Ascension

By Christian Huebner
Second Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
Pontifical North American College
29 May, 2017

In Oxford, there’s a custom on Ascension Thursday for all of the choirs of the various colleges to climb to the tops of their gothic spires early in the morning to sing to the Lord as the sun rises over the Cotswolds countryscape.

It may seem a bit silly, a bit literalist for our age, but there’s something very dear and true at the core, I think.  We climb a tower on the day we remember Jesus ascending into the sky and disappearing from sight by a cloud because we want to be near him.  We don’t have the language to say the kind of prayer of longing properly, so we do what dumb animals or children would do—try to act out what we want as best we can, however crudely.

The prayers of the Church for the Feast of the Ascension speak about how in ascending to heaven forty days after his resurrection, Jesus Christ drew nearer to us.  Nearer, not further.  It’s one of the aching paradoxes of the pilgrimage of faith to try and untangle what this could mean.  Before his death, he talked at length with the twelve apostles about how they would mourn and long for him, but how it was actually better that he was leaving them.  How can we understand this?

There are two images that come to mind.  Imagine a couple out on a long hike, say a many-staged camping journey, like you might take in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota or another similarly wild and remote place.  At one point, the two decide that one of them needs to leave and push on ahead at a faster pace.  A few days’ journey from where they are is a cabin with beautiful furnishings, a pristine spot by a lake full of fish, a well-stocked pantry and cellar and enough kerosene and fuel to last all through the coming winter.  But the house needs to be opened up and made ready.  One of them needs to go ahead and make preparations.

As the man and woman part, they grow farther apart by one measurement, the measurement of physical space, of sight.  But what about the invisible part of them?  Aren’t their hearts drawn all the closer together?  They’ve been camping and fending together all along the way, but now, with the promise of these preparations, they have a new dynamic in their hearts, the energy of hope for a settled life together, a stable resting place where they will be able to simply be with one another in peace.  In this sense, they are far, far closer than they ever have been before.  The promise of a deeper union after the separation even now binds them more closely together within their hearts.

Jesus promised us something like this, only much greater.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms, he told us; I go there to prepare a place for you.  This is the final Sabbath rest, the settled place that we long for more than anything else.  This is the settled Sabbath rest with the great love of our hearts, the God who is the communion of love, who made us and then re-made us in baptism to enter into that communion.

A second image also comes to mind.  When a town has a good mayor, or a parish has a good pastor, it sometimes happens that he is called to a higher place.  “Higher” means being responsible for and with power over a greater scope of terrain.  We frequently express this with physical space—the CEO is usually on the upper floors of the skyscraper—and for good reason.  Often physical height does make a person more present to a large area, as when an army can take a mountaintop and see everything else below.  But the deeper meaning of “height” is really about the range and depth of influence, presence by power.

But back to our promoted man.  We’re sad to see him go.  We’ll miss his daily presence among us, the way he brought life to the community through his leadership.  But in another way we’re happy, not just for him and they joy he’ll receive from his promotion, but we’re also happy for the world because of the good that will come about.  Soon after the promotion, we start to see traces of it.  The mayor becomes governor, and a few months later on a visit to a neighboring city we notice how here, too, now the bus stations are cleaner and more efficient.  Or our pastor becomes bishop, and we notice a fresh spirit of prayer and joy now spreading among the leadership of the entire diocese.  It’s almost as though the traces of this man are now waiting for us in new places by reason of his influence, long before we even arrive.

The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole world now.  Christ has taken up his throne and he is the Lord.  Not just lord of this, or the lord of that—he is the only true Lord, to whom is entrusted everything that is.  Any other meaning of “Lord” or “king” or “CEO” is only a puny analogy to what Lord truly means, and that is Jesus Christ.  We can see his traces waiting for us now all over the world.  Sometimes obviously, like when we go to places where the Gospel has been preached and the Mass is celebrated, and people live in hope of the resurrection, or when we meet people who are not Catholic or even Christian, yet nevertheless sense the importance of the Pope for all humankind.  But also in more mysterious ways.  A friend once recounted to me how she traveled to a largely unevangelized part of the world, expecting to bring Christ there with her; instead she found that he was somehow already there among the people, secretly unknown to them, but still there for someone who already knew him.

At my seminary, we have a large tower that rises above most of the buildings in the surrounding city.  All day long last Thursday, I’d been remembering a year, more than a decade ago, when I’d climbed the bell tower of an Anglican chapel and listened for the English psalmody as a grey dawn unfurled.  But the days are busy, and it is easy to lose track of little inspirations.

At the end of the day, though, after night had fallen and I was brushing my teeth, I remembered again.  In my slippers, I made for the elevator and then climbed two more flights of stairs to the uppermost observation deck.  I was, in one sense, alone, as I had hoped.  It was all that a simple, dumb creature like me could ask for, trying to express something of longing that words could not capture.

 

The Eternal City: A Pilgrimage to Rome

By Stefan Yap
First Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
Mount St. Mary's Seminary
23 March, 2017

After ending a long week of classes, late night studying, and midterms, twenty-three other seminarians from the Mount and I found ourselves on a bus towards Philadelphia International Airport. We checked in our bags, stood in line for TSA, and hopped on a plane headed for Italy. Once on the plane, it finally hit me, "When this plane lands, I will be in Rome." I was beyond excited to see all the beautiful sites, to taste the delicious food, and to see my brother seminarians at the North American College. 

After a long overnight flight, we landed at 9:30 in the morning, and right after landing we were on the move to the North American College or “the NAC” as the Americans call it. The Archdiocese of Washington currently has eight seminarians and three priests studying at the NAC. It was a blessing to see the NAC seminarians, especially since it has been more than a year since I last saw a few of them. Being the adventurous city boy that I am, after I put my bags down in the hotel, I left to explore the city. I discovered that St. Peter’s Square was only a five minute walk from our hotel. I have to admit; my first impression of St. Peter’s was not great. I found myself shortly, thereafter, roaming through the different parts of the city. As I wandered back towards St. Peter’s Square I found myself at the end of the road leading to the basilica. As I walked towards the Church it began to hit me just how massive it truly is. Once I got to the front of the square and the columns of the square came into view, the idea of the columns being the arms of a mother taking in her children came to mind and I was captivated. The visit to the Square, which was initially an underwhelming experience, became a regular activity for me as we were given free time.

Most of our time in Rome was spent touring the city and seeing the many things that Rome has to offer. While all the tours were great, my favorite part of the entire trip happened on our free day. I have a deep devotion to St. Agnes, and since her tomb is in Rome, I had the chance to pray in front of her the place where she is buried. I took full advantage of our free day and I visited both sites where St. Agnes is found. You can see St. Agnes’ skull in her church in Rome, and you can visit her tomb in St. Agnes Outside the Walls, just beyond of the main city. When I went down into the crypt of the tiny basilica, I was overcome with emotion as I was about to see my favorite saint’s tomb. As I knelt down in front of her tomb I could only thank God for allowing me to be there. I prayed a holy hour in the small crypt as tour groups came by to see the tomb. While I was there, a religious sister came down to pray alongside me and as I was about to leave she turned and shared with me some words. In thanksgiving I asked if we could pray the Pater Noster together. There I was, kneeling in front of the Tomb of St. Agnes praying the Lord’s prayer with a religious sister!

Without a doubt my week in Rome was a time of relaxation and fun, but it was also a time of prayer and a deepening of faith. There I was, at the heart of Catholicism. St. Peter came to Rome to build the Church that Jesus spoke about while he was on earth, and it is where so many martyrs, like St. Agnes, risked their lives to profess the truth of the Gospel. I don’t think I have said the Creed as many times in a span of a week than when I was in Rome. The richness of the Church is easily recognized in that city and yet, a lot of it is shrouded in mystery. I think that is one of the true beauties of Rome. The eternal and the temporal meet at this place in history in Jesus Christ, but also in the founding of the Church through Peter. To be physically there in Rome, in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the tomb of St. Peter, the rock on which the Church was built, in a way, allowed me to feel more intimately connected with the Church. The continuity in the Church that is found through the Pope and Peter, and guided by the Holy Spirit, is clearly evident when you are there. My words do not do it justice, but the experience did invite me to deepen my faith and I have thanked God for such a gift every day since coming home. Rome is known as the Eternal City, but may the Lord continue to guide His Church and the Pope, to lead us to the true Eternal City in Heaven. 

 

Until We Meet Again: A Blessed Assurance

By Jonathan Barahona
Fourth College, Archdiocese of Washington
St. John Paul II Seminary
13, March 2017

Friday was our last day at Mustard Seed and the day was divided into two parts. The first consisted of completing our work project, which entailed erecting a 38-foot-long wall from scratch. We were uncertain if we would manage to complete the wall, for we had but four hours to build, but we continued with high hopes. 

We got straight to work after Mass and breakfast, and split ourselves into our three work teams. I got into the trench to dig with my team, while another team mixed cement, and others collected stones from the dried up riverbed to assemble the wall. Despite our fatigue and lack of sleep, not an ounce of doubt could be detected in our confidence of completing the wall. The noonday sun beamed on our backs, blisters began to form on our palms, and sweat streamed down our faces as we raced against the clock. We persevered, working diligently, for we knew our toil would bring about a good for the children we had grown to love over the course of the week. One o’clock rolled around and the wall that was not, suddenly was, and it was glorious. We cheered as the last stone was set in its place, "We did it, we built the wall!" 

 

After the wall was complete we showered, had lunch, and prepared for our second half of the day with the kids. Since it was our last day, the workers at Blessed Assurance had asked us to lead the children in a prayer service under the gazebo. We decided to lead them in a chanted Divine Mercy Chaplet along with other praise and worship songs. The decision to sing with the kids was a no-brainer, for we had noticed throughout the week that the kids would respond well to music. As we began to pray and sing, the space was filled with the presence of God and the purity of the moment was palpable. Every face, from the kids, to the workers, to us the seminarians, beamed with joy as we entered into prayer.  

The prayer service ended but the joy continued. Two of the children, Jevon and Abigail, performed a dance they had prepared for a festival, and we clapped and sang along as they hit every mark of their choreography. One of the workers asked me if I knew the Cha-Cha Slide (to which I assured her I did) and a dance party ensued. To cool off, we partook in some ice cream and the kids rejoiced at the sight of the cold treat, especially my friend Donovan who begged me for seconds and thirds!

After the prayer and all the fun, it was time to put the kids down for their naps. The workers began to sing a song all too familiar to us after a week of working along side them. The lyrics echoed through the room and our hearts as we sang, “So long farewell, to you my friends. Goodbye, for now, until we meet again.” As I listened to the lyrics, and as we wheeled the kids to their dormitories one last time, I wasn’t all too sure if I would ever meet these children again in that beautiful sanctuary in Jamaica, but I was filled with a blessed assurance that we would certainly meet again in eternity, in that sanctuary of our heavenly home. 

Check out other great moments from our mission trip to Jamaica on social media by searching for our hashtag #SemsOnMission  

 

The Labor of Loving: Learning from the Staff at Mustard Seed

By Alex Wyvill
Mission Trip Chronicler
First Pre-Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
12, March 2017

As Thursday rolled around, our group began to feel locked-in to a rather rigid schedule. Five-thirty wake-up, a cold shower, Morning Prayer, Mass, a quick breakfast, then hard work all day long. Even after Wednesday’s outing, the whole procedure was beginning to weigh down on our bodies. Loving these kids felt like sunshine and daisies when we were alert, energized and fully able to give ourselves over to the experience. Once we were sleepy and fatigued, however, it began to feel a bit more like the Cross of Christ. The shift in heart was beautiful in its own way; we showed our love not by our emotional investment, but rather by our perseverance through all the little aches, pains and annoyances of life at Mustard Seed.

The caregiving staff at Blessed Assurance exemplified this spirit of enduring love best of all. We would serve there for just one week, but they served all day, every day, from dawn till dusk. They woke earlier than us and retired later. We heard their energetic songs with the children late into the night, their voices ringing out with the same vitality as during the day, when we were there to listen. Their love for the kids was obviously authentic; it was in no way manufactured or “ramped up” as a false display for us visiting volunteers.

The male staff members inspired me as well, albeit in a different, more hidden way. Kevin, our Mission Director, woke up freakishly early (no doubt before five o’clock) to cook breakfast for us every single day. He worked behind-the-scenes to coordinate all of the logistics of the week. Norman, the Maintenance Director, patiently directed our labor on the trench-building project. His skill and work ethic were prodigious, though his tools were old and rusty (his machete handle was held together by duct tape!).

Lastly, there was Bashy, another member of the Missions team, who did a little bit of everything around Blessed Assurance. He directed our outings, worked with the kids and helped with transportation. Most importantly, Bashy spent time with us personally, hearing our stories and sharing his own. His way of loving was subtle, carried out not in grandeur but rather in a thousand small gestures. When I think of Mustard Seed, I will immediately reckon back to Bashy’s warm, brotherly energy.

As the day rolled on, it came time to feed the children their lunch. I was assigned to feed little Sabrina for a second time. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed; I secretly wanted to feed one of the older children. In that moment, the Lord invited me to endure the labor of fatherhood. I asked myself: does a father grow bored of feeding his same child over and over again? Does he tire of the small sacrifices needed to sustain his sons and daughters? Yes, I concluded, of course he grows weary of these little monotonies; but it makes no difference to him. Instead, the loving father puts aside those passing concerns and picks up the Cross. 

Smiling, I dipped Sabrina’s little spoon into the bowl and started to feed her. Amen.

Make sure to follow the rest of our trip on social media using the hashtag #SemsOnMission 

All Things Are Possible: Our Visit to Jacob’s Ladder

By Alex Wyvill
Mission Trip Chronicler
First Pre-Theology, Archdiocese of Washington
11, March 2017

On Wednesday, our team took a day off of our work at Blessed Assurance to visit another of Mustard Seed’s communities: Jacob’s Ladder. Jacob’s Ladder is a massive facility that houses many adults with special needs, providing them with a safe and happy environment in which they can work and find a home. Upon arrival, we were shocked at the sheer size of the place, which is divided into several residential “villages,” a full-scale chapel, a smaller Adoration room, work facilities, administrative buildings and many acres of farmland. The whole community aims to be self-sustaining, producing its own food and products for sale, many of which are crafted by the adult residents. It was an extraordinary operation.

After morning Mass in the chapel, Father Garvin (the second-in command at Mustard Seed) spoke with us about the miraculous history of Mustard Seed Communities. It began with the extraordinary vision of one priest, Msgr. Gregory, who 40 years ago came to Jamaica from his native Trinidad. One day during Mass, he saw a woman with two children sitting in the pews. When she turned around during the Sign of Peace, he saw that her face was completely covered in sores. After Mass, he saw the woman, afflicted with HIV, begging outside the church with her children. Realizing that he could not play bystander to this crisis, Monsignor decided to take action.

He began squatting on the property now home to Jacob’s Ladder, which at that time was an undeveloped mass of tropical foliage. He built a small facility in the woods, and slowly began to build up the community. His first residents were the woman at church and her two children; soon, many more residents (now over four hundred) flooded to the little compound. Through prayer and extraordinary trust in God, Monsignor finally acquired enough funding to properly purchase the massive farm property, bringing Mustard Seed out from the “underground” as an official organization.

The government soon began to approach Monsignor with the children and adults in their own care facilities, asking if they could be transferred to Mustard Seed. Now provided with government funding, Mustard Seed began to accept missionaries like ourselves, who helped not just with their hands but also with their funds. The impact of the mission program has been staggering: donations now account for over a third of Mustard Seed’s annual funding, around $2 million per year. Because of this, Mustard Seed has opened thirteen communities in Jamaica (including Blessed Assurance, our home for the week), and several others around the globe.

As I listened to this story, I couldn’t help but place myself in Monsignor’s shoes back when he began this project. He hiked deep into the jungle with a shovel and a profound trust in God; forty years later, that same simple trust (and many more shovels) has saved hundreds of people from death, abandonment and neglect. It is simply extraordinary. The whole process began very slowly, doubtless with many long days of much toil and little result. Monsignor’s perseverance in God’s call did not falter; he knew that saving these people was the unique mission of his priesthood, to be carried out at any cost. As men studying to become priests, I pray that Monsignor’s example may resonate in our hearts as a witness of God’s presence even in darkness and struggle, knowing that in Him, all things are possible.

Make sure to follow the rest of our trip on social media using the hashtag #SemsOnMission 

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