For Greater Things You Were Born
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
1. Every one of us is created by God and for God. This is the beautiful mystery that lies at the heart of human existence, at the heart of your life and mine. Every child who is born, from the beginning of time to the end, is born from the loving thought of our Heavenly Father, who holds us in his gaze, looking upon each of us as one of his own, a beloved son, a beloved daughter.
God made us to be blessed, to be happy. And we are born with the desire for happiness written into our hearts, a desire that only God can satisfy. St. Augustine said many centuries ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”1 This is true for every human heart. We cannot be happy without God and God longs for all of us to be happy and blessed in him.
As Christians, we worship the God who loves the human race so much that he comes to be a part of it. The human person, fully alive and thriving, is the image and glory of God.2 This is the truth that Jesus Christ revealed by his life, death and Resurrection.
This truth has always been at the heart of the Christian religion. And the Christian vision of the human person — created in God’s image, endowed with God-given dignity, rights and responsibilities, and called to a transcendent destiny — establishes the spiritual foundation for our country and for all the countries of the Americas and the West.
2. Jesus asked those who first came to him, “What are you looking for?” And his question is for us, too. What do we want out of life? What are we looking for?
I think all of us are looking for joy and for love, for a sense of wholeness and integrity, for friendships and loves that endure. We all want to know that we belong, that we are wanted; we want some assurance that our lives really do matter. Even though we cannot always put our hopes and dreams into words this way, that is what we are all looking for.
Whether we realize it or not, we are restless, as Augustine said. And what we are looking for is God. The good news is that God is also looking for us! This is why Jesus came into the world. He is the answer to every question, the desire of every heart. The purpose of our lives is to find him and the reason for the Church is to lead us to him.
What the Church teaches and proclaims is beautiful and true: Jesus Christ was born in human form as the “new man” — so that every man and every woman might have new life and live their lives in all the fullness that God intends for them.3
Jesus came into our world as the “Son of Man” so that we might become the sons and daughters of God. In his face we see the face of God. And in his face we see revealed the true face, the full promise and potential of our humanity. In Jesus Christ, we see who we are meant to be and who we are capable of becoming by the gifts of God’s mercy and grace.
Meeting Jesus then, gives our lives a new direction and purpose — we perceive what life truly means in walking with Jesus, following him and modeling our lives after his. Moved by his love, we share the new life we have found with our brothers and sisters in the Church, our new family, worshipping the living God, revealing him to others, and serving our neighbors through works of mercy and acts of love.
“Behold, I make all things new!” This is the promise that Jesus makes to us, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Jesus comes to bring a new creation — a new world and a new age, new heavens and a new earth. In him, we hope for salvation and eternal life in his Kingdom, a city of saints where every man and woman is given a new name and sings a new song to the Lord with all the earth.4
3. My brothers and sisters, this is the hope that we share in Christ! And this is the hope that I want to reflect on in this second pastoral letter that I am writing to you.
In my inaugural letter, Witness to the New World of Faith, I wrote to share my excitement about our historic duty and mission as the family of God in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I was excited to remind you that everyone of us has responsibility for the Church’s mission to evangelize, and that all of us are called to announce Jesus Christ by our words and actions and to lead the men and women of our times to a new encounter with the living God.
I laid out five pastoral priorities in my first letter: educating every person, especially our young people, to know Jesus Christ; calling men and women to serve God in the vocations of the priesthood and consecrated life; fostering communion among the diversity of immigrant cultures and nationalities that unite us as one “catholic” family of God; building a culture of life, justice and peace in our city and throughout our continent; and strengthening marriage and the family as the foundations of a truly human society.
These priorities all remain essential to our mission of the new evangelization.5
But I am growing more concerned these days about the direction that our society and culture are taking and what that means for how we live our faith and carry out our Christian mission in our homes and communities and in our parishes, schools and ministries.
Who are we and what are we here for?: Our challenge as Christians in a “de-Christianized” society
4. I am finishing this letter to you at Christmas time. It is the end of a long and divisive year, in which our national elections exposed some of the darker inclinations in our culture and confirmed a deepening secularism and “anti-humanistic” spirit in American life.
It is undeniable now that our society is being progressively “de-Christianized.” Our elites — in politics and law, education and the media — are seeking through many means to drive God out of our daily lives and to silence his voice in the human heart. But as the reality of God is fading away, the reality of the human person is disappearing, too. We are becoming strangers to our own selves. We no longer know who we are or what is inside us.
We face many troubles and injustices in our society: the sad persistence of racist thinking and practices; the bitter divisions along lines of money and education, class and family background; our cruel indifference to the sufferings of immigrants within our borders; the coercive agendas to redefine marriage and sexuality and “normalize” abortion and euthanasia; the brutal realities of human trafficking; the epidemics of pornography and addictions; the inequities in our criminal justice system, starting with our continued practice of executions; and the violence and deviancy in our popular “entertainment.”
All of these troubles are indicators of a deeper problem — our society has lost sense of the truth about the precious nature and dignity of the human person.
5. As I have been praying and reflecting on these things, it seems to me that America’s divisions and dysfunctions are all pointing us back to basic questions: Who are we? What does it mean to be alive, to be a member of the human race? Where do we come from and what are we here for? What is it that we should be living for? What is the “good life” and why should I even want to be a “good person”? Do our lives make a difference? Is there meaning in the world, or is everything just random?
With the loss of God, we no longer know how to find answers to these questions. And this is having damaging consequences for individuals, especially the young, and for our society.
So many of our neighbors seem to be not really living but only existing. Many are just getting by and seem uncertain about the meaning of their lives and afraid, not hopeful, for the future. So many do not seem to know the love of God, do not hear his voice, do not seem to feel his tenderness and care in their lives.
At the same time, it is evident that government and cultural leaders no longer know what makes for true human flourishing. As a result, we have lost the basis for setting priorities, for knowing what really matters. We have fewer foundations for passing on a sense of common purpose or shared values and responsibilities.
In place of a coherent national spirit and ethos, we see in our society new expressions of radical individualism and new forms of domination by the strong against the weak. We see the promotion of lifestyles and ways of life rooted in a fruitless humanism, a false and incomplete vision of human life and the human person.
We are told these days — in education, entertainment, advertising and social policy — that our lives are ours for the making. We are told that who we are is our own personal project, something we are free to “self-create,” defining ourselves according to our own concepts of existence and what we think we want out of life.6
But I think it is fair to question the vision of life that is being presented to us by our society’s elites and our increasingly globalized consumer economy.
Are we really better off living without God, as if he does not exist and as if we can replace him with our science and technology, our own inventions and devices? Is satisfying our needs and wants, material pleasure and bodily comfort — is feeling good, having the right products and a steady stream of stimulating entertainments — is this what makes for a happy and meaningful life? Or is there something more?
For greater things: The good news of Jesus Christ for our lives
6. That is why I am writing this letter to you. Because we know there is something more. We know we are made for what the saints call the higher gifts and the still more excellent way.7 In some ways, I feel like this letter has been growing out of the conversations we have been having over these last five years that I have been serving as your Archbishop.
I cannot begin to tell you how inspiring and life-giving these five years have been for me — to pray with you and worship with you, to hear your stories and get to know your families. Faith in Jesus Christ is so alive and so rich and fruitful in you! I am moved by your joyful love for God, by the daily sacrifices you make; by your generous spirit and hard work; by your devotion to your children, spouses, parents and abuelos; by your works of charity and your commitment to building our society.
I see the images of your faces in my mind as I have been writing these pages. I am thinking about the stories you shared with me, your joys and sorrows, your worries and hopes.
I find myself coming back to the words of Mother Luisita, the Venerable Maria Luisa Josefa of the Blessed Sacrament. “For greater things you are born,” she said.
I quoted those words in my first homily here in Los Angeles. Mother Luisita was the first local saint I was introduced to upon arriving here and I feel a strong spiritual connection to her — a Mexican who struggled against the most violent religious persecution ever endured in the Americas; a refugee and servant of the poor; a teacher and a healer; a wife and a widow, and later a consecrated contemplative and foundress of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.
In my first homily I said this:
“Venerable Mother Luisita would tell everyone: ‘For greater things you were born!’ That’s it, my friends! That’s the good news we are called to proclaim to our city, to our country, throughout this continent and world. For greater things we were born! Each of us has been made for love and for great and beautiful things. There is no soul that God does not long to touch with this message of his love! And he wants to touch those souls through us. So let us make our lives something beautiful that we can offer to God. Let us do everything, even the littlest duties of our days, out of love for him and for the love of our brothers and sisters.”8
My dear brothers and sisters, that is still “it”! That is still the point of everything, the essential program for living our Christian lives in a secular society. God made us for greater things! He made us to be saints, to be holy men and women living as children of God in the image of Jesus Christ.
7. This is the reason for this letter. I am convinced that in this moment, it is urgent for us to rediscover these “greater things” for which we are born.
In a society where the reality of God and the meaning of the person are now in question, we need to reclaim and re-propose the vision of the human person that we find at the heart of the Gospel.
Jesus Christ alone knows who we are and he is the one Teacher of life. He alone shows us the way to live in order to lead a truly human life. As it says in the Gospel, Jesus “did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.”9
I write to share my hope with you. I encourage you to read these pages slowly and prayerfully. A little at a time. That is the spirit in which I have tried to write, based on my prayer and my reflections on the wisdom of the saints and the rich treasury that we have in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the teachings of our recent popes.
What I offer here is simply a series of reflections on what Our Lord’s Incarnation reveals to us — about our human nature, about the great dignity and possibilities of our lives. About God’s desire for our happiness.
God’s loving design applies to all of us, no matter what your state in life or your position in the Church. These are the greater things, the higher gifts that God intends for you, for me, and for every person!
I pray that this letter might in some small way help all of us to find God, to know and love him more, and to spread his love to every corner of the earth.
God is taken with love: Why the world was created and why we were made
8. The whole Christian religion comes down to one truth. We believe in a personal God who wants to share his life with us, a God who comes in search of us, who calls us to seek him and comes to help us find him.
Christian faith is the personal response we make to the God who has humbled himself to take on human flesh — being born of a mother’s womb and raised in a human family, working with human hands and sharing in all the joys and sorrows of human life, even the extremes of physical and emotional suffering and death.10
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Why would the eternal and Almighty God go to such extremes — to empty himself and make himself totally available and vulnerable, to put himself out there as a helpless infant? Why would he allow himself to be handed over to endure rejection and violence at the hands of the creatures that he himself created? What could make God do that?
This is the mystery of divine love. No other explanation can make sense of it. His love is so impossible to imagine that some saints have described God like a divine suitor who is madly in love with us. The Bible, in fact, uses a similar image — describing God’s love for us as the love of a Bridegroom for his beloved.
St. Catherine of Siena was so astonished by God’s love for her that she was lifted into prayer: “You are taken with love for her, for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal good.”11
Love is why God created the world. The world is made for the glory of God and the world was made out of love! What God makes he loves and delights in, and all of nature is like a book through which God reveals his love for us.
St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Creatures came into existence when the Key of Love opened his hand.” And Pope Francis tells us: “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.”12
And love is why God creates each one of us. We are not made as anonymous members of the human race. To each one of us, the living God continues to speak words of love, as he spoke to the prophets: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”13
Our common home: We are stewards and priests in God’s creation
9. In the early pages of the Bible’s first book, God is described as a kind of cosmic king, the all-powerful Lord of the universe. He speaks and out of nothing the world comes into existence. He creates the world as his kingdom and temple — as the place where his holy presence can dwell and a place where he can rule and be worshipped in love.
At the end of his creative work, God makes man and woman and places them in the middle of his creation as priests and kings, calling them to participate in his own work of creation, his project of making the world his temple and kingdom.
Men and women are given a far-reaching agenda — to “cultivate and care for” the garden of creation, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” and to have “dominion” over the world’s creatures.14
As Christians, we know that to rule means to serve. We are called to rule creation with holiness and justice. We know, as the Psalmist sings: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.” We know we have a duty to protect God’s creation, which Pope Francis calls our “common home.”
We are stewards of creation, not its masters. And we know that in God’s plan, the good things of this earth are meant for all and not only for the few. This is the basis of our work for justice and an economy based on the logic of sharing, solidarity and loving service to others.15
Through our work, God intends us to imitate his own creative work, to use our talents to develop and transform the goods of the natural world. We are made to be “co-creators” and “co-workers” with God — growing the human family by bringing children into the world, extending his kingdom to the ends of the earth, and building a world of justice and holiness in which the Creator is glorified.16
The words used to describe Adam’s work in the Garden — to cultivate it and care for it — are used in other places in the Old Testament to describe the service that Israel’s priests perform in the Temple. This points us to what I consider to be the deepest character of our human identity as children of God.
In God’s plan for creation, the human person is endowed with a “priestly soul” and a priestly vocation. I will discuss this again at the conclusion of this letter, but I want to say here that for me this is one of the most beautiful truths about who we are.
We are intended to be priests in God’s creation — stewards and mediators between God and the world he created. We worship God through our work, offering the good things he gives us back to our Creator in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Little less than God: We are saved by the Son of Man
10. From beginning to end, the sacred Scriptures testify that the human person is God’s “masterpiece,” his greatest work. In the poetry of the Psalms, we hear the sense of wonder at humanity’s place in creation:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you established —
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than God,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands,
you have put all things under his feet …
Sending his own Son into the world, God fulfills the “Fatherly instruction” that he began from the moment of creation. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ reveals once for all the sanctity, dignity and great calling of the human person.17
This is something we cannot reflect on enough. We worship a God who loves us so much that he enters the world as each one of us did, in the womb of a mother, and experiences all the humble realities of our human existence — birth, childhood, family, work, friendship.
In this sense, Christianity is unique among the world’s religions. No other world religion recalls the time when its founder was a child in the womb. By contrast, our sacred texts remember our Savior’s conception, the circumstances of his birth and even some events from his childhood. Year after year, we retell these stories in our worship and we contemplate these mysteries in our prayer.
In our Confession of Faith it all comes together. We remember Our Lord’s conception and birth, even his mother’s name. Most important, we remember the reason he was found in human flesh: “For us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
The Nicene Creed summarizes the “divine pedagogy” of salvation history. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to become human in order to save all humankind — every man and every woman in every time and place. And he saves us through sanctifying the humble realities of our human lives.18
With the coming of Jesus, the things of nature and “ordinary” life are transfigured. The world becomes, in some way, “sacramental” — a sign and pathway that brings us into the presence of God.
We see this in the physical nature of the Church’s sacraments. Water gives us new birth as children of God. Bread and wine bring us into communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. Oil communicates God’s healing touch in our lives. Even human words are now filled with divine power, when spoken by men consecrated as priests to our God — This is my Body. I absolve you of your sins.
Our lives become different, too. We can now participate through our ordinary lives in what is truly “extra-ordinary” — the life of God.
Nothing can contain your greatness: We are born human, to be re-born divine
11. Our humanity is created to participate in his divinity. God comes down in search of us in order to lift us up to share in his very life.
The great medieval mystic, St. Angela of Foligno called this “the loftiest mystery.” She once prayed: “O my God, make me worthy of knowing the loftiest mystery … of your most holy Incarnation. … O incomprehensible love! There is no greater love than this love that brought my God to become man in order to make me God.”19
Jesus became man in order that we might become God. This is not an abstract statement of theology. It is the destiny and meaning of your life and mine. Everything in our ordinary lives — our work and study, our loves, our family life, our works of charity, even our recreation — all of it is made to be transfigured in the light of Christ.
Just as the bread and wine we offer in the Eucharist is transformed into his Body and Blood, so our lives are meant to be transformed into the image of the living God.
In every celebration of the Eucharist, the priest prays that this divine purpose might be accomplished. We do not usually hear this prayer. The priest prays it silently as he mingles the water and wine, preparing the Eucharistic gifts. Yet he prays for all of us: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
This prayer recalls the first of Christ’s signs, when he turned water into wine at Cana. It is also rooted in an ancient prayer that the first Christians used to pray during the Christmas liturgy:
Who wonderfully created the dignity of man’s nature
and have more wonderfully renewed it,
grant, we beseech you,
that we may be partakers of his divinity
who humbled himself to become a partaker of our humanity,
Christ, your Son.20
12. We speak of a beautiful mystery! Our lives are wonderful in God’s eyes! Our lives are a path to God, a path that he chooses to walk alongside us! The first Christians received these promises of Christ’s Incarnation with great joy. And so should we.
St. Peter speaks in wonder of how Christ divinizes or deifies us, enabling us to become “partakers of the divine nature.” St. John is in awe of our spiritual childhood: “Beloved, we are God’s children now! What we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
St. Paul proclaims Christianity to be the one true religion of human transformation. Christians are “called to be saints,” he says, destined to share in God’s own holiness: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”21
This sense of awe and wonder continues down through the Christian tradition.
In the fourth century, St. Gregory, the Bishop of Nyssa wrote these tremendous words: “O man, scorn not that which is admirable in you! You are a poor thing in your own eyes, but I would teach you that in reality you are a great thing! … Realize what you are! Consider your royal dignity! The heavens have not been made in God’s image as you have, nor the moon, nor the sun, nor anything to be seen in creation. … Behold of all that exists, there is nothing that can contain your greatness.”22
Imago Dei: We are made in God’s image and likeness
13. Nothing can contain our greatness! What a statement. The first disciples lived their Christian identity and proclaimed their faith with this overwhelming sense of astonishment. And so should we, my brothers and sisters! It is time for all of us in the Church — bishops, priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated, religious and lay people — all of us should be alive with a new sense of awe at our greatness in the eyes of God.
We must learn again to see what the saints can see — that the human person is something marvelous in the universe. You and I are God’s masterpiece, each of us made in his image as a unity of body and soul, endowed with reason and free will, and given the vocation to imitate God and to share in his divine work, serving and ruling over his creation.
We are made in the image of the Lord of history, the Author of Life, the Maker of heaven and earth! God is Love and so we are made in the image of love. I have always appreciated the poet Dante’s description of God as “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”23
Nature’s designs speak to us of God’s love and truth; and our existence is part of God’s plan of loving goodness. The human person is exceptional, we are not just one more creature in God’s creation. We are not just something, we are someone.24
Alone among all earthly creatures, the human person can build computers, fly into outer space, and discover the inner workings of the human body and mind. Alone among all creatures, the human person can write songs and poems, make paintings and symphonies. And alone in the material universe, the human person can love, sacrifice and offer worship to his or her Creator.
We are made in the image of the God of all creation. All the universe was made for us, and in all of creation, we are the only creature that God wills to share in his own life.25 This is our greatness.
Again we sense the tone of awe in this passage from St. Ambrose, in which he meditates on the goal of God’s creative work: “The sixth day is finished and the creation of the world ends with the formation of that masterpiece which is man, who exercises dominion over all living creatures and is, as it were, the crown of the universe and the supreme beauty of every created being. … He rested then in the depths of man, he rested in man’s mind and in his thought; after all, he had created man endowed with reason, capable of imitating him, of emulating his virtue, of hungering for heavenly graces. … I thank the Lord our God who has created so wonderful a work in which to take his rest.”26
Remember your dignity: We are sinners, called to be saints
14. We are made in the image of God, but of course we also know that we are sinners. This wisdom, too, we find in the first pages of the Scriptures. As we read, not long after their creation the first man and woman fell from friendship with God. We are still living with the consequences of their original sin today.
We know from personal experience, from our own failings and weakness, and we know from reading the news — that sin is real. Someone once said original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be proved from the evidence of everyday life. Sadly, that is true.
We are made with reason and freedom, made to seek God and what is good. We are called to seek to know him and to love him and to serve him. But we are also free to reject God, to turn away from him and to do evil. This is sin.
Sin is disordered love, choosing to love the wrong things and to form unhealthy attachments rooted in our selfishness. Sin begins in the refusal to trust in God’s goodness and follow his will for our lives. Sin makes it hard for us to love ourselves and hard for us to love others and God. Sin disfigures the image of God in us, as we choose to love ourselves and the things of this created world more than the God who creates and sustains all things.
St. Paul describes sin as a self-centered love that expresses itself in a kind of false worship or idolatry: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.”27
But sin does not get the last word in our lives. God does not abandon the human race to sin. Jesus Christ enters human history as the perfect “image of the invisible God” and the “new man.” He delivers us from sin and restores our human capacity for God and our ability to carry out God’s intentions for our lives.
The coming of Jesus raises our humanity to something even greater — making it possible for us to become new men and new women, renewed in the image of our Creator, conforming our lives to Christ’s life, imitating the Son so that Jesus will be the first-born of a world filled with his brothers and sisters.28
This is the promise God delivers in Jesus. We can transcend our sinful nature. In Christ, we can love with a love that overcomes the divisions of sin. We can love ourselves as God loves us and we can love others as God loves them. Each of us can be “another Christ.” Following Jesus, living by his teachings and nourished by the sacraments of his Church, we can be free from the idolatry of sin; we can grow in holiness and more and more conform to the divine image in which we are made.
15. Thanks be to God for his tender mercy, which he shows to us in the face of Jesus Christ! Though we are sinners, he has shown his love for us, looking upon us in his mercy, dying for us on the Cross, and calling us to a new life of continuing conversion.
I am thinking of Pope Francis’ moving episcopal motto, Miserando atque eligendo, (“By having mercy and by choosing him”). The Pope knows that life truly begins when we encounter God’s mercy — when we respond to the Lord’s unconditional love and follow his way for our life.29
We should live every day conscious of our God-given nobility as men and women made in God’s image. But we should also live every day with deep humility and gratitude, never forgetting where we would be without God’s mercy!
The great Pope St. Leo wrote: “Christian, remember your dignity! And now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.”30
This thing of beauty: We are made body and soul, and male or female
16. In the writings of the prophets, God is described as a kind of divine craftsman who molds and shapes us, like an artist making a painting or sculpture. This is how we should think of ourselves. You are God’s work of art. So am I. And so is every person we meet.
I remember when I was a young man, hearing a meditation on the words of Isaiah 64:8: “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand.” And I remember feeling, maybe for the first time, my great dignity as a child of God. It was truly wonderful to realize that God was personally involved in creating me.
God fashions us with a material body and an immortal soul, and he makes us either male or female. As God shaped the first man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him, we receive our material bodies from our parents — and God forms our spiritual souls immediately when we are conceived in our mother’s womb.
Our bodies will perish at the end of our lives, we will return to dust, but our soul is spiritual and immortal. Separated at death, our soul and body will be rejoined at the final judgment and resurrection.31
In God’s plan, who we are — our “self,” our “identity”— is an integrated whole, a unity of body and soul. We cannot imagine ourselves apart from our bodies.
We are not souls inhabiting bodies, like some “ghost” inside a machine. Our body is not a “shell” and it is not a “plaything” or an instrument meant only to bring us pleasure. And we cannot think of our body as a kind of “accident” of our birth, something we are free to manipulate or change according our personal desires and choices.
As the image of God and as baptized Christians, we should think of our body as a temple, a dwelling place of the living God. As St. Paul said: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit that is within you?” We are called to care for our bodies and to glorify God in our bodies. Again to quote St. Paul: “The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body.”32
Our body is essential to God’s plan for our lives. We come to know ourselves, we encounter other people and form relationships, we learn how to love — in our bodies and through our bodies. Our sexuality, given to us by God, affects every dimension of our life and personality — physical and biological, spiritual and psychological, moral and social.
Whether we are born a man or a woman is fundamental to the mystery of our individual lives and God’s plan for our lives. As Pope Francis has taught with such sensitivity, to live in the truth of God’s plan for our lives requires that we receive our bodily and sexual identity with gratitude from our Creator.
The Pope writes: “The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home … Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.”33
More the exalted creator: Man and woman are made for each other and made to give life
17. In God’s plan of creation, the bodies of men and women are made differently in order to complement and complete each other. There is a “spousal” or “nuptial” character to the body, as St. John Paul II used to say. Man and woman are created for communion, made to come together as “one flesh” in the conjugal act of love, always in the context of the sacred union of marriage.34
In God’s plan, there is something sacred, something wonderful and irreplaceable, about the permanent, life-giving relationship between man and woman in marriage.
Jesus declared that marriage existed in God’s plan “from the very beginning.” God is the author of every marriage and he gives every married couple a vocation — to live their love, until parted by death, in a mutual and complete gift of self and to renew the face of the earth with children, who are the fruits of their love and the precious love of our Creator.35
God intends new human life to come into being through the loving union of husband and wife. Through the marital union of their bodies, husband and wife participate in God’s own power, with him creating sons and daughters who also bear God’s image. This understanding of God’s plan for creation and human happiness is the foundation for the Church’s teachings on the whole range of issues surrounding marriage and sexuality.36
Again we are astonished at God’s humility and the responsibility he entrusts to us — to be his partners, his co-creators. We are made for greater things! At the beginning of creation, we heard the first mother’s prayer of astonishment: “I have begotten a male child with the help of the Lord!”
I always hear this same astonishment when I reflect on these words from the Servant of God, Dorothy Day. Following the birth of her daughter, she wrote: “I was supremely happy. If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt more the exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms. To think that this thing of beauty … had come from my flesh, was my own child. Such a great feeling of happiness and joy filled me that I was hungry for Someone to thank, to love, even to worship for so great a good that had been bestowed upon me!”37
This is the vision that God has in creating the human person in his image as male and female. He calls men and women to share, through the union of their bodies in marriage, in his own divinity and in his work of creation. The human family, born from the union of husband and wife, is the foundation of human society. Every society, in essence, is a “family of families.”
18. In our society, we need to rediscover the authentic meaning of marriage. But I think it is also important for us to rediscover the authentic meaning of friendship. True friendship is a spiritual fellowship, a communion of the will and the mind that is rooted in a disinterested, unselfish love for the other.
In the lives of the saints, we see the beautiful possibility of our human relationships. There is so much we can learn from meditating on the friendships of saints — Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, Saints Francis de Sales and Jane Frances Chantal, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Saints Basil and Gregory of Nazianzen.
St. Gregory spoke of his friendship with St. Basil: “It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies.”38 And this is what all of us can hope for in our relationships with persons of the same or the opposite sex. Such intimate friendship is also the promise that husbands and wives should strive for in their marital relationships.
And of course we know that our relationships here on earth are meant to be purified and transfigured to reflect and prepare us for friendship with Jesus Christ. “I no longer call you servants, but friends,” Jesus says to each of us.39
Mystical body: We are united to all humanity and responsible for one another
19. In coming into the world and taking a human body and again in suffering in his flesh and blood on the Cross, Jesus Christ has united himself in some way with all humankind and with every person. Our lives are now joined as one in the one Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.
In his Mystical Body, we are connected not only to our brothers and sisters in the Church. In a mysterious and real way, each of us is connected to every other man and woman. St. Augustine spoke with wonder at how the whole human race was made “one man” in what he called “the whole Christ.”
Augustine wrote: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, like a whole and perfect man, is head and body … His body is the Church, not simply the Church that is here in this particular place, but both the Church that is here and the Church which extends over the whole earth; not simply the Church that is living today, but the whole race of saints, from Abel down to all those who will ever be born and will believe in Christ until the end of the world. For all belong to one city. This city is the Body of Christ … This is the whole Christ: Christ united with the Church.”40
We share now a single existence in Christ. And that means that in every person we have an encounter with Jesus Christ. Everyone we meet reflects his presence.
Jesus takes our mystical communion in his Body even further. In his great parable of the Last Judgment in St. Matthew’s Gospel, he calls us to recognize his presence in every man and every woman, but especially in the weak and vulnerable — the hungry and thirsty, the immigrant and refugee, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.
Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our love for God will be judged by our love for him in the bodies of those brothers and sisters who are most burdensome to us and most reviled by our society. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me,” he said.41
This is a call to conscience for all of us in the Church. The witness of Jesus and the apostles is unmistakable — we cannot claim to love the God we do not see, if we do not love the neighbor we do see.42
The saints compare Our Lord’s presence in the poor to his presence in the Eucharist. In some way, we cannot fully touch Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist if we do not also perceive him in the bodies of those who come to us in their suffering.
St. John Chrysostom said: “Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my Body’ is the same one who said … ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’”
St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata, one of many saints who passed through Los Angeles and planted ministries here, used to say that she touched the Body of Christ all day long — first in the Eucharist and then in the bodies of the poor and discarded whom she served.
“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist,” she would say. “In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.’”43
To change our lowly bodies: We are made for the resurrection of the body
20. We are bought with the price of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in his body on the Cross. Now in the Eucharist, he gives us his own Body and Blood to be our food, our source of life, and to join us together in his Mystical Body.
In the transformation of bread and wine that takes place at the altar, we begin to understand the great destiny that God intends for our bodies in his plan of love.
St. Irenaeus wrote in the early years of the Church: “Just as bread that comes from the earth, after God’s blessing has been invoked upon it, is no longer ordinary bread, but Eucharist, formed of two things, the one earthly and the other heavenly: so too our bodies, which partake of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.”
This is the glorious truth about who we are as creatures of body and soul, made male and female. We are destined to meet God in our bodies, which will be raised and glorified just as Christ’s was.
The prophet Job said: “I know that my Redeemer lives … From my flesh I shall see God.” And we will also see him from our flesh. We will rise body and soul to the Lord, and when we meet him, he “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” We are made for the resurrection of the body.44
Destined in love: God knows our name and he has a plan for our lives
21. At the start of his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul makes an astonishing prayer. It could stand as the summary of everything I hope to share with you in this letter.
Paul prays: “Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his children in Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”45
It is marvelous to reflect on what this prayer means. Before the foundation of the world, before the world began, when the earth was without form and void, when darkness was still on the face of the deep — already then, God knew your name and my name and he had a plan for our lives.
We are chosen and beloved from all eternity, from before the world was created! The God who created the sun and the moon, the stars and all the planets — this God wanted you to be born and me, and every other human being.
The truth again invites us to adoration and amazement. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI expressed his awe during his inaugural Mass: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”46
22. Sometimes I think this is one of the hardest Christian truths for people to accept. The universe is so vast, how can God possibly know who I am and care about me? How can it be that I am someone who is desired and needed by God?
I meet others who are anguished by the injustice in the world and the innocent suffering they see. They challenge us: how can we claim that God is good and that he loves us, when he permits such evil and violence to exist in his creation?
But it is true! God is good and God will bring good out of every evil. There is no easy answer to what the Scriptures call “the mystery of iniquity.” But we know that every soul matters to God, that every life is sacred and precious to him.
In God’s design for creation, in his Providence, there is not a sparrow that falls from the sky that he does not know about. And as Jesus reminds us, we are of more value than many sparrows! Every hair on every head is numbered, and every child is born with a personal angel to be his or her guardian and guide.
Our Father holds this world and all of our lives in his loving hand. He cares for everyone of us and for our smallest needs.47
The suffering and injustice we experience in creation is a call to service and empathy. When the innocent cry out to God in their suffering, we are the answer that God provides. We are called to be his voice of compassion, his hands of love and assistance. As long as there are Christians, no one should have to suffer alone!
What Jesus revealed, we must continue to proclaim by our words and commitments — that this world is God’s project and that creation is in a state of journeying towards fulfillment under his guidance. In everything God is working for the good of those who love him.
We need to stand firm in this faith and we need to witness to this faith in our love for others. We need to believe what the English mystic Julian of Norwich promised: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well!”48
My beloved child: We are God’s sons and daughters
23. Continuing our reflection on St. Paul’s prayer, he tells us that we are God’s beloved. He tells us that in his love God has destined us to be his children in Jesus Christ. What could be more amazing than this?
By our natural birth, we are all children of God, all creatures of the one Creator. The image of God, the imago Dei, establishes a profound natural solidarity among all human persons. But from the beginning, God destined humanity to something higher, to become “sons in the Son.” God calls every man and woman to be drawn into the divine Sonship of Jesus Christ and to be born again — not by natural processes but by water and the Holy Spirit. This is the work of Baptism.
In the sacrament, God’s love is poured down on us through his Holy Spirit and our Father speaks the same words to us that he spoke to Jesus on the day he was baptized in the River Jordan: “You are my beloved son!” We in turn can lift our voice to him as Jesus did, calling out, “Abba! Father.”49
So this is your true identity. You are God’s son! You are God’s daughter! Jesus is your brother. Reborn through water and the Spirit, you are God’s children now, brothers and sisters in his family, the Church.
Like every good parent, God has a beautiful dream for your life — a Father’s dream! He knows your name, and he has great plans for your life, plans for love and plans for your glory! You are something special to God — each one of you. There is nobody like you and there is nobody who can replace you! We need to believe this and plan and live our lives accordingly.
Nothing as important as human life: We must build a society worthy of the sanctity and dignity of the human person
24. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical doctrine in the history of ideas. If everyone believed what Jesus proclaimed — that God is our Father and we are all brothers and sisters created in his image with God-given dignity and a transcendent destiny — I cannot help but think that every society could be transformed overnight.
How different our lives would be if we truly believed that we are beloved sons and beloved daughters of our Creator!
How different Los Angeles would be if we all got up every morning and looked into the mirror and said, “I am a child of God and everyone I will meet this day is my brother or sister, one of God’s beloved, and worthy of my attention, my care and my love.”
This belief is the foundation for the Church’s social doctrine, our rich body of teachings on the right ordering of society and government. St. John Paul II said, “Humanity is the way for the Church.”50 Every one of us in the Church is called to work to build a society that reflects God’s purposes, a city of love and truth, solidarity and service.
In our times, we need to deepen our study of our society and culture. We need especially to study the implications of “globalization,” the new media and information technologies, automation and artifical intelligence, and what it means to live in an increasingly “networked” society.
It is still true, what the Church’s great social philosopher, Blessed Antonio Rosmini, wrote in the 19th century: “The destiny of peoples is sacred and of the utmost importance; no effort is too great nor meditation too deep in such a matter where a single error may determine the morality, dignity and happiness of many human generations. … Surely it is … important to ascertain and clarify the truths on which fortunes, peace, life, dignity, the sanctity of the family and of the nation depend.”51
25. My point is this: when we think about how we should order our lives together, when we think about the basic principles of government and what laws and polices we should live by — we need to base our thinking on the truth about the human person.
Our economy and government are meant to serve the human person — who is created and loved by God, and is made in his image and made for his purposes. Because every life is loved by God, every life must be welcomed and must be given the freedom to respond to the Creator’s call and the freedom to live as the Creator calls us to live.
Every life is precious and must be loved and protected, from conception until natural death. And as children of God made in his image, every person has a sanctity and dignity that cannot be diminished by illness or disability, and cannot be limited by race, age, sex or social condition.
These have been basic teachings of the Catholic Church in every time and every place.
An early Church teacher, Athenagoras, told the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the year 177: “Even the fetus in the womb is a created being and therefore an object of God’s care.”
Nearly two millennia later, in 1980, just days before he was killed out of hatred of the faith, the great Salvadoran bishop Blessed Oscar Romero proclaimed the same thing: “Nothing is as important to the Church as human life, the human person, especially the lives of the poor and the oppressed. … Jesus said that whatever is done to the poor is done to him.”52
Humanity will always be the way for the Church and the way for every Christian. God is our Father and he calls us to take responsibility for our brothers and sisters, to promote and protect human life, beginning with the most defenseless members of our human family.
In the Church’s vision, the right to life and the right to religious freedom will always be foundational for any just and humane society. These rights are not privileges that a government can presume to grant. God alone bestows these rights, and he does so that every person may carry out his or her obligations to seek and serve him. And what God bestows, no one — no individual or institution, no court or human authority — may deny or take away.
We consider these rights foundational because if the child in the womb has no right to be born, if the sick and the old have no right to be taken care of, then there is no solid basis for defending any person’s human rights, and no basis for peace and justice in society. If men and women have no right to pursue their relationship with God, if our natural thirst for what is infinite, beautiful, good and true is denied, then our very dignity as persons is negated.53
Missionaries without a boat: God gives each of us a vocation
26. God endows us with freedom and he is expecting great things from us. Our freedom is the freedom to serve God.
The Lord speaks to each of us in the depths of our souls: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” And he calls us to respond to him in love, opening our hearts to do his will for our lives. He wants each of us to say, with the prophets and the saints: “Here I am, Lord, for you called me.”54
The Lord speaks our name and he calls us to go on a mission. He gives us a vocation. Vocation simply means “calling” and every soul is called by God. Some are called to special vocations in the Church, to the ministerial priesthood or consecrated life. But all of us are called to take responsibility for the Church’s mission of evangelization — to spread the truth of God’s kingdom of love to the ends of the earth.
Because our lives are different, what God is calling us to do in the world will always be unique. There are many paths, many callings — as many paths as there are Christians. Your particular vocation, what God is calling you to do, no one else is called to do.
I want to quote here the words of Blessed John Henry Newman: “God has committed some work to me which has not been committed to another. I have my mission — I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told of it in the next. … I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do his work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling.”55
I have always found this to be an inspiring reflection on our duty before God. And when I think about these words, I connect them to something said by the Servant of God Madeleine Delbrêl, an apostle to atheists in mid-20th-century France. She said we are all called to be “missionaries without a boat.” In other words, our “mission territory” is meant to be wherever God has placed us — in our homes, in the places where we work, in school or in our neighborhoods.
“Mission means doing the very work of Christ wherever we happen to be,” Madeleine said. “We will not be the Church, and salvation will not reach the ends of the earth, unless we help save the people in the very situations in which we live.”56
So the question for you, my brothers and sisters, is: what is your mission in this world? What work has God committed to you? To know yourself, to know who you are, means knowing what God wants from your life, how he wants you to follow Jesus. So we need to be asking the Lord all the time for the grace to know his holy will and for the courage to do his will. What St. Paul said when he met Christ on the road to Damascus is every disciple’s prayer: “Lord, what shall I do?”57
Called to be saints: God’s purpose and direction for our lives
27. God is calling every one of you. St. Paul said: “He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began.”58
In one sentence, this is the story of our lives. Jesus has saved us. Once, for all; there are no excuses, there is no turning back. We can be free from our sins, free from our past, open to the infinite possibilities of a future lived for God and with God. The choice is ours.
God calls us — not because we have “proven” anything to him by our works and not because of anything we might have achieved in our lives. God calls us simply because he loves us, because he has his own design, a plan of grace that he established in Jesus Christ from before time began.
Again, we hear the amazing truth: before the dawn of creation, God had a plan for our lives. Jesus died to make us holy, and he calls us with a holy calling, inviting us to share in his own holiness.
I want to repeat something I said in my first pastoral letter. Now is the time for all of us in the Church to rediscover what the Second Vatican Council described as the “universal call to holiness.”59 This was true five years ago when I began my ministry here in Los Angeles. And it is true today.
This is so vital to understand. Holiness — to be saints — is the summary, the goal and meaning of our lives. Saint means “holy one” and in the early Church, saint was simply another name for Christian. St. Paul addressed his letters to those “called to be saints.” His words are still intended for each of us: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.”60
My prayer is that all of us in the Church will dedicate ourselves once again to making holiness the goal of everything we do in the Church. Let us examine our ministries and apostolates, all our efforts in our parishes and schools. Let us seek creative and bold new ways to make the call to holiness and the work of sanctification a basic aspect of all our preaching, religious education and pastoral care.61
I know that holiness can seem like all too much for us. We feel we are not good enough, not strong enough. This is true, of course — for me as much as it is for you. It is true about everyone! No one knows better than we do how inadequate we feel, our limitations and weaknesses. Surely, God cannot have such high expectations for us. Surely, holiness must be only for a select few. If we are all sinners, how can God expect us all to become saints?
My brothers and sisters, I urge you: Do not be afraid of holiness! God knows everything about us. And he calls us anyway. This is the mystery of his plan of love. St. Peter is not speaking only to special people when he says: “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves … since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
This is God’s will for your life and for mine. And God will never ask for more than you can handle. He will stretch us, he will call us to great things, he will discipline us in love, but he will always give us the grace we need to accomplish what he is asking us to do. Jesus gives this promise — this command — to every one of us: “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”62
Open your little heart: Our lives will be judged by our love
28. So what is this perfection, what is holiness? Holiness is simply love, lived totally and completely. Holiness is the perfection of charity.63 This is the same as saying: We are called to live for love.
Love is “who God is.” And love is who God calls us to be. The divine image is perfected in us through love. The saints call us to live by the love that we see in the heart of the Blessed Trinity — the love of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.
The spiritual master and doctor of the Church, St. John of Avila, advised: “Open your little heart to that breadth of love by which the Father gave us his Son, and with him gave us himself, and the Holy Spirit, and all things besides.”
Love is the path, then, that we are called to follow in this life. As the love of God is what gives us life, so his love should be the driving force for everything we do. St. Paul said: “The love of Christ impels us.” And again: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
Love — choosing to make a sincere gift of ourselves — is the fullest expression of human freedom.64 And as we know, love is not easy. Walking the path of love is a journey of conversion. It is a daily struggle with our inclinations to selfishness. We must work every day to purify our love from any self-interested motives. We want to love for the sake of love alone, without seeking anything for ourselves in return.
And in the evening of our lives, we will be judged by our love. So on this earth we want to live for love. We want to offer ourselves to God as St. Thérèse of Lisieux did: “I want to work for your love alone.”
In everything, our goal should be to bring ourselves and others to the love that never ends.
St. John of the Cross said: “Where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love.” Our love grows by sharing our love. So we want to put love into everything we do — all for the love of Jesus and all for the good of our neighbors!65
Nothing is little in the life of Jesus: We must live in imitation of Christ
29. In our love, as in everything else in life, Jesus Christ is our model. Jesus comes as the Holy One of God and he is the pattern for our holiness.
We are made holy and perfect when by God’s grace we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We are made saints when we love as Jesus calls us to love — loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves; doing everything for the Father’s glory and the service of our brothers and sisters.
In this moment in the Church, I believe it is very important for us to rediscover the ancient principle of the “imitation of Christ” as the basic form of Christian living and spirituality.
St. Paul said simply: “I imitate Christ.” And so should we.66 Blessed Charles de Foucauld, one of the great “imitators of Christ” in our times, used to pray: “Let me love him, obey him and imitate him as much as I can at every instant of my life.”67 All of us in the Church should make this our own personal prayer.
Jesus calls us to learn from him and to make his life the way and the truth for our lives. We do this by trying to become more like him. We want to think as he thinks and act as he acts. We want to listen to his words in the Gospel and live by these words — and according to the example we find in the pages of his life.
Walking in his footsteps, we need to reflect deeply on the mysteries of Christ’s life — every detail in his life — and we need to try to live these mysteries in our own lives. The holy abbot, Blessed Columba Marmion said, “Our Lord being God, the least circumstances of his life … are worthy of attention. … Nothing is little in the life of Jesus!”68
Jesus, Jesus, always be to me my Jesus: We need a plan for our lives
30. To seek the mind of Christ, to conform ourselves more and more to his image, we need a practical “plan of life.” By this I mean we need to be deliberate and intentional about how we live. We should live with a purpose. Our lives should be driven by a joyful desire to work with God’s grace in order to become more Christ-like day after day, year after year.
We make progress through good habits. So I want to recommend several habits that can help us to grow in our relationship with Christ and deepen our sense of connection to his plan for our lives. The saints and spiritual masters recommend these simple practices and I can say that I have found them to be fruitful in my own spiritual life.
First is what the saints call the practice of the presence of God.
We need to begin and end each day by making contact with God in simple prayer. Offer your day to God in the morning and review your day with God in the evening. Throughout the day, try to be aware of “the sacrament of the present moment.” Our goal is to be conscious that we are always alive in God’s loving gaze and that it is possible with his grace to do everything out of love for him.
Second, it is essential to make time every day for prayer.
Remember, prayer is just a conversation with God. Step away for a few minutes from your ordinary duties to be alone and quiet with the Lord. Raise your heart and mind to God and just talk to him in honesty and simplicity and open your heart to listen for his voice.
Tell your Father what you are anxious about, what you want to do for him; talk to him about areas of your life you want to improve. Tell him you love him and you want to love him more. Tell him you want to do his will, as Mary Our Blessed Mother did: “Let it be to me according to your word.”
St. Philip Neri said: “The most beautiful prayer we can make, is to say to God, ‘As Thou knowest and willest, O Lord, so do with me.”69
However you pray, the point is to bring yourself into the presence of the living God, in an attitude of humility, love and worship — knowing his nearness, knowing he is present, walking with us.
Sometimes repeating the name “Jesus” is the only prayer we need. And we can repeat his name over and over throughout the course of our day. Many of our brothers and sisters pray the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”).
When I was a teenager, I learned to pray: Jesus, Jesus, se para mi siempre Jesus, which means “Jesus, Jesus, always be to me my Savior (my Jesus).” It is a beautiful and powerful prayer that I still pray often.70
As a third practice, I recommend that you read a passage from the Gospels every day — prayerfully and personally, using the ancient technique of lectio divina. Ask Jesus to open his Word for you. Ask him, “Lord, what are you saying to me in this passage? What are you asking me to do?”
I cannot emphasize this enough: Learn to love spending time with Jesus in the reading of Sacred Scripture! To imitate Christ we need to know him. And we can only come to know him by reading his teachings and reflecting on his life in the Gospels.
The more we pray with the Gospels, the more we will have “the mind of Christ” — his thoughts and feelings, seeing reality through his eyes. The more we pray with the Gospels, the more we will feel Christ’s call to change the world — to shape society and history according to God’s loving plan.
Lectio divina, the prayerful reading of the Gospels, is the way of the saints! Make it your way!
Again I want to quote from the martyr and missionary Blessed Charles de Foucauld: “Read the Holy Gospels over and over continually in order to have Jesus’ actions, words and thoughts constantly in mind. In this way, come to think, speak and act as Jesus would, and not by the examples and modes of the world, whose practices we quickly fall back into if we take our eyes away from our Divine Model.”71
The fourth practice I recommend is to meet Christ as often as you can in the Eucharist and to find opportunities to pray and adore him in the Blessed Sacrament.
In my own life, I can say that I truly began to grow in my relationship with God when I started going to Mass on weekdays, in addition to going on Sundays. I was a teenager and I began going to Mass daily, following the example of my father.
Over time, I found myself becoming more aware of God’s presence throughout the day; and as time went on this relationship with God grew into a deeper friendship. It was all natural and beautiful and this friendship with God continues to grow deeper every day. So I highly recommend daily Mass as a way for you to grow in holiness.
A fifth practice is to make a daily examination of conscience and go to Confession regularly.
I can also point to this practice as helping me in my life. When I was a teenager in Mexico, it was common practice for us to go to Confession on Thursday evenings before First Friday devotions. I remember walking up the little hill to go to church with my friends and I remember how great we felt walking back home, the sense of liberation and peace — our sins were forgiven!
It is one of the joys of my life to be able to bring that same sense of liberation and peace to others through my priestly ministry. Over the years, I am still amazed to see God’s mercy working in the people’s lives. To participate in Christ’s healing ministry is such a grace. To be able to speak his word of pardon, to be able to grant forgiveness of sins in his name — there is no greater privilege I can imagine, no more beautiful and worthwhile way to spend my life. I thank God every day that he has called me to be his priest.
Sixth and finally, we need to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy — seeking contact with our Lord through serving others, especially the poor, the lonely and the vulnerable.72
Love is the way we imitate Christ. We need to love others as Jesus loves them, beginning with the people who are closest to us, in our families, and moving outside ourselves to seek out the needy in our communities.
31. These practices will provide you with a good practical starting point for a coherent and beautiful way of life, and these practices will help you grow day by day into the image of Christ.
I also urge you to root your Christian identity in the Beatitudes of Jesus and the theological and cardinal virtues. In our daily lives, we need to live intentionally according to the Beatitudes and cultivate good habits rooted in the virtues, trying to make little strides of progress every day.
Through the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us what we should desire and what we should be seeking in our lives — he calls us to be poor in spirit and pure in heart, to be meek and merciful and to mourn in solidarity with those who are sorrowful; he calls us to hunger and thirst for righteousness and to be peacemakers in our relationships and in our society.
Through the virtues, Jesus directs our actions to what will truly make us happy and good people — he calls us to live with faith, hope and charity; he calls us to be prudent, just, temperate and courageous.73
The Beatitudes and virtues form a beautiful path for us to follow in our daily lives. They reveal the face of Christ and they are the definition of the good life, the happiness that God intends for us.
St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God.” So let us strive to be virtuous, and strive to be people of the Beatitudes!74
Your own cross behind the Savior: We must love as Jesus loved
32. The great Pope St. John Paul II used to quote lines from one of his favorite poets, Cyprian Norwid: “Not with the cross of the Savior behind you, but with your own cross behind the Savior.” These words, the Pope said, “express the ultimate meaning of the Christian life.”75
Following Jesus, making him the model for our own holiness, we see the form that our life is called to take. It is the form of his own self-offering for us on the Cross. In the way of his Cross, we see the beauty of our humanity, what God desires for our lives.
Jesus told us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And he showed us on the Cross what he meant: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Now he calls each of us to follow his example, by making a total offering of ourselves to God: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? What could one give in exchange for his life.”76
Those last words are important. “What could one give in exchange for his life?” This is the sacrificial “logic” of the love that we are called to. We were born from the love in God’s heart and redeemed in the blood that flowed from Christ’s heart pierced on the Cross for us.
“You are not your own,” St. Paul taught us. “You have been bought with a price.” What could we possibly do to repay such love? What can we give back to God in exchange for the love of his only Son? We can offer him nothing less than our whole lives.77
33. The Church’s martyrs, of course, are the great witnesses to this “logic” of love. In every martyr we see the beauty of a life offered totally to God — flesh and blood, body and soul — laid down for love of him, for love of the Church, and for love of humanity.
In the martyrs we see the connection between the Cross and the Eucharist. I am always moved by the story of St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch. While he was being transported in a cage to Rome for his execution, he wrote a series of beautiful letters in which he described his death as a sacrificial offering to God.
He knew he was going to be fed to the lions. And Ignatius wrote this: “I am the wheat of God! So let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
No one writes this way about his death unless he has already been living his life this way. Ignatius thought of his body and blood — he thought of his whole life — as a Eucharist, an offering that he was making to God in thanksgiving and love.78
Priestly soul: We are made to worship, to glorify God by our lives
34. We are not all called to be martyrs. But we are all called to a love that is “Eucharistic.”
Here, near the end of this letter, I want to return to something that I said near the start, about our “priestly soul.” I believe this truth is key to our human identity in God’s plan. It is key to understanding how God wants us to live in the world, the purpose of our lives.
What do priests do? In the Bible, the priest is the mediator between God and his people. His primary work is leading worship, and in the Bible worship means offering sacrifice.
We can trace the “priestly identity” of God’s people from the first pages of Scripture to the last. From the beginning, we see that God’s children were made to be “priests,” made to offer him sacrifices from the first fruits of his creation.
And that is how the first Christians described their identity and mission. St. Peter said that all of us in the Church are called to form “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The Bible’s final book says again that we are called to be “priests to our God.”79
So to say that we have a “priestly soul” is to say that every man and woman is made for worship. That we are made to serve God in love and sacrifice.
St. Josemaría Escrivá taught: “Live and work for God, with a spirit of love and service, with a priestly soul, even though you may not be a priest. Then all your actions will take on a genuine supernatural meaning which will keep your whole life united to the source of all graces.”80
35. The Eucharist is the source of all graces, and the Eucharist gives our lives supernatural meaning. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are fulfilling God’s original intent for humanity in creation.
In every Mass, we offer the good things of creation back to God — the fruits of the earth and the work of our own human hands. We make our sacrificial offering in union with Christ’s own self-offering on the Cross, which is re-presented in the sacrifice of bread and wine that we offer at the altar.
What we are truly doing in the Eucharist becomes clear in that part of the Mass when the priest summons us, “Lift up your hearts!” In the Eucharist, we are being called to offer our hearts, to place our whole lives, body and soul, on the altar as a sacrifice that we make to God. In imitation of Christ, and in union with him, we turn our lives into liturgy, a prayer, giving our lives back to him in love and thanksgiving for his gifts.
36. What we pray reflects what we believe and the form of our prayer is meant to shape the form of our lives. This is the truth of the Eucharist. As we participate in the Eucharist day in and day out, week in and week out, our lives are meant be changed. We are made to worship, and worship is meant to become our way of life.
All our prayers, all the work we do in our ministries, all our loves in our families and marriages; our daily labor and even our time spent relaxing; whatever we are thinking or feeling, every word and deed — all of this is made for the altar! All of this is made to be offered up as a spiritual sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ in the Eucharist!81
Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” With our lives, we thank God for the gift of salvation, for delivering us from the darkness of living in this world without him. We thank him for the sheer fact of being alive — what St. Thomas Aquinas called beneficium creationis, the great gift of having been created.82
Thanksgiving is meant to become the reason and the way for our lives. It is a way of joy anticipated by the Psalmist, whose words seem to prepare us for the Eucharist:
What shall I render to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord …
I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the Lord.83
Here we have drawn close to the true meaning of our lives, what we are made for and why.
St. Paul tells us, “We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.” One of our newest saints, St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, said that these words of St. Paul represent the true greatness of our human vocation — “the great dream of the Heart of our God, [his] immutable will for our lives.” And she is right.
These are the greater things that we are made for — the purpose, the meaning and the highest possibility for our lives! We are made to glorify God by our lives — by everything we say and do and by how we live out our days. All for Jesus! All for the praise of his glory!84
Here I am Lord, I come to do your will: Jesus is calling you to follow him
37. My brothers and sisters, this is the beautiful truth of our lives: We are made in God’s image, made body and soul, male and female. We are made out of love, a thing of beauty in God’s eyes and the glory of his creation. We are made to share in his divine nature as his beloved children. We are made to be holy, to be saints.
Jesus comes into our lives, and there is nothing more beautiful than to know Jesus!
And Jesus is calling you, as he calls his disciples in every age — to follow him, to come and see. He is calling you to find in him the meaning and destiny of your life — the way you are made to live, who you are made to be.85
By his Incarnation, Jesus entered our world and he said, “Sacrifices and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me. … Behold I have come to do your will, O God!”86
Jesus is calling you now to follow in his footsteps, to live in imitation of his example. He is calling you now to share in his mission of love — to be merciful as our Father is merciful, to serve God in his creation and glorify him in our bodies, to lift up our hearts to the Father in thanksgiving and praise.
Jesus makes himself the new way for our lives. He walks with us, he wants to show us every day how to live. Our old life ends and our new life begins in following him.
“God is life! And with him all things are possible!” We feel the excitement in those words of St. Junípero Serra, the great missionary to Los Angeles and spiritual founder of America.
Holiness is our adventure, our mission! Jesus promises us a life that is beautiful and blessed. And the saints testify that there is no limit to the holiness and beauty that we can know in following Christ.87
In the following of Jesus, we discover that our lives are made to be a spiritual sacrifice, a sacrificial offering of our will, abandoning ourselves to Divine Providence, to our Father’s will for our lives. Seeking not what we want, but what he wants. “Not my will, but thy will be done,” as Our Lord said in his darkest hour.88
With Jesus we find our lives in losing our lives for the sake of the love of God. We want to offer every breath, every beat of our heart — that God’s love may be revealed in the hearts of others. In every situation, we want to offer ourselves to God. We want to say, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.”89
Am I not your mother?: The vocation of humanity
38. This is God’s glorious plan for your lives. These are the greater things that we are born for! We are not consumers or workers, computing-machines or highly evolved organisms, the sum of our DNA. We are not thrill-seekers or pleasure-seekers. We are God’s masterpiece, his work of art.
Everything I have been trying to do in this letter is to explain a short sentence that we find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son.”90
This is our divine vocation. This is why we are born. Our lives have a beautiful direction and purpose.
I began this letter with a quotation from Venerable Mother Luisita and I would like to end with something else she said, a little prayer: “I pray that you will become a little saint, helping those around you so that they, too, may become saints.”91
And this is my prayer for every one of you, for the whole family of God in Los Angeles. I pray that we all come to a new awareness of our vocation to be holy, to be saints! May we all desire to do God’s will, to love as Jesus loves, and to live for the praise of his glory! Let every one of us in Los Angeles strive to become saints and strive to lead others to become saints, too!
May we raise up a new race of saints who bear witness that the human person is the center of God’s plan of love for creation.
May we be renewed in wonder, in sincere amazement at God’s love for us, a love that knows no limit. Then, renewed in this wonder, may we go out into the world to share our amazement with others, speaking heart to heart and bringing everyone to that encounter with God’s saving love that is the destiny of every human life.
My prayer is that through our words and actions, we will inspire the birth of a new Christian humanism. St. Francis de Sales said: “God is God of the human heart.” This truth must be the foundation of any authentic humanism.
Only in God can the human person know completeness and joy. And only in God can our society establish justice and make peace. As Thomas Aquinas said, “God alone satisfies.”92
39. As I conclude this letter to you, it is Christmas. I have offered prayers for you in the chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe here in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
As you know, in this chapel we have a precious relic from the Virgin’s apparition at Tepeyac, Mexico in 1531 — a tiny piece from the tilma, the cloak worn by her messenger, the indigenous convert St. Juan Diego. Some believe this is the only relic of the tilma in the world outside of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, where the original tilma is to be found.
This relic is a national treasure, perhaps the greatest artifact of the history of the Americas. Every day, it is a moving reminder to me that we are all children of the Virgin of Tepeyac.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the soul of the peoples of the Americas. The Christian identity of the Americas — the spiritual foundation of our nations — finds its heart in her. Our Christian lives and the Church’s mission continues under her maternal eyes and through her intercession.
I am struck by how the Mother of Jesus chose to leave us this holy sign at the spiritual dawn of the Americas — the image of her tender and radiant face and her body borne by an angel emblazoned on this tilma.
I believe Our Lady did this because she wanted each of us to be able to look into her eyes and to know our great dignity in God’s eyes. I believe she wanted to help us realize just what it means to be his beloved sons and daughters.
source of your joy? Are you not sheltered underneath my mantle, under the embrace of my arms?” I hear her words to St. Juan Diego now. And I realize that she revealed to him the truth of the new creation, the new humanity made possible in Jesus Christ.93
40. So I invoke the Virgin of Tepeyac now. I ask her once again to be a mother to each of us, to be a Mother to the family of God here in Los Angeles, and to be a Mother to all the peoples of the Americas.
May Our Mother Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe, help every person in the Americas to find in Jesus Christ the true vocation of our humanity, the truth of our calling and destiny as men and women.
May she help each of us to find in Jesus the true program for the liberation and transformation of our lives. May she help us to find in Jesus the true program for the moral and spiritual renewal of our society and culture.
The Virgin of Tepeyac is our mother and she calls to each of her children today in the same way that she called to St. Juan Diego, 485 years ago. Mary is the great teacher of missionary discipleship and she is our model as we seek to be missionaries and evangelists of our culture.
As she introduced the Gospel with love to a hostile and misunderstanding culture, let us look to her for inspiration.94 May she intercede for us, that we might have the strength and wisdom to continue her mission of making the American continent a new world of faith, inspired by a new Christian humanism, rooted in God’s beautiful plan for the human person as his masterpiece and the glory of his creation.
And let us pray that Our Blessed Mother may help us all to know the greater things for which we are born.
Most Reverend José H. Gomez
Archbishop of Los Angeles
Given at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, December 25, 2016, Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, in my fifth year as Archbishop of Los Angeles
December 25, 2016, Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, in my fifth year as Archbishop of Los Angeles
1. St. Augustine, Confessions, bk. 1, 1, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2d. ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice, 1997), 30. Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, Encyclical Letter on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life (March 25, 1995), 34–35.
3. John 1:38; 10:10; Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:45; Eph. 2:15; Phil. 2:7–8.
4. Ps. 96:1; Isa. 42:1; Matt. 12:32; 19:28; 2 Cor. 5:17; Heb. 6:5; 2 Pet. 3:13; 13:8; Rev. 2:3, 3:12; 5:9; 14:3; 20:9, 21:5.
5. Witness to the New World of Faith: A Pastoral Letter to the Family of God in Los Angeles on the New Evangelization and Our Missionary Call(October 2, 2012). To encourage our continued reflection on these priorities, we have published a study guide to this pastoral letter, available on my website, www.archbishopgomez.com.
6. This attitude is exemplified in the U.S. Supreme Court’s now familiar statement in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey, 55 U.S. 803: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
7. 1 Cor. 12:31.
8. Letter 131, in In Love’s Safekeeping: The Letters and Spiritual Writings of Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, O.C.D., 2 vols. (Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus), 1:235. Homily, Mass for the Reception of the Coadjutor Archbishop (May 26, 2010).
9. John 2:24–25.
11. St. Catherine, Dialogue, 13; quoted in Catechism, 356; St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge, 824; The Way of the Cross, 6. The divine Bridegroom: Isa. 54; Jer. 3:6–13; Ezek. 16; 23; Hos. 2; John 3:29; Matt. 9:15; 22:1–10; 25:1–12; 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5; Rev. 22:17–20.
13. Jer. 31:3.
16. Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, Encyclical Letter on Human Work on the 90th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (September 14, 1981), 6; Dies Domini, Apostolic Letter on Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy (May 31, 1998), 10.
19. Book of Visions and Instructions; quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience (October 13, 2010). See also St. Athanasius On the Incarnation, 54: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”; quoted in Catechism, 460; St. Catherine, Dialogue, 13: “For love! You God, became human and we have been made divine!”
20. Order of the Mass, Presentation and Preparation of the Gifts; Leonine Sacramentary (7th c.); 2 Macc. 15:39; John 19:34.
21. Rom. 1:7; 5:27; 6; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 2:8; 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 John 3:2.
28. Rom. 5:14, 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:15, 4:24; Col. 1:15, 3:10; Heb. 1:5.
30. Sermon on the Nativity, 1; in The Liturgy of the Hours According to the Roman Rite, 4 vols. (Catholic Book Publishing, 1975), 1:404.
32. 1 Cor. 6:13, 19, 20.
33. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family (May 19, 2016), 56, 285; Laudato Si, 155; Dialogue with Polish Bishops (July 27, 2016). See also the Holy Father’s General Audiences of April 15, 22, 29, and May 6, 2015. See also, Catechism, 2332–2333, 2393.
34. Gen. 1:27, 2:18, 24; Matt. 19:1–6. Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year (August 15, 1988), 6–7; General Audiences (Jan. 16, 1980, July 23, 1980); Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 213, 285.
35. Mark 10:2–12.
39. On friendship, see Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Holy Mass for the Imposition of the Sacred Pallium on Metropolitan Archbishops (June 29, 2011); Catechism, 2347.
41. Matt. 25:31–46; Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:17; Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, Apostolic Letter at the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 (January 6, 2001), 49; Redemptor Hominis, Encyclical Letter at the Beginning of his Pastoral Ministry (March 4, 1979), 13–14; Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Encyclical Letter on Christian Love (December 25, 2005), 12–18; Spe Salvi, 39; Catechism, 618, 1260, 1612.
42. Lev. 19:18; Prov. 14:31; 1 John 4:20.
43. St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 50:3–4; St. Mother Teresa, Where There Is Love, There is God (Image, 2012), 53; No Greater Love (New World, 2002), 93; Matt. 25:31–46; 26:26–27.
44. Job 19:25–26; Acts 17:28; Rom. 8:10–12, 23; 12:1; 1 Cor. 6:13–14, 16, 19–20; 15:44–45; Phil. 3:21; 1 Pet. 2:24; St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, bk. 4, chap. 18, 4–5; quoted in Catechism, 1000.
45. Eph. 1:3–5.
46. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry (April 24, 2005).
47. Matt. 10:29–30; 18:10; Acts 3:15; 2 Thess. 2:7.
53. See Pope John Paul II, Address to Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate (Puebla, Mexico, January 28, 1979); Centesimus Annus, Encyclical Letter on the 100th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (May 1, 1991), 9, 29, 47; Archbishop José H. Gomez, “Foreword,” in Catholics in the Public Square, rev. 4th ed. by Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead (St. Benedict, 2016).
54. Gen. 3:11, 22:7; 1 Sam. 3:5; Acts 9:10; Gal. 5:1, 13; 1 Pet. 2:16.
57. Acts 22:10.
58. Matt. 19:26; Luke 17:5; Eph. 4:1; 2 Tim. 1:9.
60. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 5:3; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 4:3.
62. Lev. 11:45; Matt. 5:48; Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 4:3; Heb. 12:6–8; 1 Pet 1:15–16.
64. St. John of Avila, Letter 160; quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Proclaiming St. John of Avila, Diocesan Priest, a Doctor the Universal Church (October 7, 2012); Rom. 13:8; 2 Cor. 5:14; Gal. 5:13.
66. Matt. 11:29; John 14:6; 1 Cor. 1:11; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6.
67. Diary (August 11, 1905), in Charles de Foucauld: In the Footsteps of Jesus Nazareth (New City, 2004), 65.
71. Letter (May 3, 1912), in Charles de Foucauld: In the Footsteps of Jesus Nazareth, 76.
72. St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World (December 30, 1988), 16; Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience (April 13, 2011).
77. 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 John 1:7.
79. Exod. 19:6; John 4:23; Rom. 15:16; Heb. 3:1; 6:20; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6; 5:10.
83. Ps. 116:12–13, 17.
85. Matt. 4:19; Mark 8:34; Luke 5:27; John 1:39, 43, 46.
86. Heb. 10:5–9.
87. St. Junípero Serra, Letter 38 (January 24, 1774); 1 Pet. 2:21; Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 51; St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none.” Catechism, 2028.
88. Luke 22:42.
89. Ps. 40:6–8; 50:8–15.
91. Ven. Mother Luisita, Letter 199, 1:326.
92. St. Francis De Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, bk. 1, chap. 4; quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience (March 2, 2011); St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 1; quoted in Catechism, 1718.
94. Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean, Concluding Document, (Aparecida, Brazil, May 13–31, 2007), 269.
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