Corpus Christi, Texas, Jan 23, 2011 (CNA) - "We are using information to assist in formation that will lead to transformation," is how Msgr. Michael Heras, pastor at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Corpus Christi, Texas describes the parish's Lay Formation Program. Started in 2002, the program has enrolled some 870 students.
The idea for the program stemmed from the introduction of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992; indeed the three-year program closely follows the Catechism. "What a gift the Catechism is," Msgr. Heras said.
The program encompasses formation in four areas: spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral. The first year of the program, called the Bronze Year, includes topics such as the existence of God, the incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the founding of the Church by Jesus. The second year is called the Silver Year and focuses on the Sacraments, the Eucharist, Mass, sin and marriage. The third and final year called the Gold Year covers the Ten Commandments and the church's teaching on social justice.
"When I began the Lay Formation Program, I was a little intimidated because of the three year commitment," Mary Ann Ramos said. "I thought it would take forever and that I might not be as good a student as I was in my childhood years. I could not have been more wrong. The three years flew by, and I found that learning was easy when you have an excellent instructor and life changing material to learn."
Each year consists of four semesters of six classes each. Absence from more than four classes each semester requires the participant to repeat the semester. Absence from any class must be made up under the direction of the teacher. Aside from the regularly scheduled classes, each participant must take a yearly one-day seminar in order to fulfill the academic requirements of the course. Each participant must be committed to meet every month with an appointed formation advisor, which is a priest, sister or deacon.
In order to be accepted into the program, each participant must make a serious commitment to a life of prayer. This includes daily prayer, including the Rosary and Mass when possible; weekly prayer, such as adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour; and monthly Reconciliation. While participants do not have to parishioners of Our Lady of Perpetual help, they must be baptized, full initiated Catholics in good standing with the Church. By good standing, it is meant that the participant must be a person who leads a moral life.
"The parish has to have people who understand what Jesus intended," Msgr. Heras said. According to Paragraph 2179 of the Catechism, "A parish is a definite community of the Christian faithful established on a stable basis within a particular church; … It is the place where all the faithful can be gathered together for the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. The parish initiates the Christian people into the ordinary expression of the liturgical life: it gathers them together in this celebration; it teaches Christ's saving doctrine; it practices the charity of the Lord in good works and brotherly love…"
The aim of the Lay Formation Program is to develop parishioners that can meet the standard of Paragraph 2179. Too many retreat programs, Msgr. Heras said, take people away from the Parish for a few days that provide them with a spiritual high. Like most highs, the emotional uplifting is followed with a letdown. Many people go from one retreat to another to try to maintain the spiritual high, Msgr. Heras said.
"What do you do after the retreats?" Msgr. Heras asks. "We must address the whole person not just their emotions. We must address their spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral needs. Real formation takes place in the parish on a one to one basis."
Each participant in the Lay Formation Program must complete the Real Life Program, which consists of 10 weeks of meetings followed by a weekend retreat. While no exams are given, at the end of each semester each participant must write a brief reflection on the subject matter the teacher covered during the semester.
"Before Lay Formation, I thought I had a good understanding of my faith, but every once in a while, someone would come to me with a question about being Catholic. Most times these questions were from people who were genuinely interested in learning about the Catholic faith, but sometimes these questions took on a more challenging tone. Sometimes I had answers for them. A lot of times I did not," Ramos said.
The Lay Formation introduced Ramos to the Catechism, which -along with instruction from her instructor- gave her the best resource to answer most if not all of those questions coming her way.
At the end of the three-year program, each participant will be awarded the Apostolic Parish Diploma. This diploma must be renewed every three years based on pastoral requirements set by the pastor of the participants' home parish.
"This program greatly strengthened my prayer life and, with the help of my assigned spiritual advisor and of course the Holy Spirit, allowed me to gain a more balanced life. I would strongly recommend the Lay Formation Program to every Catholic." Ramos said.
Printed with permission from South Texas Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Corpus Christi.
Washington D.C., Jan 23, 2011 (CNA) - Decades after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” leading clergy including several Catholic bishops have issued a response. They praised the sacrifices of the civil rights movement’s leaders and said work against racism is “unfinished.”
The response, titled “A Letter from Birmingham,” is a product of the 2011 Annual Meeting of Christian Churches Together, held Jan. 11-14 in Birmingham, Alabama. Attendees at the meeting, which examined poverty through the lens of racism, said that to their knowledge no one had ever issued a clergy response to Dr. King’s letter.
King’s 1963 letter was a response to Birmingham clergy who had appealed for unity, restraint and “common sense” while withdrawing their support for the civil rights demonstrations.
The 2011 letter expressed “profound gratitude” to the leaders of the civil rights movement, saying their sacrifices have “moved us closer to God’s justice” and demonstrated “the power of Christian, nonviolent action.”
The churchmen said “some of us have not progressed far enough beyond the initial message from the Birmingham clergy.”
“Though virtually all our institutions have formal statements against racism, too often our follow-through has been far less than our spoken commitments. Too often we have elected to be comfortable rather than prophetic. Too often we have chosen not to see the evidence of a racism that is less overt but still permeates our national life in corrosive ways.”
The letter remembered the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls in 1963. A replaced window in the church now shows a Christ figure rejecting the world’s injustice with one hand and extending forgiveness with the other.
“In the spirit of this loving Jesus, and in the spirit of those who committed their very lives to that love, we renew our struggle to end racism in all forms,” the clergymen said.
Catholic Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, a member of the Christian Churches Together steering committee, represented the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity at the meeting.
“During the struggles of the civil rights movement, Birmingham was one of the most segregated and violent cities in America. Today, the city of Birmingham is filled with monuments, places of worship, and home to the Civil Rights Institute,” Bishop Vasquez said in a Jan. 20 statement.
He noted individuals’ stories of the injustices of racism and segregation.
“These individuals were filled with prophetic courage, even to the point of sacrificing their own personal safety to bring about equality and justice,” he explained. “Their non-violent efforts to confront racism are deeply rooted in Gospel values that all men and women, regardless of color, are created in the likeness and image of God and, therefore, worthy of respect and dignity.”
Christian Churches Together is made up of five “families” composed of representatives from Catholic Orthodox, historic Protestant, African-American and Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, currently serves as one of the five presidents of the organization.
Denver, Colo., Jan 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - On Jan. 24, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that runs from Jan. 18-25, Catholics will celebrate the life of St. Francis de Sales. A bishop and Doctor of the Church, his preaching brought thousands of Protestants back to the Catholic fold, and his writings on the spiritual life have proved highly influential.
The paradoxical circumstances of Francis' birth, in the Savoy region (now part of France) during 1567, sum up several contradictory tendencies of the Church during his lifetime. The reforms of the Council of Trent had purified the Church in important ways, yet Catholics and Protestants still struggled against one another – and against the temptations of wealth and worldly power.
Francis de Sales, a diplomat's son, was born into aristocratic wealth and privilege. Yet he was born in a room that his family named the “St. Francis room” – where there hung a painting of that saint, renowned for his poverty, preaching in the wilderness. In later years, Francis de Sales would embrace poverty also; but early in his ministry, the faithful chided him for having an aristocratic manner.
In many ways, Francis' greatest achievements – such as the “Introduction to the Devout Life,” an innovative spiritual guidebook for laypersons, or his strong emphasis on the role of human love in Christian devotion – represent successful attempts to re-integrate seemingly disparate “worldly” and “spiritual” realities into one coherent vision of life.
Few people, however, would have predicted these achievements for Francis during his earlier years. As a young man, he studied rhetoric, the humanities, and law. He had his law degree by age 25, and was headed for a political career. All the while, he was keeping the depths of his spiritual life – such as his profound devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his resolution of religious celibacy – a secret from the world.
Eventually, however, the truth came out, and Francis clashed with his father, who had arranged a marriage for him. The Bishop of Geneva intervened on Francis' behalf, finding him a position in the administration of the Swiss Church that led to his priestly ordination in 1593. He volunteered to lead a mission to bring Switzerland, dominated by Calvinist Protestantism, back to the Catholic faith.
Taking on a seemingly impossible task, with only one companion – his cousin – the new priest adopted a harsh but hopeful motto: “Apostles battle by their sufferings, and triumph only in death." It would serve him well as he traveled through Switzerland, facing many Protestants' indifference or hostility, and being attacked by wild animals and even would-be assassins.
Some of Francis' hearers –even, for a time, John Calvin's protege Theodore Beza– found themselves captivated by the thoughtful, eloquent and joyful manner of the priest who implored their reunion with the Church. But he had more success when he began writing out these sermons and exhortations, slipping them beneath the doors that had been closed against him.
This pioneering use of religious tracts proved surprisingly effective at breaking down the resistance of the Swiss Calvinists, and it is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 of them returned to the Church through his efforts. He also served as a spiritual director, both in person and through written correspondence, with the latter format inspiring the “Introduction to the Devout Life.”
In 1602, Francis was chosen to become the Bishop of Geneva, a position he did not seek or desire. Accepting the position, however, he gave the last twenty years of his life in ongoing sacrifice, for the restoration of Geneva's churches and religious orders. He also helped one of his spiritual directees, the widow and future saint Jane Frances de Chantal, to found an order with a group of women.
Worn out by nearly thirty years of arduous travel and other burdens of Church leadership, Francis fell ill in 1622 while visiting a convent he had helped to found in Lyons. He died there, three days after Christmas that year. St. Francis de Sales was canonized in 1665, and honored as a Doctor of the Church in 1877.
Because of the crucial role of writing in his apostolate, St. Francis de Sales is the patron of writers and journalists. He is also widely credited with restoring, during his own day, a sense of what the Second Vatican Council would later call the “universal call to holiness” – that is, the notion that all people, not only those in formal religious life, are called to the heights of Christian sanctification.
Vatican City, Jan 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Divisions among Christians exist today as they did in St. Paul's time and there continues to be a single source of healing – repenting and turning to Christ – said the Pope on Sunday.
As he did the week prior at the general audience, Pope Benedict XVI again took up the theme of Christian unity during his Jan. 23 address before the Angelus prayer.
The subject is pertinent as the annual, global celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity continues. Observed from Jan. 18-25, this year's Christian unity week focuses on the Acts of the Apostles and the very first Christian community in Jerusalem.
The Geneva, Switzerland-based World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity partnered with the churches of Jerusalem to come up with the theme and materials to be used during the week.
In his address, Pope Benedict called the collaboration with churches in Jerusalem "meaningful." The service of Christians in the Holy Land and the Middle East amid their trials, he said, is "even more precious" considering their testimony which has marked by the sacrifice of human lives.
In this context, the "cues for reflection" offered by the Christian communities there are received with "joyfully," while they offer the world an opportunity join together with them as a sign of communion, he said.
The Pope went on to say that Christians must base their lives on the four elements that make them a "sign and instrument of the intimate union with God and of unity among men in the world."
These four are listening to the God's Word transmitted through the strong Tradition of the Church, fraternal communion, the Eucharist and prayer.
According to the materials for study and prayer offered by the WCC and the Vatican's council for Christian unity, they are "the pillars of the life of the church, and of its unity."
Pope Benedict explained that only by "remaining firmly united to Christ, can the Church fulfill her mission effectively, despite the limits and the faults of her members, in spite of division."
He pointed out that Christian division was already evident in the first century when St. Paul saw discord in the Christian community of the Corinthians. The second reading on Sunday is a reminder to this, he said.
Paul wrote to them, "I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose."
Knowing of the community's problems, he asked them rhetorically, "Is Christ divided?"
In doing so, said Pope Benedict, Paul "asserts that every division in the Church is an offense to Christ; and, at the same time, that it is always in Him, the only Chief and Lord, that we can unite ourselves again, because of the inexhaustible force of his grace."
This is where the call, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," from Sunday's Gospel comes in, said the Pope.
"The serious commitment of conversion to Christ is the way that leads the Church ... to full visible unity," he said. He pointed to the increasing number of ecumenical encounters as a sign of this.
There are also ecumenical delegations present in Rome at the moment as well as theological dialogue set to pick up on Jan. 23 between the Catholic and Ancient Oriental Churches, he added.
Before praying the Angelus, he prayed that Mary, "Mother of the Church, always accompany us on this path."
The Pope will conclude the observation of the Week of Prayer with vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-walls on the feast of St. Paul's conversion on Jan. 25.
Vatican City, Jan 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - On Jan. 22 at the Vatican, the Swiss Guard commemorated more than five centuries of being the Pope's sworn protectors. Corporal Urs Breitenmoser of the Swiss Guard called the celebration a “historic moment of maximum importance for us” in remarks to CNA about the event.
In 1506, on the same day of the year, 150 Swiss soldiers first entered the Vatican by request of then-Pope Julius II to form the Pontifical Swiss Guard. The group has remained present to this day and is now the oldest standing army in the world.
The 505th anniversary of the Pontifical Swiss Guard was marked on Saturday evening with a solemn Mass followed by a once-a-year procession across St. Peter's Square and a banquet in their Vatican quarters.
It was an intimate affair, with few outsiders joining the representation of around 40 guards at Mass within the Vatican walls in the chapel of the Teutonic College. The strong voices of a handful of guards filled the small church of Santa Maria della Pieta in Campo Santo with chant.
During the celebration, the guard made the traditional salute of the altar as visible sign of their oath of "honor and fidelity."
Archbishop Ferdinando Filoni, a high-ranking official in the Vatican's secretariat of state, presided over the celebration. He told them that just as fishermen were entrusted with a mission from the Lord as his first disciples, all people are invited to follow Him and are entrusted with a particular task.
"For this reason," the archbishop told them, "by serving the Holy Father, in a special way, you participate in the universal mission of the Church." He concluded the homily with a prayer that the guards would have a "renewed impetus" towards fidelity and service.
The 110 guards who currently form the exclusive squad are responsible for guarding entrances to the Vatican and the entire papal residence. In collaboration with other Vatican security forces, they ensure the Pope's personal safety anywhere he might go.
At the conclusion of Mass, the group processed out of the Vatican's Arch of the Bells in marching formation. A pair of drummers set the cadence and a modest-sized band played a march to which they crossed St. Peter's Square.
They passed fellow guards on their way in the "Porta Santa Anna" gate to hear a final discourse from their commandant before a banquet dinner.
Corporal Urs Breitenmoser explained to CNA that the march across the square is how they give homage to those who came before them. In this way, he said, "we wish to remember today this historic moment of maximum importance for us."
The next major moment for the Guard will be celebrated on May 6, when they honor the 147 colleagues who died defending Pope Clement VII in 1527. The day takes on added importance with the swearing in of the year's new recruits to "fidelity" to the pontiff for a minimum of 25 months of service.