The Most Reverend Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Talk to Deacons of the Diocese of Lake Charles
May 12, 2007
Saint Charles Center
Pope Benedict XVI in March of this year issued his post-synodal apostolic exhortation entitled "The Sacrament of Charity." This document flows from the discussions and considerations of the most recent synod of bishops on the topic of the Eucharist. It is a rich reflection on the mystery of the Eucharist that should be and must be at the heart of our lives as ministers of the Church, not to mention the Church as a whole. However, we must know that unless the leaders are conscientious about personal spiritual lives, then those they lead will not be. I would like this morning to share with you one particular aspect of Eucharistic life that Our Holy Father mentions. That is the spiritual life.
We must begin with the premise that the Eucharist transforms us. The entire Christian message is a message of transformation. In the Gospel of St. John it begins with the mystery of the Word of God made flesh. This is the greatest transformation of all. Every other transformation proceeds from it. The Wedding of Cana becomes the first manifestation of what is to come. Jesus works His first miracle, at the prompting of His mother, and the stage is set. The disciples come to believe in Him.
With every miracle, with every act of forgiveness and healing, giving the blind sight, the deaf hearing, the mute speech, Jesus progresses to that consummate teaching of transformation. It comes in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John. "As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me" (John 6:57). Life is what it is all about, and in partaking of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist we come to share the life of the Trinity and thus are transformed into life.
No one other than St. Augustine speaks of this. "I am the food of grown men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into me" (Confessions VII, 10, 16). In reflecting on this profound mystery, the Holy Father writes, "It is not the Eucharistic food that is changed into us, but rather we who are mysteriously transformed by it" ("The Sacrament of Charity", 70). The Christian message is rooted in the truth that transformation is possible, man¹s heart can be converted, grace can transplant sin, the deaf can hear, the poor can be consoled. All of this mystery of transformation is found in the reality of the Eucharist. This is one primary reason the Eucharist is so important to the Catholic. To deny the reality of the Eucharistic presence is to in some way deny the possibility of transformation.
For a leader and teacher in the Church not to attempt to exhaust this possibility is a real source of sadness. To appreciate the mystery more fully is the end and purpose of the spiritual life. In speaking of priestly formation, what Pope Benedict XVI says of priests is just as true of deacons and bishops. "In order to give an ever greater Eucharistic form to his existence, the priest, beginning with his years in the seminary, should make his spiritual life his highest priority" ("The Sacrament of Charity", 80). It is to make the spiritual life your "highest priority" that I would like to call you to this morning. I cannot think of something more important for a bishop to remind his deacons of, as he speaks to them for the first time. Practically speaking what would I suggest?
Just as with any work there are components, the same is true of the spiritual life. The first component is the Eucharist itself. Daily Mass and reception of the Eucharist is essential. To be fed by the Lord Himself, our Master and Teacher, to offer ourselves to Him and His transforming grace this is where our day should begin and end.
This participation in the Eucharist implies a second component, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When Jesus in His first post-Resurrection appearance breathes on the apostles and tells them to forgive others sins (John 20:22-23), He gives a gift to us all. That transforming gift is the gift of sacramental forgiveness, and we as leaders in the Church should frequently, at least monthly, take the opportunity of hearing the words spoken, "Go, your sins are forgiven." Only then can we fully appreciate forgiveness and reconciliation in our lives.
A third and most essential component is the Liturgy of Hours. The primary source of spiritual enrichment comes to us here from the psalms. Prayed everyday, with devotion, frequently with "lectio divina" or in the context of prayer, the psalms become part of our very fabric. We relate to them, they to us. As a psalm expresses frustration or a need for repentance or a deep hunger for God, it strikes a responsive chord in the heart of the minister who prayers that psalm. Every emotion known to man is found in the psalms, as well as every high and low point in our relationship with God. Of particular interest is Psalm 119, the longest which has been called justifiably the blueprint of the spiritual life. It has always been for me a source of reflection and almost always is the first psalm prayed in the mid-day prayer of the Liturgy of Hours.
The fourth component for the spiritual life is mental prayer. Fed by the Eucharist and the word of God, to spend a significant amount of time in silence with Our Lord is absolutely necessary. Here we open our hearts to God. We speak to Him surely, but more importantly He speaks to us. For this to happen, there must be silence, undisturbed and undistracted. Often people will complain of distractions in prayer. With time this becomes less of a problem. However, when distractions perturb us, then we must remember the admonition of St. Theresa of Avila. One hour of distracted prayer is better than no prayer at all. I strongly recommend one hour of mental prayer a day, ideally before the Blessed Sacrament. If not, then in a place that allows for concentration and essential silence.
In the spiritual life reading and study are necessary as a fifth component. In this I am referring to two things: spiritual reading and the study of Christian classics in theology. For spiritual reading, the wealth of sources is considerable and inexhaustible. Once a convert to Catholicism who had just discovered the richness of St. John of the Cross told me, "Why do people run after this preacher or that? The Catholic Church has so many saints whose writings are available and speak to us as though they were alive today." How true that is! I think of St. Augustine, whose "Confessions" is a classic. This is not to fail to mention St. Therese of Liseux¹s "Autobiography", the writings of St. Theresa of Avila. St. John of the Cross, St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Benedict‹to mention only a few and most notable. And there are many great writers today. They are all found in good bookstores and good libraries. The second source of reading must be theology. If we do not study the Word of God, research the meaning of the sacraments and moral teaching of the Church, then how can we preach? How can we offer advice? How can we teach those ignorant of the truth or answer their questions? We must avoid also becoming mired in a particular school of thought. The Church has a mind, and it is Catholic and embraces a wide range of approaches to only one truth that is articulated by the magisterium of the Church. The use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is fundamental as a launching ground for research and reading.
An annual retreat is also required. We must take time every year to be alone for a significant period, to be fed under the direction of an experienced retreat director, the leadership of the Ignatian exercises, the prayerful atmosphere of a monastic schedule, or some other proven context. Here for those three to five days, all that we have been doing daily at prayer finds support and reinforcement. We are blessed in the Diocese of Lake Charles to have such a fine facility as the St. Charles Center. We must use it.
Finally, I think the rosary is important. We want to pray the rosary for primarily two reasons. First, it offers a reflection on the mysteries of Christ¹s life and teaching. The Luminous Mysteries, as a more recent addition, open up even further a door into deepening our understanding of the Christian message and the transformation about which we spoke earlier. The second reason is also important. Mary is many things, but she is the model of the Church and a Mother to us all. She prompted Her Son¹s first miracle with the words "do whatever he tells you" and stood at the foot of the cross when blood and water, the sacramental signs of His life, flowed from His side. The rosary reminds of us of all this and more. For the Catholic it is a companion on a journey, as Mary is Mother.
The Holy Father towards the end of his document considers a final point that is worthy of mention. The Eucharist is the heart and center of the spiritual life and flows over into the moral life. He quotes his own earlier encyclical, "Deus caritas est", and says, "¹Worship¹ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented." Perhaps without the Eucharist one can love, but one will love more richly and more deeply if that love springs from the source of the Eucharist. Love is giving of self. In the Eucharist Jesus does exactly this. Brought into that mystery by the Eucharist and absorbed by it, we become the love that we worship. In this context the words of Our Lord take on new meaning: "He who eats me will live because of me" (John 6:57). How can one live, if one does not love? To love as Christ loves is the object of the Christian life, and the spiritual life is the plan we use to achieve that end.