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John the Baptist: Witnessing to The Truth and to Truth

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 22:02

Catholic lay coordinator and activist, Domingo Edo, was working with the Social Action Center of the diocese of Marbel in the South Cotabato province of the southern Philippines. He was found shot dead by unknown attackers on August 22, 2017 and his companion, an altar boy, Ramil Piang, was seriously wounded. They both were on their way to conduct a bible service at the mining town of Tampakan that had been at the center of long-standing disputes between the Church-backed indigenous local communities opposing copper and gold mines in their devastated land and the government and mining companies.

Speaking of the deceased Edo, the diocese’s social action head, Father Ariel Destura, said, “Edo had been handling the diocese’s anti-mining advocacy using dialogue, and was not known to agitate tribal members against the mining company… We are saddened by the death of ‘Doming’ [Edo]. He was well-loved in the mountains and had no known enemies.”

Why was this peaceful young man murdered? He was clearly not advocating violence but seeking a path of peaceful dialogue between the warring parties that would bring justice and peace to the region. The reason is simple: he was bringing the truth of the Church’s social teaching to a world that is intolerant of truth.

Why was the fiery St. John the Baptist beheaded? He did not have troubles calling the Jewish leaders names, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee before the wrath to come?”(Mt 4:7) He was not shy to give stern warnings to conversion, “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Any tree that does not bare good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”(Mt 4:10) He surely had many enemies among the Jewish hierarchy during his ministry. He was beheaded because he refused to be silent about justice and truth of marriage. He had boldly said to Herod about Herodias, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

St. Bede the Venerable brilliantly comments on the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist in today’s Office of Reading:

His persecutor (Herod) had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that He should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say, “I am the truth?” Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ.”

Isn’t this the story of our time? We are allowed to profess and worship Christ publicly. We are allowed to speak freely of our relationship with Jesus Christ and His love for us. We are not asked outright to deny Christ. What our world simply requires of us is that we keep quiet about His truth and His teaching as found in the Holy Scriptures and as interpreted in the Church’s tradition and magisterium. It is so comfortable to speak of Jesus Christ, The Truth, and to simply ignore or dismiss His teaching on certain hot-button issues like the sanctity of every human life, sacred marriage between a man and a woman, the evil of premarital sex and artificial contraceptives, etc. Is the Eternal Truth that we profess to be Christ Jesus impotent to also teach us unchanging truths about all the aspects of our lives?

The Gospel Reading of mass on the 21st Sunday of Ordinary time this last Sunday from Mt 16:13-20 has our Lord Jesus Christ say to Peter after his (Peter’s) confession, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” This reminds us of three things about being members of the Catholic Church.

First of all, Jesus Christ remains the invisible Head of the Church made of weak men and women and He is constantly building it up individually and collectively. He continuously fills His mystical body of the Church with His truth and sanctifies it with His grace and thus continuously moves us to bear witness to His divine person as well as the truths that He has revealed to us, “I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”(Jn 17:19)

Secondly, this Church will always face fierce and often violent opposition no matter how mercifully we present the truth of our faith, “Because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, thee world hates you.”(Jn 15:19). Being sent into this world like “lambs amongst wolves,” (Mt 10:16), we must be ready for violent oppositions, outright contradiction and threats against us and the Church community.

Thirdly, we are assured of final victory if we never cease bearing witness to Christ, the Truth, and His saving truths, “The gates of the netherworld will not prevail.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our witness to Jesus Christ is baseless when we ignore His truths because we are afraid of confrontation with our world. No matter how we present the truths of our faith and morals, whether we are fiery or we tow the way of mercy and dialogue (much better way), we must be ready for rejection and opposition that can come in the form of violence and threats. The solution is not compromise or a cowardly appeal to so-called gray areas where we can make up our convenient “truths” that have no saving power. The solution is to follow in the footsteps of St. John the Baptist who consistently bore witness to both the person and words of Jesus.

As we encounter Jesus in our Eucharist today, let us put all our trust in Jesus Christ, the Truth, who was no stranger to opposition and threats from men who had hardened their hearts to His truths. When Mother Mary presented Jesus in the Temple, the aged Simeon said, “This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” Mary would also participate in the pains of this contradiction and opposition to Jesus, “And you yourself a sword will pierce.”(Lk 2:34,35) King Herod’s murderous plan, a plan to snuff out the Truth before He spoke saving words of truth, forced the Holy Family to flee for Egypt even before Jesus spoke a single word.

We bear the ever active Christ within us in this Holy Mass and have His truths written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Jesus never ceases to build up His Church. We shall surely be victorious and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail over the Church of Christ if we give witness to both the Truth Incarnate and His saving truths even in the face of opposition and confrontation from this world.

Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!

image: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In his public ministry of teaching and

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 22:00

In his public ministry of teaching and healing, Jesus encountered great opposition from the Pharisees, the teachers of the Law and the other religious leaders of Israel: he threatened their authority with his teaching with great wisdom and authority; he invited followers with his compassionate mercy and healing miracles; he challenged their religious practices, especially by healing on the sabbath; he challenged their faith by his claim to be the Son of God.

In the Gospel reading, towards the end of his public ministry and life, Jesus criticizes and condemns the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law for their hypocrisy, for living and pretending to be what they really were not, for not following their own law and presciptions, for showing no real care for the people they led and served.

How much hypocrisy do we have in our own lives? Do we live what we say and preach? Do we walk our talk? Do we honestly see and know our inner selves, what we really and truly are before ourselves and before the God who sees and knows all things? Do any of Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees and the leaders of the Law strike what we are and have been?

Blessed Juvenal Ancina

Tue, 08/29/2017 - 22:00

Blessed Juvenal Ancina was born John Juvenal Ancina in 1545, the son of a successful Spanish businessman. His father sent him to France to study medicine, but his excellent study habits earned him the prestigious opportunity to end his studies at the University of Turin with doctorates in both medicine and philosophy.

By age 24, he had built a thriving medical practice in Turin largely due to his love for the poor, whom he treated without charge. In his spare time, he immersed his love of philosophy through his hobby of poetry-writing, scripting lovely sonnets in Italian and Latin. In those days, his attitude towards spiritual things could be described at best as lukewarm.

His transformation arrived in his own “awakening” at a funeral mass, when the words from the solemn Dies Irae opened his eyes. In an instant, he saw that while he was good, God expected best. From that moment, he began to engage in a life of prayer. He was offered a position as the personal physician of an ambassador and therefore moved to Rome in 1575. There, Juvenal met and began theological studies with Saint Robert Bellarmine. Through this friendship, he began spiritual direction under St. Philip Neri and eventually was ordained a priest with the Oratory.

A successful preacher, he was credited with the transformation of many lives just by the words of his powerful sermons. He is also noted for promulgating the “40 hours devotion,” a practice of continuous prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. He befriended St. Francis de Sales and often became the subject of Francis’ writings.

Despite his inner protesting and his attempts to escape the ordination, Juvenal was named Bishop of Saluzzo in 1602. Through this apostolate, he was able to use many of his charisms such as healing and prophecy. One of his last prophecies foretold of his own death.

A friar, upset by the fact that Bishop Juvenal had uncovered his affair with a nun, poisoned him with tainted wine at his monastery. He died a few days later. Juvenal Ancina was declared “blessed” in 1869, as a bishop-confessor.

From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day

Click the image above to purchase your own copy of “Graceful Living.”

“When a person loves another dearly, he desires strongly to be close to the other: therefore, why be afraid to die? Death brings us to God!”

— Traditionally attributed to St. Josephine Bakhita

What is my honest attitude toward death? According to St. Josephine, what does the barometer indicate about my love of God? What can I do to encourage my love of Him?

Other Saints We Remember Today

St. Rose of Lima (1617), Virgin, first canonized saint of the Americas, Patroness Saint of South America and gardeners

Saints Felix and Adauctus (304), Martyrs

St. Fiacre of Brie (670), Hermit, Patron of gardeners and cab-drivers

Blessed Bronislava (1259), Virgin, Patroness of a happy death, prevention of disease

“It takes faith in God to bring

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:35

“It takes faith in God to bring about things that never could have been. Faith helps us to connect the dots between the natural and the supernatural. It is by faith that we understand God’s plan in our lives and in society and become ready to submit to it.”

-Fr. Maurice Emelu, Our Journey to God: An African Priest Explores the Power of Faith from Abraham to You

 

Contemplating the Reality of Death

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:07

Animals die; insects die; plants die; and, yes, humans die—but only humans are rationally aware of that fact. This is because the human person is the only creature made in God’s image and likeness. Only the human person is called to Eternal Beatitude—Heaven for all eternity. The human person comes from God and is called to return to God. Simply put, we are made in God’s image and likeness to share, after this earthly life, in a life of eternal communion and happiness with Him.

It is important to have a healthy, realistic view of death. From a merely temporal point of view, this includes having your life insurance up to date, having your funeral arrangements in place and expenses covered, preparing a legal will (as well as a “living will” that reflects the Church’s teachings on end-of-life issues), and so on.

But what about having a healthy view of the reality of death from a spiritual point of view? In other words, how about the state of your soul? Is your soul spiritually ready for its separation from the body? For example, have you made a good, sound examination of your conscience recently? Do you do so daily? When was the last time you went to the Sacrament of Confession? Have you confessed any and all known mortal sins? Are you sincerely striving to overcome any vice or habit of venial sin you may have acquired? Do you go to Mass regularly and receive the Eucharist worthily?

This article is from “The Four Last Things.” Click image to preview or order.

We will discuss all these topics in more detail in the last chapter, but here the point is that when it comes to the reality of death, we can easily get caught up only in the temporal realities of life, which are doubtless important, and forget about the spiritual realities of life. At the end of the day, damnation due to mortal sin is more important than snagging the ideal burial plot.

To help us understand more fully the spiritual reality of death, we can do no better than to examine some of the sayings and teachings of holy men and women that have been handed down through the centuries:

  • “Nothing is more certain than death; nothing more uncertain than its hour.” (St. Anselm)
  • “Happy are they who, being always on their guard against death, find themselves always ready to die.” (St. Francis de Sales)
  • “Of this at least I am certain, that no one has ever died who was not destined to die at some time.” (St. Augustine)
  • “Death is no more than falling blindly into the arms of God.” (St. Maria Maravillas de Jesus)
  • “Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening but sweet and precious.” (St. Rose of Viterbo)
  • “To the good man, to die is gain.” (St. Ambrose)
  • “It is His breath that is in us, and when He wants to, He will take it away.” (Pope St. Clement I)
  • “Think often of death, so as to prepare for it and appraise things at their true value.” (Bl. Charles de Foucauld)

For a theologically sound synopsis on the subject of human death, one needs to look no further than the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which provides a synthesis of what Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium teach us on the subject. Here are some of the more pertinent passages that bring forth three important truths regarding death:

Death is the end of earthly life. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment. (1007)

Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of both Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sins. Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God, the Creator, and entered the world as a consequence of sin. “Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” is thus “the last enemy” of man to be conquered. (1008)

Death is transformed by Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will. The obedience of Jesus has thus transformed the curse of death into a blessing. (1009)

This is the symbolism of the three-time pouring of water at Baptism: the initiation of death in and with Christ. This may seem dark or morbid, especially at an infant Baptism, but it is actually incredibly beautiful. This death is not “death” as popularly conceived, with the Grim Reaper taking us to eternal nothingness; rather, it is the death to ourselves that allows us to be fully alive in Christ. And so, if we die in a state of Christ’s sanctifying grace — that is, with no mortal sin on our soul that we have not confessed and repented for — then our physical death literally completes this dying with Christ begun in us at Baptism. Physical death completes our full incorporation into Him, in and through His redeeming act of dying for us on the Cross. What a beautiful and consoling teaching of our Catholic Faith!

Knowing this, the Catechism makes it even clearer to us that in death, God calls the human person to Himself. This is a truth of which St. Paul was keenly aware:

In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore, the Christian can experience desire for death like St. Paul’s: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). He can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ. (1011)

The Catechism also quotes some of the saints who understood the truth that physical death, in a state of sanctifying grace, completes our incorporation into Christ. Consider especially this powerful statement from St. Ignatius of Antioch, who in his Letter to the Romans expressed a strong intuition of his impending martyrdom: “It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. Him it is I seek — who died for us. Him it is I desire — who rose for us. . . . When I shall have arrived there, then shall I be fully a man.” That is, once he arrives in Heaven, he will be fully alive in accord with his human nature as he was always meant to be: living in communion with God for all eternity.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Fr. Menezes’ The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and HellIt is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press. 

The Power of Goodbye

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:05

Many times in life, we move on. And we say goodbye.

A goodbye to a lifestyle, employment, location, or even a goodbye to the people or things we have in close proximity to our lives.

And it’s definitely not always easy.

As a means in helping ourselves to maintain a strong faith, we must often learn to abandon many aspects of the world, even though we must continue to live in it.

Saying goodbye to things that are unhealthy for us

We should also strive to realize more and more that God must be the first and highest desire of our soul because God is goodness. And without a just and perfect God to lead not only us … we’re headed for trouble. And by taking a look at the world and its current list of elephantine-sized problems, it also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize – we’re already there.

And I’m not just talking about politics, world leaders and all of the social and moral issues of today. This also applies to things on a much less-grand scale.

Anything that removes God as our highest priority should be re-evaluated.

Life is full of distractions and attachments. And when you start to remove those distractions and attachments that are either unhealthy or even just excessively time-consuming, and instead give that time and focus to God and in helping your neighbor, you will naturally start to think more clearly and act more in accordance to God’s Will in all matters.

Most of life’s struggles, from frustrations to anxiety, from anger to sadness, from grief to worry, all tend to stem from the same thing …

The struggles come from being too tightly attached to something, or someone, or even ourselves, instead of being attached to God. Instead of relying on God. Not giving God the attention He deserves and demands.

And when we start to properly recognize these distractions and attachments and are able to say goodbye to them, amazing things start to happen.

Because there is power in saying “Goodbye” to what is often around us.

Goodbyes force us to start over.

Goodbyes remind us that nothing in this world lasts forever.

Goodbyes can stop us from continuing bad habits.

Goodbyes can help us to remove who or what is toxic or unhealthy from our lives.

Goodbyes can prompt us to find true meaning in our lives.

And goodbyes can often bring new hellos.

When we are ready to say goodbye to distractions, habits and even unhealthy relationships, we are ready to embrace new opportunities, new people and a deeper relationship with God.

And it’s then that many of our goodbyes will make more sense to us and we will be glad that we turned that page, moving on to new and stronger chapters in our life.

Chapters that help us so that we may better know, love and trust God.

Ten Vitamins to Vitalize Families

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:02

Opening our eyes, we can see that the family in serious crisis. This being the case, as followers of Christ and defenders of the Domestic Church—the family—let us launch a concerted effort to save our children, save our young, by the means of saving our families. Pessimism, cynicism, and skepticism must not reign in our hearts, but rather confidence and hope that we can help construct a better world by striving for better, more holy families.

Therefore, we would like to offer Ten Vitamins to Vitalize Families. By this we mean to offer ten concrete suggestions to help all of us purify, improve, and perfect our families. Saint Pope John Paul II expressed this truth so clearly: The family is the basic building block of society… and… As the family goes, so goes the society. Hopefully these suggestions will truly make a difference in your struggle to form a good family. Never forget the consoling words of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary that we read in the Annunciation: Nothing is impossible with God.

1. Family Prayer

One of the primary reasons for fights, quarrels, bitterness, coldness, and eventually separations is the lack of prayer in the family. What oxygen is to the lungs, so prayer is to the soul. Prayer should be at the very center and heart of family life. Remember the words of the famous Rosary-priest, Father Patrick Peyton: The family that prays together, stays together.

2. The Father as Head of the Family

When possible,  the Father must be the head of the family; the Mother should be the very heart of the family. A family without a head is a Frankenstein; a family without a heart is dead. May the Father assume the role of Spiritual Leader of the family!  If you like, the Father should be the priest of the family. This means, the Father should say Yes to life. The Father should love his wife and children. The Father should be the spiritual leader of the family and this means the leader in the prayer life of his family. The most splendid example for the Father should be the best of Fathers, good Saint Joseph!

3. Forgiveness and Mercy

In many families coldness, indifference, and even bitterness permeate the entire family fabric. Why? One of the reasons is due to a lack of forgiveness. Family members must be merciful and forgive, and not just seven times, but seventy times seven times—meaning always! If we want to be forgiven, then we must forgive from our hearts. The Our Father commands this:  Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

4. Winning and Victorious Words

The British poet, Alexander Pope penned these words: “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”  Family members, cultivating true humility of heart, must learn to say these words: “I am sorry…” and equally important: “I forgive you!” These words said often and with humility of heart can save families!

5. Servant Attitude

Jesus, Son of the living God, washed the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper. He Himself stated: “The Son of man has not come to be served, but to serve and give His life in ransom for many.” (Mt 20:28) Each and every individual family member must not look to be served, but to be always ready to serve the other members in the family. Love and service are really synonymous.

6. Express Graditude

Even though it is small, and at times, seems to be almost insignificant, these two words can add a condiment to the family recipe, and these two words are Thank you!  Saint Ignatius of Loyola asserted: “The essence of sin is ingratitude.” Cultivate in your families an attitude of gratitude! In sum, what do we have that we have not received from God? Only one thing: our sins—these we chose for ourselves. God loves a humble and grateful heart!

7. Take a Break From Gadgets

A key time in family life must be the meal time. Normally it is when the family connects, comes together to share experiences, to spend time with each other, to bond with each other, in a word, to grow in love with each other. Our Lord’s Last Commandment was: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 13:34)

There is a comic strip with a family all sitting together on the same big couch. The Father is watching TV, the mother is on her tablet, the son is playing a computer game on his laptop, the teenage daughter is sending a text from her phone, and the family dog has earphones on. We laugh at this, but we also weep, because we can see our own family in this comic strip.  Therefore remember, at meal times—even though it might be a mere 20-25 minutes—no phones, tablet, computer, radio nor TV. Each person has infinite value, and their soul being immortal will live forever; the computer screen and all other electronic gadgets will come and go and be disposed of!

8. Learn to Listen

How hard the art of listening really is, especially with family members. We all tend to be in the fast-lane, frenetically rushing from one activity to the next like a chicken with it’s head cut off. As such we fail to listen attentively when a family member wants to talk to us. I invite all to seek out Harry Chapin’s song Cats in the Cradle. In short, this song woefully mourns the sad fact that Fathers never really connect with their children because they are simply too busy! Son, I will listen to you, but later… Later never becomes a reality; then it is beyond his grasp!

9. Celebration

The famous Catholic author Jean Vanier, who founded a group working most especially with the handicapped, and with forming families with handicapped members, made this discovery: families are called to celebrate!

Birthdays, Anniversaries, Holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and many more—all are festive and exuberant moments of celebration in the context of the family. We should celebrate the other in the family—especially their birthday, Baptism, and saint day! Therefore, if you want to inject a good dose of joy in your family, get in the habit of celebrating! Saint Paul exhorts us in these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again: Rejoice in the Lord.” (Phil. 4:4)

10. Marian Consecration

In my retreats, I have often presented an efficacious means to arrive at the very Heart of Jesus. This is done by spending about a month meditating upon the 20 mysteries of the Rosary, with a helpful commentary for each, followed by a meditation on the Seven Sorrows of Mary, each with a commentary. At the end of these days of preparation for consecration, all the members of the family will formally consecrate themselves, individually and as a family, to Jesus through Mary. Our Lady will then be at the very heart of their family. Our Lady will produce abundant fruits in their family: peace, joy, love, happiness, sharing, understanding, patience, purity, meekness, kindness. In a word, by consecration to Jesus through Mary, families will become sanctuaries of true holiness as Jesus commanded: Be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy. (Mt 5:48)

You can lead your family in such a retreat with my guide, Total Consecration Through the Mysteries of the Rosary.

I am convinced that if families truly allow Mary to take root in the center of their lives, she will help their lives be turned from water into wine, and family members will truly be able to live out the greatest commandment of Jesus: Love one another as I have loved you! (Jn 13:34) I hope and pray that all will take these Ten Vitamins to Vitalize and form vibrant and holy families!

In the first reading, Paul speaks of

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:00

In the first reading, Paul speaks of his sufferings and sacrifices in preaching the Good News of Jesus.

The Gospel reading speaks of the martyrdom of John the Baptist for standing up for truth and decency against King Herod. In his martyrdom John the Baptist gave witness to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

As lovers and followers of Christ, we should be ready to suffer and even to give our lives as his witnesses for truth and justice.

Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 22:00

The Last Prophet’s Last Offering

John the Baptist was born about six months before his cousin, Jesus Christ. We remember the Virgin Mary, who had just conceived the Word of God, hurrying to meet her cousin Elizabeth, who was in the sixth month of her miraculous pregnancy. Elizabeth was considered far too old to conceive a child, but she waited with faith and hope, and the love of the Lord, Who was faithful as He always is. She and Zachariah, her husband, made a promise to God that they would name their child John.

The birth of John the Baptist is commemorated on June 24, and his martyrdom on August 29. John had been sent by the Lord to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is the last prophet before the Birth of Christ. He was actively “preparing the way of the Lord” by baptizing and boldly proclaiming the need for people to repent of their sins. His message was directed to the poor and weak, and the rich and powerful. He dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey, yet people were drawn to his message of repentance and forgiveness, and flocked to him to be baptized. Christ Himself came to John to be baptized, to mark the beginning of His public ministry. Humble, John tried to refuse but did baptize Jesus, and we see here the first “Theophany” — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all present as distinct Persons.

According to St. Mark’s Gospel (6:14-29), John had publicly criticized King Herod for living with his brother’s wife. (This was not Herod the Great, who had tried to kill the infant Jesus, but rather one of his sons.) Herod had John arrested and imprisoned, though he had no definite idea of what to do next. St. Mark tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a holy and upright man…. When he heard him speak he was very much disturbed, yet he felt the attraction of his words” (Mk 6:20).

Herodias, Herod’s sister-in-law, had no such respect for John. Embarrassed by his speaking out against her living arrangement with Herod, she was determined to have him killed. Her daughter (traditionally known as Salome) performed a dance at Herod’s birthday feast which delighted the king and his guests so much that he publicly promised to grant her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. Prompted by her mother, the girl asked for John’s head. Because of his guests, Herod reluctantly agreed, and dispatched the executioner, who beheaded John.  When his disciples heard of this, they came and took away the Baptist’s body, and then informed Jesus. Speaking of John, Jesus said, “Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11).

From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day

Click the image above to purchase your own copy of “Graceful Living.”

“His persecutors had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. But to endure temporal agonies for the sake of the truth was not a heavy burden for such men as John; rather it was easily borne and even desirable, for he knew eternal joy would be his reward.”

— from a homily of St. Bede the Venerable

What am I willing to endure for the sake of the truth — about abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, same-sex unions? How can I best proclaim the truth about these given my state of life and my personal circumstances?

Other Saints We Remember Today

St. Sabina (127), Martyr

St. Medericus (or Merry) (700), Abbot

Seek the Hidden Manna

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 22:07

The beginning of the Book of Revelation contains a series of promises for those Christians who are victorious over sin by persevering in the faith. One of the most enigmatic is Revelation 2:17:

Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the victor I shall give some of the hidden manna; I shall also give a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it.

As Catholics we are attuned to recognized manna as a reference to the Eucharist, especially in a New Testament context. But what is the hidden manna? (You’re probably also wondering what that white amulet or stone symbolizes but that is whole other topic.)

First, a bit of Old Testament context: we remember the manna was the mysterious bread that rained down from the sky to feed the Israelites while they wandered in the desert. There was nothing ‘hidden’ about this manna: the Israelites didn’t exactly have to hunt around for it. Normally, this manna was also consumed immediately.

But some manna was saved and this became the ‘hidden’ manna, as Exodus 16:32-34 explains:

Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded. Keep a full omer of it for your future generations, so that they may see the food I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Moses then told Aaron, “Take a jar and put a full omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to keep it for your future generations.” As the Lord had commanded Moses, Aaron placed it in front of the covenant to keep it.

Hebrews 9:4 provides additional key details on this memorial manna: the jar that contained it was made of gold. This jar was located in the tabernacle in the Holy of Holies in the temple. Also with it were the ark of the covenant, Aaron’s budding staff, and the tables of the Ten Commandments.

In light of the New Testament, each of these sacred relics foreshadows Christ. The cross is the dead wood from which new life sprang. The ark of the covenant is a type of Mary. (This is especially clear from the end of Revelation 11 and the beginning of 12.) And Christ is not only the Word of God made flesh but He is depicted in Scripture as the very enfleshment of the Ten Commandments. (See Pope Benedict XVI’s Holy Saturday homily for 2009 and also his discussion of the Sermon on the Mount as a new Torah in Jesus of Nazareth.)

Of course Christ Himself is the temple, as He declared in John 2.  Hebrews elaborates on this imagery. First, Hebrews 9 says that Christ has passed through to the tabernacle to offer a sacrifice on our behalf. The next chapter intensifies the imagery:

Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh.

Now, Jesus’ body is identified with the structure of the temple. Thus, He is not only the priest and the sacrifice, but also the temple itself. The identification is a dynamic one. In Christ the temple is transformed: its innermost sanctuary is unveiled to us, according to Hebrews. In this description we have a strong echo of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion where the piercing of Christ’s side occurs simultaneously with the tearing of the veil over the Holy of Holies.

The reference to the hidden manna is embedded in a bouquet of images that point to Christ. That the manna is hidden in the temple reinforces the connection between the manna and the Eucharist, the body of Christ sacrificed for us.

But the hidden manna also underscores a fundamental truth: something that is hidden invites us to search for it. We search for hidden treasures, hidden meanings, and hidden worlds around us.

Applied to the Eucharist, this truth manifests itself as a paradox. In the Eucharist, Christ is fully present to us in a manner that visible and tangible. We taste and see the Eucharist. And yet, in the Eucharist, Christ is nonetheless hidden. We do not see his face. We cannot feel the healing touch of his hand. In the Eucharist, we rest in the presence of God yet we are also bid to seek Him ever more. This is the lesson of the hidden manna.

image: The Power of the Cross by JEFFREY BRUNO / ALETEIA (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Augustine & Monica’s Thirst for Heaven

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 22:05

Near the end of his famous work, Confessions, St. Augustine records the last days of his mother Monica’s life. By that time, Monica’s fervent prayers had been realized and her son was not only a Christian but a fervent defender of orthodox faith. Augustine recalls a moment standing with his mother at a window, “conversing very pleasantly” about their present situation and the future, specifically, “the eternal life of the saints.” The image is beautiful; a mother who will soon pass away comforted by her loving son, two saints contemplating the joy of heaven which will soon be attained by one of them. Augustine writes, “We opened wide the mouth of our heart, thirsting for those supernal streams of thy fountain, the fountain of lifewhich is with thee, that we might be sprinkled with its waters according to our capacity and might in some measure weigh the truth of so profound a mystery.” (Confessions, Book Nine)

There is a pleasant irony here for those of us reading hundreds of years later, aware that both Augustine and Monica’s thirsts for heaven were indeed sated. Additionally, there is keen insight into the nature of sainthood which is “according to our capacity and might.” If we look only at their accomplishments and works, Monica and her son seem completely different. Augustine penned great volumes of theology, Monica left behind none. Augustine was a theological giant even in his own time, Monica was not. Augustine was recognized as a Doctor of the Church but his mother carries no such honorific. But sainthood has little to do with works and titles. Rather, Sainthood involves becoming united with Christ, a process marked by submission to the purpose God has for our lives. This often looks quite different between different saints, even those as close in proximity and relation as mother and son, Monica and Augustine.

Augustine of Hippo needs little introduction today. To say he has been “influential” in the Western world would be a laughable understatement. Augustine helped lay the foundations of Christian theology. He has been considered an authority by great Catholic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bernard of Clairvaux as well as Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin. He continues to carry great weight in Western philosophy and has even influenced atheist philosophers such as Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. Augustine didn’t become a Christian until later in life but, once he converted, he made up for lost time by penning massive tomes of brilliant theology and insightful scripture commentary. He helped define the doctrine of original sin, fought for the orthodox understanding of grace against the heretic Pelagius, and upheld the proper belief in Church authority in the midst of the Donatist controversy.

St. Monica, on the other hand, wrote nothing, never preached a homily, and did not enter into the great theological debates of her time. In fact, were it not for her son, we might not even know of her today. But that doesn’t mean that Monica didn’t possess incredible virtue or isn’t worthy of our veneration. This north African saint was exemplary in her piety. She was ever faithful, both to her Catholic faith and her adulterous pagan husband. Monica was also faithful in her prayers, petitioning God every day for her wayward son, Augustine. In this prayer, Monica was the living embodiment of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow. Her ceaseless appeal for her child was eventually answered beyond her request.

In a way, all of Augustine’s works are a result of Monica’s persistence and faithfulness as a Christian parent. Still, from a secular perspective, there might seem to be an imbalance between the two saints. We easily recognize great works and accomplishments, whether intellectual or charitable. “Of course Augustine is a saint! Look at all he did,” we may be tempted to think. Even non-Catholics can recognize the greatness of someone like St. Augustine. But theological brilliance isn’t cause for sainthood. No, Augustine and Monica are saints for the same reason; they were faithful in the tasks they were given. This can look so different from saint to saint because of differences in circumstances as well as capacity. In Confessions, Augustine recognized that we all drink from the same fountain of life but our capacities vary. We were made for different purposes and to fulfill those purposes brings glory to God. For some of us, this may mean something the world will recognize as great. For others, this purpose may be something no one will ever even notice. Either way, we are privileged to be part of God’s plan of cosmic redemption.

I find this both encouraging and overwhelming. I don’t possess a fraction of Augustine’s genius so I’m encouraged because I won’t have to write a new City of God in order to become a saint. But I’m also overwhelmed because Monica’s task was not a small one. She suffered through much and was steadfast through all of it, exemplifying the persistent prayer commanded by Christ. This kind of life sounds just as difficult for me as becoming a great theologian. Of course, becoming a saint isn’t about my abilities but rather uniting with Christ. Not in some abstract way but in daily faithfulness. St. Josemaria Escriva recognized this and once said, “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: do what you ought and concentrate on what you are doing.” Whether this leads to a life like St. Augustine or St. Monica is not up to us but God. Either way, he will be glorified.

image: Paul Brennan / Shutterstock.com

Living the Wondrous Adventure

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 22:02

An adventure is just an inconvenience rightly considered.

-G.K. Chesterton

He dashes down the stairs to the station with a pinched and focused look on his face, grumbling under his breath about the tourists who were making him late. His card doesn’t work the first time he swipes it. He swears at the turnstile as he scans the card again. He hears the rumble of the arriving train a story below as he rushes down the escalator, gritting his teeth. He rounds the corner to see the doors open on the train he needs to catch. With only a yard to go, the doors slide shut with a familiar “beep-boop.” He slams his fist into the side of the departing  train, turns, and sits down heavily on the bench behind him. Cussing again, he takes out his phone and starts swiping through the news, without so much as a glance at those around him.

***

The long days and weeks and years of our life can easily become a grind. We float on a stale breeze down a slow spiral, past inconvenience and frustration, inserting a few breaks from the everyday monotony, until even those little sparks of enjoyment dull and we land in the final terrifying inconvenience of death. Life lags or rushes on and on, and what is there to enjoy but another day of the same? Life becomes a tedious plod over the endless badlands. Miles of monotonous grey highway through the heart of some barren land. Nothing much to speak of. Nothing much to look forward to, save, perhaps, the rest of death.

Looking at life this way decaffeinates, dehydrates, and skims the great draught of life and then adds artificial flavors.  It removes or diminishes all the natural beauties of life then throws in some carcinogenic sweetener just to make the remaining medicine palatable.

Such an approach to life misses the point not because it is focused too much on the practical, eschewing vain romanticism, but because it fails to back up enough to see the big picture and refuses to dig in enough to notice the details. It’s a life lived on the surface, eyes fixed on the “gist” of things, failing to see both the joy of the moment and the peace of the whole, but only the discomfort of the vague. A life of disaffection in the dim light of a twitter-fed world.

Such a perspective reduces the surprising little delights of each moment to mere inconveniences.

Yet, life is full of adventure for those who learn to look for it.

We are surrounded by these little adventures every day. Our friend on the subway, for instance, missed the rainbow sparkle of the morning sun refracted off the sign for fine crystals across the street and the smile of the girl who noticed the magic of these little rainbows dancing across the sidewalk. He missed the story of the beggar at the foot of the stairs and the song of the busker in the tunnel. He missed the awe of the boy as he saw his first train station and the gentle smile of the boy’s single mother at her child’s joy. He missed her tired sigh as he sat down in the seat she had her eye on and her frown as he swore in front of her son. He missed hundreds of little adventures in those five minutes, and as each adventure leads to a thousand more, who knows how much he missed as he rushed through the details of life.

I pick on our imagined friend, but how often do you or I rush about life, frantic or placid, but ever busy about many things, forgetting the things that truly matter?

The way to see these little adventures in the right light is to recognize the great adventure of which they are all but a small part. All of these little details fit in the great adventure of our life like panes of glass in a great baroque window. Coming to know God, to discover the plan that He has laid before our feet, is this great life-long adventure. To learn how God is calling us to Himself puts each of the little events of life in perspective and makes it sparkle with wonder.

Keeping in sight the wonders of this great adventure, the soul avoids getting lost in this project at work, this business deal, or even this long-awaited vacation. Its eyes fixed on the final prize, the soul finds that every moment becomes more of a delight and every little thing becomes more wondrous, as the pane of emerald glass is even more wondrous when seen in its place in the window.

If we can see each day and each hour and our whole life in expectation of some great adventure, each sunrise trembles with anticipation as each hour ripens with the question “what adventure does the Lord have in store for me today?” In a life lived thus, if we can learn to see life as the adventure of coming to know the Lord and learning to walk in His way, death itself ceases to be a mere inconvenience or welcome rest, but rather the last and greatest adventure for which we prepare our whole life long.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Dominicana, the Dominican student blog of the Province of St. Joseph, and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus places

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 22:00

In the Gospel reading, Jesus places primary importance in our faith in God. We forget God at times. Jesus reminds us that religion and religious practices do not make things sacred; it is God who gives meanng to and makes sacred religion and religious practices.

It is so easy to get caught up in rituals and religious practices, as the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were: we should not forget that it is God who is the center and meaning of rituals and religious practices. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law paraded their practice of religion and rituals: Jesus condemned them and reminded them that it was love of God and concern for his honor and glory which were of utmost importance. Jesus reminded them that their duty was to lighten and not to make life more difficult for their followers.

How are we in the rituals and religious practices of our faith? Do we understand and appreciate them as mere instruments to honor and serve God?

“You wish to have a devout and

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 22:00

“You wish to have a devout and peaceful spirit, which is not a small thing to wish for. The virtue of devotion is nothing other than a general inclination and readiness of the spirit to do what is pleasing to God.”

-St. Francis de Sales, Roses Among Thorns

St. Augustine

Sun, 08/27/2017 - 22:00

A Wayward Son Returns Home

He was deluded by paganism and lived a sinful lifestyle. Yet he became one of the greatest thinkers in Western history, and more importantly, a saint. St. Augustine (354-430) was a brilliant scholar and teacher even as a young man, but he was led astray by the false charms of a wayward life. He lived with a mistress and fathered a child out of wedlock, and deeply resented the prayers his mother, St. Monica, offered on his behalf.

Knowing that his mother wanted to accompany him when he moved to Rome, Augustine slipped away (telling her he was going down to the docks to send off a friend, when in fact he, himself, was departing). Heartbroken, Monica followed him to Rome and then to Milan, where she was encouraged to persevere in her prayers by the great bishop, St. Ambrose.

Ambrose’s own spiritual and intellectual integrity prompted Augustine to re-examine his own beliefs, and during the spiritual crisis which resulted, Augustine heard a voice telling him to “take and read” the Bible. When he did so, he opened by chance to St. Paul’s statement that “the night is far spent, and the day draws near … therefore, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:12-14).

Upon reading this passage, Augustine finally experienced a sense of true peace and enlightenment, leading to a profound conversion. He was baptized a Christian on Easter, 387, and he and St. Monica rejoiced together in the short time remaining before her death.

Augustine returned to North Africa and was ordained a priest; in 396 was chosen as Bishop of the city of Hippo. He was a very successful pastor and an even greater theologian, playing a major role in overcoming the heresies of Donatism (an excessively harsh understanding of Christianity) and Pelagianism (the false belief that humans can save themselves without the help of God’s grace). He helped develop the Church’s teachings on grace, original sin, and the Holy Trinity. He is a Doctor of the Church. His autobiography, the Confessions is beloved by many, and his life is an inspiration to all who seek the merciful forgiveness of God.

From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day

Click the image above to purchase your own copy of “Graceful Living.”

You have created us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in You.

— St. Augustine, Confessions

In what areas am I restless? In what specific ways can I bring God into this area of my life?

Other Saints We Remember Today

St. Hermes (132), Martyr

St. Monica

Sat, 08/26/2017 - 22:00

Rewards of Persistent Prayer

St. Monica (331-387) was the mother of St. Augustine (whose feast day is August 28). Monica, her pagan and licentious husband Patricius, his cantankerous mother, and her three children (including Augustine) all lived together in North Africa.

There was plenty of potential for family strife and discord, but Monica’s patience and charity made the difference; her saintly example eventually brought about the conversions of her husband and mother-in-law.

Augustine, however, proved a tougher nut to crack; he indulged in a free and loose lifestyle, and adhered to a pagan philosophy condemned by the Church. After Patricius died, Monica tried to discipline her brilliant but wayward son (at one point even locking him out of her house), but to no avail. Monica’s constant sacrifices, prayers, and admonitions seemed to have little effect (other than annoying her son).

At the age of twenty-nine, Augustine tried to break free of his mother’s influence, traveling to Rome and then to Milan; a determined Monica followed him and was present when her son finally experienced a conversion. Augustine became a Christian in 387; St. Monica became ill and died soon after this. The time remaining to mother and son was short but beautiful, for they shared their faith and discussed the life to come.

From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day

Click the image above to purchase your own copy of “Graceful Living.”

“One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

— St. Monica, reported by her son, St. Augustine, in his Confessions

What holy soul may benefit by my remembrance at the altar? I promise to do so for the next month.

Other Saints We Remember Today

St. Joseph Calasanctius (Calasanz) (1648), Priest, Founder of the Piarists

Seven Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary

St. Caesarius of Arles (543), Bishop

St. Joseph Calasanz

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 22:00

The Spanish priest St. Joseph Calasanz (1556-1648) devoted his life to the education of deprived children. Joseph was ordained in 1583 after being trained in canon law and theology. He went to Rome, where it seemed he had a promising Church career, but he was shocked by the ignorance and poor morals of the common people.

Being unable to interest any of the city’s religious orders and institutes in the education of poor children, Joseph undertook this task himself. In 1617 he and his assistants formed the Clerks Regular of the Religious Schools (the first priests to teach in elementary schools). Emphasizing love, not fear, Joseph wrote, “If from the first a child is instructed in religion and letters, it can be reasonably hoped that his life will be happy.”

However, Joseph himself encountered many difficulties, including his friendship with the controversial astronomer Galileo Galilei, investigations by papal commissioners, and the rebellion of one of his subordinates in the order. Also, there were those who felt the poor shouldn’t be educated, as this would only make them dissatisfied with their lot in life. Joseph was demoted at one point, and eventually his order was suppressed, but he — like the Old Testament figure Job — remained humble and obedient. St. Joseph Calasanz died in Rome in 1648, after which his order was finally restored as a religious community.

His feast day is celebrated on August 25, with St. Louis of France.

From Johnnette Benkovic’s Graceful Living: Meditations to Help You Grow Closer to God Day by Day

Click the image above to purchase your own copy of “Graceful Living.”

“Nothing half-hearted for me — I will follow Christ with all my heart and soul.”

— St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul 

Can I make this same claim? Where might I prove to be half-hearted?

Other Saints We Remember Today

St. Zephyrinus (217), Pope, Martyr

Our Lady of Czestochowa , Patroness of Poland

The Example of Mary

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 22:07

In the Gospel of Luke we read:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. . . . And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26–31, 38)

This is the mystery of the Annunciation, when a young woman’s assent of faith ushered in the greatest event in human history: the Incarnation — God taking flesh — so as to save us from sin and invite us to the richness of God’s love. From this mystery, we can see another account of the journey of faith. As Abraham was the male prototype of faith, Mary is regarded as the female prototype of faith because she said the yes by which God became man.

The Acceptance of the Person of God

Christian faith is primarily about accepting the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This reality enables us to relate to God as a person — a being with whom we can enter into a relationship. Moreover, Christian faith is about a relationship with all three persons in one God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — and the way to this relationship is modeled after Christ, the Son, who is fully divine and fully human. Our faith is not a belief in some special force, energy, or vague cosmic power. Christian faith, rather, acknowledges that there is life beyond the forces of nature and that “oneness” with the forces of nature is not and cannot be the goal of our religious aspirations.

Christian faith believes in real persons who transcend space and time: the Person of Jesus, God the Son, the Person of God the Father, and the Person of the Holy Spirit. Together these three Persons are one personal God, the Trinity who shapes all things and who orders nature. The way to this Trinitarian faith is through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit; hence, Christian faith is Christocentric — centered in Christ as the fullness of God’s revelation.

This article is from “Our Journey to God.” Click image to preview other chapters.

Mary is the paradigm for complete acceptance of the persons of the Trinitarian God. She would have had no frame of reference for understanding the Trinity, but she was so imbued with God’s grace that she instantly accepted the word of God the Father (the first Person) that she would conceive His Son (the second Person) by the power of the Holy Spirit (the third Person). Her response, “Be it done to me according to your word,” remains a model of Christian faith.

While I was ministering in Nigeria, I found that sometimes people built their faith around me as a spiritual leader to the point that it might have become idolatrous. I have observed similar temptations among many influential pastors and evangelizers all over the world. Making sure the attention goes to God is some­times a challenge for believers — and especially for leaders. This was one of the challenges Paul faced in Lystra, when the Lyca-onians, seeing the great miracles God did through him, thought of him as Hermes and thought of Barnabas, his companion, as Zeus. They said, “The Gods have come down to us in the like­ness of men!” (Acts 14:11).

When the faith of a worshipping community is based on the prowess of the minister, the community’s faith is on the thin ice of human respect, always in danger of collapsing into idolatry. Have we not seen many move from faith to disappointment in a church minister who causes a scandal, then to a loss of confidence in the Church as a whole, and finally to a loss of faith in God? I can’t say it enough: Placing ultimate faith in human beings is idolatrous.

If you find yourself moving from one church to another, ask yourself why. If the reason is the person of the minister, then you must be careful. The Catholic Church wisely teaches that the sacraments act ex opere operato, that is, they are efficacious because of the work of Christ, and do not depend on the holiness of the minister, provided that he does what the Church intends for that sacrament.

Similarly, Christian faith is not, as some modern preachers teach, a self-confident belief in oneself that will allow us to achieve impossible feats. Although a sense of optimism is often experienced by the faithful, true faith is not optimism in what I can do. Rather, faith is optimism in what Jesus Christ has revealed, done, and could do in me and through me on the one hand and, on the other hand, what Jesus did and does in and through His Body, the Church. It is about Jesus, not about me; it is about God’s grace, not about my power. Mary’s phrase “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” expresses and acknowledges this God-based sense of both optimism and resignation.

A Life of Gratitude

Recall from the last chapter the connection between faith and prayer in the life of Abraham. In the life of Mary we see another form of the lived response to faith: a life lived in gratitude to God. Faith in God is the vehicle for gratitude to the Source of our life and existence. The Canticle of Mary, known in the Catholic tradition as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), summarizes this thankful response of faith. A faith-inspired life of gratitude takes a communal turn when the assembly of God unites to celebrate the Eucharist, “the source and summit of ecclesial life.”

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we are grateful (eukharistos) and so we offer thanksgiving (eukharistia) to God for the sacrifice that His Son made once and for all on the Cross for our salvation. Mary followed Jesus along the road to Calvary and was present at the foot of the Cross to witness His last breath that was offered for our salvation. The life of faith is a life of gratitude because the faithful realize that life is a gift, faith in God is a gift, and the fulfillment of our desires is a gift — and all of these gifts come from God. No matter what we face in life, faith helps us to see the good in all things and to be grateful in all things.

The practice of celebrating a special thanksgiving holiday emerges from the idea of gratitude to the Provider. In most churches in Africa, communities celebrate the harvest thanksgiving by replicating the Aramaic/Jewish practice of Deuteronomy 26. They offer to the Lord the fruits of their labor in appreciation for the gifts of life, rain, sunshine, the moon, the stars, and, of course, the harvest. For most churches in Africa the harvest becomes a collective thanksgiving to God and a testimony of the faith of the people. Gratitude that does not recognize the giver of the gift becomes self-congratulations — the springboard of narcissism. Faith, on the other hand, helps us to reach beyond ourselves and to appreciate what we have been given. It heals us from excessive self-centeredness.

The second aspect of thanksgiving is that it diffuses to others, leading them to experience joy. Mary embodies this as well. Her faithful and gracious voice made the baby John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth leap for joy. Her greetings also inspired Eliza­beth to shout in praise of God. The faith example of Mary is a catalyst for gratitude and praise in others. The life of faith — and the spirit of gratitude that comes with it — should therefore be an inspiration to others.

This social aspect of faith shows us that our relationship with God is not just private. Instead, faith is an integral part of the Christian life, shaping the way the believer talks, works, and relates with others. If I believe in God, then people should be able to see in me a correlation with the God in whom I believe.

Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). He could have said, “Let the people see your faith and give glory to your father in heaven,” but He did not.

The life of faith is seen by others in the way the believer lives. One of the marks of such a faith-filled life is that it should resonate with joy, peace, gracefulness, gratitude, and service. If the way a Christian lives does not make people glad to be around him, then he isn’t witnessing to Christ. Once a woman told me about her abusive father, who she said was more religious than any man she had ever known. But whenever this man came home from work, everyone in the house became tense. He carried an air of unhappiness all the time. The daughter complained that his presence made her sad and depressed. “I wonder how I will serve the same God that my father serves,” she said to me.

Compare this story with another shared by one of my Nige­rian friends who is an entrepreneur. One day he entered a shop owned by a Muslim and, after pricing some goods, found he could not afford them. He politely thanked the shopkeeper and left. The next week, he passed the same shop. The shopkeeper called out to him with great excitement and said, “Friend, come into my shop. I am satisfied if you choose not to buy anything; just come in. The other day you came in here, and your pres­ence brought so much joy, peace, and happiness to me, which I had never witnessed before. Ever since, I am a happy salesman, and this has even affected my returns, which have improved exponentially.” The young man said to him, “Well, I am a man of faith in God and His Christ, and that is likely why my life has so much joy as to impact yours. Thank you for your kind words.” Faith is a catalyst for affecting those around us and so­ciety at large.

I had the opportunity to work at a parish in California in 2015. This parish grew from 1,500 registered families to about 8,000 in less than seventeen years. While many churches of all denominations in the United States are losing membership, this church is growing every day. During my first month in the church, I wanted to figure out why it was growing rapidly. One of the major reasons shared by the parishioners is the joy that flows from the pastor and his associates to the people, and vice versa. And the foundation of their joy and hospitality is a spirit of gratitude to God. The sacramental practices of the congregation are very encouraging, and the church is full to capacity for Mass. Their joy, peace, and praise of God are palpable — a sweet nectar to many souls.

A Life of Service

In the life of Mary we also see how faith translates into service. Like Abraham, when Mary believed, she acted. It’s impossible to name a holy man or woman in Scripture or in the history of the Church whose faith was not matched with a life of service. Even hermits and abbots who lived in caves devoted ceaseless hours to prayer for the welfare of the world. Why? Because their faith had become the very core of their existence, so much so that it expressed itself in love and service. Faith at its best is married to love, and the source of all love is God. A deeper life of faith is absorbed in the absolute love of God, and love of neighbor for the sake of God. Prayer and action can always go together and support each other.

Christian faith has the capacity of healing the wounds of separation between people. It pulls down the dividing wall and its antecedent hatred. In the existential, sociological sense, an authentic faith blurs the distinction between ethnic, racial, class, sex, and cultural barriers, for it sees the neighbor as a person created in the image and likeness of God. Since God is the ultimate concern of the faithful, the neighbor is appreciated in terms of his ultimate identity as one of God’s creatures. Christian faith unites and should therefore not divide. Thus, it is a false faith that, instead of promoting love and service of neighbor, engages in acts of violence in the name of religion. Violence in the name of religion negates the very nature of authentic faith, namely, service of God and neighbor.

Total Submission to God’s Will

Faith is a life lived in total submission to God’s will, even when His plans could lead to ridicule and ostracism. Mary was open to the Cross, which always looms over the life of faith. She was a young girl who conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and managed a pregnancy that she, before the Annunciation, never would have thought would be her calling. And yet she lived this difficult, even frightening life with courage and graciousness.

There is a subtlety I want to draw our attention to here that is easy to ignore. What happens when faith demands that we make a choice between two acts that are both morally good but only one, the more challenging between them, is God’s will for us? God asked for Mary’s yes for the consummation of the mystery of the Incarnation. Mary submitted to the will of the Father, whom she loved and worshiped in spite of a personal commitment to virginity, a holy gift, which by human calculation excludes the possibility of childbirth. It reveals how her mind had been always attuned to the will of her Father. Faith in the divine will required Mary to leave her comfort zone as a young girl in Nazareth who evidently was not thinking of being a mother, to become not just any mother, but the mother of the Savior. This, for an average girl, would be a tough pill to swallow. But because she obeyed, “all generations shall call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).

This aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation may appear easy to many. After all, who would not accept the invitation to be the mother of the Savior of the world? But in real life, this is not how matters of faith evolve. Hindsight is a tricky tool, because it blurs the risks and uncertainties that are all too apparent in the present. Just think about how, to this day, an “unplanned pregnancy” is one of the greatest fears of young people. If we were to go back to Nazareth at the time of the Incarnation, we would appreciate that there was nothing easy about accepting this invitation simply on the word of an angel called Gabriel. But Mary said yes, because her lifelong experience with God was defined by “yes.” Yes to the will of God. Yes to God’s plan.

In the here and now, sometimes what the Church asks of us may not be very comfortable for us. Sometimes the Faith may require us to be silent when we would have loved to sing aloud and dance to God. Other times, we may desire to become a priest or a religious, but by listening to the voice of God, we see that our vocation is to married life instead. Or it could be the other way around. What may be comfortable might not be the will of God. This is the scary part — the will of God is not always pleasant by our human reckoning. In fact, its constant companion is the Cross. The further you are from the Cross, the more likely you are making the wrong choice. Mary’s yes drew the Holy Family closer to the Cross, for without the Annunciation and the Incarnation, there would not have been the Crucifixion.

Sometimes our faith in God challenges us to turn our cheek to an enemy. Sometimes it requires us to forgive the person who has committed the most painful sins against those closest to us. The Faith requires us not to take up arms in revenge against a terrorist who has killed our relatives in cold blood at a church service in Kenya, Southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, Somalia, or Uganda — or in the United States. Self-defense is different from vengeance; true faith resists vengeance. Yes, it’s often difficult not to pay back violent acts against us. Faith often takes its holy toll upon us, but it requires the constant yes to God’s will, not our desires, to live the faith we profess and to grow in that divine relationship with Him.

It takes faith in God to bring about things that never could have been. Faith helps us to connect the dots between the natu­ral and the supernatural. It is by faith that we understand God’s plan in our lives and in society and become ready to submit to it.

And Mary, the Mother of God, embodied this complete faith by her life of gratitude and service in total submission to God’s will. She is our example of faith. Let us always strive to respond to God’s will as Mary did: “Be it done to me according to your word.”

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Emelu’s Our Journey to God: An African Priest Explores the Power of Faith from Abraham to Youwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

Peter & the Keys

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 22:05

“More Catholic than the Pope.”  There is nothing more quintessentially Catholic than the Papacy.  When we think “Catholic,” we think Rome, the Vatican, the dome of St. Peters.

But the roots of the papacy actually go back to Jerusalem and the messiah-kings who ruled there.

Like most heads of state, David and his descendants, the anointed kings of Judah, realized that they could not govern alone.  The most important officer assisting the king was something akin to a prime minister.  He was called “the Master of the Palace.”  In Isaiah 22, this Sunday’s first reading, we see God tell an unworthy Master of the Palace, Shebna, that he will be replaced by Eliakim, who will do things right.  Here’s what we learn from this passage–the Master of the Palace wears special robes of honor indicating his special authority.  He is to be a “father” to everyone in the Kingdom.  The symbol of his authority is a key, for he has the power to open doors for people and to close doors as well. Particularly, he controls access to the king himself.  He is someone who you can hang a lot of weight upon, like a peg in a sure spot.

When Jesus began his public ministry, he did not just come right out and proclaim that he was the long-awaited messiah.  At Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-20), he asked his disciples what the crowd was saying about him.  They quickly volunteered various opinions they’d heard.  But then the Lord asks a more pointed question.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Perhaps an awkward moment of silence followed.  Then one of them blurts out: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!”

Notice I did not say that it was Peter who proclaimed this.  For he was not yet called Peter.  And that’s the point.  Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus change anyone’s name.  In the Old Testament, when God changes someone’s name, it indicates that this person is to play a unique role in salvation history–Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, and so on.  Plus, the new God-given name itself provides a clue to the special role the person will play.  Abraham means father of many nations, for example.

Peter means, of course, rock.  Remember Eliakim, the reliable peg that could bear much weight?  A rock is something stable you can stand on, even build on.  And the key Jesus is talking about?  Jesus is making plain that as founder of the new Israel, he is choosing his prime minister.  In fact he notes that it is His Father who made the selection.  For it is by virtue of divine revelation that the fisherman knows what no man on his own could know–that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God.

One of the most difficult things to swallow about Catholic teaching is the dogma of papal infallibility.  But this passage provides the foundation of this doctrine.  Peter, and his successors, are given a charism of truth whereby, when push comes to shove, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to identify the truth about Jesus.  Otherwise, the truth would be up for grabs.  If that were the case, the jaws of death would in fact prevail over the Church.  Jesus, in making Simon “Peter,” made sure they wouldn’t.  And despite 2000 years of persecution from without and enemies from within, they haven’t.

So why is Rome the center of the Catholic Church?  Because Peter died there.  Why the name change after the conclave?  Because Peter got one at Caesarea Philippi.  And why the fancy robes and the title “Holy Father?”  Because Eliakim wore robes of honor and was a “father” to the people.

So yes, the Papacy is quintessentially Catholic, but that’s because it is thoroughly biblical. 

This was originally offered as a reflection upon the readings for the 217h Sunday in Ordinary Time, liturgical cycle A (Isaiah 22:15,19-23), Psalm 138, Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20).  It appears here with the permission of the author.

Scripture Speaks: Upon this Rock

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 22:02

In a conversation with Peter and the apostles, Jesus declares His intention to build His Church on a human being.  Whatever was He thinking?

Gospel (Read Mt 16:13-20)

Today’s Gospel is so familiar to Catholics that the potential for missing the punch it packs is inordinately high.  If ever we are challenged on our belief in the papacy, we always look to this passage to begin our defense.  We see that when Jesus quizzes the apostles about His developing reputation, they are well aware of what people were saying.  This helps us understand that there was a buzz in the air about Jesus.  The apostles had families and friends; they heard the conjectures about the itinerant preacher/miracle worker.  The Jews, from their own history, had lots of ideas of who Jesus might be—Elijah, Jeremiah, or “one of the prophets.”  Some even thought the spirit of the now dead John the Baptist had somehow come back to live in Jesus.  Then comes the pivotal question:  “But who do you say that I am?”  We should move through this familiar part of the passage slowly if we are to let its importance register.

Jesus asks about the opinion of “men.”  Aren’t the apostles also men?  Indeed, they are “flesh and blood,” like all of us.  However, Simon responds to the question with a divine answer, as Jesus makes clear.  Simon declares that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  In other words, Simon knows that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and that He is not simply the son of David, as the Jews expected, but God’s own Son, something very unexpected.  This was not a truth that came simply through observation, study, personal reflection, or intense holiness.  “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My heavenly Father.”  Simon, a man, had gotten a revelation from God.  His ability to make this confession did not come from him alone.  In an extraordinary moment, a man spoke God’s words.  How extraordinary was this?  The rest of the passage makes the answer abundantly clear.

First, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, or “rock.”  Jews, from their history, understood that when God changed a man’s name, it represented a change in his God-given role in salvation history (i.e., Abram to Abraham in Gn 17:5; Jacob to Israel in Gn 32:28).  Simon Peter’s confession made explicit an interior work of God in him.  On that basis, Jesus makes him “the rock” upon which He will build His Church.  Just as the Temples of the Old Testament were built on a great stone (see 1 Kings 5:17; Ezra 3:10), Jesus will build His Church upon the foundational rock of Peter.

Why would Jesus build His Church on flesh and blood and invest him with such daunting authority (keys to the kingdom, binding and loosing on earth and heaven)?  We must ask this question if we are to get to the heart of what really troubles people about the papacy.  Wasn’t this terribly risky?  Peter, as we know, was capable of highs and lows.  We see in him everything that confirms us in our suspicion that to make a man the foundation of the Church looks like a terrible mistake.

That is precisely why this choice is important for us to understand.  The Catholic Church is full of flesh and blood—the papacy, the hierarchy, the saints, Mary.  They are all people like us.  Yet we are not afraid of this, because, as we see in the Gospel, flesh and blood can be graced with divinity.  That is the whole point of the Incarnation!  Jesus came to redeem fallen humanity; God has never given up on flesh and blood, which He created in His own image and likeness.  Jesus proves that beyond doubt when He fearlessly proclaims Peter the rock of His Church.  In addition, He promises to preserve the Church against “the netherworld,” or “Hades.”  It is Jesus, not Peter, who guarantees that the dark forces of death and deception represented by “Hades” (see Rv 6:8) will never prevail against His flesh-and-blood Church.  Yes, this is risky, but what clearer demonstration of the victory of Redemption could we possibly desire?

Possible response:  Lord Jesus, help me remember that to build a human Church was Your idea; help me believe that You will see it through.

First Reading (Read Isa 22:19-23)

In this prophecy from Isaiah, we have an opportunity to see the historical background of our Gospel passage.  We learn that in the Davidic kingdom, there existed an office called “master of the palace.”  The man who filled this office watched over the kingdom while the king was away for any reason.  In this particular case, Shebna was the corrupt “master of the palace,” so God vows to replace him with a man who will serve righteously, Eliakim.  Notice that in the description of this office of stewardship, Isaiah says that the newly appointed man “shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”  Then, using language Jesus used in the Gospel, God says the steward will receive the “key” to the kingdom, with authority very much like binding and loosing.  Isaiah says God will fix this new steward “like a peg in a sure spot.”  Now we get it!

In our Gospel passage, Jesus is creating this same “office” for His kingdom while He is away.  Jews hearing the conversation would have understood that.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus promises to give His apostles unique authority to establish and spread His kingdom, the Church.  In today’s Gospel, He sets Peter in the place of head steward.  The charism for truth and authority, given through the Holy Spirit to the apostles on Pentecost, will continue to be present in the Church in their successors, too, as we begin to see in the Book of Acts.  Just as the Davidic kingdom needed a “father” while the king was away, so the Church receives a “father” (“pope” is from the Greek word papas, or “father”) in Peter.  This office will last until the return of the King, Who has the keys of His kingdom and will no longer need a “master of the palace.”

When this Jewish history sinks in, we can understand that our Gospel passage shows us the wisdom of Jesus, even though at first glance, His action looks risky.  With His own promise of preservation, His kingdom will always have the “sure spot” of leadership in the successors of Peter and the apostles (the Pope and bishops in union with him).  This supernatural charism will guarantee truth and unity in the Church.  If the Church needed a “papa” when Jesus first established her, she will always need a “papa” to guide her to reunion with her beloved King.

Possible response:  Lord Jesus, thank You for Your loving plan to keep us safely in Your care until You come again, following the staff of Peter.

Psalm (Read Ps 138:1-3, 6, 8)

The more we ponder the meaning of our Gospel passage and its history in Isaiah, the more we understand that when Jesus gave His Church a leader in Peter, “like a peg in a sure spot,” He was acting out of unspeakable kindness and grace.  He knew His sheep would need a shepherd while He was gone; He knew the wolves would want to feast on them.  In His departure from earth, He would fulfill the psalmist’s request not to “forsake the work” of His hands.  Rather than be frightened or suspicious of flesh-and-blood leadership in the Church, we should “give thanks to [God’s] name for [His] kindness and truth.”  Surely God knows the struggles in His human and divine Church:  “The LORD is exalted, yet the lowly He sees, and the proud He knows from afar.”  The Church has been both blessed and wounded by her human leaders.  Still, our confidence is not in them alone.  We have all our hopes pinned on the promise Jesus made to His Church.  In times of difficulty and darkness, we can pray with the psalmist:  “Lord, Your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of Your hands.”

Possible response:  The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings.  Read it prayerfully again as your own.

Second Reading (Read Rom 11:33-36)

Thank God for St. Paul, who helps us find words to describe the indescribable wisdom of God in building His Church according to His own plan!  We ourselves would likely never have wanted it built on any human being, yet we find now, two thousand years into our history, that Jesus has kept His promise to protect us from death and deception in the Catholic Church, human as it is.  His plan is working.  We have to exclaim with St. Paul:  “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How inscrutable are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways! … To Him be glory forever. Amen.”

Possible response:  Lord, we know of tragic failures in human leadership in Your Church; we also know that we’re still here!  Thank You for the mystery of Your Church.

image: By Reinhardhauke (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The mission of St. Mary’s Parish is to proclaim and celebrate our salvation through Jesus Christ,our pilgrimage to the Father’s Kingdom enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Our Catholic faith community is nourished by our sacramental life, especially the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. With Mother Mary as our model, we demonstrate our faith through worship, education, vocations and service.