Saintly inspiration for new beginnings

It’s not that often that bishops are able to announce the kind of good news I am about to share with you. As I write this column, the archdiocese is beginning the process of opening two new parishes in the Denver metro area in response to our growing population.

For some of you this isn’t news, since you are a part of the two communities – one in Thornton and one in Green Valley Ranch – that have come together to form the foundation for these future parishes. I am inspired to see the number of young families and faithful men and women who have committed to become a part of these new communities.

Before I reveal the names I have chosen, it’s important to explain some Church terminology that describes the phases of forming a parish. On December 3, 2017, these two communities will be designated as a “quasi-parish.” Prior to receiving this status, they were satellite locations of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish and Ascension Parish.

With their designation as quasi-parishes, these communities will now have their own patron saints, statutes, pastoral and finance councils, keep their own sacramental records, and have an established territory within the archdiocese. Once these quasi-parishes are incorporated and demonstrate that they can sustain themselves, they will be recognized as parishes.

I have been praying for quite some time about what these two new locations should be named. As I brought this decision before the Lord, the importance of renewing family life and evangelization kept echoing in my heart, and so I have chosen two recent saints who exemplify those missions.

This coming August, the Church will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993. Many observers have commented that this was a spiritual turning point for the Church in the United States. And certainly, it was a turning point for the Church in northern Colorado. During his visit, St. John Paul II challenged us to become saints, and for many, he became a father figure who was also their spiritual hero. Countless marriages, and priestly and religious vocations were born during those summer days in Cherry Creek State Park, and 25 years later we continue to see new apostolates created as a result of his leadership and love.

Not only did St. John Paul II inspire many people to take up the demands of the Gospel with joy and zeal, but he also gave the Church the gift of the Theology of the Body. As forces within our society work to dismantle the blessing, meaning and purpose of sexuality, the treasure that St. John Paul II gave us in the Theology of the Body increasingly reveals its value.

For these reasons, I have decided to name the quasi-parish in Thornton, “St. John Paul II.” The community that has been meeting for the last several months has gathered at Frasatti Catholic Academy and the archdiocese is working to purchase land in the vicinity to provide a site for the parish church.

As I mentioned earlier, the state of the family has been in my prayers, too. A couple years ago I came across some love letters that were written between an engaged Italian couple during World War II. That couple was St. Gianna Molla and her husband Pietro.

St. Gianna Molla was a doctor with a generous heart for the poor and a desire to share her faith. At one point, she even planned to join her priest brother in Brazil as a missionary, but her family’s concerns about her delicate health and the primitive conditions there dissuaded her. Since she couldn’t be a missionary, she focused her intense love for God and the poor on family life and the practice of medicine.

In reading the letters that St. Gianna and Pietro Molla exchanged, their love for God and each other is evident. She wrote to Pietro, “I really want to make you happy and be what you desire: good, understanding, and ready for the sacrifices that life will require of us.” Pietro responded, “I’ve read your letter over and over, and kissed it. A new life is beginning for me: the life of your great (and greatly desired) affections and of your radiant goodness.” Their love for each other was fed by their faith, which was often mentioned in their letters. Their spiritual depth was also apparent in their decision to prepare for their wedding by attending a “triduum” of Masses over the three days before their vows.

Besides her love for the faith, St. Gianna is best known for how she lived her final days. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, who would be named Gianna Emanuela, she learned that she had a benign tumor on her uterus. This condition was treated at the time by aborting the baby and removing the tumor. However, Gianna steadfastly refused an abortion and had only the tumor removed, knowing that the risk of a stitch becoming infected or breaking from being pregnant was quite high. She gave birth on Holy Saturday, but a few hours later she came down with a septic infection. St. Gianna died four days later at her home.

Because of her love for her family, devotion to the faith, and protection of innocent human life, I have decided to name the second new quasi-parish “St. Gianna Molla.” This community has been celebrating Mass at Omar D. Blair Charter School in Green Valley Ranch.

As the Church works toward establishing a permanent presence in these locations, I urge everyone in the archdiocese to pray for these communities, that they might imitate their patrons and continue to grow. I also encourage you to learn more about these amazing saints, who offer us examples that are especially relevant for our society today. Saints John Paul II and Gianna Molla, pray for us!

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.