This Tuesday, August 15th, we observe the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is a mouthful, and, you guessed it, a holy day of obligation. In addition to Sundays, the Church assigns several feasts throughout the year as days when, “the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” These include Christmas, All Saints, etc., and the local conference of bishops (for us the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) are allowed to amend the list as they see best.
I think this idea of “obligation” doesn’t go over real well with many folks in 2017. We don’t like being told what to do, and, in many cases, for good reason. Our culture values self-determination, and we teach our kids they can be anything they want to be, and, in some cases, do whatever they want to do (as my daughter once told me when I asked her to make her bed, she could not because she needed to “follow her heart”… thank you Disney! I’m happy to report……….she quickly had a change of heart). Unfortunately, this not what Jesus taught, not what the Church teaches, and isn’t reality. Jesus shows us that the path to salvation is putting others’ needs before our own. This doesn’t mean that our own desires, especially those things that really excite us and motivate us, are bad or necessarily lead us astray. But they need to be processed in the context of a greater story that is not just ours, but of all of God’s creation, especially his beloved people.
The Latin root of “obligation” literally means a “binding”. So, in some sense, when we are obliged to do something, such as go to Mass on a particular day, or help a stranger in need that God has placed before us, or care for a family member who is ill, we are binding our will, our desires, our plans, with God’s. And that is really what it means to become holy. The Church gives us this structure of the Liturgical Year exactly for this purpose! So we might bind ourselves to God, his will, and his call to us. It is our chance to practice, to apprentice, at the feet of the master himself, Jesus Christ.
A former pastor used to call them “holy days of opportunity” which I first thought was just a cute way to persuade folks to come to Mass. But he was right! It is an opportunity when we are lost to bind ourselves to God, to discern God’s call, to pray and worship together, and on this particular feast, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, in a special way, to ask for the intercession of the Mother of God.
Which brings us to the Rosary. An hour before the 7pm Mass on Tuesday, everyone is invited to a Rosary procession, which will begin in the Chapel, and the move around the campus, including to the Columbarium, and eventually ending in the Church.
The Rosary is a devotional prayer, which needs to be understood apart from the official, universal liturgical prayer of the Church, such as the Mass, of which we are obliged to participate. Devotions are prayers and practices that have arisen among the faithful that can be observed privately, within the family, or within a particular community. The Rosary is probably the most widely practiced devotion, as it has been prayed by the faithful for many centuries, in uncountable languages all over the world.
It has a reputation for being old fashioned, but I believe it is increasingly relevant in a culture in which change is the only constant. A prayer such as the Rosary that invites one to focus on particular truths of the faith by repeating familiar prayers, in a simple structure, ideally with the aid of Rosary beads which are real and tactile, has true power. I’m particularly compelled by Gretchen Crowe’s recent book, “Why the Rosary, Why Now” (not at all biased by the fact that Gretchen was a fellow student at Chapel Hill and a wonderful alto in our Newman Center choir!). She uses the writings of many popes, saints, and other holy people to illustrate the relevance of the Rosary prayer in contemporary times. In the first chapter, she argues the importance of the Rosary in breaking through the noise by sharing a 1973 address by Cardinal Albino Luciani, soon to become, Pope John Paul I, “Is the Rosary Outdated?” He says, “Is the Rosary a repetitious prayer? Father De Foucauld used to say, ‘Love is expressed in few words, always the same, and constantly repeated.‘” Indeed, in our present times when we are made anxious by the never-ending changes in direction, back and forth, up and down, we need some anchors for our prayer life. Perhaps the Rosary is just the answer for you and your family. Even if you’ve never prayed it before, I hope you will give it a try this Tuesday evening!
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– Jeff Rice, Pastoral Associate of Liturgy & Music