My Dear People of God,
Almost every month from September to May, I meet with men and women of the Diocese to study the Bible. This year we are reading the Gospel of St. Luke. When we recently came to this verse, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34), we were reminded that everyone is called to holiness.
This vocation to holiness is the call of the Gospel which the Church has never ceased to proclaim. For this reason, I have chosen the call to holiness as the theme for my Lenten Pastoral Letter. Pursuing holiness compels us to reconsider what keeps us from holiness—the separation from God which is sin. Let us begin with the Gospel of this First Sunday of Lent.
We read about the devil tempting Jesus Christ in the desert as recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew. We must never be deceived into thinking that the devil does not exist or that the devil is simply an absence of good. Our own Holy Father, Pope Francis, has frequently reminded us of the devil’s existence and his evil. The Church always asks us to reflect on the temptations of Jesus Christ at the beginning of Lent for a number of reasons. Let us look more closely at what we find in St. Matthew’s account.
The devil at first seems not to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The tempter addresses Jesus with these words, not once but twice, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3, 6). Is the devil pretending? Certainly pretending is a common ploy of the devil, yet his knowledge and power are not unlimited. With the third temptation, the taunting persists, but Jesus reminds the devil of the Book of Deuteronomy’s mandate, saying, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10; cf. Deuteronomy 6:13). The devil is a trickster who stirs confusion to compensate for his own inadequacies. Such is part of the psychology of evil. We can readily conclude, as does our Catholic Catechism, “The power of Satan is … not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #395). Nonetheless, the devil can make a great deal of trouble and does, but, as St. Paul reminds us, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). In other words, the devil can cause chaos if we allow him. We obstruct the devil’s plans when we love God and conform ourselves to God’s will. There is an important lesson here, which brings me to the topic of my letter.
We are called to holiness. Jesus leads us to this realization by His example. And what is that example? He will follow His Father’s will. He will not change stones into bread to satisfy His hunger. He will not impress the crowds by throwing himself down from the parapet of the temple in order to be saved by hosts of angels. And He certainly will not fall down and worship the devil—an absurd proposition that only demonstrates that the devil is still stirring confusion, pretending he is not convinced that he is dealing with the Son of God.
Holiness consists in doing the Father’s will. And the Father’s will is that Jesus must first suffer and die before rising from the dead. “This is why the Father loves me,” Jesus said, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (John 10:17). Jesus makes this offering of his life freely. “No one takes it from me,” He continues, “but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (John 10:18). The Christian life as the imitation of Christ stems from this basic and elementary free act. God gives us grace, and we freely respond by embracing His will. The forceful “Get away, Satan!” uttered by Jesus is a command spoken by a free person, rejecting evil and accepting totally the Father’s will. Jesus left us this example, and the saints give us testimony to it.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was our first native-born saint from the United States. She was a wife and mother, a convert to Catholicism, and a founder of a religious community of teaching sisters in Maryland that soon spread the mission of Catholic education throughout our country in its earliest years. In one of her conferences to her sisters, St. Elizabeth gave this instruction: “I once read or heard that an interior life means but the continuation of our Savior’s life in us; that the great object of all his mysteries is to merit for us the grace of his interior life and communicate it to us, it being the end of his mission to lead us into the sweet land of promise, a life of constant union with himself.” The “interior life,” what we also call the spiritual life, is nothing less than the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. I find the notion of Jesus continuing His saving work in our lives to be a great encouragement. God calls all of us to this life, not just a privileged few.
The call to holiness is not meant only for clergy and religious. The call to holiness is a universal call. The Second Vatican Council reminded us of this. As a matter of fact it was a major theme of the Council. “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” The Council continues, “In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that … doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor” (Lumen Gentium 40 § 2; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2013ff.). “[D]oing the will of the Father in everything”—that is it. That is how we should strive daily for holiness.
But some will say, “I am a sinner.” Aren’t we all? Admitting one’s sinfulness is not the same as remaining obstinately in sin. Pope Francis pointed this out in strong terms recently when he spoke to an assembly of religious superiors. In speaking of candidates for religious life and who should be accepted, Pope Francis stated, “I am not speaking about people who recognize that they are sinners; we are all sinners, but we are all not corrupt” (Address to Religious Superiors, November 29, 2013). God’s mercy is eternal, and while all of us are sinners, God calls us to His mercy through repentance. We have a great responsibility to exercise our freedom in accepting the call to repentance. We do so primarily in the Sacrament of Penance but also through participation in the other Sacraments and the life of prayer—all of which must be on-going in our lives.
Our relationship with God, living out this call to holiness, can be compared to a child’s relationship with a parent. Did not Jesus tell us to call God our Father? What child would tell his or her parents only once in life, “I love you”? Instead, the child would repeat those words over and over again, at every opportunity possible—perhaps even daily! As a matter of fact, a child’s entire life is spent developing a relationship with parents, learning from mistakes, improving behavior, and fostering the good of the family. If this does not happen, then there are problems. And the problems are solved or overcome when we have the courage to admit the truth about them and address them with courage and grace.
To return to our Gospel passage, the devil would want us to fall down and worship him. We must have the courage to say that we will not do this. And what gives us that courage? Jesus Christ does with His own example. I would like to offer three ways that Jesus does this.
First, Jesus prayed. He instructed us on the topic of prayer (Matthew 6:5-15). He gave us an example to follow by going off to deserted places and up high mountains alone to pray to His Father. We should do the same. Many of our parish churches have Adoration Chapels where we can stop in and pray. Do this daily. Praying before the Blessed Sacrament, in exposition or in our tabernacles, is a powerful instrument of grace. We cannot remain in the dishonesty of sin for long, if we find ourselves on our knees before the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. We should also make time for an annual retreat or day of recollection. We should also practice charity, fast and do penance, as Jesus himself instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18).
Second, Jesus died. Yes, He died the humiliating death of the cross, a harsh fact our crucifixes remind us of every time we look at them. Jesus taught, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (John 9:23-24). To deny our crosses is a lie. To embrace them in the spirit of Jesus is the truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8:32).
Third, Jesus rose. The fact of the Resurrection is our hope. Have we ever stopped to think that every time we participate in the Eucharist we participate in the hope of the Resurrection. St. Paul reminds us of this. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26). The “death of the Lord” is not the end. He rose and He lives, and the Eucharist invites us to rise and to live. As some have described it, the Eucharist is an “eternal now.” All that Christ is, from the beginning to the end, is made present here and now. For this reason, “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup” (I Corinthians 11:28). And those prevented in conscience from receiving the Eucharist must never, never give up hope. They should make an act of spiritual communion with our Lord, bring Him all the good will they can muster, and allow the grace of God to work in their lives, as did the tax collector who beat his breast and dared not lift his head or the centurion who would not even allow Jesus to enter his house because he was unworthy. All of us can identify with that contrition.
God’s works are marvelous. Our prayers never go unheard or unanswered. Let us reject the temptations of the devil, as did Jesus in the Gospel, and say “yes” to the Father’s will, making it our own. Let us accept the call to holiness.
With prayers for you and your intentions, as well as blessings for a fruitful Lent, I remain
Devotedly yours in our Lord,
+Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles