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Simplicity is always an amazing, beautiful and wonderful thing

Most Rev. Paul J. Swain - Bishop of Sioux Falls
by Bishop Paul J. Swain - 12/2/2011
Having traveled for several weeks on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Rome, waiting in lines at half a dozen airports, enduring countless security checks in four countries, and battling fatigue as time zones kept changing, it is great to be back home. Having the privilege of celebrating Mass in beautiful and historic churches in the Holy Land and Rome, as well as with my brother bishops at our fall meeting in Baltimore, what a joy it is to do so in our Cathedral of St. Joseph and the parishes of our diocese.

A word that kept coming to mind during these travels was “simplicity”. While there rightly have been churches and chapels built at the sites where Jesus was born, taught, healed, suffered, died, was buried and rose, and where the Apostles and Popes have continued his ministry in this time of the Church, there is a simplicity about it all that can take the breath away.

At the Church of the Annunciation there is a marked spot where the angel appeared to Mary and she responded let it be done to me as God wills. At the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born there is cave which requires bending to enter and which only a few can be in at a time. At the Church of the Beatitudes there is the hill on which people gathered and miracles happened with a splendid view of the Sea of Galilee. At the Church at Gethsemane there is a slab of stone on which Our Lord wept over Jerusalem. At the Church of the Holy Sepluchre there is a bit of Calvary hill where our Lord was crucified and a small tomb from which he rose. In the awesome Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome there are the simple tombs of St. Peter and Blessed John Paul II. The list could go on.

I noted to the pilgrims who journeyed with me that the sites we visited are holy because Our Lord made them holy. He used the simple sites of God’s creation and by his presence raised them up to help us raise our sight to him. Allow me to share three among many special moments.

On a beautiful day we were on a boat traversing the Sea of Galilee when we stopped, read Scripture and then sat in silent reflection gazing around at the countryside where Jesus walked, taught, healed and prayed. With awe and humility we felt the presence of the Lord there.

At the Church of St. Peter-in-Gallicantu (the cock’s crow), the site of the palace of the High Priest Caiaphas, there is a deep cistern or cellar where Jesus is said to have been imprisoned. Its starkness and high walls scream no escape. It is a part of his suffering during his Passion that I had not reflected on before. Our group climbed down into the dark and intimidating shell, stood elbow to elbow, read Scripture, sang solemnly “Were you there when they crucified our Lord” and stood in silent reflection. With awe and humility, we felt the presence of the Lord there.

The crowds were large wherever we went so it was not always possible to stop and pray quietly. Father Justin Wachs suggested that if we went to the Holy Selpuchre early in the morning before the tours began we might be able to do so. Many of us did arriving shortly after 4 a.m. It was one of the most overwhelming hours of prayer I have ever experienced, sitting within reach of the place of crucifixion with the empty tomb nearby. With awe and humility we felt the presence of the Lord there.

The sites are holy because Jesus made them so. He desires for us to grow in holiness as well. Yet we can get so caught up in the complexity of daily life and the demands of the secular celebration of Christmas that our focus is on the lesser things. The season of Advent is a call to simplicity. We put away the Gloria and reflect for a few days on the fact that our Lord came into time at Christmas for a purpose, that he will come again as judge at a time we know not, and that he remains with us as we seek to follow him through the Church he instituted. If we use these days of preparation well and simplify our lives, the true meaning of Christmas will be revealed once again: God the Father loved and loves us so much that he gave his only begotten son that we might have life and have it to the full.

A post note: Another highlight from our journey was to have the privilege to attend the Wednesday audience with the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. When the presence of pilgrims from the Diocese of Sioux Falls was announced a loud cheer was heard, from us of course. At audiences we bishops are invited to one by one be greeted by the Holy Father. It is always a challenge to decide what to say to him in the few seconds allowed. I said simply, “Holy Father, five years ago you appointed me Bishop of Sioux Falls. Thank you.” He smiled and said, “five years” as if to say, “how time flies.” I feel the same way. Thank you for your support, patience and forgiveness over these years. Give Praise to the Lord.