“Let my prayer arise like incense”


Father Aaron Williams

By Father Aaron Williams
Since being ordained last year, one thing I have noticed is the consistent negative reaction people will give to the use of incense at Mass. I think it is safe to say most people have no opinion, but those that do make sure you know it! This past month I have been living north of Chicago at the Liturgical Institute in order to spend time totally devoted to research and writing my master’s thesis. During this time away from the parish, I decided on Sundays to go and concelebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at a local Byzantine Catholic Church.
Most people in Mississippi have never experienced a non-Roman Catholic liturgical rite, but one feature of the Eastern rites is their consistent use of incense. It is used in every liturgy — and in large amounts. I’d leave the church every Sunday and my vestments would smell of incense well into the rest of the week.
Incense has been part of the worship of God from the earliest time there was a prescribed and formal way to worship God. In the book of Exodus, God not only commands Moses to use incense in worship, but He even goes on at length as how this incense is to be made (Exodus 30:34-38). Incense is one of the only elements from Old Testament worship which remained entirely unchanged in Catholic worship all through the centuries. It is spoken of in the psalms, “Let my prayer arise like incense, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (Psalm 141:2).
Traditionally, incense has been understood in two ways. Firstly, it is a literal sacrifice. Incense is precious and usually a bit expensive. And, once you burn it the incense is gone. We totally give it over to God as a complete offering to Him. It may seem small, but we can think about all the small things we do for loved ones that may to others seem useless: buying fresh flowers or sending greeting cards. We do this in the liturgy through incense, real wax candles and freshly cut flowers. These are small offerings of our heart.
But, incense is also such an effective sign. It fills the space — evoking the image of the dark cloud which filled the Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem at its dedication. “When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10-11). And, as mentioned in the psalm above, it gives a visualization to us of our prayers rising up to heaven — which is moving to consider especially in high points like the Offertory of the Mass when we should already be pouring forth all the prayers we want to bring to the Mass or at the commendation of a funeral Mass when the community pours out prayers for the deceased.
Incense is always part of the solemn liturgy. Before the reform of the liturgy in 1969 it was required in all high Masses — which was any Mass in which texts of the Mass were sung. The rubrics of the current Missal are very clear that incense is still a part of the solemn liturgy, though it expounds upon that by saying that it can be used gradually and need not be used in a sort of all-or-nothing manner from Mass to Mass. So, how should it be used today?
For most parishes in our area, incense comes out one day a year: Easter and only at the Easter vigil. Some parishes might use it for the really big feast days. But, thinking about all that incense means and how many centuries it has been used in the worship of God, surely we can find a way to use it on more than one occasion a year?
In other places, including many of the parishes I visited in New Orleans while in seminary, incense is used at one Mass every Sunday—the main Mass with the choir. I find this a good practice since, on one hand it ensures that this sacred sign is richly used in a parish, while also giving people an idea of what to expect from week to week.
You start to get used to the idea of the 10:30 a.m. Mass, for example, being the Mass with all the singing and incense. For the people that doesn’t work for, they always know the other Masses are ‘safe’.
One great benefit to regularly using incense is the interest this attracts among the altar servers. A lot of parishes find it difficult to get a large number of regular altar servers. I am of the mind that one reason this is an issue is because we don’t give servers much to do over than carrying things around. We all know kids—especially young boys—love the opportunity for a fire. Training kids how to use and prepare the incense (and maybe how to use a fire extinguisher as well) gives them a sense of responsibility and importance, while also adding a beautiful element from our Catholic tradition to your parish’s worship.

(Father Aaron Williams is the parochial vicar at Greenville St. Joseph Parish and serves as the liaison to seminarians for the Office of Vocations.)

Challenging change

Kneading faith
By Fran Lavelle
I have never been drawn into a papal document to the degree Pope Francis’ exhortation to young people, Christus Vivit, has captured my attention and my heart. As we prepare to return to our classrooms, religious education programs, RCIA meetings, adult faith formation opportunities, campus ministries and youth programs it is important that we ask some serious questions about how we are being challenged in our call. The Church does not do succession planning very well and, therefore, we have folks putting time in in ministry roles well beyond their vigor. Before you accuse me of being indifferent and an ageist, hear me out.
I was having lunch with a friend the other day and she remarked that we can serve many, many years in ministry or we can serve one year in ministry several times over. Ministry is organic and as we grow and change so too our ministry must be able to grow and change. Bishop Kopacz often reminds us that we never step into the same river twice. We can step in at the exact same spot, but the water is always new, the sediment and rocks have shifted, even the temperature of the water is different. I like that image, especially for formational ministry. The room may be the same as last year, the textbook, schedule and lesson plans too, but you are different, your students are different.
When we become complacent, we tend to pull the template out from “last year” and proceed like nothing has changed. When we allow this to happen, our eyes are closed to the present reality. Our ears cannot hear the voices of those we are called to serve. We lose our mojo. Because really, deep down inside, we all know that we never step into the same river twice. A glance back, especially for those of us who have been at it for a while, can reveal how very much things have changed. I’m not suggesting that Church elders give up their call to ministry; rather, we need to check to see if our energy, passion and openness to change is still there in our current role. Pope Francis would argue that young people need mentors of all ages who are capable of accompaniment, intentional listening and are relational. If that time has passed for us, there are still many ways we can serve in ministry. It is about our time aligning with God’s time.When we are open to knowing when that dynamic of time is off kilter doors will open to new opportunities.
In paragraph 191 of Christus Vivit, Pope Francis states, “The world has never benefitted, nor will it ever benefit, from a rupture between generations. That is the siren song of a future without roots and origins. It is the lie that would have you believe that only what is new is good and beautiful. When intergenerational relationships exist, a collective memory is present in communities, as each generation takes up the teachings of its predecessors and in turn bequeaths a legacy to its successors. In this way, they provide frames of reference for firmly establishing a new society. As the old saying goes: ‘If the young had knowledge and the old strength, there would be nothing they could not accomplish.’”
We need the wisdom of our elders as much as we need energy of young people. We need to be able to hear new ideas as much as we need the solid foundation of the kerygma.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 20 year anniversary with the Diocese of Jackson. It gave me the opportunity to look back as I look forward to year twenty-one. Twenty years of ministry. No two years have been the same. No two days have been alike. I recognize that even in walking with the same student for four or five years, each year was different. Hopefully, we both grew in wisdom, understanding and love. It’s been five years since I left campus ministry to take on my current role in formational ministries for the diocese. I had to let go of one thing I knew I loved to be able to embrace something new. Following God’s call to ministry for the diocese has had many challenges; but it is also filled with much joy. The day will come that I need to turn this ministry over to someone else. We talk about intentional disciples. What we need to talk about is authentic disciples who exercise intentional ministry. This includes succession planning. The torch gets passed. Someone else picks up where we left off. Another generation of leadership takes the helm. All of it done intentionally.
As we begin another academic year, I pray for great success in your ministry. Please know I am an email or phone call away if you ever need anything.

(Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

What does it mean “to be born again”?


Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
What does it mean to “be born again, to “be born from above?” If you’re an Evangelical or Baptist, you’ve probably already answered that for yourself. However, if you’re a Roman Catholic or a mainline Protestant then the phrase probably isn’t a normal part of your spiritual vocabulary and, indeed, might connote for you a biblical fundamentalism which confuses you.
What does it mean to “be born again?” The expression appears in John’s Gospel in a conversation Jesus has with a man named, Nicodemus. Jesus tells him that he “must be born again from above.” Nicodemus takes this literally and protests that it’s impossible for a grown man to re-enter his mother’s womb to be born a second time. So, Jesus recasts the phrase metaphorically, telling Nicodemus that one’s second birth, unlike the first, is not from the flesh, but “from water and the Spirit.” Well … that doesn’t clarify things much for Nicodemus, or for us. What does it mean to be born again from above?
Perhaps there are as many answers to that as there are people in the world. Spiritual birth, unlike physical birth, doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. I have Evangelical friends who share that for them this refers to a particularly powerful affective moment within their lives when, like Mary Magdala in the Garden with Jesus on Easter Sunday, they had a deep personal encounter with Jesus that indelibly affirmed his intimate love for them. In that moment, in their words, “they met Jesus Christ” and “were born again,” even though from their very childhood they had always known about Jesus Christ and been Christians.
Most Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants do not identify “knowing Jesus Christ” with one such personal affective experience. But then they’re left wondering what Jesus meant exactly when he challenges us “to be born again, from above.”
A priest that I know shares this story regarding his understanding of this. His mother, widowed sometime before his ordination, lived in the same parish where he had been assigned to minister. It was a mixed blessing, nice to see her every day in church but she, widowed and alone, began to lean pretty heavily upon him in terms of wanting his time and he, the dutiful son, now had to spend all his free time with his mother, taking her out for meals, taking her for drives and being her one vital contact with the world outside the narrow confines of the seniors’ home within which she lived. During their time together she reminisced a lot and not infrequently complained about being alone and lonely. But one day, on a drive with her, after a period of silence, she said something that surprised him and caught his deeper attention: “I’ve given up on fear!” she said. “I’m no longer afraid of anything. I’ve spent my whole life living in fear. But now, I’ve given up on it because I’ve nothing to lose! I’ve already lost everything, my husband, my youthful body, my health, my place in the world and much of my pride and dignity. Now I’m free! I’m no longer afraid!”
Her son, who had only been half-listening to her for a long time, now began to listen. He began to spend longer hours with her, recognizing that she had something important to teach him. After a couple of more years, she died. But, by then, she had been able to impart to her son some things that helped him understand his life more deeply. “My mother gave me birth twice; once from below, and once from above,” he says. He now understands something that Nicodemus couldn’t quite grasp.
We all, no doubt, have our own stories.
And what do the biblical scholars teach about this? The Synoptic Gospels, scholars say, tell us that we can only enter the kingdom of God if we become like little children, meaning that we must, in our very way of living, acknowledge our dependence upon God and others. We are not self-sufficient and that means truly recognizing and living out our human dependence upon the gratuitous providence of God. To do that, is to be born from above.
John’s Gospel adds something to this. Raymond E. Brown, commenting on John’s Gospel, puts it this way: To be born again from above means we must, at some point in our lives, come to understand that our life comes from beyond this world, from a place and source beyond out mother’s womb and that deeper life and deeper meaning lie there. And so, we must have two births, one that gives us biological life (births us into this world) and another that gives us eschatological life (births us into the world of faith, soul, love and spirit). And sometimes, as was the case with my friend, it can be your own birthmother who does the major midwifing in that second birth.
Nicodemus couldn’t quite get past his instinctual empiricism. In the end, he didn’t get it. Do we?

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

María ha escogido la mejor parte

Por Padre Roberto Mena ST
JACKSON – Hermanas y hermanos:
“Maria ha escogido la mejor parte,” Lucas 10, 38-42
Si hay algún modelo perfecto de cómo podemos acoger a Jesús, lo encontramos en la escena de Marta y María. Marta se esmera en servir a Jesús, mientras María, sentada delante de él, le hace compañía, le da conversación, le escucha y se muestra receptiva a su mensaje. Ambas hermanas aportan los elementos de una buena acogida a Jesús: Marta, el servicio amoroso y María, la apertura del corazón.

  1. Marta es activa: Se ocupa en un trabajo que efectivamente hay que hacer. Pero sus afanes de orden, no la dejan ver el rostro de su huésped. Quizá está acostumbrada a que Cristo venga a su casa y su presencia ya no le dice lo mismo que el primer día.
    A nosotros nos puede ocurrir con frecuencia; vivimos muy pendientes de las cosas: la diversión, los caprichos, las ilusiones, la atención a los demás. Tenemos tiempo para todo y no sabemos estar con nosotros mismos; buscamos las satisfacciones exteriores y somos incapaces de disfrutar de la paz interior. Ocupados en el afán de tener, de mejorar nuestra posición, de hacer cosas, perdemos la armonía interior, la paz del espíritu, el silencio creador.
  2. María es contemplativa: Prefiere estar al lado de Cristo escuchándolo, haciéndolo descansar. Estaba tan feliz que no se le pasó por la mente preparar la mesa. Ella había elegido la mejor parte: estar con el huésped conocido, pero único y especial; lo atendería como si fuera el primer día. La mesa y la comida la tenía todos los días, pero a Cristo lo tenía hoy. Así debería ser nuestra actitud ante Jesús que nos visita amorosamente: acoger su presencia por la fe, la confianza y el amor. Después, recibir su mensaje, hacer caso de su palabra, asimilar los valores que él nos propone.
  3. Estar con Cristo es lo que vale la pena escoger: Cristo nos deja una enseñanza. En nuestra vida hay muchas cosas importantes, muchos deberes qué cumplir, pero tenemos que elegir la mejor parte: permanecer con Cristo. Nunca nos arrepentiremos de esta elección. No nos acostumbremos como Marta a tener a Cristo en la casa y ocuparnos demasiado en nuestras cosas olvidándonos de él. La fuente de nuestra felicidad es él. Y permanecer con él debe ser nuestra tarea.
    Seamos como María que escucha atenta la palabra de Dios, la medita en su corazón, aprende a mirar las cosas desde el punto de vista de la eternidad. Al mismo tiempo seamos como Marta diligentes, serviciales, generosos y alegres. Es necesario tener el corazón de María y las manos de Marta. ¿Por qué no intentamos convertir la celebración del domingo en un espacio semanal de escucha y acogida como Marta y María?

Needed – particular kinds of saints

Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Simone Weil once commented that it’s not enough today to be merely a saint; rather “we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment.”
She’s surely right on that second premise; we need saints whose virtues speak to the times.
What kind of saint is needed today? Someone who can show us how we can actually forgive an enemy? Someone who can help us come together across the bitter divide within our communities and churches? Someone who can show us how to reach out to the poor? Someone who can teach us how to actually pray? Someone who can show us how to find “Sabbath” inside the bombardment of ten thousand television channels, a million blogs and a billion tweets? Someone who can show us how to sustain our childhood faith amidst the sophistication, complexity and agnosticism of our adult lives? Someone who, like Jesus, can go into singles’ bars and not sin? Someone who radiates a full-bodied humanity, even as he or she is, by faith, set apart? Someone who’s a mystic, but with a robust sense of humor? Someone who can be both chaste and healthily sexual at the same time?
The list could go on. We’re in pioneer territory. The saints of old didn’t face our issues. They had their own demons to conquer and aren’t rolling over in their graves, shaking their fingers in disgust at us in our struggles and infidelities. They know the struggle, know that ours is new territory with new demons to conquer and new virtues asked for. The saints of old remain, of course, as essential templates of Christian discipleship, living gospels, but they walked in different times.
So what kind of saints do we need today?
We need saints who can honor the goodness of the world, even as they honor God. We need women and men who can show us how to walk with a living faith inside a culture which believes that world here is enough and that the issues of God and the next life are peripheral. We need saints who can walk with a steady, adult faith in the face of the world’s sophistication, its pathological restlessness, its over-stimulated grandiosity, its numbing distractions and its overpowering temptations. We need saints who can empathize with those who have drifted away from the church, even as they themselves, without compromise, hold their own moral and religious ground. We need young saints who can romantically re-enflame the religious imagination of the world, as once did Francis and Clare. And we need old saints, who have walked the gamut and can show us how to meet all the challenges of today and yet retain our childhood faith.
As well, we need what Sarah Coakley calls “erotic saints,” women and men who can bring chastity and eros together in a way that speaks of the importance of both. We need saints who can model for us the goodness of sexuality, who can delight in its human joys and honor its God-given place within the spiritual journey, even as they never denigrate it by setting it against spirituality or cheapen it by making it simply another form of recreation.
Then too we need saints today who can, with compassion, help us to see our blind complicity with systems of all kinds which victimize the vulnerable in order to safeguard our own comfort, security and historical privilege. We need saints who can speak prophetically for the poor, for the environment, for women, for refugees, for those with inadequate access to medical care and education and for all who are stigmatized because of race, color or creed. We need saints, lonely prophets, who can stand as unanimity-minus one, who can wage peace and who can point our eyes to a reality beyond our own shortsightedness.
And these saints need not be formally canonized; their lives need simply be lamps for our eyes and leaven for our lives. I don’t know who your present-day saints are, but I find have found mine among a very wide range of persons, old, young, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, liberal, conservative, religious, lay, clerical, secular, faith-filled and agnostic. Full disclosure, the names I mention here are not persons whose lives I know in any detail. Mostly, I know what they’ve written, but their writings are a lamp which lights my path.
Among those of my own generation, I’m indebted to are Raymond E. Brown, Charles Taylor, Daniel Berrigan, Jean Vanier, Mary Jo Leddy, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Keating, Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, Elizabeth Johnson, Parker Palmer, Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendy Wright, Gerhard Lohfink, Kathleen Dowling Singh, Jim Forest, John Shea, James Hillman, Thomas Moore and Marilynne Robinson.
Among the younger voices whose lives and writings speak as well to a generation younger than mine, I would mention Shane Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, James Martin, Kerry Weber, Trevor Herriot, Macy Halford, Robert Barron, Bryan Stevenson, Robert Ellsberg, Bieke Vandekerckhove and Annie Riggs.
Maybe these aren’t your saints, fair enough. So lean on those who help light your path.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

The elders of ordinary times

Lucia A. Silecchia

GUEST Column
By Lucia A. Silecchia
Late July brings one of my favorite celebrations in the Church year: the July 26 Memorial of Saints Ann and Joachim, the parents of Mary, the Mother of God.
I had some early biases toward this feast. I grew up in a New York parish named for St. Ann. My parents gave me that moniker for my middle name when I was baptized and I took it again when I was confirmed. My family always celebrated our patron saints’ feast days and I was competitively (but uncharitably) pleased that I had two celebrations rather than one because I was the only one of my siblings to be baptized with a middle name.
However, what I liked the most about this celebration was the thought that Christ – God Himself – had grandparents. I remember my own grandparents with much love and joy. These elders of my family were my roots, my heritage and a cherished center of my early life.
Most pictures I see of St. Ann (and the oft-neglected St. Joachim) show her, or them, in their role as parents to Mary. They are often depicted teaching Mary to read, celebrating her presentation or witnessing her wedding. Occasionally, they are added to portraits of the Holy Family, gazing with love and awe from the corner of a painting of their daughter and her family.
Yet, I also like to think of them as the grandparents of God. I wonder whether, in that extraordinary role, they experienced any ordinary times.
When Mary and Joseph were planning to marry, did her parents eagerly anticipate becoming grandparents, as do so many parents-of-the-bride? When Mary told them of the Annunciation, how much did they understand? Was their joy about their grandson mixed with fear? Did they worry, as parents do, when their pregnant daughter traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the “hill country of Judea” or accompany Joseph to Bethlehem while carrying their grandson in her womb?
Did they visit their infant grandson at His birth or His presentation and give their daughter, a new mother, advice on caring for Him? Did they ever watch Him play as a toddler and hear His first words or see His first steps? Did they ever make a special food He liked as a treat or tuck Him into bed at night? In those “hidden” years of Christ’s youth, did they watch Him grow in strength and knowledge? Did they ever have the chance to tell Him childhood stories of His mother’s life as a young girl? Did they speak of Him to their friends and pray for Him when they worshipped at the temple?
Were they still living when their daughter feared for her lost 12-year old and rejoiced when He was found? Was their grandson their final thought and last joy when, after their holy lives, they closed their eyes on this world?
I will never know. But I do know the importance of grandparents. As parents to our parents, they shape the lives of those who most shape our own. They are so often the link to a distant time, a foreign land and a different life. They are the elders who guard the heritage of a family and who, so often, hold it together in difficult times. When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015, he said, “Grandparents are a family’s memory. They are the ones who gave us the faith, they passed the faith on to us.”
I am so grateful for the inheritance of faith and memories I received from my own grandparents. I am also so grateful that in the extraordinary way in which Christ dwelt among us, he had the gift of grandparents – one of the greatest blessings of ordinary times.

(Lucia A. Silecchia is a Professor Law at the Catholic University of America. “On Ordinary Times” is a biweekly column reflecting on the ways to find the sacred in the simple. Email her at silecchia@cua.edu.)

Summer solitude

Sister alies therese

By Sister alies therese
Many of you will be going on retreat, vacation or an adventure this summer and might wonder how to overcome being overwhelmed . . . especially if your normal routine includes a lot of silence. Or it might be the other way around . . . what to do with too much silence?
Have you ever considered artistically representing your Lectio Divina, spiritual reading or even your prayer?
Take some reflection time and pull out a sketchbook, maybe some markers and a good permanent micro-fine pen. Or maybe you’d prefer watercolors or pencils . . . whatever works for you. Even the pasting of pictures or words from magazines; gluing and taping that ‘psalm’ or reading into a new format. The very fact that you have deepened your focus, away from yourself and away from external noise, supports the silence within and the joy that follows.
As a doodler/artist I find that this discipline frees my heart. I love color. I love to explore lines this way and that way, much like the life we live, both in the known and unknown. For many, many years, I have done at least one page every day as a part of my first morning prayer. Over the years this has taken the form of different sizes, colors, places, styles of handwriting and printing . . . even becoming a lefty after breaking my shoulder! I ask myself one quick question while reflecting: what might this look like? . . . and then I proceed to be surprised. Sometimes the page is my all-time favorite. Other times it seems like random scribbles and not very appealing artistically (a bit like life). Other times I discover the wealth of simplicity in the art and I am full of a secret laughter.
You probably know this: there is the silence of solitude and that it is an ancient tradition. One can be silent, not just not speaking, but actually filled with silence, in a crowded room, among many folks bustling about, in the car going here or there . . . in the presence of great natural beauty. No, not always external silence, but the discipline of inner silence carved out over years of practice so that when one is in unfamiliar or challenging situation, silence, the resting place, can be entered into. Laughter often emerges and we won’t miss God’s voice.
Most people do not live in solitude. Some people try to convince themselves they are living such a life when they are really living an ego-filled life that distorts both silence and solitude. A silence or solitude turned in upon itself is closed. God is about openness!
“Despite their dullness and apathy,” the Carthusians tell us, “The children of the promise paid heed to Moses and set out for the desert of Sinai. For 40 years, obedience kept them marching through the desert toward a promise land whose blessings remained elusive.” As will yours, I suspect. If we avoid the grumbling and offer that moment of suffering, so that our hearts might be transformed. What might that look like?
When you meet your ‘false self’ as you journey, or find disgust and resentments, well, these are wonderful to add to your book of sketches . . . as if they were snapshots of a moment where everything is crushed and not full of peace or harmony. Though our hearts are challenged to shout and scream, to weep and moan. We have the opportunity to enter ever more deeply and explore the truth of waiting. Waiting for God to be our silence, for God to be our solitude? No! We enter into God’s silence and God’s solitude, so that we might be nourished and set free. It is not about us. This is always the great and blest discovery . . . it really is all about God.
Also, from the Carthusian Miscellany, The Wound of Love, we find this: “True solitude . . . must trace its way back to its source. It is not obedience to an external law, nor a flight from others, nor a world closed in upon itself, but an encounter with the living God. Solitude is a gratuitous gift, destined to be received in all humility; it is not our own creation, nor that of anyone else. It does not consist in doing anything, nor in trying to become somebody: it is sharing in the solitude of God.”
Don’t forget that notebook when you go visit granny or find yourself alone on a mountain. Explore the riches of your inner artist and allow yourself the pleasure of discovery. Remember you never have to show anyone, nor speak of the adventure. What God is inviting you into is a wonderful feast of relationship, color and design, that lights up your deepening heart where God, the best artist of all, dwells!

(Sister alies therese is a vowed Catholic solitary who lives an eremitical life. Her days are formed around prayer, art and writing. She lives and writes in Mississippi.)

The Loss of Heaven and the Fear of Hell

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Growing up as a Roman Catholic, like the rest of my generation, I was taught a prayer called, The Act of Contrition. Every Catholic back then had to memorize it and say it during or after going to confession. The prayer started this way: Oh, my God, I am truly sorry for having offended thee and I detest all of my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.
To dread the loss of heaven and fear the pains of hell can seem like one and the same thing. They’re not. There’s a huge moral distance between dreading the loss of heaven and fearing the pains of hell. The prayer wisely separates them. Fear of hell is based upon a fear of punishment, dreading the loss of heaven is based upon a fear of not being a good, loving person. There’s a huge difference between living in fear of punishment and living in fear of not being a good a person. We’re more mature, humanly and as Christians, when we’re more worried about not being loving enough than when we’re fearful that we will be punished for doing something wrong.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I breathed in the spirituality and catechesis of the Roman Catholicism of the time. In the Catholic ethos then (and this was essentially the same for Protestants and Evangelicals) the eschatological emphasis was a lot more about the fear of going to hell than it was about being a loving person. As a Catholic kid, along with my peers, I worried a lot about not committing a mortal sin, that is, doing something out of selfishness or weakness that, if unconfessed before I died, would send me to hell for all eternity. My fear was that I might go to hell rather than that I might not be a very loving person who would miss out on love and community. And so I worried about not being bad rather than about being good. I worried that I would do something that was mortally sinful, that would send me to hell; but I didn’t worry as much about having a heart big enough to love as God loves. I didn’t worry as much about forgiving others, about letting go of hurts, about loving those who are different from me, about being judgmental, or about being so tribal, racist, sexist, nationalistic, or narrow in my religious views that I would be uncomfortable sitting down with certain others at the God’s banquet table.
The heavenly table is open to all who are willing to sit down with all. That’s a line from a John Shea poem and it spells out succinctly, I believe, a non-negotiable condition for going to heaven, namely, the willingness and capacity to love everyone and to sit down with everyone. It’s non-negotiable for this reason: How can we be at the heavenly table with everyone if for some reason of pride, wound, temperament, bitterness, bigotry, politics, nationalism, color, race, religion or history, we aren’t open to sit down with everyone?
Jesus teaches this too, just in a different way. After giving us the Lord’s Prayer which ends with the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he adds this: “If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you.” Why can’t God forgive us if we don’t forgive others? Has God arbitrarily singled out this one condition as his pet criterion for going to heaven? No.
We cannot sit at the heavenly banquet table if we are still selective as to whom we can sit down with. If, in the next life, like here in this life, we are selective as to whom we love and embrace, then heaven would be the same as earth, with factions, bitterness, grudges, hurt and every kind of racism, sexism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism keeping us all in our separate silos. We can only sit at the heavenly banquet when are hearts are wide enough to embrace everyone else at the table. Heaven demands a heart open to universal embrace.
And so, as I get older, approach the end of my life and accept that I will soon face my Maker, I worry less and less about going to hell and worry more and more about the bitterness, anger, ingratitude and non-forgiveness that still remains in me. I worry less about committing a mortal sin and more about whether I’m gracious, respectful and forgiving towards others. I worry more about the loss of heaven than the pains of hell, that is, I worry that I could end up like the older brother of the prodigal son, standing outside the Father’s house, excluded by anger rather than by sin.
Still, I’m grateful for the Act of Contrition of my youth. Fear of hell isn’t a bad place from which to start.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Ben-Hur: must-see movie for Catholics

Melvin Arrington, Jr.

By Melvin Arrington
When I was a boy of ten or twelve I could go see a movie at one of the theaters in downtown Jackson, carrying just a dollar in my pocket. In those days I could buy a ticket, get popcorn and a coke, and go home with change from my dollar. That time is long past, but many of the movies of that era remain firmly fixed in my memory.
One such film is the 1959 blockbuster Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography. No other motion picture in cinematic history has garnered more Oscars. This year for its sixtieth anniversary, Ben-Hur returns to the big screen for a limited engagement in select cities around the country.
Why all this fuss over a sixty-year-old movie? Well, for one thing, Hollywood studios rarely rise to such heights of filmmaking these days, so when they have a revival of one of the great classics we should take advantage of the opportunity to see it. This is one the entire family can enjoy together, although with a running time of three hours and forty minutes some may feel like they’re doing penance by sitting still that long. However, there is an intermission, so it is possible to remain for the entire movie. Those who do so will be richly rewarded.
Based on General Lew Wallace’s 1880 bestselling historical novel, the film centers around Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston), a wealthy and influential Jewish merchant living in Jerusalem in the first century. Judah’s story begins in 26 A.D. when he runs afoul of the occupying Roman forces and his childhood friend turned enemy, the ambitious tribune Messala. After being forcibly separated from his family and from Esther, the woman he loves, Judah is impressed into service as a galley slave, a punishment tantamount to a death sentence. Once a man of peace, he now harbors only feelings of hatred for Messala and becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on his former friend.
Although essentially a drama, Ben-Hur contains plenty of action and adventure, including a fierce naval battle in which the Roman ship on which Judah serves gets rammed. But by far the most thrilling episode is the iconic chariot race, pitting Judah and Messala against each other with honor and glory going to the victor.
Since the film opens with the Nativity and ends with the Crucifixion, Judah’s story is essentially situated within the framework of the life of Christ. When Jesus appears on screen He is tastefully and reverently depicted. Fittingly, in these scenes director William Wyler always shows the Savior’s face turned away from the camera.
Judah experiences several life-changing moments, but two stand out above the rest. In the first we see him chained to his fellow galley slaves as they march through Nazareth. There, a local carpenter, noticing that he is literally dying of thirst, takes pity on him and offers him a cup of water, thereby saving his life. Following a decisive battle at sea, Judah escapes and makes his way to Rome, where he is adopted by the Consul Quintus Arrius. But a life of privilege in the capital of the Empire fails to satisfy his deepest longings, so he returns to Judea, still driven by his hatred for Messala.
In the second moment, he has another face-to-face meeting with Christ and immediately recognizes Him. The look in Judah’s eyes when he stares into the Savior’s face in these two scenes is worth the price of admission. To describe the circumstances of the second meeting would reveal too much of the plot but, needless to say, the latter encounter is the transformative one, the one that saves his soul. At this point two healings occur simultaneously: one is a miracle of physical healing; it symbolizes the spiritual restoration that is taking place off camera in Judah’s life.
The reason why Catholics need to see Ben-Hur has nothing to do with the plot, the high drama or the famous action scenes. Catholics, and all movie-going Christians for that matter, will be inspired by this powerful depiction of how hatred can destroy life and how love, grace and forgiveness can restore it. These are Catholic themes, ones that we would all do well to meditate upon.
Ben-Hur does not soft-pedal Jesus’s teachings. Instead, it clearly and boldly proclaims them, most effectively through the words of Esther, who functions as an evangelist when she urges Judah to heed the words of the one she calls the Rabbi (Jesus), particularly his radical teachings dealing with forgiveness and how one should not only forgive one’s enemies but also love them. Judah Ben-Hur’s life demonstrates the transformation that will occur when an individual has a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. We need to see this dramatized more often in the movies of today.
Ben-Hur had a limited run in theaters this year during Lent, so many may have missed it. However, those who would like to experience it for the first time or see it again can still do so because this classic film is readily available for home viewing on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital copy. An afternoon or evening spent watching Ben-Hur during any season of the year would be time well spent.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)

Learning to trust in Providence

Sister Constance Veit

By Sister Constance Veit, l.s.p.
For the past year, we Little Sisters of the Poor have been celebrating the 150th anniversary of our Congregation’s arrival in the United States.
Our sesquicentennial year will officially close on August 30, the feast day of our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan. This anniversary has been a wonderful opportunity to rediscover the experiences of our pioneering Little Sisters and to become acquainted with the many people who helped them.
As I read through the annals of our first communities, I recognized a pattern. Beginning in August of 1868, small bands of mostly young, non-English speaking Little Sisters bravely set sail from France destined for one American city after another – first Brooklyn, then Cincinnati, New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia. The wave of charity, which had begun in the humble heart of our foundress, quickly spread across this vast nation.
These Little Sisters would arrive at their destination with only the most basic provisions, taking possession of empty, often dirty or rundown buildings that had been procured for them. They would begin by placing statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph that they had preciously carried from the motherhouse on a mantle and then kneeling in prayer to ask God’s blessings on their new dwelling and those who would make it their home.
Thanks to hard work and the generosity of local citizens, these empty buildings would soon be cleaned and furnished with everything needed to care for the destitute elderly who would arrive at their doorstep.
In each city the Little Sisters were assisted by local clergy and communities of women and men religious.
The very first donation the Sisters received in this country was a twenty dollar bill from Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the newly-established Paulist Fathers.
The Sisters were also generously supported by the laity – people of all ages and every social status, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Local school children brought their meager offerings – a few dishes or a loaf of bread.
In Cleveland, a German family put themselves completely at the service of the Little Sisters as a way of paying back a debt owed to God. Boston’s wealthiest woman brought the elderly rosaries, fresh oranges and good wine. Louisville’s best hotel donated a restaurant-quality Christmas dinner. In Philadelphia, three wealthy young girls sold their Christmas gifts and donated the proceeds to the Sisters. One of them would eventually become a canonized saint.
In the first months of the foundation in Pittsburgh two young Little Sisters died of typhoid fever in a matter of days. The remaining Sisters were devastated, but the bishop and local religious communities drew close to the newcomers and supported them through their ordeal.
The Little Sisters wrote that God had made use of this tragedy to make their work better known in the city. In fact, our pioneering Little Sisters saw in all the events of their daily lives – and in all the people they encountered – the Providence of God.
If I had to sum up our Congregation’s history in America in one word it would be just that – Providence.
During the very years when our first American foundations were being made, the Fathers of the first Vatican Council wrote, “God in his Providence watches over and governs all the things that he made, reaching from end to end with might and disposing all things with gentleness.” God not only knows what is going on in the world, he directs it all, down to the smallest and most insignificant details, holding everything in existence and guiding it all according to his mysterious plan!
The Fathers of the first Vatican Council taught that God governs the world with gentleness. He is not loud or flashy; he does not get in our face or demand our attention – and this is a problem in our media-saturated, sensory-overloaded culture.
How easy it is to miss the signs of God’s Providence in our lives, to be deceived by his gentleness and to fail to realize that underlying this gentleness is omnipotence. God really is in charge! And he governs all things according to his plan of love!
Our pioneering Little Sisters knew this in the depths of their hearts. In their simple faith they were able to see the traces of God’s Providence in both joys and sorrows, in good times and bad.
This is the most important lesson I have learned during our sesquicentennial year. No matter how dark or fraught with troubles our world may seem, we are all the children of God’s gentle, loving Providence. Let us trust in him!

(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)