‘Questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive’

As we seek to address the crisis in the Catholic Church, the pain and confusion of this moment in her history is palpable. I have received many letters, both of support and challenge. I appreciate the lay faithful expressing their feelings and concerns. The pain and suffering goes far and wide. In the midst of this public scandal, many victims of sexual abuse by clergy will have to relive the abhorrent experiences again. As a church, as the body of Christ, it is important to keep them deeply in our prayers. “When one member of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers,” (1 Cor 12:26). Most importantly our prayers are needed at this time.

Published reports about these criminal allegations and the lack of appropriate response by some bishops over many decades are deeply disturbing. The betrayal by church leaders runs deep in the hearts of victims and faithful Catholics, and rightfully so. These horrific actions bring deep sadness and shame to all of us who love the church so dearly, in particular the faithful bishops and priests who seek to live their priesthood with faithfulness and integrity. My sincere apologies and prayers go out to all victims and their families — anyone who has been affected by this scandal.

Where must we go from here? Throughout her history the church has faced many challenges, many crises. Each time she has had to look inwardly at her own weaknesses and flaws. This is nothing new, painful as it is. It has been painful each time it has occurred in the church’s history. It is very painful today for us who are living through this time in her history. This may be the greatest crisis the American Catholic Church has had to face throughout her history.

As I wrote in my last statement, because further questions have arisen in the released testimony from the former Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, making serious allegations about the Archbishop McCarrick abuse case, I join my voice with Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Executive Committee in calling for the Holy See to conduct a thorough investigation that includes granting authority to a lay commission to examine the many questions that surround the case of Archbishop McCarrick.

As Cardinal DiNardo said on August 27, “The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.” A thorough investigation is necessary, one that is credible and done with the utmost transparency. The “truth” must be found. The only way through this is openness and honesty — that lead to effective reforms. Jesus assures us “the truth will set us free.” We shouldn’t fear anything. Truthfulness and transparency will lead to the path of purification and reform.

Perhaps right now, many Catholics may feel compelled to leave the church because of the scandal. Without denying this reality, I urge those who are considering this response to prayerfully reconsider, lest they fall into the desires of the Evil One. A better response is for each of us to renew our commitment to seek holiness in our lives, trusting that Jesus is intimately with us this moment.

Pope Francis, in Gaudete et Exultate, said that “Holiness is the face of the Church.” This “face” is not so pretty at this moment. We must remember that this “holiness” is meant for everyone. We are all called to seek holiness every day and to live a life of faith — courageously and with integrity, as beacons of light and hope, personally, in our families, in our parishes and in our communities. This  then, allows the world to see the true face of the church.

As Catholics, we believe that Christ has not and will not abandon his church. He promised to be with us always — and he is living with us through this crisis. He looks out over his beloved Bride, the church, and weeps with us. But we live in faith and hope that Jesus, as we surrender ourselves to him, keeping our gaze upon this “crucified One,” will lead us to a new place where the Gospel can be preached and lived with faithfulness and love, thus bearing new life in the world.

The sanctity of the church rests in Christ himself. I believe that Jesus is very present; he is fighting this spiritual battle with Satan. Perhaps that is why all of this is coming to light. “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed” (Jn 3:20). Perhaps Jesus has forced these things into the light. Only when things come into the light can he heal them.

The weakness of the church, a human church, can be transformed through Christ — and through prayer and repentance. This is something all of us can do and should do for the sake of our Bride, the church — for her healing. Our fasting and prayer can lead to healing, to purification, and to the necessary reforms.

The church is holy to the extent that her members are holy. The church’s conformity to Christ is complete only to the extent that her members are conformed to Christ. Each of us, as disciples of Jesus, are called to help lead the church through the challenges, through the sinfulness of our culture, to become more fully the church that Jesus Christ established.

In response to this, I invited all priests of the diocese to join me in offering a Mass on September 14, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, and/or September 15, the

Memorial of our Lady of Sorrows, in each of their parishes in reparation for the sins of priests and bishops. During this Mass all victims — children and adults — who have suffered abuse at the hands of priests and bishops were lifted in prayer.

I have also encouraged my priests, and now all of you, to make Fridays for the next year a day of prayer and sacrifice for reparation for all priests and bishops who have so grievously wounded the body of Christ. Some suggestions might be:

  • Pray the Mass on Friday for this intention if you are able.
  • Pray a rosary or the Rosary of Our Lady of Sorrows.
  • Pray the Litany for the Abuse Crisis each Friday for nine Fridays and then repeat.
  • Offer a Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration on Friday.

Please consult your parish bulletins to find out what is being done in your parishes.

I also ask Our Lady, Our Mother of Mercy, to pour out her mercy upon our Church and our families, so that all victims may experience the healing love of her Son. We must never forget those who have been harmed by the church. May our prayers and sacrifices bring true healing, conversion and holiness to all.

Statement from Bishop Gruss

‘Jesus wants to heal you and give life in abundance’

In so many places in the Gospel, people who were sick and suffering were brought to Jesus, in hope of healing. Over and over again, Jesus touches them or they touch him. His healing love and mercy then become the source of new life for those who believed in his power. “Your faith has saved you,” he says over and over again.

Have you ever thought about the need for healing in your own life; that Jesus desires to give you that same new life? All of us are wounded in some way, wounded by many different experiences of life, wounded by hurtful events or uninvited traumas that happened in our childhood years from which we still feel the effects. We are left with inner wounds which cause emotional pain, and we try to manage our lives so that we get through each day with the least amount of suffering. Does this ring true in your life? Sometimes we are so good at managing life that simply to avoid pain has become our norm and we don’t know that life can be any different.

“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” (Jn 10:10). This promise of Jesus may seem like just a dream to many people. But these words of Jesus from John’s Gospel reveal a gift that is offered to all of us. We know that he is not speaking of material abundance, but a deeper life in his love and mercy and healing. But how often do we ask for this gift? Or open our hearts to this gift?

In order to realize the need for inner healing, we must first identify the problem, those emotional wounds, so that we can then seek the healing Jesus wants to give us. Allow me to name a few common ones:

  • A hurt that doesn’t seem to go away
  • A tendency to become easily irritable with others, to lash out at others, even people who love you and have done you no harm
  • Low tolerance and/or irrational expectations of others, expecting and demanding more from them than is reasonable
  • Feelings of anger, hate, resentment, etc. that seem to “rise up” within you at the slightest offense from others
  • Feelings of anger or resentment that are brought up by events from your past
  • Difficulty in forgiving yourself and others, perhaps even God
  • Difficulty in feeling loved, in seeing clearly and realizing the love of others and God in your life, as if a wall has been erected that blocks the flow of love into your life
  • Self-hate
  • Becoming easily frustrated with others, with everyday tasks and responsibilities
  • Perfectionism
  • Feelings of hopelessness

These are just a few common emotional wounds that diminish the life Jesus desires for you.

How does one overcome these negative emotions to receive healing? 1) Believe that these things are not what defines you. What defines you is Christ’s love. 2) Believe that Jesus wants to heal you and give life in abundance.  Remember Jesus’ words, “Your faith has saved you.” You must have faith that he can and wants to do this.

Over the years I have come across many prayers that have helped me along the way – leading to a deeper life in abundance. Below are two prayers which have helped and which I pray daily with my morning Liturgy of the Hours. They have helped me. I hope and pray that they will help you and lead you to the healing you seek — and the promised life in abundance. They have come from the “Manual of Minor Exorcisms by Bishop Julian Porteous.”


Prayer for Protection and Deliverance

Heavenly Father, I praise and thank you for all you have given me. Please cover me with the protective, precious blood of your Son, Jesus Christ, and increase your Holy Spirit in me with His gifts of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, hunger for prayer, guidance, and discernment to help me know your will and surrender to it more completely.

Father, please heal my negative emotions and any wounds in my heart and spirit. Send the sword of your Holy Spirit to sever and break all spells, curses, hexes, voodoo, and all negative genetic, inter-generational, and addictive material, past, present, or to come, known or unknown, against me, my relationships, and family, finances, and possessions.

Father, I forgive and I ask forgiveness for my sins and failings, and I ask that my whole person, body and mind, heart and will, soul and spirit, memory and emotions, attitudes and values be cleansed, renewed and protected by the most precious blood of your Son, Jesus.

In the name, power, blood, and authority of Jesus Christ I bind and break the power and effect in or around me of any and all evil spirits who are trying to harm me in any way and I command these spirits and their companion spirits in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to leave me peacefully and quietly and go immediately and directly to the Eucharistic presence of Jesus Christ in the closest Catholic Church tabernacle, to be disposed of by Jesus and never again return to harm me.

Dear Holy Spirit, please fill up any void in me to overflowing with your great love. All this, Father, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ by the guidance of your Holy Spirit. Immaculate Heart of Mary, spouse of the Holy Spirit, please pray for me and with me. Amen.

— Manual of Minor Exorcisms by Bishop Julian Porteous


Prayer for Inner Healing

Lord Jesus, you came to heal our wounded and troubled hearts. I beg you to heal the torments that cause anxiety in my heart. I beg you, in a

particular way, to heal all who are the cause of sin. I beg you to come into my life and heal me of the psychological harms that struck me in my early years and from the injuries that they caused throughout my life.

Lord Jesus, you know my burdens. I lay them all on your Good Shepherd’s heart. I beseech you — by the merits of the great, open wound in your heart — to heal the small wounds that are mine. Heal the pain of my memories, so that nothing that has happened to me will cause me to remain in pain and anguish, filled with anxiety.

Heal, O Lord, all those wounds that have been the cause of all the evil that is rooted in my life. I want to forgive all those who have offended me. Look to those inner sores that make me unable to forgive. You who came to forgive the afflicted of heart, please, heal my own heart. Heal, my Lord Jesus, those intimate wounds that cause me physical illness. I offer you my heart. Accept it, Lord, purify it and give me the sentiments of Your Divine Heart. Help me to be meek and humble.

Heal me, O Lord, from any pain caused by the death of my loved ones, if it is oppressing me. Grant me to regain peace and joy in the knowledge that you are the Resurrection and the Life. Make me an authentic witness to your resurrection, your victory over sin and death, your living presence among us. Amen.

— Manual of Minor Exorcisms by Bishop Julian Porteous

‘Together, we will leave a wonderful legacy for those who follow’

Most people do not think about leaving a legacy. Perhaps it is because we think legacies are for people with a lot of money or cultural clout, for people who are famous or who have done significant things in their lives.  “How can someone as simple and small like me leave any type of legacy?” we think.

But Jesus did not fit into any of those categories. He was a humble, dependent, faithful and compassionate man, seeking to do the Father’s will, sharing the Father’s love, rejected by many people, willing to suffer and die for humankind, yet the legacy he left has continued for more than two thousand years.

Materially, Jesus left nothing. He left no widow, and no children. He gave away practically everything he had during the course of his life and was stripped of everything left when he died. Yet, Jesus left a greater inheritance than anyone in human history.  He passed it on to eleven fearful apostles who became empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit and then they carried this legacy into their future. Because of those humble and challenging beginnings, even today, we still draw on that legacy and always will.

Jesus’ legacy has been given to each one of us to carry forward. Like the first disciples, each of us is called into the mission field to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, “living the mission of Jesus Christ, leading to eternal life.” Christ’s mission has been given to each of us in baptism and strengthened again through the Sacrament of Confirmation. The Lord has promised to “be with us always” (Mt 28:20) never depriving us of the help necessary to carry out that which has been entrusted to us.

The mission statement of the Diocese clearly reflects this:

We, the Diocese of Rapid City, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are called to attract and form intentional disciples who joyfully, boldly and lovingly proclaim and live the mission of Jesus Christ, leading to eternal life.

Each of us must answer our call to evangelize, to share the Gospel so that Jesus’ mission is lived in our own time and for generations to come.

The vision of the Diocese of Rapid City expressed in the Priority Plan also echoes the vision of Jesus and his public ministry. Recall our vision statement:

Reconcile – Make Disciples – Live the Mission. Our vision statement provides the window in which we see our mission. These identifying marks — Reconcile – Make Disciples – Live the Mission — are the foundation stones for moving the diocese forward in the future.

As you will read on pages 1 and 2 in this edition of the West River Catholic, the diocese is embarking upon a capital campaign to assist in the work of carrying forward the legacy of Jesus into our future. To reflect this, the campaign has been entitled: Living the Mission — A Legacy of Faith, A Legacy of Giving. 

Living the Mission invites each of us to personally take up the mission of Jesus, leaving our own legacy of faith and a legacy of giving in response to our call to discipleship. Living the Mission as outlined in the Vision Statement in the Priority Plan is not a project to complete but an ongoing way of discipleship. It is also reflected through the Living the Mission — A Legacy of Faith, A Legacy of Giving campaign whereby our generosity offers us the hope of continuing the mission of Jesus in the Diocese of Rapid City and the Rapid City Catholic School System for years to come by meeting current pressing needs.

The goal of the Living the Mission campaign is $12,000,000 to support a new Pastoral Center, the Priests’ Pension Plan, Native American Ministry, the RCCSS Endowment and a new cafeteria and kitchen at St. Thomas More High School. Again, on pages 1 and 2, more information about these goals can be found. These current needs, as well as future needs not described here, were developed through a comprehensive master plan- ning process completed in June 2017.

Living the Mission — A Legacy of Faith, A Legacy of Giving provides the people of the Diocese of Rapid City a real opportunity to not only carry forward the legacy of Jesus, but to leave our own legacy for generations to come just as those before us have done. This legacy of faith and generosity has been the hallmark of the diocese for generations.

I hope that you will join me in continuing this holy tradition following in the footsteps of our Master, who not only showed us the way, but taught us the way. Together, we will leave a wonderful legacy for those who follow us and the mission of Jesus can become more fully present among us, all across the diocese.

May Christ’s peace, love, joy, and faith reign in our hearts.

Please keep the canonization cause in your prayers

Last October 21st was an important day in the history of the Diocese of Rapid City. On this day, during the celebration of the Mass at Holy Rosary Church in Pine Ridge, a decree was read formally opening the cause for beatification and canonization of Nicholas Black Elk, Sr. I would like to update you on what has happened since that momentous day.

At the November 2017 USCCB meeting, as required by canonical procedures, I made a presentation to the American bishops seeking their prayerful support to move forward the process for beatification and canonization of Nicholas Black Elk. Following that procedure, their unanimous approval was made public and since then I have been amazed and inspired by the interest in this cause from all across the country and throughout Europe.

Since the opening of the cause, I have received a number of letters and phone calls from people in various parts of the country sharing with me the impact or influence that Black Elk has had in their lives as they have studied his life or through intercessory prayer. In addition, numerous film producers have contacted me expressing interest in creating a film or documentary on his life.

In recent months, we have secured a postulator in Rome, Fr. Luis Escalante, who is experienced in working with the process and procedures and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, bringing an expertise that is not available locally. Bill White of Christ the King Parish in Porcupine will assume the role of Vice Postulator. Part of the process is to formally appoint the Officials of the Inquiry. Fr. Joseph Daoust, SJ, has been appointed Episcopal Delegate, Fr. Dan Juelfs as Promoter of Justice, and Teresa Spiess as Notary.

To assist in searching out and gathering all the published writings of the Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, those not yet published, as well as all historical documents, a Historical Commission is appointed. Members of this commission are Mark Thiel, Archivist at Marquette University where many records about Nicholas Black Elk are kept; Fr. Michael Steltenkamp, SJ, author of two books about Black Elk — “Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala,” and “Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic;” and Ken Stewart, Archives Research Administrator for the South Dakota State Archives/South Dakota State Historical Society.

Two Theological Censors must also be appointed. Their role is to examine the published writings of the Servant of God — his own works or by others — to verify that there is nothing contained in them contrary to faith and good morals. The names of the Theological Censors must remain secret.

An important aspect of the cause is to verify the heroic virtues and the reputation of holiness and intercessory power of the person being considered for beatification and canonization. This takes place through the testimony of witnesses. These include eyewitnesses, that is, those who have had direct and immediate knowledge of the Servant of God, i.e., blood relatives and other relations as well as others who have received information about Nicholas Black Elk from those who have had direct and immediate knowledge. The witnesses are bound by an oath to tell the truth and to keep secret their role in this process.

There are other particulars that are a part of the process, but because of limited space here I have outlined the basic process. In the coming months the Officials of the Inquiry will be completing their work, bringing together all of the required documentation — Acta (Acts) — necessary to move this cause forward. Upon completion, the Acta are then sent to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. Then the diocesan phase of the process is completed.

An important aspect of this whole process on a local level is cultivating an interest in the life of the individual being promoted for the cause of beatification and canonization. This has begun in our diocese with the prayer cards and the posters of Nicholas Black Elk highlighting some aspects of his life. A website is being developed to promote his cause as well as provide historical information on his life. A Facebook page promoting the cause will also be up and running in the near future.

This is an important opportunity for the Diocese of Rapid City. I would ask that you keep this cause in your prayers. If you have not already begun to do so, please use Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk as an intercessor in your lives. We never know how the Lord will use those prayers of intercession. On this page is the prayer that has been created for this process. Hopefully it is found on prayer cards in your parishes. Let it find its way into your daily prayer life.

I believe that the church’s special recognition of Black Elk’s saintly life will provide the Native American  faith-community and peoples everywhere the example of a very special person whose presence to others is worthy of imitation. As a model, he showed how the Native American culture could enrich the Body of Christ, integrating the two traditions, thereby bringing a richness to both.

This Catholic missionary and mystic holy-man of the Oglala Sioux would be a welcome symbol to all Native Americans, leaving a legacy of someone who sought the Sacred, who lived the Gospel in everyday life, and who inspired others (Native and non-Native) to do the same.

Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, pray for us.


Heavenly Father, Great Spirit! Behold us, who stand before you singing our song of thanksgiving for Servant of God, Nicholas Black Elk. Faithfully he walked the Sacred Red Road and generously witnessed the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ among the Native American people. We humbly ask you to hear the prayers we plead through his intercession. We ask Holy Mother Church to recognize his sanctity by acknowledging his presence among the company of Saints and as one to imitate in his zeal for the Gospel. Open our hearts to also recognize the Risen Christ in other cultures and peoples, to your glory and honor through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Seize every occasion to act in a loving, holy way

At the State Knights of Columbus Convention a couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of preaching at the Mass celebrated on Friday evening at St. Joseph Church in Spearfish. During the homily I asked the congregation the question, “How many think you are holy?” I have asked this question before in other settings and the response is always the same — not more than a very few people raise their hands. The reason for this is either they are very humble, or they do not understand what holiness really looks like. Isn’t this the call of all Christians?

Seeking holiness is first and foremost the call of a disciple of Jesus. Chapter Five of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) takes up this idea that all who believe in Jesus Christ regardless of their vocation in life are called to holiness. The Core Values outlined in the Diocesan Priority Plan stem from this very call — the call we must accept if we are to be living witnesses of Jesus Christ in the world.

I bring this up as a way to encourage people of God across the diocese to read Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate – The Call to Holiness in Today’s World. This short document was released on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph. It was not meant to be a treatise on holiness, defining it in some way. Instead, the Holy Father is re-proposing for all of us “the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time. For the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love.’ (Eph 1:4).” (#2)

It is easy, with all of the distractions and noise in our world today, to forget or even dismiss this call as unattainable. So often people relate holiness as perfection, thinking that this is the reality of the saints and not the average Christian. How far from the truth!  Pope Francis relates, “We should not grow discouraged before examples of holiness that appear unattainable … We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.” (#11)

In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis relates a story about Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyên van Thuân’s witness to holiness during his 9 ½ years of imprisonment in North Vietnam, which began in 1976. If you are interested in his story, read “The Road of Hope: A Gospel from Prison.” I would also recommend a short spiritual memoir entitled “Five Loaves and Two Fish.” that shares a bit about his life during his time under house arrest.

During his imprisonment, Cardinal Nguyên van Thuân refused to waste time waiting for the day he would be released. Instead, he chose “to live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.” He decided to live his life in prison in this way: “I will seize the occasions that present themselves every day; I will accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way.” (#17)

If we do this, led by God’s grace, then the holiness of God becomes the heart of our every action. There are a couple of other points that I would like to highlight from Gaudete et Exsultate in reference to the call of every disciple of Jesus. The first regards our mission. In my Confirmation homily this year I share with the students who are being confirmed that the Spirit defines our life and leads us to our own personal mission for Christ. This is at the heart of this Sacrament of Confirmation.

Pope Francis reiterates this, “A Christian cannot think of his or her mission on earth without seeing it as a path of holiness, for ‘this is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thes 4:3). Each saint (each of us) is a mission, planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.” (#19) I wonder how often we see ourselves as a mission in our moment in history.

The second point that caught my attention is the call of each of us to be a message to the world. “Every saint (every one of us who seeks to live a life of holiness) is a message which the Holy Spirit takes from the riches of Jesus Christ and gives to his people.” (#21) Since this is the case, what is the message of our life that is being given to his people?

Yes, holiness is for each of us. We must not be afraid of holiness. “It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.” (#32)

The Holy Father expounds on two enemies which present false paths to holiness that are present in our culture today — Gnosticism and Pelagianism. These will be countered by a genuine understanding of holiness, which he presents through an interpretation of the Beatitudes. These instruct us in how to be holy and are at the heart of this exhortation.

Seeking holiness is not easy. Pope Francis describes how holiness comes through the daily struggles each disciple of Jesus faces. He notes that this spiritual combat is not only with worldly values and our own weaknesses, but is also with a very real enemy, the devil. To aid in that fight, the Holy Father concludes his exhortation by addressing discernment and “recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism.” (#174) And this mission, of course, is to be holy. And, yes, this mission is attainable.

“In the end, it is Christ who loves in us, for holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full. As a result, the measure of our holiness stems from the stature that Christ achieves in us, to the extent that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we model our whole life on his.” (#21)



To access the document: http://w2.vat ican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhor tations/documents/papa-francesco_esor tazione-ap_20180319_gaudete-et-exsul tate.html.

Redirect resources to mental health care and reduce suicides

One of the most important social issues that we face in the State of South Dakota is record number of suicides that affect not just the individual families, but those communities in which the suicide takes place. The impact on those affected is difficult to measure, but these tragic experiences are a deep source of pain and suffering to so many people.

Whether we have been personally

affected or not, this issue bears the attention of all of us.

Below is an editorial on suicide that I submitted to newspapers across the State of South Dakota. It was recently published in the Rapid City Journal. In case you missed it there, I wanted to share it with all of our West River Catholic subscribers.

Imagine coming home to discover that your child, perhaps a 12-year-old daughter or a 16-year-old son, has taken their own life. I can’t imagine such an experience. But too many parents in communities across South Dakota have experienced this tragedy. Many priests and ministers serving in our communities agonize over the number of funerals resulting from suicide.

While it is true that Native American suicide rates in South Dakota are twice as high as the suicide rate for white South Dakotans, it is important to remember that almost 80 percent of all suicide deaths in South Dakota are white. The reality is that South Dakota’s children and young adults (under age 24) of all races end their lives at double the rate of youth nationwide.

Over the past 25 years, annual suicide numbers have doubled in this state and in the past five years, suicide has reached epidemic levels in South Dakota. Final numbers for 2017 have not been released, but the South Dakota Department of Health says it will exceed 173 suicides, a record high set in 2015. Rural areas suffer significantly higher suicide rates than urban areas, both nationwide and in South Dakota.

Research indicates our farmers and ranchers have the highest rate of suicide of any profession.

While the loss of life at any age is tragic, it is especially so for youth. The losses caused by suicide go beyond actual deaths. For every suicide death, approximately six people will be severely impacted. These “survivors” often experience complicated grief and recovery which impact their productivity in school or the workplace. Statistically, for every successful suicide, there are approximately 25 attempts. Many attempts result in permanent loss of health, medical costs and lost productivity in school or employment. While these economic factors may seem insignificant compared to the loss of life and grief borne by survivors, they do suggest that investing in prevention and treatment programs will relieve significant social costs.

We know that addiction and mental illness are contributing factors to suicide among all races and in all communities. For too long, we have relied upon the criminal justice system to deal with the behavioral challenges caused by addiction and mental illness. Ultimately, jails and courts are not equipped to handle the underlying issues associated with mental illness and addiction. This type of intervention is not a “treatment” program and is the most expensive response and the least effective.

Wouldn’t a more effective solution be to redirect some of our criminal justice and law enforcement resources into alternative treatment services, instead of prosecuting those with mental illness? Too often, access to basic mental health services is lacking in places most impacted by this suicide epidemic, our rural areas.

More funding for prevention efforts is needed to combat the root cause and help deter this problem among our youth. Prevention programs that target reservation schools and communities should be given funding priority over lower risk communities.

While all of us should make it a priority to pray for those who have taken their lives or have lost a loved one to suicide, prayer alone however, is not enough. As parents, pastors, educators, service providers and political leaders, we all have roles to play in addressing this epidemic and finding solutions. In the words of Sitting Bull of the Oglala Sioux, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

We must engage our elected officials, asking, “What is the State’s suicide prevention plan?” Fighting epidemics should be a priority and behavior health losses are no exception. This epidemic that has our children taking their own lives is unacceptable.

‘Bring God’s redeeming love into the world’

Many people have very special days or periods of time in their lives that are not only significant, but because of their meaning, are celebrated each and every year with great intention and anticipation. Those could be birthdays, anniversaries or other events that are meaningful in the sense that they bring deep joy, happiness and fulfillment. These celebrations help us recall in a special way something personal, something life-giving or perhaps something life-changing.

For the Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, those special days are Holy Week — Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday. For the Christian, Holy Week is the most important and the most significant week in the church’s liturgical year. And the summit of the week is the Easter Triduum — the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the celebration of the Lord’s passion on Good Friday, and the great liturgy of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. Though celebrated over three days, they are liturgically for us one day unfolding the unity of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.

About five weeks ago we began a season of grace. Our Holy Father has encouraged us to “once again turn our eyes to (the Father’s) mercy. Lent is a path: it leads to the triumph of mercy over all that would crush us or reduce us to something unworthy of our dignity as God’s children.”

So now we find ourselves on the cusp of Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum. It is a week like no other in the church. From the very beginning of time, God has desired to share his love for humanity, to share the fullness of his Trinitarian life with us — that deep love between the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. And he wants this even more so after the fall of Adam and Eve, where sin entered into the world. He wants fallen humanity to come to know the depth of his love. Because of this desire, he sent Jesus to show this love for us and to save us from sin, reconciling us to the Father so that we could be partakers of this divine life shared between the Father and Son, not just when we die, but here and now, in this current age. Holy Week, and in particular, the Sacred Triduum, not only expresses this reality, but makes this love real for us once again.

In the Passion narrative from St. Mark, we read, “Peter followed at a distance …” We also read that when Jesus returned from prayer, he found his apostles asleep. We can be like Peter sometimes, following Jesus at a distance. We don’t want to get too close to him. Is it because we are afraid of what he may ask? Is it because we fear getting too close? Is it because he doesn’t excite us too much? Is it because we are not convinced of what he offers to us? Is our faith asleep, like the disciples who were asleep in the garden? Will we remain close to Jesus all week?

Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Letter, The Joy of the Gospel, extended to us a challenging invitation:  “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her since no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord” (The Joy of the Gospel, #2).

The celebration of Holy Week is all about accepting this invitation. I hear people often say that they wish they had a deeper relationship with the Lord. But often they do not make use of the opportunities available to them. No amount of casual contact with God will draw us into this mystery of love.  No amount of routine contact with the Lord can bring about this deeper encounter.

During the first Holy Week, 2000 years ago, Jesus achieved victory over sin and evil. During this Holy Week, he wants to extend that victory into our lives, into the parts of our lives that still need it, that still haven’t learned how to live the paradox of Palm Sunday. Jesus knows what he wants to say to each one of us this week, uniquely and individually. So we cannot follow at a distance, like Peter.

In drawing us close to him, Jesus wants to share with each of us the benefits of the cross, personally and intimately. In doing so, we will come to experience that the crosses we carry are not empty burdens with little value, but that every cross we carry can be an opportunity to bring God’s redeeming love into the world and to embrace the grace of suffering for which we see new meaning and hope.

We can never come to fully understand or grasp the depth of Christ’s love for us, but each time we enter into this sacred week as a response to his saving love, we experience more deeply the benefits of this mystery — a love that transforms the suffering and sin in our own lives, allowing us to participate in his Paschal Mystery.  This is precisely why each year Holy Week is a gift to us, to be unwrapped and opened.

It is my hope and prayer that all of us will make this Holy Week the greatest priority of our lives, entering into the mystery of Christ’s love. It is my hope and prayer that our churches will be filled to capacity during this Sacred Triduum — a faith community gathered, celebrating and giving thanks for this profound love. We will discover anew the joy of Christ’s unlimited love amidst the most profound sorrow and deepest joy in our lives.

My friends, let us not watch at a distance, but give Jesus the time and attention he deserves. Let Jesus speak to you in the quiet of your hearts as he unfolds the mystery of his love for you — because whatever he shares will be exactly what you most need.

Have a blessed Holy Week and a joy-filled Easter.

Lent —a time to fast from certain things and to feast on others

We have entered into the season of Lent, a season of grace. The Lord invites us to enter into a very powerful period in the liturgical year in the church. On Ash Wednesday, the Prophet Joel gave us these words of encouragement: “Even now, return to me (the Lord) with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning: Rend your hearts, not your garments … for gracious and merciful is he” (Jl 2:12-13).

The invitation has been extended — return to me and rend your hearts. In other words, tear open our hearts and seek the merciful love of the Father. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, encouraged, “In this season of grace, we once again turn our eyes to his mercy. Lent is a path: it leads to the triumph of mercy over all that would crush us or reduce us to something unworthy of our dignity as God’s children.”

Jesus presented to us the activity of the Lenten season, something far beyond the externals of the scribes and pharisees. Our Lenten activity must be rooted in an attitude of the heart, the interior place of our souls, that inner sanctuary of our relationship with Christ. “Rend your heart.” This is where true conversion takes place, where Christ’s heart and our hearts come together in a quite intentional way for us.

Like those coming into the Church at Easter, all of us are called to be converts, to be looking at our lives and our sinfulness in the light of grace, the light of God’s grace. In response to this season, many people will take on different Lenten practices. Whatever disciplines of Lent we embrace, we do it joyfully in order to thank God for his mercy and to open ourselves more to God’s overflowing life that surrounds us each moment. Our efforts to change and to grow in holiness are not made to earn God’s saving love for us. Rather, they are a consequence of it. I can’t imagine what life would be like without the love and mercy of the Father, whose mercy never tires of forgiving us and always gives us the chance to begin anew.

In this season we are called to fast and abstain. In this culture of excess, it seems easy to give some things up for a few weeks. In doing so, how is this or that practice helping me to become more prayerful, more generous, more holy? Our Lenten practices will only lead to conversion and life in abundance if they are connected to our relationship with Christ — Jesus leading us through conversion. If not, then our fasting from food and drink will be a mere diet and our almsgiving will be merely giving money away.

But Lent can also be more than a just a time for fasting. It should also be a joyous season of feasting — a time to fast from certain things and to feast on others. Perhaps you will find these suggestions I came across many years ago helpful. It was written by William Arthur Ward.

Lenten Litany of Fasting and Feasting

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ within them.
Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the unity of life.
Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from hostility; feast on non-resistance.
Fast from bitterness;  east on forgiveness.
Fast from self concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from shadows of sorrow; feast on the sunlight of sincerity.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that undergirds.
Fast from instant gratifications; feast on self denial.
Fast from worry; feast on divine order.
Trust in God.
And finally, fast from sin; feast on the abundance of God’s mercy.

The joy in doing this type of fasting and feasting is that these practices truly lead to rending our hearts and to conversion. And this conversion is a turning from those things that do not give life and a turning to God, who gives life to us in abundance. As you keep your gaze on the Father’s love and mercy, may this season of Lent be filled with every grace and blessing.