Thursday, August 29, 2013

House Sacristan

I live at the Marquette University Jesuit Community with about 50 other Jesuits--administrators, faculty, students from other countries, and people like me who work in other apostolates.  Most of us have "house jobs" in which we serve our brothers in various ways.  My job is "house sacristan." Every week that I am in town I go around the three small chapels on the second through fourth floors of our residence and into the main chapel on the first floor and I make sure everything is in order: that there are enough hosts and wine, that there are clean purificators and corporals, that the candles are OK. I pick up the used altar linens and replace them with clean ones. I wash the linens and then iron them.

While it takes some time, I enjoy the ironing part. It slows me down and is a simple task that is so
different from my apostolic work of preaching, writing, and office work.  Often, while I'm ironing, I think of the second patron saint of the Apostleship of Prayer--St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.  She too was sacristan for her community at the Carmelite monastery in Lisieux, France. She found great joy in serving her community in this way. This service was a labor of love in which her devotion to the Holy Eucharist grew. I feel privileged to be serving my community in the same way.

St. Therese wrote a poem called "The Sacristans of Carmel."  I'm grateful to Maureen O'Riordan who told me about this poem and the picture of St. Therese and the other sacristans of her community, and whose website is a treasure trove of information about St. Therese and her family.  In the following excerpts from the poem we see not only her deep devotion but also her good grasp of Eucharistic theology. Jesus gives us His Body and Blood in order to transform us. We become what we receive--the Body of Christ.

The Sacristans of Carmel
1 Here below our sweet office
Is to prepare for the altar
The bread and wine of the Sacrifice
Which brings "Heaven" to earth!
2 O supreme mystery, Heaven
Hides in humble bread,
For Heaven is Jesus Himself,
Coming to us each morning.
 4 This world's greatest honors
Cannot compare
To the deep, celestial peace
Which Jesus lets us savor.
 6 But his love has chosen us.
He is our Spouse, our Friend.
We are also hosts
Which Jesus wants to change into Himself.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Our Lady of Czestochowa

One of my favorite images of the Blessed Virgin Mary is Our Lady of Czestochowa. Of course being 100% Polish could be a reason for this, as well as the fact that in August, 2006 I visited the Polish shrine in which this image resides--Jasna Gora or Bright Hill.  There are various stories about the origin of this image.  Some say that it was painted by the gospel-writer St. Luke. It seems to have made its way to Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.  From there it went to a castle in Belz, now part of Ukraine but in the 1300's part of the Kingdom of Poland. The castle was attacked by Tartars, one of whom shot an arrow through a window and into the room where the image was kept, piercing the throat of the Madonna.

After the attack was repulsed, Duke Wladyslaw of Opole decided to take the image to a safer place--his home in western Poland. The image was carried in solemn procession. Along the way, the group stopped in the town of Czestochowa to spend the night. In the morning the image was placed in a wagon but the horses refused to move. Wladyslaw prayed for guidance and was inspired to have the image remain in a church on a hill in Czestochowa.  This took place on August 26, 1382.

In 1430 a band of Bohemian Hussites, a heretical Christian sect, stormed the monastery in which the image resided and stole various precious items.  But as they fled, horses pulling the wagon which held the image refused to move. One of the robbers threw the image to the ground and in anger slashed it twice.  As he raised his sword a third time, he fell to the ground and died.  The other robbers fled in fear and the image has remained in Czestochowa ever since.

In time artists have tried to "repair" the damage done by the Tartar arrow and Hussite sword, but each time the wounds mysteriously reappeared.  It would seem that our Blessed Mother, wounded by sin, wounded by humanity's rejection of her and her Son, wants the wounds to remain, just as the wounds on her Son's risen body remain--a sign of the terrible effects of sin and a sign of love.

On May 26, 2006 Pope Benedict visited Czestochowa and prayed before the image. He said the following:

"Just as the Apostles together with Mary 'went to the upper room' and there 'with one accord devoted themselves to prayer' (Acts 1:12,14), so we too have come together today at Jasna Góra, which for us at this hour is the 'upper room' where Mary, the Mother of the Lord, is among us.  Today it is she who leads our meditation; she teaches us how to pray.  Mary shows us how to open our minds and our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us so as to be brought to the whole world. ...

"My dear friends, we need a moment of silence and recollection to place ourselves in her school, so that she may teach us how to live from faith, how to grow in faith, how to remain in contact with the mystery of God in the ordinary, everyday events of our lives.  With feminine tact and with 'the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement' (John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater 46), Mary sustained the faith of Peter and the Apostles in the Upper Room, and today she sustains my faith and your faith. ...

"When the Apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, went out to the whole world proclaiming the Gospel, one of them, John, the Apostle of love, took Mary into his home (cf. Jn 19:27). It was precisely because of his profound bond with Jesus and with Mary, that he could so effectively insist on the truth that 'God is love' (1 Jn 4:8,16). These were the words that I placed at the beginning of the first Encyclical of my Pontificate: Deus Caritas Est! This is the most important, most central truth about God. To all for whom it is difficult to believe in God, I say again today: 'God is love'. Dear friends, be witnesses to this truth. You will surely be so if you place yourselves in the school of Mary. Beside her you will experience for yourselves that God is love, and you will transmit this message to the world with the richness and the variety that the Holy Spirit will know how to enkindle."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Special Role of Seniors

One of the talks I usually give on my retreats is about the perspective that death gives to life. Realizing that we are not going to live on this earth forever should make us use the time we have well. I like to quote from Psalm 90: "Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong." Then I look out at the retreatants and observe that we have some "strong" people in the group. The psalm goes on: "Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart."

A few weeks ago I had two retreats with "strong" people. They were residents of the Little Sisters of the Poor Residences for the Elderly in Scranton, PA and Totowa, NJ.  In fact one of the residents in Totowa is very "strong." He's the retired archbishop of Newark who is 101 years old. 

I enjoy giving retreats to "seniors," as one person told me I should call older people. They are often forgotten and aren't mobile enough to get out to a retreat house.  Society in general treats them as useless and unproductive. Yet they play a very important role in the life of society and the Church.  They are wisdom figures. A comedian once said: "You don't get to be old by being a fool."  I enjoyed telling those older retreatants that their prayers, joined to their sacrifices and sufferings, play an important role.  And so that they would know this wasn't just my opinion, I shared with them a quote from Pope Benedict XVI.  He said the following when he visited a home for the elderly November 12, 2012:

"I come to you as Bishop of Rome, but also as an old man visiting his peers. ... I would like to tell you with deep conviction: it is beautiful to be old! ... We have received the gift of longevity. Living is beautiful even at our age, despite some 'aches and pains' and a few limitations.

"In the Bible longevity is considered a blessing of God; today this blessing is widespread and must be seen as a gift to appreciate and to make the most of. And yet frequently society, dominated by the logic of efficiency and gain, does not accept it as such: on the contrary it frequently rejects it, viewing the elderly as non-productive or useless.

"When life becomes frail, in the years of old age, it never loses its value and its dignity: each one of us, at any stage of life, is wanted and loved by God, each one is important and necessary.

"Dear elderly brothers and sisters, the days sometimes seem long and empty, with difficulties, few engagements and few meetings. Never feel down at heart: you are a wealth for society, even in suffering and sickness. And this phase of life is also a gift for deepening the relationship with God. ... Do not forget that one of the valuable resources you possess is the essential one of prayer: become interceders with God, praying with faith and with constancy. Pray for the Church, and pray for me, for the needs of the world, for the poor, so that there may be no more violence in the world. The prayers of the elderly can protect the world....  The Pope loves you and relies on all of you! May you feel beloved by God and know how to bring a ray of God's love to this society of ours...."

Friday, August 16, 2013

Cor Unum

I'm at my old "stomping grounds," the Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, located on Lake Demontreville and often referred to by that name. I gave my first retreat here in 1986 and was part of the staff from 2000-2003. Sixty-nine men from around the Twin Cities and as far away as Kansas and California are on retreat with me.

I've given several retreats this summer but have not been able to write about them because I didn't have the necessary computer access. Last week I was at Conception Abbey in the northwest corner of Missouri where I gave a retreat to members of Cor Unum. Though founded in France in 1790, the groups that comprise "Cor Unum" (One Heart), are secular institutes, a relatively new phenomenon in the Church. After Opus Dei, they were the second such canonically recognized group.

The year of their foundation was a difficult time for the Church in France. It was a time of revolution and suppression. The Society of Jesus or Jesuits had already been suppressed but one of their members, Fr. Joseph de Cloriviere, continued to function as a priest and imagined a new form of consecrated life. In a letter dated 1810, he wrote: "I conceived it would be the setting up of a sort of universal Religious Society that would be open to any kind of people, or any age, country or condition, being capable of the evangelical perfection. They would not separate their members from the ordinary faithful people...." This "Society" had shaky beginnings and was re-founded in 1918 by Fr. Daniel Fontaine, another French priest.

Today this group can be found around the world and calls itself "Cor Unum" or "The Family of the Heart of Jesus." A brochure describes them as follows: "The Family of the Heart of Jesus is comprised of three secular institutes (one for clerics, one for celibate laymen, and one for celibate laywomen) and an association of the faithful for married persons and others who wish to belong to the Family without taking vows. The secular institutes are a special structure within the Roman Catholic Church, a form of 'consecrated life,' designed to enable single lay people and diocesan priests to live and work in the secular world while consecrating themselves more fully to the Lord. However, members to do not live in communities (necessarily), and do not wear anything distinctive." The group shares a common spirituality of devotion to the Sacred Heart and of St. Ignatius Loyola. Before its members pronounce their permanent vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they make the full thirty day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

On the retreat I gave there were diocesan priests, single lay men and women, and a married couple who had come together from both coasts and places in between. At the end of the retreat, two women pronounced their permanent vows in the Institute of the Heart of Jesus. As always, giving a retreat like this was a blessing for me and another opportunity to learn more about the wonderfully diverse Catholic Church.

Saturday, August 3, 2013


The theme of this month's All-Night Vigil in the Milwaukee Archdiocese was "The Imitation of Christ."  I had the second talk at 11 last night. The topic was from Chapter 27 of Book III of this classic work of Christian spirituality: "Self-love is the greatest hindrance to the highest good."

Isn't "self-love" good? Shouldn't we love ourselves? God loves us with an infinite love and shouldn't we love what God loves? 

Yes, but our whole notion of love is warped. We love what or who makes us feel good, what gives us pleasure. This notion of love is the opposite of true love because it's all about ME. It's all about "getting" rather than "giving."

Behind the original temptation and sin was this self-focus. Our ancestral parents were tempted by the Enemy to stop thinking about God and to focus all their attention on themselves. "Can you really trust God? Wouldn't it be better to have more control of your life? Then you wouldn't have to bother God. You could be more independent, more in charge. Why, you could be gods yourselves and then you wouldn't ever have to fear that God wouldn't be there for you!"

Our parents gave in to that seductive line of reasoning and the consequence was immediate. They became totally self-conscious. They felt shame in each other's presence. They hid from each other, covering themselves, and they hid from God. As the story goes, God came looking for them so that they might take their daily walk during the breezy time of the day. He called out to them. Adam answered: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself (Genesis: 3:10). In that short response, the man refers to himself five times. The world now revolves around him. He is the center of his universe, of his consciousness. It's as though the great internal spotlight of his thoughts and concerns has turned away from God and his wife and turned entirely in on himself.

This is not "self-love."  His choice led to "self-slavery" and ultimately "self-hate."  Jesus came to save us from this.  Rather than grasping at equality with God the Father, Jesus "emptied himself, ... he humbled himself" (Philippians 2:6-8).

We have an expression for a proud man. We say, "he's full of himself."  Jesus emptied himself to be filled, not with himself and his ego, but with the love of the Father for him and with love for all God's children.  He taught us the secret of happiness which much of the world does not comprehend: in losing ourselves, we find ourselves. Or as the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi goes: "it is in giving that we receive." 

This is true love of self and it leads to the highest good, that for which every human person was created: love of God and union with God, and love of neighbor or the communion of saints. Jesus shows us the way. He shows us that in giving all, we receive all. The first words of this chapter from "The Imitation of Christ" are "you must give all for all."

A geography lesson can help us here. The Jordan River flows south from mountains in Syria. It flows into the Sea of Galilee, a body of water filled with life, where Jesus and his apostles fished. The water flows into the north end of the sea and out the other end, continuing its journey south to the Dead Sea where its journey ends. The Dead Sea has no outlet. It receives the water of the Jordan River but does not give it away. Instead, the water sits and stagnates. There is no life there.

Our lives are like that. If we hold on to love and focus all our attention on ourselves, we stagnate and die. If we lose ourselves in the love of God and neighbor, giving without counting the cost, we find life. Only empty hands are able to be filled.