A vital, vibrant local Church

Two weeks ago, the archdiocese lost two of its parishes - St. Catherine of Siena in Pagedale and St. Mary in Bridgeton. By now, parishioners of these two venerable parishes are worshiping at any one of a number of nearby parishes. Their transition to life in a new parish setting has begun.

Though the parishioners' loss should in no way be minimized - after all, one's parish provides a sense of identity; important personal events take place within our parishes - it should be noted that it is a testimony to our Church's vitality that we move forward in confident hope.

The parishes of St. Catherine and St. Mary both were located in St. Louis County. With their closures, there remain 90 parishes in St. Louis County offering more than 380 Holy Masses every weekend.

In the entire archdiocese - which covers just 10 counties plus the City of St. Louis - the priests in our approximately 220 parishes celebrate more than 830 Masses each weekend. In some parishes, the eucharistic sacrifice is celebrated in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Croatian, Polish or Latin. Hundreds of thousands in the Archdiocese of St. Louis worship together each Sunday. Our local Church is vital and vibrant!

Archbishop Justin Rigali has spoken and written fervently about the challenges we face. We need our families to encourage their children to pursue vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We need, always, to increase our commitment to our faith. We must foster both a zeal for the faith and a genuine piety that helps build God's kingdom on earth.

The Church likewise gives us opportunities to celebrate and display our vitality. Next weekend's Eucharistic Congress at the Dome at America's Center is one such opportunity. Tens of thousands of Catholics are expected for the two-day celebration. At least 30,000 already have received free tickets to attend the Mass on June 16 at the Dome. Even if you do not have a ticket, the archdiocese wants you to join in the celebration. (More information is available at www.archstl.org/congress/.) As an archdiocesan family, let us worship our Lord together in vibrancy and vitality!

Summer places, new faces, one goal

For many of us, these early days of summer are a time of transition. Many students finish up the school year. Some get summer jobs, others attend camps and still others - our graduates - begin new adventures of work or additional schooling. Our hard-working school teachers, school administrators and school support staff get a welcome break. To all students, teachers, staff: Congratulations and have a safe and happy summer.

In these early days of summer, families prepare for vacations and we all get ready for the heavy heat of the St. Louis summer. Some among us will be hit hard by the heat when air conditioners fail (or are not available). The generosity of each of us can help those in need. Our parishes are also active these days. Confirmations are over but parish graduation Masses abound, marriages seem to happen nearly every Saturday and the parish picnic is near! What wonderful busy days!

In a special way, these days are a time of change for our priests and deacons. Ordinations traditionally take place in late spring. Just this week, a new class of permanent deacons will be ordained by Archbishop Justin Rigali. Many priests and deacons from throughout the archdiocese will receive new assignments. They will arrive to new places and see new faces and leave beloved places where they made close ties. Pray for them and welcome them.

There is much to do this summer - including the Eucharistic Congress next weekend! In all that we do, we should integrate the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through prayer, fasting, acts of mercy and constant personal renewal through the sacraments, we can sanctify our daily lives to Jesus. This goal, not easy but achievable, is one to which we all should strive. It is our summer goal.

Living together puts marriage at risk

The material extravagance characterizing marriage celebrations in our culture is a serious problem when it causes the engaged couple to disregard the centrality of the ceremony itself, and more importantly, the sacrament itself. However, the materialism here is a symptom of a larger and much more significant problem: a deteriorating respect for the marital commitment and the married way of life. This is not a profound insight if we look at how so-called same-sex unions have been legally equated with marriage in several states and if we look at the divorce rate, the commonality of no-fault divorce and the number of couples living together before marriage. All of these "signs of the times" pose an especially thorny challenge for the Church, which must continue to shed both catechetical and pastoral light on the grave repercussions of marital disrepair. To help bishops and priests provide authentic leadership on marriage preparation and responsibilities, the Pontifical Council for the Family published, in November 2000, a pastoral guide on the "Family, Marriage and 'De Facto Unions.'"

The document concerns itself particularly with couples who live together before marriage and how "cohabitation" erodes "the natural institution of marriage which is absolutely vital, basic and necessary for the whole social body" (3). Even recent social science research now tells us that cohabitation causes relational instability and lacks the irrevocable commitment needed for truly responsible procreation, and for the difficult tasks of moral formation and education basic to child-rearing.

Moreover, a large body of secular social science data suggests that solid, clear and unequivocal pastoral leadership is especially crucial when preparing these couples for marriage. In fact, they are the largest "at risk" group entering the marriage covenant today.

In 1997, the total number of unmarried couples in America topped 4 million, up from less than a half million in 1960. Couples living together typically constitute between 30 percent and 80 percent of couples presenting themselves to Catholic parishes for marriage preparation. Contrary to earlier popular belief, living together does not increase a couple's chances for a successful marriage. Cohabiting couples who marry have a divorce rate that is 46 percent to 50 percent higher than non-cohabiting couples.

"Living together" puts marriage at risk. And so, responsible, candid, realistic and forthright marriage preparation is needed to address these risk factors. Our bishops and priests and others involved in this process must persevere in providing such pastoral responsiveness. The key to success here is a decision to not ignore the serious risks the cohabiting couple brings upon themselves. We cannot silently agree not to notice, and we must provide a more intensive preparation for couples who have chosen to approach the Church for marriage while maintaining the cohabiting arrangement. That's not a matter of merely making them jump through hoops. It does, in fact, require a conscientious, prayerful effort to get to the heart of the demands and dignity of a free, mutual, exclusive, chaste, life-long commitment within the Church that is open to God and his direction.

In his 1981 apostolic exhortation "Familiaris Consortio," Pope John Paul II recognizes some of the common factors and reasons leading to cohabitation. He then gives directions on how to respond to such situations. He says, "de facto free unions include difficult economic, cultural or religious situations, extreme ignorance, or poverty and a certain psychological immaturity that makes couples afraid to enter a permanent union." He continues, "The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation."

Such communication, such teaching, such witness, such leadership cannot be easily managed without tension and difficulty especially if we consider the current moral decadence of the culture. But it is a witness imperative to the protection of human personality and the social good.

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.

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