Friday, May 31, 2013

Happy Solemnity of the Visitation!

For most of the world, today is the Feast of the Visitation, but here, at the Toledo Visitation Monastery, it's a Solemnity, the highest rank for liturgical celebrations.  Thus besides singing the Gloria at Mass today we also prayed the Creed and at the end of Mass had a special Papal Blessing.  That's because this is the patronal feast of the Visitation Order. 

Writing about the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, Wendy Wright captures well the spirit of the Visitation Sisters.  The following passage from her book Heart Speaks to Heart: The Salesian Tradition speaks of the place that the mystery of the Visitation held for the founders, St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales:

"It was the Virgin, dear to Jane's own heart since childhood, who was the patroness of the fledgling foundation. And it was the biblical image of Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56) that summarized in iconic fashion the spirit of the new congregation. The mystery of the Visitation for Jane and Francis summed up all the Christian mysteries, and as such it was first and foremost a mystery that expressed the dynamics of love. ... Since love wants to be shared, it likes to visit. Indeed, the mystery of the Incarnation, captured in the biblical scene of the Annunciation, was seen as God's 'kiss' to humanity, God's loving union with humankind through Mary, the spouse and lover. ... Having been visited and prompted, Mary in her turn recapitulates this loving dynamic: she hastens to the hill country and the house of her cousin Elizabeth. There, these two pregnant women meet--one older, long barren and now expecting, the other young and ripe with Love's own longing for the world" (pp. 52-3).

Two hallmarks of the spirituality of the Visitation are humility and gentleness.  God visited Mary with humility and gentleness as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. Divine humility and gentleness are seen in how God comes to us: not with an army of angels to force the divine plan of love on the world, but as a tiny baby to attract and invite humanity's loving response.

I've often said that humility is not thinking less of oneself but thinking of oneself less.  It's not putting oneself down but taking the attention off oneself.  We see this in Mary after the Annunciation.  She does not think of herself but of her elderly cousin and so she races to her.  At their meeting, Elizabeth praises Mary as "most blessed ... among women."  Mary accepts this praise, recognizing that "all generations will call me blessed," but then she humbly gives credit where credit is due saying, "the Almighty has done great things for me." True humility is truthful and it involves getting the focus off  oneself and onto God and neighbor. 

Mary carried Jesus to Elizabeth. In doing so she was, as Blessed John Paul II put it, "the first tabernacle in history."   He wrote the following in his last encyclical: "When, at the Visitation, she bore in her womb the Word made flesh, she became in some way a “tabernacle” – the first “tabernacle” in history – in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light as it were through the eyes and the voice of Mary."

Pope John Paul also wrote that Mary's "Fiat" at the Annunciation--"let it be done to me according to your word"--is echoed in the "Amen" spoken when we receive Holy Communion. In the Eucharist we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ into ourselves. He joins Himself to us in an intimate union in which the two become one flesh (see Ephesians 5: 31-2).  In that sense we too, one with the Body of Christ, become tabernacles carrying Christ into the world. We become "monstrances" who radiate His light through our eyes and voices. 

But it takes great humility to do this.  It means, in the words of St. John the Baptist, "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3: 30).  This is the goal of every Christian and the Visitation Sisters embody this ideal in a special way for us.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sacred Heart Novena in Toledo

The first novena or nine day period of prayer took place in the first century (see Acts of the Apostles 1: 4, 13-14). After rising from the dead Jesus told His followers "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for 'the promise of the Father'"--the Holy Spirit.  Then, after Jesus' ascension, "they entered the city" and "went to the upper room where they were staying" and where they "devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus...."  These nine days of prayer culminated in Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Since then novenas of one kind or another have been offered and today the Church begins the Novena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I am privileged to be participating in it at a special place--the Visitation Monastery in Toledo, Ohio.

According to these Visitation Sisters: "Through our Sister, Saint Margaret Mary, we have received the mission to love and make others love the Sacred Heart of Jesus."  One of the ways in which they do this is through the annual celebration of the Novena of the Sacred Heart.

For the next nine days I will celebrate Mass for the Sisters and visitors to their chapel at 7 AM and 7:30 PM.  The novena prayers are recited during the Prayer of the Faithful and after Communion. I'll preach and also celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation after each Mass. 

As the followers of Jesus entered upon the first novena with trust and confidence, so do we enter upon this novena.  "Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in Thee!" 

Today's Gospel (Mark 10: 46-52) is a perfect beginning for our novena.  The blind man Bartimaeus cries out to  Jesus, asking him to "have pity."  The crowd tries to silence him, but he continues to cry out.  Jesus stops and tells them to call the blind man over. They say these most consoling words to Bartimaeus: "Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."  But then, when he comes to Jesus, he is asked a question: "What do you want me to do for you?"  It seems odd that Jesus would ask him that.  Isn't it obvious to anyone with common sense much less to one who, as the first reading from Sirach 42 says, "plumbs the depths and penetrates the heart?" The man is blind and he wants to see. But Jesus, with utmost respect, does not make assumptions about the man's desires. He invites him, and us, to be in touch with the deep desires of our hearts and to put words to those desires.  Only after the man states clearly "I want to see" does Jesus heal him.

And so, as we begin this Novena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we, like Bartimaeus, hear the words of the crowd echo in our own hearts: "Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you."  We hear Jesus ask, "What do you want me to do for you?"  What is it we want Jesus to do for us and our loved ones and our world during this powerful period of prayer?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Our Lady of the Way

While today is the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, and the feast of Our Lady of Sheshan in China, it's also a Marian feast that my community, the Jesuits, celebrate--Our Lady of the Way or Madonna della Strada.  This was the name of the church where, in 1538, St. Ignatius and his first companions began celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, and teaching children when they arrived in Rome.  The pastor of this parish, Fr. Peter Codacio, was happy for the help and in time became the first Italian to enter the newly formed Society of Jesus.  This church was then given to the Jesuits who rented a house next door and made it the center for their ministries in Rome.  After his death in 1556 St. Ignatius was buried in front of the main altar of this church. 

Because the church was tiny and old, a new one was built--The Holy Name of Jesus or the Gesu.  All that was left of the old church was the image of Our Lady of the Way which was placed in a small chapel dedicated to her and located to the left of the main altar. 

St. Ignatius always saw himself as a pilgrim and the order he founded was designed to be mobile. It makes sense that Providence would have the first Jesuit church be one that honored our Lady of the Way.  Whenever I begin a trip
 I pray a Memorare and close with these words "Our Lady of the Way, pray for us." 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Wind, Fire, and Water

It's 50 days since our Easter celebration and we end this Season with the Feast of Pentecost. We remember how the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary as they prayed in the upper room.  The apostles were transformed. They went from cowards to bold witnesses.  The readings at Mass today are filled with symbols of the One who transformed them.

First we have wind.  Think for a moment of its qualities.  It is unseen and can be a gentle cooling agent or it can be a powerful force that destroys.  In light of the Gospel from John 20:19-23, the wind or breath of Jesus Himself, destroys sin and brings forgiveness.  Breath gives life. It is close to us and essential, just like the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent at Pentecost and at each of our baptisms.

Secondly we have fire.  Again, think for a moment of its qualities.  It is mysterious. It brings light and warmth and, in the ancient world, protected humans from dangerous beasts. Like wind, it can also destroy. Metals that are placed in it are purified.  Just so, we are purified by the Holy Spirit.

I'd like to add another symbol that we don't find in the readings at Mass today--water, the symbol of baptism, that moment when each of us became a temple or dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  In the second reading in today's Office of Readings in the Breviary, St. Irenaeus speaks of the unifying nature of water.  He writes: "Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. ... Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul." 

We find this theme of unity amidst diversity in the second reading at Mass from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.  He writes of many gifts and parts but one body that is made one by the Holy Spirit which joins each member to Christ.  When sin enters into the picture, diversity becomes a source of division and war.  But when the Spirit comes, diversity leads to a rich, harmonious unity.  Like the body.  The Holy Spirit has been called "the Soul of the Church, the Body of Christ," and as the human soul gives life to the physical body, so the Holy Spirit gives life to each member of the Body of Christ and to the entire Body. 

It has also been said that the Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son.  This is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity which we will be celebrating next Sunday.  God is one and God is three.  Humans are made in the image and likeness of this Trinitarian Communion of Love.  We are not individuals doing our own thing, like cancer cells in a body, but we are joined to one another through the Spirit, the bond of love in the Trinity.  The human family was created for a harmonious unity that reflects Trinitarian love.  Sin breaks that unity and so Jesus breathes on His Body, the Church, the breath of mercy, the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of all the faithful so that we may truly be one and reveal the one, true God who is Love itself to the world!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pope Francis and St. Therese

Fr. Bernard McGuckian, S.J., the Apostleship of Prayer director for Ireland, has been visiting me for the past few weeks.  In the course of various conversations he said that for the first time in his 76 years he can say that he understands the particular spirituality of the pope. The reason is that Pope Francis was formed in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as was Fr. McGuckian and every other Jesuit, including myself.  Now, as I read various homilies and talks of Pope Francis, I look for threads of the Spiritual Exercises.

Recently, another friend of mine, Maureen O'Riordan who has a marvelous website about St. Therese of Lisieux, blogged about the connection between Pope Francis and this saint who is the second patron of the Apostleship of Prayer.  When he was a cardinal visiting Rome, Pope Francis was in the habit of going to a Franciscan church where he would stop at a statue of St. Therese and pray.  You can read the rest of the story here.

As time goes by and we approach the month of the Sacred Heart I'll be eager to learn more about Pope Francis' devotion to the Heart of Jesus and his involvement with the Apostleship of Prayer which is an apostolate of the Jesuits in Argentina and throughout the world.