Holy Week celebrates the obedience of Jesus, which is the human contribution to God’s triumph over sin and death. That God builds His victory on this foundation testifies that He has made obedience integral to our nobility. Jesus Crucified does not submit as a slave, or resign Himself as a servant, He loves as a son. His Resurrection shines as God’s response to deep human vulnerability.
Christian living takes its shape from this pattern. Every Baptized person stands in Christ’s place before the Father, and grace so orients us that we may live undefended lives in His presence. This view on life lies close at hand, for you find yourself in a parish confided to religious who have a vow of obedience, and they make Christ’s pattern of love their life’s task. For Dominican Friars and Sisters, life unfolds as a series of assignments. With each one comes the challenge of going beyond compliance to meet the mind of the superior who made the assignment so that we give it 100%. We perceive that living on these terms does not compromise us but fulfills our human dignity.
I understand our parish merger to be such an assignment. It came to me as Pastor in a distinct fashion, but it also came to the Brothers who serve with me, and indeed to everyone who worships at St. Vincent’s and St. Catherine’s. The assigned task from the Archbishop is that we become a single community of souls, a parish in the Archdiocese of New York. The logistical aspects of the task defy counting, but the essential work at hand demands an assent of spirit.
The work of our merger has proceeded over the last six months precisely because of the men and women who have given this assent, and embraced a new way of doing things as part of their discipleship. I can attest to the growth in charity that has come upon all of us who have given ourselves to this task. This love took visible form at Mardi Gras when men and women from across the parish worked and celebrated together showing in themselves a joy of transformation already experienced.
Holy Week will take our embrace of the assigned task to a deeper level. The celebration of the rites will give vivid expression to the unity already accomplished, but the power of the liturgies will also deepen the charity that gives real life to our parish community. Holy Week will have this power among us because we will celebrate the saving obedience of Christ by accepting in a yet deeper way the mandate of His Church in our regard.
Holy Week’s movement from liturgy to liturgy unites us in sharing Christ’s conscious surrender of Himself into the events of His Passion, and the intensity of the rites pulls us into His focus on accomplishing the plan of the Father. Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday exert the same effect on us that Christ’s life had on His contemporaries – they gather souls. In its essence Holy week is not private and it is not convenient. By its nature, this time demands that we suspend ordinary operations and to be gathered with the Church so that we may become more the Church as these liturgies connect us to the Lord’s Death and Resurrection.
This value carries such weight that the Church opposes the unnecessary multiplication of Holy Week liturgies. An example of this principle is that on Holy Thursday, and Holy Saturday evening, priests may not celebrate a private Mass, which they may do on any other day of the year. We are all to go through Holy Week together. Therefore, since the mind of Church is that we should be one parish, we will accept that mandate by celebrating a common Holy Week, using both churches in a unified celebration.
Obedience costs dear, and Holy Week tells the story of Christ paying the cost of this way of loving. I am mindful that the sharing of Holy Week will inflict the hurt of loss, and more than anything I wish I could take that away. At the same time, I am convinced that if we do not share this core of Church life, we will not become a parish. Holy Week testifies to us about the terrible pain and the wondrous blessing of insisting on the deeper love, and to this we are now called.
In next week’s letter I would like to go over with you in detail the plan for Holy Week and the thinking behind it. In the meantime, I hope we can trust in the way the Gospel is working in our midst. Its tangible effects are there to be seen, heard, and touched. God will not fail to make good on holy beginnings.
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This past Sunday at the Noon Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer we celebrated the “Rite of Sending.” We sent our Catechumens to Cardinal Dolan, who on that same afternoon enrolled them as members of the “Elect,” to be approved for Baptism this Easter. The involvement of the Archbishop in our Paschal Baptisms struck me this year. Our Catechists, our Catechumens, and their sponsors actually left our Mass early, trudged through the bitter cold, and inserted themselves into the melee of a jammed cathedral; all because of our connection to the Archbishop and “local Church.” Those to be baptized may identify with the powerful message of Pope Francis, and they may also savor the distinctiveness of our Parish, but they also will become part of the Archdiocese of New York, properly understood as a communion of souls. The Holy Spirit has assembled men, women, and children from this whole region in such a way that their life together makes the Catholic Church present and palpable in its array of gifts and in its varieties of discipleship.
The Local Church of New York registers as Catholic because it enjoys a seamless connection to the Global Church and takes up its share of the whole Church’s gifts and burdens. Throughout the year, every parish takes up a series of collections that add up to a comprehensive responsibility for the life of the Body of Christ throughout the world. We collect for Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, as well as marginalized communities in the US. We address the needs of Catholic Relief Services, the concerns of the Holy Father (Peter’s Pence), and the needs of specific missionary enterprises. Each of these collections involves individual contribution, but finds its true effectiveness in the whole Archdiocese acting in concert.
But the Archdiocese is Catholic not only by connection but in essence. Those with eyes to see may perceive the whole life of the Church present in our midst. The Archbishop himself embodies the Catholicity of the local Church. For example, each year on the Tuesday of Holy Week, at the Mass of Chrism, His Eminence blesses the Holy Oils, and these go forth from St. Patrick’s to touch every aspect of the Church’s life. People will be baptized, confirmed, and ordained with these oils, churches will receive their dedication through them, and countless numbers of sick will feel in them the healing touch of Christ. Oil permeates and so does the effect of the Holy Spirit. No facet of society escapes His impact as He assembles souls and connects them to need.
Look around our two churches sometime and see how the Spirit connects the well-off and the poor in one room to hear one sermon, to pray at one altar, and to receive Communion from one dish. In the Church, He gathers across the lines of age and race, gender, and politics. Through His inspirations Christ summons disciples from within every profession, craft, and artistry.
Those from every state of Christian life locate their discipleship here. Gathered here are the married couples who share their experience with younger couples in the marriage preparation program. The Archdiocese elicits the gifts of all kinds of women and men religious. As a Pastor, I meet the lawyers, accountants, teachers, doctors, and nurses who have directed their professional expertise and energy to the life of the Church. These people are a phone call away from our parish staff, helping us to navigate the world of affairs, and helping us to be better stewards of parish resources.
We are graced to contribute to Christ’s work on earth when we make Catholic life available in every corner of our region by sharing our resources with other parishes not so comfortably situated.
When we contemplate a contribution to this years’sStewardship Appeal for the Archdiocese we might consider that we are not giving money to an institution but promoting a whole life, with Christ at its heart and the Holy Spirit as its animator. It seems to me that when any of us support Catholic life, we ourselves become more Catholic, that is, integrally connected to the Church at all of her levels and in each of her aspects.
No doubt, we face the temptation to make this appeal a referendum on persons and policies. What we want more deeply, I feel, is to encourage individuals and communities to live in reliance on the promises of Christ so as to make Him palpable in every borough and county. Since God is not outdone in generosity, He surely will use our support of others to support us.
By training we perceive Lent as our season of personal conversion and we design a program of doing and not doing that is directed to that end. The practice handed on to us is not wrong. When we received ashes on Wednesday we testified to ourselves and our neighbors that we stand in need of conversion. To be penitent in public offers an essential witness to the Gospel, for it testifies not only to personal sinfulness, but to the inexhaustible mercy of God.
But note the context of the ashes. I do not give myself ashes in the privacy of my room: I make a decision to present myself in the midst of the Church to receive them. (I should note in passing that it is not obligatory to receive ashes.) Not only do I confess myself to be a sinner, but we confess ourselves to be sinful.
Lent possesses a deeply corporate character. At one level this is a communion in mutual support. The shared experiences of the season, receiving ashes, Stations of the Cross, abstaining from meat on Fridays, represent communal support for individual endeavor. I find it easier to make the changes I need to make if I know you are all behind me. But these same practices also speak to our shared situation in the sight of God, and in Lent the whole body of Christ, and every part of it, seeks renewal of its faith and practice.
We present God with the patterns of sin we share as a community, and we ask Him to heal and elevate the future that binds us. Here we own the failure to welcome, and the practice of welcoming unevenly. We ask if we, as a group, worried too much about money or have been careless with resources? Has our time at Mass been for focusing on God with a merciful glance at our neighbor, or have we spent the time inspecting our neighbor so as to avoid the intensity of connecting with the invisible God?
But our communal Lent will only be complete if we seek to grow the community in communal virtues. How can we, as a group, be more attentive to God’s Word? Can we open ourselves to more awareness of the poor? Can we give worship a higher priority? Can we become more aware of, and connected to, the global and regional Church? In short, during Lent, will this portion of the Body of Christ seek to be more so? Like any individual Christian, the Community of Christians is never done asking these questions. We never stop growing.
I hope that the work of giving concrete shape to our new parish will, over the next weeks, help us to grow in the shared virtues that will help us give a corporate witness to Christ in this neighborhood.
You will soon receive an invitation at Mass from a fellow parishioner to register as a member of the new parish. This can be a matter of record keeping, or it can be a moment of commitment to a community. Please give us a hearing on this when the time comes.
Following upon relevant talks in Parish Study, we will ask you to engage in a parochial conversation about music as it figures in our worship. Lent will offer the setting for speaking about, and listening about, a most sensitive subject. But what a witness it will be to have the conversation at all.
The Archdiocese has asked us Pastors to review our schedule of Masses. This will entail the most obvious evaluation: do you have enough priests to say the Masses you offer? But this work will also relate the number of Masses to their quality as gatherings of the Church for the Eucharist. Do those who attend a given Mass not only receive communion, but experience it? Finally we will need to place the Masses in context. Do our times of Mass effectively complement, rather than compete with, those of our neighbors?
Since we will not be able to define the scope of our music program without knowing the number and timing of Masses, we will have to take up music and schedule in tandem.
In our individual spiritual lives our exertion and restraint of the body serves to shape and direct our interior disposition. For the group it must be the same. If we take up these works reverently during Lent, I believe we will come to Easter as a communion of souls in truth and in name.
I would not have had the courage to write these words but for the wonderful experience of community I experienced over the past week. Our celebrations of “Candlemas” on February 2, and Mardi Gras on February 6, came about because of the extraordinary generosity of parishioners, but the beauty and warmth of these evenings deepened the reservoir of that same generosity. On February 7, parishioners of St. Catherine’s successfully reflected in common their finances. The candor and charity of the encounter encouraged us all.
In the weeks ahead may you, and we, not lose heart, but keep firm in the way of the Lord Jesus and in the Communion of His Church. His strength will undergird our own.
I find that when I face a challenge I do better if I sit myself down with the situation and resolve to receive it in faith, to accept that God is allowing this event. Lent offers such a time of intentional living.
For me, this Lent will be a quest to establish, under grace, that health in myself by which I actually live life, rather than just respond to it. Christian virtue seeks this well-being as wherewithal for a lively, and steady walk to God. Often, the pursuit of temperance launches people on the quest for soundness of life. Temperance consists in the happy, measured enjoyment of life’s good things, and tradition reckons these as food, drink and sex. Thus the temperate person moves comfortably from feast to fast to pot roast on Thursday. Somehow it seems appropriate to apply the logic of temperance to the use of technology. How do I make use of its excellent services, and also calmly decide to put away my devices and do human things like being aware of my companions on the street? How do I embrace the gifts of connectivity, and also, reasonably, make myself unavailable?
We understand Lent as a season of penance, and we grasp that penance is something we do, as when the Confessor assigns us a penance in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But works of penance are themselves intentional and intensified practices of the virtues. In this light, Lenten works are less about appeasing God, or punishing ourselves, than they are about growth. Fasting, and almsgiving represent means by which we gain control of life by detaching ourselves from its particulars, such as food, drink, and money. Prayer depends on that degree of control, and in turn teaches us about God’s yet greater mastery over reality. Taken together, the Lenten practices teach the self-control necessary not to be in control, and this is one of the lovely paradoxes of the spiritual life.
Hopefully the foregoing will be of some help preparing a plan of penance that is neither rote nor grandiose, but focused on the solidity and joy of spiritual maturity. Please consider the following as parts of a Lenten discipline.
Receive Ashes. On Wednesday, February 10, ashes will be offered after the homily at the three daily masses at each church, St. Vincent’s at 8 am, 12:10 pm, and 5:30 pm, and St. Catherine’s at 7 am, noon, and 5:15 pm. They will also be given at the 7:30 pm Holy Hour at St. Vincent Ferrer. Taking ashes is a public commitment to perform penance. We place before the world the gap between our profession of Christianity and our actual practice of it.
Practice Fast and Abstinence. The days of common fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of common abstinence, the Fridays of Lent, offer us the chance to create an empty space in life for God to fill. By giving up good things we train ourselves to long for better ones.
Make the Stations of the Cross. Each Friday in Lent, after the evening Mass in each church, beginning, February 12, we make this procession of the Passion. It is an opportunity get out of ourselves to focus on the self-gift of Jesus, by which our ordinary life has become a way to an eternal one.
Practice Silence. We are able to offer lovely and effective periods of silence on our Saturday morning retreats. On Saturday, February 13, we will have the parish Lenten retreat at St. Catherine’s. We will begin at 9 am in St. Dominic Hall, and conclude with the noon Mass. This year, we will focus on the place in our spiritual lives of the habits we cannot break.
You will also find times of nourishing silence in our weekly Holy Hour at 7:30 pm on Wednesdays at St. Vincent’s, as well as during the times of adoration in St. Catherine’s Church, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, and Sunday morning before the Solemn Mass at noon.
Observe Sundays and Feasts. The significance of self-denial becomes clear in its mitigation. The Sundays of Lent, and its two great Solemnities, St. Patrick, and St. Joseph, (this year we will not celebrate the Annunciation until after Easter), are to be taken as days of joy on which we “break Lent.” These relaxations remind us that our self-denial is not simply an endurance, but a way to live more securely rhythms of a balanced life.
Pray for Those in Formation for the Sacraments. The growth of nature will be matched in our midst by the spiritual growth of those who will be baptized, make First Communion, be received into the church, and be confirmed as adults. Please pray for all of them, and for all those who are accompanying them as catechists and sponsors. The contribution of the work of initiation to the vitality of the whole parish cannot be overstated.
Mardi Gras Peace!