Author Archives | Father Michael Van Sloun

About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

Matthew Compares Peter and Judas

April 3, 2020

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Jesus is the main character of the Passion Narrative. It was Jesus who presided over the Last Supper, underwent the Agony in the Garden, was arrested, placed on trial, sentenced to death, scourged and mocked, crucified, died, and was buried. The story is told in two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, chapters 26 and 27, and the gory details of Jesus’ bloody death are conspicuously absent.

Instead, much attention is given to the people who were involved with Jesus’ crucifixion: the disciples, the chief priests and the elders, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, the crowd, the soldiers, the revolutionaries, and the women from Galilee. As the story is retold, the listener is left to wonder, if I had been there, which of these would I have been? As the song asks, Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?

“Peter weeps bitterly.” as seen in the lower church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, Israel. Father Michael Van Sloun

All four gospels mention Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot, but only Matthew gives extra attention to Judas, and only Matthew goes out of his way to compare them. They both sinned. Matthew was keenly aware that all of the members of his Christian community, like Peter and Judas, were sinners, as well as all of his readers. Peter and Judas reacted to their sins differently and had drastically different outcomes. When a person commits a sin, the person has choices. Matthew would point us to one character and away from the other.

The similarities between Peter and Judas abound. Both were apostles. Both were leaders, Peter the head of the group and the chief spokesman, Judas the chief financial officer, the treasurer. Both held positions of trust, Peter with the keys, Judas with the purse, and at the Last Supper they both sat close to Jesus, positions of friendship. They accompanied Jesus on his travels, listened to him speak, and witnessed his miracles.

On Holy Thursday night the points of comparison became more dramatic. Jesus knew they both would sin. Jesus told Peter, “You will deny me three times” (Mt 26:34), and he told Judas that he would betray him (Mt 26:25). Peter led the other disciples to Gethsemane to pray with Jesus (Mt 26:37); Judas led a band of soldiers and guards to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus (Mt 26:47). Peter listened to the trial from the high priest’s courtyard (Mt 26:58,69); Judas witnessed Jesus’ condemnation before Pilate, the chief priests, and elders (Mt 27:1-3). Peter denied Jesus three times (Mt 26:70,72,74); and Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Mt 26:48-49). Both regretted their sins: Peter wept bitterly (Mt 26:75), Judas flung the thirty pieces of silver into the Temple and admitted, “I have sinned” (Mt 27:4).

At this point their similarities abruptly ended. Peter went back to the other apostles; Judas went back to the chief priests and elders (Mt 27:3), and then off by himself (Mt 27:5), leaving the community. Peter repented; Judas despaired. Peter accepted Jesus’ mercy, went on living, and served for over thirty more years; Judas decided he was not worthy to serve. Peter glorified God by his death as a martyr; Judas dishonored God by his death by hanging (Mt 27:5).

We are all like Peter and Judas; we all sin. After we sin, we have choices. Shall I repent or despair? Shall I accept God’s mercy or not? Shall I pick up and get going again with the help of God’s grace or shall I give up and quit? Matthew has a recommendation for us: look to Peter.

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Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord A Dual Feast

April 3, 2020

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“Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” As seen in the sacristy in the Franciscan Bethphage Church, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel. Father Michael Van Sloun

The Dual Nature of the Feast.  Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.  It is a dual feast.  It has traditionally been known as Palm Sunday because the Mass begins with a gospel text that recounts how palm branches were used to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, and because palm branches are blessed at the beginning of Mass and carried in procession as part of the Entrance Rite.  It has also traditionally been known as Passion Sunday because the Passion Narrative is proclaimed during the Liturgy of the Word.

A Unique Aspect of the Palm-Passion Liturgy.  This is the only Sunday of the entire liturgical year in which two separate gospel passages are read at the same Mass.  The liturgy begins with a special opening rite with the gospel proclamation of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as the crowd waved palms and cried out, “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Year A, Mt 21:1-11; Year B, Mk 11:1-10 or Jn 12:12-16; Year C, Lk 19:28-40). At the regular gospel time the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed in its entirety (Year A, Mt 26:14-27:66; Year B, Mk 14:1-15:47; Year C, Lk 22:14-23:56).

One Mass with Two Distinct Moods.  The Mass has two very different sentiments or feeling tones, jubilation, then lamentation.  The opening scene is festive.  As Jesus mounted the donkey the excitement rose to a fever pitch.  The crowd swelled.  Full of joy, the people waved their palm branches with gladness, laid their cloaks on the roadway with reverence, marched next to Jesus in happiness, and raised their voices with exuberance as they confidently proclaimed Jesus as the “Son of David” (Mt 21:9), “the prophet” (Mt 21:11), and their King.  As the Mass begins with the procession with palms, we honor Christ as our King and sovereign Lord, and the procession with palms into or around the church is intended to recapture the energy and enthusiasm of Jesus’ regal cortege from Bethpage down the Mount of Olives and through the gates of the Holy City, Jerusalem.

An Abrupt Change.  Only moments later there is a jarring mood shift.  The former exhilaration comes to an abrupt halt.  The tone suddenly becomes dark and dreary with the proclamation of four somber readings.  The first reading is the third Suffering Servant Canticle of Isaiah (Is 50:4-7) with the sad words, “I gave my back to those who beat me” (Is 50:6a);  the Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 22, the first portion which foretells a chilling aspect of the passion of the Messiah, “They have pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps 22:17b); and the second reading is the Christ Hymn with the grim statement that Jesus became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8b).  The culmination of the Liturgy of the Word is the proclamation of the Passion, the painful account of how Jesus was scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed, crucified, and killed.  This bitter account causes our hearts to ache with sorrow.

The Paschal Mystery.  Holy Week begins with mourning, weeping, and lamentation.  The Cross is the most ignominious of all deaths, yet it is through the Cross that Jesus ultimately triumphed as our King and Savior.  This solemn week is filled with anguish and grief, but it ends with an ever greater mood shift, the joy and exaltation of the Resurrection and Easter.

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Do you believe?

March 27, 2020

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Jesus asked Martha: “Do you believe?” (Jn 11:26), and she replied, “Yes” (Jn 11:27). That was then. This is now. The question that Jesus addressed to Martha two thousand years ago he addresses to each of us at this very moment, “Do you believe in me?”

What do you have to say to Jesus in reply? How would you put this in your own words? How firm would your statement be? What would your tone of voice be like? What would your posture be? Where would your eyes be focused?

Jesus had performed six signs or miracles up to this point in the Gospel of John, not in a prideful way to feed his ego, but to help people to believe in him. Jesus would prefer that we believe in him without seeing any miracles. He told the people of Capernaum in disappointment, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (Jn 4:48). Yet as a concession, Jesus acknowledged that his miracles proved that he is the Son of God, “If you do not believe in me, believe the works” (Jn 10:38).

Did Martha see any of these signs? Did the miracles that Jesus performed serve as the basis of her faith? Jesus performed four of his signs a long distance from where Martha lived. Jesus turned water into wine in Cana, cured the royal official’s son in Capernaum, fed the five thousand along the seashore, and walked on the water at the Sea of Galilee, all locations sixty to seventy miles from Martha’s home in Bethany. It is quite unlikely that she was an eyewitness.

Jesus performed two of his signs in Jerusalem. He cured a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years at the Pool of Bethesda and a blind man at the Pool of Siloam. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem, an easy walk, but it is rather unlikely that Martha witnessed these miracles either. She may have heard about them, but she probably did not see them.

When Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe?” it was before they had gone to the tomb and before he had raised her brother. Martha’s declaration, “Yes, Lord, I do believe,” came before the miracle, not after. She believed in the person, not the miracle. She said emphatically, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Jn 11:27). Jesus would say after his Resurrection, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29). Martha was blessed, indeed.

The question that Jesus addressed to Martha is preparation for Easter. At the Easter Vigil the catechumens will be asked, “Do you believe?” After their profession of faith, they will enter the waters of Baptism. At the Easter Masses the Creed is omitted. Instead, each person will be asked, “Do you believe?” in the renewal of baptismal promises. Every “I do” response is equivalent to saying, “Yes, Lord, I do believe,” and then all will be sprinkled with holy water.

What do you have to say in reply to Jesus today? What will you say on Easter? If your faith feels a little shaky, it is acceptable to look to the works that Jesus has done, not only the miracles that he performed two thousand years ago, but the signs and wonders that he has worked in your life in the past as well as the signs and wonders that he is doing for you now. If you look, there will be many items on your list, some small, some big, some ordinary, some incredible, all divine blessings given to you in order that you might believe.

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Hints of Easter and baptism this Sunday

March 20, 2020

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It is the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Easter is only three weeks away, and Baptism moves to the forefront on Easter. Catechumens are baptized at the Easter Vigil. The faithful renew their baptismal promises and are sprinkled with holy water at the Easter Masses. This weekend the Scripture readings offer hints of Baptism that point ahead to Easter and the celebration of the greatest feast of the Christian faith.

There are four symbols of the Sacrament of Baptism. Three appear explicitly in this week’s Scripture readings: oil, light, and water; and one is implied, the baptismal garment.

Pool of SiloamThe conclusion to the first reading recounts how “Samuel, with the horn of oil in his hand, anointed [David] in the midst of his brothers, and from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David” (1 Sm 16:13). The anointing of David with oil by the prophet Samuel prefigures the anointing of the catechumen with sacred chrism by the priest during the celebration of Baptism at the Easter Vigil, or the anointing with oil when anyone is baptized at any other time by a priest or deacon.

Both the second reading and the gospel mention light. St. Paul wrote, “Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8), and “Christ will give you light” (Eph 5:14). In the gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5). The Easter Vigil begins with the Lucernarium, the Service of Light. Either at dusk outside or in the darkness inside, a fire is lit which ablaze gives off much light. Then the Easter Candle is lit, which radiates bright light. Next the deacon presents the lighted Easter Candle to the assembly and sings, “The Light of Christ,” because Jesus is the light of the world (see also Jn 8:12 and 12:46). Fire is then distributed to each person in the assembly, all who are holding candles, and gradually the church is filled with light. Finally, when the catechumen is baptized, a baptismal candle is lit from the Easter Candle and presented to the sponsor. Henceforth, the light of Jesus will lead the newly baptized to the truth and guide the person along right paths (see Ps 23:3).

The gospel builds upon the previous Scripture texts and includes three baptismal symbols. First, Jesus stated that he is light (Jn 9:5). Second, he bent down, made a mud paste with his saliva and the clay, and then smeared it on the man’s eyes (Jn 9:6). The Church has traditionally considered the smearing to be an anointing, and the mud paste to be equivalent to oil. Third, Jesus instructed the man, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (Jn 9:7), and the man washed himself with water, the primary symbol of baptism. This points ahead to the Easter Vigil. The baptismal liturgy begins at the baptistry with the blessing of the water, and then those to be baptized are immersed in the water or have water poured over their heads.

The connections are many. David was anointed. The blind man was anointed. The catechumen will be anointed. Every person who has been baptized has been anointed. The light enables a person to see Jesus, and thus enlightened, to believe in him and do good. Those who are washed in the waters of baptism are among God’s chosen ones, “The Elect,” those who have their names inscribed in the Book of Life. Samuel chose David. Jesus chose the blind man. God chooses the newly baptized, as well as all those who have been baptized previously. The baptized have clothed themselves with Christ. Baptism is the beginning of the journey to eternal life.

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St. Turibius de Mongrovejo, Bishop

March 20, 2020

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St. Turibius was born Toribio Alfonso de Mogrovejo in Mayorga, Spain, in 1538. He is also known as St. Turibius of Lima. His memorial is celebrated on March 23 on the General Roman Calendar, and in a few localities he is remembered on April 27.

St. Turibius

St. Turibius

St. Turibius entered law school, excelled as a student, became a lawyer, and then took a position as a professor of both civil and canon law at the University of Salamanca, one of the leading theological universities of Spain. He was so proficient at law that King Philip II appointed him as the chief judge of the Inquisition at Grenada.

St. Turibius performed his duties as Grand Inquisitor so admirably that he was chosen as the archbishop of Lima, Peru, in 1580, despite the fact that he was a layman. As a jurist he objected because this was contrary to Church law, but he eventually acquiesced, and with a dispensation issued by Pope Pius V from minor orders and the usual prerequisites, was hurriedly ordained a priest, consecrated a bishop, and sent to Lima.

St. Turibius arrived in Peru in 1581 at the age of 43. He would serve as bishop for twenty-five difficult years. Peru had been colonized by Spain, and the Spanish perpetrated many injustices and abuses against the residents. Greedy Spanish landlords had taken land from the peasants and the soldiers brutally mistreated them. He stood up for the rights of the native population, challenged the oppression of Spanish colonists, and did his best to improve the plight of the poor.

His diocese was huge, eighteen thousand square miles, ranging from Panama to the north to Argentina to the south. Travel was difficult because so much of the terrain was jungle or mountains and there were almost no roads. He learned the local dialects, had a deep love for the people, and was firmly committed to visiting them as often as possible. He traversed the vast countryside with incredible missionary zeal to preach and teach. It is reported that he may have baptized as many as five hundred thousand people.

It was also the time immediately after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and it was his duty to implement the reforms of the council and restore order to the local Church. He convened a number of councils and synods, most notably the Third Council of Lima in 1583, upheld Church law, vigorously challenged laxity and misconduct within the clergy, particularly their absence from their parishes and participation in the slave trade, and fostered a spiritual renewal.

The Church made tremendous progress under his leadership. Many parishes were established. Churches, schools, hospitals, and convents were built. He founded the first seminary in the New World in 1591. Construction of a Cathedral in Lima began in 1604. He is also remembered because he baptized St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Pores.

St. Turibius died on March 23, 1606, at the age of 68, in Sana, Peru. He was canonized a saint in 1726 because he gave such increase to the Church through his apostolic labors and zeal for the truth. In religious art, he is often depicted kneeling at an altar surrounded by angels. He is the patron saint of Peru and the Latin American bishops.

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St. Patrick the shepherd

March 13, 2020

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St. Patrick spent six years as a shepherd. When he was sixteen Irish pirates swept into his village, kidnapped him, and forcibly took him back to pagan Ireland where he was sold as a slave. His master ordered him to tend his sheep, which he did until a voice spoke to him and instructed him to escape. He fled at the age of twenty-two.

St. Patrick felt that these six difficult years were the result of the sins of his early youth. His time as a shepherd proved to be a conversion experience. He had strayed from God and returned. He had prayed infrequently, and then prayed morning, noon, and night. While he may have thought that his hardships were punishment, shepherding can be a deeply spiritual experience and God has used shepherding to groom the leaders of the future.

Shepherding is an outdoor job. A shepherd experiences the sunrise and the sunset, hillsides and forests, green meadows and blooming flowers, billowing clouds, gentle breezes, softly falling showers, angry clouds, furious winds, pounding rains, lightning bolts, thunder claps, raging rivers, and rainbows across the sky. Creation reveals its Maker. It is an experience of the transcendent. Shepherds are led to God.

Shepherding provides solitude, quiet time to pray and meditate, not only to speak to God but to listen attentively without distraction.

Shepherding teaches leadership, how to take charge, be responsible, lead and guide, make adjustments, respond to crisis, and make critical decisions.

Shepherding teaches self-sacrifice, service gladly given, as well as a willingness to lay down one’s life to protect the sheep from wild predatory animals and rustlers.

Shepherding teaches self-sufficiency. No one else is there to do the work. A shepherd accepts the task and completes it.

Shepherding teaches the value of the common good. A shepherd cares for the entire flock, guides all of the sheep to green pastures and watering holes by day, and to pens or caves by night. A shepherd keeps the flock together and does not allow any sheep to wander off alone.

Shepherding teaches care and concern. Shepherds provide individualized attention, recognize differences in appearance and temperament, and works for the betterment of each sheep.

Shepherding teaches humility. It is a lowly job. There is no status, recognition, or popularity. Many look down on shepherds. It is can be extremely lonely.

Two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament were shepherds. Moses tended the flock of his father-in-law Jethro in Midian (Ex 3:1), and David tended the flock of his father Jesse in Bethlehem (1 Sm 16:11). After learning how to lead a flock of sheep, Moses was prepared to lead the Israelites for forty years on the exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and David was prepared to lead Israel for forty years as its greatest king.

Likewise, shepherding prepared St. Patrick to lead the church of Ireland, which he did for twenty-nine years (432 to 461). It was his mission to preach Jesus, the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11,14), to help others to hear the voice of Jesus and to follow in his paths.

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St. Frances of Rome

March 6, 2020

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St. Frances of Rome

St. Frances of Rome
Notre Damedu Sablon, Brussels, Belgium
Photo By: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Frances was born in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome in 1384, the only child in a wealthy family. Her birth name was Francesca dei Roffredeschi. As a child she had a deep desire to be a nun, but her parents arranged her marriage to Lorenzo Ponziani, a soldier, when she was thirteen. They had six children, two which died, victims of a plague.

Frances and her husband lived in a luxurious residence with her husband’s brother and his wife Vannozza. As a member of the nobility Frances could have enjoyed a life of leisure, but she could see beyond the comforts of her home to the destitute in the surrounding neighborhoods. Frances and Vannozza shared the same values, walked through the slums, brought corn and wine to those suffering from hunger, and clothing and firewood to those suffering from the cold.

During those days the residents of Rome were beset by terrible calamities, plagues and famines, invasions, and civil strife. Frances walked the streets to care for afflicted, and she reported that at night her guardian angel would appear to her with a lighted lantern to guide and protect her and serve as her companion. There were many sick and injured, as well as refugees and those who had lost their homes, so Frances opened a large hall of her home to use as a shelter and hospital.

Frances was very severe with herself and restricted herself to a diet of dried bread and vegetables. She had numerous visions and spiritual ecstasies which may have been supernatural gifts or the result of malnutrition.

The care of the poor was an enormous task, something Frances and Vannozza could not do by themselves, so she gathered a group of women to assist them and established it a charitable society. These holy women lived together in community, prayed in common, followed the Rule of St. Benedict, did not take religious vows, and worked tirelessly on the streets concentrating their efforts on the poorest of the poor.

Frances’ husband died in 1436. After forty years as a faithful wife, she joined the community, established it as the Benedictine Oblates of Mary, became its mother superior, and spent the last four years of her life fulfilling her dream to be a nun. She died in Rome on March 9, 1440, at the age of fifty-six. Her last words were, “The angel has finished his task – he beckons me to follow him.” She was buried at the Church of Santa Maria Nuova, now called the Church of Santa Francesca Romana, located near the Roman Forum.

Frances was remarkable in the way that she balanced family and outreach, the home and the world. Her husband and children always came first. Her love and compassion were so boundless that they extended beyond her home into the world where she performed corporal works of mercy from when she was a young lady until her final years.

Frances was canonized a saint in 1608. She is the patron saint of widows because she spent the last four years of her life as a widow. Pope Pius XI (1922-39) named her the patron saint of motorists and cab drivers because her guardian angel appeared to her at night and guided her safely along the city streets with a lighted lantern.

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The Battle with Temptation

February 28, 2020

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St. Michael The Archangel, God’s Mighty Warrior (Rev 12:7) Model for confirmands, fully initiated Catholics “a soldier for Christ” St Michael’s Duluth, MN

Lent focuses on sin, evil thoughts, words, and deeds, as well as the good that we have failed to do; and the First Sunday of Lent focuses on temptation, those things that would induce us to sin. Jesus wants us to turn away from sin (see Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15). He also wants us to battle temptation and resist it with all our might.

A temptation is an evil thought that suddenly comes to mind. The temptation makes something bad look desirable, attractive, fun, or rewarding. Typical temptations are to say something unkind about someone else, to strike back and hurt someone who has harmed us, to tell a lie to get out of trouble or make ourselves look better, or to do something sexually impure or immoral.

Temptations come from the devil, not God. God is pure goodness and God detests evil. God wants us to be good and do good. God would never trick us, lead us into harm’s way, or set us up for failure. The devil, on the other hand, is like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (see 1 Pt 5:8), constantly on the prowl, the deceiver, the master of lies, who pursues us relentlessly, morning, noon, and night, and places one evil thought after another into our minds. Then, once the temptation is under consideration, the devil tries to make it look acceptable and enjoyable, and then seduces the person to act on the evil impulse.

An evil or impure thought is not automatically a sin. When a temptation appears, at first for the person who receives it, the temptation is morally neutral. No good or evil has been done. The moral quality of a temptation is determined by how the person who receives the temptation deals with it. If the person who receives the temptation and then thinks about it is horrified at thought, finds the temptation objectionable, rejects it, and refuses to act upon it, the person has taken something evil and made it a moral good.

On the other hand, when a temptation appears, instead of rejecting it, the person may hang on to the thought and mull over it. To toy with a temptation is the first stage of a sinful thought. The evil thought becomes progressively more sinful as a person moves from thinking about the evil deed to desiring it, and then from desiring it to making the conscious decision to do it, and then from making the conscious decision to designing a plan to carry it out. The evil thought becomes an evil deed once the temptation is carried out.

At one time when a person received the Sacrament of Confirmation, the fully initiated Christian was called a “soldier for Christ.” The title has fallen into disuse. Many do not like the word “soldier.” They claim that it is too militant and rationalize their position with the assertion that Christianity is about love and service. Do not be fooled. Every person is constantly assaulted by the devil with temptations. Adam and Eve were tempted in the garden. Jesus was tempted in the desert. We are tempted throughout the day and wherever we go. We are engaged in mortal combat. Disciples arm themselves with Christ and his gospel, and with the strength that God supplies, go nose to nose with the devil, fight with great bravery and ferocity, and resist the devil and his allurements with all their might.

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Plan to make a good Lent this year

February 21, 2020

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Stained glass window is from St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Morgan, MN

Lent. Lent is a penitential season, a time to “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The season lasts for forty days, the same amount of time that Jesus spent in prayer and fasting in the desert. The liturgical color is violet or purple, the symbol of repentance and sorrow for sin. Sin is real, and over the course of the year spiritual slippage normally occurs. Our sins can become more frequent or grow more serious. Lent is a time to re-examine, acknowledge how we have offended God and neighbor, admit our failings, seek God’s forgiveness, receive God’s healing grace, reform our lives, conform ourselves to God’s will, and make headway in virtue and holiness.

Lenten regulations. One way to make a good Lent is to observe the two Lenten regulations: abstinence and fasting. The abstinence regulation requires all those who have reached their fourteenth birthday to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all of the Fridays of Lent. The fasting regulation applies from one’s eighteenth to fifty-ninth birthday. All those in this age range are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting means one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not equal the larger one, with no food between meals except beverages. This obligation does not apply to those with special health conditions or physically demanding work. Those in doubt should consult a priest or confessor.

Penitential Practices. Another way to make a good Lent is to observe the four penitential or ascetical practices: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and works of charity.

Prayer. Prayer is at the top of the list. Lent offers an opportunity to intensify prayer, to pray more, or better, or with a richer variety. There are two main types of prayer: communal-liturgical and individual-private, and both are necessary for a well-balanced prayer life. Regular communication is key to every quality relationship, and if we hope to be close to God, regular prayer is a must.

Communal Prayer. The cornerstone of communal prayer is the Sunday Mass, and it is the indispensable starting point, whether in Lent or any time of the year. To have a good Lent, consider adding something to your communal prayer. The highest-rated option is daily Mass, one or two times a week, or possibly every weekday. Parishes offer a variety of other options: the communal recitation of Morning or Evening Prayer, the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, or a parish retreat or mission. At home, the family can offer prayers together at mealtime, bedtime, or any other time when two or more pray together.

Individual Prayer. Jesus frequently went off to pray by himself, and so should we. There are many options: Eucharistic Adoration; scripture reading and reflection; a silent or directed retreat, contemplation and meditation; the rosary, the chaplet, litanies, and prayer books; spiritual reading such as the writings or lives of the saints; a prayer journal; singing along with sacred music in the car; or a solitary prayer walk outside.

Fasting. Fasting is a form of self-denial, one of the most traditional forms of penance. In some circles it is not fashionable to give something up for Lent, with the objection that it is “too negative,” except self-denial is the path to self-mastery. If we want to have a good Lent, it would be worthwhile to give up some non-essential pleasure like dessert, candy, pop, ice cream, alcohol, tobacco, or television for a day or the week. The foremost form of self-denial is fasting from food, and Jesus demonstrated its importance when he fasted forty days and nights in the desert (Matthew 4:2), and he presumed that his disciples would do the same (Matthew 6:16,17). When hunger pangs come, it takes determination to say, “No!” and if we can consistently say “No” to something small like food, with improved self-control it is much more likely that we will be able to say “No” when something bigger like temptation comes our way.

Almsgiving. Almsgiving is not the same as stewardship of treasure or sacrificial giving, money shared to support the ministries of the parish and the wider church. Almsgiving is giving over-and-above what is given to the church: money, food or clothing, goods or services that are shared to help the poor and needy. Almsgiving is penitential, as scripture says: “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness” (Tobit 12:8); “Almsgiving expiates every sin” (Tobit 12:9); and “Atone for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor” (Daniel 4:24). A fine way to make a good Lent would be to make special donations to disaster relief, a food shelf, a soup kitchen, an orphanage, or some other charitable agency that cares for the poor or troubled.

Charity. Kind deeds are also penitential, because “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Plan to do something thoughtful for someone: extend thanks, offer a compliment, fulfill a promise, listen attentively, run an errand, help with a job, make a phone call, send flowers or a card, be polite, tell a clean joke, or visit someone in a hospital or nursing home, just to name a few. Random acts of kindness are good, but planned ones are better. Acts of love toward a neighbor draw a person away from selfish preoccupation and closer to God.

Plan for Lent. Lent is a time to break sinful habits that have not received the remedial attention they deserve, implement spiritual upgrades that have been put off for a long time, and break out of a spiritual holding pattern. Our plan for Lent should be to “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

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Heaven: Imagining the Unimaginable

February 14, 2020

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A stained glass depiction of the paradise garden of Heaven. St. John’s Catholic Church, St. Pete’s Beach, Florida

Saint Paul wrote a beautiful encouragement to the Corinthians: “Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard … what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). Heaven is the place that God has prepared for those who love him.

In Jesus’ conversation with the disciples at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday evening, he told them that he is the one who is making the preparations: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:2-3).

Heaven is indescribable. It is beyond our wildest imagination. No eye has ever seen it. No ear has ever heard a witness give a report about it. Mere words cannot adequately convey it. Yet the Bible offers a variety of metaphors or images to give us a glimpse of what heaven is like: paradise (Gn 2:15); green pastures (Ps 23:2); the eternal banquet (Is 25:6; Lk 14:15-24); a wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14; Rv 19:9); the Father’s house or the heavenly mansion (Jn 14:2); our heavenly homeland (Heb 11:16); and the Holy City, the new and eternal Jerusalem (Rv 3:12; 21:2-3,10). Heaven is where the great multitude is gathered around God’s throne, so numerous that it cannot be counted, with those from every nation, race, people, and tongue (Rv 7:9). It is the abode of the angels and saints, and it is a place of light, peace, rest, and joy.

Jesus wants us to go to heaven. So does his Father. Jesus told the crowd, “I will not reject anyone who comes to me” (Jn 6:37). “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day” (Jn 6:39).

Heaven is our eternal destiny. Even though no eye has seen it and no ear has heard a report on it, it is worthwhile to meditate about it. What is heaven like? Imagine. Recall a moment when you were captivated by beauty, a snowcapped mountain peak, the wind purring through the pines, or a golden sunset. These were passing moments. Heaven is pure beauty, better than all of our beautiful moments combined, continuing endlessly. Remember a time when you were in tremendous health, pain free, rested, energetic, and enthusiastic. Heaven is perfect health forever. Bring to mind an occasion when you were overcome with joy and time seemed to stand still, caught up in a glorious piece of music, mesmerized on the seashore by the crashing of the waves, riveted by a fascinating movie. The joy of heaven exceeds them all and goes on indefinitely. Think back to a truly happy moment with a dear friend, a time when all was well between both of you, all kindness, no tension, mutually beneficial, deep trust, genuine love, and hearts dancing. Heaven is pure love, not with a single person but with everyone, all of the saints and angels, and not for a passing moment but constantly and without end. Recollect your most prayerful moment, a moment of bliss or elation when you felt truly close to God, a mystical union. Heaven is being intimately connected to God for ages unending. Heaven is better than all of our best experiences on earth combined, and it is eternal. It will never end.

It is beneficial for us to contemplate heaven. The more we ponder heaven’s grandeur and glory, and the more we attempt to grasp the meaning of eternity, the more we desire to go to heaven, and the pathway to heaven is to love God and neighbor and to live a good and holy life.

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