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Our Journey to the Father
by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.

What is the biggest change that has taken place in the Church during the past 30 years? If someone were to ask me that question today, I think my answer would relate to the pilgrim nature of the Church. In the years before the Second Vatican Council, I never thought much about the Church as a pilgrim, on the move, on a journey. I thought of the Church in images that were solid and fixed.

The picture of the Church that I remember from my Baltimore Catechism was a pyramid: the broad base of the laity, then the priests, then the bishops and, finally, the pope at the top. Pyramids are hardly pilgrims! Religious realities were fixed, static things: the institutional Church, the state of grace, the Ten Commandments written in stone, sacraments as things priests administered to people.

'The Pilgrim Church'

Chapter VII of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church is entitled "The Pilgrim Church." It reminds us that the Church is like a person on a journey who has not yet arrived at the journey's destination but is continually drawn to move ahead by the desire to reach the goal of the pilgrimage. The image of the Church as a pilgrim, as on a journey, has caused me to rethink many things about the Church.

Balancing this image of the pilgrim Church with the more traditional image of the institutional Church is not always easy; but seeing the Church as a pilgrim is basic to Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter, The Coming Third Millennium (CTM). In this plan, the Holy Father's theme for 1999 is our journey to the Father. "The whole of the Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father" (CTM #49).

When we are on a long journey we need to stop now and then to see how far we have come. We check to see if we are still on the right road and heading in the right direction. It is always possible to make a wrong turn. Imagine for a moment that you are driving somewhere and lose your way. You stop to ask someone for directions and the person tells you "Turn around! You are going the wrong way!" Now if the person giving you this advice spoke to you in New Testament Greek (which I know would be highly unlikely), you would have heard "metanoeite," meaning "turn around."

I find it helpful to know the root meaning of this Greek word because it plays an important role in the New Testament. Jesus' invitation in the Gospels, "metanoeite" (turn around), is translated into English by the words "convert," "repent" or "do penance." The gospel calls to conversion, repentance and penance are essential components of our pilgrimage. During 1999 the pope encourages us to undertake "a journey of authentic conversion" (CTM #50). Conversion is the process of coming to believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world— along with all that implies!

Ongoing conversion

We use the words "convert" and "conversion" in several ways. For example, I was baptized a few days after I was born, and I was raised in a Catholic family. Belief in Jesus has always been a part of my life—although the implications of that belief continue to unfold and mature day by day. My "conversion" has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process.

Some people first come to belief in Jesus as adults. We call these people "converts" in the proper sense of the word. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops instructs us: "The term 'convert' should be reserved strictly for those converted from unbelief to Christian belief and never used of those baptized Christians who are received into the full communion of the Catholic Church" (National Statutes for the Catechumenate, #2). The Catholic Church accompanies these converts and assists them on their faith journey with the Rite of Christian Initiation. The journey may take several months or several years. It culminates in the Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist—celebrated at the Easter Vigil.

The Church helps converts prepare for their sacramental rebirth at Easter by providing a period of intense spiritual preparation, a 40-day retreat before Baptism, which we call "Lent." For those of us who are already baptized, Lent is a time to check our progress on the pilgrimage. Are we taking the best route? Do we need to correct or modify our course? Have you ever been on a commercial airliner when shortly before landing you feel the pilot making subtle corrections in the airplane's speed and direction so that it is precisely aligned with the runway? We often need to take similar action on our spiritual journey. With our eyes on the promise of Easter, we must continually correct the course of our life so that we are on target with God's plan for us. The Sacrament of Reconciliation (which the Holy Father has designated as the sacramental focus for 1999) is God's means of helping us do just that.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation makes Jesus' call to conversion "sacramentally present" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1423). In the Scriptures we hear again God's plan for the world and Christ's invitation to turn around, to repent, to love one another. In the silence of our hearts and with the support of the parish community we examine the direction of our lives in the light of the Holy Spirit who helps us see things as God sees them. And in the proclamation of sacramental absolution we are assured that God does forgive.

How important that assurance is today when all around us we hear of people who are unable or unwilling to forgive. Surrounded by so much "unforgiveness," it is especially important for us to hear again that our sins are forgiven. And we can continue on our great pilgrimage to the Father without being encumbered by sin and regret.

Continuing the journey

The Sacrament of Reconciliation not only helps us "correct our course," it also calls us to continue the journey. Sometimes we are tempted to be content with the way things are now, with the way we are now, and let the pilgrim Church move on ahead without us.

Once I had the opportunity to visit the tombs of the kings in Luxor, Egypt. After walking for hours in the hot desert sun (and seeing many amazing tombs) we came to a tent where a man was selling cold drinks. The tent was wonderful: It offered shade, a cold drink, a place to sit down. I wanted to stay there forever, and nearly forgot about the many beautiful things that remained to be seen! But my friend urged me on after our rest, and we continued our journey.

Or, you may be more familiar with this example: Can you remember when you started grade school? Young and scared, you were at the bottom of the grade school pecking order; everybody else was older and stronger and smarter. Third-graders could write cursive; fifth-graders, multiply; eighth-graders knew the capitals of all 50 states. But eventually you became an eighth-grader and were older and stronger and smarter and knew all those things that first-graders didn't know. But just when you were at the top, it was time for you to leave grade school and start high school. You had to "give up" being at the top and start over again as a freshman, and once again, everyone else was older and stronger and smarter.

Now what if at that point you decided you didn't want to move on and said, "I like it here; I think I will just stay in the eighth grade." If your parents were anything like mine, they would soon let you know that this was an unacceptable decision, and would encourage you in no uncertain terms to "let go," "give it up," "move on!"

During Lent, the Sacrament of Reconciliation helps us to "move on." If we have stopped or slowed our progress on our journey to the Father, God as a loving parent encourages us to "move on." We often "give up something" for Lent. Often the thing (or place or person) God asks us to "give up" during Lent is not a big sin; often it is not a sin at all. Sometimes it is like the eighth grade—something good in it itself, but only in its proper time. Sin is, after all, the failure to grow, the failure to move on, the failure to continue the journey. The work of conversion is "an uninterrupted task for the whole Church" (CCC, #1428).

Enriched by fellow travelers

One of the things that I always enjoy about going on a pilgrimage is that I meet interesting people who are traveling to the same destination. Often these are people I would never have met had I not been on the journey. The pilgrim Church, also, encounters many fellow travelers who, even though they are outside the visible body of the Church, are "people of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way" (as the Vatican Council II teaches in The Church in the Modern World, #22). As they journey with us on our great pilgrimage to the house of the Father, it is natural to speak with them, to engage them in dialogue, to learn of their hopes and dreams. Dialogue with the world religions is the Holy Father's ecumenical theme for 1999. In The Coming Third Millennium he recommends especially dialogue with Jews and Muslims (#53).

Lent 1999 is an excellent time to learn more about these great religions. Perhaps a visit to a synagogue and a mosque is in order. As we Christians prepare for the celebration of Easter, we might learn about the Jews' celebration of Passover or the Muslims' pilgrimage sacrifices. Many of us Catholics know very little about faiths other than our own. If we are simply tempted to dismiss non-Christians as "strange," we are reminded by the Holy Father that 1999 is to be a year aimed at "broadening the horizons of believers" (CTM, #49). As we consider God's "unconditional love for every human creature, and in particular for the 'prodigal son,'" we remember how the father in Luke's parable wanted both of his sons to come to the banquet. Our "pilgrimage takes place in the heart of each person, extends to the believing community and then it reaches to the whole of humanity" (CTM, #49).

In the Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs III, we pray: "Keep your Church alert in faith to the signs of the times and eager to accept the challenge of the gospel. Open our hearts to the needs of all humanity, so that sharing their grief and anguish, their joy and hope, we may faithfully bring them the good news of salvation and advance together on the way to your kingdom. "And in the Eucharistic Prayer for Masses of Reconciliation II, we ask: "In that new world, where the fullness of your peace will be revealed, gather people of every race, language and way of life to share in the one eternal banquet with Jesus Christ the Lord." This is the ultimate goal of our great pilgrimage.*

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris. He teaches courses on the sacraments at Saint Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology. He is the author of The Sacraments: How Catholics Pray (St. Anthony Messenger Press).



Sister Mary Rose McGeady


Tonight, Sister Mary Rose McGeady and her Covenant House staff will welcome 1,400 kids—runaways desperate to get away from physical and sexual abuse; throwaway teens whose families want no part of them; abandoned and desperate youngsters, some as young as 10, who cannot face another night on the streets.

That's the way it is every night at the 20-plus Covenant House shelters in the U.S., Mexico and Central America. Business is booming.

The Covenant House toll-free hotline (1-800-999-9999) now receives approximately 88,000 calls annually from youth throughout the country. In the past year, the agency provided residential and non-residential services to more than 50,000 young people, while another 16,000 or so found help at its area community-service centers. An additional 21,000 youth were served through Covenant House outreach programs.

And it's never pretty. "Let's face it, though I swear that my kids are beautiful inside, it's sometimes hard to see it on the outside," says Sister Mary Rose, who has served as president of the multifaceted agency for close to a decade. "These are street kids. They are often dirty. They are often tough. They have built up a protective shell so thick that some people just can't face them," says the 70-year-old nun, a Daughter of Charity.

A veteran child-care worker with a master's degree in psychology and extensive postgraduate work, Sister Mary Rose has continued to learn at Covenant House. And what an education it has been! Her experiences have challenged her to be a full-time listener, loving parent and faithful guide as she seeks to help the wounded waifs who make their way to the agency itself and to its range of services, including medical, employment, advocacy, education.

"It is my belief," says Sister Mary Rose, that the "overwhelming majority" of the children who knock on Covenant House doors from New York to Anchorage to Guatemala do so "because at some point their lives became so horrible that they begged God to save them...and he heard them. It's a good thing he has such good ears."

And it's a good thing these lost young people have someone to come home to in the person of Sister Mary Rose McGeady and her staff. They are a visible sign of the presence of God in whom alone the human heart finds rest.*

—by Judy Ball




Coming Home


"Bless me, Father..." The familiar words uttered in confessionals for generations have new meaning in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. As part of its "Catholic Faith and Life 2000" project, the archdiocese is inviting everyone who has been away from the Church to return and to find peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

A toll-free, confidential hotline (1-877-BLESS-ME, available only in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) has been established through the Renewal and Evangelization Office. With the help of the 150 anonymous, volunteer priests who man the hotline, callers receive not the sacrament itself but personal help, information and guidance regarding their special concerns. In its first six weeks in operation (8 AM-8 PM, Monday-Friday), the hotline received more than 6,000 calls.

Meanwhile, 11,000 volunteers are distributing Reconciliation Weekend information packets throughout the archdiocese. The packet includes a brochure about the sacrament, an examination of conscience and a list of the 81 Millennium Churches in the archdiocese. Continuous confessions and special penance services will be held in those churches March 19 and 20.*


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