Encounter the Risen Jesus: Week 7

It’s Week 7 of Encounter the Risen Jesus! Visit archden.org/easter2021 to watch the reflection and follow along with the prayer guide over the coming weeks.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! 

Brothers and Sisters, 

A very blessed Easter! Look inside the tomb with Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, and recognize that the greatest news the world has ever heard is astonishingly true: He is not there! He is risen, as he said! Let your hearts be gripped with this incredible proclamation: he has conquered sin and death. Our Lord has descended into the very hell of all that would seek to enslave us and has triumphantly risen from those places, bringing us life and life abundantly. 

We are witnesses of a reality that should cause us to tremble in awe and wonder; Christ has risen, and he wants to extend the grace of this resurrection to all. “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life.” (1 Cor 15:20, 22) 
I write you this letter to introduce the Encounter the Risen Jesus resource. Over the past eighteen months, as I have prayed on our desire to set up the archdiocese for a time of apostolic mission, I have been convicted that Jesus’ remarks to the apostles at the Last Supper in John 14-17 are foundational Scripture passages for how we think about mission. I created this resource as a way of praying with these chapters, and a few others, because I want all the faithful to allow the Word of God to shape our minds and hearts. This guide is intended to help with that by inviting all to focus twenty minutes of prayer every day for a week on each of these chapters, with additional reflections on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24), the gift of the Eucharist (John 6), and the Ascension/Pentecost (Acts 1-2).  

This resource becomes even more timely as I and the bishops of Colorado have prayerfully discerned that Pentecost, May 23, is the right time to restore the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days for the faithful who lack a serious reason which would prevent them from attending in person.  Providentially, just as we are being led back to this invitation from God to encounter him at least weekly in the Mass, my prayer had also been moved to specifically highlight the essential role the Eucharist plays in the life and mission of the Church in this guide. Let us also pray for those who may have become distanced from the Church during this pandemic, and how the Holy Spirit might use us to help bring them home. 

Many of you already joined me in our three invitations this Lent: to encounter the lens of the Gospel, to pray and fast for renewal in the Archdiocese of Denver, and to form our consciences, and I thank you for your participation. I consider this resource to be the follow-up, “part two” of my pastoral note, Our Apostolic Moment (archden.org/our-apostolic-moment), that issued those invitations. As I wrote there, I believe the critical question in front of us right now is, “How do we build an archdiocesan culture that is set up for and focused on a time of apostolic mission?” I sense deeply that the whole people of God in northern Colorado are being sent on mission to compellingly proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

Mission is a calling in every baptized Catholic’s life; none of us are excused from this preeminent priority of the Church. It is why she exists. Before strategic deliberations or practical considerations, mission is first about a spiritual conversion, a new way of seeing. Without the new vision this fresh encounter brings, no going out will be possible. Mission begins first with our encounter with God, an intimate relationship and friendship with Jesus Christ. From this relationship springs a profound realization that the deepest truth of who we are, our very identity, is that we are first beloved sons and daughters of the Father. From this place of awareness of our own “beloved-ness,” we are then capable of joyfully going on mission.  

Some have used a helpful acronym to remember this truth: R.I.M. – Relationship, Identity, Mission. This progression is the driving vision behind this guide. It is meant to assist you in coming to a more intimate relationship with Christ this Easter season so that you are confirmed in your identity in the Father and are prepared to go on mission to engage the minds and hearts of every soul that resides in northern Colorado.   

Here is how I would like you to use your guide and what I invite you to this Easter season. As your archbishop, I ask that you take twenty minutes each day, either during your regular prayer time or at an additional time, and open your hearts to what God is saying to you in Scripture. If you have not been in the habit of taking a daily time for personal prayer, this would be an excellent opportunity to begin! You may join me in doing this by focusing on passages of the New Testament that I believe contain wisdom that God wants to speak to our local Church at this time. To assist us, we will be utilizing the ancient method of lectio divina, which offers a simple structure for praying with Scripture. Lectio will help each of us hear the Lord address us personally through praying with the Word of God.  

I am recommending only one chapter a week because I want you to pace yourselves. The repetition of praying with only one chapter each day will give space for us to really “chew” on each passage, pondering the insights contained therein and letting them change our minds and hearts. Lectio divina is not so much about “getting somewhere.” It is about being quiet to go deeper into the heart of Christ; it is a way of listening closely to the still, small voice of God present in Scripture.   

Thank you for journeying with me on this Easter season through this Encounter the Risen Jesus. I will be praying that he reveals himself to you in a new and life-changing way.  

God bless you this Easter season, 
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.