Old Flames and New

t the end of his encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), Pope Benedict XVI, wrote of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the star of the sea, a beacon that guides us on the voyage of this life to Christ, the source of our hope. Stars are balls of flame, and if the Blessed Virgin is a light for us now, it is because she was with the apostles on the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them as flames of fire to transform them and make them guides for the new-born Church.May 11 is Pentecost Sunday. It is also Mother’s Day. Mothers are guides and protectors because their love is constant. On Mother’s Day, in the Archdiocese of Chicago, a collection is taken up for the works of Catholic Charities. Charity is another word for love, and the many who work for Catholic Charities try to show God’s own love to those in need. They do so with your help. The love of God, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the apostles, the celebration of our mother’s love for us and the care of the poor with Christ’s own love all come together on this second Sunday of May, the month of Mary.

When it all does come together and we feel at one with God and one another, we rejoice in the security of Christ’s love. What might diminish that sense of unity, that security of love? During his recent apostolic journey to our country, Pope Benedict XVI mentioned three social trends that he wanted us to notice because they threaten our unity in Christ and weaken our love for him and for one another. I’ll use the pope’s own words to describe these trends.

The first destructive trend is secularism, living as if God does not exist: “While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior. Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death? Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”

The second destructive trend is materialism, living as if spirit did not exist: “For an affluent society, a further obstacle to an encounter with the living God lies in the subtle influence of materialism, which can all too easily focus the attention on the hundredfold, which God promises now in this time, at the expense of the eternal life which he promises in the age to come (cf. Mk 10:30). People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunities to drink from the wells of his infinite love… Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain, our lives are ultimately empty. People need to be constantly reminded to cultivate a relationship with him who came that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).”

The third destructive trend the pope mentioned is individualism, living as if my dreams and desires should shape the world: “In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church, giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community. Yet from the beginning, God saw that ‘it is not good for man to be alone’ (Gn 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love – for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God. If this seems countercultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.”

In response to a question from the bishops on how to address secularism and other destructive social trends, Pope Benedict suggested that we teach people how to pray. It seems obvious, but we often think first of new programs or pastoral initiatives when faced with challenges. In this case, the best response to a life lived as if God did not exist is to begin to pray. It is hard to live as if there were no God when one spends some time with him each day in prayer. People who have forgotten how to pray on their own will find even liturgical prayer a mere formula.

We should look for occasions, in our families and in our parishes, to teach people how to pray, even as we encourage one another to good works. This Sunday, donations to Catholic Charities can be just an occasion to help someone in need, which is good, or they can also be expressions of our unity with Christ and with all those he loves, which is better. As we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, let us pray for the transformation of life that will make us beacons leading others to Christ today. Let us consign these prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary, star of the sea and Mother of the Church.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI

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Cardinal Francis George is the Archbishop of Chicago.

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