Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Goodbye, St Andrew's

Today’s Gospel (Mt 8:23-27) is a fitting one to end on here with the St Andrew’s blog site (which will continue via my GW posts). It is all about faith which is the obvious theme of so many Gospel passages. But, the story of the Apostles in the boat with our Lord amid “a violent storm” is especially pertinent to many of us bloggers. The Lord immediately calms the storm when the Apostles turn to him in faith. Their faith is not perfect; Christ sort of blasts them for having “little faith”. But, they do show faith in him in the midst of stress and suffering and they are rewarded for their confidence in his power.

So many bloggers have posted their insightful reflections about faith here the past three years. Some have written with big faith, others with little faith. Some have a mature faith that will ride out the storms with God no matter what; others have struggled to stay in the boat (the Church) because God won’t show His power in calming their storms immediately. But, folks, here’s the thing: it’s all faith in Christ. If you’re reading this post, then you have faith. If you’ve posted on here before, then you have faith. Even if it’s little faith, it is still very powerful, as the Gospel story teaches us. If you feel like your faith is little or immature, please stay in the boat and continue to turn to our Lord amid the storms of your life with confidence. He may not calm your storms immediately, but I promise that eventually He will give you “great calm”. I promise He will give you peace eventually. God is peace. He cannot not give you peace if you turn to Him.

As Catholics, we put our faith in many things: Christ, Scripture, Tradition, the Magisterium, the priesthood, the sacraments, etc. I have been so humbled and inspired by the faith of our parishioners and bloggers. Thanks be to God, faith in Him has grown here so much in so many ways: in the Eucharist, in the Church, in Confession, in prayer, in Scripture, in the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the saints, in the priesthood, etc. Along with Fr. Mike, I am particularly grateful for the faith that you have shown in the priesthood of Jesus Christ through us.

The past few days and weeks have been a little bit different for me. It’s been all good (!), but different. I became a priest in order to be Christ in the boat…to bring his power and grace to people amid the storms of their lives. It has been absolutely awesome to be Christ to them at such pivotal moments! So many times, they barely even knew me, and yet came to me like they would come to Christ: with faith and seeking help. It was really between them and the Lord; I was just a vessel of His Grace. I understand why people thank their priests and it’s great that they do, but, as a priest, I am here to serve as alter Christus (another Christ), not to be thanked. In fact, I am the one who should be thanking them and God for allowing me to be a part of the whole amazing situation. It’s an indescribable honor and gift to be another Christ in the boat, calming the storms of people’s lives through His Power.

While today’s title says goodbye, this is not goodbye. I will be back to visit on occasion and will see many of you at future DC ‘Hood games. Also, we will see each other in prayer. Please pray for me and all priests, that we will be faithful. I will pray for you every day – many of you by name. I hope that you will continue to grow in your faith in Christ as a parish centered on the Eucharist and living the Gospel of Love. May God continue to bless you abundantly. Thank you, St Andrew’s!! I love you all.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

13th Sunday - homily

A couple of years ago, we had Confirmation with Bishop Holley on a Sunday night – right in the middle of a Redskins-Cowboys game! I walked into Church a little before Mass and saw a group of people who had little TVs and radios. I probably should have said, “can you please put those away? We are in church”. I didn’t. Actually, I said, “can you all give me some kind of sign when the Redskins score?”

This was one of my favorite moments during my time at St Andrew’s. Someone asked me to give a top ten list of my favorite moments, so I’ve spent the past several days thinking about all the great moments that I’ve had here, thanks be to God. It’s not a perfect list and it was tough to pick just ten, but here they are:

At a graduation party a couple years ago, there was a swimming pool. I was having fun with kids in the pool and kids around the pool…you know, pushing them in and all. One of our teens wasn’t very happy at all when I pushed her in fully clothed. She got her revenge a month later when she and her friends put a few hundred post-it notes on my car!

One of my favorite groups in the parish has been RCIA. Some of my happiest moments here have been seeing the adults who I had prepared to become Catholic get baptized, confirmed, and receive the Eucharist for the first time. Like a proud parent, I was absolutely beaming when these great people “joined the club”.

At our Penance Service a few years ago, we had over 100 people come for confession. It was our biggest turnout in my time here. There were several of us priests hearing confessions for over an hour, and they were really good confessions – some people coming back to the sacrament after being away for many years. What an awesome moment for us priests to be a part of!

We’ve had a lot of great Masses here the past three years. One of my favorite moments at Mass happened at my first Christmas Eve Mass with the children. I had the kids come up to the sanctuary for the homily. I asked them to return to their pews at the end of the homily. One little three-year-old boy wanted to stay in the sanctuary and sit in one of the big chairs. I said ok, just not in the big chair – that’s mine. I kept the mic on and talked to him. “What’s your name?”, I said. “AJ”. “Hi, AJ”. As we talked, AJ’s mother came forward and told him to come with her. “No”, he cried. His mom grabbed him and he went back to his seat, kicking and screaming. “Bye, AJ”, I said. I commented later that he would probably be “Fr AJ” someday because he actually wanted to sit in the sanctuary!

There have been so many fun moments with our kids here, especially our school kids. My favorite moment was this year when I taught them at a Mass what to say and do whenever I said the word, Heaven: “it’s all good”! We had a lot of fun with that. I would see them in the hallways or wherever, and say something like, “what’s it like in Heaven?” “It’s all good!”

I am so grateful for the huge support that St Andrew’s has given DC ‘Hood the past three years. It really has been amazing to see you help our ministry in so many ways. My favorite DC ‘Hood moment was this past year at Verizon Center when our junior high choir sang the national anthem before the Wizards game. They did a phenomenal job! I was cheering louder for our kids than for the Wizards!

We have Eucharistic Adoration here on Friday nights for an hour. These have been some of my favorite nights – it’s an awesome hour in the presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. My favorite nights of Adoration were when our school kids came – a few classes came as a group (3rd and 5th graders, for example) and stayed almost the whole time. They took it very seriously – knelt, blessed themselves, prayed hard, etc. One of the girls said afterward, “it was inspiring”. What an awesome moment for a priest – to be a part of kids coming into the presence of Jesus.

There were so many extraordinary moments with our youth – too many to list. With our young adults, my favorite moment was last year when they initiated the largest blood drive St. Andrew’s has ever had. My favorite moment with our Youth Group was at our Lock-In a few years ago. We stayed up all night having fun and talking. Then, at 6 am, we had a few moments of Adoration and Benediction. There were about 20 of our teens on their knees at 6 in the morning worshipping God. The problem was that some of the parents were outside, trying to get in to prepare breakfast. They were locked out and it was about 20 degrees outside. I apologized to them later, but one of the parents said, “hey, if you can get our kids worshipping God at 6 in the morning, we don’t mind being locked out”. My favorite moment with our Junior Youth Group was at the end of or trivia game when we put pies in the faces of those who got wrong answers…then I got a pie in the face (more like, a pie in the ear)!

We just heard in the Gospel about Jesus’ healing of the woman with the hemorrhage. Through the gift of his ordination, every priest of Jesus Christ has his healing power. My favorite moment in healing came a couple years ago when a woman came to me who had been suffering from a tumor and intense pain for many years. I prayed over her, laid my hands upon her, and showered her with miraculous water from Lourdes, France. The following week, doctors told her that the tumor was gone. And, she was in significantly less pain. She experience not only physical healing, but also personal and spiritual healing, thanks to the power of God.

A couple of summers ago, we hosted a Catholic festival, “Fun in the Son”. It was a good day of faith and fun. The best part was the turnout of volunteers from our parish – dozens and dozens of people helping out. I was not surprised because people here are very generous. You are very generous to God and to each other.

Finally, my favorite moment of all has occurred each time we have come here for Mass: in the Eucharist. What happens at the altar when I take bread and wine and say the words of consecration is beyond words. What an incredible moment for me or any priest to make Jesus present through my hands. Then, the greatest moment in our lives – Holy Communion, where we become one with God. This moment defines who I am and what I’ve been about the past three years here: about bringing us all into union with Christ.

My hope is that you have had an experience of Jesus Christ through me – an experience of his love, his mercy, his kindness, his fun, his humor, his enthusiasm, etc. When he made this year the “year of the priest”, Pope Benedict reminded us that the priest is “alter Christus” (another Christ). If I have not been another Christ here, if all this has been just an experience with Fr Greg Shaffer, then I have failed. My hope is that you have had an experience with Jesus Christ. My hope is that you have had an experience with the Kingdom of Heaven… where it is all good!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

12th Sunday - Deacon Mel's homily

We congratulate our seminarian, Mel Ayala, on his ordination to the transitional diaconate last weekend. Please pray for him as he continues to prepare for priesthood ordination next June. Here is his insightful homily for this Sunday:

Last week we returned to the season of Ordinary Time. In the next few weeks we will again hear and read the parables, miracles and teaching of Jesus and the events that surround his ministry.

In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus loves to tell stories, and we read of the calming of the sea in today’s gospel. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to be in a small boat in the middle of a body of water when a ferocious storm comes up (I was a bit tense this morning when a line of thunderstorms passed through the Washington area…and I wasn’t in a boat but inside a basilica!). Two summers ago, when I was in southern Maryland, I met a few experienced fishermen who explained the dangers of being in turbulent waters. The disciples of Jesus, I’m sure, were aware of the dangers they were facing. And amidst the storm, when the boat was being tossed and turned, they couldn’t understand how Jesus slept through the torrential weather.

We come to understand and are aware that Jesus is able to handle all kinds of chaotic situations. After all, the Father has sent Jesus to restore creation by fighting the powers of darkness, sin, and evil. He heals the sick and confronts demons. Sounds like a modern-day superhero!

In our own daily lives, we experience joy-filled and peaceful moments with our families and friends. But we are also challenged by those chaotic moments in our lives, such as physical or mental illness and those situations that cause fear and uncertainty. I am often amazed when the tranquil sea of my life can change into violent waters of fear and hopelessness.

As modern disciples of Christ we know that we can pray to Jesus and have confidence that the rough, choppy waters of our lives can again become gentle, calm, and serene. Jesus reminds us of faith, for he asks his disciples: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”

One of my favorite hymns is The Navy Hymn. The melody is peaceful and its lyrics, reassuring. In the first verse, we sing, “Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm has bound the restless wave, who bids the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep: O hear us when we raise our plea for those in peril on the sea.” Sometimes this hymn is a reminder to me that in the chaos of possibilities, in the chaos of life, and in the chaos of the moment, we cry to the Lord, “Why? Why me? Why now?” And it is during these moments when we rely on our faith – the faith we have in God, his mercy and his Church. Underneath this faith is our confidence and trust in the Lord and, God’s love for us.

In the turbulent times of our life, you and I know that we need to turn to God, totally and completely, not half-way, not partially, but totally. In difficult times, I sometimes turn to St. Basil of Caesarea who prays, “Steer the ship of my life, Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.”

As we enter the season of Ordinary Time – a time of summer vacations, weddings, family get-togethers – I pray that this season may be an extraordinary one – extraordinary in such a way that you can rediscover and renew your faith in God who always loves you.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

1) Eucharistic Adoration, tonight, 7-8 pm, SAA Church. All are invited!!

2) Please pray for the seven men to be ordained priests tomorrow for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of whom will probably be assigned to St Andrew’s for a time.

The following is from Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” for today’s solemn feast of The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus:

The Roman Breviary tells us that this Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the result of a steady growth in man’s devotion to the love of the Redeemer. From early days, the Fathers and Doctors and Saints of the Church have celebrated the merciful love that brought Christ to earth as our saviour. They called the wound in the side of Christ the “open treasury of all graces”.

With the Middle Ages the humanity of Christ became the object of a tender piety on the part of many contemplative souls who venerated the Heart of Christ wounded with love for men. Hardly an order or religious group existed where this love did not have devoted witnesses. Then, as heresies tried to divert faith from the Eucharist, the devotion to the Sacred Heart began to be manifested publicly. St. John Eudes is considered the author of the liturgical cult of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

God Himself, however, established this devotion in a definite form when He appeared to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, a Visitation Nun, in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Our Lord then showed her the riches and desires of His heart and complained that He received nothing but ingratitude from men. He ordered her to have established a feast in honor of His Sacred Heart on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. In this way, the insults and injuries offered His Heart might be expiated. There were great obstacles to be overcome in carrying out the plans but finally in 1765, Pope Clement XIII approved. Then, like a mighty river sweeping to the sea the devotion grew. Pope Leo XIII dedicated the human race to the Sacred Heart, and Pope Pius XI raised the Feast to the rite of the first class, with an octave, and ordered an act of reparation to be recited in all the churches of the world.

In the private revelations made to St. Margaret Mary, Our Lord made many promises in favor of those who honored His Heart. Among these is one which has given rise to the devotion of the First Friday Communions. In favor of those who received Holy Communion on nine successive First Fridays, the Savior promises “I will be their assured refuge in their last moments.”

Reflection. – The spirit of expiation or atonement has always played a chief part in the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Let us then add to the acts of praise and satisfaction which Christ in the name of sinners has presented to God, our own acts of praise and satisfaction. In this way we can and ought to console that Most Sacred Heart, which is being wounded continually by the sins of thankless men.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Growth in the Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion"

Here are some questions from anonymous bloggers regarding the Eucharist and Holy Communion which are timely, given the fact that we just celebrated Corpus Christi two days ago:

1) “I have a question regarding the Real Presence. When someone attends a Catholic Mass who is not Catholic, they are asked to abstain from receiving the Eucharist. Is that because they may not believe that the Eucharist is really Christ or is it because they, as a non-Catholic, are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church in a number of potentially other ways?

I ask, because, unless I am wrong, Catholics are required to receive the Eucharist (don’t know how many times) each year, right? So what if a Catholic does not believe in the Real Presence? Can they be said to be in communion with the Catholic Church and, therefore, should they ‘not receive if they don't believe’ even if they are, I believe, required to do so by the Church?”

The following are excerpts from an online conversation between a Catholic (theologian) and a non-Catholic Christian which should be helpful. To view the conversation in full, please click on today’s title.

CATHOLIC: The Church holds that to receive the Eucharist we must believe all that the Catholic Church officially teaches as coming from Christ…The Catholic Church follows ancient Christian practice on this matter. Ancient Christians believed that we cannot partake of the Eucharist unless we believe the Christian faith. You see this idea in Justin Martyr’s First Apology (1:66), which is quoted in our current Catechism in section 1355: “Because this bread and wine have been made Eucharist, we call this food Eucharist, and no one may partake in it unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught.” In other words, to receive the Eucharist you must believe that these teachings are from Christ.

OBJECTOR: You’re falling back on that old Catholic standby: tradition. Maybe Justin Martyr was just plain wrong. Anyway, I don’t see this idea in the Bible.

CATHOLIC: I think you see Jesus our Lord saying this truth in Matthew 28:20 when he said "teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you." Jesus is saying that all he taught is to be passed on. And you see Paul boasting to the leaders of the church in Ephesus that he had not "shrunk back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).

So, you see, the Church has the responsibility of teaching all of the truth that Christ taught. Whether you agree or disagree with all the Church’s teachings is beside the point just now. I only want you to see that partaking in the Eucharist requires one to believe all the Church’s teachings. You said earlier that we believe the same things about the Eucharist. I am only pointing out that we don’t, because for us Catholics receiving the Eucharist means embracing all of Christ’s teachings handed down through the Church.

OBJECTOR: Well, that leaves me even more confused, because I know Catholics who receive the Eucharist every week and also say that they don’t agree with the Church’s teachings on certain points. Then are they wrong to receive Communion?

CATHOLIC: That’s a thorny problem that will take more time to explain than we have now. But in general you are following the logic behind this very well. No one—not even a baptized Catholic—should receive the Eucharist knowledgeably if he does not believe that our teachings are the teachings of Christ(*). Taking Communion is an act of love for Christ as well as actually receiving Christ into one’s heart. To do that and yet not believe Christ is clearly a contradiction between one’s act and one’s beliefs—and that’s a problem.

(*) – including transubstantiation / the teaching on the Real Presence.

2) “I also wonder about those who want to receive the Eucharist but cannot because they are, for example, divorced and remarried and are therefore excluded from that sacrament. By still attending Mass and not receiving, are they still receiving grace despite their ability to partake? Isn't their presence at Mass and their desire to receive enough? And what of those who receive regularly but do not believe in the Real Presence? How are they nourished by a grace in which they do not believe?”

Pope John Paul II addressed the situation of divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church in “Familiaris Consortio” (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World”), 1981. He wrote that “they can, and indeed must, share in (the Church’s) life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace” (#84). They do receive grace in all of these things, but still need, as we all do, the sacramental grace of the Eucharist: “growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion” (CCC, # 1392). Hopefully, their desire to receive the Eucharist leads them to have their marriage validated in the Church so that they can receive.

Regarding those who knowingly and freely don’t believe but receive, it was stated above that they shouldn’t receive. If they receive, then they make an illicit communion. It is also an unfruitful communion because they have closed themselves off to the grace of the sacrament.

3) “Maybe a weird question- but are those who receive the Eucharist on a daily basis ‘more’ nourished with grace than those who only receive on the Sabbath and Holy Days?”

Yes, because they avail themselves to the grace of the sacrament more often.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ - homily

One of the best experiences I’ve had here has been the Great Adventure Bible Study. This is the 24 week series that began in Lent and will resume in the Fall. It’s been amazing to see the response – we’ve had over 50 people participate in it – and the commitment. People have come out every Monday night for two hours, and this is after they’ve done at least two hours of reading during the week. We have all really enjoyed the series and gotten so much out of it. The most common reaction I’ve heard is that people are surprised to see so many connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are so many connections! It’s been so eye-opening for people as they’re closely studying a book or story from the Old Testament and then realize that it all sounds so familiar – like it’s speaking about Jesus or a story out of the Gospel.

Every Sunday we hear connections between the Old and New Testaments. The Church has organized the readings – particularly the first reading and the Gospel – so we would make the connection. This Sunday it is pretty easy to make the connection – to figure out what at least one of the themes is: blood of the covenant. As a society, we don’t do too well with blood. On the one hand, we are hyper-sensitive to blood. We can’t stand the sight of blood and don’t like to hear about it. If we get a little cut on our hand, we say, “ah! I’m bleeding”. But, on the other hand, we are going more and more to movies that show a lot of blood. Hollywood producers have seized on this, and thus, there are so many more violent movies now.

If we were listening to the first reading (Exodus 24), then we heard some things that sound familiar. It involves a priest at an altar who is offering a sacrifice of blood in making a covenant. Moses offers a sacrifice to God on an altar on behalf of the people. God enters into covenant with his people through blood. Blood seals the covenant. This is the blood of the old covenant. The people are sprinkled with blood and their bodies are cleansed. This covenant leads to the New Covenant. It is external and symbolic only, symbolic of the Eucharist.

When we come to Mass, we witness and experience the same things. There is a priest who offers a sacrifice of blood on an altar in making a covenant. But, this sacrifice does not involve the blood of animals; it is the blood of Christ! It is the blood of the new covenant which fulfills the old covenant. It is an eternal sacrifice that is not merely external; it is internal. It cleanses our souls and our consciences, as the second reading tells us. How much more efficacious is the blood of Christ to that of the blood of animals! The Eucharist brings great healing to our souls in bringing us in union with Almighty God and his peace. St Thomas Aquinas said that “no other sacrament has greater healing power” than the Eucharist.

On a side note, I noticed another connection between the Old and New Testaments in the Bible Study. There are many instances in the Old Testament of people “grumbling” about food, especially in Exodus 15. The people are in the desert, complaining that they don’t have any food. Then, God sends down bread from Heaven – this is the manna which is a definite preview of the Eucharist. Then, when Jesus talked about food, the people grumbled again. In John 6, when Jesus taught about the Eucharist, the people grumbled. So, we see continuity throughout the Bible, not just with how God acts toward us, but also with how we have acted toward Him. I heard some grumbling here in the first few months, mainly about the announcement I make before Holy Communion: “let all faithful Catholics come receive our Lord”. I understand the grumbling – this was new for people to hear. I hope you know by now why I say it: I don’t want anyone receiving unworthily. St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that anyone who eats the flesh or drinks the blood of the Lord unworthily brings judgement on himself; he is responsible for the blood of Christ. I don’t want anyone who isn’t Catholic or is a Catholic not in a state of grace to do that. It is out of love for you that I do it.

Finally, it is my great hope that all of us here are Eucharistic people with our lives. This means that we don’t just come here on Sundays and worship and received the Eucharist. It means to make the Eucharist the center of our lives. Everything starts here with Christ and goes out from here. He gave his life for us; let us give our lives to him. As we hear the words of consecration (the words of institution), “this is my body…this is my blood” today, as we hear him give us his life, let us say those same words to him. Through the grace of the Eucharist, may each of say these words to God in our lives: ‘this is my body…this is my blood…which is given up for you’.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Special graces and favors

Eucharistic Adoration, tonight, 7-8 pm, SAA Church. Please join us!!

Anon posted the following: “I have a question that will probably sound stupid to many- but what is the purpose of novena? How is it different to any other form of prayer?”

This is a good definition from ewtn.com: “A novena is a nine-day period of private or public prayer to obtain special graces, to implore special favors, or to make special petitions. (Novena is derived from the Latin "novem", meaning nine.) As the definition suggests, the novena has always had more of a sense of urgency and neediness.” Ewtn also provides examples of novenas on its site; please click on today’s title to view the site.

After Adoration tonight, I will celebrate Mass in the home of the family of a parishioner who died last Thursday. The family has been praying a novena since then and asked for a Mass as a great way to finish the novena. I don’t know what kind of novena they have been praying and if they have been doing it individually each day or together, but what a beautiful offering for the repose of the soul of their loved one.

The parish offers at least a few novenas during the year. We pray the Miraculous Medal Novena on Mondays after the 8:30 am Mass. From Good Friday to Divine Mercy Sunday we have offered the Divine Mercy Novena. On this site, we prayed a novena for the election last year; you can go to October ‘08 and November ’08 in the “Archives” section to see it. I have known of many people praying novenas before and after major events in their lives or in the lives of family or friends (weddings, ordinations, job interviews, funerals, etc.). Something special often happens when specific intentions are presented in specific ways to the Kingdom of God over a period of time. As the definition indicated, this is usually in the form of special graces.

For example, someone might pray a novena to St Joseph for the sale of their home; he is the patron saint of home life (and home selling). The below example of a novena to St Joseph includes naming the petition which can be anything, of course. But, it’s most efficacious to take specific intentions to those who have abundant graces in those areas. St Joseph is also the patron saint of a happy death. The coolest example I’ve heard of with this was Fr. Bill Finch: he died after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday at the statue of St Joseph. It seems that Fr. Finch had a devotion to St Joseph and that his devotion was rewarded with a happy death. Powerful intercessor, that St Joe!

St. Joseph Novena

Feast of St. Joseph

Novena Dates March 10-18, Feast Day March 19

O good father Joseph! I beg you, by all your sufferings, sorrows and joys, to obtain for me what I ask.

(Here name your petition).

Obtain for all those who have asked my prayers, everything that is useful to them in the plan of God. Be near to me in my last moments, that I may eternally sing the praises of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Amen.

(Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"I don't understand the Immaculate Conception"

Mindy posted the following: “…I've been thinking about that banner in church that says ‘Mary conceived without sin.’ Now, I understand that she was literally ‘conceived’ in the normal way, but at what point did she become conceived without sin. Was her original sin negated and/or how is one, other than Jesus, literally ‘conceived’ without sin? I also read an article that talked about the ark being the holy vessel that held the old covenant and Mary was the holy vessel that held the new covenant. I never thought of her that way- it's pretty cool. I guess my (follow-up) question would have to be, if Mary was immaculately conceived, would it mean that her mother would also have been sinless so that Mary would not inherit sin? I guess, in a nutshell, I don't understand the Immaculate Conception.”

Good questions! In all of my study and research of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, I don’t remember seeing any specific descriptions of how Mary was immaculately conceived. We have that with the conception of Christ: “he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit”. The reason why the Church gives little or no specific analysis of Mary’s conception is because she has already told us how it happened: “by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God”. This was the phrase used by Pope Pius IX when he declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854:

“the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854).

The definition clarifies a few things for us. First, Mary’s Immaculate Conception occurred by the Grace of God alone. God granted Mary an extraordinary grace by preserving her from any stain of original sin when she was conceived by her parents, (Sts.) Ann and Joachim. This was so that she could live out her vocation as the Mother of God: “To become the mother of the Savior, Mary ‘was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role’” (CCC, # 490).

Second, this was a grace given to Mary alone; no other woman (or created human being, for that matter) has ever been given this grace. Mary alone is “full of grace” (Lk 1:28) from the moment that her body and soul are conceived in the womb of Ann. No other person has received such a salutation in Scripture or the title of “Immaculate Conception” from the Church. “The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person ‘in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’ and chose her ‘in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love’” (CCC, #492).

Third, Mary was redeemed at her conception. This is what “in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race” means, as the Catechism helps us understand. “Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, ‘full of grace’ through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses” (#491). In anticipation of the redemption of Christ, God gives Mary at conception the grace that will save her. (others who lived B.C. could have been saved by the grace of Christ in the same way: in anticipation of Christ’s redemption…it is the same grace that Mary receives, but she has it in full and at the moment of her conception).

“Catholic Answers” provides some good insights to all of this as well as a useful analogy. Here are some excerpts; to view the full article, please click on today’s title.

It’s important to understand what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is and what it is not. Some people think the term refers to Christ’s conception in Mary’s womb without the intervention of a human father; but that is the Virgin Birth. Others think the Immaculate Conception means Mary was conceived "by the power of the Holy Spirit," in the way Jesus was, but that, too, is incorrect. The Immaculate Conception means that Mary, whose conception was brought about the normal way, was conceived without original sin or its stain—that’s what "immaculate" means: without stain. The essence of original sin consists in the deprivation of sanctifying grace, and its stain is a corrupt nature. Mary was preserved from these defects by God’s grace; from the first instant of her existence she was in the state of sanctifying grace and was free from the corrupt nature original sin brings.

When discussing the Immaculate Conception, an implicit reference may be found in the angel’s greeting to Mary. The angel Gabriel said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The phrase "full of grace" is a translation of the Greek word kecharitomene. It therefore expresses a characteristic quality of Mary.

The traditional translation, "full of grace," is better than the one found in many recent versions of the New Testament, which give something along the lines of "highly favored daughter." Mary was indeed a highly favored daughter of God, but the Greek implies more than that (and it never mentions the word for "daughter"). The grace given to Mary is at once permanent and of a unique kind. Kecharitomene is a perfect passive participle of charitoo, meaning "to fill or endow with grace." Since this term is in the perfect tense, it indicates that Mary was graced in the past but with continuing effects in the present. So, the grace Mary enjoyed was not a result of the angel’s visit. In fact, Catholics hold, it extended over the whole of her life, from conception onward. She was in a state of sanctifying grace from the first moment of her existence.

Fundamentalists’ chief reason for objecting to the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s consequent sinlessness is that we are told that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). Besides, they say, Mary said her "spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47), and only a sinner needs a Savior.

Let’s take the second citation first. Mary, too, required a Savior. Like all other descendants of Adam, she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way—by anticipation.

Consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been "saved" from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ’s grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity - homily

“Did anything so great ever happen before?” This question from our first reading (Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 4) prompted another question for me last week: what are the greatest events in the history of the world? I challenge you to think of the five greatest events that have ever happened. I think we’d all agree as Catholic Christians that three of the major events of God would be in the top five: creation of the world, redemption of the world (life, death, and resurrection of Christ), and revelation of God which I’ll get to in a minute. Other events on our list might be major discoveries or inventions, major events in government, politics or movements where good won over evil, the birth of Joe Gibbs…! (or maybe just Super Bowl XVII when the Redskins beat the Dolphins). I challenge you to think about this and maybe even post your list of the five greatest events in the history of the world on our parish blog site this week.

The author of the Book of Deuteronomy rejoices in the revelation of God as being a great event. If we know the story, people waited hundreds if not thousands of years to know who God is. He then revealed himself: “I am the Lord, your God…and you will be my people”. He revealed himself to them as their God who will protect and guide them and keep them safe. It is a slow but gradual revelation in the Old Testament. One of the things that surprises people when they study the Old Testament is how loving and merciful God is. Time and again, God offers another chance to his people even though they continually sin against him. He reveals himself and his love and mercy; this revelation finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

We’ve all heard of stories of people who were separated from their parents at birth (e.g., adoption). When they grow up and learn that they were separated from their biological parents, they want to know who their parents are. When they find the truth, it is a great event. It may not be the happiest event because there might be bad feelings involving abandonment, but the truth brings them peace and healing. It is the same way with all of us. When we learn who God is, it is one of the greatest events in our lives! God is our Father and we are his children. The difference with us is that when we learn that God is a Father who never abandons us, it is all good.

If any of us or anyone we know doubts that God is loving and merciful, all we have to do is look at a Crucifix. God sends his Son into the world not only to reveal himself to us through words – that God is Father, Son, and Spirit – but also through action. He loves us so much that he is willing to die for our sins to be forgiven. The Father sends the Son into the world to reveal himself, and then sends the Spirit to bring us into relationship with himself. It is through the Spirit that we enter into relationship with the Holy Trinity and that God is revealed to us in love and mercy. There are some who are yearning for God to reveal himself to them. They have received the public revelation of God through Scripture and Tradition. But, they desire a personal revelation of his presence, love, and mercy. It is my great hope that the Spirit will grant their prayer and that they may experience a deep revelation of the presence of God in their lives.

Finally, we enter into relationship with the Holy Trinity through the sacraments, starting with Baptism. Christ makes this clear in today’s Gospel (Mt 28:16-20). He tells the Apostles to go out to all the nations and invite people into relationship with the Trinity by baptizing them “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. Every time I baptize a child or an adult, the Father, Son, and Spirit come to dwell in that person. The relationship begins there at Baptism and is nourished by the Eucharist. What a gift we have every time we come to Mass! We not only receive the revelation of who God is through the Word, but we also see God in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. Where there’s the Son, there’s the Father and Spirit. We will see God on this altar in a few minutes, and then receive Him We will come in union with Divine Love: truly it is Holy Communion. As a family, we come in union with the Holy Family of Love – a Communion of Love. It is the greatest event of our day, no matter what other great events happen today. It is the greatest event of our week. It is the greatest event of our lives.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Healing Mass: "was so...Joyful!"

1) Eucharistic Adoration, tonight, 7-8 pm, SAA Church. The Holy Hour will be offered for priests as part of an Archdiocesan effort as we approach priest ordinations (June 20). Please pray for priests!
2) DC ‘Hood vs. Holy Redeemer at Georgetown Prep, tonight, 6:30 pm. This is the make-up game from last week’s rainout. It will be indoors at the new gym at Prep. Go ‘Hood!!
Anon asked, “What is a healing Mass? How is it set-up? Has anyone ever been to one?”

I don’t have any experience with healing Masses, so I’m not the best one to answer this. I know that there are healing Masses around the Archdiocese (e.g., St Jerome’s, Hyattsville) from time to time. I don’t think that every healing Mass follows the exact same format, but it is charismatic (invoking the gifts of the Holy Spirit) in nature. The following is a comment from another blog site by someone who attended a healing Mass (he seemed to indicate in other parts of his post that he used to be skeptical about such Masses). After reading this intriguing reflection, I might be interested in celebrating one some day:

…They call the Mass a "cenacle". The Mass was celebrated by the parish priest, and about 15 nuns of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Siervas de los Corazones Traspasados de Jesus y Maria) were present. I'm part of the leadership team for an Emmaus retreat which will be held at our parish in March, and I also went with the hope of juicing up my personal spirituality in preparation for the retreat…

I left the wife and kids at home. My wife asked if she should come and bring our youngest son who suffers from some allergies. I said let me check it out first.

I showed up at the church about 10 minutes before the 8pm Mass started. There were lots of people in the church, young and old. The church was eventually packed. I'd say there were 200 people there on a Friday night, lots of people in their 20s too (I'm 44). They were praying the rosary, of course.

This was a serious crowd. Serious in the sense that they were quiet. Better dressed than the Sunday parochial school congregants at my parish. Very little pre-Mass chatter. Very few cell phones ringing. People kept filing in after the Mass started…

The Mass was in Spanish. The lector was really good. The priest gave a great homily about John the Baptist, and about courage to have Christian values.

I was really struck by the music. The nuns would sing really praiseful, hallelujah music. It was not like what you see on tv in evangelical African-American churches, but it was really joyful with a tempered, Catholic twist. The hallelujahs seemed to escalate, building power, until they seemed to knock you over like a wave of water. These were women singing. They sang into microphones, but their voices sounded powerful apart from the electronic boost, and distinctly feminine. They sang at different points during the liturgy of the Eucharist. I felt like crying, it was so beautiful, but held it back.

The priest reminded everyone that they should have been to confession to receive the Eucharist (I went yesterday to get ready for this). Lots of people did NOT go to receive the Eucharist. I'd say maybe 25 or 30% sat it out. In my parish, I would say 95% of the people receive the Eucharist every Sunday. The make-up of the crowd was about the same as in my parish - almost 100% hispanic, with maybe 70 or 80 percent being Cuban/Cuban-American.

The Mass ended about an hour after it started, but there was no dismissal. A monstrance was brought out, and the Eucharist displayed and adored as virtually everyone kneeled. During the adoration those little nuns blasted out their beautiful, strong, hallelujah music. Many people held their hands up in the air as they kneeled. I just kneeled with my hands pressed together tightly. The priest held what seemed to be a very heavy monstrance up in the air for quite a few minutes. Then he walked around the church with it, up and down all the aisles and sides. People held up their hands towards the Eucharist. I just kept my hands together. We all stared at Him in the Eucharist, as the nuns continued to sing. It was so.... Joyful!...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Be friends with believers

DC 'Hood at Holy Redeemer, Friday, June 5, 6:30 pm. The game will be outdoors (9705 Summit Avenue, Kensington, Md 20895) and is the make-up game of last week's rainout. Go 'Hood!
“But we can elude God if we choose to ignore Him, can't we? Isn't that why Hell exists?”

This comment from an anonymous blogger was in response to my post on April 24, “Hound of Heaven”. Yes, we can choose to elude God. “Elude” is an interesting word. The dictionary defines it as meaning “to avoid or escape by speed, cleverness, trickery, etc.” It would take an awful lot of speed, cleverness, trickery, etc. to elude God in this life. That’s what people who have experienced the “Hound of Heaven” have found. No matter how much they try to avoid Him or His goodness, He is still there seeking them. He is there in their experiences, He is there through other people, He is there in their minds and hearts. St Theresa of Avila once said that Jesus is always speaking to us, the question is are we listening?

So, it takes a lot of work to elude God in this life! He is all around us. His grace is present in all things but sin. I guess for someone to totally avoid Him in this life, they would have to remain in sin constantly which I don’t think is possible. Obviously, someone can choose to enter into a state of mortal sin and never leave it in this life; then, they would experience the catastrophe of being away from God and all that is good for all eternity in the state of Hell. But, God seeks those who are in mortal sin. He hounds them! He hounds all of us sinners! Anyone who doubts that should take one look at a Crucifix. Take a look at the Old Testament and see how many times God reaches out to His people in mercy and love. Take a look at a line for Confession and see how God’s Grace has moved people to confess their sins and reconciled with God and the Church. His grace is all around us, even when we have been eluding Him in sin.

We can liken this whole question to a student in school. A student can elude getting a passing grade on a test. Let’s say that the student has received all kinds of help in passing the test. The teacher has taught the material every day for weeks, reviewed the material several times just before the test, basically given the students the questions for the test, and gone out of his/her way to even tutor the individual student. The student’s friends have offered to help study with him. There is help for the student at every turn. It would take an awful lot of work for him not to pass the test! It would involve a lot of avoidance and escape by speed, cleverness, trickery, etc. Even though we don’t understand their intentions, some students do elude all the help to do well in school and some people elude all the help to experience God’s love in life.

Now, there are extraordinary situations where students in school or people in life are really trying to get it but just can’t. This is where some of our bloggers are. They are trying to find God, but can’t. They have tried Adoration, daily Mass, daily prayer, Scripture, this blog…the works. Still, they have no experience of God’s presence. It’s kind of like the student who can’t get the material. He just doesn’t get it. Well, what if the problem is the students with whom he’s studying. What if they don’t get the material themselves? They might even think they get it, but really don’t. I would tell him to study with other kids – the smart kids. Hang out with students who get it. I would give similar advice to bloggers who are struggling to find God: be friends with believers. Talk to and pray with devout Catholics. Be with people who pray, live the Gospel, are devoted to the Eucharist, go to Confession regularly, are God-fearing men or women, etc. It’s so important for all of us to be with people who build up our faith, not tear it down, especially for people who are struggling to find God. Good friends can be a huge source of help and support with faith. We all need support from others to live our faith. It’s virtually impossible for someone to live faith when they are regularly with people who don’t believe just like it’s virtually impossible for students to do well in school when they regularly study with people who don’t pass tests.