Archbishop's column

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

'Before The Cross' by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson. Archbishop Carlson is the ninth Archbishop of Saint Louis. Listed below are the most recent columns written by Archbishop Carlson; click on the title to read the column. The Archdiocesan website has more information about Archbishop Robert J. Carlson.

'Be not afraid!"

Hope in the lives of the first Christians

In his recently published encyclical, "Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope)," Pope Benedict XVI continues to ask whether faith can transform our lives, that is, can give us the knowledge that we are saved in hope, by examining the experience of the first Christians. Like St. Josephine Bakhita, many of the first Christians experienced cruel treatment and even slavery, but their Christian faith did not lead them to acts of social or political revolution. By way of contrast with response of the early Christians, the Holy Father recalls the story of the pagan Spartacus, whose revolutionary activities resulted in "so much bloodshed." He recalls, too, Barabbas, in prison at the time of the Passion and Death of Jesus, who led a political uprising (cf. Spe Salvi, n. 4).

The early Christians responded in a completely different way to ill treatment and enslavement. They responded in the way of their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. In the face of suffering and death, they sought to transform society by transforming their own souls. Their "totally different" response had its source in their daily encounter with Christ, "an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within" (Spe Salvi, n. 4).

Spiritual, not political, revolution

St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon illustrates the spiritually revolutionary response of Christians before the reality of slavery. By the letter in question, St. Paul, who was himself in prison, sent back Onesimus, a "runaway slave," to his master Philemon. What is revolutionary about St. Paul’s action? He did not demand that Philemon free Onesimus but rather that he receive him back "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother" (Philemon 16). Pope Benedict XVI describes the revolutionary situation worked by Christ alive in His Church, in the members of His Mystical Body: "Those who, as far as their civil status is concerned, stand in relation to one another as masters and slaves, inasmuch as they are members of the one Church have becomes brothers and sisters — this is how Christians addressed one another" (Spe Salvi, n. 4). No matter what was happening with the external structure of slavery, Christ was transforming the hearts of masters and slaves and, thereby, transforming their relationship with each other and, thereby, transforming society "from within."

The spiritual revolution worked by Christ in His Church makes it clear that, even though the "trustworthy hope" of Christians resides in the future, that is, in the eternal life of Heaven, Baptism makes them members of "a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage" (Spe Salvi, n. 4). In other words, Christians understand that, while they have no "permanent homeland" on earth, the days of their earthly pilgrimage are to anticipate the days without end in Heaven. The "new society," the Body of Christ, exists already now and will reach the fullness of its life, when our Lord and Master returns in glory at the end of time.

The reality of the "new society" must be visible in the present, if it is to reach its future destiny.

Hope for all early Christians

Pope Benedict next reminds us that the early Christians came from all of the "social strata" of society. Certainly, as St. Paul makes clear, "many of the early Christians belonged to the lower social strata, and precisely for this reason were open to the experience of new hope, as we saw in the example of (St. Josephine) Bakhita" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). It, however, must be remembered that "from the beginning there were also conversions in the aristocratic and cultured circles," for, they like those of the lower social strata, also experienced the distance or absence of God in their pagan religion. According to the pagan religion, God was only known in "cosmic forces" to which one cannot, through prayer, draw near and relate in a personal manner. St. Paul makes it clear that we, in Christ, are no longer simply creatures under the totally indifferent and impersonal dominion of "the elemental spirits of the world" (Colossians 2:8).

The Holy Father recalls the teaching of St. Gregory Nazianzen regarding the Magi’s following of the Christmas Star. St. Gregory sees in the Star guiding the Magi the submission of the "elemental forces" to Christ, so that they, too, serve Him and lead us to knowledge and love of Him, to a personal relationship with Him.

Pope Benedict XVI comments: "This scene, in fact, overturns the world view of that time, which in a different way has become fashionable once again today." What does the Holy Father mean? Today, many have begun to believe that it is the "laws of matter and of evolution" which ultimately govern us and our world. But it is God who has created all things and who orders all things according to His eternal truth and love, and who, therefore, has, in the words of our Holy Father, "the final say." God has created us in His own image and likeness, with intelligence and free will. We are not the slaves of the "laws of matter and of evolution"; we are free. "Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same thing above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed Himself as Love" (Spe Salvi, n. 5).

Christ the Philosopher and the Shepherd

In the decoration of their places of burial, the early Christians expressed their faith and hope. Death, as is clear, raises the ultimate question about the meaning of life. The early Christians responded to the question by depicting Christ in two ways, as the Philosopher and as the Shepherd.

As Pope Benedict XVI comments, we tend to view philosophy as one of the more challenging academic disciplines. At the time of early Christianity, however, philosophy was seen as a fundamental teaching on "the art of being authentically human — the art of living and dying." The people sought out the philosopher who could teach them the true way of living, for there were also false philosophers, "charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life" (Spe Salvi, n. 6).

Christ is depicted as the true Philosopher in early Christian burial art. He is "holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s staff in the other." The message is clear: Christ conquers death with his philosopher’s staff in his one hand because he holds the Gospel in his other hand. "The Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain." Pope Benedict XVI comments that, in the image of Christ as the true philosopher, "we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: He tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human." In our Lord’s own words, He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Christ "shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life" (Spe Salvi, n. 6).

Christ is also depicted as the Shepherd on the funerary art of the early Christians. In Roman art, the image of the shepherd expressed "the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing." For the Christians, the image of the shepherd evoked Psalm 23 (22), in which the Lord is praised as the shepherd "who even knows the path that passes through the valley of death."

Christ, indeed, has walked that path before us, and He accompanies each of us on the way to the passage from this life to the life which is to come, and on the way of the passage itself. He has conquered death by His Dying, and He gives us the "trustworthy hope" that we, with Him, can find the way through death to eternal life.

"The realization that there is One Who even in death accompanies me, and with his ‘rod and staff comforts me’, so that "I fear no evil’ (cf. Psalm 23[22]:4) — this was the new ‘hope’ that arose over the life of believers" (Spe Salvi, n. 6).


As we continue our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us renew our fraternity with all our brothers and sisters in the "new society" of the Church. Let us ask ourselves whether we live the life of the "new society" in the present, hoping for the fulfillment of that life in Heaven and, therefore, giving hope to all of our brothers and sisters.

Let us also reflect upon our relationship with the world and look more deeply into that relationship, in order that we may recognize Jesus Christ, King of Heaven and Earth, Who rules all things with the Love which pours forth from His glorious pierced Heart. Let us turn to Christ, the true Philosopher Who teaches us how to live each day and how to die. Let us turn to Christ, the Shepherd Who accompanies throughout the days of our earthly pilgrimage, healing and refreshing us, and Who, at the end of our earthly pilgrimage, leads us through the "valley of the shadow of death" to "dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 23:4, 6).

‘Be not afraid!’

Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical letter

On Nov. 30, 2007, the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Pope Benedict XVI signed his second encyclical letter, that is, his second pastoral letter to all the faithful of the world. The title of the encyclical letter, according to the Church’s long practice, is its opening words, "Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope)," taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:24). Its subject matter is Christian hope, the second of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The Holy Father’s first encyclical letter, "Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)," addressed the theological virtue of charity and was signed on Christmas Day 2005.

In the verse of the Letter to the Romans, with which the encyclical letter begins, St. Paul is addressing the reality of our life in Christ. We have been saved in Christ. We have received the grace of eternal life, the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit, through the Sacrament of Baptism. But salvation is brought to flower in us through the day-to-day conversion to Christ, overcoming sin and doing the Father’s will in all things. Using the image of the mother who must undergo the pains of labor in order to bring the child in her womb to the light of day, St. Paul declares: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8:22-23). Our life in Christ, which must endure many temptations and trials, because we remain on earth, is, therefore, lived in the sure hope of the fulfillment of the grace of salvation at work in us from the moment of our baptism. St. Paul declares:
"For in this hope, we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (Romans 8:24-25).

Hope teaches us to bear patiently the suffering of daily conversion to Christ in the sure hope that eternal salvation will be ours.

Salvation not a given but a secure goal
Pope Benedict XVI begins his encyclical letter "On Christian Hope" by observing that salvation "is not simply a given." Our life, rather, is directed to a secure goal, eternal life, which we do not yet see. In other words, the gift of Christ’s life dwelling within us sets us on the way to eternal life, giving us already a share in eternal life on earth; but the pilgrimage of life must be traveled with fidelity in order to reach the goal, the fullness of eternal life.

Christ, dwelling within us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, gives us "trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey" (Spe Salvi, n. 1). Christ abides with us in the Church, accompanying us along the pilgrimage of our life on earth in patient waiting for our passover from this life to the life which is to come and for His Final Coming at the end of time, when He will restore us, body and soul, and all creation to the perfection with which and for which God created the world and has called us into being as His beloved sons and daughters.

Having described our life in Christ as lived in hope, Pope Benedict XVI immediately asks the question: "(W)hat sort of hope could ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed?" (n. 1). In other words, how is it possible to say with certainty that we are saved in hope?

Faith and hope

In order to answer the question about the hope in which we are saved, the Holy Father leads us to reflect on what the inspired Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, tell us about hope. He observes that hope is "a key word in biblical faith" to the degree that the virtues of faith and of hope seem almost interchangeable. Making reference to both the Letter to the Hebrews (10:22) and the First Letter of Peter (3:15), the Holy Father shows how it is our faith that is the reason of our hope. Our faith makes sense of our hope.

Prior to the coming of Christ and His foundation of the Church, God’s people lacked hope. In writing to the first Christians at Ephesus, St. Paul reminded them that "before their encounter with Christ they were ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:12)" (Spe Salvi, n. 2). Before their conversion to Christ, the Ephesians believed in their pagan gods and practiced a certain religion; but their gods lacked divine substance, and their religion was marked by debilitating contradictions. As a result, they were left in a world of darkness. They were without hope.

With the coming of Christ, man is given a secure future and, even though he does not yet see it, he is confident in it because of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. Pope Benedict XVI describes the Gospel as not only "informative," that is, containing the Good News of our eternal salvation, but also "performative," that is, transforming our lives in their very substance, offering us a very share in Christ’s life which is without end.

"The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life" (Spe Salvi, n. 2).

We hope because God is with us

Pope Benedict XVI next asks what is the substance of our hope which is redeeming, which gives us a new life, and he returns to the text of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians for the answer. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were living without hope because they were "without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).

The substance of our hope is the real encounter with and communion with God in Jesus Christ, which is ours in the Church. As the Holy Father remarks, we who have grown up with the Christian faith "have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God" (Spe Salvi, n. 3).

To illustrate his point about the substance of our hope, Pope Benedict XVI recalls the life of St. Josephine Bakhita (c.1869-1947) of the Sudan in Africa, whom Pope John Paul II canonized on Oct. 1, 2000. Sold into slavery at age 9, St. Josephine endured a most cruel life, suffering frequent and even daily beatings. Her life was without hope, without future. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian master and brought to Italy. In her new homeland, she learned about our Lord and God, the Master (Paron, in the Venetian dialect she was learning) of all masters, Who is all good, "goodness in person." She learned that our Lord had created her, that He loved her and, for love of her, submitted Himself to a cruel passion and death, and that He was waiting for her at His place in glory with the Father.

St. Josephine Bakhita’s life now had a future; she was filled with hope. She wrote: "I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good." Regarding the transformation of the life of St. Josephine, Pope Benedict XVI states: "Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed’, no longer a slave, but a free child of God" (Spe Salvi, n. 3).

Eventually, on Jan. 8, 1890, St. Josephine Bakhita was baptized, confirmed and received her First Holy Communion from the cardinal patriarch of Venice. On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception in 1896, she was professed as a member of the Daughters of Charity of Canossa (popularly known as the Canossian Sisters), to whom her Italian master had confided her education. In addition to the duties which she fulfilled in the convent, "she made several journeys around Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people" (Spe Salvi, n. 3). The life of St. Josephine Bakhita reminds us that the theological virtue of hope impels us, urges us, to extend hope to all our brothers and sisters, especially those who, for whatever reason, may be without hope.


As we begin our reading of the Holy Father’s second encyclical letter, "On Christian Hope," let us reflect on the difference which faith in our Lord Jesus Christ makes in our lives. Our faith which is not only "informative" but also "performative" or transformative gives us a future, fills us with hope. Our lives are progressing toward a secure goal, eternal life with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us also reflect upon the example of St. Josephine Bakhita. Let us pray, through her intercession, that we may come to an ever newer appreciation of the gift of hope and an ever greater energy in giving the gift of hope to others, especially to those, in our time, who are without hope.

‘Be not afraid!’


On Dec. 17, we entered into the last days of Advent, the seven days before the Vigil of Christmas. During these days, our anticipation of Christmas increases in intensity, making us aware not only of how much we have yet to do to prepare for Christmas but also how much we have yet to do to welcome Christ more completely into our lives. With the knowledge that the days of Advent are coming to an end, we are led to those means by which Christ comes to us in the Church and asks us to welcome Him into our lives. I refer especially to the sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and of Penance.

As we anticipate the celebration of Christmas, we want to be with our Lord in the Holy Mass each day, if possible, offering ourselves to Him and with Him in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. We want to spend time with Him in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, either reposed in the tabernacle or exposed for adoration. We also desire to meet our Lord in the Sacrament of Penance, confessing our sins to Him, with sorrow, and receiving from Him, through the ministry of the priest, the absolution of our sins. There is no better way to make our final preparation for Christmas than to spend time with our eucharistic Lord and to meet Him in the Sacrament of Penance.

The ‘O’ Antiphons

At Evening Prayer during the last days of Advent, the Church sings a solemn antiphon before the singing of the Magnificat. On each of the seven days, the Church addresses the Messiah, the Christ, by one of the titles given to Him in the Holy Scriptures. These seven antiphons are popularly known in the Church as the "O" Antiphons, because each one begins with the exclamation "O" before naming the title of Christ from the Holy Scriptures. After the invocation of our Lord by the title, a pray to Him follows, begging Him to come to us, to visit us, and to fill us with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The "O" Antiphons are sung at Evening Prayer because "as the Church sings in one of her hymns, it was in the evening of the world (vergente mundi vespere) that the Messiah came amongst us" (Abbot Prosper Gueranger, OSB, The Liturgical Year, translated by Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB, Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, 2000, vol. 1, p. 484). They are sung at the Magnificat "to show us that the Savior whom we expect is to come to us by Mary" (Abbot Prosper Gueranger, vol. 1, p 484).

The Gregorian Chant for the "O" Antiphons is especially beautiful and expresses the longing of the Church to celebrate once again the great day of Our Lord’s Birth and the desire of each soul to know Christ and to offer Him the home of a pure and selfless heart. The singing of the antiphons is filled with hope, for indeed we know that the Lord has come and that His great desire is to find in us the response of love to His immeasurable and ceaseless love of all mankind.

I offer the example of two of the "O" Antiphons. The first addresses Christ by His biblical title of Wisdom: "O Wisdom, which comes forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching mightily from end to end, and gently disposing all things, come to teach us the way of prudence." The prayer expresses the truth that, in all things, God accomplishes His holy and saving will, and He does so without violence to our freedom, and asks that we might have the prudence which permits us in all things to choose what leads to eternal salvation.

The last of the antiphons addresses Christ by the biblical title which most explicitly declares the reality of His Coming. He is Emmanuel; He is God-with-us: "O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expectation of the nations and their Savior, come to save us, O Lord our God!" The prayer declares the truth that Christ alone answers the longing of every people of every time and every place to know the truth and love of God. Christ reigns by becoming the servant of all, offering His life totally for the eternal salvation of all men, without boundary. Christ is the Lawgiver whose discipline does not distort or destroy human freedom but leads human freedom to its fullest flower in selfless love of God and neighbor, unto death and for all eternity.

Conclusion: Christmas Eve

Our final preparation for the celebration of the Birth of the Lord brings us to Christmas Eve. The final hours before Christmas are observed with a great recollection, the concentration of our attention upon the great mystery of the Incarnation, and the substantial and unchanging meaning which it gives to our lives.

Whatever may be lacking in our preparation for the celebration of Christmas, in the disposition of our hearts to receive Christ fully into our hearts, the Church’s prayer announces to us: "Today you will know that the Lord will come, and in the morning you will see His glory." The Church’s prayer points to the reality of the unceasing outpouring of Divine Love upon us in Jesus, the Christ born for us at Bethlehem to die for us at Jerusalem. On Christmas Eve, there can be no place in our hearts for discouragement, let alone despair, but rather our hearts must be filled with confidence in God’s love, with the sure hope that He will redeem us from all our sins, even as He has sent His only-begotten Son to do. How can we doubt the mercy of God Who comes to us in all humility and poverty to be for us our All! He will not permit His plan of infinite mercy and love toward us to fail!

May the celebration of our Lord’s Birth, this year, bring us all a deeper knowledge of how much God has loved us and continues to love us in our Lord Jesus Christ!

‘Be not afraid!’


The observance of the Season of Advent opens our eyes anew to the many and concrete ways in which Christ our Good Shepherd cares for us in the Church. At the Last Supper, when Christ instituted the Sacrament of His Real Presence with us, the Holy Eucharist, He also instituted the Sacred Priesthood. The Sacred Priesthood is, in fact, primarily at the service of the Holy Eucharist. By the Sacrament of Holy Orders, Christ acts in ordained priests and bishops to give pastoral care and direction to the flock. Above all, He acts in ordained priests and bishops to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, by which He feeds us with us Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, and remains present as the Bread of Heaven for us in the tabernacles of our churches and chapels. The reason for the existence of the Sacred Priesthood is the Holy Eucharist. At the same time, the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice requires absolutely the ministry of the ordained priest.

Advent is the time for us to renew our relationship with those whom Christ has given to us as our shepherds, our parish priest, our bishop and our Holy Father. It is the time to renew our daily prayers for those who give their lives to be our shepherds. It is also the time to renew our sentiments of deepest respect for the pastoral office in the Church. Those who exercise the pastoral office are human beings with both strengths and weaknesses, but the office which they exercise is of Christ and, therefore, most sacred to us.

Pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI

Christ’s pastoral care of us in the Church will be expressed in an extraordinary manner by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to our nation in April 2008. The Holy Father, shepherd of the Universal Church, will visit Washington, D.C., from April 15 to 17, and New York City from April 18 to to 20. Both Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York have written to me about arrangements for the participation of the faithful of the Archdiocese of St. Louis in his visit to their archdioceses.

As you can imagine, the arrangements are, at this point, very much in the planning stage. The Archdiocese of St. Louis is planning a pilgrimage to New York City to participate in the Holy Father’s meeting with youth, especially seminarians, at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers on April 19 and his Mass at Yankee Stadium on April 20. It is my hope that a good number of the faithful of the archdiocese, including our young people and seminarians, will be able to join the archdiocesan pilgrimage. As soon as more information is available and the plans are finalized, you will be informed.

The coming visit of the Holy Father underlines for us the daily and tireless pastoral care which he has for all of us. Let us remember to pray for Pope Benedict XVI every day, and let us pray for God’s blessing upon his pastoral visit to the United States in April of next year.

Pastoral direction in a relativist society

Respect and obedience toward our pastors in the Church is a particular challenge in today’s society, which views everything in relation to what each individual thinks and wants. Pastors who have the solemn responsibility to teach and uphold the truths of the faith, that is, the objective reality of our relationship with God, with one another and with our world, become very unpopular and are openly rejected when they fulfill their responsibilities toward the flock in their care.

The secular media, which reflect very much the relativism rampant in our society, view the pastoral authority of the Church as extremism. When the Holy Father, the bishops and parish priests enunciate the Church’s teaching on the inviolable dignity of innocent human life, for example, they are labeled "the religious right." Easily enough, secular thinking enters the Church, remaking pastoral authority according to its own image while, at the same time, ridiculing and even resisting any firm teaching or discipline given by the Church’s pastors.

Recently, the pastors in our nation have cautioned the faithful, especially parents, regarding the film "The Golden Compass." Through George Henry, superintendent of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, parents and teachers were warned that the author of the books ("His Dark Materials," by Philip Pullman) from which the movie is drawn is an avowed atheist who has a particular hatred of the Catholic Church.

As archbishop, I caution all Catholics regarding the atheistic and antiCatholic nature of Pullman’s writings, upon which "The Golden Compass" is based. If you wish further and more in-depth information, I recommend the publication of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked," which can be obtained through the League’s website, I also commend the book by Peter Vere and Sandra Miesel, "Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy," published by Ignatius Press (

Before concluding, I wish also to correct an erroneous statement made in a commentary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, titled "After ruckus over its roots, ‘Compass’ film mollifies some" (Dec. 8, 2007, p. A23). The commentary claims that the Catholic bishops of our nation viewed the film and praised it. The statement is false. A most defective review of the film was published by Catholic News Service. The review has by now been removed from the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The review was not based on a viewing of the film by bishops and was not endorsed by the bishops.


The Season of Advent inspires in us a new devotion to what is most sacred to us, our Catholic faith, prayer and the sacraments, and the discipline of living in Christ. The strong grace of the season fortifies us to promote the understanding of the Catholic Church, in which Christ, our Good Shepherd, is alive and at work for our eternal salvation. It also inspires us to safeguard and defend our Catholic faith and practice from those who would ridicule, desecrate or attack what is most sacred to us. In our society, we as Catholics need to pray especially for the courage to stand up for what we believe, to give an account of our Catholic faith to others, and to resist those who ridicule or misrepresent our faith.

Please pray, too, for us who are your pastors that we will remain strong in teaching the Catholic faith and in giving sound guidance in living the Catholic faith, especially amid the confusion of a society blinded by materialism and relativism. Finally, we trust that Christ, Who continues to shepherd His flock daily in the Church, acts in priests, bishops and the Holy Father, to promote and safeguard the faith in its integrity. May our observance of Advent strengthen us in welcoming Christ with obedience and docility.

'Be not afraid'


Two important feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary take place during the Season of Advent: the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (a holy day of obligation) on Dec. 8 and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America and Star of the New Evangelization, on Dec. 12. Closely related to both feasts is the Memorial of St. Juan Diego, the messenger of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on Dec. 9, which will not be celebrated liturgically this year because it falls on the Second Sunday of Advent.

The celebration of these feast days of our Blessed Mother and of St. Juan Diego help us to enter more fully into the observance of the Season of Advent.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is our model in preparing for the celebration of Christmas by disposing our hearts to welcome our Lord more fully, both as He comes to us now in the Church and as He will come to us in glory on the Last Day. She is also our intercessor who asks our Lord to give us the special graces of Advent, by which our hearts are purified of whatever hinders both our Lord’s coming to us now and our preparation to meet Him when He will come in glory. A reflection on her feasts will help us to see how the Blessed Mother is both the model of our Advent observance and our intercessor for the strong graces of the Season of Advent in our lives.

The Immaculate Conception

On Dec. 8, we recall and celebrate how God preserved the Virgin Mary, from the very moment of her conception, from every stain of sin. In a mysterious and wonderful way, God permitted our Blessed Mother to receive, in anticipation, the grace of eternal salvation which her Divine Son would win for all mankind by His Passion and Death. In this way, the Virgin Mary was prepared to receive and fulfill her call to be the Mother of God; the Virgin Mary’s heart was totally pure from her conception and thus her womb was the fitting vessel in which God the Son could be received into the world. The purity of her heart is a sign to us of how our hearts must become pure, with the help of God’s grace, in order that we may welcome our Lord ever more fully into our lives and be ready to meet Him at His Final Coming.

Mary’s Immaculate Heart is filled with love of us who are called to be true sons and daughters of God in her Divine Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. When He was about to die on the Cross, Jesus gave us to His mother, as our mother, even as He entrusted her into our hands through the Apostle John. As our Blessed Mother was totally one in heart with our Lord Jesus in His saving mission, so she continues to exercise her maternal care for all who, through Baptism, have come to life in her Divine Son and, indeed, for all mankind for whom her Son died and rose from the dead and whom He desires to come to life in Him. Our Blessed Mother both teaches us the truth that God became man for our eternal salvation and leads us to experience the same truth through Christ’s love of us in the Church.

St. Juan Diego

On Dec. 9, we celebrate the Memorial of St. Juan Diego. Juan Diego was a native American of what is today Mexico, who had received the gift of faith and baptism through the ministry of the Spanish Franciscan friars.

On Dec. 9, 1531, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at that time in the Spanish Empire, he was on his way to his parish church for the celebration of the feast. He had a somewhat long walk from the home of his elderly uncle, Juan Bernardino, to the parish church.

As he approached Tepeyac Hill, which was along the way, our Blessed Mother appeared to him and asked him to be her messenger in carrying out a special mission of love on behalf of his people and all the peoples of the American continent.

The mission was to have Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, OFM, first bishop of Mexico, build a chapel on Tepeyac Hill, in which she might show to all peoples God’s mercy and love in her Divine Son. In her appearance, our Blessed Mother was with child. She appeared to Juan Diego three more times and once to his ailing uncle to whom she brought healing and to whom she announced her name: the Perfect Virgin Holy Mary of Guadalupe (Handbook on Guadalupe, New Bedford, Maine: Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, 2001, p. 204). At her fourth appearance, on Dec. 12, God miraculously supplied, through her, roses in the middle of winter and on a rocky and thorn-infested hill, as a sign of the truth of St. Juan Diego’s messages to the bishop. Through Our Lady, God also worked an even more wonderful miracle.

When she had arranged the flowers in the mantle (tilma or ayate) of Juan Diego, she instructed him not to show the flowers to anyone but the bishop. When Juan Diego unfolded his mantle and the most beautiful flowers cascaded before the bishop, the bishop witnessed a miracle which we continue to witness today. God imprinted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s cactus-cloth mantle. There is no human explanation of how the image is imprinted. The cactus-cloth mantle which should have disintegrated within thirty to forty years remains intact today, so that we can still gaze upon the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe who is, by a very special title, our mother in America.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

We celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, the day which marks both her last appearance to St. Juan Diego, with the miracle of the roses and of the sacred image, and her appearance to Juan Bernardino. On her feast day, the Mother of God invites us anew, as she has faithfully done since her appearances from Dec. 9 to 12 in 1531, to know the mystery of God’s mercy and love in our lives by coming to know and love her Divine Son. Her words to Juan Diego in 1531 are her words to us today:

Know, know for sure, my dearest, littlest, and youngest son, that I am the perfect and ever Virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the God of truth through Whom everything lives. ... I want very much to have a little house built here for me, in which I will show Him, I will exalt Him and make Him manifest. I will give Him to the people in all my personal love, in my compassion, in my help, in my protection: because I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me (Handbook on Guadalupe, p. 194).

In her maternal love, Our Lady of Guadalupe wants, most of all, to show us how much God loves us in Jesus Christ, God the Son Incarnate in her womb. She draws our hearts, which are frequently beset by fear and doubt and sin, to her Immaculate Heart, so that we, with her, may place our hearts into the glorious pierced Heart of Jesus, the only source of our joy and peace, of our healing and strength.

In a very special way, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe uncovers for us what the Coming of our Lord means for us in America. It is our Blessed Mother who teaches us how immeasurably God loves us, treasures every human life, without exception or boundary. She draws us to Jesus Christ, her Divine Son, so that, through our union of heart with His Sacred Heart, we may know directly in our lives, especially through the Holy Eucharist, the love of God and become, with her, bearers of God’s love to all our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable and those in most need.


May the celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe draw us closer to Christ Who comes to us in the Church and Who will come to us in glory at the end of time. As we honor the Mother of God, let us make our hearts one with her Immaculate Heart, so that we, with her, may make our hearts one with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In a special way, may our celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the title under which the Blessed Virgin Mary is the patroness of our nation, and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of America and Star of the New Evangelization, inspire in us a new enthusiasm and a new energy to be the heralds of God’s mercy and love to all our brothers and sisters.

With the Mother of God, may we become ever more generous and tireless in safeguarding and fostering every human life, called into being by God out of His immense love and redeemed by the outpouring of the life of His only-begotten Son Who became man for us and for our eternal salvation. So may we, day by day, with the Mother of God, await faithfully the Coming of the Lord.

‘Be not afraid!’


The Season of Advent is, above all, a season of preparation by means of purification. The words of St. John the Baptist, which express his mission in the world, uncover the meaning of our Advent observance: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight" (Matthew 3:3). Even as St. John the Baptist prepared the way of our Lord’s coming into the world in time, so, too, the four weeks of Advent are our preparation to welcome our Lord more completely into our lives now, so that we may be ready to welcome Him finally and fully on the day of His coming in glory at the end of time.

St. John the Baptist’s proximate preparation of our Lord’s coming brought to culmination the some 4,000 years of preparing, on the part of the People of God, for the coming of the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, which began with the Fall of Adam and Eve and God’s promise of the Savior (cf. Genesis 3:15). During the weeks of Advent, we unite ourselves to our brothers and sisters of the Chosen People who looked for and longed for the Messiah, the Savior. At the Sacred Liturgy, we will listen to the Word of God, given to us through the Prophets, by which God the Father inspired and nurtured the expectant hope of His people, until the day of the Incarnation of God the Son for our eternal salvation.

During Advent, we unite ourselves especially with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the finest flower of the People of God, whom God disposed from the moment of her conception to receive the Messiah in her womb at His coming in time. We ask her intercession, that we may imitate her purity of heart, making our hearts ever more disposed to receive Christ at His coming into our lives, especially in the Holy Eucharist.

Christ knocks at the door of our hearts

Dom Prosper Guranger, OSB, the renowned commentator on the Sacred Liturgy of the 19th century, writes about Advent with these words:

"Now, during the season of Advent, our Lord knocks at the door of all men’s hearts, at one time so forcibly that they must needs notice Him; at another, so softly that it requires attention to know that Jesus is asking admission. He comes to ask them if they have room for Him, for he wishes to be born in their house" (Dom Prosper Guranger, OSB, The Liturgical Year, Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2000, Vol. 1, p. 37).

Advent is, indeed, a time of strong grace for the purifying and expanding of our hearts to welcome our Lord Jesus more fully into our lives.

Dom Guranger’s description of Advent recalls to mind the vision of St. John the Evangelist, in which our Lord speaks to the seven Churches of Asia Minor about His coming at the end of time.

Our Lord urges repentance of sin and the rekindling of His love in the heart. Yes, our Lord’s words understandably engender fear, what the Church calls "holy fear" or Fear of the Lord. It is the fear which awakens us to the ways in which we are living as if Christ had never come to us and which gets us on the road to changing our ways. It is not a fear which leads to despair, for our Lord Himself assures us:

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

Our Lord stands ever knocking at the door of our hearts, sometimes in very dramatic ways but always in the usual ways by which He comes to us in the Church, thirsting for our love, desiring to take up His dwelling with us.

Purifying our hearts to receive the Lord

The practice of penance and, above all, the confession of our sins and their absolution by God’s grace in the Sacrament of Penance, are at the heart of our Advent preparation. How better can we prepare the way of our Lord into our hearts than by praying with greater fervor and by practicing acts of mortification by which our Lord frees our minds of distractions and our hearts of wrong affections!

Our Advent prayer and penance reach their fullness and, at the same time, are sustained by our regular meeting of our Lord in the Sacrament of Confession.

Through the confession of our sins, be they great or small, we purify and expand our hearts, so that Christ may dwell more fully within us. Through Christ’s absolution of our sins, He comes to dwell within us, helping us to take up the work of reparation, so that His mercy and love may take ever deeper root in our hearts.

A good confession of our sins, therefore, requires that a person confess "all the unconfessed grave sins he remembers after having carefully examined his conscience." Such a confession must be integral, in the sense that grave sins are confessed according to their kind and the number of times we have committed them.

To do less is to fail to confront our sinfulness with honesty and to seek the forgiveness of all the sins of which we are conscious.

One is not obliged to confess venial sins, but it is good to do so, for even small faults keep Christ from reigning fully in our hearts. Not paying attention to venial sins can also lead to more serious sins. "The confession of venial faults, without being necessary in itself, is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1493).


Christ comes knocking at the door of our hearts each day. He desires to make His home with us always. May we all draw upon the strong graces of the Advent Season, into which we will enter on this coming Sunday, so that our ears may be attuned to hear Christ knocking, and our minds and hearts may be disciplined to welcome Him ever more fully into our lives.

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