Monthly Archives: February 2015

First Sunday of Lent

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Madonna

“Madonna of Charity” by El Greco. c. 1604

Our readings today are short and to the point. We have just begun our forty days of Lent and the first reading recalls for us the first event in Scripture that lasted forty days: the purification of the earth by the waters of the Great Flood. Humanity had been decadent, so God decided to make a new beginning with Noah, his family and with all the creatures with him. Then He formed a covenant with Noah saying, “…never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by waters of a flood.” The sign of the covenant of course was the rainbow.

In the second reading, a connection is made between the purification of the earth by the Great Flood and the purification of our souls by the waters of baptism. In baptism we become children of God and He makes a new beginning with us. He makes it possible for us to enter into an intimate, personal relationship with Him so that we might reach our potential for happiness in this life and for all eternity. The sign of this covenant is water and the sign of the cross. We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit as water is poured over us. The cross is traced on our forehead by the minister, our parents and our godparents.

In the Gospel we are reminded of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. The temptations he experiences are symbolic of the temptations we experience. Even though we have been claimed by God in baptism, the same one who tempted Jesus in the desert will tempt us. The devil knows our weaknesses and he knows how to discourage us, but he does not have power over us unless we give it to him.

Wednesday, ashes were placed on our heads in the form of a cross and we heard the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” the very words of Jesus. What does it mean to repent? It means to have a sincere sorrow for our sins because we have offended an all loving God, and we have offended ourselves and others. It means we want to change for the better. If we do not repent, our sins become habitual and begin to shape our lives in a selfish, disordered way which leads to sadness at the very least and possibly to hopelessness.

Again, the words of Jesus: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” What does it mean to believe in the Gospel? It means to accept Jesus, the Word of God, as our Lord and Savior and to faithfully follow him and all he has revealed to us. It means that there is nothing in our lives more important than God and our relationship with Him, and no matter how difficult our circumstances might be, we put our total trust in Him, because He is God and has proven His love for us by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins.

These forty days are a time for all of us to take God seriously and to make a new beginning with God, whom we often take for granted. There are three focal points to help us during this Lenten season: prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

First there is prayer. No prayer means no faith. One measurement of our faith is the amount of time we spend in prayer. We should begin our day in prayer and pray throughout the day because prayer is our connection to God. We need His help in all we do. We should pray in private, but we also should pray with the people we love. It is critical that husbands and wives should pray together because in Holy Matrimony two became one in Christ, and it is Christ who will help your marriage and your family. And of course we should pray together with our faith community. The highest form of prayer is the Mass because it makes present to us the Paschal mystery and gives us the opportunity to receive the real presence of Jesus Christ. If daily Mass is not part of your routine, Lent is a good time to make the effort; you will be glad you did.

Next there is almsgiving. This is not just dropping a dollar in the collection basket. Almsgiving is having a generous heart because you realize the source of your blessings, and we trust that if we are generous, God will continue to be generous with us. Almsgiving helps us overcome our temptation to be selfish as we become more aware of the needs of others. Almsgiving helps us to learn the great lesson of divine providence and develop a profound trust in God.

Finally, we have fasting, denying our selves of something. The purpose is to take charge of our senses; to gain control of our passions. Without self control we will never reach spiritual maturity. When we think of fasting we usually think of food, but it could take other forms. We could fast from television, from excessive computer time, from things we enjoy but do not need. We could fast from being impatient with the people we love, and with others as well. We could even drive the speed limit as a form of conquering our impatience. Jesus said that if we are to be his disciples we must deny ourselves, and that is exactly what fasting is about.

The Church has given us this season of Lent because she knows we need it. Jesus knows we need it. We all need a new beginning with God. If we take God seriously during these forty days, and from our heart we “repent and believe in the Gospel,” these could be the best days of our lives, because we will certainly draw closer to God. There is nothing more important than being connected to God, because He is the source of our happiness and our eternity.

Touching the Place Where Jesus Fed the Multitudes

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In the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 14, there is a beautiful account that took place at the Sea of Galilee. It is one of Jesus feeding the thousands who had gathered to listen to Him. When evening came, the apostles were concerned for them and asked the Lord to send them away for food. What was Jesus’ response? He told the Apostles, “Give them some food yourselves.” They only had two fish and five loaves, and so they presented these to Jesus. After ordering the crowds to sit on the grass, he looked up to heaven, said a blessing, and distributed the loaves and fish – and miraculously, all those who were gathered ate. Jesus multiplied what was brought to him.

There is a Church called Tabgha in the Holy Land by the Sea of Galilee built over the area this event happened. As you enter the Church, the foundation is mostly mosaic, some of it dating to the 5th century! The main altar is made of limestone, very simple; however, under the Altar is a large stone that was part of the original ground marking the area where the multiplication of the fish and loaves took place. Alongside the stone is a mosaic from the 5th century of two fish and a basket with several round loaves of bread.

When we lead pilgrimages to the Holy Land, the pilgrims want to venerate this rock. To kneel and touch this area where our Lord performed this miracle is something one cannot forget. Imagine reading that scripture account and standing at the very place it happened!

Kissing

Pilgrim kissing, venerating the rock.

A Franciscan living in the Galilee area told me that I should I do the same: offer my fish and loaves to the Lord, asking Him to multiply it according to His will. This miracle can still happen today.

Jesus waits for us to present Him our fish and loaves: our gifts, our talents, our desire to improve our relationships, our love, and yes, our concerns as well. All can be brought to Jesus.

He will receive them as He received the two fish and loaves and grant us the graces needed for what we ask according to His will. Through our prayer, Jesus will help us to know what he wants to multiply in us.

As we begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, consider these 40 days as a journey with Jesus. Read the stories about Jesus in one or all of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Then imagine yourself in each time and place with Jesus. For me, this has helped to ponder the scriptures and seek a deeper knowledge of Christ.

An addition to reading the scriptures, praying the Gospel Prayer, the Rosary, is a way to ponder the scriptures. You might especially focus on the sorrowful mysteries, those related to the Lord’s Passion and Death.

My husband, Deacon Tom, has written a Holy Land Rosary Booklet with meditations related to the holy sites in the Holy Land. The cost of $6.95 for each book goes directly to support this ministry of evangelization. You can order yours through our website or call (210) 521-3377. Booklets can be picked up at the Pilgrim Center of Hope or shipped to you for an additional $1.75.

“Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…”
— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Getting to Know the Holy Spirit

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"Pentecost" by Titian (c. 1545)

“Pentecost” by Titian (c. 1545)

Last weekend, I was privileged to assist at a retreat for teens preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Although I began working in high school ministry about eight years ago, I experienced something on this retreat that I’ve never encountered.

Our parish is involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, colloquially known for its “Pentecostal” style of prayer.  I, however, am still quite new to ‘extraordinary’ manifestations of the Holy Spirit, since I was raised without exposure to charismatic prayer, and have only recently begun attending this parish.

The teens had gone to Confession, and after celebrating Mass, our retreat had reached its climax.  Four teams of adults and youth leaders were to pray over individual retreatants, invoking the Holy Spirit.  Not five minutes after this began, I was asked to lead one of those prayer teams!

My mind became a bit scrambled.  We’d all received instruction for this moment, but I’d never been in such a position, and I don’t consider myself “a charismatic Catholic”.  Nevertheless, I pushed aside my qualms and trusted that God knew what He was doing.

That’s when it began to happen.

I raised my hand over a teen’s forehead, and began to praise God.  Slowly, I felt like God was whispering words into my heart, and my mouth would speak them: prayers for healing, prayers for joy, words of encouragement and love.  Sometimes, our team would stand and wait for a retreatant to approach us.  In that silence, I would “hear” God speaking to my heart.  “The next teen has fear—much fear—in their life. Assure them that my family is their family.”  These words stirred in my heart until a teen approachedand asked us to pray for his incarcerated family member.

I received many such “words of knowledge” in my heart.  Sometimes, the truth of those words were confirmed by the teen’s specific prayer request.  Other times, I saw confirmation only in their tear-filled eyes.  Several teens initially seemed astonished at what had just occurred.  That would quickly morph into an incredibly peaceful smile, and they’d hug us in gratitude.  Some of them would “rest in the Spirit” as I prayed, falling down or backwards, and my husband would gently catch them.  Many later testified that they’d seen beautiful visions or experienced a release of their anger, pain, worries, or fears — a feeling they described as “light” and having been touched by Jesus’ love.

Perhaps this all seems strange to you.  If so, I understand!  From that night, I learned several truths experientially which I had previously known intellectually:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) – Interpersonal communication intimidates me; especially with people I don’t know well.  Yet, the Holy Spirit made up for my weakness 1,000-fold!  While prayers came from my heart and mouth, I knew without a doubt that it was God working through me.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit…To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” (1 Corinthians 12:4,7) – God gave me extraordinary gifts that night.  Those gifts were not meant for me to keep; they were meant for me to share.  I felt as if God’s goodness flowed through me.  I didn’t know why I said certain things, but I trusted that God had placed those words in my mouth for that teen.  Other leaders exhibited other spiritual gifts; only God knows why!

All of us who have received one and the same Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, are in a sense blended together with one another and with God.” (St. Cyril of Alexandria) – A profound unity grew among the teens. We saw imaginary lines created by stereotypes and cliques, dissolve, as they comforted and cared for one another. I myself felt exactly as Cyril describes: “blended together” with everyone.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22) – As I prayed, I exhibited all of these.  No words can describe exactly what that felt like.  All I could do was praise and thank God.

If you’re in need of hope, comfort, joy, patience, or anything… pray to the Holy Spirit.  Open yourself to the Holy Spirit.  Say a simple prayer and invite the Holy Spirit into your heart.  As someone who once felt unsure when speaking about the Holy Spiritand who considered charismatic prayer downright strange, I want to encourage you to not be afraid of the Spirit.   The Holy Spirit is the Father & Jesus’ gift to us.  You received this same Spirit when you were baptized.  Don’t be afraid… don’t hesitate any longer: unwrap your gift!