Mission Anniversaries

This past Monday we marked the 528th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. He reached an island in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. He named the island for the holy Savior, San Salvador. [Spanish]

Mother Carini statue NYC w sculptors
New statue of Mother Cabrini in Battery Park, NYC, with the sculptors

Up in New York City, they marked the anniversary by unveiling a new statue of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini—also Italian, like Columbus. The new statue of Mother Cabrini looks out over New York harbor, towards the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Mother Cabrini helped a lot of the immigrants who came into our country through that little island.

Sunday we mark the 374th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues. He came to the New World to evangelize, and he gave his life for the Gospel, along with the many other missionary martyrs of the Americas. Eight other Jesuits died as martyrs here in what is now Virginia.

No co-incidence then that this Sunday is “World Mission Sunday.” At Holy Mass, we will hear these words of Christ in the gospel reading: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give to God what belongs to God.”

Now, if our First Parents had never disobeyed God; if life on earth were just like eternal life in heaven, then the Lord would never have had to make that distinction, the distinction between the secular and the sacred. If we still lived in the Garden of Eden, God would be our Caesar. Politics and religion would not be different things. But the malice of the devil entered human history when Adam and Eve fell. This has had many terrible consequences, as we know. One of them is: We American voters have to cast our ballots in a presidential election in which Jesus Christ is not one of the candidates.

Some of us older folks remember the year 1992, when our Church celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Pope St. John Paul II visited the Caribbean to mark the occasion. We Catholics rejoiced together that the Gospel had reached the western hemisphere, and we Knights of Columbus took pride in our namesake. Our Christianity is the jewel of our lives; we should never take it for granted.

christopher_columbusWe weren’t born knowing about Jesus, after all. Someone had to teach us. Someone had to give us the sacraments of grace. Jesus gave the Apostles their mission; others have followed in their footsteps. Because of their sacrifices, we have become part of the history of salvation. To imagine what it would be like to face life—and to face our inevitable death—without knowing Jesus Christ? Too horrible to imagine fully.

But there are other horrors that we also must contemplate. This coming year, the nation of Mexico will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. The president of Mexico has written to the pope, asking for an official Church apology to the native tribes for this act of violence. One bishop in Mexico asked the president if he intended to make an official government apology for all the anti-Catholic violence done by the Mexican state in the 20th century. It all makes us Washingtonians losing the name of our football team seem like pretty small potatoes, by comparison.

How to deal with all these controversies that cut so deeply into our identity? Let’s stay focused on Jesus Himself. That’s what the martyrs did. We honor the martyred missionaries of our land not because they had success as political or military strategists, but because they lived as saints of God. We honor them because they walked in the footsteps of Christ crucified.

Plenty of the Lord Jesus’ followers tried to give to Him what belonged to Caesar. They wanted to march, with swords drawn, behind Him. But He would not take for Himself what belonged to Caesar.

The Christ conquered Jerusalem, to be sure, but not in the same way that Cortes conquered Mexico City. Christ made His conquest without committing any atrocities. Rather, He conquered the world for God by suffering a monumental atrocity. He suffered it fearlessly and with love.

Our Christian mission comes from Him, the gentle king. All the anger and acrimony of this world; all the lust for power; all the injustice and dishonesty—it all came crashing down upon His bloody brow. He absorbed it all. He did not return the blow. He had the armies of terrifying angels at His disposal. He could have torn the universe in two. Instead, He bowed His head humbly and died, with blessings on His lips. ‘Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.’

Here’s our apology. We are sorry we did it to you, Lord. We are sorry. Forgive us, and make us Yours.

Anniversaries of St. Vincent and the Diocese

Rue du Bac Paris
Rue du Bac in Paris

Three hundred sixty years ago this Sunday, September 27, St. Vincent de Paul died. They keep his heart in a chapel on Rue du Bac in Paris. I had the chance to visit years ago; it is a luminous place to pray. [Spanish]

We would not normally commemorate the anniversary of St. Vincent’s death on a Sunday, since we dedicate every Sunday to remembering the resurrection of our Savior. But through AD 2020, we Catholics in Virginia keep the bicentennial of our diocese. The second bishop of Richmond made St. Vincent de Paul the diocesan patron. So we keep our patron’s feast, even though it falls on a Sunday this year.

At Mass, we will read a special gospel passage, in St. Vincent’s honor. The passage includes these words: “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom.’”

Our diocesan patron, St. Vincent, founded a group of priests called the Congregation of the Mission. The mission. What mission?

Well, the very same. The mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The good news that God is with us. Our brother, Jesus of Nazareth, Who died for us, and rose again for us. He reigns over a kingdom in which death and evil have no power at all. The Apostles of Christ undertook the mission, the proclamation of this wonderful news about God and our destiny as human beings.

Now, what’s the news these days? On the 360th anniversary of St. Vincent’s death, and during the 200th anniversary year of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond? Pandemic. Presidential election. Empty Supreme Court seat. Football with empty stadiums and fake crowd noise.

Ok. But the truly new news is the news that every Sunday brings. Jesus is risen. The Son of Mary, the Son of God, Who rose from the dead, so that we could share His undying life.

“Congregation of the Mission.” Our patron’s society has a name so simple and basic that it brings us back to the basics. St. Vincent de Paul had gone into the French countryside, and he found villages full of poor Catholics who knew next to nothing about Christ and their religion. So St. Vincent and some companions decided to do something about that—to preach to, to teach, and to love the people.

Cabrini Shrine Mass.jpg
Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini’s tomb

The Mission continues. It does not get old. We have a two-hundred-year-old diocese, but we are really just getting started here. The pandemic has interfered with the life of our Church and our diocese, damaging normal Catholic practice. The bishop’s dealings with me have totally changed my role in the mission, and I think what he has done has compromised his ministry as well. A diocese where priests have to live in fear of severe and long-term reprisals for speaking our minds—not a healthy environment. But the mission continues, because it does not come from us messed-up human beings. It comes from Jesus Himself.

Speaking of saints with whom we have close connections… Many of you know that my brother and his wife began raising their sons on the northern part of Manhattan island in New York City. They lived in an apartment two blocks from the shrine of the great Italian-American saint, Francis Xavier Cabrini. We took a parish pilgrimage to New York in 2014, and we had Mass at Mother Cabrini’s tomb, after my brother got on the bus and gave us a little tour of his old neighborhood.

Last week I visited an old friend who lives in the Pacific Northwest. I stopped to make a visit in the cathedral in Seattle. Turns out there’s a relic of Mother Cabrini in the altar there, too–on the other end of the continent. She herself prayed in that cathedral, in Seattle, many times.

The saint had come to Seattle from New York, by way of Nicaragua and Brazil, to help the Italian immigrants. Mother Cabrini loved atlases from her earliest youth; she considered Seattle to be ‘near the north pole.’ Some of the Italian immigrants there had not seen a church since they left the old country, so Mother Cabrini got a mission parish started for them.

When I first laid eyes on the Seattle skyline, I thought, ‘This looks like mid-town Manhattan.’ Turns out I was not the first to think the cities look alike. Mother Cabrini thought that, too.

My point is: The mission of Jesus’ Church extends everywhere and always. None of us were born Christians. We have our Christian faith, and the heavenly grace that comes with it, because those who went before us handed it on to us. We venerate our spiritual ancestors. We recognize the sacrifices that they made, so that we could know Who Jesus Christ is, and have a relationship with Him.

That relationship is the most-important thing in life. So let’s dedicate ourselves to the mission, too.

Mother Cabrini, Pray for the Dreamers

Cabrini Shrine Mass.jpg
Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini’s tomb during our parish-cluster youth pilgrimage a few years back. The kneeling boys are all grown up now 🙂

It can hardly come as a co-incidence: we keep the Memorial of the Patroness of Immigrants just as the US Supreme Court considers the fate of many of our immigrants friends and loved ones. (The pope beatified Mother Cabrini 81 years ago today.)

In case you haven’t paid attention: “Dreamers” are young adults who arrived in the US as children, without immigration papers. D.A.C.A. protects Dreamers from many of the adverse legal consequences of their situation.

I think I can safely say that no humane American thinks that Dreamers should suffer because of what happened when they were too young to make decisions and control their own fate.

D.A.C.A exists at the discretion of the Executive Branch of the federal government. It has to do with the great elephant in the immigration room: We simply cannot uniformly enforce our immigration laws. It is logistically impossible, not to mention morally impossible. D.A.C.A. came about as a political stratagem when legislative immigration reform failed.

Without D.A.C.A., dozens upon dozens of people we know and love in our two parishes would have their lives thrown into utter chaos. They would become people without a country. Through no fault of their own.

us_supreme_court

What the Supreme Court decides will not necessarily determine the ultimate outcome of the current controversy. The Court could uphold lower court rulings, which required the Trump administration to provide a clearer rationale before discontinuing D.A.C.A. Or the Supreme Court could overrule the lower courts and leave the whole matter in the administration’s hands.

Either way, we should recognize that no human being should have to live with this kind of tumultuous uncertainty hanging over his or her head. We should pray hard, that every human being on this soil be accorded all basic human rights.

As we read in Scripture at Holy Mass today, “For those in power, a rigorous scrutiny is coming” from God. May the Lord move those who will make decisions about this to do the humane thing.

Philemon and Cabrini

Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini's tomb.  She was beatified 76 years ago today!
Holy Mass on Mother Cabrini’s tomb. She was beatified 76 years ago today! (photo credit Mr. Dan Shanahan)

Hard to imagine any document more truly ennobling to the reader than St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. My dime-store summary:

Dear Philemon,

Your beloved slave Onesimus (whose name means ‘useful’) found me here in prison. Since running away from you, he has become a Christian, like you. As I know that you aspire to a true practice of the religion of Christ, I point out the following to you.

1. You owe me your life, as if you were my bondslave in the Lord, since I preached the Gospel of salvation to you and baptized you. I won you from the devil. You are, in the sight of God, my chattel.

But as I, too, strive to follow in the footsteps of the humble, divine Servant of mankind, I will not give you any orders. I leave you free to choose what you believe is the best course.

2. Mr. Useful, according to the calculus of this passing world, has a discrete monetary value to you, as your slave. By running away from you, he has effectively robbed you of that amount. If you wish, I myself will pay you that debt in cash, in order to make you whole monetarily.

3. Now that he, too, has been redeemed by Christ from the eternal slavery of sin, you must regard Mr. Useful as a brother. No longer just useful, but now beloved. I would rather that he stayed here with me–since he really is remarkably useful! 🙂 But that would be stealing; that would be me forcing your hand—which I will not do. So I send Mr. Useful, my beloved brother, back to you, who are also my beloved brother. I will not use either of you.

I request, I beg you to be useful to me, and treat Mr. Useful as something more than useful.

Love, Paul

Being useful can lead to a person feeling used. The Christian never uses another human being as a means to an end. Because the Christian is free with the freedom of God.

Seeing a fellow human being as a slave, as a means, a tool—to see the world that way is the worst slavery of all. It means being trapped in the jail of a world without love.

But if I see in my neighbor’s eyes the doorway to an invisible throne room, where a human person chooses the good, chooses love, chooses God—if I behold the tabernacle of freedom in my neighbor, then I have been liberated from the slavery of using people. And I live now in the wide-open freedom of the only absolutely free One, namely God.

New York Holy Days

empire-state-building

A lot of people think of New York City as a godless place. But I am going to demonstrate with solid evidence that New York City has a lot of holiness, from one end of town to the other. Because you can take any two days on the calendar and connect them with the holiness of New York City. Let’s take tomorrow and the next day. Ready?

Ok. Anyone Ukrainian? Anybody know any Ukrainians? Anybody know where Ukraine is?

Many Ukrainians migrated to the U.S. during the 20th century. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island, you can find a huge, beautiful Ukrainian Catholic church, on 7th Street. And there’s a school there, K-12. Down the street you can get some great pierogis.

Wait a minute. Ukrainian Catholic? Shcho tse? What is this?

St. Josaphat made Ukrainian Catholicism possible, by his heroic self-sacrifice. He loved Christ, the Pope, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and his country. As you may know, the Ukrainians have a beautiful way of life, and they have their own way of celebrating the Mass—a way that goes back to the most ancient times, like our way of doing it does.

St. Josaphat gave his life so that his people, with all their ancient Christian traditions, could be Catholic. He suffered martyrdom 390 years ago tomorrow. He didn’t think twice about risking his life for Christ, because he considered himself a humble servant of the Lord, simply doing his duty.

Now, speaking of humble servants of the Lord…We’ve got a connection between tomorrow and the holiness of New York, with St. Josaphat and the Ukrainian-Catholic school (like our own Roanoke Catholic School!) on the Lower East Side. But what about Wednesday?

Mother Cabrini awaits the ResurrectionNo problem. I have two nephews who live on the other end of Manhattan Island, the northern tip of it. They live at 186th Street.

Anyone know what usually happens to the body of a saint after his or her life on earth? We build a beautiful chapel or church so that people can come and pray for special help from this particular saint.

Anyway, Mother Cabrini—anyone ever heard of her? A tireless missionary nun who came to America to help the Italian immigrants. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was beatified 75 years ago Wednesday. And whenever I see my nephews, I see her, too, because her shrine is at 190th Street.

My Brother’s Neighborhood Saint

Washington Heights, New York City
Washington Heights, New York City
When the Lord Jesus comes again in glory at the end of time, all the dead will rise again. The saints will rise to everlasting happiness.

The bodily remains of the saints are a precious reminder of our hope for eternal life. That is why we have shrines for their graves. To visit the body of a saint is to draw close to the glory of God. Venerating the body of a saint is an act of faith in the promises of Christ.

For the past three years, my brother and his wife have lived one block away from a saint. My little two-and-a-half-year-old nephew has lived his whole life two hundred yards away from the body of a holy nun.

Someday the neighborhood saint will rise again in glory. When she does, it will be on Ft. Washington Avenue in Manhattan. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew live a block away from the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Washington Heights, New York.

Mother Cabrini awaits the Resurrection
Mother Cabrini awaits the Resurrection
Whenever I go to visit my brother and his family, I try to visit Mother Cabrini, too. Believe it or not, I have run into people I know at the Shrine there. It is a small world.

Since my brother is Presbyterian, and my sister-in-law and nephew are both Jewish, they don’t pay much attention to their neighborhood saint. There is a little festival on her feast day, so they know that her feast day is tomorrow (November 13). But that is about all they know.

They do not know that she was a brassy and tireless champion of the poor. They do not know that she traveled all over North and South America founding convents. And they do not know that someday they will see her alive in their neighborhood. (Though perhaps they will have moved to the suburbs by the time the Lord comes again. Or maybe they will be resting in their graves then, too. It could be today; it could be countless years from now.)

subwayI don’t think a lot of the people in Washington Heights appreciate how fortunate they are to have a neighbor who is a canonized saint. At this point in history, there are very few neighborhoods in the western hemisphere that have such a privilege.

I try to pray to Mother Cabrini for my brother’s family as often as I can. May my brother and his wife see the light, and go and kneel at Mother Cabrini’s tomb and pay their neighborhood saint some respect. They simply could not ask for a more desirable neighbor.

In the meantime, I pray that she will watch over them.