Archive for the ‘Saints’ Category

The Holy Father Reminds Us of Our Mission

Friday, November 19th, 2010

All too frequently, I get wrapped up in the daily whirlwind of all the things that I think are important.  And all too infrequently, I fail to keep in mind the real priorities of life, and what my true mission is.

Thank God for Pope Benedict, who never fails to make things perfectly clear.  In the introduction to his new document on Sacred Scripture, Verbum Domini, there is a section entitled “That our joy may be complete”, the Holy Father says this:

I encourage all the faithful to renew their personal and communal encounter with Christ, the word of life made visible, and to become his heralds, so that the gift of divine life – communion – can spread ever more fully throughout the world. Indeed, sharing in the life of God, a Trinity of love, is complete joy (cf. 1 Jn 1:4). And it is the Church’s gift and unescapable duty to communicate that joy, born of an encounter with the person of Christ, the Word of God in our midst. In a world which often feels that God is superfluous or extraneous, we confess with Peter that he alone has “the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68). There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).  (emphasis added)

In these few simple words, the Holy Father has defined the essence of discipleship, and the path to real happiness.

Thank you, Pope Benedict, for once again making our mission clear.  Now it’s up to me.

Where Would I Be Without These Men?

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Fr. Edward Higgins, OFMCap, baptized me.

Msgr. John Considine gave me my First Holy Communion.  Hundred of other priests have followed in his footsteps and given me the Body of Christ.

Bishop Patrick Ahern confirmed me.

Fr. Frank Corry witnessed my marriage.

Hundreds of priests have heard my Confession and have absolved me of my sins. (I can’t recall who was the first, but God bless him)

I was educated by, among many others, the great Msgr. William Smith.

I have had the privilege of calling many priests my friends.

Where would I be without these men?

This week marks the end of the Year for Priests, as declared by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.  The intention of the year was to call the Catholic people to a deeper awareness of the value of our priests, and to pray for their growth in holiness and virtue.  It was also designed to renew our priests in their sacred vocation, and to encourage them in their witness to Christ in our world.

There have been many great events during this year, particularly the beautiful celebrations in Rome offered by our Holy Father himself.  Archbishop Dolan has worked very hard to reach out to our priests, to boost their morale and to demonstrate to them how much they are valued and loved.

Over the last two weeks, I have had the privilege of seeing most of the priests of the Archdiocese, and many religious priests, at the safe environment program we just put on up at St. Joseph’s Seminary.  It was truly awe-inspiring to stand on the podium and look out at the hundreds of men who have placed themselves in the person of Christ to serve us.

These are the men who have helped me in my life-long struggle with sin, they have mourned and rejoiced with me, and they have led me closer to God.  I couldn’t possible say or do enough to thank them.

It’s good that we’ve had a Year for Priests, and it’s good that we take the time to think about what they’ve meant to us, in our everyday lives.

But to me, it keeps coming back to that same simple question — where would I be without these men?

Configured to Christ

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

A friend of mine recently sent me an email about a conversation she had with a friend.  It was interesting to me, so I thought I would share it publicly (with her permission, and with names changed to protect the innocent).

The email was generated by a talk that had recently been given by a priest about the priesthood.  During that talk, the priest noted that, by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, priests are “ontologically different” from laypeople.

(For those without a dictionary handy, the word “ontological” is a philosophical term that refers to the study of the nature of a being, asking the question “what is this, in its essence, as opposed to its mere accidental features?”.  This would include a study of how beings can be distinguished from and compared to other kinds of beings.)

Here is what my friend’s interlocutor said about the priest’s talk:

His comment about priests being “ontologically different” is pure clerical ideology. That is the kind of self-serving mindset that makes anti-clerics of the best of us.  There was much grace of the rest of his talk. But that comment nearly made me get up and walk out. I fear for the mental health of young seminarians having to assent to that kind of inflated view of the priesthood—a form of magical thinking, really.

This comment is shocking, in a way, but not too surprising in another.  It shocks me that any Catholic would blithely dismiss the notion that those who receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders are different from laypeople.  After all, we believe that sacraments are not just symbols, or commissioning ceremonies, but that they actually confer the grace they signify.  How can we not be essentially changed when we receive such a direct grace?

But it doesn’t surprise me in another way.  Our modern world tends to look at the priesthood as just a job, a career that some men choose.  If we look at the priesthood in such blandly naturalistic terms, then the comment makes some sense.  But the priesthood is so much more than that.

Here’s what I responded to my friend:

I would recommend to this person that she read a talk given by Cardinal O’Connor, who explained better than anyone I have ever seen what it means to become a priest.  Pope John Paul wrote extensively about this in his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis.

Here’s a key passage from Cardinal O’Connor:

“In my judgment, this concept of the ontological nature of the priesthood, is critical. We don’t just put on vestments; we don’t just receive an assignment. Neither makes us priests. We become priests at ordination. There is an “ontological change” in our spiritual nature. Such is a profound mystery. Is it too bold an analogy to compare the change to Christ the Son of God’s retaining His Divinity while becoming a man? Or to observe that after bread becomes the Sacred Body of Christ, it still tastes like bread and feels like bread, but is now the Body of Christ? There has been an ontological change. A cup of wine still smells like wine and tastes like it, but it is now the Blood of Christ. At ordination an ontological change takes place.”

The person you spoke to, unfortunately, is stuck with a modernist model of the priesthood that focuses solely on role, activity, and status – as if the priesthood were purely temporal with no regard for the supernatural.  Such is not at all the essence of what it is to be a priest.  Just as in the Sacrament of Baptism, we all are claimed for Christ and transformed in the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell within us, the priest is transformed by the Sacrament of Holy Orders and united with Christ in a bond that is not just imitative of what He did, but that unites him to who He is.  Which is to say:  a sacrifice given for the many for the salvation of the world, a servant of the servants of God, the man who stoops to wash the feet of his disciples and to lift up in healing the sinful woman.

There is nothing of mental illness or arrogance or self-serving here.  If anything, I think an ordinand would be terrified in approaching the altar of ordination, struck down in humility at their unworthiness for such a grace.  The fact that so many men still do this is far from a sign of a mental health problem, but a testament to the heroism that is given them by the Holy Spirit, as on the first day of Pentecost.

Last Saturday, ten men were ordained to the priesthood of Jesus Christ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  They weren’t being accepted for a job, they were being configured to Christ Himself.

It is no accident that, during the ordination ceremony, they lay on the floor with their arms outstretched — as if placing their bodies on the Cross with Christ.

In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul spoke of the new life in Christ that had come to him in Baptism and faith, but it has special relevance to what happened at the Cathedral on Saturday, and what happens to every man ordained to the priesthood:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

That’s no accident — that’s an ontological change.

Thanks to My Patron Saints

Monday, March 8th, 2010

So, yesterday was my birthday.  And that got me thinking about my patron saints.

If you’re like me, you have lots of favorite saints, and lots of saints who you think are looking out for you and helping you.  That’s one of the best things about being Catholic — a regular, daily awareness of the communion of saints. And also, if you’re like me, you had the good fortune to be born on a day on which the Church honors the memory of particular saints.

I’m old enough to have been born when the old Roman Calendar was still in effect.  As a result, I was born on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.  I have received many graces through his intercession, including a keen interest in theology and my middle name.  Thomas led a fascinating life, and he wrote so beautifully and deeply on all aspects of the faith that he has been a great gift to my faith.  I am particularly mindful of one of his final thoughts, after having some kind of mystical experience.  He ceased work on a project, and upon being asked by his secretary why he didn’t finish the work, replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”  That’s a good reminder that nothing that we could do in this life could ever stand comparison to the glory of God.  As St. Paul said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:7-8)

When they reformed the Roman Calendar in the Sixties, they decided to move Thomas’ feast to January 28.  Oddly enough, they chose the day that they “translated his relics” — that is, the day they dug up his body and moved it from one resting place to another.

Although I still have some hard feelings about them taking Thomas from me, I have to say that I lucked out again when the Church restored the ancient feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to their proper day.

If you aren’t familiar with Saints Perpetua and Felicity, you should immediately drop all that you are doing and correct this.  Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman, and her slave Felicity, were martyred in 203 A.D., in Carthage.  Perpetua was nursing her baby when arrested, and Felicity was pregnant. Perpetua’s child was taken from her by her family, but Felicity gave birth while imprisoned and the child was adopted by a Christian family.  Perpetua wrote an account of their ordeals in prison with other Christians — one of the earliest written records by a Christian woman.  The story of their witness to Christ is vivid and moving, and should be required reading for all Christians who want a glimpse into the heroism of our ancestors in faith.

The night before their martyrdom, after having celebrated a “love feast” (the ancient name for the Mass) with her fellow prisoners, Perpetua had a dream about being led to the arena by one of the men who had already been martyred, who beckoned her to come and join them.  In the arena, she was beset by a mighty enemy, but vanquished him and was called to enter the Gate of Life.  Realizing the significance of this dream, she wrote, “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory”.

The next day, March 7, Perpetua, Felicity and their companions were taken to the arena, whipped, attacked by wild beasts and slain by gladiators.  They have been honored ever since.  As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”.

I certainly do not consider myself to be in the intellectual ballpark of Thomas, or anywhere near as courageous as Perpetua and Felicity.  But I feel very close to them, as if they were my friends, but just separated from me for a short time.  Perhaps one day, if their prayers for me are heard, I will meet them, and I can thank them for their help and friendship.

Viva Cristo Rey!

Monday, October 26th, 2009

So many times, what appears at first glance to be a coincidence turns out to be something quite different.  How often, for example, do you find that the Scripture readings at Mass, which were selected decades ago according to a complex schedule, apply directly and decisively to a situation that you are facing that very day?

The same thing just happened on Sunday with our liturgical calendar.

In the traditional calendar, which is still operative for those who observe the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, yesterday was the Feast of Christ the King.  Under the new calendar, it was the feast of the English Martyrs, which we didn’t celebrate this year because it fell on Sunday. 

To me, this is no coincidence, but the work of the Holy Spirit, who is trying to remind us of something very important.  Think of it.  Here we are, in the midst of a highly charged political season.  Election Day is around the corner.  The health care reform bill — with its requirements for abortion coverage and taxpayer funding for elective abortions — is nearing its final stages of preparation.  The Governor of New York is again talking about pushing the bill to re-define marriage from its immemorial meaning, so that it would include same-sex couples.  For many of us, we put so much stock in the political order, and we follow politics as if it were everything to us.

But the fortuitous confluence of the calendars reminds us of something different.  The real ruler of the world and our lives is not the temporary office holder who happens to inhabit the White House, the Speaker’s chair, or any other position of secular power.  The real ruler of our world is Christ the King, and we are his subjects. 

This lesson wasn’t necessary for St. Margaret Clitherow, who was one of the English Martyrs, whose feast day was yesterday.  St. Margaret was an ordinary married woman of York, England, who was condemned to death for hiding priests during the Elizabethan persecution of the Church.  She was offered opportunities to recant her crime, but she refused, and was judicially murdered by being pressed to death between heavy stones.  (For more on her story, see here)

St. Margaret never faltered during her agony.  Instead, her last words were a plea for clemency, not to the rulers of this world, but to her real King — “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me”.

Nor would this lesson have been needed by Blessed Miguel Pro.  Blessed Miguel (who was a brother Knight of Columbus!) was one of the priests who went into hiding in Mexico during its government’s war against the Church in the early 20th Century.  He ministered to the people, celebrating the Sacraments, all the while being hunted by the authorities.  When they finally caught him, they condemned him without trial and put him up against the wall to be executed.  Bizarrely, they took photos of his entire execution, with the intent of using them as propaganda against the Church.  Instead, they captured one of the most heroic martyrdoms ever.  (You can see the full story here, but be prepared for graphic pictures).

Blessed Miguel held out his arms in the form of the Cross, and as the soldiers murdered him he gave out the immortal cry, “Viva Cristo Rey!” — “Long Live Christ the King!” 

One of the temptations of our day is the same as that offered by the Evil One to Christ — an obsession with, and even the worship of powerful people and of power itself.  Thanks to our Roman calendar, both traditional and modern, and the example of some great saints, we’ve been reminded of the antidote to this perennial sin — remembering who our real King is. 

Viva Cristo Rey!

The Politics of Principle

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

In the mind of most people, “politics” is the struggle of candidates, political parties, and their supporters to gain power and influence in the government. That is certainly true up to a point, and it makes for interesting entertainment.

I write a good deal about politics on this blog and elsewhere, and I’m frequently percieved as being “political” in that sense — of being”partisan”. That completely misses the point.

There is a deeper, more significant nature of politics. It is the way we order our society together, so that we can live according to our vocations and be happy, and ultimately attain eternal life. In this understanding of politics, the partisan theater is an important reality, but it is not the main focus. What really matters is principle.

Without principles, politics becomes mere pragmatism, where the question is whether something “works”, or, in the less elevated version of the game, what’s in it for me. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pragmatism is important — we want our government to be effective. But again, principle is more important.

I received much of my tutelage in the real world of politics from a man who devoted his life to being a practitioner of the politics of principle. I learned that it was fine to be keenly interested in the partisan scrum, but only to the extent that it advanced the principles we hold dear — defense of human life, protection of marriage, family and children, and religious liberty. The promotion of those principles is more important than party label, and the idea is to support — or oppose — politicians based on their fidelity to those principles, not based on what party label they happened to be wearing this week.

That’s how I try to practice politics, in my small and limited way. I have opinions and judgments about many pragmatic issues, and what kinds of national security, economic and other policies would “work” better than others. But none of those pragmatic issues matter at all, compared to the core principles.

Here’s how it works for me. If a politician doesn’t protect human life, I don’t care what his position is on other issues. If he can’t understand that human life is sacred and must be protected at all stages, I have no reason to trust his judgment about any other issue. And, very frankly, anyone who does not understand that basic principle is not, in my opinion, fit to hold public office.

The same holds for the other core issues. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

This means that I am perpetually dissatisfied with our political process and our politicians. But that’s fine with me. They are all temporary office holders anyway, here today and gone tomorrow, and their platforms are passing fancies that nobody will remember in a short time. The principles, however, remain perpetually valid.

Listen, Our Lord made a very simple request of us. He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, be a Republican or a Democrat, a Socialist or a Whig. He demands that I be his follower. So I need to look to the Lord for my principles, and in this age that means I have to listen to the Church. That’s what Our Lord wants me to do — after all, he said to his apostles “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). We happen to have in our midst the successors of those apostles — the Holy Father, our bishops, and my bishop in particular. As a Catholic I must listen to them, and get my political principles from them, not from Fox News, CNN, talking heads of the left or the right, the editorial page of the Times, or either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This, to me, is the way to live as a disciple of Christ in this crazy political process. I realize that this will be considered odd by many, and even dangerous by some.

But we hardly need more party loyalists at this, or any other, time. And we certainly need more practitioners of the politics of principle.

(This is dedicated to the memory of Jack Swan, who entered eternal life on this date, February 2, 1998, and whom God sent into my life to teach me this lesson. I’m a pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant. Jack, please pray for me, that I get the lesson right.)

The Passing of a Great Priest

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Another great figure has left this world to enter eternal life — Msgr. William Smith, the professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary. He will be greatly missed.

Msgr. Smith was a great priest. He spent decade teaching all and sundry, from the seminarians at Dunwoodie to the Sisters of Life and the Missionaries of Charity, and countless lay men and women who attended his classes and lectures. He travelled all over the United States and abroad to give lectures, and was a very popular speaker due to his intelligence, clarity and wit. He ably and joyfully defended the teachings of the Church in season and out of season, not seeking to substitute his own wisdom for the authentic doctrines of our faith, but seeking to explain them clearly so that people could embrace them.

Here is my personal favorite thing about Msgr. Smith. Every month for at least fifteen years, he would speak to the engaged couples who came to Dunwoodie for their Pre-Cana workshop. If you don’t do this kind of thing yourself, you have no idea how difficult it is, especially to do it for so long. So many of the couples are not well formed in the faith, and many of them are not living in keeping with that teaching. The easy path is to run up the white flag of defeat, and water down the Church’s teaching on the hard issues — chastity and contraception in particular — to make it more popular in the audience.

Msgr. Smith never did such a thing. He spoke clearly, plainly and humbly about the will of God for married couples. He was funny and unpretentious. He also offered Mass for the couples and heard their Confessions. They loved him. Consistently, the evaluations at the end of the day said that they thought Msgr. Smith’s talk was the best part of the day. What those evaluations were trying to say, I think, was that the couples loved having a man of God come to them, and tell them about the desire of God that they will be happy and good people. He showed them the face of Christ, along with a dose of wit.

Humble, pious, and dedicated, Msgr. William Smith poured himself out like a libation for Christ. In his funeral instructions, he asked his homilist to please mention the Memorare. In a touching gesture, we all prayed that wonderful prayer together. Could you perhaps take a moment and do the same, in memory of this great priest, and in supplication that Our Lady and Our Lord may raise up more priests like him?

History and Witnesses

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Today is a historic day in American history. Our first African-American President has been inaugurated, and holds the highest office under our Constitution. Washington was filled with over a million people who wished to witness this great event.

At noon today, as prescribed in the 20th Amendment of the Constitution, the Oath of Office was administered, and the peaceful transition of authority was seamlessly completed. Every time this happens, we Americans should be in awe of the majesty of our constitutional system, and the commitment of our nation to the rule of law.

I missed the big event, because there was an even more important event taking place that I had to attend. It really wasn’t that difficult choice to make. The regular 12:10 Mass was about to begin, and I didn’t want to be late (as I all too often am). I wanted to witness the King of Kings arrive, and to receive Him into my life. Now that’s an awe-inspiring event.

And, as so often happens, the Church in her wisdom threw a small lesson my way today. Frequently, these lessons come the way the Lord came to Elijah, in the small whispering sound that is all too easily missed in the fretting and busyness of everyday life.

Today is the feast day of two martyrs of the early Church, Fabian and Sebastian. They too were witnesses of great events — in their case, to the persecution of the Church by the Roman authorities. They gave the ultimate witness — that is what the word “martyr” actually means in Greek — by sacrificing their lives for the Lord.

The opening prayer struck home to me today, on a day when all eyes were directed to the seat of political power in our nation, and indeed in our world. Here’s what it said:

Lord, fill us with that spirit of courage which gave your martyr Sebastian strength to offer his life in faithful witness. Help us to learn from him to cherish your law and to obey you rather than men.

We do indeed need to be reminded of the priorities of life. Yes, today is an important day in the history of our nation. But every day, we should pray to our Lord that we may be His witnesses, and that we may “cherish your law and to obey you rather than men”. He is, after all, the real ruler of the world, both now and forever, not the men whose time on the stage passes so quickly into history.

Another Giant Passes on to God

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Today, when the mail arrived in my office, I received my monthly copy of First Things. The experience of reading that fine magazine, usually greatly enjoyed, will never be the same now that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has entered into eternal life.

I did not know Fr. Neuhaus personally. I met him at a few social occasions, and I doubt that he would have known me if I fell on him from the sky. But like many Catholics who have tried to integrate their faith into the political realm, I have felt his influence, and admired his example.

Every month, I eagerly devoured his print blog, “The Public Square”. His books, The Naked Public Square, The Catholic Moment, and Catholic Matters have done a great deal to shape my own theological and political perspective. The symposium he organized, The End of Democracy?, marks an important moment in American conservative political and legal thought.

He was one of the few men whose thought always required some response — at least respectful (or not so respectful) disagreement. He was a public intellectual whose writings were not just for himself and his circle of admirers, but who really made a difference in our nation’s civic discussion.

He was also a loyal son of the Church, who loved Her dearly, who loved to come to Christ through Her. He certainly rubbed many in the Church the wrong way at times — particularly bishops who felt the sting of his pen during the Scandal. But his love for the Bride of Christ was never in doubt.

In many, many ways Fr. Neuhaus was fortunate. He had a long life, full of productive work and many good friends. In his final Gethsemane, he was surrounded by family and loved ones. He was not alone in that last trial, but a number of people, including some religious sisters, stayed awake with him and his last hours in this world were filled with the Divine Office and the Rosary. The prayers of many were answered, and he had a good death.

So, Fr. Neuhaus has gone to God for judgment, and we must carry on the struggle without him.

But, we too are fortunate, for we can have good grounds for hope that he is resting now in the bosom of Our Lord, praying for us.