Bishop O'Connell visits St. Jerome School, West Long Branch, during Catholic Schools Week 2020.
Bishop O'Connell visits St. Jerome School, West Long Branch, during Catholic Schools Week 2020.

With the Christmas season behind us, the month of January is a busy time both liturgically and pastorally as it presents unique opportunities for prayer within the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Trenton.

The website aleteia.org notes that the January liturgical calendar of saints commemorates several heroes of our faith whose lives offer examples for our imitation, veneration and intercession during this month, some already passed and some still to be celebrated: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the American Catholic school system (January 4); St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia (January 5); St. Andre Bessette, Canadian priest and miracle worker (January 6); St. Anthony of Egypt, monk and Desert Father (January 17); St. Agnes of Rome, virgin and martyr (January 21); St. Paul the Apostle (January 25); St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church (January 28); St. John Bosco, priest and educator (January 31).

In addition, the current month highlights notable occasions worthy of our prayerful attention.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: January 18-25, 2022

Established in 1908, the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” has been set aside for Roman Catholics and other Christians around the world to take part in an octave of prayer for visible Christian unity.  By annually observing this week, Christians move toward the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer at the Last Supper "that they all may be one” (John 17:21).

Popes in the 19th century encouraged Roman Catholics to pray for Christian unity.  Pope Leo XIII, in particular, sought to establish this practice as an enduring feature in the Catholic Church’s life of prayer.  Pope St. Pius X and Pope Benedict XV promoted prayer for Christian unity throughout the universal Catholic Church.

As an annual effort to foster ecumenism, the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” is an invitation to all Christians to unite in prayer for one another as they attempt to follow the Lord Jesus during the week of January 18 – 25.  Today, it is a collaborative project of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches.  This year’s theme was chosen by the Middle East Council of Churches: “We have seen the star in the East and we came to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

(Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute: A Ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement)

“God of every nation, creator of every human life, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, has been made manifest in human history by becoming one of us and one with us. Born in a stable, born in homelessness, he is our King and Lord. The Magi bore witness to the Light of hope coming into the world as they faithfully followed the star, coming from foreign lands in the East, until arriving in Bethlehem of Judea.

The solidarity of God with created humanity in this gift of Epiphany calls us to a life of solidarity with the homeless, the refugee, the weakest and the rejected. We are all human beings worthy of redemption and prepared by that redeeming love to the glory of your Kingdom. Help us, O gracious Lord, to do this in unity and peace.

As we who bear the name of Christian, from the days of the church at Antioch, hold a special place in our hearts for the ancient Christian communities in the land we call holy, remind us to continually respond to our baptismal promises to you, who said through your Spirit at the Jordan, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 2:2).

Annual March for Life: January 20-21, 2022

In response to the tragic 1973 decision of the United States Supreme Court in “Roe v. Wade,” legalizing abortion throughout the nation, a rally was created in Washington, DC, on January 22, 1974, to protest the Court’s decision in hopes that it would be immediately reversed and to draw the country’s attention to the evil of abortion. Texas pro-life activist, lawyer and Catholic convert Nellie Gray established this first rally and, with the support of Catholic and other religious organizations throughout the United States, turned it into an annual “March” on the nation’s capital, attended by many, many thousands of protestors from all over the country. 

Each year, on the eve of the March, Mass is celebrated at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, drawing a beyond-capacity congregation of the nation’s bishops, clergy, religious and Catholic faithful from their dioceses, including the Diocese of Trenton. The Basilica Mass is televised each year. Other Masses are celebrated throughout Washington and Arlington, Virginia the following morning prior to the March on the Washington Mall. A large contingent from the Diocese of Trenton and its parishes, schools and organizations has regularly participated in the March.

The COVID pandemic as well as the January 6 protest at the United States Capitol building created security concerns in 2021 that resulted in the 2021 annual March becoming largely a virtual event.  The “in-person” March will resume this year.  For those who cannot attend the March, its activities are broadcast on Catholic television networks. Many parishes in the Diocese of Trenton sponsor Masses in the morning of the March prior to the departure of participants for Washington and for those who cannot make the trip.

The Holy See has granted a plenary indulgence, described elsewhere on the Diocesan websites, for those who physically attend the March as well as for those unable to participate for a legitimate reason.

Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children: January 22, 2022

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops reminds us that the over 60 million abortions since the 1973 decision of “Roe v. Wade” and subsequent pro-abortion legislation enacted in many states reflect with heartbreaking magnitude what Pope Francis means by a “throwaway culture.” However, we have great trust in God’s providence. We are reminded time and again in Scripture to seek the Lord’s help, and as people of faith, we believe that our prayers are heard.

The Roman Missal we use in our Church designates January 22 as a particular day of prayer and penance, called the "Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children.”  “In all the Dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life and of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373).

Catholics are called to observe this day through the penitential practices of prayer, fasting and giving alms in an appropriate manner.  Since January 22 falls on Saturday this year, I urge all parishes in the Diocese of Trenton to observe this “Day of Prayer” at Mass and other public prayers in our churches.

Recall the words of Pope St. John Paul II’s March 25, 1995 encyclical letter “The Gospel of Life”:

“A great prayer for life is urgently needed, a prayer which will rise up throughout the world. Through special initiatives and in daily prayer, may an impassioned plea rise to God, the Creator and lover of life, from every Christian community, from every group and association, from every family and from the heart of every believer” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 100).

As he so often did in his messages, Pope St. John Paul II concluded this encyclical prayerfully seeking the intercession of Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. Let us join together in prayer:

“O Mary, bright dawn of the new world, Mother of the living, to you do we entrust the cause of life. Look down, O Mother, upon the vast numbers of babies not allowed to be born, of the poor whose lives are made difficult, of men and women who are victims of brutal violence, of the elderly and the sick killed by indifference or out of misguided mercy.

Grant that all who believe in your Son may proclaim the Gospel of life with honesty and love to the people of our time. Obtain for them the grace to accept that Gospel as a gift ever new, the joy of celebrating it with gratitude throughout their lives and the courage to bear witness to it resolutely, in order to build, together with all people of good will, the civilization of truth and love, to the praise and glory of God, the Creator and lover of life. Amen.”

Word of God Sunday (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time): January 23, 2022

On September 30, 2019, the Feast of St. Jerome, 4th century translator of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Bible into Latin, Pope Francis published an apostolic letter, Aperuit illis (“He opened to them”) on the 1600th anniversary of St. Jerome’s death, in which he established the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as the “Sunday of the Word of God.”

Recalling the importance given by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to the rediscovery of the Sacred Scripture for the life of the Church, Pope Francis instituted this special Sunday “to be devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the Word of God.”  He suggested that parishes throughout the world give solemnity to the Bible itself “to focus the attention of the assembly on the normative value of God’s Word” by enthroning it in a visible way in parish churches, this year on Sunday, January 23, 2022. 

The Holy Father called upon pastors and priests to use their homilies to demonstrate “the importance of learning how to read, appreciate and pray daily with Sacred Scripture.”  In this way, he explained, the faithful will come “to recognize themselves in its words” and see the Bible as “the book of the Lord’s people who, in listening to it” will “move from dispersion and division toward unity.” Through the promptings of the Holy Spirit inspiring us in the sacred text and through the guidance of effective homilies drawn from it, the faithful will “be nourished by it, in order to acknowledge and live fully our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters.”  The Church’s entire life of prayer and the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, will take on even greater meaning, informed and influenced as they must be by the Word of God.

Catholic Schools Week: January 30-February 5, 2022

“Catholic Schools Week” is the annual celebration of Catholic education in the United States.  The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) notes that the purpose of the week is to help Catholic Schools connect with students, parents and families, parishioners, educators, alumni, benefactors and other community members in dioceses throughout the country.  Here in the Diocese of Trenton, we frequently express our conviction that “Catholic Schools Have It All:” a first-rate educational experience second to none, imparted by professional dedicated administrators, teachers and staff, in an environment that is faith-based and “truly Catholic.” Catholic schools would not be possible without the confident sacrifices made by parents and those who support our Catholic schools.

Established by NCEA in 1974, Catholic Schools Week takes place annually from the last Sunday in January and throughout the remaining week.  This year’s theme is “Catholic Schools: Faith. Excellence. Service.” Promoting the nation’s Catholic schools for this week is one way the Church’s dioceses in our country highlight the contributions Catholic education makes to the Church, society at large and the communities where our Catholic schools are a vital part.