Monday, December 28, 2009

The Holy Family

Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I celebrated Mass and preached at a local Milwaukee convent and the following is the gist of what I said.

St. Luke is the only gospel-writer to tell a story that occurs during the period of time from when Jesus was born to His baptism in the Jordan River when He was about 33. I wonder about that. Why was it so important for Luke to include this story? I think he did so in order to encourage and console families.

The Holy Family consisted of a sinless mother, a near-perfect foster father, and the sinless Son of God. A perfect family, and yet, they had their problems and misunderstandings as we read in Luke 2: 41-52. This fact should be a consolation to every family.

Yet Luke also challenges us in this story to see the bigger picture. In response to His mother Mary's questions, Jesus explained His behavior this way: "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Jesus challenged Mary to think not only in terms of their physical or blood relationship, but also in terms of the deeper spiritual relationship that Jesus had with His heavenly Father.

We see this same challenge later in Luke's Gospel. In Luke 8: 19-21, when His mother and close relatives were unable to see Jesus because of the crowd, He responded: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it." And in Luke 11: 27-28, when a woman praised Mary saying, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts that at which you nursed," Jesus responded: "Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." In both these cases Jesus teaches that the spiritual relationship is more important than the physical relationships of His family.

We are not physically related to Jesus yet we have a very deep relationship with Him. Through Baptism we've been joined to His Body. Through the Eucharist His Blood flows into our blood, His Body is joined to our body. In Baptism and the Eucharist we are transformed and can truthfully call God our Father, our Abba, just as Jesus did. Jesus is our Blood-Brother.

The challenge is for us to be aware of this in our daily lives, to "see what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God," for "so we are" (1 John 3: 1), and to love one another as the brothers and sisters we are in Christ. This is how Christians today are a contemporary incarnation of the Holy Family.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Our Baby God

I wondered about the title I gave this particular entry. Somehow it didn't seem right. The expression "Divine Child" or "Christ Child" sounded better. Yet, the reality we celebrate today is that God became a tiny, fragile baby. The Divine Word through whom everything was created, became a baby completely dependent upon His earthly parents. He cried, had to be nursed and fed, couldn't roll over on His own, spit out his food, soiled Himself, and in time, talked baby-talk. It sounds almost scandalous to say those things, yet they are part of the truth that God became human and lived our human existence, including the first fragile days, weeks, and months of it. If this is at all scandalous, it's the scandal of the cross. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity began His earthly life on the wood of the manger and died on the wood of the cross. He, the eternal God, could die because He became human, lived as a weak baby and died as a crucified man. This "scandal" is the mystery of love, of what lengths God will go to prove His love for us.

Unfortunately much of our Christmas art makes it hard for us to appreciate this truth of our faith. I have Christmas cards and holy cards that make the newborn infant appear to be a two year old child with wisdom beyond His years, blessing the shepherds and animals and wise men who come to visit Him.

That's why my favorite image of the Baby Jesus is one that a Twin Cities artist, Christopher Santer, painted some years ago. I first saw it when I visited the National Evangelization Teams office in West St. Paul in 2000. In a corridor, on a wall, was a copy of a painting that had Mary raising her newborn infant in the air. And the baby looked like a real baby, with unfocused, startled eyes as though He were asking, "Whoa! Where am I?!" I immediately asked who the artist was and where I could get a copy of this painting. It now hangs in the office of the Apostleship of Prayer--a constant reminder that God loved us so much that He became a baby.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

To Denmark and Back

That title makes it sound as though I took another trip across the Atlantic, but the truth is that I went to Denmark, Wisconsin on Tuesday afternoon and returned yesterday. Denmark is the location of the Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus, a group of nine Discalced Carmelite Sisters. Mother Mary Elizabeth had asked me to lead the community's Advent Penance Service.

I had the blessed opportunity to meet with Mother for about an hour after I arrived and had one of those "God-incidences" or "small world moments." I told Mother that I had just been to Fatima and her face lit up. Before entering the Carmelites, Mother had been part of a religious group of women associated with the World Apostolate of Fatima. She made several trips to Fatima and so we were able to share our experiences of that special place. She told me: "What Lourdes is for the body, Fatima is for the soul." That certainly rings true for me. I continue to reflect on my recent pilgrimage to Fatima and to savor the graces of that visit.

Before celebrating Mass I had another "God-incidence." In the sacristy was a copy of an icon that I have hanging in my room at the Marquette University Jesuit Community. It was given to me by Fr. Mark Kirby a few years ago when I visited with him in Hamden, Connecticut. He had been a Cistercian monk in Rome and is now founding the new Diocesan Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Obviously, I thought, Mother also knows Fr. Mark and she later told me that he is a good friend of their community.

There is a word for these sorts of connections. A friend of mine, Fr. Raymond Gawronski, S.J., who used to teach at Marquette and now works as a spiritual director and professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, calls this "a web of grace." In the Body of Christ we are all connected. But it is also true that within this Body, there are some special connections, like the ones we have in the Apostleship of Prayer and through this blog. It is grace that brings us together.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Fatima Itinerary

The story of Fatima goes back to 1916 when an angel appeared to three children--Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta--in preparation for the Blessed Virgin Mary's appearances. Then in 1917, on the 13th of each month from May to October, except for August, our Lady appeared to the three children in a pasture called the Cova da Iria. In August the children were detained in jail by government officials and Mary appeared to them on the 19th of that month at a place closer to their home--Valinhos. Today a large basilica and plaza have been built at the Cova and a replica of the original chapel (the Capelhina) is in the plaza next to the site of Mary's appearances.

On my recent pilgrimage to Fatima I, and 25 other pilgrims from Wisconsin, the Twin Cities, the Chicago area, and Austin, Texas, flew to Newark and then to Lisbon, Portugal, arriving on December 8. Fatima is about 80 miles north of Lisbon and on the way we stopped in Santarem, site of a Eucharistic miracle that occured in the year 1247. We were able to climb behind the high altar and venerate at closehand the miracle of a Host that turned to flesh and blood.

Our hotel in Fatima was located just outside the grounds of the shrine, a place filled with an atmosphere of peace. I celebrated Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception at the main altar in the basilica and afterwards we visited the tombs of the three children, located just outside the sanctuary.

At mid-morning the next day, I celebrated Mass in the Capelhina, at an altar right next to a statue of Our Lady of Fatima which marks the spot where Mary appeared. Afterwards, we toured the large complex of shrine buildings which include a perpetual Eucharistic adoration chapel and reconciliation rooms. In the afternoon a Sister from the Philippines took us through an exhibit entitled "Fatima, Light and Peace" where we watched a video and saw the various offerings that people have left in honor of our Lady, including the crown which contains the bullet from the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II. At 5 PM I gave the first of three talks for our pilgrimage.

On December 10, after Mass in the Capelhina, we went to Valinhos, the site of the August 19 apparition as well as two of the three appearances of the angel. A short distance away is a village called Aljustrel where we visited the home of Jacinta and Francisco and the home of their cousin Lucia where the angel appeared at the family's well. We also visited the church where the children were baptized and where Francisco visited "the Hidden Jesus" in a wood tabernacle that is still in use. In the late afternoon I gave my second talk which focused on the story of Fatima from 1916 to the present.

Between the Cova and Valinhos there have been erected Stations of the Cross. On the next morning we walked and prayed the Stations which were given by Hungarian Catholics from around the world who had fled their homeland during the post-World War II period of Communist oppression. The Stations end at a beautiful chapel which they also financed. In the afternoon we celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Mass in a new part of the shrine located under the plaza and in front of another large church built to accomodate close to 15,000 people. I gave my third and final talk afterwards.

On December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass in the Capelhina as the sun rose. After breakfast we boarded our bus and drove to Batalha, where there is an impressive 14th Century church. We then drove to Nazare, a coastal town where one of the oldest known statues of the Madonna and Child is venerated. Many explorers and missionaries, including St. Francis Xavier, paid homage to our Lady here before embarking on their perilous journeys. Though the beach was deserted, I took off my shoes and socks and put my feet in the Atlantic Ocean which was warmer than I'd expected, warmer than Lake Michigan this time of year.

Finally, on Sunday, December 13, we celebrated Mass in the Holy Family Chapel, one of the many chapels in the shrine, and afterwards we burned all the many prayer petitions that we had carried with us to Fatima. We drove to Lisbon where we visited an old defense tower built on the Tagus River, a monument to the Navigators and Explorers, Jeronimos monastery, the Cathedral, and the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua. We ate lunch in central Lisbon at a sidewalk cafe on a sunny day on which the temperatures were in the 60's.

On December 14 we chased the sun across the Atlantic and arrived in Newark and then in Chicago, giving thanks for a safe journey filled with blessings.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Back from Fatima

I returned late last night from my pilgrimage to Fatima. It was a very blessed time and I plan on writing about the experience over the next week or so. My favorite place was in the beautiful basilica where the three seers of Fatima are buried. Blessed Jacinta and her cousin Lucia (who died in 2005) are buried on the left side of the sanctuary and Blessed Francisco is buried on the right. Above Francisco's tomb there is a statue of him on the wall. He is sitting in a tree with a lamb on his lap and birds all around him. The birds are even on the outer edges of the slab of rock that frames the statue and on the tomb itself. Why?

There is a story told that one day Francisco ran into another boy who had captured a little bird. Francisco begged him to let it go but the boy refused. Francisco offered to pay him to release the bird and ran all the way home and back to get the "ransom money." When the other boy released the bird Francisco called after it, "Now be careful and don't get caught again!"

Like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, this saintly boy loved God's creatures and didn't want to see any of them hurt. And so the birds surround his statue and his tomb.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pilgrimage to Fatima

In an hour I will be picked up by Juan Landa, director of Mater Dei Tours, and we will go to O'Hare airport in Chicago where we will catch a flight for Newark and then one for Lisbon, Portugal. I am on my way to Fatima!

Juan and I worked together in the summer of 2006 when I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Juan takes care of all the details and I serve as chaplain for the group. About two dozen of us are going to Fatima today.

I am very much looking forward to this pilgrimage. I don't know if I'll be able to blog while I am there, but you can follow our itinerary at the Mater Dei web site. I am carrying the Apostleship of Prayer and all its members, supporters, promoters, and benefactors in my heart and will be lifting everyone up to our Mother.

As I reflect on this pilgrimage, I think about the connection between the message of Fatima and the Apostleship of Prayer. Three words come to mind: prayer, sacrifice, reparation. When she appeared in Fatima in 1917, these are the things that the Blessed Virgin Mary invited the world to undertake more fervently. She assured us that prayer does make a difference and that sacrifices make prayer even more powerful. Finally, since sin has done so much damage to the world, she invited us to do what Jesus did: to make reparation or repair the damage that sin has caused. These three--prayer, sacrifice, and reparation--are certainly part of the program of the Apostleship of Prayer. I am looking forward to reflecting on this some more in Fatima.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

Today, the feast of St. Francis Xavier, is the 165th anniversary of the founding of the Apostleship of Prayer. It wasn't formal foundation. The first members didn't gather on this day and decide to create a new organization. A Jesuit spiritual director simply gathered the seminarians under his care and challenged them to be "apostles of prayer" who offered every task and frustration, in fact every moment of their day, for the work of evangelization. Doing this, their routines and difficulties, which seemed so unrelated to the great work of spreading the Gospel, could have great meaning. They didn't draw up by-laws or elect officers. Theirs was a very simple and informal group with a very noble purpose. And so it has been ever since.

In 1985 Pope John Paul II met with national secretaries or directors of the Apostleship of Prayer and reminded them of both the simplicity and the importance this group.

He quoted Pope Pius XII who in 1956 said that the Apostleship of Prayer isn't one Church organization competing with others for the time and attention of the faithful. It doesn't promote a spirituality or devotion that takes time away from others. Rather, it's meant to be a spirit that pervades the entire Church. Pope Pius XII said that he hoped that "the Apostleship of Prayer [would] be so united to the other pious Associations that it penetrates them like a breath of fresh air through which supernatural life and apostolic activity are ever renewed and strengthened."

Why did Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II think the Apostleship of Prayer was so important that everyone should be a part of it? Because it's a Eucharistic way of living that doesn't add to what one is already doing but rather provides an awareness in the middle of all one's activities. Here's how Pope John Paul II put it in his address to the national secrectaries in 1985:

"The Apostleship of Prayer--which I have known and appreciated for many years--wants to highlight the apostolic value of prayer in the Church. ... By instilling the spirituality of 'offering' in union with Christ's oblation in the Mass, the Apostleship of Prayer is right in the line of Conciliar thinking which presents the Eucharistic sacrifice as the foundation, center and culmination of all Christian life.... The Apostleship of Prayer can bring a meaningful and concrete contribution to the diffusion, at all levels, of the great and consoling truth that all Christians can be intimately united to Christ the Redeemer by offering their own life to the Heart of Christ."

So, what constitutes membership in the Apostleship of Prayer? It's as simple as committing oneself to making a daily offering with one of the many proposed prayers or in one's own words.
With this daily offering one joins millions of people around the world who are making their own offerings and joining in a great prayer network that includes prayer for the intentions of all the other Apostles of Prayer as well as for the Holy Father's monthly intentions.

On this anniversary I am filled with gratitude for the mission I have received to be the national secretary or director of the Apostleship of Prayer in the United States. As I talk and teach about living the Eucharist with the help of the Apostleship of Prayer, I can't help being inspired to more consciously do so myself, one day at a time.