Give witness to the Mystery of the Eucharist

In the fall of 1901, Archbishop John J. Kain informed the faithful of the archdiocese of the impending Eucharistic Congress. Though the deliberations of the congress would be confined to the clergy, the Archbishop invited the laity "to attend the solemn public functions and to offer up their fervent prayers that God may bless these deliberations and make them tend to spread more and more widely the knowledge and love of the divine Sacrifice and Sacrament of the Altar."

On the centenary of the 1901 gathering, Archbishop Justin Rigali has extended a cordial invitation to all to participate fully in this "great gathering of Catholic clergy, religious and laypeople of all ages to deepen our understanding and love of the Holy Eucharist." Tens of thousands already have signed up for the Corpus Christi Mass and Procession, and a good number have registered to participate in the Congress events. The variety of presentations and activities planned for Friday and Saturday offer occasions for prayer, enrichment and renewal for all, young and old.

On this Pentecost Sunday weekend, two weeks before the 2001 Eucharistic Congress, let us proclaim our own determination to give what Archbishop Rigali has fittingly characterized as a wonderful "authentic public witness to our unity as the Body of Christ in the world." Plan to be part of history as we gather to glorify the ascended Lord Jesus Christ who, in the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, is always with us until the end of the world.

The meaning of Ascension

As followers of the Lord Jesus, we are familiar with his identity as the God-man and redeemer, with his teaching and with the events of his life on earth. We understand the reason for his entrance into human history and his suffering, death and resurrection which won reconciliation of men with God. As we are about to celebrate the feast of the Lord's ascension into heaven, we might ask what this event signifies. In what way does it add to or complete the mystery of the redemption?

The Ascension is more than Jesus' final leave-taking from the disciples, but it includes this. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus appeared to his apostles and disciples on many occasions during a 40-day period after he rose from the dead. They were overjoyed and would have wanted these meetings to continue always. From this perspective, the Ascension terminated the time in which Jesus personally taught and directed his band of believers. This event inaugurated the time of the Church, when those he had chosen would take up the work for which he had prepared them. Jesus entered this world quietly in humility and poverty. His departure was a manifestation of majesty, divinity and power.

It was on this occasion that Our Lord gave his Church its missionary mandate to bring the Good News to every nation and to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As the awestruck apostles gazed heavenward, angels reassured them that Jesus would one day return to judge all mankind. In the Pentecost event, the Holy Spirit would be sent from the Father and the Son to move the Church to the fulfillment of its mission.

At the Last Supper Jesus told the apostles that He would soon return to the Father in order to prepare a place for them. It is clear that his invitation to life with God is universal, and our faith teaches us that in heaven Jesus continues his role as our mediator, interceding for us.

What is the meaning of the Ascension? It is a demonstration of the divinity of Jesus. It underscores the mission and trust which he reposed in his Church. It reinforces our hope for unending happiness with God and reminds us of God's loving care for us.

As the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" declares, "Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, proceeds us into the Father's glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever."

Volunteerism: Virtue and value

Volunteerism is an important part of the fiber of American communities and millions get involved but, for millions more, there doesn't seem to be enough time in the day to fulfill their desire to volunteer. American businesses, according to a recent Time magazine report, are now stepping in to help by offering employees paid time off to volunteer for causes of their choosing. The motivation isn't purely altruistic. In a tight labor market, employers offer this perk to keep valuable employees. And the work the volunteers do often reflects positively on the company's image in the community and with clients or customers.

Still, in a society that often seems focused on greed and excessive consumption, it is heartening to find that the spirit of volunteerism continues to burn fiercely within Americans and that both big and small businesses are willing to support it. Although company-sponsored volunteers often choose familiar volunteer pursuits, Time reports some innovative approaches as well. At one company, a long-time employee was given a six-month sabbatical to work with hospice patients and their families. In another, a woman trains assistance dogs for the disabled in her corporate office.

New Choices magazine reports on nonprofit organizations that provide opportunities for Americans to use vacation or retirement time to travel to different parts of the country or the world to do volunteer work. Tasks include working in national forests; teaching conversational English or assisting with health care in third world countries; and even working in archaeological digs. The magazine touts these as inexpensive vacations but volunteers work hard and accommodations may be below even the cheapest motel.

Many Catholics are accustomed to volunteering in their parishes, schools and dioceses. They also support programs, such as those preceding confirmation, that help to pass along the spirit of Christian service to the next generation. Many parishes and schools hold programs or events at this time of year to thank those who have served, and to remind us of the motive for our service - the love of Christ and his people.

In our parish organizations it is often the same people who volunteer year after year, and each one usually wears a number of volunteer hats. It is easier to ask current volunteers to take on additional roles than to seek new volunteers, but it is far better to increase the ranks with new people. Doing so helps avoid volunteer burnout and introduces more people to the joys - and challenges - of the apostolic service that marks the Church.

Limitations becoming obvious

The beleaguered Federal Bureau of Investigation has suffered yet another blow to its already damaged credibility and public image. After several high-profile botched investigations, such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory spy case and the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the post-sentencing revelation of new evidence in the conviction of Timothy McVeigh is shocking, even if not so surprising.

The McVeigh case was open and shut. He was guilty in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building which took the lives of 168 men, women and children. He even admitted the crime and wanted to be executed after his conviction.

The terrorist action was callous in its disregard of human life. Many homes have been broken apart as the survivors continue to mourn their loved ones' violent passing. It is the kind of evil that can make anyone, anywhere feel at risk.

The public, through statements reported in the press, was encouraged to view the case as one where the death penalty was justified. It was stated that even an opponent of the death penalty would support McVeigh's execution.

The revelation Saturday that 3,135 pages of FBI files were not made available to the defense, therefore, leaves those already mindful of the expanding jeopardy of the culture of death with clearer perceptions of the injustices of a society and a legal system corrupted by growing disregard for the truth about human life. It is ironic that this monstrous crime would be met with such a demonstrative case of the lack of integrity in the administration of justice.

This case illustrates the great difficulty with the application of the death penalty. One would have thought that such a public case would have every detail closely examined in the pursuit of justice. After all, not only was the life of an alleged criminal at stake, it is our society's responsibility to bring to justice the criminal or criminals who actually committed this crime against humanity. But what happened, in fact, is an illustration of what can and does happen in many cases with far less notoriety. And similar errors can be far more pertinent to the outcome and discovered much later than in this case where the government claims that the new evidence will not affect the sentence.

The traditional teaching of the Church, presented in the catechism, does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is necessary to defend human lives against unjust aggressors. But the state is to limit itself to non-lethal means, if they are sufficient to protect people's safety, because they are more in keeping with the common good and the dignity of the human person. Even a case like this one, which many consider to be so clearly supportive of the death penalty, illustrates why this limitation upon the use of the death penalty is sound in principle.

Simple answers to complex questions?

Either/or. Black or white. In our contemporary culture, it is becoming increasingly commonplace to discuss complex issues in simplistic ways, using extreme language. We mostly see it in politics, where those who urge fiscal restraint are portrayed as "cold-hearted" while those who urge social reform are portrayed as "spendthrifts." Oftentimes a more fair, reasoned assessment is required.

It is especially unfortunate when complex Church issues are discussed in simplistic ways. Such was the case in a recent news item covered by Catholic News Service. The story in question pertained to the new book, "Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice," and its survey and analysis of trends pertaining to young adults in the Church. And while it is unclear where the simplicity originated, it should stop here.

"A survey of young adult U.S. Catholics reported that they strongly prefer a personalized view of the faith instead of the rules of the institutional Church," the story begins.

There are your extremes: the loving, personal faith vs. the big, bad "institutional Church." Like butterflies and rainbows vs. Big Tobacco.

The problem with the assertion is its lack of context regarding what our Catholic faith is. We are a personal Church. We are an institutional Church. The two concepts need not be mutually exclusive. At our best, we are a personal Church that is institutional and an institutional Church that is personal.

The lead researcher for the survey, Dean R. Hoge of the Life Cycle Institute at The Catholic University of America in Washington noted in the story that young adults are more tentative in their affiliation with the Church because "[w]here many seek a church community, they often encounter one of hierarchy." Read: church community, good; hierarchy, bad.

The results of the survey suggest that the institution that is the Church is of little value; indeed, the institution - it is suggested - may indeed turn young adults away from the practice of the faith. These are, of course, the same young adults who in numbers upwards of 64 percent say "you can be a good Catholic without going to Mass." It obviously is not the "authority" of the institutional Church that is turning off our young adults. Could it be that such surveys promote a kind of catechesis-of-personal-opinion which is itself "at war" with the whole notion of inspired and authoritative teaching? Such surveys give compliant young adults few options for expressing a nuanced faith expression.

The Church is what it is - a "both/and" mystery in which the human and the divine are gracefully intertwined. Simplistic portrayals of what element of the faith wears the proverbial black hat are not helpful. We should reflect on these complex issues more carefully.

May pilgrims

This week the Holy Father continued the pilgrim journey that characterized the Holy Year 2000 as he fulfilled his desire to retrace St. Paul's path through Greece, Syria and Malta. It was a sojourn of thanksgiving, and prayerful meditation that sowed seeds for unity and reconciliation and broke through some barriers that have existed for too long.

May presents us fitting opportunities for our own pilgrimages, so expressive of the dynamic movement of faith in our lives. One journey should lead each of us toward our mothers on the occasion of Mothers' Day. If we are blessed to have our mother living and near us, we should spend time with her. If she is distant, a card or phone call may help to unite us with her. If our mother has died we should make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayerful intercession and thanks. Our Mothers' Day pilgrimage can be also a fitting time for reflection on the life we enjoy from our mother, thankful expressions of our affection, renewed honor to our mother and, if needs be, the mending of a hurt relationship.

May should include a pilgrimage to our Blessed Mother. We might make a trip to a local Marian shrine - to one of the more than 45 churches or shrines within the archdiocese that are dedicated to her under her titles or the mysteries of her life. Indeed, every one of our parishes has some niche or statue that focuses our devotion to Mary, our Blessed Mother. Mary herself is the first shrine, for in her God became present for our sakes. She is a living tabernacle in whom first dwelt the eucharistic Lord. She is the model of the interior life: He who dwelled in her by her maternity, dwells in us by baptism. May ends with the Feast of Mary's own pilgrimage to St. Elizabeth, the Visitation, May 31. Let us ask her prayerfully and with signs of devotion - a candle or flowers - to renew the seeds of faith in Christ within us, and if need be, to assist us in removing any stubborn obstacles to our growth in the spiritual life.

May can fittingly include a Memorial Day pilgrimage. Whether we are able to visit the grave of a loved one, or make a spiritual visit in prayerful intercession, these petitions, too, we can entrust to Mary the Queen of the poor souls and the saints.

As we make our pilgrimage in May, we can echo the Pope's words in Athens this week. With him we ask the Virgin Mary "to watch over the path we must now walk ... in order to fulfill with one another, in openness and enthusiasm, the mission that Christ has entrusted to his Church."

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