Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Visitation

The month of May ends with the Feast of the Visitation when we recall how Mary, when she learned that she would be the mother of God’s Son and that her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth was also pregnant, raced off to be with her.  This was no short journey. The drive today is about 90 miles.  Yet Mary hastened to be with Elizabeth and to help her.  Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, is always the one who loves and who helps those in need.

On May 26, 2013 Pope Francis visited the Roman parish of Sts. Elizabeth and Zechariah where he directed his homily toward the children who were making their First Holy Communion.  He said:

Our Lady, as soon as she had heard the news that she was to be the Mother of Jesus and the announcement that her cousin Elizabeth was expecting a child — the Gospel says — she went to her in haste, she did not wait. She did not say: “But now I am with child I must take care of my health. My cousin is bound to have friends who can care for her”. Something stirred her and she “went with haste” to Elizabeth (cf. Lk 1:39). It is beautiful to think this of Our Lady, of our Mother, that she hastens, because she intends to help. She goes to help, she doesn't go to boast and tell her cousin: “listen, I’m in charge now, because I am the Mother of God!” No, she did not do that. She went to help! And Our Lady is always like this. She is our Mother who always hurries to us whenever we are in need.

It would be beautiful to add to the Litany of Our Lady something like this: “O Lady who goes in haste, pray for us!”  For she always goes in haste, she does not forget her children. And when her children are in difficulty, when they need something and call on her, she hurries to them. This gives us a security, the security of always having our Mother next to us, beside us. We move forward, we journey more easily in life when our mother is near. Let us think of this grace of Our Lady, this grace that she gives us: of being close to us, but without making us wait for her. Always! She — lets us trust in this — she lives to help us. Our Lady who always hastens, for our sake.

Convinced of this, Pope Francis went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major as he prepared to leave Rome recently for the Holy Land.  We too should be convinced that our Blessed Mother will hasten to help us when we turn to her in our need.  

Friday, May 30, 2014

St. Joan of Arc and St. Therese of Lisieux

It’s the feast of St. Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake on this day in 1431 when she was 19 years old.  She was a favorite saint of St. Therese of Lisieux who is one of the patron saints of the Apostleship of Prayer in which she enrolled when she was 12. 

In a letter to a missionary priest, St. Therese wrote : “In my childhood, I dreamed of combating in the battlefield. When I began to learn the history of France, I was enchanted with the deeds of Joan of Arc; I felt in my heart a desire and courage to imitate them.”

On January 21, 1894, Therese played the leading role in a play she had written about St. Joan of Arc. Her sister Celine photographed her posing as the saint in prison.  Then, just six days later, Pope Leo XIII officially opened the cause for Joan’s beatification.  In May of that year, Therese wrote a poem entitled “Canticle to Obtain the Canonization of the Venerable Joan of Arc.”  It contains these lines:

7. It is not Joan's victories
We wish to celebrate this day.
My God, we know her true glories
Are her virtues, her love.

8. By fighting, Joan saved France.
But her great virtues
Had to be marked with the seal of suffering,
With the divine seal of Jesus her Spouse!

10. Joan, you are our only hope.
From high in the Heavens, deign to hear our voices.
Come down to us, come convert France.
Come save her a second time.

12. Sweet martyr, our monasteries are yours.
You know well that virgins are your sisters,
And like you the object of their prayers
Is to see God reign in every heart.

4 Refrain
To save souls
Is their desire.
Ah! Give them your fire
Of apostle and martyr!

In April, 1897 St. Therese’s tuberculosis had progressed to the point that she became seriously ill and in July she was moved from her room to the community’s infirmary. In May she wrote the poem “To Joan of Arc” in which she speaks of the value of suffering

When the Lord God of hosts gave you the victory,
You drove out the foreigner and had the king crowned.
Joan, your name became renowned in history.
Our greatest conquerors paled before you.

But that was only a fleeting glory.
Your name needed a Saint's halo.
So the Beloved offered you His bitter cup,
And, like Him, you were spurned by men.

At the bottom of a black dungeon, laden with heavy chains,
The cruel foreigner filled you with grief.
Not one of your friends took part in your pain.
Not one came forward to wipe your tears.

Joan, in your dark prison you seem to me
More radiant, more beautiful than at your King's coronation.
This heavenly reflection of eternal glory,
Who then brought it upon you? It was betrayal.

Ah! If the God of love in this valley of tears
Had not come to seek betrayal and death,
Suffering would hold no attraction for us.
Now we love it; it is our treasure.

Because Jesus suffered and then entered into glory, those who suffer can be configured more closely to him. Their sufferings, united to the Cross, can be a powerful prayerful offering that helps in the ongoing work of the salvation of souls so that they will, as St. Therese wrote, “see God reign in every heart.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Vine and Branches

In today's gospel (John 15: 1-8) Jesus says "I am the vine, you are the branches."  It is another way of talking about the Body of Christ.  St. Paul wrote about our union with Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 where he said: "As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ" (v. 12). Through Baptism we are made one with Christ, the Head of the Body. The Eucharist nourishes and sustains that union.   
I've heard this many times but when I consider what this actually means, it's mind-boggling.  Pope Benedict XVI certainly understood the implications of this.   

On September 22, 2011 in his homily in Olympic Stadium, Berlin, Germany, he said the following about the image (better, the reality) of the vine and the branches: 

In the parable of the vine, Jesus does not say: “You are the vine”, but: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). In other words: “As the branches are joined to the vine, so you belong to me! But inasmuch as you belong to me, you also belong to one another.” This belonging to each other and to him is not some ideal, imaginary, symbolic relationship, but – I would almost want to say – a biological, life-transmitting state of belonging to Jesus Christ. Such is the Church, this communion of life with Jesus Christ and for one another, a communion that is rooted in baptism and is deepened and given more and more vitality in the Eucharist. “I am the true vine” actually means: “I am you and you are I” – an unprecedented identification of the Lord with us, with his Church.
He went on to explain that St. Paul learned this "unprecedented identification" of Christ with his followers from Jesus himself when he appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Jesus asked St. Paul when he was persecuting him, not his followers or his Church, but him.  Jesus is one with his baptized followers just as the parts of the body are one with the head and form one person. 

Pope Benedict said a similar thing in his closing homily at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany.  Talking about the transformation that occurs when we receive Holy Communion, he said:
The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood. We all eat the one bread, and this means that we ourselves become one.

Have you ever thought of yourself as the very "Flesh and Blood" of Christ?  We are.  It's an awesome thought and an even more awesome challenge to live out that reality in a practical way one day at a time.  We can't do that on our own by some super-human effort of our own. Jesus said as much when he said "without me you can do nothing."  But as branches joined to the vine, we will "bear much fruit."  That's what living the Eucharist in our daily lives means.



Thursday, May 15, 2014

First Holy Communion

On this day in 1960 I made my First Holy Communion.  I must admit that I don't remember much about the day. I was probably too distracted by the ceremony of over 60 second graders lined up according to height and posing afterwards in the sanctuary of St. Paul's Church in St. Francis, WI.  I still have a picture of me, dressed in my blue suit and sitting in a large living chair at our next-door neighbors, the Fogarty's.  And then, later in the day, there was a reception at the Polish Falcon's Hall.  My Aunt Helen had a catering business across the street.  I wish I could say more about how I felt as I knelt in the pew right after received the Body of Christ for the first time. 

I recently ran across something that St. John Paul II said to a group of children with whom he communicated as he flew over the Outback of Australia on November 29, 1986.  The first question was:  Very soon I will be making my first Holy Communion. Please, Holy Father, could you suggest something I could tell or ask Jesus on that day?

Here is his reply:

On the day of your First Holy Communion, I suggest that you speak to Jesus as to your best friend, for that is what he really is. He is the greatest friend you will ever have, and he wishes to be your special companion every day of your life. So talk to him as a friend who knows your name and loves you dearly. Tell him your secrets. Tell him your joys and the things that make you sad. Tell him about the people whom you love, especially your parents and your brothers and sisters. Ask him to bless your families and all the families of the world. Above all tell him how much you love him. Speaking about her First Communion Day, Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus said that she felt loved by Jesus. It was then that she said to Jesus: "I love you, I give myself to you for ever". You can tell Jesus that too.

After reading that, I couldn't help thinking that while I may not have responded in that way at my First Holy Communion, it's not too late to do so now.

Monday, May 12, 2014

St. Damien of Molokai

Saturday, May 10, was the feast of St. Damien of Molokai, the priest and member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, who served the lepers of the Hawaiian Islands.  He shared their life and, in the end, he shared their illness and death.  The words of Jesus come to mind: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15: 13). What was the source of Damien's love?

St. John Paul II answered that question in his homily at the time of Damien's beatification in 1995:

"Where did Damien's charity and happiness in often difficult situations come from? He drew his strength from the spirituality of his congregation: the contemplation of the Eucharist, the mystery of love in which Christ truly communicates with the one who receives Him and whom He invites to total dedication: 'I find my consolation in my one companion who never abandons me,' he used to say when speaking of the real presence of Christ in the tabernacle. The fact that the congregation to which Fr. Damien belongs is consecrated to the heart of Jesus and to the heart of His Mother is eloquent.  Between these two hearts there is an exchanged of gifts in the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption. Fr. Damien drew inspiration from this exchange and he followed it to the end. 'How sweet it is to die as a son of the Sacred Heart,' he would say on the day of his death, Monday of Holy Week, 1899. In fact, a passage from one of Damien's letters which adorns his tomb recalls his true mission: 'I am the happiest of men because I can serve the Lord in the poor and sick children rejected by others.'"

Last January I visited the cathedral in Honolulu where Fr. Damien was ordained and I also saw the statue of him which is outside the capital building. St. Damien's heroism is an inspiration to all.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Real Presence

Every year, during the Third Week of Easter, we have readings at daily Mass from the 6th chapter of John's Gospel.  This chapter is essential for understanding what the Catholic Church teaches about the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said:  "This is my body" (see Matthew 26: 26; Mark 14: 22; Luke 22: 19; 1 Corinthians 11: 24).  Was Jesus speaking symbolically or literally?  Not everything Jesus said was meant to be taken literally.

For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. ... If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away" (Matthew 5: 29-30). Jesus did not want to be taken literally here. He was using hyperbole to get across the point that hell exists and that we should avoid anything that leads to alienation from God.  The crowd knew he was not speaking literally because at the end of his teaching no one stopped following him.  I imagine that if anyone in the crowd had taken Jesus literally, that person would have left, saying "I'll be back in about 20 or 30 years!"

However the reaction is very different when it comes to Jesus' teaching in John 6.  It begins with Jesus talking about how God gave bread from heaven (manna) to the Israelites in the desert and that everyone who listens to the Father will come to Jesus.  He says, "I am the bread of life" (6: 35, 48). Some people have interpreted this to mean that the teaching of Jesus nourishes, that his words should be chewed or reflected upon.  But Jesus makes it clear that he is not speaking symbolically when he says "the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (6: 51).  At this point an argument breaks out: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (6: 52).  Jesus could have clarified the matter for them, telling them not to take him so literally, but he doesn't.  He hammers home the point by saying "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you" (6: 53).  Clearly, Jesus is speaking literally.

What's interesting is that those who have trouble accepting Jesus' teaching are not the crowd nor his enemies but his followers. We read: "Then many of his disciples who were listening said, 'This saying is hard; who can accept it?'" (6: 60).  And, "As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him" (6: 66). 

If he were speaking symbolically or with hyperbole, as he was in the Sermon on the Mount, he would have stopped them from walking away.  But he didn't.  He meant his words to be taken literally.  This is the mystery of the Eucharist.  Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ because he said so. And the 6th chapter of John's Gospel confirms that he was speaking literally and not figuratively.