Showing posts with label Confession. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Confession. Show all posts

Friday, November 29, 2019

Otherwordly Peace and Vibrant Faith Characterize Medjugorje

I recently led a pilgrimage to Medjugorje with 30 participants. In Medjugorje, the Virgin Mary is known as the Kraljica Mira - or the Queen of Peace. "Peace" is the word I would most use to characterize Medjugorje. However, the word falls short, because human language cannot express the deep, all-pervading sense of peace that reigns in that town.

The life of Medjugorje revolves entirely around Catholic sacraments and devotions. Daily Mass is held in multiple languages, including English, Polish, Italian, French, and German. At the evening international Mass, simultaneous translation is provided in various languages via radio. The multitudes of pilgrim groups also say Mass in their own languages. The two main venues for the liturgies are St. James Church in the center of town and the open air chapel behind the church. The church building is not adequate to hold the crush of people seeking to participate, so most Masses are packed beyond capacity, with not even standing room left. The open air seating can hold about 5,000 people, and the seats are often filled.

5,000 people for just one of the many daily Masses... 5,000 people praying the Rosary together on a weeknight... 5,000 people worshipping together in a guided Holy Hour for Adoration... 5,000 pilgrims venerating the Holy Cross in unison on a Friday... Multitudes of priests sit for hours to hear the confessions for pilgrims in various languages. In fact, Medjugorje is know as the Confession capital of the world. What is more, many of the pilgrims here are very young, in contrast to other pilgrimages sites I have visited, like Lourdes and Fatima, where the pilgrims tend to be much older.

At the edge of town stands what the locals call Apparition Hill. According to the visionaries, it was on this hill that the Blessed Virgin Mary started appearing in 1981. Today, a statue of the Queen of Peace, erected by the Korean Catholic community, marks the spot where the first seven apparitions are said to have occurred. The Vatican Commission tasked with examining the Medjugorje phenomenon has recently recommended that the Church approve the first seven apparitions as authentic, while continuing to study the claims of the ongoing apparitions.

Pilgrims ascend Apparition Hill day and night, in groups or alone, to pray. The hill is covered with jagged rocks and prickly bushes, but no path has been made, except by the feet of the 40 million or so pilgrims who have climbed to the spot where the statue of the Queen of Peace stands today. The locals have erected panels depicting the mysteries of the Rosary to aid the pilgrims in their prayers. Some lights have also been added to help pilgrims with their nighttime prayer walks. Day and night, the Rosary, along with many other prayers, is being said on this hill - and elsewhere too in Medjugorje. In fact, the only challenge in praying the Rosary in public in this town is that your prayer is likely to get mixed up with the prayers of two or three other groups who might also be praying out loud near you.

Multitudes of pilgrims also ascend Cross Mountain, where, on a much higher spot, stands a concrete cross that the locals built back in the 1930's. Today, the cross is illuminated at night, and it is the most prominent landmark in the area. As many have remarked, the arrangement of the cross versus the statue on Apparition Hill is very much consistent with Marian theology. Mary is prominent, but she is not the most prominent - she points to the Holy Cross, which is the source of our salvation.

As on Apparition Hill, no path has been made on Cross Mountain, except by the feet of the pilgrims. Multitudes climb the steep mountain, ascending up the harsh rocks amid the prickly bushes. Many do so barefoot as an extra penance. Panels depicting the Stations of the Cross have been placed along the way to aid the pilgrims in their prayer. Thousands upon thousands pray the Stations as they make their way up toward the great cross above.

We do not know what the ultimate decision of the Catholic Church will be with regard to Medjugorje. We certainly cannot expect the Church to give full approval to the phenomenon while there are still claims of ongoing visions by the visionaries. Three of the six claim to see the Virgin Mary daily. The other three claim to see her on some specific dates designated by her. If the Church were to issue a fully positive ruling on Medjugorje, she could only do so after the claims of the visions have stopped and everything can be investigated as a historical event, rather than as an ongoing phenomenon. However, I think it is significant that after 38 years, the Vatican has not issued a negative ruling regarding the site. By contrast, Rome has not hesitated to condemn some other claims of ongoing apparitions in other parts of the world.

Recently, the Vatican has also authorized official parish and diocesan pilgrimages to the site. An annual youth festival is held every year at the end of July in Medjugorje, attracting about 70,000 youths from around the world. This past summer, senior Vatican officials attended the festival and participated in the prayers. Under the guidance of Archbishop Henryk Hoser, who serves as the Apostolic Visitor to Medjugorje, the Vatican is also making plans to expand the religious infrastructure of the town to accommodate pilgrims better. Medjugorje badly needs a covered church space that can accommodate well over 5,000 people at a time.

Whatever, the final decision of the Church will be with regard to the claims of apparitions in Medjugorje, one thing seems clear. The Catholic faith is truly alive here. Millions have had their hearts set on fire for Christ through the experience of Medjugorje. Multitudes have been converted to the Catholic faith here - including my wife, Julie. Many Catholics have felt their first call to religious life or the priesthood in Medjugorje. A number of well-documented physical healings have also taken place.

According to the visionaries of Medjugorje, the Virgin Mary has asked us to commit to five spiritual practices. These are usually called the Five Stones, after the five stones that David had in order to fight Goliath. The Five Stones are: 1) Prayer: Pray from the heart, especially the daily recitation of the Rosary. 2) Eucharist: Attend Mass frequently, preferably daily. Spend time with our Lord in Adoration as often as possible. 3) Fasting: Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, preferably on bread and water only. 4) Confession: Go to Confession once a month. 5) The Holy Bible: Read the Scriptures daily.

Regardless of the authenticity of the apparitions of Medjugorje, the Five Stones constitute sound advice. These practices are at the very heart of Catholic spiritual life. Having spent a week in Medjugorje, I feel a renewed desire to commit to these practices, and I will encourage my fellow pilgrims to do the same.

Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us!

Monday, March 4, 2019

7 Ways to Prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima Season

Traditionally, the third Sunday before Lent started a period of preparation for the Lenten season, called the Septuagesima season. The current, post-Vatican II calendar of the Catholic Church no longer recognizes this pre-Lenten period, but there is nothing to stop rank-and-file Catholics from observing it as a private devotion in order to gain a greater sense of focus in time for the start of Lent.

The three Sundays before Lent were traditionally called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays, respectively, from the Latin words for 70th, 60th, and 50th. I will not go into details of the history of this naming convention here, but I will provide some links to further reading at the end. Suffice it to say that in the past the pre-Lenten period took its name from the first of these Sundays, Septuagesima.

So what should we do differently during these three pre-Lenten weeks? Let us explore seven ways that we can prepare for Lent during the Septuagesima season:

1. Self-examination: A large part of our Lenten discipline is the quest to improve in our character. Our repeated individual choices add up to form our habits. The aggregate of our habits forms of our character. Thus, if we want to change something about our character, we need to uproot at least one undesirable habit and create a new, life-giving one.

Lent gives us a period of six and a half weeks in which to accomplish this transformation, which is just enough time to change a habit, with focus and discipline. The preparation period of the Septuagesima season gives us an opportunity for self-examination, to discern which part of ourselves needs transformation the most. Many differed methods of self-examination have been developed over the years. Here, I will discuss three.

Do an examination of conscience every day during your prayer time. An examination of conscience is a review of our behavior, looking at different categories, to assess in what ways we have fallen short morally. Many forms of examination of conscience are available online. I will link here to one offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

A Brief Examination of Conscience

Another exercise you can do during the Septuagesima season is to reflect each day during your prayer time on one area of your life that you would like to improve upon. Make sure to consciously name an area for improvement each day. If you keep coming back to some of the same things, that gives you a good indication of where you should start making changes during Lent.

A more elaborate exercise involves concentric circles. The circles represent the human being. We might say that, while not everyone is a believer, everyone is a worshiper - everyone worships something, if not God, then someone or something other than God. We worship that which is in the center of our being. The exercise helps us to determine what is really in our center, what are the things that are further out from our center.

For the Septuagesima season, do the concentric circles in three stages. Print or draw two sets of circles for each week. The first week, take one set of circles and write in them what you discern to be in the center of your being at this stage of your life, putting them in the very center of the image. Then move from the center, writing down things further out in each circle. Some things that are not at all a part of your life you could put outside of the circles altogether. Next, take another set of circles and do the same exercise, but this time focus on what you would like to see in the center of your life and what you would like to see further out. The exercise will highlight areas of your life where you are falling short and where you could be working on improvements during Lent.

The second week of the Septuagesima season, take another set of concentric circles and do the same sort of exercise, but focusing on how you spend your money, putting the things you spend most money on in the center, and other things further out, according to how much money you spend on them. Next, do the same exercise, but this time focus on how you would like to spend your money, putting the things you would like to spend most on in the center, and the things you would like to spend less on further out.

Lastly, during the third week of the Septuagesima season, which is a shorter week, focus on time. Once again, start with a set of concentric circles and write in the center what you spend most of your time with. Next, write in the things you spend less time with, moving further and further from the center. Finally, do the same exercise, but focus on how you would like to spend your time, putting what you would like to spend most of your time with in the center, and the rest further and further out.

The idea behind all of these exercises is that self-awareness is the beginning of any meaningful transformation. We cannot work on fixing a problem in our lives until we acknowledge that it exists. Using the Septuagesima season to reflect on our areas of brokenness will help us to have a clear idea of where we need to focus once Lent begins.

2. Wean Yourself: An important part of the Lenten observance, is giving something up for the duration of Lent, such as a favorite snack or drink or activity. By giving something up, we develop a greater sense of discipline over our actions and our body. Also, giving something up can highlight just how dependent we are on creature comforts throughout the day. As we feel the sense of lack and emptiness left in us by not having our favorite treat or not watching our favorite show, we can use those moments to invite God more fully into our lives. The deprivation can help us refocus, so that we seek our comfort in God, rather than in our usual creature comforts.

Equally importantly, we can offer up the suffering caused by our self-denial for the well-being of others. An important principle of Catholic spirituality is that suffering accepted with good grace has a great deal of spiritual value, which we can offer for another person, who will receive graces through our gift of the spiritual fruit of our suffering. In offering our suffering for the benefit of others, we are imitating Christ himself, who offered the spiritual fruits of the ultimate sacrifice, his death upon the Cross, for the salvation of humanity. In fact, we might say, that offering up our suffering for others is the most Christ-like thing we can do.

At the same time, as we embark on a form of Lenten self-denial, we should be careful that we don't become angry, grumpy, or generally less functional as a result of our Lenten discipline. For example, if giving up coffee makes you unbearable to be around, you are defeating the purpose of your sacrifice. But this is where the period of the Septuagesima season can be especially helpful. If you know that giving something up cold turkey at the beginning of Lent would create problems, you can use the two and a half weeks of the Septuagesima season to wean yourself from that source of comfort or pleasure gradually. Going back to the coffee example, few regular coffee drinkers can give up coffee overnight without some serious withdrawal symptoms. But if you reduce your coffee intake gradually over the Septuagesima season, by Ash Wednesday you will be more ready to deal with the deprivation.

3. Celebrate: Our ancestors observed Lent much more strictly than we do. The regulations for fasting and for abstinence from meat were much more demanding. In times past, Catholics would engage in some form of fasting almost every day of Lent and also maintained an essentially vegan diet during the season. That is a far cry from today's regulations, which mandate abstinence from meat (but not all animal products) on the Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday, and fasting on just Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with fasting being defined as one full meal, two smaller meals that add up to one meal, and no snacking in between – which is still eating better than much of the rest of the world on a good day.

Given the severity of their Lenten discipline, our Catholic ancestors liked to engage in some merrymaking before the Lenten season would start. They would stage costume parties and parades and would indulge in some fine foods. They had their last hurrah before the long season of self-denial would start. In fact, the word carnival, comes from a Latin word that literally means "farewell to meat." Some areas, like New Orleans, still cherish elaborate pre-Lenten celebrations.

The Church has always approved of merrymaking, as long as it is wholesome and in moderation. While the secularized pre-Lenten celebrations today tend to be over-the-top and overly self-indulgent, Catholics should feel free to have some good-natured fun before Lent. Throw a costume party. Indulge in some fine foods, like tasty meat dishes. Have a good time with family and friends. If you invite non-Catholic family or friends to your gathering, you can mention that such celebrations are traditionally done in anticipation of Lent and you can weave in some discussion of the meaning of the season of Lent.

Just bear a few things in mind as you party. Don't indulge in ways that would require regret and repentance later. If you are weaning yourself off of something, don't sabotage your own efforts in the course of your merrymaking. Also, remember that the celebrations during the the Septuagesima season would historically corresponded in degree to the severity of the Lenten discipline in which people would engage. So if you throw a good party, make sure you truly engage in some corresponding sense of self-denial during Lent.

4. Go to Confession: Catholics are required by Canon Law to go to Confession at least once a year if they are conscious of a mortal sin. Of course, it's good to go to Confession much more often. At least once a month is a good practice, especially on the first Saturday of the month, in order to be able to participate in the Five First Saturdays devotion.

A lot of Catholics go to Confession twice a year, during Advent and Lent. Lent is definitely a good time to go to Confession. But I would recommend doing so already before Lent starts. In fact, the last three days before Lent have historically been known as "Shrovetide" in English, from the word "shrive," an older English word meaning Confession. As the name Shrovetide suggests, traditionally Catholics would go to Confession in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. By doing so, you can start with a clean spiritual slate at the beginning of Lent and can focus on uprooting the sinful habits you had just confessed, replacing them with spiritually life-giving practices.

5. Make Your Home Decor More Stark: During Lent, decorations inside Catholic churches are kept to a bare minimum to signify the sense of self-denial and penitence characteristic of the season. Do the same at home. Remove some of your usual decorations until Easter. As the Easter season begins, bring them back, with additional Easter decorations.

6. Bury the Alleluia: During Lent, we do not use the word "alleluia" in the Catholic Church. In fact, in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the use of alleluia was already discontinued starting with Septuagesima Sunday. Alleluia is a word of celebration and joy going back to biblical times. By depriving ourselves of this word during Lent, we highlight the sense of penitence and self-denial during the season. Then, when the alleluia returns at Easter, our celebration of the Resurrection is all the more joyful.

One old custom in the Catholic Church is to write the word "alleluia" on a scroll or nice piece of paper, then place it in a box and bury it as a way of saying good-bye to the word before the penitential season begins. The box would then be dug up and opened at Easter.

If you have a place where you can bury such a box, do so on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. If you don't have an area where you can bury something, you could place the box on a shelf, indicating that the "alleluia" has been put away until Easter Sunday arrives.

7. Celebrate Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday: As Lent approaches, Catholics traditionally indulge in some foods that they will go without during the penitential season. Two specific days of such feasting are Fat Thursday, which is the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, and Fat Tuesday, which is the day before Ash Wednesday. On Fat Tuesday specifically there was a custom of using up the remaining animal fats, which would not be consumed again until Easter. Many Catholics would make pancakes on Fat Tuesday, since pancakes were an easy way to use up all the animal fats.

I hope you found the above suggestions helpful. Let me know if have other suggestions for preparing during the Septuagesima season. Wishing you a blessed, spiritually enriching Lenten season!


Further Reading:

What is Septuagesima?

What Are Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays?

How to pregame Lent: Septuagesima, Carnival, and Shrovetide

Fat Thursday: Poland’s Tastiest Tradition

15 Indulgent Recipes for a Festive Fat Tuesday

39 Recipes to Splurge on for Fat Tuesday


Photo Credit: Ozette Loop on Olympic Peninsula by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Ember Days Offer a Sense of Focus Before Christmas



Keeping the Ember Days is an old tradition in the Catholic Church. The Ember Days are four sets of three days of fasting, abstinence from meat, and extra prayers, undertaken during different weeks of the year, known as Ember Weeks, scheduled as follows:
- Between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent
- Between the first and second Sundays of Lent
- Between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
- During the week following the first Sunday after the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which is held on September 14.

The Ember Days were originally associated with agricultural festivals, and they appear to have developed as the Church sought to Christianize pre-Christian traditions when possible, so that as the people of Europe were converting to Christianity, they could still maintain some of their old customs, now filtered through the perspective of their new faith. As practiced by Christians, the Ember Days had three specific goals: 1) to give hanks to God for the gifts of nature, 2) to teach the faithful to use those gifts in moderation, and 3) to assist the needy. Traditionally, Ember Days have involved fasting and abstaining from meat on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the week in question. Special Masses would also be said on these days. Additionally, the Church developed the custom of performing ordinations during Ember Weeks.

The Ember Days are no longer mandated in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Catholic Church. However, nothing prevents rank and file Catholics from observing the Ember Days as a private devotional practice. The Ember Days of Advent (which this year are December 19, 21, and 22) can be an especially good way of focusing on spiritual priorities just before the celebration of Christmas. Below are some suggestions for how you can observe the Ember Days of Advent:

Fast: Fasting has always been an integral part of Christian spirituality. Fasting helps us to gain a deeper sense of self-control and helps us to reorder our priorities. Fasting is also an essential weapon in spiritual warfare. Regrettably, since the Second Vatican Council, the Western part of the Catholic Church as effectively abandoned fasting as a discipline, leaving only two fast days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when Catholics are obliged to consume no more than one meal, supplemented by two small meals that add up to no more than one full meal, with no snacking outside of these three meals. You might choose to observe the Ember Days by applying these fasting rules to the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week during Advent. Or you might choose to do more. For example, you might choose to have only bread and water on one of the days. Alternatively, you could have bread and water only on Wednesday and Friday, while applying the less stringent rules on Saturday. Or, if you are experienced at fasting, you might engage in a stricter discipline on all three days.

Abstinence from Meat: If the fasting rules you apply to Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week would allow you to eat a meal with meat in it, take on an additional sacrifice by giving up meat as well. Treat this day as a Friday during Lent.

Prayer: Say some extra prayers on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of Ember Week. For example, say an extra Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet. Do some extra readings from the Scriptures. If possible, go to Mass on each of these days. Also, if possible, spend time in Adoration at least one of the three days. Go to Confession on the Saturday of Ember Week.

Thanksgiving: List at least five things you are grateful for on each of these three days.

Helping Those in Need: On each of the three days, do something to help those in need. Perhaps a member of your family needs some extra help. Perhaps one of your friends is struggling and could use some sort of assistance. Or help someone you don't know.

If you embrace the celebration of the Ember Days of Advent, and allow yourself to have this altered sense of focus, you can be sure that Christmas will be a much more spiritually fulfilling time, and you will receive an abundance of blessings.

Sources and further reading:

Fr. Alek Schrenk's Thread on the Ember Days

How observing the Ember Days can enhance your spiritual life

Wikipedia Entry on the Ember Days


Photo credit: Forest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State by Zoltan Abraham (c) 2018

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Five Benefits of the First Five Saturdays Devotion


In 1925, Our Lady of Fatima requested a special devotional practice of the faithful, the First Five Saturday Devotion, whereby the faithful undertake to do the following on five consecutive Saturdays in reparation for the outrages committed against Our Lady's Immaculate Heart:
- Go to Confession
- Receive Communion
- Pray five decades of the Rosary
- Mediate for 15 minutes on the mysteries of the Rosary.


I will link to a full description of the First Five Saturday Devotion at the end of this post. Here, I want to talk about the benefits of undertaking this devotion.

1) Reparation: Perhaps the chief benefit of the First Five Saturday Devotion is making reparations for the sins of others, thereby helping them to become more open to God's grace in their lives. It is as if someone were in overwhelming debt, and we quietly paid it off for them, helping them to get a fresh start financially.

2) Our Hour of Death: Our Lady said to Sr. Lucia: "I promise to assist at the hour of death with the graces necessary for salvation." (See link below.) If we are dedicated to the First Saturday Devotion, Our Lady will protect us in the hour of our death.

3) Habit of Regular Confession: Observing the First Five Saturday Devotion is a great way to get into the habit of regular Confession. I would recommend not stopping at five consecutive Saturdays, but to continue the devotion throughout the year. By doing so, we have a structure for going to Confession at least once a month, which is important for advancement in the spiritual life. By going to Confession frequently, we get into the habit of taking stock of our spiritual life, of what we are really doing from day-to-day, rather than what we would like to think we are doing. Frequent Confession keeps us honest with ourselves and accountable.

4) The Blessings of Confession: Confession absolves us from sin and, if we are properly disposed, gives us the grace to change sinful habits that weigh us down and hinder our spiritual progress. Confession is also a powerful tool in spiritual warfare, in that the grace of Confession helps to bind and cast out through the power of Christ the evil spirits that we have let into our lives through our sins.

5) Learning to Meditate on the Rosary: Reciting the Rosary daily is a powerful spiritual practice. But frequent recitation can cause us to say the prayers on autopilot, without much conscious awareness. By taking time at least once a month to meditate for 15 minutes on the mysteries of the Rosary, we can develop the skills we need to continue to engage with each mystery more mindfully during the rest of the month.

The above are just some of the benefits of committing to the First Saturday Devotions requested by Our Lady of Fatima. Many others will, I am sure, become evident upon further reflection. For a fuller description of the history and nature of the devotion, please follow the link below:
The Five First Saturdays Devotion


Photo: The Sanctuary of Fatima, taken on my 2017 trip to Fatima.