Palm Sunday arrives in six days. It reminds me: ten years ago, I wrote a little meditation, imagining something:
What if the Church possessed only one ceremony, which occurred just once a year? Namely, the lighting of the Easter candle. What if lighting the Easter candle was the entire Sacred Liturgy of the Church?
Would we persevere in faith, hoping for heaven? With just that one support?
In my little essay, I opined that we would.
I merely hypothesized, of course. I meant only to emphasize the stunning beauty and significance of the lighting of the candle. We believe He rose from the dead. We light the candle to proclaim that faith. The Light of Christ conquers all darkness.
Now we have to live with something which oddly and painfully resembles my purely theoretical consideration of a decade ago. We will have to celebrate Holy Week without coming together.
It’s like running a football play as complicated as this:
with only one player. Tossing the ball to yourself in the backfield, twice, then blocking for yourself downfield.
But guess what? We will. We will keep Christ’s Passover, even under the current circumstances.
I will bless palms. A couple co-workers and I will stand outside church at the normal Mass times and hand a palm to anyone who drives by and wants one.
And we will celebrate the ceremonies of Holy Week and try to “livestream” it all. By “we,” I mean: me, the seminarians (if they return from Richmond), our organist/pianist, and a reader or two.
Church will remain open on Holy Thursday night (April 9th) for visits to the Blessed Sacrament. And open on Good Friday night, too, for visits to the Holy Cross. And open Holy Saturday night. For visits to the lit Easter candle.
And the church doors will remain unlocked Easter Sunday morning, also, for visits to the Blessed Sacrament, with the Easter candle lit. Click HERE to read the whole local schedule.
[Advisory. All these best-laid plans of mice and men remain subject to change, should more-restrictive orders be given by the authorities.]
We will persevere in faith, my dear ones. His light shines.
Such is the wonder of His love: He gathers to the feast those who are far apart, and brings together, in unity of faith, those who may be physically separated from each other. –from an Easter letter by St. Athanasius, sixteen centuries ago.
Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19)
Lord Jesus offered this invitation to the Galilean fisherman brothers. He offers the same invitation to us: Come, Christian! Come, child. Follow me, your teacher and Lord. Follow me, the one true Christ, into Whose mystery you have been baptized. And I will make you fishers of men. He says this to us, right here and now, like He said it to Peter and Andrew, James and John. [Spanish]
The fisherman made their living pulling up their large nets, full of fish. They labored in the hot sun. They rowed; they hunted; they spread their nets; they waited. Then they acted quickly. They pulled up the nets and dumped everything in the hull; they paddled hard to the shore; they sorted; they salted; they organized and stored.
But: To fish for men…What does it mean? Two-part answer.
Part One: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. (Isaiah 8:23)
We can fish for men because God caught us first. Almighty God has done two equally amazing things. He has laid out the heavens and the earth; He has knit everything together according to His design. He has given us existence and life. He has given us everything as a gift—above all, our very own selves. He has formed us, equipped us, empowered us, and presented us to ourselves, saying, Behold, child! I give you yourself as a gift!
And into this vast cosmos which He has arrayed so wonderfully, and which He put us into; into the realm that we know: He Himself stepped, and He lived like us. He walked. He ate fried fish. He talked with His friends over a campfire.
He has touched our homeland Himself, Personally, as one of Mother Earth’s citizens. The light of the world, Jesus Christ—tender healer, demanding teacher, crucified for us, risen, and ascended to the heavenly Jerusalem, the divine-human High Priest of our religion.
We can fish for men because this Light of God has shone. The net we use? Nothing less than that same eternal and glorious light. Why would any human being toil and labor in vain, alone and friendless in a windswept universe arcing towards nothingness? No: our Maker made everything with a plan. He piled up the mountainsides for a reason. And Christ reveals the reason: everything Almighty God does, He does for friendship, for communion, for love. Orphans under a silent sky? No. When we pray, we pray to our Father. And He hears us, and loves us, and knows what we need a hundred times better than we do.
A human soul can pursue all kinds of things–like fleeting pleasures, or selfishness, or worldly power. Or a human soul can sink into slavish laziness. But the true reason why a human soul exists is: friendship with God in Christ. When we live in the friendship with God that Jesus offers us, then we know ourselves, and we are ourselves.
Part Two of what ‘fishers of men’ means. In the net, the fish come together. We fish for men because the light of God draws us together, together in Him.
How can we belong? How can we form a people? Lord Jesus has the answer. People, come together around Me! And He tells us Christians: fish with that net.
Jesus Christ, alive and well, pouring out His Holy Spirit through His Church—He can and does purify, elevate, and ennoble the minds of everyone Who lives in His friendship, so that we can live in fruitful harmony together. Gathered around Him, each of us can exercise every particular faculty of our own unique, individual selves–and it’s all for the good of everyone else. Jesus gives us that kind of communion. The life of God is perfect peace. And that peace fills the hearts of those who live in Christ, giving us a sacred bond of friendship.
Fish for men! He commands us. The Light of God has shone. Man can live free. Man can know and be himself. And mankind can live and flourish in common harmony. When we get caught up in the beautiful net that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Those Apostles being gathered together in Jerusalem with the little company of the disciples and the most glorious Mother of the Savior formed the true Church. And of what kind? Visible without doubt, yea so visible that the Holy Spirit came to water those holy plants and seed-plots of Christianity.
The Church: The Scriptures, the sacraments, the family bound together by divine love. We take for granted that this institution is an end in itself. We don’t belong to the Catholic Church because we get free exercise classes, or free meals–though we enjoy a nice church dinner every now and again. We belong to the Catholic Church because we believe we find salvation in Her.
The life of the visible Church itself gives us a reason to believe in Christ and His revelation of God. Jesus of Nazareth founded this institution which has stunning marks of holiness—that is, the courage of the Apostles and martyrs, the beautiful lives of the saints, the universality of our Church’s ceremonies, the unique staying power of this two-thousand-year-old enterprise.
Our Church certainly seems to have supernatural integrity. She also seems to have managerial problems. Pretty severe ones. Severe enough that the unified whole seems to break down.
On the one hand, the evidently holy stuff: Christ, His Scriptures, His sacraments, the ancient saints. On the other hand, the evidently messed-up stuff: Extended sex-abuse cover-ups, lack of accountability, internecine strife ad nauseam, bishops shutting down peoples’ blogs and squelching free speech, etc.
No need to wonder how Protestantism started. We can see it clearly from where we find ourselves. The impetus to break down the whole that is the visible Church that carries invisible graces. Let’s keep the ‘pure’ stuff, and jettison the ‘worldly’ stuff. Let’s keep Scripture and jettison so-called ‘tradition.’ Let’s keep our ‘pure’ local group and jettison communion with compromised Rome. Let’s keep the doctrines I agree with and jettison the ones that I don’t. The pope runs an institution rife with corruption; therefore, I have the right to appoint myself my own personal pope.
We can see how it started, Protestantism. But: Now it’s 500 years later, and we can also see clearly that it doesn’t really work. St. Francis de Sales put it like this:
It does not follow that if a body is everywhere diseased, that it is therefore dead. Thus, widespread failure of faith does not mean that faith has failed in the Church, or that the Church is dead. (chapter X.)
Being “half-Catholic” doesn’t work, or trying to be Christian without Christ’s Church. The Church he founded is simply one, unbreakable thing. All the holy stuff has tons of perfectly human and messed-up aspects to it. And all the ‘worldly’ parts partake so intimately of the holiness that you actually can’t just chuck anything, without ultimately sinking the whole ship. As soon as anyone says to him- or herself, “Well, this solemn teaching; or this pope; or this Ecumenical Council just isn’t for me”—you wind up actually having nothing left. Because you don’t have Catholicism anymore.
They got through it, five centuries ago, the Catholics. They belonged to a holy Church with a lot of problems, but they did not become Protestants. St. Francis de Sales helped a lot of them. They had enough faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We can, too.
Anyone see The Two Popes? The filmmakers depict the papal conclaves of 2005 and 2013, with plenty of papal politicking thrown in.
In the papal election of AD 236, however, St. Fabian became pope with no politicking at all. Rather, as the electors met to choose the twentieth pope, a dove descended from above, like at the Baptism of Christ. It landed on Fabian.
Fabian had to heal a schism in the Church. Remember this was before the Fathers met to formulate the precise Trinitarian doctrine in the Nicene Creed. Before Fabian’s election, there had been an “antipope,” not duly elected, who had actually made more-cogent theological arguments than the popes who preceded Fabian.
A persecution had led to the exile of both Pope Pontian and antipope Hippolytus. They wound up working together as slaves in the mines of the Isle of Sardinia. The two of them reconciled there, with Hippolytus renouncing his false claim to the papacy. Then they both died as prisoners. Once Pope Fabian had been elected successor, he brought both of their remains back to Rome and buried them with honor.
Then, fourteen years later, Fabian died as a martyr, too–1770 years ago today. The Roman Emperor Decius ordered all Christians to burn incense to the pagan gods of Rome. Fabian of course refused.
Pope St. Fabian’s remains lie in the Church of St. Sebastian outside the ancient walls of Rome. The church sits on top of an ancient catacombs. I said Mass there with two priests friends, back in 2005.
Being there takes you back to those early centuries of the Church, when so many heroes unhesitatingly gave their lives for the Gospel. May they all pray for us.
Who founded our Church? Right. The Lord Jesus Christ, eternally begotten of the eternal Father, Who became man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, and Who rose from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion. [Spanish]
He founded His Church on the twelve… Apostles. And the original Apostles saw to it that the Church continued, by consecrating successors for themselves. We call the successors of the Apostles… bishops.
Among the original Apostles, one held pre-eminent authority. Namely, Saint… Peter. How many successors in office has St. Peter had? Right: 265. Pope Francis is the 266th pope.
Who was the 251st pope?
Father, why do we need to know that?
Well, that particular successor of St. Peter did something highly significant for us. He erected our diocese. That is, he sent a brother bishop of his, a fellow successor of the original Apostles, to preside over the Church here in the state of Virginia. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson still lived, 77 years old. That year, Pope Pius VII made the state of Virginia a diocese in the Roman Catholic Church and appointed the first Catholic Bishop of Richmond.
Now, that bishop was not the first priest in the diocese. Catholics first came to what is now Virginia in 1570, to try to evangelize the Native Americans. The first missionaries suffered terrible martyrdom here. Then the laws of British colonial rule prohibited Catholicism in Virginia from 1607 to 1786.
In 1820, Virginia became the seventh diocese in the still pretty-new United States. Anyone know which American city had the first American bishop? Correct. Baltimore.
The Catholic Diocese of Richmond had it rough in the early years. One of the first bishops wrote to a seminary in Ireland, trying to recruit men to come to Virginia to serve as priests. But the Richmond bishop warned the candidates:
If you come to Virginia to serve, you must expect a life of great labor and fatigue, much exposure to cold, heat, and rain, bad roads, very indifferent diet and lodging, and but little respect for your dignity. You will find few Catholics, little of society, and compensation barely adequate to support you in the plainest and most economical manner. There are places much more desirable elsewhere. If you choose my diocese, I will regard your character and honor as compromised if afterwards you flinch. You must come fully prepared, certain that your recompense is not to be expected here, but hereafter.
In those early years, our local church experienced not just material hardship, but also some serious moral confusion. The pope stood against slavery, as did pretty much all of Catholic and Protestant Europe, especially Ireland. But here in Virginia, our Catholic leaders did not have the courage to take a stand against the overwhelming social pressure in favor of slavery. To the contrary, our leaders knuckled under completely.
In 1834, in the cathedral of our diocese, a preacher lashed out against “wicked would-be philanthropists,” with whom, “only madmen and traitors” would co-operate. “The Catholic in Virginia will shrink from the shaking the polluted hand” of such people. What wickedness was he condemning? The anti-slavery movement. Our cathedral preacher declared in 1834, “Abolitionism is a profanation of the Gospel.”
Actually, that sermon was a profanation. And there were plenty of other sermons like it, given by many Catholic priests and prelates in the South. But we learned our lesson, thank God, in time to take a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Our forebears among Richmond-diocese Catholics conscientiously broke Virginia segregation laws. In 1947 we had non-segregated Masses and church meals, with black and white Catholics receiving Communion together, then eating together.
Yes, that was illegal in Virginia in 1947. But the pastor of St. Paul’s in Richmond declared, “No true American can defend the barriers imposed by legal segregation.” The priest referred to our soldiers in World War II, which had ended just a couple years before: “Black and white have fought together to defend a common flag. All have the right to the liberties symbolized by that flag.” The words of a Richmond-diocese priest, years before Martin Luther King, Jr., began his work.
I could go on with anecdotes, but let’s leave it like this for now. We have had shameful moments and proud moments, over two interesting centuries of Catholic history here. May God have mercy on us for the failures. And may He continue to inspire us to acts of genuine Christian heroism.
There’s only one way, that we know of, to keep a vital connection with Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of the world. You cannot do it by phone or over the internet. You have to participate in the sacramental life of a local parish church in communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Thanks to the generosity and self-sacrifice of those who have gone before us, we find that vital connection with Christ open to us, right here, right now. Praised be God. May He give us many graces during this bicentennial anniversary year.
According to St. Athanasius, St. Anthony became so intimately familiar with the Scriptures that he came hardly to need the books anymore. St. Anthony could rely solely on his memory. Same thing for Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas—memorized the whole Bible.
For St. Anthony, it all began listening to the gospel at Mass, like all of us who frequent the parish church. Anthony heard the words, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor. Then come, follow Me.”
Anthony heard those words as addressed personally to himself. So he sold everything and went out into the desert to follow Christ. In other words, Anthony did not memorize the Bible in order to train himself for some kind of ancient Bible-Jeopardy game show. Anthony understood that God spoke personally to him through the words of Scripture, so he took great interest in those words.
Now we know the key to solving the question: Who knows the Scripture best, Catholics or Protestants? No. The answer is: People who genuinely believe that God speaks to us this way, and who want to listen–they know the Bible best. People willing to learn the sacred history recounted in the Scriptures, because that history literally means the difference between heaven and hell for us.
You and I might not have the intellectual endowment to memorize the entire Bible. But we can have the desperate desire to hear and embrace God’s words to us. We can grasp those words to our bosoms and live by them, like St. Anthony lived by them.
We had some technical difficulties. Which makes this video perfect for people who tend to arrive for the 4:30 Mass at about 4:40, or for the 10:30 Mass at about 10:40 🙂
I mentioned at the Offertory: please mail in your offering, if you like. Or you can stop by the church and leave an offering in the basket. (Both churches remain open during normal Mass times, and during the week.)
Also, anyone can give on-line by visiting offertory.richmonddiocese.org. Choose either St. Francis of Assisi, Rocky Mount (556) or St. Joseph, Martinsville (572).
The Gospel of Life is something concrete and personal, for it consists in the proclamation of the very person of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God who from all eternity receives life from the Father, and who has come among men to make them sharers in this gift. (Evangelium Vitae 29)
That’s a quote from a letter written by a man that we older Catholics remember well. He was born during the Spanish Flu epidemic of the last century.
Here’s another passage from his letter about the Gospel of Life:
Through the words, the actions, and the very person of Jesus, man receives the complete truth about the value of human life. Through Christ, man can accept and fulfill completely the responsibility of loving and serving, of defending and promoting human life. The Gospel of Life has been written in the heart of every man and woman, echoing in every conscience from the beginning, from the time of creation itself.
He then quoted Vatican II:
Christ confirmed with divine testimony that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death and to raise us up to life.
Pope John Paul II wrote this letter and coined the phrase: Gospel of Life. This week we marked the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s letter.
Pope Francis has emphasized the Gospel of Life message repeatedly. For example, a couple years ago, Pope Francis said to an international association of Catholic health-care professionals:
Your being Catholic entails a greater responsibility, by contributing to the recognition of the transcendent dimension of human life, the imprint of God’s creative work from the moment of conception. This is a task of the new evangelization that often requires going against the tide. The Lord is counting on you to spread the Gospel of Life.
Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, our nation has had an open wound, literally. Thousands of innocent and defenseless people have bled to death at the hands of abortionists every day. And the wound never heals, because only the truth can heal it.
This is not the reactionary and old-fashioned Church, rejecting something new and modern. It’s the other way around. Roe v. Wade is based on old, debunked ideas. Abortion is nothing new; the ancient pagans practiced it. Violence and cruelty go way back.
The new thing is Jesus Christ’s Gospel of Life. Every human being has immeasurable value and dignity. And God has given us a task: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Which means: Love yourself, your own life—because God has given it. And love your neighbor with the same love, for God’s sake.
I think we can see clearly how the Gospel of Life offers us the point-of-view we need to get us through the coronavirus crisis. We suffer social isolation, and we have to make many sacrifices. But we do so serenely. Because we affirm the priceless value of every individual human life.
This principle guides the worthy practice of medicine, as well as the decisions made by public officials to protect and preserve innocent people’s lives.
Yes, a day will come when all of us will have to go to meet the Lord, by dying. We Christians do not fear death. We do not regard it as the greatest possible evil. We commend our deceased loved ones to God, looking forward to the resurrection of the dead. Being pro-life does not involve pretending that death doesn’t come for us all, in God’s time.
But Pope John Paul’s letter explained clearly how the Fifth Commandment binds us. Not only must we refrain from murder. We must also use all the skills we possess, to foster the advancement of every human life. Not only may we never act to destroy anyone’s life, we also may never omit to care for anyone who needs such care.
God has entrusted human life to us, not as something we fully understand and can master, but as a mystery that we humbly attend to and care for. Jesus Christ’s Gospel of Life can and will give us the firm foundation that we need to understand our role in this crisis. When we live by the Gospel of Life, we will prosper. That is: we will prosper in the most important way. Morally. We will build up the bonds of trust that hold communities together.
Our job as Catholics is: to stay focused on the message, to stay prayerful about it, and to live always in communion with the good and gentle Savior Who came into this world that we might have life.