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Stay strong in fidelity to vocation

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

May our Lord and Savior bless you all most abundantly! It seems that this summer has just flown past, and August is here already. Your children and grandchildren are about to head back to school. Our parishes will soon begin again religious education and sacramental preparation programs. We are, I hope, excited by these renewed challenges and opportunities to teach the Faith, to form hearts and minds for Christ by word and example, and to deepen our own love for the Church. And, since what is taught by our schools and parishes can only build on what is learned at home, please continue to teach your own children and grandchildren the importance of Sunday Mass, frequent Confession, and daily prayer.

Vocation of priesthood

I was very happy this past week to be able to spend three days with our current seminarians, gathered at the Vianney House near Milford to prepare for their return to seminary this year. I particularly want to thank all the priests who also spent time with us, and the Serra Club members for their generous hospitality. I am quite touched by the faith and generosity of our seminarians, willing to offer their whole lives to God in service to Him and to you.

Christ is our eternal High Priest, and the vocation to priesthood is such a special call. As priests, we have the extraordinary privilege to be His chosen instruments to continue to offer the great, saving sacrifice of the Cross on the altar. As we surrender entirely to Him, His words resound through us: “This is my Body,” and “I absolve you of your sins.” And at heart, every priest wants nothing more than that his joy in saying and hearing these words be shared by all. Please continue to pray for all our seminarians, and for those whom God will call in the future, that their discernment may be clear and firm, and that they may be whole-hearted in the total gift of themselves to Jesus Christ.

Committed to the faith

All vocations, of course, include a total gift of self, in some way. Alongside the priesthood, the vocations to married life, religious life of all kinds, and the permanent diaconate each involves a similar whole-hearted and life-long gift of self. We’ve been blessed in this diocese with so many strong and exemplary vocations in all these areas. But we also know that each of these vocations is being attacked. Fidelity and commitment are not prized by our shallow materialist culture. The whole-hearted are scorned as unsophisticated. It is somehow seen as a kind of arrogance to be more generous than selfish. Thus the young are tempted to turn aside from God’s call for them, and those who have sworn to live a vocation are tempted to abandon it. In every vocation, to be faithful requires constant struggle against the currents of modern society. In our upcoming Year of Faith, we will try to strengthen our resistance to all that erodes our vocations, and grow in our faith and fidelity.

We have two excellent examples this week of saints who said “Yes” to God and to their vocation, even to the point of a martyr’s death. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (memorial on August 9) was a Carmelite nun, and a convert from Judaism. She was a teacher and philosopher, whose search for truth led her to Christ. She entered Carmel in 1923, and was arrested in 1942 by the Gestapo in reprisal for Dutch Catholic bishops’ refusal to be silent about Nazi atrocities. She died for her fidelity, in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. In a sense she was a double martyr, for the Old and New Covenants simultaneously. St. Lawrence (Feast on August 10) was a permanent deacon in Rome in the third century, who was renowned for his devotion to the Mass and to the poor. In the imperial persecution of 258, after the Pope had already been martyred, he was arrested (along with many others) and roasted on a gridiron to make him recant the Faith. He is supposed to have told his torturers, “I’m done on this side, you can turn me over now.” These two powerful saints did not want to die for Christ, but to live for Him. But in order to live for Him, they were willing to pay whatever cost the world demanded. This is the kind of commitment we aspire to have in our faith, and in our individual vocation. May their prayers and example strengthen us, and may the grace of Christ make us desire to live only for Him.

HHS mandate

Nor is martyrdom something only from “far away” and “long ago.” We are still very blessed in this country to have the protection of the First Amendment, so that we may all live our vocations with whole-hearted fidelity, every day and in public, without fear of persecution or discrimination. But even this fundamental right has been eroded in my lifetime by the secular drift of our country. Religious ideas, and we who hold fast to them, are increasingly discriminated against today, especially in public education, and in everything public touching on sexuality (including policies and attitudes about divorce, contraception, sterilization, abortion, and so-called same-sex “marriage”). The terrible HHS mandate, which began to go into effect last week, on August 1, is only one more aspect of this slow erosion, albeit a more grievous and blatant one.

If this mandate, and others like it embedded in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which have not yet been defined or taken effect, are not overturned or mitigated, we will see, within a few years, active persecution of the Church in the United States. Religious institutions will be heavily fined, to force their compliance – probably heavily enough to cause many schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions to close. People will lose their jobs, perhaps their careers, for their fidelity. The toleration of our culture for other public displays of religious conviction, already notably less than in the past, will lessen further, and individual rights of conscience will continue to be removed. Support for abortion and same-sex “marriage” will eventually become a litmus test for all public and much private employment, and possibly for acceptance into college – just as support for “multiculturalism” effectively is today.

These predictions are not fanciful expectations; they are merely the logical ramifications of permitting our government to define “religion” in the way the HHS mandate does, and the way the administration does when it talks about “freedom of worship” in place of “freedom of religion.” This definition removes any commitment to charity, to mission, and to evangelization from the practice of religion. Religion becomes something entirely private, practiced only with and for like-minded people, within the walls of church buildings. This definition treats the practice of religion as something fundamentally opposed to the public good – completely the opposite of the thinking of our Founding Fathers.

Hope-filled future

In the face of these possible futures, we must not lose hope. Our Lord promised that He would prevail! No matter how much the Church militant may be persecuted, there is a heavenly victory for those who believe in His Resurrection. But it need not come to this. We believe in the power of prayer, and we know that our fidelity in living our vocations now can soften hearts and win souls for Christ. “Culture” is not some impersonal, monolithic force; we make our culture, by our daily actions and priorities, and we can remake it again in a more Christian way, by growing in faith. This new school year, and this Year of Faith, can be a new beginning for all of us. May our Lord give us the courage and the grace to be conformed to His most Sacred Heart, to remain always in the Church, and to save many souls from the darkness of sin.

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City

 


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