The Spirit that Leads to Truth

Posted on April 26, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, May 1, 2016, 6th Sunday of Easter

Consecration during an old-fashioned Catholic Mass in a 17th-century church.

During my years in the seminary, the faculty warned us against cherishing “a myopic nostalgia for a church you did not know.” To a seminarian in the 80s, “a church we did not know” referred to the church before the Second Vatican Council. For young men who grew up in the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s with its liturgical and catechetical experimentation, the pre-conciliar church seemed like a simpler, more certain time. Every parish had a pastor, two curates, a convent, and a school. The surrounding culture supported church attendance and teaching. When conflict arose, it could always be settled by reference to the Summa. As far as seminary formation was concerned, it seemed that candidates to the priesthood needed only to learn Latin and familiarize themselves with the manuals to master each theological discipline. In a society and church that was changing, it could be tempting for us to fantasize about turning the clock back to life before priests exchanged their cassocks for ponchos and their tonsures for long sideburns.

It did not take me long to realize that it is not only seminarians who longed for a return to the Church’s “golden age.” Some Catholics pine for the centuries before the Protestant Reformation when the Church appeared to control all aspects of civic life. Other Christians desire to go back even further still to Jesus and the apostles before, in their minds, the influence of Greek culture obfuscated the simple Gospel message. It may be a common temptation for all of us to romanticize a “church we did not know” when Christianity seemed purer.

Of course, we know that no era of Christianity was free from conflict and division. Even in those first years after Pentecost when St. Luke boasts of a community in which “believers were of one heart and one mind keeping all things in common” (Acts 4:32), division soon flared up between Hebrew and Greek widows (Acts 6:1). In this Sunday’s first reading, we learn about the Church’s first heresy—that believers needed to be circumcised and to follow the law of Moses to attain salvation. These believers, commonly known as the Judaizers, probably looked back with nostalgia at the security and clarity of life under the law. Whatever the case, they wielded great influence even over Saint Peter who stopped eating with Gentiles to appease them, earning a stern rebuke from St. Paul (Gal 2:11-14). The early church leaders, rather than allowing the divisions to fester, gathered together in Jerusalem to make plain the teaching of salvation in Jesus Christ apart from the law. At the same time, they responded pastorally, making allowances for the dietary scruples of Jewish Christians. In such a way, they were able to hold fast to their teaching while taking into account the consciences of believers.

In this era of Christianity, we find ourselves in a similar circumstance as the apostles—seeking to proclaim the truth handed on to us by Jesus to a society in constant flux. In particular, we are experiencing this conflict in terms of the sanctity of marriage. How do we welcome those whose relationships and family circumstances fall short of the Gospel ideal? How do we bring healing into their relationships? How do we let them know that no matter what circumstances they find themselves in they can turn to us for help and not expect judgment or scolding? And how do we do all this without compromising Jesus’ teaching on the sanctity of marriage?

This Sunday’s first reading gives us some helpful clues. First of all, we get together and talk as the apostles did. This was Pope Francis’ hope for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which he called in 2014. As believers we have to be willing to dialogue with those who believe differently than we do or who find themselves in relationships that differ from the Church’s norms. Even more important than having a ready defense for Jesus’ teaching, we must have ears quick to listen to their anger, frustration, and hurt. When it becomes clear that we really care for them, then they may be open to listening to us.

Along with being willing to listen, we also must be willing to learn. Those who don’t go to church have much to teach us about how our society views marriage, family life, and relationships. Those insights can help us to understand our own convictions and to articulate them more convincingly. It can also help us to deal more pastorally with those who seek our help and to find creative ways to meet their spiritual needs.

Finally, we can trust that out of the conflict, the Holy Spirit will lead the Church to creative solutions, just as that first conflict between the Hebrew and Greek widows gave rise to the order of deacons. Before getting frustrated or falling back on nostalgia, suppose we first thank God for all the healing and wonders he will bring out of the present conflicts? Jesus promised in this Sunday’s Gospel, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit … will teach you everything” (Jn 14:26). So we can trust that, in the end, we will have an even deeper grasp of the mysteries we confess and even more gentle and compassionate ways of inviting our culture to live up to them.

For us living through the upheaval and confusion of the Church in the early twenty-first century, it may be hard to believe that future Christians will look back at us with nostalgia. However, if we yield to the Holy Spirit and seek his peace rather than the peace the world gives, which is the fruit of indifference, appeasement, and surrender, we can reach pastoral solutions to our present day crises that will make our ancestors proud and perhaps even those who come after us envious. There has been no golden age of the church nor will there be until God brings the heavenly Jerusalem described in this Sunday’s second reading to fulfillment.

Douglas Sousa, STL

PRAYER

Heavenly Father
You have created each of us for this present day and time.
In your providence you have given us all we need
to bring your good news to the people of our generation.
May we look only to you for guidance
and not to our nostalgic notions of the past.
May we each pick up our cross and follow your Son,
who alone is the world’s salvation,
until that day when we hope to be gathered
with people of every race and tongue
in the heavenly Jerusalem.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

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As Jesus Loved

Posted on April 18, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, April 24, 2016, 5th Sunday of Easter

Painting of Jesus paired with John 13:31a.

For those old enough to remember, there is a popular Beatles song released in 1967 called “All You Need Is Love.” The song quickly became popular and still holds some measure of popularity even today. The point of the song is as clear as its title suggests, all you need is love. The message is attractive and is often pointed to by many as an easy way to make the complicated, simple. If everyone would just love one another, what a different world this would be. Even those seeking a more Christian spiritual approach can add that “God is love” and that Jesus’ great commandment is focused around love of God, neighbor, and self. So, how wrong can we go in adopting this type of philosophy? It is really that straightforward; or, is it?

John’s Gospel this weekend even appears to reinforce the simplicity of this argument by alluding to Jesus’ new commandment. St. John tells us: “I [Jesus] give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” There you have it. John Lennon, St. John, the early Christian community, and Jesus all had the same idea in mind: all you need is love. If that is all that is really required, then why bother with the often complicated and weakly human institution of the church, sacraments, prayer, Sunday worship, and other practices?

If we carefully read what St. John wrote, there is a brief but often overlooked piece of Jesus’ teaching that turns the tables a bit. Jesus tells his disciples, “As I have loved you, so you should also love one another” [emphasis added]. Jesus points us and his followers to a particular type of love. We are called to love as Jesus loved. In theory and practice this is far different than many of our ways of “loving.” At its core, Jesus’ love is rooted in his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ love mirrors the love that the Father has for his children, which overflows with compassion and mercy. To love as Jesus loves means that I must work at establishing for myself the same type of relationship Jesus had with his Father. In fact, through baptism we all share in that very same relationship. I must also be willing to allow myself to be transformed into the very same divine image that consumed Jesus’ being. Therefore, Christian love is not just love in all of its forms. It is a particular type of agape love that abandons itself of self-interest and concern and focuses on the needs of the other. This higher love is not found every day and it is not easy to do. It is loving myself and others as God loves.

The world can distract us and color how we love. Sometimes our attempts at loving are really nothing more than backdoor attempts to legitimize our need to placate ourselves. In short, I love you not purely for your own benefit but for some benefit that can come back to me. While seemingly justifiable on the surface and not immediately harmful, it is not loving as Jesus loves. It is easy to get distracted from this type of love and become discouraged. The early Christians found this out as well. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows Paul and Barnabas had to offer support to the disciples who were finding the road of true love difficult to tread. “They 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.’” In short, we need the support of the Christian community to do the work of the Gospel, to love as Jesus loves us. We cannot accomplish this work on our own. Inevitably, we will be blinded by our own concerns, needs, and biases and our ability to love as Jesus loves will be compromised.

In order to develop the same kind of relationship Jesus had with his Father that allows us to love as he loves, we need our Christian community. We need our leaders, the sacraments, and the greater institution of the Church (however imperfect), prayer, Sunday worship, and a deep spiritual life. We cannot do this on our own! The type of love required carries a divine power and is guided by Someone much greater than ourselves! This is why it is more imperative today than in days past to have local and global leaders who are not just administrators of the business of the Church and guardians of the faith and orthodoxy but also examples of what it means to love as Jesus loves. It is no wonder that Pope Francis insists that leaders leave their chanceries and rectories and go out and get dirty. We cannot expect people to come to us to receive the Gospel; the Gospel must be brought to them! We need to see in our leaders and indeed in the entire Christian community people who are striving to model Jesus’ relationship with the Father and seeking to be transformed into the very image of God. After all, is not the Eucharist meant to transform us into what we consume (St. Augustine, Confessions, VII, 10, 18)?

I believe that a profound understanding and embrace of this truth gave Pope Francis the impetus to have a frank conversation with Andrea Tornielli who penned the wonderful book, The Name of God Is Mercy, and then for Pope Francis to produce his latest apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

To love as Jesus loves requires much more than what popular songs and notions, romantic feelings or even common humanitarian bonds with our brothers and sisters suggest. It is a radical and true self-emptying that lives by a different and sometimes illusive logic than what makes worldly sense. It permeates not only how we treat each other in our daily affairs but how we respond to issues such as euthanasia, abortion, assisted suicide, immigration, and family life. In short, it motivates us beyond what we may want to do to what we are called to do. Following a call requires sacrifice.

Prayer and reflection are powerful tools that can help us love as Jesus loves. While our own needs and desires, concerns and anxieties certainly have a place in our approach to God, contemplating God for the sake of God and offering praise places our focus on him, lifts us from distractions, and helps us love as Jesus loves. Our psalm says it so beautifully. “The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is good to all and compassionate toward all his works… Your kingdom is a kingdom for all ages, and your dominion endures through all generations.”

We must remember that God not only created all that we see but recreates it as well. All is destined to one day be in Christ. The Book of Revelation reminds us: “‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’ The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” Loving as Jesus loves positions us to be ministers or helpers in God’s reconciliation or recreation of the world. It calls us and those who witness what we do to see that something greater is yet to come, that the wisdom of the world is not rooted in God.

We need each other and we need the Gospel if we are going to love well. Even more, we need to share in that same relationship between Jesus and his Father and draw from that intimate wellspring of love and mercy. “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God” are words that can be found on our lips today and remain there for all eternity.

Rev. Mark S. Suslenko

PRAYER

The LORD is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in mercy.
The LORD is good to all,
compassionate toward all your works.
All your works give you thanks, LORD
and your faithful bless you.
They speak of the glory of your reign
and tell of your mighty works,
Making known to the sons of men your mighty acts,
the majestic glory of your rule.
Your reign is a reign for all ages,
your dominion for all generations.
The LORD is trustworthy in all his words,
and loving in all his works.

Psalm 145:8-13. Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

NOTICES

LITURGICAL NOTE—Vigil of the Ascension
The revised Roman Missal contains a vigil Mass for the Ascension that can be used for evening Masses preceding the feast. This applies to both Wednesday, May 4 (for dioceses in which the Ascension is observed on Thursday as a holy day of obligation), and to Saturday, May 7 (most dioceses in the United States).

POPE’S MESSAGE FOR WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY [May 8]
Pope Francis’ message for the 50th World Day of Communications—“Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter”—was released on January 24, the memorial of St. Francis of Sales, patron saint of communicators. The full text of the message can be viewed at: https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20160124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html.

ICSC REGIONAL STEWARDSHIP CONFERENCE, April 30
The annual ICSC Atlanta Province Regional Stewardship Conference will be held on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at the Hilton Charlotte University Place in Charlotte, NC. For more information and to register, visit http://sestewardship.weconnect.com.

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Which Child Are You?

Posted on April 12, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, April 17, 2016, 4th Sunday of Easter

Family celebration.

Which child are you? It is that time of the year: Easter comes; the weather in the Northern Hemisphere begins to warm; school children anticipate summer vacation; families gather. Reunions and graduations, vacations and weddings—whatever the occasion, families and friends anticipate time together for months as they orchestrate arrivals, coordinate accommodations, and plan meals with one another. Family recipes are passed on to new generations; as new members join the family, they bring their traditions and tastes with them. Children bring hope, even as older members experience physical decline.

With the gatherings, come the stories. Grandchildren may roll their eyes as they hear the story of their grandparents’ meeting or the arrival of the first immigrant ancestors. A few children sneak away when the storytelling begins, finding the retelling of old stories tedious and boring. Yet most listen, and in time, they share the stories with their children, passing on the shared history as though the stories were their own. Truly, the stories are theirs, like the flesh and blood that they share, from generation to generation. In the best of times, the gathering draws members closer to one another, extending their bond beyond time and the physical limitation of earthly life through the power of memory and shared story. Occasionally, a difficult circumstance, disagreement, or misunderstanding separates family members from one another. Even though the stories are painful, they also have the potential to bring healing, as members share their memories and the hope of reconciliation.

While every celebration of the Eucharist includes a telling of the story of God’s family, this is true in a particular way during the Easter season. We hear the stories of the early Christian communities and how the Gospel was shared from town to town, in synagogues and among the Gentiles. We learn how some people heard and believed, while others refused to do so. They turned a deaf ear to the story and rejected the messengers, sometimes “with violent abuse,” as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles.

At times, we are like the children who patiently listen, even if we don’t fully comprehend what we are told. It is easy to hear the story of the early Christian communities and think to ourselves, “If I heard Peter or Paul speak, I would believe. I would not be one who refused to listen to the message of the risen Christ!” Yet, do we really hear the message and take it to heart, as though we are hearing the story of our family? Because that is what happens each time we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word—we hear the story of our family of faith, including times of division and disagreement as well as moments of joy, peace, and mercy.

Jesus tells us that the sheep hear his voice and follow him, the Good Shepherd. Again, we hear this Gospel story and nod in assent. Surely, we think, we want to be the sheep that hears and follows. But do we hear the voice of the Lord and follow? Do we take our relationship with Jesus and our faith, lived out as Catholic Christians, to heart in such a way that we act as Christ’s body in our daily interactions with others? This week, Pope Francis gave the Church his pastoral exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). In it, he says, “All family life is a ‘shepherding’ in mercy. Each of us, by our love and care, leaves a mark on the life of others” (322). Not only, then, are we to be shepherded by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are called to be good shepherds ourselves, in our families, among friends, in our faith community. Do we live this way? Do we listen, learn, and follow as faith-filled children of God, or do we turn a deaf ear, like the child at the family gathering who sneaks away? Which child are you?

Leisa Anslinger

PRAYER

Good Shepherd, Risen Lord,
you call us to listen to your voice
and to follow you.
Help us to do this with open hearts,
to grow in your love and mercy
and to share that love and mercy.
In this Easter season, form us as people of joy,
certain that your love conquers death.
For you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Now and forever. Amen.

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Continuing the Mission

Posted on April 5, 2016 by - Connect! Sunday Reflection

For Sunday, April 10, 2016, 3rd Sunday of Easter

Detail from Feed My Lambs by James Tissot.

Saint Peter had always been an enthusiastic follower of Jesus. His faith was generous and open, but also subject to the limits of human weakness. “The school of faith,” recalled Pope Benedict XVI, “is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness. Peter, who promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and humiliation of denial: the arrogant man learns the costly lesson of humility. Peter, too, must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness. Once his attitude changes and he understands the truth of his weak heart of a believing sinner, he weeps in a fit of liberating repentance. After this weeping he is finally ready for his mission” (General Audience, May 24, 2006).

When, on that fateful day on the shore of the Lake of Tiberias, Peter encountered the risen Lord, he received the mission that set him apart from the other apostles and he learned an important lesson in reconciliation and love. Jesus invites Peter to profess his love three times, restoring the relationship that had been damaged by his three denials the night before Jesus died. But Jesus also recognized the undiscovered gifts that lay dormant within Peter and entrusted him with a special mission: Feed my sheep.

Soon after the Ascension, we see Peter using the gifts that God had given him when, in Jerusalem, he refused to stop preaching in Jesus’ name (cf. Acts 5:27-41). The conviction of Peter and the other apostles (celebrated especially in the Acts of the Apostles) reminds us that our faith and commitment to the Gospel place demands upon us and can involve sacrifice and suffering. For Peter, this ultimately meant martyrdom in Rome. For Christians throughout the ages, up to our own time, faith continues to call for a witness to those values and truths that transcend the trials and struggles of our day-to-day lives.

Working for peace, justice, the promotion of human life, and the spread of the good news are tasks entrusted to every follower of Jesus. As Saint John Paul II observed in Redemptoris Missio (his encyclical on the mission of the Church): “The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion… an overall view of the human race shows this mission is still only beginning and that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service. It is the Spirit who impels us to proclaim the great works of God” (1).

To be Christian means working to build up God’s kingdom here and now, recognizing and promoting God’s action in the world, “working for liberation from evil in all its forms. In a word, the kingdom of God is the manifestation and the realization of God’s plan of salvation in all its fullness” (Redemptoris Missio, 15). And so, while we celebrate Peter’s call and mission this Sunday, we are also being invited to reflect on how God is calling us—as individuals and as the Church—to continue that special mission in our homes, parishes, and communities.

Silas S. Henderson, MTS

PRAYER

Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that no tempests may disturb us,
for you have set us fast
on the rock of the Apostle Peter’s confession of faith.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

—Collect from the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle. Excerpt from the English translation of The Roman Missal © 2010, ICEL. All rights reserved.

NOTICES

CATHOLIC HOME MISSIONS APPEAL
The Catholic Home Missions Appeal takes place on the last Sunday of April, April 24 in 2016. Resources for the national collection can be found on the USCCB website at: http://www.usccb.org/catholic-giving/opportunities-for-giving/catholic-home-missions-appeal/collection/index.cfm.

EASTER URBI ET ORBI MESSAGE
Pope Francis delivered the traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing on Easter Sunday, following Mass in St. Peter’s Square. Speaking to pilgrims and tourists gathered in the Square for the occasion, Pope Francis especially remembered the suffering peoples of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. To view the full text and video of the Urbi et Orbi message, visit http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-easter-urbi-et-orbi-a-message-of-hope.

PROVISIONAL SCHEDULE FOR WORLD YOUTH DAY
A draft of the schedule for Pope Francis’ trip to Poland from July 27 to 31 for the 31st World Youth Day was presented in Krakow on Saturday. The provisional schedule may be viewed at http://www.news.va/en/news/wyd-krakow-2016-draft-schedule-released.

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