My vision: Form disciples in 2016

Archbishop Aquila

As the calendar year begins we celebrate two important feasts, the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God and the Epiphany. With the first celebration, we see in the person of Mary what God can do if we follow him, while the second shows us that wise men from the East paid homage to Jesus. These two feasts have a theme in common that also resounds throughout the history of our salvation: God brings forth greatness from those who follow him with their whole being.

When I think and pray about what it is that God is calling me to do as the shepherd of the Archdiocese of Denver, I keep returning to the importance of helping every Catholic become a lifelong, authentic disciple of Jesus Christ.

Looking to 2016 and beyond, my vision for the Archdiocese of Denver is that it become a Church that is filled with men, women and children who have discovered the Father’s love for them in Jesus and the sacraments, who have become filled with the Holy Spirit, and who have allowed God the Father to claim them as his sons and daughters. It doesn’t stop there, though, because when a person falls in love, they cannot help tell others about their beloved. Authentic disciples seek to follow Christ in all things and share him with those who do not know him or have rejected him.

When I look at the Church in northern Colorado, I see many people who have been profoundly changed by Christ and become disciples. They do this not out of some kind of conviction to follow rules, but because they have experienced Jesus Christ’s limitless love for them, his healing, and the freedom that comes from sin no longer dominating their lives.

Even so, there are tens of thousands of Catholics in northern Colorado who are not disciples of Jesus. The reasons for this are numerous and can range from family experiences to the behavior of Church institutions or clergy, and everything in between.

In his Apostolic Letter “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis wrote about the importance of missionary discipleship and the Church developing and supporting this among the faithful.

“I dream,” he said, “of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (EG, 27).

Pope Francis is right. All too often, the Church focuses on maintaining the status quo because doing any more than that seems impossible. But we must remember, we believe in a God who does the impossible. As the Archangel Gabriel told Mary when he announced that she would conceive Jesus, “for nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Initiatives aimed at promoting discipleship in all dimensions of the archdiocese have already begun. However, in 2016 – the Year of Mercy, I ask that every parish, priest and deacon, family and individual examine how they are pursuing and supporting authentic discipleship.

In the Jewish tradition, boys became students of a rabbi after their Bar Mitzvah. For years, they would follow their rabbi to learn how to study the Scriptures and practice the faith. The degree of imitation was far greater than what you might think. If the rabbi wore his clothes a certain way or walked with a stoop, his disciples would follow suit. The goal was for the disciple to absorb the spiritual and moral gifts of their teacher that couldn’t be learned by merely studying books.

Christ asks us to follow him in a similar way by imitating him, trusting him, and leaning on him for the grace to accomplish what is otherwise impossible. When the rich young man met Jesus, he was told to sell his possessions and follow him. The disciples were shocked at Christ’s response. They said, “‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible’” (Mt. 19:25-26).

Becoming a disciple begins by responding to Jesus’ call to “Come follow me.” You will find him in the Scriptures, in the sacraments, in personal prayer, and in your every day interactions with others. Seek him with all your heart, grow in your love for the Gospels, and you will find him. Turn to him for healing and learn to trust him. Then, when Jesus calls you to follow him by taking a leap of some kind, you will answer as a disciple.

May God help us open our hearts to him this year and fill us with the courage to follow him wherever he leads!

For a deeper understanding of what it means to be a disciple, I recommend reading Sherry Weddell’s book, “Forming Intentional Disciples.”

COMING UP: Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

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Finding renewal in a grumbling stomach

Lent and the art of fasting

Aaron Lambert

One interesting thing about liturgical seasons in the Church is that despite the fact they happen at roughly the same time every year, they still manage to sneak up on us.

Lent begins in just a few days, on Ash Wednesday, which falls on Feb. 26 this year. Never mind that most of us are probably just now fully recovered from the craziness of the Christmas season; it’s now time to enter what is arguably the most important season in the liturgical year. Oh, and we’re supposed to be extremely prayerful, reverent and intentional in how we approach Lent. Given all the other things happening in each of our lives, no big deal, right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone in feeling just a bit overwhelmed at the thought. But let’s take it a step even further and add some icing to that cake in the form of fasting (no pun intended). Fasting is an ancient practice that pre-dates even Christianity and is common to nearly all religions of the world. In fact, the act of fasting is mentioned more times in the Bible than baptism. In recent times, much has been said about the physical benefits of fasting — weight loss, stronger immune system, more effective cell regeneration — but it’s important for us to remember that fasting is first and foremost a spiritual discipline, one that’s meant to spool the thread which connects us to our loving Creator.

Admittedly, the rules for fasting during Lent have loosened up over the centuries; it’s not a stretch to say that in the time of the apostles, fasting was a hardcore thing for disciples of Jesus Christ to do. You see, back then, fasting during Lent meant fasting for all 40 of those days leading up to the feast of Easter. While many of us may tremble at the thought of not eating anything of true sustenance for over five weeks, there is something to be said in the spirit of denying ourselves our usual pleasures during the Lenten season as a way to draw nearer to he who can provide true nourishment and satisfaction.

The act of fasting can help foster in us three characteristics that ultimately make Lent not only a penitential season, but also one of renewal.

The word “asceticism” comes from the Greek askesis, which means practice, bodily exercise and most especially athletic training. Essentially, it is the act of rigorous self-discipline and avoidance of overindulgence, with the aim of instilling in oneself a sense of self-control and virtue. In its most basic form, fasting is a type of asceticism; willingly denying ourselves the everyday comforts of life in an effort to unite our spirits more closely with that of Christ.

Of course, the practice of asceticism is counter-cultural in almost every way. We live in a world where our needs and desires are met on-demand, and to voluntarily abstain from one of these seems a preposterous proposition to the outsider. But it’s interesting, to bring back the Greek root of this word, to think of how the world’s best athletes implement this practice. Think of the intense training, strict dietary restrictions and long hours of work they put in the be the absolute best at what they do. Yes, it’s likely unbearably difficult at times, but they know deep down that their discomfort has a purpose.

Society tells us that suffering and discomfort are bad things to be avoided at all costs. But we as Christians look to the example of our Lord, who was willingly led to his death on Calvary, undertook unspeakable suffering and was made to feel like less than a man. Through his suffering mankind was redeemed, and because of his victory, we, too, can find redemption and renewal in our own trials. By practicing asceticism during Lent and giving up those things we find comfort in — sugar, Netflix, technology, or any other vice — we are not only reminded of the sacrifice Christ made for us, but we are strengthening the muscles of willpower and virtue that lead us closer to the Lord, and ultimately, true joy and peace.

“Humility is to the various virtues what the chain is in a rosary. Take away the chain and the beads are scattered; remove humility and all virtues vanish.”

St. John Vianney is quoted as saying this, and it’s a simple yet effective illustration of how all virtue flows from humility. To use a metaphor, if asceticism is what it is to, say, learn a new instrument, then humility is the marked improvement and mastery of that instrument over time.

By observing the Lenten fast, we are humbled rather quickly. Nothing makes us reflect on our own mortality and brokenness quite like the low grumble of a hungry stomach. And yet, by offering up this minute suffering during Lent and allowing the Lord to take it, it becomes apparent just how much we rely on him to not only provide the various provisions of our life, but also to provide meaning in our various sufferings. Mankind, for all its wonders and brilliance, cannot be sustained without the provisions of God.

From a more practical angle, there’s also no harm in fasting from food and technology to remind us of the many different walks of life people come from. It’s easy to take all the conveniences of our cozy lives for granted but Lent especially presents a great opportunity to remember those “least of us” who live in third-world countries, or even just down the street. Instead of buying two Big Macs for yourself for lunch, why not give one to the woman holding a sign at that intersection?

By maintaining a disposition of humility, we tap into the very core of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

So, through fasting, you have committed to a practice of asceticism for Lent, are reaping the benefits of staying humble, and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. Now what?

Ultimately, there is a profound freedom that comes from fasting. Father Richard Simon of Relevant Radio said in a May 2019 episode of his show Father Simon Says, “Fasting is an exercise in freedom. The purpose of it is to train your will to do God’s will. To train your will to obey the Lord. Freedom is the absolute requirement for the Christian life. Most people think that freedom is getting what they want, but they don’t understand that they don’t want what they want, it is their passions controlling them.

“It is their desires, their hungers, their preferences that want what they want when they want it,” he continued. “The self is not free. The self is subject to this sort of barrage off weakened human nature, but fasting is about freedom.”

True freedom, as defined by God, isn’t the ability to say “yes” to your own desires whenever you want — it is the discipline to say yes to the Lord’s desires for you. Therefore, as we go through the Lenten season and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter, we fast in remembrance of the perfect image of true freedom: Christ crucified on the Cross.

One of the lessons of the Lenten season is that we, too, are capable of achieving this freedom. By strengthening our will through the practice of fasting, we can grow in humility, from which all other virtue flows. In our humility, we find freedom to do the Lord’s will for our lives. And in that freedom, waiting with open arms, is the sweet renewal that our souls yearn for — renewal in the self-denying, humble and freely-given love of Christ.