Fostering new growth: A reflection from Father Tony Oelrich at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders

Father Tony Oelrich is currently part of a delegation of 11 from the Diocese of St. Cloud who are attending the U.S. Bishop’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Florida, July 1-4.

Father Anthony Oelrich and Father Robert Rolfes prepare for the Opening Mass at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders July 1 in Orlando, Florida.

I have the privilege of attending with other St. Cloud diocesan leaders the Catholic Convocation of Leaders:  The Joy of the Gospel. This convocation was called by the United States bishops and brought together leaders from throughout the nation to gather and reflect on what it means to share the Gospel in today’s culture. It has been a time of wonderful encouragement and inspiration.

Certainly, an aspect of the inspiration throughout the convocation is Pope Francis’ invitation:

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them” (The Joy of the Gospel, 3).

Many of the talks, much of the reflection and dialogue revolved around how the Church in the U.S. might extend this same invitation of encounter with Jesus to people everywhere.

Delegates pray during Mass at the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” July 2 in Orlando, Fla. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations are gathering for the July 1-4 convocation. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

What makes this encounter so crucial was expressed for me in the witness talk given by Damon and Melanie Owens who shared beautifully, “We will do for love what we would never do for the law!”  Indeed, the invitation to encounter and fall in love with Jesus Christ is the heart of the Church’s mission to the world.  We are hard pressed to convince people of the truth of Christ by eloquent arguments or authoritative doctrines, but to see the beauty of the face of Jesus who heals, transforms, and frees us enkindles a love that truly inspires the gift of love in return.

One of the presenters in a breakout session helped me to see poignantly how we as Church might best extend this invitation to folks today.  What we need, she said, was “An army of missionary disciples trained in the art of relationship and accompaniment.”  Those of us who cherish our Catholic faith must be willing to extend the friendship and care of Jesus to the people we encounter—in our homes, work places, schools, places of leisure.  Like Jesus meeting up and walking with the two dejected fellows on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus, so too must we be willing to hear the hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments of our contemporaries in order to point out the always present love and companionship of Jesus in the midst of it all.

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl smiles while speaking during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America” July 2 in Orlando, Fla. Leaders from dioceses and various Catholic organizations are gathering for the July 1-4 convocation. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In a plenary address by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, we were reminded of the urgency of this need to extend Christ’s saving love to our neighbors.  We have been gifted with the friendship and love of Jesus in our lives.  “It is,” Cardinal Wuerl insisted, “our turn now!”  It is for us to share the gift of friendship with Jesus with others.  Now it is our turn to extend the gospel message of God’s always present mercy and grace to this generation, to our contemporaries.

It is hoped that the blessings of this convocation might extend widely throughout the Church in the U.S. and foster a new growth in all the baptized to become missionary disciples of Jesus Christ the Lord!

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Nine

What a very real and authentic way to conclude the days of Easter before Pentecost. Peter, in today’s gospel, looks over his shoulder and sees the beloved disciple. What, he asks, will become of him?

How often we look over our shoulder at the next person and wonder about them. What are they about in their relationship with Christ, how faithful are they, how gifted and how generous? We compare and we judge.

Jesus’ response is so telling. What difference is it to you what I will do with that one? You need only to be about the business of following me! Get your eyes off the other person, comparing yourself and judging others and set your eyes on me. Get your hearts, mind and energy wrapped up in hearing my voice, embracing my commands and following my kingdom way.

This is the first and most essential work of the Spirit in us. One of the gospel options for Pentecost Sunday (John 15:26-27, 16:12-15) gives beautiful expression to this. “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me…he will guide you to all truth…he will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”

I am reminded again of the great German biblical scholar, Rudolf Schnackenburg, who after a lifetime of rigorist study of the gospels, declared that the one essential truth permeating the whole of Sacred Scripture is that God seeks to live in friendship with human beings. “I no longer call you slaves, but I call you friends.”

The Holy Spirit nurtures in us a divine affection for Jesus Christ, the deep-seated desire to follow Jesus as Lord and as our dearest friend. The Holy Spirit sets our eyes, indeed our very lives, on Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord!

Let us pray:

Almighty God,
grant that the splendor of your glory
may shine forth upon us
and that, by the bright rays of the Holy Spirit,
the light of your light may confirm our hearts
in affection for your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ,
one God with you and the Holy Spirit
forever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Eight

St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Now that which is preponderant in the law of the New Testament, and whereon all its efficacy is based, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently, the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.” He then quotes St. Augustine, who says, “What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of His Holy Spirit?” (Summa, I-II, q. 106).

The law of God is not prescriptions, directions, commands or teachings. The law of God in Christ is a person, the divine Holy Spirit living and abiding in the hearts of the baptized.

This gives us some sense of why the Church turns now, so very close to the great feast of the Holy Spirit, to this passage in John’s gospel relating the marvelous exchange between Jesus and Peter. “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me’…‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you’…‘Feed my lambs.’” Jesus, having already breathed his Spirit on the disciples, now invites Peter to discern the movement of that Spirit in his heart. The very presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Peter moves him in love for Jesus, for God and the same presence of the Spirit moves Peter out in loving service to the people of God.

The law of love for God and for neighbor is living in our hearts as the person of the Holy Spirit inclining us to love. Jesus invites us to discern this saving presence of the Spirit in us. “Do you love me…will you heed the Spirit to loving service toward your brother and sister?”

Let us pray:

O God, who by the glorification of your Christ
and the light of the Holy Spirit
have unlocked for us the gates of eternity,
grant that, partaking of so great a gift,
our love may grow deeper
and our faith be increasingly brought to life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Seven

Today’s gospel contains what I find to be one of the sweetest, dearest and most precious verses to be found in all the gospels. Turned to the Father, glancing out over the vast space of time at all the ages of his disciples, Jesus says, “Father, they are your gift to me.” Can you imagine? The divine Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, looks on you as a precious gift to him from the Father. An expression of such tender affection and loving care.

This sense of gift is a very concrete way to express the petition at the heart of this high priestly prayer, “that they may all be one.” This is what from the foundation of creation the human person was created for: to share in the communion of love that has existed from all eternity in the heart of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here there is nothing but generosity and receptivity. We long to have our lives, to be given our lives in such a way that we truly know they are our own. Even more, we long to have our lives received by another as a precious gift, a treasure to be cherished and delighted in.

“Father, they are your gift to me.” Notice the honor and affirmation, the blessing being expressed here. Jesus seeks to fill us with his deepest blessing, the blessing he himself receives from all eternity and in time at his baptism when the voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, on him my favor rests.”

To be filled with the awareness of being loved, is to be freed to turn to another and see the beauty, dignity and goodness inherent in them, to see that they too are gift to be cherished, honor, and affirmed.

To live in this profound disposition of giftedness, is to begin to generate a circle of community and unity that is the desire of Jesus’ heart for us, “that they may all be one.”

Another ancient title for the Holy Spirit is Gift. God Father and Son pour out the Spirit as Gift to us to awaken in us the truth of our being gift to Christ, awakening us to the giftedness of each person we encounter.

Let us pray:

Grant, we pray, almighty and merciful God,
that the Holy Spirit, coming near
and dwelling graciously within us,
may awaken us to the gift you have made us
and the gift that each person is.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Six

The world looms large in Jesus prayer today. “I gave them your word, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the Evil One.”

World here is not world as cosmos, that created reality fashioned in goodness by an all good God. Nor is it the complex network of relationships that sustain the cosmos in unity, love and purpose.

Rather, “the notion of ‘world’ serves to unmask the demonic universe of refusal and rejection” (Quoted by Francis Martin, “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me,” The New Evangelization, 67). The world is everything in the culture, society, the economy, education, our personalities that resists the God who comes to us in love, friendship, grace and as Lord of the Universe. It is that fundamental inclination within us, as already witnessed in the garden of Eden, that declares our independence from any need for a god outside ourselves. The world insists on finding all meaning within itself, apart from its source and summit, the living God.

This is the ‘demonic energy’ that Jesus intercedes against for us. Jesus prays that our lives might be held in an essential receptivity to the self-revealing God. He prays that we not close in on ourselves because of the aggressive response of the world to such receptivity to transcendence.

Here again the Spirit plays his essential role for us. “The witnessing action of the Spirit consists in the activity by which he brings us into living contact with Jesus, who, forever fixed in the act of love in which he died, is the abiding Revelation of the Father, and as such is the Truth. The action of the Holy Spirit takes place in the Church through the liturgy and the sacraments, by his direct action in the souls of the believers, and…by the ‘works’ of the disciples in their own witness to the truth” (Ibid., 64).

How does the world act upon me to keep me from trusting God? What are the pressures I feel to find my purpose and happiness in what I can do and acquire by my own resources? Are there times of fear in my life that keep me from living faith, fear flowing from the sense that the world is greater than God?

Let us pray:

Holy and divine Spirit!
Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Your spouse,
bring the fullness of Your gifts into our hearts.
Comforted and strengthened by You,
may we live according to Your Will
and may we die praising Your infinite mercy.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Five

The gospel today brings us to the great High Priestly Prayer from chapter 17 of John’s gospel. In this prayer we are given a glimpse into the prayer being offered by Jesus before the Father for his disciples until the final consummation of all things. This is Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father interceding for his church.

Jesus prays that his disciples be given eternal life, and “this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” To know, again, is to enter into a living and vital relationship with the one known. “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world,” which is to say that we have been graciously granted access to the very person of God, who Jesus called his Father.

To have life that is fruitful, full, filled with meaning and purpose, and indestructible is to live our lives in an abiding and authentic relationship with God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:14-16).

How many of us spend a great deal of time ‘trying to find ourselves,’ to ‘prove ourselves,’ to gain the acceptance and approval of others, to show that our lives have value. All the while, this is being offered to us as gift. Jesus pours out his Spirit that we might know the truth of who we are. The Spirit reveals the truth of who we are and the true value of our lives: we are the children of God the Father who is the source of eternal life for us. There is no need to ‘find ourselves,’ because our very selves have been revealed to us in Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit! Speak Spirit, in the depth of my spirit, revealing the truth to me of the Father’s love and dependability. Let me cry out from the deepest part of my soul, “Abba, Father!”

O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of truth,
Who are everywhere present and fills all things,
Treasury of good things and Giver of life,
come and abide in us,
and cleanse us from every impurity,
and save our souls,
O Good One.
Amen.
(Traditional Orthodox Prayer)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

 

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Four

Recently we celebrated again with our young people the Sacrament of Confirmation. Something I like to ask those preparing for that sacrament is, ‘What do you expect from God when you receive the Sacrament of Confirmation?’ You see, we really do believe that something, well more accurately, Someone, is communicated to us in the sacraments. Unfortunately, we too often approach the sacraments distractedly, with little expectation of encounter.

A good question to reflect on for those of us who have long ago received the Sacrament of Confirmation might be, ‘In what ways do I experience the Holy Spirit active in my life, in the life of the Church, in the world?’ Though we wouldn’t respond as the folks in today’s first reading, “We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” some of us might say, unfortunately, “We have never even experienced the Holy Spirit?”

If we haven’t, it might very well be that we simply haven’t reflected deeply enough on it. Where have I experienced God in my life? Have I felt courage and strength to do what is right in the midst of a hardship? Was there a time when ‘the light went on’ and suddenly the solution to a difficult, personal problem came to me? Did I ever say ‘I am sorry’ or have I said ‘I forgive you’ for a very significant hurt done to me? When have I been motivated to give to another of myself, my time or something I have? What are ways that I serve my community, my parish? Have I ever felt calm even when things were crazy around me? All these experiences are indications of the activity of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.

And so, I state the question again for you and in a different way: What do you need the Holy Spirit to do in your life today? What ways do you need the Holy Spirit to direct your relationship with God, with another person, with something you need to do?

Let us pray:
O God, who by the mystery of Pentecost
sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation,
pour out the gifts of your Holy Spirit
across the face of the earth
and in my life,
and, with the divine grace that was at work
when the Gospel was first proclaimed,
fill now once more the hearts of believers.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen
(adapted from the Roman Missal)

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Three

Our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles describes for us the ascension of the Lord into heaven. “When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” The next verse is equally important. “While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” Now, add to this the first verse of today’s gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

Two essential movements intertwine in the mystery of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. The first and most obvious of these is the movement of ascent. Jesus breaks through the boundaries and barriers of this material cosmos and enters into what is eternal and ultimate. In the ascension we discover anew that we are made for eternity and our ultimate destiny is to exist forever in the heart of God.

The second movement, flowing from this first, is that the ascension pushes us outward and onward. “Why are you standing there looking at the sky…Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” The ascension of Jesus reveals our dignity as children of God and our ultimate destiny to live for eternity in that relationship of great honor and glory. This must be shared, allowed to shape the present world we live in, increasingly breaking down structures of oppression and discrimination and expanding the horizons of peace and respect in every relationship.

The explosive reality at the center of this mystery of ascension is something that can only be communicated and made effective for us by God. It is the Holy Spirit alone who can both lift us upward with Jesus and explode the horizon of our spirits outward in proclamation and service to the kingdom.

Let us share this Act of Consecration to the Holy Spirit, written by St. Pius X:

O Holy Spirit, divine Spirit of light and love,
I consecrate to You my understanding, my heart
and my will, my whole being for time and for eternity.
May my understanding be always submissive
to Your heavenly inspirations and to the teachings
of the Holy Catholic Church, of which You
are the infallible Guide.
May my heart be ever inflamed with love of God
and of my neighbor;
may my will be ever conformed to the divine Will,
and may my whole life be a faithful imitation
of the life and virtues of Our Lord and Savior
Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father
and You, Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day Two

DAY TWO

Today’s gospel begins by repeating the last verse of yesterday’s gospel: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” Later in this gospel passage Jesus repeats a second time our need to ask the Father “in his name.”

What does it mean to ask God in the name of Jesus? Jesus’ words that follow immediately are a strong indication. “I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.” Jesus seeks to offer his disciples a glimpse of the love he shares from all eternity with the Father. The God he calls father is the origin and source of all he is. The Father is, just as surely, the goal and summit of all he is. There is a rhythm of love that exists in the essence of God, which we express as the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We can come at this another way, perhaps. St. Paul tells us that God the Father “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us” (Romans 8:32). This ‘handed him over’ is the same expression used to describe the actions of the traitor, Judas. Certainly it must have a different meaning in reference to God’s action than to Judas’. Somewhere St. Thomas explains this by pointing out that God the Father ‘handed over the Son’ by inspiring in him such love for his Father’s saving plan that he spontaneously entrusted himself to the passion. The handing over was a handing over of love that called forth love.

This, it seems to me, brings us to something of what it means to ask the Father in the name of Jesus. Recalling that in the biblical tradition, to have access to another’s name is to gain access to their person, asking in the name of Jesus is to be filled with love from the Father so as to pour out our lives in prayer to the Father for the sake of the world. This is the prayer not to be refused by the Father. To pray in love for the healing, reconciliation, transformation of the world.

This love of the Father for the Son, does it need to be said, is who we know to be the Holy Spirit. To be filled with the love of God is to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

One of my favorite prayers to the Holy Spirit is written by Cardinal Mercier.

O Holy Spirit, soul of my soul,
I adore You.
Enlighten, guide, strengthen, and console me.
Tell me what I ought to do and command me to do it.
I promise to be submissive in everything that You permit to happen to me,
only show me what is Your will.
Amen.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

PENTECOST NOVENA — Day One

Today is the beginning of the traditional Novena to the Holy Spirit, nine days of prayer to the Holy Spirit, concluding on the Vigil of the Feast of Pentecost. In this way, with the original band of Jesus’ disciples, who “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with…Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14), we might encounter for ourselves a deep and profound renewal of the life and action of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

It is my hope to offer on each day of the novena a brief reflection, guided by the daily readings from Mass, and to share a prayer to the Holy Spirit.

The last verse of today’s gospel provides us with a wonderful place to begin. There we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you” (John 16:23).

We need to be, first of all, very attentive to this. The “amen, amen” indicates a solemn promise on the part of Jesus to us. The essence of this promise, I dare say, is the essence of the Easter mystery. God can be trusted. Jesus passed into the depths of death to be met by the always faithful God who drew him to resurrection and eternal life. God can be trusted.

But still, this is a deep mystery. Jesus did, after all, pass through death. Most of us, perhaps all of us, have addressed desperate petitions to God many, many times, only to receive no apparent response. There is the child who prays for years for the healing of a parent from cancer, only to see mom grow worse until she dies. How many parents have prayed for a wayward child who has only gone further off course? There is the addict who has pleaded with God for freedom, only to fall again into the deadly behavior.

We touch here a disturbing mystery. “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.” Jesus’ words are sure! Yet, what do they mean for us here and now?

The early Christian patristic writers, when coming upon this verse, most often commented that what Jesus was referring to, the petition which the Christian should be addressing to the Father in his name, is nothing other than the Holy Spirit. Ask for the Holy Spirit, the very reality of divine life, and the Father will never, ever withhold it from you.

This is what we long to receive from God: the abiding indwelling presence of his divine life active through the Holy Spirit. Divine life, which is to say, indestructible, unquenchable, infinite, eternal life filled with fire and love and goodness and strength. This is the source of the peace Christ promised, a peace the world cannot give or take away. What we pray for is to know life that is eternal and ours as gift from a Father who loves us and will not refuse us.

In any present darkness, the living movement of the Holy Spirit in us communicates the assurance that God’s life is ultimate and God can always and everywhere be trusted to pour forth this life for us!

Come Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Send forth you Spirit
and we shall be created
and you shall renew the face of the earth.
Amen.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.