The Mundelein seminarians have returned back to Chicago safe and sound. It was a long and tiring journey, but we were grateful to come back to smiling faces and our own beds! As we spend these days of recovery and prepare to begin our semester again, we are becoming more aware of this great and awesome privilege we just experienced. We know there are many graces and stories to still unpack, and we look forward to unpacking those with you and each other.
Thank you for the prayers and please continue to pray for us as we journey toward ordination.
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” -Psalm 137:5
The Greek word mysterion is often translated as the English word mystery, but in early Christian Theology and Orthodox Theology, this word translates to Sacrament. In one of the first homilies we heard on our pilgrimage here in the Holy Land, the priest preached about the mystery of our faith. That here, in this land, the mystery was lived and experienced. Here, in this land, God visited His people in the flesh and drew us into a deeper and more personal encounter with Him that would spread throughout the world. And that is what a Sacrament is, an encounter with the living God, inviting us to participate in His divine life by grace, through sign and symbol.
Within this thought of the mystery, of the mysterion, of the Sacrament, we were able to encounter Jesus Christ. Over this pilgrimage, we have visited many places associated with the life of Jesus, while encountering Jesus himself in the Sacrament of the Eucharist that we celebrated at these holy sites. From the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, to the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to the Church at Cana, to the Mount of Beatitudes, to the seashore of the Sea of Galilee, up to the mountain of Calvary, and finally to the Empty Tomb, we were able to encounter the Risen Lord, truly and fully, in the Eucharistic meal.
It doesn’t matter if it was this rock or that rock that Jesus sat upon when he gave the sermon on the mount. It doesn’t matter if Jesus was born in a cave or in a stable. It doesn’t matter if the empty Tomb in the Holy Sepulcher is the third structure over the Tomb (the first two being destroyed in 614 and 1009). What matters is encountering the mystery, encountering the Sacrament, encountering the Risen Lord. And it does not matter if one is in Jerusalem, or Munich, or Seoul, or Chicago to need to encounter the Risen Lord. Throughout the world, the same mysterion is lived and encountered, the same Risen Lord comes to us, to draw us into a more profound and personal relationship with Him.
As we move closer to our ordinations to the diaconate in the next few weeks and ultimately priesthood in the next year, our duty as heralds of the Gospel and imitating the mysteries we celebrate have been deepened through our encounter with Christ in this Holy Land. By our own personal encounter with the Risen Lord, first at His invitation to discern the priesthood, and subsequently throughout our journey through Seminary formation and here on this pilgrimage, we are strengthened in our witness to the truths of our faith. That Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, that he was born, died, was buried, and he rose from the dead. The joy of this faith cannot be taken away, and this pilgrimage has given us the vigor by living the mysterion to proclaim this truth throughout our lives of upcoming ordained ministry.
The small chapel commemorating the sixth station on the Via Dolorosa will always remain an everlasting memory for me. I have always wondered how privileged Veronica was to see and touch our Lord’s wounded face. Jesus was continuing along that sorrowful path to Calvary. On that bloody path, he was comforted by Veronica, who was ready to run to our Lord Jesus. Nothing stopped her from running to our Lord and comforting him in his agony. How blessed her hands were to touch the blood that was to wash away all our sins.
I’m sure that Veronica would remember those moments until the very end of her life. The cloth with Jesus’s face imprinted on it would have been her greatest treasure, one that would have kindled her faith. This episode in Veronica’s life, however, reminds me of the real presence of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Even though this was a onetime event for Veronica, we are privileged to see on the altar, the ever-living bruised face of our Lord every single day.
The sacrifice of the Mass enables us to experience his presence in a very concrete way in the Holy Eucharist. If we see his presence in the Holy Eucharist, it will leave behind an imprint in our hearts that will remain in us for the rest of our lives. If we can experience his presence, then we too can preserve that memory, the same as Veronica’s cloth.
However, to see his face in this great bread of the altar, we need the supernatural gift of faith, a gift that is freely given if we seek it. There is nothing that we can “do” to see his face but to ask God for that gift. God, who knows even the smallest whispers of our heart, will understand our desire to see him. He can change our unbelief to belief if we truly pray for that to happen in our lives.
However, added to that is the need to purify our hearts in order to receive this special gift. May this Lenten season be a time for us to examine our lives and ask for repentance. May God give all of us the gift of faith that arises from true metanoia, enabling us to see his face.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
Ankit Jose Mathews
Syro–Malabar Archdiocese of Kottayam
As a young child, I gained many fond memories from our annual parish festival. Jumping in the giant bounce house with all my friends, playing the Teddy Bear ring toss game with my god-father, visiting my sister at the lollipop tree, asking my dad for more carnival game tickets, and visiting my mom waitressing in the dining room to get my dinner during which I would always drink way too many Chocolate milk cartons. These are just a small sample of the many joys of my childhood. The gathering of dozens of families united in our work and our faith to support the parish we loved during those beautiful summer days, these experiences provided me with the memories that helped to form my understanding of what it means to be a community.
Across the old city of Jerusalem, beyond the Kidron valley, is the Mount of Olives. On this mountain, many of the significant events of Jesus’ life took place. We visited the Carmel Monastery of the Pater Noster where Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father (Luke 11), we visited the Dominus Flevit Church where Jesus wept over the coming destruction of Jerusalem just before entered the city on Palm Sunday (Luke 19:41-44), we visited the Garden of Gethsemane were Jesus sweated blood while anticipating His imminent suffering and death (Luke 22:39-53), and we visited the Chapel of the Ascension where Jesus rose to His heavenly Father after His resurrection (Act 1:6-12). The significance of these events made these sites very powerful places to visits, but what struck me was something new I learned about this mountain.
As a faithful Jew, Jesus, along with all His family and friends, would visit Jerusalem regularly for various religious festivals. During these festivals, Jerusalem would be overwhelmed with pilgrims. This overcrowding would require many of the pilgrims to camp outside the city walls. These various clans of pilgrims would camp together next to their neighbors from home. Since Jesus was from Galilee, He would have camped where the rest of the Galileans were assigned to camp. Their campsite was none other than the Mount of Olive.
This pilgrimage helped me to understand that Jesus and I likely had very similar joyful childhood memories. Visiting the sites that were important to Jesus’ adulthood was powerful enough, but realizing that this was a place where Jesus had so many good childhood memories really unexpectedly hit me.
Jesus knew this mountain well. Here, He reconnected with distant family members while celebrating the great joys of their festivals. Here, He played for hours with His friends. Here, He had powerful childhood memories like the fond memories of my own childhood.
This realization helped me to better understand how difficult it must have been for Jesus to suffer on these grounds. I would not want the place of my childhood memories tainted by the betrayal of the community I loved so much, yet this is precisely what Jesus was willing to suffer. Jesus allowed himself to be turned over and condemned to torturous death by the same community that once embraced him so lovingly on this mountain. Reflecting on the love that Jesus must have had for us to be able to do this makes taking up my own cross a little easier this Lenten season.
I gazed out into the depths of the evening sky at the white, luminous full moon, high in the sky over Jerusalem. Recently, we traveled to Gethsemane, where Jesus, quite possibly raised his eyes up, as well, to this same moon some two thousand years ago, as His Passion commenced.
“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5.) Perhaps you recognize this verse – it appeared on a blank screen, after a bolt of lightning and a powerful crack of thunder, to open the epic Mel Gibson film, The Passion of the Christ. It then cuts directly to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The Garden of Gethsemane is located at a lower portion of the Mount of Olives (where Christ would later ascend to Heaven). Gethsemane is derived from a Hebrew word, and it means “olive oil press.” Truly, there are many ancient, contorted olive trees in the garden there. Their roots could very well have been initiating life under the soil on the eve of Christ’s agony in the garden and experts believe them to be 1500 years old.
Passover is the major Jewish feast that was being celebrated at the same time when Christ began his Passion. It lasts 7 days and always occurs during a full moon in the Spring.
We celebrated morning mass gathered around “the rock of agony” in the dimly lit Church of All Nations. It is a flat rock where Jesus prayed. As I progress through Lent and enter the final phase of the Holy Land Pilgrimage, I give God thanks for the wonderful blessings of this somber visit. Two ideas come to mind to deepen this Lenten experience: read Jesus of Nazareth – Part II: Holy Week by Pope Benedict XVI and watch The Passion of the Christ (I stole that idea from my older brother). Have a Blessed Lent.
There are so many amazing sites we are visiting with such deep historical, scriptural, and spiritual meaning. There are new experiences, or new re-experiencing, every day. This is now my 6th visit to the Holy Land and I still find new discoveries or places to visit. I also remember and re-experience places and people from previous visits. The opportunity to re-visit holy sites has been a great blessing. There is so much to take in, to remember from scripture, and to reflect on at each site. Last week, some of us attended a public Holy Hour and Procession for prayer at Gethsemane on Thursday, then a Holy Hour just for our group of Seminarians on Friday, and then our group had Mass there on the following Tuesday.
The opportunity to return two or three times to a Holy Site allows this newer and deeper experiencing and reflection. Some pilgrim groups visit a Holy Site once for 5 minutes and then onto the next site. There is so much to take in and reflect on, especially if it is the first – and maybe only – visit. Returning a second or third time (or more) allows taking in the environment and then going deeper in reflection and prayer on the significance of the site and relating to that in prayer and reflection. Many pilgrims have shared these experiences with me, and I have noticed it myself.
Just like reading scripture passages, each visit is remembering previous visits and also a new experience. At Gethsemane, there was new reflection on the scripture passages regarding Jesus praying in the garden; re-imagining that night of Holy Thursday and translating it to how it is remembered in parishes; and always new prayer intentions, especially with all that is going on here, in Italy, back home, and in so many places across the globe.
We have met so many people here through pre-arranged visits and through spontaneous encounters and conversations. Their stories are profound and inspiring, as is their faith and resilience. We will be returning home soon, Lord willing. My thoughts and prayers will continue for those who will continue to live here in the broad spectrum of experiences and difficulties they live in their daily lives. In a small way, I am experiencing a similar uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring – and what returning home will be like – as they experience daily and have experienced for most of their lives. They have offered their prayers for me and I offer my prayers for them. Prayer unites us, connects us, sustains us, and helps us to support each other in solidarity. Prayer also, of course, unites us more with God, opening us more to reliance on Him and to perceiving the movements of the Spirit within us. In the words of Jesus as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that Thursday night so long ago, prayer helps us to recognize and say, “Father, not my will, but your will be done.”
Let us continue united in prayer, praying for each other, and praying for all.
A Christian pilgrim cannot come to the Holy Land without experiencing Eastern Christianity. Iconographic scenes embossed in gold adorn the walls of sacred spaces, the thurible unceasingly rings, and fills the air with the fragrance of prayer, sacred serenades resound in the ancient domes, lifting the cries from the depths of the human heart! Surely an impression is made; one of beauty and reverence and respect.
For many in our class, the pilgrimage has been the opportunity to have these “impressive experiences” of Eastern Christian communities and their rituals. They have been novel experiences that have expanded horizons. It has been the opportunity to exercise charity of clarity, namely that Roman is not the only adjective to modify the identity Catholic.
On Sunday, the Mundelein pilgrims had the opportunity for an “impressive experience,” namely Divine Liturgy at the Greek Melkite Catholic Patriarchate in Jerusalem. This church is a community of Syriac origin that worships through the Byzantine tradition. We enjoyed the richness of the prayers and the beauty of the chanting; an English worship aid and homilist helped to unveil some of the mystery as well. However, after Jesus was received and the final prayers were offered, the choice was ours: many wanted to use our free afternoon to go in groups for shopping or lunch or sight-seeing. The Archbishop Emeritus stated his desire. He insisted we go up to the roof to see the view of Jerusalem. The whole class scurried up the stairs and there were many photos and laughs upon the roof. During our photoshoot, Archbishop Emeritus was fumbling in his drawer to find little crosses to gift us, future priests. He created a space of warmth, welcome, and love… and people lingered. He shared little details and anecdotes of his life. With the little time we spent with him, I knew I was in the presence of a Friend of Christ, a holy and joyful man.
We could have just come for liturgy, enjoyed its beauty, and left. What made a world of difference was allowing that experience to become an encounter. What could have just been an “impressive experience” of wonder and novelty could have stayed that way. It was the courage and love of this holy man that opened a place that allowed us to recognize someone so familiar. Archbishop Emeritus is a MelkiteCatholic, but rather than focusing on the adjective, the external, the identifier, we could see the identity: a fellow brother in Christ and a father given to us through His One Church. It is easier to focus on the former.
Eastern Christians comprise less than 15% of the Christian world; they comprise even less of the Christians in the United States. The average American might go a lifetime without interacting with a member of these diverse and ancient communities. Perhaps there are no worshipping communities where we live, or, if there are, they might be so small that they are overlooked or so conspicuous that a protective bubble has formed around them. Perhaps we have interacted with them and did not even know. Perhaps we do not have the interest to know. As a seminarian studying for an Eastern-rite Church in the United States, I often worry if we, brothers and sisters in the One Christ and One Church, will be ships in the night…or find enrichment and wholeness in our communion. I hope that space will be made.
St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago
The reason why the scriptures are abundant and inexhaustible is that they are divinely inspired, and God desires that the peoples of every age read their personal stories into scripture. Christ came down at the annunciation, and there, in a real time and a real place, he began to live human life. Because He is fully God and fully man, we can read our fully human stories into his.
Recently, we had the opportunity to celebrate Mass on the hill of Calvary. There, above the altar, above the slot into which the cross was planted, is an artistic recreation of Jesus on the cross. He is surrounded, as the Gospel of John tells us, by his mother on one side, and the beloved disciple on the other. In times of great pain, the Holy Spirit invites us to see ourselves as Christ on the cross, suffering for the world’s redemption. Other times, we are called to be Mary or the beloved disciple, accompanying someone else through passion type experiences.
Part of the vocation to be a priest is standing in that place: at the foot of the cross of another. Confronted with great suffering, often, there is nothing that can be done to fix the situation. The holy people of God bring to their priests their pains, suffering, anger and regret. He is the man present at the hospital after a tragic accident. He is the man at the graveyard as final farewells are bid. He is the one in the office when “I just need someone to talk to.” He is called to be there, though he may not be able to do anything to help.
Sometimes with Jesus on the cross, sometimes with Jesus in the tomb, the priest abides in the suffering, just like John and Mary did on the first Good Friday.
There at the foot of the cross, there in the silent tomb, all together, all awaiting the resurrection, sit Mary, John, and any Christian that chooses to heed the call of Jesus: love one another as I have loved you. But will the resurrection come? The first disciples didn’t know that it would. Sometimes, in human tragedy, it can seem like it never will.
Hannah made a vow before the Lord asking to be blessed with a child. If she was blessed with a son he would be given back to the Lord. “Then I will set him before you as a nazarite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head” (1 Sam 1:11). She was blessed with her son, Samuel, who she dedicated to the Lord and who would become a great prophet in Israel. Today we were blessed to visit and pray at Samuel’s tomb. From there we were taken to Beth Shemesh, which is the site where the Philistines gave the Ark of the Covenant back to the Israelites and we prayed through 1 Samuel 6. Our morning was a blessing getting to pray with the Prophet Samuel.
Our afternoon may have been the most anticipated leisurely activity of the trip. After visiting Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, we ventured a little way to a nice little beach on the Dead Sea. After failed attempts at walking on water, we decided to float, which is quite the experience. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, and has the saltiest water at about 33% salinity, in comparison to the 3% of the oceans. It took little to no effort to stay afloat, but it was difficult avoiding splashing and getting water in the eyes.
The day was a blessed reminder that seminarians can enjoy leisurely days at the beach all the while of listening to the voice of God, as Samuel did, as he said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10)
As you’re reading, January 1st may be nothing but a distant memory. More than likely, so, too, are all those New Year’s resolutions we’ve made. That usually happens because we rely on willpower, and willpower rarely works.Willpower here differs from the“will to power” used by the philosopherFriedrichNietzsche,which seems to rely on the basis of the expansion of poweror control over something.
The concept of willpower I am referring to is easier to grasp when we understand its scriptural basis. The Biblical Greek word for “will” is “thélēma”( from “thélō” ), often translated as “to desire/wish.” It’s the idea that we can achieve a goal when our true desires match our objective. That meaning is drawn from the very nature of God. As a perfect and sinless Being, the Lord is free of inner conflict, so whatever He wills comes to pass.
But we humans struggle greatly with inner conflict, don’t we? And that often places our desires in direct conflict with our goals. Take exercise as an example. We may wish to lose twenty pounds, but if what we truly desire is to eat ice cream every night, we’ll soon find our willpower breaking down with a spoon in one hand and a banana split in the other. The reality is our wishes are never strong enough to overcome our true desires for very long.
The solution, then, is to ask God to help us understand the inner areas that hold sway over our desires. So – back to the weight loss example for a moment – after examining our motivations, we may discover we eat junk food to pacify emotional pain that’s never healed. If that’s the case, then to the degree we find healing for that inner struggle and resolve it, the need to cover the pain will, likewise, go away.
So whether it’s weight loss, a well lived Christian life, or letting go of that bad habit, are you relying on willpower to achieve your goals? If so, you may have to put in some work to get your true desires to align with your objectives. That will certainly include seeking God in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and it may even require the listening ear of a friend or, if the hurt is deep enough, the guidance of a counselor. But if you stay on the journey, your willpower can be strengthened over time and work for, rather than against, you.
The great news of achieving whatever goal we’ve set for ourselves this Year is that we’re not on ourown; Christ is readily with us. The season of Lent could be a period for us to renew those commitments of a deeper Christian living based on daily practices of self giving love. And these practices of seeking God in all things can lead to true transformations.
[This post relied on a plan suggested by the Evangelist Jim Daly]