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Today as we approach the Triduum and Easter, we begin the holiest of weeks in our church and in our Catholic tradition. The Paschal Mystery is central to our beliefs as we celebrate the passion, the death and the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Being the youngest of 12 children and growing up in New York City, it was a very big deal for our Catholic family to spend lots of time in Church. And one of the customs was to journey to as many churches as we could between Holy Thursday and Good Friday. It is a dear memory of those times when my mother took my siblings and me on many bus rides throughout the city visiting various Catholic churches. We would spend time in prayer and appreciate the beauty of each unique church. This tradition instilled in me a deep sense of being in touch with what had happened in Jesus’ life during his last days on earth.
Today this memory brings me back to the importance Jesus’ life and death has in my life today. I once heard a speaker say that by the time Jesus got to the cross, there was nothing left of him to give…he had already given his all for us during his life. And Jesus asks us today to live in that same way—giving what we can to live our lives following in the example of Jesus.
Jesus and what he stood for, what he preached and taught, and how he treated all the people in his life, is the example of total love and mercy—this total love and mercy about which Pope Francis speaks so often. Jesus became a threat to the powers that were in place in the government and in the synagogue. His message was so contrary to what they believed and what they had been taught. “Love your enemies”…that was such a foreign concept to them. “Love the poor and outcast”…that, too, didn’t make sense to them. But Jesus was gaining momentum and people were beginning to listen to him. This made them very nervous and suspicious of Jesus. But they didn’t stop Jesus from continuing to share with them his Father’s love for them—though eventually he was crucified for speaking out these beliefs and teachings that remain central to human dignity and compassion today.
I often wonder what side I would have been on if I had lived during Jesus’ time. This Holy Week, take some time to consider this question yourself…what would you have done had you lived 2000 years ago and been faced with this decision? We do know that the way Jesus lived his life affected the whole world and still does.
But the important truth we face today is that we are faced with these questions every day—what will we do today when we are faced with decisions that challenge our faith lives and push us to greater lengths in loving all people? What will we do with that and other ethical questions that arise in our work lives, at home, and in our communities?
If we can but take his simple example of always speaking the truth and doing the most loving actions possible, then we can believe that his Spirit will always be with us and enable us to live a life like Jesus lived. We have that promise through Jesus’ own resurrection. And through our own baptism, we know that we are called to live a life that will make a difference and maybe change the world.
St. Vincent de Paul teaches us to see Christ in those who are sick, poor, and suffering. Radically, he suggests that those who are struggling must become our teachers and mentors, and we—their servants. This is the heart of Vincentian spirituality. Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me” (Matthew 25). Vincentian spirituality recognizes that we are transformed as we embrace life on the margins: We honor God by serving God in the person who is sick, poor, or suffering. We are all called to serve, and to be served. Together, we become the Body of Christ.
St. Vincent articulated five virtues that directed his life. We are invited to reflect on these virtues. How do they resonate in our life? How do they challenge our daily living? How are they supported in our community? This Lent, let us prayerfully wrestle with and embrace these five virtues.
Simplicity is the virtue St. Vincent loved most. “It is my gospel,” he says. Listen to how St. Vincent describes simplicity:
Jesus, the Lord, expects us to have the simplicity of a dove. This means giving a straightforward opinion about things in the way we honestly see them, without needless reservations. It also means doing things without any double-dealing or manipulation, our intention being focused solely on God. Each of us, then, should take care to behave always in this spirit of simplicity, remembering that God likes to deal with the simple, and that he conceals the secrets of heaven from the wise and prudent of this world and reveals them to little ones. But while Christ recommends the simplicity of a dove he tells us to have the prudence of a serpent as well. What he means is that we should speak and behave with discretion. We ought, therefore, to keep quiet about matters which should not be made known, especially if they are unsuitable or unlawful … In actual practice this virtue is about choosing the right way to do things.
For St. Vincent, humility is the recognition that all good comes from God. It reminds us that we are not the originator of life. Humility recognizes that we all have gifts, but also limitations and faults. The Beatitudes tell us that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit. St. Vincent calls us to stand before God humbly in our daily prayer, and have the attitude of a servant.
Jesus identified himself as meek and humble of heart. St. Vincent believed this. He won the hearts of those who are poor because his meekness developed as warmth, approachability, openness, deep respect for the person of others. Although he tells us that he was irritable by nature, St. Vincent asked God to change his heart: “Grant me a kindly and benign spirit…”
Jesus calls us to follow him even unto death. A radical directive for our lives today, we are called to be willing to stand in God’s grace, even while absorbing the pain and suffering of our neighbor. St. Vincent embraced this challenge and gospel imperative. Consistently, he calls us to be faithful to our duties of serving those who are poor. Even more, he challenges us to prefer them, when they conflict with other more pleasurable things.
Vincent loved, with a burning love. “Let us beg God to enkindle in our hearts a desire to serve him…” St. Vincent challenges us to persevere as servants of the sick, suffering, and poor—while remembering that although the Lord asks us to cooperate in his work, it still remains His work. We must strive to live a balanced life, so that we might have the energy that nourishes zeal.
Prayer from St. Vincent de Paul
“Lord Jesus, teach me by your example….Make me, through the vigor of my efforts and the power of your Spirit, set the world around me on fire. I want to give myself to you, body and soul, heart and mind and spirit, so that I may always do what gladdens you. In your mercy, grant me the grace to have you continue your saving work in me and through me.” Amen.
Many years ago when I was a newly ordained priest, I gave a presentation during Advent entitled “Finding and Experiencing God’s Presence in Our Busy World.” It was not a resounding success. I was too young, and too soon out of the seminary to understand that the set schedule of the seminary did not transfer well into a parish setting. The things I suggested, while working well in a seminary or monastic setting, weren’t easy to implement in a home environment where commotion and chaos were more often the norm. This was made very clear to me when an individual came up to me after the presentation and suggested, only half in jest, that before I offered the presentation again, perhaps I needed do more practical research by spending some time at their house.
I suspect for all of us there are times when it is difficult to find and experience God’s presence in our busy world. There are probably also times when God seems more absent than present in our busy lives. At these times, we may feel like Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb who said: “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” (Jn. 20:13) If we are honest, I think that for all of us there are times when God’s presence is more elusive than actual. We should not be discouraged or dismayed by this. I say this for two reasons.
First, we need to remember that God has given us the wonderful gift of free choice. If it were always easily to find and/or feel God’s presence, it would not be our free choice to try to discern God’s presence. God is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”—the mystery tremendous and fascinating. If God’s presence were always evident and accessible we would have no choice but to continually worship and praise God. God wants us to freely choose God, though, so God “veils” God’s presence in common and ordinary things, and then gives us glimpses of God’s presence so that will be encouraged to continue to look for God.
Second, though, I think there is something in our human nature that is fascinated with what we can experience and apprehend, but that we cannot completely grasp or understand. Certainly at times this can be discouraging, but more importantly, it also can spur on our efforts and keep us engaged in the effort to understand that which eludes our grasp. I wonder if another reason God doesn’t reveal God’s presence in clear and evident ways is that this is God’s way of encouraging us to stay with our efforts to find and feel God’s presence.
Discerning God’s presence is an ongoing, life long activity. And we won’t know it fully and forever this side of heaven. At times, the effort to find and experience God’s presence can be frustrating. Those who have experienced God’s grace filled presence, however, know that effort is certainly worth it.
Preparing for Lent, I find my focus is often on what to give up. But I’ve come to realize the opportunity to give alms to help those in need is an equally important practice of our Catholic faith traditions.
One way to do this at The Basilica is to share your financial gifts with our St. Vincent de Paul Outreach ministries (SVdP). One hundred percent of every dollar you donate goes back to help someone in need. During Lent, please take a coin bank, fill it, and bring it back on Holy Thursday and, if you can, make a pledge to help those most in need in our city.
Five days a week at The Basilica, more than 70 St. Vincent de Paul Outreach volunteers welcome people from our neighborhood. They carry out this ministry by visiting with people and listening to their concerns and needs. We offer help in many ways, and when we can’t assist financially, these volunteers offer a listening ear, a warm welcome, and help connecting people to community resources.
Laura Schommer, A long time SVdP volunteer, helps with our Saturday Shoe Ministry and weekly Outreach. Laura has volunteered for the past 20 years and I asked her about her involvement over the years.
“It could be any one of us” Laura said of the people she meets each week. “Just a few things go wrong, and any of us could find ourselves needing help and support. I’m honored and humbled to be able to meet with people and hear their stories. It’s gratifying.”
Laura shared the story of a young pregnant woman who came to The Basilica many winters ago. She didn’t have a winter coat. Laura had just brought a red wool coat to church that had belonged to her mother, and she gave it to the young woman. All these years later, Laura still remembers this encounter.
The work of our SVdP volunteers brings to mind a quote from Saint Teresa of Avila. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours…” She challenged us to live our faith and reminded us that it’s our job to do Christ’s work on earth.
Your financial gifts truly make a difference in people’s lives, and your contributions go directly out to help people in need. Last year alone, your donations to SVdP and our Outreach ministries:
· Helped 352 families keep their housing and prevented them from homelessness.
· Provided bus cards or gas vouchers to more than 4,000 people that helped them get to work, school, or appointments.
· Offered a meal and practical and spiritual support to 900 participants in our Pathways life-skills programs.
Sharing our financial support and coming together, our parish gave more than $600,000 last year to help people in need in our city. In past years, we’ve also supported affordable housing in North Minneapolis, and it’s exciting to report that, as a result of a partnership, the West Broadway Crescent Apartments are now open and filling up with new residents.
This Lent, we ask you to consider an intentional, pledged commitment to support our outreach ministries. Watch for a letter with more information, and the weekend of March 21 and 22 bring your completed pledge form for our St. Vincent de Paul Outreach ministries to church.
Our St. Vincent de Paul Outreach ministry is our faith in action.
As I hope you know, last year, The Basilica Landmark was presented with an incredible challenge: an anonymous donor offered The Basilica Landmark an unprecedented $2.5 million matching challenge gift. The conditions of the grant were that new donations of at least $1000 would be matched, as well as increased gifts from current donors. The goal was to make it to the $2.5 million mark by the end of 2017.
Then, a few things happened.
- First, The Basilica’s Facilities Committee created a spreadsheet indicating all the work that needed to be done around The Basilica campus for the next ten years. Critical needs were identified, and a ten year plan of action was developed.
- Second, we identified a few projects from this plan and approached you, our parishioners, asking for your support to help restore, preserve and advance The Basilica of Saint Mary.
- Finally, people responded generously. In fact, your response and acts of faith were so clear, that we reached our goal of meeting the matching challenge grant two years ahead of schedule. This response will enable us to invest five million dollars in our campus over the next few years, allowing us cross off a few projects on our list. So far, repairs have included the removal of water-logged insulation above the ceiling in the church. This insulation was retaining moisture and not allowing the plaster to dry out. We were also able to replace the 1917 boiler with a new hot-water heating and cooling system in the church and school.
So you may be wondering, where do we go from here? And to that I would say, the work continues.
This year, The Basilica Landmark will continue to make improvements around our campus using the funds from this challenge. Most significantly, we will be making necessary improvements to the Reardon Rectory.
The Reardon Rectory was originally designed as a residence for five priests and a housekeeping staff. It also had guest rooms for visiting priests. Today, it is the center of much that goes on in our parish. It houses nearly all of our staff and ministries, as well as meeting rooms. With our growing need for additional space around our campus, this year The Basilica Landmark will convert the unfinished space on the 4th floor of this building to offices and art/archival storage space. We will also be adding central air conditioning and sprinklers to the entire building at the same time. Additionally, we will also add an ADA compliant restroom.
These are much-needed improvements. Not only will we be able to house nearly 4,000 pieces of art and archives in a temperature controlled, safe environment, we will also be able to serve you, our parishioners.
And then, with your support, the work will continue. The Basilica Landmark is working closely with our facilities committee to continue to prioritize the repairs and renovations that are necessary to maintain our beautiful Basilica and its campus, as well as create and maintain spaces for our growing parish. While there is much work to be done, I am excited at all that we have accomplished so far.
I am well aware that all of the above is possible only because of the ongoing support of you—our generous donors and parishioners—who believe in the importance of preserving, restoring and advancing The Basilica of Saint Mary. As your pastor, I want you to know of my great gratitude for your support and commitment. It is a blessing for our parish.
Lent evolved out of the preparation for baptism. Those preparing for baptism were known as catechumens. This word comes from the Greek word which means “to instruct.” A catechumen spent several years preparing for baptism. A sponsor walked this journey with them and helped them to transform their lifestyle to become more like Christ. Catechumens attended Liturgy of the Word with the rest of the Christian community, but when it came time to share the meal, they were “dismissed” because they were not yet members of the community through baptism.
Many of you may have observed this “dismissal” of our own catechumens at the 9:30am Mass. Following the homily, the presider calls them forward to send them forth to “Break Open the Word” together. A facilitator accompanies them to another room as the Liturgy of the Word is continued with them. They listen to the Gospel proclaimed again and enter into a sharing of faith around the gospel, which concludes with intercessory prayer. This experience of “Breaking Open the Word” is both powerful and deep. To listen to our catechumens, many of whom have never been immersed in the Gospels, share their insights and how they believe God is calling them to live, is nothing less than inspiring.
Our RCIA class is made up of several groups. Our catechumens who have never been baptized, our candidates for Full Communion in the Catholic Church who have been baptized in another faith tradition, and the candidates for Confirmation who have been baptized Catholic but not raised in any faith tradition. There is also a sponsor who journeys with each of them and attends all the sessions, retreats and rituals. Lastly, we have a dozen team members. Each Tuesday, we have 70-80 people at The Basilica as a part of this process.
Like our ancestors, our catechumens and candidates have completed a substantial period of formation and are now being asked to discern if they are responding to God’s call in their desire to seek initiation in the Catholic Church. We have shared the beauty, truth and wisdom of that which we profess in the creed with them and now they must listen in their hearts for the voice of God.
This weekend they spent time together on a retreat which culminated at the 5:00pm Mass where they celebrated the Rite of Sending. We accept and applaud their courage and conviction and send them to our Bishop with our affirmation of their sincerity. Our presider will invite them to sign the Book of the Elect as a symbol of our support and love for them.
Our community then sends them forth to the Bishop for the Rite of Election to be celebrated on Sunday at 1:30pm at The Basilica. All the catechumens and candidates from the Archdiocese gather together, half at the Cathedral and half at The Basilica, to celebrate the Rite of Election. Bishop Lee Piche, in the name of the entire Church, will accept the catechumens and those seeking full communion with us and exhort them to continue and intensify their journey of conversion in preparation for their reception into the Church at Easter.
And, like our ancestors, the “Elect” will now enter the period of prayer and purification for the Easter sacraments which we call Lent.
Your role in the process of initiation is essential. Your acceptance by your involvement and attention to the rites has had a significant impact upon them; they have shared how deeply moved they feel by your support. We ask that you keep them in your prayers. At the doors of the church are cards with their photos and names on them. Please take one or more and pray for them. You also can communicate with them by writing them a note of encouragement and placing it in the collection basket with their name on it noting “RCIA.”
We are so blessed to be experiencing so many who want to join our faith because they have witnessed the way you live it out in your own lives. Thank you for being such a credible witness of God’s love for us all.
Several months ago, on my way to a meeting, I heard an individual on the radio use a term I don’t recall having heard before. Specifically the individual used the term “compassion fatigue.” Since I had tuned in late to the program, I didn’t hear the full context of the speaker’s comments. From what I heard, though, the individual used this phrase to describe the fact that often people can become so overwhelmed with issues, circumstances, injustices and causes that call for a response of care and compassion, that as a result they simply shut down, tune things out, and turn more and more inward.
I suspect that for all of us there are times when we are so overwhelmed by the terrible nature of something or some things, that we become paralyzed and do nothing. In part this is understandable. As humans, we can only endure seeing so much pain or so many needs before we are overwhelmed and simply shut down for a while. On a permanent basis, I don’t know that we are able to bear the pain, the sadness and the sorrows of the world. Perhaps some of us are called and are capable of doing this—Blessed Mother Teresa comes to mind—but I wonder if this is possible for the majority of us. Sometimes we do need to simply shut down for a while. I think there is a difference, though, between those times when we shut down and do nothing, and those times when we give in completely to “compassion fatigue” and simply stop caring. When we let ourselves stop caring by telling ourselves that we can’t deal with all the pain and hardship, something is terribly wrong.
As Christians, our call and our challenge is to be the heart, the hands, the voice, and the face of Christ in our world. We may not do this well. At times we may temporarily give in to “compassion fatigue.” The one thing we cannot do, though, is let this become a permanent condition. We can’t shut our eyes to the pain and need around us. We can’t be concerned only with ourselves.
Yes, with all the pain and hardship in the world, and indeed with all the pain and hardship that exists all around us, it would be easy to give in to “compassion fatigue” on a permanent basis. This is not an option for us as Christians, however. I believe this is the reason why this season of Lent is so important. It challenges us to see beyond ourselves to the needs of others. It calls us to be more caring and compassionate and it invites us to try harder to show and share Christ in our words and actions. We may not do this very well. (I fail at it regularly.) I also know and believe, though, that it is what we are called to do and be as followers of Jesus.
My prayer for us during this season of Lent is that it will be a time for our care and compassion to be renewed and strengthened, so that we might truly be the heart, the hands, the voice and face of Christ in our world.
A few weeks ago I was driving back to The Basilica when I happened to get behind a car with a bumper sticker that read “Believe and Receive; Doubt and Do Without.” My immediate reaction to this bumper sticker was a strong sense of discomfort. It occurred to me that whoever came up with that saying must either have a very strong faith, or had learned to do without a lot of things they had prayed for. Not being very pleased with my initial response, I decided the idea suggested by the bumper sticker merited some prayer and reflection on my part.
As I reflected on the idea behind the bumper sticker, it struck me that the author of the sentiments behind the bumper sticker had a very different notion of what belief and faith are all about than I did. For me, faith is not about believing that we will get everything we want or need from God. Rather it is about believing that in our want or need, God will be with us.
As Christians, we believe that God is always with us. Because of and in God’s providential love we are constantly watched over and cared for. We are never abandoned or left to face the vagaries of life by ourselves. God is always with us, and in God’s love we are forever held firm. God’s abiding love and care for us—God’s ongoing presence in our lives—is the bedrock of our faith. In saying this, though, I want to be clear. Even though God loves and cares for us, this does not mean that God will give us everything we want or that God will grant our every prayer request, just because we ask for something in faith.
There have been numerous times in my life when I have prayed about something or prayed for something with great fervor and sincerity only to end up being disappointed because what I prayed for didn’t happen. I am not alone in this. I have known many good and holy people who have prayed and prayed for things, only to see their prayer go seemingly unanswered. In the face of this, what are we to say? An easy answer (and one suggested by the bumper sticker) would be to suggest that we didn’t pray hard enough or that our belief wasn’t strong enough. I have a great deal of difficulty with this. I have known too many people of strong faith, whose lives have been formed and shaped by their beliefs, and yet have suffered great disappointment and pain in their lives. To suggest that they did not believe enough is an affront to them. On the other hand, to suggest that God was somehow capricious in answering their prayers would be an affront to God.
When prayers go unanswered it is too simple to suggest that we are at fault for a weakness of faith, or that God is at fault because God failed to hear and respond to our prayers. To make these the only responses to unanswered prayers is, I believe, a great error. Rather, I think there are times when we have to settle for simply not knowing. Now certainly “not knowing” runs counter to our cultural and personal values. We have a deep and abiding human desire to know why something is the way it is. I believe though, that it may not be possible for us, as humans to ever know and understand the will, work and way of God. In this life, especially when we are dealing with God, we may have to settle for “not knowing.”
Now I realize that for many the above may not be a completely satisfying answer to the issue of unanswered prayers. In all honesty, though, I must admit that I am more comfortable with “not knowing” than I am with the idea that we need only believe to receive.
The character of our community is determined by the way we connect with one another. In our rich, as well as challenging relationships, we each contribute to the nature of our community by our actions. At a time when our local and world community experience deep division and tension, it is important for us to pay attention to the way we connect.
When considered through the lens of faith, our Christian Life offers three significant and distinct ways to connect with others. All three of these ways are important to building a community of hope, trust, and love. As people of faith, we are called to serve, to accompany, and to defend.
- Call to Serve: With our focus on the common good and a particular care for the most vulnerable, we are invited to recognize and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters. As we reach out to another, it is important that we recognize the times that we, also, need to be served. The words of the Servant Song, by Richard Guillard, seems particularly poignant: “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Mutuality and humility are fruits of this service. We understand that everyone has something to teach and everyone has an important role to play in our community. Indeed, we get a glimpse of the community described in 1 Corinthians 12 when all rejoice and suffer together due to the inherent dignity of every part of the body.
- Call to Accompany: There are times when things cannot be fixed or people changed. Sometimes the most important and compassionate thing to do is to be present with another. Recognizing that God is with us, we can walk with another, practicing active listening. We can know that we are never alone. We can know a deep sense of belonging and a transforming experience of acceptance and love. The call to accompany is hard, as it often bucks against our deep desire to fix and change. Yet it is transforming in its non-judgmental hospitality and acceptance.
- Call to Defend: The call to defend is an important component to the way we connect in community. There are times when it is not enough to serve or accompany. There are times when we must defend. Pope Francis states that “True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice, it demands that the poor find the way to be poor no longer. And it asks us to ensure that no one ever again stands in need of a soup-kitchen, of make-shift lodgings, of a service of legal assistance in order to have his legitimate right recognized to live and to work, to be fully a person..” Am I ready to speak the truth to power and defend the oppressed? Am I prepared to protect the victims of violence and injustice? Will I put myself in an inherently vulnerable position as I seek to defend the defenseless? These are important questions for each of us. We are called to get to the heart of any reservations or fears, freeing ourselves to defend and protect in love.
Let us attend to our relationship with God, practice humility, and listen with our heart. Together, as we serve, accompany, and defend, we can build a community of love and compassion. Our prayer and actions call on the Holy Spirit to transform and heal the nature of our local and global community.
A few months ago Fr. Greg Skrypek’s brother died. For those of you who don’t know, Greg has been a presence at The Basilica for many years, first as an associate, then as a resident in the rectory, and, most recently, for the past several years, as the presider at the 7:00am Mass on Thursday mornings. Since I was away at the time of his brother’s death, I stopped in the sacristy chapel before Mass one Thursday to express my sympathy. Since both of us have lost a brother, there was a certain comfort and empathy in our conversation. At one point, though, Greg said something that really struck me. Specifically, he said: “Grieving is the privilege that comes from loving someone.”
Now I had never thought of grieving as a privilege, but when he said these words, I knew their truth. We don’t experience grief unless we had some kind of loving relationship with the individual who has died. Certainly we can feel sadness and sorrow when someone dies, but I think grief is deeper than sadness and sorrow. Grief is a profound and deep sense of loss. It leaves a hole in our lives and hearts that had previously been filled by a particular person’s presence and love.
Grief also reminds us how important the individual was to us. It reminds us that even though they have died they continue to have a place in our lives and in our hearts. Grief calls us to remember that the love we had shared with someone is not ended with death, but continues. If we have never loved or been loved, we can feel sadness and sorrow certainly, but I don’t know that we can experience grief. Grief occurs when we experience the loss of someone with whom we have shared love. It is a privilege, because sadly, not everyone is given the opportunity to love and to be loved.
Grieving is also a privilege for us as Christians because it gives us the opportunity to remember and renew our faith. For it is our faith that tells us that despite the sadness and sorrow that accompany death, we believe there is more. For Christians, it is the promise of eternal life that gives us hope even in the face of death. Now, in saying this, I want to be clear. The promise and hope of eternal life doesn’t take away the grief we feel when someone we love has died. Rather it moderates and tempers that grief. It softens it so it is easier for us to hold and carry.
The pain we experience when someone we knew and loved has died is real. It is important that we acknowledge that pain. And shame on anyone who seeks to minimize it or take it away. We need to recognize and accept our grief, and remember that grief is only possible because we loved someone. Grieving is a privilege that comes from experiencing love.