All posts by Anthony

Anthony J. Oleck comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and received his Bachelor of Arts in History, Theology and Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in May 2014. He is currently in his first year of Notre Dame’s Master of Theological Studies program, specializing in the History of Christianity, and serves as an Assistant Rector of Fisher Hall. Following the completion of his MTS, he plans to pursue doctoral studies in the history of Christianity, focusing on the Catholic Church’s engagement with modernity and the impact such engagement has had on parish life, the development of Catholic universities, and seminary formation in nineteenth and twentieth-century United States.

A Letter to the Newly Baptized

To the Recently Baptized:

You may already feel it- the fact that this journey you are made a significant transition when you were baptized. Though you remain on the same path towards Christ, your landscape and means for getting there have radically changed. In this post I will discuss three ways in which your baptism marked a significant moment in your journey, changing you irreversibly, and then speak to the continuing nature of your journey.

First, in Baptism you were adopted into a new family, one of choice. Though you were born into a birth family many years ago, Robin Jensen in Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity notes that “unlike a birth family, this was a family one chose” (57). Tertullian exhorts the one being baptized saying “when you come up from that most sacred washing of the new birth and for the first time you raise your hands with your brethren in your mother’s house, ask of your Father, ask of your Lord, for special grants of grace and attributions of spiritual gifts” (58). You now have a new mother and a new father, many new sisters and many new brothers. Reach out to your new family now! You will never be alone in this world now- you are a part of a community that will always look out for you. You have been incorporated into the community like a sheep incorporated into a flock. These sheep, symbolic of you now, “were protected and cherished, rescued when in danger, and persistently herded toward their place of safety” (90) like the sheep in the image below from the fourth century.

Shepherd with sheep. Mosaic, Baptistery of Sta. Restituta, San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples. Late fourth century.

Second, at your baptism your journey shifted forever because you were given the gift of knowledge or enlightenment through the Spirit, opening your eyes to see the truth of this world more clearly. Justin Martyr describes baptism “as a means to transform Christians into children of choice and knowledge (rather than of necessity and ignorance) and he goes on to explain that ‘this washing is called illumination because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understanding” (113). The story of Jesus healing the blind man can be seen as an image of receiving this knowledge, as the blind man was transformed from blindness to an ability to see. In the same way, Ambrose says that you have received “the spiritual sight of faith and so perceive the light emitted by the sacraments” (122). Your sight is not the same as before- you can now see more clearly with the eyes of faith as the blind man being cured in this image.

Third, you are radically different now than before your baptism because you have in a very real way died and risen again. In your baptism “the former, sinful self is symbolically crucified and buried in this baptism water” (138). Not only is this death and rebirth tied with the death of your former self, it is also linked to the death and resurrection of Christ. This is great news- though you shared in Christ’s death at the font, you will also share in his resurrection. Since “by figuratively dying in the font, the initiate receives the benefit of Christ’s saving sacrifice”, you can rejoice in your resurrection with Christ. This parallel can be seen in the familiar story of Jonah- Basil interprets Jonah’s “three days in the fish’s belly as symbolizing the triple immersion of the neophyte and identifies Jonah’s font with the belly of the sea creature” (154).

Scenes from the story of Jonah, with Noah, and a fisherman. Sarcophagus, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican

Just as Jonah was completely transformed through his time in the whale, for you too “the renewal is a total transformation of the self” (175). Your journey is different now than before because you are different, because you have now died and risen in Christ.

Lastly, though your baptism marked a complete transformation of your journey, it did not mark the end of it. Having risen from the waters of baptism, you have joined the rest of the congregation and “realize that [you] have been allowed only a glimpse of paradise” (213). This glimpse is a “promise that this is [your] future and not [your] present reality” (213). That means you still are still moving on your journey, with the images of the promised land seen at your baptism as your inspiration. Your continued existence here on this earth is “proof that the journey is not yet over, that baptism is only the beginning step toward a final, happy ending” (213). Continue on your journey, newly baptized one, with all of the inspiration that your new eyes, new family and new birth accord!

Deer coming to the stream. Mosaic, baptistery at Bir Ftouha (Carthage), Tunisia, Tunis. Late fourth or early fifth century.

What We’re Reading: joy, Cana, and spiritual longing

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

 Contact Author

1) Adam Booth, CSC on the Wedding at Cana and our spiritual hunger for joy:

It might seem that the problem that Mary draws to Jesus’ attention is somehow lesser than our second-grader’s mini-crisis, that it’s more mundane or secular, less holy, but I think the attention that both Mary and Jesus give to it shows us that that’s not the case.  The second-grader was worried that the church was out of blessing, which would be very serious if it was true, but Mary is concerned that the party is out of joy.  A wedding feast of the time was meant to last for days, and it was looking like it might come to an abrupt halt.

2) Similarly, Timothy P. O’Malley interprets the “sign” communicated by John 2:1-11:

Jesus’ harshness may seem surprising. Yet, in the Gospel of John, it is common that those even who know Jesus quite well fail to grasp the full implications of his identity. That the hour that Jesus speaks about is the final act of glorification upon the cross, when he reveals to the world that God’s love has conquered the darkness of death itself. Indeed, his hour has not yet come. And yet, Jesus’ mother tells the servants to act, and they comply with her wishes.

3) In the New York Times, David Brooks writes on beauty and spiritual longing:

These days we all like beautiful things. Everybody approves of art. But the culture does not attach as much emotional, intellectual or spiritual weight to beauty. We live, as Leon Wieseltier wrote in an essay for The Times Book Review, in a post-humanist moment. That which can be measured with data is valorized. Economists are experts on happiness. The world is understood primarily as the product of impersonal forces; the nonmaterial dimensions of life explained by the material ones.

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonyoleck

Make of Our Hearts a Home

unnamedMegan Shepherd

Associate Director, Notre Dame Vision 

Contact Author



We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy.

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it.

Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 2.

In Pope Francis’ proclamation of the Year of Mercy, he invites us all to “gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” As I began to contemplate the mystery of God’s mercy in preparation for the Year of Mercy, I pondered the question: “How can I better respond to the gift of God’s mercy in my own life?” As I prayed, my attention was drawn ever more deeply to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – the practices of enacting and proclaiming God’s mercy through concrete acts of love.

Thinking of ways that I could incorporate the works of mercy into my life, I came up with ideas involving volunteering at the local homeless drop-in shelter, helping sort and deliver food from the parish food bank, donating clothes and household goods. All good ideas, but in the busyness I let fill my days they remained that – just ideas.

An impediment to practicing mercy is our lack of awareness and attentiveness to the needs of others. We can become so wrapped up in the challenges of our day-to-day lives – even lives of discipleship and ministry – that we become blind to the realities of pain and struggle around us.

Earlier this summer, I witnessed a moment of God’s mercy at work transforming a young man’s heart in the reception of the Eucharist that I reflected on in a previous post. As I prayed with this encounter, I experienced a profound renewal of my call to serve as an Eucharistic minister and I committed to regularly serving at my parish’s Sunday liturgy.

As I would distribute communion each week – to the elders of the parish, teens with sleep in their eyes, families with young children clinging to their legs, adults attending alone – I felt my heart continue to grow in love for the entire people of God, the diverse members of the community gathered together each Sunday in the pews. And during the times that I would need to go out into the congregation to those who could not come forward due to physical limitations, I felt an even stronger bond with the parish family.

044a70b7-a5e5-4f6f-b09d-ecf241ca71b5Then I returned home, back to my normal routine and my attempts to practice the corporal works of mercy on my own terms, according to my own plan. And the good intentions were overshadowed by excuses of “I’m too busy this week” or “I’m sure they have enough help.” Yet each week as I received and shared the Body of Christ, God slowly chipped away at the hardness of my heart, transforming my heart more closely into the Heart of Christ, a heart poured out in love unto death in mercy for the world.

The mercy of God penetrated into the closed-off space of my heart, shattering the limitations I had placed upon my ability to show mercy. God hollowed out space for me to allow God to “make of my heart a home.” It is my Eucharistic vocation to share the grace of mercy that I have received, to go forth and practice mercy, to offer myself in love.806cbaf6-5233-45db-bdad-2681fc7ce7ef

One day, when I heard the priest announce they were in need of people to take the Eucharist to those members of the parish community who were unable to attend mass, I felt a pull within me to respond. If I am to become that which I receive, if I am to be transformed into Eucharist for the world, and I take that seriously, it troubles me that there are those unable to participate in the Eucharistic celebration, those homebound due to illness or infirmity.

I contacted the priest and was paired with an older couple who had been long-time parishioners, but with the wife’s recent diagnosis and decline was no longer able to leave the house for mass. Due to the seriousness of her illness, there was a chance that her condition would quickly deteriorate, and that I may only be visiting with them for a short time. My Eucharistic vocation to share the mercy I received lead me to the corporal work of mercy of “visiting the sick.”

7d5ba0f5-757d-4d1e-bef9-68e98f47ab5aIn my parish, at the end of the communion rite the priest places the host in the pyx, and those ministering to the homebound come forward. Each week I would stand with the pyx on my open hand as the priest sent us forth with a blessing. I would take hold of the pyx, grasping it in my hand throughout the final blessing, the concluding rites and closing song. Then I would head straight out to my car for the five-minute drive to their house.

My visits usually consisted of a few minutes of conversation about Notre Dame football with her husband, and she would join in if she felt up to it. But often her energy level was very low, so we would move into a simplified rite in continuity with the celebration of the liturgy just concluded.

? Peace be with this house and with all who live here.

 Lord Jesus, you healed the sick: Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, you forgave sinners: Christ, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, you give us yourself to heal us and bring us strength: Lord, have mercy.

I held aloft the body of our crucified savior, whose wounds are transfigured in the glory of the resurrection.

 The Body of Christ.


As I placed the host in her mouth I prayed, not for healing – which was unlikely at that point – but for wholeness. For a sense of peace and solidarity in the midst of suffering and pain.

 All-powerful God, we thank you for the nourishment you give us through your holy gift. Pour out your Spirit upon us and in the strength of this food from heaven, keep us single minded in your service. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.

As I left each Sunday, I sat in my car for a few moments before driving away to say a short prayer of thanksgiving for the movement of God’s mercy in my life that brought me to that moment, that couple, that grace.14d26c54-a76a-4dd5-8cfe-bdd1da67a379

One Sunday as I prepared to drive over after mass, I checked my phone to find a voicemail from her husband saying I didn’t need to come over as she was not doing well, and they were preparing for her death. Two days later I received word that she had passed away.

We had not spoken much during my visits due to her health, but were able to communicate about the most essential truth – the merciful love of God. She made the final journey through suffering nourished by his Body and comforted by the hope of the resurrection.

When I attended her funeral, God wasn’t finished teaching me about the boundless expanse of mercy. Due to the number of people present, I was asked to serve as an Eucharistic Minister, sharing once more the Bread of Life, this time with her friends and family gathered to say farewell. As I looked into her husband’s eyes, I witnessed the depths of his grief, but also the hope of the resurrection. What began as sharing the Eucharist at mass lead me to enter her home with the gift of Christ’s Body from the family gathered at the parish and ultimately to accompany her on her journey to her final home. My Eucharistic vocation to share the mercy I received led me to corporal work of mercy of “burying the dead.”

God’s mercy continues to work within me. God “makes of my heart a home,” a home of mercy and love that goes forth into the world. In my brokenness I am a vessel transmitting the gift I have received through concrete actions in response to the needs of the world. And in the action, the practice of mercy, I become merciful.

Make of our hands a throne

to hold the Bread of heaven,

make of our hearts a home

to hold the very wine of life.

In this myst’ry, Lord, make us one with you.

Our Guadalupe

unnamedAustin Cruz

University of Notre Dame, ’16

Master of Theological Studies (History of Christianity)

Contact Author

Given both my Mexican-American descent and my strong devotion to Mary, it may come as a shock to some when I say that I have not always loved Our Lady of Guadalupe. Indeed, there was a time when her image was nothing more to me than a pious painting, an image that had been taken up ad nauseam by my ancestral people. It probably goes without saying that the Mexican people have a great love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. They hang her image on the walls of their churches and place her in their homes and businesses. They light candles, which bear her image, and place decals of her image on the back of their trucks. A great number of men and women have even gotten tattoos of Our Lady of Guadalupe placed somewhere on their bodies. And just to give one recent example of how inextricable she is from Mexican culture, her image was briefly used a few times in last year’s animated film The Book of Life, a film that is centered on the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos. yet makes no reference to God or Christianity throughout. All of this is to say that the Mexican people have a special love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she herself is inseparably linked to Mexican religious and cultural identity.Granted, it is easy to understand why they love her. In December of 1531, she appeared to the humble, Nahuatl Indian, Juan Diego, at Tepeyac, a hill right outside of what is today Mexico City. Her mission to him was rather simple; she wanted him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a hermitage dedicated to her right there at Tepeyac. She wanted it built so that all people could come to it and receive her love, compassion, help and protection. Being only a lowly Indian, Juan Diego knew that his task would be difficult, but at the Virgin’s request he took up her mission. After he had twice failed to convince the bishop of the truth of the Virgin’s request, Our Lady of Guadalupe sought to aid him through the provision of a sign: Juan Diego was to go up the hill and pick the Spanish flowers, which had miraculously grown there in the middle of winter, place them in his tilma, in order to carry and to show them to the bishop. He did as was told. And when he had showed them to the bishop she provided him with another miracle as a sign of the abundance of her love: as he released the flowers, her image miraculously appeared on his tilma. The fact that she herself had provided her own image (that is to say, that it was not painted by human hands) and that the image has miraculously been preserved to this day has led the Mexican people to exclaim: “She has not done so for any other nation.”
It is a beautiful story, to be sure. And even though I heard that story many times in my life, (for several years my older brother had played Juan Diego in our parish play), I could not bring myself to embrace Our Lady of Guadalupe in any particular way.

OLofGuad5Perhaps it was because she was so uniquely tied to one particular people, even if it was a people that I am descendant from, that I felt that she lacked a universal quality that I imagined  Our Lady of Lourdes or an Our Lady of Fatima had. How can a devotion that seemed so limited, so incarnated within a very distinct culture be considered so great?

Or perhaps my aversion to her was more precisely based on the fact that, even though I am of Mexican descent, I do not speak Spanish, have no rhythm, and do not identify with many characteristics of popular Latino culture, and thus, felt that I could not connect with such a figure as Our Lady of Guadalupe. I thought that to claim her would be to claim for myself an identity that I struggled to fully own.

So, what changed? Why is it that in the past year and a half I have probably talked more about Our Lady of Guadalupe than any other image of Mary?

I do not know that I can describe it any other way than to say that she began to call out to me. I began to feel compelled to look at her image, an image that had so many times before left me unimpressed. The more I beheld her image, the more I found myself drawn to contemplation of it. And thus, I began to realize that what I had taken to be a simple rendition of the Virgin Mary within a primitive culture was in reality an icon of the universal mystery of a mother’s love.

Struck by this realization, I desired to return to the narrative of the Guadalupan events, to see if there was anything within the story itself that I had dismissed as unsophisticated. And, of course once again I had found so much beauty and depth in what appeared to be a simple text, much more than the purposes of this post would allow me to reflect on. But there is one thing that I wish to share, something which each time I read it moves me to my core, and it is Our Lady of Guadalupe’s mission as stated in her own words. She says:

“I very much want and ardently desire that my hermitage be erected in this place. In it I will show and give to all people all my love, my compassion, my help, and my protection, because I am your merciful mother and the mother of all nations that live on this earth who would love me, who would speak with me, who would search for me, and who would place their confidence in me. Their I will hear their laments and remedy and cure all their miseries, misfortunes, and sorrows.”[1] (emphasis mine)

It is particularly this message that makes Our Lady of Guadalupe so special. It is a message that could perhaps more simply be restated in the form of a question: “Will you let me be your mother?” It is a question she asks to all people, to all nations. She places no restrictions and she makes no conditions. Despite her appearance within a particular culture and within a particular time, it is a question that requests a universal response.

If perhaps, like me, you have ever had trouble growing close to Our Lady of Guadalupe because she came incarnated within a particular culture you do not recognize as your own, I encourage you to spend time with her in prayer this advent season. Though she may have done for the Mexican people what had not been done for any other nation, take comfort in the fact she did this as a sign of the depth of her love for her children of all nations. Join in the celebrations at your parish, contemplate her image, which she left on Juan Diego’s tilma. And rejoice in the fact that we have a mother who, like her Son, is no stranger to our own particular needs.

[1] This quotation is taken from verses 23-25 of the Nican Mopohua, the foundational text for the traditional Guadalupan events written in the native Nahuatl. For more an English translation and more on this text, see Mother of the New Creation by Fr. Virgilio Elizondo.

Living Advent in the Light of Laudato Si’






Aimee Shelide Mayer, M.A.
Coordinator, Echo Recruitment & Admissions

University of Notre Dame

Collen Mayer, M.Div., MTS, MBA
Director, Social Services
Catholic Charities of Tennessee​

Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,
teach us to contemplate you
in the beauty of the universe,
for all things speak of you.
Awaken our praise and thankfulness
for every being that you have made.
Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined
to everything that is.

“A Christian Prayer in Union with Creation” (Laudato Si’ §246)

Sometimes it is hard to see that “all things speak of” God’s infinite love. During this busy pre-Christmas season of preparing final papers, projects, menus, mailing lists, guest lists, and gift lists, our focus is often turned away from God present in all of creation. But this Advent, we not only have the launching of the Jubilee Year of Mercy to ground us in praise for God’s all-encompassing love; we also have Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, Care for our Common Home, to guide us on how to live Advent anew this year. And with the current summit on climate change occurring, we would be remiss to not prayerfully contemplate the sacramentality of God’s creation, as well as our ongoing complicity in its degradation.

Laudato Si’ provides both a theological rationale and concrete suggestions for nourishing and healing our relationship with God, others, and all of creation. This Advent, we are thus prompted to examine our lives in each of these three areas and note how we might better care for all of creation in light of Pope Francis’ pleading.

Caring for our relationship with God

In his encyclical, Pope Francis addresses not only Christians, but “every person living on this planet” in order to “enter into dialogue about our common home” (LS §3), a home created in love by the triune God:

The Father is the ultimate source of everything, the loving and self-communicating foundation of all that exists. The Son, his reflection, through whom all things were created, united himself to this earth when he was formed in the womb of Mary. The Spirit, infinite bond of love, is intimately present at the very heart of the universe, inspiring and bringing new pathways. (LS §238)

By reflecting on our relationship with the earth this Advent, we are necessarily led to examine our relationship with the triune God who created the universe and all it contains. Indeed, it seems that how we handle the gift of creation necessarily reflects our sentiments for the Giver. By responding to creation in love, we express our love and praise for God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consider the following simple Advent practices to cultivate a sense of gratitude to God for creation:

  • Choose to incorporate a new spiritual practice from Laudato Si’ (e.g. spiritual reading, period of silence, work outside, etc.);
  • Spend quiet time enjoying creation (e.g. go on a walk, run, bike ride, hike, etc.);
  • Prepare for Mass by reading the Gospel and reflecting on it in light of Laudato Si’;
  • Honor the Sabbath by “fasting” from technology (computer, phone, TV, tablet, etc.);
  • Pray for an end to war and violence, including destruction of creation;
  • Examine your conscience to discern ways you have failed to care for creation; celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and
  • Include a prayer of gratitude to God for creation during grace before meals; commit to not wasting food during Advent.

Caring for others

Pope Francis further challenges us to see how our care for all of creation extends to how we care for all members of our human family—especially the poor. In his encyclical, he writes of the interconnectedness of all relationships:

We cannot presume to heal our relationship with nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships . . . A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others . . . Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence. (LS, §119)

For many, the Advent and Christmas season brings human relationships into a new focus as families and friends gather from distant cities to celebrate together. Fond memories, as well as unhealed wounds, often surface during such moments. For some, these are times full of joy and love. Yet, for those who have lost or become estranged from family, these weeks can be heavy and hard. How might we care for the Body of Christ this year in light of Pope Francis’ wisdom? Here are some possible in-roads this Advent:

  • Pray for healing from a wound you are carrying related to a family member or loved one;
  • Pray for a specific group in need each week of Advent (e.g. refugees, immigrants, prisoners, unborn, terminally ill, etc.);
  • Educate yourself on global situations of crisis & hope (e.g. care for the environment);
  • Perform one corporal work of mercy (Mt 25) per week (e.g. feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.);
  • Choose a new cause or charity to donate to, learn from, and pray for regularly;
  • Commit to a regular volunteer opportunity each week (e.g. through Catholic Charities, a local service/justice organization, etc.);
  • Eat one simple meal a week in solidarity with those who eat simply every day (e.g. beans & rice; meatless meal);
  • Before meals, pray for those who go without adequate nourishment and all who labored to make your meal possible; and
  • “Purge” your belongings and give them to an organization that serves those in need.

Caring for creation

Pope Francis does not mince words when he talks about the effects of humanity’s actions on the created world:

The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth . . . These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary; but our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. (LS §§21, 22)

Advent is a time to remember God’s own breaking into the created world through the person of Jesus. This world which God walked is the very same one we take for granted, plunder, and scavenge bare, turning it into “an immense pile of filth.” As God promises to level mountains and fill valleys (see Is 40:4; Lk 3:5; last Sunday’s readings), we continue to use creation for our own end. We turn valleys into landfills—homes for our refuse and rubbish—and level mountains through mountain-top removal, skimming and mining them to fuel the convenient “throwaway culture” we have created. Though he paints what may seem like a bleak picture of the future of creation, Pope Francis offers great hope in his encyclical. The Pope suggests concrete habits (LS §211) for us to begin to cultivate a new respect for our creation, currently groaning in travail. Here are some of his suggestions and a few others to consider adopting in the weeks to come:

  • Pray specifically for the earth and all of creation, especially those who are exploited;
  • Separate refuse you create (recycle, compost, and trash/landfill) and decrease trash production;
  • Save energy: turn off lights when you are not in the room;
  • Use less heat (even if you can afford more) and wear warmer clothes ;
  • Reduce water consumption (e.g. when showering, brushing teeth, washing dishes, etc.);
  • Go car-less! Bike, walk, or take public transportation whenever possible; carpool to work or outings with friends;
  • Compost kitchen produce scraps to fertilize the soil; plant something (even if indoors);
  • Cook/order only what can be reasonably consumed and learn where your food comes from (eat local!);
  • Educate yourself in environmental issues and responsibility;
  • Avoid the use of plastic, paper, and other disposable goods (plan ahead by bringing reusable options, e.g. coffee mug, silverware, reusable towels, etc.); and
  • Stay current on what Pope Francis is doing, saying, and writing.

As we seek to prepare a home for Christ in our hearts this Advent, we are also called to heal the physical home which God entrusts to us, and which Christ entered through his Incarnation. By reflecting on our relationship with God, others, and creation in light of Laudato Si’, we continue to learn what a life of perfect praise in union with all creatures will look like. And we pray for this ultimate union with the words Pope Francis intended for us to share “with all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator” (“A Prayer for Our Earth,” LS §246):

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.


What We’re Reading: Immaculate Conception, Jubilee Year, and Contemplating Mercy

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

 Contact Author


1) Confused about yesterday’s celebration of the Immaculate Conception? Notre Dame doctoral candidate Kate Mahon addresses three of the most common misconceptions people have of the feast over at Daily Theology:

Mary’s Immaculate Conception did not mean that Mary didn’t need to be saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection; Mary’s Immaculate Conception is, in fact, the first fruit of Christ’s saving work. Her conception is a foretaste of God’s transformation of all of creation: she was born anew, free from sin, through the saving power of Jesus Christ, in a prophetic prefiguring of baptism, in which we are all created anew in Christ’s death and resurrection as God’s sons and daughters.

2) Kerry Weber in the Washington Post on what to expect in the Year of Mercy:

In announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reminded us that God makes love “visible and tangible.” Love, he reminded us, “indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living. The mercy of God is his loving concern for each one of us.” Through the year of mercy, Pope Francis has challenged each of us to consider how our own concrete actions might help make God’s mercy more evident in our world today.

3) And Leonard DeLorenzo writes in Our Sunday Visitor with three steps to a better understanding of mercy:

Therefore, I would like to propose three practices for taking up the challenge of contemplating divine mercy. These three practices are at once simple and demanding; in full, they affect our language, our silence and our manners of accompaniment. By praying the psalms, adoring the Blessed Sacrament and engaging in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we may come to contemplate more deeply what it means to be “merciful like the Father.”

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonyoleck

Hidden Annunciations

Renee RodenRenée Roden, ND ’14

Teacher and Playwright, New York City


And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. [Mary], having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of greeting this should be. (Luke 1:28-29)

The Annunciation is a moment in history that is frequently depicted in Western art. And for good reason, given that the moment when the eternal God took up form as a human inside the womb of the Virgin Mary is certainly a contender for the title of Most Important Moment in all of Creation. Throughout the millennia since that moment, myriad artists have captured the moment in paint and pen—from ancient iconographers to pre-Raphaelites. Take, for example, this famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci. The painting’s composition is fairly typical an image of the Annunciation: Mary sits in a landscape that combines both elements of a private bedchamber and a garden landscape, to emphasize the private and intimate moment of conception occurring. She is a “garden enclosed” (Song of Songs, 4:12) In her chambers, the Virgin is pondering the Scriptures—the Word of God—and lo and behold Gabriel appears, and announces the Word of God will take flesh inside of her.UntitledOne of the most captivating images is, in my mind, Botticelli’s mystical and intriguing image of the Annunciation. For in this painting, the Virgin and the angel appear to be in separate spaces. In the Da Vinci painting, Gabriel and Mary exist in a common visual world. But in the Botticelli painting, a strong column cuts the picture in half, demarcating a clear, sharp divide between the world of the angel and the world of the virgin. Although Mary humbly inclines her body in response to the words that Gabriel speaks, indicating he has had some effect on her, she does not seem to see him. There is a distance between the two figures that implies a divide between their two planes of reality. In this moment Botticelli has captured the divide between the supernatural and the natural that the Incarnation bridges.

This painting suggests to me that perhaps the revelation of Gabriel to Mary was, like many revelations of the divine in our lives, not as clear as we imagine it to be. As we ponder this great mystery from our privileged position of the future, we see the story clearly. Oh, of course, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, must, in this moment clearly understand and accept God’s will for her life, because she was conceived without the stain of original sin, and thus she is fully open to God’s will, etc., etc. The story is quite clear to us.

But Mary, even in this moment of divine revelation, during which she learns of her role as the Mother of God, does not have a full understanding of what is occurring. Gabriel greets her with the words: “hail, full of grace” and Mary, the Evangelist tells us, is troubled. She does not understand what this greeting means.

Untitled 2When Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she identified herself in a manner that was also troubling for Bernadette’s contemporaries. She identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. Not just as “one immaculately conceived,” but as “The Immaculate Conception.” St. Maximilian Kolbe dedicated his life to understanding this mystery, and teasing out the mystery of who Mary Immaculate is, and why she identifies herself as THE Immaculate Conception. Maximilian begins with attempting to understand the relationship between Mary, the Mother of God, and with the Holy Spirit, her spouse and the Third Person of the Trinity.

In the reflections he wrote in the hours before he was arrested by the Gestapo, on the night of February 17, 1941, Maximilian Kolbe wrote that the Holy Spirit is “The flowering of the love of the Father and the Son.” Thus, “the Holy Spirit is, therefore, the “uncreated, eternal conception,” the prototype of all the conceptions that multiply life throughout the whole universe. The Father begets; the Son is begotten; the Spirit is the “conception” that springs from their love.”

Maximilian Kolbe describes the Holy Spirit as the “uncreated Immaculate Conception,” the eternally conceived in the love between the Father and the Son. And Mary, who was so closely united to God, “most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, was the Immaculata, who never contracted the slightest stain of sin, who never departed in the least from God’s will. United to the Holy Spirit as his spouse, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature. Thus, Mary is the created Immaculate Conception.

St. Maximilian goes on:

“In the Holy Spirit’s union with Mary we observe more than the love of two beings; in one there is all the love of the Blessed Trinity; in the other, all of creation’s love. So it is that in this union heaven and earth are joined; all of heaven with all the earth, the totality of eternal love with the totality of created love. It is truly the summit of love.”

The title of Immaculate Conception is truly magnificent. Mary has been given the gift of belonging to the fundamental reality of the Trinity in a very intimate way. Thus, the Immaculate Conception, meaning Mary’s intimate union with the Trinity, becomes an image for us of how deeply God loves us, and how keenly He thirsts for our union with Him. He desires each human being to be brought into the deep union of the trinity, with no spot of original sin, no obstacle to mar the perfect gift of love between Creature and Creator.

Mary’s revelation at Lourdes is truly astounding: for Mary reveals herself using a name for herself that she would never have been able to fathom during her earthly life. This humble handmaiden of the Lord did not know who she truly was, during her life here on earth. Mary of Nazareth could not have known she was the Immaculata, for the accomplishment of the mission of the Immaculate Conception was the death and Resurrection of her Son. Mary’s own purpose on earth would never be fully clear to her unless viewed through the lens of the Paschal Mystery.

Certainly, Mary knew something of the mission God had given to her: to be the mother of Jesus, who she knew was the Son of God, the one who would redeem Israel. But she did not know the depth of her own vocation. When we see Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we see her as an image of how God wishes we all could be: united so intimately with Him, with no blot of sin to mar our union with Him. Mary knew nothing of this. She did not know that, as the Immaculate Conception, she would become a model of discipleship, the pinnacle of all creation, a sign for all time of how God wishes for each of us to be united to Him.

Although Mary proclaims in her Magnificat that from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1: 48-49) she could not have fully understood her own importance, nor how true that statement would be. For the historical Mary of Nazareth could not see herself with the clarity with which we see her today. The full truth of her own Magnificat would remain hidden from her her entire life on earth.

For Mary would never know this name for herself–the Immaculate Conception–until she had entered into the beatific vision of heaven. The hiddenness of her own vocation reiterates the great beauty of this sign of God’s love for us all. It causes me to wonder what sort of graces we all have been blessed with, that we will never fully understand until we have finished our pilgrimage and are finally home with God.

This brings to mind the fifth of the glorious mysteries of the Rosary: Mary is crowned queen of heaven and earth. Unlike the other mysteries, this mystery of the rosary is not in Scriptures, or apocryphal sources (such as the narrative attributed to St. John, that narrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin), But perhaps it deserves its place in the mysteries of the rosary, as a marker of the “most highly favored one,” the one who is full of grace, finally coming fully into her own, finally understanding that mysterious greeting of the angel so long ago. What a surprise it must have been to Mary, the woman who identified herself solely as the handmaid of the Lord, to learn how highly exalted her place was in heaven.

Perhaps we will not be able to fully understand ourselves this side of heaven. What marvels God is working in us and through us now, that we will never be able to see until we have finally fully entered into heavenly union with God. In the words of St. Paul:“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, is what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2,9).

What We’re Reading: Pope Francis, forgiveness, and Misericordiae Vultus

Anthony OleckAnthony Oleck

ND ’14, MTS ’16 (History of Christianity)

Managing Editor

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1) Jonathan Lewis on “the danger of Pope Francis“:

Sitting again in a more comfortable middle seat at a dinner party with friends a few days later, as the conversation turned to Pope Francis and the universal praise of his words and example, it finally struck me why I should have felt even more uncomfortable in the middle seat on the plane and why Pope Francis might be the most dangerous person in the world: we agree with him.

2) Aleteia offers a reflection from Father Jacques Mourad on his time in the ISIS prison he was recently released from:

“From then on, my prayer, my days took on a meaning, says the Syrian priest. How can I explain? I felt that through him, it was the Lord who sent me these words. That moment was a great comfort to me. Through prayer, I was able to regain my peace, said the priest. It was May, the month of Mary. We began to recite the rosary, which I did not pray much before. My relationship with the Virgin was renewed by it. St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer ‘Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you …’ also sustained me. One night I made up a melody for it which I started to hum. Charles de Foucauld’s prayer helped me to abandon myself into the hands of the Lord, well aware that I had no choice. For I had every indication that either I converted to Islam, or I would be decapitated.”

3) Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction inaugurating the Year of Mercy:

We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness.

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonyoleck

On the Road Again

s200_david.lincicumDavid Lincicum, D.Phil.

Associate Professor, New Testament Studies

University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Who doesn’t love a good road trip?

From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, American literature is criss-crossed with road trips, journeys of transformation and discovery (many of them mapped if you’d like to follow along). And the very title of this post is probably enough to embed Willie Nelson’s earworm in your head for the next several weeks.

For the earliest Christians the road was something like a master metaphor. They inherited the scriptural habit of referring to their ethical conduct as a ‘way’ or ‘path’, they designated Jesus as the ‘road’ to God (John 14:6), and were even called ‘the road’ or ‘the way’ before they became designated ‘Christians’ (see Acts 9:2; 11:26). In this sense, we would do well occasionally to translate hodos with ‘road’ rather than the more abstract ‘way’, to remind ourselves of the concreteness of the image.

But why did the designation come to have such prominence?

For any nation, institution, or even for individual families, the story of their founding offers an anchor in the past to which they can return for guidance, an Archimedean point or a north star by which to navigate. Israel had multiple founding moments – creation, the election of Abraham, the giving of the Torah – but the deliverance of Israel from her forced slavery to Egypt in the Exodus loomed large among them.

The Passover tradition commemorating the Exodus ensured that the annual remembrance, the anamnetic commemoration of the deliverance, held the event regularly before the eyes of God’s people, and so it became over time a basic paradigm of salvation. When Israel found herself oppressed and in politically disadvantageous circumstances, she could remember God’s prior act of rescue from Egypt and ask for a repetition, an Exodus 2.0.The appeal for a sequel to the Exodus runs throughout the Psalms, but also enlivens the section of prophecy we have come to call deutero-Isaiah. In a turning point – beautifully captured in the opening movement of Handel’s Messiah – God instructs the prophet to comfort Israel after her long punishment in the Babylonian exile. Israel has been far from her homeland in a forced migration, but the prophet announces to the migrants a return: ‘in the wilderness, prepare a road for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’. The refugees needed a way to cross the foreboding desert to return westward to their ancestral land, and the prophet announces another exodus through another wilderness as the way to get there. After all, if God had done it once, he could certainly be asked for a repeat performance.

Flash forward over half a millennium, and the Gospel of Mark re-uses Isaiah’s words in its prologue: as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’”. Close scrutiny reveals that the text is actually a conflated citation of Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah, but the mixed citation is ascribed to Isaiah as a means of signaling the controlling framework. Now, however, it isn’t the highway that is built in the wilderness, but rather the messenger who makes his proclamation there as a vox clamantis in deserto.

But what sort of road does Mark envisage? If he announces the construction of an Isaianic New Exodus highway, where does it go? The people of God are already in the land, and the idea of movement is initially puzzling.

Isaiah had announced the advent of YHWH, but in Mark’s telling – with a bit of help from the Greek translation of the Hebrew original – it is the kyrios, the Lord who comes: Jesus now acting in YHWH’s anticipated place. But rather than arrive with guns blazing, to unseat the Romans and reinstate the kingdom of God with force, with power, as the greatest country on the face of the earth, he comes in self-dispossession. And as Mark’s Gospel proceeds, we begin to notice that Jesus summons not soldiers and politicians, but a few fishermen and other workers to join him on the road.

Mark’s Gospel is thus a sort of road trip. Something is always happening euthus, immediately. Jesus seems to rush breathlessly from one healing or conflict to the next, and for the first half of his story the movements almost seem erratic (just try to work out the sea crossings in Mark!). But ‘on the road’, Jesus poses to the disciples a question about his identity (8:27), and from that time onward – even though his true identity is first grasped only haltingly, and never really fully until the cross – Jesus walks a single path, with firm intention: to make his way to Jerusalem.

The reader only slowly realizes, with dawning horror, that God’s highway, to which Isaiah pointed, the path out of the wilderness and to the promised land, is a death march. Jesus presses relentlessly on, progressively alienated from those around him, even finally from God, until he ascends the royal road to the ironic enthronement of the cross.

Emmaus iconWhat might have seemed to the casual observer to be merely another senseless death, another body crushed by the turning wheel of an unsteady history, now appears, to the eyes of faith, as the coming of God: not as one might have deduced it by reflecting abstractly on the most fitting way for a god to arrive, but by viewing the crucifixion from the road, following on behind Jesus as a disciple called to walk after the master.

In Advent, we reflect on the coming of Jesus in helplessness to the world and look forward to his coming again to set the world to rights. And we walk, as a pilgrim people, on the long road that stretches between those two advents. The path is sometimes an ambiguous one, as the apostle Paul knew all too well. He could describe it as a triumphal procession in which it is unclear whether we are the victors parading in triumph or the vanquished prisoners marching toward death (2 Cor. 2:14–16).

Jesus offers, now as then, a place behind him as followers on the path he broke. But the disciple is not above the master. The road of the new exodus is not a scenic drive that skirts the dodgy parts of town in favor of the countryside. But it leads after Jesus, through death and onward, into the hope of a resurrected life.