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Keeping focused and hopeful begins with regular prayer

Most Rev. Paul J. Swain - Bishop of Sioux Falls
by Bishop Paul J. Swain - 5/2/2012
Occasionally I am asked how in the midst of all the turmoil in our culture, in our church and in our personal lives I keep focused and hopeful. Regular prayer is essential of course for us all. One very personal response is that I remember Holy Thursday. These excerpts from my Holy Thursday homily this year explain why:

“Holy Thursday has special meaning for me because it was on a Holy Thursday that I became a Catholic, when I professed the faith and received the sacraments of penance, confirmation and Holy Communion. It was one of the most joyful and peaceful days of my life. I recall it each year with gratitude for God’s mercy in turning a wayward and wandering soul back to Him through His Church. That love and mercy is ever present to all who open their hearts to Him.

“Not having been raised in the Church, I like so many converts yearn for what we missed. So we read history, the lives of the saints, the old and new literature that reminds us that the Church is ever ancient and ever new. Someone gave me a copy of an old book published in 1880, even before our diocese was created, entitled, “Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays, Holydays, and Festivals” by Father Leonard Goffine. It contains his instructions in a question and answer format. For Holy Thursday the question is posed: “What remarkable things did Christ perform on this day.”

“This is how he answered: “He ate with His apostles the Paschal lamb which was a type of Himself; it was eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread; they ate it standing with clothes girded, and staff in hand, in remembrance of the hurried escape of the Jews from Egypt. After having eaten the Paschal lamb our Lord with profound humility washed the feet of His apostles, exhorting them to practice the same humility and charity; afterwards, He gave them His Flesh and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine, for spiritual food and drink, thus instituting the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the priesthood; for when He said to the Apostles: do this in commemoration of me, he ordained them priests.

“After this he held his last discourse in which he particularly recommended brotherly love; said that beautiful, high-priestly prayer, in which He implored His Heavenly Father particularly for the unity of His Church. He then went as usual to the Mount Olivet, where he commenced His passion with prayer and resignation to the will of His Father, suffering intense, deathlike agony, which was so great that He sweat blood. Here Judas betrayed Him into the hands of the Jews by a treacherous kiss. They bound Him and led Him to the high-priests, Annas and Caiaphas, where he was sentenced to death by the council and denied by Peter.” (296) A remarkable day indeed.

“While some might quibble with his language, what a succinct summary of our readings, our teachings, our commission and our prayer for this holy night: the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the institution of the holy priesthood, and the commandment to love one another. In his priestly discourse that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper he pleaded for unity among his followers, a prayer we join in tonight.

“As bishop I am often bemused with the issues that come to my desk that divide us. I am chastened by the politicization of moral and social teachings, the seeming envy reflected in competition between parishes, clergy and laity, the narrowness of view that causes withdrawal and therefore absence from the Eucharist because authority’s way is not our way. Most of the divisions in the Church in our day are not of real consequence for the truth cannot change and the Church belongs to Christ, not to any of us who hold positions of responsibility for only a time. We must not let the evil one who seeks the destruction of our souls to use us as his instruments. We must with courage and resilience stand up for truth but always with charity. When I was ordained someone gave me a plaque with the words,’ please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.’ It still applies to me, maybe to you. Jesus’ remarkable things that first holy Thursday ought to give us pause and perspective, solace and hope.

“Above this cathedra (the bishop’s chair in the Cathedral) is a sculptural rendering of the washing of the feet. As the Gospel reading reminds us Jesus told his Apostles: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” I personally asked that this new sculpture be placed here over the bishops chair to remind me, and I hope my successors, that this is not a throne but a privileged place to seek to follow his model, his example, despite my human frailty.

“As I now symbolically wash feet and as we receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, may each of us gratefully pray for unity, for courage, for perspective, for humility. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

When “things” get tough I remember the remarkable things Jesus did on Holy Thursday, including welcoming me home as a Catholic and a disciple. What could be more hopeful?