August 28, 2011

Our Heavenly Homeland - True End of our Pilgrimage - and America

I am almost home - I hope.  For the last month, my reflections have been about a pilgrimage I made with some seminarians, a colleague and a few friends.   Over eighteen days we wen about five thousand miles by bus stopping at shrines, cathedrals, and basilicas in seven countries and  twenty-two cities as we made our way to Madrid for World Youth Day and back.  Our pilgrimage which began in Krakow also ended in Poland at Jasna Gora with Mass in a chapal next to Our Lady of Czestochowa on her feastday.  Today, everyone is home, I think, except me. I am waiting in Toronto after having had to re-book my flight.  Believe it or not, here in this busy airport is my first chance for solitude and silence in a long time.  Being almost home helps me remember that although the earthly pilgrimage is over for now, I am still in the middle of a spiritual pilgrimage - that together we yearn for our heavenly homeland, our true home where we are awaited by those who most love us.

Part of our pilgrimage took in the great achievements of our faith in art and culture, and part of our pilgrimage was about understanding the ways in which the Church fell short of her mission.  It is as if we forgot that we are not at home in this world and became to at home with worldly power and honor.  Pettiness and bad judgment always result from a failure to remember one's true purpose.   It is sobering to call to mind that despite great achievements we always remain capable of deviating from the mission entrusted to us by God.

Briefly, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Church began to enjoy not only spiritual power for the salvation of souls but also had to deal with different forms of worldly power.  Social institutions were formed to take care of the poor, the sick and the widowed.  Then when the empire fell, the Church hierarchy and the monasteries became the only providers of social order and culture.  At the same time, the seduction of worldly power sometimes poisoned pivotal decisions.  Normally, the end was good - a society ordered to God.  Mistakes usually involved the means used to achieve this -- faith cannot be compelled by violence or fear without harming human dignity and destroying the very foundations of Christian culture.   

Faith in fact has the nature of a proposal - something that requires freedom in order to be properly embraced and lived.  It is only a power not of this world which produces it in the heart, a power that is shown forth in the weakness of the Church rather than her earthly glory.  In many cases, it was not until the Church lost its worldly power that the suffering and injustice such decisions caused could be more objectively evaluated.  When during the Great Jubilee in the Year 2000 John Paul II asked for pardon from the world for the sins committed by members of the Church, there was a lot that needed to be forgiven.  

Piety in America lives as a proposal with which each generation must wrestle.  It has not given birth to the great monuments and cultural achievements we find in Europe, but it has its own dynamism which is vital to God's plan for the world.  Although we believe in the goodness of people to use their freedom well, we also believe that those with power need to be accountable because earthly power and the human heart are subject to death - and so we do not put our trust in government or any unaccountable political power, even if that power were religious.   When it comes to faith, although we desired no established religion and wanted a separation of Church and State, from the beginning Americans tended to see themselves as a pious people as dependent on Divine Providence as the Children of Israel entering into the Promised Land.  There is both optimism and caution which lives in the American religious sense.  

This paradox living in the heart of our history and national character is not fully understood by most Americans, and we risk losing something very important for our culture as a result.   Our culture of personal liberty is built on it.  In this paradox, the mission of the Church and the purpose of government have a chance find their proper place so that human freedom and God's love can come together in our society.   

This is why America, for all its struggles with materialism and temptations to arrogance, has a deep piety that still informs its culture at times, especially when it comes to personal liberty.  The mission of the Church involves service to the piety which informs this liberty.  It is a service of truth.   In America, the Church must work to be a vital voice in the public square which contributes to a just society.   Yet it is not a voice of earthly power as it once was in Europe.  This frees the Church to be the voice of conscience America most needs.  Is there a model here which points the way forward in post-Christian countries which need a new evangelization today?  Whether this is so or not, this collision of freedom and faith which American democracy and the mission of the Church make possible is what helps America point to something beyond itself: it is what helps me remember our true homeland.  

A note about America's caution regarding religious institutions.  It is not the Church as such that American's distrust  - yet every religious organization is made up of people and it is the tendency of people to abuse power of which Americans are rightly wary.  It is a humble part of the American character which sees that the desire for earthly power is a dangerous force in the human heart.  Something inside us wants to make a name for ourselves and if we do not humbly allow ourselves to be held accountable by God and those He gives us - well, we soon find ourselves intoxicated with our need to be in control at the expense of another's freedom.   When we have not submitted this to Christ in our service to the Church, such psychological forces can influence the kinds of decisions we make for even the most noble of causes.  

It is not a bad thing for the earthly power of the Church to be limited - in our weakness the power of God is made perfect.  Sometimes, so that we do not get carried away by the pride of life and forget that we are meant for something much greater, God strips us of earthly honor and influence.  When He humbles us, it is to remind us about what is really important.  Earthly power is meant only to protect and promote human dignity - it is not something we should be at home with.  This world and the power we find here are not big enough for our hearts - we are made for something much greater.  Here, we are only almost home - Someone with a host of angels and saints, the family of God, awaits us with love at our true home - so that every homecoming only anticipates something even better.

So sitting in Toronto's airport waiting for my flight - I am almost home, but even when I get to Denver and find myself at home telling stories about this adventure with my wife and children, we will still only be almost home.  Something about being with our friends and family anticipates our true homeland in a beautiful way.  But there is something even better waiting for us, something which every other homecoming signifies and points to.  We are meant to care for our earthly home so that those entrusted to us and who come after us can learn to love, so that they can find God.  Our true home, however, is found only in Christ to whom every knee must bend and every head must bow, on the earth and under it.  The pathway to this heavenly homeland is faith - a road traveled by the truly free who by truth know how to love.     

August 23, 2011

Burgos and Lourdes

Gothic Cathedral at Burgos - the City of  El Cid

Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J. preaching at Mass in Burgos

Tonight we are in Ars after yesterday took us from Burgos, Spain through the Pyrenees to Lourdes.   We are all still pretty exhausted from World Youth Day.  Yet many of the seminarians are overcome with some of the graces they have received in these days.  In Lourdes, we participated in a beautiful candlelight vigil where we prayed the Rosary and sang songs with pilgrims from all over the world.  The devotion was so beautiful, especially when you saw all the sick who had come.
The entry way to Lourdes

It seems since the Wedding Feast at Cana, Mary continues to initiate profound, healing and life-changing encounters with the Lord. At this site, as is well known, the Virgin Mary appeared to a little girl in the 19th Century.  (Click here for a more detailed account of the apparitions.) Bernadette was from a poor family but had a deep faith.    This beautiful Lady, after teaching her how to pray, told Bernadette to dig in a grotto, to drink, to eat bitter herbs and bath in the water there for the sake of those who did not know the Lord's forgiveness.  Those who were sick were to come, drink and bath in the water, explained the mysterious person, to be healed.  In fact, since 1858, there have been about 70 confirmed healings - healings that defy medical explanation.  There have also been thousands and thousands of other graces given to pilgrims.  The Lady who appeared to her prayed with her and eventually told her that her name was "Immaculate Conception.'  The priest who investigated these apparitions acknowledged that it was a rather sophisticated phrase for an uneducated youngster considering that the expression had up until that point never been spoken in La Patois - the ancient mountain French of the region.

To this day, thousands of pilgrims come nearly everyday to drink and bath in the water, to go to confession and mass and to pray the Rosary.  Many of these pilgrims are sick -- and their faith is very moving.  Some are healed in physical and visible ways - for many more the healing is spiritual, an invisible healing of the heart - which is the most important grace of all.  Tonight when I asked the men about their experience
Crosses left by Pilgrims at Lourdes

 one said he was so moved by what he saw that there were no words to express it.  And then he sat in silence for a moment and said he did not want to talk about it anymore.  If you were at dinner with us, you could tell he was reliving a beautiful moment of grace.  It is for memories such as these that one goes on pilgrimage.
Waiting for the bus in Burgos - if your bus ever gets in a fender bender in this city, they have great chocolate!

August 20, 2011

Madrid - a city of great blessings!

These are some shots of Madrid - there are signs all over for World Youth Day.   There is also a shot of Americans gathering for a special Mass with the U.S. bishops today.   Our seminarians had a special mass with the Pope this morning.

For those of you who are joined to us spiritually by prayer since when we first left Krakow - a little update:  We made it to Madrid after a wonderful day of prayer at Manresa - where St. Ignatius spent a year in prayer and spiritual trials.   We soon began to experience our own trials.  Our bus broke down outside of Zaragoza and we got here late on Thursday.  But in a way World Youth Day began at the truck stop in Zaragoza.  The seminarians pulled out a guitar and started to sing.  Soon whole groups of pilgrims began to join us.   It was wonderful fellowship.  One lady was so moved she gave another guitar as a gift - so we sang a special song for her and prayed together.  The joy and excitement in Madrid are very beautiful -- like that moment at the bus stop.  The Spanish are wonderful hosts.  

It is hard to explain the graces that are here.   Nothing has been real easy - yet everything filled with so much joy.  Trials and sacrifices and hardships are the greatest blessings on a pilgrimage.  At the time you do not see it - but then if you are patient and trust - God does some great and unexpected thing.   Isn't this just the way He works in our lives all the time when we let Him?  Thanks for praying for us and for all your support for our future priests.   God is raising up some remarkable men to serve the Church - 

August 17, 2011

Montserrat and St. Ignatius

We had mass at the Benedictine Monastery at Montserrat up above Barcelona today and tomorrow we will go to Manresa.  What ties these two places together is St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Montserrat has a miraculous image of Our Lady - said to be associated with St. Luke.  It is believed that this image was discovered by shepherds in 880 A.D. although some historians believe it was actually carved in the 12th Century.  Whatever the actual history, there have been various shrines on top of this mountain where Christians have dedicated their lives to prayer for over a millennium.  Benedictines eventually founded a monastery there in the 11th Century.

St. Ignatius came here after his initial conversion.  Wounded by a canon ball during a battle and while recovering at his brother's house he discovered the presence of the Risen Lord in his life.  He noticed this presence through reading.  When he read novels about chivalry and romance, he reflected on how these entertained him while he was reading but afterwards left him empty.  When he read the lives of the saints, he discovered that his heart burned within and stirred with desires to imitate their zeal for the Lord.  Recognizing the opposition of these two movements of the spirit helped him see Christ as the one who could help him live life to the full.  Indeed, we only discover the gift of who we really are through an authentic gift of ourselves to others, and Christ alone makes givings ourselves in this way a real possibility. Ignatius wanted this possibility in his life and he resolved to follow Christ.  With this resolution, he went to Montserrat and spent two days making a confession of all his sins.  After his confession, he spent the night in prayer - as a knight in arms - before Our Lady of Montserrat.  At the end of his prayer, he left his sword with our Lady and decided to spend the rest of his life as a pilgrim doing penance.  This would eventually lead him to Manresa.  Here he spent a year in solitude - fasting, praying and doing penance.  He battled severe bouts with depression and all kinds of spiritual trials.  In the end, he had a deep encounter with the Holy Trinity, gained wisdom of heart and wrote down his insights in what we now know as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  

This was an important day for our seminarians.  Before their formal studies, all of them go through a year of spiritual formation which seeks to tap the wisdom of heart St. Ignatius learned at Manresa.  While I do not think they have visions of the Trinity as did the founder of the Society of Jesus, many of them experience graces that are life changing in all kinds of different ways.  It is the wisdom of heart that one gains through being generous with God in prayer and with one's life that most prepares them for the work God has for them.  Please keep them in prayer that we might gain this wisdom- tomorrow to Madrid!

August 16, 2011

We are in Spain!

After a plunge into the ocean Today we made it to Barcelona.  Our pilgrimage takes us to the Cathedral and Montserrat tomorrow - and if things go well possibly Manresa.  
Some of our experiences -- it is live music on the gandola -- in Venice: Day 5
And then what we saw in Milan: Day 6

August 15, 2011

Mary Draws us up to Christ

In my last post about Il Duomo in Milan, I mentioned how Mary and all the saints sit atop the Gothic Cathedral there.  They are witnesses to the power of the Risen Lord - who raises us up in such a way that we can raise one another up too.  The way Mary and the saints are positioned on the top of spires it is as if they are pulling the whole structure to heaven.  This is exactly what the holiness of Christ does in the Church.  It pulls everyone up to the things of heaven.

Although the holiness of Christ totally exceeds that of every creature, there is one creature who is blessed above all others by Him.  Mary was assumed into heaven because of the holiness with which her son Jesus blessed her.  The Archangel Gabriel said she was full of grace.   Her cousin Elisabeth said she is blessed among women, and that she is blessed because she believed in what the Lord said to her.  Mary said that all generations would call her blessed.

Like a good mother, she wants to share these blessings with us.  She wants to share her holiness with us. When our devotion to Christ is genuine, she is always there lifting up our efforts at prayer, at love, at self-discipline - helping us realize the communion with the Lord we so deeply desire.  In fact, the greater our desire for the Lord, the more she is able to raise us to Him - just like the artists and architects believed when they place Mary on top of Il Duomo.

August 14, 2011

Il Duomo in Milan

This Church was a sheer and unexpected grace today -- it has its own bright Gothic splendor which shines in the middle of the city.  The inside is magnificent.  I thought, because Milan was industrial, that the Church might be neglected or else in some difficult part of town.  Instead, it rises up in the very heart of the city.  Our tour guide explained to us that if we really wanted to know the heart of Milan we needed to see the heart of Il Duomo - a Church dedicated to the Nativity of Mary and the Assumption.  In fact, arrayed in gold, Mary sits on top of the Cathedral, drawing all the architecture with her with a throng of saints into the heavens.
Going to the Heart of Il Duomo in Milan

There is so much to reflect on - but one thought that keeps coming back is how this Church rises up in the heart of the city.  Chesterton observes that ancient people, especially those of the Mediterranean basin, would build their cities around a sacred place.  Furthermore, the cities of Mediterranean cultures tended to be walled - as if to keep not only human enemies but also the perilous forces of nature at bay.   The interior of the city was protected so that people could live - and the most important part of life was worship.

The Virgin Mother drawing up Il Duomo to Heaven
For the Romans in particular, the greatest of all human virtues was piety - loyalty to the gods of the family hearth.  Chesterton believed it was their family values that distinguished, that motivated their struggle against Carthage - even after the Roman peoples were utterly vanquished.  Deep in the Roman heart was a desire to protect a way of life, to protect the sacred places entrusted to its care, to protect the family heritage for which the Roman was responsible.

Verifying these observations, the Book of Maccabees testifies that there was an original friendship between Roman and Israel.  Both peoples were engaged in the fierce struggles to protect these values against opposing cultural and political forces.  The Carthaginians worshiped Molech by infant sacrifice - the same practice that we find in the Ba'alism condemned by the prophets.   (It is hard not to categorize as similar the current promotion of clinical abortions - only our god is commercialism, a god who demands complete and constant votive offerings to a new priesthood we call the salesman.)  The ancient Romans and Jews knew that it was worthy to fight against such a dehumanizing religion, that if they failed to stand up to the forces which promoted it - all that they considered most important in life would be lost.  Their God-centered, family culture was worth their very lives to preserve.

Although Rome defeated Carthage - it began to lose its struggle for these values.  Christian apologists tell us that fear and despair were eating at the very heart of Rome before the Gospel was proclaimed.  Christ died so that a new kind of God-centered, family culture might thrive.  Such a culture of life and civilization of love is meant to serve as a sign in this life for what awaits us in eternity.   Pope Benedict observes that it was not purely accidental that after the Greeks, the Romans should be among the first to receive the Gospel of Christ.  Instead, he contends, this was an important part of divine providence - the Gospel was not something proclaimed to individuals in isolation.  It was meant to imbue culture and raise it up so that its most noble aspirations might be realized.
Where Ambrose baptized Augustine

It is on this point that our visit took on special meaning.  Buried in the Crypt of Il Duomo, a Cathedral that sits over the vestiges of the baptistery in which St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, is one of the great reformers of the 16th Century - St. Charles Borromeo.  In a future post I want to share a conversation I had with Cardinal Stafford about him, a conversation which helped me understand why it was so important to found St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  But to conclude this post, it is enough to recall that St. Charles undertook the reform of the Church at a time of crisis.  The Renaissance which seemed at first to promise the achievement of a genuinely Christian culture had gone awry.  What ought to have been a theo-centric anthopological enterprise had developed into an un-Christian anthropocentric endeavor - the rebirth of culture became "man centered" rather than "God centered."  This naive exuberance in humanity's achievements contributed to profound divisions in the Church which have never been healed.

Waiting for our bus
How did St .Charles deal with this excess and help the Church and the wider society find its balance again?  He spearheaded any number of new endeavors many of which he turned into success stories because of his hard work. But behind all this was three things which roots genuine culture in human maturity: asceticism, contemplative study and most of all a return to the discipline of prayer were at the heart of all his efforts.  In addition to all our efforts to advance our society in terms of technology and art, just like Christians of the 16th Century we also need to engage the struggle against sin, the struggle to find the truth and the struggle to pray if we are to preserve what is most essentially human - humanity in relation to God - in our culture.  So today I remembered your intentions behind the leader of the 16th Century Catholic Reform whose example remain an inspiration for our efforts today.

August 13, 2011

Freedom Needs the Truth

Yesterday we went to Padua -- Daniel captured part of our adventures here: Day Four.   In the meantime, I would like to reflect on our adventure today.  Today's experiences were a little frustrating - and at the same time overwhelmingly beautiful.  They evoked a question from me - namely:  Why do we pray?  Why is it essential to make time in one's life for prayer?

One answer pertains to our need for the truth - because this is what we seek in prayer.  In prayer, freedom, maturity and truth go together.  Growth into full maturity and freedom is only possible if we have a guiding principle for our lives.  True freedom is the freedom to give one's heart in love, to offer one's heart to another.   Such freedom needs the truth -- the truth is its guiding principle.  Truth provides spiritual sensibility.  It allows us to tune into what is truly essential in prayer and in our relationships with one another.  Without truth, freedom is doomed to betray itself, trapping the heart in the impenetrable prison of one's own big fat ego. We pray to seek the truth - the truth is the only path to the freedom to love.

One of the things one sees in both Europe and America is that many are inhibited from recognizing the radiant splendor of the truth surrounding them - have they despaired of its existence?  This is what I see in the eyes of many people we pass as we walked through the glorious beauty of Venice today.  This experience was particularly haunting on our way to venerate the remains of St. Mark, the evangelist.

Our local tour guide tried to explain what we were seeing in the Basilica of San Marco after our community mass in one of the side chapels.  But I am not sure she saw it or fully realized what she was trying to explain to us.  It was obvious that she had been taught to contemplate the building with secular eyes.  She tried to ignore it when our men went to their knees before the bones of St. Mark to ask for his intercession and out of devotion to Christ.  Instead she was intent on explaining the Pala d'Oro behind the relics.  She was so intent to explain its craftsmanship (it is exquisite!) and the history behind its production that she seemed almost unaware of the beautiful mystery it was depicting and why this sacred art should be placed so close to the bones of the evangelist.   She had, at least for this presentation, lost her spiritual sense and was not really in touch with those who had hoped she could guide.

Without her spiritual sensibility, the truth standing out in radiant clarity before her could not be recognized, the truly essential could not be voiced.  Now this is something many of us do from time to time and I do not think Italians are more prone to this than any other group of people.  Yet the incongruity of offering purely secular observations to a group of pilgrims on a quest for spiritual truth has been with me all day - it illustrates a particular poverty that afflicts contemporary culture.

There is an emptiness in the eyes of more and more people - sometimes it lurks behind avarice and caprice, sometimes resentment.  Our priests and seminarians were even sneered at on a few occasions as we walked through the streets.  What is going on?  Could it be that weighed down by purely material values anything that witnesses to the possibility of something better suited to the human spirit is provoking?  Those who do not know God and who have not dedicated themselves to prayer must also experience moments of joy and even moments of meaning -- moments that make them question whether they should doubt their faith in the merely material to satisfy.   Even so, meaning, truth, harmony, mediation - this is elusive, sometimes to the point of evading all recognition even as it stands before us.  In the Church of San Marco, the Risen Christ radiates his presence in thousands of artistic creations and objects of devotion arrayed to adorn a house of prayer fit for worship of the living God - yet He goes unrecognized in the midst of such splendor.

Christ is the truth, the life and the way.  He is the life principle by which those who believe in him live.  He is the Word, the Logos, the Mediator of truth from God to the hearts of men and the truth of men to the Heart of God.  He is Divine Reason, Perfect Harmony, Pure Beauty. Maturity and freedom are stunted because when this Truth is not seen.  How strange it is not to see the One from whom all things come and to which all things flow.   We must seek and strain to find.  We must knock.  We must ask for the Truth who longs to give Himself.  Freedom needs this Truth to grow and maturity needs full human freedom to be realized.   So in our prayer, we must seek the Truth and when we find Him, allow our minds to rest in Him, to dwell in Him - in this way, whether we are in an ancient sanctuary where the bones of apostles and prophets or in city streets seeing the sadness revealed in the eyes of strangers -- we will find Him who searches for us even more.

August 12, 2011

Video Clips of our Journey from Krakow to Vienna en route to Madrid

These are some video clips made by Daniel, one of our seminarians from Denver.  I hope sharing these experiences with you helps you pray for us - we are praying for you every day.

Day One
He arrived early with a couple other seminarians and before meeting up with the whole group went to Auschwitz to pray on the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).

Day Two
Daniel shows our meeting with Cardinal Dzwicz in the chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained, the Franciscan Church across the street where he liked to go to pray, the Wawel (Castle) with the Cathedral underneath which Blessed John Paul II prayed his first Mass.

Day Three
This one shows our road trip from Krakow to Vienna -- we get stopped and searched by the Czech police on the way.  It was quite a situation - they gave up the search when Father Gawronski, S.J. started praying the  Rosary with us.  I am not so sure they are used to people praying in public there.  The end of the clip shows our daily mass at a Polish parish not far from the Belvedere.  

We made it to Padua today so there is more to come!

Pilgrimage - visible travel and spiritual journey

Pilgrimage has an arduous physical dimension but the prayer with which it should be imbued is even more demanding.  The great teachers on prayer remind us that prayer is not something that naturally comes to us.   It is a gift from God which one must ask for and it requires great effort and determination.  It is a pilgrimage of faith.  Just as a great journey is normally embarked upon after acquiring sufficient provisions and often many of these are gifts from those who love us, prayer also involves undeserved gifts of love and concern, and a lot of commitment. 
In this pilgrimage, riding in a bus from central Europe to Madrid, there are no physical challenges.  But spiritually, there is always a need for effort, for vigilance.  Pilgrimage requires the discipline of a constant readiness to be flexible with changing circumstances and opportunities to help.  Sometimes God permits you to meet someone with a real need, someone who can really use some help.  A pilgrim needs to be just as attentive to these moments as he is to the interior movements of the Holy Spirit in prayer. 

The owner of a hotel we stayed at in Krakow told a story about a pilgrim priest he observed in the mountains.  The priest was hiking along his way and saw an elderly woman trying to dig up potatoes by herself.  The priest stopped, asked for her shovel and began to help her.  There was a little commotion when his entourage caught up with him – it turned out this pilgrim was the bishop of Krakow – Karol Wojtyla, the future pope who would institute World Youth Day. 

This story is an example of how we are to encourage each other in prayer and pilgrimage, how we sustain one another in our journey to the Lord.  Our journey is not simply to some physical destination.  The goal is a spiritual – because we are on a search for God.  God is found in a place of humility and patience – a place where we live with the truth about ourselves and find the courage not to be overcome by sorrow. This is why many of the great mystics sometimes voiced concern over any preoccupation with physical travel that might distract from the spiritual journey.  The visible journey is always to be subordinate to the spiritual one - 

Let others go to Jerusalem, but you as far as humility and patience.  So doing you leave the world; in the other manner they enter it.  Guigo the Carthusian, Meditations #262.

Seek God, and do not seek in what place he dwells.  What is most important in order to find him is to remain silent and to be humble.  Abba Sisoes, as cited by Dom Andre Poisson in Personal Prayer, Grande Chartreuse 1976, 1998.

August 11, 2011

Encountering John Paul II on our Way to Madrid

While we were in Krakow, we went to the chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest and then to the crypt of the Cathedral where he offered his first mass.   He was ordained during the Nazi occupation, in private, after completing a course of studies carried out in secret.  

There is a beautiful silver altarpiece depicting the Churches of Rome, Jerusalem and other places he to which he journeyed as a pilgrim.  There is a statue of our Lady of Fatima – to whom he attributed his survival from the attempt that was made on his life at St. Peter’s Square.   There is a silver book in which one finds a small reliquary for the blood of John Paul II and a copy of the picture used at his beatification earlier this year. In the midst of this, the current Archbishop of Krakow, Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, met with us and told us about the Chapel which Pope John Paul II used as his personal oratory when he became Bishop of Poland. 
Cardinal Dziwisz and Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J., professor and spiritual director at St. John Vianney Semianry

Cardinal Dziwisz, who closely assisted John Paul II, came to Denver for WYD 18 years ago and shared his own fond memories of the occasion.  He described it as a dramatic turning point, a victory for the Church.   He hopes that the same will happen in Madrid.  He also spoke about John Paul II’s life of prayer – how the Holy Father believed that by prayer our whole vision of life is changed, that we constantly see new possibilities for the Gospel of Christ.  Such is the optimism of our faith.  It was a beautiful moment of prayer in the chapel with Cardinal.  

We then went to the Cathedral in the Wawel, the Castle of Krakow.  At the time of Karol Wojtyla's ordination, the castle was occupied by the Nazis.  Blessed John Paul II decided, despite the risks, that his first mass would be celebrated in secret on a small alter under the Cathedral in the crypt.  This is where all the great kings, queens and Polish heroes are buried, the resting place of the first Bishop of Krakow.  Celebrating this first mass close to these heroes was both risky and intentional – he believed that Poland had a special destiny in the world, a special role in the plan of God to which he wanted his ministry attached.  And, he believed this even in the face of the brutal suppression of his people, at a moment when it appeared likely the nation would not survive at all.  He had incredible confidence in God.   Something of his faith echoes in that crypt and in that secret chapel of his ordination.  Watching our seminarians kneel before the little altar there, I could not help but pray for their formation and preparation ordination – in many ways, their vocations are the fruit of John Paul II’s ministry and Poland's destiny.  You could tell these men felt a bond with the Polish Pope, that his commitment to the Gospel of Christ resonates in their hearts too.


August 9, 2011

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Father Mark has a great post on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  She is a fascinating person to study.  A student of Edmund Husserl, arguably one of his best, she advanced philosophical discussions in phenomenology.  Reading the life of Teresa of Avila inspired her conversion and she became a Carmelite nun.  She began to become a great contemplative, plummeting the depths of prayer like the great Spanish Mystic.  Deported from Holland during the war, she was sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp which is in the vicinity of Krakow.  This plight, bleak though it was, did not discourage her.  She saw it as an opportunity to make a more perfect offering of herself to God for those she loved.  She offered her plight as an act of prayer - for her family, for the Jewish People of whom she was part, for Germany and for all those she loved.  While many people see death as an escape from the pain, inconvenience and difficulty of life, Christians view death as a final act of worship - the supreme moment of our life of faith.  To this end, St. Teresa has shown us the science of the Cross in the very face of the evil - she has shown us that prayer is always possible and that we never have to lose hope.

My original plan was to go to Auschwitz as part of our pilgrimage today to honor her and to remember the many souls all over the world who still suffer as victims of inhumane ideologies and godless malice.  Last year, in Dachau, I remember the sobering sounds of a young woman sobbing.  The effects of cruelty ought to be sobbed over and remembering the evil of which we are capable ought to move us to beg for God's mercy.  This is what I had hoped to do today.  However, most of our group arrived today and many of them had difficulty getting here.  So my day was spent gathering and welcoming our pilgrims.

Hospitality - giving and receiving it - is a vital part of the spirituality of being a pilgrim.  There is something of the mystery of welcoming Christ in it.  Sometimes, listening to God in prayer must be temporarily postponed so that we can welcome the Lord in the disguise of those He sends us. Nonetheless, a special grace still connected me to St. Teresa.  Three pilgrims who came yesterday had some free time this afternoon while everyone else was getting in.  So they went out to the former extermination camp on their own -- not only to honor St. Teresa (Edith Stein) but also to honor St. Maximilian Kolbe who was killed in a starvation bunker in the same complex a couple miles away.  In fact, yesterday was the anniversary of his being sent to the bunker after he offered to substitute himself for a man condemned to die.  Accounts from the prison guards themselves tell us that he turned that hellish bunker into a place of love, praying with and comforting those with whom he was condemned unto the end.  When the seminarians left to go to this bunker today, they carried my intentions with them -- which means they carried your intentions too.   

August 8, 2011

St. Dominic and the Basilica of the Holy Trinity

Today on the Feast of St. Dominic, I went to the Basilica of the Holy Trinity.  Dominicans came to Krakow under the leadership of St. Hyacinth.  He had traveled with his bishop to Rome in the hopes of meeting St. Dominic and convincing him that Poland needed preachers.  Dominic invited him to join his newly formed order and sent him to head the mission in Poland himself.  Dominicans have been ministering at the Basilica ever since.

One of the biggest problems is that there are never enough good preachers.  The Lord relies on preachers to spread our faith.  Yet oftentimes those who try to preach the Gospel fall short of their task.  Noticing such failures could be discouraging.  It can also be a moment of grace, a moment to hear the Lord's invitation for oneself.  The truth is - everyone to whom the Gospel has been entrusted has a responsibility to witness, to share the faith.  When we possess the truth, it sets us free - free to act, to live life to the full.  On this point, the Christian faith is not passive.  It demands our effort.  The truth must be lived.  This is what the Lord invited St. Hyacinth to through St. Dominic -- and the Church of the Holy Trinity is fruit of St. Hyacinth's response to this invitation.

St. Augustine opens his Confessions with questioning how we are to praise God if we do not know Him.  He understands that our deepest happiness, the place where are hearts most rest, is in worshiping the Lord.  But how do we know who the Lord is so that we might worship Him the right way?  St. Augustine answers his own question.  It is through the words of a preacher.  What an awesome responsibility preaching the Gospel is!  What courage it takes!  Yet the Lord has entrusted this great work to us despite the weakness of our intellects and our inability to fully express the magnitude of the gift He has won for us on the Cross.  Thank God there are those who love us enough, who are courageous enough, to spend their lives in study and preaching - because of them we have access to what is most important for the human spirit, the gift of the Gospel of Christ.  Thank God for St. Dominic and all the preachers whose yes to the Lord never became a no, who by God's grace and perseverance never compromised in the task entrusted to their care.

August 7, 2011

Krakow and Divine Mercy

My favorite aspect of going on pilgrimage is that every day is filled with new graces and surprises.  When things go wrong and plans fall apart, opportunities to trust in God's providence are born.  He never disappoints and always exceeds every expectation.  All that is required is trust.

In a suburb just south of the town center, Lagiewniki, there is a sanctuary dedicated to Divine Mercy.  Sister Faustyna Kowalska had a deep relationship with Jesus and He spoke to her about his desire for Christians to rediscover devotion to his Divine Mercy.  He appeared to her with rays of light coming from his heart - a visible symbol of the grace, the blood and water, that He poured out on the Cross for each of us.  He knows our every suffering.  He has entered deep into our misery.  He comes to us inviting us to entrust our difficulties to Him.  It is by trusting Him that his power can flow into our lives. 

Jesus asked Sister Faustyna to have an image painted depicting the way she saw Him coming to us.  There were several attempts both before and after her death to provide this image.  The image commissioned before her death did not fully meet Sister's expectations.  Nor was it placed in a convent chapel the way she desired.  In fact, many things that Jesus asked of her never quite went the way she had hoped.  She often thought that she was failure - and many of her fellow religious thought she was crazy.  In the midst of this, she refused to be discouraged but constantly tried to renew her devotion to Jesus, trusting in him.  

After her death just prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland, one artist painted an image of the Lord in a manner described in her diary and gave it as a gift to the convent in Lagiewniki where Sister Faustyna was buried.  He offered it in gratitude for a miracle that saved his life.  The image is believed to be miraculous.  Some who have looked on it in prayer have been cured.  Something about this image and the the devotion promoted by Sr. Faustyna helped many Catholics deal not only with the Nazi occupation but also communism.  John Paul II also found this devotion to be helpful for his own spiritual life.  Today, the image is located just over the relics of Sister Faustyna in the convent chapel on the grounds of the sanctuary.  In 2002, John Paul II consecrated the grounds as a sanctuary to Divine Mercy.  Today, over two million pilgrims visit  each year discovering in different ways what it means to trust in the Lord and to live out his merciful love in their daily lives.

Yesterday a couple of our pilgrims arrived - without their luggage.  There was a little bit of discouragement in their faces when I met them at their hotel.  They needed to go to mass and were located only blocks away from the sanctuary.  So we went.  It was so beautiful and peaceful, a small example of the the surprise graces the Lord constantly gives to those who trust in Him.

August 4, 2011

Thinking on What is Above

This begins our series on pilgrimage.  To take time in one's life for a holy journey helps us remember the truth about who we are and where we are going.   It helps us think about what is above, to rediscover what it means to be free, rational and spiritual creatures.

William of St. Thierry encourages his 12th Century Carthusian friends at Mont Dieu to fix their minds on heavenly things in his Golden Epistle.  When we take time for silence to think about God and heavenly things, it feeds our spirits with the truth about the world and ourselves.  Sustaining our lives with the truth is what it means to be rational, to choose to live in relation to the Lord, in harmony with his Presence.  There are many things that demand our attention, so this endeavor is not always easy especially because we are so forgetful.  It is a matter of clinging - a decision not to let go of God in one's thoughts and memories, and frequently renewed efforts to constantly attend to the Lord in our hearts.   The more we think about Him and honor Him, the more He can bless us.  This is a timeless truth.  For those of us who live in the hustle and bustle of the modern metropolis, keeping William's ancient counsel is as beneficial to us just as it was for his contemporaries:

All greatness and goodness for the spirit that is great and good consists in looking upon and wondering at and aspiring to what is above it, so that the devoted image hastens to cling to its exemplar.  For it is the image of God, and the fact that it is his image enables it to understand that it can and should cling to him whose image it is (#209).    

August 3, 2011


This month of August, I am setting out on pilgrimage with a group of seminarians and priests from St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver - where I serve as an assistant professor.  We are meeting in Krakow on August 9 and traveling by bus to Madrid for World Youth Day.  Along the way we will stop and pray at cathedrals, shrines and monasteries in Germany, Austria, Northern Italy, Southern France and, of course, Spain.  For those who cannot physically participate in this pilgrimage, I invite you to join our group spiritually.  In whatever time you make for daily prayer, remember to pray for us and our deeper conversion to the Lord.  By such prayers we realize together a solidarity in the Holy Spirit which is greater than all space and distance.  To help you pray with us, I will post pictures and short reflections about the places we visit along the way.

Our Sunday Visitor's Guide in the Internet 4.0 described this blog as presenting a place for prayer on the Web with a message that we are in the world but not of it.  I am grateful for this mention and to all the readers who have joined me in prayer over the years - I am glad we have encouraged each other in so many ways.   We are in the world, but not of it: concerns for material things and the affairs of this world are a part of our lives, but not the main part.  We are meant for something more.   This world, entrusted to us for the brief span of our lives, is not our true home.  Making a pilgrimage, even joining one spiritually by prayer, reminds us of this great truth. We are travelers here, on a journey to our heavenly homeland, the Father's house, the very bosom of the Trinity.

As follow pilgrims, it is important for us to encourage each other, not only with the words of the Holy Bible and the great saints who have gone before us, but also with our own words, our very lives.  Our lives are a pilgrim way through this land of shadows into a fullness we are incapable of imagining.  The path we trod is that forged by our crucified God.  We must take up our own cross and follow Him with all the devotion of our hearts.  A pilgrimage helps us renew our devotion.  I hope that you will join this pilgrimage by praying for our seminarians on their way.  You will be in my prayers that the Lord will pour out his blessings on you and your loved ones.