Varied Gifts

Varied Gifts

One of the beautiful realities of personhood is that we are all different. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that these unique differences in each person express the multifaceted reality of God himself in who’s image we have been created. How boring life would be if this were not so! Like various flowers placed together in a beautiful garden, so is each person gathered in the Church.

United together, we all have various gifts to offer in service of God and the community. Many such gifts were provided to us primarily for the advantage of others and the building up of the Church. In other words, they are often not for us, but for others. St. Paul wrote to the early Church about the importance of recognizing our own gifts and listed examples for consideration (1 Cor .12; Rom. 12). Practically speaking, how are we to uncover these and put them to use?

Most certainly we should pray and ask God to reveal them to us along with the reason we have been given them. We can also use other tools to help us discover our gifts. Here are some questions to prayerfully consider: What do people compliment me about? What comes easily to me? What do I like to read about? What would keep me up at night reading or studying? What gets me up early in the morning excited? What activities give me energy? These questions allow us to identify our skill set and what we are passionate about. After considering these we can see what service groups or opportunities are available to us. Possibly we will find that no opportunities match our gifts and if so, perhaps we could create one! There are many unmet needs and unconsidered possibilities within the Church and just maybe we are meant to fulfill or discover them. If we don’t, who will?

Cardinal John Henry Newman said it best when he wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission…”

Another tool to help discover your gifts is the Spiritual Gifts Inventory provided by the parish which matches individuals to specific opportunities.

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Fervent Love

Fervent Love

The deepest poverty is the inability of joy.* The experience of acutely feeling the tediousness of life, which leads to the belief that life is absurd and even times contradictory. This poverty is widespread today. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, greed—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world. This is why we are in need of a new evangelization – a new fervor for spreading the Gospel message and for teaching people the art of living.

In His providence, God has raised up saints in every generation. Men and women who are radically united to Jesus Christ out of love and who model for us what it means to live the Christian life. One of the most endearing and memorable saints of the last twenty centuries is St. Francis of Assisi. His compelling story of leaving behind all his possession and following Christ in poverty still deeply moves us. Yet for all his sacrifice St. Francis was a man filled with the joy that can only come from God. In the midst of the Last Supper, Jesus announced that all his words were meant to instill joy. He said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” St. Francis took these words to heart; accepting his own cross, loving God with this whole mind, heart, and soul, treating his neighbors – the greatest and the least – as he would treat Christ himself. And, importantly, adoring Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

His first biographer wrote that St. Francis “burned with fervor to his very marrow, and with unbounded wonder of that loving condescension and condescending love” contained in the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharistic life of St. Francis was a a life rich in love, devotion, and ardour. He would repair damaged churches and sweep unclean ones. Whenever he spoke with priests he would remind them of the dignity of their office which brought them so close to the Eucharist. Speaking about Holy Mass to his fellow friars, St. Francis exclaimed, “Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exalt when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest! The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under an ordinary piece of bread!.” The ardent love of St. Francis for Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist drove him often to spend entire nights near the tabernacle in prayer. Suffice it to say, devotion to the Eucharist was a hallmark of his spirituality and a cause for his joy. In this he is an excellent model for us.

As we recall and celebrate the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood on Holy Thursday, may our hearts burn with love for Jesus Christ. Having loved us to the very end, he willed that his sacrifice should be perpetuated on all the altars of the world until the end of time. So that the graces he won for us through his Redemption might be applied again and again through the ministry of priests. Jesus willed to leave us not only his blessed words contained in the Scriptures, but also his continuous presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament – love made visible – in every tabernacle, every monstrance, and at every Mass. “I am with you always” he told the disciples. This is indeed a great source of joy for us..

The Eucharist is – finally – transformative. We know this from the Divine words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. John, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” That is the meaning of Holy Communion – Jesus in me and I in Him. When we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Eucharistic presence of Jesus – like the apostles were at the last supper – we begin to look outward to the world as St. Francis did. To share what we have received and to love as we have been loved.

*Much of this paragraph is adapted from a talk delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2000.

Humility and Love

Humility and Love

Humility was a consistent theme of Our Lord’s life and mission. It is expressed well in the words of St. Paul, “Christ Jesus…  emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… (Phil 2:7)” Why did Jesus love humility? St. Teresa of Avila once pondered this question and realized, “It is because God is Sovereign Truth and to be humble is to walk in truth.”

The humility of Jesus was evident from his birth. The Lord of Lords being born into a poor family staying in a poor shelter in the tiny village of Bethlehem. Thirty-three years later, at the conclusion of his life, he emptied himself even more. Riding in triumphantly with cheering crowds gathered round about into the city that would soon ask for his death. At the first part of the week, they cried “Hosanna to the Son of David” later they would yell “Let him be crucified!” The people offered palm branches and flowers then later, a cross and a crown woven with thorns. They laid their cloaks before Our Lord on Sunday and stripped him of his on Friday. This was the hour of his great self emptying.

On Holy Thursday Jesus instituted the Most Holy Eucharist – the greatest of all gifts – and in his humility he allowed Judas Iscariot to commit sacrilege and partake of this sacrament. Later that night he accepted the abuse of being betrayed by two of his closest friends, each in their own way.

The King of Kings submitted to the trial before the high priest Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin at night then Pontius Pilate the next day. The strength of Pilate, that grubby Roman Procurator, vacillated on that Friday we strangely call good. He was not convinced of Jesus’ guilt, yet he consented to his capital punishment even though he symbolically washed his hands of guilt.

Jesus freely accepted all of this. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting (Isa 50:6).” He also accepted the wood of the cross, the terrible march, the falls, the mockery of the crowd, and ultimately crucifixion between two criminals. And this happened, not in some backwater town, but in the Holy City Jerusalem, which was overcrowded with people visiting for the Passover feast. He allowed his humiliation to be seen by many. Even his burial expressed the humility of Our Lord. Early in his ministry, when a would be disciple came up to him, Jesus announced, “Foxes have dens, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8:20).” How true this was even to the end of his life! After he was taken down from the cross, Our Lord had to be laid in a borrowed tomb.

Such was the humility of Jesus. And this humility was motivated solely by his immense love.

May I suggest that we all consider the humility and love of Jesus this week? Perhaps it will help us leave the lonely tower of our self-centeredness and pride to join Our Lord on the path of self-emptying and love which leads to victory. And let us stay close to Mary as we contemplate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of her Son. We will not find a more privileged place.

Veiled Statues

Veiled Statues

This Sunday marks the final two weeks of Lent, which the Church calls Passiontide. During the season of Lent, the Church requests that we “do with less.” Churches are not ornamented with flowers. Music is to be a bit more subdued. In the Mass we do not say the Gloria nor do we say “alleluia.” During Passiontide, we begin our immediate preparation for Easter by doing with even less. Today, the statues are draped in purple veils. Even the statue of the Sacred Heart is veiled during Passiontide. Only the crucifix remains unveiled. During the Triduum, which consists of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, we lose even more. After the Mass of the Lord’s supper in the evening of Holy Thursday, the altar is stripped of its clothes and left bare until the Easter Vigil. On Good Friday there is no Mass, only the liturgy of the Lord’s Passion. Holy Saturday is even more subdued with no liturgy until the Vigil after nightfall. Even the Easter Vigil itself begins in darkness until the lighting of the Easter fire.

Vibrant Paradoxes

Vibrant Paradoxes

In various settings recently I’ve been asked about some of the paradoxes of our Christian faith. I’ll share a few of them and then examine what they mean. A student brought up the great commission that Jesus gave at the end of the Gospel of Matthew (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”) and then asked how monasteries conform with this explicit mission given by Our Lord. Monks live in monasteries and most do not actively engage in spreading the Gospel. How do the two align? Or consider the Church’s insistence on the dignity of marriage while also insisting that celibacy is to be greatly valued. This we’ve been discussing recently in our young adult Bible study on First Corinthians. St. Paul holds both out as worthy of respect in chapter seven of his letter. Yet, they are vastly different. To use the words of GK Chesterton, the Church is “fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children.” Or consider finally, the teaching that God is both just and merciful. He both gives to each what they are due (reward and punishment) and he surpasses justice with mercy. Are justice and mercy compatible? That discussion came up during a meeting of our local Society of St Vincent de Paul. To all of these examples we can ask: what gives? How do these all fit together?

The short explanation is this: Catholic Christianity is a religion of paradoxes and by paradox we mean an apparent contradiction that is really true. More examples: that God become man in the Incarnation, that life comes from death, that to find one must lose, and that the greatest are the least. In other words, Catholicism is both/and, not either/or. The Church is for both celibacy and marriage, monasticism and evangelization. She holds up these and many other apparent conflicts like two vibrant colors placed next to each other. Probing these paradoxes through the eyes of faith reveals the profound truths of Christianity. And these truths are indeed beautiful to behold.

What Shall I do?

What Shall I do?

While on retreat last week I read a profound book entitled “Night’s Bright Darkness” by Sally Read. In it she recounts her rapid conversion to the Catholic faith from atheism. In the space of nine months Read journeyed through difficulties, doubts, and objections to arrive at her spiritual home – the Catholic Church. Above all her story is an encounter with Jesus Christ and his love. This love, she knew, called for a response. Often though, Read did not know what she was to do. So she asked, “What do you want me to do?” Like a refrain, she repeated this question many times and listened in the quiet of her heart for an answer. Gradually the plan of God became evident in her life.

St. Paul also asked this question during his own conversion recounted in chapter nine of the Acts of the Apostles. His encounter with Jesus while traveling to Damascus was much more sudden and intense. A bright light and a voice from heaven knocked him to the ground. Dazed and trembling St. Paul asked the Lord “what do you want me to do?” At that moment he didn’t learn the complete plan, only the next step “rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” St. Paul did as he was told and ever after his life would take on a completely new dimension and a decisive direction.

Every Christian should work up the courage to ask frequently, “what do you want me to do?” Doing so is a generous act of love. Then we must listen quietly for God to respond. Sometimes this response will come in the form of interior thoughts or desires or it may come through the written Word of God or through another person. This is how we accomplish the will of God in our lives, not only in great things, but in little ones too. And the will of God is always an exciting adventure. Just ask Sally Read or, better yet, read her book.

Teachers Shape Souls

Teachers Shape Souls

My mother teaches at a Catholic school and some time ago she attended a social gathering with my aunt and uncle. It was a group of strangers to her since it was out of state. Moreover, she felt out of place being “only a teacher” while many others had accomplished careers in a wide array of fields. I reminded her that everyone, no matter what their future career may be, must pass through fifth grade. But teachers do not only affect students for the brief time they are in their classrooms. They shape souls for eternity. That is why teaching is a lofty and indispensable vocation.

Everyone can think back and recall a certain teacher or more who had a definite impact on their life. I go back to the priest who taught me the Hebrew language. After registration for classes ended I found out that I was the only one in the class. “He will go easy on me,” I thought. With gratitude I can say that he did not let me off easy. Once in class he handed back a graded assignment saying, “I know you can do better.” It was difficult to hear at the time, but I now understand why he challenged me. That priest saw potential within me that I was not aware of. All good teachers do this.

Our patron St. Thomas Aquinas was likewise influenced by St. Albert the Great his teacher and mentor. From the age of twenty-three until he was twenty-seven, Thomas studied under Albert. The teacher had a considerable influence on his brilliant student during this important phase of his life. St. Thomas would never forget this example as he, in turn, influenced a new generation of students.

The image above depicts St. Albert teaching with St. Thomas among the gathered students.