Prayer for the Heart of a Child

Here is a beautiful prayer I came across today by Leonce de Grandmaison, a French Jesuit who died in 1927:

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
preserve in me the heart of a child,
pure and transparent as a spring.
Obtain for me a simple heart
That does not brood over sorrows;
A heart generous in giving itself,
Quick to feel compassion;
A faithful, generous heart
that forgets no favor
and holds no grudge.
Give me a humble, gentle heart
Loving without asking any return;
A great indomitable heart
That no ingratitude can close,
No indifference can weary;
A heart tortured by its desire
for the glory of Jesus Christ:
Pierced by His love
With a wound that will heal
only in heaven.



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Un-possessing Possession at the Well

A woman came. She is a symbol of the Church not yet made righteous. Righteousness follows from the conversation. She came in ignorance, she found Christ, and he enters into conversation with her.

Thus St. Augustine starts his commentary on the woman at the well, the episode from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel that the Church reads on the Third Sunday of Lent.  He connects the woman at the well to the Church, a Church that is sinful, in need of conversion, and finds conversion in conversation with Christ.

In the Old Testament, wells were places of meeting, places where men met women: where Jacob met his wife Rachel, where Moses met his wife Zipporah.  The image in the Gospel makes us think of romance, of a place where a husband goes to meet his wife.  Then, why would Jesus go to a well to meet a woman? And quite the woman at that–as we will see.

William Dyce The Meeting of Jacob and RachelJacob meets Rachel at a well

The Scripture describes Jesus as the Spouse of the Church, and the Church as the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5).  And so, St John, writing his Gospel with the Old Testament images in the back of his mind, sets the scene for the meeting of Christ with this nameless woman, who St. Augustine and the whole tradition of the Church sees as the Church.

What the Gospel describes is a process, a process of conversion and the method that Jesus uses to take this woman–and all of us who would see ourselves in this woman–from sin to grace, from disgrace to mission.  The woman goes at the hottest time of the day to get her water; Jesus meets her there at noon.  She is surprised to see anyone there at that time, let alone a Jew who would not speak to (1) a woman; (2) a Samaritan, and definitely would not want to share a bucket with her.  We think of another Gospel, when the Pharisees complain: “If this man were truly a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is…”

And what kind of woman was the woman at the well?  Why did she have to come all alone to get her water?

Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband and come back.”

The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.”

Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’  For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true.”

Christ had first asked this woman for a drink of water, meeting her at the well at the hottest time of the day.  When she expressed surprise at this, He surprised her further by telling her that she should be the one asking him for water, that He had water to give that would quench her thirst.  And now, we find what thirst Jesus was really referring to: what she had been looking for in all those men, Christ was willing to give her.


What did Jesus have to give that the five husbands and the man she was currently living with could not give her?  Jesus had living water, the Holy Spirit (John 7:38) who is the love of God poured out into our hearts (Romans 5:5).  The heart is made for love, and often is frustrated with the fact that every time we try to grasp love, to hold onto it, to possess it, love escapes us–like water running through our fingers.  But if there were a water that did not leave us thirsty again, a love that didn’t run out, a relationship that didn’t leave me disappointed…

Christ wants to teach us how to love.  As a beautiful song by Rich Mullins says, “We didn’t know what love was till He came.”  But what He teaches us seems so paradoxical: You don’t get this love by holding on to people or things or feelings or pleasures.  That will only leave you thirsting for more.  When the feelings die or the person disappoints us, we will be left with empty hands.  The only way to gain life is to lose it, and the only way to possess love is by not possessing other people.

Everyone who drinks this water [love as possession] will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give [un-possesing possession] will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:14)

What is this un-possessing possession?  The Church’s tradition calls it “virginity”.  This might seem like a strange word to use, especially when the situation of the woman at the will is more or less the norm in Western society.  But what Jesus was proposing to the woman at the well was precisely virginity, a new way of relating to people that Christ wants to introduce into our lives.

Virginity is called an “evangelical counsel”, meaning a way of life that Christ proposes (counsel) in the Gospel (evangelical) for those who would be “perfect”.  There are some in the Church who live virginity as a way of life in a physical way, by not getting married, in order to remind the whole Church of our call to live a spiritual virginity. By using the word “spiritual” though, that does not mean it is less real.  In fact, the opposite is the case: a physical virginity without spiritual virginity would only make us “old maids”–as Pope Francis said to religious sisters.

Virginity is the call of the whole Church.  The Church is at once the casta meretrix (the chaste prostitute) and the virgin mother.  Everyone can measure his or her belonging to Christ, and therefore his or her belonging to the Church by the strength of their spiritual virginity.  That would make for interesting dinner conversation, wouldn’t it?  “How is your spiritual virginity going these days?”

But it is this spiritual virginity that makes us free: free to love even if others don’t love us back; free to keep reaching out to those for whom we do not have a natural affection; free to learn from our mistakes and to do what is right no matter what people might say.

Two simple examples from the Gospel:

The disciples are shocked to see Jesus speaking alone with a woman, something unspeakable in the culture of the time.  But Jesus shows precisely that He is more free than they are.  While not over-estimating our own abilities (I am not recommending married men to spend time alone with other married, or un-married women), we pray for the freedom that Jesus has, His un-possessing love.

The woman who had to go alone to the well, outcast and ashamed in her small Samaritan village, now goes back to her town to tell everyone about this man she met.  The people in the town had not changed.  They probably thought, “What does she think she is doing?” But she had changed, and is not “ruled” by what other people think or say about her.  She has learned a new way of relating to people.

Virginity, then, at the invitation of Jesus, is what we must strive for in all of our relationships.  It is not something only physical or emotional, but a spiritual reality.  It applies not only to romantic relationships, but to friendships and to any human relationships.  Virginity is the new way of “possessing” others, precisely by not possessing them.

Here is the logic of Christ and the lesson of the well: to gain life, we must lose it; to gain love, we must not try to grasp it.  And Christ’s promise is that this type of love, this type of relating will not make us cold, will not make us old-maids, but will allow the flame of love to reach ever-higher…to God Himself!

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That We May Rejoice to Behold Your Glory

One of my professors, Michelina Tenace (affectionately known as Tenacious M) mentioned in class the other day that the “final exam” that a monk must take to become an iconographer in the Eastern Christian tradition is to depict the Transfiguration of the Lord.  The reason being that all the glory that must be depicted (or written, as they say of icons) comes from the light with which Christ shone on Mount Tabor.


The gold background of any icon is the light of glory, which radiates from the body of Christ and from the bodies of the saints who belong to Christ.  In the Western tradition, whose images and statues are often more “realistic” than the Eastern icons, this glory is still visible in the halos that surround the head of Christ and the Saints, or in the gold that highlights the clothes of our Lord or His Blessed Mother.

A few years ago, a woman told me that she didn’t like a particular Crucifix because Jesus’ clothing had touches of gold in it.  The golden element made the Crucifix seem less “realistic”, because Christ was a poor man and would not have worn such ornate clothing.  But what the Transfiguration teaches us is precisely the “reality” behind, or rather in, the earthly life and destiny of Jesus Christ.  St John understands this well, when he describes the Cross as Christ’s “glory”.  It is the eternal love of God that is glorious, and this eternal love shines in everything that Christ did and suffered for us.

And so we read the Gospel account of the Transfiguration every year on the Second Sunday of Lent.  This may seem odd to us that Lent would shine with a glory that “rightly” belongs to Easter.  But we are able to “bear our share of hardship for the gospel” not because Lent is about our efforts by which we would prove ourselves to God or to others.  We carry the Cross with Jesus during Lent “with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1:8).

It is this strength that accompanied Jesus throughout His whole life, ever since the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary.  At certain moments in Christ’s life, this glorious strength flashed out, for our benefit; precisely after Christ is transfigured in today’s Gospel, He makes a prediction about the horrible death He will have to endure.  The glimpse of Christ’s glory provides a firm place for us to grasp when the darkness and difficulties of life seem to overwhelm us.  In fact, the spiritual tradition of the Church will describe this darkness as an abundance of light that blinds us, similar to when we walk out of a dark room into the bright sunshine.


The glorious light of Tabor, though, is not something that wants to remain outside of us, a strength that is purely an “example”, good for Jesus and encouraging for us.  In fact, the light of Mount Tabor is not a “something” at all. The light of Mount Tabor is Someone, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, that is, the Holy Spirit.

The collect for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Roman Rite prays:

O God, who have commanded us to listen to your beloved Son, be pleased, we pray, to nourish us inwardly by your word, that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ…

To be nourished by God’s word, to have our spiritual sight purified, to rejoice in beholding God’s glory–this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  The light in which Christ is bathed on Mount Tabor does not come from outside of Him; rather, it bursts forth from within Him in whom God’s Spirit dwells “without measure” (John 3:34).  This same light made it possible for the disciples Peter, James, and John to see Christ’s glorious Transfiguration.  The Fathers of the Church–especially the Eastern Fathers, who celebrated the Transfiguration as a feast since the 4th century–are adamant that the light of Mount Tabor was not a physical light at all.  Peter, James, and John are not just lucky because they saw something that we didn’t see.  It is not a light that can be videotaped, or put into tents, like Peter wants to do.

There is a relationship, though, between the light that radiates outward from Jesus and the light that allows the disciples to see Christ’s light.  The relationship is the Holy Spirit, which also works in those of us who belong to Jesus, who makes it possible to see Jesus and therefore to be transfigured like Him, into Him.  Let’s listen to St. John and St Paul:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthian 3:18)

The Fathers of the Church and the whole Eastern Church speak about this reality as divinization, a word that even my spellcheck will not accept (it keeps wanting to turn it into “divination”).  It is not a word we are  familiar with in the West.  Peccato, as they say in Italian: a sin, a shame that we do not know the word.  Because it is the whole reason why God became man, why God created us in the first place.  In the famous phrase: “God became man, so that men might become gods.” (St. Athansius, St. Augustine, and many others)  That is Catholic theology, my friends.

Divinization takes place in the light of Mount Tabor, that is to say, in the Holy Spirit, who wants to dwell in us so as to profoundly change and transfigure us.  This does not mean that we will skip over suffering and death, anymore than Christ avoided suffering and death after His Transfiguration.  It means rather that like Abraham, “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you” (Genesis 12:4).  God does not just want to bless you and me; He wants to make you and me a blessing.


That is why the iconographer has to show that he can depict the Transfiguration before he becomes a “master”.  He must understand that it is only in light of the Holy Spirit that anyone or anything can be holy.  Yet, he must write icons–of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of the Saints–precisely because this is the goal of our human life, which the iconographer holds up to the world: “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesian 5:8).

The goal of human life is not just to be blessed, but to become a blessing…to become an icon.

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The Two Adams

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
         Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
This part of the poem “To God my God in my Sickness” by John Donne (1572-1631) speaks well to the drama that we encounter in this time of Lent, to which the Church’s readings for the First Sunday of Lent draw our attention.  This is the Sunday of the Temptation of the Lord after his 40-day fast, and of the victory over temptation and the devil that is our hope.  St. Augustine encourages us, “See yourself as tempted in him, and see yourself as victorious in him.”
Donne’s poem draws our attention to the ancient idea that Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which Adam and Eve ate) stood in the same place.  Another idea is that the wood of the Cross was somehow connected to the wood of Adam’s tree: that the same tree, or its seed, was eventually cut down to make the wood of Christ’s Cross.
The “one place” where Adam and Christ stand are in the end the human nature, which God formed from dust and the breathe of His Spirit and which Christ assumed in His Incarnation.  This is what Adam and Christ have in common: human nature, the human drama, into which all of us are born.  This is why Christ is called Adam, which in Hebrew simply means “man” or “humanity”.  Saint Paul calls Christ “the second Adam”, meaning that in Him begins something new, a new creation.


We, thus, find ourselves in the midst of this drama of the two “Adams”.  The drama of temptation and of our victory over temptation in Christ touches our human freedom and the choices we make.  We gain a sense of where we stand in relation to the old Adam and the New Adam.  Lent is a time to gauge our progress to the New Adam or our regress to the old Adam, and to choose again the New Adam, our new life in Him.

At this point, though, we run across another reality.  Before I ever get to the point of choosing, of moving one way or the other, I remember that I am “chosen”.  This being-chosen runs in two directions.  On the negative side, I realize that my freedom has been damaged before I ever got the chance to use it; this is called “original sin”.  Its most powerful expression comes from St Paul in his letter to the Romans:

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  (Romans 7:19-25)

Paul’s last phrase points to the positive side of our being chosen: God did not just leave us in the situation into which Adam got us.  He sent the “second Adam” to re-create us, to love us back to life and into the eternal embrace of love that God is (the Trinity).

“Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me.”  Before any choice we ever make, there has already been a word spoken about us, a path chosen for us.  The path of the old Adam lead to death, but the New Adam came to die and to rise, to bring us with Him home to the Father’s house.  But that is not fair!  Is there nothing for me to do?

The fact that we cannot choose everything for ourselves is as obvious as the fact that if mom decided to wait until she fed me, to make sure it was what I wanted, I would not have lived very long.  The infinite, autonomous self is an illusion; we have all been “inserted” into a time, a place, a family, a culture, that was not of our choosing.  In the same way, the story of salvation was going on long before I chose to enter it.

And yet, as St Augustine says, “God who created you without you, does not want to save you without you.”  Our choosing has infinite consequences.  We have to decide for or against the story that God wants to write with our lives.  We have to choose which of the words “spoken” and “chosen” for us will dominate in us: the old Adam or the New Adam.

In Baptism, we or our parents and godparents, responded “I do!” to the New Adam, who proposed to us a fullness of life and holiness and freedom and grace.  God is so powerful that He can overcome the “no” of sin with His faithful “yes”.  In this Lent, we are begging Christ that our “yes” to Him will establish us in such a way that we will be able to overcome the old Adam and the evil one who tempted that old Adam and tempts us.


The Good News is that this is the one thing Jesus Christ wants to do for us.  He wants to establish us in His grace and in true freedom, the freedom that comes (in a rather paradoxical way) when we entrust ourselves completely to Christ.  We believe that Christ is more powerful than the devil, and that the New Adam can really overcome everything of the old Adam in us.  That is why we can pray with confidence those last lines of Donne:

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
And we will pray with the whole Church at the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”  Thanks be to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ!

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Lent with the Risen One

Are you ready for the desert?  Are you ready to be hungry?  Have you eaten your last chocolates for the next 40 days?  We are beginning Lent, a time we are all familiar with, no matter how close or how far we are or have been from the Catholic Church.  As a wise priest once told me, “As Catholics we do Lent really well, but we struggle to celebrate Easter.”

Everyone and their mother will come to church on Ash Wednesday to “get something”, and some of our Catholics who cannot get to church for some reason will have their grandson (nieto) come up with a little envelope to take some ashes back for abuelito (in a Hispanic parish, one sees such things).  A beautiful (even though sometimes superstitious) devotion.


Why do we go into the desert?  Why do we get our foreheads dirty?  Why do we take on penance (small or great)?

If there were ever a time for a Christian “to look like he has just come from a funeral” as Pope Francis warned us not to do, Lent seems like it would be that time.  Suffering, dryness (for some reason, some priests take away the holy water during Lent), and death, how can this not affect our happy Christian face?

Yet, the Gospel we read every Ash Wednesday warns against these things:

When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.  Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.  And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.

So let us remember what Lent is, and what we are preparing for.  Lent comes from the period of preparation that adults would undertake before they were baptized.  It was (and is) the last push, a time to put off the old man (or woman) and get ready to receive the Sacraments that make us “a new creation”.  This really hit home for me when a friend of mine, who was preparing to be baptized at Easter, told me that she was giving up make-up for Lent.  The “face” that we put on, not just with make-up but in so many other ways, has to give way to the face, the identity, the true beauty that Christ wants to give us in Baptism.  I don’t remember if she was able to articulate what she was doing in that way, but it goes down in my mind as the best Lenten penance ever.

And the Church invites us who have already been baptized to partake in that same journey toward Easter.  Lent, then, is the time that we use to get ready for something specific: the renewal of our Baptismal Promises at the Easter Vigil or at Mass on Easter Sunday–and the sprinkling with Holy Water as a reminder of our Baptism.

The new man, the new woman, the new creation!

Jesus Christ gives us a new relationship with everything, because He makes us new in Baptism.  And we want that Baptism to really develop and flower and bloom and bear fruit in our lives.  We want a new relationship with things (and so we pick some sort of fast, to remember Who gives us everything).  We want a new relationship with people (and so we give alms in charity toward those who are in need, who I recognize as Jesus).  We want a new relationship with God (and so we rededicate ourselves to prayer).


Lent is not a time to pretend that Jesus is dead, to embrace the Cross without remembering the Resurrection.  Maybe some of us are tempted to this. There was a Lent at the seminary when the group that prayed the Rosary before dinner prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary every single day of Lent.  But when the Easter season came around, we did not pray the Glorious Mysteries everyday.  Just like the priest said: We are good at Lent, but struggle to celebrate Easter.

Maybe some of us are tempted in the opposite direction.  We react strongly against an overly-pessimistic Christian attitude, that would see everything and everyone as sinful.  So, we stay on the edges of Lent because that is “old school”, and seems to be a season for self-hatred.  And doesn’t Pope Francis want us to be upbeat, after all?…

St. Paul gives us a wonderful way to balance the two approaches, that are over-simplifications and exaggerations. Here is my “money verse” for Lent.  Paul desires, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share in his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

The only reason we have and the only hope to move from the old creation to the new creation, from darkness to light, from sin to freedom, is the fact that the victory has already been won in Jesus Christ.  He is Risen!  We can go into the desert (not dessert!), because Christ is waiting there for us.  We can go to Confession seeking freedom from our sins, because Christ is waiting there for us (primerear, going before, as Pope Francis says).  Every time we feel a little bit of hunger, or can’t drink the soda we want, or give a little money to someone in need, that is a tap on the shoulder, an invitation to recognize Christ who is calling us into His new creation.

Paul wanted to know Christ and the power of His Resurrection.  He did not pretend that Christ was still dead; his Lent was not just about the Cross.  It was about making the victory of Christ his own.  Yet, there was suffering involved.  Here is Paul’s realism: Christ has won the victory, but I have not…yet.  So, I embrace the Cross that Christ gives me, in hope that the victory of the Resurrection will be mine someday.  The way of Christ is the way of the Christian, and we will not reach His victory without sharing His sufferings.

Simon and Jesus

Easter Sunday, for those of us who celebrate Lent well, will not be a day to tell us something we did not already know.  We are not pretending, so as to be “surprised” on the day of Easter.  When we proclaim on Easter Sunday that “Christ is truly risen!”, we will also be proclaiming, “And I belong to Him through Baptism!”  Lent is that time to belong more deeply, more totally to Christ.  The renewal of Baptismal Promises will then be the proclamation of His victory in me, a victory that continues to transform me from the old creation to the new creation.

May it be so!

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The Beautiful Day

This February 22, 2014 we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, not as a piece of furniture but as an authority that Christ willed to be exercised in His Church for the good of us all, “to strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32).  This year, Pope Francis will also confer the “red hat” on the new cardinals in the consistory celebrated on the Feast of the Chair.

But there is another event that draws my attention this February 22, not in opposition to the above-mentioned events, but as another reason to be grateful: the ninth anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Luigi Giussani.  On this day in 2013, Cardinal Angela Scola of Milan announced the opening of the cause of canonization for this great priest and educator.

A few weeks ago, I ran into an article online, from Crisis magazine, about Luigi Giussani entitled “Recalling Luigi Giussani’s Passion for Christ”.  Here is a link to that great piece by Regis Martin:


In the article, Martin makes reference to the “beautiful day” which is a word Giussani used to describe his first encounter with Christ as a present event and reality.  This encounter with Christ present would spark a passion for Christ that was contagious, that changed his life and

Also the lives of countless young people for whom he would harness all that he had to offer in order to bring Christ to their world.  To enable them to experience the beautiful day that had first enraptured him.  Passion for Christ having become the transformative experience of his life, he was determined to infuse the lives of others, especially the young, with that same passion.

As I read Martin’s article, I so wanted him to describe the content of that “beautiful day”.  What happened? What led up to it?  What was different about that day?  I so wanted Martin to let those who may not know Father Giussani’s story the shape of that encounter, because it truly is beautiful and paradigmatic of what we mean when we say that Christianity is an event.

Okay, I’ll tell you…

First, we have to meet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) the great Italian poet.  On a trip to Recanati, Leopardi’s hometown, I had the chance to learn about his life and especially his influence on Luigi Giussani.  Leopardi is known as a pessimistic poet, as one who awakens our desire only to tell us that it is unrealizable.  This pessimism was true for Leopardi’s life, but not for all those who read and love him.

Leopardi produces the contrary effect to that which he proposes.  He doesn’t believe in progress, and he makes you desire it; he doesn’t believe in freedom, and he makes you love it.  He calls love, glory, and virtue an illusion, but awakens in you an inexhaustible desire for those things.  He was a skeptic, and he makes you a believer.  –Francesco de Sanctis

So, what led him to this pessimism?  The modern concept of reason and science taught him and teaches us that man is just a part of nature, that his coming and going in this world are only the result of natural processes.  This mechanical view of the universe “should” teach us that the fly who dies after a few days and the human being who passes away are part of the same natural processes.  Yet, man is the only creature who is aware of this “system” and its limits.  He is cursed because two worlds fight within him: the desire for the infinite and the reality of death and the conquest of natural forces.

His reason reaches out for the infinite, and yet cannot attain it.  Leopardi expresses this beautifully in his poem “Infinity”:

This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is almost overwhelmed.

IMG_0949“Hill of Infinity” in Recanati, Le Marche, Italy

Leopardi’s heart would also be overwhelmed by the death of his childhood love.  The scientific education that would have him see in this death only another natural process, no more and no less, could not calm the desire of his heart, and the grief at the loss of a love that was the most real thing he had known.

The poetry of Leopardi would feed the soul of a young seminarian over 100 years later, when Luigi Giussani first found this lifetime friend.  Between the ages of 12 and 13, Giussani memorized all the poetry of this skeptical, Enlightenment thinker.  The poems awakened in him that same desire for the Infinite, which had haunted Leopardi but would be the bassi for Giussani’s “beautiful day”.

When he was 15 year old (1937), Giussani was listening to his seminary teacher Father Gaetano Corti explain the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  He had heard these words thousands of time, seeing that in those days, the first chapter of John was read at the end of every Mass.  Corti began to comment on the passage: “The Word was made flesh.”  “Beauty became flesh, Goodness became flesh, Justice became flesh, Love, Life, Truth became flesh, Being became flesh…one among us.”

Giussani thought immediately of his friend Leopardi, that the answer to Leopardi’s angst had already happened 1800 years before Leopardi was born.  All the things that Leopardi had striven after became flesh and dwelt among us.  What then was the difference between Leopardi and Giussani?  Quite simply, Giussani had a witness in his life who was able to point out the Presence of the answer to the question that had grown so great in his heart.  Giussani encountered the answer to his humanity, a humanity that was awakened by his friend Leopardi.

The fact that the Word became flesh is not just something from the past, though; it teaches us the “method” of God from the moment of the Incarnation.  As Giussani would say, “L’istante, da allora, non fu più banalità per me.”  The easiest way to translate the phrase would be to say that from the time of his “beautiful day”, the moments of everyday life would always carry something more, would always be the “vehicle” of the Presence of Christ.

The beautiful day, then, led to so many more beautiful days in the life of Father Giussani.  He gave his life to the Church, whose greatest task, like that of John the Baptist, is to point out the Presence of the Word-made-flesh in our midst.  Giussani understood that this could not happen, that Christ could not be experience as the answer, unless the question of our humanity arises, even in its painful longing for what seems “beyond” us.  Leopardi’s problem was not that he desired to much, but that he did not have the encounter with the answer to what was stirred up in his heart.


Which leads to one last point: Leopardi lived right across the street from a church.  The building that is just barely in the picture on the left was the house where Leopardi grew up.  If only…if only he had encountered someone in that church who could have pointed out to him the only one, Jesus Christ, who could answer all of those beautiful questions and desires that arose in his heart.  If only he had experienced the “beautiful day” that Father Giussani experienced as a teenager.

Let us feel that “if only” directed also to us: that we too can know and love and witness to the Infinite that became flesh and dwells among us.

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The Holy House of Loreto

“Isn’t it amazing that God made Himself so uncomfortable just to be with us!”  These simple words of my friend Maria came as she commented on the dimensions and the simplicity of the Holy House of Loreto.  What is this Holy House in the hill-top town of Loreto, near the Adriatic Sea in the region of Le Marche, Italy?


The sites of the Holy Land have been visited by Christians since the earliest days of Christianity.  The first Christians visited these places, setting up small shrines even in the time of persecution.  The pagan rulers could knock down these shrines, building temples to their own gods on top of them, which only served to show later generation where the original shrines were.

One of the earliest shrines was the house of the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, where she first received the message of the angel Gabriel, that she would be the Mother of the Savior and where she lived with Our Lord and St. Joseph.  We know, for example, that St. Helen had a Basilica built over this important place where our Lord “grew in wisdom and stature before God and men” and our Lady “pondered all these things that had taken place in her heart” (Luke 2:52).  This Basilica would be destroyed by the Saracens after the Christians had largely disappeared from the Holy Land.  Still, devotion to the holy house would continue.  In the Middle Ages, both St. Francis and St. Louis of France visited, because a new Basilica was built at the time of the Crusades.

When the Holy Land was definitively lost for the Christians after the time of the Crusades, the Holy House (it’s walls to be exact) was taken first to Croatia (1291), and after the Muslims had conquered even that territory, to its current place across the Adriatic at Loreto (1294).


Loreto is located in the region of Le Marche, which was once part of the Papal States; it remains one of the few territories that belong directly to the Vatican outside of Vatican City.  In time, a huge basilica was built around the Holy House, and an ornate structure to enclose the fragile walls of the original house.  It has become the principle Marian shrine in Italy, and was visited by many saints and popes throughout the history of the Church:  St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Frances Cabrini, Blessed Cardinal Newman, St. John Neumann, and St. Francis de Sales, to name but a few, have visited the Holy House.  Pope John XXIII visited Loreto in 1962, just before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, to ask our Lady’s prayers for the Council.

What can we say about this shrine?  Is it really possible that the real house of the Virgin Mary could be in East-Central Italy?

First of all, the story that angels carried the house from its location in Nazareth to Loreto is a little hard for us to imagine in our modern, scientific age.  It has been suggested that the family that paid for its transport was the “Angeli” family.  That could be one way to understand the reference to the “angels” who brought the house to Italy.  For that matter, the visit of Pope John XXIII, whose baptismal name was “Angelo”, could be said to have been the visit of an “angel” to Loreto.  Or it could have been transported by angels, for all we know!  God can do such things, of course, and maybe He did…  It is this miraculous transport that has made Our Lady of Loreto the patroness of aeronautics.  In the museum, I found a medal that was brought on the lunar module of the space mission Apollo 9.


But how do we know that the house is from Nazareth?  Here, modern scientific studies are very helpful.  The structure has two different levels of bricks: one that is very clearly proven to be the type that would be used in that region of Italy in the Middle Ages, and another that can be traced to the type used in 1st century Palestine (the Holy Land).  You can see the two types pretty clearly in this image:


The bricks below also have some graffiti (the holy type) on them that turn out to be early Christian symbols: Alpha and Omega, a Cross, and other Christological references, all the same style that the early Christians used.  The markings show the devotion already surrounding these walls in the earliest days of the Church.  The walls do not have a foundation, which shows that the small house was not built there, but moved from somewhere else.  Last of all, there are only three walls, which match perfectly with what is “missing” from the rest of the house at the current Basilica in Nazareth.

There is much more that could be said, and much more I still want to learn.  But there is one last thing that struck me more than anything else at the Holy House.  It is a phrase that is also at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth: Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est, “The Word was made flesh here“.  Here!

My friends, this is the mystery that brings us to our knees, the mystery that Maria helped me to pay attention to: “Isn’t it amazing that God made Himself so uncomfortable just to be with us.”  God wanted to be with us.  This is the only reason why Christianity exists, why we give a damn about walls from 1st century Palestine in the first place.  We do not go to Loreto to marvel at “old stuff”, or to hear a story about moving a house across the Mediterranean.  We go to Loreto–I went to Loreto–to kneel before that mystery, and to ask that that mystery will fulfill itself in my life: “Whatever reason you came to be with us Lord, I want that to happen for me.”  Just like Our Lady said, “Let it be done unto me according to your word.”


This last image is of the marks in the marble (that is a type of stone, mind you), where millions of pilgrims have knelt over the centuries.  These marks go all the way around the ornate structure that “houses” the Holy House of Loreto.  Imagine how many people have knelt in this place, before the mystery of God-made-flesh, to bring their prayers and their hopes and their sickness and suffering before that God and the woman who made herself available for His coming.

And I can understand why!  The first thing I wanted to do, after feeling some small part of the importance of those words that Maria said to me, was to kneel.  I was brought to my knees before this central mystery of our Faith, the Incarnation.  The Word was made flesh, here!

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St. Agatha: Of Pastries and Martyrdom

A couple blocks away from the Casa Santa Maria, the American priests’ house in Rome, you will find the Sicilian bakery named “Nonna Vincenza” (Grandma Vincenza).  I was first introduced to this place by a friend who was buying a birthday cake for his mother who was visiting us in Rome.  While we were there, we bought some pastries for the house, one of which looked remarkably like, well, like this:


When I asked my priest friend what these ones were called, he answered, “St. Agatha’s Breasts”.  Oh!  And that is how I learned the story of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr, whose feast we celebrate February 5.

Veneration of St. Agatha goes all the way back to the 6th century, but we know very little about her: that she was Sicilian and that she died a martyr.  The story goes that she had dedicated her life to God at a young age, promising not to marry, or rather, to belong only to her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ.  Of course, the young men in the village had other ideas.  When she refused to marry one Quintian, he denounced her as a Christian, hoping that the threat of torture and death would induce her to marry him.

He was wrong, and so Agatha suffered.  One of the punishments inflicted on her was to have her breasts cut off.  Around the year 251, she gave the ultimate witness to Christ and died the martyrs death.  She is often depicted as holding a plate with her breasts on them, just like St. Lucy is depicted holding a plate with her eyes that were taken out.  Agatha is the patron saint of bell-makers (the shape!), of bakers, who make special pastries and bread in the shape of breasts on her feast day (and on other days of the year, as my trip to Nonna Vincenza’s proved), and of breast cancer patients.


One of my high school students told me once that he thought heaven would be boring.  Why?  It would be boring just to think about God and do “God stuff” all day long.  I replied to him that the saints show us how much more interesting God and “God stuff” is than anything we can think up for ourselves.  The saints break us out of many of our false notions of religion, and particularly of the false notion that Christ gives us less rather than more life.

One of these false notions is in the very name of our saint, Agatha, which in Greek means “good”.  What an abused word this “good” is in our everyday living of Christianity and in our Christian imagination!  Good is often equated with nice, so that the highest goal of our deflated Christianity would be not to ruffle too many feathers, to get along with others, and to smile at people more often.  Christ told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we love ourselves so little, we aim so low, that “nice” is the best thing we can come up.  If only we really loved ourselves, then we would have something better to give our neighbor than “nice”.  We could give him “good”.

St. Agatha found the best that life had to offer when she met the Love that loved her all the way to death on a Cross.  For this love, she was willing to do anything, and her virginity was not so much a giving up as a being totally “taken” by the goodness of the Savior.  Her virginity and her martyrdom had the same source and the same goal: the Good.  How could she settle for any lesser good, when she had found the Good?


The opposite of good is evil.  The history of salvation, along with Christian experience, teaches us that the more good shows itself, the more evil is rooted out.  But in its being rooted out, evil rears its ugly head, evil shows its face.  A dog does not bark except when it feels threatened, and the evil one would rather be left alone, would rather “we let sleeping dogs lie”.  When the Good comes, He exposes all of our idols as false, all of those attempts to set up a lower good as the god of our life. And we like our idols; we are attached to them.  So, the revelation of the Good is also the exposure of evil and of its false claims on our life.  The reality of martyrdom, today as in the past, is such a paradox, because it is a sign of the victory of God’s Kingdom at the moment when all we see is defeat.

Evil cannot be defeated except by its being exposed.  The manifestations of evil–ordinary or extraordinary–are signs of evil’s downfall.  It means that the Good is about to win, is winning.  Just think of those who have been converted after witnessing a martyr’s death or even causing a martyr’s death (St. Maria Goretti’s killer).  Just think of the famous phrase, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”

Evil is not defeated by “nice”, which would rather have an absence of conflict than expose evil for what it really is. Nice is generally a good policy, except when it would mean covering up what must be exposed, turning a blind eye to what in the end can only bring destruction.  “Nice” needs to become “Good”.  The Good does not try to “sugarcoat”–pun very much intended–the idols and the masks behind which evil hides.

The saints remind us and invite us into the adventure of the only battle truly worth fighting: the confident march though the world of the Good that overcomes every evil.  As the Chronicles of Narnia say of Aslan, “He is not a tame lion, but he is good.”  St. Agatha tells us by her very name, but also by her virginity and her martyrdom, that there is a Good for which it is worth dying.  He is the same Good, Jesus Christ, for whom it is also worth living, who makes life worth living.

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We Want To Be Outrageously Happy Too

Every now and then, I run into links on Facebook or Twitter to articles about Youth Ministry.  Some are for and others are against.  Some decry the over-reliance on “fun” to the exclusion of “content”.  Others speak to the need for teens to be together in a “safe” environment, away from bad influences–to learn that “fun” does not always have to include alcohol, marijuana, or promiscuous sexual activity.  Still others point out that families “should” be the place of the formation of our young people, that the parents are the primary educators in the faith and youth ministry takes young people away from their families.


But that does not automatically solve the problem.  Whether a young person is with their family, with their friends, or at school, the problem is what are we proposing to them and how are we proposing it.

I came across a wonderful little article on by Mike Aquilina, who writes about the youth ministry of the Fathers of the Church.  The website is worth a look; it is the homepage of the Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC) and has great resources for teaching the faith.  So, what did Mike say?

Scouring the Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca, I found nothing to suggest that Ambrose had ever led teens on ski trips to the nearby Alps. Digging through the Eastern Fathers, I came up even drier — no junior-high dances — not even a pizza party in either Antioch or Alexandria. In fact, in all the documentary evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and the West, there’s not a single bulletin announcement for a single parish youth group.

Yet the Fathers had enormous success in youth and young-adult ministry. Many of the early martyrs were teens, as were many of the Christians who took to the desert for the solitary life. There’s ample evidence that a disproportionate number of conversions, too, came from the young and youngish age groups.

How did the Fathers do it? They made wild promises.

Quite simply, the Fathers of the Church did not propose gimmicks, but rather the Gospel–a life of sacrifice for the greatest ideal ever.  These young people were not converted first of all by content, but by the witness of those who could “prove” with their life that Christ was the only thing for which it was worth giving up your life.  Aquilina tells the story of Origen of Alexandria, who when his father was being led away to be martyred would have run after him if his mother did not hide all of his clothes!  Or Tarcisius who was a young person entrusted with carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the sick, and who was martyred when he wouldn’t hand over to a pagan mob the pyx holding the Eucharist.



The question remains for me, though, how do we propose this amazing adventure that is Christianity?  The focus of the Church since the Second Vatican Council has been the presentation of the faith (method) in a way that can speak to the heart of our contemporaries.  Now, Aquilina’s article makes light of many of the current ways of trying to be relevant to young people, who can find much more interesting things on their smart phones.  And if the content of the faith never changes, we better believe that the Fathers of the Church were masters of method, of knowing how to help their fellowmen to “see the Form”, to see Christ.  We are called to nothing less in our own day.

This leads me to a second article, which I would like to recommend.  The “pamphlet” includes the notes from a talk to high schoolers by Father Julian Carron, head of the movement Communion and Liberation.  Here is a link to the talk, entitled “We Want To Be Outrageously Happy Too”: (available in English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French for those who are interested!).

Carron responds to the question:

What journey must we make to have a true affection for ourselves, which prevents us from being content in daily life with the many “false infinites” into which we inevitably and repeatedly fall?

This reference to affection for ourselves is a parallel to what in the previous article were called “wild promises”. The promise of life does not only come from outside of us, but is written into our very souls that are “restless until they rest in Christ”, as Saint Augustine tells us.  The “false infinites” are all of those things that promise to fill what only Christ can fill: power, pleasure, honor.  So how does affection for ourselves arise?

Carron takes us all the way back to the experience of infancy: the worth of the child is affirmed and awakened through the smile of his mother, through the loving touch, through the brightness in his father’s eyes when he first sees the child on coming home from work.  Von Balthasar would say:

My mother’s smile is beautiful, therefore all being is beautiful.  My mother’s smile is true, therefore all being is true.  My mother’s smile is good, therefore all being is good.


Our first impact with being does not come from our reason taking hold of things and analyzing them, but from the simple experience of being loved.  We all know what difficulties come when the child does not receive this touch, this smile, this “lighting up”.  Something will be “off” in their ability to relate to reality, especially in other human relationships.

But, at a certain point – we all know this – this natural sign, which is the mother, is no longer enough, and not because our mother got mad at us or because our father is not there. No, they are there like they were before, but it’s as if everything that was enough before, at a certain moment is no longer enough.

Here is the experience of youth, of adolescence.  All of a sudden, everything that once was enough for me, my parents who once were enough for me, my family who once could take care of all my problems, is not enough.  Why is that?  What happened?

If we don’t understand what happened at a certain moment in our life – how is it that, at a certain point, our father and mother are no longer enough – then what do we do? Since our father and mother are no longer enough, we substitute our parents with friends, and then with our girlfriend or boyfriend, and then with other things, but the pattern doesn’t change.

Father Carron tells the young people to whom he is talking that this experience is precious, precious because it is an opportunity for us to discover the meaning of our life, if there really is something that is “enough”.  The disillusionment I feel toward the family, the friends, and the “false infinites” can push us on to the discovery of the true Infinite for which we are made.

If one realizes that nothing is enough for him, he realizes it because all of the heart’s expectation, all of the capacity for fulfillment for which we were made, all of the greatness of his life’s destiny, has definitively broadened.

The question then comes back: Does the “yes” that I once experienced in my parents love for me, in my mother’s smile, in my father’s eyes, also exist for me now, for my parents now, for the whole world?  Is there one who says “yes” to my existence, to the existence of everything?  Is there a “yes” that is big enough to correspond to this question that no one and nothing else can answer, this question that I am?

The discovery of this “yes” and the living of a true affection for ourselves (which is to see ourselves the way God our Father sees us) is the adventure of human life, but especially of our youth.  Some never discover this “yes”, and their adolescence is prolonged well beyond their youth.  They continue to seek the infinite in power, pleasure, and honor, and by dominating their human relationships in search of “enough” love.  Ultimately, this leads to a deep cynicism, the despair of ever finding what fulfills our hearts, and the dismissal of such desires as “childish”.

But there are other adults who have found this affection for themselves and the joy that the Father has in them.  In churchy terms, this is called “vocation”.  And these are the people we want in Catholic education in general and in youth ministry in particular.  Youth ministry then becomes a challenge to adults: Have I found something worth handing on to a young person?  Have I found the only thing worth handing on to a young person?

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The Church is Missionary by Nature

The week of study for exams is upon us here in Rome.  So, in the interest of study and at the request of some friends who wanted to know what I was up to in the classroom here in Rome, I thought I would give a synthesis of a course I am taking with this title: “The Church is Missionary by Nature”.  In a future post, I will tell you what grade I got on the final exam!

From “The Missions” to Mission

When we hear the term missionary, we often think of someone in a far away land, laboring to bring people who have never heard of Christ to faith in Him, to baptize and establish new churches in far away places.  Thus, we have movies like “The Mission” and “The Keys of the Kingdom” that show us the life of missionaries in far away places.


The other use of the word “missions” is in the context of the Church’s social teaching.  Parish youth groups or university students go on “mission trips” to build houses or visit orphanages, or somehow help other people.  In the first example, we can see the obvious link between Christ and the missions.  The work of missionaries throughout the world also often includes the type of work for the human welfare of the people to which we aim to preach the Gospel: building schools, hospitals, and homes, providing many things that people cannot provide for themselves.

But in the theological reflection of the 20th century, there was a shift; rather than talk about “the missions”, people began to talk about the “mission” of the Church.  The shift to the singular was an attempt to see what is at the foundation of the Church’s missionary work.  There were many challenges to the old concept of the missions, and therefore threats to its continuance in the life of the Church: the connection to colonialism, the theory of “anonymous Christianity” (that people who lived according to their conscience the basic truths of human life could be saved without an explicit faith in Christ or belonging to the Church), the purely external mandate of mission (because Christ said so/or else everyone will go to hell) disconnected from its roots.

These threats to “the missions” were the opportunity for a beautiful reflection on the deepest foundations of the Mission of the Church, which was then expressed in the Second Vatican Council and has guided the pastoral aims of the Church since that Council.

The Second Vatican Council

One of the biggest question that Vatican II wanted to tackle was the question of the Church.  What exactly is the Church?  The very title of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church tells us much “Lumen Gentium”, the light of the nations.  But who is the light of the nations?  Not the Church!  Lumen Gentium begins, “Christ is the light of the nations.”  The Church reflects this light, as the moon reflects the light of the Sun.  The Church does not make sense apart from Christ and His claim to be the salvation of God in person.


The Church’s foundations, then, are not human, but divine.  The Father created the world and redeemed it when it had fallen into sin.  He began the work of gathering a people to Himself in the Old Testament with the Jewish people, and now wants to gather all of the nations into His Kingdom.  How does He do this?  “God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son…”  Jesus is God-made-man, who is the revelation of the saving love of God the Father, who accomplishes our redemption through His death and resurrection.  Ascended into Heaven, Christ does not leave us orphans, but pours out His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  The Spirit–in an image from the Fathers of the Church–is like the water that is mixed into the dry flour of humanity and makes everything stick together.  The Holy Spirit accomplishes the work of Christ, who draws everyone to Himself.  Where does this happen?  In that place and through those means that Christ established to give salvation to the world–that is, the life of the Church, the concrete “continuation” of Christ’s work.

Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. (Lumen Gentium, 1)

This description of the Church’s nature–totally linked to Christ–is the foundation for the Church’s mission, just as “doing” always follows “being”.  The Church does not just have a mission, but the Church is mission, caught up in the original mission of Christ and the Spirit.  Just as the Spirit “pushed” Christ in His earthly mission, so the Holy Spirit is the internal power of the Church’s mission.  Mission does not just have to do with an external command (or fear), and cannot be reduced just to helping other people (even pagans can build houses for poor people, maybe even better!).  These things are important, but the deepest depth of mission is the great “movement” of God’s never-failing love for mankind, a love into which I am taken by my Baptism.  This love pushes us to point that Saint Paul will say, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”

The New Evangelization

Another outcome and benefit of this move from talking about “the missions” to talking about the mission of the Church is the new evangelization.  Put simply, the new evangelization lives out of the awareness that the boundaries of “mission territory” have changed drastically in the 20th century.  A new paganism and new idols have taken hold in societies that were once strongly Christian.  In places that would once have been considered “the missions”, now have vibrant Catholic communities.  We are all aware of the fact that all those foreign priests that fill our parishes in the US and Europe come from countries that once received missionaries from the US and Europe.  Thank God!

Let me return for a moment to the example of college “mission trips”.  Can we honestly say that the modern university (even a Catholic university) is a place that “has” the Gospel and that those who go “on mission” are bringing to the people of, say, El Salvador the Gospel that they do not possess?  It is often the other way around, which to me is the lasting value of mission trips: the students are struck by the happiness of people in dire poverty.  They are struck to the point of asking, “Where does that joy come from?”, and therefore are led to Christ.

All this means, though, that the situation has changed.  The reflection of the Vatican Council about the one mission of the Church, founded on the movement of the loving God toward humanity, into which we are all caught up in various ways could not have been timelier.  I can no longer think of “mission” as something that pertains to someone else.  Thus, John Paul II calls for an evangelization that is new in ardor, in methods, and in expression, in the various contexts where every Christian finds himself or herself in this world.

Pope-John-Paul-II-Pope-Benedict-XVI-Pope-FrancisPope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and Bishop Bergoglio

Our Man of the Year, Pope Francis surprisingly does not use the term “new evangelization” very often.  Just listen for it in his homilies and speeches.  He is doing the new evangelization, though.  And he gives us three contexts in which the one mission of the Church is lived.  We are getting rather lengthy, so I will just briefly list them: ordinary pastoral ministry of the parish (because it cannot be taken for granted that even practicing Catholics have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ); those who have fallen away (a great concern in parts of the world that “once were” Catholic or Christian but have lost the faith); those who have never heard the Gospel (the origin understanding of the word “missions”).

We have seen how a deeper reflection on the “being” of the Church yields a fresh perspective on what the Church much be “doing” in the historical period in which she finds herself.  This was the work of Vatican II, and the work since Vatican II has been to live this Mission in an ever deeper way.  That is a challenge not just for Popes, or for students at the Gregorian University, but for everyone who has the Spirit of Christ in them.

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