Ahead of bishops’ meeting, we need your prayer and fasting

Archbishop Aquila

Since ancient times, people have used the stars to navigate through the expanse of the sea or over unknown terrain.  As the bishops of the United States prepare to address the difficult topic of clergy sex abuse at our annual meeting in two weeks, I invite all Catholics to join us in praying and fasting that our deliberations will be guided by Christ, the light that shines forth in the darkness.

Some of you might know the story of Steven Callahan, a naval architect and sailor who survived 76 days floating across the Atlantic Ocean after his boat was damaged beyond repair in a storm. During his ordeal, he used the stars to determine where he was to navigate toward land, while also using his survival skills to obtain food and water. His story is one of courage, creativity and perseverance in the face of very long odds.

During these difficult times the Church is enduring because of the abuse crisis, my fellow bishops and I, as well as all believers, need similar virtues. Most importantly, we must orient ourselves toward the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. He is our hope, our anchor and sure refuge in the storm. We must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and fidelity to Christ and his Gospel.

For that reason, we bishops are devoting ourselves to seven days of prayer and fasting between Nov. 5 and 11, in anticipation of our annual fall bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. These two forms of penance allow us to draw closer to Christ, seek conversion and in a small way make reparation for the evil that has been committed.

In the Scriptures, Jesus explained that prayer and fasting were necessary to drive out a deaf and mute spirit that the disciples could not cast out (Mk. 9:29). Similarly, these acts of penance will help provide the spiritual groundwork for the Spirit of Truth to prevail at our meeting.

I have already invited the priests of the archdiocese to join Bishop Rodriguez and I in fasting and praying for the upcoming meeting during these specific days, but I want to also extend the same invitation to all the faithful of the archdiocese.

There are three specific intentions that I ask you to join us in praying for: for the healing and support of all victims and survivors of clergy abuse; for the conversion and just punishment of the perpetrators and concealers of clergy abuse; and for the Holy Spirit to guide all the bishops in responding to the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse in the Church.

Much like a person who is lost at sea and longing for rescue, every Catholic should ask God for the gifts of hope and gratitude to carry us to safe harbor. We should cultivate those virtues by giving thanks for the fact that Jesus remains with us in this trial through the sacraments and by recalling that despite fallible bishops, priests and lay people, the Good News that Jesus died and rose to save us from our sins is still true.

When he celebrated Mass for the Feast of All Souls last week, Pope Francis described the outlook that I pray will be yours and mine. “May we never lose hope,” he said, “always contemplating the horizon, always looking ahead. May God grant us the grace to recognize the lights that accompany us to where he awaits us with so much love.”

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.