Encountering Jesus and responding with love

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Personal encounters with famous people leave indelible memories. As the Cardinals come together to elect a new Holy Father, I think back to the times I had the privilege of encountering Pope Benedict XVI, a humble servant of the Lord who has given so much to the Church. On January 2, 2013, I was able to greet him briefly at the end of the General Audience. I was especially privileged to be at his last General Audience on February 27. Even though the bishops were not able to greet him personally, one by one, nonetheless, that encounter with the Holy Father will be forever indelibly present in my memory.

In proclaiming the present Year of Faith last October, His Holiness, Benedict XVI's message points us toward an even deeper encounter - one with Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict told us that faith means personal encounters with Jesus, Who lives, Who is present, and Whom we receive intimately into ourselves as food and drink. If we truly realized what this means, in our state of awe and wonder, we would hardly be able to stammer an answer to someone who asks: "Have you ever had an encounter with Jesus?"

The Pharisee and the publican in today's Gospel account show how it is possible to be in the presence of God and either realize the wonder of it in some way - or miss the reality completely. Significantly, in relating the parable, Jesus noted that the Pharisee "took up his position and prayed to himself - while the publican realized that he was a sinner in the presence of God, and prayed: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner."

What does it mean to encounter Jesus? Not long ago, the monthly publication Magnificat printed a brief, powerful incident in the life of the Servant of God, Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Daughter of a wealthy Russian Diplomat, Catherine recalled a Christ-encounter from her childhood that occurred a few years prior to the Russian Revolution of the early 20th century.

One day, she said, her parents held a fancy tea-party in their home for hundreds of diplomats and dignitaries. At nine years of age, Catherine was moving among the guests "carrying little cakes and being polite." Suddenly, she said: ". . . the butler opened the door and announced to my father, 'Christ is at the door.' Well, the French ambassador's wife dropped her expensive teacup on the rug. She was not used to such interruptions. Father excused himself, mother excused herself and off they went. And whom did they welcome? A hobo who had come to the door begging. And what did they do? My father and mother served him themselves, even though we had fourteen servants in the house," (cf. Magnificat, February 2013, Vol. 14, No. 12, pp. 274-275).

Catherine asked her mother if she could help. Her mother said, "Oh no, you were disobedient last week; you cannot serve Christ unless you are obedient." That was a Christ-encounter that Catherine never forgot. Christ came to the door of their home and was met with simple but extraordinary faith.

Today in our liturgy, we commemorated in our Opening Prayer or Collect, Saint Frances of Rome. Although she originally desired to become a nun, her parents insisted that she be married. She lived forty happy years in marriage, attentive to her husband, raising with him their children, and caring for the poor and sick on a daily basis in Rome, along with her sister-in-law. She saw Christ in each of those poor and sick persons; indeed she encountered Him in them, because He was in them, hidden and disguised but nonetheless present.

But, where do we encounter Christ? At his final Angelus Message on February 24, 2013, the Holy Father stated: "…We always have to perceive His Presence, His glory, and His Divinity in the life of the Church, in contemplation and in every day events." Yes, we encounter Christ in daily prayer, in the experience of being with Him as He speaks to us in His Word over which we reflect or as we open our hearts to Him in words we pray, like the Morning Offering upon getting out of bed, or the Act of Contrition before retiring; we encounter Him in the celebration of the sacraments, in which He meets us through an outward sign, as in Penance where His Divine Mercy forgives us and restores us, sinners though we are, like the Publican in today's gospel, or as in the Holy Eucharist, wherein He feeds us with His Very Real Presence, His very self; we encounter Him in one another, especially in the needy; of course, He is always disguised and hidden. We encounter Him in the everyday events of life.

In his memorable and deeply moving final public Audience, the Holy Father shared what he experienced when asked if he would accept the Petrine ministry. ". . . the words that resounded in my heart were: Lord, what do you ask of me? It is a great weight that you are placing on my shoulders but, if you ask it of me, I will cast my nets at your command, confident that you will guide me, even with all my weaknesses."

Yes, in each encounter with the Lord, we do ask Him to show us His Will. At this landmark Conference, the crucial thing is to echo that prayer of the Holy Father: "Lord, what do you ask of me? . . .of the women of this Diocese?"

As I look out at you, the women of our diocese gathered for this annual conference, I know what a potent treasure you are in the Church and for our country. As your Bishop, I suggest two more specific things that the Lord is asking of you, the women of this diocese, in responding to the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization.

First, in union with Catherine de Hueck, Saint Frances of Rome, and the litany of saintly women who have gone before us, remember that you are encountering Christ in every person you meet at the door of your home, the door of your professional service, and - above all - the door of your heart.

Worldwide, the specific gifts of women as bearers and nurturers of new life are being denigrated - as if they were illnesses to be overcome or burdens to be cast off in the name of freedom. The dignity of being called and recognized as mother is being leered at as a hindrance to self-fulfillment.

No matter what your age, or educational accomplishments - whether you are married or consecrated in vowed life, or expressing your personal talents within single life - it is your privilege as women to mother life, that is, to give and nurture life in appropriate ways, wherever you are called, and to support joyfully women who give children the possibility of life in this world. Right now, this is a particular mission of Mother Church, and you are primary witnesses to these values of life and motherhood. In earnest prayer, join Pope Emeritus Benedict in asking, "Lord, what do You ask of me? How am I called to be 'woman' (mother, sister and daughter) to Christ whom I encounter at the door of my home, office, or place of work?

Second, there are many forces threatening the good of the Church and of the family in our nation today. Take for instance the HHS mandate prohibiting the full and authentic exercise of religious freedom or the push to redefine the definition of marriage in the United States.

We need courageous women, well-informed women, women of faith! I encourage you to answer the four-fold invitation that the U.S. Bishops have made to all of the lay faithful in this year: to pray, to fast, and to advocate, in support of life, marriage and religious liberty.

Women in our country are clearly expressing their desire to participate actively in what concerns their presence and contributions in society. Whether your life is centered in bringing the next generation into the fullness of life as a mother, or in a place of civic or legal responsibility, or in furthering the mission of the Church as a religious, know that you have the esteemed privilege of opening the door of your intellect and heart to Christ in the ordinary events of each day.

My mother was a very quiet, hard-working, ordinary woman. She expressed her faith without fanfare and showed how she loved others in very ordinary ways, like visiting the sick in our neighborhood or calling them on the phone. What she taught me by her life-long example was that living the faith and expressing care and concern for others is done quietly yet so powerfully. She encountered Christ in faith and responded by loving Him and others in ordinary ways.

I conclude as I began, referring to our now Emeritus Pope. May His Holiness Benedict XVI be a vibrant example for each of us. He recognized and responded to what the Holy Spirit was asking of him at this moment. In handing on the Keys of Peter, he did not, like the Pharisee in today's parable, leave the Vatican in a burst of self-congratulation. Rather, with the humble truthfulness of the publican, Pope Benedict knew that in the Holy Spirit, he was being "called up the mountain" to pray for the Church as his greatest way of being a faithful servant. Strengthened by his example, we continue this Sacrifice of the Mass, asking that each of you will know how you are being called to love and give witness in this Year of Faith as the protagonists of the New Evangelization. Passing through the Door of Faith, we encounter the Lord Jesus Christ Who sends us forth to live the faith in love every day until we see Him face to face at our journey's end.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013