Love in Marriage (Magnificat Booklet): A Review

Love is patient, love is kind… yet, despite St. Paul’s clear enumeration of its characteristics, love is – for most of us – somewhat elusive. We try to describe it, we try to live and experience it – but it’s not as easily apprehended by us as we’d like.  Love thrills us, confuses and disappoints us, warms our hearts and speaks to our deepest longings. We think we know what Love is, how it should guide our lives and inform how we treat each other; but we don’t know the half of it. Reading St. Paul’s beautiful First Letter to the Corinthians won’t help our understanding unless we’re willing to take a deep dive into Love’s mystery, and reflect on it honestly and with purpose. But how can we do that, especially if we’re not used to reading the Scriptures, or if Biblical language doesn’t always “hit home” with us? Enter Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of LoveThis sweeping document explores the Scriptural, Magisterial and Pastoral implications for living andloving authentically, especially in the context of marriage and family life. It’s an important document, and one that will be studied by theologians and those involved in ministry to families for years to come. For the average layperson in the pew, however, reading any Papal document (especially one over 200 pages long) is a daunting task. Thankfully, that task is made easier with Magnificat’s companion booklet, 

Love in Marriage, Pope Francis on living and growing in love. At a little more than 100 pages, this tiny booklet makes the Pope’s thought and words accessible to everyone. It also unpacks one particular aspect of the Papal document and makes it manageable: the meaning of Love.

Love in Marriage focuses specifically on Chapter 4 of Amoris Laetitia, in which the Pope fleshes out St. Paul’s “characteristics” of Love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and its implications for how we love as married couples, children, priests and religious, and single people. He begins by acknowledging that the passage is “lyrical” – and certainly its poetic beauty probably leads many Roman Catholic couples to choose it as one of their wedding readings. But a closer look reveals that the Apostle isn’t peddling poetry or “pretty words.” As Pope Francis goes through the brief passage line-by-line, he breaks open its words and introduces us to their deeper meaning for our lives. We learn that the words Paul uses to describe love (patient, kind, not irritable or resentful, hopeful, etc.) go far beyond the “surface reading” we often give them, challenging us to consider our relationships with those close to us as well as people we don’t know, and learning to love everyone as God loves. This reflection on Love is given in the context of a document focused on marriage and family; but Love is our common, human experience, and a way in which we image God. The Pope’s words call us to a deeper understanding of Love, and how each of us can love generously and well, whatever our state in life. For this reason, Magnificat’s companion booklet is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to follow Christ by learning to love as He does.

The booklet unpacks each section of Chapter 4 by reproducing the Pope’s words, and offering opportunities for reflection. It takes Paul’s characteristics of Love word by word, as the Pope does, and offers readers the opportunity to more fully understand Paul’s meaning. Each section of the booklet begins with the papal text, then provides three modes of reflection: On The Text, About My Life, and To Conclude. Each area of reflection asks specific questions about the meaning of the Pope’s teaching on that section of Paul’s letter, how it applies to my life and relationships, and where Paul’s (and the Pope’s) words about Love lead me in prayer, and in taking positive steps toward acting on Love in my life. Some of the questions are specifically directed toward one’s relationship with a spouse, but can be easily adapted for all of our relationships: between friends, family members, co-workers, and people we meet in the course of our everyday lives. (For example, one question asks “Do I make an effort to think and speak positively about my spouse?” We can easily replace the word spouse with boss, co-worker, best friend – or that person we find it especially hard to love.) The questions help readers to more deeply consider the demands of Love, and identify the areas where we need God’s help to love each other better. Each time for reflection ends with a moment for prayer, first inviting readers to pray with one’s spouse, or within the quiet of one’s own heart – “I want to say: I thank you…I’m sorry…Please…” – and then providing a brief prayer to say alone or together.

Whether one is married, single, widowed, or a priest/religious, the act of speaking a thought or prayer aloud (or in our hearts) is powerful. Every one of us wants to say – needs to say – I thank you…I’m sorry…Please. In our world of noise, distractions, and rough-and-tumble interactions on social media, this moment of reflection on gratitude, sorrow and forgiveness, and asking for what we need – or how we can help another – is a welcome respite. For those of us for whom saying any of these words is difficult, their repetition throughout the booklet (after having reflected deeply on each aspect of Love) is helpful in breaking down our interior walls and leading us toward the healing God wants to give us (and to others through us) with His Love.

Despite its title, Love in Marriage is for anyone who wants to grow in their experience of God’s love, and learn how to better give and receive Love in their relationships. The booklet can be utilized in a number of ways, and would be an excellent diocesan/parish resource for both marriage preparation and enrichment programs. Its study of Love is ideal for young adults discerning their vocation to marriage or priesthood/religious life. It can be used in parish study groups, or by individuals who want to “dip their toe” into the water of Papal documents, and get a feel for how to read Scripture with a reflective heart. The booklet can help each of us to appreciate the call to Love found in every state in life, and how it is lived in marriage and family, consecrated life, and in the lives of those who are unmarried. Love in Marriage is a book for everyone, and it will help its readers to learn to love more openly, more fully, and with greater reliance on God.

In the end, Love isGod Himself, and He’s calling each one of us to follow Him in the way of Love that leads us to an abundant life (Cf. John 10:10 ) here and now – and on the path to an eternal life of Love with Him.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Reconciliation and the Call to be Ambassadors of Forgiving Love

Reconciliation is a way of being that engages a person or group in an ongoing process of forgiving another or others’ debts.  A life of reconciliation is steeped in mercy.  According to Megan McKenna,

If we are forgiven and accept the mercy of God, then we are required in justice to forgive all who walk with us.  We can exclude no one from the experience of that forgiveness… whether for trivial slights or monstrous injustices.[1]

Reconciliation is a key theme in the scriptures, which portray salvation history as God’s leading humankind back to Godself after the Fall, which disrupted the harmonious relationship of all of creation with God.  The New Testament tells the story of Jesus, the Word of God, who combined the creator/creature relationship within Himself and effected the new creation of global reconciliation through His life, death, and resurrection.

At the heart of Jesus’ public life is reconciliation.  During these brief years, He spoke of the need to be reconciled to one’s neighbor before bringing one’s gift to the altar. (Mt. 5.23)  Jesus told Peter that he should forgive others seventy times seven times.  (Mt. 18.22)  In one of His beatitudes, Jesus emphasizes the importance of engaging in peacemaking activity.  (Mt. 5. 23-24)  In His parable about the prodigal son, He sketches a portrait of a contrite son and a father with a forgiving heart who provides a lavish feast to celebrate the return of his own flesh and blood who deeply offended him.

On Easter Sunday evening, the resurrected Jesus committed His ministry of reconciliation to His disciples.  (Jn. 20.23)  Thus, He commissioned all who follow Him to continue His healing mission.  Such peacemaking activity entails living a life that promotes harmony in our world.  To engage in the ministry of reconciliation is to act as Jesus acts, i.e., to say repeatedly to those who offend you: I love you.

According to Robert Schreiter, the “perspective gained in the moment of reconciliation is the perspective God takes.”[2] This is so since the reconciliation process entails consciously focusing, as God does, on the good of the other and acknowledging and affirming his or her worth.  It involves understanding that another’s doing is never the totality of his or her being.

Essential to reconciliation is humility, i.e., viewing oneself as one really is, with strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses, virtues and faults.  Through embracing one’s humanness, one is able to accept the humanity of others.  Prayer is of utmost importance in this regard, for in communicating with God one develops a heart like unto God’s compassionate heart.

Reconciliation is a liberating act that sets the other(s) and oneself free.  By forgiving another, one walks in the freedom of fellowship with God, for without interpersonal reconciliation, one cannot be reconciled with God.  Bernard Cooke notes the ongoing need for reconciliation when he asserts:

No human group, no Christian community is without some friction and some alienation of individuals from individuals or groups from groups.  One of the most common mistakes we make in communities is to hide such differences, to carry on as if they do not exist, to avoid admitting them lest they openly divide the community. Yet, these divisions can be healed only if they are recognized and dealt with.[3]

 

Sacraments that Celebrate God’s Forgiving Love        

From this general discussion of reconciliation, let us turn our attention now to Baptism, Eucharist, and Reconciliation as sacraments that celebrate God’s forgiving love of human beings. Baptism is the basic sacrament of reconciliation, since it is the first sacrament for the forgiveness of sin.  Birth into reconciled life with God occurs through reception of this sacrament.

Following Baptism, the premier sacrament of reconciliation is the Eucharist.  As Jean-Marie Tillard notes:

… the Eucharist is … the sacramental presence and communication of the act which remits sins; as the remembrance of the expiation of the cross, it applies that expiation to those who celebrate the memorial by putting them in touch, through the bread and the cup of the meal, with the ‘once and for all’ of the paschal event itself, and calls down on the whole world the infinite mercy of God.[4]

In the early Christian Church, venial sins committed after Baptism were forgiven especially by the Eucharist and also by personal and communal prayer, fasting,  almsgiving, good works, and fraternal correction. In the 3rd century, the Church Father Origen stressed the importance of the Eucharist as the place for the forgiveness of sins.   The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts that “Through the Eucharist those who live from the life of Christ are fed and strengthened.  It is a remedy to free us from our daily faults and to preserve us from mortal sins.”[5]

The Sacrament of Reconciliation, which heals the whole person, celebrates the gift of God’s forgiving, shaloming mercy and calls Christians to live in peace.  According to Megan McKenna,

To accept the forgiveness and mercy of God is to accept the demand that we live justly and mercifully, forgiving as God does, with no strings attached.[6]

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through the celebration of God’s forgiveness of the penitent’s sins, the true minister Jesus draws the person into a renewed commitment to the way of the gospel.  The ritual of this sacrament insists that one’s sins harm others in Christ’s Body and, thus, reception of the sacrament includes reconciliation with one’s sisters and brothers who have been hurt by one’s sins.

Historically, the earliest type of this sacrament was canonical penance, which emerged as a Church practice in the 3rd century.  The baptized Christian who had committed a grave sin came before the community during the Eucharistic celebration and entered into the Order of Penitents.  In a gesture of blessing, the community leader imposed hands on the penitent and assigned him or her penance that lasted several years on average.  During the penitent’s period of penance, she or he would stand or kneel at the door of the Church and request the prayers of the community gathered for Eucharist.  When the period of public penance was completed, the penitent was restored to fullness of life in the community through participation in the Eucharist.  Noteworthy is the fact that this reconciliation did not include the utterance of any words of absolution of the penitent’s sin.

By the 6th century, Irish monks developed the modality of confessing one’s sins to a lay “soul friend” from whom one received the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  There were no words of absolution involved in this ritual.  Instead, there were prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy and goodness.

The reconciliation experience that the Irish monks introduced gradually developed into sacramental confession of a penitent to a priest who pronounced words of absolution.  So successful was private confession that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE proclaimed that every Christian who reached the age of discernment had to receive private confession once a year.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent decreed that, at least once a year, Christians must confess their mortal sins. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats the Council of Trent’s decree regarding the necessity of annual reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for serious sin. Regarding devotional confession of venial sins, the new Catechism asserts that it

… helps us form our conscience and fight against evil tendencies; it lets us be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit.  By receiving more frequently through this sacrament the gift of the Father’s mercy, we are spurred to be merciful as He is merciful.[7]

The following excerpt from new Catechism emphasizes the efficacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

The forgiven penitent is reconciled with himself in his inmost being where he regains his innermost truth.  He is reconciled with his brethren whom he has in some way offended and wounded.  He is reconciled with the Church.  He is reconciled with all creation. [8]

Despite the lack of gender inclusive language in this quote, it, nevertheless, positively points out that the experience of this sacrament can contribute considerably to the deepening of one’s commitment to radical gospel living.

Conclusion

Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch author who survived the Holocaust, relates the following personal story regarding forgiveness.   After being released from the Ravensbruck camp where her sister Betsie died, Corrie lectured widely on the need to forgive enemies.  One evening after her presentation, Corrie was greeted by a man who had been an SS guard at the shower room in the processing center at the camp where she and her sister were imprisoned.  The former guard told Corrie how grateful he was to hear her message that God had washed his sins away.  Immediately, Corrie flashed back to a room full of mocking men, heaps of clothing and her sister’s pain ridden pale face. Then, as the man attempted to shake her hand, Corrie found herself frozen, unable to respond to his gesture.  As angry, vengeful thoughts raced through her mind, she saw the sin of them.  She prayed to Jesus to help her forgive this former enemy.  Feeling not the slightest spark of charity for this former SS guard, Corrie asked Jesus for His forgiveness, since she was unable to forgive the man.  When she finally took the man’s hand, she was amazed at the current of love that passed through her hand to his.  And so Corrie Ten Boom discovered that it is on God’s mercy and love that the world’s healing hinges.

Corrie’s narrative reminds us that it is only through God’s grace that reconciliation can take place. As noted in this essay, reconciliatory activities are multiple.   No matter what are our entryways into the peacemaking process, it is important to remember that God’s way of being and acting is mercy and that God calls and graces us to be ambassadors of forgiving love.

Like Corrie, Venerable Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy), modeled what it means to exercise this ambassadorship of reconciliation.   Reflecting on Catherine as reconciler, Angela Bolster writes:

Forgiveness and reconciliation were interwoven strands of Catherine’s promotion of charity in her communities.  Without this virtue, she cautioned her Sisters that their works would be ‘froth before God, devoid of all merit’.  Indeed, her success in guiding her Sisters along this path towards the perfection of charity seems to have amazed her, given the following extract from her letter of December 1839 to Sister M. Elizabeth Moore: ‘One thing is remarkable: no breach of charity ever occurred among us.  The sun never, I believe, went down on our anger.  This is our only boast’.[9]

Like Catherine and Corrie, we, too, are called by God to commit ourselves to the ministry of reconciling forgiveness and healing love and to do so to the best of our ability in a world that hungers and thirsts for Mercy.

 

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM is Professor of Theology and Chair of the On-Campus Theology Program at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

 

[1] Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice: The Sacraments and Liturgy as Ethical Imperatives (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), 144.

[2] Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies  (New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 50.

[3] Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic CT: Twenty-Third Publications, Revised Edition, 1994), 212.

[4] Jean-Marie Tillard, “”The Bread and Cup of Reconciliation” in Sacramental Reconciliation, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 47.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), #1436, 400.

[6] McKenna, Rites of Justice, 143.

[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1458, 406.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1469, 410.

[9] Angela Bolster, R.S.M., Venerable Catherine McAuley:Liminal for Mercy (Cork, Ireland: D. & A. O’Leary Ltd., 1998), 20.

 

 

 

The Work of Bees

In 2011, some of the ancient imagery of the Easter vigil was restored to the liturgy.

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands…

Why mention bees? It is axiomatic in Christian theology that creation and redemption cannot be separated, and in the Easter vigil liturgy those small creatures, the bees, have a role in the liturgical drama of salvation by reminding us with images of that link. Saint Paul, for example, uses images of creation and recreation to signal the effect of the resurrection. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5: 16-17).

John’s gospel also uses the connection between creation and redemption. The Prologue recalls the poem of creation in Genesis 1: in the very beginning, God created light. And in that same eternal beginning was God’s creative Word, who becomes flesh. The light of Easter, coming from the candle, reminds us of the light of creation and our need to be a new creation.

The language of the liturgy is not (or should not be) didactic or abstract. Its symbolism functions not only to inform but to move us through an appeal to our imagination and affections. In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) John Henry Newman distinguished between notional and real assents and observed that in real assents the mind “is directed towards things [rather than mental creations or notions], represented by the impressions which they have left on the imagination. These images, when assented to, have an influence both on the individual and society, which mere notions cannot exert.”

It was a mistake to remove the bees from the Easter vigil. Small they may be, but the mother bees create the wax for the pillar of fire that lights the way out of darkness and into the light of the Morning Star.That same pillar is dipped into the baptismal waters when we welcome catechumens on the path of faith. The imagery of re-creation is difficult to miss.


But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious…

 

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets…

 

 

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Holy Week, Chrism, and Priesthood

Being a professor of theology, people often ask me for recommendations when introducing the Catholic faith to others. What’s the best book to use? Is there a video I can suggest to someone? For years now, my answer to these questions has been the same. If you want to introduce someone to the Catholic faith, attend as many liturgies during Holy Week as possible. Take Thursday and Friday of Holy Week off from work, and live in church. That’s my advice.

Though, in Western Christianity, we have come to see Christmas as the “high holiday” of the year, theologically speaking, it isn’t. Those three days which celebrate the Lord’s passion and culminate in his resurrection, hence the phrase Paschal (Passover) Triduum (three days), are the Christian “high holidays.” They not only re-present the mysteries of the Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection, but – if I am to be counted among the saints – they are the story of my salvation. If I am saved, it is because I am mystically joined – through faith and baptism – to Christ on Calvary. St. Paul makes this same point to the Christians at Rome. “[A]re you unaware,” he asks them, “that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). To use another reference, on Good Friday many of us no doubt will sing the African-American spiritual “Were You There?” Well, if I am united to Christ, the answer is “Yes”!

The Sacrament of Confirmation (a.k.a., Chrismation)

Many of these liturgical celebrations are very familiar to us: Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s Celebration of the Lord’s Passion (not Mass), and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Along with the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) – traditionally celebrated during the day on Good Friday – these are the most well-known and heavily attended liturgical celebrations during Holy Week. There is, however, another Mass during Holy Week that ought to be added to this list. The Mass celebrated during the day on Holy Thursday is known as the Chrism Mass. It is at this Mass that your local bishop will consecrate the oils used for sacraments (e.g., Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, etc.) and liturgical celebrations (e.g., the consecration of a church, anointing of catechumens, etc.) in your diocese throughout the year. It is a rich liturgical celebration, and I would recommend that you find the Mass schedule of your local bishop in order to attend; it is not always celebrated, according to the tradition, on Holy Thursday.

But there is more to attracting one to attend the Chrism Mass than just experiencing something new. Customarily, we are used to commemorating both our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This makes perfect sense, since “[o]n the night before he died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and at the same time established the priesthood of the New Covenant” (Sacramentum Caritatis 23). Further, the celebration of the Eucharist is at the heart of the priesthood itself (see Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience, 9 June 1993). But while the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders are most certainly intimately linked, the Chrism Mass – more than the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – is a celebration of the priesthood. In addition to the Blessing of Oils, this Mass contains within it a Renewal of Priestly Promises; and the scriptural readings point to the biblical use of oils for consecrating, i.e., ‘setting apart,’ a person for a holy task or office.  

While the Chrism Mass is perhaps the annual celebration of Christ’s institution of the priesthood, it should also remind us of the holy task to which we are all called. It is a celebration of the ministerial priesthood, established in the sacrament of Holy Orders. But it should also remind us all of the priesthood of all believers, established in the sacraments of initiation. All Christians, by virtue of their Baptism, are called to preach, govern, and sanctify in the world; just as those who have received Holy Orders are called to preach, govern, and sanctify in the Church. All Christians have been set apart for this task, and made “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6; cf. 1 Pt 2:9). The ministerial priesthood and priesthood of all believers both participate in the one priesthood of Christ, and together form one Church (see Lumen Gentium 10).

So if you happen to see a priest on Holy Thursday, it would be an appropriate day to thank him for his ministry. Then consider your own call to holiness, and the grace you have received through Baptism in order to fulfill this call. That’s your priestly vocation!

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Seeking God’s Forgiveness During Lent

Lent is an excellent time for seeking God’s forgiveness via the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, God cleanses us from our sins and reunites us to Christ. Although you may be apprehensive at the onset of disclosing your sins to priest, it is really Christ to whom you are confessing your sins, as the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. You will exit the confessional filled with God’s graces of gratitude, humility, joy and peace.

As a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) Coordinator for my parish, I work with people coming from other Christian faiths (or even no faith) who wish to consider becoming Catholic. One of the most common questions I get is “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Why can’t you just ask God directly for forgiveness?” To answer these questions, this video from Bustedhalo.com gives the best answers:

Seeking God’s forgiveness, along with that of the community, brings us back into union with God and neighbor. Lent is the perfect time to do that, as Jesus is at the ready to issue His pardon for our sins. So, make the time to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for the Easter celebration. Open your heart, not only to God’s forgiveness, but that of your neighbor as well. By doing so, you will make your Lenten season more fruitful, not just for you, but for those around you. Then, be a witness for others to the saving grace of Christ received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

This post first appeared on www.virginialieto.com.

Ash Wednesday and Forgetfulness

From the perspective of those outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday appears odd. On one occasion, I can recall – on the campus of a Catholic college, no less – overhearing undergraduates speculate that ashes on the foreheads of students must be the product of “pledge week” for fraternities and sororities. (Yikes!) Frequently, in the classroom, I would encounter the belief that Christians should always be aware of their need for redemption, and that the practice of distributing ashes one day a year served to undercut what should be a constant mindfulness. In other words, it makes what should be a daily awareness into an annual activity. While I would agree that the disciple of Christ should always be mindful of his/her need for redemption, and Christ’s abundant love for us in bringing it about, the human reality is that we are in need of constant reminding. We forget. And we not only forget because we have poor memories, we forget because we have fallen memories.

If we take the time to reflect upon memory, we should be struck by its power. After all, it is a sort of conjuring. My Nonna (of blessed memory) passed away some years ago, and yet I can recall her image, the sound of her voice, and how the soft skin of her wrinkled hand felt against mine. Every now and again, I will even associate a particular scent with that of her home. It’s difficult to describe but, when prompted by a similar smell, I’ll say to myself: “That smells like Nonna’s house.” The substantial existence of these things has long since gone, but in my memory I experience them again. What a truly marvelous gift we human beings have been given!

Lent is that time of the liturgical year when we especially recall the gospel proclamation of Christ himself: “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15; see Mt 4:17). During today’s Mass, a portion of this passage is one of two that one might hear when receiving ashes; the other being: “Remember that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gen 3:19). It is a somewhat traditional English translation to render the word “repent” in this verse from the original word “metanoeite,” but the Greek word has a much richer meaning. It is a combination of the words “mind” [nous] and “beyond” [meta], and one could interpret this word rather physically as meaning “take your head and turn it 180 degrees.” In one sense, a better English word than “repent” is “conversion.” What we remember today is that Christ calls us to himself, to live in communion with him, and that this communion requires being attuned to him in heart, soul, and mind (cf. Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). In short, today Christ calls us to “return to [him] with [our] whole heart” (Jl 1:12).

For the disciple of Christ, this turning of heart and mind should be a daily occurrence, an ever present mindfulness. But all too often, we forget. And forgetfulness often doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually our memories erode like stones by the seashore. Prayer becomes simply rote, then neglected. Reception of the sacraments (especially confession!) becomes infrequent. One’s spiritual life becomes the discrete unit of a time-managed schedule “blocked off” on Sundays from 10 am to noon.

If the above description resonates with you, today Christ is proclaiming his good news to you. This is not because he has waited for the appropriate day on the liturgical calendar to do so (he is always calling to you). But because we fragile human beings need more explicit reminders of Christ’s call to conversion from time to time. We need Ash Wednesday because we forget. We forget that Christ’s love for us calls for our love in response. We forget that our love for him is lived out in a life of prayer, fasting, and charity. And we forget that this life – while not easy – is joyful.

And so today we are reminded of death, so that we may live. We are reminded of our mortality, so that we might enjoy immortality. We are reminded of our sin, so that we might be reconciled to God. We are reminded on this one particular day, that Christ calls us to himself each and every day

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

 

 

Breaking News: Pope Francis Values the Sacrament of Matrimony

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on September 21, 2014. (With the Post-Synodal Exhortation on its way this Friday, we thought it was appropriate.)

On Sunday September 14, 2014 Pope Francis celebrated a Holy Mass with the Rite of Marriage inside St. Peter Basilica. It also was on the occasion of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In his homily during the Mass, Pope Francis made some important connections between the feast day and the Sacrament of Matrimony, between the new life that is found through the Holy Cross and new life that is found in Holy Matrimony.

As to be expected, “the press” captured the opportunity to discuss this significant Holy Mass, especially since popes don’t regularly preside over a Mass with the Rite of Marriage. I wrestled with two different options for a topic for this article: (1) point out the errors of the media; or (2) focus on the truth of what Pope Francis stated in his homily. Certainly we must be ready to stand up for the truth and correct errors. One specific passage from Scripture comes to mind: “Always be prepared to make a defense [Greek apologian] to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15 RSVCE). But in apologetics, there is a danger of focusing too heavily on the errors of our critics and not enough on the reason for our hope: the truth that is found in Christ Jesus (cf. John 14:6).

Pope Picture at WeddingIn his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the first reading of the day, and he recalled that when the Israelites were on their journey through the desert, they became impatient (cf. Numbers 21:4). But married couples, too, as they walk together through the journey of life, can become impatient, even with each other. Pope Francis makes this exact point:

Here our thoughts turn to married couples who “become impatient on the way,” the way of conjugal and family life. The hardship of the journey causes them to experience interior weariness; they lose the flavour of matrimony and they cease to draw water from the well of the Sacrament. Daily life becomes burdensome, and often, even “nauseating.”

This is not a great frame of mind for any married person to be in. Whether you’re Catholic or not, you can recognize that married life can be difficult at times.

Because of the impatience of the Israelites, they failed to see the threat which was about to take them by surprise. “During such moments of disorientation … poisonous serpents come and bite the people, and many die” the pope commented. In married life there are serpents that attempt to attack the husband and wife. The serpents which threaten married life are seeking the death of their relationship. But the Israelites had a remedy to the serpents’ poisonous bites: they could look at Moses’ staff and recover (cf. Numbers 21:8). Likewise, married couples and indeed all people have a remedy, as we learn from our Savior:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14-17).

Married couples, when facing “nauseating” days and weeks, can gaze upon the Cross of Jesus Christ and recognize a preeminent sign of God’s love for His people (cf. Romans 5:8). Pope Francis expresses his confidence in the One who can bring aid:

The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who ‘have become impatient on the way’ and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment… To them too, God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.

One might be tempted to think: “Of course… the Pope is going to say ‘Jesus is the answer’ and the Catholic blogger is going to agree. For those of us who are really in a troubled marriage, what can we do?” But the pope’s advice is the most real, the most concrete, advice that anyone will ever give us. If spouses try to heal their relationship on their own, they will quickly lose hope and they will fail. But if spouses entrust themselves to the living God who loves them beyond measure, they will be able to love each other with God’s love through the Holy Spirit: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). We always have hope when we trust the One who makes all things new (cf. Revelation 21:5).

Edward Trendowski is Director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Jesus Effect

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – in light of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States. This article originally appeared on February 11, 2015. 

 

Pope2CongressScreenshot-1024x567Much has been made of the so-called Francis Effect in the public relations game the secular media plays with the Church. At first, it seemed a boon to the Church, though the jury is still out as to its lasting impact. But even Pope Francis himself would agree that it is not the Francis Effect that we want in our lives. It is a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We want the Jesus Effect.

The name Jesus means “God saves”. We hear these phrases often – “Jesus saves” or “You must accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” And these things are true. Jesus does save us from the power of sin, and he is very, very personal. He knows each one of us intimately, and longs for us to know him just as well.

In coming to know Jesus, we come to know our true selves. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We know this God has revealed himself to be nothing other than LOVE itself. God is love – we read it in John’s Gospel. We are made in the image and likeness of LOVE. When you look in the mirror, do you see LOVE looking back at you?

We all try to be loving people. And we know from experience that when we love, we are happier. If we are made in the image of LOVE, then, when we love, we are being our true selves. This is why the more we get to know Jesus, the more we come to know our true selves. We are made to love. We are made to love and to be loved. We are always loved by God – this is what enables us to know how to love others (and to actually do it!). The power of this love is far more powerful than the power of sin. Both powers are more powerful than we are. We easily become “slaves to sin” because, without the power to overcome it, we can only give in to it. But with the power of love – AH. We are no longer slaves – we are free to love, free to be our true selves. You can see why it is so important to be in relationship with Jesus always, to seek him out, and to value every encounter with him.

I struggle to find words that adequately describe the power of this love experienced in an encounter with Jesus. Powerful, yes. Safe and secure. Energizing. Liberating. I think depending on where we are in our lives and what challenges we are facing, this love will have a different effect on us. It is interesting to look at some examples from the Scriptures of people who encountered Christ, and ponder the Jesus Effect in their lives.

John the Baptist (Luke 1:39-45/ Matthew 3:13-17)

visitation-1John the Baptist first encounters Jesus while both are still in their mothers’ wombs! When Mary arrives for her visit to Elizabeth, John leaps in her womb – he leaps for joy. He recognizes the presence of Jesus, and is happy – so happy he can’t control himself. He wants to come out and play with Jesus. The joy present in that moment is immense.

Can you think of a moment when you encountered Jesus and simply experienced pure and utter joy?

This same boy who recognized Jesus from his first encounter becomes the one who facilitates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the world. John was baptizing people as they acknowledged their sins, but he was always fully aware that he was merely preparing people for their encounter with Jesus – calling them to repentance so that when the One who could forgive sin and conquer it –really take its power away – arrived, they would be ready to hand over their sins and be purified with love. John knows that Jesus does not need to be baptized for the sake of forgiving his sins – Jesus doesn’t have any! But Jesus tells him to do it anyway. The humility of John to do as he is told by Jesus, even without understanding, is rewarded with the voice of God affirming Jesus’ identity. His encounter with Jesus resulted in a trust in his way.

Can you think of a moment when you did something you felt God was calling you to do, even though it didn’t make any sense to you?

In our baptism, we die and rise with Christ – united to his Paschal Mystery. Our original sin is washed away – our lives controlled by sin dies, and a new life – freed by love – rises. Our dying and rising is united to Jesus’ death and resurrection – our lives become witnesses to the power of love over sin. Baptism is first a personal union with God – but in becoming personally united to God, we become joined to all the others who are united to God, and we love who are not yet united to God as God loves them. We desire that they, too, will come to know the love of God that we know. We become a community; we become church.

Now, just because we are baptized does not mean we are all loving and never sin. We know that’s not true! But God’s love for us is so great that he gives us many opportunities to become reunited to him. The most powerful opportunities are those we are given by participating in the sacramental life of the Church. Baptism brings us into the loving embrace of our God – the rest of the sacraments sustain us in that love. They are genuine encounters with Christ, and they have a Jesus Effect on us.

The Jesus Effect is not always one of joy. In Luke’s gospel, we meet someone who encounters Jesus and, instead of leaping for joy, breaks down in tears.

The Pardon of the Sinful Woman (Luke 7:36-50) is one of my favorite Scripture passages. Imagine what it must have been like to meet Jesus while he walked the earth. This woman’s response to meeting Jesus was one of utter humility and repentance. The two go hand in hand. You can’t really be repentant without being humble first. Humility enables us to acknowledge that we are not perfect. Humility is the greatest form of honesty, I think. We acknowledge who we are in front of God – not in front of anyone else, not compared to anyone else. It is just our true self – and how well we are being that (or not). Her response to Jesus was so beautiful because in it, she is saddened by her own sinfulness, while being completely overwhelmed by the forgiveness offered to her. Her focus is completely on Jesus. She is not distracted by the others present who speak ill of her. The power of the love of Jesus is so strong that it overshadows their sneers. Imagine that!

Can you think of a moment when you encountered the love of God so strongly that it silenced all the negative voices around you, at least in your ears? Now – can you think of a moment when you were that love of God to another?

The sacrament of reconciliation is an intense moment of this kind of love, and the season of Lent of a perfect time to encounter Jesus in this way. We can bring anything to confession, and Jesus will give us graces to overcome these temptations. He judges us only to save us – he judges what it is in our lives that is keeping us apart from him – and he tells us to stop doing these things – AND he gives us the grace to do so. He doesn’t leave us hanging. He wants to be intimately united to us. He gives us all we need to do it. This is the Jesus Effect – and it is everlasting.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College.

Receiving the Eucharist with the Proper Disposition

Father Michael Schmitz has one of the most effective campus ministries in the country at the University of Minnesota.  He tells a story about back when he was in the seminary in the late 1970s.  Though we wouldn’t do it today, back then his particular seminary used regular loaves of bread for Holy Communion. During the distribution of the Eucharist the priest would break off pieces and give them to the people when they came up to the altar.  Though they tried their best, there were always crumbs that would fall to the floor.  One of the seminarians would stay in the chapel after Mass every day and quietly and reverently kneel down and eat all the crumbs off of the floor.  One day Schmitz asked him why he did that, and the answer was something that he would never forget.

real presenceThe seminarian had spent a year in China as a missionary.  He heard a true story about the days when the Communists first took over, and how they would go into churches and ransack everything.  One day they attacked a Catholic Church.  They took down all the statues and broke them to into pieces.  They smashed out all of the stain glass windows, and toppled the altar.  Then they took the tabernacle and through it out the back door.  The priest watched in horror as it hit the ground and all of the consecrated hosts were scattered.  There was nothing he could do.  The soldiers had arrested him and locked him in a tool shed in back of the church.  The priest was in there for days, as three young Chinese soldiers stood guard with rifles.  He kept an eye out for the scattered hosts as he prayed, asking that God would somehow send deliverance.

That evening, once it was dark, he saw a little girl, about 10 years old, outside.  She hid behind the trees and bushes so that the guards wouldn’t see her.  Then she kneeled down and picked up one of the sacred hosts with her mouth.  She slowly and reverently consumed the host and left.  The children were taught that they could never touch the Blessed Sacrament, and they could only receive once a day.  So she returned each evening.  Darting in and out between the shadows.  And each night she would kneel down and consume one of the hosts.

The priest knew how many hosts had been in the tabernacle.  And he watch as the girl returned every night until there was only one host left.  The priest kept an eye on that host from the window of the shed, and he also kept an eye on the guards.  That night he saw the little girl again.  She was quiet, fast and very careful not to be noticed by the soldiers.  She knelt down and consumed the very last host, and as she got up, she tripped and fell.  The guards heard her and rushed over.  Then they beat the poor little girl to death with the butts of their rifles.  With tears in his eyes, the seminarian said, “That’s why I do it.  That’s why I eat the crumbs off the floor every day.  I never forgot that story, and ever since then, there’s nothing more precious to me than the Blessed Sacrament.”

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, in what is known as the Bread of Life Discourse, are some of the most profound words in all of scripture. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  Jesus told the Jews that he is the living bread that came down from heaven, and that whoever eats this bread will live forever.  And the bread that He will give is his flesh for the life of the world.

The Jews understood this very literally, and that’s why most of them left and went back to their families and former ways of living.  They said, “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?”  Jesus didn’t try to explain that he was just speaking symbolically.  No, he meant exactly what he said.  The Church has understood from the beginning that the Bread of Life refers to the Sacrament of the Eucharist.  The New Testament scriptures make this clear, and so does the history and testimony of the early church.

Saint Justin, around the year 145, explained what the Church believes about the Eucharist: “We call this food Eucharist, and no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is hereby living as Christ has enjoined.  For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught by his apostles, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by him, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.” The Eucharist is indeed the “Bread of Life,” and by it we are nourished for all eternity.

At Mass, the King of the universe comes down from heaven, onto the altar and into you and me.  When we receive the Bread of Life with the proper disposition, we are changed forever.  Disposition is an attitude of mind and heart.  Let me share with you an example of someone who had the proper disposition.  One Saturday morning, I was at Mass sitting in a pew beside a young boy in the second grade who was receiving his first Holy Communion that day.  He had missed receiving his first Holy Communion with his class.  His father was sitting on the other side of him……When the time came, the young boy went up to receive Communion.  He bowed reverently, received in his hands and consumed the sacred host.  When he returned to his pew, he knelt and prayed.  I knelt down next to him.  After several minutes his father turned to him and asked, “Son, do you feel any different now that you have received your first Holy Communion?”  The boy turned and looked his father in the eye and said, “Yes, Dad, I do feel different.  I feel very different.  I feel God inside.”

That young man received Communion with the proper disposition, the attitude of mind and heart that leads to eternal life.  Saint Cyril, in the 4th century, said that the Christian who consumes the Bread of Life becomes a “Christbearer,” one body and blood with him and the covenant is sealed.  Then we are sent out of the church to be what we are called to be – a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s invisible grace for the whole world to see, and know and draw closer to him.  This is the proper disposition.  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  This is why we do it.

Deacon Greg Ollick is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

United in Christ

IMG_1158Do we come to Mass to worship God and offer sacrifice? Or do we come to Mass to be part of a community and share a meal? The answer is both. The liturgy contains within it both a vertical and a horizontal dimension, and these are related to each other.

The vertical dimension of the liturgy refers to each person’s individual relationship with God. Each of us comes to the liturgy as a unique person. We come to offer these individual lives to God the Father, through Jesus the Son. I offer my life, contrite for my sin, to the Father in heaven. Jesus mediates this offering for me. Uniting my offering to that of Jesus enables my offering to be accepted by God the Father. The Father accepts my offering and returns my life to me full of grace, united with Jesus in Holy Communion.

The horizontal dimension of the liturgy refers to each person’s relationship to those with whom they are worshipping. This should be considered in the broadest of terms, that is,  not only those present, but to all of humanity, and all the angels and saints, as well. In the liturgy, bread and wine are offered and shared, and in the sharing of the elements, a unity results. The shared elements, by virtue of the sacrificial offering, are the Body and Blood of Christ.

The unity, then, is not a result of the act of sharing, but rather of the fact that each individual is united to Jesus Christ, both in the offering of themselves to the Father with Christ, and in the reception of Holy Communion. We are not united by common interests or similar tastes, or simply because we happen to belong to the same parish community. We are united in Christ, the strongest of bonds.

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College.