Walking with Mary during Lent

Well, it’s here.  Tomorrow we begin our yearly observance of Lent.  The following are some reflections I offered to our parish Sodality about walking with Mary during Lent.  I hope you find them edifying:

March 2017

Dear Sodalists,

Peace!  I’m writing with gratitude and encouragement for your good works in our parish of St. Francis Xavier.  As we enter the holy season of Lent, the witness of your devotion to Our Lady takes on special meaning for our community.  Walking with our Lord toward the Cross and Resurrection, we so need for Mary to be with us at each step of the way.

In life’s general challenges, we might think of Mary during the hidden years at Nazareth.  Nearly every painting made of our Lady shows – to the surprise of most viewers – a serious or even sad look on her face… even as she holds the Christ child in her arms.  The cross was part of her existence even then.  Recall Simeon’s prophecy, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.” (Lk 2:35).  So even through the events of daily life, perhaps  even before Jesus himself grew to understand the sacrifice that would be required of him, Mary had to bear the weight of a shadowed future.  We can be assured that Our Lady will be sympathetic to our pleas as we deal with the cross in daily life.

In the actual and most intense moments of challenge, when we walk with Jesus up the via dolorosa on the way to Calvary, the one face in the crowd we know we can count on is Mary.  She is the Mother who never forgets her child and in a uniquely maternal way shares with us the pains of our sacrifices.  It is precisely in that sharing, in that solidarity that we find hope; we are not alone.

Finally, after the sacrifice has been made, as we gather in the Upper Room with the Apostles, we learn from Mary how to wait… how to wait patiently, faithfully, upon the coming of Resurrection Life and Light.  How often would we completely collapse were it not for the warm embrace of a loved one saying, “it’s OK, just a little longer and everything will be all right.”  Such is the love our Blessed Mother gives in that quiet time after the immediate pain has passed and all we can do is wait.

All my prayers and encouragement go with you this Lent as you direct our parishioners and neighbors to the maternal embrace of Mary directly in prayer and mirrored in the life of our Holy Mother the Church.

Your parish priest,

Fr. De Rosa

Love among the catacombs

Surrounding Washington are a series of beautiful places that most people never pay much attention to: cemeteries.  Like Rome before, Washington’s cemeteries are on its peripheries.  Historically, dead bodies were always interred outside city boundaries for reasons of hygiene.  As a result, however, they take on their own sort of civic identity, becoming necropolises, “cities of the dead.”

Visiting cemeteries is an important part of Christian existence.  It helps us keep up a real relationship with those who have gone before us: each visit to a loved one’s grave is a little sacrifice we can offer up for their sake, contributing to their journey to heaven.  Such visits can also serve as important reminders of our own mortality… a reality many prefer to ignore.  And those reminders aren’t just a help to our own [hopefully] distant judgment, but to our daily lives here and now.  St. Philip Neri told the faithful of Rome,

“An excellent way of keeping ourselves from relapsing into serious faults is to say to ourselves every evening, ‘tomorrow I may be dead.'”

Philip’s suggestion is full of a typically dark Roman humor, but I’ve found it very practical.  He certainly had taken time to consider the Last things (death, judgment, hell and heaven).  For the first few years after St. Philip’s arrival in Rome, he spent considerable time walking among the catacombs outside the city walls.

It was an odd practice.  The old cemeteries had not been mapped at that point.  Grave robbers and other unsavory types were known to seek refuge in the catacomb tunnels.  There was no light save the candle St. Philip brought with him, and the tunnel paths were far from stable.  It should also be mentioned that unlike today’s well preserved and clean pilgrimage sites, the catacombs in Philip’s day were filled with dead bodies!  Despite all that, Philip felt drawn over and over again to visit these holy sites, to commune with those who’d gone before, especially the martyrs.

It was a monastic period in St. Philip’s life.  New to the city, he had disappointed his family’s hopes for his future in business.  Philip knew he wanted to serve God, but wasn’t sure how.  He earned his bread by tutoring the children of a local merchant, didn’t really know anyone.  His catacomb walks were, perhaps, distilled expressions of a deeper loneliness he experienced walking the streets of the living city, pondering his future. Nonetheless, from within that solitude a voice began to speak to St. Philip, the voice of God our Father.  He was directed to serve the needs of the poor and of pilgrims entering the city after long grueling journeys.  From among these good deeds a small cadre of disciples began to emerge surrounding St. Philip and evangelizing the city.  They became the Oratory: a loose family of priests and lay people bound together by charity and a commitment to the evangelization of culture.  They changed the history of Rome and so the whole Church!

In spite of the crowds that flow up and down DC’s avenues each day, so many people feel as if they’re walking among open graves… alone, scared, worried about falling into a pit at any moment.  It’s true, one can certainly look at an urban life’s journey that way… and given the trials and tribulations so man people face each day, I get it.  Even as a priest, I sometimes feel like I’m walking alone among the ruins.  But Philip’s experience reminds us that there is another way to use our solitude… to use it as a time of privileged listening for the Love of God.  Surely he’s calling each of us to a path like St. Philip’s, by which we do works contributing to the building up of something truly great.  This week, apropos as we approach Lent, consider visiting one of DC’s cemeteries… drive in, park your car and take a walk among the graves.  You may find a surprising clarity and approach things differently when you return to the city of the living.

“Who walked for so many years among the catacombs, pray for us!”
-from the Litany of St. Philip by Bl. JH Newman

Tying it all together

One beautiful but challenging consequence of the reforms of Vatican II is that on a daily basis any member of the faithful can be totally immersed in Scripture. It’s not even 8am and already I’ve been exposed to: six psalms, an excerpt from Galatians, Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, and various commentaries on all of them… and that’s just from saying the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer and Mass. It’s a little overwhelming actually. How does one tie it all together?

Well, there’s no one rule on how to make connections between the readings. Certainly whatever links one makes have to be reasonable and coincide with Teaching. I couldn’t, for example, read the Bible and come to the conclusion that it’s ok to say… falsely accuse my brother… because that would contradict the Commandments. That caution aside, what is the average Catholic to Do?

I find it helpful to have a theme for whatever period of time I’m reading the Scriptures. During Christmas and the Epiphany-centered month of January my theme was “getting to know Jesus”. Everything I read or heard in church got channeled through that appropriately seasonal theme. Having been introduced to Jesus in January, February is my month for prayer…since prayer is the vehicle for my ongoing friendship with the Lord. As I figure it, on this year’s calendar anyway, that should set me up nicely for the start of Lent on March 1… and forty days’ meditation on salvific suffering. As you can tell, I like using the Church calendar to guide my prayer. Other guides might include the lives of the saints: “what would saint. (____) say about these readings?” The Holy Father’s preaching (daily masses Wednesday audiences and Sunday angelus) can also be a good guide.

What all these guides… any guide really… have in common is that they are an objective boundary to keep our subjective thoughts and meditations from going off in wild or unhealthy directions. Some local mega churches in the D.C. area have begun preaching a “prosperity Gospel” that teaches: God will reward good behavior with wealth. Any look at the actual objective words of Jesus reveals this to be nonsense… likewise the lived experiences of faithful Christians across the centuries. Guides are limiting, its true… they limit us to following the right path all the way to heaven. As we look with eyes of faith at the vast quantity of Scripture available to us today, seek out a good guide. You’ll be glad you did.

The Beauty of Mary Magdalene

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Donatello, Mary Magdalene
Donatello, Mary Magdalene

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  A few years ago, the National Gallery hosted an exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real,” displaying a series of sculptures carved to make people’s favorite paintings in 3-D.  It was the 17th century version of 3-D experience.  One such statue was of today’s saint, Mary Magdalene.  Mary is depicted nude, clothed only with her long hair.  It’s actually an iconic way of portraying the saint who tradition assumes is the “woman caught in adultery.” (Jn 8)  The imagery is shocking, one sees the Magdalene humbled, almost haggard in her nakedness… and yet… This is Mary at her best.  Brought before the Lord, she does not deny her sins, and in that nakedness, in that emptiness she is completely filled by Jesus: Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  She does not clothe herself in defense, in pride.  Sitting in the nakedness of truth, she is lifted from the ground and clothed in new life by Chirst.  In a way, she undoes the dynamic of Eden.  No fig leaf for Mary; whatever shame it may cost in the eyes of men, she is loved by her God, and that becomes enough for her.  At the end of the Gospel (Jn 20:11-18) Mary is again completely empty.  Jesus has been taken from her.  Going to his tomb she weeps and once again he appears, Resurrected, to give her new life.  At this point Mary becomes the apostle to the Apostles, running to deliver the Good News to Peter and the others.

Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

Speaking of Peter, he demonstrates a marked contrast to Mary.  A few nights before (Jn. 18) Mary’s garden encounter with Jesus, afraid, vulnerable, weak, as Christ was being arrested, how does Peter respond?  He slices off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.  Clothed in earthly strength, Peter sets himself up for the biggest fall of all, the triple-denial of Christ later that night.  Like Mary, Peter’s restoration comes days later when in the triple confession of his love for Jesus, his humility gives Christ space to forgive him and restore him as the chief pastor of the Flock.  “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21)

Sometimes penance comes involuntarily, as it did for Mary when she first met Jesus.  If in those moments we accept our penances we demonstrate wisdom.  Sometimes penance comes… or needs to come… voluntarily, chosen as an exercise to help us grown in wisdom and grace.  We can do this by fasting, praying, giving to the poor or some other form of appropriate self-denial, to – again – make a space our heart for Jesus.  Such is the beauty of Mary Magdalene and the beauty, really, of penance.  It makes a new space in our hearts for Christ and for new life.

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Praying in Congress

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St. Damien of Molokai – 1 of 4 priests with statues in the halls of Congress

Everyday I pray “for” Congress… but today I had the unique experience of praying “in” Congress!  The US House of Representatives has a Chaplain, currently Fr. Pat Conroy, but on some days they ask a guest to come in.  The chaplaincy is not limited to any specific faith-group, and the prayer offered to open each session of the House is not sectarian.

The prayer I offered was excerpted from Archbishop Carroll’s Prayer for the US Government (my excerpt in bold):

We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Remember to pray for the Members of the People’s House every day.  But also, remember to pray for their staffers.  Most of the folks we minister to here in Washington are able and dedicated career staffers of the government… and those institutions in its orbit.  Whether in public service  or private business… Yes, even the lobbyists… all of these good men and women came to DC to make a positive difference according to the dictates of their consciences; and that’s a noble enterprise.  Among the workers here in DC are a special breed: the institutionalists.  Every now and then their stories come out in the news: the Librarians of the Supreme Court, the Sergeants at Arms of the Congress, the clock winders a the White House.  Whether they hold very simple or very exalted positions, these are the folks who keep the machinery of government moving; they keep the conversation going, the lights on and the roads in good repair even when their bosses may get… distracted...  So let’s give thanks this morning and pray for them.

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St. Juniperro Serra

Why we pray for the FAITHFUL departed

-Norman Rockwell
-Norman Rockwell

Last night at a parish dinner function an interesting question was raised.

Someone told a touching story of a priest who prayed grace after meals with a formula different from the usual.  He said that the priest, after years of maturing in his ministry had decided to pray, “May their souls and the souls of the unfaithful departed rest in peace.”  The explanation given was that we should pray for everyone, even our enemies.  People quietly nodded in general ascent, but their was a tingling in the back of my mind that something about this didn’t fit.  Without wishing to question the obviously good intentions of the priest in the story, I had to ask myself, “Why do we pray for the FAITHFUL departed.”  The answer lies in the Gospel, and in our understanding of life and death.  

St. John Paul the II reminds us that the body is the physical expression of the soul.  It’s the instrument given us by God to achieve good or evil according to our free will.  Virtue is only real when it is acted upon physically… and sin is an action that we do even though we know it to be wrong.

At our death the books – as it were – are closed, and the Lord judges us based on how we lived.  Those who live by faith in Christ will be saved.  That faith may be overt, as in the case of faithful Christians… or it may be implicit, as in the case of virtuous non-Christians who live well but have never had the opportunity to get to know the Christ of Divine Revelation.  Together these make up the “faithful” departed.  Some of them go directly to heaven; others need to endure a time of purging of sins and attachments to this world in a state we call “purgatory.”  Finally there are those who, in this life, chose to actively reject Christ.  Whether they were baptized or not is irrelevant in this case… both are equally capable of rejecting God.  Those who actively reject any relationship with him (explicit or implicit) can be in danger of living that way for eternity… and this we call hell.

Back to our question: Why do we pray for the FAITHFUL departed? and why not the unfaithful departed.  The faithful in heaven don’t need our prayers.  The faithful in purgatory can be sped on their way by our prayers and sacrifices joined to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.  For the unfaithful, no amount of prayer will suffice.  Jesus himself says as much in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) when he describes the words of Abraham, “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”

In the Divine Comedy, Dante tours Hell in the Inferno.  In Canto XX, he comments to his guide, Virgil, that he has pity for the souls.  Virgil is quick to correct the author, reminding him that the Justice of God is not something Dante should question.  This speaks to the moment at last night’s dinner, I think.  It’s to Dante’s credit that he has a heart not of stone but of flesh… a heart that can even feel for those suffering in hell.  Virgil is correct… the damned are so because of their own free choices… BUT (and this is just my personal gloss on the scene), it’s telling that the virtuous pagan (Virgil) is lacking in sympathy, while the Christian (Dante) cannot help but be moved with pity.  Nonetheless, the case remains: we pray for the “faithful” departed because that’s who we’re actually able to help by our prayers.

On the Purity of St. Philip

On this fourth day of the novena to St. Philip Neri we consider how he manifested the virtue of purity.

Let’s expand on three thoughts offered by Bl. John Henry Newman about this virtue in the life of our saint-of-the-city.  Also, consider checking out the “Exercises for Purity” Menu at the top of this page.

First – Philip’s purity began in childhood and was something he was very open about.  As a child, St. Philip was known as Pippo buono (“Phil the good”).   Research into Florence’s city records, diaries, and even criminal proceedings has shown that for all of the city’s medieval piety, it was a cosmopolitain place full of secular influences of every stripe, including temptations of the flesh.  Growing up in the streets of the metropolis, Philip was – like his neighbors – subject to all of this, but never victim to it.  From an early age he was taught to fear ever losing his relationship with the Lord (i.e. the virtue of “Fear of the Lord”).  He was also very open about his desire to remain close to God always.  As a result, he was known throughout the city as “The good”.  What can we learn from this?  For all of our day’s sexual license, polite society still speaks in hushed voices about things carnal. We also speak in all too hushed voices about fighting against such temptations.  Philip spoke openly about both ends of this equation and, consequently, equipped himself more effectively to handle it.  Strong Christian families and strong Christian friendships are great foundations for purity in city living.

Second – Philip’s purity was evangelical.  Biographers of his time describe St. Philip as beaming with purity.  They say that the virtue darted from his eyes, shone in his skin and even gave an odor of sanctity to his breath (no small feat in a time before toothpaste!).  Whether these are literal or figurative descriptions we can’t know, but we can listen to the testimony of those who were brought to conversion by Philip’s manifest purity.  He lived it so beautifully that others changed their lives as a result.  While many such stories were given by witnesses in his case for canonization, one famous one demonstrates the point.  Philip was once tricked by a jealous nobleman into rushing to a deathbed.  He was shocked to find the bed belonged to a brothel and that the people in it were certainly not dead.  As they attempted to stain him, Philip begged and pleaded with them describing how he would hate even for one moment to be distanced from God’s grace.  His pleading was so sincere that not only did they leave him alone, the were brought to confession!  The jealous noble so set on ruining the simple priest would one day become an important member of Philip’s circle of friends.  Purity is evangelical.

Finally – Philip’s purity was humble.  Two phrases froths life demonstrate the point: “In the battle for purity the victory goes to him who flees the field fastest.”  and “Lord do not trust me, if you do I shall surely betray you.”  Man is ill equipped to fight the devil; history teaches as much.  But… God is very good at it.  Flee to him in temptation and he will save you.

On St. Philip’s Prayer

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On this third day of the novena to St. Philip, Bl. John Henry Newman invites us to contemplate what it meant to Philip to pray.

Referencing Bacci’s biography of our saint, Newman mentions a number of dimensions to Philip’s prayer.  Three catch my eye.

First, where does prayer come from?  How do we get it started?  Philip often told his students, “Be humble and obedient and the Holy Spirit will teach you to pray.”  While humility and obedience can (and should) be harmonious experiences, we know that normally they’re challenging.  Trying our best to observe both virtues, will often lead to a VERY sincere prayer, “HELP!”  Don’t discount that… Indeed, it’s when we don’t ask for help… when we don’t acknowledge our smallness before the Father that we run into problems.  Overtime the person praying learns to explore the inner contours of this, “Help” prayer and so begins a deeper dialogue with the Lord leading to self-knowledge and knowledge of him.

Second, Philip was constantly at prayer.  “If he gave way to the habit of prayer in even the most trifling degree, he became lost in contemplation.” Bacci tells us.  That word, “habit,” is important for us to hold on to.  Just as vices are bad habits, virtues are good habits, and prayer among them.  There are special times for focused prayer; setting aside a holy hour, or attending a liturgy like mass or a penance service.  But there’s another kind of constant prayer that takes place throughout one’s day.  Little phrases thrown up to God.  We call these, “aspirations.”  And the more constant they become, the  more habitual, the happier we are.

Third, Philip’s prayer was deeply evangelical (i.e. “of the Holy Spirit”) and marked, in this, by two objectives.  First, He delighted to be in love with the third Person of the Trinity… which is beautiful in itself… But for our purposes his second objective is key: Philip constantly asked the Holy Spirit for gifts to do great works of healing, mercy, even miracles.  He taught his followers to do likewise and they went out producing great fruits for building up the Church.  The lesson – Ask… Ask constantly… and Ask BIG… if you do, great things can happen for new evangelization.