How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me?” Psalm 116:12
My dear People of God,
Having completed our pledges for Return to the Lord, I wish to express my gratitude for your open-hearted generosity in this endeavor providing for the future needs of the Diocese of Lake Charles. All of our parishes contributed. Over fifty percent of them contributed over their goals. Approximately 33 percent of all registered families participated. Return to the Lord greatly exceeded our expectations.
Now we must address the ends for which the campaign was intended: to provide for a stable funding of priests retirement and seminarian education, begin the restoration of our Cathedral, expand the services of Catholic Charities, and build a Catholic youth center—these will be our tasks in the coming years. As we continue over the next three years to fulfill our pledges to Return to the Lord, I encourage you to remember this on-going work in your prayers. Most significantly, however, our Return to the Lord campaign also had a spiritual dimension, and I would like to pursue this topic with you in my Pastoral Letter for Lent.
When we began our Capital Campaign, I mentioned that the title, Return to the Lord, was inspired by Psalm 116:12, which reads, “How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me?” The Psalm provides the answer to that question: “I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people” (Psalm 116:13-14). Thus, what we return to the Lord is clearly our spiritual offering. Material things already belong to Him. And while we return these earthly goods back to Him as faithful stewards, we also make a spiritual offering to the Lord which involves a creative act of cooperation with His Grace; thereby, something new, as it were, comes into being.
As Psalm 116 implies, this spiritual offering consists of two things. On one hand, it involves an act of worship—“the cup of salvation” and calling upon “the name of the Lord.” On the other hand, this offering is a good life lived within the community—fulfilling our promises made to the Lord. In both senses we return to the Lord.
First, worship is what we offer to God as His due. The precepts of the Catholic Church remind us of this offering. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the first precept reads as follows: “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CCC, #2042). This precept is not merely an obligation.
Worship is an orientation of the heart, soul and mind to God. When asked which commandment was the greatest, our Lord answered, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). The practice of religion is never entirely a private and personal affair. For this reason our Lord adds the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The heart, soul and mind oriented to God points us in the direction of dedicated love and service. Love of neighbor most perfectly flows from one who loves God first and foremost.
Attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days is the basic premise for our devotion to God. Through this act we demonstrate both our love for God and our desire to love Him even more, for we can never love Him enough. In this attendance at Mass we join the community of persons who are also striving to increase their love for God. In those around us we recognize the ones whom we should love as our neighbor. With them at every Mass we ask pardon for sins, listen to God’s Word, offer our prayers of petition, and join in the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary for our redemption. How can we abstain from this perfect act of worship, much less deprive our children of the same advantage? It is a privilege and a joy, not something to be rushed through or treated in a casual and perfunctory manner. The Letter to the Hebrews admonishes us, saying, “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25). In speaking to the early Christians, St. Paul describes their worship in these terms: “[Y]ou have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
When we worship, we turn towards the object of our adoration—God. This turning towards God is both a spiritual and physical reality. I would wish to pursue this subject of directing ourselves to God a little further.
Sacred Scripture permeates our Catholic worship. Not long ago (i.e. Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent) the first reading for Mass was taken from Isaiah 45. The passage struck me profoundly. The verse read, “Turn to me and be safe” (Isaiah 45:22). The reading continued, “To me every knee shall bend; by me every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23). Clearly a physical orientation was implied. So in my effort to grasp the meaning of this passage more fully, I consulted scriptural scholarship concerning the connotation of the original Hebrew word in the ancient text translated here as “turn.” What I found was quite revealing.
Being a graphic language, Hebrew has no less than 17 different words that imply or mean “turn.” The most common is transliterated as shub. But in this passage from Isaiah the word used in Hebrew is not shub but panah, a Hebrew word whose root is the noun meaning “face,” as in “face to face.” Literally Isaiah meant, “Face me and be safe,” a fitting admonition for not only Advent but any moment we enter the Lord’s presence. This orientation to the Lord is reflected throughout the heavenly worship recorded in the Sacred Scriptures, whether it be the worshippers before the throne of “one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian” (Revelation 4:3) or the Lamb (Revelation 14), or the Seraphim before “the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne” (Isaiah 6:1), or the congregation at the Temple on the Day of Atonement (Sirach 50). Orientation has meaning not only for worship but also for our daily living, and this brings me to the other implication of Return to the Lord.
As I said, religious faith is never purely personal or private. Recall the second commandment (Matthew 22:39). Loving our neighbor requires virtue on our part. This virtue must be practiced and comes with effort. It is a good habit. We hear many, with good reason, complain about the lack of civility in our society today. Acts of violence, rage, crudity and vulgarity abound. But when was the last time we spoke to our children about virtue of any kind or the fruits of virtue—patience, prudence, chastity, self-restraint, discipline, courtesy, kindness? When was the last time an employer spoke to his employees or a teacher to her students about these qualities? When was the last time we encouraged our children to live the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #2447)?
These works of mercy should be memorized, not as an academic exercise but to be lived. The opposition which often some mistakenly create between dogma and practice is false. Dogma is an expression of truth, and truth is never in opposition to what is good. We must love what is good, and we cannot love what we do not know. And what we do not know we cannot live. The exercise of virtue is not a magic act. It just does not simply happen without conscious application. A return to virtue and the fruits of a virtuous life are long overdue.
What I am saying here has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church since the beginning. This message is nothing new. The teaching comes from the Sacred Scriptures and is reiterated in our Sacred Tradition. What we are experiencing in society, however, is a low-point in moral behavior. If society is not to sink more deeply into this mire of confusion and disaffection, then it is time to “return to the Lord.” To do so requires an orientation to the Giver of every good gift.
God has blessed us with an overwhelmingly successful capital campaign. I am certain that He expects more of us, beginning with a heartfelt and spiritual “return to the Lord.” May this Lent be the start of something new, built on an already well-established foundation.
As I express my gratitude, dear and generous faithful, asking God’s blessings on you for spiritual growth and renewal, I remain
Devotedly yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles