On The Power of Personal Witness in the Priestly Proclamation

I was at a meeting of the Seminary Council  today for one of our diocesan seminaries. It is the Redemptoris Mater Seminary of the Neocatechumenal Way that is currently training almost thirty of our Washington men for priestly Ministry.  Four men are currently stepping forward for Holy Orders this Spring and they each spoke to the Council, seeking our prayers and recommendation to the Cardinal.

They are all fine men. But what most impressed me is that, when they were asked to tell us a little something about themselves, they went beyond the mere, date of birth, country of origin, basic course of studies, sort of answer. Rather, they each gave personal testimony of how the Lord has both ministered to them and transformed them. These men were witnesses of the Lord and his power.

Each of them spoke of how the Lord rescued them from various afflictions, family and personal struggles, and agnostic and/or ambivalent tendencies. They spoke of how the Lord called them and made a way for them, how He has transformed their lives.

I told each of them how important it is for them to share this personal witness with the people they serve. They really did not need for me to say this, since the Neocatechumenal Way has personal witness and testimony as an important hallmark of their formation and liturgical experience.

I too have discovered the importance of the priest bearing personal witness to the gospel in his preaching, teaching and daily life. I have discovered that our people need, and are hungry for, those of us who preach to move beyond mere slogans, information and abstract homilies, to a personal witness of the truth. We cannot simply proclaim the truth, we have to know, to experience that it is true. We have to be first hand witnesses and to be able to say how we have personally experienced the power of of the Cross of Jesus Christ to put sin to death and bring newness of life to us.

St. Paul wrote, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). The danger for a bishop, priest or deacon who preaches, is that we just quote the Scripture more as a slogan or handy phrase. But what is supposed to happen is that the preacher is able to say:

Yes, if anyone is in Christ he IS a new creation, and I can personally say to you, my people, that this is true not only because it is in the Bible, but because it is happening in my life. I, am a new creation. I am seeing my life changed and transformed by the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the sacraments, his Word, prayer and the ministry of the Church, Jesus Christ is setting me free from sin and every negative thing in my life. He is breaking the chains of the things which held me in bondage. He is giving me a new mind, and new heart. I love people I never thought I could love! I am more chaste than I ever thought possible.  Serenity and joy are replacing fear and depression. I am more and more a man of hope, confidence and courage. Yes, I AM a new creation. What the Lord says is true, and I am a witness. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A wonderful change has come over me.

I am convinced that many Catholics long to hear their clergy speak with conviction and like men who have actually met Jesus Christ. Of course, before they speak  such things, they  actually have to be true.

I am glad that the men who testified today have actually met Jesus Christ and experienced his power. They have something to say because something real has happened to them. And herein lies the necessity not only for clergy, but for parents and all Christians who are called to evangelize. It is absolutely critical that we personally know the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of his Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is essential that, in the laboratory of our own lives, we have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. And from these experiences we can preach, speak and witness with authority.

We preach with authority only if we have met the “Author” and felt his power to transform our lives. Otherwise we risk giving information, but without the conviction or personal witness that helps people to transformation. We can say all the right an orthodox things, but then comes the ultimate question: “That’s all very nice, but how do I know it is true?” And the preacher, the teacher the parent, the catechist, the evangelizer, has got to be able to say in response, “Look at me….I promise you it is true because it is happening in my life. I promise you in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ that a completely new life is available to you, and I am a first hand witness of it.”

Of course to be able to say all this requires that it is actually happening. That’s why it is so important for the priest, parent and any Church leader to tend to their own spiritual life. To study the Word of God and see its truth in the laboratory of their own life, to consider well the evidence and gather their own testimony.

Fulton Sheen once remarked something to the effect that we have tried every other way to evangelize and grow the Church: seminars, workshops, committees, new  music, liturgical creativity. All to little avail. But one thing only has not been tried: holiness. Yes, authentic transformation that comes, only when we finally take the Lord up on his offer, and take his word seriously that we are, and can become, a new creation.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. St. Paul couldn’t look this up and quote it like a slogan. He had to write it. And before he wrote it he actually experienced it. So when Paul says this, its not a slogan, it is a surety, it is an experienced truth.

This is what the Church needs, humble but strong preachers who have confirmed the Word of God in their own life. Men who can boast, not of what they have done, but what the Lord has done for them through the power of his cross to put sin to death and bring grace alive.  And from experience comes authority, for they have met the Author of their salvation.

Thanks be to God for these men at the seminary today, and for their witness, their testimony, their “boasting” in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf Gal 6:14).

Photo Above right is of Redemptoris Mater Seminary, Wash. DC and was taken by me

This Songs says, You Should be Witness…..Why don’t you testify? Don’t be afraid to be a witness for the Lord….Stand up and be a witness!

Vocations in the Wake of Scandal – "I am Part of the Solution, not the Problem."

At the Bottom of this post is an encouraging excerpt taken from a video, The Catholic Priest Today, produced by the Cresta Group.  In it we are reminded once again of the resiliency of the Church, and that the Holy Spirit can make a way out of no way.

From a worldly perspective one would expect vocations to the priesthood to take a real hit in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. Yet in many, if not most dioceses, vocations are up, or at least steady. One of the seminarians in the film clip says, “I want to get close to our Lord, I want to pray, I want to help other people get close to Christ and I’m not going to let the scandal that’s been perpetrated by an another generation worry me, I’m part of the solution, I’m not a part of the problem.” Well, said.

Here in Washington our vocations are strong. Many fine men are coming to us to discern a vocation to the priesthood. We are opening a pre-theologate house of formation, since our numbers are strong and we expect them to continue to be so, even to grow. God the Holy Spirit is up to something good. Some of our men come to us straight from college, others have had a career path of some years.

I have remarked before how pleased I am with the caliber of the seminarians I meet. They love the Church, have a strong and manly devotion to our Lord and our Lady, and deeply desire to preach the Gospel with courage and without compromise. They are committed to and well immersed in the teachings of the Church and seem keenly aware of the cultural obstacles that must be addressed. Many of them too, have experienced first hand the necessity of speaking the faith with clarity to a world that increasingly finds belief in God untenable.

I have also seen a wonderful turnaround in our seminaries. I have shared before how problematic things were when I was studying back in the early 1980s. But here too, great reform has been effected, stemming largely from the Vatican Visitations conducted some years ago. But reform has also come, quite frankly, from the students themselves and from the ranks of newer teachers who have entered the system. There is an increasing thirst and insistence on solid, authentic Catholic teaching, and sound liturgical practice.

Yes, God is raising up, a whole new generation of priests. He is purifying, and invigorating a whole new generation of priests. I am mindful of the 132nd Psalm which says of Israel and the Church:

I will clothe her priests with salvation and her faithful shall ring out their joy. There David’s stock will flower; I will prepare a lamp for my anointed. I will cover his enemies with shame but on him my crown shall shine. (Psalm 132:15-17)

Truly our enemy, Satan, has sought to rejoice over a destruction of the priesthood. But it would seem God has other plans!

All this said, continue to pray. Remember that Satan hates priests in a particular way. For if the shepherd is struck, the sheep are more easily scattered. Priests, indeed the whole priesthood, is under consistent attack by Satan. Surround your priests with prayer. Ask the Lord to put a hedge of protection around them.

When I was first ordained, my mother looked at me with concern and said, “Satan wants you, to destroy you. But I am praying for you. And when you feel tempted, remember, I am praying for you.” She most concerned about the effect that the young ladies would have over me. I recall feeling a little embarrassed by what she said, and I replied, “Aw mom, don’t worry about me, I’m not even all that handsome.” But I could tell she was serious and she said again, “Remember.” And praise God, I have always felt the protection of those prayers and been faithfully celibate. And though I am far from sinless in other areas, I have never felt any crisis related to my vocation.  Even now that she is gone on to God, I know those prayers continue and I feel their effects.

I know and experience too the prayers of my parishioners. Every morning some of faithful women in the parish do a morning conference call and pray together.  And they tell me that they pray for me every morning. Yes, I am the result of prayer. And I ask of God that I too will always be part of the solution, not the problem in the priesthood.

So even as we give thanks to the Lord for the way he is raising up new and faithful vocations to the priesthood and religious life, remember to pray. Satan cannot be happy, he’s taken his best shot at the priesthood and here we still are. But pray! He’s surely not done, and every priest you know is under special attack. So pray, and to quote my mother, “Remember!”

Photo Above: Me in my seminary days, being designated acolyte. My mother is in the (blurry) background looking on, next to my father.

This video clip is taken from The Catholic Priest Today, sponsored by the Midwest Theological Forum,  and produced by the Cresta Group. For more Visit Here.

Happy Easter – Jesus is on line one

Do you have a cell phone?  Does your cell phone tell you who it is that is trying to call you?  Do you usually check that caller ID and decide, based on who it is, whether to answer the phone or not?

“Answer”, “Ignore” or “Send to voicemail”?

I do! In all honesty, when someone at my school says to me, “You have a call on line one,” I almost always ask, “Who is it?”  Then, I decide if the person is worthy of my time, if I am prepared to talk to that person, if I don’t like that person or if it is conversation I would prefer to have later.  I am sure the same thing happens to me when I call others as well.  I am not offended , trust me, I am a high school principal.  Try calling a parent in the middle of the day.

Caller ID

I love caller ID.  When I know who is calling, I know how I am going to react.  I am going to pickup the phone if it is my mom or wife because I want to make sure they are OK.  I am going to pick up my calendar if it is my Pastor because he probably has something for me to do.  I am not going to always pick up the phone if it is my best friend because, we will talk forever and I got to make sure I have time to sit and chat.  I am not going to pick up the phone at all if I am driving because that is dangerous and I am not trying to kill anyone. Like many of you, I make these discernments each time my phone rings.  And that it OK.

If it is God, pick up and answer!

But, when it comes to Christ, when it comes to God, you can’t hit the “ignore” button but so many times; Can I get an amen?  I shouldn’t say to God,” I will call you back later.”  You shouldn’t say to God, “Not now I am busy.”  We shouldn’t say to God, “I have something more important to do.” You can’t say to God, “This isn’t a good time, go talk to someone else and get back to me later.”  You can’t put God into your voicemail but so many times.  When God calls, you must pick up the phone and answer.  And unlike your mother, pastor, wife or best friend, don’t simply say “Hello.”  Answer God’s call by saying, “Here I am Lord, what do you want me to do!”

Are you sure you have the right number?

Brother and sisters, I know at least for me, I have put God on hold many times in my life.  I hit the ignore button, turned on my voice mail and took a message.  And he kept calling.  I tried my best to not be a deacon but God kept calling and I kept saying, “You must have the wrong number.”  God said, “Follow me” and I said, but I don’t have the time. I said to myself, “Most Deacon’s are retired, I still have to work” (Which isn’t true by-the-way, but that was my excuse at the time).  God said, “I gave you that job that keeps you so busy, want to keep it?”  I said “God, I have not studied religion since high school, and I wasn’t all that great at it.”  God said, “I am the perfect teacher, I can teach anyone, including you.”  I even said “God, I am really not sure I am worthy.” And God said, “I know; That is why the Holy Spirit will be heavily involved in this endeavor.”  Like the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, with me, God knew whom he was calling.  Sometimes, we think God doesn’t know what he is doing don’t we?  God’s doesn’t ask for a resume because he already knows our qualifications.  This is important because we often ignore God’s call not out of spite for Our Lord but rather lack of confidence in the graces he has given us.  You see, God is not asking us to change who we are, he is asking us to take the talents that he built into us and use them for the Kingdom of God.

I knew you before you were formed in the womb

I often meditate upon the reason why God chose fisherman to be the first disciples, the first Bishops of the flock.  Maybe because fishing was a dangerous profession and he needed men who would not be frightened easily.  Maybe it was because fisherman had to be patient and building the Kingdom of God requires among many things patience.  Perhaps it was because fisherman had to be able to read subtle changes in the weather and water conditions in order to fill their nets and those same skills were needed in leading the early Christian community.  Perhaps it was because fisherman rarely worked alone and they had a sense of community that he wanted in his Church on Earth.  Maybe it was all of the above and maybe it was a set of qualities that I have yet to understand. But he never said to them, “Stop being fisherman.”  Rather, I will take those skills I gave you and make yourselves “Fishers of men.”

Brothers and sisters, when God calls us, he knows what he is doing and he knows whom he is calling.  When you answer God’s call, you will never hear God say, “Sorry, I dialed the wrong number!”   I heard a priest say once, “God never calls the qualified but qualifies everyone he calls.”

Each of us has a talent or a gift that God wants us to use to build his Kingdom.  God is calling us to use that talent.  For some of us, you are being called to lector, join the choir, be a minister of holy communion, join the St. Vincent de Paul Society become active in any number of ministries we have in an average parish.  Your phone is ringing, answer the call, it’s God!  Some of you are called to be priests, deacons, religious sisters or brothers.  Don’t send God to your voice mail, answer and say, “Here I am Lord.”  Some of you are called to be married and to be parents, maybe even adoptive parents, God is calling, don’t text him back saying, “I am busy.”

Say yes!

Brothers and sisters, God is calling and when we answer yes, he doesn’t promise that our life will be easy.  But, he promises that our life will be fulfilled.  In your prayer life, God is calling; Through your friends, God is calling;  Through the voices of your family, God is calling.  Perhaps even through this blog post, God is calling.  Answer the phone and say, “Here I am Lord.  What do you want me to do?”   Happy Easter!

Finding Wisdom in an Old Hymn

One of the great yet largely unknown hymns of the Church is Take My Life, and Let it Be. It was written by Frances R. Havergal, in February of 1874 and speaks of the Christian’s total consecration to God.

I thought of this hymn today while talking with someone and thought too how appropriate it was as I write today on the evening of the Feast of the Annunciation. For, in today’s reading at Mass we read:

Sacrifice or oblation you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.
(Psalm 40:7-8)

Now this psalm refers especially to Christ, but also then to us;  for it is not enough to be ritually observant. No indeed, Jesus has established a new manner of sacrifice. The priests of the Old Testament sacrificed something other than themselves: lambs, goats, turtledoves and so forth. But Jesus our High Priest sacrifices himself. In the New Testament, the priest and victim are one and the same.

Hence Psalm 40, above, declares that the sacrifice Jesus offered was not to kill an animal, but to obey, and offer himself. The same pattern is for us, who share in the royal priesthood of Christ.

While not all of us are ministerial priests who serve at the altar, all of us, by virtue of our baptism share in the royal priesthood. Hence we are to imitate Jesus, our high priest.

It is not enough for us to engage merely in ritual observance. In the end we must make the sacrifice of obedience, sacrificing our will, and wishes. Further, we must say with Jesus, “Behold I come.” That is to say, “I offer you the sacrifice of my own life, my mind, heart, will, strength, and body.”

St. Paul says, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as livings sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your act of worship. (Rom 12:1). This is what we offer to God, the gift of our very selves.

Consider this as you meditate on one of the great hymns of the 19th Century. Frances Havergal speaks of how she came to write it:

I went for a little visit of five days….. (to Areley House)….. The last night of my visit after I had retired….; it was nearly midnight. I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration; and these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with “Ever, Only, ALL for Thee!” [1]

And these are the words she wrote:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing, always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.

Take my intellect, and use, every power as Thou choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.

Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

Yes, all for thee Lord. The sacrifice I offer to you is more than my money, more than my time, the sacrifice I offer is my very self, in imitation of your Son. My it be so Lord, ever more truly so, that my sacrifice be whole and entire: ever, only all for thee.

Photo Credit David Paul Ohmer via Creative Commons

Here is a modern version of this old hymn. The video links the words to vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but the hymn can surely refer to us all, whatever our state.

CARA Reports on Religious Life Confirm Tradition

On February 2 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report on Religious life. The study was conducted by the very reputable Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

The Bishops’ report is interesting and informative for what it says, but also has puzzling omissions in the topics covered, which seem to amount to ignoring the “elephant in the room.”  The “elephant” is the rather obvious fact that religious communities that preserve traditional elements such as the habit, common prayer, communal life, focused apostolates and strong affirmation of Church teaching, are doing well in comparison to orders that do not. Indeed some are doing quite well.

That data regarding the strength of tradition is covered in an earlier 2009 CARA report commissioned by the The National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC). Strangely the bishop’s report did not seem to want to go near the topic of tradition. Hence I would like to look at some data from both the 2011 report and the 2009.

Let’s start with the 2011 Bishop’s Report. The Full report is HERE. The numbers are from CARA and refer to sisters who made their Solemn Vows in 2010. The comments are just my own.

  1. Scope – 311 Superiors responded to the survey and this represents 63% of Religious Congregations in the USA
  2. Most lay fallow – It is striking that the report indicates that 84% of Religious Communities had no one profess solemn vows in 2010.  13% had one woman profess solemn vows and only 3% had between 2 and 9 women profess solemn vows. While this is only a picture of one year it shows that a large number of communities are in very serious shape.
  3. Missing Data? The report must have excluded some of the more fruitful congregations since I personally know of two communities that had more than 9 women enter.
  4. Diversity – 62% of newly professed sisters are Caucasian, 19% are Asian or Pacific Islander, 10% are Hispanic. This suggests a lot of work needs to be done to reach the Hispanic (Latino) Catholic communities in the US which are very underrepresented in the numbers entering.
  5. Older sisters less diverse – An astonishing 94% of sisters overall are Caucasian but this number is sure to drop a bit as the numbers in point four begin to shift forward in the years ahead.
  6. Converts – 13% of newly professed sister in 2010 were converts.
  7. Big Families Factor – A remarkable 64% came from families of 5 or more children. See pie chart at upper right. This confirms the long held notion that decreased family size is a significant factor in the decline of religious vocations.
  8. School Connections – 51% of new professed sisters attended Catholic elementary school. For decades Catholic Schools had been an engine of vocations for sisters. That seems a wash today and is likely due to the fact that most schools have few if nay Sisters teaching.
  9. Parish connections – 2/3 of the Sisters had participated in parish youth ministry programs and/or young adult ministry or Newman clubs.
  10. Liturgical Connections – 57% had been involved in some sort of liturgical ministry.
  11. Devotional Connection – 74% of the New Sisters had participated in Parish retreats, 65% prayed the rosary frequently, 64% participated regularly in Eucharistic Adoration. 57% had taken part in regular Bible Study programs. Hence parish life and traditional pious factors play and important role as does more more modern forms such as liturgical ministry and Bible Study.
  12. Encouragements – 52% of new sisters report being encourged to enter religious life by another sister,  44% by a friend  39% by a parish priest.
  13. Only 26% say their mother encouraged them on only 16% say their father encouraged them.
  14. Discouragements! – An astonishing 51% say their parents or family members actively discouraged them from entering!  This is quite an awful statistic actually. The very ones who should encourage are off message.

OK a lot of good information. But in the end the report seems to dodge the question as to why 84% of Religious Congregations had no one profess vows. I do not blame CARA for this since they likely received the scope of the survey from their patrons at the USCCB. The question remains though, why do some congregations show success and others not? What are the factors that most influence women to enter certain orders and not others?

Fortunately another CARA study mentioned above was commissioned by NRVC in 2009 and it does explore such questions. The full report is HERE and the findings are these:

  1. Scope – The response rate in this survey was higher, about 80% of Religious in the US had their community respond to the survey. Most of the communities that did not respond were small larelgly contemplative communities.
  2. The Survey includes both men and women.
  3. How many in Formation – Three-fourths of institutes of men (78 percent) and two-thirds of institutes of women (66 percent) have at least one person currently in initial formation (candidate or postulant, novice, or temporary professed). However, almost half of the institutes that have someone in initial formation have no more than one or two. About 20% of the responding institutes currently have more than five people in initial formation.
  4. Aging – Over all religious are an aging population. 75% of Men are over 60 and an astonishing 91% of women are over 60.
  5. More diverse – Compared to men and women religious in the last century, those coming to religious life today are much more diverse in terms of their age, racial and ethnic background, and life experience. 21% are Hispanic/Latino, 14% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 6% are African/African American. About 58% are Caucasian/white, compared to about 94% of older professed  members. This show a significantly higher percentage of Latinos than the smaller 2010 survey above.
  6. Critical Factors – Younger respondents are more likely than older respondents to say they were attracted to religious life by a desire to be more committed to the Church and to their particular  institute by its fidelity to the Church. Many also report that their decision to enter their  institute was influenced by its practice regarding a religious habit. Significant generational gaps, especially between the Millennial Generation (born in 1982 or later) and the Vatican II Generation (born between 1943 and 1960), are evident throughout the study on questions involving the Church and the habit. Differences between the two generations also extend to questions about community life as well as styles and types of prayer. Ah, so here is the elephant that the 2011 report chose to leave unexplored. The italics in this sixth point are a direct quote from the CARA report and it makes it clear that data confirms what we already know anecdotally. Tradition and the respect for it is an important factor for younger vocations, as is fidelity to the Church.
  7. Generation Gap – Millennial Generation respondents are much more likely than other respondents – especially those from the Vatican II Generation – to say that daily Eucharist,  Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic Adoration, and other devotional prayers are “very” important to them. Pay attention Religious orders.
  8. Communal life – When asked about their decision to enter their particular religious institute, new members cite the community life in the institute as the most influential factor in their decision (followed closely by the prayer life or prayer styles in the community). Most new members indicate that they want to live, work, and pray with other members of their religious institute, with the last being especially important to them. Responses to an open-ended question about what most attracted them to their religious institute reinforce the importance new members place on this aspect of religious life. When asked about various living arrangements, most new members prefer to live in a large (eight or more) or medium-sized (four to seven) community and to live only with other members of their institute. Younger respondents express even stronger preferences for living with members of their institute in large community settings. Findings from the survey of religious institutes suggest that that new membership is negatively correlated with the number of members living alone. That is, the higher the number of members who live alone, the less likely an institute is to have new members. Imagine wanting to live in community when you enter religious life. Here too we see that tradition is  confirmed and the loose knit apartment style, dispersed living of many dying congregations is simply being rejected by younger people seeking religious life and to live, work and pray in community
  9. The Habit – The responses to the open-ended question about what attracted them to their religious institute reveal that having a religious habit was an important factor for a significant number of new members.

Thus, the data of this earlier CARA report confirms what most Catholics already know: those who have vocations to religious life have a strong preference for the practices of tradition. A strong and enthusiastic love of Christ and his Church, fidelity to his teachings expressed through the magisterium, the wearing of the religious habit, vigorous common life and common prayer, a focused apostolate, joyful and faithful members of the community, all these are essential in attracting new vocations.  Of course.

Death wish? This has been clear for some time now and why some religious communities do see the obvious and adapt is mystifying to say the least. The clear message of the Holy Spirit who inspires vocations, the clear admonition of Rome which has strongly requested the return to the habit and other reforms, and the obvious preference of the young people who vote with their  feet, is a clarion call. Communities that follow these simple truths are growing, some are growing rapidly.  Communities that refuse to follow these simple truths would appear to have a death wish.

Picture – My own parish convent is occupied by an order that does follow these truths and they are bursting at the seams. They have just out-grown our convent which housed over 25 of them. They have now moved to another larger convent and left four sisters behind here. I have no doubt that our convent will fill again soon for the Servant Sisters of the Lord are a growing order who obey well the Holy Spirit and thus attract many many vocations. Their picture solemn vows is posted above. God is faithful, he is also clear as to what it takes for a religious community to thrive.

To Stand Up for Life is to Experience Life!

If you have ever had the exciting privilege of being in Washington for the Pro-Life March you how true it is that  you always leave exhausted, but more alive than you came. The Pro-life March, for a Catholic especially, is really more than just the March, it is  a series of activities. In the days immediately before the March there are usually seminars and other focused gatherings around life and bio-ethical issues. Then there is the great Vigil Mass for Life, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the night before the March. The Great Upper Church of the Basilica can comfortably seat about 4,000 people. But the Vigil Mass for Life brings often 8,000 or more. People are standing in the aisles, the side chapels, in every nook and cranny. The Sanctuary around the High Altar is packed with Bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians from all over the country. Visible in the Church are Religious men and women in consecrated life showing  a magnificent display of diversity in their habits. The congregation is filled with men an women and young people of every age group, and every ethnic and racial diversity imaginable. If you want to know how catholic (universal) the Catholic Church really is, just come to the Basilica for the Vigil Mass for Life!

The bigger picture – There are some who want to describe the Church as aging and of declining numbers. Some want to describe the Church as not being able to connect with the young, or with peoples of non-European descent. Some say her clergy and religious are aging. But come to the pro-life vigil Mass and behold the youthful diversity of the Church! And even if you can’t go, watch, as the EWTN cameras pan the congregation. Most of the religious in traditional habits are young. And there are hundreds and hundreds of them! Watch as the seemingly endless procession of clergy and seminarians enter, again, by the hundreds. And there too, youthful vigor is in strong display! So many are the priests and seminarians that they overflow the sanctuary into the side chapel for the Blessed Sacrament and into the ambulatory behind and around the High Altar. Here is a Basilica, one of the ten largest churches in the world, filled to overflowing with life, joy and worship! Yes, the Church is a bride, she is not a widow!  Indeed, she is the joyful mother of multitudes.

Rally Riches – And this is just the Vigil Mass. The next day, of your pro-life pilgrimage features a youth Rally at the Verizon Center. The doors open early for music and praise. 28,000, mostly young people, pack the place. Music, inspired talks, the wave and ten trillion watts of youthful energy fill the center in one of its largest functions of the year. A reverent but energetic Mass follows, celebrated by Cardinal Wuerl. One of the younger priests of the Archdiocese usually preaches an energetic and youth oriented homily. And then, after the  reception of Holy Communion, concluding prayer and praise, the youthful  congregation bursts forth onto the streets of Downtown Washington to head for the March line-up on the Mall.

Overflow! The number of young people vastly outsizes the capacity of the Verizon Center. This year an alternative overflow site at the DC Armory hosted an additional 10,000 young people. There too, after prayer and praise and the celebration of the Holy Mass the young people and their adult chaperons headed for the Mall to begin the March.

And march itself  is also a remarkable display in diversity. The balance is wonderfully tipped toward a youthful appearance. Here, Catholics join non-Catholics, fellow believers and even non-believers to march in six-figure numbers. The joy, the prayer, the hope and the experience of how right and just it is to support life all fill the air. It is usually cold, but the warmth within the crowd is tangible. And again, it is the youth who so often set the tone. They have zeal and zest as they lead chants and celebrate life.

The only angry people I met today were the pro-choice counter demonstrators I spoke with. There were about a dozen of them in front of the Supreme Court and I went to each one of them and individually said, as I looked into their eyes, “In your heart you know better, you know abortion is terribly wrong.” I spoke as softly as I could in the outdoor environment with a lot of background noise. I was trying to go right for their conscience, which, though suppressed, is still there. For the voice of God ultimately echoes in every human person according to the Catechism (cf  CCC # 1776). Deep down they DO know that abortion is wrong.

I only got about half way through the group before they surrounded me and began to engage me. Their primary accusation against me seemed to be that I was not a woman. Of this I am guilty, but suggested to them that to determine the wrongness of abortion did not require a womb but, rather, a mind and a heart, something both men and women have! 🙂  They grew angrier with me as I didn’t easily go away but continued down the line suggesting to each one that they knew,  deep down, that it was wrong to abort babies. I wanted to speak this to each one personally. I wanted to try and reach their conscience. Difficult, but worth trying.

In the end they chose to serenade me! And here was the song they sang:

  • Hey Hey, Ho, Ho! Pro-life men have got to go!
  • Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! If YOU got pregnant then you’d know!

Even here, Life!  Well, I just smiled and prayed, and the ladies in the rosary group behind me redoubled their prayers and I stood there and waited for the counter-protesters to grow tired of singing. I was grateful to suffer for the sake of the Name and to be a “fool for Christ” (1 Cor 4:10). Yes, even this was life giving for me. Dr. King had once said, “If you find a good fight, get in it!” And here I was on the front line, in the forward trench.

Just in the nick of time reinforcements arrived! A parishioner and friend JJ, (and a reader of this blog), arrived. And she’s a woman! I explained how they were singing this lovely song for me and suggesting, in a rather bigoted way,  that my mere maleness rendered me incapable of having a valid understanding.  Their song, (intended to give me the bum’s rush), eventually gave way to exhaustion. I restated my case, appealing to their conscience and introduced JJ, my friend, and pointed out, by the way, that she is a woman. She went to work and gave them the “Come to Jesus” talk!

Yes, even here there was life and the paradoxical joy of being able to suffer accusation and be thought a fool (for Christ).

In the end, to stand up for life is to experience life and to experience it to the top! The March for Life shows the Church fully alive, youthful, joyful, numerous and diverse. We have discussed before on this blog with sobriety some alarming trends and numbers in the western branch of the Church. But this weekend shows once again that the Church is a bride, not a widow. That she remains alive and strong, prophetic and enthusiastic. It shows that her young are still numerous, that vocations are rebounding. It shows that zeal for the truth is still deep in a faithful remnant that is glad to be alive, glad to celebrate life, glad to be Catholic and experience that the Church is catholic (universal). To stand up for life is to experience life. Come next year to Washington.

This video shows some glimpses of the Pro-Life Youth Rally at the Verizon Center. The footage is from Catholic.tv

Secrets of the Habit – A Fascinating Video and Reflection on the Wearing of the Habit

The video at the bottom of this post is a fascinating little exploration of the traditional habit of Religious Sisters. The video does not make it clear as  to what Order the Habit belonged. There are many things I learned about a habit I never knew. Things like hidden “saddle bag” pockets, opening crucifixes, symbolism in the pleats, and the purpose of the outer veil. I hope you’ll take time an view a fascinating video.

Sadly,  the sister who recounts the hidden and beautiful secrets of the habit does not herself wear one any longer. The abandonment of the habit by many orders has always puzzled me. Recent Popes have requested that priests and religious wear their distinctive garb. Further, I think any survey of the people of God would indicate an overwhelming preference that priests and religious wear a distinctive garb or habit. Lastly, from the standpoint of vocations it would seem that any order that has set aside the habit is doomed to eventual extinction. It is clear that the orders that preserve the wearing of the habit along with common life, common prayer, and a focused apostolate are doing better, some quite well, with vocations.  Orders that have set aside the habit are largely dying out. It is not the habit alone, I am sure, but the habit (or lack thereof) does signify something important about the health of the religious community.

What is the purpose of a religious habit? Religious life is not hidden, neither is it occasional. To enter the priesthood or religious life is to publicly accept the consecration of one’s whole self to the service of God and neighbor. That is why the most traditional religious garb covers the whole body. It is more than a tee-shirt, a hat or an emblem of some sort. It is a covering of the whole body to indicate the entirety of the consecration.

Further, each habit is distinctive since each religious community has a particular charism or gift by which they collectively serve the Church. Religious and priests do not merely consecrate themselves for their own agenda. Rather they join others with a similar and proven charisms in communities recognized by the Church.

The word “habit” also suggests that religious life and priesthood are not an occasional activity, or even a 9 to 5 job. The are the habitual identity and life of the one who receives the call. That is also why the habit is usually worn at all times.

The widespread disappearance of clerical garb and religious habits back in the 1970s was a disturbing trend. Many religious and priests no longer saw themselves as set apart, as distinctive. Many wanted to blend in and also lost a sense of the charism of their order. Many also preferred anonymity since it made them less busy and they no longer had to live as “public” people. However, many newer orders have emerged which once again wear the habit faithfully. Further, many older orders either never wholly abandoned it or have re-emphasized its importance. This is praiseworthy. If you are a lay person, encourage priests and religious as you see them about bearing witness to the their consecration by the way they dress and reminding others of God and the Kingdom of God.

In my own parish we have 25 sisters in the convent. The order is the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara. An order founded in Argentina in the 1980s but now worldwide and growing dramatically. They wear a long blue and gray habit with a long veil (see photo, upper right). They make for quite a beautiful vision of the kingdom as they walk through the neighborhood praying the rosary!

Here is a site which shows photos of the traditional habits of women’s religious orders:  http://www.nunsandsisters.com/Photographs.html

Enjoy this video of the secrets of the habit:

Three Sayings on Marriage

Here are a few sayings on marriage that I often use in pre-cana settings. They are humorous but meant to make a serious point. See what you think and please give me any humorous or insightful sayings you know of as well.

  1. Some want their marriage to be ideal and if there’s any ordeal they want a new deal – The problem is  wanting marriage to be ideal. There is no ideal marriage. Two sinners have married so the marriage will be imperfect, non-ideal. Marriage is life. And life has ups and down, things we like and things we don’t, joys and sorrows, delights and disappointments. Since marriage is life it will have all these. Listen to the vows: “better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” And yet despite vows that are very clearly worded, most ignore them and seem them merely as ritual words, things you say because you’re supposed to say them. But these words are real words that mean something and reflect a sober appreciation that life isn’t always what we want.  It is interesting, despite the usual cynicism of our age, many still have very idyllic images of marriage: that it will be wonderful and that its fundamental purpose is happiness.   But unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments. It is frequent that, entering marriage with such high expectations, often  leads to anger and disillusionment. The most dangerous period in marriage is the first five years because that’s when the ideal gives way to the real and the real ushers in resentments. Some start looking for a new deal. In the end the key is to accept the real. Now acceptance is not the same as approval or appreciation.  Acceptance is serenity about what is, even if there are some things we wish were different. We don’t live in the ideal, we live in the real and there is serenity and stability in accepting that fact. More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.
  2. Honey, if you ever leave me,  I’m going with you – The Scripture says that a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife (Gen 2:24). Now “cling” is a strong word. It means to stick like glue. Notice that a man does this. Boys run around and play the field, but a man looks for a wife and, finding her,  leaves his parents and clings to her. This is what a man does. He works hard to preserve union with his wife. He seeks to understand her needs and to provide, to be affectionate, affirming and encouraging. He confirms her authority over the children and teaches them to respect her. Too many men today are passive husbands and fathers. But the Scriptures place on the man the first obligation to cling to his wife. When a marriage is in trouble it is usually the wife who calls me. This is already a sign of trouble since the Lord says that clinging is the essential role the man. If there is trouble he should be the first to notice it and to work to restore proper union with his wife.  It is true today that many men have little recourse if a wife simply wants to leave, no-fault divorce is too easy and is hard to fight . But of course the question is what did he do when he first saw trouble, first saw the unity of his marriage threatened.
  3. Marriage makes two people one. The trouble comes in determining which one. – One of the biggest problems  today in marriage is power struggle. In our modern age we have rejected the biblical teaching of headship in marriage. God establishes a husband in authority in the home. Every organism and organization requires  headship. A creature with two heads is a freak. A creature with no head is dead. Having rejected the necessity of headship and the biblical teaching assigning that to the husband (eg Eph 5:19 ff) the result is power struggle between the spouses. Now a husband’s authority is not a worldly, autocratic authority but a Christian, servant based authority (Cf Mark 10:41-45).  I have written more on this matter here: An Unpopular Teaching on Marriage.   It does not follow that the husband always “gets his way.” Rather, if he is smart, he listens carefully to his wife and her wisdom. Practically speaking women have great authority in the home and its daily running and a smart husband will not seek to micromanage and usurp his wife’s role and her practical authority there and with the children. But in the end, two have to become one. Oneness requires headship, common faith, shared fear of the Lord, and a heartfelt appreciation for the gifts of each.

Please share with me any pithy, humorous and/or insightful sayings on Marriage you might know.