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My dear friends in Christ, for the last year, we have faced an unprecedented time that has dramatically changed every aspect of life, in ways known and unknown. One can say that we have lived a time of spiritual twilight, when we experienced a growing sense of darkness, mixed with moments when the light of charity and kindness broke through to encourage us.
For who among us has not wrestled with fear and anxiety as we tried to deal with the uncertainties caused by a pandemic that upended our lives without warning? How many of our family members and friends suffered deeply because of the loss of a job, sudden illness, living in long periods of isolation or the fear of the unknown? Who has not been moved to tears when we looked at the sight of family members visiting relatives in hospitals, unable to be with them in their hour of sickness? How difficult it was to spend birthdays, anniversaries and holidays separated from parents and grandparents, unable to visit them so as to keep them safe! How many have endured the sadness and disappointment of making the hard decision to remain at home and not attend Sunday Mass, not simply to avoid risking their own health but to protect the well-being of their loved ones?
Yet, throughout these difficult days, we have also experienced moments of great joy and light. We have been moved by the sight of young children writing letters to seniors to quell the lonely days as the world entered quarantine. Neighbors have run errands and gone shopping for neighbors unable to leave their homes. Doctors and nurses and other frontline workers have sacrificed their own health and safety to care for those who have fallen ill, forgoing vacations and overtime pay to make sure those who are critically ill are not left alone. Families have gathered virtually, talking more during the pandemic than perhaps they would otherwise, simply to check in and check up on one another. Indeed, the virtual means of communications have brought so many closer together. Finally, how can we forget those faithful men and women, clergy and laity alike, who kept our churches clean when Masses resumed, who reimagined faith formation so that our young people could remain connected, who worked so tirelessly to keep our Catholic schools open? These moments of hope and light have reminded us that, even in the darkest times, we are a people of light.
For everyone who brought light in the midst of the darkness, I thank God each day for your witness and generosity.
Now as we begin to look to a time beyond the pandemic, many speak of a “new normal” that is a way of life that will be different because of what we have experienced together. If this is true, I ask you, should we not draw greater light out of this darkness by shaping the “new normal” so that our personal faith may be strengthened, the unity of our Church deepened and we are ready to go out in mission and witness to the Gospel in new and courageous ways? As Christians, we believe suffering and death leads to new life. Let us use the months ahead to work together to craft a future that will bring greater unity and renewal to ourselves, our families and our Church. As we anticipate the grip of the pandemic to slowly loosen in the coming months, let us now begin with a quiet period of personal and communal prayer, study and renewal. For having been strengthened in mind and spirit, we will be ready later this year to go out into the larger world and bear witness to Christ in new, bold and creative ways.
I come to you now, my dear friends, when many may be wondering about the future direction of our Church, to invite you to begin this spiritual journey with me, seeking the Lord’s grace to transform this time of suffering into a springtime of renewal for the life of the Church. It will be a journey that will move us beyond the fatigue that has settled in as weeks turned into months and as what we hoped would be temporary began to change the world around us. It will be a journey where we will rise out of the darkness with the Lord Jesus at our side, and in obedience to the promptings of the Holy Spirit bring new energy and commitment to the preaching of the Gospel, in word and witness. It is a journey that will last for a lifetime.
I. The Upper Room
“When the day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread arrived, the day for sacrificing the Passover Lamb, He (Jesus) sent out Peter and John, instructing them, ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’ They asked Him, ‘where do you want us to make the preparations?’ And He answered them, ‘When you go into the city, a man will meet you carrying a jar of water. Follow him into the house that he enters and say to the master of the house, ‘The teacher says to you, ‘Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room that is furnished. Make the preparations there” (Lk. 22: 7-12).
Since every journey demands preparation, our journey of renewal will begin by accepting the Lord’s invitation to enter in the quiet of our hearts and rediscover His presence and power in our personal lives, our families and in our communities of faith. The image that comes to my mind is that of the Upper Room where the Lord often gathered with His apostles and disciples, in times of challenge or decision, to strengthen them for what lay ahead.
Recall that it was in the Upper Room that the Lord celebrated the Last Supper with His apostles, to feed them in anticipation of the sufferings that they would endure by proclaiming His Passion and Death. It was in the Upper Room where the apostles, having seen the Risen Lord, could not overcome their fear until the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit gave them the courageous strength to become fearless missionaries in a harsh and cruel world. It was also in the Upper Room where the apostles learned to discern the Spirit’s plan for each of them and to go out in mission.
My friends, the Lord is inviting you and me into the Upper Room to receive the same gifts He gave to His apostles and disciples. In the months to come, in courageous and prayerful silence, the Lord will feed us, teach us and prepare us to go out in mission into our divided world to bring the light of Christ’s love to everyone we meet.
If we accept this invitation to spend time in the Upper Room with Him, He will offer us the same spiritual gifts already in our midst that will prepare us for the mission ahead. These are the same gifts that our recent Diocesan Synod highlighted, including the need for daily personal prayer, to seek forgiveness of our sins and to receive and adore the Eucharistic Lord. These gifts, which lie at the heart of our Catholic faith, are not new but will take on new power and purpose as together we celebrate their power to heal us, feed us and give us strength. This letter will explore how these gifts can bring us renewal and prepare us for the larger mission to come.
My friends, the Synod was guided by these words spoken by the Lord: “Remain in me as I remain in you” (Jn. 15:4). In this moment of preparation, may these words echo in our minds and hearts. For if we wish for true renewal and to be ready to go out into the larger world, nothing can be accomplished apart from the Lord and His grace.
II. Upper Room: A Place to be Fed
“Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn. 17:3).
In the Upper Room on the night before He died, the Lord fed His apostles both His Word and His Sacred Body and Blood. Recognizing that the Lord cannot force us to accept His gifts, these same gifts will feed you and me only if we are willing to receive them.
1. Personal Prayer
We can begin our preparations by making a conscious, daily decision to spend time in prayer with the Lord, with no short cuts and no excuses. We must not allow the fear of silence to dissuade us from prayer. Rather, if we have the courage to enter into the silence, the Lord will gently whisper the assurance of His love for us. He will speak to our hearts and remind us that He is always with us, in every moment of every day.
We can pray in any manner we wish, whether reciting the rosary, novena prayers, the Liturgy of the Hours or simply in unstructured conversation with the Lord. We can choose whatever time and place is most conducive to allow us to settle our minds and hearts to enter into the Lord’s presence. However, our commitment to pray—not as an addendum to a busy schedule but as a foundational part of our day—is crucial for the work that lies ahead of us. For if we wish to invite our children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends to share the joy of Catholic faith, how can we lead them to Christ if we do not spend time with the Lord each day deepening our own personal relationship with Him?
I ask that you consider including the Word of God in whatever prayer you choose. As we take our place at the Lord’s feet, as the apostles did in the Upper Room, we will be fed by listening to His Word. Unlike the apostles who had the privilege of hearing the Lord’s words with their own ears, you and I can hear the Lord’s words in and through the Sacred Scriptures. In our prayer and study, we can listen to the Lord’s teachings from His own lips, learn to follow in His footsteps and be inspired by the examples of the holy women and men of faith who followed Him.
Praying with the Scriptures can take many forms, including Lectio Divina, or engaging in Scripture sharing and study, whether online or in person. I call upon all pastoral and Diocesan leaders to make available whatever resources they can to unlock the beauty, meaning and power of the Word of God. For the admonition of Saint Jerome must never be forgotten: “Whoever does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (Prologue of the Commentary on Isaiah: 1, CCL 73, 1).
2. Reconciliation with Christ
In the quiet of the Upper Room, we will also find the strength to seek the Lord’s word of forgiveness from the sins that may haunt us, sometimes hidden deep within our heart.
For we live in a time when sin is equated with “committing a mistake,” “making a poor choice” or “attending to my private business.” Sin is denied because to admit it may “impose guilt” that is perceived to be harmful. If the human person is considered the standard of truth and morality, what place does sin have in such a life? Yet, in the quiet of the Upper Room, the foolishness of these presumptions will be laid bare. For it was in the Upper Room where the Lord cast aside His outer garment, tied a towel around His waist and proceeded to wash the feet of His apostles, in anticipation of the Last Supper to follow. By this task, usually reserved for slaves to perform, the Lord reminded His apostles of their need to be cleansed, in order to receive His sacred Body and Blood and to serve others worthily.
If we enter the quiet of His presence, the Lord will gently hold up a mirror into our souls so that we can gaze upon our sins without excuses or pretense. At those moments, we will encounter a Savior who does not seek to condemn us but to forgive. He will whisper the same words to us that He spoke to the woman caught in adultery: “Has no one condemned you?…. Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore” (Jn. 8:10-11). Our gentle and merciful Shepherd will offer to wash away our sins so that we can receive His Body and Blood with hearts and minds renewed.
Before we invite others to experience the liberating word of God’s forgiveness, should we not take this privileged time to relearn how to examine our conscience, admit our sinfulness and seek the forgiveness of our sins through the Sacrament of Penance?
I recognize that the pandemic has created obstacles for many who wish to approach the Sacrament of Penance. It is for this reason that I am asking that Centers of Mercy, once established in our Diocese during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (2015), be re-established in every deanery. These Centers of Mercy will be parishes that will offer the Sacrament of Penance in the evenings, with the help of the priests of the area, so that no one need wait more than two days in order to receive this healing sacrament. These Centers, along with the parishes already offering the Sacrament of Penance throughout the Diocese, will observe every protocol needed to maintain the safety of penitent and priest alike. These new Centers of Mercy will begin their work no later than March 1st and a comprehensive list will be published in every media platform of the Diocese.
On Monday, March 29th, we will hold our annual observance of Reconciliation Monday. As you may know, on this day, Confessions will be heard in many parishes throughout the Diocese, both in the afternoon and evenings, so that everyone who wishes to receive the sacrament can do so before the Easter Triduum. I ask you to consider participating in this unique opportunity to receive the gift of forgiveness that only Christ can give.
My friends, the Lord wishes to free each of us from the burden of our sins. Should we not then use this time to shed the baggage of our sins and accept His freedom with joy?
3. The Holy Eucharist
Finally, and most importantly, it was in the Upper Room that at the Last Supper the Lord Jesus fed His apostles His Sacred Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Lord fed them His Body and Blood so that they could anticipate through grace the mystery of His Passion and Death, and to strengthen them for the sufferings that lay ahead.
My friends, each time we have come to Mass, we have taken a seat at the table in the Upper Room, like the apostles, to be fed the sacred Body and Blood of our Savior and Redeemer. Through grace, we participate in an unbloodied way in the one sacrifice of the Lord’s death on the Cross. At Mass, we enter in the mystery of our redemption and salvation in Christ. It is celestial food that gives us the strength to go into mission wherever that may lead us.
I recognize that among the many disruptions caused by the pandemic, none has created greater hardship, sadness and disappointment than the inability of many to come to Sunday Mass. It was with great sorrow that I suspended Sunday worship last year, to ensure that the lives of our people, especially the sick and elderly, were protected from an unknown and unseen menace. Ever since public worship has resumed, we have maintained our health protocols to allow those who are ready and able to attend Sunday Mass to come to church as safely as possible. I understand the burden that many may feel because of these measures and I deeply appreciate your cooperation. As I write this letter, more than 25,000 Catholics have returned to Sunday Mass, and we await the return of many more Catholics to Sunday Mass as conditions improve.
I also wish to thank those individuals who have remained connected to the celebration of the Mass by viewing it online due to their inability to return to church at the present time. Christian prudence demands that every person carefully examine the circumstances of their life and to make decisions that will keep them safe and protect the well-being of their loved ones. The Lord feeds you His grace through the Spiritual Communion you now receive, until the day comes when you can return to receive His sacred Body and Blood without fear. When that time comes, your parish community will welcome you home with open arms.
My friends, let us also use this quiet time of preparation to ask the Lord to reawaken in our hearts a passion, respect and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Our reverence is deepened as our understanding and appreciation of the “Mystery of Faith” that is the Eucharist grows. Sadly, many adult Catholics have not had the opportunity to explore the depth, breadth and richness of this central mystery of our faith. I call upon our clergy and pastoral leaders to offer sustained and comprehensive adult catechesis on the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the coming months so that our love and passion for the Eucharist can grow. Diocesan resources will also be published soon, including a detailed theological reflection on the mystery of the Eucharist, as fuel to awaken the fire of our Eucharistic faith. Let us use the months ahead to deepen our knowledge and appreciation of so great a divine gift.
We must also acknowledge the debilitating spiritual effects created by the celebration of Mass that lacks reverence or beauty. For it is the power of beauty that engages the heart, allowing the grace of the Eucharist to move its participants to remember that their destination is heaven and to embrace their mission to preach the Gospel in the world. A beautiful and reverent celebration of the Mass demands a proper disposition by the celebrant and lay faithful alike. We cannot allow the distractions of the world to draw our attention away from the mystery before us. Each of us must relearn the power of preparation before Mass, interior silence and thanksgiving at the conclusion of Mass so that the gift given can yield its proper fruit.
I have also asked that every deanery establish at least one Center of Adoration—a local parish that will offer Eucharistic Adoration throughout the day, so that everyone who wishes can be fed by the Eucharistic Lord in a personal and powerful way. These Centers will also afford those who remain uncomfortable with attending Mass on Sunday an opportunity to encounter the Eucharistic Lord in quiet throughout the day. It is my desire that every deanery will have at least one such Center of Adoration operating no later than the start of April.
III. Upper Room: A Place to Listen
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own but he will speak what he hears and will declare to you the thigs that are coming” (Jn. 16:12-13).
In addition to being fed, the Lord wishes for us to enter into the Upper Room with Him to relearn how to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, often spoken in and through the lives of the people around us. For we cannot be effective in mission unless we can address the concerns that believers and non-believers hold in their hearts.
Some believers continue to have questions of faith for which they have never received adequate answers. Others have wounds that burden them or hurts from past failures in the Church that tempt them to walk away in indifference. Each of us must ask the Lord to teach us how to listen to those concerns so that in our personal encounters with the people we meet, we can be effective in leading our brothers and sisters to find the answers that they seek in Jesus.
IV. Upper Room: A Place to Recommit to Mission
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2: 1-4).
Finally, like the apostles, we must be prepared to reenter the larger world as courageous missionaries of the Gospel.
In our Baptism and Confirmation, each of us was given the mission to be a disciple of Christ who can speak an effective word of salvation to whomever we meet, whether they be our family members, co-workers, friends or even strangers. This word of salvation that comes from Christ invites every human person to become “a new creation” in Him (2 Cor. 5:17).
To speak an effective word of salvation does not always require spoken words but can be powerfully conveyed by the example of a joyful, faithful life. It often does not require that we leave our homes or places of work to be missionaries. In fact, it is in these familiar places that our mission begins. This means that at every moment of every day we are called to be missionaries, even during these days of the pandemic. In fact, these past months have given us unique opportunities to offer help, consolation and care in the name of Jesus. In those occasions, we lived the vision attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila who taught her sisters:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Saint Paul describes this mission by using the word “ambassador.” He writes, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). Who are these ambassadors? Simply put, they are you, me and all who have encountered the person of Jesus Christ. Where are we to go? We serve as ambassadors of Christ in our homes, classrooms, workplaces, clubs, ball fields, and when we shop, travel, and spend time with friends. For the work of an ambassador is to build a living bridge to the people we meet, accompanying them in their struggles, answering their questions and allowing them to experience how much they are loved by Christ, through you and me. When I first came to the Diocese, in my installation homily, I spoke about my deep desire to build bridges to those who were seeking meaning and direction in life. It seems to me that the time has come when we are all called to be bridge-builders to the people around us, leading them to Christ, for whom we serve as His ambassadors.
At times we have all failed to be true ambassadors of Christ. Such failure has a familiar look. As Saint Ignatius of Antioch describes it: “Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips and the world in your hearts” (Letter to the Romans, Chpt. 4:7). We must resolve to learn from any past mistakes we have made and serve with new zeal in this work the Lord has given us.
Furthermore, the time is coming when we will be able to leave the safety of our homes and reenter a world forever changed by the pandemic—one that may not welcome the message we will bring. We must recognize that we live within a post-Christian world, in which many do not understand the Christian faith nor have had an encounter with the Lord and His mercy. It is a world where many may not readily welcome the Gospel or may even actively oppose it. It is a world that will nonetheless be surprised by the power of the Gospel and its ability to bring joy and hope where the world cannot give it.
Let us draw hope from our knowledge that the world did not welcome Jesus in whose name we were baptized. Indeed, we are in good company as we go out into the world.
As we begin preparations for a great evangelical outreach into the larger world that will begin in the fall of 2021, the pastors of our Diocese and I will need the assistance of co-workers who will not be afraid to go out into their communities to invite people to encounter the Lord and His mercy. We will need people to echo the prophets and saints who have gone before us, willing to see light through the darkness and willing to say to the Lord, “Here I am. Send me” (Is. 6:8).
Such co-workers, drawn from the laity and clergy alike, must be willing to use the months ahead to undergo intensive personal and spiritual formation to prepare themselves to be missionary ambassadors of Christ. When ready, they will be sent out into their community, under the care of their local pastor, to invite those who have left active participation in the life of the Church to return home. In time, this same invitation will be extended to people of good will and anyone searching for the real meaning of life. For such meaning is found only in the Lord Jesus.
Our pastors have been asked to discern who among their people they can recommend to enter this formational experience, which will be done both online and in person. Formation will include a period of discernment for those who might wonder if this particular opportunity is something the Lord is calling them to do.
If the challenge of serving as a missionary ambassador stirs your heart, I ask that you contact your local pastor and discuss this pastoral opportunity. Evenings of information will be held in the first week of March to provide prospective candidates further information. Furthermore, I call on everyone to pray for those who will respond to this important invitation.
Conclusion: Saint Joseph, “A Righteous Man” (Mt. 1:19)
As we reflect upon the challenges we face and the mission that lies ahead, we may be tempted to be discouraged. Join me to seek the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds, give joy to our hearts, strengthen our will and shake off all discouragement. Let us prepare ourselves to respond boldly and courageously to whatever awaits us. Let us enter into the Upper Room with Christ so that He can strengthen us for the task that lies ahead.
May these words attributed to Saint John Henry Newman stir our hearts, “Teach us, dear Lord, frequently and attentively to consider this truth: that if I gain the whole world and lose you, in the end I have lost everything; whereas if I lose the whole world and gain you, in the end I have lost nothing.” For if we place our hope in the Lord and not in the world, what do we have to fear?
As you know, Saint Joseph, the righteous one, is being honored this year throughout the Church. For he was a man well acquainted with unexpected change, having his life upended by visits from the Archangel Gabriel and flight into an unknown land. Yet, it was his courage, strength of faith and quiet perseverance that allowed him to overcome the challenges the Holy Family faced. He quietly and faithfully guided and protected the Lord Jesus and our Lady until his death.
On March 19th, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, the Husband of Mary, I will consecrate the people of the Diocese to the protection and intercession of Saint Joseph during a solemn celebration of Mass at Saint Augustine Cathedral at 7 pm. This celebration will be livestreamed as well. I have also asked all the pastors of our Diocese to offer the same Mass and consecration in their local parishes, also at 7 pm. A plenary indulgence will be available for all those who participate in either the Diocesan or parish celebrations. The spiritual requirements needed to receive this extraordinary grace will be published shortly. As we begin this journey of renewal, I can think of no better guide and protector to whom we can entrust our journey than Saint Joseph. May he help us quietly and faithfully to fulfill the work that lies before us.
My friends, I offer you these reflections on the day when we accept ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality and an invitation to conversion. It begins the holy season of Lent, during which we journey with Christ into the desert so that we can be purified and made ready to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord at Easter. It is a season, for many, reminiscent of the twilight we have been enduring for some time. Still, we are gifted with the knowledge that Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. We know that Easter joy follows the Lenten twilight.
May we bring the ashes we receive today into the Upper Room where we will discover that the Lord can bring light into darkness, lead twilight to dawn and raise ashes to new life.
Most Reverend Frank J. Caggiano
February 17, 2021