Category Archives: history

St. Peter, Judas and You: A Lenten Reality Check

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B St. Peter, Judas, & You

Pope Saint John Paul II said, “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

Those consoling words should inspire us to lift the burden of salvation off of our shoulders and place it instead where it belongs; on God’s love for us. Our Lord Jesus tells us the same when He says, “Come to Me all you who are burdened and I will give you rest,” (Mat 11:28.)

During this Lenten season, as we draw closer to Easter and our Lord’s Passion, I have been thinking about this quote from the late great pope and about two people in the life of Jesus: St. Peter and Judas.

I find it intriguing that the one who Jesus accused of being an obstacle to Him (Mat 16:23,) received the keys to His Kingdom while the one Jesus called friend, (Mat 26:50) took his own life.

This all says more about Peter and Judas, and subsequently each one of us, than it does about Jesus, who being God, remains as is written in Hebrews 13:8, “The same yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Why such opposite outcomes for Peter and Judas?

Why did Peter, who continued to stumble by denying our Lord three times, go on to lead Jesus’ disciples, becoming the first pope? Why did Judas’ life end so bleakly?

Pope Saint John Paul II answers when he says the response to our Father’s love resides in, “our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

Capacity is defined as, “the ability to receive.” Real capacity, then, is the ability to receive reality; to receive Truth.

Jesus told Peter the truth of who he was: the keeper of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mat 16:19) and the rock on whom He would build His Church, (Mat 16:18) despite his weaknesses and failures. Peter chose to believe the Word, receive His love from the Father, which is the Holy Spirit, and act in His Power, His Mercy and His Love by repenting and accepting God’s forgiveness.

Jesus gave Judas the truth of who he was regardless of his weakness and failures. How merciful God is to respond to this bitter kiss, even as forces descend to lay their hands upon Him, by reminding Judas of who he was chosen to be: Jesus’ apostle and friend. Judas responds by refusing to receive God’s reality; turning from His offer of forgiveness and instead choosing to be his own judge, jury and executioner.

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“The Kiss of Judas” by Giotto

How about you?  Do you believe God’s Mercy and Love is for you?

When I am tempted to think like Judas, I like to recall the story of our first pope’s last earthly encounter with Jesus.

As St. Peter fled Roman persecution, he met Jesus on the Appian Way. “Lord, where are you going?” he asked to which the resurrected Jesus responded, “I go to Rome to be crucified again.”  Very ashamed that he once again failed to image Jesus, St. Peter turned back to follow His Lord, this time ending up with Him in Eternity. The Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) has been built on the very spot of this encounter.

The ability to receive God’s Love and Mercy is always offered to us. If you fail in a real capacity to image Jesus, then receive Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  If you find it difficult to look beyond your weaknesses and faults, then spend time with our Lord in an Adoration chapel and ask Him how He sees you. I promise, you will be joyfully surprised!

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Annibale Carracci’s 1602 painting “Peter’s Meeting with Christ”

Not sure where to start? The Pilgrim Center of Hope answers Christ’s call by guiding people to encounter Him through pilgrimages (including Rome!) and conferences. We can help you.  Our life is a journey and we are here to join you wherever you are on this path to Eternity. Contact us at PilgrimCenterofHope.org, call us at 210-521-3377 or visit us at 7680 Joe Newton St., San Antonio, TX 78251.

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Why did the Angels announce Christ’s birth to shepherds?

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b-shepherds-fieldMy husband and I enjoy watching A Charlie Brown Christmas every year. Who could forget that classic moment, when a deeply perturbed Charlie Brown yells, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” and Linus recites from the Gospel of Luke? It’s a real tear-jerker.

And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

How often have you pictured that scene in your mind: so many angels singing God’s praises, their glory contrasting with the poor, amazed, and simple shepherds? Did you know that even to this day in Bethlehem, shepherds continue to tend their flocks in the very same fields? During my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I was privileged to visit and see this amazing place with my own eyes.

Shepherds’ Field, Bethlehem

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Have you ever realized that this historic event is commemorated during Mass on Sundays and major feast days? Each time we sing, “Glory to God in the highest…”, known as the Gloria, we are echoing those words of the angels that forever changed the world and sent a message of hope for all people! Wow!

However, have you noticed that during Advent, we skip this part of the Mass? Why?

Shepherd of Bethlehem

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish people lived under the Roman Empire’s occupation, and they longed for a Savior. They looked for a “Son of David”, because the prophets had promised a Messiah (Savior) from the line of King David. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was born into such a family.

Now recall King David’s background: he was a shepherd from Bethlehem. He was the youngest and smallest of his father’s sons—an unexpected new king, yet the most famous and revered of all Israel’s rulers.

Why Shepherds are Significant

Imagine spending your days and nights outside with a flock of sheep…not the most exciting gig in the world! Shepherds were servants, hired by landowners to tend their flock. An ideal shepherd was a patient, loyal, strong person, willing to stay with his job despite boredom, bad weather, and the occasional predator or wandering sheep. To these simple servants, the host of heaven revealed itself!

Similarly, we ourselves are charged by our Master to go about our everyday lives accomplishing the tasks he gives us. Under blue skies or gray, rain or shine, in boredom or danger, we are called to be out in the fields, doing our duty.

Advent is a time of preparation and waiting. Unlike the world around us which is already celebrating Christmas, we are called to patiently wait for our Savior. Just like the shepherds, we must stay awake and alert. Then, finally, when eternity explodes into our lives—either by death or Second Coming, we will be ready to run and greet Christ!

So, during Advent, we do not sing the Gloria as a reminder that we are waiting, like those shepherds. For me, Christmas Mass is one of the most emotional of the year, because I can sing the song that, along with millions of other Catholics, I have been waiting so long to sing. Together, our Church family sings the song that brought hope to a people longing for a savior; the song that the host of heaven sang to some humble little “nobodys”…

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!

If you’d like to walk across Shepherds’ Field in Bethlehem and sing the Gloria where it was first sung, join us for a journey of faith to the Holy Land! I invite you to learn about the Pilgrim Center of Hope’s unique Ministry of Pilgrimages and view upcoming pilgrimages on our website.

Who’s in Charge?

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Healing the Centurion’s servant by Paolo Veronese, 16th century.

The priest celebrating Mass was struggling. A man was assisting him by holding both his hands so he could slowly rise from his chair and scuffle to the altar for Offertory.

As he spoke the words for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he frequently lost his place. The deacon standing to his right, gently used his finger to bring Father back to the words he missed so he could begin again. We participating at Mass that day patiently waited; many of us praying silently for Father, because we know the Offertory prayers must be spoken exactly as written through the priest to bring about the miracle of ordinary bread and wine being transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, (CCC 1411-1413).

Seeking to Understand

One of the reasons I left the Catholic faith decades ago and one of the areas I struggled with when I returned was the principle of authority. Especially, the authority of the priesthood. But instead of simply disagreeing with it, I poured through the Catechism of the Catholic Church to seek for myself why the Catholic Church teaches what she does.

In doing so, I discovered my unique and unrepeatable place in God’s plan.

For instance, the Catholic Church professes that in the Sacrament of Baptism, every person is anointed as priest, prophet and king. How we are to live that out depends on the vocation we are called to and freely choose. A priest is given authority as a ministerial priesthood by means of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. As a lay woman, wife and mother, I have been given authority under the common priesthood anointed by the Holy Spirit at my Sacrament of Baptism, (CCC 1546-1547).

What does that mean?

It means through the Sacrament of Marriage, we both become one, making sacrifices for each other. We both act in equal authority over each other. At our wedding, we spoke the words that married him to me and me to him. The presiding priest, in persona Christi, was our witness and the Holy Spirit sealed our Covenant. (CCC 1624).

We became parents; anointed in authority through our Sacrament of Marriage, to two sons. Many may have a type of authority over my sons, for instance teachers and coaches, but only with our parental permission either verbalized or through our actions, (CCC 2221-2223).

This is a privilege and it is a great responsibility.

To help us make the best choices, lay people should consider the following hierarchy of responsibility:

  • God
  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Extended Family
  • Career
  • Parish
  • Community

When we choose accordingly, we are given the grace to act through the authority God grants us. When we put these priorities in their proper order, harmony reigns. If we, for instance, put our career ahead of parenting or decide to replace our spouse, we renege on the graces granted us by authority of God in our vocations and Sacraments. We are acting on our own without authority. Our lives become chaotic and often, misery is the fruit. This explains the wisdom of the Church in why she teaches divorce is immoral because it introduces disorder into the family and into society, (CCC 2385).

Living in God’s Grace

Understanding authority as God has planned is important if we want to live our lives truly as His disciples and in peace with each other. Scripture speaks of how best to understand God’s plan in Matthew 8: 5-8:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Seeing Vocation as a Gift

Knowing that graces are especially granted in a specific vocation and through the Sacraments authored by Christ should help us to discern how to act; either in subject to or as authority over; and rise to the challenge God asks of us whether we are a centurion, a priest, a wife, a husband or a parent.

To discover more what it means to live the vocation of manhood and womanhood, consider participating at an upcoming Catholic Men’s Conference or Catholic Women’s Conference produced by the Pilgrim Center of Hope.

 

 

Pondering Our Queen

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Dr. Edward Sri writes in his book, Love Unveiled, The Catholic Faith Explained, that in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens,” the heavens here refer to spiritual beings God created first: the angels.”

He goes on to explain that angels are superior to mankind in knowledge, power and glory and were made to know and love God, to glorify Him and to serve Him in the world He was about to create. Sri writes that there was one angel who stood out among the rest. He was called the “light bearer” and that, “It is traditionally believed God invested more of His glory, power and strength in this angel than in any other. What a beautiful sight it must have been to gaze upon the “shining one” who reflected God’s glory the most!”

Like us, God has created angels with a free will and did not force them to serve. Sri writes, “Before they could see God ‘face-to-face’ and be sent on their mission, their love was tested in some way.” The ‘shining one’ failed the test because, as Sri writes, “He did not want to bow down before his Creator, but focused on himself […] He ignored God’s supremacy, rejected God, and sought to build a kingdom for himself.”

What happened to this angel is told by our Lord Jesus when He said, “I observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.” (Lk 10:18) The next time we hear about him he is successfully tempting our first parents to choose self over God, and just like him, they receive the same destination: banished from Paradise.

Reflecting as this morning dawns on the Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I sit amazed and in wonder at the great mercy of God.

It actually makes sense that God would not just give up on creation as God can only be what He is: Creator, Love and Mercy. Instead He exclaims, “Behold, I make all things new!” (Rev 21:5)

So, God sets about creating anew investing even more glory, more knowledge and more power into His new “light bearer” and this one, He calls “Mother.”

With her ‘yes’ at the Annunciation, Mary, descendent of Adam and Eve, receives The Light – God Himself – in her womb, participating with Creator God in His new Creation . . . what glory!

Serving God’s mission all the way to the Cross and beyond, Mary’s free will and faith in the supremacy of God is tested more than what I believe all the angels had to endure. As told to her by Simeon when she brought her precious baby to be presented in the Temple, “And you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed,”(Lk 2:35) she receives the gift to read the thoughts and hearts of all creatures, a gift never given to the old light bearer . . . what knowledge!

As the Mother of God, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit and the faithful Daughter of God, it is through Mary, all the graces merited by her Son, in the Mercy of our Father through the Holy Spirit are distributed to all creation. Yes! God has granted that it is through the hands of Mary, as Mediatrix with their Son, Jesus Christ, all grace is granted . . . what power!

In her most exalted position, the new ‘light bearer’ acknowledges her queenship and the source of all her glory, knowledge and power by exclaiming in Luke 1:46-55:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

So what does all this mean for you and me?
“Behold Your Mother!” (Jn 19:27), God’s new creation, His new ‘light bearer,’ His creature who He invested more glory, more knowledge and more power than any other creature, is our Mother too!

We invite you to discover what it means to live God’s new creation by joining us at an upcoming Pilgrim Center of Hope Conference: The Catholic Women’s Conference, the Catholic Men’s Conference and the Catholic Seniors’ Conference. The Pilgrim Center of Hope also offers Evenings with Mary at various parishes in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. If you would like to bring a presentation to your parish, please contact us.

What should we eat?

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On the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

bread-food-healthy-breakfastIn today’s Gospel, Jesus multiplies the fishes and loaves. When the apostles ask Jesus to dismiss the crowds so that they can get something to eat he tells them, “Give them some food yourselves.” He knows what he is going to do, but he wants his apostles to be involved in what is about to happen.

This miracle of Our Lord’s providence often reminds me of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer; “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is not only about bread, it is about all that we need to sustain our life in Him.

In another place he says, “Do not worry and say, what are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear? All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these will be given you.” The most important part of our relationship with God is our total trust in Him. There are a multitude of Scriptures where Jesus says such things as,

“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest,”
“Do not be afraid,”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,”
“My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you;” and so many more.

These are not empty words. These words are for anyone who will receive them in humility. If we allow the words of Jesus to touch our hearts, they can transform us from sadness to joy. It is a response to the promises of Jesus that creates saints and even martyrs.

It was a response to the promises of Jesus that inspired a woman I visited in the hospital many years ago, to say that she thanked God for the cancer that was bringing an end to her life because it helped save her soul. In her illness, she turned to God and the Church and found peace in her preparation for death.

Jesus tells us, he is the Way, the Truth and the Life because he is the only answer to that which we need the most. Perhaps the most important words of Jesus which we must believe is when he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

The mission of Jesus Christ was to be obedient to the will of the Father and to give himself to us. He gave us himself when he was born of the Virgin Mary; he gave us himself when he died on the cross, and he continues to give us himself in the Holy Eucharist. He loves us so much that he longs for us to receive him in this holy sacrament.

A couple weeks ago, I assisted at a Mass for children who were receiving their first Holy Communion. When the child comes forward to receive the Lord for the first time the whole family comes forward with him or her. I was surprised that almost half of the family members that came forward did not receive Communion, but a blessing instead.

I believe the most urgent message of evangelization to the Catholic community is that the Holy Mass is the most important prayer we can pray because the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are made present to us by the power of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the priest who presides and represents Christ himself.offering

Saints have been privileged to witness the presence of the heavenly hosts as Mass is being celebrated. We may not see them, but we will be surrounded by angels and saints during the consecration as bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. What will you do today that will be more important than what we are doing right now? What is more important than receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ?

Of course, Our Lord wants us to be prepared to receive him. First, we must truly believe that we are not just receiving bread and wine, but we are in reality receiving his body and blood. He also wants us to be free of serious sin, which is an obstacle to his love. For this reason he has given us the sacrament of reconciliation in which Jesus himself forgives our sins through his minister the priest. Sin weighs us down and causes us to be unhappy if we do not use the means that God has given us to be reconciled to him.

If you know of anyone who has left the Church because they are divorced and remarried civilly, encourage them to speak with their local pastor. Most marriages can be con-validated. There is nothing that should separate us from this wonderful gift from God if we have the humility to seek His help through the Church. You can learn more about gifts of Catholicism through our weekly series Catholicism Live!. Visit our website for more information or to listen to previous episodes.

A Religion Celebrating an Empty Tomb

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A Religion Celebrating an Empty Tomb

Christianity; the only religion that celebrates an empty tomb.

The holiest site for all of Christianity is the Holy Sepulcher Church, because it is built over tomb of Jesus Christ from where he resurrected. Our faith is founded on the reality that Jesus rose from the dead, and the reality of our own resurrection.

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty too is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.”   1 Cor. 15:13-14

However, since Christ has been raised from the dead; our faith has flourished for two thousand years!

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Deacon Tom venerating the tomb of Jesus.

From the fourth century, the tomb of Christ has been the destination for millions of pilgrims, many of whom made the journey at great expense, for some even the cost of their lives.

It is truly one of the great experiences of a life time to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher Church; to have Mass in the tomb where Jesus resurrected and to kiss the stone above where his body laid.

On Easter Monday, we will lead a group of forty persons on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and look forward to repeating that experience in the tomb again, as well as visiting other sites important to our faith. The Holy Land continues to be a place where people can experience a divine presence.

“He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.” Luke 24:6

The Institute of Pilgrimages we founded is based on over 25 years of experience in organizing and leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land (we have been there 46 times!), to Rome, Shrines of Italy, Marian Shrines such as Fatima, Lourdes and others. The Institute of Pilgrimages also offer presentations to schools, organizations, groups and ministries on these destinations marked by the history of the Church.

One of our favorites? “The Holy Land – the Fifth Gospel” (of course). Give us a call for a presentation. We would love to share more of all that we have discovered with you! May God bless you as you continue on your own faith journey.

Deacon Tom & Mary Jane Fox

Confessions of a Lector

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The entire room stared at me.  They had never heard this before.  I saw a spark in their eyes grow into a bright light.

I was just explaining the ambo.

Do you know what an ambo is?  Most people don’t.  In a Catholic church, the ambo is one of the most important and meaningful furnishings representing Christ’s threefold identity.  Ambos continue an ancient practice, mirroring the Jewish synagogue.  They are sacred places reserved for God’s Word.  But for most people?  The ambo is just a podium or pulpit, where a “reader” stands.

How tragic!

A while ago, when I was asked to give a ‘crash course’ in lectoring to my parish youth ministry team, I realized how much profound, beautiful meaning has been lost on almost every Catholic, related to the first part of Mass.  Now is a perfect time to learn more.  Until January 10, the Church still celebrates the Christmas Season, when God’s Word became flesh.

We often hear about the flesh of God during Mass… but what about the Word?  How much are you missing?  Let’s get a taste!

Go up onto a high mountain,
Zion, herald of good news!
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Cry out, do not fear!
Say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
– Isaiah 40:9

The word ambo comes from the Greek for an elevated or high place, such as a mountain.  Elevated places have always been associated with the proclamation of God’s word.  Remember Moses bringing the Commandments down from the mountain?  Or Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount?  You will find dozens of similar examples in Scripture.

If you’ve ever visited a Jewish synagogue, you’ve seen the bimah, which is the ancestor of the Christian ambo.  (Bimah and ambo are the same word, just in different languages.)  The bimah is the elevated platform from which the Torah is read.  As early as the Book of Nehemiah (400’s B.C.), people stood on a bimah and read God’s words for all the people to hear.

So, the next time you see this at your parish, think about what an ancient tradition you are witnessing!

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Synagogue in Padua, Italy.  Notice bimah on righthand side with steps leading up. Photo by Olivier Lévy.

 

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Ambo – Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower in San Antonio  (See how it juts out into the congregation?)

For Christians, the ambo is particularly important.  As I mentioned, it is one of three key furnishings within the church building that represent Christ’s threefold identity: priest, prophet, and king.  When we are baptized, each of us is “incorporated into Christ who is anointed priest, prophet, and king” (Catechism CC, no. 1241).  The altar represents Christ as priest, the presider’s chair represents Christ as king, and the ambo represents Christ as prophet.

This is why, especially in older cathedrals or basilicas, the ambo is not only a simple ‘podium’ but actually juts out into the congregation’s seating.  This represents Christ the Prophet who goes out to the people, proclaiming the Good News!

The official instruction manual for Mass confirms how important this part of the Mass truly is:

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel. Therefore, the readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone, for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy. – GIRM, no. 29

Typically, the person who reads the Scriptures during Mass is called a lector.  This word comes from the Latin which means “chosen reader”.  Consider all that we’ve learned about the Scriptures’ amazing role during each Mass. It may not surprise you, then, to discover that Lector is not just a job description, but is actually a ministry instituted by the bishop.

On a typical Sunday, you would probably hear a priest see me and say, “Oh, hi, Angela.  Are you the lector today?”  That use of “lector” is actually shorthand, because I am not an instituted Lector.

However, a dear friend of mine, Brother Sean Stilson, BBD, is truly a Lector.  He received the ministry of Lector from Archbishop Gustavo almost two years ago, because he is a seminarian on the way to becoming a priest.  It is most appropriate for instituted Lectors to proclaim the Scriptures during Mass* because of the importance, sacredness, and tradition in that moment.  However, when instituted Lectors are not available, the Church appoints lay people (like me) to proclaim the readings.  *The Gospel reading is the exception.  As the highest point of the Liturgy of the Word, it is proclaimed only by a deacon or priest.

My responsibility to proclaim the Scriptures during Mass has deepened my love and appreciation for Scripture—an appreciation which developed naturally in my childhood and progressed as I grew.  Every day, I spend time with the Scriptures.  They are ancient stories of my spiritual family.  They are my heritage as a Christian.  The Scriptures are God’s living words; every time I read them, they pierce my heart and speak to me about my life and identity.

I hope and pray that this little “confession” of mine will entice you to learn more about the Scriptures, both inside and outside your parish walls. After many years of study, I am still learning!

What treasures await us!

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Here is a fond memory from 2010: I proclaimed the readings during Mass at the birthplace of the greatest prophet, St. John the Baptist, in Ein Karem.

“Good Pope John” – Why you shouldn’t overlook Pope St. John XXIII

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Despite my membership in the “John Paul II Generation,” I winced a few times leading up to Sunday, hearing questions like, “Are you going to watch the canonization? Of John Paul II and…uh…that other guy?”

Yes, this Divine Mercy Sunday – April 27, 2014 – two popes were added to the Canon of Saints: Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Saint John XXIII. It would be a tragedy to overlook jolly John, a simple yet revolutionary figure in the history of Catholicism. From the time I began learning about him, he quickly became one of my heroes.

In John Paul II’s homily for the Mass during which he declared John XXIII ‘Blessed’, he said:

Everyone remembers the image of Pope John’s smiling face and two outstretched arms embracing the whole world. How many people were won over by his simplicity of heart, combined with a broad experience of people and things! The breath of newness he brought certainly did not concern doctrine, but rather the way to explain it; his style of speaking and acting was new, as was his friendly approach to ordinary people and to the powerful of the world.

Photo by La Stampa

Photo by La Stampa

Angelo Roncalli was the son of an Italian family (tenant farmers). As a young seminarian, he became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. During World War I, then-Fr. Roncalli was assigned to carry wounded soldiers on stretchers from the field of battle to the field hospital. While a Bishop, he served Vatican City as a diplomat. He was a leader in the Vatican’s efforts that saved hundreds of thousands of European Jews from Nazi deportation. “In Budapest alone, Roncalli rescued at least 50,000 Jews by issuing baptismal certificates” (Catholic World Report). Read his biography; you will be inspired.

This ‘Good Pope John’ has taught me so many lessons. Here are a few:

1. God is calling you to holiness in an unrepeatable way.

Sometimes, I read saint biographies, and I think, “Wow, that is amazing, but that’s not me.” Further, Catholics can get caught up comparing ourselves, our prayer lives, and our talents to Saint So-and-So’s. We can end up more discouraged than inspired.

As a young man, John XXIII kept a spiritual journal, and reflected on this:

“I am not St. Aloysius, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect. God desires us to follow the examples of the saints by absorbing the vital sap of their virtues and turning it into our own life-blood, adapting it to our own individual capacities and particular circumstances. If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way” (Journal of a Soul).

2. Maintain a healthy sense of humor.

Shortly after his election, John XXIII was walking in the streets of Rome. A woman passed by, noticed him, and said to her friend, “My God, he’s so fat!” Having overheard, he turned around and replied, “Madame, I trust you understand that the papal conclave is not exactly a beauty contest.”

Famously, a journalist once asked him, “How many people work in the Vatican?”

He responded, “About half of them.”

3. God is in control; it’s OK to relax.

You think your life is stressful? Imagine being the Pope…the man elected to lead 1 billion Catholics around the world, who are facing all types of challenges, living in all different cultures, and with so many needs. Imagine holding the title, ‘Vicar of Christ on Earth’!

John XXIII said, “It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it.  Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope…”  Talk about pressure! How did Good Pope John deal with it? At the end of a long day, he is said to have prayed, “Well, Lord, it’s your church. You take care of it. I’m going to bed.”

Simple as that.

4. “I am your brother.”

Having worked in evangelization for several years, I still find it hard to preach the Gospel. Loving others and speaking the truth to them requires us to get our hands dirty; to be present to people wherever they are; to be vulnerable. I fear ridicule, or failure. John XXIII maintained a very simple but profound attitude. He often greeted people saying, “I am your brother.”

Somehow, that phrase changes my perspective. I’m overwhelmed by the thought of approaching people with the Gospel, but when I remind myself, “I am their sister,” my eyes are opened to the simplicity of God’s call. Just be a brother.

5. Most of all — Do not worry. Do not be afraid.

Elected pope at 77, everyone expected John XXIII’s pontificate to be quick and forgettable. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, John’s turned out to be one of the most revolutionary pontificates in history. Most notably, he called for an ecumenical council: a meeting of the entire Church. In Christianity’s 2,000-year history, only twenty of these had been organized. So, why did he do it?

He said this in his opening address at the Second Vatican Council: “In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Rather than flee from the world and lock the church doors behind us, John XXIII envisioned a Church that was empowered by the Holy Spirit to go out into the world and bring God’s love. Because John XXIII was unafraid to start a revolution, unafraid of the doom-and-gloom, and unafraid of what people might think of him, today we have a more lively, educated, enthusiastic, culturally-rich Catholic Church.

What a debt we owe him.

Stars & Stripes and the Cross

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How many of you when hearing the Star-Spangled Banner sung, or sing it with others, get a lump in your throat? Well, I do! I even get teary-eyed; because I think about the many men and women who sacrificed their lives for our country – America. I think of my father who served in the U.S. Army for over 25 years, fought in several wars and almost lost his life – because he was serving our Country. I think about other relatives I never knew, because they died in World War II. And I can’t help but imagine how they all must have felt when they were in the ‘fields’ of war, or what they thought when they were close to facing death. I also think about the many in our country who pray for those serving in the Armed Forces. And for the spouses and families who sacrificed their fathers, mothers, sons, brothers, relatives because they gave their lives for true freedom, for our nation.

Fr. Emil Kapaun

Fr. Emil Kapaun

I recently learned about a Catholic hero —  Father Emil Kapaun, a U.S. Army chaplain who died in a North Korean camp in 1951 and received the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 11, 2013.  His cause for canonization is open, and already several cures may have been due to his intercession.

In a homily Kapaun prepared, while he was still a young parish priest, he wrote that if a crisis ever came, a person who wants to help others should imitate Christ.  And that’s what Father Kapaun did.   He was a parish priest and was called to serve during World War II. A Christian, a priest, a soldier, Father Kapaun offered his life loving and serving others.  He wore the Cross, the sign of Christianity, on his military uniform.  The Cross is the sign of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is a sign of victory and hope!

As we celebrate our Independence Day on July 4th, these words of the Star-Spangled Banner should remind us that our nation was founded with Christian values:

Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Yes, the Stars and Stripes fly in our Flag, but I also think of the Cross, and the many heroes who imitated Christ by helping others.

Some people regard the meek man as one who will not put up a fight for anything but will let others run over him …. In fact from human experience we know that to accomplish anything good a person must make an effort; and making an effort is putting up a fight against the obstacles. – Father Emil Kapaun

Read more about Father Kapaun:
The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, and Korean War Hero” by Roy Wenzl and Travis Hexing

Authentic Christianity: What does it look like?

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Triptych by Duccio (1308)

Triptych by Duccio (1308)

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and Paul “…strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.'” They did not tell them that God would make things better for them in this life; the focus was on eternal life, the salvation of their souls. As we know, some disciples gave up everything to be in the company of the Apostles and follow the “New Way” of being in relationship with God. Many disciples were persecuted and some were martyred.

This message from Peter and Paul was not only for the Christians of the early Church, it is also for us today. It is expected that our faith will influence all the important decisions we make and sometimes those decisions will be difficult. Are we willing to make sacrifices and put other people’s needs before our own desires? Jesus himself tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. We cannot allow our appetites and desires to dominate our life. If we live only for our self, we close our self off to the graces God wishes to give us and are destined for unhappiness. If our lives are not ordered to God, they are disordered.

What are some of the hardships you have endured? What is your most difficult trial? These come to all of us naturally; we don’t have to look for them. No matter how bad we had it on our worst day, there will always be others who will have had it much worse. Some will allow their trials to overwhelm them. They continue to look at their problems and in their imagination they become bigger than reality and they become bitter and depressed. Others, instead of dwelling on their trials look at Christ on the cross and find the strength to persevere. Those who draw close to Christ can even experience joy in the face of adversity.

The challenge is to experience our hardships in the light of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us. If we unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ it becomes redemptive for us, and others as well. Not only that, Christ also lessens the weight of our burdens just as he promises. Hardships are necessary because they help us to become dependent upon Jesus Christ, to discover “his strength in our weakness.” There are some people who would never have turned to Christ except for their hardships.

In the Gospel, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” When Jesus tells us we must love one another he makes it a new commandment because he says we must love one another as he has loved us. In other words, we must love with a supernatural, sacrificial love. It is only possible to love in a supernatural way if we love God first above everything else, because He is the source of all love and everything that is good. If God is our first love, it will be possible for us to reach our potential in loving ourselves and others.

We can only love as Christ has loved us if that is the desire of our heart. If that is our desire, we ask for the grace to be faithful to what has been revealed to us through the Scriptures and the Church. We make a commitment to pray every day, to live the sacramental life and to continue to be formed in the Faith.

God has great plans for all of us that require us to surrender our will to His will. In His will, we experience unconditional love and mercy which lead to happiness now and forever. If our will is in opposition to His will, we are destined for unhappiness.

Lord, give us the grace to put our total trust in you so that you may be our hope in adversity and victorious in our struggles.