Monday, November 26, 2012

Caritas for Children

I had one of those "coincidences" that is really a "God-incident" today. 

The Second Reading in the Divine Office today was from a sermon of St. Leo the Great, one of my favorite contributors to the Church's prayer book.  Here are some excerpts that particularly:

"What the Lord says is very true: Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. What is a man's treasure but the heaping up of profits and the fruit of his toil. For whatever a man sows this too will he reap.... Now there are many kinds of wealth and a variety of grounds for rejoicing; every man's treasure is that which he desires. If it is based on earthly ambitions, its acquisition makes men not blessed but wretched. 

"But those who enjoy the things that are above and eternal rather than earthly and perishable, possess an incorruptible, hidden store of which the prophet speaks: Our treasure and salvation have come, wisdom and instruction and piety from the Lord: these are the treasures of justice. Through these, with the help of God's grace, even earthly possessions are transformed into heavenly blessings; it is a fact that many people use the wealth which is either rightfully left to them or otherwise acquired, as a tool of devotion.  By distributing what might be superfluous to support the poor, they are amassing imperishable riches, so that what they have discreetly given cannot be subject to loss.  They have properly placed those riches where their heart is; it is a most blessed thing to work to increase such riches rather than to fear that they may pass away."

In other words, true wealth is in heaven.  We cannot take material possessions with us when we die, but we can take all that we have given away to those in need.  In that way, wealth becomes, in the words of St. Leo, "a tool of devotion."  It is a means by which we show our love for God by loving the neighbor in need with whom Christ identified himself (see Matthew 25). 

After this morning prayer I had breakfast with Christopher Hoar, the president of Caritas for Children, an organization that helps children in poor countries by lining up benefactors who support their education.  But in giving to these children, the benefactors receive so much more.  Their material contributions become eternal wealth. They also come to realize that they are doing their part in the Church's work of evangelization.  My breakfast meeting was a confirmation of St. Leo's words that I'd read when I prayed .

Further confirmation came at Mass when I read today's Gospel--Luke 21:1-4, the story of the Widow's Mite.  Jesus praised the poor widow who gave not from her "surplus wealth" but from her poverty.  In material terms it was less than all the offerings of the wealthy, but in spiritual terms it resembled more closely the offering of Jesus himself.  Jesus held nothing back but gave all.  And so did the poor widow. 

We need prudence and balance when it comes to the use of our resources, but the temptation is to be so careful that we end up trusting in our wealth rather than in God.  Words like today's Gospel and St. Leo's sermon remind us that we need to always ask: Where is my treasure? Where is my heart?

The "God-incidences" of daily life remind us that we have a God who cares and who will use every event of our lives to show that care. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Sacred Heart in the East

In 1995 Blessed Pope John II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Orientale Lumen or The Light of the East. In it he said: "Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ's Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each." Unfortunately many Roman Catholics are not only not "familiar with that tradition" but don't even know that there are over 20 Eastern Catholic Churches, all in union with the Roman Catholic Church.  When they hear "Catholic" they immediately think of "Roman" or the "Latin Rite."  Pope John Paul II knew that in order for the Body of Christ to be healthy it needed to breathe with its two lungs--East and West.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to breathe with the Eastern lung of the Church.  The Apostleship of Prayer group at St. Josaphat's Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Parma, Ohio invited me for a retreat day.  I had the opportunity to affirm their existence and to encourage them to share the heart-centered spirituality of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches.  The Western Church tends to be very rationalistic, focused on the head.  The East has traditionally be focused more on the heart.  Where the Western Church tended to try to understand everything in a rational
 way, the Eastern Church has been more comfortable with mystery.  In the 13th Century, when many in the West began to doubt the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, Christ appeared asking for a feast in honor of His Body and Blood--Corpus Christi.  The Eastern Church, holding fast to tradition and its faith in the Eucharist, didn't need such a feast.  Similarly, in the 17th Century Christ appeared in the West and revealed His Heart, calling for a feast of reparation for the irreverence shown Him in the Blessed Sacrament.  Again, the East did not need such a feast.  In its Liturgy it addressed Jesus in the very intimate words, "Lover of Mankind." 

Eastern Catholics have often been viewed and treated as second-class Catholics.  They were even encouraged and forced in some cases to let go of their venerable traditions and to replace them with practices from the Roman Church.  The question naturally arises, is Sacred Heart devotion such a practice, foreign to the Eastern Church and its spirituality? 

One of the great heroes of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Servant of God Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944), who was the Metropolitan Archbishop of his Church from 1901 until his death in 1944--a very difficult period in Ukrainian history--didn't think so.  At the Archeparchial Synod in Lviv in 1940, he proposed a special decree on the Love of Jesus.  He wrote: "By employing the term 'the Heart of Jesus' as a symbol of all the rich interior life of Christ, we ascribe it all to his love. All this we worship. In that symbol we have an excellent synthesis and a concrete sign of the infinite treasures of Christ's soul and the inexhaustible source of God's priceless gifts to us."

He also wrote about the great spiritual advantages that people would find through this devotion, using words that remind us of the Twelve Promises of the Sacred Heart:  "In the parish where the faithful venerate Christ the Savior under that form, or in that manner, the whole spiritual life begins to flourish, people flock to church, the number of those who receive the Holy Eucharist is increased, vices begin slowly to disappear from among the people, concord and love reign in families, parents come to learn what a treasure children are to them, children learn to respect and love their parents.  With the cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, all things begin to change in the parish--just as when spring arrives, all nature awakens to new life. Hence, it is the unquestionable obligation of every pastor to foster this cult in his family, in other Christian families, and in the whole parish."

For Metropolitan Sheptytsky, devotion to Jesus under the symbol of His Heart, would help deepen the spiritual life of every individual Catholic, every family, and every parish. 

And so, the Archeparchial Synod of Lviv, in a directive dated December 20, 1940, told its priests to read an act of consecration to the Heart of Jesus after the Divine Liturgy every year on the third Sunday following the Descent of the Holy Spirit.  It also approved the Apostleship of Prayer and recommended that it be introduced throughout the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

This is the origin of the Apostleship of Prayer group that meets at the Eparchy of Parma's St. Josaphat's Cathedral.  My weekend of retreat and then the celebration of a feast day dinner with Bishop John Bura and the parish, was an example of how the Heart of Jesus can be the source of unity.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Saints: Witnesses of Faith

Crystal Cathedral on Friday before Magnificat Day of Faith
 On Saturday I had the privilege of participa-ting in the Magnificat Day of Faith event at the Crystal Cathedral in the Orange Diocese of southern California.  Next spring, when this building will be consecrated for Catholic worship and become the new cathedral for the diocese, it will be named Christ Cathedral.  I gave the following homily as part of the Morning Prayer.

Over ten years ago Blessed John Paul II, in his apostolic letter at the end of the Jubilee Year and the beginning of the new millennium, wrote: "The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone the high standard of ordinary Christian living."  He issued a "call for a genuine 'training in holiness'" and said that "this training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer."

Just last month, Pope Benedict, in his homily at the opening of the Synod of Bishops which met to discuss the New Evangelization, said that holiness is "the language of truth and love."

How do we learn to understand and to speak this language?  From those who have spoken it.  From the saints, the witnesses of faith.

When Pope Benedict announced the Year of Faith in his apostolic letter Porta Fidei, "The Door of Faith," he presented the saints to us.  First and foremost he spoke of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model of faith, saying: "By faith, Mary accepted the Angel's word and believed the message that she was to become the Mother of God in obedience of her devotion. Visiting Elizabeth, she raised her hymn of praise [the Magnificat] to the Most High for the marvels he worked in those who trust him."  He went on to say that Mary trusted the dream that her husband St. Joseph received and "took Jesus to Egypt to save him from Herod's persecution."  And, "with the same faith, she followed the Lord in his preaching and remained with him all the way to Golgotha." 

Then the Holy Father presented to us the apostles and the first disciples of the early Church and the martyrs, about whom he said: "By faith, the martyrs gave their lives, bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel that had transformed them and made them capable of attaining to the greatest gift of love: the forgiveness of their persecutors." 

And then he wrote about all the saints of every time and place, saying: "By faith, across the centuries, men and women of all ages, whose names are written in the Book of Life, have confessed the beauty of following the Lord Jesus wherever they were called to bear witness to the fact that they were Christian: in the family, in the workplace, in public life, in the exercise of the charisms and ministries to which they were called."

We too are called to be holy witnesses as they were.  As Pope Benedict wrote: "By faith, we too live: by the living recognition of the Lord Jesus, present in our lives and in our history."

"Living recognition."  This is what St. John wrote about in the reading we have just heard (1 John 1:1-4)--"what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands." We are not able to see and to touch Jesus the way John did, but we can still see and touch him in a deeper way.  We can see him with the eyes of faith.  We can touch him with the eyes of our heart. And Jesus says that we are more blessed in seeing and touching him this way than in the way the apostles did.

Do you remember the scene in the Gospel when Jesus appeared to the apostles and Thomas did not believe until he actually touched the wounds of Jesus?  Do you remember what Jesus said to him?  "Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (John 20:29). We are blessed because, though we have not seen Jesus physically, we have seen and touched him through faith and with our hearts.  Or rather, the Heart of Jesus, which was pierced open on the cross, has reached out to us.  The Sacred Heart of Jesus has seen and touched us and so we have come to believe in the deep love he has for us. 

We believe but we always need to go deeper in our faith.  Our belief in his love for us can grow and deepen.  How? 

Pope Benedict gives us the answer in Porta Fidei: "Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy." 

Faith is a matter of the heart.  Our faith is "an experience of love received," the love of God's Heart which was made flesh in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Through faith our hearts respond to the One who loved us first and loved us totally, even to death.

The saints knew this love.  They believed in it and they lived in union with its source--Jesus.  We have their example and witness to inspire us.  This is why Blessed John Paul II beatified and canonized more people than any previous pope.  He wanted us to have examples of holiness to follow.

But there is more.  We have not only their example and witness to inspire us.  We have their help.

Have you ever been asked, "Why do you Catholics pray to saints?"  The answer is very simple.  People don't think twice about asking others to pray for them when they are faced with a crisis or difficulty. They turn to their family and friends to ask for prayers. This is what we do when we turn to the saints.  Though they are dead they are not dead and gone.  Though they are separated from us physically, in time and space, they are united to us spiritually in the Church, the Communion of Saints.  So it is natural that we ask for their help.

The Letter to the Hebrews 12: 1-2 has a beautiful image of this: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith."  Whenever I read that passage I think of watching the marathon in the Twin Cities. 

For four years I lived at our Jesuit novitiate which was located on the route of the marathon at about mile 21.  Each year, on a Sunday in October, we would watch the runners: the first ones racing by and then over the next few hours the others chugging along, some simply walking.  We would cheer them on and pass water to them, encouraging them to not give up.  That's the image presented in Hebrews.  We are all in a marathon and the saints are on the sidelines cheering us on, encouraging us, and offering us refreshment with their prayers. 

We are part of a great Communion of Saints.  We who are on earth are saints-in-the-making.  Others have finished the race but they aren't resting.  Rather, they pray for us and encourage us.

So don't give up! Have faith! Persevere!  And may we all meet again in the Heavenly Jerusalem which, according to the Book of Revelation 21:11 gleams "with the splendor of God, ... its radiance like that of a precious stone, ... clear as crystal."