Today we celebrate a great and extremely interesting Saint, Mary Magdalene.  Maria_Magdalene_crucifixion_detail

A woman of considerable mystery and controversy, her exact identity is not clear.  Is she the same as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus?  Is she the unnamed sinner who anointed Christ’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair?  Was she a prostitute?

Her name brings to mind repentance, conversion, and liberation from evil.  One of the few clear statements about her in scripture says that she was exorcised of seven demons, and after that she followed Christ on His journeys.

We also know with certainty that she was present at the Crucifixion and that she was the first person to receive and announce the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection.  Dominicans regard her as a patroness of our Order, for she was the preacher to the preachers and the apostle to the apostles.

Even with such scarce evidence, we can conclude that St. Mary Magdalene had a remarkable and dramatic spiritual journey, a profound conversion.

While some might take umbrage with identifying her as a great sinner, the mention of her possession by seven demons suggests that for some period of time her life was far from saintly.  As a woman who has in the past has lived dangerously close to the demonic, I have long identified closely with St. Mary Magdalene.  When talking about my experiences with fellow Catholics, I have occasionally been met with appalled and scandalized responses, a very un-Catholic recoiling from my past as if it were still my present and my future, as if there were no such thing as repentance, conversion, and salvation of sinners.  And I have to admit that I am sometimes the most appalled of all, nearly tempted to doubt my own salvation.

But just as St. Mary Magdalene cannot be defined by her past errors, neither can I be, nor can anybody who turns their face to Christ and opens their heart to His saving grace!  The only sense in which we are defined by our past is that the great darkness which is behind us makes the transforming light of Christ gleam all the more radiantly!  Where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more, as St. Paul said.  And as St. Augustine said, every Saint has a past, and ever sinner has a future.  (Sts. Paul and Augustine should know very well, for they too are well-known as repentant and converted sinners.)

What greater grace could there be than to encounter the resurrected Christ in person?  And what greater future for a sinner than to announce that Good News for the first time in human history?  Those are the reasons we honor the great Saint, Mary Magdalene, and because she who was once Satan’s possession became Christ’s, preacher to the preachers, apostle to the apostles, and a glorious model of hope, repentance, and conversion for all of us sinners.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us!

Amidst the joy that I and so many people have felt at the election of Pope Francis, I have also encountered worry, alarm, even anger from some Catholics who are afraid that the Holy Father has been hostile toward the extraordinary form of the Mass and will reverse all of the liturgical decisions of Pope-emeritus Benedict.  You can read more at any number of other blogs.

I am a bit baffled by the whole thing.  I admit that it’s not entirely clear to me what the Holy Father’s stance is on the EF.  I’ve read that the attempt to implement it in Buenos Aires crashed and burned.  I don’t know if that can be blamed on the Holy Father.  Here are some things that do seem clear to me and give me reason not to be too concerned:

1.  He loves and respects Pope Emeritus Benedict.  At the very least, I can’t imagine him tossing Summorum Pontificum into the garbage.  I can’t imagine him disparaging or discouraging its implementation.  Its implementation may not be a priority for him.  He may not say Mass ad orientem or repeat everything that Benedict did.  That’s a far cry from destroying the liturgy.

2.  Something I have not seen yet in the discussions about liturgy is the fact that he served as bishop to Eastern Rite Catholics in Buenos Aires, as well as Latin Rite Catholics.  And apparently he is well-liked and respected by the Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch, who says, among other things:

I would first like to say that the newly elected Pope Francis was mentored by one of our priests, Stepan Chmil who is now buried in the basilica of St. Sophia in Rome. Today’s Pope, during his time as a student of the Salesian school, awoke many hours before his classmates to concelebrate at our Divine Liturgy with Fr. Stepan. He knows our Tradition very well, as well as our Liturgy.

If Pope Francis has a love and understanding of Eastern Divine Liturgy, surely he can’t be all that antagonistic toward the traditional Latin Rite liturgy.  It seems to me that anybody who hated the EF would not touch the Divine Liturgy with a ten-foot pole (nor would anybody want them to!).  Am I wrong?  Has anybody read or heard anything else about his relationship with the Eastern Catholics?

3.  The Holy Father seems pretty traditional to me overall.  He preaches about the devil, for crying out loud.  And that’s a good thing!  That’s something that the modern Church needs more than anything.

Mostly, I just think that we need to give him a chance to show us who he is… to not make any hasty judgments… and to not compare him with Pope Emeritus Benedict at every turn.  We have to know and respect him on his own terms.  To know him based on what we see him do and hear him say.

The name Francis likely reveals what will be the main themes of this papacy.  I’ve heard confirmations that the Holy Father chose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, as opposed to St. Francis Xavier or St. Francis de Sales.  However, all three of these great saints have important things in common: all three of them were great evangelizers, and all three pursued a mission of building, or re-building, the Church in very difficult times.

The image of St. Francis of Assisi has often been softened in modern times into some kind of medieval hippie.  But the truth is that he–like my father, St. Dominic–lived in a time when the Church was on crusade abroad, while falling to heresy and internal weakness and corruption at home. It is said that Christ Himself charged St. Francis to re-build His Church, which was falling into ruin, while Pope Innocent III had a dream in which he saw Francis physically holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran. St. Francis also ventured into the camp of the Sultan of Egypt near Damietta with the intent of either converting him or dying in the attempt. He kissed a leper and bore the wounds of crucifixion in his own body.  He had a boldness and toughness that he often doesn’t get credit for today.

St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits who studied with St. Ignatius of Loyola, was a fervent and fearless missionary to distant lands such as India and Japan–lands in which Christianity was pretty much unknown.  He is said to have converted more people to the faith than anybody since St. Paul.  He died just within reach of mainland China, which had been his ultimate goal.

St. Francis de Sales had close ties and working relationships with both the Jesuits and the Franciscans.  As the bishop of Geneva, he strove to re-convert and re-evangelize those around him who had left the Church for Calvinism.  His gentleness and intellect won many of them back.  He also served as a spiritual director to many, many Catholics from all walks of life to strengthen, reassure, and instruct them.  We are blessed that many of his letters and writings have survived; they are just as relevant as ever.  (In fact, I give St. Francis de Sales credit for helping me to come back to the Church.)

We are again living in very difficult times.  Traditionally Catholic and Christian nations are falling to radical secularism and so-called liberalism which is anything but liberal-minded.  The Church is imploding due to internal weakness, divisions, corruption, and scandal.  Generations of Catholics have been poorly formed and catechized and have all too easily drifted into the secular world or into other Christian communities or other religions.  Meanwhile, new generations of Catholics in places like Africa and Asia, as well as very ancient communities in the Middle East, are striving amid enormous adversities, often striving for their very lives and yet nonetheless thirsting for the Gospel and the Church, and longing for the love, support, guidance, and reassurance of their brethren and the Holy Father.

In short, traditionally Catholic and Christian lands are in dire need of re-evangelization and re-conversion, the Church is in need of re-building and re-forming from within, and Catholic communities both old and new in other parts of the world are in need of building up and support.  These processes have been begun by previous popes.  They have laid the framework and the kindling.  I believe our current pope, true to his namesake(s), is going to light it all on fire!

For myself, I can say that Pope Francis has already inspired me to greater humility, greater prayer and spirituality, and above all, greater simplicity and poverty of spirit.  All the good intentions I had for this Lent, all the disciplines, all the penances, have just been kicked up to the next level.  And believe it or not, this Jesuit with the name and heart of the great Saint Francises, has inspired me to live out more fully my Dominican spirituality.  Of course, Dominicans always have, and always will, play an important part in any form of evangelization and building up of the Church.  Dominicans, like Franciscans, are a mendicant order.  I think we may get back to those roots under the influence of Pope Francis.  And when the Dominicans get back to their roots–not only the spirit of poverty, but the very important roots of prayer, study, and preaching–great things are bound to happen!

As my sister St. Catherine of Siena said, “When you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire!”  I think Pope Francis is going to help all Catholics everywhere to be what we should be–disciples of Christ!  May it be so–amen.

White smoke drifting into the night sky:

white smoke

The world watches…

St Peter's Square

…21st-century style:

Crowd 2

The crowd goes wild:

Crowd

A moment of prayer:

pope francis bowing

The cardinals take in the crowd’s jubilation, and no doubt look forward to resting more easily:

cardinals

Pope FrancisHabemus Papam!  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires is now Pope Francis!

What a wonderful gift God and our cardinals have given to the Church today! Our new Holy Father seems like such a humble and gracious man.  I will never forget when he bowed and asked the people to pray for God’s blessing upon him, and the entire crowd fell silent and prayed, joined by the millions around the world who were watching via the media.  A beautiful, edifying, unifying moment.

I so look forward to getting to know our new Papa better and seeing and hearing more from him.  I feel we are in very good hands, and that he is going to move the Barque of St. Peter forward and reach out to the world.  A good leader for this age of the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith.

Pope Benedict farewell

With humility he came to the papacy, and with humility he left.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI bade farewell to the public world today.  I’m still taking it in.  The Church is pope-less for a time.  Sedes vacans.  While I was watching videos of his departure from Vatican City, I felt awe at the fact that I was witnessing such an historical moment.  I also felt a touch of sadness.  But I know Papa Benedict will be a great prayer-warrior for the Church and the world, and I am grateful for that.  I hope and pray that this gentle scholar–that is how I will always remember him most–will enjoy serenity and some refreshment for the rest of his days.  I hope he will continue to bless us with his writing as well.

At the same time, let us pray very hard for the cardinals who will be in the upcoming conclave.  As Papa Benedict himself said in his farewell address to them, the future pope is among them.  We must pray for their discernment, for their careful attention to the voice and motion of the Holy Spirit.  In addition to praying for the college of cardinals as a whole, perhaps you might want to adopt a cardinal and pray for him in particular.  I am praying for my adopted cardinal, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary.

What a way to start a Monday morning.

Like many people, I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that Pope Benedict XVI had decided to resign from the papacy.  Also like many, I felt a storm of conflicting emotions: gratitude to God for having given us so good a shepherd… sadness that his papacy had to be cut short… admiration of his humility and steadfastness… worry about his health and about who would succeed him as our holy father… but above all gratitude and love!

One thing is clear: we all know what we need to pray and fast for this Lent!  For the peace and much deserved rest for Pope Benedict… and for the cardinals who will be electing his successor, that they listen carefully to the Holy Spirit.

And now, here are some of my favorite photos of dear Papa Benedict!

pope-benedict-xvi

Pope Benedict blessing babies in the Holy Land

pope-benedict-praying-while-walking

Portrait of Pope Benedict XVI

Brace yourselves - Lent is comingIt’s a little hard to believe, but we are a mere three days from the beginning of Lent!  I feel somewhat fortunate that I’ve already begun thinking about it; in previous years, Ash Wednesday has completely caught me off guard.

Each year, I want to observe Lent better than I did before, and this year is no exception.  I’ve been thinking about how I wish to observe this season, how I wish to practice sacrifice and discipline, self-denial and self-giving.  I don’t want to be lax.  I don’t want to approach Easter with the least regret that I could have observed Lent more faithfully and deeply.  But each year has been better–this will be might eighth Lent since returning to the Church–and each year I have become more reacclimated to the rigors of this season.  I’m no longer quite the fledgling I was.  I feel this year will be very edifying.

One simple thing that I have found helpful and motivating is Father Jonathan Morris’s Lent Challenge, “A 46-day plan for spiritual growth in mind, body, and soul.”  For each of those three areas, mind, body, and soul, he encourages that we decide on one thing to give up and one thing to do.  He will share daily messages of encouragement via Twitter and Facebook.

I also found this quotation from Pope Benedict XIV in 1741:

The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.

This quotation speaks powerfully to me; as I’ve mentioned before, I respond to nothing more readily than to a call to arms.  I am best motivated to conduct my life well when I am reminded that how I conduct my life affects the world around me–when I remember that it’s not just about me.  It’s about what, and Whom, I stand for.  More than any other time of year, it is about carrying the Cross and following Christ toward Calvary, trembling in every footstep.  Not that we are not always called to do this, but this special season exists for our benefit, to focus us and make us stronger, to amend our lives.  It’s a special journey, a special march, a special campaign.

I pray that I might enter into this season with deep devotion and dedication, together with all Catholics.  Let us pray for each other!

(Picture source)

No matter how many prayers I pray, I always feel like I need to offer God more gratitude than I do.  It’s not so much that I am ungrateful (although that might be the case at times, sorry to say), as that He deserves so much gratitude!  Infinite gratitude, in fact.  And we are finite creatures.  Sometimes I even feel frustration at what I can or cannot express with words.

At times like that, the Psalms are a special blessing!  Whatever you are feeling, whatever inside you is yearning for expression, there is always a fitting Psalm.  Tonight, that Psalm for me was in Evening Prayer, Psalm 138:

Psalm 138
Thanksgiving

The kings of the earth will bring his glory and honor into the holy city (see Revelation 21:24).

I thank you, Lord, with all my heart,
you have heard the words of my mouth.
In the presence of the angels I will bless you.
I will adore before your holy temple.

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

All earth’s kings shall thank you
when they hear the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the Lord’s ways:
“How great is the glory of the Lord!”

The Lord is high yet he looks on the lowly
and the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of affliction
you give me life and frustrate my foes.

You stretch out your hand and save me,
your hand will do all things for me.
Your love, O Lord, is eternal,
discard not the work of your hands.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever. Amen.

When I began reading this Psalm tonight, my heart became light, as if a weight was literally being lifted from it.  I read the Liturgy of the Hours each day (at least Morning and Evening Prayer).  It is always instructive.  But occasionally, exactly the right Psalm comes up at exactly the right time.

The part that struck me most of all was the second stanza:

I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.

No matter how greatly I experience God’s faithfulness and love, I am always surprised and bewildered, in a good way. It often leaves me lost in wonder.  He excels, and then excels again, and excels once more, and on and on and on!  Just when you might think He could not lavish any more upon you, He does.  And He has given a great deal of much-needed strength to my soul.  And all the gratitude in the world is not enough for Him and His deeds!

Thank God for the Psalms.  There is always such depth in them.  Sometimes I pray them and may not even realize why I am so strongly affected by them.  The words are often very simple.  But the Psalms are more than their words.  Of course, we hold them to be divinely inspired.  I think they are imbued with the Holy Spirit’s own prayers, into which He elevates and transforms our humble and insufficient words and feelings and thoughts.

I say again, thank God for the Psalms!

 From NASA’s NuStar Project:

Is it not amazing what we can do these days?  Seriously, pinpointing black holes in a galaxy 7 million light-years away!  It wasn’t that long ago that scientists didn’t believe black holes really existed.  Just a strange quirk in the mathematics of relativity, perhaps.  And now they’ve even caught a glimpse of the black hole at the center of our own galaxy:

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St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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