Mercy at the Feast 

Imagine when you die that you are met by Jesus and He shows you a video of your entire life. In it, you see all the good things you did. But there are also a number of blank minutes on the video. You wonder what the blank spots are. Jesus looks at you with love and tell you these were all the times you sinned and asked for God’s mercy and forgiveness. When God forgives, He forgives completely and forgets completely. A wonderful image of forgiveness in the Gospels is the story of the woman who comes to Christ at the banquet table (Matthew 26:5-6). Her unrestrained contrition and deep yearning for God’s forgiveness is a beautiful model for each of us. She reminds us of the treasure of true forgiveness. Do you suppose the people at the banquet table with Jesus were embarrassed at the behavior of the woman because of her heartfelt desire for forgiveness and her profound gratitude at being forgiven? Do you think she reminded the guests of their own sins and how much each one of them should also be kneeling, weeping, and loving?

Jesus teaches us that the more we’ve been forgiven, the more we need to forgive others. Love and forgiveness are inextricably bound together. If I am a person who loves little and sparingly, I probably also only forgive little and sparingly and probably as well have a hard time believing that God truly forgives me. If I love little, I am also probably judgmental of others. Jesus came not merely to forgive sins, but to bring love. Indeed, He is Love personified. At the banquet, when Jesus said that the woman’s sins were forgiven because she had very great love, His listeners were doubly convicted of their own sins, because they didn’t love much or forgive much and they didn’t recognize Jesus as being Love.

There’s no magic in being able to forgive others. It begins and ends with God’s grace. But it is how we allow and encourage that grace to unfold within our hearts that transforms us into Love. The only way to love and forgive as Christ does is to give ourselves entirely to Jesus. This can never happen if we are holding onto our own sins. We need to be the woman at the banquet. Christ gives us that opportunity in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (John 20:15-16). He invites us to meet Him there just as we are, in the midst of our own sinfulness, with all the baggage of our past sins and hurts, our angry feelings and resentments. He asks us to give Him our contrite hearts so that His love and mercy can transform them into His own. When His great Love meets our brokenness, we are made whole in Christ. All the self-help psychobabble in the world can never give you the peace that Christ offers in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you want to spend the rest of your life arguing in defense of your weaknesses, so be it. If you want to go on telling yourself, “That’s just how I am and I can’t change it,” go ahead. If you want to go on blaming your parents, your teachers, your first ex-wife or your old boss, feel free. If you want someone to explain away your unhappiness or justify your sins because of your childhood, your toilet-training, or your addictions, go to a psychologist. But if you want true peace in your heart, come to confession. If you want to be the person He created you to be, come receive His grace and forgiveness in Reconciliation. It’s just that simple and just that miraculous. You see, there’s a banquet of love and mercy waiting there—for you. Jesus has saved a place of honor there by His side—for you. Love Himself is waiting there—for you.

“There can be no hope for me except in Your great mercy.” —St. Augustine (354-430 AD)

With Arms Wide Open

You may have heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who go through life with their arms wide open, embracing whatever comes their way. There are others who journey with their arms held tightly against their chests, protective and defensive. Maybe most of us are mixtures of both postures—sometimes unafraid and open to life, and at other times we are more fearful, afraid of losing what we have. These days, nothing seems sure anymore. Everyone is calling for change, though not necessarily the same change. Things appear erratic, unpredictable, and uncertain. It’s no wonder so many of us may feel like withdrawing into ourselves and protecting what is ours.

But for Christians, there is certainty; there is unchanging truth; there is peace. Listen to what St. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Phillipi: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” St. Paul reminds us that we live in the loving, open embrace of God here and now. He calls us to return that embrace in an openness of spirit, holding nothing back. It’s interesting that one of the first postures in Christian worship is one in which the arms are open wide and raised above the shoulders. It’s how a child raises their hands to be picked up by their daddy. Some of the oldest Christian frescoes in the Roman catacombs depict the faithful praying to God in this way. There are 153 such frescoes of Christians in the “orans” posture. “Orans” is Latin for “one who prays.” Catholics see our priests lead us in prayer this way at each Mass. Arms wide open, lifted up, praising and thanking God for His gifts and open to receiving whatever His goodness sends to us. Our posture in prayer is an outward expression of how our hearts and minds are formed towards God. The earliest Christians knew that and their paintings reflect a triumphant and hope-filled worship despite their persecutions.

We also see this “open to grace” posture in the architecture of Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. The Renaissance artist Giovanni Bernini designed a colonnade of 284 stone columns which appear to reach out and gather in the faithful as they approach the church home of our Catholic faith. Robert Browning described this effect in his poem “Christmas Eve” when he wrote “with arms wide open to embrace the entry of the human race.” This goes against what many have recently said about all the walls around the Vatican. If you’ve been there, you know that isn’t true. Catholics also know the iconic black and white photograph of Blessed Miguel Pro, a Mexican Jesuit priest, who was murdered for his faith by a government firing squad on November 23, 1927. Just before the guns fired on him, Fr. Pro flung his arms open wide and shouted, “Vivo Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!” Of course these cultural images of openness and embrace have as their source, the One Source of all Life and Truth and Love: Christ on the Cross. At the very moment when He should have been most afraid and most defensive, Jesus’ love for us held His arms wide open to pour Himself out completely for you and for me. He held nothing back, embracing His Father’s will, surrendering Himself to Love. We are called to imitate Christ, not just when life is easy and opening ourselves to it feels safe and good. But all the time, in every moment of joy and in our fears and hurts as well. As St. Paul says, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything…” The God of peace waits with His arms wide open, ready to pick you up.

“The love we give is the only love we keep.” —Elbert Hubbard 

Send Us Your Saints!

A young man that I know is considering becoming a Catholic priest. He’s a junior at a fine college, studying electrical engineering. He’s been offered graduate scholarships to some of this country’s most prestigious universities. He’s handsome, athletic, and has a great sense of humor. In short, he’s one of those guys you could easily imagine happily married with kids, making a six-figure salary and living in a gated community on a golf course. But he believes that God has called him to another kind of life, a radically different life. He believes that Jesus Christ has called him to the priesthood. While his friends are dating and planning for life and work after college, this young man spends his weekends visiting seminaries and volunteering at a local soup kitchen.

Two thousand years ago, a group of men also heard the call of God to His greater purpose. Simple men, flawed and imperfect men, whose “yes” to God changed the world. They left their lives, their jobs and their families and, owning almost nothing, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving and hostile world. For living out their call, they were imprisoned and tortured. Every one of them was killed for their belief in Christ. Their lives were laid down for the Savior they loved and Who had loved and died for them. Looking at this young man I know, I can see some of that same commitment and faith which empowered the Apostles to become more than the fishermen or tax collectors they had been before their calling. Does that make this young man unusual in today’s world? I don’t think so.

Young people want to change the world. They want to give themselves over to a great cause that will give meaning and purpose to their lives. So why are so few young people being called to religious life today? Why do we have a shortage of priests in America? In my own opinion, it’s because we Catholics aren’t teaching our children the Gospel of Christ. To begin with, we don’t know our own faith well enough to discuss it with our children. We can’t expect a couple of hours of religious education classes each week to ground our kids in the faith the Apostles died for. We have to know and to live out our faith each day as examples to them. When they come to us with questions about Jesus or His Church, we need to give them the right answers, or at least know where to find the right answers. Talking about Christ and our faith should be a natural part of family life, as natural as talking about school or sports. And yet how many of us have talked with our kids about Christ during the last week?

While family life is the garden that grows vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the larger Church also has to live up to her responsibility as the depository of our faith. Sunday homilies need to challenge us more. We need to leave Mass inspired by the truth of Christ and convicted of the changes we need to make in our lives in order to live out the truth of His Gospel. We need more Jesus and less Oprah, more courage to live as Christ and less fear that what we say or do as Christians might offend someone. Sometimes the truth isn’t easy to hear, but truth is what saves us and transfigures us into the God we adore. The Church needs to focus less on appearing “relevant” to a modern congregation and courageously proclaim Christ crucified. If we preach the Gospel, we’ll have vocations to the priesthood. If we live out that Gospel, we won’t be able to build enough seminaries to hold all the men called to serve Christ and His Church. We need fearless leadership within the Catholic Church in this country, to stand up for the Gospel, to challenge the Church to preach Jesus Christ to the modern world. As Catholics, we should pray that God will send us this leadership, these shepherds who can guide us out of the doldrums of the past generation. Throughout the history of our Church, God has raised up Saints among us whenever His Bride is in need of reformation. May our prayer for the Church our children will inherit be: “Lord, send us Your Saints!”

“Here am I; send me.”

      —-Isaiah 6:8 

The Real “Old Time Religion”

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to go to church with the Apostles? Think of it—hearing the Gospel preached by men who had actually lived it with the Lord Himself? To know how they worshipped and prayed and what they believed and taught–surely this would enrich our own lives as Christians. We probably all know of churches or ministries that have tried to recapture “the basics” of our Christian beliefs and practices. But did you know that we have a description of that very early Church? We know when and how they worshipped and what they taught their new members. We know how they prayed and when. We know what an early church service would look like and sound like. We know it all.

The early Church faced grave threats from the Roman Empire which killed hundreds of thousands of believers for their faith. We also know that the Church faced threats to the faith from other so-called Christians who denied many of the truths taught by Christ. And so, to further the unity and strengthen the faith of the early Church, a catechism was written sometime between 48 and 110 AD. This was during the lifetime of many of the Apostles including Sts. Peter, James, and John. There is an authority in this text because so many who personally saw and heard our Lord teaching and preaching were present when this document was drafted. It’s called “The Didache” which means “teaching” and it predates the writing of most of the books of the New Testament by several years.

Most scholars believe that the Didache was compiled in Antioch in Syria, the place where the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.” St. Peter himself was the founding bishop of the Church in Antioch. The document itself is brief, just sixteen chapters, and is easy to read and understand. It covers morals, prophecy, the Sacraments of the Church and the Liturgy. The opening sections describe the living of the Christian life as illustrated by the words of Christ. The second section describes Christian worship. Baptism in running water is required as entry to Christian life. Either immersion or pouring water over the head is allowed. Fasting was observed on Wednesdays and Fridays as a means of penance for sin and a means of focusing on matters of the spirit. The Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday. Holy Communion was denied to those that were not baptized or those Christians who were guilty of serious sin. Confession was required before Communion would be allowed to them. These earliest Christians clearly believed that the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Bishops, priests, and deacons were the ministers of the Eucharist and presided at worship. The Didache goes on to uphold the teaching authority of the Church through Her bishops. Abortion is condemned: “You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.” The ancient beliefs and practices of the early Christian Church contained in the Didache are reaffirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Holy Mass, the Sacraments, the teaching authority that Christ gave to His Church—these foundations of faith were given to us by Jesus. They were recorded in the Gospels and in the Didache and they are preserved and maintained in the Church Christ founded on the rock of St. Peter. The early Church remains ever new.
“Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.”                                                                                                                        —Didache, Chapter 1

Prayers For The Dying 

When we opened the door of his hospital room, we could hear his labored and uneven breathing. My friend’s uncle, now almost 90, was in his final battle with heart disease. I’d met him a few times over the years, but the man in the hospital bed looked little like the burly, overpowering man he’d been until the last few years. He was thin and gray, with his eyes closed, grasping at the sheets with bony fingers, using all his energy just to breathe. He hadn’t wanted his doctors to put him on a ventilator, so all he had helping him was an oxygen mask. I felt terrible, watching his agony.

But it was more than the hospital smell and the sound of his struggling breaths that was affecting me. There was a heavy, oppressive feeling to this room. Imagine gravity suddenly doubling and you’ll get the idea. The air itself seemed weighted and thick. It felt like I was being pushed down into my shoes. My friend felt it, too He slumped into the only chair and I saw his shoulders fall forward. I didn’t like being there. It felt wrong and somehow, ugly. You know how they say you can sense the presence of evil? It believe it. Not that I thought my friend’s uncle was an evil man. He’d always been pleasant enough to be around, if a little bit loud. I’d never felt this sort of darkness around him before. But then, he’d never been on his deathbed before. So, as the old man struggled with each breath, my friend and I prayed for him. I have the Divine Mercy app on my phone and we spent the next several minutes praying those beautiful words out loud. I’d like to say that the dark, oppressive feeling in the room disappeared right away. Or that my friend’s uncle sat up, fully healed and asking for pudding. But none of that happened. Instead, he died later that night, alone, in his hospital room.

In the Divine Mercy prayers, we ask for God’s mercy on us, on the person who is dying, and for everyone in the world. Our sins offend Him every day and yet His great mercy is so much more than the weight of those sins. God delights when we ask for that mercy. We put all our trust in His love for us, in His blood shed for us on the Cross, and in the hope of the resurrection. The prayers are comforting and tender and are among my favorite devotions. I think I’m drawn to them because I know the darkness of my own sins and how very much I need His mercy. It’s a grace when you know that you sin. A grace I don’t deserve.  

As we prayed for him there at his bedside, I imagined the angels who knelt there, too and prayed along with us. Surely his uncle’s guardian angel was there, and others as well. Were there other spirits in the room, too? Darker energies who feast on despair and anger and loneliness? Maybe their presence was the oppression and heaviness we’d felt when we entered the room. I don’t know. Maybe it was just the nearness of death. Our voyage through this life and into the next one is a mysterious one.. The love of Christ is our hope and our light through a world that is often dark and sorrowful. And yet, even HIs infinite love for us is a mystery, as well. I know that being with anyone as they approach death is a privilege and grace. Praying for them as they journey out of this life is a gift that should never be refused, no matter the difficulty. When you have that chance, be there for them. Pray for the mercy of God and for the grace to love and forgive until each of us take our last breath here.

We weren’t there for him when he passed from this life, but I believe our prayers were. I believe the angels were there that night, long after visiting hours were over, keeping vigil and praying for his soul. No prayer is ever unheard by our Lord. That’s another mystery of our faith. One of the great gifts we share as Christians is praying for one another. Our words rise like the smoke of incense (Revelation 8:4) and are sweet and pleasing to Him. We’re all on this journey together and we need each other every step along the way. Don’t ever miss the opportunity to pray for a brother or sister as they pass on to eternity.

“We are all just walking each other home.” —Richard Alpert