Guest column: The Love that Moves the Sun

This week Bishop Conley participated in an extended question-and-answer piece for the Register

The remarks of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. at the Faith and Reason Institute at Gonzaga University: "The Love that Moves the Sun" are reprinted in the Register as a guest column, with permission from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Read the archbishop's excellent speech here.

Eucharistic Family Rosary Crusade – God’s providential hand

God continues to call us to deeper union with him in prayer, particularly during this time of crisis and suffering in the Church. We keep foremost in our prayers the victims of abuse by members of the Church.

Eucharistic adoration is an invitation to come before the Lord, who is Love Made Visible, to praise, adore and glorify him, and to listen to him speak to the depths of our own hearts.

We live in an age of noise and we need these moments of prayer, silence and adoration to remind us of God’s love, mercy and presence in our lives and in our world. Satan, the father of lies, is always seeking ways to divide and distract us from keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, and from knowing his presence in our lives.

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Triumph of the Cross

By Bishop James Conley  

September 14th is the feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross, also known as the Triumph of the Cross. This is the day the Church commemorates the discovery and recovery of the true cross of Jesus by St. Helena in the year 326 AD.

St. Helena was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine and a convert to Christianity. History tells us that St. Helena went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the places made holy by the life of Jesus.  She also had a desire in her heart to discover and safeguard any relics of the Christian faith that still remained. One of her express goals was to find the place where the crucifixion of Jesus took place and, if possible, recover the very cross upon which he was hung. 

Nine years later, St. Helena oversaw the construction of a church built on the original site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Her son Constantine dedicated the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on September 14th in 335 AD, thus the origin of the feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross.

On Friday, September 14th at 7 p.m., the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, I would like to invite those who can to join me at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ for a Eucharistic Holy Hour of reparation, to pray for the victims of sexual abuse and for their healing.

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Seeking the truth

By Bishop James Conley  

The last few weeks have been painful to endure. The report of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, the revelations about the crimes of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and, just days ago, new, highly charged allegations about the Church’s leadership all the way to the top levels in the Vatican have left us reeling. These reports have caused all of us pain, anger, shame and grief. It is hard to fathom how such things could happen.

My first feeling in every one of these revelations is deep sadness for the pain and suffering of all those who have been sexually assaulted. What I do in these moments is surrender myself to prayer, at the foot of the Cross with Mary, solely focused on these hurt people.

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‘A call for vigilance and action’

From Bishop James D. Conley  

As a priest and as bishop, both in Denver and here, I have been dedicated to the protection of minors, young adults and all people. 

The evil of sexual abuse of minors and of adults is in all parts of our lives, in all institutions, and the Church has not been spared from this evil.  My work to implement the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has been one of the central parts of my service to the Lord and to the faithful in the Diocese of Lincoln. It is for this reason that the recent events in the diocese have made my heart heavy. Yet again I am being taught by the Lord that there is more to learn about warning signs of abuse and wrong behaviors that must be addressed immediately.

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Christ suffers with us, in this painful moment

By Bishop James Conley  

When Pope St. John Paul II visited the United States in 1995, he said something I have been reflecting upon in recent weeks.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us,” the pope said. “There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us.”

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The cost of contraception and the joy of the Gospel of Life

By Bishop James Conley  

Fewer babies were born in the United States last year than in any other year in the past 30. The birth and the fertility rates in the US continue to plunge, and the decline isn’t expected to slow down for more than a decade.

The US fertility rate is well below the replacement level needed to maintain a stable population. This means that the American population will get older in the decades to come—that 40 years from now, senior citizens will make up 25% of the entire US population. Declining fertility rates mean labor shortages, shrinking tax bases, and insolvent social safety nets.

There are social costs to all choices, including the choices of a contraceptive culture—the choices couples make to delay childbirth, to limit the number of children they have, or to avoid childbirth altogether.

Of course, the costs of our contraceptive culture are not a surprise to many Catholics, but they are worth remembering during this 50th anniversary year of the papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on July 25, 1968.

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Religious Freedom Week

By Bishop James Conley  

“We cannot go to heaven,” St. Thomas More once wrote, “in feather-beds.”

He meant that the way to salvation is not comfortable, and it does not abide laziness. He meant that to be followers of Jesus Christ—to be his disciples, and to be saints—we are called to act in this world for the Kingdom of God, and for the salvation of souls. He meant that serving God requires sacrifice, self-denial, and an acceptance that the Catholic faith is an all-encompassing way of life, that we cannot compartmentalize our religion, that we have to be all in—all the time. 

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The lord of our work

By Bishop James Conley  

Jack Phillips is a Christian.  In 2016, he told a reporter that “nothing matters more” than his relationship with God.

Jack is also a baker. In 1993, he and his wife opened a cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, not far from the parish where I lived as Auxiliary Bishop of Denver.  Jack makes custom cakes for birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and other celebrations. He is dedicated to his craft and puts himself into those cakes. He sees them as more than products; he sees them as art.

In 2012, customers of Jack’s asked him to bake a cake for their same-sex wedding. Jack believes that God intended marriage to be the union of a man and woman. He doesn’t believe he can create a piece of artwork to celebrate something that contradicts his deeply held beliefs. And so, he told his customers he could not in good conscience create a wedding cake for them. Out of respect for his customers, Jack suggested some possible alternatives.  It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but the Phillips family prayed about it, and acted as they believed their faith called them.

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The family is the wellspring of vocations

By Bishop James Conley 

This week, I have the great privilege of ordaining three men to the sacred order of the diaconate, and two men to the sacred order of the priesthood. It is a grace to ordain them into those mysteries.

Ordination week is always a time of great joy for me, for the Diocese of Lincoln, for each one of you, and for the universal Church.  As we celebrate the ordination of these men who have spent years in intellectual, spiritual, human and pastoral formation, we realize that they enter into the mystery of holy orders—becoming deacons and priests—and thus entering more deeply into a life of service to which the Lord, Jesus Christ, has called them.

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For the honor of Ireland

By Bishop James Conley 

“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity,” Ireland’s constitution begins, “from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred.”

The constitution continues, with the Irish people “humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ...  And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations.”

It is extraordinary that a nation’s constitution should begin as Ireland’s does. And, of course, it is correct. The just action of states and their citizens can only finally be measured against the truth that is known to us, by natural law and supernatural revelation, through the Holy Trinity.

Any real sense of human dignity and freedom, of the common good, of prudence, justice, or charity, must be informed by the truth about the human person that is known to us through God’s grace: namely, the truth that every single person is created in the image and likeness of God.

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Let them be born in wonder

By Bishop James Conley 

“Wonder is the beginning of knowledge,” said Professor John Senior, “the reverent fear that beauty strikes within us.”

Professor Senior, my godfather and former teacher in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, built his whole life around teaching the need for wonder. He reveled in the mysteries of the world and in the mystery of God himself — to which our world points. He taught me that if each of us took the opportunity to really look at the world around us — to marvel at nature, at humanity, at our own creation, and at God, we would be filled with curiosity, with delight, and with an eagerness to learn, to understand, and to know the world that the Lord has created.

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Rosary crusade

By Bishop James Conley 

At the beginning of the 13th century, the Lord called Father Dominic Guzman to preach the Gospel to the Albigensians, a sect of Christian heretics living in southern France and spreading error and confusion about the faith across Catholic Europe.

Dominic had very little success. The Albigensians had a hodgepodge of heretical beliefs and practices, much of them rooted in the idea that the material world was evil, and that the spirit needed to be liberated from the evils of the flesh. They drew support for their movement by pointing to decadence and immorality among Catholic priests and bishops.

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Cultivating love in deed and truth

By Bishop James Conley   

Jesus was a master teacher. He preached powerfully, and his words were effective. He told clever and insightful stories. He had memorable and beautiful phrases that brought his message to life.

But St. John the Evangelist wrote that it wasn’t the words of Jesus that taught the Church to love. It was his actions.

The world came to know love, St. John the Evangelist wrote, because Jesus laid down his life for us.

In response, he added, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If a Christian “sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion,” he asked, “how can the love of God remain in him?”

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The Church that prays together stays together

By Bishop James Conley  

Father Patrick Peyton knew the power of the family rosary.

He was born in 1909, the sixth of nine children, in County Mayo, Ireland. Every night his father led the family in the rosary. They prayed the rosary as the country was split by its independence movement and its civil war. They prayed the rosary as they struggled with poverty, eking a meager living from their small family farm. And Patrick continued to pray the rosary when he immigrated to the United States with his brother in 1928.

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Gaudete et exsultate — a pro-life call

I have been praying outside of abortion clinics for more than three decades. I have spent cold mornings in the snow, and hot afternoons under a blazing sun. I have prayed more decades of the rosary and chaplets of Divine Mercy than I can recall.

As a young priest, during the days of Operation Rescue, I was arrested numerous times for my pro-life witness. Just a few weeks ago, I led a Eucharistic procession of hundreds around the Planned Parenthood facility here in Lincoln.

I am always humbled, and have marveled for decades, at the heroism of men and women who are faithful prayer warriors at abortion clinics across this country—praying for mothers and their children and offering help to women in crisis.

Legally protected abortion is our national shame. Abortion has taken the lives of millions of children and has scarred the lives of millions of women and men. There is no moral justification for abortion, and no circumstance under which it should be afforded the protection of law—period.

I have sat with men and women who are overcome with the shame, guilt, and depression that abortion often triggers. I have seen them held captive by those burdens and have then witnessed them being set free by the awesome power of God’s mercy. I know, through faith, reason, and experience, that the sin of abortion has very gravely wounded our nation. I grieve for women and men suffering its effects, and I mourn for babies killed before they were born.

Abortion is a serious matter. And when the Church teaches about it, I pay attention.

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The witness of a holy teacher

By Bishop James Conley  

At the last supper, Jesus put things simply to his apostles: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14: 15).

In many ways, the Christian life is that simple. If we love the Lord, we should follow his commandments. As we follow his commandments, we will grow in love. Our love, expressed in holy obedience, will then beget more love, and, as we follow the Lord, we will grow more deeply in love with him, and more capable of loving our neighbors.

We are made by love and for love, and love is the measure of all things, because God is love.

The mission of Catholic education, therefore, is fostering in our children love for the Lord, and teaching them to follow the will of the Lord out of love, not in a kind of mindless or facile obedience to rules which will easily be overcome by temptation, but in the habits of virtue, and in the wonder, joy and delight that comes through knowing and loving Christ and His Church.

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Resurrexit sicut dixit — Christ is risen, as he said!

By Bishop James Conley  

“If Christ had not been raised from the dead,” St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.”

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Following Jesus into love

By Bishop James Conley   

Before he was betrayed, arrested, beaten and crucified, Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly. He was hailed as a hero. He was welcomed as a great prophet and healer. But he knew what he would face in Jerusalem. And still he went.

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The silent disciple of the Lord

By Bishop James Conley   

On March 19, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph. And this March 19, the Church will also celebrate the fifth anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis, which began with an inauguration Mass on St. Joseph’s Day, 2013.

Pope Francis, as the 265th successor of St. Peter and the 266th pope, began the papacy, he noted that St. Joseph was called by God to be “the custos, the protector,” of Mary and Jesus, of course, but also of the entire Church.

“How does Joseph exercise his role as protector?” Pope Francis asked. “Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand.”

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Mater Ecclesiae - Mary, our mother, and mother of the Church

By Bishop James Conley 

Last Saturday, Pope Francis added a new feast to the Church’s calendar. The memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church will be celebrated the Monday after Pentecost.

In a letter announcing the new feast, Cardinal Robert Sarah wrote that “This celebration will help us to remember that growth in the Christian life must be anchored to the Mystery of the Cross, to the oblation of Christ in the Eucharistic Banquet and to the Mother of the Redeemer and Mother of the Redeemed.”

We need Mary to grow close to Christ. She is the mother of Christ, our Redeemer, and the mother of his body, the Church.

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Remembering a friend

By Bishop James Conley  

“Time is short,” Blessed John Henry Newman once wrote, “and eternity is long.”

Newman meant that we must use our lives to prepare for eternity; that we must seek to know the Lord, to follow him, and to love him, during the short time we have here on earth. Though we might fall along the way, or doubt, or struggle; we are made for eternity with God, and our salvation should be foremost in our minds, guiding our choices, and giving us hope.

I have thought a lot about Newman’s words in these past few months, as a dear friend, Dr. Don Briel, spent time preparing for his death.

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The full truth of love

By Bishop James Conley 

This past Sunday, 35 men and women from parishes in and around Lincoln inscribed their names in the Book of the Elect at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ, the Mother Church of the Diocese of Lincoln.

It was a solemn and beautiful ceremony.

At the Easter Vigil, those men and women will be baptized, confirmed, and receive the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. They will be given new life in Jesus Christ, and become a part of the Lord’s body. They will be forgiven for their sins. They will be filled with the Holy Spirit, becoming new creations in the Lord.

Related item: Rite of Election slideshow

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We are mortals

By Bishop James Conley 

This is the lesson of Lent: We are mortals. We each come into this life as a loving creation of the Lord. We each are called to know him, to love him, and to serve him during our short sojourn on earth. We each will face our deaths. And each of us will face our judgment.

When Lent begins and ashes are distributed on Ash Wednesday, a cross is traced upon our foreheads, and we hear a reminder. “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return,” or “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

This message is really very simple. We will die, and we will face the Lord. We must be prepared to meet him. That is the reminder of Lent.

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Forming saints for the 21st century

By Bishop James Conley   

The first time Pope St. John Paul II sent a message to Americans, it was a letter to teachers.

He had been pope for less than six months. He had met with some American bishops, of course, but he had not yet travelled to the United States for the first time, or sent a message to a uniquely American audience. The pope had been a life-long learner. He had two doctorates. He had been a university professor, and a college chaplain. He loved to talk with seminarians, or camp with university students, or visit elementary school classrooms in Krakow, where he had been archbishop.

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Catholic schools benefit everyone

Researchers are finally realizing what parents have long understood: that Catholic schools make a difference.

Recent sociological studies have found that Catholic schools are a benefit to their students, and to their communities. Researchers have found that Catholic schools benefit student achievement and happiness, form graduates more engaged in public, family, and community life, and contribute to the social cohesion of their entire neighborhoods. 

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Love saves lives

By Bishop James Conley

In early January, the city of Lincoln reported that there had been no homicides in the city during the entire year of 2017. It had been 26 years since the last time the city recorded no homicides taking place.

This is great news for the city of Lincoln, and an accomplishment for which our police, first responders, and emergency room personnel can be proud. In fact, all of us can be proud to live in a city in which violent crime is on the decline, and the murder rate has declined all the way to zero.

But there is another reality that all of us must remember. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, 1,907 abortions were reported to have taken place in Nebraska, and 382 of those abortions took place in Lancaster County.

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Following the light

By Bishop James Conley 

An epiphany is a moment of startling clarity; a moment when the truth is suddenly and blindingly clear to us. An epiphany is the moment when we suddenly see the meaning of something that had been hidden, mysterious, or unclear to us just moments before.

This Sunday, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, remembering magi—spiritual seekers—who had come to Bethlehem seeking the meaning of a mystery. They had seen a star rising in the east, a star which they believed portended the birth of a great king. They had travelled to Jerusalem, seeking “the newborn king of the Jews,” whom they believed would be a great leader to his people, and to the world.

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The radical claim of Christmas

Christmas celebrates the reality that God himself came into the world as a man—fully divine and fully human, to die for us.

Christmas celebrates that God, the Creator of everything that is, became a baby, born into poverty, so that we could be set free from sin, be unconquered by death, and spend eternity in paradise, with God.

Christmas makes claims which defy our understanding, and exceed our comprehension. Christmas makes claims which, because they are true, should change everything about the way we live.

But in the celebration of Christmas—in giving gifts, and gathering with families, and singing familiar carols, in feasting and making merry —we can sometimes lose sight of just how radical Christmas really is. Even when we celebrate it well, we can lose sight of what it means for our lives.

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Gaudete in Domino semper!

By Bishop James Conley 

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, we will light the rose-colored candle as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete simply means “rejoice,” and is taken from the first words of the entrance antiphon, “Gaudete in Domino semper” – Rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4: 4-6). And so, as we make our final preparations for Christ’s coming – we rejoice!

Advent, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, is “the time of expectation for the definitive return of Christ!”

If we abide in Christ, and live as his disciples, then his “definitive return” is, indeed, a reason for great joy. If we follow Christ, we can anticipate his coming as faithful servants expecting the Master, who will draw us into the fullness of his love.

But Gaudete Sunday offers something for those who have fallen away from the Lord as well, those who have drifted from the path. Christ came into the world for sinners, not for the righteous. He became man, and went to the cross, and conquered death, and ascended to heaven, for the broken, the lost, the stubborn, and the reprobate. Christ came into the world so that all people might live in the freedom of truth, and in the joy of his love.

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Advent: the season of hope

By Bishop James Conley 

“Advent,” says Pope Francis, “is a journey toward the horizon of hope.”

The hope of Advent, the pope says, “does not disappoint because it is founded on the Word of God. A hope that does not disappoint, simply because the Lord never disappoints! He is faithful!”

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The School Sisters of Christ the King and the vocation of consecrated life

By Bishop James Conley 

This past Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King, the Diocese of Lincoln celebrated the establishment of our own School Sisters of Christ the King as a Religious Institute of Diocesan Right.

Related item: photo slideshow

Founded in 1976 by my predecessor, the Most Reverend Glennon P. Flavin, the Seventh Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, the School Sisters of Christ the King have educated thousands of children in our Catholic schools and in CCD programs throughout the diocese and beyond.

In 1996, my immediate predecessor, the Most Reverend Fabian W. Bruskewitz, the Eighth Bishop of Lincoln, recognized the School Sisters of Christ the King as a Public Association of the Faithful.

Establishing the School Sisters of Christ the King as a religious institute is a recognition of God’s guiding hand on their lives, their charism, and their community over these past 40 years. It is a recognition that they live the life of consecration to which they have been called, as a public, vital and enduring part of the Church’s own life.

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Happy Thanksgiving

By Bishop James Conley 

This Sunday, as the Church celebrated the first World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis said that each of us should be thankful for “the joy of breaking the bread of God’s word, and... the joy of breaking and receiving the Bread of the Eucharist, food for life’s journey. All of us, none excluded, need this, for all of us are beggars when it comes to what is essential: God’s love, which gives meaning to our lives and a life without end.”

God’s love, which gives our lives meaning and invites us to eternal life, is a gift of grace. A gift the Lord gives us only because he loves us. Not because we have earned it and not because we are worthy of it, but solely because God created us, delights in us, and desires to love us.

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The prophetic witness of chastity

Last month, more than a dozen women accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of harassment and sexual assault. Since that time, similar allegations have been made against public figures in entertainment, politics, business, and media.

Of course, allegations do not constitute proof, and justice requires that such serious allegations be considered fairly, in light of the evidence. Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that incidences of sexual harassments, assault, and abuse are far more commonplace in American society than many people would prefer to admit.

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Overcome evil with good

By Bishop James Conley 

Twenty-six people were killed Sunday morning as they prayed in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

Five days before that, eight people were killed when a terrorist, who claimed allegiance to ISIS, drove a truck along a pedestrian path in New York City.

A month before, a sniper killed 59 people as they attended an outdoor concert in Las Vegas.

Most people, in the wake of these kinds of evil acts, ask themselves why such things happen. People become fixated with a search for answers. Media reports often reflect this: seeming to search for some clue, or some hint, that might point at the reason such things happen.   

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Prayer of intercession

By Bishop James Conley 

Out of love for God and love for our neighbor – the two greatest Commandments – we have an obligation and a duty to pray for those whom we know and love. When we pray for other people, we express confidence that the Lord will love them as they need, and we commend them to his will.  Intercessory prayer – the practice of praying for others – is an obligation for all Christians.  The Lord calls us to pray for one another. 

Blessed John Henry Newman called our obligation to pray for each other “the prerogative and the privilege of the obedient and holy.”

Our obligation, and our privilege, also extends to those souls in purgatory.  We are obliged to pray for them out of love. 

Purgatory is, for every soul who experiences it, an expression of the Lord’s mercy.

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Be not afraid

By Bishop James Conley 

In 1993, Pope St. John Paul II had plain words for the several hundred thousand young people gathered in Denver, Colorado, for World Youth Day: “Woe to you if you do not succeed in defending life.”

The pope continued: “The Church needs your energies, your enthusiasm, your youthful ideals, in order to make the Gospel of Life penetrate the fabric of society, transforming people’s hearts and the structures of society in order to create a civilization of true justice and love.”

“Place your intelligence, your talents, your enthusiasm, your compassion and your fortitude at the service of life,” the pope encouraged. “The liberating message of the Gospel of Life has been put into your hands. And the mission of proclaiming it to the ends of the earth is now passing to your generation.”

I heard John Paul II speak those words 24 years ago. I was a young priest, travelling with young pilgrims from Wichita to pray with John Paul II. But the young people who heard the pope speak those words 24 years ago are not so young anymore.

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The important mission of the family

By Bishop James Conley 

“When the fullness of time had come,” says St. Paul, “God sent his Son, born of a woman,” so that we might be set free from sin, reborn into the inner life of God, and made sons and daughters of the Father, adopted into Christ Jesus.

God sent his son to a particular family, at a particular time and place, according the mystery and wisdom of his will. After man’s fall from grace, God formed a people, a nation, to whom he revealed himself, preparing them for the birth of his son.

And from that nation, God chose a family: one man, and one woman, Mary and Joseph, who would become the human family of the Incarnate Word of God. It was in and through this family that God saved the world.

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Our eldest brothers and sisters in the faith

By Bishop James Conley 

The Church was born at Pentecost, in the upper room of the building in Jerusalem where Jesus Christ and the apostles celebrated the Last Supper.

Faith in the Gospel spread from that room in Jerusalem to every corner of the globe. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles; they were given the grace and gifts to make disciples of all nations. They proclaimed Christ and his Church with joy and fervor.

Each of the apostles, save one, died a martyr’s death. But their successors, and the disciples they formed, continued to proclaim the Gospel across the world. It grew deep roots in some places, and became the foundation for new cultures and nations. In other places, the ground seemed to be rocky, and the Church struggled to form more than a faithful remnant. But the Holy Spirit formed the Church in Jerusalem, to go out to all nations, and the Church in Jerusalem did just that.

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The Miracle of the Sun

A steady rain fell on the morning of October 13th, 1917, onto a freshly plowed field that had become a muddy mess. Clouds covered the sky.

It was a dreary fall day outside of the village of Fatima, Portugal. Still, a crowd of more than 70,000 people had gathered, because three children had told them that the Blessed Mother would appear.

She had been appearing since the spring, six times in all, and over the summer the crowds had become larger. When she appeared in September, she said that a miracle would occur when she next came, “so that all may see and believe.”

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Meaningful, attainable and just health care

By Bishop James Conley 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear: “Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of... health care.” (CCC 2288)

Securing affordable access to health care is a requirement of just societies and a function of the common good. Catholics have an obligation to work for the common good and to work to ensure that all people have affordable access to health care. Every family and, indeed, every person, should have the freedom to treat their medical needs and to live in the freedom of good health.

The Church provides principles and guidance regarding the provision of health care. But it is primarily the work of the lay faithful to put those principles into practice: to do the hard work of discerning how to ensure affordable access to health care, for the sake of the common good, in the particular circumstances of each society.  

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The shepherd who didn’t run

By Bishop James Conley

In July of 1981, two armed men entered a church in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, a small town on a lakefront, in a valley between two volcanoes. It was around midnight when they entered. A teenager named Francisco was alone in the Church. It was dark, and he was at prayer.

The men pointed guns at Francisco, and asked where they could find the “red-bearded priest.” He led them to the rectory door and knocked. Father Stanley Rother answered. He was the “red-bearded priest.” He was a missionary from Okarche, Oklahoma, who had lived in Guatemala for more than 10 years.

At the time, Guatemala was in the midst of a violent civil war. There was a price on Father Rother’s head. The men pointed guns at him, and he told them “kill me here.” They shot him twice in the head. He was martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ.

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Rescued from the storm

By Bishop James Conley 

Three weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey struck the coast of Texas with ferocity, and wreaked havoc on Houston and surrounding cities. Last week, Hurricane Irma flooded parts of Florida, and displaced millions. Islands of the Caribbean have seen nearly every building flattened, and families left homeless. Everywhere, men and women are unsure of where and how to rebuild.

We can thank the Lord for the first responders and others who sheltered families from the storm, for those who risked their lives to rescue others, and for the lives saved and homes spared in the path of the hurricane and tropical storms. But we also have a responsibility to assist our brothers and sisters in Christ, the men and women who have lost so much in these storms.

Catholic Relief Services, the Knights of Columbus, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and many other organizations have collected millions of dollars in recent weeks, and begun putting those funds to work to assist the places damaged by the hurricanes. Each one of us should consider how we can contribute generously to fundraising campaigns, and how we can offer our resources to assist those in need.

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Our Lady of Fatima

By Bishop James Conley 

Less than 200 years after the Ascension of Jesus, a Christian disciple wrote a biography of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The biography is not a part of Scripture; its historical accuracy is not certain, and it contains some theological ambiguities difficult to reconcile with the teachings of the Gospel. But the biography was well known among the Fathers of the Church, and it reminds us that since the earliest days of the Church’s life, Christians have revered the Blessed Mother, have prayed for her intercession, and have loved her as a mother.

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Finding Calcutta

By Bishop James Conley

Almost seven million people live in and around Nairobi, Kenya, in a river valley north of Mount Kilimanjaro. Nearly half of Nairobi’s residents live in slums—in makeshift houses and tents, surviving on less than $1 a day, where HIV, prostitution, and crime run rampant. Open sewers and garbage litter the streets. The ground is often a muddy mix of decomposing trash and human waste.

The slums of Nairobi are populated by families and children who work to survive amidst terrible conditions. They often find creative ways to work together. They are often people of faith. They often, in ways we cannot imagine, have not lost sight of their dignity, and have not lost the joy of human life. Still, no one should have to live in such terrible poverty, and it is a profound injustice that they do.

In Laudato si, Pope Francis says that those living in such abject conditions remind us that “in the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable; the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”

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Our response to Charlottesville

In the late 1940s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel began the process of ending segregation in the parishes, seminary, and schools of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He faced real opposition, from families, from teachers, from civil officials, and even some of the priests and religious of his diocese.

Political leaders threatened to end all state financial support for integrated Catholic schools. Catholics wrote to Pope Pius XII asking him to remove Archbishop Rummel from his post. At times, the opposition became violent—A cross was burned on Archbishop Rummel’s lawn; his home was picketed nightly.

In 1959, eight years after segregated Church seating was banned, two black men were beaten by a mob because they sat in the front pews of a New Orleans area parish. Some diocesan officials pleaded with Archbishop Rummel to end his mission. But the archbishop was undeterred.

In 1956, he wrote that racism “is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity… of the Redemption. The Eternal Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, came into the world to redeem and save all men, to die for all men on the cross, to make the life of grace available through the Church and the Sacraments for all men.” Racism, he wrote, and especially segregation “would draw the color line across the inspiring plan of the Redemption and thus sin against the divine providence, the love and the mercy that conceived and carried out the wonderful Mystery.”

No matter the cost, Archbishop Rummel was committed to ending racial stereotypes and prejudices, which are, he said, “grievous violations of Christian justice and charity.”

Archbishop Rummel died in 1964. By then, the Archdiocese of New Orleans had done away with racial segregation in its institutions. But the evil of racism—which sins against Providence, justice, and charity—remains a powerful force in our country.

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The true dignity of education

The following is an excerpt from a talk given by Bishop Conley July 5 at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education’s Regional Catholic Classical Schools Conference

Good students, and good teachers, seek to know things as they are. To know the Lord, and to see the world in light of divine truth. True schools are communities of learners, receiving and apprehending reality, not asserting themselves, or their importance. True communities of learners are humble disciples of the truth.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.”

Wonder is humility before the majesty of God. Wonder tolerates no self-importance. Wonder forgets the self. Wonder seeks only to gaze at the marvelous beauty of the world, and its creator. 

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Scouting and gender ideology

In 1909, a Chicago businessman named W.D. Boyce found himself lost one night, on a foggy street in London. A boy approached him, asked him where he was going, and guided him to his destination. Boyce was grateful, and offered his guide a tip. But the boy refused, saying that he was a Boy Scout, and he was doing his “daily good turn.”

Boyce was intrigued. He’d never heard of the Boy Scouts, and he asked the scout for more information. He later visited Lord Baden-Powell, a British general who had founded a movement of boys, called Scouting, just two years earlier.

One year later, in 1910, W.D. Boyce founded the Boy Scouts of America, an organization dedicated to teaching young men “patriotism, courage, self-reliance, and kindred values.” In 1913, Juliette Gordon Lowe, a Georgia artist and philanthropist, founded the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, with just 18 members. Since that time, millions of American boys and girls have become scouts, including hundreds of priests and religious brothers and sisters.

For more than 100 years, scouting in America has formed men and women of character, helping each one, as the Boy Scout Oath says, “to do my duty to God and my country,” to “help other people at all times,” and to “keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

In recent years, unfortunately, both the Girl Scouts of the USA and the Boy Scouts of America, have begun to reflect the troubling errors of our culture about what it means to be men and women. Both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have decided to permit those with gender dysphoria—boys who think they are girls, and girls who think they are boys—to join their organizations based upon self-defined “gender identities.” Obviously, these decisions will gravely impact the moral and personal formation offered by Scouting movements.

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The evangelization of Love

“At the age of 21,” Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, shared with 3,000 people last Sunday afternoon, “I was already an alcoholic. I was very promiscuous. My life was broken by lust. It had been decimated by childhood sexual abuse that I never told anybody about.... But God didn’t abandon me.”

“Somebody loved me in my brokenness,” Sister Miriam continued, “and it changed my life. God sent a Catholic priest into my life who was authentically holy, and it rocked my world. He fathered me—loved me as a father—and I could not deny his witness.”

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Taking Christ’s love to the world

Last week, the bishops of the United States met in Indianapolis for the annual spring meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was a busy meeting full of committee meetings and general sessions with all the US Bishops. We had vigorous discussions about the formation of young people, Catholic healthcare, immigration, marriage and family life and our pastoral leadership in these areas. We discussed our work to support religious liberty, and reaffirmed our commitment to that important cause. And we approved new guidelines for the inclusion and support of disabled people in the Church’s sacramental life. We ended our meeting with a Eucharistic Holy Hour and Benediction. Local priests were available during the holy hour so each bishop had the opportunity to go to confession.

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The ‘fount and apex’ of the Christian Life

This week, I will have the awesome privilege of ordaining two men to the sacred diaconate, and five men to the sacred priesthood.

Their new lives in these sacred ministries of priesthood and diaconate will begin in the context of the Holy Eucharist.  During the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I will place my hands upon their heads and pray the ancient words of ordination.  They will be changed forever; their souls, configured by an indelible mark, to unity in identity and mission with Jesus Christ.

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Turn away from sin, and pray for the conversion of the world

In the spring of 1916, a full year before the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an angel—the Angel of Peace—appeared to three shepherd children in a field outside their village of Fatima, Portugal, in order to prepare them for things to come. The angel taught them how to pray, and to offer penances in reparation for the sins of the world, and especially how to adore Jesus, truly present in the Holy Eucharist.

The children saw the Angel of Peace several times. The last time he appeared, the angel came holding a chalice in his hands with a Host above it. Without a word, in utter silence, the angel knelt with his forehead touching the ground leaving the Host and the chalice suspended in the air. The angel prayed three times: “Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore you profoundly, I offer You the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifference with which He Himself is offended. And, through the infinite merits of His most Sacred Heart and through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg the conversion of poor sinners.”

Imitating the angel, with their foreheads pressed to the ground in profound adoration, the children joined the angel in reciting the prayer three times. The angel stood up and gave the oldest child, Lucia, the Sacred Host. Then he gave the Chalice with the Most Precious Blood to the other two children, Jacinta and Francisco. He said these words: “Take and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, horribly outraged by ungrateful men. Make reparation for their crimes and console your God.” Once again, the angel prostrated himself on the ground in silent adoration before the raised Host and chalice, and repeated the prayer three times, and then disappeared.

I am convinced that the Angel of Peace was calling all of us, in a special way, to pray before the Holy Eucharist, in silence, for the salvation of every single soul.

On May 13, 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the shepherd children in that same field. When the Blessed Mother appeared, she was, they said “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun.” She asked the children to pray the Rosary every day, and to pray for peace in the world. 

The Blessed Mother appeared again. In fact, she appeared six times over the next six months. In October, a huge crowd gathered with them.  That day, a new miracle happened: the sky grew dark, and then the sun burst through the clouds, dancing and spinning across the sky. It shed colored light across the landscape.  Tens of thousands reported seeing the same thing.

During the third apparition in July, the Blessed Mother shared a message for the children: three prophetic secrets, or messages: a vision of hell, a request that the world should turn from sin and consecrate Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, and a prophetic vision which was revealed in the Jubilee Year, 2000, that the Church, and the Holy Father, would be called to suffer and be called to pray for the salvation of souls, and to penance for the conversion of the world.

The appearance of the Blessed Mother at Fatima was a grace for the whole world and the most important Marian apparition of our era. Her message was that the whole world should turn from sin, and pray for the grace of salvation in Jesus Christ, especially through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This message is the message of the Gospel, and a message the world needs today, more than ever.

The Blessed Mother also shared with the children that the greatest battle against evil in our time is waged in the family, and for the family. That Satan wishes to attack and undermine families, and that we must be vigilant to protect our families, and to defend the importance of the family in the world. Our families are made in the image of God, and God forms us to know him in the family. The Blessed Mother called us, at Fatima, to protect the family.

In a letter to Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, first President of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, and entrusted to St. John Paul II in 1981 on the occasion of his founding of the new Institute, Blessed Lucia of Fatima wrote these words: “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of satan will be about marriage and family… Don’t be afraid, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue… However, our Lady has already crushed his head.”  

Today, we celebrate 100 years since the Blessed Mother first appeared to the children at Fatima. But her message remains urgent and critical. We must pray for the conversion of the world and for the conversion of the family.

In the Diocese of Lincoln, we are blessed with a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima in Arapahoe. This year, the Holy Father has given a special gift to those who travel to the shrine as pilgrims. 

Catholics who “visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Arapahoe in the form of a pilgrimage… humbly praying for the conversion of sinners, for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and in defense of the institution of the human family, concluding by saying the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and invoking our Lady of Fatima,” are granted a Plenary Indulgence—a remission from the temporal punishment of our sin in purgatory. 

To gain such an indulgence, Catholics must also make a good confession, receive the Eucharist, and pray for the intentions of the Pope and the Church, and renounce attachment to sin. Those who are sick, elderly, or unable to travel to Arapahoe may gain the same indulgence through the same prayers, in the presence of an image of Mary, asking for her powerful intercession.

This indulgence is a special grace—given to us by the Holy Father to honor the Blessed Mother, and to encourage us to pray for the conversion of the world, and for the family. I encourage every Catholic in the Diocese of Lincoln to travel to the shrine in Arapahoe if they can, or to pray for the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima.

Our Lady of Fatima appeared to promise us that Christ can bring peace to the world, and peace to every single heart. She begged us to pray for that peace, and to offer up every sacrifice for the conversion of the world. As we remember her appearance at Fatima, let us pray for peace, through the intercession of her Immaculate Heart.

A saint for the scourge of human trafficking

By Bishop James Conley  

Josephine Bakhita became a slave when she was 9 years old.

She was born in Darfur, on a waterless plain south of the Sahara Desert. Her family was wealthy, comfortable, and powerful. Her early years were carefree.

In February 1877, Josephine was kidnapped by slave traders outside of her village. She was 9. She was forced to walk 600 miles to a marketplace in Sudan. She was forced to convert from her native religion to Islam. She was sold five times over the next 12 years.

She was branded, beaten frequently, forced to travel great distances, and so traumatized that she forgot her own name. She took the word bakhita for a name, which means lucky, because she felt she was lucky to be alive.

Eventually, Josephine moved to Italy with her Italian owners. There, in 1888, with the help of Canossian nuns, a court declared her to be a free woman. Two years later, she was baptized a Catholic, confirmed, and received her first Communion.

Josephine Bakhita became a religious sister, and by God’s grace, she became a saint. I was privileged to be in Saint Peter’s Square on October 1, 2000, when St. John Paul II canonized her a saint.

Josephine Bakhita’s path to holiness was unique and miraculous. Her enslavement traumatized her—wounded her physically and psychologically. She might have easily died during the beatings she received as a slave. And even at the end of her life, when she had been free for more than 40 years, she had nightmares of being chained up by slave owners. The Lord healed her, but she had to overcome extraordinary obstacles as she learned true freedom in Jesus Christ.

We might be tempted to imagine that stories like St. Josephine Bakhita’s only happened in the past. That slavery no longer exists; that human beings no longer buy and sell one another like property. But modern slavery exists today in many forms, most prominently, in the form of human trafficking. Human trafficking is the trade or brokering of human beings, for forced labor, sexual slavery, coercive and forced prostitution, or even coercive gestational surrogacy. Human trafficking is among the fast-growing criminal activities among gangs in the United States, and criminal organizations around the world.

Human trafficking is modern slavery. It occurs when a girl or boy is coerced by a boyfriend or a parent into prostitution. It occurs when a smuggler forces undocumented immigrants to work for years without pay, to pay off a debt or to avoid family punishment. It occurs when a poor woman is forced by her family into working as a pregnancy surrogate for the wealthy. 

Human trafficking reduces people—created in the image of God—into commodities.

In 2016, Pope Francis said that “the trade in human beings is a modern form of slavery, which violates the God-given dignity of so many of our brothers and sisters and constitutes a true crime against humanity.” Catholics, Pope Francis said, are called to “bring the balm of mercy” to the “open wound” of human trafficking in our world.

Last month, Grace Williams, the founder of Children of the Immaculate Heart, a California apostolate helping women and children escape sex trafficking, spoke at the Newman Center about her work. She said that human trafficking is growing in popularity among gangs because “you can sell a person over and over again. The supply doesn’t run out.”

Grace also shared that, in Christ, women and children can experience true healing, and escape the coercive power of human trafficking, just as St. Josephine Bakhita did.

Glen Parks, Nebraska’s Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator, spoke along with Grace. He shared that 135 people in Nebraska are sex trafficked every month—1,620 each year.

The evil of human trafficking—the “open wound”—has taken root in our state.

Each one of us is called to pray for the victims of human trafficking—modern-day slaves—especially those in our own state. We are also called to work to stop the evil of modern-day slavery, and to help its victims. In the months to come, our diocese will work to find ways to help the victims of human trafficking in Nebraska. In the meantime, I ask you to join me in continued prayer for an end to human trafficking.

The Lord gives liberty to captives. His mercy sets us free. He gave freedom to St. Josephine Bakhita. In hope, we pray that he will bring freedom to the modern-day slaves among us.       

An irrational ideology of abortion

In 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would soon be elected Pope Benedict XVI, preached that “we are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

In the past month, we’ve learned that relativism can be a very cruel dictator.

Most basically defined, the pro-choice political position is that the “right to choose” is sacrosanct, and that no one may legitimately question the moral choices of another with regard to abortion. That overwhelming and indisputable scientific evidence regarding the beginning of unique human life through conception, has no place in the political conversation about abortion. That all philosophical, anthropological, or biological arguments regarding abortion must be subordinated, at all times, to the primacy of other people’s choices.

The pro-choice political position is the true embodiment of the dictatorship of relativism. It demands that there can be no “right choice” or “right answer.” Pro-choice ideology prioritizes individual decision-making above every other concern, including the right of unborn children to life. This is simply irrational.

Two weeks ago, Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, affirmed this position unequivocally. He said that “every Democrat” in America is expected to support the pro-choice position, without exception. He insists that there is no room for pro-life Democrats in his party. The dictatorship of relativism expects absolute conformity, and is willing to jettison anyone who dares to disagree with his party on this issue.

“Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” Perez said. “That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”

The so-called “right to choose” is sacrosanct except, of course, the choice to support unborn children. This is the real irony of Mr. Perez’ statement. He claims to prioritize the rights of conscience, but he makes no provision for those in his own party who, in conscience, disagree with him.

Of course, this means that many Catholics who agree with other elements of the Democratic platform have been rejected by their political party, for failing to swear allegiance to relativism. But the pro-choice position, which embodies the dictatorship of relativism, allows no dissent, no disagreement, no questioning and no exceptions - period.

In our state, this was demonstrated by a nearly seven-hour debate in the Legislature last week. The state’s mainline budget bill proposes to prioritize the recipients of federally-provided Title X family planning funds, directing money to facilities that offer comprehensive healthcare, namely: community health centers, hospitals, and public health departments. This move would ensure that Nebraskans have access to facilities able to provide them comprehensive health services.

But Planned Parenthood, by far the largest provider of abortions in America, and the primary recipient of Title X funds in Nebraska, opposed the change, because it would route the few hundred thousand dollars Planned Parenthood receives to other, more qualified, and more accessible agencies. The dictatorship of relativism would not allow this.

Immediately, Planned Parenthood and its allies attacked and reframed a reasonable and commonsense measure designed to help Nebraskans, as a “war on choice.” The bill is about helping Nebraskans to access healthcare. But the dictatorship of relativism demands federal dollars, and bullies and threatens those who oppose it.

We oppose the dictatorship of relativism by the telling the truth. Abortion harms women. Abortion kills children. Planned Parenthood is an abortion retailer masquerading as a community health provider. And Planned Parenthood opposes providing healthcare access to Nebraskans in order to protect its bottom line. None of those things is morally right. And none of them should be acceptable to Nebraskans.

It’s time we choose to support women and their unborn children, by ending abortion. It’s time we choose to stop providing public money to abortion providers who exaggerate their public health services. It’s time we choose to stop living under the dictatorship of relativism. It’s time we choose the freedom that comes from truth. 

Footprints

By Bishop James Conley 

On a hilltop in the mountains of Spain, an iron cross has stood for at least one thousand years, visible from villages, roads, farms, and mountain paths for miles away. Below it is a pile of rocks—some pebbles, and some much larger—which have been carried from around the world and quietly, and prayerfully, placed at the foot of the cross.

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Divine Mercy and the Culture of Death

By Bishop James Conley 

On Good Friday, I joined Christians from around the city of Lincoln to pray at the Planned Parenthood abortion facility on south 48th Street, for an end to abortion, and for a flourishing of the culture of life. In the grey and rainy mist, we prayed for those who are involved in the abortion industry, for women and families in unexpected or crisis pregnancies without a sense of where to turn, and for children in the wombs of the mothers, being formed and nurtured for life.

Together, we prayed that our world would become a place in which the dignity and humanity of the unborn is respected, and in which women and families can come know the love and mercy of God, through the love of his Church, especially in situations of crisis or challenge.

We prayed that the unborn would be safe in the refuge of their mothers' wombs, and that their mothers would bask in the joyful and live-giving light of hope. Fittingly, we concluded our prayers with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. “Where, if not in Divine Mercy,” asked Pope St. John Paul II, “can the world find refuge and the light of hope?”

God’s mercy is exactly what is needed to combat the culture of death, and to build a culture of life. “How greatly today’s world needs God’s mercy! In every continent, from the depth of human suffering, a cry for mercy seems to rise up,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II. “Wherever respect for life and human dignity are lacking, there is need of God’s merciful love, in whose light we see the inexpressible value of every human being. Mercy is needed in order to ensure that every injustice in the world will come to an end in the splendor of truth.”

We gathered on Good Friday to pray at a place which represents abortion, the profound evil of our time—which takes the life of an innocent child, and causes grave harm to its mother. We gathered at a place which has become a modern day Calvary, where pure innocence meets deadly evil. Abortion is disguised in the language of choice and empowerment, but abortion disempowers, objectifies, and wounds. And that is exactly why we prayed for the Lord’s mercy.

“The cross,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II, from which Divine Mercy flows, “is like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence.” At Planned Parenthood, we prayed for a touch of eternal love upon the painful wounds which cause abortion, and which are caused by abortion.

Many of you have read that as we concluded praying, there was a terrible accident. A pickup truck skidded on a slick road, jumped the curb, and drove onto the sidewalk where we were gathered. Five people were hit by the pickup, and another was knocked down by those thrown by the truck. Some suffered serious injuries, though, thank God, none were life-threatening. There were two of us priests still on the scene, and we had the opportunity to pray with those who were injured before they were treated. Those who gathered with us also, quite immediately, began to pray.

After I got home that evening, I found myself wondering why something so terrible had happened. I don’t think we’ll have a full answer to that question until we are in heaven with God. But I do think that God might bring, from that terrible accident, “a touch of eternal love” upon very painful wounds.

Accidents are unsettling. When the accident happened, our entire city took note. Media crews arrived almost immediately. Many people expressed concern for the injured. That accident was a reminder that life is precious, and that human dignity is innate, and undeniable. Perhaps it might remind people that all life is precious—even unborn life. Perhaps the sense of unsettledness caused by the accident might lead some to consider why some lives seem so naturally worthy of protection, while the lives of the unborn, and their mothers, are so casually disposed of, disregarded or dismissed.

Perhaps that unfortunate accident outside of Planned Parenthood, and on Good Friday, might be a reminder that there is nothing accidental about abortion.

Perhaps the love and concern expressed by so many people for those who were injured might be extended through the quiet prompting of Divine Mercy, to the unborn and to their mothers, who are sorely in need of love, concern, and respect.

The accident which occurred at Planned Parenthood was very unfortunate. For some, it will have lasting effect. We must pray for the young driver of the truck. But unified with the cross of Jesus Christ, perhaps it might take on a different meaning. Perhaps, unified with Christ’s cross, it might bring about “a touch of eternal love,” and a “light of hope” for a world longing for Christ.

This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday. Please join me in praying for the unborn, for their mothers, and for those who were injured on Good Friday. Please include in your prayers, the driver of the truck. Please also join me in praying that the Lord might use something, even a frightening accident, as an occasion of Divine Mercy—through the power of the Cross—which heals every wound and frees every heart.

See also: Pro-lifers hit by truck in accident after prayer vigil

O Sorrowful Mother

By Bishop James Conley

In the last two weeks of Lent, traditionally called Passiontide, we are called to think often of the love of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and on the suffering he endured for our salvation, through his passion and death. The Lord knew that the hour of his crucifixion was coming, and, as the Sacred Scriptures tell us, this weighed heavily on his heart. 

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that during these last weeks of Lent, we are “called upon to raise our hearts to Christ, and to have keen feelings and piercing thoughts of sorrow and shame, of compunction and of gratitude, of love and tender affection and horror and anguish, at the review of those awful sufferings whereby our salvation has been purchased.”

A very powerful and efficacious way that we can call to mind the gift of Christ’s love, manifested in his passion, is by remembering and reflecting on the sorrowful sufferings of his dear mother.  For that reason, it is a long-standing Catholic custom, to remember the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Friday before Palm Sunday. 

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Lex orandi, lex credendi

By Bishop James Conley

Because we are Catholic, sacred liturgical worship should be at the center of our lives. 

Jesus Christ is present among us in the Church’s sacred worship.  In the mystery of Holy Mass, we are present to the Paschal mystery, the sacrifice of Christ’s death on Calvary.  Our liturgical worship is a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy, and expresses our love for God.  We are made, literally, to worship God.

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24 hours for the Lord

By Bishop James Conley

One of the great gifts and privileges of the priesthood is serving as a minister of God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of confession.

I have been hearing confessions for almost 32 years, since the time I was ordained a priest in May of 1985. I have heard confessions on five continents, in multiple languages, in places and at times I never expected. I have heard confessions in the rain, on a plane, on the beach; I have heard confessions lasting hours, and confessions lasting just a moment or two. I have heard the first confessions of young children, and the confessions of men and women moments from death.

Like most priests my age, I have heard literally thousands of confessions. And I have never tired of the powerful words a priest is privileged to say: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

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Temptation and St. Joseph

Jesus fasted in the desert outside Jerusalem for 40 days. The Judean desert is barren and craggy, hot in the day and frigid at night. Jesus prayed without ceasing, and without food, for weeks. And then Satan appeared to him, and, while Jesus was hungry and tired, Satan tempted him, with food, glory, power and pride. Jesus was tempted by Satan, but he did not succumb to the temptation.

In Lent, as we offer small sacrifices and penances—small acts of charity or commitments to prayer—Satan often tempts us to abandon them. He tells us that they are too hard, or useless, or that we can make excuses to keep our fasts. We can look to Christ, who conquered temptation in the desert, and ask him for the graces we need to overcome our own temptations. And in the moral life, when we are tempted to sin, we can also look to Christ.

Jesus loves us, and desires for us to be holy. And when we are tempted, he knows the experience. He knows the difficulty. He wants to help us. The letter to the Hebrews says that in Christ, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet never sinned.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in the desert, “Christ reveals himself as God’s Servant, totally obedient to the divine will. In this, Jesus is the devil’s conqueror.”

Jesus conquers the devil. And when we’re tempted, we can rely on his grace to conquer sin. The Lord wants to help us overcome temptation. He wants to deliver us from evil. He knows the power of temptation, and he wants us to be free.

The practice of sacrifice in Lent helps us to grow accustomed to asking Christ for help, so that when we are tested in greater ways—when the temptation seems more urgent, or the stakes seem higher—we will already know that we can rely on Jesus. Our Lenten sacrifices aren’t supposed to be a test of our strength—they’re supposed to be a reminder that we can only conquer sin through Christ, who conquered temptation in the desert.

For Jesus, fully God and fully man, temptation was different from our own experience. We can’t really understand what it was for him to live with both a human and divine will. But we do know that as Christ grew into adulthood, he had the experience of watching his foster-father, St. Joseph, a good and virtuous man, who often resisted temptation, in order to follow the will of God.

From St. Joseph, we can learn three important lessons about resisting temptation.

First, St. Joseph was a man of prayer. He heard the voice of God, in his dreams, especially, because he lived prayerfully, in close union with the Father. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that St. Joseph was a man “who with his whole life seemed to cry out to God: ‘You are my father!’”

His life was punctuated by prayer. “How many times,” the Holy Father wrote, “in the course of long days of work would Joseph have raised his mind to God to invoke him, to offer him his toil, to implore light, help, comfort?” St. Joseph, in his work, and his family life, offered himself to the Lord in prayer. And he heard the voice of God. Because he heard God’s voice, he knew the Lord’s will, and was firm in his resolve to follow. Prayer, at every moment, strengthens us against temptation.

Second, St. Joseph was a man of silence. The epistle to St. James says that “everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” St. Joseph was quick to hear, and slow to speak. He was slow to anger. He built the habits of patience and forbearance. And in his silence, he grew deeper in awareness of the Lord, and deeper in the life of prayerful friendship with God.

We live in an age of noise. Cultivating an interior silence makes us slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to hear the word of the Lord. Silence, like St. Joseph’s, helps us to resist temptation.

Finally, St. Joseph was close to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is, in fact, nearly impossible to imagine the beauty of the friendship between St. Joseph and the Mother of God. They were unified in their desire to raise Jesus, to be good stewards of what the Lord had given them, to humbly undertake the great call which God had given them. How often St. Joseph must have sat with the Blessed Mother, how often he must have taken solace in her company. And how often her holiness must have inspired him to holiness. St. Joseph, as chaste bridegroom, learned patience and kindness through his love of Mary. He did so, not by keeping himself closed off, but by pouring himself out in love for Jesus Christ, and for his mother. That intimate and beautiful friendship—his love and respect for Mary—must have given him trust in the Lord’s plan at moments of temptation.

Christ gives us the grace to overcome the temptation of Satan. The Church gives us the holy season of Lent to grow in reliance upon that grace. And St. Joseph, whose feast we celebrate next week, gives us a model for reliance and cooperation with grace, to serve the Lord with love and generosity.

Strangers in a strange land

In his new book, Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, writes that we are now living in a post-Christian world.  He suggests that we, as a culture, have not embraced atheism, but we go about our daily lives as if God doesn’t exist. We live a kind of “practical atheism,” even though large numbers of Americans would still profess a belief in God.

In the time since America’s founding, the primacy of God—God’s sovereignty—has all but disappeared from our cultural landscape.  American law and culture has distanced itself from the Gospel’s truths about abortion, contraception, immigration, poverty, technology, and education. And our views on marriage, the family, and, in fact, the very nature of the human person reflect a serious departure from the truth of God’s creation. All of us know that the impact of our cultural worldviews make our lives harder, lonelier, and more vulnerable than God wants them to be.  

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Standing in solidarity

(Para leer esto en español, vaya aquí)

The Catholic Church’s teaching on immigration is based on three clear principles: that families have the right to migrate for economic opportunities, for freedom, or for safety; that nations have the right to security, to fixed borders and ordered policies for immigrants; that as an obligation of justice and mercy, nations who can receive immigrants without detriment to the welfare of their citizens should do so.

By those standards, the immigration policy of the United States is in serious need of reform.

The United States does not adequately address its citizens’ right to safety, because it does not adequately address the challenges posed by those who enter the country illegally, or those arrive legally and, after visas have expired, remain illegally. Nor does the United States base immigration quotas and limits on unbiased and fair assessments of our economy and infrastructure’s capacity to welcome immigrants to our nation. Finally, the byzantine rules governing immigration to the United States, which often include waiting lists decades long, do not adequately respect the natural right of families to migration. Many experts believe that there is no reasonable way for the average Latin American family, for example, to enter the United States legally.

In short, our immigration system is broken, and that broken system is the cause of serious injustice.

There are some who suggest that our immigration system is broken because some industries benefit from the status quo: they depend on paying undocumented workers illegally low wages, and therefore oppose reforming the system. The more common assessment is that our immigration system is broken because overhauling it would require that political leaders on all sides put aside partisan posturing and incendiary rhetoric, in order to reach meaningful and comprehensive agreements.

Whatever the reason for it, our broken immigration system is an injustice to immigrants and to all Americans.  That injustice has tragic consequences in the lives of real families, who reflect the image of the Trinity.

This week, President Trump issued a directive ordering the deportation of millions of people living in the United States illegally. That order will do very little to resolve the immigration problems in our country. It will not change the economic and social conditions which lead people to leave their homes and enter the United States illegally. It will not change the demand for low-wage workers in our economy. It will not secure the borders or change the immigration process.

Nor will it meaningfully impact the security of our nation, or the safety of our citizens. In fact, over the last eight years, President Obama deported more people than any other president in United States history, with no meaningful or demonstrable impact on our country’s security or safety.

Mass deportation is a panacea: the appearance of an answer without really resolving anything. And, after eight years of mass deportation under President Obama, President Trump’s administration has doubled down on that panacea, proclaiming now the time to “take the shackles off” America’s deportation officials.

Of course, some immigrants, legal and illegal, prove themselves to be a danger, and should not be permitted to remain in this country. Unrestricted amnesty proposals are also unrealistic panaceas.

Certainly, entering a country illegally is a crime. The government has an obligation to uphold the rule of law, and to punish those who commit crimes. But the crime of illegal immigration must be considered in light of other factors: the rights of parents to provide for their children, the poverty and danger families face around the globe, and the injustice of American laws and policies governing immigration in the first place. Many immigrants who have been exiled by the circumstances of their homelands want to follow the law, but our broken system makes that impossible.  The consequences of illegal immigration should be determined in light of the sovereignty of the family, and the inhumanity of separating children, often US citizens, from their parents.

My friend, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, says that today’s immigration policy reflects “indifference and cruelty.” None of us can be indifferent, or turn a blind eye to suffering. Human beings, made in God’s image, deserve better than that.

Surely, our government, in wisdom, and creativity, and human decency, can find just means of addressing the crime of illegal immigration, without severing marriages, sending children to foster care, and returning people to situations of abject hopelessness. Surely, if America is truly great, it can respond to these challenges with ingenuity, and virtue, and charity. Catholics must lead that charge.

The consequence of America’s immigration enforcement policies is that families are living in fear. Children are afraid they will come home from school to find their parents gone. Families are afraid they will be returned to violent homelands. Many Hispanics are afraid that they might be profiled and targeted by the police, or presumed by neighbors to be criminals. Fear feeds on itself, and quickly, a sense of panic conflates truth and fiction, making it all the more difficult to separate rumor from reality. Panic leads people to desperation, and to hopelessness. This is the situation in which many Catholics now find themselves.   

For Catholics, the current immigration orders should remind us of our history in this nation. The Catholic Church in America is an immigrant Church, and since the time of the American Revolution, Catholic immigrants have been targeted with discriminatory social policies and widespread cultural suspicion. The integrity and loyalty of Catholic immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Bohemia, Italy and many other nations have been attacked at various points in our nation’s history.

Today 38% of the Catholics in the United States are Hispanic. When Catholic immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are portrayed as thuggish criminals or economic liabilities, our history should remain forefront in our minds. Immigration enforcement policies rooted in stereotypes, rather than facts, are attacks on all Catholics. We are united in the body of Christ, and brothers and sisters to one another. When members of the Body of Christ are unfairly stereotyped, or unjustly treated, each one us must stand up in solidarity.

I stand in solidarity with immigrant families living in fear of what might be coming for them. I stand in solidarity with American citizens, looking for real security, instead of political showmanship and rhetoric. I stand in solidarity with those politicians and law enforcement agents working to find fair and humane solutions to complex problems. I stand in solidarity with those living in poverty or danger, seeking some promise of safety, and opportunity for their children. I ask all Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln to join me in that solidarity.

As Catholics, we must continue to call for real, comprehensive, safe, and just immigration reform. But we cannot accept the panacea of mass detention and deportation. Americans, immigrants, and the Church should expect something better than that. 

Prayer for Migrants and Refugees:
Heavenly Father, no one is a stranger to you and no one is ever far from your loving care.
In your kindness, watch over migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, those separated from their loved ones, those who are lost, and those who have been exiled from their homes.
Bring them safely to the place where they long to be. Send your Holy Spirit over our government leaders, that they may enact laws and policies in accord with the dignity of every human person. Grant us the grace of holy boldness to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us and to see in them the Face of Your Son.
We ask this through Christ our Lord, who too was a refugee and migrant.
Amen.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

Blessed John Henry Newman and Lent

The Palazzo di Propaganda Fide sits at the south end of the Piazza de Spagna in Rome. The building has housed the Vatican’s offices for evangelization around the world since the 17th century. It is a beautiful baroque building, designed by the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and designed to evoke the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel to every human heart, to every people, to every nation.

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Upon this Rock

Four years ago, at the end of this month, Pope Benedict XVI resigned his office as pope, the Vicar of Christ, the successor of St. Peter and head of the universal Church. This was the first time in 600 years a Roman Pontiff had resigned his office.

I am writing this column from Rome, where I am visiting the Diocese of Lincoln’s seminarians and priests studying at the North American College and at pontifical universities, and the priests of our diocese working in offices of the Vatican. The Eternal City holds a lot of vivid memories for me, having spent 12 years living and working in Rome. It is always a joy and a grace to return to Rome, the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter, and the center of the Catholic Church across the world.

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The age of noise

More than 70 years ago, the English satirist Aldous Huxley wrote that modernity is the “age of noise.” He was writing about the radio, whose noise, he said “penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions – news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis.”

If Huxley had lived into the 21st century, he would have seen the age of noise redoubled and amplified beyond the radio, first to our televisions, and then to our tablets and mobile devices, machines which bring distraction, and “doses of drama,” with us wherever we go. We are, today, awash in information, assaulted, often, with tweets and pundits analyzing the latest crisis in Washington, or difficulty in the Church, or serious social, political, or environmental issue. It can become, for many people, overwhelming.

To be sure, we have a responsibility as faithful Catholics to be aware of the world and its challenges, and to be engaged in the cultural and political affairs of our communities. We cannot shirk or opt out from that responsibility. But we are living at a moment of constant urgencies and crises, the “tyranny of the immediate,” where reactions to the latest news unfold at a breakneck pace, often before much thought, reflection or consideration. We are living at a moment where argument precedes analysis, and outrage, or feigned outrage, has become an ordinary kind of virtue signaling—a way of conveying the “right” responses to social issues in order to boost our social standing. 

The 2016 presidential election was a two-year slog of platitudinous and superficial argument, and now that the election is over, that argument seems interminable. No person can sustain the kind of noise—polemical, shrill, and reactive—which has become a substitute for conversation in contemporary culture. Nor should any person try. The “age of noise” diminishes virtue, and charity, and imagination, replacing them with anxiety, and worry, and exhaustion.

The Lord didn’t make us for this kind of noise. He made us for conversation, for exchange and communion. And our political community depends upon real deliberation: serious debate and activism over serious subjects. But the Lord also made us for silence. For contemplation. For quietude. And without these things anchoring our lives, and our hearts, the age of noise transforms us, fostering in our hearts reactive and uncharitable intemperance that characterizes the media and social media spaces which shape our culture.

The age of noise is grinding away at our souls.

In the second century, just 100 years after Christ’s Ascension, an anonymous Christian disciple wrote a letter to a man named Diognetus, telling him something about the lives and practices of early Christians. “There is something extraordinary about their lives,” he wrote. “They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through…. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”

When our friends and neighbors look to us, as disciples of Jesus, they should see that there is something extraordinary about our lives: that although we live fully in our nation, we are, first, citizens of heaven. This means that we must live differently, in the age of noise. We must speak, and act, and think differently. In the words of St. Paul, we must “not be conformed to this world,” to the age of noise, “but be transformed by the renewal of our minds.” We must be, in the best sense of the word, “counter-cultural.”

To be citizens of heaven, we must be detached from the noise of this world. We must participate fully in cultural, and political, and public life, but we must entrust the outcomes of our participation to the Lord. We must detach ourselves from the news cycles, and social media arguments, and television pundits, which inflame our anger, or provoke our anxiety, or which shift our focus from the eternal to the fleeting and temporal.

My good friend Chris Stefanick, a wise speaker and author, wrote last week that we should “read less news,” and “read more Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” He’s right. We won’t be happier, or wiser, or more peaceful because we consume more of the “age of noise” than we need. Of course, we should be engaged in current affairs. But we’ll be truly happy, through Jesus Christ, when we spend far more time reading Scripture, and spending time before the Lord in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

We’ll be free from the anxiety and worry of the “age of noise” when times of prayer, and silence, are regular facets of our day. We’ll be detached from false crises and urgency of the culture of outrage when we do our small part, and then entrust the affairs of this world to the Lord. We’ll also be, when we quiet the “age of noise” in our hearts, the leaders of wisdom and virtue which our culture desperately needs, right now.

Saint Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite mystic, wrote a small poem which should guide us in the “age of noise” —
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

The noise of our culture is designed to disturb and frighten us, and to distract from the unchanging and ever-loving God. But in silent prayer and contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament, we can turn down the noise, and the Lord himself can calm our hearts and renew our minds. To live extraordinary lives, as citizens of heaven before all else, it’s time that we turn down the “age of noise.”

Supporting Nebraska’s communities, supporting Catholic schools

In the early 1860s, during the time of the Civil War, a small brick Catholic schoolhouse, St. Benedict School, went up in Nebraska City, built mostly by the hands of the town’s citizens.
St. Benedict’s students were boys and girls, Catholic and non-Catholic, the children of immigrants and pioneers. Those students received the gift of Catholic education from their teachers, Benedictine nuns, and from their parents, who built the school, and from their entire community, who sacrificed so that children could be formed in faith, in character, and in knowledge.

Today, the 26 elementary schools and six high schools in the Diocese of Lincoln are extraordinary places. Our schools still serve the children of immigrants and refugees; our students represent nations and cultures from around the world—in some schools, dozens of languages are spoken, and students learn English together in the classroom.

We welcome children from families in poverty—in some schools, more than half of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, and for other kinds of assistance. We welcome children with disabilities and challenges. We welcome children from broken families needing love, attention, and assistance. Our schools serve children whether they are Catholic or not. We welcome as many children as we are able to, because the Lord calls us to love and serve with gladness.

It is a blessing to give our students an excellent education. Our teachers and administrators have the best possible training and experience. And because of the generosity of donors, our schools have the best of modern educational technology, and a full-time team of experts helping to use technology to support our educational goals. And, of course, our philosophy of education ensures that every child is held to high standards, and helped to achieve his full potential.

Our students consistently outscore their Nebraska peers on standardized tests, and are recognized by our state, and by the University of Nebraska, for their ongoing academic excellence.

But our Catholic schools also provide something no other schools can. Our students learn the meaning of their lives in Jesus Christ. They learn to put others before themselves, and to put God before all else. Our alumni become good citizens, good mothers and fathers, good leaders in business and government, and good priests and religious sisters, because they know what truth, goodness, and beauty are, and they pursue those things. Our Catholic and non-Catholic students are shaped by the virtues of our faith: they learn, and live, that faith, hope, and charity are at the center of meaningful lives.

I am continually renewed and encouraged by the character, the integrity, the ingenuity, and the imagination of our Catholic school students. They are prepared to lead loving families, holy parishes, and thriving Nebraska communities, in virtue, joy, and truth.

Catholic education in Nebraska has always been a partnership of pastors, and parents, and religious sisters, and parishioners, and communities. The Diocese of Lincoln has excellent, affordable, vibrant schools because so many people sacrifice to make them thrive. Our schools have always been an apostolate of our parishes: a dedicated effort to form all students for excellence, for happiness, and for holiness.

This year, the Nebraska Legislature is considering LB 295, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give tax credits to those who donate money to the costs of private school education. The Opportunity Scholarship Act would incentivize donations for tuition scholarships to support the Catholic or private-school education of low and middle-income students, and, because many public school districts receive state aid for each enrolled child, create a direct savings for our state.

Opportunity Scholarships would allow students without financial resources to more easily attend private and parochial schools. And because Opportunity Scholarships would be funded by private donations, they would not divert any public money to non-public schools, or harm the educational mission of our public school systems. Instead, they would support a parent’s right to choose the best education for each child, and recognize the critically important role that Catholic and private schools play in our state.

Seventeen states offer Opportunity Scholarship tax credits. They’ve led to billions of dollars of states savings. And 44 states have some publicly supported options for non-public schools. Nebraska, despite its rich legacy of Catholic education, is one of only six states with no publicly supported options for school. The Opportunity Scholarship Act could change that.

Our Catholic schools support Nebraska’s communities in serious and important ways. The time is now for Nebraska to recognize and encourage those who support our Catholic schools.
I am proud of our Catholic schools, and grateful for the sacrifices that Nebraskans have made for Catholic education. I ask each of you to join me in encouraging your state senators to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act; to honor the long history of Catholic school education in Nebraska by supporting its future. 

Women’s rights are human rights

Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of women gathered for marches and demonstrations across the country, organized to proclaim that “women’s rights are human rights.”

No Catholic can dispute that claim. Women are created in the image of God, with dignity and beauty, and are deserving of the respect, honor, and appreciation afforded to every human person. And women suffer great injustices and indignities in places around the world, none of which should be tolerable for Christians. The Church should be the first to call for just, honorable, and loving treatment for every woman, at every stage of her life.

But the women’s marches organized last week, however well-intentioned, had a troubling approach to their advocacy. The marches tended towards an approach which plagues many movements in contemporary political and social life—they fostered a narrative of opposition, in which men and women are cast as adversaries, each grasping for the reins of power, instead of seeking unity, complementarity, mutual support, respect, and charity. Moreover, the marches seemed to embrace a kind of crudity which robs women of their true identity. There seemed to be a focus on crass slogans and symbols, replacing the beauty of femininity with an unbecoming, hard-edged vulgarity. This vulgarity was, in some cases, a response to intolerable and unacceptable crudities cast at women, most notably by our new president—but it should be clear that both his words and many responses were simply beneath our human dignity.

Finally, the women’s marches last week embraced the lie that legal protection for abortion promotes women’s dignity. In fact, abortion undermines the rights of women to life, to respect, and to freedom.

(Related item: Bishop Conley's column "Building a Culture of Life")

The early American feminists—women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul—began a movement rooted in Christian morality, and pro-life convictions. Alice Paul, who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, taught that “abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women,” through which men escape responsibility for their own choices, and use economic and social power to impose harmful choices on women. Sadly, the organizers of last weekend’s marches seem to have embraced the lie of abortion, without ever recognizing its danger.

While watching media coverage of the women’s marches, I saw a sign I greatly appreciated. A young girl held a poster with a picture of a mother and a daughter, next to the words “without a woman, you wouldn’t be here.” That sign reflects a true feminism, which recognizes that women, through whom every single person comes into the world, are deserving of the highest respect.

The Church, in our veneration of the Blessed Mother, has always recognized that women are critical to the salvation of the world, and to every single human family. Women and men, created complementary to one another, reflect the image of God.

Motherhood is an extraordinary part of the role of women in the life of the world. But, in a 2004 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church teaches that “this does not mean that women should be considered from the sole perspective of physical procreation.” Instead, our faith teaches that the genius of women is a “capacity for the other,” a “deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other.”

Women, the Church teaches, have “a sense and a respect for what is concrete,” and “a singular capacity to persevere in adversity, to keep life going even in extreme situations, to hold tenaciously to the future, and finally to remember with tears the value of every human life.”

We all depend on the feminine genius. The Church teaches that “femininity is more than simply an attribute of the female sex,” it is “the fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other.” 

Men and women, who are created different, bring unique perspectives and approaches to family life, to culture and politics, and to the workplace. Both women and men are essential to the welfare of our families, our Church, and our communities. The Church teaches that, for this reason, “women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.”

To achieve a just society, we must work to make it possible for women to be welcomed in leadership and collaboration in all areas of life, and all communities. This requires policies which respect the role of women in the workplace and in the family, which ensure that women who devote the totality of their time to their families are not stigmatized or financially penalized, and which ensure that women in the workplace are not penalized or excluded because of their obligations to their families and children.

Women’s rights are, indeed, human rights. This essentially includes the right of all women to life, and the right for women to live without the coercion or exploitation of abortion. It includes the right of women to participate in social and economic leadership, and their right to do so without unjust personal or family costs. God did not create men and women to vie for power, to be at odds with one another, to be mistrustful or defensive. He created men and women, in His image, for unity, respect, support, and love. May each of us work for that unity, in our hearts, in our families, and in our world.

Building a culture of life

In 1919, almost 100 years ago, a young journalist living in New York discovered that she was pregnant. She was dating an editor, Lionel, who was nine years older than her. He pressured her to have an abortion. He told her that if she had the baby he would leave her and her journalism career would fall apart. Her family was 700 miles away. She had few friends, no real faith in God, and no money.

She went ahead with the abortion – all alone. She later said that the doctor was “dirty and furtive. He left hastily after it was accomplished, leaving me bleeding.”

When she returned to her apartment, she found a note from Lionel, saying that he was leaving her. “It is best” he wrote, “that you forget me.”

The young journalist was Dorothy Day, who later converted to Catholicism and became a great social activist, a holy mystic, and a friend to the poor. Years later, she explained that she felt she had to choose between the child she had conceived and its father; between the love of her boyfriend and her love for the child. She wrote “I wanted the baby but I wanted Lionel more. So I had the abortion and I lost them both.”

Dorothy Day learned that day in 1919 what thousands of women learn painfully each year—that abortion does not solve problems, it only adds to the pain. She learned that abortion does not heal our hurt, it only creates new wounds. Abortion does not protect women, it harms them; it brings not freedom, but coercion. The legal protection for abortion makes it easy for boyfriends, or husbands, or parents, or employers, to coerce women; to tell them that to preserve their jobs, or family life, or relationships, they must sacrifice their own children.

Dorothy Day learned what Saint Teresa of Calcutta learned from her work among women who had suffered abortion, that “abortion is profoundly anti-woman. Three quarters of its victims are women: Half the babies and all the mothers.”

Abortion has been available in our country for more than a century. And, for 44 years, it has been legally protected, in every state of our nation, by the tragic decision of Roe vs. Wade. In those 44 years, abortion has taken the lives of millions of children, and, it has caused untold pain, regret, and coercive harm to millions of women. It is time to end the scandal of legally protected abortion in our nation.

Last Saturday, I joined thousands of Nebraskans in the annual Walk for Life, a witness to the fundamental dignity of every human person, especially the unborn, the most vulnerable among us. At the end of this month, young people from Nebraska and I will travel to Washington, D.C., where we will witness to the dignity of life in the national March for Life with hundreds of thousands of Americans, walking, praying, and witnessing, in the hope of ending legal protection for abortion.

We witness to life because we believe that every single human person is made in the image of God. We believe that children, and women, deserve better than abortion.

The good news is that more young people than ever before report acknowledging the fact that abortion takes a human life, and that abortion harms women. Young people today are more likely to identify as pro-life than at any time since 1973. Millennials want to see legal protection for abortion eradicated. They also want to see policies which support the sovereignty of the family, the protection of women and the dignity of of the poor. And they’re willing to work towards those goals.

We should be encouraged by Catholics, young and old, who are working to end legal protection for abortion in our country. We should be optimistic, though cautiously optimistic, about the possibility of support for life from the incoming administration. We should continue to pursue policies which end legal protection for abortion, and hold our incoming administration accountable to its pro-life promises.

But the story of Dorothy Day reminds us of something important: ending legal protection for abortion is a critically important goal, but it is not the only goal. When Dorothy Day had an abortion, performing the abortion was a misdemeanor in New York State. Both she and the doctor broke the law. But Dorothy Day did so because she felt she had no choice: because she had no family nearby, no community, no material support, or emotional and spiritual support, she was coerced by her child’s father.

Abortion is often a temptation when expectant mothers face the challenges of loneliness, of spiritual emptiness, of unstable relationships and absent families. Poverty is often a factor in choosing abortion, but spiritual poverty, isolation, and hopelessness are far more powerful factors. The Lord calls us to give the gifts of freedom, of healing, of grace—to be conduits of love—in the lives of women and families who might be tempted to consider abortion.

This means that our parish and school communities, our social circles, our Church’s entire life, must seek out, welcome, and support those who might otherwise never find the Lord—those who, absent his love and the love of his Church, might be led into terrible and painful choices.

This January as we commemorate 44 years since Roe vs. Wade, we can be grateful that the tide is turning in our nation, and we have hope for ending legal protection for abortion. Let us also remember those who, like Dorothy Day, need the unity of the Church, and the mercy of God, before considering abortion, or after having one. And let us pray for all victims of abortion—babies, and women—as we work to build a culture of life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.    

Following the star

On Sunday, Jan. 8, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.  The word epiphany means “revelation,” and the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ to the entire world.  We celebrate the three kings—the magi—on Epiphany because, when the magi discovered Christ, he was revealed to the world beyond Israel—and his mission of salvation for every nation began to take shape.

St. Matthew says that the magi came from “the land of the sunrise,” from the east.  Most probably, the magi were priests of a Persian religion, whom Pope Benedict XVI calls “custodians of religious and philosophical knowledge that had developed in that area and came to be cultivated there.”

At every time, in every culture, man looks up to the stars in wonder, seeking and searching for the truth. He has always done so. The philosopher Rudolf Steiner wrote that anthropos, the Greek word for man, is best understood as “he who looks up into the heights to find the source and origin of his life.” 

The magi looked up into the heights. The magi were seekers and mystics, searching for meaning in the stars. And astoundingly, they found it. They came to Jerusalem because they had seen a star which promised them that the “king of the Jews” had been born. The magi were not among the Jewish people, they did not have the benefit of God’s prophetic revelation, but still, in their own religious search for truth, they expected something great from the “king of the Jews,” and so they sought him out.

And the magi went searching in hope for the Lord after seeing a star. 

Of course, we do not know quite what they saw in the sky. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler says that Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were aligned in the years that Jesus was most likely born. And that this alignment, if combined with the sight of celestial supernova, would have been an extraordinary vision in the sky. The Magi might have seen this, and through some glimmer of prophetic insight, expected that this star meant that a great king, a king of hope and promise, had been born in Jerusalem.

Pope Benedict says that the magi remind us that “the cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state. The language of creation… gives man an intuition of the Creator. Moreover, it arouses the expectation, indeed the hope, that this God will one day reveal himself.”

The magi also tell us that many men and women of wisdom, from other religious faiths, are earnestly seeking God, and searching for the truth. That many seek Christ without knowing it, because they are seeking something great from God, and seeking him in hope. The magi remind us that there are often glimmers of truth—penumbras of God’s revelation—which can and should lead all people to discover the savior of the world.

When the magi began their journey, they did not go straight to Christ—they went to Jerusalem—and they remind us that those who seek God may come close to Christ, but they will not know and enjoy real and authentic communion with him unless we point the way, unless we lead them directly to the King of Kings.  The magi glean a great deal about God through his creation.  But leading the world to know the Lord, Jesus Christ, is the work and mission of his disciples—each one of us.

When the magi went to Jerusalem, they asked King Herod to help them find the newborn King of the Jews. But Herod knew that if a Messiah had come, his own power would be lost, his own pride would be humbled, his own reign would have to submit to the Christ. And so, rather than seek the truth, he sought to protect his own interests, and ordered a massacre of any child who might be the Christ.

The magi found Jesus, and despite the words of Herod, they worshipped him.

In the story of the magi, each one of us is reminded that Christ has come to lead all people to Christ. That we must be witnesses and evangelists.  That we must find those who seek him, like the magi, and lead them to truth. That knowing Christ requires humility, and sacrifice, and placing the truth above our own narrow interests. 

St. Paul says that God has given us the grace to make disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations. And by the grace in every human heart, many are seeking the Lord. May we proclaim that Christ the King, the Lord of every human heart, has been born.  May we proclaim “Emmanuel”—God is with us—to everyone who seeks to know and live the truth.

Jesus Christ is born

His name is Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. He is the savior of the world. He is the Lord of the dead and of the living, the Lord of time and history. He is the the Word of God, the eternal son of the Father, who has always existed, and who will always exist.

He is God made man. And he was born in a stable, a cave, probably, where livestock were kept. After he was born, he was lovingly dressed by his mother, and then his exhausted parents laid him in the best place they could find, a hastily cleaned feeding trough, where animals had been eating just hours before.

To be sure, a barn is an unworthy place for any woman to give birth, for any baby to be born. A trough is an inhospitable and unwelcoming crib. But this is the place where Jesus Christ, God made man was born. His parents were so poor they had no place to stay. They were alone in a strange city, apart from their families, delivering the King of Kings in a drafty, earthy, inhospitable barn.

The Lord chose this humble place for his entrance into the world. And Pope Benedict says that the birthplace of Jesus “points towards the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message. From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms.”

We, the disciples and followers of Jesus, need to remember his birth each day. We need to remember that the savior of the world chose to be born into indecency, homelessness, even temporarily. And for all his life, he remained outside the centers of power and influence, outside the realm of security and comfort.

St. John’s Gospel tells us that “he came into his own home, and his own people received him not.” 

He himself told us “foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He came into the world outside of the city, and, later, he was crucified outside of the city.

When he was born, Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes—he was wrapped tightly, so that he would rest comfortably. And then he was laid atop a manger of stone. His birth evokes the memory of Isaac, the son of Abraham, who was bound and laid on a stone altar, before the Lord provided a lamb to be offered in his place.

From the very first moment of his birth, Christ was bound to be the sacrificial victim, the innocent lamb led to the slaughter, who would give his life for the salvation of the whole world. And he was laid in a place where animals eat. He, Jesus, is the true and living bread of life, his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, which gives us eternal life. In the manger, Christ reveals to us that he will give himself to us as real food and real drink, true and living nourishment.

As he lay in the manger, shepherds came to adore him. In fact, they ran to adore him. They knelt before him, and gave God thanks and praise for the presence of his son in the world. They rejoiced, and worshipped, and gave glory to God in the highest. The shepherds humbled themselves to kneel before a child, hidden in a barn, and trusted that he was the Lord of the Universe.

Christ is present to us now in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Most Blessed Sacrament. When we adore him in the Holy Eucharist, exposed upon the altar, we continue to experience the joy and wonder of those shepherds. We kneel before the true food of Christ’s body, in his sacramental presence in the Eucharist. We kneel as if before the manger in Bethlehem. And we give thanks, and glory, and honor to God, who sent his son into the world, so that we could have eternal life. Praise and adoration is the only fitting response. This is why Eucharistic Adoration is so important for our spiritual lives. Praise and adoration was the first response of those who came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and praise and adoration must be our response as well.

God is present to each one of us, because the savior of the world came to us, in humility and poverty. He revealed to us the glory of God, the redemption of men, the eternal love of the Trinity.  In adoration and worship, he calls us to set aside worldly honor, or power, or glory. The shepherds humbled themselves to kneel before a child, hidden in a barn.

When we kneel before the Holy Eucharist, Christ hidden under the appearance of bread, we can trust that he is the Lord of all things, and that he came to heal us, free us, and to give us the life of the Trinity itself forever. This kind of trust is not easy. But trust is precisely what Christ has asked of his disciples from the very moment of his birth, since the Lord of the Universe was born in a stable, outside of the small city of Bethlehem, to transform and redeem every single heart.

The just man

Christmas is more than the tree, the carols, the presents, and the feasting. Christmas is more than even time with family and friends. Christmas is our recollection and celebration of the Incarnation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who was born more than 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem.

Christmas is the celebration of a fact of history, a reality: that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come into the world, and that through his life, death, and resurrection, death itself was defeated, and we can now share the glory of the Trinity for all eternity.

Christmas comes, like Christ, into the world whether or not we are prepared for it. Christ has come into the world whether or not we really understand how and in what way his coming into the world will transform our lives. There is a danger at Christmas, that in the noise, and activity, and festivities of the season, we will not see the presence of Christ among us, or hear the voice of the Lord calling us to follow him in extraordinary ways.

There is, perhaps, no one who understands that more than St. Joseph. When Mary found out that she was with child, and would bear the savior of the world, she was engaged to an honest workingman, a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph.

When the Blessed Mother had become pregnant, Joseph faced a difficult choice. The law required that if a betrothed woman was unfaithful, the engagement should be cancelled.
St. Joseph was a just man, who wanted to follow the law faithfully, and to follow it in love. In his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” Pope Benedict XVI explains that Joseph’s task was “to interpret and follow the law faithfully,” to decide whether to bring Mary to court, where her pregnancy would be exposed, or to quietly end the betrothal. St. Joseph knew that if Mary’s pregnancy had been exposed, she would have been outcast, shamed, and would have carried in their community the stigma of adultery.

Pope Benedict says that Joseph made a choice to love. “He does not want to give Mary up to public shame. He wishes her well, even in the hour of his great disappointment… He lives the law as Gospel. He seeks the path that brings law and love into a unity.”

For that reason, St. Joseph, following the law, decided to end his engagement quietly, rather than “put her to shame.”

Pope Benedict says that St. Joseph’s decision was the result of a lifetime spent in dialogue with God, a “man with roots in the living waters of God’s word.” Because of his justice, his mercy, and his intimate discipleship with God, Pope Benedict says that St. Joseph is “inwardly prepared for the new, unexpected, and humanly speaking incredible news that comes to him from God.”

In fact, after St. Joseph decided to quietly end his engagement, an angel appeared to him in a dream, telling him “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

St. Joseph was given extraordinary clarity of vision, as a particular and special grace from the Lord. And because St. Joseph was a lifelong disciple of the Lord, who placed God’s revelation above his own desires or happiness, he heard the Lord’s call, even in his dream, and had the courage to follow it. 

Pope Benedict writes that “this shows us an essential quality of the figure of St. Joseph: his capacity to perceive the divine and his ability to discern. Only a man who is inwardly watchful for the divine, only someone with a real sensitivity for God and his ways, can receive God’s message in this way.”

As God speaks to him through an angel, Pope Benedict says that “Joseph is drawn up into the mystery of God’s incarnation.”

The Lord wants to draw us up into the mystery of his incarnation, as well. God wants to redeem us, and make us holy, and he wants us to participate in his plan for the salvation of the world. God has a role for each one of us, an important place in the mystery of the incarnation.

We might miss it—we might not hear the Lord’s call, unless, like St. Joseph, we are “watchful for the divine,” we are in “dialogue with God,” we have cultivated an intimate friendship with the Lord. To become a part of the mystery of the incarnation, we need to seek God, in silence, in prudence, in discernment, and in faith. The Lord’s coming into the world, and into our lives, can surprise us. Like St. Joseph, we must be ready, and we must be listening.

Rejoice!

Six hundred years before the coming of Christ, God sent the prophet Zephaniah to call his people to conversion.  Zephaniah called the Kingdom of Judah to observe the promise of the covenant, and to wait in hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Zephaniah foretold that “a mighty savior” would bring glory, and peace, and joy, to the Lord’s chosen people. 

“Rejoice, daughter of Zion, shout, Israel,” Zephaniah proclaimed, “the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, a mighty savior, who will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love.”

When the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary to announce that she would bear the Messiah, he greeted her with the Greek word chaire, which means “Rejoice!”

“Rejoice, O favored one of God,” Gabriel proclaimed. “The Lord is with you!”

Gabriel had good reason to call Mary to rejoice.  As the angel spoke, he reminded her of the promises of the prophets, and he told her that the long-awaited savior would be her son; that through her, the Lord would renew the people of Israel “in his love.”

When Christ was born, angels appeared to shepherds outside of Bethlehem, with a call to rejoice.  The angels appeared with “good news of great joy,” and appeared as a multitude expressing their joy in praise to the Lord.

Joy is the gift the Lord Jesus gives the world by his Incarnation.  Joy is a supernatural gift.  Joy comes from heaven.  Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “joy appears” during Advent “as the particular gift of the Holy Spirit, the true gift of the Redeemer.  So a chord is sounded with the angel’s salutation which then resounds throughout the life of the Church.”

During Advent, the Church remembers the gift of joy that the Lord gives us, especially on Advent’s third Sunday: Gaudete Sunday.  For more than one thousand years, the Church has celebrated a moment of joy during the season of Advent—because when we experience joy, we know that the Lord is near.  When we experience joy in the liturgy of Gaudete Sunday, we know that the Lord’s Incarnation, at Christmas, is nearing. 

Joy is the fruit of faith, hope, and love.  And it is the response of our souls to communion with God.  Joy is a mark of faith—those who know the Lord, and who are near to him, well up with joy.  On Gaudete Sunday, we pray that the Lord might increase our joy, and in so doing, we pray that we might draw ever closer to Jesus Christ, the source of all joy. 

Chaire, “rejoice” — with which Gabriel greeted Mary — has the same root as charis, the Greek word for grace.  Pope Benedict XVI wrote that “joy and grace belong together.”

During this season of Advent, may we continue to pray that the Holy Spirit increase our joy, and that the Lord might be ever close to us.  May we receive the grace of the Eucharist, and the grace of mercy, which “belongs together” with joy.  May we rejoice with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, because the Lord is truly with us!  

Waiting and watching for Christ

Christ has come into the world.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father—God, himself—became a man, and came into the world as an infant, born quietly, in poor and humble circumstances, while few took note of his arrival. He came to fulfill God’s promise through the prophets; he came to conquer sin and death; he came so that we human beings—fallen, sinful, and mortal—could be transformed, and share in God’s own divinity, living the life of the Trinity itself, forever.

Those who knew that God had come into the world were those who were already seeking God, awaiting his promise, or listening for his voice. The Blessed Mother and St. Joseph heard the Lord tell them, through his angels, that they would bring God into the world and become his family. St. Elizabeth, thankful for the extraordinary grace of God in her own life, recognized that her cousin Mary had become the “mother of the Lord.” The shepherds outside Bethlehem heard a great proclamation as they humbly and quietly tended to their sheep. The wise men of the east—the Magi—knew that something extraordinary happened, because they sought the truth, looking up at the skies in wonder and searching for the presence of God in the world.

Christ comes now into the world. 

Christ comes into the world now, in the Eucharist and in the other sacraments, in the Church, in Sacred Scripture, and in our hearts. Christ comes into our lives to give us the gift of his redemption, of his sacrifice, of his promise. Christ comes into our lives to heal us, and set us free. Christ comes into our lives to make all things new—our hearts, our minds, our wills—and to make us holy disciples of God.

He comes quietly into the world, without fanfare or majesty. Those who know that he has come are those who search for meaning, those who quiet their hearts from distractions, and those who set aside pride, or complacency, or cynicism, or vanity, to search earnestly for the truth, and to accept it, even when it seems impossible.
Christ will come again into the world.

At the end of this world, Christ will come in glory, to bring the final triumph of good over evil, to reveal our hearts, and to judge every human being according to his justice, and his mercy. Christ will come so that the living and the dead who have responded to God’s grace will enter eternal life with the Trinity. Christ will come again after great trials and persecutions, but we will not know the hour, we will not know the time or the place.

Those who will be prepared for his glorious coming are those who have been waiting and watching for Christ; those who have been seeking to live in truth, and placing their trust in almighty God. Those who will be prepared are those who have taken up the call to discipleship, who have chosen goodness, who have not put off his call. God’s call to holiness is immediate, his call to follow him is urgent. We do not know when he will return. But we know that he will, indeed, return at some point and we need to be prepared.

The coming of Christ—yesterday, today, and tomorrow—is what Advent is about. Advent is a moment in which the Church calls us to remember that Christ has come, and is coming now, and will come again. Advent is a reminder to repent, to prepare our hearts, and to search for the coming of Jesus Christ.

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote about those who are preparing for Christ’s coming. “They watch for Christ,” he wrote, “who have a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind, who are awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honoring Him, who look out for Him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if they found that he was coming at once ... This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again; to desire His second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of His first.”

Newman’s reminder is a blueprint for our call this Advent. We should open our minds, by honoring and seeking God. We should repent of our sin. We should do our best to detach ourselves from distractions and comforts, and ask for the Lord’s help. We should read Scripture, and spend time in prayer and worship, so that we will remember that he has come, know that he is with us now, and will have a strong desire in our hearts for his coming again.

Jesus Christ is coming into this world. Let us watch for him: awake, eager, humble, and prepared.

Reasons to give thanks

1863 was the bloodiest year of the Civil War.  By some estimates, more than 200,000 American soldiers died that year.  Our nation was wounded, deeply divided, and angry.  Political leaders were distrusted and reviled, the economy was fluctuating wildly, immigrants and minorities were marginalized, and religious practice was waning in some places, and taking new and unusual forms in other places.  In 1863, many people wondered whether the United States would survive as a nation very much longer.

Writing to his divided and discouraged country, President Lincoln issued a proclamation recalling the many blessings that Almighty God had given our nation.  Lincoln recognized that the United States had been showered with “the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” 

Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving, because he knew that in moments of division or discouragement, or fear, the first thing to do is to remember what the Lord has given us, to remember our responsibilities to him, and to give thanks.

The Lord has, indeed, remembered us in his mercy.  He has graced us with his presence, in his word, in the Church, in the Sacraments, and in the hearts of millions of earnest believers across our country who seek to do God’s will in their lives.  He has graced us with the gift of freedom: the liberty to seek the Lord and to serve him, and to worship him, as he has called us.  He has graced us with peace, and security, and a prosperity so excessive that each one of us has the ability to do incredible amounts of good for those who are poor and without the basic material goods of life.

Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom to follow the commands of the Gospel in extraordinary ways.  Because of his blessings, we have the freedom to love our neighbors well, to protect and serve our common good, to build the bonds of unity in our nation, despite our profound political disagreements.  Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom and responsibility to support unborn children and their parents, even in crisis situations.  We have the freedom to build a culture which values and supports human dignity and the gifts of life, marriage and parenthood. 

Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom and the responsibility, to build an economy in which every family can meaningfully participate and benefit. 

Because of the Lord’s blessings, we have the freedom and responsibility to welcome immigrants generously to our nation, to provide families with an opportunity to share in our blessings and prosperity, to remember that we are a continent of immigrants, who, through God’s blessings, have become a nation. We must never forget these truths.

In 1987, Pope St. John Paul spoke to our nation saying that “the ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones.”  Because of God’s blessings, we can make our nation great, by making our nation holy.  We have the freedom and the responsibility to do so.

We are living at a moment of extraordinary division, discouragement, uncertainty, and fear in our country.  Even in our local community we are living in a moment in which racial, social, economic, religious, and political differences have become charged, too often, with anger or resentment.  Our moment in history calls for Thanksgiving: God calls us to remember what he has given us, to repent of our own sinfulness, and to foster the common good, trusting in His Providence.

In his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Lincoln expressed hope that as Americans give the thanks “justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers… and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

May we give God thanks.  May we repent of our sins.  May we live the freedom and responsibility God has given us.  And may God restore our nation to peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Servants of Christ the King

On the Solemnity of Christ the King Nov. 20, the great Jubilee Year of Mercy will come to an end. In Rome, a friend tells me that there has been a little bit of concern about the end of the Year of Mercy. Typically, a jubilee year ends with the closing of the great holy doors at St. Peter’s Basilica. But there is some concern about a ceremony to “close the doors of mercy!” This is not exactly the message the Church wants to send! (Editor's Note:  Read more about the holy doors at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln.)

Although the Year of Mercy will come to an end, its message is that God’s mercy is inexhaustible, and never-ending. And because the Year of Mercy ends on the Solemnity of Christ the King, God’s Providence reminds us that the Lord, who is kind and merciful, is the sovereign Lord of our hearts, our lives, and the sovereign Lord of history.

We are living at an important juncture in history. Last week, the results of the presidential election were a surprise to many people. We have some reasons to hope that the incoming administration will do some good things for our nation after this election, especially when it comes to greater protection for the unborn and greater respect for the human right of religious liberty and conscience protection. But we have to hold the administration accountable to its promises to defend life and religious liberty. And we have to insist that the administration take seriously the sovereignty of the family, especially of immigrant families, the moral good of affordable healthcare, and the Church’s commitment to the poor. We have to insist upon a robust defense of human dignity, as it impacts economic policies, immigration policy, foreign and domestic policy agendas, and as it impacts our national character.

Since the election, protests have sparked in cities across the United States, and some cases have become occasions of considerable and inexcusable violence. The protests are a visible sign of how deeply divided our nation really is at this moment in her history. And the protests are a reminder of our Catholic obligation to foster the common good, to build a civilization of love, and to be true missionaries of mercy—those who reveal the mercy, peace, and the transformative power of Christ the King.

The day after the election, Pope Francis prayed that we would “make God’s merciful love ever more evident in our world through dialogue, mutual acceptance and fraternal cooperation.” The Holy Father was pointing to an important reality. God calls communities, and states, and nations, to a true internal communion—to a unity with one another, rooted in the unity of the Most Holy Trinity itself.

God calls the bonds of our national unity to be the bonds of a particular kind of love. And for that to come to fruition, we must be committed to genuine love of our neighbors—not to loving “mankind” in the abstract, but to regarding our countrymen, our individual neighbors whom we know, and those with whom we disagree, as the beloved children of God.

This does not mean that we should ignore disagreements with one another. Instead, it means that we should have disagreements in humility, in peace, in the true charity which is gained by seeing one another through the eyes of mercy.

Each one of us needs to pray that we will see all of our fellow citizens as Christ the King sees them: as his beloved subjects, his brothers and sisters, and those for whom he willingly gave his life on the cross.

We have serious work to do in the political forum in the next four years. But we also need to rebuild the public square as a place in which Christ the King is sovereign, and his mercy is the beginning of real common ground.

May God grant us the humility, the hope, and courage to live as subjects of Christ the Merciful King, so that his peace may reign in our hearts, and in our nation.

Signs of contradiction

The following is an excerpt from “Make Disciples of This Nation,” a speech given by Bishop Conley Oct. 29, at a Catholic Answers conference in Omaha.

GK Chesterton says each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.

We are called to be disciples of all nations, to proclaim the Gospel and bring the world to Jesus Christ. The world sorely needs Christ. It’s clear, and becoming clearer every day, that our culture is characterized by relativistic consumer values and a profound crisis of real meaning. It’s become clear that we do not live in an era defined by Christian virtue, or a true sense of human dignity.

If we are going to make disciples in the stark, technocratic, lonely culture of American public life, we need to become signs of contradiction. In today’s world, that means that we are called embrace what the world rejects: friendship, beauty, goodness, truth, weakness, suffering, joy, and hope. If we are going to become the saints of this moment, it will be because we embrace the reality of human life, living fully and freely: because of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Becoming a sign of contradiction is not the same as becoming contrarian. Evangelization is not a war with the world. Nor does becoming a sign of contradiction mean withdrawing from the world. The world is already mired in conflict, and fractured, and atomized. Becoming a sign of contradiction means witnessing to something more delightful, more profound, and more meaningful than what our world offers.

Evangelization is an invitation, expressed in love, to encounter, love, and serve the living God. Evangelization is a witness to the real peace, joy, and hope of life in Jesus Christ.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of leading a candlelit Eucharistic procession through the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska. More than 500 college students walked in the procession. We stopped at three outdoor altars for prayers and benediction, one in front of the student union, one in front of Memorial Stadium—right in front of the statue of Bob Devaney!—and one on the corner of “Fraternity and Sorority Row” on 16th Street. The students sang hymns as we walked. It was a powerful witness of public faith, and a powerful sign of contradiction.

The third altar was across from the Lutheran Student Center. As we passed by, Newman Center students signaled to students standing at the window to come and join us—and they did! Five Lutheran students joined in the procession back to the Newman Center, where we had the concluding benediction and the Divine Praises.

I met these students after the procession, and we talked, in a spirited and meaningful conversation, about the Eucharist. It was wonderful! Our sign of contradiction led to a moment of evangelization.

Every human heart is made for love. Every human wants to be free. Thirty years of priesthood have taught me that every single soul is seeking mercy.

God made us that way.  And becoming signs of contradictions means witnessing to the love, and freedom, and mercy that we have experienced in Jesus Christ.

Becoming signs of contradiction means forming authentic friendships and authentic communities. Becoming signs of contradiction means witnessing to the freedom that comes from the sacrifice and self-denial of real love. Becoming signs of contradiction means promoting the true, the good, and in our culture, most especially the beautiful. Being signs of contradiction means sharing that Jesus Christ is a person, whom we know, and love, and whom we have experienced loving us.

This summer at World Youth Day in Poland, Pope Francis said something very profound at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, He said that “God saves us by making himself little, near and real.”

That’s true. Each one of us can know God, and love him, and follow him because we have the experience of his reality, through which we can say “Love looks like this. Truth speaks this way. Salvation has come, in this man, Jesus of Nazareth, who is not a proposition or a conclusion, but a person.”

Becoming signs of contradiction means speaking, from one heart to another, of the love of Jesus Christ, who is small, near, real.  God calls each one of us to that mission.

May we have the courage to become signs of contradiction—witnesses of love—and to proclaim that God, little, near, and real, calls every human heart to his eternal mercy.

Benedict in the ruins

St. Benedict and St. Scholastica were twins, born in the Italian city of Norcia more than 1,500 years ago, in the year 480. They changed the world. Benedict is the father of western monasticism: he was a hermit who developed a rule for monastic life that transformed the Church, transformed Europe, and transformed the world.

The Rule of St. Benedict established the principles that are at the heart of nearly all of the Church’s monastic traditions. When Benedict founded a community of monks in the sixth century, he developed a pattern for labor and prayer that millions of people around the world still follow, in one form or another. And when the Benedictine Order spread across Europe, it brought peace and tranquility to warring and lawless territories, and, more importantly, it brought the light of Jesus Christ to untold numbers of souls.

We cannot overestimate the significance of St. Benedict in the spread of the Gospel, the development of western culture, or the sanctification of the world. Pope Benedict XVI called St. Benedict “the father of many nations;” he often said that one can hardly understand Europe, the Church, or Christian civilization without understanding St. Benedict.

Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, is no less significant. Scholastica began the Benedictine Order for women, which also spread in extraordinary ways around the world. And Scholastica was the most trusted confidant, advisor, and collaborator of her brother St. Benedict. Their spiritual friendship influenced every part of the development of Benedictine spirituality and monasticism.

Since the deaths of Benedict and Scholastica, pilgrims have visited their birthplace to pray for their intercession, and to pray for the salvation of the world. The Basilica of St. Benedict, built over their birthplace, grew up over hundreds of years, little by little, through painstaking labor, until its completion in the sixteenth century.

On Sunday, Oct. 30, a basilica that took hundreds of years to build was flattened in a matter of minutes. Around 7:40 a.m., Norcia and the surrounding mountains were shaken by Italy’s strongest earthquake in decades. This, in fact, was the second major earthquake in Norcia in recent months. The basilica crumbled. All the other churches in this picturesque Umbrian town did too. Miraculously, though more than 3,000 people were evacuated from their homes, there were only 20 injuries, and no deaths.

The Benedictine Monks of Norcia emailed their friends just a few hours after the earthquake. They were all safe, and they had begun helping with the rescue efforts. The priests of Norcia’s monastery were especially looking for those who might need anointing of the sick or spiritual support. The monks gathered, as soon as they could, at their mountain monastery to pray for the people of Norcia before they continued helping with the rescue effort.

The prior, or superior, at the monastery in Norcia, has been my friend for nearly 20 years. The monks of Norcia began their community in Rome in the mid-90s. They were a small community of three, though they have grown exponentially since then. I would visit Father Cassian Folsom, the prior, and his monks in a small upstairs chapel near the Roman Forum. We would often pray vespers together, or share a meal.

The monks of Norcia are witnessing to the world an important reminder. Their home has crumbled around them. But they are undeterred in hope. Christ is the source of their hope, and the center of their lives. They are able to carry on in the ruins of their home because they have fortitude, and hope, and charity. They know the Lord has called them to continue to pray, and continue to work. They know that God calls them to be a source of grace in the middle of tragedy.

I often speak with friends these days who feel that our culture is crumbling around us. That things built over centuries have collapsed very quickly. I know how easy it is to become discouraged. But the monks of Norcia are a shining witness to the call of every Christian. If Christ is our hope, we will carry on, with fortitude, no matter what happens around us. In every season and circumstance, God calls us to pray and to work – ora et labora. And when culture crumbles, God calls us to be a source of grace in the middle of tragedy.

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that the world is “waiting for another St. Benedict.” The monks of Norcia, following their holy founder, will spread the Gospel, and worship the Lord, and bring hope, peace, and freedom in the midst of their crumbled city. May each one of us have the courage to do the same.

 

The Monks of Norcia are raising funds to aid relief efforts and rebuild the churches of Norcia.  To support them, visit: https://en.nursia.org/donations/

Deliver us from evil

Each time we pray as Jesus taught us, we ask God to “deliver us from evil.”

Evil is real. Evil is not only an abstract idea or the absence of good. Evil is a person, Satan: the Evil One. Satan is the angel who opposes God and who desires to disrupt the power of God in our lives. Satan, the father of all lies, wants to trap us in evil in order to prevent God’s plan from being accomplished in our lives, to keep us from doing good in the world, and to keep us from eternal intimacy with God in heaven.

Evil can keep us from living as God made us to live; evil can keep us from becoming the saints God wants us to be, evil can make us slaves, and ultimately, evil can lead us to final separation from God in eternal damnation. But the Lord conquers all evil. And St. Paul taught that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Through the power of God, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, evil can be conquered, and we can be set free.

When Christ became a man, and when he died and conquered death in his resurrection, he assured us that we can be delivered from evil through his victory. He assured us that we can conquer even the great evil of death, because he conquered it, and by his grace, we share in that victory.

We are delivered from evil through baptism and confirmation, through confession, through the most Holy Eucharist. But our lives can be entangled with the evil of sin, and that evil can bind us. The evil of anger, of self-doubt, of fear, of pride, or shame, or mistrust, or laxity, or scrupulosity can work its way into our lives and prevent us from living in the real freedom God has planned for us. Christ can cast out these spirits and each time we pray the Lord’s prayer; we can be delivered from evil.

Satan works most often in ways that are subtle, that begin almost unnoticed, and that grow and fester over time into serious problems. Satan wants his work to be unnoticed in our lives. In The Screwtape Letters, the Christian apologist CS Lewis says that Satan wants to tempt us with “the safest road to Hell… the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

To be sure, there are those who encounter Satan in more dramatic ways, in the manifestations of demonic possession. Those occurrences are addressed, through the power of Jesus Christ, by a priest who is properly trained to identify them, understand them, and rebuke them. But Satan usually works through less apparent pathways: through whispered temptations, which can lodge themselves in our hearts in subtle and unnoticed ways.

To be sure, God wants to us to be free of the influence of evil in our lives. He wants to deliver us from all evil. And praying for deliverance, as a specific intention and with confidence in God’s power, can transform our lives.

In the Diocese of Lincoln, many Catholics have experienced the grace of freedom, of deliverance from entanglements with evil, through the ministry of Unbound teams. Unbound is a ministry which helps Catholics to pray for deliverance from the influence of evil in specific ways.

Through Unbound ministry, Catholics repent and seek freedom from their sins. They renounce the specific ways in which Satan’s lies have impacted them in the authority of Jesus, and then seek the blessing of God the Father through the prayers of other faithful Catholics. The ministry of Unbound is not a ministry of exorcism; it is instead an exercise of prayer—of entrusting all things to the power of Jesus Christ, and asking him for true and lasting freedom.

Evil is real. But grace is also real. And the power of God’s grace conquers all evil—and can conquer the evils present in our own lives. St. Paul says that the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” God desires to bring those spirits into our lives, and to deliver us, and set us free, from everything that keeps us from him. Oh Lord, deliver us from evil.

Virtue and the common good

The presidential election of 2016, I am convinced, will be remembered as one of the most dispiriting periods in American history. The last few weeks of the presidential race have been characterized by a kind of mean-spiritedness, egoism, and unvarnished ambition for power—on both sides—that would have been unimaginable even just a few years ago.

Regardless of who becomes President, the past several months have made obvious how uncivil and vicious our public conversation can become when our leaders lose sight of basic human virtues.

In a dispiriting period like ours, it’s easy to become hopeless about the future of our country, and especially about the integrity of our civic leaders and institutions. In fact, that’s exactly what Satan hopes will come from a political contest like this one. The evil one tempts us to cynicism and despondency. He hopes to undo our patriotism, our trust in one another, and our commitment to collaborating for the common good. The evil one uses bad situations to rob us of our hope.

It helps, in a political season like ours, to remember and recognize that virtuous public leaders do still serve the common good, that public institutions can provide meaningful and just assistance to our state and our community, and that our voices, and our votes, still matter in public life.

It helps, once in a while, to turn from what’s broken in order to be thankful, and grateful, for the good that can be accomplished in public life, and by government leaders.

The Catholic Church has long taught that government has the responsibility to assist families trying to raise their children and live their vocation well, and to assist the poor, the elderly, and the physically and mentally ill. The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity call us to just that.

Subsidiarity calls governments to support the vocation of parents, and solidarity calls us to “friendship” and a “preferential option” for those facing hardships and need. The Church also teaches that governments need to be good stewards: spending money wisely, and not mortgaging the future for the sake of the present.

Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is charged with many serious responsibilities of subsidiarity and solidarity.  DHHS provides Medicaid assistance and administers the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, for those without access to medical care or nutritious food. DHHS serves military veterans, living in State Veterans’ Homes in Norfolk, Bellevue, Grand Island, and Scottsbluff.

Through the Aid to Dependent Children program, vulnerable and needy children are given opportunities and assistance, most especially the opportunity to qualify for well-paying jobs, and experience the dignity of supporting themselves through work instead of long-term dependence on public assistance. The Department’s Behavioral Health Division provides resources, services, and counseling to many of the 37,000 children in Nebraska who experience behavioral health disorders, and to parents and adults struggling with mental health challenges, or addictions.

The work of DHHS is a compliment to the Church’s own work to serve the poor and the vulnerable. DHHS serves foster children, and needy families, and those who find themselves on the margins of society—what Pope Francis calls the “existential peripheries” of our communities.  Their work is an expression of the government obligation of justice: giving that which is due to one other. It is also a commitment to the common good, to serve those in need. And it is an act of virtue and justice when state governments are good stewards of our financial resources.

For several years, Nebraska’s DHHS has been criticized for wasteful spending and inefficient service. Administrative issues kept needy families from service and from opportunities. But over the past few years, I have been grateful that Governor Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Legislature have made real efforts to bring efficiency, expertise, justice, and mercy to the work of DHHS.

In the past few years, Governor Ricketts, legislative leaders, and DHHS CEO Courtney Philips have worked together to build a new plan for service to Nebraskans in need of assistance. DHHS has developed new business plans, begun tracking the efficiency and accuracy of services, increased funds available to the neediest families, and increased school attendance and performance rates among needy children, accomplishing more for Nebraska’s children and needy families, while lowering costs to be good stewards.

We should place our hope in Jesus Christ, and Christ alone. But the Catholic Church believes that governments have a mission and responsibility, which comes from Christ, to serve the common good by supporting and recognizing the dignity and rights of every human being. Where our governments, and civic officials, are working to fulfill that mission, they ought to be recognized. And when governments work to act with virtue, we ought to be encouraged. 

The power of good teachers

This week, the Diocese of Lincoln honored more than 100 teachers celebrating milestones of service in Catholic schools: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 years and beyond. We honored Marian Sister Loretta Happe (pictured) for 50 years of service as a Catholic school teacher.

Many of us can point to the holy and meaningful teachers who have revealed the Gospel to us, and have witnessed to life in Jesus Christ. I converted to the Catholic faith during my college years, and my teacher, Professor John Senior, was also my godfather. His lectures and courses revealed truth to me. But his life, more than anything else, was a witness to the living reality of Christian discipleship. My godfather, and his collaborators, and my fellow students, gave a witness to intellectual and spiritual life in Jesus Christ, a model that still inspires me today.

Truth and beauty is revealed in the real lives of good teachers. This week we celebrated the 171st anniversary of the conversion of Blessed John Henry Newman, the great Anglican convert to the Catholic Church and Oxford professor of the classics. Newman was a gifted teacher and a gifted preacher. He had a tremendous influence in the lives of his students, mostly undergraduates at the University of Oxford.

Newman understood that we experience the deepest conversion to faith when we see it in concrete realities, among the lives of believers and the saints, and especially the lives of our teachers,

He wrote that we come to a deeper kind of knowledge of God, which he called “real assent,” when we see it in concrete and living realities. Real assent, he wrote, as opposed to merely “notional assent,” comes “through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” 

The best kind of education, and the best kind of teachers, reveal faith to us, and teach us what it means to be free.

Aristotle called the basis for all education the “liberal arts.” That term doesn’t mean just studying history or literature. “Liberal arts” is a term to describe the habits of mind, the powers of induction and deduction, the virtues, especially, that make us free. Liberal arts give us liberty. True education gives us freedom. And Catholic education is a vital part of growing in holiness and missionary discipleship, a vital part of becoming a saint.

Virtue makes us authentically who we are. And imparting virtue, in the mind, and in the will, is what makes a good teacher. Helping students to do their duties to the Lord and to their neighbors, to train their minds, to grow in will and knowledge, in imagination and charity, is at the heart of Catholic education. Giving students a vision for their own good—for a rich and full life in Jesus Christ, is the longstanding mission of Catholic education, and the mission of good Catholic teachers.

Our Catholic school teachers prepare students for careers. But more importantly, they prepare them for the most important challenges of their lives: to be parents, or priests, or religious. They prepare them to choose goodness when no is watching, and to love with consistency and generosity. Our Catholic school teachers show students how to serve the Lord, with their hearts, and minds, and strength.

The profound relationship between teacher and student is the impetus for so many great things. I am grateful for the Catholic school teachers of the Diocese of Lincoln. Please pray for them, and support them, as they help our students to know the Gospel, and to know true and lasting freedom through life in Jesus Christ.

Our Lady of Victory

On October 7, 1571, the rosary saved Western Civilization.

In 1571, the Christian nations of Europe were under siege in the Mediterranean. Ships of the Turkish Ottoman Empire were bent on capturing port cities and expanding the rule of their empire. Pope Leo XIII wrote that “the vast forces of the Turks threatened to impose on nearly the whole of Europe the yoke of superstition and barbarism.”

In Cyprus, thousands of Venetian colonists were trapped by the Turks, starving and exhausted, entire cities were tortured and executed. If the Ottoman Empire were not stopped in the Mediterranean, the colonists would die and the Catholic nations of Europe would likely be overtaken—forced to submit to Ottoman rule.

To defend Christendom, Pope Pius V brought together forces from across Catholic Europe to form the Holy League, who agreed to work together to defend Europe. Under the leadership of the Captain Don Juan of Austria, more than 200 ships sailed to defend Cyprus, and push back the Ottoman Empire. As they sailed, the sailors prayed the rosary together. And across Europe, Catholics everywhere prayed the rosary in solidarity, entrusting the fate of their nations to Our Lady.

Against a much larger Turkish force, the Holy League prevailed off the coast of Lepanto. Don Juan led his fleet into battle Oct. 7, and defeated the Turks. In fact, the battle came to a conclusion shortly after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the hour of Divine Mercy, during which Christ hung on the cross.

The Venetian colonists were freed, and the threat of European invasion was quelled. Pope Pius V credited the outcome to Our Lady of Victory, who prayed for Christendom as the battle was waged. Each year on Oct. 7, the Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, remembering her intercession for the fate of Catholics across Europe.

The rosary is a powerful prayer, because Our Lady is a powerful intercessor in heaven. She is the Queen-Mother of heaven, and the Lord hears and answers her prayers.

It is Providential that we remember Our Lady of the Rosary during October, which the U.S. Bishops have proclaimed “Respect Life Month.” The “superstition and barbarism” of our time is the culture of death: the lie of pro-choice rhetoric, and the barbarism of abortion, euthanasia, and other sins against human life.

Pope St. John Paul II called the culture of death “a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed.”

During Respect Life Month, we recommit ourselves to defeating the culture of death, and building a culture of life, a civilization of love.

The Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and the Battle of Lepanto, gives us powerful lessons about how to build a culture of life.

The first lesson is that all of our pro-life work must begin and end with prayer. Prayer is the most important pro-life activity we can undertake. And the rosary, which invokes the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is especially powerful. During Respect Life Month, I ask all Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln to commit to praying the rosary—each day, or each week, to end abortion and euthanasia, and to build a culture of life.

I especially encourage Catholics to pray, peacefully, at abortion facilities themselves—to bring the grace of Our Lord’s mercy, and the consolation of Our Lady’s maternal love, to places of evil. Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln pray each day outside abortion facilities, with untold spiritual effect on those who work there, and those who go there considering an abortion. We need to continue this practice, even if we are discouraged, because our prayers can effect great change.

Because of the powerful intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I solemnly consecrated the Diocese of Lincoln to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sept. 7, the eve of the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, at the annual Marian Mass, entrusting our sacred mission to her powerful intercession (please see the text at left).

The second lesson is that we need to work tirelessly and generously to build a culture of life. We need to provide support to families and mothers in need. We need to live as if each life has dignity and value, and we need to witness to that. We need to be known, as a Church, as those who will generously support the dignity of every human life, and the needs of every human person, because of God’s love. We need to be known as a great force for love to those who are victimized, marginalized, or discarded by the culture of death. And we each need to discern how to work in the public square, as good citizens, to end legal protection for abortion, euthanasia, and other sins against human life through our actions, and through our votes.

When we tire in these efforts, we need to depend upon the grace of God, and the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary. When the sailors of Don Juan’s armada tired, they depended upon God’s grace, and he aided them and strengthened them.

Christ brought victory at Lepanto, securing the peace and freedom of the Church, and protecting her people for the mission of sanctifying the world. Christ will bring victory to the great battle of our time, the battle to build a culture of life. In God’s Providential plan, we will share in Christ’s victory of life over death. May Our Lady of the Rosary—Our Lady of Victory—intercede for us, as we build a culture of life.

Voting and living as good citizens

This November, American Catholics have the opportunity to shape the direction of our nation, our states, and our local communities in the voting booth. Good citizenship is a moral obligation for all Catholics, and voting is an important part of that obligation. In the United States, the responsibility for our government’s direction lies with us, as citizens, and we can’t take that responsibility lightly. We cannot, because of apathy, or discouragement, or perfectionism, abandon our obligation to vote.

In the past few months, many Catholics have asked me how to make good choices in the voting booth. Many Catholics have especially expressed to me being uncertain about how to make choices when faced with two presidential candidates they find intolerable or unacceptable. While a bishop should never tell Catholics who they should vote for, I would like to offer four points of guidance, drawn from wisdom of the Church, as we discern our choices as voters.

The first is that government has an important purpose, and our votes help to achieve that purpose.

The Catholic Church teaches that the purpose and obligation of our government is to support the common good. The Second Vatican Council said that the common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Our common good has three elements: respect for the dignity, rights, obligations, and freedom of the human person; respect for the well-being, development, and flourishing of the entire community; and peace, in the stability and security of a well-ordered community, governed by the rule of law.

When we vote, we do so in order to promote the common good, to express it, advance it, and protect it. There are some issues in which the common good is clear and some issues which require careful discernment and prudent judgment. This discernment can, therefore, lead to different conclusions and ideas among people of good will. In fact, often the best solutions to difficult political issues can come from robust discussion among people with the same goals in mind, and different ideas about the best ways to achieve those goals.

My second point is that on some issues the moral obligations of Catholics, and the demands of the common good, are abundantly clear. For example, no Catholic can vote in good conscience to expand legal protection for abortion, or to support the killing of unborn children.

Mother Teresa of Kolkata, who was canonized a saint earlier this month, said it best in a 1994 letter she wrote to the United States Supreme Court. She said that “Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has shown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts --a child-- as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience.... Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.”  

Abortion is a grave, unconscionable, and intolerable evil, and we cannot support it in the voting booth.

My third point is that when we vote, we need to carefully consider the specifics of each race. Blind partisanship can be dangerous, and we have to look past political rhetoric and media alarmism to make prudent discernments. 

In each race, we need to discern whether there is a candidate who can advance human dignity, the right to life, and the common good. When there is, we should feel free to vote for that candidate—whether they are a member of a major party or not. In extraordinary circumstances, some Catholics may decide, in good conscience, there is not a suitable candidate for some particular office and abstain from voting in that particular race. 

We also need to remember that we are not responsible for the votes of other people.  Choosing not to vote for “Candidate A” is not the same as actively voting for “Candidate B.” No Catholic should feel obliged to vote for one candidate just to prevent the election of another.

In good conscience, some Catholics might choose to vote for a candidate who, with some degree of probability, would be most likely to do some good, and the least amount of harm, on the foundational issues: life, family, conscience rights and religious liberty. Or, in good conscience, some might choose the candidate who best represents a Christian vision of society, regardless of the probability of winning. Or, in good conscience, some might choose not to vote for any candidate at all in a particular office. 

As a matter of conscience, faithful Catholics have to weigh all those pertinent issues, and make the choice that seems most in accord with the common good of our nation: with respect for human dignity, social well-being, and peace. Catholics will make different judgments about those questions, and come to different conclusions—this reflects the fact the Lord has given us free intellects and free wills.

My final point is that we need to remember that being good citizens—building a culture of life and a civilization of love—is a much broader obligation, and opportunity, than the voting booth. Americans today, are, in many ways, disengaged, discouraged, and divided. Much of our political rhetoric is unhelpful. And family, community, and public life are in decline. We need a broader vision of public life, which values and proclaims the dignity of every human life, and which aims for the flourishing of individuals, families, and communities. This broader vision won’t come through an election. It will come through life in Jesus Christ. The most important part of being good citizens is living as faithful and active missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.

In fact, Christ is the broader reason we are called to hope. God calls us to be faithfully engaged in working to build up and proclaim the Kingdom. That includes our vocation to the public square. But our hope is in the eternal mercy of God—the salvation won in the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This month at Notre Dame, Archbishop Charles Chaput said that “Christians are not of the world, but we’re most definitely in it. Augustine would say that our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man.” Our hope is in the Lord. We are his faithful disciples when we work to help others to know the Lord. But the success is according to his plan. We are called to be faithful to his call, as we make thoughtful, prudent, and prayerful choices as citizens. And we are called to trust in the Providence of his plan for the world. Christ is the only real source of our nation’s hope.

Apostolic times

Eleven of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ were martyred. So was St. Paul. 30 of the first 33 popes of the Catholic Church were also martyred, along with many of the first bishops, priests, and deacons. In the Book of Acts, St. Stephen was martyred shortly after Christ’s Ascension. Thousands of Christian disciples have followed the path of his martyrdom.

The word martyr simply means witness, and, in one sense, we are all called to the martyrdom of witness—to live our entire lives in witness to Jesus Christ, in witness to his passion, death, and resurrection. To be sure, we will face obstacles—we will be challenged, or marginalized, or ignored because of our faith. Faith in Jesus Christ seems foolish to the world. It always has. The confidence of believers in the truth of the Gospel provokes outrage. Our fidelity to God is an affront to tyrants. Our prophetic voice makes sin uncomfortable. Our witness to charity, even, when juxtaposed with greed and evil in this world, is seen as a threat by those who seek to advance themselves by immorality or selfishness.

Believers live in this world, but they do not live like the world lives. For that, since the first days of the Church’s life, we face trials and challenges.

Some Christians, though, are called beyond the martyrdom of witness in their lives. Last week in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass for Father Jacques Hamel, who was killed in July while celebrating Mass in Rouen, France. The pope said that “this is a story that repeats itself in the Church, and today, he said, there are more Christian martyrs than there were at beginning of Christianity.”

The death of Father Hamel was shocking, but not surprising. And his death called to mind the recent killings of the Missionaries of Charity Sisters who operate a nursing home in Yemen, and the 30 Ethiopian Christians beheaded on a beach last year by ISIS. The image of this killing is horrific, and unforgettable.

But while those killings made headlines, and drew attention, Christians are martyred around the world, with startling and sobering frequency, and very rarely are we aware of it. Low estimates suggest that seven or eight thousand Christians are killed because of their faith each year. This means that today a Christian is killed for his faith nearly every hour of every day!

Martyrdom has been a part of the Church’s life since the beginning. And as believers, there are three things that Christian persecution requires of us.

The first is that we pray for Christians in parts of the world where persecution and martyrdom are common: the Middle East, of course, especially those places governed by the barbaric ISIS; also parts of Asia, where Christians also face serious persecution at the hands of governments, and the hands of militant extremists. In fact, we need to pray for believers in every part of the world: the death of Father Hamel demonstrates that dangerous and violent anti-Christian ideologies do not confine themselves to regional or national boundaries.

Our prayers are an expression of solidarity with persecuted Christians, an act of entrusting their needs to Almighty God. Our prayers are a source of unity and a plea for their safety to the Lord. And our prayers have real effect on their situation. Scripture says that the fervent prayers of the righteous bear true fruit. Our prayers help the persecuted Christians around the world bear their circumstances with courage, grace, and the truest kind of freedom.

The second is that we work to help end Christian persecution through the democratic and political tools available to us. As Americans, we live in the most influential nation in the world. We are free to contact our lawmakers and leaders to express our concerns for persecuted Christians around the world. We are free to expect our nation to help find solutions for persecuted Christians, and to hold them accountable to that expectation. The leadership of our own Congressman, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, has already impacted the situation of Middle Eastern Christians for good. Our obligation as Christians is to use the political influence and opportunities we have for the welfare of persecuted and martyred Christians.

Finally, our obligation is to build the kind of robust Christian culture that helps to defeat the ideologies and efforts of anti-Christian terrorists and organizations. The French philosopher Pierre Manet says that “The universal Church alone is up to the task of holding together a… form of life that has the capacity to offer hospitality to Judaism, Islam, evangelical Protestantism, and the doctrine of human rights.”

The Church has the fullest view of the common good, and the fullest view of what human rights really are. In a society shaped by real Gospel truths, in which real freedom is paramount, and human dignity is at the forefront of social and cultural life, the appeal of anti-Christian terrorism and persecution rings hollow. In a vision of the world shaped by the vision of Jesus Christ, murders like those of Father Jacques Hamel make no sense. And in a world confident in the truth of Gospel, the evil of Christian persecution is named and addressed quickly, without the hand-wringing characteristic of relativism.

In the second century, the Christian author Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christianity.” He meant that when martyrs are unified in death to the cross of Christ, grace abounds. In that grace is the spread of the Gospel. But we should do all we can to protect the right of Christians to practice the faith freely and safely. We need to continue to pray for persecuted Christians, to work to end religious persecution, and to build robust and free societies, rooted in the truth of Jesus Christ.

Priesthood: gift and mystery

In 1942, Krakow was occupied by Nazi forces, who had arrived in the city in 1939. They had exported Jewish people, political dissidents, and academics. They had shuttered the universities. They ruled by martial law. They had conscripted all young men into manual labor, to support the Nazi conquest of Europe.

At the age of 18, Karol Wojtyła had moved with his father to Krakow in 1938. They lived in a basement apartment, and Wojtyła studied at the Jagellonian University. In 1940, he began working in a quarry, and later in a chemical factory. In separate automobile accidents, he fractured his skull and hurt his spine, shoulders, and hips. In 1941, Karol’s father died. At 21, his parents were dead, his body in ill health, and his work was exhausting.

Amidst those circumstances, Karol Wojtyła heard a call. He remembered years later that he “became convinced that Christ was saying to me what he had said to thousands before me: ‘Come, follow me!’ There was a clear sense that what I heard in my heart was no human voice, nor was it just an idea of my own. Christ was calling me to serve him as a priest.”

Wojtyła began seminary studies in 1942, while the Nazis remained in the city. The seminary had been outlawed: he and his fellow students studied at night, and worked during the day. In 1944, when the Nazis arrested every young man living in Krakow, the seminarians went into hiding: living and studying in the home of Krakow’s Archbishop, Adam Sapieha. When Soviet forces took over the city, Wojtyła and other seminarians, who demonstrated for democracy and human rights, were spied upon by Polish and Russian secret police.

Wojtyła was ordained on November 1, 1946. He had already carried more crosses than many people carry in a lifetime. But he said that nothing meant more to him, or gave him greater joy, “than to celebrate Mass each day, and to serve God’s people in the Church.”

Wojtyła received what he called the “gift and mystery of the priesthood.” He said that every priest should be humbled to represent Christ—because through the priesthood, the world can “catch a glimpse of the Lord.”

Truly, the priestly vocation of Karol Wojtyła, who would become Pope St. John Paul II, was heroic, generous, and holy. Indeed, every priest is called to a heroic, generous, and holy life of ministry, and service. Priesthood is a gift and mystery—a source of profound grace and wonder—for us all.

The priests of the Middle East, who face martyrdom, are called to share the “gift and mystery” of Jesus Christ. So are the priests among the poor of the third world. So are the priests of the military, and those in monasteries and abbeys, and those priests who give their lives to God in the mission fields of schoolrooms, or nursing homes, or jails, or parishes.

Every priest is called to the adventure—the “gift and mystery”—of a life configured to Christ: to his mercy, to his truth, to his love. The priesthood is an extraordinary gift for each man on whom it is conferred, an extraordinary gift for the entire Church. Through the priesthood comes the love, grace, and truth of God in the sacramental mystery of the Eucharist, and the healing mercy of confession.

Men hear the call of priesthood—as Wojtyła did—when they have been taught to pray: to speak to the Lord, and to hear his voice. This is why the family, the domestic Church, is where the seeds of vocations are so often planted. And the seeds of vocations are planted in Catholic schools and parishes, where young people learn to know and hear the voice of God. Families, schools, parishes, and communities have the responsibility and privilege of helping all young people to realize the call the Lord has given them.

It is privilege to support vocations in that way. It is also a privilege to support young men as they study for priesthood, as they prepare for lives offered in love to Christ’s Church. It is a privilege to help young men take the steps of discernment that lead to lives of heroic sacrifice and generous witness. This month, the Diocese of Lincoln is beginning the 2016 Bishop’s Appeal for Vocations. In gratitude to the priests who have revealed to me the love of God, I am proud to contribute to this appeal. I pray that you will do the same.

In gratitude to men like Karol Wojtyła—Pope St. John Paul II—and to the pastors, and teachers, and confessors who have changed your lives, I pray that you will support the young men of the Diocese of Lincoln who have heard the Lord’s call, and who are preparing for the “gift and mystery” of sacred priesthood. 

How Mother Teresa welcomed my parents into the Church

The first time Mother Teresa spoke to me, she was looking for a pen. She needed to write a letter — and do it quickly. The letter was to my parents, who lived in Kansas and whom she had never met.

I was a young priest, studying in Rome, in 1991. I had been invited by a friend to concelebrate Mass at the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome. Mother Teresa was there, and she had heard that my parents would soon be baptized and confirmed, received into the Catholic Church. She wrote them a short and beautiful letter: She thanked them for giving their son as a priest to the Church. She congratulated them on becoming Catholic, asked for their prayers and promised them hers.

Mother Teresa made me promise that I would deliver the letter to my parents. I gave it to them on the day they became Catholic, framed, along with a photograph of Mother Teresa and me.

Mother Teresa of Kolkata, who was canonized Sept. 4, has a worldwide reputation for holiness. Pope St. John Paul II called her “one of the most important figures of our time.” He’s right.

Mother Teresa was one of the most significant and influential figures of the 20th century. But she didn’t possess a high office, or direct a large social movement, or teach at an elite university. Mother Teresa just practiced kindness in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

She saw each person she encountered as Jesus Christ himself, and she loved them as Jesus Christ. She bathed the dying, or comforted the mourning, or gave away chocolate, or wrote notes to the parents of priests because she wanted to love each person as the Lord.

Through her kindness, selflessness and fearless heart, Mother Teresa became one of the most powerful witnesses to the Gospel in the Church’s history.

I worked in the Vatican for 10 years, and during that time, I became “Father Friday” at the Missionaries of Charity house in Rome, Dona di Maria. I celebrated Mass for the sisters each Friday. Sometimes, Mother Teresa would simply show up unannounced and pray and work with her sisters: scouring pots, sweeping floors and welcoming the homeless women of Rome to her convent.

One day in 1996, just a year before she died, Mother Teresa was in the back of the chapel, behind the other sisters. She knelt on the floor, gazing at Our Lord on the cross. I trembled when she came forward to receive the Eucharist, because I knew that she was a saint.

Before I left, she asked me for a blessing, which I gave her. I never spoke to her again.

But the humility, faith and high expectations of Mother Teresa are really unforgettable. She never assumed a privileged place in her community; she never expected special treatment; she never looked for honor or recognition. She simply loved as the Lord Jesus loved, and she taught others to do the same.

Mother Teresa’s influence is evident in each of her community’s homes. The Missionaries of Charity always live simply, and they depend on divine Providence. Mother Teresa lived with absolute dependence on divine Providence. She asked the Lord for everything that she needed, and she asked those she knew to give whatever they could. They expect the Lord to provide for them, and they expect others to provide for the poor.

Mother Teresa knew that serving the poor is a way to love Jesus, and so she encouraged everyone to join in her work. The Missionaries of Charity invited the late Cardinal John O’Connor to clean bathrooms in New York. They invited Pope John Paul II to serve meals to the dying in Kolkata.

While I was working in Rome, the Missionaries of Charity asked me to go to Russia, Armenia and Kenya to give retreats during Holy Week. Holy Week is one of the few times when Vatican employees have enough time to make a visit home. But when the Missionaries of Charity ask for anything, it is almost impossible to say No. 

One year, I arrived in Nairobi on Tuesday of Holy Week to celebrate the Sacred Triduum for the sisters. I thought I might have a day or so to rest and prepare before the ceremonies began. The local superior asked me if I would be willing to hear confessions before the Triduum began. I agreed. Then she informed me that there were 200 novices and postulants who needed to go to confession. I asked if I was the only priest. She had learned from Mother Teresa: With a smile on her face she said, “Oh, yes, Father. We are going to use you up to the last drop and then send you back to Rome!”

Mother Teresa was not afraid of hard work, nor are her sisters. She expected no less from the priests who served her sisters!

In all of Mother Teresa’s chapels, next to the crucifix, are the words of Jesus: “I thirst.” She taught us that Jesus thirsts for us. She said that, on the cross, he is consoled by the small signs of love we offer him, that his satisfaction is in our love. She also said that we find Jesus among those who suffer, that we should take joy among the poor, the dying, the filthy, or the destitute, because Jesus himself is there.

On Mother Teresa’s canonization, I celebrate a figure who influenced the entire world for the Gospel. But I also remember the small, persistent, radiant woman who loved me with the Lord’s love and who taught me how to love as Jesus does.

May St. Teresa of Kolkata intercede for us.

This column was originally published Sept. 2 in the National Catholic Register. It is reprinted here with Bishop Conley’s permission.

The necessity of music

It was an extraordinary experience to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament at Copacabana Beach in Brazil, at World Youth Day in 2013.  Catholic musician Matt Maher led us in worship—more than 3 million people, and Pope Francis, sang “Lord, I need you, Oh, I need you,” as Matt Maher softly played the guitar.

At the Mercy Center in Krakow this summer, nearly twenty thousand young people knelt before the Eucharist, praising the Lord as Matt Maher and musician Audrey Assad led songs of praise and thanksgiving.  I watched as tears streamed down faces, and young people touched by the moment lined up for the sacrament of confession.

Music can be a powerful part of our relationships with Almighty God.  And every culture and generation sings songs and hymns of praise and thanksgiving that speak the love of their hearts.

As a child in the Protestant church, I learned the canon of hymns most treasured in America— “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “Nearer my God to Thee.”  As a young man, I learned the inspiring folk songs of Ireland, England, and France.  Those songs helped me to grow in devotion to God.  They helped me to keep the Lord in the forefront of my mind.  They gave language to my praise and gratitude to the Lord.  They became a part of my devotional life.  And, because I shared them with others, they became a part—an important part—of the Catholic culture I continue to share with my family and friends.

We need singing, and music, and songs in our family life, the life of our community, and the life of our prayer.  Scripture calls us to “make a joyful song unto the Lord,” and St. Augustine tells us that “he who sings, prays twice.”

It is almost impossible to imagine a robust Christian civilization, or a robust spiritual life, without music.  The Second Vatican Council taught that music is “a treasure of inestimable value,” that “adds delight to prayer” and “fosters unity of minds.”  The Church has long known that we especially need music during our most important, and most sacred moments of worship: during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In fact, the Second Vatican Council said that music “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” of the Mass.

But music at Mass has a different purpose than the devotional music of our families, communities, and personal prayer lives.  The Church says that sacred music, sung during our liturgies, is for the glory of God, and for our sanctification.  At Mass, we offer our lives to God through worship, unified with the Eucharistic sacrifice.  And we receive the graces that make us saints, and draw us into relationship with God.  The Church says that certain kinds of music, developed over centuries, help us to actively participate in the Mass, and to more fruitfully receive the graces of the Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council taught these kinds of music should be preferred during Mass. 

In the first place, when it is possible, the prayers and responses of the Mass itself should be sung, including short introductory reflections, and short musical meditations, called antiphons.  And the Second Vatican Council taught that the ancient custom of Gregorian chant should “be given pride of place” when it is possible.  Other kinds of music, like beautiful sacred polyphony, also should have a special place in Mass.

Sacred music in Mass is different from the devotional and folk music that impacts so many of our lives.  Sacred music amplifies the sacred words of the Mass, pointing us more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist, and uses tones and rhythms that aid us in contemplation.  Through careful reflection over thousands of years, the Church has developed a sense of the music that best fits the mystery of the Mass, and when sung with reverence and humility, gives glory and honor to Christ’s sacrifice. 

The Church does not teach that we should only use old music during Mass.  In fact, Pope John Paul II encouraged composers and musicians to write new music, that speaks to modern man, but that is rooted in continuity with the genius and richness of the Church’s tradition.  Today, many composers write beautiful sacred music, building upon the richness of all that has come before, and faithful to the wisdom and teachings of the Church.

This week, more than 200 musicians from across the Diocese of Lincoln gathered at our first annual “Sacred Music Clinic,” to learn and practice the principles and traditions of the Church’s liturgical music.  Many of them will introduce the beautiful customs they learned in their parishes, in small ways. Many of our priests have begun learning to chant the prayers of the Mass, and many lay Catholics are learning to do the same.  All of these efforts help us to glorify God in the Mass, and to contemplate the mystery of the Eucharist.

Father Daniel Rayer, chair of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, the planning committee chaired by Father Rayer, Amy Flamminio and Jessica Ligon, and all the members of the liturgical commission worked very hard and so well to plan and organize our sacred music clinic this year. I’m grateful for their work.

It is clear to me that in the Diocese of Lincoln, the Holy Spirit is at work.  The Lord is helping us to grow in deeper understanding of the meaning of music in the sacred Mass.  In that way, we can grow closer to the Lord.  And at Mass, or in our families, or in our cars on the way to work, or on a beach with three million people, when we praise the Lord with song, we lift our hearts to him, and he touches our hearts in love.

Editor’s note: Please also see “Diocese holds first clinic on sacred music.”

Beauty gives way to contemplation

There are times when words cannot express the profound meaning of a moment; when silence is the only appropriate response to beauty. Times when the heart is moved in contemplation, in adoration, in wonder, and nothing at all needs to be said.

It was extraordinary to kneel in silence with nearly 20,000 young pilgrims inside the Tauran Arena (temporarily renamed the Mercy Centre), the English-speaking venue for catechesis at World Youth Day in Krakow. To watch as young people spoke silently to the Lord. To see thousands of young people transfixed, in awe and humility, on the mystery of God, made present in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I won’t soon forget that experience. And I won’t soon forget the power of beauty in the sacred liturgy in that arena.

The sacred liturgy at World Youth Day, organized for English-speakers by Polish and American Dominican friars, was an experience of beauty that touched my heart beyond my expectations. I have long known that sacred liturgy is an experience of wonder, as Pope Francis has described so often: a moment “to enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery, and to be in the mystery.” But in Poland, I experienced thousands of young people entering into the mystery of God, through the power of beautiful liturgy.

At World Youth Day, I was reminded how powerfully sacred worship can transform our hearts.

The Church teaches that the beauty of sacred worship can lead Catholics to encounter Christ in a direct and immediate way, and can help us to offer fitting worship to God, and through him. By encountering Christ in beautiful liturgy, we are sanctified, filled with heavenly grace, and made icons of the beauty of Christ. When we participate in the sacred liturgy, we are enabled to live beautiful lives—not only for ourselves, but so that we can bring the beauty and radiance of Christ to the world around us.

At World Youth Day in Poland thousands of pilgrims encountered Christ in sacred and beautiful liturgy. The organizers of World Youth Day’s English liturgies said that their goal was to express that “the Mystery of God is always ahead of us, approached but never comprehended.” Worship of the Mystery of God, they said, should call us to “fundamental humility.”

Worship calls us to fundamental humility, and brings us into communion with the Most Holy Trinity, when it is ordered, and reverent, and beautiful. Worship calls us into communion with God when it helps us become “open to the vastness of God,” expressing “the deepest human yearning for the Mystery of Love.”

Pope Benedict says that worship transforms our lives when, through it, we are “struck by the arrow of Beauty… struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ.”

Sacred worship, celebrated according to the customs, guidance, and rich tradition of the Church, can lead us to encounter Christ, approach him in humility, and offer him our lives, in union with his offering on the cross, and the sacred offering of Holy Mass. Beauty gives way to contemplation. And the beautiful music of the Church’s tradition gives us a pathway to completing the mystery of God.

When we are moved by the beauty of sacred liturgy to offer our lives in union with Christ, the Lord invites us to be transformed by the Eucharist, and, as the Dominican friars of World Youth Day said, be “transformed by the Eternal beauty of God himself.”

In some places, the importance of beauty in sacred worship has been lost. Some are fearful that if musical styles are unfamiliar, they will be an impediment to participation in the Mass. Some are concerned that if Mass is not entertaining and stimulating, it will not capture people’s attention. Some believe that to be “relevant,” the music of the Mass must mirror what we hear on the radio, or what we’ve grown up with. But the Mass is an entry point into a sacred moment: a true entryway into the living presence of God. If it seems unfamiliar, it is because the mystery of God is unfamiliar. If it is not entertaining, it is because the satisfaction God gives runs much deeper than entertainment.

The Dominican Friars in Krakow reminded young people, in the worship aid prepared for each day’s liturgy, that first and foremost, the liturgy “is all about God, and He’s a mystery.”

The polyphonies, and chants, and antiphons sung at World Youth Day were unfamiliar to many pilgrims. But they became familiar, because the ancient music of the Church is easy to learn, and easy to contemplate. And the Church’s beautiful liturgy transformed the hearts of young people, because it reflected the beauty of God. My heart was struck by that beauty. And I became convinced, more now than ever before, that beauty is “ever ancient, and ever new,” it speaks to us all, no matter our formation or circumstances, because it speaks with the beauty of God.

May each of us experience the beauty of the Most Holy Trinity in the profound, vast, and sanctifying beauty of sacred liturgy.

Editor’s Note: The Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture and the Diocese of Lincoln Liturgical Commission will sponsor a guest lecture, “The Way of Beauty,” at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, at the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center, 320 N. 16th St., Lincoln. Click here to read more.

Proclaim the Prince of Peace

I spent July 18 in Rouen, the city along the River Seine where St. Joan of Arc was tried and put to death in 1431. She was a defender of the faith, and a fierce defender of the freedom of France. She was also an evangelist. She called her fellow soldiers to faith, to virtue, to earnest discipleship of Jesus Christ. She died for the cause of justice, in defense of her people, and she died with the name of Jesus on her lips.

A few days before I went to Rouen, a terrorist drove a truck through a crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. A month before, a terrorist killed 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando.

On the day I spent in Rouen, a terrorist attacked German train passengers with an ax. A few days later, a suicide bomber attacked a music festival in Ansbach. In the same week, suicide bombers killed more than a hundred in attacks in Baghdad and Kabul.

And on July 26, just outside of Rouen, Father Jacques Hamel was martyred in his Church—his throat slit as he celebrated Holy Mass.

Father Hamel was killed in the Church of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Like St. Stephen, and St. Joan of Arc, and the tens of thousands of Christians martyred each year, he died proclaiming Jesus Christ. 

The Islamic State—ISIS—claimed responsibility for each of those attacks. Terrorists of ISIS—in the name of Islam—are waging a full-scale war against all those they deem their enemies, most especially the people and nations of the West. ISIS calls their enemies the “Crusader coalition.” The enemies of ISIS are those who pose a threat to their stated goal of forceful Islamic domination of the world. The greatest enemy of ISIS is the Church, the root of Western culture, which proclaims the grace of freedom, and peace, and new life in Jesus Christ.
The twisted ideology of ISIS blasphemes the idea of religion itself. Faith is perverted by the lie that God can be served by terrorism.

But violence in this world is not confined to a singular cause. And the battle between good and evil is not only waged between cultures—it is waged in every single human heart.

This summer, violence seems to be reaching a kind of fevered pace. The headlines seem to be more violent, and less predictable, each day. Nineteen people, many of them disabled, were killed in Japan this week by a man wielding a knife. An 18-year old, obsessed with violence, killed 10 people in Munich, at a shopping mall and a McDonald’s. In our country, citizens have been shot by the police, and police officers have been gunned down in response. A young woman told me recently that her stomach aches as she reads the newspaper each morning.

In times past, in the time of St. Joan of Arc, building ordered, safe, and free communities seemed simpler. The distinction between marauders and citizens was more obvious. Heroic armies held back invaders on battlefields. Fortresses, and walls, and battle lines kept chaos at bay. But today, the threat of violence seems everywhere. The possibility of chaos seems always around the corner. Security seems evermore to be a myth.

Young people, especially, are asking me over and over again: what is happening?

The answer is not difficult. The world around us lives, ever more, as if there was no God. Hearts, around the globe, live without the peace of Jesus Christ. We live in a culture which has abandoned the peace that surpasses understanding.

Without the peace of Jesus Christ, distorted religious ideologies stoke anger and hatred with calls to acts of terror. Without the peace of Jesus Christ, the evil one whispers into loneliness or frustration that violence is the answer. Without the peace of Jesus Christ, we have no defense against the Prince of Darkness, who sows chaos, fear, and violence into every human heart.

In the wake of attacks by ISIS, nationalists call to dispel every Muslim immigrant, or to restrict the movement and rights of some citizens. But we live in a globalized world, where worldwide communication is instant and easy. ISIS spreads its message through the internet to the citizens of every nation. Principled immigration and security reforms, respecting the natural community of the nation and the dignity of the human person, are always important. But excesses of reactionary nationalism do not stop violence, they foment it.

In the wake of unspeakable gun violence, some call to banish firearms. Reconsidering gun laws might be worthwhile, but banishing certain weapons is not enough to deter those bent on destroying human lives. Violence finds axes, and knives, and rented trucks.

In the wake of injustice, or prejudice, or racial strife, we call for justice. But we cannot achieve justice through brute force or retaliation. Real justice is impossible without the Living God—the source of all that is just.

We cannot eliminate violence from our culture through legislation, nor can we satisfactorily conquer it on foreign battlefields. We cannot easily or simply identify those who might be violent and banish them from our midst. More will crop up. Some will shroud hatred in false religious ideologies, some will become vicious in order to feel important, some will incite violence in the name of social change. In a culture without Christ, acts of depravity and violence will become ever more prevalent.

Aleksandr Solzenitzen wrote famously that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Jesus Christ conquers the evil in our hearts. And the only answer to the depravity of violence is to convert hearts to Jesus Christ. In Christ, the lion and the lamb lie down together. In Christ, the meek inherit the earth. The peace of Christ alone can rule, and pacify, our disordered human hearts.

Peace comes in the renewal of culture. And renewing culture begins with Jesus Christ. If we want peace in the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East—if we want peace across the globe—we must become evangelists. In a culture living without God, we must all become martyrs—heroic witness to life in Jesus Christ.

We must win hearts for Jesus Christ. The urgency of the moment is clear. We must trust that baptism brings peace where nothing else does, that the Holy Spirit is at the root of communities of true peace and justice. To build civilizations of love—cultures of peace—we must build cultures which know new life in Jesus Christ.

We want peace because we’re made for the peace of eternal life with God. Every human being is made for that peace. And if we want a foretaste of Christ’s peace on earth, we must be radical, committed, and fervent missionaries of Jesus Christ. The world without Christ is shaken by the violent disorder of sinfulness. Peace is the fruit of discipleship.

This week, I am at World Youth Day in Krakow, where hundreds of thousands of Catholic youth have gathered in the city of Pope St. John Paul II. These young people know peace. They know justice. They know truth. They have been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. Christ alone is the answer to our problems, Christ alone conquers the violence of the evil one.

Together, we mourn victims of terror and violence around the globe. We mourn with hope in God’s enduring mercy. But violence always reminds us that we must make disciples of all nations. The time is now. We must proclaim the Prince of Peace, who can rule, and free, and sanctify, every human heart.

This column was originally published July 28 at CatholicVote.org. It is reprinted here with Bishop Conley’s permission.

Open wide the doors to Christ

In 1978, Karol Wojtyla was elected John Paul II, the first Polish pope in the history of the Church. His election was shocking. It had been almost 500 years since a non-Italian was elected pope. And no one expected that the pope would be elected from a country ruled by Communists, in which the Church was systematically marginalized and persecuted.

Before his election, John Paul II was the Archbishop of Krakow. A few months into his pontificate, he made a historic visit to Communist-controlled Poland. His visit has been called the “nine days that changed the world.” In a nine-day pilgrimage, John Paul witnessed to the vibrancy and endurance of Catholic faith in a place where radically statist secularism had worked to eradicate the influence of the Church on national politics and culture.  

Christianity had come to Poland in 966, with the baptism of Mieszko I, the father of the Polish state. For nearly a millennium, the Polish people had produced saints and missionaries, holy families and holy vocations, in the context of a Christian nation.  

But the establishment of Poland as a satellite state of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the Second World War inaugurated an era of secular, materialist, and communist indoctrination on the part of party organizers and state officials. As a young priest, Wojtyla was spied on by Communist forces: he hid his pastoral work with youth, and he taught in underground philosophy courses. As Archbishop, he was followed and spied on constantly by Communists, who sought to undermine his work, in order to eradicate faith from Polish culture.

This was the context of John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979. He called the Catholics of Poland, especially the young, to build a society rooted in the truths of Jesus Christ—to know that man’s true dignity is found in Christ, not in secular values or powerful ideologies. He told young Poles to be unafraid to “open wide the doors to Christ,” to rebuild their country in the true light of the Gospel.

In short, John Paul’s visit was the beginning of an effort to reanimate the Soviet bloc with the spirit of the Gospel.  

It worked. His visit sparked new energies and enthusiasms—convinced people to believe they could change the oppressive Communist regime that ruled them. John Paul sparked faith, and hope, and action. Ten years after his visit, as a direct result of the social movement he sparked, Poland held free elections. Communism fell apart in Poland, and then across the Soviet Union.

We cannot be afraid to open wide the doors to Jesus Christ—the doors of our nation, of our families, and of our hearts. We must believe in the power of Jesus Christ to bring truth, and freedom, and grace to our lives, and our hearts. The witness of John Paul II, and the movement for freedom he inspired, prove to us the power of God’s grace.

This week, millions of young Catholics from around the world will gather in Krakow, the city where Pope St. John Paul II sparked a revolution for freedom in Christ. I will be with them, and with a group of young pilgrims from the Diocese of Lincoln.

We will gather for World Youth Day, a celebration of the Church’s life across the world, and an opportunity to pray together, to grow in unity, and to worship the Lord together. Pope Francis will lead the celebration of World Youth Day. He will, doubtlessly, remind us of what his holy predecessor, Pope John Paul II, accomplished in Poland. And he will doubtlessly call us to bring Christ to the world in the very same way.

Three years ago, at World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero, Pope Francis said that “faith is a flame that grows stronger the more it is shared and passed on, so that everyone may know, love and confess Jesus Christ, the Lord of life and history.”

The pope’s wisdom is confirmed by the story of freedom in Poland and the former Eastern bloc. Christ is the lord of life and history. Sharing the light of Christ makes it stronger and more powerful. We are called to share that light. We are called to be unafraid. We are called to bring Christ to the world, and to witness the transforming power of his grace.

I pray that World Youth Day 2016 will be days that change the world. I pray that the witness of Krakow, the witness of Pope Francis, and the witness of the Church around the world will transform the hearts of our pilgrims. And I pray that in Christ, the pilgrims of World Youth Day will make disciples of all nations.

Please join me in that prayer. 

The duty of freedom

The Fourth of July in Nebraska is an extraordinary celebration. In every town and city, families and neighborhoods join together to barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs, to spend time in recreation together, and to light off hundreds of fireworks and sparklers.

In Nebraska, fireworks ring out throughout the night, to help us commemorate the independence of our nation, declared by our Founding Fathers now 240 years ago, on July 4, 1776.

We celebrate what Abraham Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom,” which was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The story of America’s independence is a story of freedom for all. Our annual celebration is a reminder of the great freedoms that God has given us. And as we thank God for the liberty he has given us, it seems to me that there are two important things that Catholics should remember about the deepest meaning of our freedom.

The first is that our freedom is a natural right; given to us by God, and not given to us by an entity of government or society. America’s founding recognized that God created man to be a free creature; a reality that must always be respected by governments. Today, it seems, government is often in danger of forgetting that our freedom comes from God.

When the government redefines the natural right of marriage and family, or seeks to eradicate our right to religious freedom and the freedom of our conscience, it redefines human rights; it acts as if the government is the source of our rights, and is therefore free to redefine them according to its own judgment. Pope Leo XIII taught that our natural rights “cannot… be prohibited by the state.” In fact, he taught that “the state is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them.” When the state undermines the rights of its citizens, he taught, “it contradicts the very principle of its own existence.”

Each of us must be zealous to remind our leaders that freedom does not come from the government, and that legislators, judges, governors, and presidents, must always respect and promote the freedom God has given us.

The second thing to remember is that our freedoms exist for a reason. Freedom is not the same as license. Freedom does not mean that we can do whatever we want; that we can live however we prefer, or make money in every possible way, or ignore the obligations we have to one another, and to God. Freedom is the opportunity, and obligation, to live as God calls us, and as he made us; for the well-being of others and for ourselves, and as His servants, in unity with one another, and in unity with the Most Holy Trinity. The truest use of our freedom, its truest expression, comes in loving God, and in respecting, promoting, and supporting the beauty and dignity of others.

God is a communion of freedom: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit love one another in true and authentic personal freedom. We are given freedom because we are made in the image of God. The purpose of that freedom, of our human and natural rights, is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love the Lord our God, “with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.”

As citizens, God calls us to build a society that supports the common good: the needs, opportunities, and rights of all people. We are called to build a society that respects the human right to life, religious liberty, to economic opportunity, to justice, and peace, and discipleship. Pope St. John Paul II taught that citizens are called to build a society committed to “building up a more decent life” for each person, and to “concretely enhancing every individual’s dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God’s call.” The aim of a just society, Pope St. John Paul II taught, “is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge.”

Our freedom is the obligation to support, develop, and enhance our societies and communities for true pursuit of the common good. Our freedom is the duty to build just and loving societies, which help each person to live in the image of God, by knowing, serving, and following Him.

The Church is called to teach the truth about human dignity, human rights, and true freedom. And every single one of us is called to use our freedom, in every area of our life, to promote the common good. Pope St. John Paul II taught that “The Kingdom of God, being in the world without being of the world, throws light on the order of human society, while the power of grace penetrates that order and gives it life. In this way, the requirements of a society worthy of man are better perceived, deviations are corrected, the courage to work for what is good is reinforced. In union with all people of good will, Christians, especially the laity, are called to this task of imbuing human realities with the Gospel.”

Freedom is a grace, as well as an obligation. In the United States, we have the opportunity to exercise our freedom, for the sake of the common good, in accord with the truth of the Gospel. As we continue to celebrate our freedom, let us each commit to protecting our natural rights, and to exercising them for the sake of our fellow men and women, each created free, in the image of the Most Holy Trinity.

Ut unum sint - that all might be one

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has been alive in Greece for 2,000 years. St. Paul preached in Athens, and Corinth, and Thessalonica. He formed the people of Greece to become some of the very first Christian communities in the world. For two millennia, the Churches of Greece have produced mystics, saints, scholars, and martyrs.

The Churches of Greece, like the Churches of many parts of the East, are true Churches, led by successors to the Apostles. But these Churches—the Orthodox Churches—have broken their communion with the pope, the Vicar of Christ on earth. Over time, many of the Christian Churches of the East—while maintaining true and valid sacraments, and the gift of apostolic succession, have lost their connection to the successor to St. Peter, and therefore been severed from the fullness of Christian unity.

There are, in many of the Christian traditions of the East, faithful Christians who have maintained, or restored, communion with the universal Church, and the Bishop of Rome. These Eastern Catholic Churches are witnesses of the true diversity of cultures and traditions, formed by the Holy Spirit, in union with the universal Church, and sharing in the fullness of truth. But, sadly, many Christians across the Eastern world do not enjoy sacred communion with the Vicar of Christ, and the unity with the universal Church is fractured.

In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Greece in more than 1,200 years. He visited with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. Two years earlier, he visited and prayed with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Since that time, the popes—John Paul, Benedict, and Francis—have continued to meet and pray with the leaders of the Orthodox Churches—praying, especially, for unity.

In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II said that Christian civilization “has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them.” The two lungs of the Church are the Churches of the East, the Orthodox Churches, and the Catholic Church. Pope St. John Paul, like his predecessors, prayed fervently that the Holy Spirit would unify the “two lungs” of the Church, so that Christians around the world would be united in fraternity, in discipleship, and in truth.

This week, leaders of Orthodox Churches from around the world gathered in Crete for beginning of the “Great and Holy Council,” a meeting of most Orthodox Churches, which will invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and discern how the Orthodox Churches can serve Christ in the modern world, as witnesses of the Gospel and light to all nations. The Orthodox Churches have been planning the meeting—properly called a synod—since 1961. It has taken very careful planning for the Orthodox leaders to develop a plan to come together, and to seek consensus—and the will of God—for their Churches.

Sadly, not all Orthodox Churches will participate in the Synod. A few Orthodox Churches—most notably the Russian Orthodox Church—will not participate. Theological disputes, among other things, have prevented all 14 of the Orthodox Churches in the world from gathering. But those who are present will pray fervently, seeking the will of God for their Christian communities. When the Council began on June 16, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople prayed that the Council would “deliver a single message of true faith, real hope and peaceful reconciliation to our world that is in conflict.”

As the “Great and Holy Council” continues this month, we should join Patriarch Bartholomew in this prayer. The Orthodox are our brothers and sisters, and we should pray that the Lord will work through them to reveal the mercy of God to the world. We should also join Patriarch Bartholomew in his prayer that all Christians might know “unity in Christ.”

As the Orthodox gather in Crete, where the Gospel has been alive since St. Paul preached there, we should pray the Holy Spirit will bless their discernment. We should pray that the Church might “breathe with both lungs.” We should pray that the Holy Spirit might reveal the fullness of all truth to the eastern successors of the apostles. And we should pray for Christian unity, in the words of Jesus, “that all might be one.”

Leisure and evangelization

Lake Albano is a placid volcanic lake in the hills southeast of Rome, at the base of beautiful Monte Cavo. Overlooking Lake Albano is the ancient hilltop village of Castel Gandolfo, a sleepy, picturesque town just 15 miles south of Rome, known for its white wine. There is a classic villa in town, the Palazzo Apostolico di Castel Gandolfo, where for hundreds of years, the popes of Rome have traditionally spent a few weeks of quiet time during the summer months.

Obviously, very few of us can spend time in a lakeside Italian villa during the hot months of the summertime. But for most people, summer does represent a kind of slowing down; a time when many formal activities are on hiatus, and the long dog days of summer seem to leave more room for leisure. Leisure is important for all of us. But real leisure is not just the isolated consumption of pre-packaged entertainment. True leisure, for which we seem to have more opportunity in the summer, is something much more profound.

In 1958, the philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler wrote, “Leisure consists in activities which are neither toil nor play, but are rather the expressions of moral and intellectual virtue — the things a good man does because they are intrinsically good for him and for his society, making him better as a man and advancing the civilization in which he lives.”

The German philosopher Joseph Pieper said that real leisure — the capacity to perceive, contemplate and celebrate the world we’ve been given — is a gift from God. To be fully human is to accept the gift of leisure from God and to cultivate serenity, joy and peace.

Leisure, said Pieper, is not about the absence of work — about idleness. Instead, leisure is about the cultivation of goodness in souls; about curiosity, and conversation, and friendship, and wonder.

Pope St. John Paul II, who spent portions of more than 25 summers at Castel Gandolfo, said that leisure is “not just any kind of interruption of work, but the celebration of the marvels which God has wrought.”

Leisure is the basis of culture and the basis by which we can grow in wisdom. And the summer months afford us opportunities to grow in friendship, devotion, wisdom, and wonder—through leisure. Real leisure is as simple as gardening, or talking with friends over a cool drink on the front porch, or watching the stars spread across the clear summer sky. Real leisure is praying the rosary on a quiet walk, or reading a good book, or making music—even poorly!—with family and friends. Leisure is the basis from which we form the bonds, habits, connections, and rituals that build real Christian culture.

Leisure is also a very strong basis for evangelization. We have a tendency to think of evangelization as being rooted in activity; in large programs or initiatives that draw dozens or hundreds of people at a time. But Pope St. John Paul II reminded us that, “The kingdom of God is not a concept, a doctrine, or a program subject to free interpretation, but it is before all else a person with the face and name of Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God.”

The Kingdom is a person, and the faith is often best transmitted between persons: from one heart, alive in Christ, speaking to another. It is important for us to remember that some of the most effective opportunities we have for evangelization come in the context of friendship, in leisure, in mutual activities and lingering conversations with neighbors and friends.

Summer is the right time to invite neighbors to a meal or an outdoor barbecue, to have long conversations about faith on the porch, to evangelize, and form disciples of Jesus Christ, while stargazing or sitting around a campfire. The Lord formed just 12 apostles—his friends—intimately.  If we too formed just a small group to know Christ—through the leisure of true friendship—we might set the world aflame.

I pray that each of you will be refreshed and renewed in the leisure of this beautiful Nebraska summer. And I pray that in leisure and friendship, you might form dynamic Catholics—faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Forming and encouraging good shepherds

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit with the pastor of one of our small country parishes. I asked him how he was doing. We ended up talking for a full 10 minutes about fluctuating corn and bean prices, fuel and fertilizer costs, and about the impact of rain on irrigation and soil quality. He was concerned about how these factors would have an effect on crop yields, because he was worried about the farm families in his parish.

He was also thoughtful about how these factors would impact families in his parish and he understood the connections between each family, their needs, and their livelihoods. He knew that all of these issues would have an impact on both the family life and the spiritual life of his flock.

While I learned a few new things about farming from this pastor, I mostly learned how well he knows his people. How deeply he experiences their daily trials, and challenges. How much he hopes for their success, and how much he prays, in very specific ways, for their well-being.

In that conversation, I encountered a priest who loves his people. I encountered a pastor with the heart of a shepherd. In the words of Pope Francis, I encountered “a priest who wears the smell of the sheep.”

Pope Francis says that we priests “are to rejoice with couples who marry; we are to laugh with the children brought to the baptismal font; we are to accompany young fiancés and families; we are to suffer with those who receive the anointing of the sick in their hospital beds; we are to mourn with those burying a loved one.”

Priests are called to give themselves in love as a selfless gift of Jesus Christ. We’re called to proclaim the Gospel, to teach the truth, and to offer the mercy of God in the sacraments of the Church. Priests are called to know and love our people, so that we can form them in grace, and discipleship, and holiness.

A priest is called to be, as Jesus Christ is, a good shepherd, who lays down his life for his flock.

This weekend, I will ordain four new priests in the Diocese of Lincoln. I will also ordain five deacons, who, Lord willing, will be ordained priests next year. Including the eight priests ordained last year, I am blessed to ordain, God willing, 17 new priests in the Diocese of Lincoln in a span of only 24 months. Only one priest will retire during that time, giving us a net gain of 16 new priests in 24 months. We are deeply blessed and grateful to God for his goodness to us.

The Lord reminds us, in the midst of the great blessings we have received, to continue to foster a culture that promotes holy vocations to the priesthood, to religious life, and to family life. We begin by praying for vocations, asking the Lord to bless us with priestly ministers of his mercy, with religious sisters who witness to the grace of baptism, and with holy, faithful, and fervent men and women who proclaim the Gospel in their families and in the world. Each one of us can foster vocations by our fervent and earnest prayers.

The Lord reminds us to encourage young men to be open to a priestly vocation, and to encourage young women to be open to a religious call. I tell children across the Diocese of Lincoln that the Lord plants a seed of vocation in each one of us, which we must faithfully nurture. But the encouragement of a bishop is not enough. Young men consider priestly vocations, and young women consider religious vocations, because their pastors, teachers, and parents encourage them and invite them. Year after year, young men report to me that the reason they considered seminary is simply because an influential priest, teacher, or other adult invited them to consider it, and encouraged them to hear the Lord’s call.

Children take the possibility of their vocations seriously when their parents do the same: when children witness parents who pray together, and with their children, and whose lives are animated by the mission of the Gospel, they take seriously the ways in which God might call them to religious vocations.   

It is a truly awesome privilege as a bishop to ordain new priests and deacons—new missionaries of mercy and truth—this weekend. It is a privilege to pray with the families and communities which formed them. May each one of us continue to form and encourage young people in their vocations, and may the Lord continue to bless us with loving pastors—good shepherds—who have a true zeal for souls.

Time for healing, not lamenting

On Friday, May 13, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice issued a joint instruction, which they called “significant guidance,” to public school districts across the country. The guidance stated that in order to receive federal funds for education, every public school district must provide services, restrooms, and “equal access” to all students according to their stated gender identity.

The federal government has ordered that when any student and his parents tell the school that his “gender identity” has changed—if he was born a boy, for example, but considers himself a girl—the school must treat him, in every possible way, like an actual girl. The government declared that the boy who says he is a girl must be permitted to change in locker rooms with girls, to stay in girls’ rooms on overnight trips, and, very often, to participate on girls’ sports teams.

This “guidance” is deeply disturbing. In fact, the administration’s action is simply wrong. It is wrong to deny the fundamental difference between men and women; and to teach children that our identity, at its very core, is arbitrary and self-determined. God created us male and female, and policies like this deny the basic beauty of God’s creation.

Boethius, the 6th century Roman senator and Christian philosopher, was a thoughtful critic of disturbing trends he saw in Roman society. In his classic work, the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius criticized those evil spirits “who slay the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them.”

We are living in a time when ordinary human reason is quickly being replaced by “the barren thorns of passion.” Our entire culture has been caught up in a kind of sentimentalized and relativized tyranny of tolerance: we vilify and condemn, ever more quickly, any sense of reasonable and ordered social policy. We have a vague sense that endorsing certain fashionable kinds of social and emotional disorders—including transgenderism—is a mandate of justice, or a victory for civil rights.

But the real victims of our culture of relativism are those who suffer from serious problems, and who need compassionate help. Pathological confusion about one’s own identity is a kind of illness. It brings tremendous personal and emotional difficulties. Transgenderism cries out for compassionate assistance. Pope Francis says that “acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital,” and “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary” for authentic human freedom.

But, as Boethius wrote, we “habituate men to their sickness, instead of curing them.”

Children and parents in very difficult situations deserve compassion, sensitivity, and respect. The Church will continue to make every effort to assist those suffering gender dysphoria; in fact, we can improve our efforts in this regard in many ways. But the Church will not deny that God created us male and female. We will not confuse respect and compassion with capitulation to a tragic delusion. Our Catholic schools will continue to teach and live the truth, because of our care for every student. We can only help students grow in holiness when we help them to live in accord with the truth. We will continue to do that, no matter the cost.

The Obama administration’s directive is a sign of the brokenness of our culture; of our lost sense of the common good, of individual goodness, of true freedom, real rights, and authentic happiness.  Nebraska’s Governor Pete Ricketts pointed out earlier this week that this directive is basically a kind of coercive opinion, which does not enjoy the authority of law. It is a form of bullying and, ultimately, it is a sad sign of how much we have lost our way; how little of the Gospel’s good news forms and shapes our culture.

This directive is a sign of a great tragedy.  We are living in an atheocracy: a society determined to stamp out every vestige of God’s plan for mercy, and justice, and goodness. We are living in a society ensnared by the evil of relativism, to which human flourishing, in this life and the next, poses a threat.

The Gospel is a threat to the forces of this world. And in such a circumstance, there is a great temptation, for all of us, to withdraw into our families, into our Catholic community, into those places which we believe are safe, places in which we think we might be spared from the evil of this world. 

But facing an evil world, Boethius wrote that “it is time for healing, not lamenting.” Boethius was right. Our culture is in need of healing. The victims of relativism’s dictatorship—those who are harmed by false compassion and tolerance for evil—need our help. Only we can be the leaders who stand up in the face of the storms. The Lord calls us to leadership, and so do the victims of the culture of death.

We are called to stand up—right now, we must be committed to carrying the healing mercy of Jesus Christ to this world. And the fight is not easy. We will not likely fight on a battlefield, in a glamorous blaze of glory. Instead we fight by claiming our nation for Christ, by forming Catholic culture that welcomes others to real freedom, by speaking—heart to heart—with those who are in need of Christ’s healing. We fight evil by praying, and hoping, to win every heart, every soul, every life, for Jesus Christ; as missionaries and disciples of mercy.

We also fight evil on our knees. We fight evil through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We fight evil by invoking St. Michael the Archangel. We fight evil by consecrating our nation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the fount of true mercy, and true peace.

All of us can read the signs of the times. We are living through a great trial and a great tragedy. Real people, about whom we care very much, are gravely harmed by the infiltration of evil in our world. We know that Christ will be victorious in the end. But we also know how urgently Christ is needed in this world. Only we can entrust this nation to Jesus Christ—especially his Sacred Heart—in our prayers. And only we can choose, in response to the urgency of the moment, to be active, joyful, faithful missionaries of Jesus Christ—declaring the Gospel, and inviting the world to mercy.

We live in a grave and serious time in history. But now is time for healing, not for lamenting.

There is only one way to find out

One of the best scenes in C.S. Lewis’ classic seven volume children’s novel, The Chronicles of Narnia, takes place in the second book, Prince Caspian.

In Prince Caspian, the Pevensie children return to Narnia, summoned while waiting for a train, at a railway station. The children return only a year after leaving Narnia, but because time works differently in that world, 1,300 years have passed.

Narnia has been overtaken by the barbarous Telmarines, and the days of the Aslan and Cair Paravel have long passed. In fact, many Narnians believe that Aslan and the epic stories of old are only fairy tales.

The children fall in with a network of freedom fighters, led by the true king, Caspian. They’re trying to bring goodness back to Narnia; they’re fighting for truth, but they’re fighting alone, and with little success. As the children travel, they become hopelessly lost. Young Lucy sees the sight—just a glimmer really—of Aslan, walking through the woods. She tries to follow him, but no one believes what she has seen, and they tease her and go on their own way.

That night, Aslan calls to Lucy. She wakes from her sleep and talks with him. And he tells her that he came to guide her on a true path, and that she and the others must wake up, and follow after him. Lucy is hesitant to wake the others and tell them to follow a lion they don’t even all believe in. She wants assurance from Aslan that if she follows his command, all will be well.

Aslan won’t give assurances. But he tells her this: “anyone can find out what will happen. If you go back to the others now, and wake them up; and tell them you have seen me again; and that you must all get up at once and follow me—what will happen? There is only one way of finding out.”

In Lewis’ work, Aslan represents the Lord, who comes to guide us in the way of truth, and to make fruitful the good works we undertake. C.S. Lewis’ point is this: we do not know what will come of following the Lord. We do not know how things will turn out. We have no guarantee of success, no assurance that all will be easy, or comfortable. We are called to trust and follow the Lord because he is good, and because he has bidden us to follow him. We cannot expect to know the outcome; we can only be obedient.

Lewis also makes this point: apart from following the Lord, we cannot hope to know success at all. The path to holiness is a somewhat hidden path; like looking through a glass darkly, as St. Paul puts it, and we follow where God has called us, without knowing where that will lead.

Our time is not unlike the time in Narnia, in which the truest things in the world seemed like a fairy tale. Today, in our country, faith in Jesus Christ—the incarnational God who knows and loves us—is being replaced with a vague, vacuous, self-focused kind of deism. Today, even as evil abounds, faith in what is real is set adrift amid a sea of relativism, and confusion.
We are called to follow as the Lord calls, and to bid others to do the same. We are called to be missionary disciples, so that we might form others who will also walk in the way of truth.

The Church is now in a novena of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost. We spend this period with Mary, the true spouse of the Holy Spirit, who strengthens the Church in faith, just as she did with the early disciples, as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit. There were not a few who doubted Jesus’s promise that he would send the Holy Spirit. Mary helped the early apostles to stay focused, to have hope and to trust in the promises of her Son, even after our Lord departed from this earth in his physical form. She helped them walk in faith.

Mary helps us, too, to walk in faith.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to ask, and they will receive. Of course the Lord does not mean that he will answer our prayers as we imagine they might be answered. Instead he means that every good and perfect gift comes from God, and that every worthwhile endeavor we undertake will only be fruitful if we ask the Lord to bless it, to make it bear fruit, to bring it to completion.

The Lord says that if we ask we will receive, so that “our joy may be complete.” Our joy is complete not because God gives us things exactly as we ask for them, nor as we expect them to be, but because the life of asking the Lord’s blessing, and following him as he bids us, and depending on his Providence, and seeing him answer prayer in unexpected ways—that life, in itself, is a life of pure joy.

In the fifth century, St. Leo the Great said that “our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit; it would remain unshaken by fetters and imprisonment, exile and hunger, fire and ravening beasts, and the most refined tortures ever devised by brutal persecutors. Throughout the world, women no less than men, tender girls as well as boys, have given their life’s blood in the struggle for faith that has driven out devils, healed the sick and raised the dead!”

God asks us to have faith in things unseen. He asks us to trust that he gives as he promises, leads as he promises, and guides, as he promises. He asks us to trust, and ask, for all that we need. We should expect the Lord to do the unexpected. We should expect the Lord to act in mysterious and beautiful ways.   

God calls us to trust in him who, through the Father, gives us every good thing. He calls on us to be missionaries of the new evangelization, even without knowing what will come of our efforts.

To paraphrase Aslan, speaking to Lucy Pevensie: “What will happen if we follow Christ, and bid others to do the same? What will happen if we depend on the Lord’s Providence? What will happen if we form others to walk in the way of the truth? There is only one way to find out.”

Editor’s Note: Please see Dr. Nollen’s review of “Prince Caspian.”

Motherhood and the common good

Last week, the New York Post published an essay arguing for a new concept in the workplace: “me-ternity leave.”  The essay’s author argued that working mothers—who are sometimes able to take leave from their jobs after having children—are granted a “sabbatical-like break,” a “time and space for reflection,” when they take maternity leave. She wrote that it was unfair that working mothers in her office were granted a “break,” while “co-workers without kids would stay behind to pick up the slack.”

The essay was entitled “I want all the perks of maternity leave — without having any kids.” It seemed to me to be so outrageous I thought it was satire. But it wasn’t. The author said that in her workplace, “parenthood was the only path that provided a modicum of flexibility,” and that working parents are more likely to achieve a good “work-life balance.”

Suggesting that working mothers have an easy time balancing their lives is certainly naïve. And saying that a mother’s time with a newborn is a “sabbatical-like break” is simply wrong and misguided. But the essay should not be dismissed offhand because it clearly points, in a disturbing way, to a mentality prevalent in our culture today. Simply put, we are forgetting the central role that parents, especially mothers, play in creating just, virtuous, thriving, and stable communities. 

We are forgetting that parenting is not primarily a journey of self-discovery or personal satisfaction. We are forgetting that parenting, motherhood especially, is an act of generosity and sacrifice, undertaken for the good of children, and for the common good of our civilization. And we are forgetting that all of us have a common responsibility to support the noble vocation of motherhood.

The month of May is a month when we, as Catholics, celebrate in a special way the sacrifice of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. We crown the blessed mother with flowers in the “May crowning.” Many families build a “May altar” of devotion to the Blessed Mother in their homes, adorned with flowers, candles, and pictures of Our Lady.  Some families plant marigolds- “Mary’s gold,” during the month of May. On May 13, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and on May 31, we honor two mothers as we celebrate the feast of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.

On Sunday, we honor our own mothers as we celebrate the civic holiday of Mother’s Day. All families are encouraged to honor their mothers with special gifts, meals, and celebrations.

The month of May is a time in which we particularly recognize the centrality of motherhood to the human family, and the gift of motherhood—in all its beauty—to each one of us.  Pope St. John Paul II said that “motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life… from the beginning a special openness to the new person… In this openness…the woman ‘discovers herself through a sincere gift of self.’”  Of course, not all women become physical mothers—but Pope St. John Paul said that all women are called to exercise “cultural” and “spiritual motherhood.”

Each one of us is called to help foster, protect, and celebrate the gift of motherhood in our families, communities, and nation. This is, for example, the reason why working mothers ought to be given flexibility and support from their employers: exceeding what is given to other employees. It is also the reason why our government should encourage and support the institution of marriage, in which mothers are joined to fathers in a relationship of mutual aid and support and directed toward children, the hope of a future. And it is the reason why we should commit to providing support, companionship, and resources to women in difficult pregnancies, in poverty or isolation, who may be understandably afraid of the sacrificial life of motherhood. Motherhood is a noble, beautiful, and challenging vocation, which no one should have to face without help, or without hope.

Our call to support motherhood should remind us, in all contexts, that the family is the nucleus of society, the basic-building block from which all communities begin. Supporting motherhood does not discriminate against unmarried or childless people, instead, it recognizes that every person has a mother, who likely has faced challenges, and made sacrifices, and has needed support.

The New York Post’s essay got it wrong. Support for families is not an unfair perk, and maternity is not a “break” from what’s really important. Motherhood, and family life, is what’s really important.  It’s one of the most important things in the whole world. And reasonable and decent support for mothers and fathers is an act of justice, and essential for the common good. Mothers participate in the mystery of Mary’s motherhood, and in the mystery of Christ’s salvation. 

This month, let us pray for mothers, let us work to support families, and let us thank God for the gift of our own mothers, and for the the beautiful gift of our gracious and holy Blessed Mother.

Discipleship and citizenship

April 24, 1916, one hundred years ago this week, was a warm and beautiful day in Dublin, Ireland.  It was Easter Monday, a national holiday, and families walked together through the city.  It seemed a calm and uneventful morning.  But away from downtown, on Dublin’s outskirts, organized groups of Irishmen began to quietly overtake roads, and bridges, and telephone stations surrounding the city center. 

Shortly before noon, 400 Irishmen entered the downtown General Post Office on O’Connell Street, evacuated it, locked the doors, and hoisted on the rooftop a flag of the Irish people.  A schoolteacher walked into the square and read a proclamation, declaring that Ireland would be a free nation.

Five days of conflict between the Irish and the British army followed. After that came years of political struggle, and decades of protracted fighting, during which grave acts of violence were committed by both sides. 

But the “Easter Rising” of 1916 began a movement for the personal and religious freedom of the Irish people.  It began the end of the centuries in which Ireland was ruled by other kingdoms and nations. And the roots of that Easter Rising and the desire for Irish freedom, was the deep and abiding Catholic faith of the Irish people.  In fact, many leaders of the Easter Rising began their involvement because they wanted to leave for their children a more just, free, and charitable society. 

The declaration of the Irish republic placed the nation under the care and protection of Almighty God, and expressed hope that in his blessing, the Irish people would serve “the common good,”—the Catholic sense of just governance. The Irish Constitution, adopted some years after Easter Rising, invoked the grace of Jesus Christ in the establishment of a nation “seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured,” and “true social order attained.”

Political history is always complicated. But it is clear that the fathers of independent Ireland were formed and motivated by a commitment to Catholic teaching, and they sought to build a nation which would serve justice for all, ordered and animated by the principles and meaning of the Gospel. It is also clear that the “Easter Rising”—and the Catholic values promoted by its leaders—was only possible in a culture in which Catholicism was expressed in the art, and music, and family life of the people—in which the meaning of the Gospel bubbled up through every part of family and public life, naturally shaping the direction of the nation.

We are all called to build civil society ordered by the spirit of Jesus Christ. We do this through our direct political engagement; by voting, and running for office, and advocating for just legislation—for the family, the poor, and the unborn.  But we also build Catholic culture by the way we engage with our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends. Very little of our everyday lives are directly impacted by particular government policies. But our lives are never lived in isolation.  We form authentic Christian communities—and promote the common good—when we carry ourselves, through our ordinary relationships, with a desire to live the meaning of the Gospel. We build a just social order, one step at a time, in the ordinary experiences of our lives.

Forming truly Christian culture is a part of our responsibility as Catholics, and also a part of our responsibility as citizens. Last month, a friend and former student of mine, author Stephen White, published “Red, White, Blue, and Catholic.” He writes that “this book is a Catholic guide to faithful citizenship for every day of the year—not just Election Day.”  The book is exactly that—a thoughtful and practical guide to becoming good citizens by building, in real steps, just and vibrant American culture. 

White says that our Catholic faith should make all the difference in the way we live as American citizens. And he’s right. And to become good citizens, in the best sense, we should first become good disciples of Jesus Christ. “Red, White, Blue, and Catholic” can help us to do both of those things—I hope you will read it with your families, and I hope it will help us to build a culture, and rebuild a nation, in which we will be proud to raise future generations. 

Our missionary call

Earlier this year, Pope Francis reminded all Catholics that “the Church is mission.”

The pope meant that our entire identity as Catholics can be understood as a commission from Christ himself: the salvation of souls. Each one of us is called to be a missionary because, by our baptism, we belong to the mission of the Church, each in our own way. Pope St. John Paul II said it this way: “missionary activity is a matter for all Christians, for all dioceses and parishes, Church institutions and associations.”

Pope Francis has confirmed this self-identity of the Catholic Church in the context of the New Evangelization by reminding us that we are a Church “permanently in mission.”

Our diocese, the Diocese of Lincoln, is called to missionary work. To be sure, we are called to be missionaries here at home, among the people and communities of Southern Nebraska. But we are also called to discern the ways in which God calls us to be missionaries “on the periphery,” among the poor, the marginalized, and those who have not heard the message of the Gospel.

Pope Francis says that we must be a Church that seeks out the marginalized. The pope says there is a special virtue in proclaiming Christ among those who are poor and isolated, and walking, as Christ did, among those often forgotten or maligned.

In the Gospel of St. Luke, Our Lord says; “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required (Luke 12:48).” We have been blessed abundantly in the Diocese of Lincoln in so many ways. We are blessed with holy families and parishes and schools, and with men and women committed to the missionary life of priests and consecrated religious. Next month I will ordain four men as priests of the Diocese of Lincoln. Next year, I will ordain five new priests; they will become deacons this year. Last year, I ordained eight men as priests. In 24 months, the Diocese of Lincoln will have gained 17 new priests—and only one priest will retire. We will have been blessed with a net gain of 16 new priests in two years!

God calls us to be generous stewards of the blessings we are given. In the Diocese of Lincoln, this means allowing and encouraging our priests to serve as missionaries among people in need of sacred ministry. We have priests in service to the military, to seminaries, to the service of the national and universal Church, and to college students through FOCUS. And this year, we are blessed to send two priests as missionaries to sister-dioceses in the United States.

(Related news: Lincoln priest tapped for USCCB liturgy post)

(Related news: Diocesan priest serving as secretary for papal nuncio)

The Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, is one of last American frontiers. The diocese is 409,849 square miles: more than five times the land area of Nebraska! Fourteen-thousand Catholics live across the vast and isolated territory, working as fisherman, on oil wells, in timber, and other industries. The diocese is home to many native communities. Fairbanks is a beautiful place; but it is also a place in which isolation leads to family difficulty, mental health struggles, and substance abuse. Frontiers are often places in which people run from God, and even from human connection. Frontiers are often places where the Gospel is sorely needed.

The Catholics in Fairbanks are served by just 13 diocesan priests, and a host of missionaries. In July, Father Thomas Kuffel, pastor of parishes in Wallace, Grant and Elsie, will begin a period of service as a missionary to the Diocese of Fairbanks. I am grateful to God for his missionary heart and his willingness to serve.

The Diocese of Gallup, N.M., comprises one of the poorest regions in the United States. It includes reservation land for the Zuni, Hopi, Apache, and Navajo people. The people in Gallup face low employment prospects, minimal infrastructure and services, limited educational opportunities, and, very often, a poverty of hope.

Many people in the Diocese of Gallup are those who seem to have no place in American public life—especially the American Indian families who still face real prejudices and difficulties. I am a descendent of the Wea people, members of the Confederated Peoria Tribe of Kansas. There is a small town in Kansas by the same name where my ancestors are buried. I am very proud of my American Indian heritage. I currently serve on the USCCB’s Subcommittee for Native American Affairs. Through that work, I am aware of the serious needs of native families—especially needs for a deeper connection to the life of the Church herself.

In July, Father Thomas Walsh, pastor of parishes in Geneva and Shickley, will begin a period of service as a missionary to the Diocese of Gallup. In particular, Father Walsh will work closely with the Missionaries of Charity who serve there—religious sisters founded by soon-to-be Saint Mother Theresa, who work with the poorest of the poor. Their center in Gallup also serves as regional retreat house for the Missionaries of Charity serving in the West Coast Region. 

The work of our missionary priests is an extension of the generosity of all Catholics in the Diocese of Lincoln. Because of God’s blessing—and because of your support—they’re able to brings God’s mercy, especially through the sacraments, to people in need. But the witness of our missionary priests is a reminder for each one of us. The Church is mission, and we all share in the missionary call.

I’m moved by the lay missionary families of the Diocese of Lincoln, serving in places like Haiti, and I’m moved by families in our diocese with a commitment to apostolic and missionary work here, in Southern Nebraska. The Gospel is needed everywhere. God’s mercy is needed everywhere. The poor—materially and spiritually—are always with us. God calls us to serve the poor with our lives, with the Gospel, and with our love. May we be ever generously committed to that mission.

 

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Dialogue, and the ‘Joy of Love,’ from the heart of the Church

(Bishop Conley wants to hear from you! Click here to share your thoughts about Amoris Laetitia and the family.)

Nearly three years ago, Pope Francis told bishops around the world that “never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family… been more urgent and necessary.” 

No one can deny that the Holy Father was right.  In our modern culture, family life is in a particular and urgent kind of crisis.  Since the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, the family has been relentlessly assaulted by a pervasive contraceptive mentality, by widespread divorce, by increasingly ubiquitous pornography, and by the radical redefinition of marriage itself.  Families face challenges their ancestors rarely did, and they seem to be assaulted by the “culture of death” constantly. 

In 2013, Pope Francis called for two meetings of bishops from around the world—an Extraordinary and Ordinary Synod—as forums for discussion and discernment about how the Church can call families to conversion and support them in the Christian life.

The pope began those conversations with a worldwide consultation.  He asked every diocese in the world to reach out to lay people—to mothers and fathers, sons and daughters—and ask for their insights, their advice, their concerns, and their hopes.  In 2014, the Church conducted another consultation.  In the Diocese of Lincoln, hundreds of Catholics participated in these consultations.  I was moved by the thoughtful reflections of our lay faithful and by the generosity with which they shared themselves and their points of view.

Last week, Pope Francis published Amoris Laetita, a letter to families around the world, encouraging them to experience the “joy of love,” and to live as active, faithful, and generous disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Pope Francis writes that, “the Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.”  He means that joyful families enliven the entire Church, generation after generation, by witnessing to the fidelity of Jesus Christ.  I have experienced families witnessing to the joy of love.  I have seen parents who generously support and guide and form their children. And I have seen children who reflect the best of their parents, and the truth of the Gospel.  I know that those families—so present in our diocese—can give entire parishes and communities the gift of Christian joy.

Pope Francis’ letter recognizes that many families live without joy.  Many families suffer, often in isolation, and often without hope.  He reminds us of the basic Christian vocation to proclaim Christ to those without hope, and to “accompany” those who are suffering.  Amoris Laetitia encourages the whole Church to support the vocation to family life, especially among families living without joy. 

In a particular way, the pope calls bishops to teach, and encourage, and assist families in the path of Christian holiness.  Pope Francis calls me to accompany families through they joys and the hardships of their lives.

Since the publication of Amoris Laetitia, I have received many questions about its content and meaning.  Pope Francis also calls bishops to offer help to Catholics trying to understand and interpret the teachings of the Church.

In response to Amoris Laetitia, and to the spirit of consultation from which it began, I would like to hear from the families in the Diocese of Lincoln.  I would like to hear from active Catholics in our diocese.  I would also like to hear from Catholics who do not practice the faith and from non-Catholics families as well.  I would like to hear your needs and questions, so that I can offer insight into the Gospel’s teachings.  And I would like to hear your questions about the issues Pope Francis raises in Amoris Laetitia, so that I can initiate a conversation about them in the Diocese of Lincoln.

The Diocese of Lincoln has set up a page on its website: lincolndiocese.org/AL where each of you can offer your thoughts, your questions, and your concerns.  I encourage you to share them, and to share this site with your friends and families. 

I will not be able to respond personally to each participant, but as questions and comments are received, I will pray about the best way to respond to them with guidance from the Church’s teaching. 

Amoris Laetitia says that “dialogue is essential for experiencing, expressing and fostering love in marriage and family life.”  I pray that your opinions and questions on the needs of the family in the life of the Church will allow us to continue a dialogue, speaking ‘heart to heart,’ as we seek guidance, wisdom, and truth from the heart of the Church, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ himself.

The land of Abraham

A version of this column was previously published at CatholicVote.org. 

Church bells rang in the city of Mosul, Iraq for 2,000 years. St. Thomas the Apostle preached the Gospel in Iraq and Syria soon after Christ ascended from the earth. St. Jude was martyred in Syria in the first century. Since that time, faithful Middle-Eastern Christian communities have lived through wars and persecutions, through famines and oppressions, proclaiming the Gospel despite tremendous obstacles. For 2,000 years, Christ has been present in Iraq and Syria in the mystery of the Eucharist.

In fact, the region of Iraq and Syria had sacred meaning even long before Jesus Christ walked this earth.

More than 4,000 years ago, God made a covenant with Abraham ben Terah. The Lord promised that Abraham would be the father of nations and kings, and patriarch of the land of Israel. Through his covenant with Abraham, the Lord revealed himself: in the law, in the prophets, and in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: God’s own son, and a descendent of Abraham.

Abraham was a native of Ur Kaśdim, an ancient city located on the plains of modern-day Iraq. To reach the Promised Land, Abraham journeyed through modern-day Syria.

God chose to begin the covenant that reached its fulfillment in Jesus Christ with a man from the region that is now Iraq. And across the plains and cities of modern-day Syria, God led Abraham, spoke to him, and formed him. Through Abraham, those places have ancient and sacred meaning.

But today, in the birthplace of Abraham and the resting place of martyrs, the Gospel has nearly been silenced. Since the rise of ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have been slaughtered, beaten, raped, and exiled from their homes. Across Iraq and Syria, Christian children have been enslaved and tortured.

Christians have been simply decimated in ISIL territory: their long-vibrant communities are no longer. ISIL acts to eliminate non-Muslims in their territory with inhuman brutality, and unimaginable violence. In March, ISIL affiliated terrorists martyred four Missionaries of Charity in Yemen, and kidnapped a priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who remains missing.

In no uncertain terms, ISIL is engaged in the systematic genocide of Christians and other religious minorities in its territory. On March 14, the United States House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution condemning that genocide, and calling the United States government, and the United Nations, to recognize ISIL atrocities as genocide, and to act to stop them.

In our polarized nation, it is rare for the House of Representatives to act unanimously. But on this issue, there was no disagreement. And I am very proud that my congressman, and my dear friend, Representative Jeff Fortenberry, has been Congress’ leading advocate for the defense of Middle Eastern Christians.

On March 17, in response to the leadership of Rep. Fortenberry and the House of Representatives, along with leaders from the Knights of Columbus and other groups, the US State Department officially classified ISIL atrocities against Christians as genocide.

But the State Department has emphasized that the US does not consider itself obliged to intervene in ending the genocide. To do so would require action, commitment, and investment. Certainly, the policies and politics of the Middle East are complicated; acting rashly and without understanding is a mistake. But no just government can stand by as families are slaughtered, and children are tortured. The United States, and all people of good will, must help to find just and fruitful ways to end the genocide, and reign of terror, of ISIS.

During the Easter season, we should be especially conscious of the Christians in the Middle East, and remember our unity with them. I ask that each of you join with me, and with Christians around the world, in praying for the people of an ancient and sacred place: the birthplace of Abraham, and the resting place of holy martyrs.

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