The Universal Church and The Glory of Each Land

On the last two Saturdays, Bishop Burbidge ordained three new deacons and four new priests for this Diocese, which reminded me of my own ordination to the diocesan priesthood 16 years ago, also on the day before Pentecost.

And the celebration of these ordinations and of Pentecost brings together two great themes of the Catholic faith, her universality throughout time and space, and yet also her consecration of the unique goodness of every specific locality and nation. For, on Pentecost, the one Gospel was heard in each individual language of people all over the known world. Likewise, the Church proclaims the same faith, provides the same sacraments, promotes the universal call to holiness, and unites all nations together.

But, as the one sun and the common rain bring forth different crops in every land, these universal means of salvation bring forth a unique harvest of grace in every people, age, nation and language. A diocesan priest connects this universal faith to each locality.

For a diocesan priest is ordained both for the universal Church and for a specific diocese, an area of the Church. There is both an order of priests throughout the world, and in fact throughout time and space, but also a unique brotherhood of priests in every diocese.

In my case, and in the case of these newly ordained priests and transitional deacons (who are on schedule to be priests next year), we received training in the universal faith and practice of the Church. And yet we are sent forth to a specific area, namely the northern third of Virginia. And most diocesan priests are primarily in parish ministry, and are thus called to a deep knowledge and love of the specific locality in which the serve.

This local patriotism tries to make of every town and place a new Bethlehem, a new Nazareth, in which Christ and His people are welcomed and the light of heaven shines upon earth. Over a century ago, the great Catholic writer and commentator G.K. Chesterton wrote a poem celebrating his home area of Kensington in London; in that poem he said, “For every tiny town or place, God made the stars especially . . . Yea, Heaven is everywhere at home.”

I have been at this parish for three and a half years, and have certainly learned how it is that the light of heaven shines forth upon this rural and hospitable locality, with its fresh green fields, ancient but life-filled mountains, and unique homes, civic groups and businesses. I think that we have, through common prayer, charitable works, learning, celebration and good company helped bring the light of Christ here to this area. And I am confident that Fr. Perez will likewise both learn and contribute to making Page County and this parish a place where heaven is at home.

Canon Law and The Law of God

As most of you know, Bishop Burbidge is sending me to study canon law, starting in August in order to help out the chancery of the Diocese in various ways, such as annulment petitions, sacramental and parish issues, dealings among the faithful and relations with organizations not affiliated with the Diocese.

It is a good occasion to describe what canon law is and how it fits into the realm of faith. We can begin with the principle that all laws enacted on this earth should flow from the eternal law of God. The eternal law is the ordering and unity of all things in heaven and on earth. We do not see that eternal law directly on this earth, but we see its effects, in the order of nature, in the moral law (both natural and supernatural) in the order of grace, based upon the salvation that Jesus Christ won and the Church and her sacraments that He handed on to us.

The 19th Psalm reflects this order of all things as the Psalmist begins by celebrating that “the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim His handiwork” and that the sun “like a warrior runs its course with joy.” The psalm then transitions to the law God has given us as “reviving the soul,” “making wise the simple,” “enlightening the eyes,” and “sweeter also than honey.”

The Jews in fact refer to the first five books of the Bible as the Torah, the law of God, for it describes all together the order of creation, the essential goodness of humanity, the providence of God, and His instructions for our lives and our worship.

Every society is meant to reflect this harmony of creation and of God’s guidance, each in its own unique way. Doing so requires judgement and application of these eternal principles to the individual circumstances and personality of each specific community. For example, the basic principles of justice, including property, the keeping of promises, and the fair treatment of all people in an economy are permanent; but how these principles are enacted in defining property rights, contracts, and the economic structure will vary.

Likewise, the fundamental principles that the Church is founded upon, including the Scriptures, the sacraments, the moral laws, communion of saints, an ordained priesthood, and the universal call to holiness are permanent. But, in order to apply these principles to every time and place, and to maintain order, peace, and rightful freedom and initiative, the Church has a Code of Canon Law, and each diocese and religious order has specific legislation.

It is that field that I will be studying, and later applying, to help this diocese reflect the peace and harmony of the eternal realms here and now.

An Education in Faith, Hope and Charity

We are now in the midst of graduation season. Most colleges and universities have held graduation ceremonies recently; and the elementary and high schools will soon do so. In this context, it is helpful to reflect upon the idea of education, and how all of this life should be an education in the ways of the greater kingdom.

In its declaration on education entitled Gravissimum Educationis, the Vatican II Council praised modern advances in recognizing the universal right to an education and greater flexibility in teaching methods. But it also called for a renewal of the timeless wisdom that education is not only about acquiring information, but rather should be help people become wise, moral and charitable, able to take our rightful place in society and in the kingdom of God.

As the Council called for, let education “ develop harmoniously [each person’s] physical, moral and intellectual endowments so that they may gradually acquire a mature sense of responsibility in striving endlessly to form their own lives properly and in pursuing true freedom as they surmount the vicissitudes of life with courage and constancy.”

Thus, while tests and grades are needed to provide goals and track academic progress, and while education hopefully helps people in useful occupations, the focus should be on the whole person, on virtue and wisdom, on self-respect and an appreciation of others, with a desire to keep learning throughout life. Such deep goals are not so easily measured, but their effects are forever. In this context, we should see all of this life as an education in the ways of the greater kingdom.

During every day and every year, in all ages of life, we should be learning different aspects of our relationship with God, with the heavenly hosts, and with each other. Sometimes, especially when things are going well, the lessons are easier. Sometimes, there are greater struggles and the lessons are more difficult. In the former situations, we should thank God, and not coast, but strive ever further.

When the lessons are more challenging, we should remember that, in life as in formal education, if we persevere and cooperate, the greatest difficulties can be opportunities for the most profound growth and unity with others. And we should not focus only on the aspects that we are already best at, but rather take on the challenges that God gives, advancing to be a complete person. May all of this life be an education in faith, hope and charity. For, as Saint Paul says, all things of this earth pass away, but these three virtues bring joy forever. See 1 Cor. 13:8-13

Mothers’ Day and Communion

On Sunday, we celebrate both Mothers’ Day and the First Communion for five of our parishioners; it is thus a good opportunity to reflect upon the unity between these sacred occasions.

As Sister Briege McKenna, an Irish mystic, pointed out, there is a complementarity between Mary and priests as spiritual Mother and spiritual fathers. Mary, on behalf of all women, brought Christ into the world in the Incarnation; and priests continue, on behalf of all men, bringing Christ into the world in the Eucharist. Thus, Mary represents the maternal aspect of the Church, which religious sisters carry on to this day. And priests bring forth a visible manifestation of God the Father.

This complementarity in the family of God that is the Church should be reflected in all families. Wives and mothers are meant to bring the maternal, caring, motherly aspect of the Church to their families. And husbands and fathers are meant to bring the passionate, self-sacrificing love of Christ to their families.

Grandparents, uncles and aunts can be seen as like the prophetic witnesses of the Old Testament, or like Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna in the Gospel of Luke; they bring the wisdom of the ages to their families. Children should respect and honor their parents and grandparents, as we respect Christ, His Church, and the prophetic witnesses of Scriptures and history; but they should also be respected as the future hope of their families and of the Church.

There is also a connection between families and the teaching, governing and sanctifying roles of the Church. As parents should both be clear in their teaching and guiding of children, but also be forgiving and understanding, so the Church both gives clear teaching and guidance, but also understanding and forgiveness. And, as parents both unify the family, but also recognize that each child has his own gifts, so the Church sets down clear standards that unite the world, but also respects the diversity of the types of people and cultures.

It is a struggle to maintain this unity and diversity in a family and in the Church; but the grace of God guides us in this sacred effort. And, as a mother gives and sustains life, the Church also gives and sustains supernatural life, especially in the sacraments. When people object that Jesus giving us His body, His life in the Eucharist is incomprehensible, we can respond that when a mother bears children in the womb and feeds infants after birth she is naturally doing what Christ does in the Eucharist.

Through sharing her body, she gives life to her children so that they may grow and continue that life into the world. Thus, Christ, our brother and Savior and His bride the Church, who is our mother and teacher, makes us the family of God on earth and one day in life everlasting

Preparing for Our Lord in Communion

Five of our parishioners will be receiving First Communion next Sunday, which is also Mothers’ Day.

This joyous occasion is a good time to reflect upon the glory and privilege of receiving the very life, human and divine, of Jesus Christ into our very selves. Anyone, Catholic or non-Catholic alike can come into the presence of the Almighty God, for at Mass and in any church where the Eucharist is reserved, Jesus is here with us, as much as He was with His disciples when He walked the earth.

But, when we receive Communion, heaven and earth are joined within us as Christ, the light of the world, dwells within our bodies and souls. In order to fully appreciate and value this great gift, it is important to prepare to receive Holy Communion by an openness to this divine and supernatural life. It is helpful here to focus on five ways through which we can prepare for this great gift: purity of heart, repentance of sins, appreciation of sacred beauty, consecration of the mind, and charity towards others. To begin with, purity of heart leads to greater vision. As the Psalmist says, “Who can climb the mountain of the Lord? Who can dwell in His holy place? The man of clean hands and pure heart.” Psalm 24:3-4. Or as Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God.” Matt. 5:8.

And to the degree that we have allowed the burden of sin to cloud this divine vision, we can receive His cleansing power by repentance of sins. This purifying freedom is especially available in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is a requirement at least once a year, and in case of mortal sin and it is recommended about once a month. It is also important that we lift up our hearts and minds to God through culture and learning. Thus, for example, music, art, vestments, sacred architecture and the like portray the sacred and holy in tangible and beautiful ways.

Even outside of Mass, it is helpful to listen to sacred music, appreciate sacred art and tap into sacred entertainment to continue the effects of this splendor into our lives. And to guide this glory and beauty, we should also continue improving our minds to appreciate more of God’s presence.

For example, it is helpful to read and meditate upon the readings for Mass in order that the wisdom of heaven will dwell in our souls more and more. And then, at the end of Mass we are sent forth to live out the Gospel in the world that all people may likewise sense how it is that Jesus Christ dwells among us in the Eucharist and in His people who receive Him

Good Works and the Flourishing of Faith

This article concludes this five part discussion of how to build, in a steady and consistent way, our friendship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. In particular, this article will focus on good works as the flourishing of faith.

We must of course remember that our call to this friendship and finally to glory in heaven is a free gift, which no amount of good works can earn. Our status as sons and daughters of God not only begins by divine grace, but is carried out and completed through this power of God. However, we must choose to continue to accept this gift through our faith, hope and love of God; and if these virtues are real, they will include good works. For, as St. James wrote, “Faith, by itself if it has no works, is dead.” James 2:17.

It is not only that authentic faith manifests itself in a better life and that good works make the faith attractive to others, as important as those facts are. It is also the case that, if we act in a manner called for by God and His Church, our relationship with Him, and with the communion of saints, will grow and become more joy-filled. By contrast, if we act in a fashion contrary to the callings of God and His Church, such faith, hope and charity will decline and eventually vanish, as Jesus illustrates in the parable of the houses built upon rock and upon sand. See Matt. 5:24-27. In living this life both worthy of God and leading to greater relationship with Him, it is important to begin by keeping the commandments, especially the Ten Commandments.

For, as Jesus told the rich young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Matt. 19:17. But, as He also made clear to that man, we are called to go further than simply keeping the commandments; we are called to a life of heroic virtue, each in our own way. And, in discerning how to act with generosity, courage and divine love, we should set our sights high. Thus, for example, it is a good idea for all people regularly to read the Sermon on the Mount, which sets forth the overall principles of a Christian life, and consider how we are fulfilling those sacred words. Likewise, learning about the saints and praying with them should inspire us to live in a manner worthy of their company, now and for all time.

And, of course, we should always ask how we would act if we actually saw Jesus, Mary and the angels and saints with us. For they are with us now; and we strive one day to see them, and be welcomed by them, in eternal glory.

The Universal Call to Holiness

Fr. Paul Murray, a professor in Rome, often recounts an event that occurred when he was a Dominican novice. One of the older Dominicans was well known for his prayerfulness, charity, kindness, and holiness of life. And so some of the novices asked him, “What is you secret to holiness?” He responded, “Don’t tell the Jesuits this, but this is the secret: there is no secret. Our secret is the Gospels.”

He was making a point that the Church has made many times when refuting Gnosticism, a heresy that among other things maintains that one must be initiated into secrets to be truly holy. The Vatican II Council, following the Bible, instead says that all people are called to the heights of sanctity. See Lumen Gentium (1965) 40; Catechism 2103. Likewise, Saint Paul describes the whole Christian community as the “holy ones” or those “called to be holy.” See, e.g., Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1.

And what is holiness? According to St. Thomas Aquinas, holiness means purity of the soul and a consistent dedication to God; to be holy means being more and more free from sin constant, unflinching friends of God. See Summa Theologica II-II, question 81, article 8. In achieving such holiness, some common sense is very helpful. First, it is important to be regularly working on goals that free us from sin and bring us union with God.

Taking from prayer a definite resolution each day and each week (e.g., speaking well of others, kindness to a co-worker, listening without interrupting, working on project that one has been putting off) gradually builds a life of holiness as a mansion is built one brick or stone at a time. Second, it is important to be careful about the images one is putting into the mind through such things as entertainment, social media and the news.

There is a saying among the Cherokees. Within every man there is a wolf of kindness, bravery and love and a wolf of greed, cowardice and hatred; the one who wins is the one you feed. Third, it is important to keep good company and friends, both on earth and with the communion of saints. We have to deal with people in the world, good, bad and indifferent.

But we should be wise in choosing those we trust and spend time with, and those whom we are influenced by. Fourth, we should both delight in the good things that God has given us and recognize that sacrifices are needed to join in the ministry of Christ, who sacrificed Himself to us. In that way, both joy and sorrow, like the sun and the rain, will make our lives fruitful in prayer and good works here and bring us to the new heavens and new earth.

Prayer and The Journey to God

Last week’s article introduced the topic of advancing in prayer, holiness, intellect and good deeds and emphasized the importance of prayer. This article will summarize some advice from the Catechism and spiritual masters on developing a steady, joyful and courageous life of prayer.

To begin with, we should recognize the many different types of prayer and ask how best to build upon Sunday Mass and regular Confession. To begin with, the Church has a rich liturgical tradition, including Mass (offered here daily) and the Divine Office, a series of prayers that priests and religious brothers and sisters offer daily; the Book of Christian Prayer has a simpler version of The Divine Office.

Another source of prayer is with the Scriptures, which one can read each day. One can either read a large portion of Scripture at once or engage in what is often called lectio divina, a prayerful reading of a small portion of the Bible at a time, such as one Psalm or event in the Gospels. The insights of great spiritual masters, such as St. Augustine, St. Francis de Sales, St. Theresa of Avila, or St. Therese of Lisieux can be a springboard to prayer as well, as can other books and periodicals, including Magnificat, which provides the Mass readings and other prayers for each day.

In another direction, devotions, such as the rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, Stations of the Cross, or prayers associated with saints unite our efforts together. Such devotions employ the same prayers numerous times, not merely for repetition, but rather as bridges that enable the mind to enter deeply into contemplation of a subject, such as the mysteries of the Rosary, the image of Divine Mercy, or the presence of the saints. Also helpful is informal prayer, in which we simply describe to God our hopes, fears, requests, thanksgiving, repentance, and good intentions. And we listen to Him speaking to us in the depth of our hearts with inspirations, ideas, encouragement, and resolution that can be expressed in words, but are often beyond them. As the Catechism points out, prayer is sometimes delightful and easy, and sometimes a battle. See Catechism 2728 – 2733.

When we receive clear joy and inspiration from God, we should thank Him for it and seek to share this joy with others. When prayer in more difficult, we should recognize that God is calling us away from what is easy to a humble, courageous path that involves trust that He will ever guide us, as He guided the Apostles in the boat in Galilee, through wind and storms to the shores of truth, grace and divine light. See Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21.

Ordinary Time and Steady Growth

This week, we began the first part of what is called Ordinary Time in the Church’s liturgical year. Ordinary Time is thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of the year that are not in the Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter seasons. The term ordinary here does not mean commonplace or uneventful, but is rather based upon Latin terms ordo and ordinalis, which imply regular, steady, ordered growth. That is one reason why the color for ordinary time is green, the color of things such as trees, bushes and many crops that grow in an orderly way over the course of time. The idea is that we are meant to focus on how our spiritual lives of prayer, virtue, charity, and evangelization are growing in a regular and steady fashion. This and the next four articles will focus on this regular, steady growth in prayer, in holiness of life, in intellect and in good deeds.

To begin with, we should have a regular, consistent life of prayer. The two continual requirements of prayer for Catholics are:

(1) attendance at Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation; and (2) the regular receipt of the sacrament of Reconciliation.

These universal requirements are meant to be the foundation of a regular life of prayer that can in turn be lived out in many different ways. As the Catechism says, Christian “prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond all measure, with His Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.” And as such, “prayer and the Christian life are inseparable.” Catechism 2565, 2745.

Part IV of the Catechism gives much advice on prayer and then gives an extensive commentary on the Lord’s Prayer that in turn describes our relationship with God and the many things that we should pray for. Reading this part of the Catechism, which is about 75 pages in the most common translation, will help one understand what prayer is, know better the more the many sources, motives and ways of prayer, and fully appreciate the effort needed for this most noble quest.

Other guides to prayer, such as Fr. Thomas Dubay’s very accessible 2002 book Prayer Primer or St. Francis de Sales’ 17th century classic Introduction to the Devout Life, can also be very helpful. These and other sources of wisdom from the Church and her saints can help us worthily and joyfully set aside daily space for prayer and so progress steadily as sons and daughters of God.

Next week’s article will discuss some ways of prayer and advice from the Catechism and the great spiritual masters to advance in this path of God.

The Life Baptism Calls Us To

This weekend, we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, which concludes the Christmas season and begins Ordinary Time. It is a good occasion to reflect upon the continual effect of baptism upon us. For, while we receive baptism only once in our lives, the effects are meant to continue throughout this life and into eternity. Thus, when we bless ourselves with holy water upon entering or leaving a church, we are meant to be reminded of our baptismal calling and receive the strength and grace to carry it out. The Catechism describes five effects of baptism for all Christians and an additional effect for Catholics. See Catechism 1262 – 1271.

First, baptism gives us forgiveness of sins, both original sin and personal sins. In this earthly pilgrimage, we then strive to remain free from sins so that we can live as sons and daughters of God. Gaining this status as sons and daughters of God is the second effect of baptism. And as such, we are in training each day to become princes and princesses of the celestial realms. The third effect of baptism is that we are given the virtues of faith, hope and charity, through which we have a personal relationship with God, in our intellect, plans and desires.

Through prayer and openness to the will of God, we are meant daily to develop this relationship, not merely as an abstract statement of beliefs, but rather a life with God through Jesus Christ. And this treasure of friendship with God is not only for ourselves, but is rather to be shared with other people and in union with the Church. And so the fourth effect of baptism is an openness to the Holy Spirit, through which we bring the kingdom of God to the world, as assuredly as the first Christians did after Pentecost. And we make this light shine on in the world not only by words, but also by our deeds and view of others, which implies the fifth result of baptism, while the moral virtues are available to all people, Christian or non-Christian, baptism also confirms these virtues, which are ways of being an excellent human being, and thus helps the light of Christ shine on more in our lives.

Finally, a Catholic baptism in particular makes a person a member of the Catholic Church and thus a full part of the kingdom of God on earth, united with the faithful throughout time and space. It is important to remember daily each one of these effects and ask how it is that we are living them out in practice on this journey into the love of God.