Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Spirit of Jeanne Jugan

I'm finishing my retreat with the Little Sisters of the Poor whose foundress was canonized in 2009. St. Jeanne Jugan, also known as Sister Mary of the Cross, was born in France in 1792. We celebrated her birthday yesterday with special prayers at Mass and a birthday cake for dinner. Her spirituality includes the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart devotion of St. John Eudes whose congregation for lay women--the Third Order of the Admirable Mother--she joined. She was also deeply influenced by the Brothers of St. John of God who cared for the sick and took a vow of hospitality in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. After caring for a homeless elderly woman, even going so far as to giving up her own bed, she was joined by others who wanted to help and by 1847 they had started four houses for the elderly poor. By 1851 there were 300 Sisters serving more than 1,500 people in 15 houses. Blessed Pius IX approved them as a religious congregation in 1854. Today the Little Sisters of the Poor keep the spirit of their foundress alive in 32 countries on 5 continents.

When the canonization of Jeanne Jugan was announced, Francis Cardinal George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "As the Church anticipates the canonization of Jeanne Jugan ... we might recall the words of Pope John Paul II at her beatification: 'God could glorify no more humble a servant than she!' The quiet but eloquent radiance of her life continues to shine out in the lives of the Little Sisters of the Poor today.... These residences are icons of mercy where Christ is welcomed and served in the elderly poor with the utmost respect for their dignity."

Last Sunday, Saints John and Paul Parish in Larchmont, NY blessed an icon of St. Jeanne Jugan and began a new ministry called "Family Jeanne Jugan." I've always thought that our local parishes should be places where people care for one another's needs. When people find themselves in need the first place that they should think of looking for help should be their parish. This would give tremendous witness to the world: "See how they love one another." Taking their inspiration from St. Jeanne Jugan, who gave up her own room and bed to help a poor woman, this Larchmont parish has committed itself in the following way:

"We will identify the elderly among us who are most in need. These individuals will then be matched with three volunteer families who will coordinate assisting with doctor visits, weekly errands and attendance at Mass, or Communion in the home. Together, these families and seniors will form a small community rooted in Trinitarian Love."

May this new initiative bear good fruit and inspire many others to follow the example of this parish and the Little Sisters as they reverence the dignity of people whom society at large is increasingly viewing as burdens.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Apostle of Prayer Canonized

Blessed Luigi Guanella is being canonized in Rome today. When he was a seminarian he enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer which he saw as the perfect way to live out his devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Mass readings for today, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are perfect for this great event. In the Gospel (Matthew 22: 34-40), Jesus gives the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord, your God, will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus tells us to love as God has loved us--completely. God has not only given us everything--our life and health, our talents and gifts--he has also given us his very self in giving us his Son Jesus who shared our life with its joys and sorrows. Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, offering everything for our salvation. This offering becomes present in every celebration of Mass where Jesus gives us everything of himself--his body and blood, soul and divinity, and his heart. Knowing this, our response is to love as God has loved us--totally, loving with our heart, soul, and mind, with our entire self.

Loving God so totally means that we will love what God loves. And what God loves is humanity, all his children, our brothers and sisters. Having received the heart of Jesus in Holy Communion, our hearts are moved as the heart of Jesus was moved when he saw those in need.

Matthew's Gospel speaks of the heart of Jesus being moved several times:

Matthew 9: 36 "At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd."

Matthew 14: 14 "When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick."

Matthew 15: 32 "Jesus summoned his disciples and said, 'My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way.'"

As the heart of Jesus was moved with pity for the crowds of people--poor, hungry, abandoned, troubled, disabled--so was the heart of Fr. Luigi Guanella. That makes sense. Totally in love with God, he shared God's love for those who were most abandoned by their families and society. The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence and the Servants of Charity now carry on Fr. Guanella's work.

Congratulations to them on the occasion of their founder's canonization! The Apostleship of Prayer shares the joy that one of its own has attained this glory. The recognition of Fr. Luigi's holiness and his powerful intercession inspires us to follow his example.

For more about St. Luigi Guanella, see this earlier post.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Fire of God

In today's Gospel (Luke 12: 49-53) Jesus, the Prince of Peace, says he has come not to bring peace but division. How are we to understand this paradox? In light of what Jesus said right before this: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!"

When God appeared to Moses (Exodus 3: 1-10) it was as fire, in the form of a bush that was on fire but not consumed. Yet, the fire of God does consume. According to Hebrews 12: 29, "our God is a consuming fire." What does God consume? Sin. All that is not worthy of him. All that is not holy. The fire of God is a consuming and purifying fire. We see this as well in 1 Corinthians 3: 10-17. Paul declares that we must build our lives on the one foundation--Jesus Christ. But the "stuff" of our lives, the materials with which we make our lives, have different qualities. Some of what we make of our lives is lasting and some of it is not worthy of God. At the end of our lives the fire of God's love will reveal what we've made of our lives and will purify them. As Paul puts it: "It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one's work. ... But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire."

This is the fire Jesus came to cast on the earth--the fire of God's love. It is a fiery love that, in the words of Peter Kreeft, philosophy professor and popular author, "forgives sinners and destroys sins." For this reason, it is a love that divides, separating sinners from their sins and those who cling to their sins from those who seek to rid themselves of sin and seek God's mercy.

Ultimately, this fire is the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Thief

I've heard that the earliest known image of Jesus depicts him as the Good Shepherd. Today's Gospel (Luke 12: 39-48) gives a very different image of Jesus. After warning his disciples that "if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into," he goes on to talk about the Son of Man coming "at an hour you do not expect." Like many of the parables which are designed to startle us into deeper reflection, so this comparison which Jesus makes is shocking.

Yet many people do think of God as a thief. There is a tendency to think of our lives as our own, not God's. Our gifts and talents and hard-earned possessions are our own, not God's. We see death as God stealing what is rightfully ours. The reality is that everything we are and have belongs to God. This was the meaning of last Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-21). Jesus says to give the Roman coin back to the one whose image is on it and to give "to God what belongs to God." We who are made in the image and likeness of God and bear that image belong to God, not ourselves.

Our lives are a series of exercises in letting go. We practice surrender, preparing for the ultimate surrender when God will ask of us our very lives. Our practice of making a daily offering can help us. What also helps is the example of saints, like the North American Jesuit Martyrs whom we honor today, or St. Jeanne Jugan.

I'm giving a retreat to 17 Little Sisters of the Poor at their retreat house and summer vacation facility for seniors in Flemington, NJ. St. Jeanne Jugan, their foundress, was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009. When Blessed John Paul II beatified her in 1982, he said: "Jeanne invites all of us, and I quote here from the Rule of the Little Sisters, to share personally in the beatitude of spiritual poverty, leading to that complete dispossession which commits a soul to God."

"Complete dispossession." This is not something we like to hear. In our "super-sizing" age where "more is better", St. Jeanne Jugan, like the Gospel, is counter-cultural. We tend to fool ourselves, thinking that we are in control. The reality is that God is God and we are not. We are God's creatures and beloved children. We and all we have belong to God.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Autumn Thoughts

The weather in Milwaukee has been spectacular the past week, with sunny days and temperatures in the 70’s. Yesterday I had the chance to get out and enjoy the beauty of Autumn. I’m always thrilled to see the colors of the leaves made even more brilliant by the sun and silhouetted against a clear and deep blue sky.

There’s a paradox in all this. What makes us appreciate the beauty of these days is that it won’t last. The splendor these days is passing as Winter lurks around the corner.

You have to wonder: would we appreciate the beauty of an Autumn day if every day were sunny and every tree painted in these brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds? I don’t think so.

There’s a song by Warren Barfield, a contemporary Christian artist, which captures this truth. It’s called “Beautiful Broken World” and it begins with this verse:

Wonderfully arrayed on a bright autumn day
The leaves set the trees ablaze
I’m sitting here beneath
This decaying canopy
Sunlight sifting through the shade
It won’t be long
Until they’re gone away
That’s the price we pay

Then the chorus goes like this:

In this beautiful broken world
We laugh and then we cry
There’s a wonderful pain and joy
In death and in life

What makes life and its beauties so precious and something to be valued is the fact that it isn’t forever. As the bridge of the song goes:

Would the day still be as sweet
If it had no end

And the answer is “no.” It wouldn’t. Life in this “beautiful broken world” is precious and sweet because it doesn’t last forever.

As the trees let go of their leaves, so each one of us, in different ways and at different times, must let go of one thing or person after another until finally we let go of life itself.

We let go in order to be given more than we could hope for or imagine. In heaven we won’t have to let go and yet it won’t be boring. There, we believe, everything is more beautiful that the most beautiful Autumn day. Though it will be eternal, Heaven won’t be boring because it will be eternal not as a succession of one day after another, each one just like the last; rather the eternity of heaven will be an eternal “now,” a moment that lasts forever. We can’t imagine that because we time-bound creatures cannot conceive of life outside of time. The closest we can come is to savor the present moment—the “bright autumn day” with “the trees ablaze”—and remember… this is an hors d’oeuvre of the Heaven Banquet.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

No Limits to God's Mercy

Today is the feast day of St. Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. When Jesus appeared to her in the 1930's, he told her that his greatest attribute was mercy. His mercy, like his love, is infinite. The only limit to it is the one we place on it. In other words, God is always ready to forgive and even sends graces to move our hearts to return to him. We limit God's mercy in our own lives and in those of others by our refusal to receive mercy and to give mercy.

The Mass readings today underscore this. The Prophet Jonah is angry that God has forgiven his enemies after he fulfilled God's command to warn them that their sins were leading them to destruction. God shows Jonah that he wants to forgive and not destroy, that he is "concerned" over the more than 120,000 people "who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left." In other words: people who were never taught right from wrong, or who were taught it but really did not understand. They were like those who crucified Jesus and for whom he prayed: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."

In the Gospel (Luke 11: 1-4) Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, calling upon God as Jesus himself did: "Father". God is the one Father whose human children made in his own image and likeness must forgive one another as their Father forgives them.

Jesus directed St. Faustina to write a diary that contained her thoughts, prayers, and the words of Jesus to her. In one passage (#723) Jesus said: "The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy." "Right"? That's not a word we would think of in this context, but Jesus declares that because he came to forgive sinners, they are the ones who have the most claim on his mercy.

Another passage (#1183) is a prayer that St. Faustina wrote. It sounds very much like the "one day at a time" spirituality of the Morning Offering:

"O Jesus, I want to live in the present moment, to live as if this were the last day of my life. I want to use every moment scrupulously for the greater glory of God, to use every circumstance for the benefit of my soul. I want to look upon everything, from the point of view that nothing happens without the will of God."

In another passage (#1582) St. Faustina sounds just like St. Therese of the Child Jesus who said that she would spend her heaven doing good on earth. St. Faustina felt that she would be so filled with God's love and mercy in heaven that she would be an even better channel for God's overflowing mercy to reach the world. She wrote:

"O my Jesus, I now embrace the whole world and ask You for mercy for it. ... Poor earth, I will not forget you. Although I feel that I will be immediately drowned in God as in an ocean of happiness, that will not be an obstacle to my returning to earth to encourage souls and incite them to trust in God's mercy. Indeed, this immersion in God will give me the possibility of boundless action."

Thus, St. Faustina is a great friend and intercessor. May we all become channels and instruments of God's mercy as well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Becoming Little

Today's the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, the co-patron of the Apostleship of Prayer. As Providence would have it, the Gospel for Saturday of the 26th Week in Ordinary Time (Luke 10: 17-24) is perfect for this saint.

72 of Jesus' disciples have just returned from a mission trip. They're filled with joy and tell Jesus: "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name." Jesus shares their joy but then cautions them that they should not be so thrilled in the power they have nor in their accomplishments and success in ministry. He says: "Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven." He tells them to find their security not in what they do but in who they are. They are to exalt not because they have accomplished great things (that can feed their pride) but because they are children of the Father. This is where their identity is to be grounded, not in anything external.

Then Jesus goes on to pray: "I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike." This is Therese who never went to college and who lived, from the age of 15 until her death at 24, in a cloistered Carmelite convent. In 1997 Blessed John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church. Clearly her wisdom came not from books (except for the Scriptures) and classes but from God who reveals heavenly things to the childlike.

When Therese looked at the great saints--ascetics and apostles, martyrs and theologians--she did not see herself among them. She felt that she could not follow their way to perfection. So God inspired in her a new way. She wrote: "I wish to find the way to go to heaven by a very straight, short, completely new little way." Then, reflecting on all the new inventions of the 19th Century, she decided to seek an elevator that could take her to heaven. She wrote: "I too would like to find an elevator to lift me up to Jesus, for I am too little to climb the rough stairway of perfection." What could serve as her elevator to Jesus? His own arms: "The elevator which must raise me to the heavens is your arms, O Jesus! For that I do not need to grow; on the contrary, I must necessarily remain small, become smaller."

Centuries earlier another saint, the cousin of Jesus, put it another way: "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3: 30). This goes absolutely against the grain of a world that wants to "super-size" everything, including the human ego. St. Therese reminds us that smaller is better.