This year St. Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Some ask: How can we reconcile the two? One is about beginning forty days of self-denial, fasting, and almsgiving in order to prepare for Christ’s Passion and Death on the Cross; the other exalts human love and relationships . Yet the two are linked, as both are about true human love.
Christ’s Passion and Death is about true human love: “Greater love than this no man has than to lay down his live for his friends,” Jesus said at the Last Supper. Human love entails sacrifice, laying down our lives for the one we love. Ash Wednesday prepares us for that. Accepting the ashes—Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return—reminds us that the only thing that remains at the end of our lives is love… not riches, fame, comfort, popularity, Facebook likes, etc. True human love should move us to go beyond ourselves and to sacrifice ourselves for others out of love; we need to be able to say No to ourselves so as to say Yes to love. Jesus Christ teaches this best.
St. Valentine himself gives us a wonderful example of saying No to himself and Yes to love. This Roman priest opposed the edict of the Emperor Claudias II that prohibited marriages of young people. Claudias thought that young, unmarried men were more daring (or more reckless) in battle and thus made better soldiers, as they were less concerned about dying and leaving behind a wife and family. The Emperor was okay that a young man had multiple partners, but not one exclusive person for whom he could really live or with whom he could form a family… that was bad for the military.
The Christian ideal of an exclusive, lifelong marriage was as novel then as it is today. It even attracted non-Christians to the Faith, as many young people wanted something that would give true meaning to their lives through the Christian ideal of marriage. So—contrary to its intent—Claudias’ edict drove many young couples to marriage even if it meant they had to become Christian. St. Valentine would secretly marry couples within the Church, consecrating their relationship before God. This was a direct violation of the Emperor’s edict, which the Church considered intrinsically unjust and evil.
Eventually, St. Valentine was caught and imprisoned—much like St. John the Baptist for declaring unlawful Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife. St. Valentine was held in prison by a guard named Asterius. His blind daughter befriended the Roman priest. At Asterius’ request, St. Valentine prayed for his daughter’s healing and she miraculously regained her sight. Asterius and his family too became Christians.
When St. Valentine was brought before the Emperor Claudias, the priest tried to win over the Emperor and to convert him to Christianity. But in the end, although the Emperor came to admire St. Valentine for his integrity and moral courage, it was just too hard for him to change his ways. Claudias ordered St. Valentine to be beheaded for his witness to the holiness of the vocation of human love—he became a martyr of human love.
Doesn’t this resonate with Ash Wednesday, which prepares us for Christ’s own witness to human love? It should! Because human love and marriage requires suffering, it requires being able to lay down one’s own comforts, preferences, and plans in order to seek the good of a common life-project in marriage and family. That is the kind of love so many people—especially young people—long for. And Ash Wednesday is telling us how to find it!
Let’s use these forty days of sacrifice and prayer, of learning to say No to ourselves, in order to become better lovers… better witnesses to human love… just as St. Valentine did by imitating Christ’s “laying down his life for his friends.”
Fr. John R. Waiss
Last week we considered how our calling to freedom confers human dignity and enables us to love, and to do good or evil. Fr. Fernando Ocariz, the Prelate of Opus Dei, recently wrote a wonderful pastoral letter on freedom:
“In calling each of us into existence, God has made us able to choose and to love the good, and to respond with love to his Love. Nevertheless, our limitation as creatures makes it possible for us to separate ourselves from God. “It is a mystery of divine Wisdom that, when creating man in his image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26-29), God wanted to run the sublime ‘risk’ of human freedom.”*
In fact, at the dawn of history this risk led to the rejection of God’s Love through the original sin. Thus… [human freedom] was weakened, and… inclined towards sin. Afterwards, personal sins weaken human freedom even more, and therefore sin always implies, to a greater or lesser degree, a form of slavery (cf. Romans 6:17, 20). Nevertheless, “man always remains free” (Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, n24). While “his freedom is always fragile” (ibid.), it remains an essential good of each human person and must be protected. God is the first to respect and love it, since he “does not want slaves, but children.”*
… Grace gives rise to a new and higher freedom for which “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1)… I often remind you that we need to put Christ at the center of our lives. To discover the deepest meaning of freedom, we have to contemplate him. We are amazed to see the freedom of a God who, out of pure love, decides to abase himself by taking on flesh like ours. We see this freedom unfold throughout his steps on earth towards the sacrifice of the Cross. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18). Human history has never witnessed an act as deeply free as our Lord’s self-giving on the Cross. “He gives himself up to death with the full freedom of Love.”*
… Jesus’ words resound with a clear promise: “Veritas liberabit vos, the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). “How great a truth is this,” St. Josemaría writes, “which opens the way to freedom and gives it meaning throughout our lives… It is the knowledge that we have come from the hands of God, that the Blessed Trinity looks upon us with predilection, that we are children of so wonderful a Father. I ask my Lord to help us decide to take this truth to heart, to dwell upon it day by day; only then will we be acting as free men.”*
Our divine filiation enables our freedom to expand with all the strength that God has bestowed on it. It is not by emancipating ourselves from the Father’s house that we become free, but rather by embracing the reality that we are sons or daughters. “Anyone who does not realize that he is a child of God is unaware of the deepest truth about himself.”* Such a person is unaware of who he is and lives in conflict with himself. How liberating it is, then, to know that God loves us. How liberating is God’s pardon that allows us to return to ourselves and to our true home (cf. Luke 15:17-24). And when we pardon others, we also experience this liberation.
Our faith in God’s love for each one of us (cf. 1 John 4:16) leads us to respond with love. We can love because he has loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:10). It fills us with security to know that God’s infinite Love is to be found not only at the origin of our existence but also at every moment in our lives. For God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (Cf. St. Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11)… Giving love to God and to others is the most proper act of freedom. Love fulfills freedom, it redeems it. Love enables freedom to discover its origin and goal in God’s Love…
Our sense of divine filiation leads, then, to great interior freedom, to deep joy, and to the serene optimism of hope: spe gaudentes (Romans 12:12). Realizing we are God’s children also leads us to love the world, which came forth good from the hands of our Father God. It leads us to face life with the clear awareness that it is possible to do good, to conquer sin, and to bring the world to God» (Fr. Fernando Ocáriz, Pastoral Letter, January 9, 2018, n2-n4. * marks quotes from St. Josemaría).
Fr. John R. Waiss
God created man to be free, putting us into the hands of our own counsel (cf. Sirach 15:14), so that we might freely seek our perfection by loving our creator. As the Second Vatican Council explains:
“Only in freedom can man direct himself toward goodness… God willed that man ‘of his own accord’ seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint” (Gaudium et Spes 17).
We are “called to freedom” (Galatians 5:13) because only those who are free can love, and only love will make us happy. But we cannot use “freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13), to do or say anything we feel like (see CCC 1747). Freedom is the ability to love, to seek the good of our beloved and to unite ourselves to him. The more we truly love the freer we become. Disobedience, infidelity, and all evil leads to “the slavery of sin” (see CCC 1733).
Actions can only be good or evil if they are free. We wouldn’t think of punishing an asteroid for slamming into the earth and killing someone. Nor would we punish a man-eating shark, although we may kill it to prevent future attacks. We punish murderers and hold them responsible because they are free human beings.
“The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end…. Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness…. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 72).
An impulse or reflex reaction is not evil unless the impulse or reflex was freely chosen, as when we deliberately give in to a habit that leads to sin. For example, if we know that drinking leads us to surf the Internet and fall into to compulsive pornography then choosing to drink would be the sin. Likewise, if we know that watching football will lead to angry outbursts and violent reactions, then to turn on the football game would be the sin. Having a sinful dream in the middle of our nighttime sleep is not freely willed and therefore is not a sin.
Freedom, Grace, and Law
We are responsible for our acts to the extent that those actions are voluntary (see CCC 1734). Ignorance (of a child, for example), duress and manipulation, fear and other psychological or social factors can reduce or even eliminate our ability to make free decisions (see CCC 1746). Such factors coerce us into doing what we do not want to do (see Romans 7), thus reduce our responsibility. So to cultivate virtues—habitual acts of doing good—and to overcome ignorance, manipulation, and fear increases our freedom to love and our responsibility to pursue the good of the one we love.
God’s grace also increases our freedom because it gives us an ability to love. Grace is God’s love for us—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The grace of knowing that we are loved enables us to love the Father and the Son in return. This is “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Through the grace of the Holy Spirit working in our life through faith in Jesus Christ helps us to grow in our inner freedom, giving us the strength and confidence to endure periods of trial (see CCC 1742).
God’s law is a gift—a grace—that guides the use of our freedom by directing our actions in ways that lead to union with God and the pursuit of the good of our beloved. That is why Pope St. John Paul II tells us: “God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom: rather, it protects and promotes that freedom” (Veritatis Splendor).
Embracing a life of grace, law, and freedom will truly free us to love as God so created us.
Fr. John R. Waiss
The Memorare Legacy is part of St. Mary of the Angels’ For All Generations Campaign, raising money for the final restoration of the church. The Memorare Legacy is an opportunity for people to entrust loved-ones to Our Blessed Mother, as “never was it known that anyone who fled to [her] protection, implored [her] help, or sought [her] intercession was left unaided” (from the Memorare prayer).
A Story of St. John Vianney
St. John Vianney, the Cure (Pastor) of Ars, was a very holy parish priest in eastern France, outside the city of Lyon. He was known as a great confessor and catechist.
God gave him a very powerful gift of reading into the state of souls. For example, when a person was a bit embarrassed to confess his big sins—just having the nerve to confess his little sins, such as arguing with a sibling or friend—St. John Vianney might happen to ask the person: “But didn’t you do X, and didn’t you do Y, and didn’t you do Z?” mentioning to the penitent all the big sins he was too embarrassed to say. “Ah… Yes, Father, I did,” the penitent would say sheepishly. Then, after asking the penitent if he were sorry for those sins, the Cure of Ars would give the sacramental absolution.
One day an elderly woman came to confession to the Cure of Ars. She had been quite distraught, because her husband had died two years earlier without receiving the last sacraments. In fact, he had lived most of their married life without going to church or confession, so the woman thought: “I’ll never see my husband again, he must be in hell.” This disturbed her greatly because she loved her husband a lot.
The widow’s neighbor noticed her depressed state and encouraged her to go to confession to this holy priest in Ars. The widow said No, telling her neighbor that she didn’t have any big sins to confess, and besides she went to confession to their parish priest quite frequently, so why should she travel across France just to go to confession? Her neighbor kept pestering the widow to go until she finally acquiesced, and the two made the long trip to Ars together.
When they got to Ars and entered the church, they found a very long line for confession—some had to wait two days (the Cure of Ars heard 15 to 18 hours of confessions daily). The two did wait—they didn’t want to waste their trip. The widow went to confession, it was a pretty normal and quick as she was a pious ole-lady who didn’t have much to confess. But then as she was leaving the confessional St. John Vianney stopped her and said: “Don’t worry about your husband.” Now she hadn’t mentioned her husband at all in the confessional. The Cure of Ars continued: “Do you remember when your husband picked the flower from your garden and placed it next to the statue of the Virgin Mary in your home?” Sure enough, she vaguely remembered that years earlier her husband, probably in a moment of weakness, picked a flower from their garden and placed it next to the statue of Mary in their home. The widow had all but forgotten. Besides, what was that compared to all the big sinful things he had done, she thought.
St. John Vianney went on to say: “Well, when your husband died and went before the Judgment Seat, and Satan accused him of all he had done, ready to grab his soul and thrust it into hell… Our Lady remembered that deed and snatched his soul from the grasp of the devil. That was all that she needed.
Now people say, “Women never forget…” well Our Lady is a woman, so let’s take advantage of that—anything we do for Our Blessed Mother she will not forget!
St. Mary of the Angels, Our Help and Protection
In replacing the parapet wall of St. Mary of the Angels, above the rose window over the church entrance, we plan
to put a large image of our Blessed Mother, overlooking the raised Kennedy expressway and Metra train lines just a block and half away. The image will be made in painted ceramic tile, 26 feet tall and 15 feet wide. The image will show Our Lady holding her mantle out in protection over the church, school, and all of Chicago. On the backside of the image—which can be seen from the “606” elevated trail—will be the Memorare prayer painted on ceramic tile formed by the names of persons and institutions entrusted to Our Lady.
As many faithful Catholics wish to entrust a loved-one to Mary: perhaps a child or God-child recently baptized, asking Mary to lead that child to its vocation and to heaven; perhaps unbaptized relatives or ones who have gone astray; perhaps a sick, elderly, or frail loved-one… anyone who needs St. Mary of the Angels, Our Help and Protection. Some have loved-ones in perilous and uncertain situations—living the “gay” lifestyle, in an unhealthy or sinful relationship, addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc., etc. We can and should be “inspired by this confidence” and go to Mary’s intercession with the assurance that our prayers will be “heard and answered.”
For gifts of $1000 or more we will inscribe the name into the Memorare prayer on the back of the parapet. Our Lady appreciates gifts of any size as well as anything we do for her and her parish; nothing will be forgotten. We will find a way to entrust everyone who makes a gift to Mary.
Fr. John R. Waiss
We have been entrusted with a great treasure: St. Mary of the Angels church. Your prayer and financial helped us rebuild the Dome in 2010, restore the South Tower in 2012, eliminate our debt in 2013, and have now raised over $1 million in donations and pledges ear-marked for restoration, but our needs are greater… We don’t want to bury our talents, but to multiply them.
Instead of doing the Annual Catholic Appeal this year, we will ask you to make a pledge to help us raise the moneys needed to restore our church. We will set aside $29,000—our parish goal—for the Archdiocesan appeal. The rest will fully go to restore St. Mary of the Angels.
Did you know that wire mesh covers the top of the North Tower and the beams between the columns as well as the balcony railing above those columns in the front of the church? This is to keep loose bricks, concrete, and terra cotta from falling, because water penetration have rusted interior steel causing mortar to disintegrate, and large cracks in the bricks and terra cotta.
Did you know the parapet above the façade was removed in 1990 due to structural weakness—it is flat between the two towers—and that our four minor cupolas are wrapped in heavy canvas to prevent falling debris?
Did you know that our church and boilers are 100 and 120 years old? Of course you know that our church restrooms are inadequate for a parish of our size and that we only have an antiquated stair lift chair—no elevator—to provide handicap accessibility. In addition our roofs are 25 years old and need replacing; we just relined some cracked interior downspouts that had damaged interior plaster. Also, metal bars have been placed to keep some stained glass windows from falling out due to cracked window tracery.
Other needs include our current church sound system that is no longer reliable and does not transmit sound to all areas of the church; our old lighting is inefficient and adequate, leaving some areas dark; only one of our two beloved South Tower bells functions, and the 120 year-old school building—also used by our C.C.D. program and Midtown Center—needs repairs and upgrades.
Our parish office also is too small, staff offices and rooms for catechesis and apostolic activities use make-do and repurposed spaces scattered around the church basement and former garage.
The priests, staff, and finance council have decided that it is time, with God’s grace, to fully restore the church to its glory and to rededicate St. Mary of the Angels to Our Lady For All Generations, the name of our campaign!
Phase 1: When we reach $3,000,000 we will restore the North Tower, East Façade, and replace the missing Parapet Wall and also renovate school restrooms. Included is restoring the four minor cupolas—we have dismantled one of them to prepare a replacement strategy. Phase 2: When we reach $5,000,000 we will tuck point the remaining church walls, repair or replace damaged window tracery, sound system, lighting, bells, and install new roofs to protect the church. We will crown the East Parapet with a 25’ high Marian image, evoking Our Lady’s protection over the parish and the City of Chicago. Phase 3: When we reach $7,000,000 we will replace our boilers with high-efficient HVAC systems and build an addition to improve security and give elevator access to the church, office, and basement meeting rooms. A 10% tithe on monies raised will provide ongoing aid to students and families in need through the Fr. Hilary Scholarship Fund.
Please help us reach these goals: first, by praying for the campaign—without God’s help this is impossible; second, please consider volunteering to make this campaign successful; finally, please consider a sacrificial gift when the time comes to make your pledge! Commitment Weekends are April 7/8 and 14/15. Let’s rededicate our church to St. Mary of the Angels for all generations!
Fr. John R. Waiss