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Dear Good People of Saint Bernadette,
Recently I met with a journalist who wanted to do some reporting on religion, in particular, what is happening in the community among churches and religious groups in a spirit of unity. Like so many young adults today, the value for unity was very clearly important to him, though he didn’t seem to have a religious affiliation, or much experience of who the churches are and why. Like so many people, he was confused by our lack of unity and involvement among churches, if Jesus really is at the center of who each of our communities is.
On the night before Jesus died for us, one of his last prayers to his Father (and he surely knows what needs to be prayed for, and what the Father will grant), "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn:17:21). If we are not one, the world will never believe in the integrity of a fractured group of followers whose lives don’t witness the Oneness of the God they claim.
Then he asked a more pointed question. "What exactly is different about the Catholic Church that sets you apart from all the other churches? I realized that here is the problem, and we began to talk more about it. The problem is that we always go to this question first. What makes me different from every body else? How can I preserve and defend my piece of turf in this world? We seem to need this kind of security, so we define ourselves according to what or who we are not, rather than who we are. We do this without even thinking about it, in small ways that communicate a kind of unwelcoming spirit. For example, the bulletin when I came was a collection of "ads" all in boxes, fighting for attention. Those bulletin boards in the church vestibule are the same, a visual confusion, each one trying to be different. My favorite example is school uniforms. I tell students the reason for uniforms: if everyone is wearing individual fashions, all you see is the fashion; when students wear uniforms, ironically, you see faces. Churches are the same.
So I thought about this question for a bit, what makes the Catholic Church different, and this is what I came up with. The Catholic Church remains the starting point of all churches, from where all of them came before personality divisions started splitting the community. The personalities still claimed Christ, but really more their particular interpretation or brand of him. It surprises me that many people don’t realize that at one time everyone was Catholic... Denominationalism is so pervasive today that many people assume that the Catholic Church somehow split off from...what?
The Catholic Church remains the place where people can all return, because it still includes the sum total of everything that all churches together include. This is not to say, as the Church quickly says, that many gifts have not been learned since and the Holy Spirit has been alive in the community of all the baptized despite our divisions. Our failures can’t frustrate the will of God, he continues to act where hearts are open to his will.
But here is the jist of it, I think. The Catholic Church continues to name the holiness of God’s creation and the dignity we carry, not of our own merit, but because we are made in his image and likeness. Our realism with regard to Word and Sacrament compels us, still, to proclaim that, as God is holy, so is human life in every aspect: Life is holy. Marriage is holy. Our earth, as it is made by God as the place where we encounter him, is holy.
You are holy.
And that all of this was so important to God that he sent his own Son, a plan that was begun long before we even knew we needed him. According to our liturgical time, even now he has been in the womb of the Virgin Mary for nine months, unknown to us, waiting to experience the light of his creation as one of us. And the joys, and sorrows, and all. He is the one who has entered into all of it, and it, and we, are holy because God becomes Man so that what is human might be divinized.
Next week at Christmas Masses we will be giving everyone this card. May it be a reminder to you, if you need the reminder, or perhaps you might know someone to whom you could give it, someone who needs to remember it’s all about love.
God bless you.
Dear Good People of Saint Bernadette,
On Monday of this week we listened to the Gospel of Luke (5:17-26), the story of the moment in time when Jesus is preaching to a packed house and nobody else can get near. People remove the roof and lower a paralyzed man into the presence of Jesus. It is pretty clear what they want: healing for the man whom they carry. But Jesus, seeing their faith, says to them, "As for you, your sins are forgiven."
I don’t think I ever realized before that Jesus is speaking to the people who bring the paralyzed man before him, not the man himself; I always just assumed Jesus was going to make this point about how forgiveness of sins is, actually, a greater miracle than making someone walk. We forget because the silence of forgiveness isn’t as flashy. But the text very clearly says Jesus saw their faith, and said, "As for you, your sins are forgiven." Then, in order to make his point to all who are present, he heals the paralyzed man.
When it comes to sin, I think we are very aware of guilt and pardon. A lot of people joke about "Catholic guilt" as if it is something unique to us. Guilt, actually, is a gift to anyone who is contrite, a great gift; without it, we would just continue to do the same things over and over with any sort of reflection and awareness of the weight of our actions. Guilt should not be confused with shame: it is the difference between guilt saying "I did something wrong" and shame concluding, therefore, "I am a bad person." Good people do bad things, and their goodness is what needs to be healed.
If however, we consider being reconciled with God as only a legal pardon, we might miss the complete point of absolution: "...Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you..." The peace which follows is as complete and as necessary as the pardon which restores us to our place, in relationship with God and the Church. Healing takes place.
If we were to focus as seriously on and truly appreciate the healing that takes place in reconciliation, we might be more vigilant in protecting and sustaining the wholeness that God gives to us. It is a miracle greater than any physical healing that we might desire.
One product of this healing is the exultation and rejoicing that we hear about in the season of Advent. Abundant water in the desert, rocky paths made smooth, the way of the Lord being made straight. Glory and splendor, strength and fearlessness. "Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes to save you." Then, Isaiah says, the eyes of the blind will be opened, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap. People in silence will sing. This kind of healing fills us.
It is important to consider the goodness of those friends who lower the paralyzed man into the presence of Jesus so he can do his work. The paralyzed man is not the only one who is healed by their kindness. In fact, the unintended result that is their own far more profound healing comes as a result of their goodness. I wonder how many people are lying on stretchers—physically, emotionally, spiritually—waiting for us to open the roof?
This weekend we are challenged to find the joy in the midst of this waiting. The color rose is unique in liturgy, the color of rejoicing. We rejoice because we have seen the glory and splendor of the Lord, and we know that he continues to come and bring healing to his people. Let us be active in helping him.
* * * * *
I would like to direct your attention to our new website, if you haven’t already discovered it. I hope it helps us greatly improve the kind of communication that is so vital to a community. Some of the links are still under construction, even some of the linked documents are placeholders from work that we did at St. Mary which we will adapt for use here at St. Bernadette. I invite you to go and look around—there is a lot to see. The parish calendar, the archive of bulletins, my weekly homily are there, and all is finally compatible with mobile devices. The first thing you see in the WELCOME block is a link ("Announcements") which will take you to a blog where we will include the latest news of the parish, special schedules, upcoming events, important information.
Most of the links having to do with ministries and volunteers are yet to be developed, as we develop and begin to produce catalogues and rosters. All these will be added. You will find in the quick links at the bottom of the page direct access to many of the things you seek quickly, ministry schedules, etc.
We’ve been working on this for months, and are glad to say it is now up—still a work in progress, so your continued patience is greatly appreciated!
God bless you.
December 8 (Thursday): Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a holy day of obligation. Vigil Mass, Wednesday, Dec 7 at 7:30pm; Masses on Thursday Dec 8 at 6:30am, 9am (with School), Noon, 6:30pm and 8pm in Spanish. You can also see Mass schedule in calendar.
December 12 (Monday): In honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we welcome the miraculous digital reproduction of the original tilma commissioned by St. John Paul II, for veneration in the church from Noon until evening Mass.
December 12 (Monday): Special bi-lingual Mass honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas and the unborn. Procession at 6:30, Mass at 7:30pm followed by reception in the cafeteria.
December 16 (Friday): School Christmas Pageant in church, 7pm
December 17 (Saturday): Simbang Gabi Mass and Reception, 7:30pm
December 19 (Monday): Parish Advent Penance Service, 7pm. Please join us for this special opportunity with eight priests to prepare for the coming of Christ.
December 23 (Friday): Diocesan Simbang Gabi Mass with Bishop Burbidge and Reception, 7pm.
December 24 (Saturday): Christmas Eve Masses at 4:30pm, 7pm (Spanish), 9:30pm and Midnight. Concerts will precede both the 9:30 and Midnight Masses 45 minutes before Masses begin.
December 25 (Sunday): Christmas Day Masses at 8am, 9:30, 11:15 and 1pm (Spanish). Please note, there is no 5pm Mass on Christmas Day.
January 19 (Thursday): The Deanery Mass Welcoming our new Bishop Michael Burbidge will be hosted at St. Bernadette, reception following.
Dear Good People of Saint Bernadette,
Did you know that in the earliest centuries of the Church the sacrament of reconciliation was, like the other sacraments, only allowed to be celebrated once in your lifetime? Yes, that’s right. Once.
It could be traumatic. The one who confessed their sins would have to do so publicly, before the entire assembly, confess and receive a penance from the confessor. Penances often lasted several years. You might have to sit in the dust for several years at the door of the church as people came and went to Mass, with ashes on your head.
You had only one shot at it. I imagine you would take it pretty seriously. Of course, guess until when everyone chose to wait to confess their sins? If you gambled it right, you could confess your sins with your dying breath, with all your wits about you, provided you had control over such variables. A risky game.
The heresies of the fourth and fifth centuries actually did sinners a favor. Church Councils, after much debate, decided to allow a second confession for those who had already confessed once, in the circumstance of a well-meaning person who had been misled to join a heretical sect, only realizing their mistake later. Mercy was extended finally for this, the only sin regarded as unforgiveable: apostacy.
The other thing that came to the aid of sinners was plague, strangely enough. Terrible waves of disease would sweep through continental Europe and not only the lay people would die. Over time the priests from Ireland populated the churches of Europe, because Ireland was not affected by plague. But in Ireland, the Church had developed differently from the Canonical Penance of the continent. Rather, they grew up in communities surrounding the monks and priests of the local church who often were responsible for not only the spiritual but social and economic life of society as well. What today we would call spiritual direction was common. And in the course of spiritual conversations, discerning the presence of God, the awareness of contrition and conversion developed into a practice of frequent confession that was confidential in nature.
Perhaps you have heard people say, “I don’t have to confess to a priest, I confess directly to God.” Perhaps you’ve said it yourself. But in the Tradition, the integrity of the Sacrament withstood the evolution of time. The vertical nature of confession to God is fulfilled by the alter Christus, Christ present in the priest through the sacrament of Holy Orders, but also the horizontal dimension of confession to the Church is also satisfied. You see, when we sin, it isn’t just between us and God at all; our sin damages each and every member of the Body of Christ whether we stop to realize it or not. Satisfaction, or forgiveness, must come from both dimensions in order for sin to be remitted: forgiven by God, forgiven by our brothers and sisters. Confession remains public, that is, out loud to a human representative of the Church, but done in such a safe way that absolute confidence demands it never need be known by anyone else.
I’m troubled that we seem to have few confessions at St. Bernadette, but people keep telling me that everyone is going to other churches for the sacrament. If that is true, we need to address the topic and figure out how we can better serve our parish in this way. This Advent we will have a parish Penance Service on Monday the 19th in the evening with guest priests, but I’m told that recently not too many people attend. At this point we won’t be able to add too much to the calendar, so please join us on the 19th.
There was something we tried last year at Saint Mary that was a little experimental, but hugely successful. Apparently people give up after they have been standing in line for too long for too many trips in a row, as people in front are seeking advice or counseling, or otherwise taking a long time. We tried a kind of “speed dating” approach: if you’re interested in coming, simply confessing sins, receiving penance and absolution quickly and with no discussion or direction this was for you. That night literally hundreds of people came, probably half of them not having been to confession for 20 or 30 years. Maybe we could try this, too.
Advent is often mistaken for a penitential season, like Lent. It is not. It is a time of preparing our hearts and homes for the coming of the Lord. If confessing sins is a necessary part of that process, then confession is a real part, but the focus isn’t on doing penance for penance’s sake, such as the fasting and almsgiving of Lent.
Simply because the sacrament became possible frequently, however, I don’t think it should become a form of maintenance. It must never become routine. Please, let’s realize the absolute gift that is the sacrament of reconciliation. If we don’t know God’s mercy in our lives we have no reason to be merciful people.
God bless you.
Father Don Rooney
Pastor, Saint Bernadette Catholic Church
Director, Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Diocese of Arlington
7600 Old Keene Mill Road
Springfield, VA 22152
703-451-8576; mobile 703-309-8719