I never thought the sight of a bishop praying would be so moving to me.
But there I was, in tears at the makeshift Blessed Sacrament Chapel inside the Waterfront Marriott in Baltimore during the November meeting of U.S. bishops, as I saw the archbishop of a prominent and important American diocese on his knees, praying.
I was inspired and reinvigorated in hope and zeal for the urgency of prayer. He wasn’t just doing his duty — many bishops stop in throughout the day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. That’s not to say they aren’t really praying. I certainly pray that their hearts are in it, that their devotion to God is renewed with every prayer.
But the sight of this particular archbishop was unquestionably the image of a man in love. He was begging the Source of all that is good and true on behalf of the people of God. Eyes closed, rocking slightly back and forth, he seemed filled with the Holy Spirit, he seemed to be letting the Spirit move him, do the praying for him, using him as an unworthy vessel.
He seemed a man who knows who he is and what he is about. There’s so much struggle and confusion and doubt and even despair in the world today, and even in the priesthood. And bishops are not immune. In fact, men who were called to be spiritual fathers find themselves CEOs of corporations. It can become easy to forget your first love, your shepherd’s heart, given to you by God himself.
And so when I think about what Catholics ought to consider being thankful for this year, the “pray-ers” are on the top of my list.
A friend of mine who works in the chancery of a major American diocese said to me earlier this year that “some of these guys don’t believe in Jesus like we do, that he died for us and resurrected and all. Some of them don’t have faith. Not real faith.”
By “these guys” he meant some bishops and priests. But some of them do! Satan attacks the priesthood and the family in a particularly devastating way. And we see it in the headlines and we see it in our lives. So many Catholics — and other Christians are experiencing this, too — feel orphaned by the news of scandal, as they find it difficult to trust the hierarchy sometimes and even their parish priest. There’s such uncertainty among many.
But at the end of the day, this is Christ’s Church, not anyone else’s.
So, thanks be to God for the pray-ers. The ones who truly believe. Among the bishops. Among priests. Thanks be to God for families who pray together. And for those spiritual powerhouses, the hidden ones, the cloistered nuns. I visit one Dominican Monastery of women in Linden, Virginia, and there is something otherworldly about the whole experience. Same for the little more visible Dominican nuns in Summit, New Jersey, just a not-too-long train ride away from midtown Manhattan. The list goes on.
Which, just a few days away from Thanksgiving, brings me to the most obvious thing to be grateful for: that God is near in the sacraments.
Be at peace! Be still! Because we have him truly present. I was about to get on a series of planes recently and hadn’t been able to get myself to confession during the previous week. I was feeling a spiritual mess and did something I don’t usually do: I grabbed a priest I know and asked him to hear my confession after Mass.
Sometimes when you interact with a priest regularly, helping with ministry, or have a friend or colleague relationship, you may be sheepish to go to him for confession. Maybe that’s prudent. But what a powerful experience it was: This man simply let himself be an instrument. It was Jesus I encountered in the sacrament, not Father Francis. What a gift! God himself! Which is, of course, who we encounter in every sacrament. And it’s because the priest gives himself over to this reality that it is all possible.
It’s so amazing to me, too, that he can be such a weak and flawed man, too. Not that particular priest, though none of them are perfect; we are all sinners. But when I think back to Masses I was at with Theodore McCarrick, when I think of the priests he ordained, bishops, too, children he baptized and confirmed, couples he married, and all the rest, I am in some wonder about what God can work with.
And then for a No. 3, rejoice in gratitude for the communion of saints. That cloud of witnesses can be on assignment for us if we simply ask. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of a supernatural surge of activity in our world today? The liturgical calendar is resplendent with holiness, when we pay attention, with the memorials of very many.
Just in recent days there was St. Francis Xavier Cabrini and St. Gertrude the Great (both are big reasons why I put together the recent book, “A Year with the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living.”) Those real men and women who came before us can help transform our world, with a real active presence in our lives.
The fourth thing I can’t help but to burst with gratitude for is some of the most obvious missionaries in the world today, truly committed to the beatitudes. Here I think immediately of the Sisters of Life, who in many ways are the heart of our pro-life witness as Catholics and our greatest shot at the “Civilization of Love” St. John Paul II wrote about and Jesus demands.
There are the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have made headlines for taking on the necessary fight for religious liberty in the courts, but their real claim to fame is the love with which they treat the vulnerable elderly poor.
The later years can be the scariest, as we watch our bodies start to break down and a new loneliness set in, oftentimes, as people treat us as we are no longer useful. That’s the throwaway society Pope Francis often rails against. Are we supporting these women as they show something different to the word?
We should mention, too, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who were founded by author Nathanial Hawthorne’s daughter. They take in elderly terminal cancer patients, and their home on Rosary Hill in the suburbs of New York is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been because it overflows with love.
I visited there the night of a blizzard almost three years ago after the funeral Mass of J.J. Hanson, a Marine who was diagnosed with brain cancer at the same time as a young woman named Brittany Maynard was being celebrated for choosing suicide. J.J. and his wife, Kristen, decided to fight, and while they were told he would have three months, he wound up with more than three years — they even had a second son during that time.
It’s not just the sisters. It’s an army of people who value life who are the missionaries of today. That’s what motivates the young people who populate the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ (FOCUS) annual New Year’s gatherings (one called SEEK for literally any young person seeking something more and one for bought-in student leaders), and university and college campus ministries. And maybe as a reminder that none of these reasons to be thankful is an island, none of them stand alone; all of them are integral to the other, because they are all essential to the Church in the world today.
FOCUS is rooted in the sacraments, kindles the fires of vocations, and renews all those who are living their vocations in whatever state of life, vividly aware of the importance of the saints in our lives, and are literally missionaries, by name, some of them.
And they pray. Prayer is the fifth reason for thanksgiving; a desire to go deeper. An encouragement to doing it together. It’s not just for masters of the spiritual life, it’s not just for people we think of as particularly or especially holy. It’s the call for all of us to be in evermore complete union with God, the journey of our lives. No Thanksgiving is complete without prayer. And “eucharisteo” is the greatest thanksgiving, the greatest reason for thanksgiving. Let this Thanksgiving renew a gratitude for the sacrifice of the Mass, the table where heaven and earth meet.
God is real and the Church is so much more than the most recent scandal headline.
Giving thanks for these things, we will be the people we are called to be and the world, especially the poor and dejected, will have reason for thanksgiving.