31 March 2011

A portrayal, and the reality

It occurred to me earlier this evening as I was running a few errands that I had not posted anything to the blog yet today.  At that very moment I drove past one of those marquee signs in front of churches that often have phrases that say less than they say:

For the time being we will pass over the historically inaccurate name of the ecclesial community.

You might say that this particular sign was efficacious, at least inasmuch as it set my mind to work.

Why go to a simple portrayal of the Last Supper when you can attend the sacramental re-presentation of the Last Supper of the Lord - and the foretaste of the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb - at any Mass celebrated in any Catholic church?  Why settle for a reenactment when you can participate in the actual event?

Let us pray tomorrow in a particular way for those who have left the Church founded by the Lord because of a lack of understanding, belief and love of the Eucharist.  Through our penances may they be drawn back to table of the Lord.

30 March 2011

Dolan: Keep your priests busy about the great work of dispensing the Lord's mercy!

On the feast of St. Patrick, His Excellency the Most Reverend Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, issued The Altar and the Confessional: A Pastoral Letter on the Sacrament of Penance.

The text of his letter follows, with my emphases; to see the footnotes, follow the above link.

My dear friends in Christ:

On this Feast of Saint Patrick, I wish the entire Archdiocese of New York an abundance of God’s blessings. May our great patron saint intercede for us, obtaining from the Almighty Father all the graces that we need as disciples of His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ!

Is there one particular grace which we can ask Saint Patrick to obtain for us? Might I suggest this year a return to the Sacrament of Penance? My fervent prayer for the Catholics of the Archdiocese of New York is that they will hear in the next weeks the beautiful, profound words of absolution pronounced in the confessional:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself, and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of yours sins, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

How easily those words come to the lips of every priest; how ingrained they are in his mind; how deeply do they reside in his heart! The consoling, simple words of absolution are powerful beyond imagining!

To pronounce the sacramental absolution by which our sins are forgiven is one of primary reasons the Church and the priesthood exist. The Church is an instrument of mercy and reconciliation, for Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church, came to reconcile us to the Father. We call this sacrament “penance,” “confession,” or “reconciliation”. Call it what you will, the sacrament is essential for the life of the Catholic disciple. Every Catholic should be eager to hear those words; every priest should be eager to say them.

We have to be frank, though. Those words are not heard as often as they should be in the Church in New York. We can’t imagine Catholic life without the words of consecration – This is my body! This is my blood! Likewise Catholic life cannot be lived properly without the Sacrament of Penance. We need the forgiveness of our sins. We need the grace of this sacrament to grow in virtue.

Last year was my first Saint Patrick’s Day as Archbishop of New York, and I took advantage of our patronal feast to address a letter to the Archdiocese on the importance of Sunday Mass, Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy. I am grateful for the favourable reaction to my letter, with many priests and parishioners kindly telling me that it helped them think again about the gift of the Lord’s Day. That Sunday rest and Mass rightly orient all of our time toward our final goal as Christian pilgrims, the definitive Sabbath rest with the Lord Jesus in the company of all the saints in heaven.

This year I wish to address another fundamental part of our Catholic life which has been neglected by too many – both priests and parishioners – for too long. Given the coincidence of Saint Patrick’s Day with the season of Lent, I hope that my encouragement might bear fruit this Lent. Please God, this letter might encourage Catholics to keep the tradition of making a good confession before Easter.

Among priests one hears a joke in which a pastor tells his parishioners that he is terribly afraid of dying in the confessional. “Why?” they ask him. “Because no one would find me for days!” he replies. Another priest told me that, after six months in his new parish, he announced to the people that he was asking the bishop for a transfer. “You don’t need me. I’ve sat in the confessional for half-a-year, and nobody has come. You must all be saints. I want to serve sinners.” We can laugh, but I am afraid there is too much truth here. So in this Lent, on this Saint Patrick’s Day, I exhort the entire Archdiocese of New York: Experience the joy of forgiveness! Experience liberation from sin! Keep those confessionals busy! Keep your priests busy about the great work of dispensing the Lord’s mercy! Keep the Sacrament of Penance at the heart of Catholic life!

The Altar and the Confessional

Catholics the world over were both outraged and heartbroken by the massacre at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad last October. Terrorists, claiming to be part of a group called the “Islamic State of Iraq”, stormed the church during a Sunday evening Mass, and began to kill those present. Some 58 were murdered, and more than 70 injured. It reminded us that there are those so filled with hatred for Christ and His Church that they will kill Christians.

When the terrorists entered the church, Father Saad Abdal Tha’ir was offering Mass. Another priest, Father Waseem Tabeeh, came out of the confessional, and attempted to persuade the terrorists to let the people go, offering his life and that of Father Tha’ir in exchange. How courageous were these two young priests, Father Tha’ir only 32, and Father Tabeeh, 27! The killers rejected the plea for mercy, and both priests were then martyred. The last words of Father Tha’ir, who died before his own mother’s eyes, were, “Jesus, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”[1]

How can we not see here an image of the Lord’s own passion, His own words from the cross? The new martyrs of Baghdad have something to teach us about the Lord’s passion and the work of the Church. Is it not deeply moving to note that these two young priests were at the altar and the confessional at the moment of their supreme witness? The altar and the confessional are the two most important places in a priest’s life. Those two young priests died doing what every priest should live for – to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the altar, and to forgive sins in the name of Jesus in the confessional.

According to one account of the massacre in Baghdad, a voice cried out in the midst of the horror, “We die? Okay, we die. But the Cross lives!” That speaker was immediately killed.[2]

Yes, between the altar and the confessional, amidst the blood of the martyrs, the Cross lives!

Holy Thursday, Easter, and the Priesthood

During Lent, of course, we prepare our hearts for Easter. Let’s fast-forward to the Gospel account of that first Easter evening in Jerusalem:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”(John 20:21-23)

Here we have the institution of the Sacrament of Penance, the clear biblical witness that the Lord Jesus gives to His priests the authority to forgive sins. In Saint John’s Gospel, it is also at this moment that we see most clearly the institution of the priesthood. The gifted English convert, biblical scholar and preacher, Monsignor Ronald Knox, emphasized this point and links it back to the creative work of Genesis:

“How did our Lord institute the priesthood? When he had said this he breathed on them …. With one breath, God created the whole human family; with one breath, our Lord instituted the whole Christian priesthood. As man is a beast among beasts, so the priest is a man among men; he shares their passions, their weaknesses, their disabilities. And yet, when God breathes into the face of a priest, a new thing, in a sense, comes into being, just as when God breathed into the face of that clay image he had fashioned. It was a kind of second creation, when our Lord spoke those words in the Cenacle. It brought into the world a new set of powers, infinitely exceeding all that man had ever experienced, all that man could ever expect. It was a fresh dawn of life – supernatural life.”[3]

Monsignor Knox is bold to liken the events of Easter Sunday evening to a new creation, an outpouring of the Spirit equivalent to the very act of creation itself. Bold and true, for this is the grandeur of the priesthood in regard to the forgiveness of sins. Just as only God can create the universe out of nothing, only God can forgive sins. Only He has the power. Only He has the authority. And He gives it to His Church through the institution of the priesthood!

My brother priests, we should never lose our amazement and our gratitude at this gift. The Spirit called down upon us at our ordination is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of creation. We need that same Holy Spirit, for the work of forgiving sins is a work as astonishing as the creation of the world – a work we can only do because the Lord Jesus explicitly entrusted it to us. Just as we rightly look to the Last Supper and the Eucharist as the origin of our priesthood, we too should look to Easter Sunday and the Sacrament of Penance as constitutive of our identity. Just as it would be impossible to imagine our priesthood without the Eucharist, it is impossible to imagine our priesthood without the ministry of reconciliation in the confessional. Our priesthood exists for the Eucharist. Our priesthood exists for the forgiveness of sins.

When I was in Rome as a seminary rector, my barber use to tease me that neither he nor I would ever go out of business. Why? “There will always be hair,” he replied. “And there will always be sin.” Even he knew that the priesthood existed for the forgiveness of sins!

My fellow Catholics, reading the four Gospel accounts together, we can see that the Sacrament of Penance is not some kind of later invention, some afterthought, something leftover, something ancillary. Rather it belongs to the very heart of Christ’s saving and redeeming work. On the day that His passion begins, the Lord Jesus gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood. On the day of the resurrection, the Lord Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Penance and, as it were, completed the institution of the priesthood. All three sacraments are born from the heart of the Church in the Cenacle; all three are inserted into the heart of the redemptive and salvific work of Christ Jesus; all are three lie at the heart of the Catholic life in every age.

Indeed, the Cross lives between the altar and the confessional!

Realizing the Seriousness of Sin

If the Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance are at the very heart of the Christian life, why is the latter neglected? It is a lamentable characteristic of the Church’s life in our time. Almost thirty years ago, soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II convoked a Synod of Bishops addressed to the very topic of Reconciliation and Penance in the Mission of the Church. The penetrating analysis of the Holy Father’s subsequent apostolic exhortation retains its force today. He wrote in 1984 that, in an age when God is pushed to the margins, the awareness of our need for forgiveness will diminish, for “the loss of the sense of sin is thus a form or consequence of the denial of God: not only in the form of atheism but also in the form of secularism.”[4]

We do not only observe a diminishing sense of sin in the secular culture around us. We find it in the Church herself. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to an earlier period, as the late Holy Father suggests:

“Some are inclined 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 which excludes the duty of telling the truth.”[5]

Fair enough. Not everything was perfect decades ago when most Catholics routinely went to confession – perhaps too routinely. But whatever problems existed in the 1950s are now a half-century in the past, and subsequent generations have grown up without any knowledge of whatever excesses may have existed. They have indeed grown up without what belongs to them as part of the patrimony as Catholics – the liberating, joyful experience of God’s mercy in the sacrament of penance.

We receive the gift of mercy to the extent that we realize our need for it. We desire forgiveness only if we acknowledge the seriousness of sin. The recently-beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman expressed the magnitude of sin with his characteristic literary force:

“The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”[6]

Do we think today that Blessed John Henry Newman is right? How many of us would argue that opposite – that a little sin here and there is no big deal? How many, both inside and outside of the Church, argue that a little sin here and there is worth this technological advance, or that public policy goal, or is an acceptable means to some desired end? As someone jokingly observed to me, “It’s the Lamb of God, not our culture, that’s supposed to take away the sins of the world!”

We just heard this past Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, the account of the temptations of the Lord Jesus. Satan offers to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if He would just bow down in worship. A little “devil worship” and Jesus would have the whole world! Wouldn’t that be more efficient than God’s own plan – the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and two thousand years of evangelization? But no sin is worth even all the kingdoms of the world.

Blessed Cardinal Newman is only one in a tradition of saints who have spoken with great ferocity about the horror we should have for sin – including our own beloved Saint Patrick, who emphasized the essential role of penance in his conversion of Ireland.

We can speak so boldly about the horror of sin because the good news is that the Lord Jesus did not just die for sin in general, but for my sins, and yours. So our horror at sin should be accompanied by a serene confidence that forgiveness is ours should we ask for it with true contrition. Together with Saint Paul we can give thanks that where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (cf. Romans 5:20)! We’re not “hung-up” on guilt and sin; no, we’re obsessed with God’s mercy.

The World Speaks to Us of Our Sins

“In the midst of scandals, we have experienced what it means to be very stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ. That is the one side, which we are forced to experience for our humiliation, for our real humility. The other side is that, in spite of everything, he does not release his grip on the Church. In spite of the weakness of the people in whom he shows himself, he keeps the Church in his grasp, he raises up saints in her, and makes himself present through them. I believe that these two feelings belong together: the deep shock over the wretchedness, the sinfulness of the Church – and the deep shock over the fact that he doesn’t drop this instrument, but that he works through it; that he never ceases to show himself through and in the Church.”[7]

Perhaps the trauma of the sexual abuse scandals has taught us again, in a most painful way, of the reality of sin. Pope Benedict XVI makes that point above in his recent interview book, Light of the World. Yet if we only see the wretchedness in the Church, the wretchedness in the world, the wretchedness in my own life, then we are condemned to discouragement, even to despair. We need to be shocked by our sins, as the Holy Father says, and also be shocked that Jesus keeps us in His hand. The Sacrament of Penance accomplishes this in a supreme way. We prepare for confession by examining our consciences – looking hard, as it were, at the wretchedness in our heart. Then we receive absolution of those sins, and through the ministry of the Church are invited once again to be shocked at the mercy of God!

At the height of the sexual abuse controversies last year, the Holy Father reminded us that repentance itself is a grace. It is not a burden to repent of our sins, but a blessing:

“Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance, the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence – it seemed to us too difficult. Now, under the attacks of the world that speak of our sins, we see that the capacity to repent is a grace. And we see that it is necessary to do penance, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our lives, open ourselves to forgiveness, prepare ourselves for pardon by allowing ourselves to be transformed.”[8]

Is that not exactly the case? That we have shied away from words like penance, repentance, contrition – even the basic reality of sin? We have failed to speak about them, and the now, as we have experienced so painfully, to our shame and embarrassment, we face the “attacks of the world that speak of our sins”. The attacks are real, and so too are our sins! The Christian should not wait for others to speak of his sin; we should confess it simply, repent sincerely, and be forgiven quickly!

A Confessional Culture

Funny enough, while ridiculing the Church for being “hung up” on sin and guilt, the world delights in speaking of sin, does it not? Not just the sins of priests and bishops, but of anyone who is prominent. Our culture has an almost perverse delight in detailing the sins and scandals of those in the public eye. And ordinary people are eager to get in on the action! We produce an entire genre of “reality shows” which put on public display much sinful behaviour that people should be embarrassed about, not celebrated for. Seems as if everybody’s “going to confession” except in the sacrament! There are a parade of talk shows in which the troubled and afflicted share their intimate secrets with a vast television audience. People use social networks to make available to all on the internet what should be treated with utmost discretion. We have a “confessional culture.”

It seems at every moment someone, somewhere is shouting for our attention, eager to confess from the rooftops what Catholics have the opportunity to whisper in the confessional. The “confessional culture” around us shouts itself hoarse for it can confess, but there is no absolution. Sin confessed but unredeemed either leads to despair or is trivialized. We see the despair in the vast anguish that fuels an enormous therapeutic industry. We see the trivialization in the celebrity scandals that become not occasions for averted eyes, but fodder for jokes.

Our culture does not need to be taught how to confess; it needs to discover where forgiveness can be found. Our culture does not need to further expose the stain of its sinfulness; it needs to discover the only One who can wash it away. We Catholics have the blessing of teaching our “confessional culture” about true mercy, but we cannot give what we do not have! I challenge the Catholics of the Archdiocese to make a good confession this Lent and then to tell one other person – perhaps a friend or relative or colleague who has been away from the sacraments for a long time – about the liberating joy of God’s mercy!

Young people have a special gift to share with us, for they often ask their priests to hear their confessions. Gatherings of Catholic youth often include confessions, for they have discovered the beauty of this sacrament. So do our wonderful newly arrived Catholics from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Older generations, marked perhaps by bad experiences of routine or severe confessors, should listen to this witness of a new generation, for whom a sincere confession is a joy to be celebrated, not a duty to be grudgingly endured.

A Saint Patrick’s Day Plea to Priests

My dear brother priests, are there any of us who have not, at least at one point, marvelled at the heroic service of saints such as the Curé of Ars or Padre Pio? Are there any among us, who after hearing confessions even for just an hour, feel somewhat worn out and wonder how they could have done it for ten, twelve hours a day for years on end? In some of us our initial ardor for the Sacrament of Penance has cooled, and we have begun to doubt the saintly witness we once admired. I urge you to rekindle that early desire to heroic service in the confessional! The heroism of Saint John Vianney is relevant in the 21st century! The zeal of Padre Pio is needed today in New York! Be generous in scheduling time for confessions, and don’t be shy about letting people know that you too frequently receive the Sacrament of Penance, for we all are poor sinners.

The Curé of Ars faced a situation not altogether different from what we face. Listen to how our Holy Father describes his simple and powerful pastoral solution:

This deep personal identification with the Sacrifice of the Cross led [John Mary Vianney] – by a sole inward movement – from the altar to the confessional. Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé 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.”… From Saint John Mary Vianney we can learn to put our unfailing trust in the sacrament of Penance, to set it once more at the center of our pastoral concerns.[9]

The center! The Cross, the altar and the confessional – all at the center of our identity as priests and our pastoral work!

A Saint Patrick’s Day Plea to All Catholics

Perhaps you are now thinking that this letter is too long! If so, take it as a sign of my eagerness to use all the persuasive power God has granted me in the service of a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance. If my words are not enough, listen to two of our most recent saintly shepherds.

“No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance,” wrote Blessed Pope John XXIII, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council.[10] He certainly had no intention that the Sacrament of Penance would diminish after the Council; to the contrary, he desired its flourishing.

In a few weeks, Pope John Paul the Great will be declared blessed in Rome – on Divine Mercy Sunday. He died on that liturgical feast in 2005, as if to point the Church with his last breaths toward the mercy of God, experienced supremely in the Sacrament of Penance.

“It would be an illusion to want to strive for holiness in accordance with the vocation that God has given to each one of us without frequently and fervently receiving this sacrament of conversion and sanctification,” the late Holy Father taught.[11] Frequent and fervent!

Finally, I was struck by a plea from the newly-installed Archbishop of Los Angeles, José H. Gomez, who addressed the Sacrament of Penance in his first few weeks in his new archdiocese. Uniting myself to him then, as if to encourage Catholics from one end of our beloved country to another, I make his words my own to the faithful of the Archdiocese of New York:

I encourage you to make a good confession before Easter. Even if it has been a long time. Come home to our Father! Be reconciled to God through the ministry of his Church! Don’t wait to change your life! You can hope in our Father’s mercy. You can trust in his pledge of grace to help you lead a better life. In the early Church, they called confession the “second conversion in tears.” St. Peter wept in sorrow after denying Jesus, and in his mercy Christ spoke to him the tender words of his pardon and peace. In the sacrament, we too can hear these words![12]

Thanks for paying attention! A blessed Lent!

A blessed Feast of Saint Patrick to all!

+Timothy Michael Dolan

Archbishop of New York

Pope: Nonbelieves challenge believers to live in a way consistent with their faith

A new dialogue has recently opened up in Paris between believers and non-believers called The Courtyard of the Gentiles. At the beginning of the meetings, Pope Benedict XVI sent the following message by video to the participants (with my emphases):

Dear young people, dear friends!

I know that at the invitation of Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the Archbishop of Paris, and of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, you are gathered in great numbers in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I greet all of you, together with our brothers and friends from the Taizé Community. I am grateful to the Pontifical Council for having taken up and extended my invitation to open a number of "Courts of the Gentiles" within the Church. This image refers to the vast open space near the Temple of Jerusalem where all those who did not share the faith of Israel could approach the Temple and ask questions about religion. There they could meet the scribes, speak of faith and even pray to the unknown God. The Court was then an area of separation, since Gentiles did not have the right to enter the consecrated area, yet Jesus Christ came to "break down the dividing wall" between Jews and Gentiles, and to "reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility in himself". In the words of Saint Paul, "He came and proclaimed peace..." (cf. Eph 2:14-17).

At the heart of the "City of Light", in front of the magnificent masterwork of French religious culture which is Notre Dame, a great court has been created in order to give fresh impetus to respectful and friendly encounter between people of differing convictions. You young people, believers and nonbelievers alike, have chosen to come together this evening, as you do in your daily lives, in order to meet one another and to discuss the great questions of human existence.

Nowadays many people acknowledge that they are not part of any religion, yet they long for a new world, a world that is freer, more just and united, more peaceful and happy. In speaking to you tonight, I think of all the things you have to say to each other. Those of you who are nonbelievers challenge believers in a particular way to live in a way consistent with the faith they profess and by your rejection of any distortion of religion which would make it unworthy of man.

Those of you who are believers long to tell your friends that the treasure dwelling within you is meant to be shared, it raises questions, it calls for reflection. The question of God is not a menace to society, it does not threaten a truly human life! The question of God must not be absent from the other great questions of our time.

Dear friends, you are challenged to build bridges between one another. Take advantage of this opportunity to discover, deep within your hearts and with serious arguments, the ways which lead to profound dialogue. You have so much to say to one another! Do not turn away from the challenges and issues before you!

I believe deeply that the encounter of faith and reason enables us to find ourselves. But all too often reason falters in the face of self-interest and the lure of profit, and is forced to regard the latter as the ultimate criterion. Striving for truth is not easy. But each of us is called to make a courageous decision to seek the truth, precisely because there can be no shortcut to the happiness and beauty of a life of genuine fulfillment. Jesus says as much in the Gospel: "The truth will make you free".

Dear young people, it is up to you, in your own countries and in Europe as a whole, to help believers and nonbelievers to rediscover the path of dialogue. Religions have nothing to hear from a just secularity, one that is open and allows individuals to live in accordance with what they believe in their own consciences.

If we are to build a world of liberty, equality and fraternity, then believers and nonbelievers must feel free to be just that, equal in their right to live as individuals and in community in accord with their convictions; and fraternal in their relations with one another. One of the reasons for this Court of the Gentiles is to encourage such feelings of fraternity, over and above our individual convictions yet not denying our differences. And on an even deeper level, to recognize that God alone, in Christ, grants us inner freedom and the possibility of truly encountering one another as brothers and sisters.

Our first step, the first thing we can do together, is to respect, help and love each and every human being, because he or she is a creature of God and in some way the road that leads to God. As you carry on the experience of this evening, work to break down the barriers of fear of others, of strangers, of those who are different; this fear is often born of mutual ignorance, skepticism or indifference. Work to create bonds with other young people, without distinction and keeping in mind those who are poor or lonely, unemployed, ill or on the margins of society.

Dear young people, what you can share is not only your experience of life, but also your approach to prayer. Believers and nonbelievers, as you stand in this court of the Unknown, you are also invited to approach the sacred space, to pass through the magnificent portal of Notre Dame and to enter the cathedral for a moment of prayer. For some of you this will be a prayer to a God you already know by faith, but for others it may be a prayer to the Unknown God. Dear young friends who are nonbelievers, as you join those who pray in Notre Dame on this day of the Annunciation of the Lord, open your hearts to the sacred texts, let yourselves be challenged by the beauty of the music and, if you truly desire it, let your deepest feelings rise towards the Unknown God.

I am happy to have been able to speak to you this evening for the inauguration of the Court of the Gentiles. I hope you will be able to join me for the other events to which I have invited you, especially the World Youth Day to be held in Madrid this coming summer. The God whom believers learn to know invites you to discover him and to find ever greater life in him. Do not be afraid! As you walk together towards a new world, seek the Absolute, seek God, even if for you he is the Unknown God. And may this God, who loves each and every one of you, bless you and keep you. He is counting on you to be concerned for others and for the future, and you can always count on him!

Translation via Zenit.

A disappointment, and a question resolved

Being something of a nerd - and proud of it - some of my friends are also nerds who have a knack at finding entertainments of a somewhat unusal nature. One of these friends recently discovered what promised to be a most enjoyable evening Saturday in St. Louis: an orchestral concert featuring the music from the soundtracks of The Lord of the Rings movies. We purchased our tickets a couple of weeks ago and have been looking forward to the concert; my excitement about the concert has been steadily growing. Until yesterday. At the same time, the Bishop will not require my assistance this weekend and so I have been wondering where I would celebrate Mass on Sunday; until last evening I had not yet made arrangements. Just before we left for Confirmation in Bishop Creek yesterday, I received a phone call from a priest asking if I was still able to fill in for him this weekend. At first I didn't really know what he was talking about, but as I gave it some thought I remembered talking with him and with the Bishop about it; I must have simply forgotten to put it on my calendar. His call came as a disappointment since I will now no longer be able to attend the concert, but at least I know where I'll be for Mass this weekend: Shelbyville, Moweaqua and Assumption.

29 March 2011

Homily - 27 March 2011

The Third Sunday of Lent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters, “In their thirst … the people grumbled;” so we hear in the first reading from the book of Exodus (Exodus 17:3).

Within human nature we find that there are many thirsts. There is, of course, the thirst for liquid nourishment, but there is also the thirst for money, for power, for knowledge, for possessions, for friendship, for love.

In all of these thirsts there is a longing, a desire, for something more than which is present.

Each of these thirsts, though, never seems to be satisfied. We continually need more water; those who thirst for money, power, knowledge or possessions never seem to have enough; friendships often weaken and love is lost. And so, we, too, in our thirst, grumble.

Each of our thirsts for physical or earthly things is really nothing more than a mask over the thirst for authentic love. We trick ourselves into believing that money or fame or power or carnal pleasure will bring us the happiness, the love, for which we thirst most deeply; yet the more we drink from these false waters the more thirsty we become, the more we thirst to be loved, truly and fully.

Standing at Jacob’s well, Jesus alludes to this deeper thirst when he said to the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again” (John 4:13).

Is this not the very reason she found herself at the well at Noon, at the hottest point of the day when no one else was there? She had tried to satisfy her thirst for friendship and love and had found only heartache and ruin. In her thirst, as Jesus says, she “had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18). She was, as Waylon Jennings sings, “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

In her, we see the truth of what Pope Benedict XVI has said: “In the heart of every man, begging for love, there is a thirst for love;” we are all beggars for love (Homily, 29 March 2007).

Indeed, it was because of her thirst that Jesus met that woman at the well, and he comes to meet each of us at the wells that we have dug, as well, at those places where we hope to quench our thirst.

He said to her, and he says to each of us, “Give me a drink,” because he thirsts for our love even as we thirst for his (John 4:7). From the Cross he called out, “I thirst” (John 19:28)! “On the Cross, it is God Himself who begs the love of His creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2007).

As he meets us, Jesus says to us, “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). When we beg for his life and accept the love he has come to give, we say to him with that woman, “Give me this water” (John 4:15).

But where are to find this water? We find it by looking first to that rock struck by Moses. The Lord said to him, “Strike the rock, and the water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:6). Clearly this was no ordinary rock!

The rabbis tell us that not only did that rock give water to drink, but it followed the Israelites as well! What, then, is this rock? Saint Paul has the answer.

He says, “All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock, and that rock was Christ” (I Corinthians 10:4). When Moses struck the rock he struck Christ, a great foreshadowing of what was to come.

As Jesus hung dead on the cross, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). As we look upon him whom they have pierced, Jesus looks down lovingly on us and says, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as Scripture says, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers or living water’” (John 7:38).

It is here in the Church where we find this living water, for the blood and water that poured forth from the side of Christ was a symbol of the Church and the Sacraments. Here in the Eucharist his living water flows and wells up as a spring in the souls of those who receive his precious Body and Blood in a worthy and humble manner. In the presence of such a love,

What other response can we give to a love so great, if not that of a heart that is open and ready to love? But what does it mean to love Christ? It means trusting him even in times of trial, following him faithfully even in the Via Crucis, in the hope that soon the morning of the Resurrection will come. Entrusting ourselves to Christ, we lose nothing, we gain everything (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2007).
The Lord Jesus takes nothing away from us, but satisfies the deepest desires of our hearts. In these days of Lent, as we continue our increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving, may we recognize all the more the deep thirst we have for God and drink freely from the waters of his Sacraments. Amen.

Persecutions continue

Persecutions against Christians continue throughout the world:

This looks great!

Physical or virtual giving

Jonathan Sullivan has a post today in which he considers the benefits of using the Sunday envelope instead of giving to the Church electronically. He says:
While I think the electronic option would be good for older couples or single persons, as a father with small children it is important to me that my kids see how our family supports the Church financially. If they never see the money we give -- if it comes straight out of our accounts to the Church -- it is a lot harder for them to see the connection. By handing them the envelope and encouraging them to "put it in the basket," hopefully they will learn the habit of giving intentionally to the Church.
For what it's worth, I think he's right.

How did you know?

A young man recently posed to me the following question:
How did you know you were called to the priesthood? I would like to get an answer from someone I know more personally.

It is a good question and one I am not sure I can adequately answer, but I will try. Several reasons come to mind, particularly these three:

  1. When I read the Scriptures and the accounts of the Lord calling the prophets and Apostles, it felt like he was personally addressing me, as well.

  2. The thought of being a priest kept nagging at the back of mind and would not go away. It was persistent and so I thought it must be from God.

  3. Other people told me I would be a good priest and encouraged me to consider the priesthood. God often speaks through other people.
You might think that each of these reasons would have been sufficient for me, but they were not. I t was not until I was talking with a friend in college that I really knew I was called to the priesthood. I shared with her that I thought the Lord was calling me, but I didn't understand why he wanted me. There were others more suitable and I was unworthy (truly, none of us is worthy of this call, but he calls us nonetheless). She responded with a simple question: Why not you? I had no answer and knew then what Lord wanted of me.

26 March 2011

Thoughts on my 33rd birthday

Today I have now reached the thirty-third year of my life, the very same year in which our Lord Jesus Christ gave up his life on the Cross and the year in which Saint Damien left for the island of Moloka'i to serve the lepers.

Having reached now this momentous year, I feel compelled to offer a few thoughts - however profound or simple they may be - on this occasion of this anniversary of my birth.

One friend reminded me that yesterday (or today by some accounts) is Tolkien Reading Day and a different friend reminded me it is the custom among Hobbits to offer gifts to others on their birthday. Since I've often made Tolkien's statement my own that "I am, in fact, a Hobbit, in all but size," let these words be my gift to all (next year I'll see about a physical gift for all).

I can, without hesitation, say that my life has been good and very blessed by the Lord, despite - or perhaps because of - the numerous difficulties and heartbreaks I have encountered in my short life.

The deaths of my parents have taught me to yearn for heaven where will all be reunited in the presence of God himself, providing we live a life here worthy of him who died for us. Their deaths have also taught me the brevity of life and the importance of love and good friendships.

My fluctuating struggles and pains from my rare form of a rare form of arthritis have taught me to depend on God and on not on my own strength and abilities.

The death of Coach K taught me the importance of setting a good example for others, and how a life lived simply and humbly leaves a great impression even without trying.

My time as assistant coach to the soccer team taught me the truth of Saint John Bosco's words: "The teacher who is seen only in the classroom and nowhere else, is a teacher and nothing more; but let him go with his boys to recreation and he becomes a brother." This is among the greatest lessons I have learned, together with Bosco's other wisdom: "When a person knows he is loved, he will love in return, and when a person is loved he can get anything, especially from boys. This confidence sets up an electric current between boys and superiors. Hearts are opened, needs and weaknesses made known. This love enables superiors to bear with weariness, annoyance, ingratitude, or the troubles, failings and neglect of the boys."

My travels across the globe have shown me a greater world than I previously imagined, and opened a deeper longing for heaven.

This is as far as my thoughts will presently take me.

I have spent the day with the Bishop, first in Alton for Mass and a prayer breakfast with 500 women and then in Sullivan for Confirmation. It's been a full day, and a good one, but now my mind is finished.

After thirty-three years of life, I can say this: God is present, in the midst of deep sorrow and of great joy. He is present always and everywhere, and, like a loving Father, he uses the many experiences of life to teach his children, even the stubborn ones like me who often thinks he knows better. God's will has been done in my life until now (so far as I can tell); may it continue to be done until the day of my death.

Thank you, all, for your many kind wishes and prayers; may God bless you!

25 March 2011

Looking for a good meal?

Try DiCarlo's Pizza in Virden.

The State Journal-Register has a story today about Sal and Vita DiCarlo who are celebrating thirty-five years in business:

VIRDEN — When newlyweds Salvatore and Vita DiCarlo opened their 10-table pizza parlor on Jackson Street in Virden, an older man with a business in the front half of the building made an observation.

“He told somebody, ‘They’re just kids. Six months and they’re out,’” Salvatore DiCarlo said.

The DiCarlos indeed were out after 12 years -- but only to build a larger DiCarlo’s Pizza on Main Street.

The family is observing 35 years in business this weekend.

“We’ve seen a lot of people,” Vita DiCarlo said. “School kids who get married and move away, when they come home, they have to have our pizza. They tell us that. They like our pizza.”

One customer who now lives in Texas takes pizza with him when he returns from visiting, she said.

DiCarlo’s also serves pasta and sandwiches and has a family buffet on Wednesday nights, but it is the pizza that keeps people coming back.

Online reviews demonstrate its wide appeal.

“Best pizza EVER!” writes Tiffany H., who now lives in Seattle. “Every person I have exposed to this place asks for me to deliver every time I go home to visit.”

Another reviewer, Karen, said she was born in Chicago and lived in North Carolina for 10 years.

“Until moving to the Virden area, I have never been able to find a pizza that has met up to Chicago standards until now,” she wrote.

Pizza roots

The DiCarlos met in Sicily, although Vita’s family came to the United States when she was about 10 years old.

Her family had roots in the pizza business. Her uncle Joe Dimaggio had a pizza restaurant in Lawrenceville, and her cousins have them in Carbondale and Carmi. Salvatore, who now makes many of the pizzas, had to learn on the job.

Salvatore Galati, another of Vita’s cousins, helped teach Salvatore DiCarlo about pizza preparation and the restaurant business.

“It’s a family recipe,” Vita said. And although they’ve been asked many times, it’s a secret, she said.

The DiCarlos’ three children used to help out in the restaurant. All are married now. Their son is in Cincinnati, and one daughter chose the medical field as a career.

But daughter Josephine Hickey, 27, is still there and runs the restaurant when the DiCarlos go back to Sicily to visit. She intends to carry on the family tradition.

“We have a lot of loyal customers,” she said.

‘It’s a family’

DiCarlo’s employees are loyal, too.

“We’re like a team,” Salvatore said. “We’re mostly united all together.”

Michelle Kraus has been a waitress at DiCarlo’s for 20 years.

“We have a handful (of employees) who are in and out, and one has been here a little longer than me,” she said. “But we have several who have been here at least 10 years.

“It’s a family,” Kraus said. “I’m part of the family, and the customers feel they’re part of it.

“They treat people with respect,” she said. “And that goes a long way in any job.”

Kraus also sees former customers returning after they’ve moved away from Virden.

“We had a guy come in this week from California,” she said. “We have several who grew up in Virden, and whenever they come home, they come in. One customer freezes pizza to take back to Georgia.”

Another woman drives up from St. Louis about once a month for take-out, Kraus said.

Running a successful restaurant isn’t easy.

“We work hard,” Vita said. “We get up at 5 and come here. Somebody is here making dough.”

“Some people say they like our sauce the best,” she said. “Others like the crust. But it’s always the same.”

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Josephine added.
When you go, be sure to give them my greetings; they are former parishioners of mine. Congratulations, Sal and Vita!

Third youngest Bishop elected at age 40

Today it was announced that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the election of Sviatoslav Schevchuk by the Ukranian Synod as head of the Ukranian Church, the largest group of Eastern rite Catholics in union with Rome.

As a point of interest, at just 40 years of age (he'll celebrate another birthday in six weeks), he is the third youngest Catholic Bishop in the world.

Capello tip to Rocco Palmo.

Almsgiving done wisely

It is a sad statement of fact that people of good will best be wise and prudent when giving alms to various organizations and charities. It is becoming more difficult to find groups not connected with practices contrary to the faith and to human decency.

Their Excellencies the Most Reverend Paul A. Zipfel, Bishop of Bismark, and the Most Reverend Samuel J. Aquila, Bishop of Fargo, released on Ash Wednesday a list of organizations to which Catholics and people of good will should not contribute because their practices are contrary to the moral law (March of Dimes and Susan G. Komen Foundation are on the list).

Their statement offers the teaching of the Church on the sacredness of human life and of marriage, provides guidelines for almsgiving, and states why the groups cited should not receive our contributions.

Let us keep these two brave Bishops in our prayers.

Capello tip to Thomas Peters, who suggests a few more organizations to which we should give.

In honor of the day

The Angel Gabriel
Edward Burne Jones
The Annunciation
Edward Burne Jones
The Annunciation
Edward Burne Jones
The Annunciation
John William Waterhouse

24 March 2011

Further links

Friend and reader Craig has asked if I could post a bit more - and separately - about the connections between the March of Dimes, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood.

For more on Planned Parenthood itself, go here and here.

For more on the Susan G. Komen Foundation, go here and here.

For more on the March of Dimes, go here.

A department store encounter

A short time ago I went out to run a few errands and pick up a few supplies.

As I entered the second store on my list of places to go a kind saleswoman approached me and asked, "Would you like to help save babies by donating a dollar to the March of Dimes?"

"No, thank you," I answered. "The March of Dimes supports Planned Parenthood, the leading provider of abortions in our country, and that's a strange way to save babies."

This isn't the first time I've done this, and I can never be quite sure how the other person will respond.

She responded saying that she had not known about the connection and that she was only doing her job. I don't doubt that.

I then told her of the connection between the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Planned Parenthood and the causes of breast cancer. She was unaware of these, as well.

She thanked me warmly and sincerely, shook my hand, and wished me a good day. The saleswoman near her was also unaware of these connections and was glad to learn of them, too.

Some times we just need to be a little bold, and kindly speak the truth.

On the Gospel of the day

Over at Adam's Ale, Father Valencheck reflects well on the passage from today's Gospel concerning Lazarus and the rich man. His post, in full, follows:

So why doesn’t God just wave His mighty arm and fulfill everybody’s needs? Like Lazarus for the Lazarus and the rich man Gospel, where was God? Why didn’t He send Lazarus help?

Well, the fact is that He did. On the other side of the door was plentiful food. Even the rich man’s dogs had more than enough to eat. Unfortunately he never bothered to look outside of himself to see if there might be anyone in need. He was too concerned with self pleasure.

God does not do everything for us. He also does not want us to do everything completely on our own. He wants to work with us. There was a man in need and another man who was supplied with excess. It was all there. All that was required was the one with to give a little of what he had to the one without. By God allowing us to work with Him instead of just doing everything for us, it is we who benefit. How great it would have been if the rich man could have looked outside of himself, saw the needs of others, grew in compassion and generosity, and thereby became a better man.

We all have a surplus of something; musical talent, time, prayer, knowledge, strength, health, a pickup truck. There is always someone in need. God provides it all. We just need to open the door, see the person in need, and share what we have.

Trust not this month

The Sicilians have a proverb that says, "God save us from the end of March and the beginning of April." They also say, "There's no plan that can handle the vagaries of March."

Each year I am amazed at people's surprise when the weather takes a drastic turn sometime in March. This month is traitorous; it happens every year. The temperatures warm nicely, deceiving us to think that winter is ended. Then, when most people think winter gone, it returns in the blink of an eye. March cannot be trusted.

When I left Effingham yesterday afternoon it was 75 degrees; when I woke in Springfield this morning it was 31 degrees. The change in temperature has taken a toll on my system, leaving me exhausted, and I just want to go back to bed (which I just may do for a bit).

There is, I think, a lesson in this change of weather, from warm and bright to cold and drear.

We find ourselves now in the days of Lent, a time meant to be a springtime of life for the soul, of growth in faith, hope and love. As we grow in these virtues we experience a sort of warming in the soul; when we fall away from these virtues we experience a sort of cooling in the soul.

The month of March is a good reminder for us to always strive to grow in Jesus Christ that our souls may have never a winter, but always a spring.


Yesterday's post asking if we can eat meat tomorrow brought an unprecedented number of visitors to these pages.

I welcome all of you warmly and hope you enjoy what you find here.
His Excellency the Most Reverend Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Triopoli, has warned that the airstrikes against Libya will not be helfpful, saying:

I do not see where all this will lead us. Is it possible that people do not understand that bombs do not solve anything? Once again I appeal to try and find a diplomatic solution, perhaps through the mediation of some African leaders. He who encourages this war must understand that Gheddafi will not give up. This risks creating a very lengthy crisis with an uncertain outcome.
There are two stories today of persecution against Christians, one in Pakistan and one in Nigeria:
Let us keep our persecuted brothers and sisters in our prayers.

23 March 2011

Dolan's bold encounter

His Excellency the Most Reverend Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, passed along on his blog - The Gospel in the Digital Age - an encounter he had with a man recently in an airport. The story is well worth a read (with my emphases):

It was only the third time it had happened to me in my nearly thirty-five happy years as a priest, all three times over the last nine-and-a-half years.

Other priests tell me it has happened to them a lot more.

Three is enough. Each time has left me so shaken I was near nausea.

It happened last Friday . . .

I had just arrived at the Denver Airport, there to speak at their popular annual “Living Our Catholic Faith” conference.

As I was waiting with the others for the electronic train to take me to the terminal, a man, maybe in his mid-forties, waiting as well, came closer to me.

“Are you a Catholic priest?” he kindly asked.

“Sure am. Nice to meet you,” says I, as I offered my hand.

He ignored it. “I was raised a Catholic,” he replied, almost always a hint of a cut to come, but I was not prepared for the razor sharpness of the stiletto, as he went on, “and now, as a father of two boys, I can’t look at you or any other priest without thinking of a sexual abuser.”

What to respond? Yell at him? Cuss him out? Apologize? Deck him? Express understanding? I must admit all such reactions came to mind as I staggered with shame and anger from the damage of the wound he had inflicted with those stinging words.

“Well,” I recovered enough to remark, “I’m sure sorry you feel that way. But, let me ask you, do you automatically presume a sexual abuser when you see a Rabbi or Protestant minister?”

“Not at all,” he came back through gritted teeth as we both boarded the train.

“How about when you see a coach, or a boy scout leader, or a foster parent, or a counsellor, or physician?” I continued.

“Of course not!” he came back. “What’s all that got to do with it?”

“A lot,” I stayed with him, “because each of those professions have as high a percentage of sexual abuse, if not even higher, than that of priests.”

“Well, that may be,” he retorted. “But the Church is the only group that knew it was going on, did nothing about it, and kept transferring the perverts around.”

“You obviously never heard the stats on public school teachers,” I observed. “In my home town of New York City alone, experts say the rate of sexual abuse among public school teachers is ten times higher than that of priests, and these abusers just get transferred around.”
(Had I known at that time the news in in last Sunday’s New York Times about the high rate of abuse of the most helpless in state supervised homes, with reported abusers simply transferred to another home, I would have mentioned that, too.)

To that he said nothing, so I went in for a further charge.

“Pardon me for being so blunt, but you sure were with me, so, let me ask: when you look at yourself in a mirror, do you see a sex abuser?”

Now he was as taken aback as I had been two-minutes before. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sadly,” I answered, “studies tell us that most children sexually abused are victims of their own fathers or other family members.”

Enough of the debate, I concluded, as I saw him dazed. So I tried to calm it down.

“So, I tell you what: when I look at you, I won’t see a sex abuser, and I would appreciate the same consideration from you.”

The train had arrived at baggage claim, and we both exited together.

“Well then, why do we only hear this garbage about you priests,” he inquired, as he got a bit more pensive.

“We priests wonder the same thing. I’ve got a few reasons if you’re interested.”

He nodded his head as we slowly walked to the carousel.

“For one,” I continued, “we priests deserve the more intense scrutiny, because people trust us more as we dare claim to represent God, so, when on of us do it – even if only a tiny minority of us ever have — it is more disgusting.”

“Two, I’m afraid there are many out there who have no love for the Church, and are itching to ruin us. This is the issue they love to endlessly scourge us with.”

“And, three, I hate to say it,” as I wrapped it up, “there’s a lot of money to be made in suing the Catholic Church, while it’s hardly worth suing any of the other groups I mentioned before.”

We both by then had our luggage, and headed for the door. He then put his hand out, the hand he had not extended five minutes earlier when I had put mine out to him. We shook.

“Thanks. Glad I met you.”

He halted a minute. “You know, I think of the great priests I knew when I was a kid. And now, because I work in IT at Regis University, I know some devoted Jesuits. Shouldn’t judge all you guys because of the horrible sins of a few.”

“Thanks!,” I smiled.

I guess things were patched-up, because, as he walked away, he added, “At least I owe you a joke: What happens when you can’t pay your exorcist?”

“Got me,” I answered.

“You get ‘re-possessed’!”

We both laughed and separated.

Notwithstanding the happy ending, I was still trembling . . . and almost felt like I needed an exorcism to expel my shattered soul, as I had to confront again the horror this whole mess has been to victims and their families, our Catholic people like the man I had just met . . . and to us priests.

Can we eat meat this Friday?

Just a short time ago I received a text message from one of my former students asking, "Can we eat meat this Friday?" It is a good question and, since he asked so early, I thought I'd post it here; if he is wondering, surely others are, as well.

The answer is: Yes, we can eat meat this Friday.

Why, you ask? Because this Friday, March 25th, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord (and the day before my birthday).

A solemnity is a day for celebration, not for penance; hence, no dispensation or permission is needed to eat meat on a solemnity if it falls on a Friday, even in Lent (canonist Ed Peters explains in greater detail here).

22 March 2011

Iraqi Archbishop: "We [Christians] wonder if we will survive in our own country"

Last week Aid to the Church in Need met in Dundalk, Ireland to discuss the persecution of Christians throughout the world. At the same time, a report was issued - "Persecuted and Forgotten?" - highlighting the scope of this serious issue.

His Excellency the Most Reverend Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Erbil (in Iraq) addressed the gathering in the following words, with my emphases:
Good afternoon Cardinal Brady, Bishop Clifford, ladies and gentlemen and fellow clergy. I thank you for the honor to mark the launch today of the 2011 edition of Aid to the Church in Need's report on Christians oppressed for their faith, entitled 'Persecuted and Forgotten?'

This report and the work of Aid to Church in Need is critical to us as members of the worldwide Christian community. This information will significantly contribute to building international support and solidarity for Christians around the world where our human rights to religious freedom has been stripped away.

As the report states, in many countries, like Iraq, the situation for Christians seems to be worsening, sometimes to the point where we wonder if we will survive as a people in our own country.

But this is not a time to hide our faith or our identity over such struggles. In Iraq, 40 years of war and oppression have strengthened our endurance and our resolve to stand strong and to claim our legal and historical right as a Church and as a people in Iraq. We have not come this far to give up.

Through the international support and solidarity that this report will create, I believe we can be stronger in our unity and more strategic in our search for sustainable solutions.

What we Iraqis are suffering is a crisis in cultural change. We are living in a region which cannot decide if it is for democracy or for Islamic law. It cannot decide if it is for the rights of human beings to live in freedom in all its exciting and challenging forms, or if it is for the control of the spirit and the minds of its people.

This is the kind of control that welcomes the terrorist methods of intimidation, kidnapping and killing of religious minorities.

The Middle East, now, is a crescent, fertile for terror and domination. A region founded upon a cultural and social environment that has depended on violence to keep its societies divided. History and a tribal mentality have been used to maintain that violence and those divisions. The Crusades, the aggressive West, Israel and American Christians are pointed to as the enemies. Yet, in reality, the enemy is within.

What Iraqis are left with is a weak constitution that tries to please two masters: on the one hand the premise of human rights supposedly for all its citizens, yet on the other hand, Islamic law for its majority of Muslims. Islamists are not the only ones at fault.

Secularists with an eye for profit are also responsible.

Neighboring governments in the region feeding the insurgents with money and weapons to destabilize the government are also responsible.

The rest of world's governments have turned their backs on us, as if the human rights abuses and near genocide conditions Iraqi Christians experience, are temporary.

Yet for nearly 50 years, Christians in Iraq have suffered displacement and negligence. Here is a picture of the 233 Christian villages in northern Iraq in 1961. Dozens of those villages were destroyed in the 1950s and 60's as Iraq evolved from a kingdom to a republic and this displacement continued into the years of Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, Christian history is noticeably absent from the Iraqi history books used in our public schools. Our place as one of the original inhabitants of the region, has been wiped from collective memory. We are merely one of the non-Muslim, minority inhabitants of Iraq, lacking all the rights and rewards that full citizenship in a real democracy should bring us.

During the Gulf War years, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated between 1.2 and 1.4 million. By 2003, it had dropped by over half a million. Iraq's Christian population now numbers less that 500,000 and this figure is highly optimistic.

Iraqi Christians live primarily in Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Erbil and Mosul and in small towns in the Nineveh plains of the north. Close to two-thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, and roughly one-fifth belong to the Assyrian Church of the East. The rest belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, and various Protestant denominations.

As you can see in these two maps main Iraqi Christian population centers are located along disputed boundaries between Iraq and Kurdistan and in areas with strong extremist militia presence.

Christians tend to be persecuted by majority populations for two reasons:

1) Their Christian faith, which is not accepted in Iraq by Islamic fundamentalists and

2) For political purposes to control land and resource allocation in the disputed areas.

Since the occupation of Iraq in 2003 over 500 Christians have been killed in religious and politically motivated conflicts. Forty percent of the killings took place in northern Iraq, 58% in the Baghdad region and 2% in the south.

Killings of Christians began in earnest in 2003 when the first translator was killed in Baghdad. In 2006, targeted killings of Christian leaders escalated when an Orthodox Christian priest, Boulos Iskander, was kidnapped, beheaded and dismembered despite payment of a ransom.

Between 2006 and 2010, 17 Iraqi priests and 2 Iraqi Bishops were kidnapped in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. Many were held for days; some for weeks. All were beaten or tortured by their kidnappers. Most were released, but one bishop, four priests and three sub-deacons were killed. In most cases, those responsible for the crimes stated they wanted Christians out of Iraq.

These kidnappings and murders have left their mark on the minds and bodies of the Iraqi churches. Not only have our religious leaders been murdered, but also simple families, shop keepers, children, teachers, the elderly, mothers and their babies, and members of all element of Christian society.

• Direct threats using intimidating letters with bullets placed inside

• Text messages direct sent to families named in the messages

• Direct threats, person-to-person on the streets

• Threatening language from police and army representatives

• Breaking into houses, stealing possessions or making extortion threats

• Threatening graffiti with Koranic text.

• Armed men standing in front of Christian homes or in cars and then leaving

• Text messages about kidnapping children from their schools

Also, our college students are severely intimidated. Thousands of college students have delayed their studies or transferred to Erbil for their course work.

Now I would like to talk to you about the systematic bombing campaign of Iraqi churches. The first Iraqi church was bombed in June, 2004 in Mosul. Following that event, successive campaigns have occurred and a total of 66 churches have been attacked or bombed; 41 in Baghdad, 19 in Mosul, 5 in Kirkuk and 1 in Ramadi. In addition, 2 convents, 1 monastery and a church orphanage was bombed.

The first Campaign of bombed churches took place on August 1 2004 at the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in Al Dora. That day, 6 churches were bombed across Iraq.

As I am sure most of you know from the news, on 31 October 2010, 58 people, including 51 hostages and 2 priests, were killed after an attack on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad. A group affiliated to Al-Qaida, Islamic State for Iraq, stated that Christians were a "legitimate target."

There are thousands of examples of overwhelming suffering among Iraqi Christians. Two come to my mind here that I would like to tell you about.

One is the story of the father of a teacher in our kindergarten in Ankawa. Last year Mr. Dahan was the first of at least eight Iraqi Christians killed in Mosul prior to the elections. The abduction that ended in his death was the second time he had been kidnapped. Two years before, he had been abducted, beaten and stuffed in the trunk of a car until the family could collect the $5000 ransom.

The family says that after he returned the first time, they didn't leave Mosul because their father would not move. "Our father said, 'if all of us Christians leave, who is going to stay in the land of the prophets and pray in our churches?' " "He said, 'we were all born in Mosul and we will die in Mosul.' "

A second story is about my friend Father Mazen from Qaraqosh. Father Mazen was kidnapped 4 days after he had been ordained a priest. He was released but a year later armed men entered his home and killed his father and two brothers in front of his mother and sister in law.

Despite this tragedy, Father Mazen serves the displaced families in his congregation in Qaraqosh with unfaltering faith.

As I mentioned, there are thousands of examples of such senseless injury and killing. The grief and sorrow in our congregations is palpable, where not one person has been uneffected by tragedy since 2003.

Moreover, each family has suffered decades of losses from the Saddam regime, the sanctions prior to the occupation, the devastation of the Gulf War as well as the Iran/Iraq War. Iraqis are a people who have experienced immense suffering but who are also strong, resilient and prepared to claim their right to existence.

The Kurdistan region, overall, has been a relocation site for over 55,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other cities in Iraq in the past 7 years. The population has grown significantly since the military events of 2003.

More recently, following the systematic intimidation and violence prior to the elections in 2010 and after the church bombing, about 4000 Christian families fled Iraq's cities to Erbil. Probably twice this have move from both Baghdad and Mosul City into the Nineveh Valley, an area to the north where life is relatively safer and more affordable.

Over the past 8 years our Erbil Diocese Immigration Committee has registered over 3000 families displace by conflict. Not all families register so we know this is an under estimate of the size of those who have moved. But as you can see the situation has worsened 2011 as we are only now in March.

Most of the families we have registered come from Baghdad and Mosul.

It is difficult to know exactly how many Iraqi Christians live outside Iraq, but estimates suggest that over half the population has fled the country with hundreds of thousands in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. At least a million more Iraqis live in the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and many other countries.

In Erbil, once our Church leaders are assured that our families are safely relocated, we have three main goals to assist them.

First of all we want to provide stability via employment and affordable housing,

Secondly we want to be sure that families have access to good education and medical care and thirdly,

And most importantly, we want a vibrant living Church to support the social and spiritual needs of our families.

We are working hard to make these things happen, but the resources of Erbil and its neighboring Dioceses have been stressed because of the high influx of people over this short period.

Erbil Diocese has grown by over 30% with churches, schools, health care facilities, housing and basic infrastructures feeling the burden.

Schools average 35-45 children per class, running in two shifts a day.

Moreover, housing costs have skyrocketed as local homeowners have raised rents 200-300% to take advantage of the housing demand.

At this time, diocese leaders are raising funds from inside the communities and donor organizations such Aid to Church in Need to build new churches and to restore old and damaged ones. Classrooms are being built and restored in all our churches to be used for Catechism classes and community education.

A new Catholic primary school building has recently been funded to ease the burden of public education in the area.

Church leaders are looking to construct low cost housing for displaced families as a long-term investment against rising land values.

Diocese leaders also continue to search for development investments to stimulate the job economy and to employ displaced family members.

With many problems facing Iraqi Christians, the greatest concern of Diocese leaders is that there are enough strong parishes prepared to assist families as they continue to readjust to their lives; displaced from their jobs, homes, and extended networks.

There is concern that if families are not assisted effectively and not embraced by the community, that we will lose them from the Church and to immigration outside of Iraq.

Lastly we want the presence of the Christians Church to be apparent by a vibrant and active parish life symbolized by physical church buildings and obvious public spaces. We do not want to hide our faith or identity out of fear for our lives. We want to be seen and remembered by all Iraqis; those who threaten us, but moreover those willing to stand in solidarity with us.

We thank Aid to the Church in Need for your solidarity with us.

We thank your generous and kind hearted donors and those who have prayed with us and for us these past years of our struggles. I would like to finish with a prayer:

"Renew your wonders in this our day as by a new Pentecost" -- Pope John XXIII. Father, pour out your Spirit upon your people, and grant us a new vision of your glory, a new experience of your power, a new faithfulness to your word, and a new consecration to your service, that your love may grow among us, and your kingdom come: through Christ our Lord.

Let us remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in prayer each day, offering our sacrifices and penances for them.

Almost like new

I returned last evening to Effingham to help hear grade school confessions this morning and took the opportunity to have the interior of my car detailed.

Some time ago one of my former students - who is currently taking a class on entrepreneurship - told me he had to start a business for class; his project would be detailing cars.

He's a handy and pragmatic young man and has been helpful to me several times in the past. Knowing some of his previous work, I told him I'd gladly bring my car to him.

Just a few minutes ago I collected the car and am very pleased with his work and think his fee is more than reasonable.

If you're in the Effingham area and need your car detailed I'll happily pass his contact information on to you; just shoot me an e-mail.

What I've been up to

Life as the Episcopal Master of Ceremonies brings with it some quiet days and some packed days; there seems to be little in between, which is perhaps just as well.

Over the last two weeks Bishop Paprocki has has several meetings outside the Diocese that have not required my attention. While he was away each time I returned to St. Anthony of Padua Parish to assist the Parochial Administer by hearing confessions for the schools and assisting at three different retreats. Consequently what I planned to be just a few days for rest turned out to be quite busy, and also very enjoyable.

This past weekend saw a flurry of activity within the See City and its surroundings.

Friday evening on our return from Confirmation at St. Michael Parish in Staunton I mentioned to the Bishop that we should leave the Cathedral at 6:00 the next morning for Mass at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Highland, which would be followed by a men's prayer breakfast at the Knights of Columbus' Hall; leaving so early would afford us time to vest and prepare for the Liturgy.

When I awoke Saturday morning I did not remember hearing the alarm, so I looked at my cell phone to learn the time: 6:01 a.m. Apparently, I set the weekday alarm that does not include Saturday; that won't happen again.

In a panic I jumped in the shower, dressed and was ready to go in a record seven minutes. When Bishop called me as I was putting on my shoes I told him I overslept just a bit and would be ready in two minutes. We left the Cathedral about 6:15 a.m. and thankfully arrived in Highland with enough time to prepare for the Mass.

Joe Lombardi, the grandson of Vince Lombardi and quarterback coach for the New Orleans Saints, was the guest speaker at the prayer breakfast.

Not being a football fan (I don't generally even know when the Super Bowl is happening) I did not know who he was from Adam. I was able to have breakfast with him and the Bishop and was very impressed with him. He is a man of faith, down to earth and committed, who carries himself simply.

Being also a wise man he spoke about what he knows: football. He shared some of the qualities he looks for when looking for quarterbacks and related them to the practice of the faith.

The one that I still remember is the willingness and desire to keep practicing the fundamentals of the game; if a player does not have the fundamentals down each time the gameplay will not be well.

Relating it to the faith, he said the fundamentals of the faith are: Eucharist, confession, daily prayer, the rosary and the Scriptures. If we don't practice each of these, our faith weakens.

He talk was quite excellent and if you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak you should really go. I think we should be bring him back to the Diocese for a youth event or adult education.

After the prayer breakfast the Bishop and I returned to Springfield, where I worked for a bit on final preparations for the two Rites of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.

I celebrated Mass at St. Peter Parish in Petersburg at 5:00 p.m. and raced back to the Cathedral for the 7:00 p.m. RECCC, which went mostly well.

Afterwards I went out to visit the men on the priesthood discernment retreat (twelve were there) and had a good visit with them before retiring for the night.

Sunday morning I celebrated Mass at 8:00 a.m. in Petersburg and at 10:00 a.m. at Holy Family Parish in Athens, before again returning to the Cathedral for the RECCC at 2:30 p.m.

The second celebration flowed more smoothly than the one Saturday evening. I'm still learning the Bishop's style and adapting myself to it, which won't be too hard to do now that I have a better sense of it (it's not an easy topic to converse about; it has to be experienced).

Afterwards I joined some friends for supper and called it a weekend.

20 March 2011

Homily - 20 March 2011

The Second Sunday of Lent (A)

The Lord Jesus Christ has “saved us and called us to a holy life,” yet so very often we do not walk upon the path that he has set before us (II Timothy 1:9).

It takes only a brief few moments of honest reflection to know that we have sinned and have strayed from the fold of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (cf. John 10:11).

Having given in to temptation we are in need of reconciliation, which is achieved through the great Sacrament of mercy, the Sacrament of Penance.

Looking at the Gospel today we see, as it were, a sort of image of what happens in this Sacrament.

Examining our conscience - what we have done and what we have failed to do - we climb the interior mountain to that spot from which we look down on our lives. Ascending this mountain in prayer (cf. Matthew 17:1) we encounter the Lord, saying to him, “My heart has prompted me to seek your face; I seek it, Lord: do not hide from me” (Psalm 26:8-9).

We seek his face because there is within each of us a great longing, a yearning, for God. Saint Augustine put it this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Standing, then, before the Lord we look upon him and gaze upon the beauty of his radiant light and we become aware that we are not worthy to stand before him.

Moses and Elijah stand beside the Lord, conversing with him about “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). The Law and the Prophets help us to see our sin, our transgressions of God’s commands. Moses and Elijah help us to see the necessity of the Lord’s Passion and Death, together with the great depths of his love.

Seeing his holiness, we see our sin. Seeing his loveliness, we see that we are not all too lovely and we fall prostrate, very much afraid before him (cf. Matthew 17:6). With our sin before us and all worldly things left behind, we know the truth of Saint Francis of Assisi’s oft repeated phrase: “What a man is before God, that he is, and nothing more.”

Conscious of our sin, we, like that tax collector, can only stand off at a distance and we dare not lift our eyes, but beat our breast in sorrow (cf. Luke 18:13).

Like Saint Peter, we stand off at a distance – where it is comfortable – until the Lord looks upon us and we “remember the word of the Lord;” then we, too, begin “to weep bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62).

The only words on our lips are these: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Gazing upon the transfigured Lord we see his holiness and we are aware of our sinfulness. Seeing his glory we remember the source of this glory: the Cross of our salvation of which he spoke with Moses and Elijah. We remember, too, that his Cross is the result of our sin.

Conscious of all of this the fear of the Lord begins to take root in our hearts.

Perhaps this is a phrase with which we are not very familiar or do not like very much. But 'fear of God' is not anguish; it is something quite different. As children, we are not anxious about the Father but we have fear of God, the concern not to destroy the love on which our life is based (Pope Benedict XVI).
Seeing his love and seeing our sin, we know that we have separated ourselves from his love; this is the cause of our fear, it is the fear of the loss of the love of God.

We fall prostrate before the Lord of heaven and earth because we know that our sin has distanced us from him but it has not distanced the Lord from us!

He does not abandon us, but hears our humble cry and comes to us. Remember the words of the Psalmist:

See, the eyes of the LORD are upon those who fear him,
upon those who hope for his kindness,
to deliver them from death
and preserve them in spite of famine (Psalm 33:18-19).
We know that the Lord “loves justice and right” and because of his justice man is condemned on account of his sin, but we also know that “of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full” (Psalm 33:5).

The Lord’s “judgments are true and just” (Revelation 16:7) but for those who seek his mercy, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). We encounter this mercy in the Sacrament of Penance through which our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with God.

We come then to the Church confessing our sins to the priest, who acts in the person of Christ and, in the name of Christ absolves our sin.

When the words of absolution are spoken, Jesus comes and touches us, saying, “I have ‘destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light’” (II Timothy 1:10). “Rise, and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7).

Having been raised up by the Lord we are able to raise our eyes and look into his (cf. Matthew 17:8). The reconciliation – a word which itself means to “see eye to eye” is accomplished. We have no more reason to avert our gaze from the Lord; no longer does anything stand between the Lord and those who approach him in the Sacrament of Penance.

Is your heart at rest this day? Are you at peace? If not, know that it is because your heart is not resting in the Lord because your sin stands between you and Christ Jesus.

Why not approach the Lord’s mercy this Lenten season? There is nothing to fear in the Lord. He turns no one away who seeks his mercy, who asks his forgiveness, who longs for his love.

Christ waits for you. Indeed, he has gone in search of you even as you continue to wander away from him. As he looks for us he calls out with the same words that we first called out: “My heart has prompted me to seek your face. Do not hide from me.”

Do not stray any further. Turn and go to the Lord and you will know life, you will know love, and you will know peace. Amen.

18 March 2011

Spanish Bishops: John Paul II gained the love of young people by calling them to be saints

With the following message, the Bishop of Spain have invited the youth of the world to the World Youth Day 2011, to be held in Madrid (with my emphases):

As World Youth Day approaches, which will take place in Madrid from August 16-21, the Spanish bishops, gathered in plenary assembly, address this brief message to you to encourage you to take part in it. We know that many of you are preparing yourselves with eagerness and encouraging your friends and companions. For our part, we invite you all, as Benedict XVI has in the message he addressed to you in connection with this day: "I would like all young people -- those who share our faith in Jesus Christ, but also those who are wavering or uncertain, or who do not believe in him -- to share this experience, which can prove decisive for their lives. It is an experience of the Lord Jesus, risen and alive, and of his love for each of us."

1. Live with joy and hope

From the beginning of the Church, its pastors have looked to you with hope and joy because you are the present and, above all, the future of society and of the Church. In his first letter, St. John addresses you with these words: "I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one" (1 John 2:14). Today, the Successor of Peter writes to you saying: "I await each of you with great joy. Jesus Christ wishes to make you firm in faith through the Church."[2] We also, as your bishops, have confidence in you and regard you not only as recipients of the Gospel of Christ, but as protagonists of the history of the Church and of her building. The motto of World Youth Day could not be more expressive: "Planted and Built Up in Jesus Christ, Firm in the Faith" (cf. Colossians 2:7). In this beautiful stage of life, which youth is, we encourage you strengthen and build your faith, to deepen your roots in Christ, who loves you and calls you to friendship and proposes your following him in the priesthood, in consecrated life or in marriage to make of you his witnesses. He will give you the light and strength to build your future, through study, a profession and work that, despite the economic difficulties and present-day unemployment, you struggle to obtain.

Pope John Paul II, the announcement of whose beatification has filled us with joy, put you at the center of his interest and mission. He has been called the "Pope of young people," because of the affection and dedication with which he distinguished you. He did not gain your affection through adulation or posing to you reduced exigencies in the following of Christ. On the contrary, he asked you for the best of yourselves, the capacity to give yourselves totally to the love of God and men and to lead a Christian life removed from all mediocrity, going against the current, if necessary, of our time. How many times he invited you to be saints! Thinking of you, he began the passionate adventure of World Youth Days so that, as young people, you would manifest to the world the joy of living in Christ, the youth and beauty of the Church, and the firmness of a faith that is for all a sign of the presence of the living God. Yes, friends, this is the meaning of the forthcoming World Day to which we invite you, convinced of your openness to truth and of your capacity to create bonds of friendship with young people from all over the world.

2. Celebrate a genuine feast of faith

Within a few months the Church that journeys in Spain will live the experience of receiving in the dioceses and finally in Madrid hundreds of thousands of young people convoked by Benedict XVI to celebrate the 26th World Youth Day. For almost one week, you will have the occasion to pray personally and in community, to participate in the catechesis of bishops from all over the world on the meaning of being Christian, you will celebrate the forgiveness of God and the Eucharist, and you will express in many ways -- concerts, exhibitions and different cultural events -- the joy of the faith, which changes your life and projects you onto the world as creators of works where charity, justice and truth shine. The Pope's presence will enable you to feel yourselves members of the universal People, which is the Catholic Church.

Hence, World Youth Day will be an authentic celebration of the faith, which will show how Christians are what today's world needs: "peacemakers, promoters of justice and workers for a more humane world, a world in accordance with God's plan," who commit themselves "in different sectors of the life of society, contributing effectively to the welfare of all."[3] It is a question, young friends, of making visible that "Christ is not a treasure meant for us alone; he is the most precious treasure we have, one that is meant to be shared with others. In our age of globalization, be witnesses of Christian hope all over the world."[4]

We invite you to take part in World Youth Day as expression of your adherence to Christ and membership in the Church. For this participation to be true and fruitful, we encourage you from now on to go on a spiritual pilgrimage toward Christ, conscious that "the quality of our meeting will depend above all on our spiritual preparation, our prayer, our common hearing of the word of God and our mutual support."[5] We ourselves, your priests, catechists and young people of your communities will support you in this task. You are not alone, because you are part of the one Church of Christ that journeys in the world. We only ask you to trust and to put into play all your capacities."

3. Put forth the young face of the Church

Your responsibility as young people of the host country is very great. In a certain sense you will be the face of the young Church that will receive pilgrims from the whole world. The days of hospitality in the dioceses will be an unforgettable experience to live the universality of the Church and the enormous richness and vitality of each diocese of Spain, which received the Gospel of Christ from the first hour of Christianity.

Encourage your friends and companions to take part in the different tasks of hospitality and in volunteer work, in the celebrations of faith and in the activities that each diocese prepares. Offer yourselves also as volunteers for the many organizational tasks in Madrid, venue of World Youth Day. Efforts will be made to serve everyone so that all will feel welcomed and loved for themselves. We also ask you for solidarity with young people from the neediest countries. Many of them, often isolated from experiences of this kind, wish to take part in the Day to live dimensions of the faith and of ecclesial life that enrich them. We also expect young people from countries where the Church is persecuted, who will strengthen us with their testimony. Be generous when you register, contributing your quota of solidarity. You will make many of your companions happy.

We do not wish to end without thanking you ahead of time for receiving this message and for your work in the Church. Receive our words as a sign of the affection and closeness we feel for you. The Church needs you to proclaim to all the love of God. We know that you also love us and need us to grow in your faith and in the Christian life. We journey in Christ, the way that leads us to the Father. We are all wayfarers and we all aspire to reach our goal together. Are these not sufficient reasons to live in the communion that the Spirit has given us? Will not our joy be greater if we all meet with the Successor of Peter when he comes to confirm us in the faith?

Let us pray therefore for one another so that this World Day, as the previous ones, will root and build us in Christ and convert our faith into the solid rock on which our life is founded. We will not be lacking the protection of Mary, Mother of Christ and of the Church, who from the goal of our pilgrimage watches over and protects our steps.

We bless you in the Lord Jesus Christ
Madrid, March 2, 2011