Preparing for Death

“A good death.” You hear that said in Catholic families who are facing the loss of someone they love. Non-Catholics usually have no idea what this means. This is because a) most folks could never imagine death or any of its trappings to be “good” and b) many non-Catholics believe that their salvation is assured beyond any doubt. As usual, we Catholics have a rather different understanding of both death and our salvation.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven at our baptism. We are initiated by those waters into the new life of Christ and His Church. We know as well that we will sin after our baptism. Jesus knew this too, which is why He instituted the sacrament of confession. While with His disciples, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained ‘ “(John 20:22-23). From the beginning, the Apostles began baptizing and healing and forgiving sins. Confession has been a function of our priests since the very earliest years of the Church. So confession is something God wants us to make use of whenever we commit serious sin. In it, we encounter His mercy and forgiveness. We remain in God’s grace when confession is used regularly. Through it we receive His sanctifying grace which helps us to resist sin.

We confess because Jesus told us to and because He empowered His Apostles and their successors to share His forgiveness with us. Like St. Paul teaches, we know that our salvation is a gift which, through sin, we can abuse and lose. “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). Our faith must take root and work in our lives or it is a gift that is lost.

So what is a “good death?” For Catholics, we pray and hope to die in the grace of God, sharing His friendship. To that end, we should go to confession whenever we’ve committed serious sin and frequently receive Holy Communion. If we are ill with physical or emotional disease we should receive the Anointing of the Sick which will strengthen us in our journey. If you are undergoing surgery, you should request this anointing. What used to be called “the last rites” includes anointing as well as confession and Holy Communion. If someone in your family is Catholic and is seriously ill, it’s important that these Sacraments be made available to them. Like many Catholics, I wear a medal that requests a priest to be called in case of an emergency. As we say, if I’m in an accident, call a priest first and then call the doctor. My soul needs healing, too.

Dying in the grace of God is a wonderful comfort to the patient and to all those dear to them. We Catholics also believe that our prayers should continue after the death of our loved one. God alone knows the fate of each soul, so it’s an act of charity to pray for the dead. We are all part of the Body of Christ and praying for one another is what families do.

Each of us should consider the state of our soul. Catholics call this “an examination of conscience.” It’s a good habit to acquire because it keeps your heart tender towards your sins. At the end of every day, think back on your actions and thoughts and words. Consider how your sins affect your soul and your relationship with God. We are all going to come face-to-face with The Lord at the end of our lives. Surely we’ll want to meet Him in a state of grace. We want to meet Him with no regrets, having lived a life pleasing to God and poured out in service to one another. Part of running “the race” (II Timothy 4:7) that St. Paul writes about is keeping close to God and allowing His grace to transform us. We live in the joy of Christ, so that when we meet Him, He’ll welcome us into His arms.

“Precious in the sight of The Lord is the death of His Saints.”

—Psalm 116:15

The Prodigal

If you’re a sinner like me, you’ve got to love the parable of the Prodigal Son. In the story, Jesus reveals to us the depth and eagerness of God’s merciful love for us. St. Luke is the only source that we have for this story, a parable Jesus told to some Pharisees and His disciples. It’s the last in a series of these stories including the Parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Each is meant to illustrate the love and mercy God wants to give us and to show how much He values us. They tell us we are His family, and for Jesus’ audience, it was a revolutionary idea to imagine God Almighty as our Father.  

The parable describes a father and his two sons. The younger son is tired of life on the farm and tells his father that he wants his share of his inheritance now, so that he can get out of what he sees as a pretty boring life. It’s as if he says to his father, “I can’t wait for you to die, so give me my share now.” Ouch. At that time, the firstborn son would have received 2/3 of the estate and the younger son the remaining third. The father gives him his share and the prodigal son heads out for a distant, I.e. pagan country. “Prodigal” means “wastefully extravagant” and that’s how he goes about living his new life. He spends his fortune on wild living and, of course, he’s soon broke. On top of that, a famine strikes his new land and he’s forced to take work as a swineherd for a pagan master. This would have been absolutely awful work for a Jew. But he’s desperate. He’s so hungry that he wants to eat the slop he’s feeding to the pigs. That’s when he realizes what a mess he’s made of his life. He decides to return home to his father and beg his forgiveness. He doesn’t expect to be treated as a son anymore, but will be grateful just to be a hired hand. So he heads home.  

And then we’re told something that, for me, reveals the face and the heart of our Heavenly Father. Jesus says that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him”(Luke 15:21). What a wonderful image of the Lord, Who waits for us, looks for us, and hopes for us to return to Him. Even when we are far away from Him, living a sinful life, degrading our humanity and squandering our inheritance as one of His children—He still desperately wants us to come home to Him. This parable gives me so much comfort. There was a time in my life in which I felt that God was very far away from me. Like the prodigal son, I had followed my own desires, which led me into darkness and despair. God was steadfast and faithful, placing people and situations in my life to help me see how I kept messing up. Finally I realized that I needed to repent and return to Him. “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare and here I am staring to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants. So he got up and went to his father”(Luke 15:17-20). That was me. And that is still me each time that I am convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit and return to the Sacrament of Confession. God is always there, waiting for me, anxious to embrace my contrite heart and welcome me home.

Lent is a season of repentance and reconciliation. It’s a time to prayerfully reflect on God’s presence and to allow Him to draw us home. No sin is too great for His mercy. No time away is too long, for we are not His hired hands, but His beloved children. He’s waiting for you. A great celebration has been planned—just for you. Come home. 

“God is waiting for us, like the father in the parable, with open arms, even though we don’t deserve it, no matter how great our debt is.”

           —–St. Josemaria Escriva


Witness To The Truth

In my parish church we have beautiful plaques depicting the Stations of the Cross. These stations tell the visual story of Christ’s last hours. Traditionally, the 14 stations start with his arrest in Gethsemane and end when His Body is placed in the tomb. In our stations, there is the figure of a Roman soldier who follows Christ’s journey along the way. And, at the crucifixion, the artist gives the soldier a halo as he gazes on the suffering Christ. It’s at that moment when the soldier is transformed from a pagan employee of the Empire into a new believer in Jesus Christ. In Catholic tradition, the soldier’s name is Longinus and he is the centurion who thrust his lance into Christ’s side after His death. It was St. Longinus who then proclaimed, “In truth, this man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

Often when I’m sitting in “my” pew at church, my eyes follow this centurion as he helps guard Christ through His trial and condemnation, and then as He carries His cross to the hill at Golgotha. Each station shows this soldier carefully observing Christ. His eyes never leave Him. Jesus is tortured and beaten. He falls down again and again under the weight of the cross. Jesus is dirty, bleeding and exhausted. The centurion looks regal and important in his spotless Imperial uniform. The two men couldn’t look more different. And yet the centurion is transfixed by this beaten man. He walks with Jesus, seeing Him struggle to bear the weight of the cross in His weakened state. Jesus meets His mother and Longinus watches. Our Lord’s face is wiped of sweat and blood by St. Veronica, and Longinus watches. He sees Jesus stripped of His garments and stands looking when He is nailed to the cross. Surely Longinus must know why this Nazarene is being put to death by Rome. He’s heard the stories. He knows a bit about the Jews and their laws about blasphemy. And he’s witnessed dozens of other crucifixions. Oh yes. His superiors make good use of the cross. And yet, there’s something different about this one. This Jesus. Longinus can’t take His eyes from Him. It’s as though the Person of Jesus Christ is revealed to Longinus in His faithful suffering and tender self-sacrifice.

I pray to be more like St. Longinus. I don’t always keep my eyes fixed on Jesus. I stumble and I fall. I let myself be distracted by the things of the world. Unlike my savior, I care about what others think of me. I want to be admired and respected. I’m prideful and full of conceit. I try to do everything myself. When St. Longinus witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross, his heart was filled with faith and he allowed the Holy Spirit to open his eyes. “In truth this man was the Son of God.” Am I willing to be such a fearless proclaimer of Christ crucified?

During Lent, we journey with Chris as He moves through His Passion and death towards the resurrection of Easter morning. Like St. Longinus, we’re called to participate in Jesus’ suffering. We meditate on the Stations of the Cross. We imagine ourselves being there, seeing Jesus, seeing His pain and suffering. And knowing that He’s doing all of this for me and for you. Every drop of His Precious Blood is given out of love, to save us. His very life, poured out in love.

St. Longinus allowed God to enter His heart and reveal the truth of Jesus to him. Tradition tells us that Longinus left military service, became a monk, and was ultimately killed for his faith in Christ. I pray that God will fill my heart with that depth of love for His Son. I pray that my eyes too will always be fixed on Christ. And that, like St. Longinus, I will always fearlessly proclaim Christ crucified and give my life over to Him, every day, every hour, every moment. May all of us experience the sweet love of our Lord on our journey through Lent. Amen.

“I do not pray for success; I ask for faithfulness.”

—-St. Teresa of Calcutta

The Garden

One of my favorite images in Holy Scripture is revealed in Genesis. Picture the loveliness of the Garden of Eden, perfect in every way, filled to overflowing with every good thing. There are beautiful flowers and trees, peaceable animals of all species, clear waters, gentle breezes—truly heaven on earth. Adam and Eve, our first parents, live in complete harmony with God in the “Paradise of enjoyment” (Genesis 2:15). God and His children were so close that He would walk with them in Paradise “in the cool of the afternoon”(Genesis 3:8). God spoke to them as you and I would speak to our beloved children. They heard His voice and He heard theirs.

What joy it must have been to walk with God, talking with Him and feeling His closeness. Throughout the Old Testament we hear stories of God talking with us. He spoke to Noah and to Abraham, to Isaac and Solomon, and to His holy prophets. He spoke with them as directly as you would speak with your best friend. He also spoke to men in their dreams and in visions He would send to them. But things change in the New Testament. Here, God speaks to us in His Perfect Word: His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s not that God stopped speaking to us—far from it! Through Jesus. God pours out His entire Heart to us. His Holy Spirit inspires us and guides us, like a magnet pulling us closer and closer to the Lord. God wants us to know Him. We see this when Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13). Peter alone among the disciples answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus says to him,”Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-17). St. Peter’s private revelation from God led Jesus, in the very next verse, to found His Church upon him. “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates if hell shall not prevail against it”(Matthew 16:18).

Today the Church continues to reveal God through His Son and the working of the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments He created. Jesus founded a Church which, in turn, gave us Holy Scripture. The Bible is a living text through which the Lord reveals His loving plan for our lives. So the idea that God no longer reveals Himself to us is just wrong. The problem may be that many people are listening to who they THINK is God but is in reality only their own desires. Or they’re following a kind of “spiritual” path that feels good and seems right, but that isn’t founded by God. “One road leads home and a thousand roads lead into the wilderness,” writes C.S. Lewis.

Jesus gave us His Church which contains the fullness of revelation and the boundless deposit of faith and grace. The Lord never meant for us to find our way alone or to struggle to try and understand the meaning of Scripture on our own. He didn’t mean for us to walk a lonely path in the hope of finding the one that pleases Him. His Church, His path, is known to us. We know it because Christ revealed it. We hear His voice in the prayers of the Mass, in the Scripture readings, in the mercy of the confessional. He speaks to us in the Church’s art and music and in the many, varied lives of the Saints over the centuries. Most especially, Christ speaks to us in the Holy Eucharist when He comes to us most fully and most intimately. Even Adam and Eve in the garden didn’t know Him like this. Through God’s perfect Word we hear His voice calling out love to us, begging to know us, to share our lives with Him. This is our foretaste of heaven, the home to which we long to return.

“If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”
—Hebrews 3:7

When God Seems Far Away

She went to Mass every day.  She listened to the Word of God proclaimed and heard the priest’s homily — words meant to enlighten and inspire.  She received the Eucharist in Holy Communion.  At home, she prayed.  Her family watched her go to work and watched her come home again.  She cooked and cleaned and cared for her children and her husband.  She was active in her ministry work at church and as a volunteer at the local hospital.  And always, she prayed.  On the outside, nothing had changed.  But on the inside, everything was darkness.  Her spiritual life, once the source of her joy and peace, was now a wasteland.  Prayer brought her no comfort.  Her pleas to God went unanswered.  She felt totally cut-off from Christ, from the sweet Savior Who had always felt so close to her.  She felt alone.  She felt lost.

There are times in life when God seems very close to us. The sun of His love shines brightly. Our hearts exult in the joy of His presence. Every Mass is a foretaste of heaven and Holy Communion is almost unbearable intimacy with Christ. When we read Holy Scripture, He speaks to us directly and reveals His heart fully to us. Our prayer life is rich, satisfying and exciting. We feel as if we are always in the presence of our Lord. And then it seems, for no reason, we wake one day to find ourselves cast away from Him, no longer in His presence at all but in a kind of spiritual desert. Anyone who follows Christ will someday experience this dryness and spiritual loneliness. In the Catholic tradition, many great Saints have written of their own experiences of feeling isolated from Christ. St. John of the Cross’ most famous work is The Dark Night of the Soul. St. Therese of Lisieux wrote: “For me it is always night; dark black night…but since my Beloved wishes to sleep, I shall not prevent Him.” More recently, the private letters of St. Teresa of Calcutta have revealed that this loving and heroic woman lived for many years in the lonely darkness of a spiritual void. And yet she persevered in her work with the poor. To the outside world, her faith seemed as vibrant and alive as ever.

The truth is:  it was.  It’s a mistake for us to think that our “feelings” define our faith lives.  Faith is more than just warm and fuzzy feelings.  The gift of faith requires a conscious decision to follow Jesus Christ.  Feelings fade, but true faith persists in the desert.  It can even thrive there.  Remember in St. Matthew’s Gospel, that it wasn’t the devil that led Christ into the desert:  it was the Spirit of God.  Whether we like it or not, all of us will be led into that desert at one time or another.  In that blistering, lonely wilderness we can, like Christ, be cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose.  What did Christ do in the desert?  He fasted and prayed and waited on God.

This is what we also can do when our interior faith life becomes dry, dusty, and silent.  Pray, even when you don’t feel like it.  Go to Mass as often as you can.  Go to Confession every week.  Do something for someone else.  Fast. Read the Gospels every day.  Be quiet.  This last one may be the most difficult of all.  Spend some time each day quietly and prayerfully opening your heart to God’s presence.  This “desert time” can be a wonderful gift, because it is a time just for you and for God to be together.  In the wilderness, He teaches us to rely on Him more completely, to depend on Him for all our needs.  Alone with Him, we learn that He is using this desert to teach us how to love Him as He already loves us.  Completely.

“I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved Me and followed Me through the desert, through a land not sown.” 

–Jeremiah 2:2

Lent’s Arrival

It started out like any other day. I woke up, stumbling into the shower and closed my eyes to let the hot water finish waking me up. It was only when I opened my eyes again that I noticed something was wrong. In my right eye there was a dark spot in the corner that shouldn’t have been there. Within six hours I was in surgery having a tear in my retina repaired. Thanks be to God and my surgeon, my eye mended quickly. In light of all the suffering in this broken world of ours, mine has been tiny and minor. And yet it’s been enough to open my eyes, pardon the pun.

Lent is like that, too. It interrupts our routine and makes us look at life in a different way. It slows us down and makes us think about what we’re doing more deliberately. Lent is an opportunity to see the world, and ourselves, through different eyes. My torn retina and the surgical repair that followed temporarily changed my vision. My prayer is that Lent will have a more long-lasting change in my heart.  

Throughout the centuries, the Church has taught us that the best way to experience Lent is through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In this tradition, we can look to the Saints for advice and example. I like the ones who keep things simple. “Prayer should be short and simple,” writes St. Benedict. Of course, as the greatest of all the Western monastics, he probably spent many hours of each day in prayer. He also worked and played and read and wrote and slept—proving that sainthood is something not limited to Sunday morning worship. When even the most ordinary activities of our daily lives are offered to God for His praise and use, His grace sanctifies our efforts. Flannery O’Connor reminds us that sometimes the hardest part of prayer is getting out of God’s way. Amen, sister. This Lent, try starting each morning in prayer. Offer God all your work and play of that day. Invite Him to guide you as you make decisions and open your eyes to the opportunities around you to serve others.  

Fasting sounds really tough to most of us, because we don’t usually deny ourselves very much. Certainly we can fast from food, as Catholics will on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This is a discipline of our bodies which frees us to focus on our spiritual nourishment. There are lots of ways to fast and many things we can fast from other than our favorite foods. Give up gossip for Lent, or a tv show you’re accustomed to watching. Fast from taking selfies or from buying that next pair of shoes. Whenever we deny ourselves we exercise the muscles of our souls and become just a little bit less self-centered.  

Almsgiving is the third way we can renew our spiritual lives during Lent. Yes, it’s important that we give money in support of the church and to help the needy. But maybe its just as important to give our time to other people. Who do you know that is lonely, or confined to a nursing home, or prison? Is there a talent you have that you could share with your parish or a charity that’s meaningful to you? For me, giving forgiveness is important. Can you think of someone, living or dead, that needs your forgiveness? This gift of mercy is precious to our Lord and pleases Him greatly. 

Lent isn’t a time for sad faces and gloomy dispositions. It’s a season of opportunity, when we can take an honest look at ourselves and ask God to help us become more like Him. It’s good for us to slow down and spend more time in prayer. Discipline helps us to grow in charity and showing mercy to someone who’s hurt us can be a source of great joy and healing. For the next six weeks, we can focus more on what we might have been overlooking lately, especially our prayer life. Ask God what He wants from you this Lent. Pray that He’ll open your eyes to see the needs of those around you and how you can help. Lent can be a rich and beautiful time of growth and renewal…sort of like springtime.  

“One of the best ways to get happiness and pleasure out of life is to ask ourselves: ‘How can I please God?’ —Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

The Real Presence

As soon as I opened the church door, I could hear her singing.  The small church echoed with her exuberant joy.  I stopped to listen for a few seconds before walking quietly down the aisle to the side chapel where she stood.  Her song was light and airy and full of love.  Since she sang in Spanish, I only caught a few of her words…love…heart…Jesus.  I watched her clap softly and sway on her feet in front of the altar.  A large painting of Christ was on the wall facing us.  In front of the painting, in a golden stand, was the Object of her praising.  This was a Friday evening in our parish and we were offering Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  I had come to pray in the presence of Jesus Christ.  My friend had come to sing and dance before the Lord.  She saw me and smiled, becoming quiet and moving to her seat.  But I stopped her and motioned for her to continue singing, assuring her without words that she didn’t disturb me.  So she sang, swaying and raising her hands for several more minutes, her eyes focused like lasers on the Blessed Sacrament.

And I thought of David.  “Then David, girt with a linen apron, came dancing before the Lord with abandon…” (2 Samuel 6:14).  David’s joyous love for God came out of him in his dancing and “shouts of joy” (2 Samuel 6:15).  David didn’t let other people’s ideas of “how you’re supposed to pray” keep him from dancing.  Sometimes we believe that our way of prayer is the only right way.  We might feel that sitting quietly in His presence is the best way to pray.  But surely the Lord puts in our heart the desire to sing out in joy for His love and mercy.  Like David, our joy pours forth at times in ways we can’t contain.  Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our lives and are so deadly serious about God and one another that we’ve forgotten how to dance with the Divine.  Dancing and singing with the Lord can happen we forget ourselves and allow God’s joy to permeate us.  Sometimes, we just need to let go.

There’s a tradition in Celtic Christianity which envisions the Holy Spirit, not as a dove, but as a wild goose.  Most of us grew up in churches where the peaceful dove of Scripture is a well-loved image of the Holy Spirit.  A dove is delicate, docile and reassuring.  It was a dove that assured Noah that the flood was over.  Doves were used as sin sacrifices in the Old Testament.  A dove landed on Jesus’ shoulder at His baptism.  We can’t imagine a honking wild goose being delicate or quiet or peaceful!  Wild geese are free, untamable and unpredictable.  It is noisy, raucous and disruptive.  Imagining the Holy Spirit as a wild goose allows us to be led by Him into the unexpected and even wild places of the heart.  They nip us out of our comfort zones and urge us to take the path less taken…on a wild goose chase of the Spirit.  They call us to follow Christ wherever He calls us to go, to dance and sing in His presence.  As the Spirit moves to fill us, our joy overflows. Don’t be afraid to be led into places you haven’t gone before.  He is always with you.

“Let him praise His name in the dance: let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.” —Psalm 149:3

Guarding the Pope

He’s a young man, just twenty-one.  A soldier in his country’s army, he enjoys the life of a military man.  But now three years out of high school, he’s ready for something more.  He wants to be challenged, to be called out of himself and into a greater purpose for his life.  He wants to serve something bigger, something more meaningful.  Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, his Catholic faith is important to him.  He feels called to serve in the Pontifical Swiss Guards and put his life and his vocation in service of his Pope.  We’ll call him Luke.

Luke knows that the Swiss Guards have a proud and rich history and

have served the Popes since the 16th century.  Kings and princes had long-recruited soldiers from Switzerland to employ as mercenaries in their armies.  The Swiss were a poor nation and young men seeking their fortune (and maybe a little bit of fame) were known for their discipline and loyalty. There were considered exceptional military tacticians and viewed as some of the best soldiers and military leaders in the world.  Over the centuries, there were several Swiss Guard units who served in France, Belgium and Germany as well as the various city-states of Italy.  When Pope Julius II took office in 1503, he asked the Swiss government to provide him with a small army of 200 soldiers.  They finally arrived in Rome on January 22, 1506 which is recognized now as the anniversary date of their founding. One of te Guard’s most famous battles is a great source of pride for Luke. On May 6, 1527 the city of Rome was attacked by Emperor Charles V. The Swiss Guard stood between the attackers and the Pope at the gates of St. Peter’s Basilica.  While 42 of their number helped the Pope escape via a secret tunnel to nearby Castel San Angelo, 147 Swiss Guards were massacred on the steps of the church’s high altar.  Luke knows that each Guardsman is courageous even unto death in defense of the Holy Father.  He hopes to become one of them.

Approved as a new recruit, Luke, like all Swiss Guards, is a Swiss

citizen and a Catholic in good standing.  He has a high school diploma and has served in the Swiss military with exemplary conduct.  At 6 feet tall, he meets the minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 8.5 inches.  And he’s unmarried.  Luke knows that after 2 years of service and if he’s risen to the rank of corporal, he’ll be free to marry. If, and it’s a big “if” he and his bride-to-be can find an available apartment within the confines of Vatican City.  He’ll serve the Guard for at least 2 years, but his career can span up to 25 years.  New Swiss Guards are formally sworn-in each May 6th (the anniversary ofthe sack of Rome) in the San Damaso Courtyard in the Vatican.  In a moving ceremony attended by his family and the Pope, Luke and his classmen swear to serve and protect the Holy Father, even if that means sacrificing his own life in the process.  Luke’s salary will be a tax-free 5000 Euros per month (about $6500), with overtime as well. And that could amount to a lot of extra pay since most workweeks are in excess of 90-100 hours on duty.  Of course his room and board are free.  Luke’s dress uniform, the red, blue and yellow-striped one that we all recognize was designed (not by Michelangelo) but  by one of the Guard commanders in 1914.  Tailors hand sew each one which has 154 pieces and takes about 32 hours to complete.  Each Guard is trained in the use of their signature halberds and swords as well as in

hand-to-hand combat and the use of various sidearms.  More than just

colorful Vatican icons, the Guards are well-trained, well-armed modern soldiers who are experts in protecting the Pope at all times.  The Holy Father is surrounded by Guards wearing plain clothes whenever he travels outside the Apostolic Palace.

Luke and his fellow Swiss Guards are examples of personal sacrifice

and faith.  They leave their family and home to dedicate themselves to serving the Pope.  Their faith leads them to choose a career open to only a few men each year.  They serve the Pope so that Pope may serve the people of God and they’re willing to lay down their lives in his protection.  The presence of each man, standing guard and doing his duty, should challenge each of us in our own service to Christ. 

What are we willing to sacrifice?  Do we follow the call of service wherever it leads us?  Are we willing to lay down our lives for what (and for Who) we say we believe?

“Among the many expressions of lay people in the Catholic Church there is also the particular one of the Pontifical Swiss Guards, young men who,motivated by love for Christ and Church,, put themselves at the service of the successor of Peter.”

—-Pope Benedict XVI

Carrying Your Cross

We all have one. Mine is different than yours. Most of us have more than one. Some are bigger than others. Some are tiny, but very very painful. Some are so huge they seem impossible to bear. Some are obvious, but many are hidden from view. What are they? They’re our hurts and pains, our sufferings, and our burdens. They’re the wounds we all carry each day. Some are physical like an illness or injurty. Others are addictions or compulsions. Still others are the emotional pains of mental illness or the damage done by an abusive relationship. Many times we’ve caused the pain ourselves. Fear, anger, bitterness, jealousy—a broken heart. These are our crosses. Jesus carried a heavy wooden cross to Golgotha. He told us if we want to be His disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our own crosses, and follow Him (Luke 9:23).

Catholics aren’t afraid of the Cross of Christ. Every Catholic church in the world has a crucifix displayed prominently near the altar. My own church has a lifesize crucifix behind the altar. The large wooden cross with the dying Christ nailed to it dominates our sanctuary space. It’s not merely an ornament or decoration. Neither does it reflect a morbid fascination with death or physical pain. The Cross of Christ is Love. Our crucifix is a constant and holy reminder to us of Jesus’ great love for us. Carried in His arms and across His flayed and bleeding back, the Cross became salvation for the world. His invitation to us is to embrace our sufferings and to unite our pain with His. This is love embracing Love. “When the Cross is embraced it becomes a sign of love and total self-giving. To carry it behind Christ means to be united with Him in offering the greatest proof of love,” wrote St. John Paul II. There’s no greater proof of God’s love for us than Jesus’ own suffering and death for our sake.

Everyday life for each of us is full of crosses we can carry behind our Lord. You know what yours are just as I know my own. We carry them in union with Jesus, as He leads the way for us. He is our model. He invites us to follow His example, to share in His life and in His choices—to stake our life for the love of God and neighbor. This is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians “who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting in the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His Body, which is the Church” (1:24). Any of our sufferings can be prayerfully united with Christ’s own Passion and Death. This is redemptive suffering, or what Catholics mean when they say, “I’m offering it up.” What we are offering up is to share in Jesus’ suffering out of thanksgiving and love for Him. This unity is part of our personal encounter with Christ in the Holy Eucharist which lies at the heart of our Catholic faith. He is our first Love. We claim a share of His Life in all His fullness of divinity and humanity. As much as our Love calls us to meet Him in the manger at Bethlehem, we’re also drawn to meet Him at Calvary and later, at the empty tomb, or the road to Emmaus. Being Catholic means walking with Christ every day, faithfully assured that He opens up for us His way of life and abundant love. Suffering is necessarily a part of that faith journey for us, just as it was for Him. Yet no one knows more about my crosses, my pains, my sins than Jesus Christ. When I see a crucifix, I see Love’s arms open wide, embracing all my pain, forgiving all my sin. My crosses seem so small in comparison.

“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss us and He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His Passion.” —St. Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)

Our True Country

The beginning of every year is a time of hope. Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of the Christian life.

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death.

Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands.

Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design.

Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis recently told the people of Mexico: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.”

—-C.S. Lewis

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