Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Archbishop Blair's Column

May the crucified and risen Christ fill your life with light and joy! As St. Paul says: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15:17, 20) So, let us rejoice with confidence!

What we read in the Gospel and what we celebrate at the liturgy from one season to another are not simply a historical remembrance of things past. Scripture and the mysteries of redemption are living realities here and now because the risen Christ is alive and active. Having passed outside of space and time (something impossible for us to comprehend), Jesus is always simply “present” in both dimensions. Easter is “today” every bit as much as it was 2,000 years ago.

Even in time, our observance of Easter is more than a once-a-year occurrence. From the earliest centuries, Christians have recognized that every first day of the week every Sunday  is a little Easter. St. Augustine says Sunday is “a sacrament of Easter.” And St. Jerome writes: “Sunday is the day of the resurrection, it is the day of Christians, it is our day.”

“It is our day,” and yet it is increasingly evident that we Christians are abandoning what is ours in the relentless drive toward a secular society. The observance of every Sunday by faithful attendance at Mass, refraining from unnecessary business and servile work, making it a day for parish and family all these things are no longer part of the lifestyle of many who consider themselves Catholic. 

The earliest Christians observed Sunday at all costs even though it was a secular workday in the Ancient World. Sometimes they paid with their lives. To the Roman authorities, the martyrs of Abitina in North Africa said: “Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper, because it cannot be missed; that is our law. … We cannot live without the Lord’s Supper.”

“We cannot live without the Lord’s Supper.” To find this kind of faith on a vast scale today one must turn to places like Africa and Asia, where the Church is growing by leaps and bounds, and where people walk miles and spend the whole day to celebrate Sunday. One thinks, too, of people under Communist persecution who often paid a very heavy price to “keep holy the Lord’s Day.”

And us? I leave it for each of us to examine our conscience and to ponder where we are headed as a Church and as a nation in which a majority of the population considers itself Christian. We estimate that less than 25 percent of registered Catholics in the Archdiocese of Hartford are at Mass on any given Sunday. This is consistent with various estimates of Mass attendance throughout the United States. 

Sunday Mass is a fulfillment of the Third Commandment (“Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day”). The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults explains: “Sunday observance fulfills the interior law inscribed in the human heart to render God visible and public worship as a sign of radical dependence upon God and as gratitude for all the blessings we have received.” And the Catechism of the Catholic Church states the traditional teaching: “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” unless excused for a serious reason such as illness. (CCC 2181)

Let me conclude by offering for your personal (and family) reflection the following discussion questions taken directly from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (p. 369)

• What is your Sunday like? How can it become a balance of worship, restful reflection and personal spiritual renewal? What pressures make this a challenge for you, and what can you do about them? How does Sunday Mass enrich your life, your relationships and the rest of your week?

• What can be done to free up poor people from unfair working practices that deprive them of the gift of the Christian Sunday? How can families reverse the trend sponsored by those who schedule athletic events for children and young people on Sunday morning?

• How does consumerism eat away at the Christian ideals of Sunday? What are ways that family gatherings could again become a regular feature of Sunday life?

May the risen Christ renew us as members of his Body, the Church, not just on Easter Sunday, but every Sunday “until he comes again.”

When I was a parish priest, I often heard confessions of the elementary and religious education students. The first confessions of second-graders, in particular, called to mind the words of Christ: “Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There is an openness and trust among the very young that enable them to truly “celebrate” the forgiveness that is Christ’s gift in the confessional.

With fewer adults going to confession, it is often said that people are afraid to go to the sacrament of reconciliation, or that they simply don’t believe that it is necessary. There is a lot of truth to that assessment, but I think there is also another reason.

As we grow older, we find ourselves confessing the same things, and we begin to think that somehow we have failed or that the sacrament of penance has failed. We begin to feel embarrassed at having to repeat the same things, or we think we have nothing to confess. So we stop going.

I think that there are two approaches that we should keep in mind to remedy this problem.

The first is the need to develop a more mature examination of conscience. If we are growing spiritually, we realize that our sins in grade school are augmented by new temptations in high school and college. These, in turn, change as we grow older. Spiritual maturity is also marked by the realization that sin is not just a transgression against a moral law. Rather, sin means “missing the mark” by what I do or fail to do when it comes to the supreme law that we are to “love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.”

I often quote the saying that “the only tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” We cannot fulfill the purpose for which we were created unless we become saints (either here and/or in purgatory). Sainthood is to be found not in some unreal perfection, but in our constant struggle against sin, with the help of confession, until our dying day. Holiness is the standard by which our eternal destiny will be measured. It must also be the guiding standard of our examination of conscience.

A second way of approaching an aversion to confession is to reflect more deeply on what it means to be a sinner. The truth is that every single person remains a sinner to his or her dying day. That is why Christ alone is the Savior, and that is why we need him. Only he can save us. Furthermore the personality, temptations and sins of one person are not those of another. Whatever our particular infirmities, Christ says: “Healthy people do not need a doctor; sick people do. I have come, not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

All the great saints have had a profound sense of their wretchedness and weakness, their inability to save themselves, and they all went to confession frequently.

This Lent, I hope many more people in our archdiocese will to go to the sacrament of reconciliation and start to go regularly. Confessions are being heard in all of our parishes every Monday during this season. Don’t be put off because it has been a very long time since your last confession and you have forgotten what to do or say. The priest is there to help you. What is important is that you come. We will take care of the rest.

Neglecting confession is to our spiritual impoverishment and peril, because it was divinely instituted by Christ for our healing, peace and, above all, growth in holiness. Lent is a perfect time to focus on this sacrament of conversion, penance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

In conclusion, I want to echo the words of St. Paul: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God as it were appealing through us. We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God! ... Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor 5:20; 6:2) I hope that you will make a special effort to go to confession this Lent, especially if you have not been for a long time. I know that you will be happy if you do.

Now that we’ve begun a new year, I wish you a happy and healthy 2018. This month I want to say something about an important aspect of archdiocesan life, namely, our stewardship of financial resources.

In the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, there are many references to money — the collection and use of it, the grave dangers and the opportunities for good that it presents. Whether it was Jesus himself and the Twelve Apostles, or the earliest Christians, provisions were made for the collection and use of money for communal upkeep and for helping the needy.

The economic life of the world today is much more complex than then, but the basics remain the same. The Church is blessed with many generous donors who sustain not only their local parish communities but a host of ministerial and charitable activities that serve not only the internal life of the Church but the wider community as well.

To be proactive and to plan wisely for the future, new things are afoot for the archdiocese, and I would like to provide some background information.

There are many services that parishes receive from the archdiocese. For example, all parish legal expenses and matters having to do with human resources are covered by the archdiocese.

For the operations of the archdiocese, there is an annual assessment called the cathedraticum, which is calculated on certain line items of a parish’s annual income. Surprisingly, the actual dollar amount of the cathedraticum received from the parishes by the archdiocese has not changed in more than 40 years, and a long overdue adjustment will occur in 2018. To be more equitable, the new formula is a graduated one, so some parishes will see a decline in their assessment, but those with higher incomes will see an increase.

I also want to assure you that reductions in spending have been made, and are being made, to the archdiocesan annual budget in consultation with the Archdiocesan Finance Council, and an annual published reporting of that budget is in preparation for 2018. The Archdiocese of Hartford remains committed to the highest standards of fiscal integrity, transparency and accountability as we meet today’s many challenges.

The other source of archdiocesan income is what I would describe as the “bread and butter” fundraiser of archdiocesan life — the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal (AAA). I say “bread and butter” because whatever is collected for the AAA in a given year is spent in that year for basic activities, including charity, and an accounting is given annually for all the various components that are part and parcel of the AAA — everything from our seminarians’ education to the approximately 250 local charities throughout the archdiocese that receive financial support in the name of the Catholic people.

We need to be alert to the changes that are taking place in donations. The AAA has grown in recent years thanks to the increased generosity of those who contribute. However, there also has been a decline in the number of donors.

This is happening in many places because of demographics and a diminishing number of older Catholics who are not being replaced by a younger generation as open to participating in the life of the Church and making a contribution.

That is part of the reason that we need to consider new approaches for the future.

The recently established Hartford Bishops’ Foundation (HBF) serves a different but complementary purpose to the AAA. HBF creates a way for donors, major donors in particular, to make significant gifts or memorial gifts to be invested and managed for special needs such as the repair of the cathedral or the long-term religious and charitable activities of both archdiocesan entities and parishes. It serves the Church in the archdiocese, but it has its own lay board and leadership, and its own articles of incorporation. I am deeply grateful to the many outstanding lay leaders who have accepted my invitation to serve on the HBF.

Unlike the AAA, the funds collected by the HBF are not spent for current operations or immediate needs, but are set aside precisely to create a long-term fund from which HBF grants can be made over time for projects, entities and services that are part of Church life, such as education and charity, and that help to create more vibrant parishes. The proceeds of the very successful 2017 HBF Gala are earmarked for Catholic education in all its forms, including catechesis and evangelization. The funds raised are not for immediate spending, but for grants to benefit archdiocesan and parish activities in these areas. There are also plans for an archdiocesan capital campaign through the HBF that will benefit parishes as well as archdiocesan services and outreach.

The three financial “pillars” that I have described are meant to ensure a sustainable future for our mission at every level — archdiocesan and parochial, short-term and long-term, spiritual and material, inwardly in Church life and outwardly in charity and social engagement for the good of all. I cannot thank you enough for your generosity.

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.” Thus reads the Gloria at Mass, to be sung at Christmas. In the words of our former pope, Benedict: “God’s glory and peace on earth are inseparable. Where God is excluded, there is a breakdown of peace in the world.”

As we approach Christmas 2017, it would be nice to say that peace reigns in our hearts and homes, our communities and country, our parishes and the Church herself. Yet we know it is not so. Today, many souls, even in the Church, are far from peaceful. Many people feel beset, besieged and insecure in the face of the many uncertainties and threats to world peace and social well-being; to marriage and family and to faith itself. A lack of inner peace leads to the anger and hostility that afflict so many people when they believe themselves to be offended, injured or thwarted in some way.

It can be argued that as long as people are people there will always be turmoil, division and strife. However, the angels were able to proclaim peace to the shepherds in Bethlehem even as King Herod was sharpening his sword to kill the newborn Messiah. It is possible to enjoy peace as a gift of God even in the midst of the raging of the world, the flesh and the devil — provided that God is with us, and we are with God.

For God to be with us, and we with God, we have to let our lives be guided by certain truths of faith.

The first truth is that whatever life brings, God’s providence guides and governs everything. “To those who love God all things work together unto good,” St. Paul writes. When at Christmas we hear “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will,” we should be mindful of all the terrible hardships and threats that the Holy Family was experiencing at that moment in Bethlehem. Jesus said, “I have come to bring, not peace, but the sword.” His earthly life began with the massacre of the innocents by the sword, and his life ended with a lance thrust through his side. Yet to those who put all their faith and hope in God, Jesus promises the peace that the world cannot give. God is never far from us and, provided we stay close to him, we will be at peace.

Another truth is that God sees all. He will be the just judge of everything that happens in life, so there’s no need for our blood pressure to soar when we witness evil and injustice, or for our hearts to sink when all seems lost. At the judgment, God will bring to light the secrets of every heart, and on everything that has ever happened in this world the light of his truth will shine. Then he will give to          each person what his or her conduct deserves. We are moved by the birth of the infant Jesus at Christmas, but let’s not forget what he said: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” (Jn 9:39)

Last, but not least, our lives ought to be guided by the truth of the Incarnation. By becoming man in the Person of the Son, God chose to redeem us precisely “in the flesh.” As one spiritual author put it, “God understands our human ‘mess’ firsthand.” He lived and died amid the “mess” that we fallen creatures have made of life. But as St. Paul teaches, Jesus “is our peace” precisely because he has “broken down” all the walls of separation and alienation that we have created in ourselves, among ourselves and with God.” (cf. Eph 2:14)

As we prepare for Christmas this year, may each of us seek to create a place for God, not only in our own hearts and homes, but in our society and in our world, so that we can know peace. God is increasingly being shut out of so much of life. There is little room or time for him in the lives of many people. Yet Christ is always looking to be born anew in human hearts, so that the joyful message of the angels at Christmas can be fulfilled: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.”

May you and your loved ones be blessed with all the peace and joy that Christmas is meant to bring.

In the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., there are many significant works of art. One of the most striking is the massive sculpture that covers the wall under the choir loft. In the sculpture, people are shown from various walks of life, social classes and ethnic origins, all being drawn toward the Holy Spirit.

Entitled “The Universal Call to Holiness,” it is meant to illustrate an important truth expressed in the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium: “All Christians in any state of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered in earthly society.”

For a very long time, we Catholics in the United States were raised to keep our faith to ourselves in order to get ahead in a society marked by anti-Catholic bigotry. After the upheavals of the 1960s, there was a short lull because it was thought that the Church was ready to become “mainstream” by abandoning many of her teachings on faith and morals.
Anti-Catholicism has now returned with a vengeance, in large part because the Church remains steadfast regarding the right to life and the God-given meaning of human sexuality and marriage, not to mention other questions of social justice like the just and merciful treatment of immigrants and of the poor.

Nowhere is this bigotry more evident than in the offensive questioning recently by two U.S. senators of a Catholic judicial nominee. Though Article VI of the U.S. Constitution (which the senators are sworn to uphold) clearly states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the United States,” one senator asked, “Do you consider yourself to be an orthodox Catholic?” and the other, in a phrase worthy of Darth Vader, said, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” These words were directed at a nominee who is known to have published an academic paper which concluded that judges “cannot, nor should they try to, align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching when the two diverge.” It is also sad to note that the media reported that “conservatives” were troubled by this line of questioning. Shouldn’t all Americans be troubled?

In the face of this hostility, there are many who argue that the call to holiness — including fundamental questions of justice based on right and wrong — has little or nothing to do with a Catholic’s daily life in the world. We should just mind our own business, they argue, and keep our beliefs on these matters to ourselves behind the closed doors of private devotion, personal virtue and religious exercises.

Yet when scoffers look back over 2,000 years to discredit the Christian faith, isn’t it precisely the historical failures of Christians both to denounce and renounce public injustices and evils in society that bolster the false claim that Christianity is either a failure or a fraud?

The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that holiness, as a call to the “perfection of love,” is meant to foster “a more human manner of life ... in earthly society.” The pursuit of holiness involves not only “the evangelization and sanctification” of human beings individually, but also a “transformation and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel.” (cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem, no. 2)

May we take to heart Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Matthew, addressed to each of us individually and to all of us collectively as members of his Church: “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lamp-stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Heavenly Father.” (5:13-16)

Heeding our “universal call to holiness,” may each of us strive by God’s grace to be salt and light for today’s America, even in the face of opposition, discrimination and belittlement. Then we will have no cause for shame when we are asked to give an account of what we did, or failed to do, to light up the world with Christ and to season the world with the love of God and neighbor.

At the beginning of July, in Orlando, I was privileged to attend the National Convocation of Catholic Leaders organized by the bishops of the United States. I was accompanied by 25 members of our archdiocese whom I had invited to participate because of their present involvement in the life of our local Church.

The chief theme of the national convocation echoed the theme of our own archdiocesan pastoral plan; namely, as Pope Francis says, that every Catholic recognize that he or she, by baptism and confirmation, is a “missionary disciple” called to bear witness to Christ in daily life and to invite others into our shared communion as members of the Church.

With the help of dynamic speakers who have successfully promoted a way forward for the Church in our country, the convocation tackled some of the serious challenges to faith and practice that we face today. Of the many issues that were discussed, one in particular stands out: the crisis of vocations. In my remarks at the convocation, I put it this way: An increasing number of our young people are shying away from embracing a Christian “state of life,” as evidenced by the delay and decreasing numbers of sacramental marriages, ordinations to the priesthood and consecrations to religious life.

You’ll notice that it is not just a crisis for priesthood and religious life, but marriage and family life, too. Part of our archdiocesan pastoral planning is focused on the challenge to revitalize a new generation of young Catholics who believe and practice their faith, and who hear and respond generously to God’s call, whatever it may be.

I am happy to report that our archdiocesan Office of Vocations has developed a strategic plan for the next three years to create “a culture of vocations” among us. What is envisioned involves everyone at various levels: not only the engagement of the clergy, but also parents, teachers and youth ministers, parishes, schools and colleges. Prayer is essential, but so is a communal effort to encourage and invite our young people to hear and heed God’s call. The entire plan can be found on our website at www.hartfordpriest.com.

The special focus will be our need to address the shortage of priests. As the plan notes: “We have gone from 193 seminarians in 1965 to just 19 seminarians in 2017 — statistically, the largest decrease of all key indicators, including Mass attendance, marriages, baptisms and students in Catholic schools. The problem is particularly stark when one considers that in 10 years, the archdiocese will have only 104 active diocesan priests for approximately 130 pastorates. Even with our new pastoral restructuring, this can rightly be described as a crisis in priestly vocations.”

Faith assures us that God has a providential and loving plan for everyone and everything, especially his Church. However much we may think that the Church’s problems are intractable, nothing is impossible with God. As a wise churchman once observed, “The possibilities of God begin precisely where human possibilities end.” As people who are firmly convinced of the action of the Holy Spirit, we can believe in a new springtime. We need not fear the future.

To the extent that all of us are “docile to the Holy Spirit,” we can expect a new springtime of vocational commitment, too. I say “all of us” because a vocation — whether to marriage, priesthood or religious consecration — takes root and grows through the support of family, friends, parishioners and the community. It is very sad that sometimes parents are not supportive when their children indicate an interest in a religious vocation. It is equally sad when we priests do not do all that we should to promote these vocations.

With regard to the priesthood, Pope St. John Paul the Great once wrote: “Let every believer become an educator of vocations, without fearing to propose radical choices; let every community understand the centrality of the Eucharist and the necessity for ministers of the Eucharistic sacrifice; let the whole People of God raise an ever more intense and impassioned prayer to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into His harvest.”

In the spirit of these words, I ask everyone in the archdiocese to do the following:

• Educate yourself about vocations and their discernment so that you will have good information to pass on to others as an effective advocate for vocations;
• Personally invite the young people in your life to pray and to seek out God’s plan for them. If you see someone you think would be a good priest or religious sister or brother, ask if he or she has considered it. You will be serving as      God’s instrument, lending your voice to Christ; and
• Pray. Jesus told us: “Pray to the Master of the harvest. … ” (Mt 16) Join the St. John Vianney Vocation Prayer Society (www.hartfordpriest.com).

Priests and religious to serve our Church in the future must come from our parishes and families today. And the future health of our world depends in great measure on the health of marriage and family life. May the Lord hear our prayers and bless our efforts for a new vocational “springtime” at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity.

This year, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima in Portugal. At the end of September, I will be leading an archdiocesan pilgrimage to Fatima to commemorate the centenary.

Fatima is an example of a “private revelation” made to chosen individuals, the authenticity of which is accepted by the Church only after careful examination and discernment. The relatively few private revelations that have been formally approved by the Church through the centuries have these purposes: to help people understand what the Scriptures call “the signs of the times” and to lead them to respond with faith.

The message of Our Lady in 1917 came amid the horrors of world war and revolution that were only the beginning of a century scarred by tremendous evils and crimes against God and humanity. Her message, however, is timeless precisely because it is the Gospel message of conversion, prayer, penance and sacrifice.

Like you, I pray for many things. I have a whole list of intentions for the Archdiocese of Hartford that are part of my prayers to God, to Our Lady and to the saints and angels. “Pray without ceasing,” St. Paul writes, and in the literal translation of Luke 11: 9, Jesus says, “Keep on asking … keep on seeking … keep on knocking …” and you will receive.

If we look more deeply at the Scriptures, however, we will find an extremely important secret about prayer. Those whose prayers are heard are those who accompany their prayers with acts of penance and sacrifice. 

The great prayers of the Bible are offered to God amid the rigors of the desert, the stripping away of earthly signs of pride and, especially, by mortification and fasting. Sinless though he was, Jesus himself fasted when he prayed, as an example to us that the human soul and body, mind and heart, must be freed and purified in order to ascend in adoration to the all-holy God.

Scripture teaches us that our Christian life and our prayers are at the service of a plan much greater than ourselves. When we connect the dots between prayer, penance and sacrifice, we understand that we are united to Christ in his fasting and prayer, and in his self-emptying sacrifice of expiation for the redemption of the world. All of our needs and desires are subject to the will of God for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

These scriptural truths have been lived by the saints throughout history. The words and works of the saints constitute the great spiritual treasury of our Catholic faith. Yet isn’t it that nowadays, the call to conversion, prayer, penance and sacrifice is often muted, sometimes to the point of near silence?

I am reminded of an old “Hagar the Horrible” comic strip in which Hagar climbs a steep mountain during a blizzard in search of a guru. “What is the key to happiness?” Hagar asks. “Abstinence, poverty, fasting and celibacy,” the guru answers. After a pause, Hagar asks, “Is there someone else up here I could talk to?”

A life of conversion, prayer, penance and sacrifice is not a welcome message to the ears of a sinful world or our sinful selves, even when the message comes from our mother in heaven. Yet if Mary’s message was urgent in 1917, imagine how much more urgent it is today!

I leave you with the words and the prayer of the angel spoken to the children of Fatima: “Pray, pray, pray very much! The Hearts of Jesus and Mary have designs of mercy on you. Offer prayers and sacrifices constantly to the Most High. ... Make of everything you can a sacrifice, and offer it to God as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended and in supplication for the conversion of sinners.”

Most Holy Trinity,Father, Son and Holy Spirit,I adore You profoundly.I offer You the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinityof Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world,in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges andindifferences by which He is offended.By the infinite merits of the Sacred Heart of Jesusand the Immaculate Heart of Mary,I beg the conversion of poor sinners. Amen.