Our Apostolic Moment: Archbishop Aquila issues Lenten pastoral note to the faithful of Denver

STARTING ASH WEDNESDAY: Join Archbishop Aquila in praying a 54-day Rosary novena for a renewal of mission in the Archdiocese of Denver, ending on Divine Mercy Sunday (April 11). To learn how to pray a 54-day Rosary novena, click here.

As the Church prepares to enter into the season of Lent next week, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has issued a Lenten pastoral note to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver renewing the call for discipleship and mission in a world that has increasingly rejected the message of the Gospel. 

Entitled “Our Apostolic Moment,” the note serves as an important pastoral reflection on the changing times we live in, times that can most appropriately be called a “post-Christian” world. In the note, Archbishop Aquila invites all Catholics in the archdiocese to engage in three intentional Lenten practices that will better equip them to live in this “apostolic age.” 

Since his Ad Limina visit with Pope Francis at the beginning of last year, Archbishop Aquila has been in fervent conversation with the Lord about the mission of the Archdiocese of Denver, seeking the answer to the question: what are we as Christians called to bring to these troubled times? Throughout the many challenges of 2020, it became more and more evident to the archbishop that the answer is, and will always be, Jesus Christ.

This pastoral note is the fruit of deep prayer and is borne out of a conviction by Archbishop Aquila that, in this move from a Christendom to an apostolic time, building a culture of mission, focused on compellingly proclaiming the message of the Gospel, is where the Lord is calling him to lead the faithful of the archdiocese as their shepherd. 

It is both a rallying cry for those Catholics who have become discouraged in their faith, and a call of hope and support for those Catholics who have been clinging to Christ throughout the pandemic and the social unrest of the past year, inviting them to join the archbishop and all faithful of the archdiocese to build a culture of mission together. 

Below, Archbishop Aquila answers a few questions about his pastoral note. Read it in full at archden.org/our-apostolic-moment.

What is the goal of this letter?
Archbishop Aquila: We live in an incredibly confusing time for many faithful Catholics. I wrote this letter to bring clarity to the moment we are in and to provide a clear direction forward. All of our efforts to walk forward in faith must be rooted in an encounter with Christ as the unshakeable foundation for building a culture of apostolic mission in the Archdiocese of Denver. The three invitations I offer in the letter are, for me, key first steps in coming back to the primacy of that encounter and the Gospel. 

Why write this letter now?
Archbishop Aquila: The confluence of world, political and Church events, coupled with the shift from a Christian culture to a secular culture, has made it clear to me that we are in a unique moment in history. This Lent, I could not miss an opportunity to speak clearly to the faithful of the archdiocese about what I have received in prayer. I am hearing from many faithful who are deeply confused by the moment we are in; in prayer, I believe that the need to proclaim a clear purpose for us this Lenten season was urgent and could not wait. 

Who is this letter for?
Archbishop Aquila: The primary audience for this letter is those who live in the Archdiocese of Denver, since it is the portion of the flock God has entrusted to me, but anyone who has a desire to walk with us is welcome to participate in preparing for the apostolic age we are living in.   

In a particular way, I feel a unique responsibility and burden to speak to those faithful who have been clinging to Christ throughout the pandemic and the social unrest of the past year, to call them to not lose hope and to join me in building this culture of mission together keeping the eyes of our hearts fixed on Jesus Christ. 

Read the pastoral note in full at archden.org/our-apostolic-moment.

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.