- Archbishop Leonard P. Blair
Let me share with you some spiritual wisdom from a great bishop, St. Francis de Sales. When we face some trial or tribulation, he says this:
As I grow older and look back at my life, like all of us, I have much for which to be grateful. I realize just how blessed I have been with the opportunities that have been given to me by the Church from my seminary days until now, including the years I lived in Rome. I have had many opportunities to experience different countries and languages. And any Catholic who travels broadly will know just how universal our Catholic Church is, and how it is possible to be at Mass or a shrine overseas and to feel at home spiritually with people of different lands and nations.
Our unifying bond, of course, is the Lordship of Jesus and our membership in his body by faith and baptism. But inseparably linked to this is the motherhood of Mary and her unique and abiding role in the mystery of salvation. When Jesus said “behold your mother” to the beloved disciple John at the foot of the cross, his words were meant not for John alone, but for every disciple until the end of time. And so wherever the Church is in the world, Mary is venerated under various titles of honor and devotion.
At the Annunciation, Mary became the mother of the Incarnate Word and gave him human flesh. Now we are the members of Christ’s body and we receive his flesh and blood in the holy Eucharist. It is the same body and blood Mary gave him that we now share. Spiritually, therefore, she is our mother, too, in the most profound, salvific and intimate way imaginable.
At the beginning of her son’s public ministry at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary pointed to him and said: “Do whatever he tells you.” And after he had ascended into heaven, she was with the apostles in the Upper Room before Pentecost, imploring the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. This same fervent prayer on her part is at work today and until the end of time. St. Louis de Montfort wrote, “[I]t is through Mary that the salvation of the world began, and it is through Mary that it must be consummated.” Who better than she can show us the way to live a life in the Holy Spirit, a life of faith, hope and love?
During the five years I worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State, I and some other American priests offered daily morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. One of the altars we used was adorned with an image of Mary with the Latin inscription Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church). It had been erected by Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope Paul VI, who had officially bestowed this title upon Mary in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis has now designated the Monday after Pentecost Sunday as a liturgical memorial in honor of “Mary, Mother of the Church” to be observed annually at the Masses celebrated on that day.
As archbishop of Hartford, I have been renewing annually the consecration of our archdiocese to Mary by offering a public “prayer of entrustment,” at the ordination liturgy for our new priests, and I will do so again on June 23 this year. However, I am eager to have as many people as possible join me in reciting this prayer, which I also say privately every day. I offer it to the faithful of the archdiocese in the hope that as we face the opportunities and the challenges of missionary discipleship in our time, we may be protected from evil and strengthened in the practice of our faith at the intercession of the Mother of God.
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.