As the church moves through the weeks of the Advent Season, the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary comes into the foreground, first, in celebrating the feast of her Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, nine months before her birthday in the liturgical calendar on Sept. 8 and, closely following, in the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. On both feasts, the Gospel passage proclaimed at Mass is taken from the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke. We hear the angel call Mary “full of grace.” Someone who is full of grace is empty of self. Mary is unique in having been preserved, through God’s grace, from any stain of the sin that makes us full of ourselves. What she gained in being emptied of self was the grace to be filled with the Holy Spirit and become the Mother of God. Two thousand years ago, she gave birth to Jesus, God’s only begotten Son and, at the time of the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ to a new world of 500 years ago, she gave birth to an entire people. The indigenous peoples of this content, the native pre-Americans, became her children. Something new was born. Mary was here in what we now call America before the pilgrims from England showed up in 1620. We have forgotten that the first European here, Father Jacques Marquette, called the Mississippi the “River of the Immaculate Conception.” Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles recently reminded us all that, “we have lost the sense of America’s national story.” The part we remember about the settlement of New England and the other English colonies on the east coast, the story of great men like Washington, Jefferson and Madison and the founding documents of our present national union is true and often inspiring, but it’s only half the story. What has been lost is the memory of what started in the 1520s in Florida and in the 1540s in California. It’s less a story of settlement than of exploration and evangelization. It’s the same story that is ours in Illinois and the upper Midwest, a story of missionaries who did not come to gain the land but to introduce the natives to their Savior. Before there were houses in this land, there were altars. We have diminished America’s true identity. The people who lived here were called Christians before they were called Americans. In the church, we can also forget even the most essential part of our story. The church exists for the mission she has received from her risen Lord to convert the world. All the rest takes on importance from this fact of our history. At the end of the year, we often do a kind of balance sheet of our time: What has been gained and what has been lost? Sometimes deeply loved members of our family or among our friends have been lost to death or to estrangements of various sorts. Sometimes a marriage is lost or a position or a reputation. People of faith believe that even the greatest loss can be turned to gain if it is related to God’s plan for our eternal happiness and the salvation of the world. It is inspiring to me to see again and again how faith anchors people’s lives in the midst of great loss and tragedy. Many constantly empty themselves, through the discipline of regular prayer and generosity, so that God can fill their lives. The archdiocese also regularly checks what this local church is doing to be sure we are not just running an organization but growing into what Christ wants his church to be. Fifteen years ago, after much consultation, Cardinal Bernardin left three priorities to direct the mission of the Archdiocese of Chicago: evangelization; popular formation in the Catholic faith; renewed seminaries and programs to form priests and lay leaders and ministers. Those three priorities have guided most of the initiatives of the last decade and a half. Anyone following the course of our planning and the use of our resources knows what has been done in these areas. More recently, the archdiocesan mission has been prioritized in a strategic plan that focuses each year on a particular group that merits special attention. This is the year for young people, and next year will be the year of Sunday Mass, a year that will coincide with the Universal Church’s year of faith, recently decreed by Pope Benedict XVI. Focusing on one area of our lives in order to strengthen the mission inevitably means that less attention might be placed on other areas. If the planning has been well done, however, the bottom line will be a gain for the archdiocese and the church’s mission. As the mission is examined, the resources necessary for the ministries and institutions that support the mission also have to be weighed. These are hard economic times, and the archdiocese finds itself subsidizing schools and even parishes almost three times the amount that had been regularly budgeted in past years. On the one hand, the October count of those attending Mass on Sunday has held steady this year, despite Chicago’s population loss, and the number of students in our schools has even increased slightly in many areas. But many parishes are dipping into their savings in ways that can’t be sustained. The Pastoral Center has developed, with a lot of consultation, a parish transformation program that has already been piloted in 40 parishes and will eventually be used in all the parishes in order to focus more rigorously and budget more realistically, in light of each parish’s sense of its mission. Making a balance sheet that combines purpose or mission with activities or expenses is not an easy task, and I am proud and grateful to those parishes that have begun the process. A similar process is in place for the schools that are most in debt. Complete information on the archdiocese, its activities and its finances can be found on the archdiocesan website, www.archchicago.org, and I encourage everyone to examine it. The more that people know the facts, the less chance there is for incomplete or even false stories to circulate. This coming year also marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October of 1962. A lot of inadequate or even false notions are still in circulation about the purpose and the decisions of the council, so this will be a good year to examine the balance sheet of the church in the last decades. The work of drawing up balance sheets can be arduous. The final balance sheet is the one we present to the Lord. On Dec. 17, 2011, 13 members of my religious Congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, will have been beatified in Madrid. They were seminarians with some of their professors. On Nov. 27, 1936, they were taken from their seminary by the forces of the Spanish anticlerical government and imprisoned. On Nov. 28, they were lined up against the prison wall and shot. One of the priests, Gregorio Escobar, O.M.I., had written to his parents a few years earlier as he was preparing for ordination, “I’ve always been deeply moved by stories of martyrdom. When I read them, I am overpowered by a secret desire to suffer the same fate. That would be the greatest priesthood to which all of us Christians could aspire: to give each one’s own body and blood as a holocaust for the faith. What an honor, to die as a martyr.” Father Escobar’s oblation culminated in martyrdom. Many saints, including the missionaries who first preached the Gospel here, have had the same desire: to empty themselves even of their own life so that Christ’s mission on earth could be accomplished. With their deaths, something new was always born. Let us pray for the grace to be free of self and full of God’s grace, so that the Lord can use us to create something truly new. Let us pray for a good conscience, one that is the authentic voice of truth, so that we will be faithful witnesses (martyrs) to God’s revelation. Let us pray as well for the consolation of knowing that God’s providence envelops our years and our activities. God bless you at Christmas and in the New Year.