In 96 AD, Pope St. Clement I (who was ordained by St. Peter and thought by some early Christians to have been mentioned by name in Philippians 4:3) wrote to the Corinthians, who were always falling into fresh doctrinal or moral crises, and said: “Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”
This early reference to Apostolic succession, made even clearer by Christians in the second century, makes the words of my archbishop, Archbishop John Nienstedt, all the more powerful in my heart. As a direct successor of one of the Apostles, he has particularly been charged with the preaching, the leading, and the giving of God’s spiritual gifts to Christians in the Twin Cities and in way to the state as a whole.
Below is from an interview with the archbishop about Lent, culture, evangelization, and how Christians must make continuing conversion to the Lord a part of their daily lives. What’s more, he also describes what I do as the Director of my parish’s RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) Program. So if you’d also like to learn a little bit of what (part of) my job is like, read on! Oh, did I mention the Archbishiop rocks?
From the Archbishop:
When I first came to the Archdiocese [of St. Paul-Minneapolis], people wanted to know what my agenda was. I was asked that question so many times that I said, “Do you know what the Catechism of the Catholic Church looks like?” Well, bring that out, and that’s my agenda.” Now obviously there are priorities in that agenda. The Catechism is over 600 pages long and you’re not going to be able to realize every aspect of that this week, or even this year, or even in one tenure as an archbishop. I believe that we must turn to the Church and ask, what does the Church want [of us during Lent]?
I think the name itself gives us an indication. Lent derives from the word for springtime. I think of the late, beloved Pope John Paul II, who called for a new springtime in the Church. A new springtime of grace, and new springtime of evangelization, a new springtime of energy and a passion for preaching and living the teaching of Christ.
I would like to see Lent be looked upon not as a heavy burden when we have to give up something or be penitential. We do, but we should be both positive and negative in our Lenten resolutions. There should be something that I decide to do over and above what I normally do, and there should be things that I am willing to give up to make sacrifices. I must call upon the whole of myself – we are body and soul – and the body has to be denied certain things in order for the soul to center itself more singularly on the Lord and His presence.
I have said before that Lent is all about the Easter Vigil [the Mass the evening before Easter Sunday] – about waking with our catechumens [ancient title for those to be baptized] and our candidates [those baptized but not members of the Catholic Church], many of whom are responding to the Lord for the first time through the Church. Maybe it’s not the first time for the candidates, but certainly the catechumens, who have not been baptized, are walking towards that wonderful celebration of Baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion. It seems to me that that has to take a central place in our understanding of what Lent is about. We walk with these people who are so eager to receive the Lord in His sacramental presence, to receive Him anew in His word and through the teachings of the Catholic Church.
For me, as a priest, one of the greatest joys I had was teaching and walking with both catechumens and candidates through the RCIA process. That process, you know, begins with a period of evangelization, in which they hear the word of God and respond to it. We enter into the actual ritual of the catechumenate, and then there’s a period of purification and enlightenment, and through that we move to the Easter Vigil, and through the Easter Vigil into the period of mystagogia, putting this into practice. All of that is terribly exciting. Our hope turns to those people who are receiving the Lord for the first time.
But again, the whole idea is that I’m baptized once, yes, but I continue to grow in my relationship with Jesus Christ. I continue to grow in my participation in the Church. I continue to reach out to those who are in need, extending myself in the corporal works of mercy. All of us need to be re-energized and accept that ongoing conversion of my heart, my mind, and my attitudes in life.
This is particularly important in the times in which we are living. We live in a very materialistic society. We live in a very individualistic society. We live in a hedonistic society, where sex is everywhere, and it so often is denigrated from what its sacral purposes are: top bring spouses into union with one another and to give rise to the procreation of children. All of us are affected b these “ism,” if you will. Lent is a particular time to stand back and to renew the grace of our Baptism, the grace of our Confirmation, the grace of every Eucharist we receive.
Lent is our universal retreat. I like to look upon Lent as the time when all Catholics and all Christians of good will go on retreat. Retreat is to take a look at not only the call that I have, but how I’m living that call. So, obviously, the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is so important in that particular context, because I need to recognize sin. Part of the problem we have in our Church and our world today is that all these evil things are going on – terrorism, rape, sexual abuse – and nobody sees it as sin. They are grave evils, but no one takes it personally that this is really sinful activity. It’s destructive of the human person. It’s destructive of human society.
More than ever, I think, in this particular time in which we live, Lent is an important time for us to focus on what it is the Lord is calling us to be.