My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Since we cannot see the Holy Spirit, God also uses symbols to tell us when His Holy Spirit is present, but that symbol is not always the same. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, the Gospel tells us that the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove (Matthew 3:16). In the description of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples as tongues of fire, which came to rest on each one of them (Acts 2:3). Jesus is known as the Christ, which comes from the Greek word that means the one anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, and is recognized as the Messiah, the Hebrew word for the Anointed One. Thus, in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation and the ordination of priests and bishops, the presence of the Holy Spirit is symbolized with sacred chrism, the holy oil that is consecrated by the bishop in the Cathedral at the chrism Mass during Holy Week. It is also by the Apostles’ imposition of hands that the Holy Spirit is given (Acts 8:17-19; 13:3; and 19:6).
Most of the time, however, the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives is invisible and not readily apparent to us. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we can discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. For example, I see the working of the Holy Spirit in the transition of the Chiara Center from a retreat house to become the Evermode Institute for the formation of Catholic school teachers and catechists. Also, the decision of the Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey in Southern California to send seven priests to our diocese beginning July 1 of this year involved a lot of human conversations and planning, but I believe this was guided by the Holy Spirit rather than mere coincidence.
Because the working of the Holy Spirit is often not readily apparent, perhaps we take the Holy Spirit for granted even in our prayer. We pray as Jesus taught us to “Our Father” or we direct our prayers to Jesus Himself. Even if we do not directly invoke the Holy Spirit in our prayers, the Church teaches that the “Holy Spirit is at work with the Father and the Son from the beginning to the completion of the plan for our salvation. … Consubstantial with the Father and the Son, the Spirit is inseparable from them, both in the inner life of the Trinity and his gift of love for the world” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 686, 689).
The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The tradition of the Church lists 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.
Our celebration of Pentecost is a good occasion for us to recall the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit and pray that the graces bestowed by our Triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — will guide us through life on our journey to God’s Heavenly Kingdom.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
Earlier this month, I gave the invocation at a luncheon meeting of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago. The guest speaker at this gathering was Sister Helen Prejean, who dedicated much of her life to ending capital punishment and was the inspiration for the movie Dead Man Walking.
Also present at this luncheon was former Gov. Pat Quinn, who was praised for signing legislation on March 9, 2011, to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. Since such legislation is not retroactive, Gov. Quinn also commuted the sentences of all 15 men remaining on death row at the time. This occurred more than a decade after former Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois. In fact, the last execution in Illinois took place over 24 years ago on March 17, 1999.
Reflecting on the praise being given to a former governor for ending the death penalty in Illinois, I thought how wonderful it would be if someday we could have a similar luncheon honoring a governor for signing legislation ending abortion in Illinois. It would also be amazing if we could say that no child has been aborted in Illinois for almost a quarter of a century.
Sadly, however, our current governor, J.B. Pritzker, on Jan. 13, 2023, signed sweeping legislation expanding insurance coverage and access to abortion services. Among other things, this new pro-abortion legislation allows advanced practice registered nurses and physicians assistants to perform abortions; requires local units of government, including schools, municipalities, and counties that offer health insurance plans to provide coverage for contraceptives, and if they offer pregnancy-related benefits, abortion; and requires abortifacient drugs (i.e., medications administered to terminate a pregnancy), to be covered by insurers at no-cost to the consumer.
This is on top of the expansive abortion laws passed in 2017 and 2019 in Illinois. The Act Concerning Abortion of 2017 provided for taxpayer funding of abortion, and the so-called Reproductive Health Act of 2019 declared abortion to be a fundamental right, while also declaring that an unborn baby does not have independent rights under the laws of this state. In 2021, Gov. Pritzker signed a law that ended parental notification of a minor seeking an abortion.
As if that is not enough, Gov. Pritzker has endorsed and pledged to sign SB 1909 if it passes, which would target the services provided by pregnancy help centers and sidewalk counselors by subjecting them to fines of up to $50,000 for engaging in “unfair methods of competition or unfair or deceptive acts or practices” for any concealment, suppression, or omission of a “material fact” as it relates to abortion. The language of the bill could be broadly interpreted by the attorney general and could lead to investigations of pregnancy help centers. There is no guidance as to what are “unfair methods of competition or unfair or deceptive acts or practices” or what is a “material fact.” There have been no facts cited to support the assertion that pregnancy centers in Illinois have ever engaged in “deceptive, fraudulent, and misleading practices.”
Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society appeared before the Illinois House Health Care Availability & Accessibility Committee on April 25 to give testimony in opposition to SB 1909, saying that SB 1909 flagrantly “violates the First Amendment rights of pro-life organizations and individuals in Illinois, by declaring protected speech a ‘deceptive business practice.’”
Gov. Pritzker has made the outrageous claim that “abortion is health care,” promising that Illinois would be a “safe haven” for women seeking an abortion, despite the fact that abortion certainly does not provide health care for the infant and is anything but safe for the baby about to be murdered.
Gov. Pritzker is obviously not the only pro-abortion politician in Illinois, as his expansive pro-abortion agenda is supported by Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, and Senate President Don Harmon, as well as the Democratic majority in the Illinois General Assembly.
Indeed, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported that the state saw a more than a 200 percent rise in abortion patients coming from out of state from 2014 to 2020. The total number of abortions in Illinois has risen from 38,472 in 2014 to 46,243 in 2020. A national report from the Society for Family Planning, which supports abortion rights, found that Illinois clinics performed nearly 30 percent more abortions in August than in April of 2022. It reported that Illinois abortionists performed nearly 7,000 abortions in August of 2022, up from 5,400 in May and April and nearly 6,000 in June of 2022, when the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and returned policy decisions on abortion to the states. So our state is tragically moving in the wrong direction on protecting the lives of unborn babies.
There have been no executions of any prisoners in Illinois since 1999. I pray for the day when we can also say that no abortions of innocent babies are taking place in our land.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Recently, the priests at the Cathedral rectory and I watched the classic movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had seen this film in the theater after it first came out in 1968 and wanted to watch it again in light of the many news reports and articles being published about the quantum advances being made in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). I do not want to spoil the story line for you in case you have not seen the movie yet and are thinking of watching it, so suffice it to say that one of the main characters of the movie is HAL, an acronym that stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer.
According to the story line, HAL became operational on Jan. 12, 1992, at the University of Illinois at their Coordinated Science Laboratory in Urbana. HAL is responsible for controlling all the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft on its mission to the planet Jupiter. HAL's "eye" is depicted as a camera lens containing a red or yellow dot. HAL interacts with the ship's astronaut crew, speaking to them in a soft, calm voice and a conversational manner. Programmed to think and feel like a human being, problems emerge when HAL starts to act all too much like a human being, including the human proclivity to do evil deeds. I will leave the specifics for you to watch or read about elsewhere.
It is amazing that this movie was originally released over half a century ago, before there were all the personal computers and smart phones that we have at our fingertips today. At the time, this seemed to me to be just another wild imaginary tale of science fiction. Entertaining yes, but nothing real to worry about.
Fast forward 55 years and now conversations are making casual references to artificial intelligence and ChatGPT, another acronym that stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, that is, a "chatbot" developed by OpenAI and released in November 2022. Transformers are specialized algorithms for finding long-range patterns in sequences of data. A transformer learns to predict not just the next word in a sentence but also to compose an entire essay. This is not just finding data or quotes in a search engine, but generating and composing text. While ChatGPT has gained attention for its detailed responses and articulate answers across many domains of knowledge, it has also been found at times to provide factually incorrect responses with confident self-assurance in its own accuracy, similar to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
ChatGPT is already being used for nefarious purposes. One news story last month reported that employers are catching job applicants using ChatGPT to dress up their job applications and write résumés for them. Another person wrote that he asked ChatGPT for information about himself and was given a false description that accused him of professional misconduct. He wondered if he could sue the computer for libel!
In his August 2021 article in First Things on "The Threat of Artificial Intelligence," Ned Desmond, a senior executive in the technology sector, wrote, "The technologies referred to as 'artificial intelligence' or 'AI' are more momentous than most people realize. Their impact will be at least equal to, and may well exceed, that of electricity, the computer, and the internet. What's more, their impact will be massive and rapid, faster than what the internet has wrought in the past 30 years. Much of it will be wondrous, giving sight to the blind and enabling self-driving vehicles, for example, but AI-engendered technology may also devastate job rolls, enable an all-encompassing surveillance state, and provoke social upheavals yet unforeseen. The time we have to understand this fast-moving technology and establish principles for its governance is very short."
Concerned about such threats, Elon Musk and several other tech executives and artificial-intelligence researchers have called for a pause in the rapid development of powerful new AI tools, saying that a moratorium of six months or more would give the industry time to set safety standards for AI design and head off potential harms of the riskiest AI technologies. Others have called for a longer AI pause and for government regulation.
In an intriguing essay in The Wall Street Journal on April 20, 2023, entitled, "Artificial Intelligence in the Garden of Eden," Peggy Noonan wrote that the icon of the Apple computing company, an apple with a bite taken out of it, made her think of Adam and Eve in the garden and their fall as described in the Book of Genesis. She warns that "developing AI is biting the apple. Something bad is going to happen. I believe those creating, fueling and funding it want, possibly unconsciously, to be God and on some level think they are God."
That's a helpful warning. While the Catholic Church does not view technology as evil, we recognize that technology can be used for good as well as for evil purposes. The late Pope Benedict XVI in his last encyclical letter, Caritas in veritate, dedicated a whole chapter to the use of technology, which he characterized as a form of stewardship as a response to God's command to till and keep the land (cf. Genesis 2:15). He advised: "Technology is highly attractive because it draws us out of our physical limitations and broadens our horizon. But human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility. Hence the pressing need for formation in an ethically responsible use of technology" (Caritas in veritate, 70). We would do well to heed this sage advice.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In my column for the March 5 issue of Catholic Times, I wrote about the football player, Damar Hamlin, who suddenly collapsed at a Monday night football game on Jan. 2 and went into cardiac arrest after a seemingly routine tackle. As Hamlin lay motionless while receiving medical attention on the field, players and team staff knelt and bowed their heads in a spontaneous prayer led by the team’s chaplain. I said that there is indeed power in prayer, as Hamlin made a miraculous recovery, and I noted that he thanked God, friends, family, and medical professionals who “saved [his] life.”
A few days after my column appeared I received a letter from a person who had recently lost a loved one who died from an unexpected illness. This person was angry with God, saying that God had not answered their family’s prayers. This reaction is not uncommon. Undoubtedly they are not alone in feeling that God has seemingly turned His back on them and ignored their prayers. That is an understandable reaction when we fervently ask God for something, and then it does not happen.
Jesus Himself experienced this sense of abandonment as He was dying on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In fact, Jesus was proclaiming the opening lines of Psalm 22. What is noteworthy is that Psalm 22 does not end in despair, but in fact goes on to “offer praise in the great assembly” and proclaim that “those who seek the LORD will offer praise.” Despite their misfortunes, the people continue to place their trust in God, who fulfills their hopes in the end.
While the death of those we love is always painful, we must remember that God loves us and longs for us to be with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven even more than we long for them to stay with us here in this world. When someone dies despite our prayers for their healing and recovery, that does not necessarily mean that God has not answered our prayers. As a loving Father, God always answers our prayers, but not always in the way we want. Every parent has experienced their children saying they want something, but Mom and Dad know better what their children need and what is best for them. No one likes to be told no in answer to a request, but no is still an answer even if it is not the one we wanted to hear.
Our greatest hope as Christians is to become saints, that is, to spend eternity with our loving God in Heaven. God decides when it is best for us to receive that reward. For many, it comes after a long life. For others, perhaps God in His love simply wants them to be with Him sooner. In the end, we know that our Lord’s trust in His Father even as He suffered was rewarded in His resurrection from the dead, which opened the way for us to share in that same hope for eternal life.
The goal of our Lenten practices over the past several weeks has been for us to grow in holiness by turning from our sinful ways and stiving to be more like Christ, our Risen Lord. As we celebrate His resurrection on Easter Sunday, we are filled with hope for the resurrection of our own bodies and the promise of eternal life in God’s kingdom.
One of the ways that we grow in holiness is through pious practices that grant indulgences. An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins, whose guilt is forgiven, which a properly disposed member of the Christian faithful obtains under certain and clearly defined conditions through the intervention of the Church, which, as the minister of Redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the expiatory works of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according to whether it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.
Last year on Dec. 8, as we began our Diocesan Year of the Eucharist and opened our Centennial Celebration of the 100th anniversary of the transfer of our diocese from Alton to Springfield, I announced that I had received a decree from the Holy See granting a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions for the Christian faithful who visit our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception here in Springfield or the Church of Ss. Peter and Paul in Alton between the 8th day of December 2022 and the 9th day of December 2023.
The “usual conditions” to gain a plenary indulgence are excluding all attachment to sin, even venial sin, performing the indulgenced work, and fulfilling the three conditions of sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the pope. The “indulgenced work” for this plenary indulgence is to attend a liturgical service celebrating the jubilee or at least spending a suitable period of time devoted to prayers for the people of our diocese to be faithful to the Christian vocation, and recite the Lord’s Prayer, profess the Creed, and offer invocations to the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and Paul.
The three conditions may be fulfilled several days before or after the performance of the prescribed work; it is, however, fitting that holy Communion be received and the prayer for the intention of the Holy Father be said on the same day the work is performed.
The condition of praying for the intention of the Holy Father involves reciting one Our Father and one Hail Mary or any other prayer according to one’s individual piety and devotion, if recited for this intention.
In addition to plenary indulgences, there are partial indulgences that may be gained every day in the course of our daily lives and ordinary activities.
There are four general concessions by which the Christian faithful are encouraged to infuse their daily lives with a Christian spirit and strive toward the perfection of charity. These four general concessions or grants are as follows:
A full listing of the indulgences granted for various pious practices, prayers, litanies, devotions, and invocations can be found in the Manual of Indulgences, published in 2006 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is available online by searching for Manual of Indulgences.
I encourage us to become more familiar with the Church’s teaching on indulgences and take advantage of this wonderful means of growing in holiness and grace. As we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection this Easter, may we grow in holiness and follow the way that Christ has prepared for us, the path to eternal life.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
March 19, 2023, marks 20 years since my ordination as a bishop. It was on March 19, 2003, that His Eminence, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, ordained me along with Bishops Francis Kane and Gustavo Garcia-Siller to serve as Auxiliary Bishops of Chicago.
Prior to my episcopal consecration, it was a great privilege for me to have served as Chancellor for Cardinal George. When my second term as Chancellor expired, Cardinal George appointed me to serve as pastor of St. Constance Parish, a large parish near O’Hare Airport. Then, for seven years, I served as Auxiliary Bishop overseeing a region in the Archdiocese of Chicago on the northwest side of the city and the western suburbs known as Vicariate IV. After my appointment as Bishop of Springfield in Illinois in 2010, I continued to work with Cardinal George in his capacity as Metropolitan of the Province of Chicago, which, along with the Archdiocese of Chicago, includes our Diocese of Springfield and the other four dioceses in Illinois — Rockford, Joliet, Peoria, and Belleville.
I learned an abundance of important lessons that have shaped my life and ministry as a bishop by observing and working closely with this brilliant and holy churchman over the span of almost two decades. Now, thanks to the outstanding biography of Cardinal George by Michael Heinlein, Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I, newly published by Our Sunday Visitor, many more people who never had the opportunity to meet Cardinal George will get to know this saintly and towering figure who dedicated his life to giving glory to Christ in the Church and in the world.
Cardinal Francis Eugene George, O.M.I., was an exemplary pastor and heroic disciple of Christ. After graduating from St. Paschal Grade School on the northwest side of Chicago, he was told that he could not be a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago because of a physical disability resulting from polio that would have posed a hardship for him to climb the stairs at the high school seminary in downtown Chicago, to and from which he would have needed to commute every day by public transportation. So instead, he enrolled at St. Henry’s Preparatory Seminary in Bellville, a boarding school where he would not have to deal with stairs.
He joined the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and studied theology at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He was ordained a priest by Auxiliary Bishop Raymond P. Hillinger in his home parish at St. Pascal Church on Dec. 21, 1963.
Cardinal George pursued undergraduate studies in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and then doctoral studies in philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. In these years, he also taught philosophy at the Seminary of the Oblates in Mississippi (1964-69), at Tulane University (1968), and at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. (1969-73).
From 1973 to 1974 he was Provincial Superior of the Midwestern Province of the Oblates at St. Paul, Minn. He was then elected Vicar General of the Oblates and worked in Rome from 1974 to 1986, during which time he also visited the many Oblate missionary communities around the world.
He returned to the United States and became coordinator of the Circle of Fellows of the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture in Cambridge, Mass. (1987-90). During that time, he pursued doctoral studies in theology at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, with a specialization in ecclesiology (1988).
Pope John Paul II named him Bishop of Yakima in Washington State in 1990. After five and a half years at Yakima, he was named by Pope John Paul II as Archbishop of Portland, Ore., in 1996. Less than a year later, on April 8, 1997, Pope John Paul II named him the eighth Archbishop of Chicago, following the death of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on Nov. 14, 1996. The installation took place on May 7, 1997, at Holy Name Cathedral.
As Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I was present at the funeral of Cardinal Bernardin in 1996 and the Installation Mass for then-Archbishop Francis George in 1997. I accompanied him to Rome when he received the pallium — a band of wool that symbolizes the role of a Metropolitan Archbishop as shepherd of the flock — and again in 1998 when he received his red hat from Pope John Paul II, making him a member of the College of Cardinals. He served as President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from November 2007 to November 2010. After working with him for almost 20 years, it was a privilege for me to concelebrate his Mass of Christian Burial at Holy Name Cathedral on April 23, 2015.
As Michael Heinlein describes so eloquently in his book, Cardinal George was a prophetic voice in the Church — a man able to see things as they are and from the point of view of the whole Church. His episcopal motto, “To Christ be glory in the Church,” encapsulates his legacy, because every decision he made, every action he took, every suffering he endured, was about serving others and pointing them to our Savior.
Most of all, Cardinal George was a Christian in every sense. He was concerned about relationships and people, not careerism or advancement. He was attentive to the poor and those on the margins. He was a man of prayer, dedicated to Our Lady, and devoted to the Eucharist. He articulated the Faith and was committed to reform. He was honest, accountable, genuine, and holy. Admired for his pursuit and proclamation of the truth and his personal witness to the Gospel, Cardinal George remains a model for discipleship and leadership.
I would not be the bishop I am today without the excellent example, mentoring, and continued intercession of this saintly man. May he rest in peace, and may he continue to guide and inspire us to glorify Christ in His Church.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
There is an old joke about the person who is looking for a parking place in a packed parking lot. In desperation, he offers a prayer to the Blessed Mother with a promise: “Mary, if you find me a parking space, I promise to go to Mass every Sunday from now on.” Miraculously, as he turns down the next aisle, behold! There is an open space! The driver immediately says, “Never mind, Mary, I found one myself!”
The joke comes to mind when we think about how often we pray for something we need or want, but then do not offer thanks to God when we receive it. Worse yet, perhaps we do not even acknowledge that Divine Providence may have played a role in receiving what we had prayed for.
Earlier this year at a Monday night football game on Jan. 2, 2023, Damar Hamlin, a football player for the Buffalo Bills, suddenly collapsed and went into cardiac arrest after a seemingly routine tackle. Hamlin lay motionless for more than 18 minutes while receiving medical attention on the field before an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital. What happened next was described in an article by Ruth Graham in The New York Times:
As the ambulance carrying the injured Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin rolled slowly off the field in Cincinnati Monday night, a huddle of players and team staff knelt in a massive yet intimate circle on the field. They bowed their heads, some placing hands on each other’s shoulders and others with tears streaming down their faces, in a moment of spontaneous prayer led by the team’s chaplain. . . . Video circulated online of Bengals fans reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the stands. . . . Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations at the N.F.L., told reporters, “I think we all have to recognize the power of prayer from coaches, players, the staff and the fans that was in that stadium, and the people watching from around the world. There is power in prayer.”
There is indeed power in prayer, as Damar Hamlin made a miraculous recovery. One week after many people feared he was dead, Hamlin was released from the hospital and returned to his home in Buffalo. Hamlin, who attended Catholic schools as a youth, is a devout Christian. In his first public appearance after being released from the hospital, Hamlin said, “What happened to me on Monday Night Football, I feel, is a direct example of God using me as a vessel to share my passion and my love directly from my heart with the entire world.” He thanked God, friends, family, and medical professionals who “saved [his] life.”
At the NFL Honors event in Phoenix, Ariz., a few days before the Super Bowl, Hamlin said, “First, I would just like to thank God for being here. Every day I’m amazed that my experiences could encourage so many others across the country and even across the world — encourage them to pray, encourage to spread love, and encourage to keep fighting no matter the circumstances. … My entire life, I felt like God was using me to give others hope, and now with a new set of circumstances, I can say he’s doing what he’s always done.”
Not everyone may be as quick to thank God for the gifts we receive. Though provided with so many blessings from God, people often choose to overlook those blessings and instead credit themselves for their accomplishments. It is refreshing to see the faith of this young man and his gratitude to God expressed publicly in a time when nonbelievers and skeptics scoff and ridicule Christians who offer their thoughts and prayers after some tragedy or misfortune. His example reminds us to offer thanks to God in our prayers for the blessings He gives us.
Our instructions for our Lenten journey are clear: Jesus tells us to pray, fast, and give alms. We are told this in our liturgy, and we read it in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. These are practices that will lead us to Heaven. Beginning with the pillar of prayer, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2623-2649) teaches us that there are various forms of prayer. These various forms include prayer of blessing or adoration, prayer of petition, prayer of intercession, prayer of praise, and prayer of thanksgiving.
Since our natural tendency seems to focus on prayers of petition, that is, asking God for something we need or want, it is important remember to include prayers of gratitude when we pray, which is what we do every time we gather for the Eucharist, thanking God for all the gifts He has given us and the many ways in which He answers our prayers.
Our Lenten practices should have one singular goal: How can I grow closer to Jesus Christ? Prayer is the best way to do this. St.Teresa of Avila said that “Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” This is the key point, for it is in right relationship with Jesus Christ that we find true happiness, as He leads us to the joy of eternal life.
Several years ago, I was celebrating Mass on Ash Wednesday. Ashes are normally blessed and distributed after the homily during the Mass on Ash Wednesday. A person who arrived late and missed the distribution of ashes came up in the line for holy Communion apparently expecting to receive ashes. When I held up the Host and said, “The Body of Christ,” the person looked at the Blessed Sacrament and said, “I don’t want THAT! I came for ashes.” I responded politely that this was the time for holy Communion, but ashes would be available after Mass as well.
How sad that someone would want to receive ashes but not the Body of Christ! Yet it is not uncommon to see large crowds of people coming to church on Ash Wednesday, including many people who do not regularly come to Mass on Sunday. Ashes received on Ash Wednesday are an important sacramental reminding us of our mortality and calling us to repentance so that we will be in the state of grace when we die. Despite the symbolic significance of receiving ashes to mark the beginning of Lent, the sprinkling or smudging of ashes on our head pales in comparison with the sublime gift of the Real Presence of Christ that we receive in holy Communion.
Of course, if we are conscious of grave sin, we are not to receive holy Communion until we have repented, confessed our sins to a priest, and received absolution in the sacrament of penance. The only exception is if there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess, in which case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
An example of a grave reason and no opportunity to confess would be if a priest were to commit a mortal sin and is scheduled to celebrate Sunday Mass for a church full of people, while the nearest priest is miles away. Since he has a grave obligation to celebrate that Mass for these people to fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation, the priest should make a perfect act of contrition and resolve to confess his sins as soon as possible thereafter. A perfect act of contrition is when we are sorry for our sins because they have hurt God. An imperfect act of contrition is when we are sorry for our sins because we are afraid of going to hell. A perfect act of contrition is motivated by love of God. An imperfect act of contrition is motivated by love of self.
Most lay people have ample opportunity to go to confession prior to Mass. Priests are usually very willing to hear someone’s confession outside of scheduled times, unless it is right before Mass is about to begin. Receiving holy Communion while one’s soul is in the state of mortal sin is itself a grave sin, that is, it is a sacrilege to receive holy Communion while not in the state of grace. The Bible teaches clearly about the proper disposition to receive holy Communion. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29).
The priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister who distributes ashes does so while saying to each person one of the following formulas: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Having been reminded of our mortality and the need to repent our sins, the goal of our Lenten practices should be to do penance for our sins, replace our vices with virtues, and seek to be restored to a right relationship with God. In addition to fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent, making charitable contributions to help the poor, and devoting ourselves to prayer and reading the Bible, two of the most salutary practices to bring us closer to God are to receive the sacraments of penance and holy Eucharist.
I pray that this Lenten season will be a time of spiritual renewal and enrichment for you.
May God give us this grace. Amen.
Bishop Robert Barron, the Bishop of Winona-Rochester and the founder of Word on Fire, wrote an article recently (Jan. 27, 2023), entitled, “Inclusivity and Love,” in which he said, “The other night, I had the privilege of participating in one of the listening sessions for the continental phase of the Synodal process. The basis for our discussion was a lengthy document produced by the Vatican after it had compiled data and testimony from all over the Catholic world. As I have been studying and speaking about synodality, I very much enjoyed the exchange of views. But I found myself increasingly uneasy with two words that feature prominently in the document and that dominated much of our discussion — namely, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘welcoming.’ Again and again, we hear that the Church must become a more inclusive and welcoming place for a variety of groups: women, LGBT+ people, the divorced and civilly remarried, etc. But I have yet to come across a precise definition of either term. What exactly would a welcoming and inclusive Church look like?”
Like Bishop Barron, I also participated online in one of the listening sessions of the “North American Continental Virtual Assembly” held by videoconference, and I too was uneasy about the ambiguous use of the words “inclusivity” and “welcoming,” so I was pleased to see Bishop Barron address this issue in his article.
Bishop Barron answers the question of what a welcoming and inclusive Church would look like by pointing to “the attitude of radical welcome” that Jesus showed to everyone, including sinners, but he adds that “this inclusivity of the Lord was unambiguously and consistently accompanied by his summons to conversion. Indeed, the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in his inaugural address in the Gospel of Mark is not ‘Welcome!’ but rather ‘Repent!’ To the woman caught in adultery, he said, ‘Go and sin no more’; after meeting the Lord, Zacchaeus promised to change his sinful ways and compensate lavishly for his misdeeds; in the presence of Jesus, the good thief acknowledged his own guilt; and the risen Christ compelled the chief of the Apostles, who had three times denied him, three times to affirm his love.”
Thus, Bishop Barron says that he would characterize Our Lord’s approach “not simply as ‘inclusive’ or ‘welcoming,’ but rather as loving. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that to love is ‘to will the good of the other.’ Accordingly, one who truly loves another reaches out in kindness, to be sure, but at the same time he does not hesitate, when necessary, to correct, to warn, even to judge.”
I must add that I am also somewhat uneasy about all the emphasis being put on listening and the ambiguity about the supposed outcome of such listening. Yes, we must listen to what others have to say and we do quite a bit of listening in our diocese through our parish pastoral councils, parish finance councils, school boards, diocesan pastoral council, diocesan finance council, presbyteral council, and the college of consultors, as well as the diocesan synod that we held in 2017 with representatives from each of our diocese’s 129 parishes. But then the question becomes: What do we do with what we have heard? Some would suggest that we must then change doctrines and canon law if we hear that some people do not accept or are not happy with what the Catholic Church has been teaching for almost two thousand years. But that is not the purpose of our listening.
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman gave correct and helpful guidance regarding what to do with what we have heard in his essay, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, which Newman wrote in 1859, just five years after Pope Pius IX promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It was reported that the pope had widely consulted the faithful on this issue before promulgating the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. But Newman distinguishes different understandings of what it means “to consult.”
On the one hand, a person may consult a physician about a sickness, the purpose of which is to obtain the doctor’s advice and follow it. On the other hand, Newman points out that “consult” can also refer to ascertaining facts: “Thus we talk of ‘consulting our barometer’ about the weather: the barometer only attests the fact of the state of the atmosphere. In like manner, we may consult a watch or a sundial about the time of day. A physician consults the pulse of his patient; … It is but an index of the state of his health.” It is in this sense that Newman speaks of consulting the faithful: “Doubtless their advice, their opinion, their judgment on the question of definition is not asked; but the matter of fact, that is, their belief, is sought for, as a testimony to that apostolical tradition, on which alone any doctrine whatsoever can be defined.” Thus, when we consult people and find out that they do not like a church teaching, it is like taking their pulse or their temperature and finding that the patient is not healthy and needs healing.
The Great Commission that our Risen Lord gave to His Disciples was not, “Go and listen to all the nations,” but, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Our diocese is blessed with seven Catholic high schools, seven Catholic hospitals, seven state prisons, and one federal prison. While most people would readily agree that it is a blessing to have seven Catholic high schools and seven Catholic hospitals, some may question how seven state prisons and one federal prison could be considered a blessing. I would answer that question by considering what Jesus had to say about the last judgment as described in the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-40, where Our Lord said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
Our Lord’s instructions about the necessity of feeding the hungry, welcoming immigrants, clothing the needy, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison are called the corporal works of mercy, as distinguished from the spiritual works of mercy. The difference between the corporal works of mercy and the spiritual works of mercy is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2447), as follows: “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.”
Thus, Catholic education is a spiritual work of mercy as a way to provide instruction and lead people to the truth, while Catholic hospitals, food pantries, and social services are examples of putting the corporal works of mercy into practice. While prisons and jails are run by federal, state, and local authorities, the Church provides chaplains to provide for the pastoral care of those who are imprisoned. I am deeply grateful to the priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers who carry out the prison ministry in our diocese, and I consider their work an essential part of the mission entrusted to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ.
In fact, it has been my practice to visit one of our prisons personally each year (except when the prisons were locked down due to COVID) either on Christmas morning or sometime during the days leading up to Christmas. This past Dec. 24, I celebrated Mass for prisoners at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling. In past years I have celebrated Mass at the Jacksonville Correctional Center, Taylorville Correctional Center, Vandalia Correctional Center, Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, the Women’s Unit at the Decatur Correctional Center, and both the Men’s and Women’s Units at Greenville Federal Prison. It is my plan to visit Robinson Correctional Center later this year before Christmas. I must acknowledge that I learned this commendable practice from the fine example of my episcopal mentors in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the late Cardinal Francis George, each of whom in his time would celebrate Mass at Cook County Jail on Christmas morning.
My message to the prisoners was simple but profound: “Christmas reminds us that God, in Jesus, is present in our midst. I have come here among you on this day before Christmas as a sign and a reminder that Christ is in your midst, even here, in prison. God has not abandoned you.”
We are sometimes tempted to think or to imagine that Jesus has left us completely alone, that He no longer cares for us, but Holy Mother Church gently corrects this thought and reminds us that, “The Lord Jesus, the king of glory, the conqueror of sin and death, ascended to heaven while the angels sang his praises. Christ, the mediator between God and man, judge of the world and Lord of all, has passed beyond our sight, not to abandon us but to be our hope. Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church; where He has gone, we hope to follow” (Preface II for the Ascension).
This, then, is the hope that belongs to Jesus’ call: to be with Him forever in His kingdom!