most sadistic manner possible — but we cannot evade personal responsibility for the connection between our sins and Jesus’ suffering and death.

There are many illustrations of this difficult-to-accept reality of sin, but one of the clearest, and most actual, is concerning sexual morality. Since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the sexual ethics lived and proclaimed by Christ and the Church He founded has been subject to ridicule by various parties who have rightly grasped that the Gospel of human love in the divine plan stands as the biggest obstacle to their transvaluation of human sexuality, love, marriage, parenthood, family, children, and life. When given a choice between Christ and Hugh Hefner, Harvey Milk, or Ru Paul, many in recent decades have said, “Give me Barabbas.” When presented with a decision between adoring the chaste Christ and staring at pornography, many have opted for the fallen passions that precipitated Christ’s Passion. When comparing the Christian idea of marriage and the family with the modern conception of husbandless or wifeless unions, fatherless or motherless procreation, and an approach to sexual activity whenever, wherever, however, with whomever one wants, many choose the way of lust rather than love. Even when confronted with the undeniable casualties of the sexual revolution, like the victims of Robert Aaron Long, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and the others shamed by the #MeToo movement, the women enslaved and commodified through human trafficking, and all those whose lives have been upended because of the epidemic of broken families, marriages, and hearts, there’s been the denunciation of the effects but a failure courageously to look at and eradicate the cause. No connection is made between these rancid fruits and the poisonous tree that produces them. No connection is made, either, between such evils and the reason why Christ entered the world and was crucified. A wanton Barabbas continues to be defended at all costs, chosen and even celebrated.

On Good Friday, Pilate asks, “Whom do you want me to release to you?” Christ and Barabbas stand before us. To choose Christ means to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him, metaphorically chopping off our hands and feet and plucking out of eyes if they lead us to sin and embracing His call to virtue and holiness. To choose Christ means to reject sin. This goes for everyone, no matter our state of life. And those who truly love Christ will similarly seek to have others choose Christ, embrace His call, and avail themselves of the graces given to live in accordance with the blessing of the truth.

Blessed are the peacemakers

April 3, 2022

As we witness the appalling images of death and destruction from Ukraine and many — including some national leaders — behave as if they’re impotent before the atrocities being committed, such a helpless attitude can never be the response of a Christian who lives the faith. Christians have received from Jesus the vocation to be peacemakers, not peace-wishers or peace-dreamers. By our baptism we have become children of God, and — as Jesus made clear in His declaration, “Blessed are the peacemakers” — true children of God are those who restore and build peace (Mt 5:9).

To be a disciple of the Prince of Peace (Is 9:5) means to be a peacemaker. During the Last Supper, Jesus gave us and left us His peace (Jn 14:27) and backed up that gift by His first words to the apostles after His resurrection “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19). He sent His disciples town-to-town and even house-to-house to offer that gift of peace (Mt 10:12) and spoke regularly about the conditions — like fraternity, humility, and forgiveness — that are necessary for lasting peace.

To be a faithful Christian is to be on the front line in the battle for peace. It means to live according to the terms of Christ’s definitive peace plan and to commit oneself to the arduous communal effort to guide peoples into the path of peace (Lk 1:79). It does not mean to adopt utopian fantasies that fail to consider the consequence of the existence of evil, chosen by leaders who attack and bomb rather than love their neighbors. It also does not mean to forget the essential responsibilities leaders have to protect their peoples from unjust attacks and to remedy the evil being suffered, including, when necessary, trying with just and proportionate means to defeat the aggressor and restore justice.

But since peace is both a divine gift and the fruit of human effort, peacemaking involves two interconnected activities: imploring God for the gift of peace and collaborating in the long and demanding battle to defeat evil by good. It involves, first, prayer. Sacred Scripture is full of believers’ praying for peace and as well as God’s response to those prayers. We see the miracles worked for the Israelites in Egypt, the Jews in Babylon, Samson before the Philistines, Esther before Ahasuerus, the prophets before corrupt rulers, the Maccabees before the Greeks, and so many other examples where people prayed as if their lives depended on it, because, in fact, they did. The Psalms are similarly replete with prayers that the Lord will bless us with peace, that we will seek and pursuit it, that peace and justice will wed (Ps 29:11 34:15 85:11).

In the face of war, prayer is not an escape. It is not a placebo taken in substitution for real medicine that might address the cancer of conflict. It is a recognition that only an intervention from on high can help untie seemingly unbreakable knots. It is also a way by which our gaze can go beneath the surface of history and entrenched animosities to a source of peace even deeper than the legacy of sin. To bring peace to the world, as St. John Paul II wrote in his 1992 Message for the World Day of Peace, before human resources, there must be, “intense, humble, confident and persevering prayer.” That is because “prayer is par excellence the power needed to implore that peace and obtain it. It gives courage and support to all who love this good and desire to promote it.” He added that because prayer is the authentic expression of a right relationship with God and others, it is already a positive contribution to peace and a hopeful testimony, even in the seemingly direst of circumstances, that “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).

In terms of prayers Catholic peacemakers can offer, the foremost will always remain the Mass, by which we enter into Christ’s prayer from the Upper Room and Calvary in which He signed with blood the definitive peace treaty for the human race. In the Mass we turn to Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sins and beg, “Grant us peace.” We implore Him, “Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your apostles, ‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.” We extend to each other the peace of the Lord and, with God’s blessing, are dismissed in peace to announce the Gospel of the Lord and to glorify Him with our life.

Catholic tradition has similarly prized the Rosary as a prayer for peace, especially since the miraculous victory of the Christian fleet in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto seemingly because of the prayers of the Rosary in Rome led by Pope St. Pius V. This privileged prayer to the Queen of Peace has been efficaciously invoked in time of conflict and regularly proposed by the popes as a prayer for peace. In his 2002 Exhortation on the Rosary, St. John Paul II said, “One cannot recite the Rosary without feeling caught up in a clear commitment to advancing peace.” Through it we learn the “secret of peace,” grow in “hope that, even today, the difficult ‘battle’ for peace can be won,” and are inspired to make peace our “life’s project.” In a word, he says, “by focusing our eyes on Christ, the Rosary makes us peacemakers in the world.”

The second thing peacemaking involves is action, which flows from prayer. Rather than “offering an escape from the problems of the world,” John Paul II insists that prayer “obliges us to see them with responsible and generous eyes.” Prayer reminds us that God is with us always. It emboldens us to tackle even the most intractable problems with patience, realism, perseverance, and hope. It impels us to beg God to make us “instruments” of His peace and to bear witness, in every way at our disposal, to the “Gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15), cooperating with other believers and all people of good will in the immense work to bring it about.

So, in response to the situation in the Ukraine and the other conflicts plaguing our world, we are not powerless spectators. Rather, through prayer and the charity that flows from it, we are influential participants as peacemakers living up to our identity as children of God. And so we pray and act with confidence, as disciples of the Risen Prince of Peace, who has conquered crucifixion, snatched victory out of the claws of death, and brought the greatest good from the greatest evil.

Beyond giving up chocolate

March 27, 2022

From the time we were children, our first question for Lent was often, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Giving something up for these 40 days is a custom that, when we were younger, helped us enter into the season with a sense of purpose and a greater awareness. As adults, we might want to consider looking at Lent in a deeper way. We are probably much more settled into our behaviors and patterns of life and sometimes giving up something is where we begin -- and end -- our reflections on Lent. It can be tempting to say “I am giving up chocolate” or beer or even all sweets and all alcohol. But without more reflection, it can simply become a way I show God how strong I am. It is more about me than any conversation with God.

Lent isn’t simply about us “giving up” something. The real grace is when we recognize that Lent is a season in which God wants to give us something. God wants to help us transform our lives and make us freer as a people -- not just freer with God, but in the way we live our lives and love our families. It is much easier for us to simply choose something to give up -- then we can dismiss Lent! “I am giving up TV for Lent.” “I am giving up movies ... snacks ... soft drinks.” We give it up and exercise our willpower for 40 days to prove to ourselves and to God that we can do it. And at the end of Lent, we can return to what we gave up.

But this year we might reflect and ask the deeper question: What is God inviting me to change this Lent? How do I know what God might be stirring in me? I begin by listening to the movements in my heart. Where am I feeling uncomfortable with the choices I am making? With the things I have done? With the habitual ways I respond? The Lord will be speaking to me in those small nagging moments of discomfort in my heart.

It might be that we know deep down that we drink too much and that giving up alcohol would make us less irritable each night. Then giving up alcohol would be the right thing. Asking what we would like to change about ourselves this Lent requires a little reflection. What pattern of behavior in my life needs changing? What do I need more of in my life? Patience? Unselfishness? More loving behavior toward my spouse or children? But each of us can think of something that gets in the way of our being loving and self-sacrificing. Too often the ordinary conflicts, divisions, and difficulties in our family life result from simple selfishness on our part. We choose to fight. We choose to defend our opinion. We choose to use things we know about our spouse, our children, our parents against them. We choose to hurt them.

We can ask: And what would it cost me to not change this behavior? What would it mean if I didn’t walk around my family acting crabby all the time? What if I decided to be much more loving and patient with my spouse this Lent? What if I did decide to “give up” something really destructive in my life, like alcohol, pornography, or online friendships? As I reflect, I might realize that changing a particular way I live is coming to me as a call from God, and I don't have to do it alone. God is moving my heart to reflect on these changes and God will remain faithful and help me to stay open to the grace being offered to me for change.

Where do we need a breakthrough? What is the barrier that keeps us from asking for healing? In our own lives, we need to break through our denials, defensiveness, and our unwillingness to look at ourselves. Discovering what the barrier is in my life is critical. If we don’t know what the barrier is, these weeks of Lent are a great time to reflect upon it. When we identify the barrier, we have made the breakthrough. That's when Jesus can heal us of this burden or affliction.

Why is this a good Lenten penance? Because it gets my attention where I live every day. It allows God’s grace into my soul and into the place where my real life exists. That's where Jesus stands with me every day, waiting for me to be lowered from the roof so he can touch me and heal me.

Equipped to Proclaim a Prolife Message

March 20, 2022

Because of the upcoming Supreme Court decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it is likely that most of us will soon be in a lot more conversations about abortion. After the oral arguments on the case on December 1, experts on both sides of the abortion debate, analyzing the questions made by the Justices, are predicting that the Court, will either uphold a 2018 Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy (and permit other states to do so) or go further and overturn Roe v. Wade outright, making it possible for states to ban abortion altogether. Either way, if they are right, the principal forum of abortion debate and law will soon shift, after 49 years, from the Supreme Court to statehouses, and from nine unelected justices to regularly-up-for-election state representatives, senators, and governors.

That shift means that there will be a lot more consequential discussions happening about abortion policy, not just in state capitals, but in the debates for state offices, and among those who vote. For the past half-century, abortion has played a major role in electoral politics at various levels since a candidate’s position on abortion is a bellwether of that candidate’s hierarchy of values. For many officeholders, however, their position on abortion often has been not much more than political virtue signaling to their base or party, since, for the most part, the major decisions had been seized by the courts. Now state legislative debates and decisions are primed to become much more — literally — about life and death.

Similarly for citizens, abortion discussions will go from exchanges of “opinions” that seldom matter little to ultimate decision-making, to conversations with far greater responsibility. Over dinner tables, in classrooms, around water coolers, in supermarkets, gyms, and community centers, on social media, podcasts, websites and blogs, newspapers, television and radio talk shows, those opinions will be shared, formed, and perhaps changed, with ever greater intensity and potential impact on minds, hearts, elections, public policy and, eventually, wombs.

There will, of course, still be intractable shouting matches on cable news programs involving trained spokesmen sloganeering past each other — a heat rather than a light-producing caricature of what should be taking place for a subject of such sensitivity and importance for women, men, and children. But abortion arguments will now increasingly take place among friends and family members, not professional debaters. Some will have strong principles and ideas others will have mixed and even confusing thoughts and feelings, as they seek to get out from under catchphrases and propaganda to understand, evaluate, weigh, and prioritize the truths and values involved. This reopened, public, cross-society discussion on abortion that the Dobbs decision augurs — with vast ramifications at the realm of law and policy, not to mention in individual human lives — is something that faithful Catholics should be ready for.

To be Catholic — as the Catechism, the Popes, and the US Bishops make unambiguously clear, despite the attempt of some prominent Catholic figures to pretend and behave otherwise — is to be Pro-Life. Jesus says that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to Him to abort anyone, He suggests, is equivalent to aborting Him to receive a little child in Jesus’ name, on the other hand, is equivalent to embracing Him. An essential part of the Church’s mission, indeed one of the most important things to proclaiming and advancing the Kingdom of God, is to create a culture in which Jesus Himself is welcomed, loved, and adored. That cannot happen when a society facilely permits the image of God in the womb to be blithely desecrated and destroyed as a “human right.”

Catholics in particular, therefore, consistent with our vocation to be salt, light, and leaven, must be prepared to engage our family members, friends, neighbors, fellow students, co-workers, teachers, elected representatives, and perhaps even confused co-religionists with effective arguments — as the Dobbs decision likely thrusts the debate on abortion to the central place such a discussion on life and death should have in any society dedicated to justice and the pursuit of life, authentic liberty, and lasting happiness.

The handbook to get us ready for that engagement was published on February 4: Dr. Steven A. Christie’s new book entitled Speaking for the Unborn: 30-Second Pro-Life Rebuttals to Pro-Choice Arguments (Emmaus Road, 168 pages, $11.95). Dr. Christie is a 56-year-old medical doctor and lawyer who with this book will become known as an impressive apologist. For the first 35 years of his life, he was a self-described “Pro-Choice liberal” and so believed many of the arguments he now debunks in this work. That conversion, not to mention his medical and legal training as well as his experience as a married father of five, helps to make Speaking for the Unborn a compelling, clear, compassionate, concise, practical, scientifically accurate, witty, user-friendly, and effective training manual. He takes up 65 of the most common and influential Pro-Choice arguments and, to each, gives one or more convincing rebuttals. Beyond his timely book, Dr. Christie has created a free website (speakingfortheunborn.com) where he gives a four-part video Pro-Life master class that can be used by individuals, families, Catholic schools and catechetical classes, pro-life clubs, and more to learn the science, law and commonsense ethics from a non-religious perspective. The website also contains in utero photos, ultrasound images, animations, and other helpful resources. Dr. Christie aims to help us “reveal the truth to those who desperately do not wish to see it, hear it, or speak it. And to do so with intelligence, diligence, and — perhaps most importantly — compassion.” He’s conscious that up to 25 percent of adult women have suffered an abortion and so frames his arguments with that human reality in mind. He also recognizes that many Pro-Choicers erroneously suppose that opposition to abortion is merely a religious belief and so he avoids all religious arguments, making the case for being Pro-Life from scientific, pro-woman, social justice, anti-violence, and evidence-based starting points.

His approach will help many who are not yet decided about the personal and social ramifications of abortion to learn the strong foundations of Pro-Life convictions. It will also help those who already have firm Pro-Life conclusions to learn sounder and more convincing premises. I would love to give a little taste of what he provides.

In response to the “my body, my choice” slogan, Dr. Christie writes, “I fully support the right of a woman to do whatever she wants with her own body. I just don’t believe she has the right to do whatever she wants to someone else’s body. A pregnancy always involves two bodies, sometimes more.” In response to the argument that Pro-Lifers are just trying to “force their morality” on everyone else, he states, “We all believe in imposing morality, and we do it every day. On critical moral issues—like rape, child abuse, murder, or theft—we never rely on each individual’s moral code to best guide his or her actions. We declare to the world that rape and murder are repugnant, immoral, and illegal—and we’ll throw you in prison if you dare to rape or kill! That’s “imposing morality” and we impose it on every single member of society every single day. So, let’s not pretend that we don’t believe in imposing morality— every single one of us does.” He continues, “Can you imagine someone saying, ‘I’m personally anti-slavery, but who am I to impose my view on others?’

“For those who claim that abortion is basic women’s health care, he asks, “When did lethally injecting a living unborn child, or tearing it limb from limb and suctioning it from its mother’s womb, become ‘health care?’ Treating the diabetic is health care. Setting a broken bone is health care. Performing open-heart surgery is health care. Killing a living unborn child has nothing to do with health care.” Moreover, he continues, “Nearly 95% of all abortions are performed on the healthy babies of healthy mothers. Abortion is not health care.”

Witty throughout, Dr. Christie includes several headlines from the satirical site The Babylon Bee, which expose, as comedy does better than most other means, the incongruity of Pro-Choice positions. Similarly, he illustrates the humanity of those for whom he is speaking up by various photos of young babies, many with facial expressions precociously fitting for the debate. His goal in the work is to equip us not necessarily with arguments and approaches that will lead others immediately to wave a white flag, but to get them to say, “I’ve never really thought about it that way before,” which is an indication, he says, of their opening to the truth, a crucial first step — he knows from personal experience — on the path of conversion.

As we await Dobbs, Dr. Christie’s excellent new book is a way to help us all think differently. It’s also a means to prepare us — and through our generosity, others, especially the young — to engage in upcoming discussions with greater clarity, confidence, and effectiveness.

a Ukrainian lent

March 13, 2022

There is a famous story told by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, former pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, of a man who told him that when he was a young boy in Germany during the Holocaust, the Church he attended with his family was in front of railroad tracks. Each Sunday, they would hear the train whistling by on the tracks. Eventually, however, they started to hear cries coming from the speeding trains and realized that the train cars had to be carrying Jews on the way to concentration camps. Because they did not want to hear the tormented screams, they changed the program of the Sunday service so that they would be singing hymns when the trains were scheduled to approach. “By the time the train came past our church,” Lutzer recounted the repentant man telling him, “we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more.”

I recount that story, first, because religious people and others regularly face the temptation to “sing more loudly” when confronted head-on with the troubling reality of evil in the world. But I also do so because I fear that if I wrote on any other subject than on what is going on in the Ukraine, I, myself, would come off as engaging in high volume chanting. Other subjects will have to wait. We need to hear the cries and respond with more than sweet-sounding melodies.

That’s what Pope Francis asked the world to do together on Ash Wednesday. At the end of his February 23 General Audience, the Holy Father stated, “My heart aches greatly at the worsening situation in Ukraine …. I would like to appeal to everyone, believers and non-believers alike. Jesus taught us that the diabolical senselessness of violence is answered with God’s weapons, with prayer and fasting. I invite everyone to make March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting for peace. I encourage believers in a special way to dedicate themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on that day.” Four days later, after praying the Angelus with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, he reiterated the appeal. “In recent days we have been shaken by something tragic: war. … Let us pray to God more intensely. … I renew to all the invitation to make March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, a day to be close to the sufferings of the Ukrainian people, to feel that we are all brothers and sisters, and to implore of God the end of the war.”

Initially, I was frustrated with the Holy Father’s choice of date. “Why wait a week for something so urgent?” I thought, deeming that if Russian propaganda and aims were to be believed, Kyiv and most of Ukraine would already be by that point in Putin’s hands. Moreover, I think it is generally imprudent even to give the perception of diminishing the most important spiritual realities to garnish for earthly concerns, as happened last Easter Sunday, when headlines were changed from the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection to the International Day for Mine Awareness, because of a letter the Pope published that morning to the UN Secretary-General. Eventually, however, I began to see that if Catholic priests and faithful focused on Ash Wednesday this year without reference to the Ukraine, we would all be running the deadly risk of just “singing more loudly.” Indeed, if we try to live Lent just adding an intercession for the Ukraine at Mass or an extra Hail Mary at the end of a family Rosary, we would be, I think, missing the point of what Lent is, what Lenten conversion is supposed to accomplish, and how our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are meant to change us.

What’s happening in Ukraine — not to mention in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere — is meant to bring us to conversion. The world often behaves like the Rich Man in Jesus’ parable as Lazarus is dying at his gate: feasting sumptuously while others are starving, suffering, and even under attack (Lk 16:19-31). While whole societies are attacked by militarized bandits and left to die in urban ditches, many just change the channel and, like the priest and Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, pass by (Lk 10:29-37).

The conversion that Lent is meant to bring about is not just a minor course correction but a thorough change in the way we look at God, ourselves, others, and reality. It involves beginning to look at the world through Jesus’ lenses, of having our own hearts burst with pity for the crowd, and of drawing near to care for others whenever we find them hungry, thirsty, naked, far from home, sick, imprisoned — or being assailed by missiles, cluster munitions, tanks, grenades, bombs, and bullets.

The USA, in particular, needs a national conversion. To whom more is given, more is to be expected (Lk 12:48). In the not-too-distant past, other nations looked to the United States as a nation of valor, ready to get engaged to defend the innocent against maleficent bullies, even at supreme cost. We formed generations of heroes who, in the image of the Good Shepherd, were willing to lay down their lives for people they didn’t even know. While certainly imperfect, we prized virtue and sought to be — and help others to become — courageous and good.

In the view of many in the developing world today, we have gradually become bullies rather defenders, ideological colonizers mandating adhesion to destructive tenets of the sexual revolution as a precondition to official development assistance, or economic predators exploiting the vulnerability of peoples with one-sided deals. At home, rather than forming new generations with heroic virtue, we have prioritized “safe spaces” and manipulated educational, sports, and military standards as if we were dealing with doll houses that could be rearranged according to the emotivist spirit of the age. Many of our leading citizens are competing for an imaginary Neville Chamberlain Statesmanship Award — and pretending it’s an honor.

We need conversion. We need God. We need to think, speak, and act differently. The three traditional Lenten practices Jesus addresses in the Gospel heard on Ash Wednesday are not only general medicine but particularly relevant remedies to the situation in the Ukraine. Our prayer needs to change. We need to pray as if life depends on it because many lives do. We need to intercede for the people of the Ukraine the way Abraham did for the few righteous, Moses did for the Israelites, and Jesus on the Cross did for us. Jesus promised that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountain ranges and we should take Him seriously: praying for God to open the eyes of the warmongers or close them permanently imploring for peace, first by removing the planks from our eyes, so that we can be effective peacemakers and builders restoring the tranquility of order without.

Our fasting needs to change. We need to fast like the people of Nineveh for mercy, like Moses on the mountain in reparation for the sins of Israel, like Queen Esther in petition to save her people, like Jesus so that we might live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Some evils, the Pope reminds us, are expunged only by prayer and the corporeal petition of the body. Our charity needs to change, as we concretely love our neighbor in our worldwide neighborhood. Both those under attack in the Ukraine and those who have fled to other countries need help. Reliable international Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need have extensive networks to deliver that aid through the Churches. The people under attack from those seeking to kill or subjugate them, however, need more than money — and our country has more than money to give.

In response to the reality in the Ukraine, the conversion and transformed prayer, fasting, and charity that began on Ash Wednesday in response to Pope Francis’ appeal should continue throughout Lent and indeed until the end of the invasion.

Lenten journey

March 6, 2022

Dear Parishioners and Friends of Divine Mercy Parish,

On Ash Wednesday, we began together our Lenten journey. Through prayer, fasting, and works of charity, we will experience God’s power at Easter, which “dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, and brings mourners joy.” As St. Paul said to the Ephesians, “You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” (Ephesians 4:23-24).

This Lent, my dear friends, I invite you to join me on a journey to Jesus. The question that I pose as we begin this journey is this: What is the difference between a window and a door? Well, you and I can look out of a window and catch a glimpse of what is outside – or if we are outside, we can look in through the window. In either case, though, we stay where we are. A door, on the other hand, lets us become part of the scene, as we move from where we were and then enjoy taking part in what we could only catch a glimpse of through the window. Doors lead somewhere. When we walk through a door, we cross a boundary. Doors can open up new horizons. Doors can also shut us out.

At the time of the Great Jubilee in 2000, our Holy Father of happy memory, St. Pope John Paul II, opening the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, said, “Throw open the doors to Christ,” repeating what he had said when he was elected Pope in 1978. Doorways on our journey of faith invite us to enter, to “come and see” what God offers us. Equally, when we open our door, we invite God and others into our hearts. When we do this, we recognize that our life is a gift, not to possess for ourselves but to share generously as a good steward.

Whatever may be holding us back from opening the door of our heart to Christ, let this Lent be a time for us to “Throw open the doors to Christ.” Let us ask God for the courage to reach beyond our fears and stereotypes. Let us fast, not only from food and drink, but from judgemental and envious attitudes that deepen divisions. Let us be generous in our almsgiving: in sharing our time, talent, and treasure responsibly and generously with both friend and stranger. Throwing open the doors to Christ is also fundamental in our prayer life. We direct our prayer to the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord in union with the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the lynch-pin of the Christian life, especially during Lent. Without constant and consistent prayer and meditation, it is hardly possible to live the Christian life with a love that burns brightly for God and neighbor. If we have become sluggish in prayer, and most of us do at times, Lent is the time to refresh and renew ourselves in it.

May the 40 days of Lent, plus the 50 days of Easter joy – Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, the Christian Passover – give us all a welcome ‘tune-up’ so we can understand better how to live the new life Jesus won for us.

May the Lord bless each of us during this holy and penitential season of Lent!

Fr. Robert T. Cooper, Pastor

violence in our midst

February 27, 2022

Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord:

Like many of you, I have been watching in shock, disbelief, heartbreak, disappointment, and, yes, anger, at the numerous news reports of extreme violence (armed carjackings, attempted kidnappings, I-10 shootings) that plagues our beloved city. Never in my most disturbing nightmares would I have imagined individuals being carjacked, accosted, and critically injured while pumping gasoline at Costco. Never would I have ever imagined men, women, and children being shot weekly on the interstate system. Never would I have imagined a mom being shot bringing her children to soccer practice. The recent surge in violence is heart wrenching!

Our families are torn by violence. Our city and neighborhoods are destroyed by violence. Our faith is tested by violence. Violence – in our homes, our schools and streets, our nation and world – is destroying the lives, dignity, and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers. Fear of violence is paralyzing and polarizing our city. The celebration of violence in much of our media, music, and even video games is poisoning our children. Beyond the violence in our streets is the violence in our hearts. Hostility, hatred, despair, and indifference are at the heart of a growing culture of violence. Verbal violence in our families, communications, and talk shows contribute to this culture of violence. Pornography assaults the dignity of women and contributes to violence against them. Our social fabric is being torn apart by a culture of violence that leaves children dead on our streets and families afraid in our homes. Our society seems to be growing numb to human loss and suffering. A nation born in a commitment to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is haunted by death, imprisoned by fear, and caught up in the elusive pursuit of protection rather than happiness.

It doesn't have to be this way. It wasn't always this way. We can turn away from violence we can build communities of greater peace. It begins with a clear conviction: respect for life. Respect for life is not just a slogan or a program it is a fundamental moral principle flowing from our teaching on the dignity of the human person. It is an approach to life that values people over things. Respect for life must guide the choices we make as individuals and as a society: what we do and won't do, what we value and consume, whom we admire and whose example we follow, what we support and what we oppose. Respect for human life is the starting point for confronting a culture of violence. Person by person, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood, we must take our city back from the evil and fear that come with so much violence. We believe our faith in Jesus Christ gives us the values, vision, and hope that can bring an important measure of peace to our hearts, our homes, and our streets.

We cannot ignore the underlying cultural values that help to create the environment where violence grows: a denial of right and wrong, education that ignores fundamental values, an abandonment of personal responsibility, an excessive and selfish focus on our individual desires, a diminishing sense of obligation to our children and neighbors, a misplaced priority on acquisitions, and media glorification of violence and sexual irresponsibility. In short, we often fail to value life and cherish human beings above possessions, power, and pleasure. Fundamentally, our society needs a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence with a renewed ethic of justice, responsibility, and community. New policies and programs, while necessary, cannot substitute for a recovery of the old values of right and wrong, respect and responsibility, love, and justice. God's wisdom, love, and commandments can show us the way to live, heal, and reconcile. "Thou shalt not kill … Thou shalt not steal" are more than words to be recited they are imperatives for the common good. Our faith challenges each of us to examine how we can contribute to an ethic which cherishes life, puts people before things, and values kindness and compassion over anger and vengeance. A growing sense of fear and failure must be replaced by a new commitment to solidarity and the common good.

Our criminal justice system is failing. Too often, it does not offer security to society, just penalties and rehabilitation to offenders, or respect and restitution to victims. Clearly, those who commit crimes must be swiftly apprehended, justly tried, appropriately punished, and held to proper restitution. However, correctional facilities must do more than confine criminals they must rehabilitate persons and help rebuild lives. The vast majority of those in prison return to society. We must ensure that incarceration does not simply warehouse those who commit crimes, but helps them overcome the behaviors, attitudes, and actions which led to criminal activity. The answer is not simply constructing more and more prisons, but also constructing a society where every person has the opportunity to participate in economic and social life with dignity and responsibility. People must answer for their actions. Those who harm others must pay the price, but all our institutions must also be held accountable for how they promote or undermine greater responsibility and justice.

I close this reflection with a word of support and appreciation for those on the front lines in the war against violence. At a time when heroes seem scarce, these people are real heroes and heroines, committing their lives to the service of others, standing against a tide of violence with values of peace and a commitment to justice. I commend police officers who daily confront violence with fairness and courage, and I support those who minister to them and their families. I also offer a word of encouragement to parents who daily confront the cultural messages that influence their children in a way that is so contradictory to basic values of decency, honesty, respect for life, and justice.

Let us embrace the challenge of Pope St. John Paul II in his message to young people, when he calls them and all of us, to be "communicators of hope and peace." Let us hear and act with new urgency on the words of Jesus: "Blessed are the peacemakers they shall be called children of God."


February 20, 2022

Last week, we focused on the “great miracle” of St. John Vianney’s confessional, to which prodigal sons and daughters from all over France flocked to be embraced by the merciful love of God the Father. The Curé of Ars is rightly called a “martyr of the confessional” because with unfathomable stamina for over 30 years he imprisoned himself in the confessional up to 18 hours a day in order to set others free from their sins. Because of his fame as a ceaseless and heroic confessor, it’s hard for some priests today to relate to him, because often their experience has been quite different than their patron’s: rather than having penitents wait up to eight days for the opportunity to spend five minutes going to confession, many priests would say their experience has been more like needing to wait eight days to have five penitents!

That’s why it’s useful to recognize that it took St. John Vianney almost a decade as pastor in Ars before his people began to have regular recourse to him as a confessor. From 1818-1827, no matter how much he preached on God’s mercy, on sin, and on the Sacrament of Penance, no matter how many all-night vigils he spent in his tiny church begging God for the conversion of his parish, few of his people came to confession. The only people who generally came were those who, according to the custom of the time, wanted to receive Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday and for that reason came to confession the previous day. And since the people in Ars, like in most of the Catholic world at the time, sought to approach the altar rail only once or a few time times a year, the martyrdom St. John Vianney experienced in the confessional during his first ten years as pastor of this tiny village of 230 was, like many priests today, a martyrdom of abandoned, expectant waiting.

Adding to his agony as a pastor, while doubtless providing some consolation as a priest, was the fact that in parishes other than his own, people were coming to his confessional in great numbers. In Ecully, the parish he was assigned upon his ordination, the people literally couldn’t wait to go to confession to him. Just as it is one of the great ironies of Catholic history that the future patron saint of priests was dismissed from the Lyons seminary by the priests on the faculty, so too, it is hagiographically incongruous that the future martyr of the confessional was not given the faculties to hear confessions until months after his priestly ordination.

It was common practice in the Church for bishops and dioceses to restrict the faculties of priests to hear confessions until sometime after their ordination, when they would either pass a special test or be considered sufficiently mature and experienced to begin hearing confessions. On some occasions, they would receive no faculties to hear confessions at all except when a penitent was in danger of death some priests, in fact, would spend their whole priesthood as a “simplex priest,” capable of no priestly ministrations except celebrating private Masses or public Masses without a homily. On other occasions, priests would be given the faculties to confess only certain groups of “easy penitents,” like young children. In many places, the last group of penitents that priests would be given the faculties to confess was not hardened felons but religious women.

Regardless, for the first few months of his priesthood, the future “extraordinary apostle of the confessional,” as Pope St. John Paul II would later call him, needed to tell the people of Ecully who asked him to hear their confessions that he had not yet received authorization. That changed when his mentor and first pastor, the saintly and learned Fr. Charles Balley, approached the ecclesiastical authorities in Lyons and persuaded them that his curate was ready. As soon as he returned to give Fr. Vianney the good news, he put him to work. The pastor dropped to his knees at the feet of his parochial vicar and asked Fr. Vianney not only to hear his confession but to become his spiritual director.

Once the people of the village discovered that the 29-year-old priest they had known for a decade was now a confessor, they began to crowd his confessional and the sick also began to call for him preferentially to come to hear their confessions at their homes. It’s routine that young priests get more than their average share of work in the confessional because many penitents anticipate that priestly rookies will be easier on them out of inexperience. This was not, however, what was going on in Ecully. They were asking for Fr. Vianney because they knew that there was something extraordinarily special about him, even in comparison to Fr. Balley, their holy and ascetic pastor.

It must have been quite a shock for Fr. Vianney, therefore, after Fr. Balley’s death, to be transferred from a parish in which he was inundated with penitents to one in which he barely heard any confessions. Even still, Catholics in other places saw, and took advantage of, what his own parishioners failed or refused to see. During his first several years in Ars, St. John Vianney — and all the pastors of the area — would assist the Carthusian monks who would come into the area to preach lengthy missions trying to bring the people back to the practice of the faith. Because so many Carthusians had been killed during the terror of the French Revolution and because the state of the knowledge and practice of the faith had collapsed due to the brainwashing and persecutions of the revolutionaries, the Carthusians needed all the priests of the area to help them in the pulpit and in the confessional. So the priests of surrounding villages would leave their parishes during the week to assist the Carthusians in these missions taking place in the region.

The holy monks recognized that there was something special about the pastor of Ars as a confessor. Their preaching would almost always be effective in getting people to return to the sacraments, but they began to notice on their missions that the lines for Fr. Vianney were always much longer than the lines for other priests. Moreover, long after the other priests had called it a day after hearing confessions for hours to return for a late dinner in the rectory, St. John Vianney would remain in the confessional, sometimes until long after midnight, to reconcile those who were still waiting. On occasion, the local pastor would come to try to “rescue” him about 9 p.m., but doing so would almost always cause a revolt. Pastors admitted that they loved his assistance, because, as one said, “He worked hard and ate nothing.”

Once, on the night before the mission was scheduled to end, the crush of people who had waited to the last second to go to confession, as well as those who were returning to Fr. Vianney after a previous experience with him in the sacrament, surged around his confessional so much that they pushed over both the confessional and the confessor within it. On another occasion, because he was so exhausted after a marathon in the confessional, he collapsed in the snow trying to make his way home. The rumor soon spread around Ars, however, that their pastor, in fact, was dead, having died of exhaustion in the coffin of his missionary confessional.

Despite his hearing confessions almost non-stop in other places, when he returned to Ars, there was still only a trickle. In 1827, he was hearing, at most, 20 confessions a day, with those numbers buttressed by penitents coming from surrounding villages. After ten years of prayer, mortification, preaching and hard work, that would soon change. What had been a mustard seed would soon become a tree in which not only the people of Ars but all the penitents of France would be able to find refuge.

the great hospital of souls

February 13, 2022

“The great miracle of the Curé of Ars,” one of his contemporaries said during the process for beatification “was his confessional, besieged day and night.” The fundamental reason why the Year for Priests had been called by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the 150th anniversary of the birth of St. John Vianney into eternal life was not that he left us a body of inspiring sermons like Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It was not principally because of the angelic way he would celebrate Mass, his all night vigils of prayer, his fasting on boiled potatoes, his legendary battles against the devil, or his famous love and care for orphans. What made him famous, what earned him the reputation of being a saint in his lifetime and the title of the patron saint of priests after his death, was what God did through him in his “besieged” confessional.

For much of his 41 years in Ars, a town that had 230 souls when he arrived, he heard confessions of more than its entire population each day. He used to hear 12-14 hours of confessions in the winter and 16-18 hours in the summer. Most of us, in hearing those numbers, would naturally admire his commitment and dedication, much like we would commend anyone who worked 18 hour days in loving service of others. When I was a seminarian, I used to applaud the concrete “priority” he gave to the sacrament of confession, which obviously would have required many other sacrifices. It was only in December of 2007, however—while hearing confessions at my first Advent penance service—that I really understood what St. John Vianney’s commitment really meant. That night, I sat in the confessional and heard confessions for three hours. I likened it to Jesus’ three hours on the cross. Even though I was use to pushing my body to the limit, I had never been so totally exhausted. My back ached. My bottom ached. My whole body ached, but I took solace at least that I could still feel it. My mind, on the other hand, felt totally depleted. A year later, when preaching a parish Lenten Mission, I heard 12 hours of confessions stretched from Monday night through Wednesday night. At the end of the mission, I was comatose.

When I think now about the Curé of Ars’ hearing confessions for 12-18 hours a day, the closest analogy I would give would be to running 25-40 miles a day … uphill … into gale force winds … with ankle weights … and wrist weights … in full body armor … made of lead. Moreover, he did it almost every day for decades. What St. John Vianney did in the confessional is, to me, the physical equivalent of doing a triathlon for the last 11,000 days of his life. It gives new meaning to the term heroism. This is the first reason why we can say that the great miracle of the Curé of Ars was his confessional because his daily stamina makes everything else look like minor feats in comparison.

The second reason his confessional was miraculous was because of what was occurring on the other side of the screen. People from all over France were making their way to an inaccessible hamlet in the southeastern corner of the country, taking primitive trains, even more primitive horse-drawn carts, and often walking for miles in fog, rain, and mud. Once there, they would in general need to wait up to eight days in a church that was stiflingly warm in summer and ice cold in the winter in order to have their confession heard. Why wouldn’t they have taken the easy way out and just have gone to confession to one of the priests in their cities or town? Why would as many as 4,000 people have shown up one day, and 120,000 in a year, to go to confession to this simple priest in a tiny village?

They were coming, as one of the penitents once said, because they were encountering “God in a man.” In St. John Vianney, they found more than a man ordained to act in the person of Christ to absolve them of their sins. Any validly ordained priest with faculties to hear confessions could do that. They were coming to someone who incarnated the mercy of the Heavenly Father, who shared the Good Shepherd’s zeal to do anything it took to bring back to the fold the one lost sheep, who would rejoice with all the saints in heaven over the repentance of one sinner, and who like Christ would willingly be hammered to the wood of his confessional to save sinners. In him, we encountered not just a confessor who administered God’s power for the forgiveness of sins, but the closest earthly approximation to the holiness of God. That drew them irresistibly and through all types of sacrifices to make the road to Ars the road to Damascus.

His besieged confessional was miraculous even more so considering that in France in the 19th century, the sacrament of penance was not popular. Sometimes Catholics today can look back to the long confessional lines in the 1950’s and think that that was always the way it was until the present crisis of faith and in the practice of confession. When St. John Vianney arrived in Ars, however, most people were not practicing the faith at all, not to mention not having frequent recourse to the sacrament of penance. God used him, however, almost single-handedly, to bring the whole Church of France back to the beauty of His mercy.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wanted priests today to be willing to make the same heroic commitment to the confessional as their patron did, recognizing that the same miracle God worked in Ars for the Church in France He can work again. “Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this Sacrament,” the Holy Father wrote in a letter to priests. “In France, at the time of the Cure of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion. Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the Sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence. He thus created a ‘virtuous’ circle. By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day. It was said that Ars had become ‘a great hospital of souls.’”

In a 1986 letter to priests on the bicentennial of the Curé’s birth, Pope St. John Paul II said that the state of the world requires that all priests should imitate the pastor of Ars in making themselves “very available” for the Sacrament of Penance. He asked them to give it “priority over other activities” so that the faithful will realize the value attached to this “most difficult, the most delicate, the most taxing and the most demanding [priestly ministry] of all—especially when priests are in short supply.” Christ is asking His priests to generously open up again that “great hospital of souls,” so that He can replicate in the cities and towns of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and elsewhere the great miracle He worked through one priest in Ars. He is also calling all the faithful to come to receive this universal spiritual health care.

the Transforming Power of Prayer

February 6, 2022

When I pray the fourth Luminous Mystery, the ‘Transfiguration,’ I always offer it for my enemies - both that they may be changed and that I may be changed. The transformation I pray for is that I, and they, may become more like Christ, the source and goal of all change. Prayer shows us the need for this change and initiates within us a longing for it to take place. This desire, this longing to be transformed is already a huge step in itself. How many of us cannot even see our need for change let alone have a desire for it? Prayer opens our eyes and lets us see others, and ourselves as they, and we, really are. What an enormous grace!

Many years ago, during a directed retreat, the retreat master told me he had this image of me in a large hall talking and laughing with lots of people and Jesus was standing against one of the walls patiently waiting for me to finish. I was having great fun. Finally, He came over, took my elbow, and led me to a small prayer room where I could be with Him in prayer.

It is no accident that people often use the phrase surrender to prayer. When we stay away from prayer, we are shaking our elbow free and telling the Lord - No! Not now! - And He goes back to the wall to wait patiently. Whether we realize it or not, every moment of prayer is a response to His personal invitation. It is always God saying 'Come. I want to spend some time with you.'

Why then are we often so slow to surrender? Is it the cold night air that frightens us, or perhaps the climb up the mountain? Certainly, prayer always requires a readiness to leave behind our favorite preoccupations and comforts and enter into another world, a world of darkness and faith. St Teresa of Avila refers to prayer as a labor. Sometimes we have to actually and painfully tear ourselves away from what we are doing in order to enter that graced time and place called prayer. And occasionally, when we forget what prayer is, we would prefer to be anywhere else rather than at prayer. It is said St Teresa sometimes used to shake her hourglass to make the sand go more quickly.

Prayer is so central, so essential to transformation that it is worth the effort to push ourselves. Indeed, I believe that it is especially at moments when we find prayer impossibly challenging, dry, unsatisfying, and seemingly a waste of time that the greatest transformations are quietly occurring. Peter did not do all too well on the mountain for the Transfiguration - fighting sleep and babbling incoherently - but he went, and he stayed awake, and he saw.

This leads me to consider another aspect of prayer, which is that in prayer we get to see things we would never see otherwise God shows us things - about Himself, about life, about death, about ourselves.

God took Abraham outside into the dark to show him the stars and make him a promise Jesus took His three Apostles up the mountain to show them Himself and the destiny towards which He was journeying. Yet this is in no way a summary of what happened either to Abraham or to the Apostles. Every experience of God, every moment consciously spent in His presence, has reverberations in our life which we will only appreciate in the hereafter. This is because real prayer is never just a God-and-me experience. Another way of saying this is that prayer should always be scriptural.

At first, this may be a rather perplexing statement to come to grips with but look at Jesus going up to the mountain to pray to His Father. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appear! Where have they come from? Why are they here? What is going on?

Moses represents the Law, Elijah the prophets. They appear in Jesus' prayer because they are part of the same history of salvation, part of the same story, part of the same prayer that Jesus is making.

We are all part of that prayer – a story much larger than the story of our own life. Peter, James, and John found themselves suddenly confronted by the representatives of the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament, and, whether they realized it at that moment or not, they were the representatives of the New Testament.

This moment of Jesus' intimate communion with the Father in prayer is revealed as prayer set in a rich, unfolding, universal context that embraces all time, all space, and all creatures. In this way the prayer of Jesus offers a paradigm for all mature prayer it should be scriptural.

Finally, prayer opens us to the future. Abraham had little idea of what lay ahead of him when God spoke His promise. Similarly, Peter, James and John were perplexed and wisely kept silent when the cloud lifted, and they were again alone with the Lord. Nevertheless, their experiences inserted into their hearts a confidence and courage in God which would see them through the many difficulties which lay ahead. Prayer is like that - a meeting with God which prepares us for the next step of our journey.

the role of godparents

January 30, 2022

On October 16, 2021, the New York Times ran an article on how the Archdiocese of Catania, Sicily, had prohibited Godparents or Sponsors for the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation for the next three years. Entitled In the Land of the Godfather Comes a Ban on Them, Jason Horowitz’ article described how Archbishop Salvatore Gristina, after having consulted with his priests and the lay people on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, had, beginning October 1, suspended the role of Godparents. He did so, he decreed, because the office had largely lost its religious context and had not only become a “sort of formal fulfillment or social custom in which the dimension of the faith is rarely visible,” but also because the “complex and irregular family situation of so many persons proposed to fulfill this duty has made the question more delicate.”

That was a diplomatic way of saying that many of those nominated to serve as Godparents were unqualified, not simply because they were not practicing the Catholic faith, but because the role of Godfather and Godmother were frequently being manipulated by mafiosi to solidify bonds of loyalty. The Archdiocese of Catania, Sicily’s second largest city and the place of the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, is not the only Sicilian diocese to take such action. The Diocese of Mazara del Vallo implemented a similar ban this month. The Diocese of Acireale had made Godparents optional and required that all those nominated for the office swear that they are believers and not members of the Mafia. The Archdiocese of Reggio Calabria, on the Italian mainland opposite Catania, has been lobbying Pope Francis since 2014 to put a ten-year ban on Godparents throughout its ecclesiastical province.

Part of the issue is unique to the mafia-infested culture of southern Italy and Sicily, where the role of Godfather can bear less resemblance to canon law than to Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of Michael Corleone. But the other part of the issue transcends Sicily and Calabria. Many of those proposed as Godparents in dioceses throughout the world do not come close to meeting the criteria defined in the Catechism that they be “firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized — child or adult — on the road of Christian life” (1255) on in the Church’s Code of Canon Law, that they live “a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on” and thereby help the person baptized or confirmed “to lead a Christian life in keeping with baptism and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in it” (874.3 and 872). The ban was put in place to try to catalyze a conversion of the general culture with regard to Godparents. The Vicar General of Catania said in an interview, “We hope that things will change, and whoever is about to become of a Godfather or a Godmother will really do so because they intend to be a witness to the journey of faith.”

As we continue our Christian journey, it is fitting for us to remember the function and importance of Godparents in raising kids in the fullness of the Catholic faith. Their role is to help their Godchildren become the saints that baptism calls them to be and to lead them faithfully on the pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. In the early Church, especially during the age of persecutions, Godparents (also called at the time sponsors, presenters, guardians, or faith-swearers) were devout Christians who would vouch for the faith of adults presenting themselves to the bishop for baptism and who would assume the responsibility of accompanying them in their preparation for, and life after, baptism. In the baptism of children, Godparents would reject Satan and make the profession of faith on behalf of their charges, taking responsibility — as “co-parents” — to raise the children in the faith.

Over the course of the centuries, the qualifications were codified. Today one must be Catholic, at least 16, not the child’s mother or father, have received the sacraments of baptism, confession, confirmation, and communion, live by the faith, and not be excommunicated or under other canonical penalties. One Godparent or sponsor is required “insofar as possible” — hence the possibility of suspending them — but there may be two of different sexes for baptism. The responsibility to raise children should tragedy strike both parents has never legally been an official part of the role of Godparents but may be stipulated by parents in wills. Because Godparents do not receive an honorary title but an ecclesiastical office with important responsibilities, priests have the duty to verify that they are qualified. While in most places, the situation will not be nearly as extreme as what happens in Sicily or Calabria, many priests would share the assessment of their Italian counterparts that one of the more frustrating parts of their ministry is having to deal with manifestly unfit and unrepentant candidates for the office.

Often those asked to be Godparents have not practiced the faith in years. Some never attend Mass. Some have not made the sacraments of initiation. Others have married outside the Church, cohabitate, participate in same-sex or transgender lifestyles, work for the abortion industry, in in vitro fertilization clinics, as drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, or other labor incompatible with the faith. When they are nominated and present themselves to priests looking for “sponsor certificates” — attestations that they are Catholics qualified to serve as Godparents — honest priests cannot give them. Most priests will use the occasion to try to lead the person gently to conversion, to regularize their situations, and to develop the habits expected of all good Catholics, so that, as soon as possible, they might be worthy to receive a certificate and fulfill the office.

Many, however, with an air of entitlement, refuse such accompaniment, preferring to define the role and its qualifications on their own terms rather than the Church’s. They become indignant that a priest will not lie and give the equivalent of a letter of recommendation attesting that the person is a practicing, exemplary and fully initiated Catholic. No matter how meek the priest’s invitation to metanoia, they feel judged and deemed wanting. Sometimes they will hunt for priests who have a reputation of giving out such sponsor certificates to anyone who asks, no matter the consequences to the child, the potential scandal to others, or the eschatological risk of the millstone Jesus promises for those who lead the young astray (Mt 18:6). Such pastoral malpractice normally causes only greater confusion and deprives the child — often in situations of greater need — of a valuable tutor in the ways of faith. There are, of course, many happier situations when parents, wanting the best for their kids in the ways of faith, ask fervent Catholics in good standing who are eager to fulfill the responsibilities associated with the office and who often humbly ask for advice about how to discharge their duties well.

In addition to the obvious stuff about living the faith with integrity, praying for their Godchildren each day, and remaining involved in their life, I suggest a few things. First, I urge them to get a good photo of the baptism, frame it and try to get it in their Godchild’s room, so that the child may more easily and regularly remember the most important day of his or her life. Second, I encourage them, if they are going to get an annual gift for their Godchild, to do so not on Christmas or on the child’s birthday but on the anniversary of the baptism, so that, as the child grows, the child will remember the date and look forward to it. I urge them to celebrate that anniversary in a special way, taking the child out for ice cream or a meal, perhaps spending a few minutes watching a video of the baptism, lighting anew the baptismal candle received and praying, and blessing oneself with holy water saved from the ceremony. Third, I suggest they make a particular commitment to accompany the child up close when the child hits the teenage and college years and may be tempted to rebel against faithful parents or go the way of the crowds in terms of Mass, faith, and morals. At such critical juncture in life, a young person needs such guidance more than 16-year-olds need to be shown how to drive.

Jesus affirms that the greatest in His kingdom are those who live by His commandments and teach others to do the same (Mt 5:19). Faithful Godparents have the opportunity, therefore, to become truly great in this way. It is a time to pray that God reward our Godparents living or deceased, to recommit ourselves to the sanctification of our own Godchildren wherever they are in their journey, and to ask the Lord hastily to renew the understanding and faithful practice of this important office in the Church.

saint and doctor of the church

January 23, 2022

We are fast approaching the 400th anniversary of the most impressive canonization in the history of the Church, which took place March 12, 1622. Pope Gregory XV had the honors. Canonizations in this period of history were relatively rare events. Even though the Council of Trent taught that the example and intercession of the saints was a great help to the faithful, it took 25 years after the close of the Council for anyone to be canonized. In fact, between 1492 and 1587, only three people were canonized, one at a time. Gregory changed that, canonizing at once four great saints of the counter-reformation, who were alive over the span of his own life, who not only symbolized what the Church is about but played major roles in helping her turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.

The four were Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits his former college roommate and, after St. Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, St. Francis Xavier the re-evangelizer of Rome in the 16thcentury and founder of the Oratorians, St. Philip Neri and the great reformer of religious life and foundress of the Discalced Carmelites, and St. Teresa of Avila. Ten days after their canonization, Gregory likewise canonized St. Isidore the Farmer, patron of Madrid. The Italians of the era, proud of their “Pippo Buono” (Neri), famously said that 1622 featured the canonization of “four Spaniards and a saint.”

The significance of what happened on March 12th of that year has only grown in importance not just for Italy and Spain, but the Church universal, as the example of Ignatius, Francis, Philip and Teresa continues to inspire faithful in every walk of life and as the institutions they and their spiritual children have established — the Church in whole countries, universities, convents, and so much more — have become foundational for the Church ever since.

We have so much to learn from each of them. Let’s start with St. Teresa of Avila, who died October 15, 1582 (the very day the Julian calendar changed to the Gregorian) since she was named the first female doctor of the Church. A few years ago, thanks to a few days of pilgrimage in Madrid, I had a chance to take a day trip with a priest friend to Avila, where St. Teresa was born and entered religious life, and then to Alba de Tormes, where she passed into eternity. We were privileged to enter into the cloistered parts of three Carmels, where, up close, we were able to retrace St. Teresa’s sandaled footsteps and pray in the very places she contemplated, confessed, lived, and died. We were able to venerate her relics, including her incorrupt heart that had mystically once been pierced — “transverberated” — by the love of the Lord. We were also able to witness her unfading zeal in conversations with her spiritual daughters, experience their great love and intercession for the needs of the Church.

On Sept. 27, 1970, Pope St. Paul VI named her the first female doctor of the Church. I would like to highlight five lessons she teaches us. The first is a huge hunger for heaven. I was impressed that when I visited in Alba de Tormes, the cell in which she died, I saw painted above her bed a mural of a scene that happened when she was seven years old. She had precociously built a little hermitage in the backyard of her house. One day there, she and her five-year-old brother Rodrigo began to converse about the happiness of the saints in heaven. They were transfixed by the thought of living “forever and ever.” Rodrigo asked how they could get to God in heaven fastest, and Teresa replied through martyrdom. He asked how they could become martyrs and Teresa responded that Muslims were killing Christians in Morocco. And so off they impetuously began to walk south toward Morocco, forgetting the geographical complication of the Mediterranean between Spain and north Africa! They got outside the city walls as far as the ancient Roman Adaja Bridge where their Uncle Francisco, returning from a hunt, saw them and asked where they were going. When they told him they were heading to Africa to be martyred by the Moors, he cleverly volunteered to give them a ride. After they hopped on his horse, he galloped them back to a different type of martyrdom awaiting them at home. The story is one of the most beautiful in hagiography, attesting to the childlike love we ought to have for God, for heaven, and for eternity. That love still radiated from within her as her hopes were finally fulfilled in 1582.

The second lesson is about the importance and art of prayer. She is a doctor of the Church precisely because, with her fellow Carmelite reformer St. John the Cross, she is one of the most important cartographers of the interior life in the history of the Church. She used a vivid writing style the image of an Interior Castle with seven “mansions” (each containing many rooms) to communicate deep truths about prayer and the spiritual life. St. Teresa invited all her sisters — and others — through each of these stages of spiritual progress by opening themselves up more fully to the work of the Holy Spirit.

The third lesson is about continual conversion. She entered the Carmelite monastery when she was 20, but the house was in a spiritual malaise. Some nuns had suites of rooms, with servants and pets. Eventually she succumbed to the worldliness herself, spending vast amounts of time entertaining visitors and friends in the parlor, giving herself over to various compromises with mundane vanity. When she was 39, God reawakened her from her lukewarm life in which she was tolerating venial sins and revivified her desire for holiness, for happiness. It is a reminder to us not only to be on guard about losing our zeal but to be hopeful that, by God’s grace, we can make up for lost time and love.

That experience of conversion leads to the fourth lesson, which is ecclesial conversion. She witnessed and experienced the corruption that can happen to people even in places where people profess total dedication to God. She became aware of how much Church institutions, beginning with Carmelite convents, needed profound reform, and, despite great personal suffering, spent the rest of her life trying to be an instrument to bring her fellow Carmelites, and through them the Church, back to her first love. The Church is always in need of reform and of holy reformers, who are instruments of God to bring us back to what Jesus in Bethany called the “better part” and “one thing necessary.”

Finally, she shows us all how to grow in devotion to St. Joseph. Her love for the man God the Father chose to raise His Son according to his humanity and to protect and provide for the Holy Family began when, at the age of 26, she was cured of a physical illness. “Finding myself so crippled while still so young and earthly doctors having failed to cure me,” she wrote, “I took the glorious St. Joseph for my advocate and protector, and commended myself earnestly to him. … His aid has brought me more good than I could ever hope for from him. I do not remember once having asked anything of him that was not granted.”

She tried contagiously to spread love for St. Joseph. “I wish I could persuade everybody to be devoted to this glorious saint, for long experience has taught me what blessings he can obtain from God for us. Of all the people I have known with a true devotion and particular veneration for St. Joseph, not one has failed to advance in virtue he helps those who turn to him to make real progress. … All I ask, for the love of God, is that anyone who does not believe me will put what I say to the test, and he will then learn for himself how advantageous it is to commend oneself to this glorious patriarch Joseph and to have a special devotion for him. Prayerful persons, in particular, should love him like a father.”

As we prepare for the quatercentenary of her canonization, we ask her to intercede for us that we may share her hunger for heaven, for prayer, for continuous conversion, for the reform of ecclesial institutions and for the universal Church entrusted to St. Joseph.

the priest and his people

January 16, 2022

Toward the end of St. John Vianney's life, as pilgrims flocked to Ars from all over France, they would leave marveling not only about having witnessed "God in a man," as one contemporary described Vianney, but "God in a parish." They were amazed at the warm hospitality, radiant faith, and ardent charity of the people of the village, who would routinely open their homes to the overflow guests, welcome them as if they were Christ, feed them, encourage them in the Christian life, pray with and for them, and in short, love them as a Christian should. Because many of the pilgrims had to wait over a week for five minutes with the Curé of Ars in the confessional, it was this much lengthier contact with the Christians of Ars that would generally prepare these pilgrims for true and deep conversion: they witnessed in the ordinary people of Ars the type of faith to which they recognized that they, too, were called.

The transformation of the people of Ars can be called their Curé's greatest miracle. When he was assigned as parish priest in 1818, Fr. Courbon, the vicar general, laconically informed him, "There is not much love for God there. You must put some." Few were practicing the faith with any type of regularity, not to mention fervor. More people went to the taverns on the Lord's Day than to Church. Blasphemy was rampant. Only a handful of families prayed. The young were substituting lust for love. The state of catechetical formation was abysmal, due not just to the indoctrination of the French Revolution and a paucity of able catechists but also to a general lack of interest among the villagers.

They were a case study in the first three types of soil Jesus mentioned in his Parable of the Sower and the Seed: there were several leading villagers with impenetrable soil who thought they already had all the important answers there were others with rocky soil, who were superficially open to God's message but who lacked the virtue to persevere in allowing the transformative seeds to grow the majority seemed to have thorny soil, where worldly cares and anxieties—from work to the hunger for human respect—constantly choked the growth of God's Word within them. Very few had soil that would bear much fruit at all, not to mention the 30, 60, or 100-fold the Lord described.

It took St. John Vianney decades to till the soil of those in the village. Even though there were only sixty families and 230 people upon his arrival, it took him eight years to get most of the families of the village to return to Mass, 25 years to eradicate the taverns, and 29 years to eliminate the debauched dances called the vogues. Once he had eliminated these rocks and thorns from the village soil, however, he needed still more time to truly form them in Christian virtue so that they could bear fruit in abundance.

Not only is all of this a testament to Fr. Vianney's pastoral perseverance, but it is also a palpable example of the importance of priestly stability in assignments. The transformation of Ars from a place where there was "no love for God" to one that radiated piety and charity literally took decades—and likely occurred only because St. John Vianney was the priest there for 41 years.

Priestly stability is something that the whole Church needs to ponder anew. For priests to be pastorally effective in being the Lord's instrument to sanctify and save His people, it is not enough that they be contagiously holy themselves. They also need time. If a priest as holy as St. John Vianney needed several decades to transform the people of a tiny parish in a simpler era, how much more time will priests who are not as zealous as the Curé of Ars need to transform much larger parishes in a more complicated one?

Pastoral stability has always been viewed by the Church as a positive good, for both priests and parishioners. The Second Vatican Council says that the "good of souls demands" pastoral stability and Church law enshrines it. "It is necessary that a parish priest have the benefit of stability. Therefore, he is to be named for an indefinite period of time," Canon 522 states.

At a functional level, pastoral stability allows the parish priest time to accomplish his essential tasks. To be an effective teacher, sanctifier, and leader of his people, the priest needs to get to know his flock, and this takes time. As priests get fewer and the tasks for which they are responsible become greater, even more time is needed. In a small-to-midsize parish of 500 families, if a priest were to carve out from among parish meetings and marriage, baptismal, and counseling appointments one night a week to make home visits, it would take him ten years to visit every household once. In the past, the priest had the ability to do this, because they remained in their assignments for decades and were generally assisted by several other priests. They got to know families over three or four generations and the people got to know them in return. They had time to inaugurate and bring to maturity schools and other pastoral programs. They were able to get to know well the pastoral lay of the land, to begin initiatives to improve their neighborhoods and care for the needy, to develop friendships and good working relationships with civic leaders, to become known and respected by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, so that they could effectively collaborate with community leaders to address various problems that arose.

Pastoral stability is even more important at a theological and ecclesiological level. The priest is meant to be in his parish a "quasi-sacrament" of Christ's own relationship to His bride the Church: a committed presence who lays down his life for his bride and not just a transient figure. The priest is called "father" because he is supposed to be a true spiritual father to his people, not an ephemeral spiritual guide. Real dads worthy of the name are not a presence just for five or ten years in their families' lives before they leave and mom brings home another "dad." When priests do not have true stability, the familial bond between priest and people the Church envisions never has a chance to develop because parishioners are reluctant to invest the time to form deep bonds with those whom they fear are only around temporarily. The priest, moreover, is supposed to be a sign and agent of unity in a parish family and a priest cannot fulfill this responsibility without stability.

There are, clearly, some advantages to regular transfers: as in any "work," it can provide new challenges, prevent loss of zeal and personal or organizational stagnation, and enable convenient exits from inconvenient situations. But, as mentioned above, there are also clear disadvantages, at a theological and practical level. Not every priest is St. John Vianney and not every priest, if left in place for 41 years, would help to make his people saints. But if priests at a practical level do not enjoy true stability in their office, not even priests as holy and zealous as St. John Vianney will have the time to sanctify their people.

Misguided Charity and False Compassion

January 9, 2022

The push to substitute “gender identity” or “gender expression” for biological sex has enormous ramifications in terms of law, education, economy, health, medicine, safety, sports, language, and culture, as well as in terms of basic anthropology, human dignity, human rights, marriage and family, motherhood and fatherhood, and the cause of women, men, and especially children. For that reason, Pope Francis, has repeatedly, courageously, and emphatically spoken out. He has done so not just out of love for the truth, but consistent with his pastoral prioritization for those on the peripheries of existence, especially those who bear the difficult cross of feeling trapped in the biological reality of a body discordant with their psychological self-identification. While emphatically encouraging Catholics and all people of good will to support, welcome, accompany, and love all those whose gender identity does not match their biological sex, to affirm their human dignity, and defend their fundamental human rights to be free of violence and unjust discrimination, Pope Francis has simultaneously been very clear about the dangers to those with gender dysphoria and to all of society from gender ideology.

In his 2016 exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the Pope wrote that, by denying the “difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman” and promoting a “personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female,” gender ideology ultimately makes human identity “the choice of the individual” and undermines the “anthropological basis for the family.” It is “one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life,” he continued, “and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality.” We must, he emphasized, “protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created.” Our sex, just like our genes, race, age, and other natural characteristics are objective givens, not subjective choices.

In his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Sì’, Pope Francis wrote at length on why the protection of our humanity is at stake. “Acceptance of our bodies … is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift, … whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Moreover, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different.” He described the consequences of questioning the complementarity between man and woman further in a 2015 General Audience. “The differences between man and woman are not for opposition or subordination, but for communion and generation,” he said. Rather than leading to a more free and just society, gender ideology in fact hinders communion and generation between men and women. It is a “step backwards,” he underlined, “a problem, not a solution.”

When the natural, complementary duality of man and woman is called into question, the very notion of being — what it means to be human — is undermined. The body becomes no longer a defining element of humanity. The person becomes reduced to spirit and will and the human person almost becomes an abstraction until one discerns what nature one is or selects which of the four, or 58, or 64, or 100 possible genders or more one wants to be.

Pope Francis is particularly concerned about gender ideology being taught to children, so that boys and girls are encouraged to question, at the earliest ages of existence, whether they are a boy or girl and told that gender is something one can choose. That is one of the reasons why the Vatican’s Congregation on Catholic Education published a lengthy document in 2019 entitled, “Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education,” to give clear principles to Catholic educational institutions throughout the world and equip parents and educators in non-Catholic institutions with arguments as to why gender ideology not only exacerbates the confusion of children who might be experiencing gender dysphoria but confuses all children, undermining basic common sense and their security in knowing their nature and identity.

Pope Francis has also pushed back against culture pressure, what he terms “ideological colonization,” being placed on individuals, families, schools, churches, cultures, and countries, who resist this redefinition of what it means to be a human person. Gender ideologists want to permit no discussion, debate, or divergent opinion, first shaming as “bigoted” and then “cancelling” those who oppose their radical ideas and their implementation. Parents who seek to get their children psychological help to address the underlying issues causing the gender confusion are, in some places, treated as child abusers. Various governmental institutions and professional societies have sought to ban mental health professionals from even offering such care, despite the well-documented harm that comes from the malpractice of giving young children puberty blockers, then cross sex hormones, and finally gender reassignment surgery.

That is why Pope Francis’ moral leadership and clarity on this issue is so important. It is also why his courage must literally encourage others in the Church to follow him in speaking out and working to oppose gender ideology and trying to help those with gender confusion get the true help they need. One prelate who has certainly risen to occasion is Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, who on August 12, 2021, published a pastoral letter, “A Catechesis on the Human Person and Gender Ideology,” which is probably the finest articulation of the Church’s pastoral approach to gender ideology written anywhere until now.

Bishop Burbidge provides the principles of Catholic teaching to guide the faithful how to respond to the “tremendous upheavals” provoked by gender ideology and the challenge it presents to all members of the Church by its “view of the human person contrary to the truth.” He shows how gender ideology denies three essential principles of anthropology obvious to human reason: the human person is created with a body and soul male or female and ordered in complementarity toward marriage. “These truths about the human person, accessible to natural reason, attain an extraordinary dignity and calling in the Christian view of the world,” he writes. “The body is not a limitation or confinement but one with the soul in the life of grace and glory to which the human person is called.”

He then discusses gender dysphoria, underlining that “the experience of this interior conflict is not sinful in itself but must be understood as a disorder reflecting the broader disharmony caused by original sin,” while clarifying that “the claim to ‘be transgender’ or the desire to seek ‘transition’ rests on a mistaken view of the human person, rejects the body as a gift from God, and leads to grave harm. To affirm someone in an identity at odds with biological sex … is to mislead that person.” Only what is true, he writes, can be genuinely pastoral, and we must be aware of the “great danger of a misguided charity and false compassion,” which not only “does not resolve a person’s struggles, but also can in fact exacerbate them.”

Later he forthrightly discusses the question of higher rates of suicide among those struggling with gender dysphoria, what pronouns and names to use in referring to them, and how to care for, love and value them. He gives advice to parents. And he movingly speaks to those who believe themselves to be transgender, reminding them of “God’s unrelenting love” and urging them to “be on guard against simplistic solutions that promise relief from your struggles by the change of name, pronouns, or even the appearance of your body.” He sketches for them the “difficult but more promising path to joy and peace,” provides links for further help and assures them that “the Church is here to assist and accompany you on this journey.”

In response to the great danger of a misguided charity and false compassion to those with gender dysphoria, the pastoral letter models truth in charity and authentic mercy. It deserves not just to be read, but studied and shared.

Man's Search for God

January 2, 2022

"Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you." This Sunday's feast of the Epiphany reminds us to reflect on these memorable words of Saint Augustine. All human beings will find meaning in life by being open to God. The Three Kings, whose coming we celebrate today, were not Jewish they came from the Orient. Some scholars believe that they began their travels together from Persia, while others believe that they came from three different regions of the Orient, one of them perhaps being China.

Obviously, the Magi were not part of the chosen people. They were not Jews. Instead they formed part of the vast populace extending throughout the known world at that time, designated by the Jews as pagans, or gentiles. The Three Kings of this Sunday's Gospel narrative, their lives incomplete, unsatisfied despite their wealth, fame and power, came in search of the only one who can satisfy the deepest aspirations of the human heart. They longed to find the very meaning of their existence.

After a long and difficult search, they discovered the place where He lay. They encountered the one who had come to redeem mankind and fulfill our intense longings. Knowing Him for who He is, the Messiah, the Magi have brought Him the most appropriate gifts: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for a victim. They recognize that He is Jesus the Christ, the only one through whom salvation can be found. Because the Three Kings were open, they were given the gift of faith. Through this gift they searched, they found, and they believed. Actually, the word epiphany is from the Greek which means “manifestation.” Jesus the Messiah reveals His divinity to the Three Kings.

Certainly today, three of the most blinding obstacles we encounter in the search for meaning and truth are secularism, relativism, and pride. Secularism only concerns itself with the here and now. It has no use for matters regarding the existence of God, the immortality of soul, or the eternal destiny of man. The secularist passionately seeks human progress without any reference to the spiritual dimension of the human person. The secularist is only concerned with this life and has no concern with religion. In fact, the secularist attempts to experience human satisfaction through involvement in seemingly noble enterprises that are in essence missing the total picture of man's true needs.

Secularism keeps us from searching for God it keeps us from finding true meaning in life. Historically, the Catholic Church has never had to deal with secularism until the arrival of our modern age. Secularism and paganism are very different indeed. The pagan believes in the transcendent. The pagan has an understanding that there is an afterlife and that the soul is immortal. The pagan also lives by a moral code that has its roots in divine law. In contrast, for the secularist, there is no God, no eternal life, and morality is arbitrarily contrived without any reference to God.

The mission of the Church in the secularist world is very difficult indeed simply because the pagan is much more open to truth and can be easily converted, whereas the secularist is usually as hard as a rock. Sometimes the secularist opens up to the true meaning of life through some terrible tragedy such as a dreadful sickness or even death itself. However, many times the secularist is so closed off to the transcendent that no movement toward God is even possible. Catholics need to be aware of secularism and not allow it to affect their lives. However, many Catholics have been poisoned by this pervasive system of thought.

It is unfortunate that often, even in our liturgies, the transcendent has been replaced with the secular. Many times, liturgical practices, music, and architecture no longer mirror the transcendent, but rather, they have been reduced to the common and ordinary. Our liturgical life has become either a weekly boring exercise which has caused many Catholics to leave, or it has been converted into weekly pep-rallies. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recognized a need for the sacred to be discovered in the reformed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. This of course can be achieved, if we were to simply celebrate the Mass the way it is prescribed in the liturgical texts.

Regarding relativism, first we must understand that it differs from secularism. The relativist often believes in God, an afterlife, and the immortality of the soul. However, the relativist believes that the human person is the measure of truth. What is true and what is not true is subject to ... mere human opinion. Catholics need to be aware of relativism as well, and not allow it to affect their lives. However, it is also true that like secularism, many Catholics have been also poisoned by relativism. The crisis that relativism has caused has particularly affected the way Catholics understand the moral teachings of the Church. Topics such as abortion, contraception, embryonic stem-cell research, and homosexuality have become areas not only of controversy for some Catholics, but according to the news polls, most American Catholics openly defy and criticize the teachings of the Catholic Church on these basic aspects of moral teaching. This is where the sin of pride comes in.

Pride is a terrible sin. Pride says: non serviam I will not serve do not tell me what to do. When a Catholic rejects certain aspects of Church teaching, a decision of the will has been made. For example, it is very common today in America, that Catholics use contraception and do not attend Mass on Sundays. It is very common that these same people do not go to confession or even mention these sins within the Sacrament of Confession. It is also very common that these same people continue to receive Holy Communion. Within this dynamic, which is very common today, what happens is the following: a decision to disobey is made. The person continues to sin and continues to receive the Eucharist unworthily. Eventually, that person's heart becomes hardened by sin and the person is no longer open to God. The soul then dies and the person becomes like the walking dead.

“And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother" (Matthew 2: 10-11). The journey of the Magi reminds us where the solution for secularism, relativism, and pride may be found: the solution is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.

One way that we can easily free ourselves from the errors of our time is to engage upon a serious study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism is one of the greatest legacies of St. John Paul II's pontificate. Informing our mind and conscience with the truth of the Catholic Church will free us from unfounded opinions and will allow us to be more fully integrated with our Catholic faith. True freedom can only be found in the truth.

christmas message 2021

December 26, 2021

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the birth of this Child, the promise of the ages was fulfilled. Since the sin of Adam, the world needed its Redeemer, and now the New Adam is born among us. “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.” In Jesus, the New Adam, creation is in a sense re-started.

Mary, the woman promised in Genesis who would crush the head of the serpent, is the Mother of the Savior and the Mother of us all. Her “yes” to God’s mysterious plan catapulted the work of love forward powerfully and changed human history. Her baby is “God With Us,” and, in Him, the down-payment has been made on the gift of salvation. “Long lay the world, in sin and sorrow pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

When Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took our flesh in the mystery of the Incarnation, He became flesh: True God and True Man. So, what is the worth of a person? It is not primarily the sum of our actions. It is certainly not limited in any way to the status of our citizenship. Nor is it tied to the measure of our I.Q., the quantity of our material possessions, or our position in the community or the Church. Our lasting and irrevocable worth is grounded in the fact that we are a son or daughter of the heavenly Father. Our inestimable value is tied to the fact that Jesus Christ has united Himself in some fashion with each person. He has died for me and you. He has given our mortal nature, immortal value. Because of His Plan we are destined for eternity, and even now He has made it possible for us to live in His grace and life. Mankind has become new – newborn – in this mystery of Christmas. And while we adore the Christ-child, we must be ready to honor each person – all of whom share His image.

An important icon of Christmas is that of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph chose to live in fidelity and love. It seems true that neither Mary nor Joseph could fully anticipate how God’s promise would unfold. And couples and families – indeed any of us – can never know all that God may ask of us. Nonetheless, they gave their full assent to this gift of life at Christmas. In the Gospels of the coming days, we hear how Mary held all these things in her heart how Joseph would awaken to carry out the next divine instruction. Their docility to God and their complete love for Jesus would hold them together as a family – through poverty, and exile, and the ordinary moments of home life.

Mary and Joseph, intercede for married couples and families. Jesus, bless our children. Keep them safe and close to you, whether they are young or old. Be our Savior at every moment of life. Protect this most unique gift which is marriage and family. Affirm and sustain it at the core of society and at the heart of the Church.

The angels announce peace, and the Prince of Peace is the Way, Truth, and Life of the world. Teach our world the Way to peace the Truth that endures and make us protectors and advocates for Life. Help us to know and revere the worth of each person.

In our prayers these days, dear friends, we have no more worthy image than that of the Crib scene: Mary and Joseph and Jesus huddled in simple surroundings, angels praising, shepherds and kings adoring. Don’t let Christmas melt away too quickly. Let us spend some time each day gazing on these pictures of Christmas, contemplating their meaning – then and now. We also can come simply before Jesus to adore him as Lord of our life. Ask Mary and Joseph to kneel next to you. Ask them to introduce you to their Son to help you to know and love Jesus more truly and deeply. So that when we go out into the world that longs for its Savior, we will be able to give Him in love to others.

Dear friends, I wish you the lasting joy and peace of these holy days. With prayerful wishes that the blessings and love of the Christ Child fill your hearts and your homes this Christmas, I remain,

Sincerely in the Lord,
Reverend Father Robert T. Cooper, Pastor

The Shepherds

December 19, 2021

There is something beautifully symbolic about the tradition of Midnight Mass. It shows that Christians are so eager for Christmas to begin that they want to start celebrating on the first moment of Christmas day. People who ordinarily never go out late at night and are often at that hour dressed in pajamas and sleeping soundly adjust their sleep schedules to get up, put on their best clothes and head out alert to their parish churches.

The Christmas midnight Mass is the antithesis of the growing tendency to try to make the practice of the faith convenient and easy. It’s a bulwark against the propensity to fit the celebration of Christmas and the worship of God into our crowded life it is, rather, an annual reminder that we are called to make our lives revolve around the mysteries of faith and that those mysterious realities are worth changing sleep patterns and inconveniencing ourselves.

For this reason, it’s highly fitting that the Gospel at Midnight Mass focuses on the shepherds, awake in the fields, to whom the angels appeared with the message of good news of great joy. As Pope Benedict reminded us, the example of the shepherds emphasizes — as perennial lessons for the Christian life — the virtues that are on display and cultivated in the celebration of Midnight Mass.

“The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel for a reason,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stressed. “They show us the right way to respond to the message” announced not only to them, but to us: the message that “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” is born for us…that “God is with us.” This message, Pope Benedict underlined, “cannot leave us indifferent. If it is true, it changes everything.” Looking at those who attended the first midnight celebration of the birth of Christ, Pope Benedict queried, “What is it that these first witnesses of God’s incarnation have to tell us?”

The first lesson, he said, is that “they were on the watch. They could hear the message precisely because they were awake.” The first Sunday of Advent each year features a Gospel passage that reminds us that we need to awaken and remain alert for the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. The shepherds are models of what it means to be awake and alert for the Lord’s arrival. In order for us to hear the message they did and respond, we, too, must be awake, the Holy Father said. We, too, must become a “truly vigilant people.”

There is a huge difference, Pope Benedict noted, between someone who is awake and someone who is dreaming. The dreamer “is in a world of his own. His ‘self’ is locked into this dream world that is his alone and does not connect him with others.” Those who are awake, on the other hand, leave their “own little private world” of individual and collective selfishness to enter into communion with God and others. Waking up means “to develop a receptivity for God, for the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us, for the many indications of his presence.” The pontiff observed that today’s world forms our thinking and acting so as to “deaden our receptivity for God, to make us ‘tone deaf’ towards him.” The way to counteract this tendency is, he said, to “pray for ourselves and for others,” so that the capacity given to us by God to receive Him and His message will be turned on again and remain locked into God’s frequency.

The second lesson the shepherds show us is how prompt they were to respond to the angels’ message. “They made haste” to go to Bethlehem, the Gospel passage relates. “What had been announced to them was so important,” the Pope underscored, “that they had to go immediately. What had been said to them was utterly out of the ordinary. It changed the world: the Savior is born the long-awaited Son of David has come into the world in his own city. What could be more important?” Not only was that news not lost on them, but the fact that God had chosen to convey that news to them, who were insignificant in the eyes of society. They couldn’t wait to act. “No doubt they were partly driven by curiosity,” the Pope noted, “but first and foremost it was their excitement at the wonderful news that had been conveyed to them, of all people, to the little ones, to the seemingly unimportant. They made haste – they went at once.”

Pope Benedict contrasted the shepherd’s “haste” in heading to Bethlehem — in treating the news as more important than everything else in their lives — with the way many of us are accustomed to respond to God. “In our daily life, it is not like that,” Pope Benedict said. “For most people, the things of God are not given priority they do not impose themselves on us directly. And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities God is often more or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to think. The Gospel tells us: God is the highest priority. If anything in our life deserves haste without delay, then, it is God’s work alone. …The shepherds teach us this priority. From them we should learn not to be crushed by all the pressing matters in our daily lives. From them we should learn the inner freedom to put other tasks in second place — however important they may be — so as to make our way towards God, to allow him into our lives and into our time.”

The annual tradition of Midnight Mass reinforces both of these lessons the shepherds teach. It is an outward sign that we are awake and alert for the coming of the Lord and so excited for His arrival that we are willing to sacrifice everything else to greet Him with joy and love as soon as He arrives. It is a public and personal reminder that we prioritize Christ over sleep, convenience, presents, family members, and everything else. In short, it manifests that God is God in our lives, that He is our highest priority, and that we would rather postpone everything else in life than delay giving Him the response of loving adoration He deserves. Even for those who may struggle to live with this type of Christian receptivity and response throughout the year, it is at least an annual occasion to put things back in their proper order and restore God and our relationship with Him to their proper places.

The real meaning of Christmas, Pope Benedict accentuated, is that “God has set out towards us. Left to ourselves we could not reach him. The path is too much for our strength. But God has come down. He comes towards us. He has traveled the longer part of the journey. Now he invites us: ‘Come and see how much I love you. Come and see that I am here.”

That is an invitation worth staying up for, worth receiving, wholeheartedly, worth journeying whatever distances with haste to correspond, and worth placing before all other things. This message, indeed, “cannot leave us indifferent.” Because it is true, “it changes everything.”

A Pilgrimage to Bethlehem

December 12, 2021

One of the coolest things about leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land is that you can experience all of the principal events of the liturgical year in a little over a week. There are special Masses to be celebrated at each of the holy sites that take precedence over whatever else is in the liturgical calendar. In the empty tomb, you celebrate Easter Sunday every day of the year on Calvary, the Triumph of the Cross in Nazareth, the Annunciation on Mount Tabor, the Transfiguration and in Bethlehem, Christmas. It is unforgettable to celebrate Christmas in May, June, and September and Easter in December, January, and February. It is more memorable to enter into those mysteries of faith on consecutive days. Most indelible of all is to mark those events in the sacred spots where they occurred.

Many have called the Holy Land the “fifth Gospel.” It is where our lectio divina becomes a visio divina, a visual meditation that forever impacts how we contemplate the mysteries we mark. I have been thinking about the visio divina of Bethlehem a lot lately, as throughout Advent I have been preparing myself and those I serve for Christmas. One of the perpetual challenges for pastors is to help people focus in December not on tinsel-decorated pine trees, colorful wrapping paper, candy canes, jingle bells, ugly sweaters, reindeer, sleighs, and the North Pole, but rather on the City of David, on Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

That task was easier in 2020 because of the pandemic, as far fewer were going to malls and box stores, attending scores of Christmas parties, or even traveling. With so much of what Dickens in A Christmas Carol called the “hustle, bustle, push and muscle, rushing to and fro’” on COVID hiatus, there’s was an opportunity for people to focus on the essential. On the other hand, there were something that made last year more challenging: because many celebrated Christmas without the friends, family, fellow parishioners, and sacred activities—like Mass in person and Christmas pageants—that can assist them not to forget the deepest reason and reality of the season: Jesus and what He wishes to do in us. There was a temptation to focus on what we did not have and missed, rather than Whom we do have.

That is why to have a truly Merry Christmas this year, as things have returned to “normal,” prayer—especially the visio divina I described above—is particularly important. For those who have had the privilege to go to Bethlehem in person, it is an opportunity to revivify those memories and dust off albums. For those who have not, we live in the age of Google and YouTube and there are plenty of opportunities for virtual pilgrimages. There is also the tried-and-true 998-year-old solution of St. Francis: to spend lots of time pondering Christ in the crèche or presepio, as he helped the residents of Greccio do with a Living Nativity in 1223.

Pilgrimages to Bethlehem really feature two locations, both of which can inform our visio divina. The first is the Shepherds’ Cave in Beit Sahour, in the fields to the east of Bethlehem proper. There are no Biblical geospatial coordinates to know exactly where the shepherds to whom the angels appeared on Christmas night were located, but since the fourth century, Christians have believed that the caves found in the fields of Beit Sahour were the best candidates. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has built a Church there and converted two caves into chapels. It is always moving for me to celebrate Mass in those caves, singing Christmas hymns in the limestone echo chamber, and bringing to the altar under sacramental form the One whom the shepherds adored in swaddling clothes. The shepherds reveal to us four essential lessons we need to live Christmas well. The first is vigilance. They were on watch. They heard the message proclaimed by the angels because they were awake in a state of Advent waiting. They were ready for what God would reveal through the Angel.

Second, they were prompt in responding to God’s messengers. As soon the angelic choirs had departed, they said, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place that the Lord has made known to us,” and “they went in haste.” They did not wait until the morning or check their calendars. They went immediately. Pope Benedict asked in his book on the infancy narratives in his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, “How many Christians make haste today where the things of God are concerned?” In his 2012 Christmas Midnight Mass homily, he added, “God does not feature among the things that require haste. The things of God can wait, we think and we say. And yet he is the most important thing, ultimately the one truly important thing.” The Shepherds show us how to prioritize God.

Third, they teach us that to encounter the Lord as He wants, we have to move. By God’s design, the Holy Family could have been directed to the cave where the Shepherds were dwelling so that the Shepherds did not have to move. Yet even though the eternal Son of God traveled the distance from heaven to earth to be with them, He was born a short distance away, so that the Shepherds would have to get up and journey. Likewise, Bethlehem is not going to come to us on our La-Z-Boy. We need to be willing to make a pilgrimage, to overcome spiritual inertia, to go beyond our comfort zones.

Lastly, the Shepherds show us how the encounter with Christ is meant to change us. After they adored Jesus, St. Luke tells us they returned “glorifying and praise God for all they had heard and seen.” They became evangelizers, like new angels, taking the good news of great joy that the angels had announced to them, and the means of peace on earth, out to others. That is what the Lord hopes Christmas will do for us.

The second great site in Bethlehem is the Basilica of the Nativity, built by St. Helen in the 330s, rebuilt by Justinian in the sixth century and fortified by the Crusaders in the 12th. It was constructed over the cave where the early Christians preserved the living memory of Jesus’ birth and rest in the manger. Beyond the priceless ancient mosaics and candles everywhere, one spot sticks out: the subterranean Grotto of the Nativity, where there is a much-kissed 14-point star—for the three cycles of 14 generations in St. Matthew’s genealogy—underneath an altar with the inscription, Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born.”

Whether the star indicates the precise location of the virgin birth, or it is inches or yards away matters less than the historicity of the infant God-man in that cave. Christianity is not a philosophy or a set of ethical teachings but a friendship with someone born at a particular time in a particular place who has called us to follow Him and make salvation history. Jesus was born there for a purpose that profoundly implicates us. We were created by God for that purpose.

It is to that location that the Magi came, laying themselves down with their gifts in homage and returning “by a different route,” changed forever. It is there that God gave the “sign” of an “infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger,” to communicate that we should never be intimidated to approach Him, since even criminals are unafraid to approach a little baby. It is there that the Holy Family seeks to welcome us, much like Mary and Joseph welcomed the Magi and the shepherds. This year let us go to Bethlehem with greater intentionality, and stay there longer, in rapt and grateful visio divina.

a great sacrament

December 5, 2021

My spiritual director recently told me that whenever he preaches about confession, he now talks primarily about how much he personally needs confession. He said that this is one of the most important lessons he has learned during his time as a priest. In the early days of his priesthood, he would preach regularly about God’s mercy, the gift of the sacrament of penance, how Catholics should confess at least once a year, how to make a good examination of conscience, grow in sorrow, and establish a firm resolution of amendment of life. But few of these homilies made a noticeable impact in drawing people back to the sacrament.

When he started to ask some of his parishioners why his preaching on confession was so barren, they told him that the obstacle to returning to the sacrament was the priesthood. A few had the idea that the priest was too holy and would not be able to relate to their struggles with sin. The vast majority had the idea, particularly after the revelation of the clergy sex abuse scandals, that priests were too sinful to be able to forgive sins and give advice in the struggle against sin. Regardless of what perspective they were coming from, they saw the priest as the chief impediment.

So my friend decided to try another approach. He began to preach on his experience as a penitent—how he goes to confession each week, how he battles against the same temptations from week to week, how he receives strength from the sacrament to persevere as a disciple and an apostle and how the joy of absolution is one of the greatest joys he has experienced in life. He also conveys how his experience as a penitent has made him, he thinks, a far better confessor, capable of relating to people who struggle with many of the same issues he does and of giving them not only advice but, through sacramental absolution, the power of God to heal and strengthen them to begin again.

He told me that since he changed his approach people have been coming in such numbers that he has had to add several extra hours a week. He has concluded that the most effective way to get people to return to the sacrament is not by words but by example the words “follow me” are far more compelling than the most beautifully written homilies about the objective greatness of God’s mercy and the sacrament's power.

I am convinced that he is right. I was once a confessor on a retreat for adults, many of whom, for multiple reasons, did not seem interested in receiving the sacrament. Another priest on the retreat, sizing up the situation appropriately, suggested to me and to the other confessors that, before we offer the sacrament to the faithful at the end of a penance prayer service, we go to confession to each other to show them that we, too, are in need of it. We agreed to do it. At the end of the prayers of the faithful, four of us went to the other four, knelt down, and confessed our sins, and received absolution. Then we got up as the priest who absolved us dropped to his knees to do the same. I believe that every adult in the room ended up going to confession that night. When they were talking about their experiences at the end of the retreat, many of them said that the highlight was the penance service. Several noted that they had not been to confession for years and were not planning to go that night, but after having seen the priests humbly go to confession before them, they were deeply moved and said they felt the courage to do the same.

One of the reasons why St. John Vianney was able to become one of the greatest confessors in the history of the Church was because he was a very devout and regular recipient of the sacrament. He knew how much he needed the sacrament that is one of the reasons why he was willing to sacrifice so much to make the sacrament available to others who needed it, too.

St. John Vianney preached often about his experience as a penitent. One of his favorite stories was of his first confession. It was the time of the persecutions against priests during the French Revolution when priests who had not taken the oath to the civil constitution were being hunted down and guillotined in the squares of major French cities. One of the courageous “refractory” priests, Fr. Groboz, had come to the Vianney home in Dardilly, where he would occasionally take refuge and rest from those who were pursuing him. After blessing each of the kids in the family, he turned to the young John Mary and asked him how old he was. “Eleven,” the boy replied. “How long is it since you last went to confession,” Fr. Groboz queried. “I have never yet been to confession,” the future saint told him. “Well, let us set right this omission at once!” Then, the later extraordinary apostle of the confessional knelt down under the clock in his parlor and confessed the sins he had committed since his baptism. He never forgot the peace he experienced. He never forgot what a grace it was to have priests near so that he could go to confession. For the rest of his life, John Vianney sought to make up for lost time.

An even greater illustration of St. John Vianney as penitent happened in 1845. A 37 year-old priest, Fr. Louis Beau, was appointed as the pastor of Jassans. One of the first things this young cleric did upon arriving in his new assignment was to pay a visit to his neighbor in Ars. When he arrived, Fr. Vianney was in the confessional, so Fr. Beau had lunch with the parochial vicar. At the end of lunch, the Curé D'Ars returned from the Church. He was exceptionally delighted to meet his new confrère and held his hands in his own for a considerable length of time. Then he asked Fr. Beau to come to his room. When they got there, the famous confessor turned to his much-junior colleague and said, “Friend, your predecessor was kind enough to hear my confession you will do me the same service, n’est-ce pas?”

Before the stunned Fr. Beau was able to say yes or no, Fr. Vianney pointed to a chair, Fr. Beau sat down, and Fr. Vianney, kneeled before him and confessed his sins. Fr. Beau would remain his regular confessor until the saints' death 13 years later. By his actions, Fr. Vianney showed his great faith in the power of the sacrament. He did not seek out a “specialty confessor,” but humbly asked a priest he barely knew, since he knew he was confessing to Christ and not to a man.

In recent years, the popes have been repeatedly calling priests to be good penitents in order that they might become great confessors. St. John Paul II wrote in "Reconciliation and Penance," his 1981 encyclical on the sacrament of confession: “In order to be a good and effective minister of Penance, the priest needs to have recourse to the source of grace and holiness present in this Sacrament. We priests, on the basis of our personal experience, can certainly say that the more careful we are to receive the Sacrament of Penance and to approach it frequently and with good dispositions, the better we fulfill our own ministry as confessors and ensure that our penitents benefit from it. And on the other hand, this ministry would lose much of its effectiveness if in some way we were to stop being good penitents. Such is the internal logic of this great Sacrament. It invites all of us priests of Christ to pay renewed attention to our personal confession.”

St. John Vianney paid attention to this internal logic of the sacrament—and that was one of the secrets of how God was able to form him to be one of the great confessors who has ever lived.

Living With dignity

November 28, 2021

In their June 2011 meeting, the bishops of the United States approved and published a superb statement against Physician-Assisted Suicide entitled, “To Live Each Day with Dignity.” It was a response of spiritual shepherds to wolves in white medical jackets who pretend that the compassionate response to those who are contemplating taking their lives is to give them the drugs to do it.

The movement in favor of physician-assisted suicide thinks that present circumstances harbinger an opening to persuading legislatures to allow what they morbidly dub “the ultimate right of the 21st century,” the right to kill oneself. With the baby boom generation now becoming seniors, with all the concern about the rationing of health care costs, and with an increase in the number of those with Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias, assisted suicide proponents are trying to make a move for legalization in states they think might be friendly. “With expanded funding from wealthy donors,” the bishops noted, “assisted suicide proponents have renewed their aggressive nationwide campaign through legislation, litigation, and public advertising, targeting states they see as most susceptible to their message.” Drivers exiting the Callahan Tunnel in East Boston were confronted with a billboard paid for by the Final Exit Network suggesting that to die with dignity means to do so on one’s own terms. White letters against a black background proclaimed, “Irreversible illness? Unbearable suffering? Die with Dignity.” We have a special duty to be aware of the reasons why physician-assisted suicide is always false compassion, what St. Pope John Paul II called, “a perversion of mercy.”

The bishops observed that many people today fear the dying process and “being kept alive past life’s natural limits by burdensome medical technology. They fear experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, losing control over bodily functions, or lingering with severe dementia. They worry about being abandoned or becoming a burden on others.” They went on to add, “Our society can be judged by how we respond to those fears” and to those who have those fears “at the most vulnerable time in their lives.” Assisted euthanasia proponents believe that the proper way to respond is by facilitating “self-inflicted death” by giving doctors—who by profession are supposed to help save lives—the permission to kill through prescribing or administering a poisonous drug overdose when a patient requests it. People should have the right to end their lives, proponents assert, and doctors should have the legal right to “help” them.

The Church—and many others—recognize that eliminating the person in order to eliminate the person’s suffering is not an act of compassion. Most in our society readily understand that when someone is contemplating suicide at any age of life, he or she is normally suffering from a depression triggered by very real setbacks and serious disappointments and sees death as the only path to relief. The psychological professions know that people with such temptations need help to be freed not from life but from these suicidal thoughts through counseling, support, and when necessary, medication. Most in society grasp that the compassionate response to teenagers experiencing a crushing breakup, to unemployed fathers overwhelmed by pressure, to unhappy actresses feeling alone and abandoned, to middle-aged men devastated by scandalous revelations, is never to catalyze their suicide. Heroic police and firemen climb bridges or go out on the ledges of skyscrapers for a reason. Dedicated volunteers staff Samaritan hotlines around the clock for a reason. This same type of care and attention needs to be given by a just and compassionate society to suffering seniors or others with serious illnesses.

“The sufferings caused by chronic or terminal illness are often severe,” the bishops wrote. “They cry out for our compassion, a word whose root meaning is to ‘suffer with’ another person. True compassion alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead. It helps vulnerable people with their problems instead of treating them as the problem.” The bishops pointed out that once we allow doctors to start to kill patients with terminal illnesses, the meaning of the medical profession changes, from one that seeks always to save lives, to one in which it is possible to end them. Once that occurs, then it is a small step to allowing them to assist non-terminal patients in taking their lives and another to putting pressure on those who are in terminal illnesses to do family members and society a “favor” by ending their lives so that medical resources can be spent elsewhere.

“Taking life in the name of compassion,” they stated, “also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions. Dutch doctors, who once limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients, now provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness, and even melancholy. Once they convinced themselves that ending a short life can be an act of compassion, it was morbidly logical to conclude that ending a longer life may show even more compassion.” Moreover, this agenda “actually risks adding to the suffering of seriously ill people. Their worst suffering is often not physical pain, which can be alleviated with competent medical care, but feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The realization that others—or society as a whole—may see their death as an acceptable or even desirable solution to their problems can only magnify this kind of suffering.” Not only can this undermine health care providers’ ability and willingness to provide effective palliative care or pain management, but it can also create the conditions in which society can begin to believe that sick seniors or those with difficult illnesses are “better off dead,” that assisted suicide is an “inexpensive treatment” that will allow government or private insurers to direct medical resources to those with lives others consider more valuable. Those with illnesses and disabilities are right, the bishops said, to be “deservedly suspicious when the freedom society most eagerly offers them the ‘freedom’ to take their lives.” To help them end their lives is “a victory not for freedom but for the worst form of neglect.”

There is an “infinitely better way” to care for the needs of people with serious illnesses,” what St. John Paul II called “the way of love and mercy.” This involves a “readiness to surround patients with love, support, and companionship, providing the assistance needed to ease their physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering.” It involves “effective palliative care” to treat the pain they are undergoing. The bishops added, “Learning how to face this last stage of our earthly lives is one of the most important and meaningful things each of us will do, and caregivers who help people through this process are also doing enormously important work. As Christians we believe that even suffering itself need not be meaningless—for as St. Pope John Paul II showed during his final illness, suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of others.” To die with dignity is not to commit suicide, but to suffer and die within this mystery of the Lord’s own death.

The bishops ended their statement with a specific call to Catholics to become “messengers of the Gospel of life” and “leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives.” Catholics, they said, need to be on the front lines not only in preventing legislative enactment of assisted-suicide but also in caring for those with chronic or terminal illnesses. They reminded us that “the choices we make together now will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations.” They summoned all of us to get together to “build a world in which love is stronger than death.”

Living the reality of the kingdom

November 21, 2021

The Solemnity of Christ the King is an occasion for us every year to recalibrate our life to the reality of Christ’s Kingdom and to follow the criteria Christ gives us to enter it, live in it, and proclaim it.

The annual feast is much needed to fight against the perennial temptation to view the world through the lens of earthly power and squeeze our understanding of God into that prism. This was happening in 1925 when Pope Pius XI established the Solemnity. There was a militant atheism—the most notorious examples were in Russia and Mexico—seeking to repress belief in Christ and suppress Christian presence in the world. There was, moreover, a much larger secularizing trend that was attempting to order life without reference to God and make faith exclusively private. Then there were the burgeoning fascist movements keen to instrumentalize the Church for political ends. All were trying to amputate innate human transcendence, make the State or political leaders the object of faith, hope, and love and supplant Christian works of mercy with the bureaucratic largesse of the State.

This flattening of faith is still happening today in other forms. Many, for example, spend more time thinking about who is in charge in Washington—or Beijing, Moscow, Budapest, Caracas, or Havana than who is in charge of the universe. Some priests and faithful seem to want the pulpit to be used to endorse individual political ideology rather than to endorse Jesus Christ and His evangelical platform. Some will spend all night watching election returns but not have time to adore the King in a holy hour. They will labor indefatigably to elect favored candidates, give maximal contributions to campaigns, parties, or political action committees, but often will not work anywhere near as hard or contribute as much to building up Christ’s Kingdom.

This is not to disparage political involvement. Some political issues are literally questions of life and death, common good, and intrinsic evil. Catholics are called to be salt of the “earth,” light of the “world” and leaven, including in the political dimensions of community life. The question, however, is whether Catholics will be in the world but not of the world or become worldly. And when Catholics become of the world, they often import worldly categories into the Kingdom that subsists in the Church. This mundanity happened with liberation theology. It occurs occasionally with Church charitable work, when Church agencies behave, as Pope Francis has said, like NGOs. It also happens when people begin to look at things in the Church with political categories, treating popes and bishops as if they were politicians, evaluating Church documents as if they were political manifestos, and attempting to understand everything according to the political matrix of liberal versus conservative. The Solemnity of Christ the King is meant to serve as an annual inoculation against this spiritual pathogen.

The Divine Physician Himself had to battle against the politicization of His messianic work. Many of His fellow Jews anticipated that when the long-awaited one came, He would rule as His ancestor David had done, defeating foreign powers, triumph over all who opposed Him, and extending His dominion “from sea to sea and … to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8). Jesus regularly had to instruct those whom He had healed not to say anything lest the mobs carry Him off to crown Him a king according to their erroneous, earthly expectations. The apostles themselves sometimes succumbed to this temptation, competing against each other for the top cabinet positions in the messianic administration they imagined Jesus was about to inaugurate.

We see the brutal contrast between the Kingdom Christ came to inaugurate and the political kingdom people expected on Good Friday. Mocked by Pilate by the crown of thorns and the derisive inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” and ridiculed by the crowd, chief priests, soldiers, passers-by, and the bad thief, the last thing the crucified Jesus looked like on Calvary was a king. The only demonstration of kingly power most could comprehend was earthly force: saving Himself and others like some comic book superhero or WWE champion, routing Romans and Sanhedrin alike. Yet, rather than using power to subjugate those who opposed Him, Jesus endured abuse to save His abusers. The kings of the age used to send soldiers to die in wars for the king’s aggrandizement, yet Jesus was dying so that His subjects could live.

When Pontius Pilate, who believed that kingship meant having the power to crucify or pardon, asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?,” he was unprepared for Jesus’ answer: that His “kingship is not of this world” and, “for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus’ Kingdom is not about earthly power but divine. He came not to be served like earthly rulers, but to serve, and to give His life in ransom. And He summoned His followers not to “lord” over others, but to become the servant of the rest, reigning with Him through self-giving, loving service of the least.

This is not the spirit with which many celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. We prefer to focus on the “objective reality” of Christ as King of the Universe and belt out hymns like Christus Vincit or To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King, proudly proclaiming that Christ conquers, reigns, and commands, and thereby putting all earthly or pseudo-divine power grabbers in their place. As we see in Jesus’ earthly life, however, He is far more interested in the “moral dimension” of this feast, getting us to “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

In the Gospel, Jesus described the moral characteristics of those who “inherit the kingdom.” They are born anew from above and keep their baptismal garments ready for the banquet of the Kingdom. They are poor in spirit since, He said, it is harder for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. They seek the Kingdom first, willing to lose body parts to enter, to welcome it like a child or a wise virgin, and to treat it like a pearl of great price or a buried treasure. They care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. They do the will of God the Father, treat others with the mercy they have received, live in communion with others, and suffer for the Kingdom. They receive Christ’s words and work on good soil and allow it to grow like the mustard seed. They permit Christ to plant them in the field of the world as hardworking harvesters honored to work.

As we celebrate Christ the King in the midst of contemporary political concerns, it is helpful to remember what the Eucharistic Preface of the Solemnity reminds us, that Jesus came to establish a “kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” The best way we can serve both God and Caesar, to be the king’s good servant but God’s first is through holiness of life. The greatest crises that face us, St. Josemaria recalled, are “crises of saints.” God provides the grace we need to unite ourselves to Him and become seeds of the Kingdom in the world, capable of leading others to Him who is just, grants us peace, and shows us how to love.

This is the path of the kingdom, now and not yet, that Christ the King came to establish.