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May 26, 2024

We call today’s feast “Pentecost.”  The word means “50th” and occurs 50 days after Easter—paralleling a calendrical celebration at the time of Jesus that celebrated the giving of “the Law” (Torah) to Moses.  Among Christians, this Israelite feast has moved from being a celebration of “the Law” to a celebration of “the Spirit”—of God’s presence among us written on our hearts and in our actions instead of on the stone of Mt. Sinai.

Scripture selections for this feast are telling.  We are told that the disciples heard a sound of wind as they huddled in a room and hid from authorities.  We also read that Jesus appeared and “breathed on them” when imparting the Spirit to them.  If not familiar with Genesis, we might simply think about wind outside and Jesus breathing.  However, the reference to wind hearkens back to Genesis when we read that a wind blew over the water at the time of creation and that God breathed life into Adam and Eve.  When the New Testament speaks of “wind” and “breath,” it reminds us of that first creation—and tells us that a NEW creation has taken place—creation of the Christian faith community empowered by the Spirit to evangelize the world.

Not only are these Old Testament references (Hebrew scripture) echoed but so is another well-known story.  Acts of the Apostles refers to people from diverse geographical places and reports that they all understood the word of God as preached by the disciples.  This is NOT the report of some bizarre miracle related to multi-lingual populations but is an allusion to the Tower of Babel story.  It told of God punishing the hubris or pride of people by creating different languages so that they no longer could build a tower to heaven.  Workers could not understand one another.  However, the message of the Gospel was now accessible to all people of the world—in all their diversity of language and lifestyle.

In a reading from Paul, we see him speak of each Christian having a ministry of their own.  Just as a body has different parts with different functions, so does the “Body of Christ”—the people of God.  I might, at times, sound like a cheerleader for you, but it’s Paul who is the one I’m quoting when with this “cheer.”

Pentecost doesn’t roll around each year that I don’t recall the concluding scene in the film (based on the Hemingway novel) “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  The book and film so struck me that I cite it here again for you—as an illustration of the Jesus story.  That is, this scene dramatizes the Gospel message (not intentionally) in depicting a powerful human encounter.  I like this because it dramatizes the life, death, resurrection, and spirit of Pentecost in a non-theological way.  It drives home the Gospel just the same (as Jordan is a “Christ figure” and Maria, his love, as us receiving the Spirit)..

Here’s the setting.

Robert Jordan is the main character—an American journalist covering the civil war of the 1930s in Spain.  He’s accompanying the oppressed revolutionaries who are trying to overthrow the dictator.  Think of Jesus associating with the non-elites and standing up against an authoritarian dictator’s military (Roman soldiers?).  Jordan falls in love with Maria—a young girl sexually abused by the elites (the common person oppressed by the powerful).  As the revolutionaries escape through a mountain pass, a cannonball explodes near Jordan and he can’t continue (condemned to death?).  He tells the commando leader to take Maria with the escapees after he speaks with her.   This is what he says.

Maria, don’t, don’t say anything.  We won’t be going to America this time.  But always I go with you, wherever you go, understand?  You go now, Maria. 

No, no, I stay with you Roberto.

No, Maria, what I do now, I do alone.  I couldn’t do it if you were here.  If you go, then I go too.  Don’t you see how it is?  Whichever one there is, is both of us.

No, there’d be only . . .

No, each of us must do his thing alone, and though we be alone, we do it for each other.  But if you go, then I go with you, that way I go too.  I know you’ll go now Maria, for both of us, because we love each other always. 

It’s easier for me to stay with you, Roberto.

I know it’s harder for you, but now I am you also.  If you go, I go too.  That’s the only way I can go.  You’re me now.  Surely you must feel that, Maria. 

Remember last night?  Our time is now, and it will never end.  You’re me now, and I’m you.  Now you understand.  Now you’re going, and you’re going well, and fast, and far, and we’ll go to America another time, Maria. 

Stand up now and go, and we both go.  Stand up Maria, remember you’re me too.  You’re all there will ever be of me now.  Stand up.  No, stand up.   There’s no good-bye, Maria, because we’re not apart.   [Jordan calls the commando leader to take Maria away] Pilar!  No, don’t turn around.  Go now.  Be strong.  Take care of our life.

[Maria tries to resist Pilar but can’t]  No, no, no Roberto, let me stay . . . . please, please don’t make me go  . . . Roberto, Roberto, please Roberto . . . .

[Jordan is left behind with a machine gun so as to hold off the pursuing soldiers as long as he can to help Maria and the others escape.  He’s thinking these thoughts]

God, that was lucky I could make her go.  I don’t mind this at all now.  They’re away.  Think of how it would be if they got Maria instead of you.  Don’t pass out, Jordan!  Think about America!  I can’t.  Think about Madrid!  I can’t.  Think about, Maria!  I can do that alright! 

 No, you fool, you weren’t kidding Maria about that.  Now they can’t stop us ever!  She’s going on with me, yes . . .

 [Final scene is of the machine gun shooting straight into the camera as bells toll.]

Literature raises themes that parallel issues the novel, story, or poem never mention.  By way of symbols, plots, names, words, and other literary devices a reader is reminded of other experiences, moods, and plots that parallel what is being read.  Such is at play in the scene above.  One is reminded of human communities that see one group as well off financially and one group not.  A dictator who rapes and pushes people around versus ordinary folk who just want to make a living.  The name “Jordan” reminds one of the Jordan River where Jesus began his ministry (like the journalist beginning his “ministry” among the region’s poorer classes.  If “Maria” (Mary) was intentionally chosen as a name to remind the reader of Magdalene, we’ll never know.

With Pentecost conferring the Spirit upon the apostles, they were reminded that wherever they would go—the risen Lord would be with them.  As scripture suggests, that’s the only way the risen Lord CAN go after the death of Jesus (Jordan).  His Gospel message (like that of a journalist’s messages in newspaper columns) are spread far and wide.  And nothing will stop that Gospel message.

As Jesus said, there is no greater love than for one to lay down their life for another.  In the Gospel and the film, this occurred.  But all Christians can “lay down their life” in some way via commitment, or dedicating their lives, to upbuilding others in some way.  The Pentecost story tells us that we can face any oppressor since we’ve been given the Spirit—assured by Jesus that we are loved and that he is with us—as his Christmas name promised “Emmanuel” (“God with us”).

May 19, 2024

We used to call this Holy Day of Obligation “Ascension Thursday.”  However, the American Church followed in the footsteps of the Canadian bishops and now celebrates this Holy Day on Sunday.  It coincides with the American secular feast of “Mother’s Day.”  Both have an interesting history.

As for the feast of the Ascension, theologians tell us that Jesus did not go to sit at the right hand of the Father 40 days after Easter.  Rather, they say that the Resurrection and Ascension should be looked upon as connected.  In the first few centuries of the Church, there was no Ascension feast day.  It evolved later on.  When “40 days” are associated with its occurrence, that’s a theological statement—40 being a symbolic number in both the Old (Hebrew) and New (Christian) scriptures.  In short, Christians honored the return of Jesus to the Father by acknowledging it separately—and associated it with other great events of scripture that were associated with “40” (e.g., the great flood that produced a new creation).

Furthermore, we read about an “ascension” or departure of Jesus in three of the gospels, but John is silent on the matter.  Wouldn’t you think that such an occasion would be mentioned by John?

Today’s reading from Mark is especially eye-catching since those concluding lines of the gospel were the inspiration for an American preacher to found a denomination.  Today called the “Holiness Church” of Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia, these good folk found the preacher’s message somehow captivating.  He and his followers took the concluding verses literally—and picked up rattlesnakes and drank poison at their services.  They are thought to be the only Christian group that embraced this understanding of the text.

Mark intended to report that Christians would be able to speak different languages, cast out demons, and heal people.  These behaviors were not extraordinary supernatural powers but rather graced efforts that the Holy Spirit moved missionaries to perform.  Picking up snakes, drinking poison, speaking diverse languages, etc. were to be understood metaphorically.  That is, with the Spirit’s help, Christians will take the message given to them by Jesus, accomplish many great works, and overcome diverse challenges.

What would Holiness Church people think if they learned that bible scholars say that these concluding lines of the gospel were not written by MarkBroad consensus exists that what was read this Sunday possibly came about in the following way.

Early scholars like Eusepius and Jerome knew of almost no version of Mark that went beyond verse 8.  This week’s reading follows that verse, and scholars say that this ending to the Gospel has a vocabulary, syntax, and style that are “decidedly non-Markan.”  A basic position on this strange scriptural history is this: over time, scribes added the longer ending, either for the richness of its material or because of the abruptness of the ending at verse 8.  The strange variety of endings suggests that early scribes had a copy of Mark that ended at verse 8.  They filled out the text with what seemed to be an appropriate conclusion. Voila!  Our concluding verses of Mark.  Not to worry.  The verses are canonical (accepted as the word of God).

This topic will be revisited after a few words about Mother’s Day—a secular “holy day.”  Keep in mind that not all secular holidays need be recognized within our services.  Mother’s Day, however, has gospel roots—and so merits our reflection on its connection to Scripture. We need to go back some 150 years when Anna Reves Jarvis tried to rally mothers in West Virginia to agitate for clean water.  Her efforts combined with those of Julia Ward Howe (who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) to put an end to war.  They pleaded for all mothers of the world—from all cultures—to agitate for an end to war.  After all, they had witnessed the greatest loss of life in U.S. history because of the Civil War.

Mothers saw their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers killed in this war over an issue that should never have existed in the first place—slavery.  Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens justified this reason for the war—and like all evil ideas—it led to death and destruction.  These women did their best to awaken the world (not just the U.S.) to embrace negotiation and not bullets to settle disputes (“to promote the alliance of all nationalities & amicable settlement of international questions”).  And their efforts were laudable—especially since women could not vote during the period that Jarvis and Howe were active.  Despite having no voice at the ballot box, they staged rallies—which caught the attention of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

Corporations cared little for the goals of Jarvis and Howe, but they did see a business opportunity aimed at mothers. Whereas war brings wealth to manufacturers, women might provide the same economic impetus by virtue of their role as mothers. This thought spawned candy companies, florists, and the cosmetics industry to target husbands, sons, and daughters to BUY their products as a special gift “for mom.”  Either that or take mother to dinner at some restaurant.

When “Mother’s Day” was made a national holiday in 1914, big business had stripped a movement whose noble origin was to legislate clean water, end racism, and no longer wage war. As one business journal boasted, big profits were now being made because they had successfully “squelched” the work begun by Jarvis and Howe.

There’s a saying “Money is the root of all evil,” but Mother’s Day has managed to salvage something good.  Namely, those who put so much time, energy, and unselfishness in being our mom—certainly deserve our honoring them THROUGHOUT the year. But they have at least one day on which we formally give them some show of gratitude.

Spiritually, in thinking of a mom, we can’t help but think of qualities we associate with God!  In the time of Jesus, one’s father played a key role in the kinship system and in economic affairs. To speak of us as children of “Our Father in heaven” was an appropriate connection to make.  However, God transcends gender and physical appearance such that we can only struggle to express who this incomprehensible Creator is.  So we can refer to God as father—and mother.  After all, our mother bore us and gave us life (like God did).  The Old Testament said that just as a mother would not forget the baby at her breast, so God would not forget us.  God is father, mother, creator—and more (e.g., God is “Love”—as revealed by Jesus).  And if one has no memory of a good home life with a good mom or dad, they can still imagine what such a person would be.  In short, God is the best father one could have.  And God is the best MOTHER one could have.  Mother’s day can remind us of this theological reality.

When my mother died, I realized that I no longer had a home where I could go and just be me—with access to the refrigerator or TV, or napping on the couch, or sunning myself in the back yard, or doing any of the hundreds of behaviors I could do in mom’s presence since childhood.  Most people have spouses or children with whom they gather at some family home.  With my mom’s passing, I no longer had such a port in the storm.  It helped me spiritually to have a high school student remind me that “the only permanent relationship we ever have is our relationship with God.”  That was a good reminder for me to hear.

I chuckle when thinking of this experience and then recalling when my dad died.  It, too, was a felt loss.  I was standing next to a Lakota student of mine (a serious young man whose face was expressionless).  He spit tobacco on the ground.  Then, in a monotone voice that seemed older than his years—said: “You’ll get over it.”  He walked away, still expressionless.  That ended his “condolence.”

As stated earlier, three of the gospels have a departure scene for when Jesus no longer appeared to people (which we call the “Ascension”).  Two themes common to those departure scenes are important for us to internalize.  They are at the heart of our faith.  One theme common to the three was summed up by St. Francis of Assisi when he said: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”  That’s an Ascension message.

The second theme was well stated by author Ernest Hemingway in his novel For Whom The Bell Tolls.  His Christ-like main character basically says what Jesus said when He ascended to the Father: “There’s no need to say goodbye because we’ll never be apart.”  That, too, is an Ascension message.

Next week’s scripture reminds us that Pentecost brought the Holy Spirit that assures us of God’s presence to us always.  With the Spirit, we are able to overcome snakes and poisons that present themselves to us “in sheep’s clothing” throughout life.  [Once again, we ask you to email or call the office and say if you read the bulletin]

May 12, 2024

When teaching religious studies, I heard some students say that their parents didn’t teach them any religious beliefs or practices because they thought their children should decide later in life if they want a religious practice.  Rather than criticize the parenting they received, I wondered if these students were also allowed to decide when they went to bed at night, whether or not they would go to school, or wash, or not cuss, or many, many other behaviors.  I could not understand how a parent could teach their child many behaviors and values—except those related to religious practice.  For me, nothing is more important than trying to understand why I am here and who put me here on earth.

This classroom memory came to mind as I prepared for this weekend’s first communion ceremony.  This is the weekend we welcome young parishioners as they make their first communion.  They will experience what occurs with the sacraments we receive.  Namely, as said by Father of the Church Saint Augustine, a sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.”

Within our parish family, our tradition is to teach our young ones the importance of attending Mass and “going to communion.”  For young people (and even older ones), it can be confusing to hear that we are consuming “the body and blood of Christ.”  When I made my first communion, all I could think of was my eating body parts.  Years later when attending graduate school at Indiana University, a fellow grad student asked me to explain the “ritual cannibalism” that Catholics do at their Masses.  Both my thoughts on this topic when I was a child, and the thinking of my fellow grad student were misguided, but they are still owned by some who are not familiar with our tradition.

One way to think of communion at Mass is to think of our Thanksgiving dinner.   This is appropriate because an alternative word for Communion is “Eucharist”—a Greek word meaning “to give thanks.”  Each time we receive Communion we are giving thanks to God for all that we have, and for being a God who invites us to this “candlelight dinner.”  The low lights dilate our pupils and visually we absorb all that is visible on this special occasion.  Rooted in the religious history of Israel (Old Testament) and Christianity (New Testament), this sacred gathering is composed of people invited by God to draw upon the Trinity for what will sustain us in our everyday lives.

At this time, we speak to God (prayer) and sing (“singing is praying twice”) with others who have likewise been invited by God to this unique meal.  On the night before he died, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus took bread and wine and told his family and friends to do what he was doing.  Every time they would gather this way, he promised to be with them.  As a famous theologian said, Jesus gave this gift of Communion or Eucharist as a kind of “kiss” to those who were there in his name.  The consecrated bread and wine (visible signs along with the table, priest, people, candles, prayer books, scripture, etc.) become the invisible reality of God’s presence.

Here’s another way of expressing the invisible reality of God’s Eucharistic presence.  Poetically stated, one could tell their loved one:

“You’re my London.  You’re my Paris.  You’re my Athens.  You’re my Rome.  You’re my Boston.  You’re my Denver.  You’re my old Kentucky home.”

 One is saying to his beloved that she embodies the best of the Old World and the best of the New.  In the end, however, she’s the hearth at which his heart rests and where he finds warm comfort.  He’s NOT saying she is the old buildings, busses, sewers, and dirty streets of big European and American cities.  Rather, she embodies the greatness, glory, grandeur, and wonders of those places.  In her, he need not go to any of those places because he has their equal in her.

And so it is with the presence of the risen Lord in the Eucharist.  One is in communion with the one who feeds him where he most hungers and assures him of God accompanying him down every road he walks.  The risen Lord is the real presence of God in whatever he faces.  The consecrated bread reminds communicants that we have new manna in the deserts of our depression, discouragement, lost paths, and tearful trials.  The Risen Lord is the new lamb at our sacred meal—the lamb of God which is our Eucharist.

But this understanding is a partial one—one that can be expanded in many directions.  However, one key element of this topic is what we call the “Mass” itself.  The word is related to a Latin word meaning “sent.”  When the community of Catholics finishes their sacrament, and when they have witnessed the many visible signs that refer to an invisible reality, they are IDEALLY ready to leave the special gathering—and be “sent” into the world as apostles.

This idea reminds me of a little boy I baptized and to whom I gave his first communion.  When his mom knelt with him at prayer one night (he was 7 years old), she heard him ask God in prayer: “Help me when I go on patrol tomorrow.”  Not knowing what he was referring to, she asked him what he meant when referring to the “patrol.”

He replied that at lunchtime on the playground, he goes on patrol to see if anyone is alone and without any friends.  He said he goes to that person and says he’ll be that person’s friend.

When I heard this true-life story, I was touched in learning that the little boy to whom I gave the consecrated host at his first Communion—had grasped the message of the Gospel, and the purpose of sacraments at his young age.  All Catholics and all Christians are called by God to be “on patrol” in search of the lost or the lonely—to bring them into a supportive community gathered at the table of the Eucharist.

Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, spoke of Communion in the following terms:

Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ?  Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my Body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also for me.” What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with gold chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

If you read the bulletin, let the office know or email yes or no at: mfs@wheeling.edu

May 5, 2024

If we were a first-century group of Christians—who called themselves “the Way”—and if we were gathering to “break bread” for our sacramental experience, imagine what our response would be if we saw Saul, the Pharisee, open the door and join us.  After all, we know this man because he’s been hunting us down and turning us over to our Roman oppressors.

In today’s gospel passage, John’s Jesus is quoted as saying his followers will be  persecuted just as he was persecuted.  He also says that they will not become the best version of themselves apart from him.  Scholars tell us that John reminded the early Christians of what Jesus said because they were being hounded by the Romans, and that they needed to know that their following of Jesus was not misguided.  He told them that this would happen—but if they stayed true to the message, they were living as they should.

Wouldn’t we be surprised when we hear visitor Saul speak of a powerful conversion experience he had when going to Damascus (still today a city in Syria).  He reported being knocked to the ground and hearing a voice ask “Why are you persecuting me?”  He was blinded but regained his sight after learning that the voice was that of Jesus.  He had new eyes, so to speak, with which he saw that he had been following the wrong path in life.  He now wanted to be a member of “the Way.”

As you know, Saul became the Paul of the New Testament who was largely responsible for spreading the message of Jesus throughout the Mediterranean—and ending in Rome (where he was beheaded).  He was also the one who spoke of “sin” as a behavior that “misses the mark” of good and virtuous living.  Sometimes we miss the mark of good behavior (as when shooting at bullseye) by just a little, and sometimes we are far from being a good marksman.  We can perform destructive behavior (mega-sin, often called “mortal”—as in “deadly”).

Thoughts like these brought to mind a theme I often mention.  Namely, we’re supposed to identify with each person we read about in scripture.  At different times, we are each of them.  For example, each of us is ALWAYS on the road to Damascus.  Each of us needs conversion—because we are not perfect and do not have all the answers.  We don’t know what decisions to make, how to relate to certain people, or how to conduct ourselves as we should.  Like Saul, we are often blind.  And it just might be that we need to be knocked down, so to speak, and made to confront where we need to change.

I’ve often expressed concern about young people who have no religious practice.  You who are parents and grandparents no doubt have loved ones who seldom, if ever, “go to church.”  You can address this with them by not berating them, but by simply and calmly stating your and my experience of practicing the faith.

Just tell them how we see the goal of having our religious practice.  Is it that we’ll please God by going to Mass (so God will like us and not send us to hell when we die)?  Or that God will like us if we receive communion?  Say the rosary?  Baptize our young? Or receive the other sacraments?  NO!!

Remember this: God doesn’t get any godlier because you or I go to Mass, or pray, or receive the sacraments, or hear homilies, or read scripture.  God has nothing to gain because God is fully complete.  HOWEVER, you and I can sure benefit from behaviors we lump into the category of “religion.”  And yes, you and I have relatives and friends who have no religious practice or who are even atheists—and we know them to be good people.  But here’s the point: just as you and I become better versions of ourselves through our religious practice, so too do our non-church-going relatives benefit and become more the person God intended them to be.

I was thinking about my lack of knowledge in many areas.  I seemed to be always walking toward Damascus—living my life okay but not accomplishing much.  I got by, but I felt my limitations.  For example, I had a nice garden in West Virginia—within which were many different vegetables (and box turtles who lived in the garden). A married couple came by one day and gave me a tomato plant to add to my 90 other tomato plants.

I said that I was happy to accept their offer.  Come harvest time, I saw this vine produce a purplish-black cherry tomato.  They looked like the food of aliens.  After all, who ever heard of purplish-black tomatoes?  Thinking they were infected with some weird tomato disease, I uprooted the plant and disposed of its bounty.

Now you see how I learned once again that I lacked knowledge.  As with so many areas of life, I did not have all the answers.  I THOUGHT I knew quite a bit about tomatoes.

The people who gave me the plant later stopped by and asked how I liked the tomatoes.  Turns out that these were special tomatoes that came from some special greenhouse and that their color was SUPPOSED TO BE purplish-black.  In short, my lack of knowledge prevented me from having a treat of special tomatoes.  I was not as smart as I thought I was.

I was like a person who didn’t need to go to church because they knew the score.  They knew how to flourish.  They had all the answers.  My point here is that I and my black tomatoes were just like the person who didn’t have a religious practice.

I recalled arguments we had during the Vietnam War.  People would lose the debate when presented with cold, hard facts about why the U.S. should end the war.  Unable to defend their position, people would still patriotically assert: “My country, right or wrong.”  My “conversion” experience on this topic came when I realized that the gospel calls us to base our decisions on what is right—and not on what is patriotic.  How could so many Germans (Catholics, Lutherans, and other Christian groups) pledge allegiance to Hitler—and not the gospel of Jesus?  Millions of lives lost because people voted for “my country, Germany, right or wrong.”

Most of our youth no longer attend church and hear about ANYTHING related to the gospel or the values it teaches.  Today’s gospel speaks of us being like the branches of a vine—with the Vine being Jesus.  Connected to him, we’ll bear much “fruit” in our life (the “best version of ourselves”).

But what are our young people attached to, drawing life from, inspired by, motivated, or influenced by?  The everyday life of our secular society does not teach Gospel values but instead makes minds focus on “Numero Uno” (“number one”)—me, myself, I.  A “what’s in it for me” approach to all things.

I’m reminded of a recently published book that reports a study of cell phone usage since its popularity around 2012.  A group of researchers were trying to understand why test scores of elementary and middle school kids dropped nationally and did not recover.  Long story short of the study was that “smartphones” were “dumbing down” young people.  These hypnotic instruments misinformed or minimally informed or distracted young people to such an extent that their intellectual/emotional growth was being stunted.

I can’t recall each of the recommendations, but here are a couple of points the study made.  1) Do NOT give a smartphone to children under age 12.  Give them so-called “throw-away” phones to call home if needed, but do not allow them access to this addictive technology.  2) If you get your teen a “smart” (i.e., dumb) phone, don’t allow them unlimited access to it 24 hours a day.  And don’t allow adding “apps” of all kinds on it.

Does any family in the parish still say the prayer that was very common to Catholic households for many years?  It was this prayer: “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.”  Do any of our families say any prayer before a family meal?

With parish communities having so few young people, it seems more parishes will close as time passes.  That’s why a “new evangelization” is needed, or is a ministry we now must adopt.  All of us are being called to evangelize our families and friends—inviting them to be part of our community of good people.

If you have no plan of action to evangelize anyone, let the quote below identify people from John the 23rd Parish:

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.”

April 28, 2024

“Good Shepherd” Sunday conveniently falls next to “Earth Day” this year.  These events remind us that we have been called to be “good shepherds” of the environment. It was our current pope, Francis, who called world attention to our Christian/Catholic identity as caretakers of the land, sea, and sky.

Pope Francis wrote an encyclical on this topic, Laudato Si, and confronted us with what geologists (and others) know.  Namely, time on earth is divided into “epochs,” and the last 10,000 years are known as the “Holocene epoch.”  Each epoch is identified by some life form that became dominant or emerged at a certain time.  For example, dinosaurs preceded mammals, and then primates arose, humans, etc.  Epochs last a long time—the Holocene being in its infant stage.

HOWEVER, because humans have made such a gigantic mark on creation over the recent past, some are saying we are already in another epoch—the “Anthropocene” epoch.  This refers to the recent past wherein humans (“Anthropos”) have been the cause of massive changes—affecting 80% of the earth.  Changes include such things as the Amazon Jungle being chopped down by corporations that are taking its natural resources and making enormous profits for corporate owners.  Called “the lungs of the earth,” the Amazon is headed toward extinction—along with its vast vegetation and animal life.  All in the name of getting expensive cars, expensive homes, and short-term gratifications of all kinds.

Or the vast area in the Pacific which is an enormous garbage dump floating in the ocean.  The size of Texas, it is a massive waste area that not only destroys ocean life but also human life with its poisons fermenting in that body of water.

These sorts of things are the epoch we are creating.  We are not being “good shepherds” of the earth.

As you read this, you might be overwhelmed at the immensity of environmental care, and assume you have no role to play at all within this global threat to human life.  I used to have a “throw in the towel” attitude in trying to address this subject.  I had no expertise in any biological area, or environmental studies realm.  But then I was on St. Paul’s “road to Damascus” and was struck by God’s calling me out of my blindness.  Here’s my story—which is also your story (in the sense of how God operates in our lives).

A turtle was crossing the road and I stopped to save him from being hit.  I learned he was a “box turtle” and that his kind used to be seen everywhere in West Virginia.  Now they were seldom seen.  I put him in my garden on campus, and word spread that a turtle was there.  A few people brought me their box turtle since they thought these wonderful creatures would like to be among their own.  A light went on in my head (a “grace” from heaven?) and I set up a “box turtle sanctuary” wherein I would breed and release these creatures into the wild.

My challenge was that I knew absolutely nothing about breeding turtles.  This required studying material about them.  And so it came to pass that I was able to breed box turtles and care for them as best I could.  When I had to leave West Virginia, I saw to it that the box turtles could continue their colony at West Liberty University—which had started a zoo program.  Its director said they could use the turtles for their student programs.

While developing this turtle project, I noticed other areas of campus life that needed special care of its plant and animal residents.  I conceived a project that would enlist students and campus employees to be caretakers of the environment.  While trying to get this going, the University of Notre Dame sent out a “call for papers” on the topic of “The Catholic University and the environment.”  2 papers would be selected and presented by their authors at a national conference on the environment.

I—with no training in biology—put together a paper, submitted it, and was one of the two people invited to present our material.

My point is NOT that I am a great man with great ideas and great knowledge and vision.  Not at all.  My point is the exact opposite.  That is, by the happenstance of saving a box turtle, my interest in saving him and his people—moved me to expand my concern for campus life as a whole.  In short, God graced me with a stirring of interest, a sense of concern for creatures, and, bit by bit, many related environmental issues stirred me into action.

In having this experience, I was reminded of someone known as “The Star Thrower.”

There was a man who used to go to the ocean and walk on the beach.  One day along the shore, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”  The young man looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”  The older man asked “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

The young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”  The older man said: “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”  At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, the young man said, “It made a difference for that one.”

This “star thrower” was like me—doing what he could as one person—facing a massive issue that could see us become Adam and Eve all over again.  Unless we become star throwers and unless we befriend turtles, we will force ourselves out of Paradise once again.

Without any education in the field, I presented ideas to a national audience.  I was NOT an authority on the environment.  I was just a guy whose conscience was touched by God—and an interest was stirred within me to do SOMETHING.  So I saved a turtle—and the rest is history.

This is how grace works in your life, too.  God awakens you to some element of creation or some human drama or some concern—and SOMETHING stirs (if only a little).  You’re on the road to Damascus—like St. Paul—and God is reaching out to awaken within you a response.  You might be 10 years old, or 90 years old.  God reaches out to each of us.

God is trying to bring out the best in you by tapping you on the heart.

Communion reflection

A little girl walked to and from school daily.

Though the weather that morning was questionable and clouds were forming, she made her daily trek to the elementary school.

As the afternoon progressed, the winds whipped up, along with thunder

and lightning.

The mother of the little girl felt concerned that her daughter would

be frightened as she walked home from school and she feared that

the electrical storm might harm her child.

Full of concern, the mother quickly got into her car and drove along

the route to her child’s school.

As she did so, she saw her little girl walking along, but at each

flash of lightning, the child would stop, look up, and smile.

Another and another were to follow quickly, and with each flash, the little girl would look up at the streak of light and smile.

When the mother’s car drew up beside the child she lowered the window

and called to her, “What are you doing? Why do you keep stopping?”

The child answered, “I am trying to look pretty. God keeps taking my picture.”

May each of us see God’s presence in whatever storms come out way.

April 21, 2024

When speaking to you about scripture, I’ve often referred to consulting bible commentaries and articles written by biblical scholars.  I thought you might find it educational to read an example of this type of material I sort through when preparing a homily.  This week’s bulletin sets forth the thought of a contemporary bible scholar.  It shows what these researchers do when studying our faith tradition.  This work generates debate which other scholars join—all in the common enterprise of understanding what the Bible says.

Throughout the world of Catholicism, a “Eucharistic renewal” is taking place.  The content of this article takes a new look at what “Mass” might have looked like in its formation.  Recall, while some Christians say we base all things on the Bible, Catholicism also adds “tradition”—since living communities have had to adapt the written word over the centuries.  This scholar addresses “What did Jesus do during Holy Week?”  What did scripture report “theologically” (as opposed to historical fact) when it was written 25-50 years after the events described.

On Wednesday Jesus began to make plans for Passover. He sent two of his disciples into the city to prepare a large second-­story guest room where he could gather secretly and safely with his inner group. He knew someone with such a room available and he had prearranged for its use.

Jesus tells his two disciples to “follow a man carrying a jug of water,” who will enter the city, and then enter a certain house.  Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that is one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.

Confusion exists because the gospels say that they wanted to get his body before sundown. After all, the “Sabbath” was near. Everyone assumed the reference to the Sabbath had to be Saturday—so the crucifixion must have been on a Friday. However, the day of Passover itself is also a “Sabbath”—no matter what weekday it falls on. In the year a.d. 30, Friday was also a Sabbath—so two Sabbaths occurred back to back—Friday and Saturday. Matthew seems to know this as he says that the women who visited Jesus’ tomb came early Sunday morning “after the SabbathsS—the original Greek is plural.

John’s gospel preserves a more accurate chronology. He specifies that the Wednesday night “last supper” was “before the festival of Passover.” He also notes that when Jesus’ accusers delivered him to be crucified on Thursday morning they would not enter ­Pilate’s courtyard because they would be defiled and would not be able to eat the Passover that evening.   John knows that the Jews would be eating their traditional Passover, or Seder meal, Thursday evening.

Reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke one can get the impression that the “last supper” was the Passover meal. Some have even argued that Jesus might have eaten the Passover meal a day early—knowing ahead of time that he would be dead. But the fact is, Jesus ate no Passover meal in 30 CE. When the Passover meal began at sundown on Thursday, Jesus was dead. He had been put in a tomb until after the festival when a proper funeral could be arranged.

Hints of this exist outside John’s gospel. In Luke, Jesus tells his followers at that last meal: “I wanted to eat this Passover with you before I suffer but I ­won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” A later copyist of the manuscript inserted the word “again” to make it say “I won’t eat it again,” since the tradition had developed that Jesus did observe Passover that night and changed its observance to the Christian Eucharist or Mass. Another indication that this is not a Passover meal is that all our records report that Jesus shared “a loaf of bread” with his disciples, using the Greek word (artos) that refers to an ordinary loaf—not to the unleavened flatbread or matzos that Jews eat with their Passover meals. Also, when Paul refers to the “last supper” he significantly does not say “on the night of Passover,” but rather “on the night Jesus was betrayed,” and he also mentions the “loaf of bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). If this meal had been the Passover, Paul would have surely wanted to say that, but he does not.  N.B., historically, Christian communities have used both leavened and unleavened bread in different periods—Western Catholics using unleavened today while Easter use leavened.

Wednesday morning, Jesus still intended to eat Passover on Thursday. His two disciples had begun to make preparations. His enemies had determined not to try to arrest him during the feast “lest there be a riot of the people” (Mark 14:2). That meant he was likely “safe” for the next week, since the “feast” included the seven days of Unleavened Bread that followed the Passover meal. Passover is the most family-­oriented festival in Jewish tradition. As head of his household Jesus would have gathered with his mother, his sisters, the women who had come with him from Galilee, perhaps some of his close supporters in Jerusalem, and his Council of Twelve. It is inconceivable that a Jewish head of a household would eat the Passover segregated from his family with twelve male disciples. This was no Passover meal. Something had gone terribly wrong so that all his Passover plans were changed.

Jesus had planned a special meal Wednesday evening alone with his Council of Twelve in the upper room of the guesthouse. The events of the past few days had brought things to a crisis and he knew the confrontation with the authorities was unavoidable. In the coming days he expected to be arrested, delivered to the Romans, and possibly crucified. He had intentionally chosen the time and the place—Passover in Jerusalem—to confront the powers that be. There was much of a private nature to discuss with those upon whom he most depended in the critical days ahead. He firmly believed that if he and his followers offered themselves up, placing their fate in ­God’s hands, that the Kingdom of God would manifest itself. He had intentionally fulfilled two of Zechariah’s prophecies—riding into the city as King on the foal, and symbolically removing the “traders” from the “house of God.”

At some point that day Jesus had learned that Judas Iscariot, one of his trusted Council of Twelve, had struck a deal with his enemies to have Jesus arrested whenever there was an opportunity to get him alone, away from the crowds. How Jesus knew of the plot we are not told but during the meal he said openly, “One of you who is eating with me will betray me” (Mark 14:18). His life seemed to be unfolding according to some scriptural plan. Had not David written in the Psalms, “Even my bosom friend, in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me” (Psalm 41:9).

Our earliest account of that last meal on Wednesday night comes from Paul, not from any of our gospels. Writing to Corinth around a.d. 54, Paul said he “received” from Jesus: “Jesus on the night he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’.” These words are repeated with only slight variations in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. What is the historical likelihood that this tradition, based on what Paul said he “received” from Jesus, represents what Jesus said at that last meal?

At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism. Noah and his descendants were first given the prohibition against “eating blood. ” Moses likewise forbade it. James, the brother of Jesus, later mentions this as one of the “necessary requirements” for non-­Jews to join the Nazarene community—they are not to eat blood (Acts 15:20). These restrictions concern the blood of animals. Consuming human flesh and blood was not forbidden, it was simply inconceivable. This general sensitivity to the very idea of “drinking blood” precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.

So where does this body/blood language originate? If it first surfaces in Paul, and he did not in fact get it from Jesus, then what was its source? The closest parallels are certain Greco-­Roman magical rites. The symbolic eating of “flesh” and drinking of “blood” was a magical rite of union in Greco-­Roman culture.  And we have to consider that Paul grew up in the Greco-­Roman culture of the city of Tarsus outside of Israel. He never met or talked to Jesus, but was a “visionary” connection (not Jesus as a flesh-and-blood being). When the Twelve met to replace Judas, after Jesus had been killed, they insisted that to be part of their group one had to have been with Jesus from the time of John the Baptizer through his crucifixion.  Seeing visions and hearing voices were not accepted as qualifications for an apostle.

Even more telling, John recounts the events of that last Wednesday night meal but there is absolutely no reference to these words of Jesus instituting this new ceremony of the Eucharist. If Jesus in fact had inaugurated the practice of eating bread as his body, and drinking wine as his blood at this “last supper” how could John possibly have left it out? What John writes is that Jesus sat down to the supper, by all indications an ordinary Jewish meal. After supper he got up, took a basin of water and a cloth, and began to wash his disciples’ feet as an example of how a Teacher and Master should act as a servant—even to his disciples. Jesus then began to talk about how he was to be betrayed and John tells us that Judas abruptly left the meal.

Mark’s gospel is very close in its theological ideas to those of Paul. It seems likely that Mark, writing a decade after ­Paul’s account of the last supper, inserts this “eat my body” and “drink my blood” tradition into his gospel, influenced by what Paul has claimed to have received. Matthew and Luke both base their narratives wholly upon Mark, and Luke is an unabashed advocate of Paul as well. Everything seems to trace back to Paul. As we will see, there is no evidence that the original Jewish followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ brother James ever practiced any rite of this type. Like all Jews they did sanctify wine and bread as part of a sacred meal, and they likely looked back to the “night he was betrayed,” remembering that last meal with Jesus.

Is there anything that might shed light on the original practice of Jesus’ followers. Yes.  The Didache was found–dates to the early 2nd century, and its full title meaning: “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”–an early Christian “instruction manual.” It has a section on the Eucharist—the sacred meal of bread and wine. It offers the following blessings over wine and bread:

“With respect to the Eucharist you shall give thanks as follows. First with respect to the cup: “We give you thanks our Father for the holy vine of David, your child which you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.” And with respect to the bread: “We give you thanks our Father for the life and knowledge that you made known to us through Jesus your child. To you be the glory forever.”

 Notice there is no mention of the wine representing blood or the bread representing flesh. And yet this is a record of the early Christian Eucharist meal! Evidently this community of Jesus’ followers knew nothing about the ceremony that Paul advocates. If ­Paul’s practice had truly come from Jesus surely this text would have included it.  N.B., unless assumed to be known.

In Jewish tradition it is the cup of wine that is blessed first, then the bread. That is the order we find here in the Didache. But in ­Paul’s account of the ­“Lord’s Supper” he has Jesus bless the bread first, then the cup of wine—just the reverse. It might seem an unimportant detail until one examines ­Luke’s account of the words of Jesus at the meal. Although he basically follows the tradition from Paul, unlike Paul Luke reports first a cup of wine, then the bread, and then another cup of wine! The bread and the second cup of wine he interprets as the “body” and “blood” of Jesus. But with respect to the first cup—in the order one would expect from Jewish tradition—there is nothing said about it representing “blood.” Rather Jesus says, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom comes.” This tradition of the first cup, found now only in Luke, is a leftover clue of what must have been the original tradition before the Pauline version was inserted, now confirmed by the Didache.

Understood in this light, this last meal makes historical sense. Jesus told his closest followers, gathered in secret in the Upper Room, that he will not share another meal with them until the Kingdom of God comes. He knows that Judas will initiate events that very night, leading to his arrest. His hope and prayer is that the next time they sit down together to eat, giving the traditional Jewish blessing over wine and bread—the Kingdom of God will have come.

In the gospel of John, a “beloved” disciple is mentioned half a dozen times, and was seated next to Jesus, leaned back and put his head on Jesus’ breast during the meal. Even though tradition holds that this is John the fisherman, it makes much better sense that such intimacy was shared between Jesus and his younger brother James. No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

Before Jesus’ death, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus put the care of his mother into the hands of this “disciple whom he loved.” How could this possibly be anyone other than James his brother, who was now to take charge of the family as head of the household?

Jesus led his band to Gethsemane. Judas got the authorities who could now grab him when no crowds were near. Jesus’ disciples were tired. Sleep was the last thing on Jesus’ mind, and he was never to sleep again. His all-­night ordeal was about to begin. He began to feel very distressed, fearful, and deeply grieved. He wanted to pray for strength for the trials that he knew would soon begin. Mark tells us that he prayed that if possible the “cup would be removed from him.” Jesus urged his disciples to pray with him but the meal, the wine, and the late hour took their toll. They all fell asleep.

April 14, 2024

I was able to be with you on 2 of the 4 Holy Days.  Saturday & Sunday I joined other parishioners who were laid low with some kind of bug.

While the early liturgies were meals that included food and drink, Paul chastised a community for some people drinking and eating too much, and not letting some people (the poor) even join in the meal.  In the first two centuries, this dinner setting would occur at someone’s home in the evening–characterized by inclusivity, care for one another, and unity.  By the 3rd century, it had ceased to be a banquet and had become a ritualized small meal instead.

Being human, we Christians make mistakes—and so it came to pass that Rome had to reprimand churches for allowing the consecrated (Eucharistic) bread to get stale and be eaten by mice.  Western Christians even changed the bread from leavened (with yeast) to unleavened (without yeast).  However, our Orthodox cousins retained leavened bread.

The Middle Ages brought into the liturgy such things as silver and gold altar-ware and tabernacles (a mouse-proof bread box?).  Jesus was referred to as Christ “the King” and Mary as “Queen” of heaven.  Being within Europe’s hierarchical societies of the time, all sorts of “offices” became part of the institutional church—with a communion rail keeping laypeople out of the sanctuary (lay commoners remaining in their place while ordained clergy could be present near the altar).  The church embellished liturgies with kneeling before King Christ (as that’s what people did when in the presence of a King).  Forgotten was the early Christian commentator who described early liturgies this way: “We don’t kneel at our services like the pagans do, but stand like the resurrected Christ Jesus.”  Not until the 20th century was standing restored to the mass.

Remember that a sacrament is the visible sign of an invisible reality—the Mass having the risen Christ present to us in scripture’s “word of God,” the people of God, and the celebrant presiding.  For this special sacrament of Christ’s presence, the Church will probably always walk the tightrope of formality and informality—trying to keep the sacrament a sacred gathering not like any other.  Also, however, it must reflect the humanity of a Jesus who was at feasts like Cana’s wedding—always being watchful of being too rigid or too lax.

Meanwhile, we can reflect on what St. John Chrysostom said around the year 400 AD.

 “Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ?  Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my Body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also for me.” What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with gold chalices when your brother or sister is dying of hunger? Start satisfying their hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”

 Similarly, St. Augustine’s observations are still apropos of our era:

“The bread is Christ’s body.  The cup is Christ’s blood. If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your Amen may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them.”     

Good Friday tries to have us get a sense of what the apostles felt when Jesus was executed.  Generations have also wondered what Jesus felt as he made his way to Calvary, and what the experience meant to his followers who had placed all their hope in him.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Franciscans popularized what became known to us as the “Stations of the Cross” or “Way of Sorrows.  There have been as many as 30 “stations” (scenes), but they started with 7 and now appear in most Catholic churches as 12 to 14 imaginings of what Jesus experienced that Friday in Jerusalem.  I’ll edit our service and make it shorter than this year’s—although this year’s wasn’t half as long as our 12-3 worship of years past.

You can picture someone in the Jerusalem crowd on Good Friday saying “Well, yes, they’re kind of going overboard with the torture—but the guy did tend to make people angry—especially the powerbrokers.  Maybe they made a good decision in getting rid of him.  We can return to peace and just accept the way things are.  There’s nothing we can do to change the way things are.”

Or we see stations dedicated to people named Veronica and Simon—who are, of course, symbols of who we should be—helping others carry their cross and tending their wounds as best we can.

We’d do well to reflect on what St. Theresa of Avila said in the 1500s.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

 Holy Saturday is supposed to include a homily—despite the length of the readings and ritual additions.  A priest I know felt a long homily (or short one) was not necessary.  His solution was to draw upon the old and quote a Latin scriptural lesson: Resurrexit sicut dixit! Which translates as “He has risen as he said.”

Easter weekend’s scripture reminds us that “God looked at creation and saw that it was good.”  Unfortunately, too many people do not feel good about themselves—and this unfortunate emotional/mental state gets compounded in thinking of the passage that refers to Adam and Eve getting fooled by the snake.  That incident gave rise to the notion of “original sin” and conceiving of ourselves solely as sinful or inherently “bad” beings.  While we humans certainly create hell for ourselves or others in small or large ways, we can’t let this “sinful condition” make us forget what Genesis says about God creating us good.

Always remember that creation is not complete without you.  And THAT is a fact of faith that Easter Sunday affirms.  It slams home the reality that God loves you (as a loving parent loves their child).  God had you in mind when designing the masterpiece of creation.

As I and other parishioners spent our Easter Sunday trying to recover from some kind of “virus,” I sought Easter uplift by looking for the day’s news stories relating to religion.  Lo and behold, I could not escape the latest buzz-saw of misinformation being spread within the socio-political realm of American life.  Not only that but a Catholic parish was cited as a source that bolstered the lying that people tried to pass off as truth.

The day after Easter, a cable newscaster (who I’ve watched for several years and assumed she was Jewish) said that when she left MASS on Easter, some of her fellow parishioners were agreeing with Mr. Trump’s critique of Mr. Biden for replacing Easter and starting what’s called “Transgender Day of Visibility”—an event held each year on March 31.  By coincidence, Easter is a “movable feast” and happened to fall on March 31st (next year it’ll be on a different date).  TG day simply coincided with Easter this year—AND WAS BEGUN IN 2009. Mr. Biden had nothing to do with the founding of TG day this year (or ever).

The parishioners did not have to fear Mr. Biden’s going over to the “dark side” and abandoning our holy day of Easter—because Mr. Biden is a devout Catholic—who attends mass each week.  I think I’ve told you that I have a friend who worked in his office and has flown in his private plane.  So that you know more than the newscaster’s fellow parishioners about the man’s faith life, here’s what he said on Easter:

“As we gather with loved ones, we remember Jesus’ sacrifice. We pray for one another and cherish the blessing of the dawn of new possibilities. And with wars and conflict taking a toll on innocent lives around the world, we renew our commitment to work for peace, security, and dignity for all people. 

 “From our family to yours, happy Easter and may God bless you.” (quoted in Newsweek).

Another religious event that came out of nowhere was a non-Church-going presidential candidate begin to sell Bibles to support his candidacy.  Asserting he was a church-going Presbyterian, he was asked to quote a favorite Bible line.  Becoming agitated, he was quick on his feet to say “I like all of them” (and I wondered if that statement included “Crucify him, crucify him!”  A little later, he quoted “an eye for an eye.”

Back by popular request, here’s the Good Friday/Easter Sunday blended poem that we might take to heart.

Two Mothers

A long time ago, so I have been told,
Two angels once met on streets paved with gold.
“By the stars in your crown,” said the one to the other
“I see that on earth, you too, were a mother.

And by the blue-tinted halo you humbly wear

“You, too, have known sorrow and deepest despair…”
“Ah yes,” she replied, “I once had a son,
A sweet little lad, full of laughter and fun.”

“But tell of your child, and how you were blest.
From the moment you held him close to your breast.”
“Well, my heart almost burst with the joy of that day.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “I felt the same way.”

The former continued: “The first steps he took-
So eager and breathless; the sweet startled look
Which came over his face – he trusted me so.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “How well do I know.”

“But soon he had grown to a tall handsome boy,
So stalwart and kind – and it gave me such joy

To have him just walk down the street by my side”
“Ah yes,“ said the other, “ I felt the same pride.”

“How often I shielded and spared him from pain
And when he for others was so cruelly slain.
When they crucified him – and they spat in his face
How gladly would I have hung there in his place!”

A moment of silence – “Oh then you are she –
The mother of Christ”; and she fell on one knee.

But the Blessed one lifted her– drawing her near,
And kissed from the cheek of the woman, a tear.

“Tell me the name of the son you love so,
That I may share your grief and feel for your woe.”
She lifted her eyes, looking straight at the other,
“He was Judas Iscariot: I am his mother.”

April 7, 2024

I was able to be with you on 2 of the 4 Holy Days.  Saturday & Sunday I joined other parishioners who were laid low with some kind of bug.

While the early liturgies were meals that included food and drink, Paul chastised a community for some people drinking and eating too much, and not letting some people (the poor) even join in the meal.  In the first two centuries, this dinner setting would occur at someone’s home in the evening–characterized by inclusivity, care for one another, and unity.  By the 3rd century, it had ceased to be a banquet and had become a ritualized small meal instead.

Being human, we Christians make mistakes—and so it came to pass that Rome had to reprimand churches for allowing the consecrated (Eucharistic) bread to get stale and be eaten by mice.  Western Christians even changed the bread from leavened (with yeast) to unleavened (without yeast).  However, our Orthodox cousins retained leavened bread.

The Middle Ages brought into the liturgy such things as silver and gold altar-ware and tabernacles (a mouse-proof bread box?).  Jesus was referred to as Christ “the King” and Mary as “Queen” of heaven.  Being within Europe’s hierarchical societies of the time, all sorts of “offices” became part of the institutional church—with a communion rail keeping laypeople out of the sanctuary (lay commoners remaining in their place while ordained clergy could be present near the altar).  The church embellished liturgies with kneeling before King Christ (as that’s what people did when in the presence of a King).  Forgotten was the early Christian commentator who described early liturgies this way: “We don’t kneel at our services like the pagans do, but stand like the resurrected Christ Jesus.”  Not until the 20th century was standing restored to the mass.

Remember that a sacrament is the visible sign of an invisible reality—the Mass having the risen Christ present to us in scripture’s “word of God,” the people of God, and the celebrant presiding.  For this special sacrament of Christ’s presence, the Church will probably always walk the tightrope of formality and informality—trying to keep the sacrament a sacred gathering not like any other.  Also, however, it must reflect the humanity of a Jesus who was at feasts like Cana’s wedding—always being watchful of being too rigid or too lax.

Meanwhile, we can reflect on what St. John Chrysostom said around the year 400 AD.

 “Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ?  Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my Body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also for me.” What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with gold chalices when your brother or sister is dying of hunger? Start satisfying their hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”

 Similarly, St. Augustine’s observations are still apropos of our era:

“The bread is Christ’s body.  The cup is Christ’s blood. If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your Amen may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them.”     

Good Friday tries to have us get a sense of what the apostles felt when Jesus was executed.  Generations have also wondered what Jesus felt as he made his way to Calvary, and what the experience meant to his followers who had placed all their hope in him.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Franciscans popularized what became known to us as the “Stations of the Cross” or “Way of Sorrows.  There have been as many as 30 “stations” (scenes), but they started with 7 and now appear in most Catholic churches as 12 to 14 imaginings of what Jesus experienced that Friday in Jerusalem.  I’ll edit our service and make it shorter than this year’s—although this year’s wasn’t half as long as our 12-3 worship of years past.

You can picture someone in the Jerusalem crowd on Good Friday saying “Well, yes, they’re kind of going overboard with the torture—but the guy did tend to make people angry—especially the powerbrokers.  Maybe they made a good decision in getting rid of him.  We can return to peace and just accept the way things are.  There’s nothing we can do to change the way things are.”

Or we see stations dedicated to people named Veronica and Simon—who are, of course, symbols of who we should be—helping others carry their cross and tending their wounds as best we can.

We’d do well to reflect on what St. Theresa of Avila said in the 1500s.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

 Holy Saturday is supposed to include a homily—despite the length of the readings and ritual additions.  A priest I know felt a long homily (or short one) was not necessary.  His solution was to draw upon the old and quote a Latin scriptural lesson: Resurrexit sicut dixit! Which translates as “He has risen as he said.”

Easter weekend’s scripture reminds us that “God looked at creation and saw that it was good.”  Unfortunately, too many people do not feel good about themselves—and this unfortunate emotional/mental state gets compounded in thinking of the passage that refers to Adam and Eve getting fooled by the snake.  That incident gave rise to the notion of “original sin” and conceiving of ourselves solely as sinful or inherently “bad” beings.  While we humans certainly create hell for ourselves or others in small or large ways, we can’t let this “sinful condition” make us forget what Genesis says about God creating us good.

Always remember that creation is not complete without you.  And THAT is a fact of faith that Easter Sunday affirms.  It slams home the reality that God loves you (as a loving parent loves their child).  God had you in mind when designing the masterpiece of creation.

As I and other parishioners spent our Easter Sunday trying to recover from some kind of “virus,” I sought Easter uplift by looking for the day’s news stories relating to religion.  Lo and behold, I could not escape the latest buzz-saw of misinformation being spread within the socio-political realm of American life.  Not only that but a Catholic parish was cited as a source that bolstered the lying that people tried to pass off as truth.

The day after Easter, a cable newscaster (who I’ve watched for several years and assumed she was Jewish) said that when she left MASS on Easter, some of her fellow parishioners were agreeing with Mr. Trump’s critique of Mr. Biden for replacing Easter and starting what’s called “Transgender Day of Visibility”—an event held each year on March 31.  By coincidence, Easter is a “movable feast” and happened to fall on March 31st (next year it’ll be on a different date).  TG day simply coincided with Easter this year—AND WAS BEGUN IN 2009. Mr. Biden had nothing to do with the founding of TG day this year (or ever).

The parishioners did not have to fear Mr. Biden’s going over to the “dark side” and abandoning our holy day of Easter—because Mr. Biden is a devout Catholic—who attends mass each week.  I think I’ve told you that I have a friend who worked in his office and has flown in his private plane.  So that you know more than the newscaster’s fellow parishioners about the man’s faith life, here’s what he said on Easter:

“As we gather with loved ones, we remember Jesus’ sacrifice. We pray for one another and cherish the blessing of the dawn of new possibilities. And with wars and conflict taking a toll on innocent lives around the world, we renew our commitment to work for peace, security, and dignity for all people. 

 “From our family to yours, happy Easter and may God bless you.” (quoted in Newsweek).

Another religious event that came out of nowhere was a non-Church-going presidential candidate begin to sell Bibles to support his candidacy.  Asserting he was a church-going Presbyterian, he was asked to quote a favorite Bible line.  Becoming agitated, he was quick on his feet to say “I like all of them” (and I wondered if that statement included “Crucify him, crucify him!”  A little later, he quoted “an eye for an eye.”

Back by popular request, here’s the Good Friday/Easter Sunday blended poem that we might take to heart.

Two Mothers

A long time ago, so I have been told,
Two angels once met on streets paved with gold.
“By the stars in your crown,” said the one to the other
“I see that on earth, you too, were a mother.

And by the blue-tinted halo you humbly wear

“You, too, have known sorrow and deepest despair…”
“Ah yes,” she replied, “I once had a son,
A sweet little lad, full of laughter and fun.”

“But tell of your child, and how you were blest.
From the moment you held him close to your breast.”
“Well, my heart almost burst with the joy of that day.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “I felt the same way.”

The former continued: “The first steps he took-
So eager and breathless; the sweet startled look
Which came over his face – he trusted me so.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “How well do I know.”

“But soon he had grown to a tall handsome boy,
So stalwart and kind – and it gave me such joy

To have him just walk down the street by my side”
“Ah yes,“ said the other, “ I felt the same pride.”

“How often I shielded and spared him from pain
And when he for others was so cruelly slain.
When they crucified him – and they spat in his face
How gladly would I have hung there in his place!”

A moment of silence – “Oh then you are she –
The mother of Christ”; and she fell on one knee.

But the Blessed one lifted her– drawing her near,
And kissed from the cheek of the woman, a tear.

“Tell me the name of the son you love so,
That I may share your grief and feel for your woe.”
She lifted her eyes, looking straight at the other,
“He was Judas Iscariot: I am his mother.”

March 31, 2024

Palm Sunday was always a mystery to me.  We received palm branches at church because people once threw palms on the ground for Jesus to ride or walk on.  People celebrated joyously his arrival, but what did this have to do with me?

What eventually came to mind was that the celebration was the first century way of being joyous and excited and fulfilled all at once.  The experience would be like God coming to my door, knocking, and revealing to me in some way that he was God.  He’d greet me saying he was really happy to have this visit and that he was here to assure me that I’d be okay—no matter what would happen in my life—because He’d be there to help.

Having such an experience of God coming to me—is what the Palm Sunday celebration is all about.  Jesus coming to Jerusalem was a celebration of “Emmanuel”—God with us.  Now THAT’S something to celebrate, no?

We take home palm branches and hang them somewhere in the house or our room—to remind us of that great visit.  A great visit when God knocked at my door, gave me a hug, and assured me of His help forever.

As a young kid, I’d go to Palm Sunday mass and groan that we’d have to listen to the long Passion narrative.  I didn’t realize at the time that this story of Holy Week’s origin—NEEDED to be told repeatedly throughout our lives—lest we forget its many messages.  With so few young people reading scripture or attending church services, they are becoming biblically illiterate.  The many characters that appear in the Passion story become unknown to those who don’t hear the story.  But to those who DO hear the story, and reflect upon it, they benefit.  How?  Because each character reveals something about each of us.

As with scripture as a whole, each person in the story is like a mirror being held up for us to see some aspect of ourselves—the way we should be, or the way we are.  It’s like each person in the Passion story is a gene that we have inherited—and that gene is sometimes expressed in our behavior.  We’d do well during Holy Week to prayerfully reflect on our role within the Passion story.  If one person in the narrative jumps out at you, it might be that God is suggesting you ponder that person’s identity—for the good that your reflection might bring to you.

Barabbas, for instance, was the thug/murderer released from prison because the enemies of Jesus influenced the crowd to vote against their own well-being.  We have a “crowd-gene” that makes us cast our vote for people who enact laws that don’t benefit us at all.  However, because we didn’t bother to learn what the politician really stood for—we cast our vote based on flimsy information.

And Barabbas himself—he benefits at the expense of Jesus—just as others benefit from the suffering of others.  The asbestos, tobacco, and fossil fuel industries are examples of corporations that long knew their products killed people—but these corporations paid lobbyists to convince lawmakers that there was no evidence that their products brought death to millions globally.  Vast wealth was accumulated by executives within these corporations.  Lies were at the root of their success and everyone else’s detriment.

What about our Simon of Cyrene-gene?  The man who helped Jesus carry his cross.  Do you, or have you ever, helped someone carry their cross? Or do you look the other way?  The parish has many Simon of Cyrene genes within its population.

Sometimes we betray the values we normally cultivate.  We behave in a way that does not reflect well on your best traits.  In this way, you are Judas, and you have the Judas gene.   Or you are insightful when seeing the shortcomings of people, and so you find it easy to criticize them—just like the Scribes and Pharisees could find reasons to condemn Jesus.  They sent him to Calvary, the hill of crucifixion to get nails pounded into his wrists by Roman soldiers.  Do you have Roman soldier genes?  Do you in some way nail Jesus to the cross when you harbor prejudices against people?  Did you see him thirsty and give him no drink, or see him naked and not clothe him?  Remember—if you did something good or bad to the least among us, you did it to Him.

The apostle John and the faithful Magdalene, Mary, and the woman who washed the feet of Jesus—you have those genes within you, too. And having a faith practice such as attending mass, gives us prayerful opportunities to foster the effect of the strengths we possess.

As we continue with Holy Week observances, our attention is focused on how Jesus is still being crucified today, how we can learn to face crosses, and how to find life now and in eternity.

Holy Week reveals our roots in the Hebrew scriptures.  These ancestors of our faith passed on to us what they profess is their task—Tikkun Olam—repair of the world.  In reading both their “first testament” and our “new testament,” we additionally learn that God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.  WE are those unlikely people called by our baptism to repair the world.

March 24, 2024

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are gospels that share many traits.  Scholars tell us that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel when writing theirs. That is, they told Mark’s stories and added new material of their own. However, John’s gospel is different from these three accounts.  John gives us long quotes—as if he had tape-recorded Jesus.  Moreover, the Jesus of John’s gospel speaks as a theologian and philosopher, and not as a good old boy carpenter from Nazareth.

This weekend’s reading begins with what sounds like a simple enough statement.  Namely, some Greeks wanted “to see” Jesus.  This uncomplicated phrasing illustrates how rich scripture can be and how it can make our brain cells fire in different directions.  For example, any one of us might be described just as the Greeks were.  That is, you and I want “to see” Jesus come alive in our hearts.  “To see” isn’t referring literally to getting Jesus in your line of vision.  Use of the verb “to see” is akin to the well-known line from the motion picture Avatar.

In that science fiction film, when someone says “I SEE you,” the person  is formally greeting someone, or saying “I love you” in a profound way, or something like the jargon used today when someone says “I feel you.”   Now, Greek Gentiles come to “see” Jesus–a word in John’s gospel that has the meaning “to believe in.”  In short, the Greeks want to encounter or tap the wisdom Jesus offers. They want to see, feel, understand, and draw life from this new teacher.

But the passage as a whole goes beyond our simple desire to see or know or draw life from this Teacher,  Note the flow of this account: Greeks ask Philip if they can see Jesus; Philip goes to Andrew to tell him about the men’s request (Why didn’t he just go to Jesus and tell him about the Greeks?).  Then the two of them speak to Jesus.  And what does Jesus do?  Launches into a long speech that has nothing to do, it seems, with their request.  And when he’s done speaking, we’re never told if the men got to speak to him or not.

This is the sort of account that should make you stop and realize that something really important is being said.  You’re not just reading about some guys wanting to speak to Jesus.  Rather, what’s at play is an example of John the Evangelist crafting a theological statement.

Keep in mind that this gospel was written perhaps 70 years after Jesus died.  It represents what the faith community understood to be the teaching of the Master—a teaching that became clearer to them over many years of “breaking bread” at the Eucharistic gathering (“table fellowship” or sacrament of the Mass).  John’s Jesus is stating what the community’s prayerful reflection understood to be His revelation.  John offers a context for Jesus to utter this revelation.

As stated, scripture can convey a number of messages.  That’s why you can read a passage 100 times and on the 101st reading you say: “I never thought of this previously”—as a new insight strikes you.  And so it is with this gospel scene.  Again, instead of telling Philip and Andrew that he did or did not want to meet the Gentiles, he says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

Hmm.  What does THAT mean?  Answer: LOTS.

On one level, it refers to his death being the source of life for many, actually for all (Israelites and non-Israelites). Moreover, those who follow Jesus will gain entry to eternal life through death.  But also, it alludes to the grain (the Old Law) becoming the source of the New Law—the New Testament eclipsing the Old as an abundance of “fruit” whose see was planted in the Hebrew scriptures.

Within this latter meaning is the origin of the word “Catholic”—in the sense of meaning “universal” (and not referring to a group within Christianity different from Presbyterians or Methodists or others).  Recall that the Israelites were a tribal people—just as each of us came from some tribal group in the past.  Like our tribal ancestors, the Israelites were what we’d today call “ethnocentric” or “clannish” or “parochial.”  All humans were like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s always at war with one another and feeling superior to those outside their group.  Vestiges of this tendency are seen in “friendly” rivalries between sports teams from different towns or cities.  Us against them!!!  Our group against THAT group!!

The dark side of this Adam/Eve tendency we have toward “sin” and bad decisions—is our own prejudices and bigotry.  In the 4 gospels, Jesus interacts with only a handful of Gentiles—being the good tribal Jewish boy that he was.  But his teaching about our kinship with one another is the point of today’s passage about new fruit (Gentiles within a pan-tribal, universal community) spawned by the grain that dies (the Old Law).  Today’s first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah forecasts this.

Along comes Jesus, and He reveals that we are all brothers and sisters on one God who is our “Father” or “Mother” or “Parent” (however you want to describe our Creator).  The “grain of wheat” has become the seed that gave way to the wheat field of God’s people.  The reading from Jeremiah attests to this revelation.  It is the only reference to a “new covenant” or new law that will come to the people—and as Jeremiah says, it will be written not on stone, but on their hearts.

The thought here can be remembered by recalling this one line: YOU, ME, TOGETHER, WE.

 St. Patrick’s Prayer followed by a Navaho Indian Prayer (the word “beauty” is used to translate a concept in Navajo that is more than just something aesthetically pleasing; it refers to balance, symmetry, fulfillment, all that is good, and notions of that sort which, in fact, reflect what Jesus embodies).                                                                                             Christ with me,        Christ before me,
Christ behind me,    Christ within me,
Christ beneath me,  Christ above me,
Christ at my right,   Christ at my left

With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.

March 17, 2024

Every football season, someone in the stands holds up a sign that reads: “John: 3:16.”  I doubt many people later check their Bibles to see what the verse says.  I cite it now because it is in this weekend’s gospel reading: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

The meaning of the verse seems fairly straightforward, but as usual, some clarifications need to be noted.  Importantly, for John, the “world” is not a neutral term.  It often refers to the opposite of what God intended when creating the world.  At other times, it can also refer to the goodness of creation.

St. Ignatius was a soldier who wrote his classic Spiritual Exercises, and in that work he thinks of our world as a large battlefield.  The forces of Christ are at war with the forces of evil—and we are in that war!  This depiction naturally leads to us asking ourselves “What role am I playing in this battle?  Do I even know there’s a war all around me? What am I  doing to stop it?”

Flesh out the idea of a multi-faceted “battle” taking place every day—in all parts of the world.  It includes you and everyone else.  Where are the enemies?  How are they trying to defeat me?  Am I prepared to fight them?

In thinking of what Ignatius wrote, I came across an article that spoke of Russia flooding the Internet with bogus websites.  Their sites are aimed at accomplishing what former Russian Premier, Nikita Kruschev, said in the 1960’s: “We will defeat you from within.”  Sure enough, many decades later, these websites are sewing confusion within the minds of the 140 million Americans who read them.

Sites will disguise themselves as “real” American tabloids.  They mimic real outlets and have given themselves such names as The Washington Daily, The New York Daily, and The Miami Chronicle: Since 1938.  In reality, these sites are written in Russia and draw articles from legitimate magazines like Ladies Home Journal, Gentleman’s Quarterly, etc.  The sites will list scores of professional sports teams—but then slip in a very readable article (not too intellectual so that it appeals to the “common man”).  It will quote names of Americans who don’t exist, and put into their mouths statements that support Russian propaganda, e.g., don’t waste money on NATO or Ukraine, and other “hot issues.”

Knowing that America is composed of every ethnic nation of the world, articles will address controversial or hot-button issues that don’t have easy answers within these Indian, Hispanic, Black, Gay, and every other group.  140,000 websites are Russian controlled—the largest Indian, Black, and Hispanic sites being Russian—NOT Indians, Blacks, or Hispanics.  All of this is done to create chaos within the U.S. among its people.

Such is the “battlefield” St. Ignatius addressed (without knowing about its form in our day).

Most of us might not know how to eradicate these propaganda machines, but each of us can use Lent to address our own need to get a handle on the loose ends of our lives.  On both this point and today’s scripture, it is worthwhile pursuing what one biblical scholar wrote: “The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can help us get to the heart of this Sunday’s readings.”

Keep in mind that AA’s 12 steps have been used by many people to address one or another addiction or behavior that is controlling them—just as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius have helped many diverse people, from diverse backgrounds, grow into more centered persons.  A Jesuit priest was, in fact, a good friend of the AA’s founder—St. Ignatius and advising people much like the Steps counseled alcoholics and others.

Perhaps you struggle with some cross, and the Steps might be of help to you during this season of Lenten reflection.

 THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects ofcharacter.

7.  Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  3. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  4. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  5. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

John’s Gospel echoes what the first reading addressed.  The Book of Chronicles tells how the Israelites went their own way and ignored what God had revealed to Abraham and his descendants.  John put it this way: people loved darkness rather than light.”  As with those who come to terms with their alcoholism through AA, the Israelites turned around their behavior and were able to build the Temple of Jerusalem with the help of King Cyrus.  As the Bible reports, the people flourished when they remained true to the “Steps” given to them by God—their spiritual sobriety.

Often enough, people think of church involvement as being something God DEMANDS they do—as if God got something out of you or me going to church, praying, receiving the sacraments, reading scripture, listening to homilies, reading church bulletins, etc.  Try to remember that God doesn’t benefit from these behaviors, but WE do.

Remember today’s gospel line that goes hand in hand with this understanding of having a faith practice: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” This reference to the “world” is a positive one—God giving us this beautiful planet that is our home—God equivalently saying to us: “I gave it to you because I thought you’d like it.”

And so we have the Ephesians reading that depicts a community celebrating their unity and communal worship—and the realization that each person is “God’s work of art.”

We might say: “I have an original Rembrandt (of Da Vinci, or Picasso, or Andy Warhol).”  We can look in the mirror and smile in realizing: “I have an original done by–God—a work of art—who is me!”  What an awesome reality!  God so loved the world that he created ME!  A work of art.

March 10, 2024

The classic Cecil B. DeMille film titled “The 10 Commandments” is a phrase not found in the Bible itself.  It might appear as a sub-heading placed there by the publisher, but the Hebrew has no such phrase in it. And if you memorized the 10 commandments, which version did you memorize?  Scholars refer to the list as the “Decalogue,” and it is found in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 34. The first two lists have a few differences in wording and order, but Exodus 34 seems to be a completely different (and less familiar) set of commandments.

While it was once held that Moses wrote these books, scholars today see their composition as occurring over a long period—edited by many unknown authors.  Scholars also point out that “Jews, Catholics and Protestants all count them differently. For example, while Jews consider the substance of both verses 2 and 3 as the first commandment, Christians take verse 2 as a preface to the actual first commandment in verse 3; but some Christians see this commandment as continuing through verse 6, while others agree with the Jewish tradition that the second commandment begins in verse 4.”

Many years ago, an Episcopalian pastor-friend told me that his parish was divided—with some favoring retention of the older King James version and some wanting its updated translation.  The older one is most often quoted (in movies and by non-scholars)—with its “thou” and “thine” type language.  A wing of the parish needed to realize that what they sought was a version that was 400 years “Olde,” and not consistent with our updated knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.

At the beginning of the Decalog, a form of Middle Eastern literature has been detected that presents the material.  Namely, similar statements were common opening themes in treaties between an emperor/king/ruler with their subjects.  Made between a conquering overlord and a subject population, they commonly stated something to the effect of “I am (name) who governs all my subjects well, who gives them many great things, etc. and they are to do the following (a list of ‘commandments’).”  Long before the 10 commandments were written, King Hammurabi of Babylonia wrote his “Code” which sounds very much like the Decalogue.  Namely, the god Shamash has told me to inform you that you should do the following: honor parents, don’t kill, steal, etc.”  Many such “treaties” have been excavated or discovered by archaeologists.  Like Hammurabi, they remind us of Moses saying Yahweh (the Hebrew name of God) has done this for us and we must observe these commandments.  Voila—typical “treaty” language.

Our Christian theology flows from Israelite history, then Jewish history, and we consider ourselves “monotheists,” i.e., we believe in one god and are not “polytheists” (those who believe in more than one god).  However, when the Decalogue was written, the Israelites seem to have accepted the existence of “other” gods.  However, THEIR God wanted none of the other gods to be worshiped “before” or in front of him.  As time passed, Israelite theology evolved into monotheism.

If your parents told you not to “swear,” they might have told you “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.”  That was a nice way to help improve the use of language by children (and learn how to say something more than cuss words), but that’s not what this commandment was addressing.  Rather, it was telling people not to “swear” on their belongings or reputation or something else—and simply be honest with someone in a straightforward way.  Ignore “swearing” on something, and just tell the truth (and avoid lies).

Christians “observe the Sabbath” by going to church on Sunday.  However, Jewish tradition begins the Sabbath observance on Friday at sundown and continues until Saturday at sundown.  Genesis says that people should imitate God and rest on the 7th day just as God did after creating everything over 6 days.

Later, however, Deuteronomy says that people should allow their servants a day off—because the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt.  Hmm—so which is it?  Is there a day of rest because God rested, or because we’ve walked in the shoes of our servants and so compassionately created a day of rest for them?

Or maybe the Bible speaks of a divinely mandated “day of rest” because cultures in that part of the world—all had a day of rest for one reason or another.  Israel came up with the same custom—and put a sacred meaning on it and all sorts of customs.  For example, is the practice of “fast & abstinence” performed in the middle of winter because people have very little food, and so must “go without” because they simply don’t have anything?  Voila, let’s refer to this as a “sacred” time of fasting and abstaining from food!

Honoring one’s father and mother sounds reasonable (if one wasn’t abused by them as a child), so might this commandment be the origin of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?  No.  This commandment involves many more cultural customs related to who one should marry within the network of cousins considered a potential spouse.  Kin relations in tribal cultures are far more complicated than our kinship system.

Similarly, we’ve inherited a translation that is not a good one.  Stating that one “shall not kill” SHOUD be “Thou shall not MURDER.”  As still occurs, people will run with what they think a text means—and actually MISS the text’s real meaning.  For example, some considered not killing to apply to animals, and so vegetarianism was thought to be what God wanted our diets to follow.  After all, when creating the earth, God initially just gave us plants to eat.  Not until after the flood does the Bible say God gave us animals to eat.

Not committing adultery seems a simple enough commandment to understand—except for the fact that we see it differently than did people in Biblical times.  Back then, men could have sexual relations with concubines (maidservants of their house) and prostitutes.  Married women, however, did not have a similar option.  They would be put to death for such behavior.  Moreover, it was practically impossible for a man to have relations with a woman who was not his wife—because men and women worked separately from one another each day.  If one DID find a woman, it was probably due to seeking revenge on the husband for some reason (a kind of “payback” for some real or imagined slight).

Taken literally, I’d have no problem coveting” my neighbor’s ox—because I have no interest in any nearby oxen.  However, reference to coveting a man’s wife or belongings is stated along the lines of the adage: “The thought is the father of the deed.”  In other words, if you see something you like that is owned by another person, fine.  Just don’t think about it—lest you stoke the fires of envy and this prompts you into stealing the possession or ignoring some other area of your life in order to get what obsessively moves you to covet.

In just browsing the roots of our 10 Commandments, you can see that our task is to translate them into something meaningful in our lives.  Each focuses on a communal value that can still apply to our culture 3000 years removed.

And so it is with Jesus in the Temple when we try to make sense of animals at “church” and bankers plying their trade just before Mass.  At least, that’s how we might envision the Temple scene.  Here’s what was at play.

As was the custom, animals were sacrificed at the Temple.  People would “buy animals for slaughter . . . from far away to Jerusalem.  This fueled the economy . . .  [as] the merchants made a lot of money and the city prospered.  Picture carcasses sold for food. Other goods probably sold, too. Where was religious practice in all of this?

Jerusalem was a bustling metropolis without any natural economic resources, as it was landlocked and far from most major trade routes . . .   the city’s economic heart was the Holy Temple, the only place where Israelites could sacrifice animals as offerings to God.”

This Wall Street blending with religion was said to have “priests wading up to their knees in blood” while other narratives “describe 1.2 million animals being slaughtered on one day.”  Because Temple offerings would not receive coins with images of an emperor or god on them, so “bankers” exchanged government currency for acceptable money at the Temple.

Picture this slaughterhouse and bank reflecting your “religious practice.” You should get a sense of how repugnant these behaviors were to Jesus.  Blood, death, and money overwhelmed Him—much like the war profiteers today who make weapons so that they can get rich—were all going on when Jesus was alive.

And still goes on today.  People were seduced into tobacco addiction and died from cancer.  The tobacco companies KNEW their products were deadly—but denied it so that money could be made.  Today, oil companies deny climate change is due to their drilling and carbon emissions.  Europe is changing to alternative energy sources, but American companies pay politicians to make few concessions to alternative forms.  There’s no debate on the matter because oil company scientists have known about the problem they’re causing for years.  Whistle-blowers and others have revealed the cover-ups, but Americans are again seduced by propaganda that there’s no connection between emissions and climate change.

This scene of Jesus in the Temple has been one of the key gospel passages at the heart of what is known as “liberation theology.”  This field addresses how our Christian identity challenges us to stand up against the wealthy power-brokers of society who profit at the expense and suffering of everyone else.  That’s why these issues are RELIGIOUS issues—since we are called to follow the example of Jesus who spoke against wealthy oppressors of the people.  It’s his Spirit that is behind the adage: “evil flourishes when good people do nothing.”

There was an award-winning documentary titled “Whatever Happened to the Marlboro Man.”  It told of how a number of male actors played the role of a cowboy smoking on horseback—embodying the “macho” image of manhood as one smoking a Marlboro cigarette.  The documentary tells of how some of the actors portraying the cigarette-smoking hard guy—DIED of lung cancer.

One exception to those who died was the first man to portray the character.  Imagine this: in reality, the actor never smoked a day in his life.  He just played the role.  And we were played by the tobacco corporations.  Attributed to PT Barnum (of circus fame) is: “A sucker is born every minute.”  And so we hear lies daily, and accept them as truth.  Last week, for example, a politician said: “Nations are releasing felons and mental patients from prison and mental hospitals, and sending them to our southern border to infiltrate the U.S.” Fact-checkers found no evidence for this claim.  How many cheering admirers believed the politician?

The Philip Morris Corporation was happy that its campaign was a success.  Even though its researchers KNEW of the link between tobacco and cancer, the cigarette companies continued to tell consumers not to worry—no such problem existed.  It took the surgeon general’s warning to force manufacturers to print it on cigarette packages. First marketed as a “woman’s cigarette,” Marlboro shot up to #1 sales with the macho ads.  It has remained there for decades.  Meanwhile, an element of the population—organized by tobacco companies—shouted that “big government” was controlling our lives by forcing them to put a warning on cigarette packages.

The same script plays out today with the fossil fuel industry.  Thanks to scientific research, whistle-blowers, and honest former employees, the connection between carbon emissions, climate change, and air pollution has been long known.  Nonetheless, politicians (subsidized by the oil industry) still boldly shout “Drill!”  This is equivalently giving their middle finger to the earth and its people.  This mentality is what liberation theologians say is what moved Jesus to take a whip in hand and chase out the profiteers.  His example is at the heart of our Christian identity.

Unfortunately, it seems that many Americans (and presumably people elsewhere) either don’t care about what we’re doing to planet Earth, ourselves, or our descendants.  We pay almost no attention to accurate sources of information, and are deceived by mass media that tell us lies.  And we all simply live our lives—wanting to be like the Marlboro Man, and not the man from Galilee.

Prayerful Reflection

Lord Jesus—you are the inspiration I need—help me live as I should.

–Inspire me to bring a smile to those whose eyes meet mine.

–May I have the strength to stand tall in the face of conflict,

–And the courage to speak my voice, even when I’m scared.

–I ask not for easier tasks but just enough talents to meet any tasks which come my way.

–May I seek to know the highest truths

–And dismiss the pull of my lower self.

–May I learn more profoundly why you created me,

–How to overcome darkness and have the gospel wisdom To Choose generosity over selfishness.

–Today I want to surrender anything that Undermines the sacredness who you made me to be.

–So drench me with a knowledge of your affection for me—a child, like you, born in the Bethlehem of my family.

March 3, 2024

This second week of Lent presents us with two well-known incidents in scripture.  One is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the other is what Christian tradition refers to as the “Transfiguration.”  Much can be said about both events, so let us start with Genesis portraying a God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his son on a mountaintop.   What the heck!  What kind of God asks for a dad to sacrifice his son?  Abraham and Sarah resigned themselves to not having a child of their own—but God intervened to their surprise and joy.  The couple became parents in their seventies.

Before proceeding, let’s go back a bit, and see how this series of stories affect our world today.  When Sarah assumed she would always be barren, she offered her maidservant, Hagar, for her husband to impregnate and bear him a child.   Such was a legitimate practice in that time and place.  Voila, Hagar bore a son who she named Ishmael.  To this day, Muslims regard Ishmael as the father of Arab peoples.  Then, to Sarah’s surprise, SHE also became pregnant by Abraham—and she bore Isaac.

As the day’s reading reports, Abraham was cooperating with God and was just about to sacrifice his beloved son—when God stopped the slaughter.  Hence Isaac, via Abraham, became the father of the Jewish people (just as Ishmael was the father of the Arabs—or so the folk tradition reported).  That is why we Christians are one of three “Abrahamic” religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Each of these traces roots to Abraham.

One “moral of the story” is that you and I NOT do any name-calling against Jews or Muslims.  They are our cousins in the faith—with the same roots that nourish the tradition of the little Jewish boy named Jesus.  And as I’ve said in the past, Muslims verge away from our belief in Jesus as Son of the Father, but their great reverence and stories about Jesus—present him powerfully and almost God-like.

At play in the story of Isaac’s escape from being a human sacrifice—is showing how the Israelites are not like their neighbors.  Namely, cultures that were near the Israelites DID have human sacrifices, and this story indicates that God STOPPED this tradition with Isaac.  So much for musing how the Israelites forsook human sacrifices long ago.

In the bible, when God appears to someone, the technical name for such an appearance is “theophany.”  These experiences are associated with mountaintops—which hearken back to the builders of the tower of Babel.  Recall that people thought they could build a temple and if it was high enough, the building could give them access to God’s kingdom in heaven.  Recalling this point simply reminds us that high places, it was thought, might give one access to God’s kingdom.  So it’s not surprising that mountaintop meetings with God make sense.  That is, maybe while one is up in the mountains, God might pass by.  Our thinking of heaven as “above” and hell as “below” comes from this ancient understanding that heaven was in the sky—and that humans might climb or build in that direction and live there.

But in Abraham’s case, Peter, James, and Andrew see Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah.  What a sight!!  Their leader (Jesus) is speaking to the giver of the law (Moses) and the great prophet Elijah.  Jesus appears dazzling white and a voice from the clouds (belonging to the Creator) says to listen to Jesus for in him the Creator is pleased.  That’s one powerful theophany!  Jesus appearing this way as son of the Father has become known to us as the “Transfiguration” (changing of his ordinary appearance when revealed by the Father).

This story reminds me of my first visit to mountains—the Laurentians in French Canada.  I was about 21 years of age, and found the views spectacular.  I’d prefer saying the mountains were an “awesome” sight—but that word became so over-used in recent decades that one could call a can of Coke “awesome” or skipping school “awesome.”  The word became meaningless—and certainly didn’t refer to something that inspired “awe.”  Well, the Laurentians were, for me AWESOME.  So I asked the driver to stop the car—whereupon I got out and collected a bunch of stones and rocks from the roadside.  I wanted to take some of this beauty with me.  However, in a short while, I asked the driver to stop once again.  I got out and threw the rocks and stones back into the beautiful place that had been their home for millions of years.

For me, that was a mini-Transfigurational experience,  I was in awe of creation’s beauty, and saw that it reflected its Maker—God.  As with Peter, James, and John, I had to come down from those mountains, and make sense of what I had just seen and what had affected me so powerfully.  Sure, it wasn’t Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—but SOMETHING spoke to my soul—as if calling me to do something with the experience.

Years later, the University of Notre Dame sent out a call for papers that would address “The Catholic University and the Environment.”  Two papers would be selected for attendees to hear.  I could hardly realize at age 21 that the Laurentian rocks were seeds planted in my spirit, took root, and years later—combined with other life-experiences—inspired me to submit a paper to Notre Dame and actually BE one of the two persons selected to present our papers to Conference attendees from around the country.

When Moses and Elijah vanish from sight, Jesus is there alone—reminding the apostles visually, that the old Law and Prophets are now embodied in what Jesus teaches.  As it’s said elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus did not come to throw out the Hebrew scriptures, but to fulfill them, enhance them, and then apply them to real-life concerns.

For example, if you just read the “letter of the law,” you could read the commandments as just saying “do not steal.”  Sure, that’s the letter, but not the spirit of the law,  That one commandment is also asking how GENEROUS you’ve been with your time, treasure, and talent.  Similarly, you might not have killed anyone, but have you consciously tried to bring new LIFE to people with whom you interact?  Or have you ever made an effort to stop military aggression in some faraway place (like Vietnam or Iraq or Ukraine)?  You might keep holy the Sabbath and show up each Sunday at Mass.  But do you try your best to be involved with the faith community (the parish) via choir, cantor, usher, and attendance at parish events?  Jesus did not come to abolish these laws, but to encourage us to live them more fully in our everyday life.

Why not go through each of the commandments this Lent, and see if you’ve lived their spirit—and not just their letter?  For example, maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you gone out of your way to bring new life to your spouse?  Or do you just operate on cruise control and not stir to life that person who made your wedding day so special?

I suggest you consider your attendance at Mass to be a Theophanous experience—wherein you are exposed to God’s presence in the sacrament’s Word read to you, sacred songs sung to your heart, the example of others praying set before you, a homily struggling to express God’s speaking to you, and the bread there signaling that God himself is present to feed you where you hunger (while calling you to feed others—in your own Peter, James, and John way).

As with me in the Laurentian mountains, so you have had transfigurational experiences throughout life wherein God has appeared to you in subtle and spectacular ways and disguises.  As with my addressing a university with one set of my Transfiguration  moments, so have you received blessings of revelation.  Look back over your life, and try and see how God has written straight in crooked lines to you.  We’re the apostles today who, like Peter, James, and John—are coming down from our mountains and being called to change the statistics that Bishop Gruss reported this past week.

Since 2015, there has been an almost 40% drop in church attendance in our parishes.  Those under the age of 60 are not numerous.  May we somehow communicate to our loved ones that our practice of the faith doesn’t help God one bit.  But it helps us.  Sacramental participation gives meaning to the ancient theological formulation that “grace builds upon nature.”  That is, our younger generations might be good people—by their very NATURE.  But they can be even BETTER people—since grace builds upon nature!

Encourage them to stop short-changing themselves, and instead become the best version of themselves by asking help from the God who made them—through their participation in the faith community.

Homily reflection-prayer

Slow me down, Lord, and whisper a word or two – or more, in the quiet of my mind and heart .

When I’m cursing myself or others, whisper words of blessing…

When I’m judging another’s words and deeds, whisper words of patience…

When my voice is still and silent, whisper wise words that I might speak…

When I’m saying much too much, whisper words that quiet me

When I’ve failed and when I’ve sinned, whisper words of pardon…

When I’m facing loss and grief, whisper words of consolation…

When I’m stuck in my own foolishness, whisper words of wisdom…

When I’m confounded and confused, whisper words of counsel…

When I’m hearing lies, whisper words of truth.

When life is just too tough to take, whisper words of hope…

When my heart is broken, hurt and wounded, whisper words of healing…

When I’m at war with my neighbor or myself, whisper words of peace…
Slow me down, Lord, and help me find a quiet place to hear the whisper of your word . . . and inspire me to be one who whispers your word of life to others. God be in my heart and in my thinking; God be in my death–at my departing.

Communion Reflection

 My child–You are so like Abraham and Sarah. Other people will find a blessing in you—as they were a blessing to others.  You are my beloved one—in whom I am well pleased.  I have no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are my eyes that look with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which I walk to do good; yours are the hands with which I bless those you meet.  Today, when you leave this sacred space—this theophany of the Mass–be my heart that smiles at all creation.  Remember, you are my beloved one, and I am with you always.

February 25, 2024

This is the first week of Lent.  Lent—a time when we think of fasting and eating at fish fries and almsgiving and giving up candy for 40 days and violet vestments at Mass and Holy Week services.  These are the popular associations we make with Lent, but do we ever think of this period as a time when we become better people?  And how the 40 days of this period have helped shape us into an even better person than we were before making the Lenten journey?

Like the sacraments, the Lenten season is a period in which we contemplate becoming the best version of ourselves that God intended us to be.  Jesus came—to help us become that best version.  During this period, I’m reminded of Black Elk saying “God always helps those who cry to him with a pure heart.”  Just as we do at Mass, so during this Lent do we cry to God in prayer.

Our Muslim cousins do this same crying out during their month of “Ramadan.”  No one eats or drinks from when the sun first rises in the morning until the sun disappears at night.  They go hungry and thirsty all day long—but then can eat and drink all they want come night time.

But the purpose of all our religious practices—Sunday Mass or Lenten fast—is to internalize the first word of today’s 2nd reading.  All we do that relates to religious practice—is intended for us to realize that we are God’s “beloved.”  THAT’S the first word of the 2nd reading.  As I’ve said so often, creation is not complete without you—and that’s because God loves your “you-ness”/individuality.  If only we could savor that word, “beloved” of God.

Too often, humans get involved with behaviors that make them forget what the behaviors were intended to address.  Jesus spoke out against the Scribes and Pharisees because they weighed down the common folk with burdensome observances.  Leaders were more concerned with practices than they were with why the practices existed in the first place.

I’m reminded of Jesuits in South America writing Rome to ask if the capybara should be considered fish or meat.  If meat, the Indians would be told not to eat it during Lent, but if Rome determined it was a fish—they could eat it.  This was important to know, they thought, because the people ate capybara like we eat beef.  We see them at zoos and they look like enormous guinea pigs (77-146 lbs.).  Rome said these water-dwelling creatures should be considered fish!  And so, the people didn’t fast from them—and continued on their merry way.

One would think that the priests could have determined the matter themselves and simply advised the people to fast from SOMETHING.  With the popularity of vegetarian/vegan meals, fasting from meat isn’t a sacrifice for many people.  American Indians, when going “on the hill” for a few or many days, will eat NOTHING.  Again, however, all of these practices are INTENDED to put a person in touch with the God who created them, who sustains them, and who feeds them with all of creation. Too often, people forget that goal—and get distracted by rules intended to induce a prayerful mind. One might observe the “law” but entirely miss its spirit.

With so many things in life, we wonder if anything we do will accomplish anything—for us or for anyone else.  Why am I even here on earth, we ask ourselves.  This frame of mind brings on the blues, and that’s one reason why we have diverse religious practices (like the sacraments and other prayer forms).  The great Christian revelation is God making you—you who are reading this—because God loves you.  Remember, creation is not complete without you—and the specific presence/gift you bring to the world of people plants, and animals around you.

Asking what difference you make brings to mind the story of a hummingbird. As the fire destroys tree after tree in the forest, the hummingbird gets a beak full of water (a few drops) and buzzes back and forth from the creek to the fire—trying to put it out.  The other animals just stand there—with much bigger beaks and mouths—and just tell the hummingbird that it will accomplish nothing with those few drops fighting the blaze.  But the hummingbird replied to them that at least he was doing SOMETHING with his life.

Lent is a time for “penance”—getting in touch with where we’ve fallen short of performing good deeds we are called to incarnate.  As with AA, Lent calls us to make a fearless inventory of our shortcomings—and do our best to make up for the deficiencies we recognize.  For example, one way of approaching this topic is to think of what Christian history came to call the “7 capital sins.”  These are behaviors that stalk each of us throughout life in different ways—and are part of the human condition.  Call them “tendencies” we all have.  Call them behaviors that bring us and others down, these “capital sins” are identifiable areas of life that we should be sure to keep in check. When we think of things that didn’t work out well for us or others, we can usually trace their origin to one of these experiential realms.

For example, I’ve reported to you that studies have been done on inflation that occurred since Covid hit us.  Objective studies—not political parties—focused on 20 corporations that pretty much monopolize markets that support our lifestyle.  Contrary to what these corporations claimed, the higher costs of what they sold were attributable NOT to lack of goods and slow supply lines—but

something far simpler to understand.  Greed!  Prior to Covid, these corporation were reaping record profits.  Come Covid, they had an excuse to make even more money—so they raised prices—and made their stockholders very happy, and very wealthy.

And so it is with each of the capital sins.  We don’t like someone for some reason—and our “wrath” (a capital sin) spills over into us hurting the person in some way—ignoring them in time of need, beating them up, destroying their property, or some other hurtful behavior.  Feeling anger is human, but in this area or the others, we can go overboard—and cause pain, agony, and killing of another’s spirit or body.  Just as feelings are neither right nor wrong (they just “are”), so are these areas of human behavior—if we act on pride, sloth, etc.—problems! The same with feelings—we might have them, but it’s what we do with them that matters.  Lenten practices help us discipline ourselves.

People easily think of “lust” they’ve experienced in some way, and it’s certainly true that sexual behavior can get people in real trouble, and even death.  What’s strange about this “capital sin” is that the great St. Thomas Aquinas suggested that it was of least concern when compared with the other capital sin behaviors.  After all, we humans have a sexual drive in-built—just like other animals that roam the earth.  Fine—so be it.  But we are also designed to behave beyond the reptilian level.  “Gluttony” refers to obsessional eating but is aligned with the other capital sins in that a person allows an element of our hearts and minds to govern our behavior—we “glut” on wrath, envy, pride, lust, and sloth (“one who says ‘not my problem’;” or “I don’t care about them,” and overall laziness—the opposite of the hummingbird).

Each of these instincts, behaviors, moods/modes of being—are actually at one end of the spectrum of our human experience,  For example, generosity is at the other end of greed, and zeal is the opposite of sloth.  Why not reflect on where you are on the spectrum of 7 human behaviors which, if unchallenged, will destroy you.  If tamed by Lenten practices and a religious practice year-round—will help you become the best version of yourself.

Here are two reflection prayers for you to use this Lent.

Pope Francis addressed the capital sins via his encyclical on the environment.  Here’s a concrete sense of how our behaviors hurt us or others.  The capital sin of gluttony extends to our care for the environment in many ways.  For example, chopping down the Amazon forest to grow palm oil or other first-world commodities is killing an area known as “the lungs of the world” (the Amazon).  Almond milk, too, requires vast amounts of water—as water is diverted from the southwest to sustain the crop (another “first world” product negatively affecting water needs elsewhere.  Or think of the Greenland shark—the longest-living animal on earth (they reach maturity around 400 years of age).  Now a “near threatened” animal, will we see its demise because some people simply like eating shark meat?  And if you’re any kind of shark, be on the lookout for a fishery that catches you and cuts off your fins for shark fin soup—for its Asian clientele.  Last report I heard, they throw away the rest of the shark once its fins are cut off.  So take note of what you eat and what beauty products you purchase at the expense of land and animals that we humans continue to abuse to our detriment.

 Prayer based on the above reflections

Lord, as tempting as it might be to judge others, inspire us to realize that you love them.  Help us heal by avoiding words that pollute and replacing them with speech that purifies.  Open our eyes to all that we can be grateful for, and mute our pessimism by touching our hearts with hope.  Neutralize whatever bitterness we taste in thinking of someone or some event, and give us the curative power of forgiveness.  Lord, we admit to needing your help in curbing our critical tongue. Please give to us words that upbuild others and not words that tear them down.  Show us the poverty of pride, gluttony, envy, lust, greed, wrath, and sloth by teaching us the grace of humility, generosity, kindness, patience, and other virtues that create a community of support.  Inspire us to create such a community.

Practical application of

Gospel teachings:

Refrain from words that hurt people and instead say kind things to them

Refrain from sadness and each day count even the simplest things for which you can be grateful

Refrain from knee-jerk angry reactions to what people say and be filled with patience

Refrain from pessimism and force yourself to light one candle of hope

Refrain from worries and replace them with trust in God

Refrain from complaining and contemplate simplicity

Refrain from pressures that bring anxiety and replace it with speaking to God

Refrain from bitterness and find its antidote—joy—if only it be a teaspoonful

Refrain from self-centered behavior and try to feel what another feels when hurt or alone—tap your inner resource of compassion

Refrain from holding grudges and make some effort to be reconciled

Refrain from words and be silent so you can listen

May I risk reputation, comfort, and security to bring hope to the downcast.

May I respond “yes” to the angel Gabriel’s who ask me to bring life to

February 18, 2024

Today’s first reading takes us to the book of Leviticus, the 3rd book of the Torah—which consists of the first 5 books of what we call the “Bible” but which Bible scholars refer to as the “Hebrew scriptures.”  Recall that there’s no “old” testament for Jews because they have no “new” testament (which consists of the Christian scriptures—and Jews pay no heed to Christian material).  As Christians, we have the Hebrew scriptures as part of our religious heritage.  The Hebrew scriptures are the “old” testament for us, and they lead TO the “new” testament of Jesus.

The book of Leviticus is filled with prescriptions (“do”) and proscriptions (“don’t do”).  Today we’re told what lepers should do, viz., since God is pure, nothing should be in God’s presence that is not pure.  Since lepers and sick people in general are “impure,” they must stay away from people.  After all, they might pollute people.

The book of Leviticus is loaded with rules and regulations that religious people are told they should observe.  For example, don’t eat lobsters or clams since shellfish is forbidden—as is ham.  A Jewish friend of mine thinks nothing of eating a ham sandwich, but other Jews would not think of doing this (Muslims likewise avoid eating pork products).  My Jewish friend dismisses the injunction against ham by noting the rule is dated and that ham poses no risk (as thought by the ancestors).  Keep in mind that there are religious practices in every culture that regulate eating and behavior.

What’s fascinating today is that our culture has become so secularized that vast numbers of people have NO religious practice—and so have no thoughts related to fasting or abstaining from anything.  They have no observances, nothing that fosters reflection on some life issue, nothing to remind them that God gives us all that we have and that sometimes we need to go without in order to appreciate what we take for granted.

On another level of behavior, I’ve often had students who for some reason gather to pray for a member of their team who is sick or who has died.  Although they have a Christian background, more and more of them did not know the Our Father prayer.  The Hail Mary or rosary were unknown entities.  Prayers aside, students might gather in the chapel—and bring in pop or hamburgers—oblivious to any protocol that might be expected of them in a “sacred” place.  They simply had no sense of the sacred or behaviors associated with the sacred.  Compare this mindset with that of Leviticus.

With so few young people at mass, we can assume that traditional Catholic families in the Merrill-Hemlock-Ryan region—are products of their secular culture, and likewise know little to nothing about any religious practice.  Since “nature abhors a vacuum,” you might be legitimately concerned about what ideology or philosophy will become their moral guide as they get older and exposed to thinking that leads them far from a Christian mooring.

Oddly enough, biblical stories about leprosy actually do not refer to leprosy, per se.  That is, mortuary archaeologists tell us that leprosy was not in the Holy Land before or at the time of Jesus.  Rather, biblical references are to what we would understand to be a skin problem such as psoriasis or eczema or some other irritation that we now treat with a salve of some kind.  Since 1868, leprosy has been referred to as “Hansen’s disease”—named after the Norwegian scientist Gerhard Hansen.

His studies showed that the disease was rarely contagious and that it was progressive and painful.  The biblical period was not the only one that saw people banish lepers.  Within Catholic history is the story of Father Damien on the island of Molokai in Hawaii.  He lived with lepers who had been banished to that island and contracted the disease itself when living with them in the 1800s.  He was canonized in 2009.

Leviticus said one should not touch a leper and that those who had the condition should cry out “unclean” when near people.  They also wore clothing that broadcast who they were (like Jews in WWII Europe under the Nazis).  In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest is portrayed as walking past the man who had been mugged—and people probably read that story and think the priest was really bad for ignoring the man in need.  Oddly enough, the priest was observing what Leviticus said—AVOID PEOPLE WHO ARE IN THIS BEAT-UP CONDITION.  Such people were “polluted” and one had to observe the laws of purity.

What Jesus is showing in all these healing stories (or that of the Samaritan) is that the REAL issue is not one of pollution but of exclusion.  Those who come into contact with Jesus are made whole by being brought into community.   Jesus restores him to full membership.

The 2nd reading reminded me of an experience I had with 3 family members.  The reading addresses the issue of Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols (pagan gods).  Now that’s not an issue we think about, and so it’s hard for us to identify with the scene.  However, Paul’s counsel IS something we can ponder.  He basically says that we should always be conscious of what we communicate by our behavior.  He tells them that his example is worth following, so theirs should also reflect their Christian identity.

4 of us went to dinner with one of the 4 finishing his first year of sobriety in AA.  When we ordered, one of the 4 asked for an alcoholic beverage—which moved me to try and get their attention.  I wanted to signal the relative that we should be supportive of our AA relative, and simply avoid ordering something that none of us really “needed.”  I failed to get their attention, so 3 of us had coffee or pop while the one had “booze.”

Later on, I pulled the relative aside and said I tried to get their attention so that we could be supportive of our relative’s situation.  The response I got was basically that the person felt like having a “drink” and that it was our relative’s problem to deal with alcoholism—not theirs.

This experience has stayed with me over the years as an example of how we can actually be part of the solution and not the problem.  Heaven knows I’ve made plenty of missteps and misspeaks in life, but in this case, it seemed to me that our “Christian” behavior that Paul addressed in today’s reading—fell right in line with simply showing our AA relative was not alone in not “needing” a drink that day.  The moral of Paul’s counsel—be on the lookout for opportunities to give witness to behavior that inspires.

Given that Valentine’s Day is this week, why not exercise your Christian identity by doing something nice for your special someone?  The candy industry that made this day a national holiday would be pleased if you gave candy to someone.  That’s okay, but what about taking them to a fish dinner (since meat is prohibited this day for people under 59).  And if you’re over 59, take them out for a hamburger or something else.  Now your gut reaction might be “Well, we don’t bother with that sort of thing anymore.”  Hmm.  Don’t be presumptuous, and take a loved one out, or do SOMETHING creative for them.  Making someone feel like a Valentine is a very Christian thing to do.

February 11, 2024

We’re using Mark’s gospel these weeks so here are a few biblical tidbits you might want to know as we make our way through the text.  Scholars tell us that Mark was the first gospel written.  It’s the shortest of the gospels and, like the others, was not written by an apostle.  Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark—spinning the context of stories to match the theology they were trying to communicate.  The last lines of Mark, we are told, were not written by Mark, but by someone who tacked on the concluding comments.

Last week, Mark told us about the demoniac being cleaned of whatever spirit was bothering him.  This week, we learn of Jesus healing Simon’s bedridden mother-in-law. Without going into detail, we might presume that the woman’s living situation was not ideal. Told that she lives with her son-in-law suggests her husband has died and that she may not have other children to care for her.  Whatever her status, she was isolated from community.

And THAT’S the point of this story.  Upon hearing what takes place, we’re not to be amazed at some kind of healing.  The same with the demoniac—and others this miracle-making Jesus does throughout Mark.  Listeners of the gospel aren’t to jump for joy in seeing some kind of Houdini in their midst, but rather see PAST these externals and realize what took place.  Namely, because of her encounter with Jesus, she was led to serving the community gathered there.

We’re given a cameo of Christian life—as we see a person encounter Jesus and be restored to the community.  She serves others by fixing dinner for them. Mark is describing the “kingdom” by telling of this simple act of hospitality.  The miracles this evangelist reports are subordinate to showing that Jesus draws people out of their isolation and into a community they can serve in some way.  By the time Mark is writing his gospel, people learning about Jesus might be more in awe of his miracles—so Mark diverts people’s attention from them to the BIG miracle they now have.

What is it?  The BIG miracle is Jesus overcoming the cross, rising from the dead and offering new life to us who came after him.  In Mark’s time and ours, the miracle is given us at each Eucharist—which is Jesus calling us from our cots, and into service of one another.

In thinking of us being Andrew’s mother-in-law (since WE are the people we read about in scripture) my reflections took me to my past—as a Jesuit novice.  I’ll cite some of that experience since it might help you look at your past, and see how Jesus called you from inertia, from the same-old, same-old—to service.

As novices, Jesuits are sent to serve in different ministries.  During these experiences, we are confronted with weaknesses, strengths, and the challenge of discerning our vocation.  For example, I was sent to Flint St. Joe’s Hospital where I lived in the maternity ward for a month.  During the day, I served as an orderly—reporting at 6 a.m. and working until 5 p.m.—but still working in the hospital because we weren’t allowed off the hospital grounds.

As you know, hospitals show us the best of times and the worst—and the many patients and staff helped my 18-year-old person learn what it means to be human.  This pattern played out over two years of assignments elsewhere—one being Holy Trinity Parish in downtown (“Corktown”) Detroit.  The much-respected Monsignor Clement Kern was the pastor there, and my job was to open the “reading room” every morning.

Men who were known as “banner carriers” were my “ministry” (at age 19).  Banner carriers were men who didn’t want to sleep in flop houses but instead slept in places they could find outside.  Alcoholics, they came from diverse backgrounds—and they would come to the reading room to sit in a chair for most of the day, or use the toilet, or read magazines or books that were on tables.  My “ministry” was one of presence to them—speaking to these men, hearing their stories, and doing my best to “serve” these children of God.

Somewhat like Mark’s gospel shows, a miracle occurred at Holy Trinity one night when Fr. Kern told me at the dinner table “Mike, you won’t open the reading room tomorrow because I don’t have the funds to pay the rent” (it was a storefront on Michigan Avenue just a short distance from where Tiger Stadium used to be).  Within 5 minutes of being told my job had ended, the doorbell rang and Fr. Kern excused himself.  He returned about 10 minutes later, and said “Mike, you can open the reading room tomorrow morning.”  That’s what he said as he set a check on the table.  Someone had been inspired to stop at the parish and make a donation.  They asked Fr. Kern if there was some need they could pay for.  He told them of the reading room—and the rent was paid.

Still, another experience was working at a construction site comparable to Habitat for Humanity work.  This entailed heavy labor and interacting with people who benefitted from working with us by getting paid.  This was a “heavy lifting” day-laborer sort of work—just as I had to put in time working at an institutional kitchen.  The building served 3 meals a day to about 130 people.  My role was to be the cook’s assistant and do whatever I was told to do, cleaning pots, making coffee, setting tables, making toast, stirring pots of food, etc.  This job lasted from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily for a month.  This, too, was an experience given us so that we understood what it meant for people to put in a long day doing laborious jobs.

And so, life since that novitiate period has pretty much been an array of experiences not unlike those described here.  Different people and different challenges, but the same God communicating with me (and you).  Just as I can write of my life path accompanying different sorts of people, so can you.  And just as I have been like Simon’s mother-in-law not very alive with a sense of accomplishing much, so have you.

So I report the above experiences to you—and you have your own set of experiences.  The key to acquiring God’s inspiration and guidance is to remember that “God writes straight in crooked lines.”  Throughout novitiate and afterward, I opened my arms to the heavens (or just seated in prayerful reflection)—asking God to show me the underlying pattern that takes place in my diverse encounters with people.  Beneath all of our experiences—if we try to connect those crooked lines–is God’s voice speaking.  Each of us needs to see that we are Simon’s mother-in-law—curled up in our cot and inert.  Inspire us, Lord, to see that you made of us a blessing for others—and that they await our getting up from the cot, and serving them in our own unique way—as you did.

It’s never too late to hear God’s voice when reflecting on the novitiate of your life experience.

You and I—here at Mass—remind us of the great miracle of Jesus going from cross to crown.  The great miracle of God’s presence disguised as the bread and wine of everyday life–calling us to follow in his footsteps.

February 4, 2024

The popularity of scary films about “possession” by some demonic force has earned multi-millions of dollars for Hollywood. As a topic within theology, exorcism prior to the late 1960s was virtually dead and gone in the United States.  However, two films made the topic come to life with the release of The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, and some 2nd-rate films that whetted people’s appetite.  A minimum of 600 evangelical deliverance ministries—”quite possibly two or three times this many”—sprouted up since that time—and are now regularly seen on late-night Sunday television.

A Jesuit friend informed me of his experience with what was told in The Exorcist and he said that Vietnam is where he MOST saw the demonic (when compared with the film).   Which is why you hear people say “war is hell.” As for films you see, take them all with a grain of salt, they peddle fiction and “sell” you stories about the demonic in order to open your pocketbook—and not your understanding of theology.  The men behind the Amityville story said they composed its plot over several bottles of wine one night.  The family supposedly affected by this “possession” apparently had problems of their own—unrelated to a haunted house.

Why talk about these things?  Because this week’s scripture tells of a “demoniac” who meets Jesus at the synagogue (a “demoniac” is someone who is possessed).  The story says that Jesus healed him.  And this takes us into the topic of religious thinking that our ancestors all had in one form or the other.  That is, cultures globally believed that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people—because of the work of “spirits.”  Thinking in these terms is common to people long ago, people in undeveloped countries, and even our own.

When Jesus was living in Capernaum (or elsewhere), people there all believed that illness or bad fortune was caused by spirits.  So we see him encounter a “demoniac” and we need to realize that “care” for this person, or medical care for anyone—was dependent upon the healing skills of special individuals.  The KEY aspect of this passage is NOT to be swept away with a sense of Jesus being a miracle worker who can cure any disease that comes his way.  Rather, it’s to show that what Jesus said or instructed people miraculously brought them back INTO COMMUNITY and not allow them to be marginalized.

We still think of spirit-like forces that influence us negatively.  For example, we might tell someone of something we did that was “out of character” for us—and blurt out “that’s not me” or “I NEVER act that way or say things like that.”  It’s as if some force got into our minds/bodies and MADE us behave a certain way.  However, the tact is that we did, in fact, behave a certain way.  We don’t need a spirit to make us do anything—because we’re quite capable of being a “demoniac.”  Remember, when reading scripture, you might find it helpful to see YOURSELF in the characters (the demoniac in this case).

Most people don’t intentionally wake up one day and think “I’m going to do some evil today.”  No.  Most people perform actions that they THINK will benefit them in some way.  Minor behaviors and major behaviors.  It’s only LATER that we look at what we did—and say something like “Boy, I really blew that one.”  And most people often say something like “I wish I could do THAT over again” (so as not to make the same mistake you already did).  Again, we think along these lines in minor things and major ones.  We might be thinking of wearing a hairstyle at some age and are embarrassed to see old photos, or we may recall some behavior that REALLY got us in a bad scene.  Remember, we didn’t PLAN these outcomes, but in retrospect we see that we fell short of being the best version of ourselves.

A historical example might be a Southern plantation owner before the Civil War.  He was happy harvesting cotton and seeing his slaves turn out a good product.  But at whose expense was this man enjoying “the good life?”  And see what that behavior spawned.  Plantation owners got poor whites to “fight for the Confederacy”–telling these poor whites that if slaves are set free, the whites wouldn’t have jobs.  And we proceed to have the largest loss of American lives in our history—poor whites thinking they were doing good by fighting for the pocketbooks of the wealthy (not themselves).

Or in our own time, a couple of weeks ago, a study was released that showed 60% of corporations “price gouged” our population—such that you go to Meijer and pay twice for something that you previously paid.  From the CEO’s perspective, the corporation is showing a good dividend for shareholders, and the CEO congratulates himself for doing a good job and getting a few million more dollars in pay and stock options.  The rich get richer—at the expense of the rest of the population.  And since people don’t know how things work, they’re told that “supply lines” require the price increases (lie) and that the politicians have caused inflation (lie).

Another close-to-home example would be alcohol consumption.  One never intends to get into a car accident or cause the death of someone, but these things happen when drinking and driving.  It’s not an evil spirit who made them consume beer or liquor.  It was the person’s desire to have something “good” (altered consciousness).   The etymology is not clear, but one possible reason for us calling alcohol “spirits” is because spirits in religious thinking (mentioned above) can be the cause of diverse behaviors—unpredictable and predictable, creating and killing.  The Sioux (Lakota) Indians called alcohol “sacred water” since it took one to another level of thinking (what’s known in AA and elsewhere as “stinking thinking”).

What’s also provocative about this Gospel passage is that it says that the teaching of Jesus amazed everyone—but it gave no example of what he taught!!  It just said that they were astonished.  Wouldn’t you think that Mark would say something like “For example, he taught us that …….”  Nope.  No teaching cited.  Rather, all we see is that coming into contact with Jesus—as our demoniac-twin did—changed him.  This is how God works in your life and mine.  That is, we go to church, we hear readings, sing or listen to inspirational songs, witness people doing diverse activities so that all runs well, we pray, receive communion, and experience being part of a group that shares a common identity.

This is how WE come into contact with Jesus at the synagogue.  It’s no one thing that affects us or touches our minds or hearts—because different people are touched or moved in different ways.  We demoniacs come to mass and somehow catch a glimpse of Him.  This sacramental experience reminds me of a feast this week—the “conversion of St. Paul.”  It celebrates the story of how Saul once abused, tortured, and killed Christians (he was present at the martyrdom of  the first martyr, Stephen).  Then comes the day Saul is on his way to Damascus (a big city in Syria today) and he falls to the ground (a stroke? Some kind of dehydration or illness?) and hears a voice (in his altered state) “Why are you persecuting me?”

Over time, Saul/Paul realizes that it’s Jesus who spoke to him—and who was calling him to a better life than he had been living.  And so it is with us, WE are on the road to Damascus, and God is trying to cut through our demoniac behaviors—and awaken us to being the best person we can be.  And we do this through sacramental participation and involvement.

A form of education is “Learn by doing.”  I suggest you join one of the parish ministries/groups—singing, playing an instrument, reading, distributing, taking communion to the homebound or hospital, planning social events, grounds care, care of buildings, counting the weekly collection, etc., etc., etc.

It was by getting involved with teaching catechism that I was really helped in pursuing a vocation.  When the bishop asked for a show of hands from people who were sinners—and found himself being the only one raising his hand—was definitely a humorous moment.  He was reminding us of our being both angelic and the opposite.  May each of us work on that angelic part of our identity.

January 28, 2024

One of the challenges of understanding scripture is that from Genesis through to Revelation, there are historical incidents depicted but the texts of scripture are not history lessons, per se.  Neither are they biology or geology or astronomy lessons.  Rather, scripture teaches us our theology.  And it teaches theology through stories, poems, songs, genealogies, and personal accounts.  Within those different “genres,” the composer makes a point (or many)…

While some verses might have a clear meaning, scripture scholars from all denominations and scholarly areas of study tell us to be very careful about taking all verses literally.

So too, we’ve received traditions that arose in history that taught us things that should not have been taught.  For example, because three gifts were brought by the Magi to Bethlehem, a tradition arose that said there were 3 “wise men.”  Scripture, however, doesn’t state how many came to see the newborn king.  A second-century catacomb painting showed 2 Magi while some centuries later, people were referring to 12 Magi.

Meanwhile, as we argue about how many wise men came to the manger, scripture scholars tell us that Matthew may well have made up their existence.  Why would he do such a thing?  Here’s why. THEOLOGICALLY, he was trying to show that kings from the east—from beyond Israel’s boundaries were coming to worship the king.  And by doing this, Matthew was trying to show how the Christian message was also being accepted by “gentiles” (non-Jews).  So Matthew was expressing a theological truth by telling a story about the Magi.

Another tradition that came down to us is that of Magdalene being a prostitute.  Some verses were pointed out as referring to her being a prostitute but scholars today do not make that connection.  The tradition arose about 1500 years ago except within Eastern Christianity.  Today, the Catholic Church and scholarly opinion is that she was NOT a prostitute.  Pastorally, there was merit in having Magdalene portrayed as a disliked person in society, in that she was clearly accepted as a friend by Jesus and the apostles.  The facts supporting her being in “the oldest profession” are difficult or impossible to find in scripture.  We now see her NOT as a prostitute.

In this week’s gospel, there’s a literal reading that conflicts with the geological reality.  Namely, we read about Jesus walking on the beach at the Sea of Galilee.  Since we think of saltwater when we use the word “sea,” what do we make of the Sea of Galilee actually being a freshwater LAKE?  We overlook the difference.  Not an issue other than terminology y of different eras referring to the body of water by different names.

When I say something about scripture at Mass, be assured that I present consensus positions on topics related to what was intended by the writer at the time it was written.  Remember that scripture scholars from the major denominations and theology schools compose a scholarly community in which they know one another.  They often work together on various projects.  They’ll argue points, debate issues, and discuss their findings which I and others read—and then pass on to you. At homily time, I offer suggestions as to how we might apply a passage to our lives or indicate how something might relate to current affairs, or point out what sort of “spirituality” is within the text.

Last week’s reading gave us the story of Samuel saying to God “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.”  That’s what we do whenever we gather for Mass or when we pray.  We SAY we’re listening, but we have to be honest with ourselves and ask if we really ARE listening.  After all, we might have our minds made up on some issue percolating in our lives.  We say we’re listening but we’re going to stretch as far as we can to conclude that God is affirming our bias.

So the first thing we need to do when speaking with God is to first ask God to help us open our minds and hearts to truly listen.  So last week’s reading has us LISTENING, and this week’s gospel has Jesus reply to us Samuel-like people.  Jesus says to each of us: “Follow me.”  Recall that when we read about people in scripture, we’re reading about ourselves.

What’s important to realize in this week’s gospel is that Jesus called “ordinary people,” or “regular folks,” to be his disciples.  He didn’t call the town’s powerbrokers.  Peter, James, and the others represent US going about our daily schedule—working somewhere, shopping somewhere, visiting

somewhere, retiring somewhere—again, he called regular people doing whatever it is that they do.  The point here is that his call went out to people in the midst of what they do—and NOT just in the midst of them accomplishing great things or making grand contributions to the community, or being examples of great holiness and wisdom.

He took people “where they are.”  And therein lies his “call” to each of us who claim to be “listening” as Samuel claimed to do.  God is speaking to you!

This occurs all the time but is especially true when it comes to participating in the sacraments (“going to church”).  By our attendance, we are admitting to God and one another that we do not have all the answers, that we need to “listen” to God through our role at Mass, and that we have faith in a God who moves us little by little (or a lot by a lot)—in becoming an even better person than we are as we enter the church building.

When someone sees us go to church, they might call you or me a “hypocrite” or a “bum” or criticize us in some way that may or may not be accurate.  People who don’t have any use for “church-going” might use our shortcomings as “proof” that church attendance does nothing for us.  We, on the other hand, say just the opposite.  We say to our non-church-going critics: “Okay, I admit I’m not perfect, but can you imagine what MORE of a schmuck I’d be if I didn’t attend Mass?”  Each of us KNOWS we’re not a god, and we know we need help in addressing our shortcomings.

Our response to non-church-going critics is that we pray for them—that they can likewise become an even better person than they might already be—by joining us at Mass and asking God to help us improve in being a parent, grandparent, spouse, high school, or grade school student.  After all, as St. Irenaeus said long ago: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  And church-going helps us become that “fully alive” person whom God created.  I’ve often mused that had I not responded to the “grace” of influences that led to entering the Jesuits—I doubt my life would have amounted to much.  Or rather, I wouldn’t have become as “fully alive” as I did (admitting, too, that I’ve fallen short of being the total person God has called me to be).

Another way of making this point is to call upon something said centuries ago by the great thinker St. Thomas Aquinas.  At first, the phrase sounds hard to understand.  It is what St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Grace builds on nature.”  Huh?  What does THAT mean?

Think of it in these terms.  Dennis Newman, before he was a liturgical musician, held down a regular job 5 days a week, making a living as the rest of the world tries to do.  That’s the “nature” part of what Thomas referred to.  Dennis was a working man—like the apostles on the shore.  However, over time, Dennis thought about his interest in music and the feeling that he could do something “more” with his life.  A religious man, Dennis thought that perhaps he could take piano lessons, become better with the guitar, and maybe even change his lifework to that of becoming a liturgical musician at a parish.  It was during that reflective period over time that “graces” came to him in thoughts he had, in remarks people made, in work experiences—all these things being “grace” building on “nature” (his God-given abilities that he stoked).

As you know, the rest is history.  Dennis has served many parishes over the years played at many wakes and weddings, and has made the world a better place for others.  The “graces” of wanting to develop his God-given musical ability (“nature”) combined to have him “answer the call” he heard Jesus speak to him on the shores of his life experience.

When you see people in the parish in the choir at Mass, lectoring, distributing communion, ushering, overseeing socials, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, and other roles—they are examples of people in our midst responding to God’s voice saying to them: “Follow me.”  Something stirs within them (a “grace”) and builds on the “nature” of their everyday lives on the seashore of their Galilee home.

Drawing the above together, each week—we are Samuel saying “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.”  Each week, Jesus speaks to us saying: “Follow me.”  Each week, we might say—“I’m okay.  I’m not killing anyone or stealing anything. I’m not hurting anyone.  Besides, I’m too tired to bother with church, so maybe I’ll go next week.”  Each week, we either respond and follow, or we don’t.  We prevent ourselves from becoming that person “fully alive.”

Here’s a visual of the above that you can bring to mind.

The teacher told the 3rd graders that a word that defines God is “lovingkindness.”  The teacher then thought that the children perhaps didn’t know what that word meant—so asked someone to define it.

A little boy said “Love is my mom giving me a hot fudge sundae.  And kindness is when she puts a cherry on top of it.”

Each week we bring our “nature” sundae to church with our life as it is, and God puts a cherry on top of us (“grace”) that energizes us to leave Mass that day knowing we’re at least a little more alive than when we arrived.

January 21, 2024

The bulletin article this week is from a source other than me—although it hits on a topic I regularly cite in different ways—our sharing of planet earth with other life forms, and our call to care for this Eden we’ve been given.  I’m reminded of seeing a TV show that I surfed over and stopped at because I saw the camera was on a beautiful grizzly-like bear of great size.  A voice was stating that the bear was digging honey from a bee hive and I smiled at his effort to get the sweet treat he desired.  All of a sudden, an explosive clap was heard and the bear slammed to the ground in death throes—his legs kicking as he died, his honey remaining where it was except for the little that was smudged on his mouth.

An American hunter then high-fived his friend as they went to get the “trophy” bear.  The equipment he used cost thousands as did the amount spent on this trip to Siberia.  Many thousands of dollars spent to satisfy the a wealthy American who wanted to satisfy his desire to take life from an innocent creature just wanting to live, have honey, and be a wild bear.  His life taken so instantly, so needlessly, so brutally, and so self-centered—made me feel as if I had just witnessed the murder of a relative.  I wanted to call some authority to report that a beautiful, unique creature of the wild had just been murdered and should be arrested.  But all I could do was turn off the TV.

Instead of using his vast wealth to help some worthwhile cause to make creation better for us all, the shooter celebrated the taking of a life that could not be replicated in a factor, or custom-designed by some artisan.  No.  Vast sums were spent on a bullet taking a link out of the chain of being, a relative of ours whose presence could bring excitement and smiles to tourists who might have seen that bear in the wild.

It’s a creature like that bear for whom Christmas was also intended—the Bethlehem birth a reminded to us of appreciating all life given to us from the Creator.  Black Elk’s daughter, as a little girl, went into cornfields and shake hands with tall stalks of corn—regarding them as a special kind of people.  She was raised to appreciate life in all its form—as our religious tradition has taught us to do.  This is what the article below addresses—in the language of a theologian.

 Christmas is for all God’s creatures (edited from Sojourners magazine and authored by Daniel P. Horan, a Franciscan.  He is an assistant professor of theology and spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.)

Christmas is the time when the church celebrates the coming of Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” It’s difficult enough to focus on the true “reason for the season” when the creeping commercialization of the holiday overshadows the solemnity of the feast day.  Besides not giving a great deal of thought to this most sacred event, we are probably also oblivious to the significance of God’s becoming human for the rest of creation, too.

In his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis warns us against “anthropocentrism.”  This term refers to the mistaken view that humanity stands alone at the center of creation and everything else that exists does so for our benefit or use. This human-centered worldview affected our treatment of nonhuman creation, the result of which is seen in worldwide ecological crises.  It has also narrowed our vision of the meaning of Christmas.

John’s Christmas day gospel says: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John’s Gospel does not say that the Word merely became “human” (anthropos), but that God’s Word became something more fundamental, something more expansive.

The Greek word for “flesh” that John used (“sarx”) means earthly materiality and creature-liness that includes but is not limited to humans. Elsewhere in scripture, the term is used more generally and its deliberate usage in John’s prologue should give us pause if we are inclined to think it pertains to humanity alone. No one contests that the Word became sarx as the fully human person Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, the question remains: “What relationship is there between the wider natural world, the world of galaxies and stars, mountains and seas, bacteria, plants and animals, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?”

The answer to this question is contained in the fuller theological meaning of Christmas.

God entered the world as one like us, fully human in all things but sin, and precisely as fully human, Jesus was part of a complex, interrelated web of creation. The Word’s entrance into creation is good news not only for humans but also for all creatures.  In his Letter to the Romans, Paul is longing for that day of salvation that involves nonhuman creation as much as it does humanity.

In the book Ask The Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, we read: “Our existence depends on interaction with the rest of the natural world. … The flesh that the Word of God became as a human being is part of” creation as a whole. God’s entrance into creation as Emmanuel — “God with us” — is the greatest sign of divine love for all of God’s creatures, humans included, which are interrelated and interdependent in this evolutionary world.

The technical theological term for this emphasis on the significance of Christmas for all creation is known as “deep incarnation.”  This refers to “the incarnation of God in Jesus being understood as a radical or ‘deep’ incarnation, that is, an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence and the system of nature.” Everything in the created world, those things visible and invisible, known and yet-to-be-discovered, is implicated in God’s decision to become flesh; all of God’s creatures are touched by God’s gift of love and life in the Incarnation.

Lest some cynics take this expansive Christmas good news as a kind of “new age” or “pagan” theology, quick to dismiss this incarnational message with an ignorant “bah humbug,” they should first listen to Pope John Paul II. In his 1986 encyclical letter, Dominum et vivificantem, John Paul points to the Letter to the Colossians and reiterates the truth of “deep incarnation” for the universal church.

The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is “flesh”: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The “first-born of all creation,” becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also “flesh” and in this reality with all “flesh,” with the whole of creation.

God entered the world as one like us, fully human in all things but sin, and precisely as fully human, Jesus was part of a complex and interrelated cosmic web of creation.

Centuries earlier, St. Francis of Assisi recognized the significance of the Incarnation for nonhuman creatures, suggesting that women and men should go out of their way to care for both poor humans and all animals. In an early Franciscan text known as “The Assisi Compilation,” which contains testimony of those friars who knew St. Francis personally, there is a recollection of how the saint from Assisi would often extol people — especially civil leaders — to share food with nonhuman animals on Christmas because the birth of Jesus impacted them too. The passage concludes with the following statement:

Francis held the Nativity of the Lord in greater reverence than any other of the Lord’s solemnities.  Once He was born to us, as Francis would say, it was certain that we would be saved. He wanted every Christian to rejoice in the Lord and, for love of Him who gave Himself to us, wished everyone to be cheerfully generous not only to the poor but also to the animals.

It can be easy to romanticize or dismiss the insights of John Paul, Francis of Assisi, and contemporary theologians, but we are challenged by the Gospel and our own Christian faith to seriously reflect on the broadly inclusive meaning of Christmas.

Indeed, God so loved the world that God chose to enter into it as part of it. In doing so, God became part of the very fabric of creation of which we too are a part. But so is every other aspect of creation. This Christmas, especially as we gather in the midst of a global climate crisis, may we recognize the cosmic significance of the Word becoming flesh, humbly recalling our place as fellow members of God’s family of creation and working to respect, preserve, and protect our creaturely sisters and brothers in Christ.

 All God’s Creatures

All God’s creatures

got a place in the choir,

Some sing low and some sing higher;

Some sing out loud

on the telephone wire,

Some just clap their hands,

their paws or anything they got now!

Listen to the bass

it’s the one on the bottom,

Where the bullfrog croaks

and the hippopotamus

Moans and groans with a big to-toot,

And the old cow just goes moo.

The dogs and the cats

they take up the middle,

Where the honey bee hums

and the crickets fiddle,

The donkey brays and the pony neighs,

And the old gray badger sighs.

Oh, listen to the top

where the little birds singing,

All the melodies

and the high notes swinging;

And the hoot owl cries over everything,

Blackbird disagrees.

Singing in the night time

singing in the day,

The little duck quacks

and he’s on his way;

And the otter hasn’t got much to say,

And the porcupine talks to himself.

It’s a simple song of living

sung everywhere,

By the ox and the fox

and the grizzly bear,

Grumpy alligator and the hog above,

The sly old weasel and the turtle dove.

All God’s creatures

got a place in the choir,

Some sing low and some sing higher;

Some sing out loud

on the telephone wire,

Some just clap their hands,

their paws or

anything they got now!

Hands, their paws

or anything they got now!

Hands, their paws

or anything they got now!

January 14, 2024

This weekend we celebrated what’s called Epiphany Sunday—wherein we recall the coming of the Wise Men, or Magi, to Bethlehem.  I read somewhere that this Gospel episode is the scene most depicted in all of Christian art.  Appearing on the wall of a catacomb (underground burial chamber for Christians) in the early 2nd century, the Magi as shown to be TWO persons (and not the three figures we see in statue-form each Christmas season.

As you know, biblical literature often depicts something important happening in “3’s.”  Even in our conversations or explanations today, we often hear people say “Well, this is basically a three-fold issue.”  And of course, we have morning/noon/night, fork/spoon/knife, first/middle/last names, small/medium/large, etc.

Centuries ago, it was thought that because 3 gifts were brought to Jesus at Bethlehem (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), there must have been 3 people bringing those gifts.  However, at various points in history, there have been as many as 12 Magi reported as arriving at the manger.  Some have argued that the gift-giving at Christmas started because of Christians trying to replace Roman gift-giving at this time of year with CHRISTIAN gift-giving (that was “modelled” by the Magi when they brought their gifts).

To make the discussion of the Magi even more interesting is that scripture scholars think that the kings (whatever they numbered) never existed!  In saying this, scholars are pointing out that Matthew (writing 80 years after Jesus was born and being the only evangelist who makes mention of the Magi) was making a THEOLOGICAL point and not a historical one.  Namely, since he was writing to an Israelite/Jewish audience (quoting the Old Testament more than any of the other evangelists), he was trying to show that the Messiah has come for ALL people—even Gentiles (represented by the kings who came to his birth from some other part of the world).  This is echoed in the reading from Ephesians when Paul says Gentiles have become “co-heirs” of the Christ revelation with their Israelite brothers and sisters.  This is the meaning of “epiphany” since it is “a moment in which you suddenly understand something in a new way.”

During the Middle Ages, this point was further emphasized when it was commonly suggested that the THREE kinds came from Africa, Asia, and Europe—thus representing all peoples of the world coming to welcome the King of kings.  In short, scripture scholars are simply saying that the message of Jesus is a CATHOLIC message (that is, a “universal” one—since Catholic means “universal”).  If you want to think of Magi coming to the birth of Jesus—fine.  Three of the four gospels didn’t mention their presence in Bethlehem.  In the 7th century, “Balthasar” was given as the name of an African Magi—even having a bushy beard.  NO gospel has that piece of information—but such has been a tradition associated with this special story.

In our era, the presence of animals at the birth of Jesus has prompted some writers to see God’s blessing on non-human life forms on this occasion.  The nations of creatures are thus included in this blessing of all life at the birth of Jesus.

Each year I recount on this feast day the story told in 1895 by Henry Van Dyke.  Titled “The Other Wise Man,” it is a story about Artaban, a king who intended to accompany the other three wise men in following the star.  His story is our story, and this is a summary of it.

Artaban had a ruby, sapphire, and pearl that he wanted to present the king.  He was delayed in meeting with his fellow kings, so they left without him.  He was detained by helping a man who had been beaten up and left to die on the road.  Artaban paid an innkeeper to nurse the man back to health—paying him with the sapphire.

Upon arriving in Bethlehem where the star had stopped, Artaban knocked on a door and a terrified woman opened it—holding her baby close.  He saw her frightened by the soldier coming from another house and headed for hers.  Knowing these soldiers were sent to kill Jewish babies (as done by Pharaoh when Moses was an infant—another parallel Matthew wove into his gospel plot)—Artaban placed his ruby in the soldier’s hand and said “There are no children in this house”—and the soldier moved on.

The thankful mother was who informed Artaban that Mary and Joseph had fled to Egypt.  And so he headed in that direction.  However, he kept finding himself being stopped by different people in need week after week, month after month, and year after year.  He could not turn his back on people in need, so he spent 30-some years looking for the Bethlehem king.

Learning that this king was to be crucified in Jerusalem, he made his way there.  En route to Calvary, he came upon a woman being sold into slavery, so he took his final gift—his pearl of great price—and paid for the woman’s release.  As reported in the gospel, an earthquake occurred when Jesus was dying on the cross, and as Artaban made his way to the cross, a roof collapsed on him, and put him at death’s door.

This is how Van Dyke described the scene:

As he lay dying, he bemoans never seeing the Messiah. He’s heard to say: Not so, my Lord! When did I see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty, and give you drink? When did I see you a foreigner and take you in? Or naked, and clothed you? When did I see you sick or in prison, and come to you? 33 years have I looked for you; but I have never seen your face, nor ministered to you, my King.'” The 4th wise man heard a voice say: “Since you have done these things for the least among you, you did it for me.”  A calm wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy mountain peak. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.

 As stated above, Artaban’s story is ours.  Each of us have our own precious gems of existence in being the unique person we are.  And our life is always asking of us “What are you doing with the gem-like existence of your life?”

This reminds me of a funeral this past Friday for which I was asked to provide the homily that would be read by a Jesuit with whom I was ordained.  The funeral was that of a Jesuit who had spent more than 50 years in Wheeling, WV where he and I were on the faculty.  His funeral had to be at a special church in order to hold the capacity crowd—the generations of people who regarded him as a kind of saint of West Virginia.  He had been inducted into various halls of fame and was much loved.  This man was no Brad Pitt look-alike, or towering academic recognized as a scholar.  Not at all.  He was a man whose profound presence to others were his living out the gem-like person that he was.  No dynamo personality, no athletic prowess—but instead a presence to others like that of Artaban described above.  And he was that way until dying at age 96.  Right up to the end, he was an example of how you and I are called to live our lives—each different, each a grace created by God.

May your Epiphany experience be that of seeing in a new way the blessing God intended you to be for others.

Communion Reflection

THE STABLE, IT IS SAID, WAS JUST A CAVE, A SHELTER FOR ANIMALS AND SOME STRAW

–A CAVE AS WAS THE COMMON SHELTER OF OUR ANCESTORS WHO SHARED THE COMMON EARTH.

SOMEWHERE IN TIME WE LOST OUR LOVE FOR CAVES.

WE INSTEAD SOUGHT THE STARS–AND NOT UNWISELY–FOR THERE IS TRUTH IN THEM, ALSO.

BUT WHEN THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD CHOSE A PLACE FOR BIRTH TO GIVE US HOPE IN OUR DARKNESS, IT WAS A CAVE HE CHOSE–LEADING US THERE BY A STAR–IN ORDER FOR US TO FIND THE BIRTH OF STARS WITHIN.

January 7, 2024

Christmas day has come and gone.  We’ve celebrated a time of welcoming family and friends to our houses, offering special holiday foods to guests, giving gifts to co-workers, parents, spouses, children, and making our homes look festive and pleasing to the eye.  We’ve overall had an upbeat presence to people we pass on the street or in stores, and now return to normalcy.

However, we need to reflect upon and take a closer look at what we, as Catholics and Christians, do each Christmas.  After all, non-Christians share most of the outward signs of the holiday (green trees, gift-giving, parties, eggnog, etc.).  What made Christmas special to people of faith?

The obvious answer is that we say that December 25th is the date on which Jesus was born.  So we’re celebrating his birthday.  But what does that even mean to us as individuals?  Theologically, we’re celebrating what’s called the “incarnation” (God becoming human, or taking on flesh, and in doing so, coming into human history and again blessing OUR humanity).  I say “again blessing” because God blest us when creating Adam (which is why Jesus is called a “second Adam”).

There are practical reasons for ritualizing the historical birth of Jesus (we actually don’t know on what day or month he was born—but settled on 12/25 for various reasons).  This special holiday is our expression of what we as gospel people profess to live YEAR-ROUND.  Namely, we are SUPPOSED to be a welcoming, generous, affirming community that celebrates the birth of each life—not just the life of our ethnic or familial group.  The holiday is one that broadcasts what we stand for as a faith community—a faith that draws people from around the world (represented by the Magi), and proclaims that “every person counts” (represented by the census that drew the Holy Family to Bethlehem).

At Christmas, we put on display the aspirational vision we have of ourselves in living the gospel teachings YEAR-ROUND.  In this sense, the Christmas season continues.  We are forever on the road to Bethlehem and forever seeking new life. We attend mass—and are fed at the manger of the altar—making Christmas an ongoing event.

The day after Christmas, we are liturgically confronted with what a Lutheran priest-martyr referred to as “the cost of discipleship.”  December 26th is the feast of the first martyr (after Jesus)—St. Stephen.  Juxtaposed to the celebratory feast of the Incarnation (Christmas), we are starkly reminded of the gospel message of universal brotherhood and sisterhood is not everyone’s philosophy.  We are reminded that the sins of the 6 o’clock news continue to define human existence—and that our work as apostles (like Stephen) gives us the experience of doors being slammed in our face (or being stoned to death as occurred with Stephen).

On the 2nd day after Christmas, we are reminded of the apostle John (referred to in scripture as the disciple “who Jesus loved”).  Since we are supposed to identify with each character in scripture, each of us is “the disciple who Jesus loved.”  You might right away think to yourself that “Well, God isn’t so hot about me—I’ve been more a Pontius Pilate or Herod than I’ve been like John.”

Thinking negative thoughts like this is why the Church calendar has us contemplate John the Apostle at this time.  Yes, we’ve been like Herod and Judas, but nothing separates us from the love of God.  God doesn’t stop loving us because we have made poor decisions. God is always calling us to Bethlehem and to new life.  God always tries to direct us off the roads in life that lead nowhere.  December 28th is the “feast of the Holy Innocents”—Matthew’s account of Herod ordering the murder of Jewish baby boys.  This again reminds us of how the world continues to ignore the gospel and inflict death on one another.  Yes, we DO need to be missionaries preaching Bethlehem year-round to a world that ignores it.

Historically, Catholics have not been particularly literate in biblical studies, and so the idea of a “homily” came to replace the term “sermon” at Mass.  The Church asked priests to educate their congregations on matters that scripture raised at Mass. This time of year offers many topics for reflection that are missed by casual readers of the bible.

For example, when we read from the gospel of John on his feast day, we also read from an epistle attributed to him.  However, biblical scholars from all the mainstream denominations and other scholars tell us that the apostle John did not write either the gospel or epistles.  As was common in that era, authors would claim to be someone they were not (in this instance, someone claimed to be John).  So too, people might THINK the gospels were written by apostles, but scholars tell us differently.  None of the writers were a member of the 12.

As you’ve been told, it is thought that Matthew’s audience was largely Jewish (he quoted Hebrew scripture more than the others).  With Christmas week having the feast of the Holy Innocents, it is worth pointing out that most biblical scholars today believe that no such incident took place.  Just as Mark and John make no reference to the birth of Jesus, so Matthew is the ONLY one to cite the killing of Jewish babies by Herod.

With no secular historian mentioning such an event during Herod’s reign, and with Matthew writing perhaps 80 years after the birth of Jesus, and he being the only source for this story, Matthew MIGHT have had a THEOLOGICAL (not historical) point to make.  Namely, since he was addressing a Jewish audience, he was PROBABLY comparing Jesus with Moses, or making Jesus the fulfillment of the Hebrew scripture.  How so?

Recall that the Israelites were in slavery to Pharaoh and that he issued an order for all Jewish babies to be killed.  The great Moses was a baby at this time—and his family put him in a basket and placed it in the Nile (hoping some kind-hearted Egyptian would save the baby).  Sure enough, women from the court found the baby and raised him in the Pharaoh’s court.  Voila—the great Moses eventually led people to the “Promised Land.”

Matthew thus creates a scenario in which baby Jesus can be the new Moses—surviving a similar slaughter of innocents and going on to lead us into a new Promised Land of eternal life with God (i.e., Jesus = Moses, Herod = Pharaoh, Heaven = Promised Land).  Matthew takes this a step further.  Namely, while Moses led the Israelites TO the Promised Land, he did not enter it himself.  Moses died on this side of the river, and it was Joshua, his Lieutenant who took charge and led the people across the river into the Promised Land.  “Jesus” is the English form of the Hebrew name “Yeshua” or “Joshua.”  Hence Matthew combined Israel’s 2 great leaders into the person of Jesus—the new Moses and new Joshua.  The story of Moses and Joshua was dear to the hearts of everyone in Matthew’s Jewish audience—so he likely contoured his tale of the Messiah to be the fulfillment of their scriptures.

Were babies killed by Herod in the region of Bethlehem?  It’s possible—as most anything is possible.  But instead of the literal understanding of the story, biblical scholars tend to line up with this latter interpretation.  Both angles basically report the same theological truth (that Moses & and Joshua point to Jesus as the Messiah).

Sunday the 31st (the feast of “The Holy Family”) is followed by the holy day known as the “Solemnity of Mary.” This holy day used to be called the feast of circumcision (then it was changed to the “octave”—meaning “8 days” of Christmas).  Named by JP2 as the solemnity, it makes 3 of the 6 holidays devoted to Mary (the others being the Assumption and Immaculate Conception).

As you know, Mary is a provocative topic in Christian history.  Older Catholics can remember when Protestants belittled Catholics for “worshipping” Mary instead of Jesus.  And Catholics would defend their right to say the rosary or depict Mary in statue forms or holy cards.  In recent decades, this religious antagonism has toned down—partly because more and more people don’t care one way or the other, or that both sides appreciate Mary’s role in “salvation history.”

If Jesus loved his mom, shouldn’t I follow his example?  If Jesus learned from her, shouldn’t I, too.  After all, this week’s readings spoke of Jesus “growing in wisdom.”  He didn’t just fly down from heaven and be a miraculously heroic being like Superman (as portrayed in apocryphal gospels that the early Church condemned).  No.  Jesus was a child whose mother taught him how to live.  So let’s give Mary her due.

Interestingly, Muslim’s sacred book, the Qur’an, says more about Mary than our gospels say about her.  Chapter 19 is titled “Mary” and echoes Catholic piety and reverence for her role.  How many young women today think of Mary as a role model?  She’s supposed to be—but her competition is really strong.  A devout, 14-year-old Jewish girl who prays, goes to Temple and realizes God calls her on a mission to make a difference—can’t compete with Madison Avenue.  Young girls in our culture have actresses, rock singers, and sex-kitten babes who wisely use birth control—are hammered into their consciousness far more than this vague Mary character they seldom bring to mind.

No wonder the Church has 3 holy days devoted to Mary.  She is pretty much in the background in American culture.  Not just a role model for girls, she is also SUPPOSED to be one for boys and men.  All of us are expected to speak with God (pray) and discern what we are being called to do with this one life we have.  Like Mary, we need to be brave and countercultural—and be a gospel-based person when others are willy-nilly falling prey to whatever fad or popular thought comes along (and then fades).

So Mary was “presented” in the Temple just as Jesus was taken to the Temple on his 8th day of life and given the “bris” ceremony (circumcision).  Both Mary’s presentation and the bris are commanded in the book of Leviticus.  The bris ceremony originally took place when a boy reached puberty or when he married.  By the time of Leviticus, it took place on the 8th day of life.  New mothers had to be “purified” after giving birth, and this is what the gospel describes Mary observing.  As we’ve covered in the past, these types of ceremonies have been practiced since time immemorial—in some fashion—by all cultures of the world.  Some kind of “scarification” is globally common, just as “blood taboos” are observed by people today.

Baptism is our form of “presentation in the Temple.”  Unfortunately, we bring a baby to church for this sacrament and often don’t see the child again until their first communion—and then marriage or funeral.  This pattern of behavior also occurs within Jewish families today.  Families celebrate the bris ceremony as a cultural tradition but then don’t bring the boy to Temple until it’s time for his bar mitzvah (the sacrament of Confirmation is our equivalent of this Jewish ritual).  The boy becomes a man on this day—and often enough only goes to a synagogue if friends or families are having a bris or bar mitzvah taking place.  In recent decades, girls have started making a “bat mitzvah”—the result of the 20th-century women’s movement.  No such girl-to-woman ceremony had previously existed in Judaism.

This Sunday’s first reading is about Abraham & and Sarah doing the impossible—becoming parents late in life.  It combines with the gospel telling of a baby and his mom at the Temple.  Both readings illustrate a truth that repeatedly surfaces throughout the Old and New Testaments.  Namely, “God accomplishes great things through unlikely people.”  Type out that sentence, put it on your mirror at home, and read it every day.

December 31, 2023

Christmas is for all God’s creatures (edited from Sojourners magazine and authored by Daniel P. Horan, a Franciscan.  He is an assistant professor of theology and spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Christmas is the time when the church celebrates the coming of Jesus, the “Word made flesh.” It’s difficult enough to focus on the true “reason for the season” when the creeping commercialization of the holiday overshadows the solemnity of the feast day.  Besides not giving a great deal of thought to this most sacred event, we are probably also oblivious to the significance of God’s becoming human for the rest of creation, too.

In his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis warns us against “anthropocentrism.”  This term refers to the mistaken view that humanity stands alone at the center of creation and everything else that exists does so for our benefit or use. This human-centered worldview affected our treatment of nonhuman creation, the result of which is seen in worldwide ecological crises.  It has also narrowed our vision of the meaning of Christmas.

John’s Christmas day gospel says: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John’s Gospel does not say that the Word merely became “human” (anthropos), but that God’s Word became something more fundamental, something more expansive.

The Greek word for “flesh” that John used (“sarx”) means earthly materiality and creature-liness that includes but is not limited to humans. Elsewhere in scripture, the term is used more generally and its deliberate usage in John’s prologue should give us pause if we are inclined to think it pertains to humanity alone. No one contests that the Word became sarx as the fully human person Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, the question remains: “What relationship is there between the wider natural world, the world of galaxies and stars, mountains and seas, bacteria, plants and animals, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?”

The answer to this question is contained in the fuller theological meaning of Christmas.

God entered the world as one like us, fully human in all things but sin, and precisely as fully human, Jesus was part of a complex, interrelated web of creation. The Word’s entrance into creation is good news not only for humans but also for all creatures.  In his Letter to the Romans, Paul is longing for that day of salvation that involves nonhuman creation as much as it does humanity.

In the book Ask The Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, we read: “Our existence depends on interaction with the rest of the natural world. … The flesh that the Word of God became as a human being is part of” creation as a whole. God’s entrance into creation as Emmanuel — “God with us” — is the greatest sign of divine love for all of God’s creatures, humans included, which are interrelated and interdependent in this evolutionary world.

The technical theological term for this emphasis on the significance of Christmas for all creation is known as “deep incarnation.”  This refers to “the incarnation of God in Jesus being understood as a radical or ‘deep’ incarnation, that is, an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence and the system of nature.” Everything in the created world, those things visible and invisible, known and yet-to-be-discovered, is implicated in God’s decision to become flesh; all of God’s creatures are touched by God’s gift of love and life in the Incarnation.

Lest some cynics take this expansive Christmas good news as a kind of “new age” or “pagan” theology, quick to dismiss this incarnational message with an ignorant “bah humbug,” they should first listen to Pope John Paul II. In his 1986 encyclical letter, Dominum et vivificantem, John Paul points to the Letter to the Colossians and reiterates the truth of “deep incarnation” for the universal church.

The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is “flesh”: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The “first-born of all creation,” becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also “flesh” and in this reality with all “flesh,” with the whole of creation.

God entered the world as one like us, fully human in all things but sin, and precisely as fully human, Jesus was part of a complex and interrelated cosmic web of creation.

Centuries earlier, St. Francis of Assisi recognized the significance of the Incarnation for nonhuman creatures, suggesting that women and men should go out of their way to care for both poor humans and all animals. In an early Franciscan text known as “The Assisi Compilation,” which contains testimony of those friars who knew St. Francis personally, there is a recollection of how the saint from Assisi would often extol people — especially civil leaders — to share food with nonhuman animals on Christmas because the birth of Jesus impacted them too. The passage concludes with the following statement:

Francis held the Nativity of the Lord in greater reverence than any other of the Lord’s solemnities.  Once He was born to us, as Francis would say, it was certain that we would be saved. He wanted every Christian to rejoice in the Lord and, for love of Him who gave Himself to us, wished everyone to be cheerfully generous not only to the poor but also to the animals.

It can be easy to romanticize or dismiss the insights of John Paul, Francis of Assisi, and contemporary theologians, but we are challenged by the Gospel and our own Christian faith to seriously reflect on the broadly inclusive meaning of Christmas.

Indeed, God so loved the world that God chose to enter into it as part of it. In doing so, God became part of the very fabric of creation of which we too are a part. But so is every other aspect of creation. This Christmas, especially as we gather in the midst of a global climate crisis, may we recognize the cosmic significance of the Word becoming flesh, humbly recalling our place as fellow members of God’s family of creation and working to respect, preserve, and protect our creaturely sisters and brothers in Christ.

December 24, 2023

IS CHRISTMAS A PAGAN HOLIDAY

Let us begin with a bit of a dark picture. Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures are we told about a celebration commemorating the birth of Christ Jesus. Nothing in the Scriptures gives us any sure evidence about the date of this magnificent event.

The lack of Scriptural specificity about the facts surrounding the birth of the Judean King stands in sharp contrast to the details available about his death (each of the four Gospels provide the exact timing of Jesus’ death).

In the late second century, the Greek Church Father Origen mocked yearly celebrations of Roman birth anniversaries, discounting them as deeply pagan practices. This suggests that Christian communities did not yet celebrate Christmas during Origen’s lifetime (c.165-264). The first church figure to discuss the date of Jesus’ birth was Clement (c. 200), an Egyptian preacher from Alexandria.  However, December 25 was not even mentioned. By the middle of the fourth century, however, we find that Western churches were already celebrating the Birth of Christ on December 25, while the Eastern Churches did so on Jan. 7th.

How did the early Christians arrive at this dating?

Surprisingly, the early church followed a very Jewish idea – that the beginning and the end of important redemptive events often happen on the same date. In the beginning of the third century, Tertullian reported that since he knew precisely when Jesus died (14th of Nissan or March 25), he also knew exactly when he was conceived! He was most-likely wrong in his conclusions, but at least we can now see how they arrived to date of Christmas.

The logic went as follows: If Jesus was conceived on March 25 then counting forward to the 9 months of Mary’s pregnancy would place His birth on December 25. This is especially intriguing because January 1st used to be celebrated as the Day of Christ’s circumcision (8 days from the evening of Dec. 24).

It is very important to note that it was not until the 4th-6th centuries of the Common Era that Christians began to “Christianize” the local pagan celebrations of the peoples they sought to evangelize. There is no doubt that it was at this time, but not before, that Christmas began to acquire some of its pagan traditions. Why? Because until c.300-320 CE, Christians were fighting a counter-cultural war with the pagans of the Roman and Persian world. Consequently, they were not in the mood for cultural adaptations just yet.

Since December 25 as the supposed date of Christ’s birth was circulated 100-150 years before the practice of “Christianizing” pagan celebrations commenced, it is unreasonable to conclude that this date was adopted to please the Roman pagans.

The term “syncretism” refers to blending 2 traditions and making a third, and so it can be argued that Islam, for example, blended Christianity and Judaism and concluded with Mohammad’s revelation.  Or, it could be argued that Christianity itself derived from Judaism, but over time established enough differences of its own to become a religion unto itself.  Thus, some will say that Christianity is “syncretistic” (along with numerous other religions).

It is true that in 274 CE a Roman Emperor declared December 25 to be, “The Day of the Unconquered Sun,” (Sol Invictus). However, that was some 70 years after Christians had settled on December 25 as their Christmas date. (Moreover, the decree itself may have been issued to help stamp out the newly established Christian celebration).

Is Christmas a Biblical Holiday?

No. It was not commanded by God in the Bible.

Does the celebration of Christmas contain elements that are pagan in origin?

Absolutely. There is no doubt about that whatsoever.  However, the word “pagan” simply means “non-Christian”—which might be an issue of “what’s in the eye of the beholder.”  That is, you might think my praying with a Lakota Sioux sacred pipe as a pagan (or non-Christian) practice.  I would say reply to you “No Way!  Praying with the pipe or doing a sweat lodge prayer is a solidly Christian practice drawn from Indian tradition.”

So in this sense, Christmas trees are “pagan” (drawn from Germanic tribal religion).  Some hard-core “bible only” Christians are opposed to using prayer forms or customs drawn from around the world—and charge that if something isn’t mentioned in the bible “Isn’t Christian.”  Don’t get caught up into arguments about what the bible authorizes and what it does not.

 Is December 25th the date of the birth of Jesus?  No one knows. 

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

 Its origin and customs come from different sources that were Christianized into our practice of the faith.  What’s pagan about Christmas today is that the holiday be seen solely as a day for accumulating new things, new gadgets, and new odds and ends like clothing, cars, and technological items of various kinds.  The holiday is pagan to the extent our attention is pre-occupied with the created goods and not the Creator.

 When this special holiday becomes an event composed solely of gift-giving, green shrubbery, sparkling lights, parties fueled by liquor, and little to no time spent teaching children about God becoming one of us and giving each of us the lifelong hope that our lives are “manufactured” by God—then our Christmas is, yes, “pagan” and non-Christian.

A Christmas Prayer 

(Authored by a Protestant minister, the Christmas prayer below has as its theme my prayerful intention for you year-round.)

 Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense would I have for you this season, but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find, the ones that are perfect, even for those who have everything (if such there be). I would (if I could) have for you the gift of courage, the strength to face the gauntlets only you can name, and the firmness in your heart to know that you (yes, you!) can be a bearer of the quiet dignity that is the human glorified. I would (if by my intention I could make it happen) have for you the gift of connection, the sense of standing on the hinge of time, touching past and future standing with certainty that you (yes, you!) are the point where it all comes together. I would (if wishing could make it so) have for you the gift of community, a nucleus of love and challenge, to convince you in your soul that you (yes, you!) are a source of light in a world too long believing in the dark. Not gold, nor myrrh, nor even frankincense, would I have for you this season, but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find, the ones that are perfect, even for those who have everything (if such there be).

Christmas Day Table Prayer

Lord God of Life, together with the beautiful traditions of decorating the Christmas tree, of singing carols and giving gifts, this Christmas dinner is an important part of our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Come, Lord our God, and surround our feast day table as we delight in this joyous season of Christmas. Gift us in this meal with the taste of happiness as we savor this coming together of family and friends. As sparkling stars and singing angels rejoiced at the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem, so may we take great joy in this our Christmas dinner-celebration.

May You, our God, bless it and us in Your holy name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

December 17, 2023

In this second week of Advent, we have a reading from what’s titled the 2nd letter of Peter.  So how is it that bible scholars tell us that the letter was written around the year 130 A.D. and that it is the most recently written book of the New Testament?  The answer follows.

At the time of its writing, authors often used a “pseudonym” when writing.  That is, they used the name of someone who was known to disguise their own identity or to give their writing a more authoritative standing (in this case, the apostle Peter who died about 75 years earlier).  As for this week’s gospel reading, it is from Mark—who is thought to be a companion or disciple of Peter.  Scholars tell us that this gospel was the first one written and that the other evangelists drew upon its content.

As for the reading from Isaiah (the prophet who lived 500 years before Jesus), it seems to prophesy the coming of Jesus—but biblical scholars tell us that Isaiah was conjuring a messianic figure who would lead the Israelites out of the Babylonian captivity under Cyrus and into freedom.  Similarly, when John the Baptist spoke, he was not referring to Jesus, but to a messianic figure that Mark described as being fulfilled in Jesus.

The Baptist was not baptizing as we know the term, but instead using a symbolic ritual that perhaps related to what was done when converting Gentiles into Judaism.  They would be renewed in a ritual washing that indicated their transformation into a new way of righteousness, the way of the Torah.  Judaism did not have a baptism ritual like that of John.

This past week saw our Catholic faith community honor the memory of certain people within our faith tradition.  Apostle Andrew’s feast day took place and the call of the apostles was the gospel reading for that day.  It reminded me of a topic that applies to everyone here.  Namely, we have friends and relatives who have no religious practice.  That is, they don’t go to church.

Instead of arguing with a husband or wife or brother, sister, child, or grandchild about going to Mass, just tell them that they are like Andrew and some of the other apostles.  The men and women who became followers of Jesus were probably pretty decent people.  Andrew, for example, is described as a fisherman taking care of his gear when Jesus came by—and somehow asked him to tag along.  Jesus said SOMETHING to Andrew that made him think this teacher just might have something worthwhile to say.

Up until that meeting, Andrew (and others) had a decent job and no doubt went out with the boys on a Friday night to have a beer or two.  But then something “clicked” in his head/mind/heart when hearing this Jesus guy speak.  And the rest is history.  2000 years later we’re still talking about Andrew and the others.  Had he (and they) NOT responded to Jesus, they would have led their lives and died anonymous deaths somewhere in the Middle East.

The same applies to our non-church-going relatives.  They’re good and decent people now—in their un-churched ways.  But they can be BETTER people if they touch base with Mass and the sacraments.  For them to practice the faith doesn’t help God but DOES help THEM.

For my confirmation, my mom gave me a book titled “St. Francis of the Seven Seas.”  It was the biography (written for young kids) of Francis Xavier, a friend of Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuits.  I read the book and was inspired by this man—and wanted my confirmation name to be Xavier.  Thus my name would be Michael Francis Xavier Steltenkamp.  I never wrote the Xavier part when signing anything, but in the graduation program where I taught, each year would see my MFXS name spelled out.

Xavier was solo in his life as a Jesuit—going it alone in the 1500s to China and Japan.  He became the patron saint of missionaries.

This past week was also the anniversary of the famous Sioux holy-man, Black Elk, being baptized “Nicholas” Black Elk—since it was on the feast day of St. Nicholas (December 6th).   A trend in the Indian world over the past decades has been to equate Indian-ness with being non-Christian, and to consider Christianity as “white man’s religion.”  All kinds of non-Indians help fan this flame of being anti-Christian—so the trend has been for Indians to speak ill of any Christian practice among their people.

The importance of Black Elk’s life is that he was an old-timer who embodied the essence of traditional Indian religious practice and life.  But he was also an ardent Catholic catechist.  He became a man whose Catholic practice was well-known to everyone.  He lived through his culture’s best times and worst times—and was able to embrace the Gospel with heart and soul.  His faith-life enabled him to carry on in life as a loving follower of Jesus.

It is hoped that he might one day be named a saint, so if you are dealing with an illness of some sort, pray to “Servant of God” Nicholas Black Elk for help.  Maybe you might be the miracle needed for his canonization.

On yet another day of the week was the martyrdom of the religious sisters and laywoman in 1980.  As I told you in the past, their rape and murder by El Salvadoran soldiers (supported by American tax dollars) was condemned

around the world.   A misguided American foreign policy enabled the military leaders to blame these women, priests, and nuns for bringing guns to rebel communists.  All this nonsense was a pack of lies foisted on the American public by the Reagan administration.  Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the U.S. representative at the UN actually described these healthcare workers and faith formation teachers as gun-carrying radicals.  All lies—which the administration knew were lies.

As recently as 2 years ago, the perpetrators of these murders were being arrested and FINALLY put on trial for what they did.  Like Andrew, these women will be remembered within the faith community forever—as their lives gave witness to the gospel.  The year after they died, a rush of lay volunteers went to El Salvador to take their place—an example of the centuries-old line that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity.”

In these examples of famous Catholics, their lives are good ones to contemplate during Advent.  In each case, their lives bore out what St. Theresa of Avila is said to have observed: “God writes straight in crooked lines.”   That is, each person had experiences that had a message in them that was difficult to read at times.  Their ultimate contribution revealed to us that they had read those crooked lines the way God intended.  And so it is with us.  Advent helps us perceive why God made us who we are—with our own special calling to make our own special contribution.  Each of us is, throughout life, enroute to Bethlehem—seeking where the Lord can be found in the crooked lines of our life-experience.

Advent Prayer

Lord, so often we are the un-Wise men and women who think we know the score and can travel life’s roads on the cruise control of our daily experience.    Instead, we are like the Magi who hope their life-journey will bring them to new life.   We need you to show us the Way.

There are many roads that people take in life, but we ask that you inspire us to follow the directions you provide.

We have gathered at this rest stop of the Mass and ask you in prayer for the guidance we need.

The Catholic catechist and Indian holy-man, Nicholas Black Elk—called his people to walk what he called the “good red road” that leads to you.  And we ask, with him, to help us walk that same road that leads to Bethlehem.

When we leave this sacred time of prayer, inspire us to ignore the mirages that only take us deeper into deserts.

December 10, 2023

You can understand why we have the Advent season when reading what follows from the book The Little Prince (an easy-read “child’s book” for adults in big print and short sentences).  The topic here has nothing to do with Advent, but captures what Advent is all about:

“If you are coming at 4:00, then at 3:00 I shall begin to be happy.  I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances.  At 4:00, I will be worrying and jumping about!”

“But if you come at any time, my heart will never know how to be ready to greet you.”

In short, Advent is a time when we try to prepare our hearts for the coming, or the arrival (which is what “advent” means) of Jesus at Christmas.

Before addressing the meaning of our religious term “Advent,” a word about time.  Namely, we have a calendar year, seasons of the year, a fiscal year, an academic year, an astrological year (I’m a Scorpio), and an astronomical year that dovetails with the Christian “liturgical year” that includes Advent and Christmas.  Namely, we look at our watches and it is evening at 5 p.m..

It is the time of year when we feel darkness overcoming our days.  We are, as scripture says, “a people who walk in darkness” awaiting to see a great light (the birth of Jesus).  Spiritually, Advent is a time of year when we are called to consider the darkness of our lives and our need for light.   Come the winter solstice (December 21/22), it is the day we have the least amount of light—but in the days following, we begin to experience more light in our 24-hour period of days.  THIS is the coming of Christmas—when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the light of the world.

The Advent season of 4 weeks precedes this period of “preparing our hearts” to receive His coming (as described by the Little Prince above)—and personalizing Christmas as more than just a gift-giving secular day of the year.  Advent helps us internalize the meaning of God becoming human—and embracing YOUR human-ness with all its flaws.

The Church initiated an Advent observance sometime around the year 500 A.D.  Originally, it included fasting and abstinence, but over the centuries this stopped, and in the 1800s the Advent wreath came into being.  It was the idea of a German Lutheran who thought it a way of helping young kids focus on something other than receiving gifts at Christmas.  So, families, had kids make wreaths, with evergreens symbolizing eternal life, red berries representing the blood that Jesus would one day spill, 4 candles (needed for light during this darkening season of 4 weeks duration, a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas day, and other items that might have meaning for a family.  The wreath became a custom—like the custom of having Magi statues travel from room to room in the house as they made their way to the manger scene near the Christmas tree.  Kids could be part of the ritualization of this special time of year.

A candle is lit each week—symbolizing Hope, Faith, Joy, and Peace (the first is purple or violet in color—signifies a time of prayer, penance, and sacrifice.  Finally, the 2-pronged theological reflection at this time of year is 1) God calling us to new life in imitation of the new life at Bethlehem, and 2) God calling us to eternal life, so we ought to reflect on whether or not we are living in a manner that merits it.  In reflecting on the stable at Bethlehem, we’re supposed to realize that we’re looking for the feeding trough that will nourish our best selves.  Advent helps us look at the right maps to follow when seeking the route to that trough.

An Advent Prayer

Lord, during Advent we pray during Advent that you continue to remind us that you are present on our journey to Bethlehem once again.

Open our eyes to your presence as we travel the roads of everyday life.

Especially at those times when we don’t think you are there.

Grace us with the memory of your name being “Emmanuel” (God with us)—not just in good times, but always.

Inspire us to be like Mary and respond to you by saying in all our decisions “Not my will, but yours be done” through me.

Kindle a fire within our hearts so that our lifestyle be a star that leads others to where you may be found.

Our life is an advent journey in search of the nourishment found in the manger at Bethlehem. 

Inspire us to be a helpful traveling companion with others who seek guidance that will sustain them.

Awaken the sleeping shepherd within us so that we feel the call to care for your people, the sheep of your flock.

As you blest all the animal nations by having their representatives be present at your birth, inspire us to be like them—never seeking to be someone we are not, but instead simply living the unique life you created in making us who we are.

We have taken detours while on the road to Bethlehem.  As we speak this prayer to you, we ask for the strength to not lose sight of the stable we seek. 

May our life experiences be the signposts that lead to you, Lord Jesus.

December 3, 2023

This weekend is “Christ the King” Sunday.  While the sense of this feast can be written off by Christians as simply acknowledging that Christ is the king of the universe, the feast day’s meaning was intended to “rattle cages” of people.  And if you’re like most people, it’s not fun to have your cage rattled.  We kind of have an instinct that has us think “get out of my face and just let me be.”  We don’t want a religious faith that actually challenges our thinking and behavior.

That said, one has to know how this feast came about, and why Pope Pius XI placed it on our liturgical calendar in 1925.  The pope realized that “those who don’t remember the past ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT.”  The pope wanted us to learn from our mistakes that were playing out on the world stage.  Acknowledging that Christ was our King.  No other political figure should rule our hearts and minds.  So why did he make this declaration at this time?

Globally, these events were in the air of this period:

1) Russia had just come off a revolution that saw the people overthrow Czar Nicholas, assassinate him and his family, and tell the world that it was an atheistic country that would no longer tolerate religion (the Orthodox Church negatively symbolized in the person of a Czarist adviser—sometimes referred to as a “mad  monk” because of his one-time seminary experience—named Rasputin).

2) World War I, “the war to end all wars” (so people said at the time) was triggered by Hungary’s Archduke Francis Ferdinand being assassinated.

3) Mexico’s revolution took place and the country outlawed the Catholic Church (priests killed).

4) Meanwhile, in Italy a popular figure had risen to power who the people called “Il Duce” (“the leader”), Benito Mussolini. Recall that it was Mussolini who joined Hitler against the U.S. in WW II.  A Jesuit friend of mine who was in the Army came through Milan and saw Mussolini’s body hanging upside down when the people murdered him in 1945.  He popularized the word “fascist”—a form of leadership in which 1 man rules with an iron fist and uses the military or police to enforce his dictatorial powers.

In short, over the centuries all sorts of political or military leaders came to power—and the world was still far from being the kingdom of God on earth.  Pope Pius addressed this issue by reminding the world that czars, premiers, presidents, generals, and “populist” figures come and go—but it is Christ who will always be our first and foremost “King.”  The gospel reading for the Feast of Christ the King includes the “corporal works of mercy.”

The Feast calls us to imagine a world where broadcasters announced: “This just in—breaking news–people now realize that Christ’s call is what we should listen to.  We will now feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, shelter the homeless.”   But you won’t hear this sort of announcement on a newscast.  It flies in the face of people who do not prioritize the teachings of Jesus—and so we in the Christian faith tradition CONTINUE to read the corporal works of mercy and TRY to commit ourselves to living them.

This could be called “pledge of allegiance Sunday”—wherein we pledge allegiance first to the God who made us, and to the gospel Jesus preached.  In WWs 1 and 2, people pledged allegiance to their country—and millions died.  Imagine if they had pledged allegiance first to Christ the King.

There should be nothing controversial about this basic religious teaching.  When the Olympic games are played, the world’s 195 countries compete against each other and good-naturedly shout that “we’re number 1.”  In athletics, this is the nature of competition and people shake hands at the end of the competition.  No Christian should ever think of their ethnic identity as #1.  We profess that we’re brothers and sisters every time we say the Our Father.  We’re not making a political statement.

I think of this basic Christian perspective and then recall bumper stickers in El Salvador saying “Be patriotic.  Kill a priest.”  And so people killed priests and nuns (and laypeople so that they could continue to be #1 economically in their country).  Would Mary or Joseph put that bumper sticker on the stable?  Or when the Michigan tribes were in court over fishing rights on the Great Lakes, did Catholics use bumper stickers that said “Spear an Indian and save a fish?”

You can see why Pope Pius XI called the world’s attention to Christ the King.  Calling one’s self a Christian is more than saying prayers and going to church.  It involved “praying with your feet.”  This reality brings to mind the work of the great Brazilian bishop Helder Camara.  Besides his advocacy for the poor, he will long be known for saying; “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked, ‘Why are they poor?’ they called me a communist.”

 Let’s remember that Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, realized that people’s priorities were not what they should be.  Instead of raising his sword before battle and proclaiming “For the glory of the King!” or “For the glory of the Queen!” or “For our Glory!” His thinking changed and he came to say the now well-known Jesuit motto: “For the greater glory of God!”

November 26, 2023

For a change of pace, instead of addressing the Sunday readings, this week’s bulletin reports the guidance of Pope Francis.  He addressed the universal community and reminded it of what the gospel calls all people to practice.  What follows is the concrete application of the gospel to real life issues.  This week is the anniversary of Jesuits being killed in El Salvador in 1989—one of whom was a friend of mine.  The government sponsored their murder (along with their housekeeper and her daughter) but were eventually caught in their lies and prosecuted.

1. He asked “the great pharmaceutical laboratories to release the patents” of the Covid-19 vaccines. He appealed to them: “Make a gesture of humanity and allow every country, every people, every human being, to have access to the vaccines.” He reminded them that there are countries “where only three or four percent of the inhabitants have been vaccinated.” Though he did not mention it, most countries in Africa fall into this category.

2. He called on financial groups and international credit institutions “to allow poor countries to assure ‘the basic needs of their people’ and to cancel those debts that so often are contracted against the interests of those same peoples.”

3. He pleaded with “the great extractive industries—mining, oil, forestry, real estate, agribusiness—to stop destroying forests, wetlands and mountains, to stop polluting rivers and seas, to stop poisoning food and people.”

4. He called on the great food corporations “to stop imposing monopolistic systems of production and distribution that inflate prices and end up withholding bread from the hungry.” He highlighted “the scourge of the food crisis” in the world and noted that in this year alone “20 million people have been dragged down to extreme level of food insecurity” while “severe destitution has increased” and “the price of food has risen sharply.” He mentioned horrific numbers of people suffering in Syria, Haiti, Congo, Senegal, Yemen, South Sudan and other places. He declared that “annual deaths from hunger may exceed those of Covid!”

5. He appealed to arms manufacturers and dealers “to completely stop their activity” because, he said, “it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”

6. He pleaded with “the technology giantsto stop exploiting human weakness, people’s vulnerability, for the sake of profits without caring about the spread of hate speech, grooming, fake news, conspiracy theories, and political manipulation.”

7. He asked “the telecommunications giants to ease access to educational material and connectivity for teachers via the internet so that poor children can be educated even under quarantine.”

8. He called on “the media to stop the logic of post-truth, disinformation, defamation, slander and the unhealthy attraction to dirt and scandal, and to contribute to human fraternity and empathy with those who are most deeply damaged.”

9. He appealed to powerful countries “to stop aggression, blockades and unilateral sanctions against any country anywhere on earth” and said, “No to neo-colonialism.” He called for the resolution of conflicts to be done in multilateral fora like the United Nations.

Pope Francis issued his verdict on the present economic system, saying, “This system, with its relentless logic of profit, is escaping all human control.” But, he added: “It is time to slow the locomotive down, an out-of-control locomotive hurtling towards the abyss. There is still time.”

He called on governments and politicians of all parties “to represent their people and to work for the common good.” He told them, “Stop listening exclusively to the economic elites, who so often spout superficial ideologies that ignore humanity’s real dilemmas” and encouraged them to serve instead “the people who demand land, work, housing and good living.”

As he had done with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar when they signed the document on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 4, 2019, Pope Francis again called on his fellow religious leaders to “never to use the name of God to foment wars or coups.” He invited them instead, “Let us stand by the peoples, the workers, the humble, and let us struggle together with them so that integral human development may become a reality.”

Francis also emphasized that “it is necessary to confront together the populist discourses of intolerance, xenophobia and aporophobia, which is hatred of the poor.” He said, “Like everything that leads us to indifference, meritocracy and individualism, these narratives only serve to divide our peoples and to undermine and nullify our poetic capacity, the capacity to dream together.

He concluded by urging the popular movements to continue their efforts to build a new economy and “to dream” of new ways of doing this.

See how well you know the bible.  Here is a bible summary in 50 words.  Do you understand this summary?

God made

Adam bit

Noah arked

Abraham split

Joseph ruled

Jacob fooled

Bush talked

Moses balked

Pharaoh plagued

People walked

Sea divided

Tablets guided

Promise landed

Jonah wailed

David peeked

Prophets warned

Jesus born

God walked

Love talked

Anger crucified

Hope died

Love rose

Spirit flamed

Word spread

God remained

FOOTPRINTS

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the LORD. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the LORD.

When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.

This really bothered him and he questioned the LORD about it. “LORD, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.”

he LORD replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

“GOD HAS CREATED ME to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I HAVE MY MISSION, I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I AM A LINK IN A CHAIN, a bond of connection between persons .

He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place , while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

THEREFORE I WILL TRUST HIM

whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. HE DOES NOTHING IN VAIN. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, HE KNOWS WHAT HE IS ABOUT.

                                 ~Cardinal John Henry Newman

Story of Abbot visiting Rabbi.

The Abbot’s Order was dying out, and he asked the Rabbi “what can I do?”  The Rabbi said: “The messiah is one of you.”  The Abbot told his 5 remaining monks what the Rabbi said, and each began to wonder who, among them, was the messiah.  They weighed the pros and cons for each, and concluded that any one of them might be he.  So they showed new respect to each other.  Eventually, the respect shown to one another drew more men into the Order.

November 19, 2023

We use the word “grace” when speaking about a special power or gift from God that helps us in some way, e.g., the grace of patience, the grace of compassion, endurance, faithfulness, courage, etc.  Grace can also be the presence of someone or some thing that heightens our sense of understanding an experience, or acquiring an insight of some sort.  For example, “She was a real grace for me at that time in my life,” “My pup was pure grace for me—total devotion each day,” “I received many graces during my work with those people,” etc.

Understanding what grace is, one sees the importance of attending Mass and praying and participating in the sacraments or events of the faith community.  For example, this week I passed a little girl in the supermarket.  She was about 10 years of age.  From out of nowhere, I wondered if I were to ask her about anything related to religion—would she be able to give me any reply, e.g., do you know the Our Father prayer?  Do you go to church?  Do you pray?  What’s the name of the mother of Jesus?

Social scientists refer to “NONES” as the group in society that has no religious practice.  One person might say “I’m Catholic,” or “I’m Protestant,” or “I’m Jewish,” while others might say “I practice no religion.”  It’s this latter group that has no religion who are the NONES.

Attending Mass and participating in the sacraments cultivates our minds and hearts and makes them receptive to “grace.”  “Something” at Mass, for example, is said, or is heard, or is seen, and leaves a mark on us, or an impression that stays in our minds or makes us think of good things or serious things that we never thought about before.  That’s why it’s important to encourage your family members and friends to attend Mass.  They are opening themselves up to “grace”—an experience that will lead them into a deeper awareness of some reality around them.

When I lived as a priest in a college dormitory, I’d meet with the resident advisers (“RAs”) each Monday night.  We’d begin these meetings with a prayer—said by a different RA each week—lasting only a minute or so.  One night I received the grace of insight—insight into the dismal state of the religious consciousness of some young people.

An RA was asked to say the prayer, and he started his computer for us.  It showed a Pac-Man game—the game quickly ending, and the RA saying this was the fastest game of Pac-Man he’d ever seen.  That was what he understood to be a “prayer.”  I and another priest in attendance glanced at one another—both of us sadly sensing that the young man belonged to the “NONE” group of young people. The young man was attending a Jesuit university for 35k a year—and didn’t know what prayer was?

Believe it or not, this introduction about grace and belonging and NONES is related to this weekend’s readings about the 10 bridesmaids.  It could be said that 5 of the young girls were NONES and 5 were not.  I’ll explain what I mean, but first a word on marriage in the time of Jesus—as seen through the characters of this parable.

First of all, girls got married around the age of 14.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is depicted often as a young European woman in her 20s when, in reality, she was probably a dark-skinned young girl with straight black hair.  The bride would live in the vicinity of the groom’s family (as in the case of the bridesmaid parable).  Secondly, these “bridesmaids” were probably the sisters and cousins of the groom.

Don’t think of marriage as we know it.  Think instead of young girls awaiting their brother’s (cousin’s) arrival for the party and ceremony.  They would be part of the procession into the meeting area where their lamps would provide light.  Later on, the blood-stained bed linen would be collected in case the girl’s reputation was later questioned en route to a divorce.  This blood would prove her virginity and that the marriage was “consummated” (a word still used today referring to a couple’s having intercourse after the ceremony).  This is addressed in the book of Deuteronomy.

Back to the parable: why is the groom delayed?  Has he changed his mind about marrying the girl?  Is he partying with friends?  Passed out?  All we know

is that the “groom” has not yet arrived and that people await his coming.  Are your brain cells starting to fire?  After all, a parable is supposed to provoke questions and make you think about the meaning of the plot and characters.

Hmm.  Who is the bridegroom?  He has not yet arrived.  People are awaiting his return.  YES!  These are references to Jesus returning—and us celebrating his return and our going to the heavenly banquet BECAUSE WE ARE PREPARED for whenEVER he returns.  Which takes us to the 10 maids of honor/bridesmaids/sisters/cousins.

5 have oil to keep their lamps burning brightly.  5 don’t have oil to provide light for anyone.  Hmmm.  I wonder what is being said here.  Could it be that those who have been a light for others have responded to the “grace” experiences of their lives—and so provided “light” to those in need?  And so are welcomed into the ETERNAL banquet?

And could it be that Matthew is telling us that some do not have oil, are not providing light to anyone, and will suffer the consequences of not letting their light shine for others?  Jesus is the “light” of the world, and so our life-light should illuminate the darkness of others.  But have we been doing this?  Have we been a light, or a “grace” for others who are making their way back to God?

So keep in mind the wisdom of this parable.  STAY AWAKE, and be prepared for when God calls you.  As the last line of this weekend’s reading says: “You know neither the day nor the hour of his return.”

A meditation for you based on this passage:

Picture yourself as one of the 5 wise bridesmaids.  Your lamp is full of oil.  When the Lord comes, you join the party.

Now place yourself in the company of the 5 foolish bridesmaids who have no oil.  You hear of the Lord’s arrival, so you go to Walmart to buy some oil.  You dash out of the store and pass a 10-year-old girl.  You wonder if she knows anything about the Lord’s coming.  But you quickly forget about her and arrive at the door of where the wedding party is taking place.

And you’re locked out.

You have just done a meditation on heaven and hell.

November 12, 2023

We read Matthew’s gospel this week and hear Jesus criticize Jewish leaders for seeking recognition, the best seats in public places, and overall special treatment because of their rank within the community’s leadership (e.g., scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.).  Unfortunately, over the centuries, a Gospel scene like this one caused much pain within Judaism.  People who read scripture without understanding the context can take these words of Jesus (as they have) and find reason to persecute Jewish populations.  Hitler used this misunderstanding of the scriptural context to further his “final solution” goal of exterminating our cousins in the faith (recall that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the “Abrahamic” religions and so are united in a common religious foundation).  In the case of today’s scripture, bible scholars tell us that Jesus never said what the Gospel reported today.

What?  Didn’t Jesus reprimand Judaism’s religious leadership of his time?  Yes, but not in the way Matthew has often been understood over the centuries.  Here’s the necessary CONTEXT for understanding what Matthew was addressing.

For some years the Jewish population was being oppressed by the Roman empire.  Eventually, the Romans subdued one revolt after another, and decided to destroy the heart of the culture—its Temple.  So in the year 70 A.D., the Temple was destroyed—with visitors to the Holy Land now only able to see what is called the “Wailing Wall.”  It was part of the great Temple—an edifice that was not just for religious instruction, but also for commerce and socializing.  As a result, without the Temple, the Jewish population was devastated—with nowhere to gather and carry out life the way they had previously conducted their affairs.

Because the Sadducees were puppets of the Romans, they no longer existed by the year 100 A.D.  No one wanted to follow these “traitors” to Judaism.  Meanwhile, the scribes and Pharisees had to somehow organize their following—a really tough task since the Temple was no longer in their midst and no longer a magnet that could draw the nation together.  Thus began what’s called the Jewish “diaspora” (a word that refers to any group of people who leave their homeland and have to “disperse” to other lands).  Christians were largely Jewish followers of Jesus, and they were joined by non-Jews, “Gentiles.”  Their diaspora also took place at this time.

This transition period saw someone like Matthew doing his best to form a Christian community (building on the tradition of our cousins, the Jews).  He had competitors—scribes and Pharisees who were likewise trying to shepherd their flocks.  Both sides threw stones at one another.  Keep in mind that not all Pharisees were teaching bad practices.  Jesus might have been a Pharisee himself.  What Matthew did was to PUT IN THE MOUTH OF JESUS criticisms of Jewish leadership that was supposedly behaving poorly in the time of Jesus.  Scholars tell us that Matthew was actually describing leadership in HIS era—40-50 years AFTER the time of Jesus (when Matthew was writing his gospel).  So Matthew depicted Jesus addressing Jewish leadership as that leadership was exercised in Matthew’s time.  Maybe there were bad leaders in the time of Jesus, too.  Jesus might not have said what Matthew reported, but Matthew legitimately echoed what Jesus said when calling people to SERVE one another and not seek to be served.

As stated above, Matthew’s comments were later taken to mean that Jesus was anti-Semitic (even though Jesus was Jewish himself).  Should you find yourself harboring negative thoughts about Jewish people, try to realize that your Christian faith finds such prejudice reprehensible—and that our Faith tradition is BASED ON the faith tradition you find yourself belittling.  If you find a fellow Catholic, or any Christian, professing their faith—and yet hold onto prejudices against Jews or Muslims, remember the proverb that describes their true identity: People who want to be Texans—are all hat and no cattle.

When Jesus calls us to serve one another and not flaunt our wealth or high office, I’m reminded of an American Cardinal who, when officiating at Church, wears a 30’ long red cape that has to be carried when used in a long train.  Two servers lift the ends of the gown—and the Cardinal officiously enters—center stage.  How this man sees his clothing as being in the service of God is hard for many to see, but I’m reminded of our shared “human condition.”  Namely, when I look straight ahead, I have a panoramic view of what’s in front of me.  HOWEVER, a part of my right eye does not see the entire visual field—and so I don’t see someone on my right until they come within my range.  In short, although I see decently, my vision is not perfect.  And so it is with each of us.  We do not see everything—and need God’s help to open our eyes to see where we have missed (or are missing) opportunities to be a Gospel person.

Jewish children were taught that there are 613 laws in the Torah (the first 5 books of Hebrew scripture and our bible).  248 of them are commands to DO something (e.g., Honor your Father/Mother), and 365 are commands NOT TO DO something (e.g., Do not kill).  Children were told that there were 248 bones in the body and  365 days in the year.  The Torah is thus instructing us to apply our bodies to serving God 365 days of the year—via the 613 laws (add 248 and 365 and they equal 613).  N.B., Jewish elders probably knew that young children couldn’t count all the bones in a body—which actually number 206).  But it was one way of making a point about serving God year-round and not just once-in-a-while.

With the basketball season starting, a timely quote can come to us from one of the greats of college and pro basketball, Pete Maravich.  Like Magic Johnson, he was a master of passing that went along with his deadly shooting  Having been in the spotlight for years, and collecting kudos everywhere throughout his short life, he said: “I want to be remembered as a Christian–who serves Jesus to the utmost and not as a basketball player.”  

 Further reflections on scripture and history

In 1650, the Church of England’s Archbishop in Ireland was James Ussher.  A recognized scholar in his day, Ussher did what other scholars were doing (people like physicist Sir Isaac Newton)—and tried to compute the birth of the earth.  His effort produced the date of 4004 B.C.  It was his computation—again, regarded as very scholarly in its day—that became what is now commonly accepted by some groups of Protestant Christians who often are referred to as “fundamentalists.”  This has been in the news recently because the new Speaker of the House admits to accepting this date as valid.  Given this being in the news and touching on our interest in what scripture is saying, I provide the following paragraphs that offer the more widely accepted historical perspective.  The article in which they appeared began with a question and draws upon the great St. Augustine:

Why is it that the Earth is 6,000 years old?

It isn’t. This is a Young Earth Creationist interpretation coming from an attempt to add up the ages of various people in The Bible.

The problems are many. First, the Vatican doesn’t claim the Bible is literal like this. The official position of the Vatican is based off the real world observation and understanding that much of The Bible is allegorical in nature. This includes all humans coming from Adam and Eve. The Vatican has recognized that evolution, including humans having a common ancestor with other great apes, is the best explanation for the diversity of life we see around us. The Vatican has recognized this since the 1950s.

So there is the problem. Then there is the abundance of physical evidence both here on Earth and in the universe around us that shows that the visible universe is 13.8 billion years old if we use the Big Bang as the start of our visible universe. That the Earth is 4.5 billion years old which is supported by a number of different lines of evidence.

The fact is we have various records by humans that actually predate 4,000 BC.

We can trace back tens of thousands of years using tree rings. These also line up with snowpack layers. This is before getting into any radiometric dating techniques.

Claiming that the Earth is only 6,000–10,000 years old is just one of the prime examples how Saint Augustine was right when he said the following.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

 Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is . . . that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

 If they find a Christian mistaken in a field that they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

 Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For them, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

November  5, 2023

This week I spoke with a man who said that all the Christian churches taught the same thing, so it didn’t matter which one he attended.  His observation is one that many people probably make, and which puts them in the category of not knowing the topic very well.  The man’s statement reminded me of the new Speaker of the House who once tried to pass a law that would have public schools teach the bible as history.  He was as ignorant of biblical studies as the other man was of Christian churches.

On these 2 points, should the topics ever arise in conversations you have, remember the following.  Several centuries ago, some Christian preachers in France (whose descendants came to the American colonies) taught that only a certain number of people would go to heaven, and that God knew who they would be.  We could tell who those “chosen few” were by certain telltale signs—one of which was wealth.  If you were “blest” with wealth, THAT was a sign that you were one of the elect who would one day go to heaven.  Thinking this way—which was condemned by the Catholic Church—included thinking that poor people would NOT go to heaven.  Thus, the wealthy are the elect of God, and the poor are destined for hell.

How could a major denomination that exists today, and that was practiced by American colonists, ever believe that Jesus could teach such a theology?  He ALWAYS defended “the widows and orphans” (the lowest social caste in his time).  So in light of this history, does it sound to you like all churches teach the same thing??

Similarly, in our day, there are a number of TV preachers who are making millions by fleecing their flocks by teaching what’s known as a “gospel of prosperity.”  These preachers basically describe Christianity as a way to wealth.  My grandmother fell prey to one of these con artists who sent mailings to poor people like her.  If she sent a “love offering” to him, he’d send her a “prayer cloth” which, if she put it in her purse, money would supernaturally come her way (or so she wondered—along with millions of people who made the Reverend Ike a wealthy man).  Many of you probably recall Jim and Tammy Baker—and how they got wealthy by fleecing the uninformed.

We humans are gullible, and my poor grandmother thought the preacher sounded pretty wise—so she sent him a dollar.  Preachers like these preach a religion that disguises itself as Christian—my point being that Christian churches are NOT all the same.

For example, as I’ve told you on other occasions, biblical scholars from mainstream Christian churches like Catholicism, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran—all attend conferences and write books with one another on biblical topics.  And these scholars work with other scholars from other fields to produce solid studies related to scripture.  Not one of these many fine scholars would ever say what the Speaker of the House said.  They know that the bible is NOT a history book—but a THEOLOGY book.  They know that it’s also not a biology or geology text.  Instead, they are serious scholars who spend their lives trying to understand the theology of scripture’s different texts.

Meanwhile, there are churches that claim many members who think as the Speaker of the House does.  They are sometimes called Christian “fundamentalists”—but that term is not always clear.  Sometimes it refers to those who read the bible and understand it “literally.”  If the bible says something, it must be true in the exact words that are written, e.g., Methuselah was 969 years old when he died, Noah’s ark held 2 of each animal species (even though another paragraph says 7 pairs of each were on the ark, and some 2 pairs), etc.

One reason we go to church is that we get to learn the FACTS of our faith and not the folklore of it.  Homilies and other events EDUCATE us in understanding our sacred literature—such that we know how to apply its theological/spiritual messages to our experience.  Moreover, through our involvement with the faith community and participation in the sacraments, we have our “conscience” formed in accord with what Jesus taught.

It’s sad that so many young people (and older ones) don’t come to the sacraments.  So how IS their conscience formed?  MTV?  Rap music?  Movies?  Movie stars and athletes?  Public figures who have zero understanding of Christianity/Catholicism.  Scripture calls us to think as Jesus did, decide as Jesus would decide, relate to people as Jesus related to them.  But if people have little to no exposure to Christian/Catholic teaching—how can they know the mind of Jesus?  They can’t.

This weekend’s Isaiah passage says “do not oppress the alien.”  However, many “Christians” fan the flames of hatred for people from other countries.  Scripture reminds these “Christians” that they were once aliens themselves—so why all this nastiness toward other aliens who are trying to avoid being killed in their home countries?  God says you’re in for big trouble if you don’t welcome the alien.

This dovetails with the gospel passage that has Jesus tell us to “love your neighbor.”  His command doesn’t mean to feel affection for everyone you meet, or give them kisses.  It means that we must convey to them a sense of belonging when in our presence and that they are welcome where we are.  In other words, treat them as a relative who is in need, and do for them as best as you are able.

And this theme is connected to what finance chair, Russ Milan, addressed in his comments about Christ’s Mission Appeal.  Namely, we are “loving our neighbor” in mid-Michigan as we contribute to the diocese’s outreach through CMA.  Just as you have exercised gospel stewardship by supporting missionaries who visit us, or give to special collections that go overseas or to places where tragedies hit.

We made our goal this year—with some left over that will return to the parish coffers.  One clarification, however, is that 20k of our total came to CMA via our weekly collection basket’s bills and change (not envelopes).  When we have visitors at Christmas, or any time, their loose change really helps us.

For the record, I respect whatever anyone gives to CMA, or anyone who doesn’t give to it.  I trust you have financial decisions to make—and you make them.  For all I know, you’re fixed income has you just getting by, or you are a big benefactor of some worthwhile place in need.

Data on our CMA scene is that if each registered parishioner gave 300 dollars, we’d make our goal (lower this year than last).  As it is, some people give several thousand, some several hundred, some less, and some nothing at all.  So that you know the system works—if a parish doesn’t hit its goal, the pastor has to make a check payable to the diocese from the parish account.  We’ve not had to tap our account because, as I mentioned above, you’ve been generous in your giving.

I touched on this last week, and conclude this week with these thoughts.  Namely, so often we’re asked to give to a cause like CMA, and we grudgingly feel we have to acknowledge it in some way.  But what’s helped me (and others throughout Church history) is seeing my donation in 2 ways—one from a bummer perspective and one from a positive one.

Negatively, I think of times in my life when I’ve not lived up to the ideals or virtues or behaviors I aspire to embody.  I think of mistakes I’ve made in speaking to people, in teaching students, in family relationships, and in overall presence to the life issues and people I’ve encountered.  I realize I can’t “do over” certain things, but I CAN try and make up for deficiencies I can count throughout the years.  I can financially support a diocese that is trying, like me, to help others and be the presence of Jesus to them.

Sort of like a penance in the sacrament of reconciliation, I can give financially to CMA to “make up for” the times I’ve not been my best.

Positively, I can think of the blessings I have received.  If you’re married, you might think of your husband or wife and say to God “I give this in thanksgiving for my beloved.”  Or say in prayer, Lord, for my child I give this.  For my grandchildren, grandparents, etc., etc.

Or, you can think of the home you have, your faithful dog or peculiar cat who lets you share your home with them J I give this, Lord.  Or you can think of the things you own, the places you’ve visited, and experiences that have made for you a good life.  And you can then thank God for all these blessings—by giving to CMA.  We can prayerfully say to God: “You have given me all that I possess.  I now return to you a token of my gratitude—so that CMA might dispense blessings to the people of mid-Michigan.”

Put CMA on your Christmas gift list.  Peace.

October 29, 2023

With today’s first reading of  1 Thessalonians, we have what many think is the oldest book of the New Testament.  Written by Paul around the year 50 A.D. (or “C.E.” if you prefer), it mentions such things as praying for one another, a faith that does good works, and enduring trials with hope.  We do these same things today (or at least try to do them).

The first reading lauds or praises Cyrus the Great—the Persian emperor who was fair to the Israelites, and so is a good memory to the people.  Blending a reference to him in the context of religion is appropriate since the Gospel reading contains the well-known quote of Jesus: “Give Caeser things that are Caeser’s and give to God the things that are God’s.”

 While this topic is a large one that can be addressed for pages, here are a few thoughts on it.  English Saint Thomas More is in the limelight here—because of the example he set for us relative to following our conscience and what he said just before his beheading in 1536.  Adviser and friend of King Henry 8th of England, he is the author of the literary classic Utopia (he coined the word “utopia”) and is the patron saint of statesmen, lawyers, and politicians.

His last words—after being judged guilty of treason (falsely) against the King, were: “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”

We can use the Gospel quote, and More’s example, in everyday life by always prioritizing God—in all we do.  You and I are called to think that “My first commitment is to God, and so I ask God to help me with all decisions I make.  With the life of Jesus being my model, I seek to think as he thought—on all topics that arise in my life.”

Should I marry this person?  Go to college?  Save a dog pound dog?  Take this job?  Confront my wife/husband/mom/dad?  Move somewhere else? Major in botany?  Buy this clothing?  Spend this money?  The list is endless.  Many people make decisions without having God be the one with whom they speak—about simple matters and more important ones.

All decisions must first have God as our consultant and our priority.  We pray like Jesus did.  Sometimes we ask “Lord, if it be your will, let me not drink from this cup.”  Or, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”  Serving God or Caesar?  It’s not always an either/or discernment (wise, Christian decision-making).

Caesar or God?  Think of it this way: all life’s issues relate to God in some way—because we are all God’s children and we are all called to take care of one another.  This entails “political” and “secular” decisions. Our  conscience helps us make decisions that correspond to our following of the Gospel.  So when you hear a politician, or anyone, speak about some issue—ask yourself if Jesus would make a similar statement.

Sadly, so many people are so unfamiliar with WHAT Jesus thought about anything, that they base their opinions, votes, and bother behaviors on what their neighbor said to them over beer last night at the bar, or what they heard some huckster promoting on some radio or TV show, or what they read in some article ghost-written by some Russian or Chinese agent who has infected our social media with anti-American propaganda that’s passed off as the words of some patriotic American.  Just this week, 3 attorneys pled guilty when admitting to lying about the 2020 election.  They had appeared on numerous newscasts ACTING as if they were furious about the “stolen” election.  They told millions of Americans nothing but bald-faced lies.  All the while, they were creating havoc in the American population (just what the Russians and Chinese wanted to see—Americans fighting one another over lies that their American puppets broadcast). Because so many people don’t pay attention to the news, millions of Americans will still believe the lies that these 3 felons told the public day after day in one long commercial for their lies.  Those millions of Americans will go around STILL thinking that these felon lawyers were telling the truth.  They have been examples of the opposite of Thomas More, Jesus, and anyone with a conscience.

This week wasn’t only about speaking truth to lies.  This past week we started the new edition of “Christ’s Mission Appeal.”  Parish finance committee chair, Russ Milan, informed us of how our finances stand and what our CMA goal is for the coming year.  He told us that as we finish this year’s appeal, we’re hovering at the target (87k) and now have a new goal of around 78k.

While every household is different, I read an article on fundraising that said most people handle their finances thinking first of themselves, then grudgingly of what they have to pay in taxes, and lastly, whatever little they might throw into the church collection basket.  Maybe that’s true and maybe not.  I think all types of giving takes place within a population.

This is the time of year when you’ll be approached by all sorts of charities.  My bias is for each of us to prioritize CMA—since it represents the Catholics of mid-Michigan reaching out to help diverse people in need.  Most charities that knock at your door rake in millions of dollars and pay their administrators millions of dollars.  If the CEO of your favorite charity is being paid a mega-salary, I suggest you STOP giving to that charity.  I’ve been part of large charities—and the salaries at some of these places are not inline with Christian stewardship.

You and I can’t help people in one-on-one missionary efforts, but we can subsidize the work of laborers in the field who we, as a diocese, pay to represent us.

As ever, you’ll be receiving CMA envelopes, while the extra change/bills that are put in the collection will go to CMA.  In doing this, we collect the most of our total—especially since the Christmas and Easter collection has visitors add to our collection via change and bills.  Over 20k of this year’s total came via the collection basket.

I’d not encourage you with CMA if I didn’t think it worthwhile. One way of making this yearly collection personally meaningful is this.  If you donate all at once, each week, or not at all—think of all that God has blest you with (child, husband, wife, children, parents, grandparents, work, home, dog, education, hobby, etc., etc.).  For each “gift” that you’ve received in life, give some amount to CMA—a token given to others in need (in thanksgiving for what you’ve received).  Still another way of making CMA more meaningful is to think of mistakes you’ve made along life’s path, express contrition, and say in prayer to God something to the effect of: “Lord, I can’t erase what I’ve done on this, this, this, this, and this occasion, but my contribution here to CMA I give you to use for helping others.  Thank you, Lord, for helping me carry on despite my life’s mistakes.”

If making a prayer of your CMA donation is helpful, please make it so.  This is in line with the week’s reading that Russ called attention to—our contribution is to God’s people—not a tax from Caesar.  CMA is one way of us giving thanks to God.  But it IS worthwhile—and I still think it’d be neat for us to get it all collected by Christmas.  I know this hasn’t worked in the past, but there’s nothing like having a miracle occur right here on our own premises

Thomas More was a great thinker.  What follows are some of his quotes:

If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable.

 A pretty face may be enough to catch a man, but it takes character and good nature to hold him.”

 “How can anyone be silly enough to think himself better than other people, because his clothes are made of finer woolen thread than theirs? After all, those fine clothes were once worn by a sheep, and they never turned it into anything better than a sheep.”
“Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief and then a corpse.”

 “One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated.”

  “Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?”

 “Why do you suppose they made you king in the first place?’ I ask him. ‘Not for your benefit, but for theirs. They meant you to devote your energies to making their lives more comfortable and protecting them from injustice. So your job is to see that they’re all right, not that you are – just as a shepherd’s job, strictly speaking, is to feed his sheep, not himself.”

 “It’s wrong to deprive someone else of a pleasure so that you can enjoy one yourself, but to deprive yourself of a pleasure so that you can add to someone else’s enjoyment is an act of humanity by which you always gain more than you lose.”

 “(…) personal prejudice and financial greed are the two great evils that threaten courts of law, and once they get the upper hand they immediately hamstring society, by destroying all justice.”

October 22, 2023

This past Friday we buried Mike Garcia out of Sacred Heart.  Mike had been a longstanding member of the parish who had to move to California several years ago to be with his daughter.  Like others who we’ve lost, he was an elder who was so faithful to his home parish that he continued to send his weekly envelopes to us—even though he would never return.  After Mass on Sundays, he’d join several parishioners at Bambino’s for breakfast.

I often think of us losing good people like Mike—and seeing no one take their place in the pews.  Nationwide, attendance at Mass has dropped to 20%–meaning that 80% DON’T attend mass.

In receiving a letter from a friend this week, I was reminded of this national trend when he wrote the following to the bishop of Pittsburgh:

Dear Bishop ,

In your recent Pastoral Letter, you state that, “Pastoral Planning must focus a spotlight on the next generations.”  You make it imperative to understand the needs, hopes, and desires of all, “especially our younger generations.” 

 You must have noticed, as we have, that the pews at Sunday masses are increasingly populated by older Catholics.  Missing are the young, many of them our children and grandchildren, who feel disconnected from the Church and ignored.  We find this to be profoundly sad.  The reason for their absence, they tell us, is that our Church has failed to speak to the significant issues that are of particular concern to them and will continue to affect them in the decades to come.  And, if truth be told, many of those same issues are deeply concerning to us as well. 

 For example, this past summer we saw the effects of the dramatic rise in temperatures: debilitating heat, devastating storms and forest fires, record flooding, massive crop failures, and persistent drought leading to the loss of millions of acres of once-productive farmland resulting in the migration of hundreds of thousands of desperate people that has led, in turn, to serious political disruptions. 

My friend’s letter proceeded to suggest that the dioceses and parishes needed to be more pro-active in addressing environmental degradation.  Pope Francis has tried to awaken our conscience to not destroying the earth via the fossil fuel industries, but the vast wealth that executives acquire for short-term gratification is a powerful opponent.  Europe is going electric but American corporations resist letting go of vast profits even if the future of the earth is at stake.

The same old story.  As when the tobacco industry knew for decades that smoking caused cancer.  The industry paid advertisers to lie—and tell you that the Marlboro man-cowboy was a role model.  Eventually, an award-winning documentary showed America that one actor after another who played the “Marlboro man”—died of lung cancer.

And so it goes with fossil fuels.  Corporations that are making vast sums of money selling us gas—pay advertisers to tantalize you with “fuel efficient” cars permit us to use as much gas & oil as we need—because it will never disappear and it will cause no problem with climate patterns.  Those are the lies we’re fed—just as tobacco told us we needn’t worry about cancer.  Meanwhile, Europe is changing to electric cars (just as good as gas-powered)—but U.S. corporations are making so much money that they don’t care about what happens to the earth in the years ahead.   Light up!  It’s good for you.  Had Ford and the other early auto inventors used batteries, we’d not have to argue about destroying the atmosphere with fossil fuels (that WILL, IN TIME, BE USED UP), and which is now in the process of changing climates worldwide, and polluting our paradise.

This week a Ken Burns documentary has been shown on public TV about the American Buffalo.  When I was a boy, I saw a documentary about how the buffalo were slaughtered nearly into extinction.  Were it not for a few people who managed to save the few buffalo that survived the killing of millions—we’d not have these marvelous creatures today.  People in the 19th century were like people in our time—they saw that they could make big bucks by slaughtering the buffalo.  Church people even arranged trips by train to slaughter them from railroad cars.  After all, the buffalo would always be around—like all our natural resources (people ignorantly concluded then and now).  Passenger pigeon feathers were acquired by killing the millions of passenger pigeons that once existed—which big businesses said could be slaughtered since they’d always be around.  Now gone, there are no more beautiful passenger pigeon feathers, but fortunately, because of people thinking beyond their wallets, we still have the buffalo.

I can’t recall the exact figures, but it was something like 100 million buffalo in 1800 and reduced to something like 300 in 1900.  Buffalo Bill Cody said he never regretted killing the 4000 that he shot while some professional buffalo killers regretted what they had done.  Were Jesus to comment on these issues, what do you think he’d say?  What would He say about slaughtering the buffalo, the passenger pigeon, poisoning the air, and water, and using all of Earth’s resources until they’re exhausted?

The man who wrote the bishop is a retired lawyer, financially secure, and a committed Catholic.  He just happens to be concerned about the environment, and that church pews support an elder population.  His writing dovetailed with Mike Garcia’s passing.  Both here and in Pittsburgh—and throughout the U.S.—fewer young people are coming to church.  My friend thinks our

Church needs to address concerns that are of interest to younger generations—the environment being one such issue.  Oddly enough, the Catholic Church—through Pope Francis—is a leading voice in environmental matters (this pope trying to awaken the world’s population to the threat of extinction).  However, before the younger generation can realize how the Church addresses an issue like this one—or the others that might be of interest to them—they need to come TO our Masses and events that strive to foster our consciousness—and help us lead more fulfilling lives.  Maybe SOME younger people think of issues, buy I think more of them are just not attuned to any issue. .  They don’t think about ANY issue other than if something will be fun to do.

Yet another coming together of ideas occurred when I saw what this week’s gospel addressed.  In short, it addressed our 2023 challenge.  That is, the parable is describing how our churches are empty.  Unless we draw people in, they won’t know if we’re doing anything about ANYTHING.  Think again about the gospel parable.

It told of a “king” (as an “allegory” in which everything stands for something else—the king is God).  The “king” holds a banquet for his son. Hmmmm.  God’s son—Jesus.  And the Banquet?  Hmm, a meal associated with Jesus?  Sound familiar?  Meal at the Table of the Lord (also called the altar), the Eucharistic feast, we go to communion where we “break bread,” and pass the cup.  Put these together and we have God giving us a special food, a banquet that celebrates joy and hope and new beginnings—a wedding, yes, but also a sacrament which is “a visible sign of an invisible reality”—namely, God feeding us so that we can be nourished to accomplish great things.

And so it is—God inviting US to the banquet.  Yay!!!   But wait.  The parable says that nobody comes to the king’s banquet, or the response is pretty bad.   Kind of like 20% of Catholics coming to Mass.  And as the parable said: “farmers and business people give an excuse” as to why they don’t come to the banquet.  Sound familiar?  Yes!  Matthew is describing US.  Our relatives find excuses to not attend Mass.

Matthew and Luke are also telling the people of the first century that since they’re ignoring God’s invitation, others will be called to the feast.  And so it is with us.

In the spirit of Pope Francis, we need to make our faith community more inviting and open to all God’s people (just as the king opened the banquet to the “good and the bad alike”).  How about you inviting your non-Catholic neighbor, or lapsed Catholic, or erratic relative—come to Mass with you?  Take them to breakfast or dinner afterward.  Encourage them to find a place within the community—as a member of the social committee, the service committee, the grounds/environmental committee, as an usher, reader, singer, sacristan, or specialist in some issue that our faith community might try to address.

Matthew reports that someone came not dressed appropriately.  This could be the non-Catholic we invited, or neutral Catholic—who despite interaction with us in the faith community—makes no effort to adopt the message of Jesus.  Matthew’s reference is to a final judgment of the king (God) dealing with those who come to the banquet but who do not change their ways—and simply live as neutral humans in a world that calls for non-neutrality.  Matthew and Luke are also telling the Jews in their audience that God’s call is going to the Gentiles, too, since the Israelites killed or ignored the prophets who came to them with the king’s invitation.

So I suggest you exercise your missionary identity on this propagation of the faith Sunday.  Bring to church someone who doesn’t come to church.  They don’t have to be Catholic to come here.  After all, if we practice what we preach, our invited guests will want to BECOME Catholic—since our faith life will be shown as helping us be the good people God calls us to be.

We need to keep in mind that Mass attendance isn’t an experience that transforms you in an instant.  So tell your invited guest that they won’t necessarily get a “quick fix” to the issues they bring to this “heavenly banquet.”  No.  Spiritual growth is incremental—or comes to us bit by bit as we get more and more exposure to the Word of God within the Mass and as lived by those present—and as witnessed in the music people, the service, readers, the priest, and parishioners opening themselves up to God’s guidance.  You won’t be transformed into an angel, but gradually you’ll become a better person.

In speaking to your family members or friends who don’t attend Mass, you might tell them that they are wonderful people and beautiful children of God.  And that the king’s invitation to them (and us) will help them (and us) become even BETTER people than we already are.  So our outreach is not saying that they are bad, but that they (and we) can be better persons through our sacramental involvement.

So we might not be made instant saints, but by banding together in a faith community, we can become the change we want to see take place in the world.

October 15, 2023

Scripture has different components that at any given time can inspire or challenge, indict us, or console us.  If we look solely for one “point” in the assigned readings, we’re restricting God’s word to what’s just on our mind.  By contrast, God’s word in scripture addresses many topics and moods of ours that come and go.  We might even find ourselves saying “I don’t like what it says there.”  So because scripture speaks of many things, we might walk away from it with frustration of some kind.

I mention this because I think we most often come to this sacrament to be encouraged, affirmed, consoled, or inspired.  But this week’s readings confront us with our human weakness, our ignoring the Creator, and our call to be Christ-like.  The readings seem to “lay a guilt trip on us” this week.  In short, Isaiah is like all the prophets.  Contrary to our understanding of “prophet” to mean “predicting the future,” Old Testament prophets challenge us to look into the PRESENT!  So this week Isaiah lays into his audience—at the time he was writing—and his audience of us, today!

In short, Isaiah tells us that God, the Creator of all, has generously blest us—which he compares to a beautiful vineyard capable of producing luscious grapes and fine wine.  If Isaiah was speaking to us, he’d probably point out the wonderful crops of corn, beans, potatoes, beets, and all the produce we see when driving on M 46.

But Isaiah would proceed to ask us: God gives you so much and what do you do?  You trample your crops, conduct drag races through the fields, let people traipse through your property, and ruin what could be a great harvest.  Isaiah is illustrating how we do not tend to the soil of our lives.  We do not acknowledge God as the One who deserves our reverence gratitude and guidance.  We equivalently destroy the harvest our lives could otherwise produce.

The gospel echoes this same message.  Namely, tenants do not pay the landowner what they owe him (N.B., in case you miss it, we’re the tenants).  Not only that, but the tenants also kill the landowner’s employees and others who come to collect the rent.  The tenants even kill the man’s son.  And yes, this parable is associating Jesus with the son who is killed while the employees are the long line of prophets and leaders who tried their best to awaken the conscience of the people.

Isaiah and Matthew are not just commenting on what took place centuries ago, but that their observations apply to us today.  We wake up and once again learn that another war has erupted in the Middle East.  More people killing one another—little children, grandparents, moms and dads, and college kids attending a concert.  And all this killing, we know, will produce revenge and more killing.  Once again, Cain is killing Abel.  Isaiah and Matthew are the equivalent of cable news reporters at the scene of bloodshed.

Learning of this new holocaust, I’m reminded of news reports this week of some politicians speaking the same way as Hitler did—telling crowds that American “blood” is being “poisoned” by refugees.  Recall this was the same rhetoric Hitler used when talking about “Aryan” blood of his mythical ancestors—this perspective leading to his extermination of Jews and others.

A potential speaker of the House admitted he was like David Duke—a reference that might not register with most Americans.  In case you don’t know who Duke was, he led the Ku Klux Klan.  So we now fit the image of Isaiah’s sinful humanity—as we repeat the same mistakes made by previous generations.  That is, in 2023 someone wanting to be Speaker of the House can actually proclaim he’s like David Duke!!!

Keep in mind that the Klan is not just a racist organization known for lynching Blacks and Jews.  We Catholics have been on the Klan hit list since its beginning.  Similarly, some Americans are stoking a rise in anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews).  You may or may not hear someone say “I hate Jews,” but you will hear “dog whistles” that stir antagonism within bigoted people–and the whistle acts as a call to action, e.g., bombing a Black church by White supremacists or shooting at a synagogue by American Nazis, Klan people, and “survivalists” who vent their anger at just about anyone.

An actual “dog whistle” is the kind of whistle that humans can’t hear but dogs can.  Applied to social issues, when a bigot/racist hear a certain word or phrase spoken by someone trying to tap their prejudices–THAT’S the “whistle” that motivates them to act.  If you’re NOT part of the hate-group that recognized these dog whistles, you won’t see the deeper meaning of what some racist politician/speaker is making.

For example, someone trying to tap anti-Semitic prejudice might say “People like George Soros give that politician money.”  If you’re not anti-Semitic, you only hear that a wealthy guy named George is supporting someone.  However, others will know that Soros is Jewish and that the speaker is telling them that Jews (not just Soros) are funding their opponents (and that ALL Jews are bad and deserving of our wrath).  Lots of hate literature exists that is based on false histories and laden with all sorts of stereotypes that demean Jewish (or Catholic or Muslim) people.  Sadly, politicians and hate groups built a following based on prejudices that lead to violence and murder of innocents (yes, this is the same story that occurred when Jesus was born and Roman soldiers were ordered to kill all Jewish babies).  The biblical “slaughter of the innocents” is a story that still plays out today.

Anyone who considers themselves a Christian should shudder to know that there are people who are glad that children and their grandparents in Israel were murdered en masse this weekend.  They were proud to have killed young folks attending a concert.  This horror is playing out now in the news–but it’s the same story that Isaiah was addressing in this weekend’s first reading.  It was what Matthew addressed in the gospel.  We replay the same, sinful, hell-born stories over and over again.  Continue to harbor prejudices and judge people negatively just because they look physically different from you–and your life harvest will be a grave disappointment–such as a field of corn trampled underfoot, or a vineyard’s grapes destroyed.

Scripture is not just calling everyone to be a humanitarian or a “secular humanist.”  No.  Look at Paul’s comments and see that he affirms anyone who, in their life, pursues “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious . . . and any excellence.”  Paul is here simply saying that the virtuous life is good–and that we should lead virtuous lives.  HOWEVER, he’s saying more.

These good goals can be defined by different groups in different ways.  What one person might think is just, lovely, gracious, etc.–might conflict with how another person defines those attributes.  THEREFORE, Paul suggests we follow the example he has set–and be followers of Jesus.  Define what is good as Jesus would define it.  Treat others as Jesus would treat them.  Be just as He was just.

This week we have an example of how to see and think as Jesus saw and thought.  This week we celebrate the feast of our parish’s namesake–John the 23rd. When elected Pope, no one expected him to do much or assert his authority.  In that sense, we probably think that people don’t expect much from us, too.

Instead of being a bump on a log, John 23rd looked at the Church and said “It’s time to open the windows and let the Holy Spirit breathe fresh air in our Church.”  He called Vatican Council II and did his best to see Catholics update their Church to meet the needs of the modern world.

Before he was elected Pope, John served in various offices and one of them offers us a timely example for our consideration.  Namely, in our own time, we have politicians serving Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, by spreading lies that are his propaganda.  Keep in mind that Putin can’t visit certain countries because he is wanted for “crimes against humanity” for ordering the slaughter of men, women, and children in Ukraine.

In any other era, these politicians would be considered traitors to America for aligning themselves with a track record such as Putin’s.  However, their behavior is not the first time this sort of betrayal has occurred.  Sadly, there are Church clergy in WWII who collaborated with Nazis, and who helped them escape to South America.  Thankfully, this was not how all priests and bishops behaved–just as not all politicians are today working for Putin.  However, John 23rd had the job of finding clergy collaborators after the war and bringing them to justice.  They had betrayed Jesus–who was crucified by the Nazi regime they served.

Because of these betrayals, our Church has taken a beating from some quarters–when researchers find examples of Nazi Churchmen.  Since that time, we Catholics have had to show the world that our living of the gospel calls us not to discriminate.  We try to be like John 23rd and resist the evil of anti-Semitism and racism whenever we see it. Our mantra should be the same as his: –“We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.”

In thinking of how some in America have resurrected Nazi prejudices, thoughts, and behavior, it is worth reflecting once again on what Martin Niemoller wrote:

In Germany, they came first for the communists; I did not speak out because I was not a communist.  Then they came for the Jews; I did not speak because I was not a Jew. Then they came to fetch the workers, Members of the trade unions; I did not speak because I was not a trade unionist.  Afterward, they came for the Catholics; I did not say anything because I was a Protestant.  Eventually, they came for me, And there was no one left to speak.

October 8, 2023

This time of year we have 3 special days that merit reflection.  One is September 29th—the feast of Guardian Angels (whose names are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael).  These are the only angels mentioned in scripture—Raphael appearing only in the Old Testament (briefly).  His patronage is of travelers and physicians.  Gabriel is the one who delivered a message to Mary—that she would become the mother of Jesus (and so is the patron of postal workers).  Michael appears in the Book of Revelation where he leads an army against demonic forces (and so became the patron saint of policemen).  Angels are often depicted as lovely, winged females with long flowing hair—all sugar and spice.  However, they are just as likely to be thought of as defenders (as with the idea of someone having a “guardian” who protects them).

People in religious studies are familiar with cultures everywhere having spirit-figures that are numerous and that have various functions.  These spirits are not limited to our concept of angels but are found within diverse religions around the world.  The Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) has few references to angels, and the tradition of associating the serpent in paradise as a fallen angel—is absent from Jewish tradition, Genesis, or even Christian tradition.  That association is a later development and is not what Christians should consider a proper interpretation of the creature who spoke to Adam and Eve.  Historians of religion apparently think that our concept of angels arose out of the religion of Persia/Iran, Zoroastrianism (and came to the Holy Land via soldiers of Alexander the Great.  That religion has many angels and devils, and speaks of an apocalyptic end of the world.

The Book of Revelation conjures up images of Michael the Archangel leading his forces against demonic enemies, and down through the years, some Christians have made a case for this Book being a prophecy of the “end time.”  And so, people have tried to calculate when this “end time” will be, and when the great Apocalyptic war will take place.  They don’t realize that the Book of Revelation is NOT prophesying anything, but instead referring to the ongoing battle in which we’re all engaged.  Each day presents us with decisions that bring life or death.  The Book of Revelation was especially focused on the dragon-like demon that was always prepared to devour Christians—later readers losing sight of the fact that these images were actually symbols of the ROMAN EMPEROR and his minion-soldiers hunting Christians and martyring them in grisly ways.

The New Testament Greek word for angel translates to “messenger of God” such that anyone or anything can, technically speaking, be an “angel.”  That’s probably what should occupy our reflection on the topic.  Namely, how are you and I a “messenger of God?”   Who has been an angel in our life—bringing us special care and protection?  Grandparents, parents, teachers, friends, our horse, dog, cat, or other loved ones?  As with human saints, these figures we call angels represent behaviors or identities that we should emulate.  E.g., I’ve long wanted to have the personality of my boxer dog whose excitement and joy in meeting people really put me to shame.

Which leads to another feast we celebrate within a span of 7 days—the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi (whose name the current pope chose as his papal name).  Living around the year 1200, this 5-foot-tall GIANT of Christian history was born into wealth and a secular life.  However, he had a vision that changed his ways—adopting poverty as a way of life.  His preaching so impressed a peer of his that she, too, adopted the poor life and founded an order known as the “Poor Clares” (her name was Clare).  Today, we think of Francis as the founder of the Franciscan religious order of priests (and later nuns), and the patron saint of the environment because his association with animals became legendary.

These legends about Francis apparently may have more fanciful that factual evidence about him.  However, even these legends tease our minds with possibilities—such as the story of the wolf of Gubbio, Italy.  At first, it sounds like a thousand other children’s tales—but the epilog leaves us with uncertainty.

So there was a wolf that was killing livestock and, eventually, people near the town of Gubbio.  The people were terrified of this bloodthirsty creature and hid in their house come night time.  Francis heard of this happening and so went to confront the wolf.

He entered the woods and spotted the wolf—who immediately came running at Francis, but stopped, and sat in front of him.  Whereupon Francis told the wolf that he knew he was hungry and had to eat, but he could not continue killing as he had.  So Francis struck a deal with the wolf.  He told him that the village would supply him with food each day if the wolf left them alone.  One version of the story has the wolf offer Francis his paw—as if to shake “hands/paws” on the deal.  And from that time on, the wolf would come to town and be fed, and never harmed the people again.  After staying in the town and living with the people, for two years, the wolf died and the people buried him as one of their own—placing a slab over his grave.

Is this a quaint children’s folktale?  Maybe.  HOWEVER, in 1872, six-hundred years after this supposedly took place, the people of Gubbio were rebuilding their church.  When working on the foundation, laborers found a slab that lay on top of a large wolf’s skeletal remains.  [Google the “wolf of Gubbio” on the Internet for this material spelled out in greater detail].  The association of Francis with animals is reported in anecdotes that have him speaking with birds, and the tradition that said when Francis died, his donkey cried.  N.B., Google “Romeo the wolf” on the Internet for a true and touching story about a wolf in Juneau, Alaska.  It’s sad but has a moral—as the story of Francis has a moral. Good true-life story told by a writer who became the wolf’s friend.

Long before the environmental movement began (in the 1970s), Francis of Assisi represented our relatedness to all life forms of the ecosystem.  Which is why he’s the patron saint of the environment.

He was also the first “stigmatic” (one who bears the wounds of Jesus)—the first in Christian history (1200 years after Jesus was alive).  Not many stigmatic’s have surfaced since his time—10 of whom were canonized.  The condition is a mysterious one, obviously., and one wonders how 1200 years of Christianity could elapse before the condition arose.   Like the life of Francis, the stigmata is special.

Also special is a young French girl who joined a convent at age 15 and who died at age 24 (of tuberculosis).  Her feast day is October 4th, and her name is St. Theresa of Lisieux.  Her religious superior told her to write her life-story (which was lived entirely in her hometown in France except for a trip to Rome).  While on her deathbed, Sister Theresa heard another nun say: “I wonder what our Prioress will say about Sister Theresa when she dies . . . she has certainly never done anything worth speaking about.”

What came to mind was that maybe most people feel that the above nun’s comment could apply to them.  In Theresa’s case, she finished writing what became known as “The Story of a Soul”—a religious classic.  She has also been named a “Doctor of the Church”—unheard of for someone whose education was limited.  Similarly, she is the patron saint of missionaries.  Don’t underestimate what God is calling you to be—even if the externals of your present state might not broadcast “greatness” of any kind.

Why not start your discovery of God’s call by trying your best to be an angel to family members and friends, and humbly rely on God for help each day as did Theresa.  And finally, care for the ecological niche where you live, and recognize all living creatures as relatives (which they are).  Francis and Theresa, like you and I, had no clue that they would one day be examples of how the gospel should be lived.  Go for it.

St. Theresa of Liseux:  “I don’t rely on my own merits, because I don’t have any.”

“A donkey carried a bundle which held the relics of the greatest saints.  When he passed, crowds of people would bow down in reverence–not of the donkey, but in honoring the relics he carried.  We should be humble since all that we are comes from God.  Otherwise, if we take credit for what we say or do, we would be like the foolish donkey who imagined that all the people were reverencing him.”

“Our Lord does not come from Heaven every day to stay in a golden ciborium.  He comes to find another Heaven, the Heaven of our mind and heart–is where he most loves to stay.”

October 1, 2023

Throughout the U.S., the Church is conducting a period of reflection on the Eucharist in all the parishes.  With Mass attendance down to 20% nationwide, it’s important that we try our best to see that the people of God realize that they have a Divine gift in the sacrament.  After all, who WOULDN’T want a Divine gift if it was offered to them?

Initially, our answer to that question would spontaneously be—for baptized people AND atheists—“Heck yes!  I’d LOVE to get a gift from heaven.  Life’s tough and I need all the help I can get.  Show me the way to that gift.”

If you were to ask God the above question, God would first take you to a mirror and say “Look at the beautiful gift I gave you.”  And we’d probably say something like “All I see is my reflection in the mirror.”  And God would say: “Precisely.  YOU are the most special gift I’ve given you.  Always remember that creation isn’t complete without you.”

If God were to tell us face-to-face that we are such a special presence in the world, and that He loves our special-ness, we’d probably be floored.  Some people, of course, probably are controlled by sinful pride—and so have a big ego, and WOULDN’T be surprised to hear what God said about them being so beloved and special.  But most of us would say something along the lines of “Hmm.  God loves me and says I’m special and that I help make creation what it is.  I hate to say this, but if this is what God thinks—then God is NOT all-knowing.  I’m far from being so special.  In fact, I have some pretty serious flaws.”

This sort of thinking—that God is somehow deficient—falls right in line with today’s first reading that reminds us that “God’s ways are not our ways.”  Or, said another way, our way of thinking is not always God’s way of thinking.

The man who owned the vineyard is like God.  The vineyard owner gave each of us our very own gifts—generous to those seeking work—and blessing them with value—each to their own.  This story echoes the story of the prodigal son.  Just as that story wasn’t just about 2 brothers—but was about God’s great love for us (whether we’ve messed up things in our lives or walked the straight and narrow).  So the vineyard owner is like God—overflowing with generosity toward everyone and “paying” us with all sorts of gifts that are uniquely our own.

And all of this leads to what these reflections first addressed—the Eucharist.

So: first know that God has given you a great gift!  YOU are that gift.  The second thing to know is that God knows you and I need help—so that we don’t ruin this great gift of the one life we’ve been given.

In the beginning of these reflections above, you were asked if you wanted a gift from God (presumably all of us would say “yes, please give it to me”).  And above it says that our individual life is that gift.  But stop!  A second, wonderful, miraculous gift has been given to us!  What is it?  Ta-da—the Eucharist.

But that can sound as just so much pious talk.  Eucharist can just be a religious word that refers to something that 80% of Catholics ignore on a daily basis.  Hmm.  What’s wrong with that picture?  Especially if this gift is from Heaven—to help us properly live that one life we’ve been given.  Creation is incomplete without you—yes—but how is it going in your place within creation?  How is your family environment getting along?  Your work environment?  Have you used your goodness to help anyone who is poor in some way or in need of help you could, if you acted, provide them?  You and I help make creation complete, but are we taking care of our place within it?  In short, we are part of an ecosystem designed by God—with you and me occupying our own special niche.  To what extend are you and I scanning the landscape to see how the rest of creation is doing?

There is a force at play in the world that goes by different names and appears in different disguises—that stomps on the gift that God made when making you and everyone else.  Call it “evil” or “the demonic” or “fallen human nature”—or whatever other name you prefer that describes how crime arises and how lives are ruined in many, many different ways.

In short, because God sees how badly we need help in navigating the waters

of creation that seek to drown us.  God throws us a lifeline, a life preserver, the seed of a vision, a stimulus, a hope, or inspiration—call it what you will—in the Eucharist.  Heck, I think to myself, I NEED all these aids to help me navigate those dangerous waters.  Where can I find it?  Where is this gift from heaven that will help me live my life the best way possible—so that I be the best version of me as often as I can?  Ta da—the Eucharist.

And to think this wonderful gift from heaven is accessible Tuesday at 5, Wednesday at 8:30, Thursday at 6, Saturday at 4, and Sunday at 9 & 11 at John the 23rd parish Masses.  Tell your family and friends that the Divine soup-line meets at these time each week—and there get touched by God in their minds and hearts.  They all don’t claim to come away perfect from the experience, but they all come away from it better than when they arrived.  That’s what the Eucharistic experience is all about—God polishing the gift of our lives—loving us in our uniqueness.

Terms used that relate to the Mass

 Stole, Ambo, Ciborium, Corporal, Lectionary, Cruet, Alb,  Amice, Roman Missal (sacramentary), Purificator

Long white garment priest wears under vestments _________________

Protects chasuble from perspiration (worn over shoulders)_________________

Sign of priest’s role when serving as priest_______________

Book of biblical readings__________________

Book of prayers for mass____________________

Cloth in middle of the altar where chalice and hosts are located ________________

Cloth that cleans chalice/wipes off chalice_______________

Holds water/wine____________________

Holds consecrated hosts in tabernacle__________________

Used to be called a “pulpit” and where Word is proclaimed__________________

September 24, 2023

“As we forgive those who trespass against us.”   That’s what the Our Father prayer says we do.  Do YOU forgive people who, in some way, do you wrong?  It seems we’re programmed genetically to let our anger control us—so that we lash out, try to get revenge, get even with, or punch someone in the face.  It’s a kind of animal instinct that swells within us and, at best, leaves us saying something like “I’ll forgive but I’ll never forget.”  Or, “I’ll never forgive you for saying/doing that.”

Today’s readings tell us that vengeance is God’s, not ours, to take on someone.  Scripture says we’ll be better off in forgiving—and not give in to our animal nature.  We’re told to turn the other cheek, and not to strike back at someone.

I once told my spiritual director about the great anger I felt toward the principal at the high school where I taught.  I made my justifiable case and, when finished, he said the following.  “Stelts, the account you give really does testify to the truth of what you’re saying.   But what good will be accomplished if something bad happens to her?  You have no trouble feeling anger toward her, but have you felt pity for her, too?  After all, she’s God’s little girl, and God loves her very much.  How about this: instead of cursing, ask God to give you a sense of his love for her, and ask God to give you a sense of that love.”

Today’s scripture reminds us of forgiving people.  Remember Jesus saying “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do.”  WE are the ones who THINK we know the score, but don’t.  I recall driving east on I-70, and seeing a deer jump a steel rail fence on the other side—in order to get off the interstate.  He thought he’d get away and be safe, but he didn’t know that there was a 30-foot drop-off on the other side—not flat ground.  He thus jumped to his death.

I think of that horrible scene unfolding and am reminded of people who make decisions that they think will help them in some way—but the decisions are bad ones.  People don’t think through everything, and end up in worse shape than ever.

I harbored anger toward a couple of fellow Jesuits and so avoided them and remained distant to them instead of rising above my anger.  When they died, it was as if God said to me: “What good did you accomplish, Mike, by ignoring them?  They’re dead now, and you had no effect on their lives.  You wrote them off—to accomplish what?  And now, there’s nothing you can do to make anything right again.”  May we at least be cordial with those who do us wrong.

Every football season, Boston College plays a game on or near 9/11 which they call the Red Bandana game.  It is dedicated to a Boston College student who died on 9/11.  This weekend, the game was played against 3rd ranked Florida State.  BC lost the game, but only by 3 points—an especially good showing for a team that isn’t supposed to compete with anyone this year.  Here’s the story that tells why the game is played to acknowledge the Christ-like example of BC graduate Welles Crowther.

At age 6, Welles Crowther’s dad gave him a red bandana that became his trademark as a lacrosse player at Boston College.  He graduated and worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11.  From his office that day, he called his mom and left a message saying “Mom, I wanted you to know that I’m ok.”  6 months later, his body was found in the rubble.

His mother read a survivor’s account in The New York Times.  The woman reported that she and others were saved “by a man in the red bandana.”  His mother rushed to meet with the survivors to show them a photo of her son.  Right away, they identified him as “that man in the red bandana” who emerged out of the smoke and dust to lead them to safety. They pieced together how he spent the last hour of his life.  This is the account they gave.

Crowther went to the 78th-floor, where he encountered a group of survivors. He carried a woman on his back, and directed everyone to the one working stairway. The survivors followed him 17 floors down, where he dropped off the woman he was carrying–before heading back upstairs to assist others. By the time he returned to the 78th floor, he had a red bandana around his nose and mouth to protect him from smoke and haze. He found another group of survivors.  While with them, he assisted in putting out fires and administering first aid. He then announced to that group, “Everyone who can stand, stand now. If you can help others, do so.” He directed this group downstairs as well. As occupants of the Tower headed for the street, Crowther returned up the stairs to help members of the Fire Department–before the Tower collapsed.  The following March, his body was found with those of other firemen, and according to survivor accounts, in his last hour of life, Crowther saved 20 to 30 people.

When clearing out his son’s home, his dad found a mostly completed New York City Firefighter application—recalling Welles telling him that despite having a job that others would kill for, he felt a calling to be a fireman (for a salary that was but a small percent of what he was then making as an equities trader).  With the support of a MICHIGAN foundation, Crowther’s parents created the Red Bandana Project, a character-development program for schools, sports teams, camps and youth programs. The family also established the Welles Crowther Charitable Trust, with which they fund charitable work.   Boston College also sponsors each October the Red Bandana 5 K Run.  Each year on the weekend nearest to 9/11, BC players and fans are garbed in red bandana gear.

I was in theology studies with Blessed Sacrament priest Jim Hayes, SSS.  He was assigned to the Blessed Sacrament Congregation’s parish a few blocks from the World Trade Center.  When watching a documentary on the event, I saw a scene in which a camera crew was rushing down a street on that bad day, and spoke to a priest with powder and smoke dust all over him.  He said he couldn’t talk but a moment because he had to get back to the people.  It was my friend, Jim Hayes.

I later learned that he was there to help in whatever way he could, and that later on he was honored for the heroic action he took that day.

Jim as a good guy, but like most of us never imagined he’d be called to work in hell on that day.  He was a poker player on Friday nights and beer before dinner kind of guy.  Good guy.  A Red Bandana guy.

And so it is with us.  We might be called unexpectedly to help someone in need.  As we continue with mass today, may our altar cloth remind us to be a red bandana person when called upon.

September 17, 2023

We go to Mass at church and see things each week, but do we know the names of these terms?

“What do you call that thing that the priest is wearing?” Or, what’s that “thing” in the sanctuary?  This is a commonly asked question that Catholics ask because they do not know what to call the clothing that is being worn by the clergy.

The word “vestment” comes from the Latin. It simply means clothing. Now, it is generally used to represent the garments that are worn by the ministers of religion in the performance of their sacred duties.

Vestments are what’s called a “sacramental.” That means they are set apart and blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and to increase devotion in those who see and those who use them. They are the uniform of the priest when he is “on duty,” while he is exercising the functions of his ministry. The black shirt (or some other color) with a collar is not called a vestment—but “clerics” (an odd word since “clerics” also means “a group of clergy.”

The Mass vestments were originally ordinary garments of the ancient Roman world. Priests continued to wear at the altar the ancient Roman costume of their predecessors–a witness to the historical continuity of the Catholic Church with the primitive Church of Rome.

THE ALB is a long, white linen liturgical vestment with tapered sleeves. It is a garment that is worn by the priest during the Mass. While it is white in the Western Church, it can be of any color in the Eastern Church.

THE AMICE The amice is an oblong piece of white linen 36″ x 24″ that is worn around the neck and shoulders and partly under the alb. It has two 36″ strings of twill tape. Originally, the purpose of the amice was as a cloth to protect the valuable chasuble and stole. Until 1972, the amice was an obligatory vestment. Now it is optional and only worn by clergy who feel strong devotion to the Latin Mass.

THE BIRETTA is a stiff square-shaped hat with silk trim and tuft. It has three or four ridges, called “horns,” across the crown. It is black for priests, deacons, and seminarians, purple for bishops, and scarlet for cardinals.  An optional garment.

THE CINCTURE is the cord used as a belt to gird the Alb comes in many colors.

THE CROSIER is a Pastoral Staff, the symbol of authority and jurisdiction. This ecclesiastical ornament is conferred on bishops at their consecration.

THE STOLE was worn by Roman magistrates as a scarf when engaged in their official duties. Whenever a priest celebrates Mass or administers the Sacraments, he wears the stole as a sign that he is occupied with an official priestly duty. It is a vestment of distinction, a symbol of ordination. Deacons wear it draped across the left shoulder diagonally across the body to the right hip while priests and bishops wear it draped around the back of the neck.

The Cassock is a long, close-fitting, ankle-length robe, usually black but also white and red,  worn by clerics of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and some Reformed.

Surplice is a white tunic worn over a cassock commonly worn by altar servers, and choir members. In Catholic and high church Anglicanism, it may be worn by clergy who are attending a Eucharist but not by the celebrants.

Cope A circular cape reaching to the ankle, commonly used by bishops and priests and, sometimes by deacons usually for a benediction service with monstrance (which holds the host).

Maniple is a decorative liturgical handkerchief bound about the wrist, it is only used during the Mass. The maniple fell out of common use with the 1970 post-conciliar liturgical reform but is  used today in the Tridentine Mass that some younger priests seem to favor. This is the pre-Vatican 2 Mass form that French Archbishop Lefebvre refused to stop in his archdiocese.  He led a revolt in the Church to retain it but was excommunicated.  A number of priests joined his new church—he and they arguing that they were the only true Catholics.  Their main complaint was the use of Latin in the Mass—which they sought to retain (along with other pre-Vatican 2 liturgical forms).  John Paul II restored the “Tridentine Mass” such that a Latin mass can be found in many dioceses.  Pope Francis has called bishops to NOT foster participation in these Masses, and to stop priests from learning the Latin and providing that form.

Chasuble the outermost sacramental garment of priests and bishops, often quite decorated. It is only thanksgiving meal where we give thanks to God for sending the person of Jesus to show us the worn for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Altar is the table that the community gather around under the leadership of the Priest to remember God’s love for us and give thanks for the living memory of Jesus who show us the way to the Father in heaven.

Altar Cloth Primitive documents from the Mediterranean basin make note of the use of one fine linen cover over for the altar.  The current practice today echoes the earliest Christian practice with at least one white cloth covering the altar for the celebration of Mass.

Altar Crucifix  In ancient times, a processional Cross was the Christian symbol used at the altar. Leading the community into their gathering place, it was later in history that the cross became a crucifix placed on the altar so that as the Priest was saying Mass he could glance at it during the Eucharistic Prayer.  The current practice is to have a crucifix on or close to the altar (Tridentine masses tend to have it on the altar).

Candles are used at every liturgical celebration as a sign of reverence and festiveness.  They represent Christ as the light of the world.  On or next to the altar are candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If a diocesan Bishop celebrates, 7 candles should be used.

Corporal   A corporal is a Latin word that means ‘body.’ It is an additional smaller cloth that is placed at the center front of the altar.  A cross is often stitched on it, and it should be closest to the priest when laid on the altar.  The paten and chalice are placed on it.

Purificator This cloth functions like a liturgical napkin. It is used to wipe the lip of the chalice after each person drinks from the chalice. There is always one purificator for each chalice used at a Eucharistic celebration. It is used again for the drying of the vessels when they are purified or cleaned at the end of Mass.

Chalice  The word chalice comes from the Latin word ‘calix’, meaning cup. The chalice is also called a sacred vessel and is held in special honor by the worshiping community as it is the cup that holds the Consecrated wine/Blood of Christ.  All chalices used at a Eucharistic Celebration are to be made of precious metals as a sign of the importance of these sacred vessels.  N.B., in one of the Indiana Jones films, Harrison Ford’s character reached for a wooden cup instead of what the villain reached for—a gold chalice.  They were told by a knight guarding the grail that one had water in it and one had poison.  He asked “Which would Jesus have used?”  The villain died—having reached for the gold instead of a carpenter’s simple wooden cup;

Paten or plate is what the hosts for communion are placed on. Like the chalice the paten is to be made of precious metals as it is also called a sacred vessel since it will hold the Consecrated bread/Body of Christ once the words of consecration are said by the priest at Mass.

Cruets Containing Water and Wine  The term cruet is another word that we don’t hear very often but it simply means the bottles or jugs that hold the water or wine that are carried to the altar at the Preparation of the Gifts.

The cruets are traditionally made of glass but other materials can be used.  You might have them in your kitchen holding vinegar and oil for salad dressing.  When the Priest washes his hand during the preparation of the gifts he quietly says the words: ‘Wash me, O Lord, from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.’ The bowl/jug/towel should be large enough for the community to see. Even though the words are said quietly the action is rich symbolically.

Roman Missal is the book that holds all the prayers for the celebration of the Eucharist.

 Ambo is a Greek word that means “step” or “elevated.” The great importance of the Word of God in the scriptures proclaimed at each Eucharistic celebration means that there is a special place for this word to be read from. From the ambo only the readings, the responsorial Psalm, and the exulted (Easter Proclamation) are to be proclaimed; it may be used also for the giving of the homily and for announcing the intentions of the Prayers of the Faithful.

 Lectionary holds all the scripture readings used during the Liturgy of the Word.

 Did you know the terms covered here?  Ask your family members their meaning to see how liturgically literate everyone is.  I only cite the words commonly used.  There are terms the Church uses that even I don’t know.

September 10, 2023

In his recent conversation with Portuguese Jesuits in Lisbon during World Youth Day, Pope Francis commented that the situation in the Catholic Church in the United States is “not easy,” where “there is a very strong reactionary attitude” that “is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”

He also spoke about what should be the pastoral attitude toward L.G.B.T. persons and much else, as revealed in the transcript of the conversation published today in La Civiltà Cattolica, by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., the magazine’s editor, who was present at the meeting.

Pope Francis addresses American Catholics who are ‘isolating themselves’

The pope spoke about the situation in the U.S. church after a Portuguese Jesuit brother, also called Francisco, who had spent a sabbatical year in the United States, told him that he was greatly affected and even suffered at seeing “many, even bishops, criticizing your leadership of the Church. And many even accuse the Jesuits, who are usually a kind of critical resource of the pope, of not being so now. They would even like the Jesuits to criticize you explicitly.”

America magazine has learned that Pope Francis knows which cardinals, bishops, clergy and prominent laity are openly critical of his leadership of the Catholic Church, but in his answer to the Portuguese Jesuit he did not mention any names. Instead, he said,

I would like to remind those people that being backward-looking is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century: doctrine evolves. In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.

The pope went on to give some examples of the evolution of doctrine in the Catholic Church in recent times. “Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin. You cannot employ it, but it was not so before. As for slavery, some pontiffs before me tolerated it, but things are different today. So, you change, you change, but with the criteria just mentioned.”

“The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.”

The first Latin American pope recalled that “Vincent of Lérins makes the comparison between human biological development and the transmission from one age to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is consolidated with the passage of time. Here, our understanding of the human person changes with time, and our consciousness also deepens.”

He added, “The other sciences and their evolution also help the Church in this growth in understanding. The view of Church doctrine as monolithic is erroneous.”

He noted, however:

Some people opt out; they go backward; When you go backward, you form something closed, disconnected from the roots of the Church and you lose the sap of revelation. If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change. And the effects on morality are devastating.

Pope Francis said, “The problems that moralists have to examine today are very serious, and to deal with them they have to take the risk of making changes, but in the direction I was saying.”

Addressing the Jesuit brother who had raised the question, Francis remarked, “You have been to the United States and you say you have felt a climate of closure. Yes, this climate can be experienced in some situations. And there you can lose the true tradition and turn to ideologies for support. In other words, ideology replaces faith, membership of a sector of the Church replaces membership of the Church.”

In this context, Pope Francis paid tribute to the “courage” of Pedro Arrupe, S.J., who served as superior general of the Jesuits from 1965-83. He recalled that Father Arrupe had inherited a Society of Jesus that was “bogged down” because of a text known as the Epitome drafted by a previous superior general, the Polish Jesuit, Włodzimierz Ledóchowski, who led the order from 1915-1942. Francis described that text as “a selection of the Constitutions and Rules, all mixed up” and recalled that he had experience of this in the novitiate, “albeit with great teachers who were of great help, but some taught certain things that fossilized the Society.”

If you don’t change upward, you go backward, and then you take on criteria for change other than those our faith gives for growth and change.

Francis remarked that while the younger Portuguese Jesuits “have not experienced these tensions,” nevertheless what one of them had said “about some sectors” in the United States church “reminds me of what we [Jesuits] have already experienced with the Epitome, which generated a mentality that was all rigid and contorted.”

He concluded: “Those American groups you talk about, so closed, are isolating themselves. Instead of living by doctrine, by the true doctrine that always develops and bears fruit, they live by ideologies. When you abandon doctrine in life to replace it with an ideology, you have lost, you have lost as in war.”

Pope encourages ministry to homosexual and transgender people

 Another Portuguese Jesuit called João, who works in the university center in Coimbra, recalled that Francis had told young people at World Youth Day in Lisbon that “we are all called as we are, and that there is room for everyone in the Church.” He told the pope that he does pastoral work with university students, and “among them are many really good ones, very committed to the Church, to the center, very friendly with the Jesuits, who identify as homosexuals.” He said they are “an active part of the Church, but they often do not see in doctrine their way of living affectivity, and they do not see the call to chastity as a personal call to celibacy, but rather as an imposition.”

He asked the pope:

Since they are virtuous in other areas of their lives, and know the doctrine, can we say that they are all in error, because they do not feel, in conscience, that their relationships are sinful? And how can we act pastorally so that these people feel, in their way of life, called by God to a healthy affective life that produces fruit? Should we recognize that their relationships can open up and give seeds of true Christian love, such as the good they can accomplish, the response they can give to the Lord?

Pope Francis said, “I believe there is no discussion about the call being addressed to everyone. Jesus is very clear about this: everyone. The invited guests did not want to come to the banquet. So he sent out to the streets to call in everyone, everyone, everyone. So that it remains clear, Jesus says ‘healthy and sick,’ ‘righteous and sinners,’ everyone, everyone, everyone,” he said, echoing the chant he led at World Youth Day. “In other words, the door is open to everyone, everyone has their own space in the Church. How will each person live it out? We help people live so that they can occupy that place with maturity, and this applies to all kinds of people.”

The pope then mentioned a priest he knows in Rome:

I know a priest who works with young homosexuals. It is clear that today the issue of homosexuality is very strong, and the sensitivity in this regard changes according to historical circumstances. But what I don’t like at all, in general, is that we look at the so-called ‘sin of the flesh’ with a magnifying glass, just as we have done for so long for the sixth commandment. If you exploited workers, if you lied or cheated, it didn’t matter, and instead sins below the waist were relevant.

Pope Francis repeated: “So, everyone is invited. This is the point. And the most appropriate pastoral attitude for each person must be applied. We must not be superficial and naive, forcing people into things and behaviors for which they are not yet mature, or are not capable.” He said, “It takes a lot of sensitivity and creativity to accompany people spiritually and pastorally. But everyone, everyone, everyone is called to live in the Church: never forget that.”

“Everyone is invited. This is the point. And the most appropriate pastoral attitude for each person must be applied. We must not be superficial and naive, forcing people into things and behaviors for which they are not yet mature, or are not capable.”

In his answer, Francis also went on to speak about transgender people. He recalled that a Charles de Foucauld sister, Sister Geneviève, who is in her 80s and is a chaplain for circus performers in Rome with two other sisters, attends the Wednesday general audiences. He said Sister Geneviève “also works a lot with people who are transgender” and one day she asked him, “Can I bring them to the audience?” Francis responded, “Sure! Why not?” and so, he said, “groups of trans [people] come all the time. The first time they came, they were crying. I was asking them why. One of them told me, ‘I didn’t think the pope would receive me!’ Then, after the first surprise, they made a habit of coming. Some write to me, and I email them back. Everyone is invited! I realized that these people feel rejected, and it is really hard.”

‘The joy I have most…comes from the preparation for the synod’

 A third Portuguese Jesuit gave Francis the chance to talk about the Synod on Synodality’s Roman meeting that opens on Oct. 4 when he asked: “Could you share with us what weighs most on your heart at this time? What is it that pains you the most? On the one hand, what is weighing on your heart, and on the other hand, what joys are you experiencing at this time?”

Pope Francis said, “The joy that I have most at present comes from the preparation for the synod, even though sometimes I see, in some parts, that there are shortcomings in the way it is being conducted. The joy of seeing how from small parish groups, from small church groups, very beautiful reflections emerge and there is great ferment, it is a joy.”

In what seemed an indirect response to his critics, Pope Francis emphasized, “The synod is not my invention. It was Paul VI at the end of the Council who realized that the Catholic Church had lost the sense of synodality. The Eastern part of the Church maintains it. So he said, ‘Something must be done,’ and he created the Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops. From then on there has been slow progress, sometimes imperfect progress.”

He revealed that “in 2001, I participated as president delegate in the synod dedicated to the bishop as a servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the hope of the world.” He said that when he was preparing documents on what had come from the small groups to be voted on, “The cardinal in charge of the synod said to me, ‘No, don’t put that in. Take it out.’ In short, they wanted a synod with censorship, a curial censorship that blocked things.”

The Argentine pope emphasized yet again that “synodality not about going after votes, as a political party would. It is not about preferences, about belonging to this or that party. In a synod, the principal figure is the Holy Spirit. He is the protagonist. So you have to let the Spirit lead things. Let him express himself as he did on the morning of Pentecost.”

He concluded by identifying one of the concerns that he has at the present time: “One thing that worries me a lot, without any doubt, is war. Since the end of World War II, all over the world, wars have never ceased. And today we see what is happening in the world. It’s useless to add more words.”

September 3, 2023

As a young guy I was moved by a film titled “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck playing the lead role of a priest who goes as a missionary to China.  Peck was nominated for the “Best Actor” award for his performance.  Reading the Internet review of the film took me back to the story line and once again moved me emotionally.  The film’s title is drawn from this Sunday’s passage about Jesus giving the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter—the “rock” upon whom Jesus will build his Church.

Here’s where my mind was taken in thinking of the encounter of Peter with Jesus.  We are the “church” of Jesus today—the community of His presence alive in the world.  We are Peter’s successors.  We are the “rock” of Church today.  But when we use the word “church,” what do people think?

If I’m a Muslim and you ask if I go to church (not knowing I’m a Muslim), I’ll think to myself “Hmm.  This person doesn’t know I’m a Muslim.  They might be anti-Muslim so I’ll just say that I go to church but not say that I actually go to a mosque.”

Similarly, you might ask a Jewish person if they go to “church,” and they, too, realize you don’t know that they’re Jewish and that they go to a synagogue.  Concerned that you might be anti-Semitic, they simply reply that they go to church.

  1. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer who thought it’d be neat if he could create a business that he’d call a “church,” make money and claim tax-exempt status AS a church. Sure enough, The con man created his “Church of Scientology,” and became a multimillionaire without paying taxes on his “church.”  Meanwhile, European countries outlawed his Scientologist church from doing business there.  But Americans such as Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Ann Archer, and others have joined the group.

Ask many people if they go to church or belong to a religion, and you’ll get a reply that goes something like: “No, I’m more ‘spiritual’ than religious” or “My religion is my own and it’s private” (or variations of a vague connection with some Force-be-with-you entity).  This latter practice is widespread and could probably be called a kind of secular “church” for millions of people who aren’t formally active in any organized faith community.

The challenge for this group is that they are vulnerable (like all of us are) to predators who are slick operators/charismatic leaders of some kind.  Jim Jones was such a leader—convincing 900 people to “drink the Kool-Aid” of what he pitched to them.  Men, women, and children committed suicide because he convinced them it was the right thing to do.  These people were regular folks—as were the Heaven’s Gate people who likewise killed themselves because their leader was able to make them think a space-ship would pick them up and head to their mother planet.

I cite these examples because they illustrate that we humans can construct our lives on sand—not rock—and find ourselves swept out to sea.  That is, today’s scripture tells us that our foundation is made of rock.  It is the Church that is led by a divine charismatic leader, Jesus.

Since Church is the continued presence of the risen Lord in the world, how do we understand this communal identity?  A Jesuit theologian (and Cardinal) spelled out how you and I are members of and participants in “Church.”  Avery Dulles, S.J. was the son of Eisenhower’s U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

In his book Models of the Church, Dulles tells us that we can think of “church” as having several identities rooted in the risen Lord.  Each has its role, and no one “model” fully captures the meaning of what Jesus inspired.  The “models” are:

1) Church as institution: to function in a complex world, we have an organizational structure; this presence of Church in the world emphasizes structure, order with lines of communication, and clear roles and guidelines for living the gospel in the world. 

2) Church as a mystical communion: we are not just engaging in friendly fellowship (although we certainly do this); we are related by the Spirit and by a God who has called us into community with one another. Our baptismal identity. 

3) Church as Sacrament: just as a sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible reality” (e.g., Eucharist is food, visible in bread & wine—just as the

Risen Lord feeds us at the communion table-altar.

4) Church as Servant: doing what Jesus did—the corporal works of mercy and being a voice for social justice–-caring for the poor—not just as a humanitarian social worker but living our faith and identifiable as such.

5) Church as Herald: a messenger calling everyone to renewal/reform; don’t just think nice thoughts about Jesus and God—share your faith; not necessarily by holding a sign at football games to consult a line of scripture, but profess your faith, e.g., we had a speaker from the Michigan Catholic Conference tell us about the issues they publicly addressed; each of us is a kind of mini-Catholic Conference— or Herald.

6) Church as Community of Disciples: a community of people trying to be like Jesus in what they do, say, and pray, knowing that following Jesus may include suffering (even frustration with the institutional Church); a community that recognizes it has no boundaries and that the rest of the world relies on us; we are all brothers and sisters—; there is one race, the human race. We all have the same ancestry.

Just as you might be the only bible someone ever reads: what do your words preach?

so you might be the only Church that someone ever meets: how do you present yourself to others?

You might be someone’s faith when they can’t believe: do you learn more about your faith by living/expressing it?

August 27, 2023

The “lectionary” (which is the book of scripture readings for each day of the year) is structured this way.  The three, weekend readings offer 1 from the Hebrew Scripture, or what Christians call the “Old Testament”; 1 is usually from an Epistle (but could be from Acts of the Apostles, or the book of Revelation).  The 3rd reading is from one of the gospels.  These 3 readings are chosen because they have a common theme.  The weekday readings have no thematic connection.  They are simply 2 readings from scripture that are 1) a gospel, and 2) one that is from some other book than the 4 gospels.

Applying this framework to today’s readings, we have a theme of opening our minds and hearts to the reality that all humans are related.  Biology tells this on a genetic level—each of us literally related and having a common ancestor, and theologically related as “brothers and sisters in Christ.”  This sounds like “kumbaya,” feel-good kindness to one-another thinking, but it’s also scripture’s challenge to each of us is that we knock off the racist or ethnocentric thoughts that so infect the human population.  As I’ve said in the past, our family lines all come from some ethnic stock or part of the world—and at one time no doubt fought other humans who spoke a different language, wore different clothing and hairstyles, spoke a different language, and had a different color of skin than groups who seemed different from us.

All cultures had tales that made their ethnic group outshine all others.  “We’re #1” came early in human cultural development.  Linguistics, too, shows each ethnic group calling itself something that translates to “human” while words for people from another stock are referred to by some other word (less than “human”).  Dark skin color marked our ancient line with light color skin a relatively recent arrival in our gene pool.  Over the course of time—far removed from our common ancestor in Africa—people started referring to “others” as “foreigners.”  Removed from their common history by generations of moving to other areas, people developed separate cultures.

Why give this minuscule overview?  Because the first reading from Isaiah uses the word “foreigners” and refers to them as being able to actually worship God in a good or acceptable way.  That’s quite a statement to be found when one tribe is speaking about people from other tribes (in this case, Israelite Isaiah speaking). This vision prophesies or foreshadows the universalism that Jesus preached (that is, his emphasis on us belonging to one tribe or race—the human race—in which we are all, again, brothers and sisters).  Of course, if you’re shouting slang words at someone whose ethnic background is different from yours—hmmmm—that’s not acting in accord with what Jesus taught.

That’s not me offering you my own view of sociology, but rather what Paul preached.  In today’s reading, he refers to himself as the “apostle to the Gentiles.”  Remember that “Gentiles” were anyone not an Israelite or Jewish person of modern times.  So Paul is echoing Jesus and saying our witness is to ALL people, all GENTILES like us folks here in John 23rd parish.

Look at the gospel for this week.  It’s about a Canaanite woman.  Now most people among us don’t have a clue as to who the Canaanites were.  I never knew until I did some reading on the subject.  They were the people who the Israelites conquered when coming into the Holy Land or Israel.  They were considered the “less than human” people from another cultural background.  And so, the apostles tell Jesus that this revolting Canaanite woman is pestering them.

Jesus tells people that he has come for the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  His audience goes wild. Yay, Jesus!  We’re #1 in your book—and you’re going to give us aid.  And he tells his followers to avoid Canaanite towns—especially a place like Samaria.  Not only does Jesus once again appeal to the ethnocentrism of his people by telling them to steer clear of “foreign” turf, but injects a little irony here when referring to Samaria.  Do you get the connection?  Do you recall the “good Samaritan?”  Was he someone who was nasty and selfish, and is he someone you’d want to avoid because he’s such a self-centered person?  Of course not, the “good Samaritan” story was probably known to his listeners here.  Along with his apostles, they miss the allusion and once again applaud Jesus for reinforcing their prejudices.

And here comes the clincher.  Jesus is applauded for “degrading” the Canaanite woman by calling her a “female dog” (which I learned was a put-down as far back as the time of Jesus).  And the crowd probably “yucked it up” (laughed) when Jesus told her to get lost.  He said: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.

What did she reply?  In what’s considered maybe the best “touché” or comeback in the New Testament, the woman says to Jesus “Even the dogs have to eat.  Help me.”

And therein lies the point of this story.  The “point” is not that Jesus was a miracle worker who cured the woman’s daughter.  Rather, it was that Jesus used her as an example of great faith—greater than what his “doubting Thomas” followers had.  She, a foreigner, female dog, Canaanite—showed his name-calling followers what was important.  She was showing them all the importance of faith in Jesus.

Matthew’s Jesus is here breaking down the barriers of ethnocentrism and prejudice that are everywhere in the world.  Here in the U.S. today is a reawakening of bigotry as politicians popularize name-calling once again—trying to rally our old sinful nature with thoughts of how nasty this or that group of people is, how “those foreigners” are taking “our” jobs, etc., etc.  For me, a history buff since childhood, this all sounds so “haven’t we been here before?”

It reminds me of southern plantation owners getting poor whites to wear Confederate uniforms and go fight to preserve the plantation system. After all, if you free the slaves, “those people” will take your job.  This was, of course, all balderdash–since the privileged plantation owners had no interest in raising the living standard of “white trash.”  However, they needed the dirt-poor whites to fight the North.  By stirring up ill will against Michigan and other Northern boys, they’d get an army of dirt-poor whites to help preserve their wealth in maintaining the slavery system.

Beware of people appealing to your prejudices against groups of people.  We thought Hitler’s psychopathic obsession with Jews would make us see the senselessness of anti-semitism or any “ism.”  Not so, Jewish people are once again the target of many Americans who apparently don’t even know they’re being manipulated.  It’s like we have a gene for prejudice—and it can be tapped by charismatic people like Hitler or thugs like Stalin.

We, humans, seem to have a kind of prejudice gene that can be put to work by some people to achieve horrible ends (think of the WW 2 holocaust or the Jewish synagogue slaughter that was 40 miles down the road from me in Pittsburgh)—where a man shot and killed a couple of dozen people (young and old he thought were ruining the world by simply being alive).  Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew not only spoke to the audience Jesus addressed but also to us—and the ethnocentric prejudices we all, to some extent, drag with us through life.

This past week marks the anniversary of Black Elk’s death-he being the holy-man whose biography I put in book form. Indian communities across the U.S. has masses in his honor-his death in 1950 being memorialized. I have been spending much time trying to write his biography for an office in Rome that is seeking his canonization for sainthood. I tell you of this because his life-story is in line with what I’ve been writing about for this Sunday’s scripture.

Remember, he was part of a buffalo-hunting, tipi-dwelling, bow-and-arrow-shooting culture that wiped out General Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn. He was also present at the massacre of Wounded Knee—which saw a couple hundred men, women, and children killed by the U.S. army. In short, if anyone had a reason to carry hatred for a group of “foreigners” (that is, white Americans), it would be him. His people were forced to give up their traditional religion (even though we supposedly have freedom of religion in the U.S.) and were forced off their land to live on reservations that could not sustain crops.

However, Black Elk met a Jesuit priest, was baptized in 1904—and became a “catechist” for the rest of his life. That is, he served as a kind of deacon to his people. He did not maintain an ethnocentrism that was intolerant of American ways, and he did not hold prejudices against his former enemies. Instead, he tried to fulfill his vision of all people living as members of the same human family.

On this week, the anniversary of his death, may his example help us overcome our frustrations that express themselves in name-calling and prejudices.

August 20, 2023

You might hear someone say after an argument: “What do you expect me to do?  Walk on water?”  It’s such a common statement that one might well NOT know that the reference is to a gospel passage in which Jesus is described as literally WALKING ON WATER.  Most listeners of the gospel don’t notice that Peter, too, walked on water—at least for a little while—until he started to sink (apparently due to lacking the necessary faith to continue his hydroplane.

If you saw someone the next day who was in the boat with Peter, and if you asked them if anything strange had taken place during the storm, what do you think he would say?  Here are a couple of possibilities: “Thank God it was a calm night on the sea;” or “I’m surprised we didn’t capsize.  The waters were really rough.”

If you knew the gospel story, you’d stop the person from speaking and ask: “What do you make of Jesus coming to you guys out there in the storm?”  And the person would look at you and say “What do you mean?  He wasn’t with us.  I heard he was visiting friends in Nazareth.  It was just a few of us out in the boat last night.”

And you could say: “You mean he didn’t walk on the water and call out to Peter to come to him?”  And you’d hear in reply: “Huh?  What are you talking about?”

Scripture scholars tell us that a story such as this one—of Jesus walking on water—is a “genre,” or type of story intended to convey a truth by means of exaggerating an occurrence.  This was a type of story commonly told at the time of Jesus.  This type of story was not intended to be taken literally.

More than simply a fictional story with a moral to tell, this type of genre could actually have been a “kind” of real-life story—experienced via some alternative reality or consciousness.  For example, you have dreams.  They are alterations of reality, and sometimes you remember them and wonder what you were being “told” in the dream (or nightmare).  Your consciousness of another reality had you recounting your “story” to someone, and these accounts often spoke “truth” to people who appreciated tapping the insights they contained.  THAT’S what is probably at play in this story from Matthew’s gospel.

This type of story has a plot that goes this way: 1) fear is felt by someone or a group, 2) someone approaches but we’re not sure who it is, 3) the stranger calms them down, 4) the one who saves them is identified.  These types of stories were not limited to biblical literature.

Within Indian America and other places around the world still, people will speak of having a “vision” about some work they should do or calling to pursue.  When they use the term “vision,” they usually are referring to what we would call a “dream.”

Someone (like a gospel writer) had a “vision” (i.e., “dream”) about Jesus coming to them miraculously walking on water—and their faith in him was so strong at first that they were likewise able to walk on water.  But when their faith faltered, they began to sink.  Jesus was able to save them by grabbing an arm and hoisting them into the boat.  Thus you have the walking on water incident in the gospel.

Some Christians have taken the story to mean that Jesus did, in fact, walk on water.  However, they don’t know what to say about Peter also walking on water—other than to suggest that one’s strong faith allows them to succeed when not expected to do so.  After all, as scripture repeatedly shows: God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.

Matthew, you may recall, tried to tell his Jewish audience that Jesus was not throwing out their religious tradition but instead trying to make it more relevant and more alive in their culture.  This story is one that probably resonated with his Jewish listeners or readers because part of his message was to present Jesus as a “new Moses.”

What did Moses do?  He controlled the waters of the Red Sea and had it drown the Pharaoh’s army.  And who controls the great powers of nature?  God.  Behold!  Jesus is the new Moses who controls the sea by walking on it and bringing the boat safely to port.  A simple message, no?  We should let Jesus be the captain of our ship.

Reflections on lectionary readings

As Elijah learned, you might look for God in storms, earthquakes, wind, or fire, but maybe God prefers speaking to you in whispers.

Slow me down today, Lord,
and whisper a word or two – or more,
in the quiet of my mind and heart…

When I’m cursing myself or others,
whisper words of blessing…

When I’m judging another’s words and deeds,
whisper words of patience…

When I’ve failed and when I’ve sinned,
whisper words of pardon…

When I’m facing loss and grief,
whisper words of consolation…

When I’m stuck in my own foolishness,
whisper words of wisdom…

When I’m confounded and confused,
whisper words of counsel…

When I’m caught up in lies,
whisper words of truth.

When life is just too tough to take,
whisper words of hope…

When my heart is broken, hurt and wounded,
whisper words of healing…

When I’m at war with my neighbor or myself,
whisper words of peace…

Slow me down, Lord,
and help me find a quiet place to hear
the whisper of your word…

Slow me down today, Lord,
and whisper a word or two – or more,
in the quiet of my mind and heart…

In Paul’s letter to the Romans today, he recalls his ancestors in the faith who pointed to Jesus.  It is good for us to recall our ancestors in the faith who set an example for us to imitate.  Do we hold our political or business or entertainment personnel to the standards they set? _________________________________

The saints who have gone before us and shown us the Way.

We call upon their aid—our response to this litany is: STAND BY US.

Holy ones present at our faith’s beginning: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, makers of the covenant;  we pray: STAND BY US

Joseph, Monica and Helen, examples in the love and care of children: we pray STAND BY US

John the baptizer, who first called us to follow Jesus: We pray: STAND BY US

Holy ones who showed Christianity to be a way of life that brings out the best in us: Augustine, Francis Xavier; all those who carried the Gospel to distant places: we pray: STAND BY US

Wisdom-keepers who shared their insights, and founders of religious orders who serve God’s people in different way–Bernard and Dominic; Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila; Elizabeth Ann Seton; Ignatius of Loyola and all founders of communities:  we pray: STAND BY US

Holy ones who struggled to lead the Church and guide the faithful–Peter, Ambrose, John Vianney, and all faithful shepherds  WE pray: STAND BY US

Mary Magdalen, the 13th apostle; Luke, Matt, John, and Mark–the evangelist; Francis who spoke to the animals; all who brought comfort to the sick and suffering; Saint John the 23rd, Pope who calls us to new thinking We pray: STAND BY US

Theresa, the little flower who taught us to recognize that each of us is God’s beloved child; Paul the apostle—he who inspired others to think in new ways; and people like Thomas Aquinas who saw God and wrote down what they saw:  We pray: STAND BY US

Anthony of the desert; Bernadette of Lourdes; all who were called to see God’s people;  Holy ones who died in witness to the Christ: Stephen the first martyr, stoned in Jerusalem:  Perpetua and Felicity, torn by beasts in the arena at Carthage: Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, put to death at a Nazi death camp;  Bishop Oscar Romero, shot in San Salvador: and martyrs of everywhere: We pray: STAND BY US

Holy ones of every time and place: All climbers of the ladder to eternal life: All runners of the race: and those who till the fields so as to sustain all life; We pray: STAND BY US

Lord, give us strength to live our lives in new ways with new strength,

As today’s gospel reported, we often confront troubled waters that we are called to navigate.  If Jesus were here, he would probably counsel us this way:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and others anyway.

August 13, 2023

On some Sundays, the lector will say “A reading from the letter of St. Paul.”  However, scripture scholars are pretty sure which letters were actually written by St. Paul and which were not.  This Sunday’s reading from 2 Peter comes to us under similar circumstances. Namely, scholars are pretty sure that Peter the apostle did NOT write either 1 Peter or 2 Peter.  In fact, they tell us that the two epistles were written by two different people.

What’s known as pseudonymous authorship was at play during this period.  That is, someone took on the pseudonym (the name of someone else and passed themselves off as that person).  This was an acceptable custom of the period.  It was left to later readers to determine if, in reality, the thoughts expressed could be associated with the name being claimed.  For example, the letters associated with Paul but not written by him—are considered “letters of Paul” because they more or less capture the spirit within which the real Paul wrote.

I can relate to this because of my having authored two books on Black Elk, the well known holy-man of the Lakota Sioux.  I could, for example, write something and ascribe it to Black Elk—and what I wrote could legitimately be associated with the man.  This is because what I wrote might just as well have been written by him since I know him so intimately.

The epistle today reminds me that some arguments we hear today were made back in New Testament times.  The author of 2 Peter tells his audience that the Jesus story is “NOT a cleverly devised myth” like those told by the Romans and Greeks (which described the gods and goddesses of those mythic fictional worlds).  No, he’s describing the reality of Jesus and his human story from Nazareth to the Cross.

Today’s feast is that of the “Transfiguration”—a word we never use in everyday speech.  It refers to Jesus, Peter, and John going up a mountain to where those apostles saw Jesus ‘s appearance totally change (or “transfigured”).  God the Father told them on this occasion that Jesus was His son, in whom he was well-pleased.  Some revelation!!  It was a preview of things to come (Jesus eventually conquering death and ascending to heaven).

Today’s gospel of Matthew jumps out at you with a well-known biblical formula.  Namely, throughout the bible God appears on a mountain.  The appearance of God is known as a “theophany”, and that’s what is taking place with Jesus and the apostles on this feast of the transfiguration. God  the Father and Jesus the Son make this an extra-special theophany.

Not only that, but we are told that THIS mountains a “high” one.  Oh boy!  This is going to be some theophany if it’s taking place on a HIGH mountain.  Sure enough—this is where the “transfiguration” occurs.  God speaks, tells the apostles that Jesus is His son, reveals Jesus in brilliantly gleaming clothes, and scares the heck out of them.  For the bible, mountains are like what the Celts called “thin places.”  That is, spots where one can really feel close to heaven—where the separation between the sacred and the profane is very narrow.

There’s more at play with this theophany.  Namely, Moses is there—he representing what we know as “the Law” or Torah of Hebrew scripture (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy).  And Elijah—he represents the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the others).  In short, Matthew’s transfiguration scene is depicting Jesus with the 2 great scriptural traditions—the Law and the Prophets (Moses & Elijah).  And recall—Matthew is evangelizing a Jewish audience and trying to tell them that Jesus has not come to destroy their traditional faith, but to enhance it, or fulfill it.  Matthew is saying something to the effect of: “Stir together Moses and Elijah, and you have Jesus—in one person the law and the prophets.

Here’s sort of what Matthew is teaching.  You have the commandment “do not steal, but are you known as a generous person who gives of your time, treasure, and talent?”  Similarly, you’re told not to kill—but are you a protector of life, of those who are taken advantage of, of an environment that is being abused and destroyed every day?  Remember the motto “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  Where are you living your life?  Jesus calls us beyond the basic commandments and tells us to make a difference in concrete ways within our world—a world being destroyed by those who are not being good stewards of the earth.

When I think of our responsibility to be solutions and not problems, I sometimes think we need to feel the pain of some issue—and even be part of that pain such that we have it burned into us NOT to continue in our downward fall.  I say this because 2 of the best apostles I knew were 2 guys who had lovely wives and kids and careers.  Liquor took those things away from them, and these 2 guys were in the bottom of the barrel.  That’s when they laid there thinking that life was intended to be more than what they were making of it.  Not Catholic, one of them came to my church in the UP, and there committed himself to doing the opposite.  He and another AA guy became great apostles who helped those who could not help themselves.

So no matter where you’re at in the give and take of everyday life, try and take to heart these verses.  They’re from a man who knew what he was talking about.

I may not have any money to leave behind.  I  may not have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind.  But I just want to leave a committed life behind.  That’s all I want to say.  If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cure somebody with one song, if I can show somebody they’re traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.

August 6, 2023

July 31st is the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola—founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1534.  A Spaniard, he was of “Basque” stock—the Basques being an ethnic group who for years have sought independence from Spain given their unique identity.  Linguists have no idea where the Basque language originates—as it is unrelated to any other language.

Ignatius and his friends knew “the good life” as young men.  They sought fame, fortune, and the attention of women and peers, but experienced a stirring of Spirit that made them want to “set the world on fire” by working for God. While in college at the University of Paris, they recognized a spiritual kinship with one another and decided to do something beautiful for God with the one life each had been given.  While it was customary for young noblemen like them to raise their swords and proclaim: “For the greater glory of the king! For the greater glory of the queen!  For our greater glory!”—they instead made their motto “For the greater glory of God!”

Today on the cornerstones of buildings around the world you might see the initials “AMDG” which, in Latin, stand for “Ad Maioren Dei Gloriam” (“For the greater glory of God”).  Just this week I received an email from a deacon in Detroit who typed AMDG on his note.  Right away, I knew he was familiar with Jesuit tradition.  Sure enough, he had attended Georgetown University and the University of Detroit—both Jesuit schools.

There are roughly 16,000 Jesuits in the world today, with 3000 in the U.S.  Known primarily for education and missionary work, these men are involved with all areas of life—as pastors, physicians, astronomers, priests, and teachers at the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels.  In the U.S. alone, there are 20-some universities, e.g., Gonzaga, Loyola of Chicago/LA/New Orleans/Baltimore, San Francisco, Creighton, Xavier, Marquette, Spring Hill, Seattle, St. Peter’s, Canisius, Regis, St. Louis, Le Moyne, Fordham, John Carroll, Boston College, Georgetown, Holy Cross, St. Joseph, Scranton, Santa Clara, Rockhurst, and Fairfield.  I came from the smallest and most recently founded school—Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.  Financial problems saw the Jesuits withdraw from this poorest and smallest of their schools in 2019.  I came to John 23rd from WV.

Like other religious orders and congregations, Jesuits consecrated themselves to working for the faith by taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  These vows are not well understood by most people.  For example, diocesan priests do not take vows but instead promise obedience to their bishop and pledge not to marry (prior to the 1100s, Catholic priests could marry).  So too, most people have a generic sense of what the 3 “vows” mean.  For example, because you are baptized, you have vowed yourself to poverty, chastity, and obedience.  How so?

I, for example, have known laypeople who have practiced poverty, chastity, and obedience better than most vowed religious.  By this I refer to those 3 words simply being words that summarize traits that Jesus incarnated, or lived.   That is, think of “poverty” not as destitution, but as one’s charitable, self-giving “stewardship” of whatever resources they have.  Is one charitable toward projects near and far away that are serving the people of God, or does one think only of themselves and accumulate wealth to live a life of self-indulgence.  In short, does one give of their time, talent, and treasure to God’s people?

Concretely, I draw the same salary as diocesan priests (based on years of being ordained). My province receives my funds and it, in turn, sends me a living expense.  This is how the vow of poverty operates—my salary going to the province and it supporting me.  I’ve good-naturedly reported at finance meetings that the parish makes money on me because I don’t claim some of the benefits contractually offered.

Similarly, “chastity” embodies the biblical notion of “hospitality”—opening one’s hearth and home to God’s people, and not restricting one’s self-giving to a spouse and children.  Likewise, “obedience” relates to discerning with one’s superiors where and how their talents might be best used.  A synonym for obedience might be “discerning partnership.”  For example, within Jesuit training, there is a period during which a man teaches at a high school or college.  I wanted to teach at an Indian high school, but my province had high schools of its own for which it wanted a young Jesuit teacher—and the Indian schools weren’t in my province.

An arrangement was made such that another province welcomed my going to Pine Ridge, SD.  6 years later, freshly ordained, I wanted to do campus ministry at a college, but my provincial asked me to be the pastor of an Indian parish in Sault Ste. Marie.  I had no interest in going north but cooperated with my superior as an ”obedient” son of Ignatius.  Being there was a great blessing that I will always cherish—even though some who knew me thought this assignment scarred the heart of my trajectory as a Jesuit.

A term commonly used in Jesuit parlance is “magis.”  Pronounced “mah” “jus,” it means “the more” and refers to God calling each of us to help our gifts bloom into a grace that upbuilds others.  In the vernacular of business, it might be thought of as continuous quality improvement as we hone our efforts to be a “man for others.” It carries a sense captured in the words of recording artist Jackson Browne: “Wherever I am, I’m a day away from where I want to be.”  That is, God is always calling us to new growth, new vision, and new realizations of who we can be for others as we strive to incarnate Jesus in our unique identity.

This weekend saw us celebrate the 70th anniversary of Bookie and Jane Michael—people whom Jesuits might call “companions on the journey.”  In a discerning partnership with one another and with God, this good couple raised a large family for whom they modeled warm hospitality.  It was no surprise that they asked for their anniversary blessing to be extended to all couples in attendance at mass.

Blessing for Bookie and Jane Michael

Remembering that day when the two of you became one life facing the future together–as you now move forward–may raindrops not sting your skin.  After all, you are one another’s umbrella.  May the coldness of life experience not chill you.  After all, you have a love that provides warmth to one another.  May that love banish any loneliness that comes to discourage you.  And may your journey continue on the good road you have traveled with one another—as you move on–asking God to lead the way–inspiring you to be like his Son for one another and all who you meet.  We offer this blessing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

July 30, 2023

Once again, we have a parable to think about.  Unlike other parables found in the “synoptic” gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this week’s is found only in Matthew.  Recall that scholars refer to these three gospels as the “synoptic” gospels because they share much of the same material—about which they give a “synopsis.”

Last week’s gospel is in all three.  Parables are often an “allegory” (an allegory being, according to the Internet dictionary, a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one). Sometimes you’ll hear people say that politics should be left out of church.  They should clarify their concern because most everything Jesus addressed was laden with political implications—directly and indirectly.

I recall Barack Obama’s opponents mocking his background as a “community organizer.”  His critics intended this to be a mega-cutdown that revealed him not doing anything important. Criticizing him this way was hard to understand. Why?  Because community organizing helps COMMUNITIES organize themselves so that they won’t be eaten up by billionaires who can buy their town out from underneath them, or who can pollute their water and land UNLESS there are “organizers” helping ordinary citizens wield some power against corporate land barons.  Christians who criticized Obama for being a community organizer apparently forgot that Jesus was also a community organizer!!

As an allegory, this weekend’s parable is easy enough for most everyone to get some theological meaning from it.  The sower is Jesus.  The field is the world.  Good seed refers to people who let the words of Jesus take root in their life.  The weeds are behaviors that go contrary to what Jesus teaches.  The “enemy” who plants them is not identified, but is apparently some force that is so contrary to what Jesus teaches that it tries to choke off the good seedlings of the gospel.  And the harvest is at the end of time when the weeds will be cast into the fire.  And the good crop feeding all present.

However, there’s more at play than just this simple allegory.

Who, exactly, is this “enemy” who plants weeds in your otherwise good-seeded garden?  You might pick out the easy “fall guy” character and say like comedian Flip Wilson did years ago in his act: “The devil made me do it!”  Too easy.  How about other “enemies?”  Maybe people who influence you in ways that aren’t really helping you?  An employer?  Buddies with whom you drink beer?  The casino?  Someone with whom you associate who isn’t helping you advance “in wisdom and understanding?”  The point is that an “enemy” can be anyone or anything.

There’s something to be said for the parable also reminding us that our lives are a mixture of good and bad seed.   We might like to see our lives in black and white, but the reality of the human condition is that it’s gray.  I’m reminded of the person seeking the best parish to join.  Their spiritual director counseled them: “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it.”  We human bring our grayness into all venues of life.

Why NOT pick out the bad weeds?  The landowner says that we might pull out the good with the bad—perhaps a case of misidentifying what’s growing in our garden.  We’ve all dealt with people, and ourselves, who say “If only I get a handle on this problem!  That’s my problem and I just can’t seem to rid my life of it.”  This type of thinking might just be a case of us looking in the wrong direction.  As my spiritual director once said: “Having you look in one direction and thinking that your problem is there—is a ruse of the devil.  The issue you need to confront is in the opposite direction.”  The “enemy” (some force within us and the world that clouds our thinking) succeeds in making me NOT look at what I SHOULD be addressing.

Just this past week, I could not identify, literally, a weed from a plant.  I had to ask Theresa DeVault which was which.  And so it is with the parable and our lives.  We aren’t necessarily good at seeing what is a weed and what is a good growth of wheat in our behavior or thinking.  That’s why the landowner tells his workers to cool it, to hold off with the weeding, and let them grow until it’s clear which is which.

And this is why the parable might be regarded as a call for Christian discernment.  That is, we need to look at our life issues, our community issues, family issues, politics, world events—everything—thru the same lens as Jesus sees things.  That’s what discernment refers to—Christian decision-making.  NOT giving our gut reaction to some topic or some person and letting our emotions or quick judgments to overrule our thought and reflection—our “discernment.”

Here’s an example drawn from my life and applied to “discernment.”  Namely, it’s easy for me to offer in a homily a socio-political example that would right away trigger some positive or negative response.  I could say that this political figure has been an evil force all of his life, and continues to be an evil force—the embodiment of what scripture calls the “master of confusion.”  People who don’t share my opinion might right away have a gut reaction in favor of the person as strong as my negative evaluation of the person.  Meanwhile, Christian “discernment” sits idly by.

In my case, for example, before blurting out what I thought of the person, I should have considered my audience—a cross section of Americans.  How does one speak to people with different ethnic backgrounds (which may influence their thinking), different levels of education, different age groups, different degrees of wealth, or awareness of issues, different levels of moral development or knowledge of Christian ethics. People often confuse what’s culturally popular with what’s “normative” Christianity when, in reality, it’s anti-Christian.

You get the point.  Since a congregation has such a cross-section of people, speaking to it poses challenges.  How can someone speak to a diverse group with diverse interests and ideas?  Someone trying to teach Christian thought will encounter prejudices that run contrary to gospel teachings, e.g., Italians versus Irish, or immigrants from ANY country versus “white” Americans who are uncomfortable with people who look “different” from them.  This social encounter may force people to confront whether or not they care to be Christian—as they previously defined their religious community with only SOME ethnic groups.  Remember, as consoling as the gospel might be to us in time of need, it can also “convict” us of not following its teachings.

In giving this example, I’m reminded of a bishop in Texas who is 180 degrees opposite most contemporary Catholics.  His religious teachings parallel his political opinions—all of which are not centered.  While he and his element of the Church think they are in line with  the gospel, I think most people would think this bishop did not “discern” the positions he holds.  So discernment is not an easy task.  Who is doing what God calls us to be and do for others?  Hmm.  You can see this is a serious and difficult part of discipleship.  As trite as it sounds, you might just reflect on “what would Jesus do” in your situation.

I draw offertory prayers from a publication out of St. Louis University.  If the above Latin-mass bishop attended our parish mass, he’d have a cow (so to speak).  For some reason, he thinks God breathes incense and only speaks Latin.  He and some other bishops oppose Pope Francis, and one American cardinal wears a 30-foot-long red garment that altar boys hold behind him lengthwise at public occasions.  So you can see the range of “discernments” we Catholics are called to do.  I as a homilist have to discern what parishioners can hear and then discern how I can communicate it.  Bishops have to discern how their “faithful” will grow their liturgical experience, and prelates need to discern what apparel reflects their role as apostles next in line to the pope.

When we come to mass, we have a lot of discernment to do.  Not a week passes that I don’t try my best to communicate what the gospel calls you and me to think and do.  And each week I know I only scratch the surface of the gospel message.  Fortunately, God leaves scratching up to you, too, so that what I fail to say—you hear God say to you in prayer.

July 23, 2023

As you know, we can get to know the fuller meaning of passages in scripture if we’re familiar with the cultural context.  For example, in last week’s passage, we saw references to children and learned that young ones didn’t have the status that our children have here in the U.S.  Where Jesus lived, the status of children was little better than a slave.  A high mortality rate for children is not surprising.  They came to the table after adults ate (men served first).

This week’s interesting fact about life in the time of Jesus is that when a farmer planted his seeds, he’d do so BEFORE plowing the field.  After he scattered the seed, THEN he’d do the plowing.

Remember that each gospel writer had an audience in mind when he wrote.  For example, today’s Matthew reading is directed at his fellow Jews who he’s trying to convert to the Way (term used by early Christians to refer to their faith community). When he talks about the sower sowing seeds, Matthew was trying to show that they can have a greater harvest than they’ve settled for in the past.  Mark, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the cross—and the challenge we face in carrying ours.  But by following the example of Jesus in faith, we can, like him, rise from the graves of our lives now—and later.

This week’s scripture also introduces us to a teaching technique employed by Jesus—the parable.  This time we hear Jesus talk about the farmer sowing seeds—a story/parable which appears in what are called the “synoptic” gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Getting that name in the 1780s, these gospels are so close in content and structure that a synopsis (summary) of them is easy to state.  So at least 2 of these gospels were NOT composed by their gospel author.  In fact, maybe all 3 of these gospels used some source for their material (and the sower parable was a story-lesson each of them decided to include in their text.

The parable is a teaching device that is a story with all sorts of symbolic meaning.  That is, in this case, we’re being told more than a story about a guy trying to grow his crop.  However, when the crowd on the seashore heard Jesus tell this story, there were probably some who left the event saying “Why the heck did I come here to hear him talk about some guy sowing seeds?  I’m not going to go hear him anymore.  He’s boring.”

Knowing that some in the crowd were probably saying or thinking something like that, Jesus ends his parable story: “You who have ears, HEAR!”  That was a polite way of saying: “Hey everybody—pay attention and listen—and don’t be distracted with your cellphones. Use your head and think!  This story applies to you!”

His audience knew that his story was pointing to something other than a guy’s planting of seeds.  They knew this when he said they could produce from their seeds a hundred-fold, or 60-fold, or 30-fold—even IF most of the seeds were trampled upon, or eaten by birds, or scorched by the sun.  His audience had lots of agricultural people in it—and they knew that a really good crop in their area could only produce, at best, 7-10 percent from their seeds planted.

Hearing this Jesus speak of 100, 60, or 30% yield—they KNEW he had to be talking about some other kind of harvest yield.  THAT’S how parables functioned!  They woke up your thought and challenged you to consider a special meaning you should take to heart.  Preachers or homilists can’t tell their listeners what the parable means for each person—since the parable is intended to make each person think what the message for them could be.  In our case, the parable speaks to each of our lives in some way—and we’re challenged to see what the story elements symbolize in our experience.

For example, the path—is it your life in general—as in “the good or lifeless path you’re walking in life?”  Or is it referring to the different paths you’ve taken throughout life—some of which led to dead-ends?  Or is it a path you’re embarking upon now—and you’re not sure quite where it’s going to take you? Or is it a path you’re being called to walk but you’re resisting?

The seed: remember that no one wants their headstone to read: “I should have spent more time at the office?” Or at whatever work you do.  Where have you invested/planted your seeds of potential growth in goodness? Do your efforts ever aim at accomplishing something positive for the community, or against forces that disrupt community?  Are your seeds solely named “what’s in it for me” and none named “what’s in it for thee?”

The sower: is that you, or God?  What seeds have you sown?  Life-giving ones that have “fed” others in some way, or seeds that you’ve horded for yourself without being the generous and charitable person God calls you to be?  What was sown in your life that’s good and that you want to cultivate, and what has been sown that you need to “cut and throw into the fire?” The birds/sun/thorns/rocky soil: what has prevented you from sowing good seed—your actions, or inaction?  and seeing it produce?  What have you done to eliminate destructive elements of your thoughts or actions?  Good soil; what do you do that fosters healthy living, kindness to others, behaviors that build up and not tear down?

In a way, your life has been the living of this parable.  How?  Well, God and loving family members have tried their best to plant good seeds in your mind and heart.  Have any of them taken root?  And you—you’ve planted seeds in your children and grandchildren or people you’ve taught or worked with.  What have your seeds produced?

The human potential movement of the 1970s used to say that people never develop more than 10% of their potential—thus we need to discover how we can unleash that muzzled power.  When I’d hear these sorts of statements, I’d think to myself that human potential people drew their thought from the gospel—especially the parable of the sower.

If we take the parable to mean that birds and sun and thorns and being trampled upon are too much to face—we’re missing the parable’s point.  Just the opposite.  DESPITE the pummeling we take as seeds ourselves, we can STILL produce—far more than we imagine.  We don’t have to settle for 7-10% of our potential.  We have 30 or 60 or 100 more times to still accomplish—each in our own way.

Remember what I said some time back. “If it is to be, it is up to me.” We’re each sowers—each with seeds of potential given by God that make each of us unique.  The parable calls us to examine our thoughts and behaviors—and go for the gold—to 11, 12, 15, 30, 60, 100% of the potential God has instilled within us.

We can do this—DESPITE the dry path, the pecking birds, the thorns, and life’s many downers.  You who have ears, HEAR.

July 16, 2023

Our educational system hasn’t been here since the beginning of time.  Many disciplines, like anthropology and psychology were organized in the 19th century.  New disciplines, or “majors,” still emerge within college campuses.  So to whom did our ancestors turn for guidance or counseling prior to various sciences?  Elders?  Yes.  Teachers?  Yes.   The bible?  Very much so.

People might not have always interpreted scripture correctly, but value systems did arise within communities that tried to hear and understand “the word of God.”  After all, if you could learn about the God who made the stars and sun and oceans and mountains and YOU—wouldn’t you want to speak  to that God and learn all you could from such a Being/Force/Person?  Of course you would.  If God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to read it?

Many people have no church practice.  Many say that they know what the bible says, and don’t need to hear someone read it in church each week.  However, whenever I hear this attitude expressed, I shake my head in disbelief.  Why?  Because most scripture passages have many, many nuanced meanings and applications.  Who could possibly know all that these special wisdom-books contain?  I don’t!  And I have degrees in the subject matter, and years of associating what’s in the bible with what’s going on in everyday life.

People must be arrogant, or just misinformed, if they think they “know all the bible says.”  For example, a couple of weeks ago, a gospel reference was to Jesus inviting the children to come to him.  I doubt most people who read that passage know that it’s REAL meaning has nothing to do with Jesus liking little kids.  Rather, he’s addressing the reality that families sent their kids to report whatever they heard on the street.  As a result, kids were like little spies who most people didn’t want to see hanging around.  People wanted their privacy—and children made it difficult for elders to shun them.  Thus, when Jesus told the apostles to let the children come near—he was simply saying that he had nothing to hide from anyone.  “So let the children come to me.”

For those who know the bible, do they know that 30% of children died by age 6?  Or that 60% died by age 16?  Or that children were the last to be given food at meal times?  The status of children was little different from slaves.  Because their status was so low, children were a symbol used by Jesus to reveal his “bias” in describing how one should live.  He was on the side of the poor and those who struggled under the tyranny of religious leaders who  horded Temple wealth and did not offer assistance to  the needy.  Jesus criticized growers who horded their goods and didn’t feed the hungry.  These attitudes of Jesus are what spawned the corporal works of mercy that SHOULD define our lifestyle.

Whenever you hear people at work or people in the political realm always stressing a theme of “what’s in it for me,” you’re hearing something Jesus never would have preached.  He’s said “what’s in it for WE.”  Jesus was addressing Temple  officials and landlords who lorded it over the masses.  And some things never change.  A documentary on TV addressed “Greed in America,” and had real-life interviews of corporate executives proud of being able to take a 300% profit and turn it into a 500% profit for their shareholders.

They were proud of getting more and more wealth—at the expense of the majority.  The issues were not inflation, or expensive delivery lines, or import prices.  Nope.  Pure greed was at the heart of high prices you pay for goods.  And I suspect those executives go to church with their families on weekends (or at least some of them).  If they’re Christian, do they not listen to what Jesus repeatedly says about the poor, the hungry, the naked, etc.?  The “yoke” Jesus speaks about in the gospel is what controls your life.

We’re called to be “meek” as Christians in today’s gospel.  Contrary to a common understanding about that word, “meekness” is not weakness!  Just the opposite.  Meekness is realizing there is a God, and that you are not Him.  To be “meek” is the quality of not being impressed with self-importance.  Which takes us back to being at church on the weekend—to do, or not to do—that is the question.

Today’s scripture has Jesus saying that if you see him, you see the Father.  Yikes!!!!  If that’s true, then any person in their right mind would want to see Jesus and know who he is.  By doing so, we’d be knowing about the Person/Force/God who made EVERYTHING.  Everything that I like or love or appreciate—was made by this “Father” who Jesus reveals.  Boy, do I want to meet this Sacred Energy/Personal Spirit/Parent of all who’ve ever existed.

Man alive!  I’d LOVE to know who crafted my girlfriend or boyfriend who is so beautiful and sweet and caring.  I really want to know why this Father-God made me who I am, and know why I was even created.  How did he get the idea of a darling baby, a playful puppy, a koala bear or slow-moving sloth?  And where are you now, God?

Instead of getting the answer to any of these questions or wonderments, I think I’ll just sleep in on Sunday morning, or go to a Tigers game, or mow the lawn, or jog before having a nice brunch.  These are activities I think I’ll do—instead of learning who the Father is by learning who Jesus was.  Hmm—should I  learn more about the Creator God, or go swimming to start the day?  What’s more important?  Such a hard decision!  Learn why God made me who I am, or go swimming.  Such a tough choice.  For many, however, the decision is a no-brainer.  The question isn’t even asked—and so one goes swimming.  At least that’s what happens for most members of my family.  Maybe yours is different.

All I need do is speak to this Person-God—in prayer, and hear his reply in scripture, in the goodness of thoughts that come to me, in being part of the sacrament we call Eucharist (a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”). Just think of it.  You can come home from mass—a little bit more knowledgeable of the God of all created things.

When I was a kid, I found stirring within me these sorts of wonderments (who is God, who am I, why did God make me, does God even exist)—and these questions sent me on a quest that led to me being where I am today (with you).  Since I think this sacramental life worked well for me, and put me where I am, I encourage you to do the same—because if you listen, you’ll learn that God made you for a reason.  If you’re reading this, that means you’re still unfolding that reason.  As you continue to learn the reason for your existence (at mass), may you reflect your genetic roots that are in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

July 9, 2023

This week’s bulletin are topics that will expand your sense of how biblical scholars regard several topics in the bible.  First, there is a short article by a scripture scholar addressing Joseph’s role as “father” to Jesus; followed by terms—as understood within the bible.

 Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father or adoptive father? Joseph is a major figure in the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke.  Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father? If not, who was Jesus’ biological father?

The annunciation stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke recount that Jesus was conceived without the participation of a human male. Ancient views on the biology of conception—based on Aristotelian theory—differed from our modern understanding of genetics and biology. For Jesus to have been considered fully human by our modern standards—and not a semi-divine or special being—he would have needed complete human DNA. While Mary would have supplied the X chromosome, who supplied the essential Y chromosome? God? Joseph?

Andrew Lincoln of the University of Gloucestershire tackles these questions in his article “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time.” Starting with the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, he examines what early Christians thought about conception and explains how views about this subject have changed over time.

Who was Jesus’ biological father? As modern readers, we might wonder how the product of a virginal conception could truly be human—since the Y chromosome did not come from a human father. Andrew Lincoln explains that this issue would not have been troubling to an ancient audience or to the writers of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke:

Their understanding of conception, shaped by a patriarchal culture, would have been some variation of the dominant Aristotelian theory. On this view, the male semen provides the formative principle for life. The female menstrual blood supplies the matter for the fetus, and the womb the medium for the semen’s nurture. The man’s seed transmits his logos (rational cause) and pneuma (vital heat/animating spirit), for which the woman’s body is the receptacle. In this way the male functions as the active, efficient cause of reproduction, and the female functions as the provider of the matter to which the male seed gives definition. In short, the bodily substance necessary for a human fetus comes from the mother, while the life force originates with the father.

Those who heard the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke would have considered Jesus to be fully human since his mother supplied all of his bodily substance. Lincoln clarifies: “In terms of ancient biology, even without a human father, Jesus would have been seen as fully human. His mother, Mary, provided his human substance, and in this case God, through the agency of the divine Spirit, supplied the animating principle instead of a human father.”

The annunciation stories in Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was conceived without a human father, but later in the Gospel of Luke, Joseph is listed as Jesus’ parent and father (Luke 2:27, 33, 48; 4:22). Indeed, through Joseph’s lineage, Jesus is shown to have descended from King David (Luke 3:23–38). Do these accounts contradict the annunciation stories?

The traditional way of reconciling these seemingly incongruous accounts is that Joseph was Jesus’ adoptive father.

In his article, Lincoln offers another way: He posits that knowing the genre of the Gospels helps make sense of this apparent contradiction. As a subset of ancient Greco-Roman biography, the Gospels can be compared to other Greco-Roman biographies, such as Plutarch’s biographies of Theseus, Romulus and Alexander the Great. In these examples, the central character is given two conception stories, one natural and the other supernatural.

Dual conception stories for the same figure was not uncommon in Greco-Roman biographies, and Lincoln suggests that this was a way of assigning significance and worth to those “who were perceived to have achieved greatness in their later lives.” In this genre, those who accomplished great things in their adult lives deserved an equally great—even supernatural—conception story.

Lincoln’s approach is certainly intriguing—especially when applied to the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. To read Lincoln’s entire treatment of the matter and learn more about what early Christians thought about conception, read the full article “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time” by Andrew Lincoln.

Children

Ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting, imaginative and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentle Jesus notwithstanding, childhood was in antiquity a time of terror. Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30%. Another 30% of live births were dead by age 6, and 60% were gone by age 16. It is no wonder that antiquity glorified youth and venerated old age. Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease and dislocation and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive. The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. The term “child/children” could also be used as a serious insult Cf. Lk. 7:32).

This is not to say that children were not loved and valued. In addition to assuring the continuation of the family, they promised security and protection for parents in their old age. A wife’s place in the family was dependent on having children, particular male children, moreover, her children would have been one of her closest emotional supports (next to her siblings in her father’s family).

Circumcision

Though the origins of circumcision are obscure, it is clear that it was widely practiced in the societies of the ancient Near East. Though it occurred on the eighth day according to later Old Testament law (Gen. 17:12), in the early Hebrew period it may have been practiced at puberty (cf. Gen. 17:5) or at the time of marriage, since the Hebrew word for father-in-law, literally means “the circumciser.” Though the significance of the practice varied over time, and though much can be said about its religious significance throughout Israelite history, it is worth noting a number of the social implications of the practice that can be seen in Luke’s Gospel.

There can be little doubt of the early association of circumcision with the acceptance of a child by the father as his own. This may account for its use at the time of marriage and perhaps also for the special insistence upon it in times when exogamous (outside the paternal family) marriage existed. Thus the joining of two unrelated families is acknowledged by the father-in-law’s participation in the circumcision rite. By contrast, there was also a special insistence upon circumcision following the Babylonian exile when exogamous marriage was seen as a threat to the community. Circumcision being a distinctive tribal mark, no female could be expected to misconstrue the character of anyone with whom she had sexual relations.

Acceptance by a father that a child was his own may also account for the association of circumcision with naming. See Luke 1:59 and 2:21. Note that Zechariah must publicly confirm the name of his son at the time of circumcision. Moreover, the requirement that this be done on the eighth day (Lev. 12:3), rather than the older practice of postponing it until puberty, gave special weight to the necessity of Jewish fathers acknowledging children as their own long before anything would be known of the child’s character. Finally, community participation in the rite sealed with public recognition a father’s acknowledgment that he had assumed paternal responsibility.

July 2. 2023

One reason it takes so long for me to prepare a homily—apart from consulting scholarly commentaries on the scripture—is that each reading stops me in my tracks and forces me to reflect on how the passage applies to me.  What happens is that I’ll recall an experience from the past, or think of some issue today, or be reminded of a matter that needs further thought on my part.  Having this experience is, in fact, how God speaks to us in scripture.

Today, Jeremiah spoke of people wanting to “take out our vengeance on him.”  I was reminded of some hurtful high school experiences.  That period of life reminded me also of the emotionally challenging decision to enter the unknown world of the Jesuit Order and leave behind the magnetizing world of my heartthrob.  Both memories brought to mind the redemptive experience of choosing “the high road” of TRYING to make good decisions.  What seemed at the time in both cases as emotional devastation eventually brought resurrection.

And so  it is with confronting any challenge.  It’s a cliché to ask “what would Jesus do” when confronting turmoil of some kind—but I’ve found the counsel to be a wise one.   Unfortunately, if you ask people who have no religious practice “what would Jesus do,” you’d learn that they’d have no answer.  Why?  Because they have little to no familiarity with the way Jesus lived.  Our youth, especially, are victimized in not having any religious formation of the mind and spirit.

A widespread misunderstanding of scripture is the caricature of a preacher in movies ranting loudly that one should “fear God” or they will be damned.  Exposed to this type of “preaching,” people think they’re being told to be AFRAID of God.  Well, banish that from your mind.  Use of the word “fear” makes us think of being scared when the scriptural meaning is that of “being in awe” of God, realizing that God made the universe, and mountains, and oceans, and all the animals and plants—and the girl or boy we fell in love with—and the mom or dad who loves us.  THAT’S what “fear” is supposed to bring to mind.

The word is intended to put us in a frame of mind and heart which overwhelms us with a sense of God’s unmeasurable greatness—especially in making a person realize that they don’t hold a candle to God’s greatness—but that God thought enough of you to breathe you into existence (i.e., the breath of life as given to Adam).

These are the thoughts brought to my mind in the first two readings.

The gospel takes us once again into the culture of Jesus—a culture in which it was hard to keep anything secret.  In village life, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  The scene lent itself to paranoia since it was thought that if you don’t know what others do, they must be up to no good.  They must be plotting something that would damage everyone in the village.  N.B., this cultural pattern is found globally, and is not really all that foreign to our small town life.

In the time of Jesus, children were trained to spy on families they encountered when playing.  When we read of crowds following Jesus—even when he wanted to be alone—it wasn’t always because they were entranced by his teaching.  They kept an eye on him.  And while Jesus was no doubt wonderful with little children, there was more involved with passages like today’s which spoke of his chiding the apostles for keeping the kids at a distance.

The apostles knew the kids didn’t see Jesus as an ice cream man who’d give them a treat.  They knew the children were there to report what Jesus was doing to their parents and others.  Knowing this himself, Jesus is equivalently saying to the apostles: “Don’t send them away.  I have nothing to hide, and in fact I WANT them to spread the words I say.”  Contrary to cultural suspicions, he wasn’t hiding anything.

In such a culture of deceit and secrecy, how could one ever know if another person was telling the truth?  How could you believe what someone told you?  Ta-da—one of the 10 commandments to the rescue!

Within Israelite culture, one was told to call God as their witness to what was being said.  This was such an important teaching—given the atmosphere of deception—that it became a commandment: You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain!”  We might have been raised to avoid saying, uh, “Gosh darn it,” but the deeper meaning of this commandment was to honor your word by invoking God as your witness.

We have the same system at play when in court a person is asked if they will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  One could Tweet lies on their account or in TV interviews—but if they tell a lie after swearing in court that they’d tell the truth—not good.  If evidence exists that shows they were lying under oath—they’ll be facing perjury!

In today’s gospel, Jesus gets after the Pharisees for fasting, almsgiving, and praying in public—in order to gain honor in the public’s eyes. We should be more interested in giving honor to God instead of being honored by people. Honor was a core cultural value, but we should always honor God first and not seek praise.

Parishioners live this behavioral trait when they give to or do something for the church and its people.  The trait is fulfilling what last week’s gospel reminder that WE are the apostles called to serve God’s people.  WE are the revised version of Pharisees by doing as Jesus asked.

So how did your week go in responding to the call?

Remember the little hummingbird who saw the forest fire while all the other animals—like the big elephant who could carry much water in its trunk—stood by and just watched the forest burn.  The little bird carried a drop in his beak—back and forth from the creek—to try and help put out the fire.  The other animals told him he couldn’t put out the fire with just his little beak.  And the little bird replied that, unlike the animals who just stood there and watched, he wanted to do SOMETHING to help.

And so it is with each of our apostolic contributions.  We might not change the world with what we do, but those who we help might think the world of us and our effort to help them.

Lord, help me be one of the St. John XXIII hummingbirds.

June 25, 2023

I was visiting with the parish bunny this week as he munched on the parish dandelions that brought dappled spots of yellow to the lawn.  Looking at my visitor, I was reminded of telling you several months ago that it was the year of the rabbit—according to the Chinese zodiac.  Like our own more familiarly known astrological signs that have symbols for Scorpio, Capricorn, Pisces, and the others, the Chinese have animals, viz., Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.  Be it pop culture’s interest in astrology or China’s ancient system, both describe traits that practitioners embody, e.g., people born during the year of the rabbit supposedly are gentle, quiet, humble, courteous, and meticulous.

In thinking of the year of the pig, I was reminded of a humorous (and at the same time sad) sketch of a butcher speaking to a little pig.  The caption had the little pig saying: “I don’t have ANY spare ribs.”  Think of this when you next hear the ad for a restaurant menu serving “baby back, baby back, baby back, baby back” ribs.

Despite studies debunking these systems, cultures the world over have different zodiacs or horoscopes of their own, and all sorts of people still consult predators who compose their pseudo-guidance.  Matthew’s gospel erases the need to consult oracles of any kind—from any cultural tradition. The gospel he wrote (along with all of scripture) shows that the word of God offers far more reliable guidance than any occult practitioners.

Matthew’s gospel addresses a Jewish/Israelite audience that is considering Christianity.  The evangelist is saying that God’s word in Jesus draws upon the Old Testament and fleshes it out even further.  It is trans-cultural, and so speaks to all people.  The Chinese zodiac notes commendable traits of one born under the sign of the rabbit, but Christianity calls all people to embody those traits and all positive traits of all the signs.  They can do so through the power of the Holy Spirit in following the example of Jesus.

This is comparable to the gospel saying that Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the law (Torah), but to expand it.  He says his fellow Israelites know that it’s not right to kill or steal, but that Jesus calls us to carry out those teachings even further.  Protect life!  With our planet sees whole species die out every day, and people dying of starvation, where are we SAVING life.  We might not be killing someone nearby, but our political inaction may be responsible for death taking place elsewhere.  Or, we may not be stealing, but are we being generous to some cause or some people in need (e.g., Christ’s Mission Appeal, or parish, or charity that helps save lives, etc.).

As stated earlier, the gospels are “catholic.”  That is, they are “universal” in their appeal and application.  Each of the gospels is addressed to a particular group, e.g., Luke speaks to gentile converts while Matthew is addressing Jews who are contemplating conversion to the Christian way.  These gospels are casting their net far and wide—beyond the Holy Land and outward to all lands and all peoples.

When we hear of there being 12 apostles, maybe Matthew is suggesting that these men now represent the 12 tribes (as each Israelite tribe was named after a son of Israel).  In our day, people associate the word “baptism” with the apostles by noting its letters are an “acrostic”—they represent the first letter of the names of those first 12 followers of Jesus.  B is for Bartholomew, A for Andrew, P for Peter, T for Thomas and Thaddeus, “I” (in Latin is a “J”—as on the cross of Christ having the sign “INRI,” or “Jesus or Nazareth King of the Jews”—so “I” refers to Judas, John, James I, and James 2, S for Simon, and M for Matthew (who was also referred to as Levi).  Interestingly, baptism is the first sacrament (of initiation), so it’s quite appropriate to see the initial letter of each name spell this word—the apostles being the first members of what came to be known as the church.

But let’s look at this call of the apostles further.  We come to mass and perhaps yawn in hearing once again who these guys were.  And generations of Christians have named their baby boys after one of the apostles.  And we read that they were told to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons.  Furthermore, Jesus told them to do this for no charge—just as they were not charged for his providing them a way to find eternal life.

Why is this information given?  Was Jesus suggesting his apostles all go to medical school to perform these deeds?  And are we supposed to be inspired by hearing the name of these guys?  No.

To fully appreciate the point of naming the apostles, recall my telling you that scripture is not just a collection of stories about people from the past.  Rather, biblical characters represent some aspect of us.  With that in mind, WE are the apostles cited in today’s reading.  You could just as well put YOUR name within the list of those 12 who were mentioned.  Why is this?  Because God has called YOU (and me) by name.  Why else cite the names of the 12? Do we need to meditate on the name Simon, or Thaddeus?  No.  We DO, however, have to reflect on OUR name being there among the 12—with God calling each of us to do the curing, the cleansing of lepers, the raising of the dead.

But again, was Jesus producing health care workers and sorcerers to do these things?  No.

In order to understand more fully what’s at place here, we need to know how the culture of his time, and tribal cultures globally, regarded illness or misfortune.  Namely, if someone slips and breaks an ankle, or if someone develops some physical ailment, the cause of the condition was most often laid at the doorstep of someone in the community casting a curse of some sort on the invalid.

Our ancestors did not regard the etiology, or origin, of illnesses or misfortunes in the same light as we do today.  Instead, they assumed someone in the community had resorted to some kind of curse levied against another.  The physical infirmity of someone reflected a social disruption of some kind.  A party was aggrieved and was “getting even” or inflicting something bad on the person who they regarded as at fault.

The apostles (and all apostles ever since) were charged with ministering to the hurts and ruptures of a community that was socially ill and spiritually in need of direction.  The sources of this illness were as numerous as there were people.  Profiting at the expense of others victimized as did social negligence of those in need.  You can thus see how the spiritual and corporal works of mercy arose as behavioral traits of a Christian.  These works of mercy were performed by the social agents, or “apostles” whose identity with Jesus was an identity of bettering the social condition.

When I have a funeral, I often think of what I will tell God upon our meeting in eternity.  I picture God asking me to describe my life as an apostle.  And so it is with today’s gospel.  We are being asked to reflect on what our ministry has entailed.  What would you tell God?

June 18, 2023

Our procession into church on Corpus Christi Sunday included Breslyn Keenan, Caleb Larive, Graham Herrington, Lukas Fabien, Morgan Kage, MaKenzie Keenan, and Dylan Roka.  These young people made their first communion, appropriately enough, on this special day that honors the sacrament of the Eucharist.  One can’t help but see this ceremony and think back to our early Christian history when Jesus gave us this sacred ceremony.

In the earliest celebration of the sacrament, “communion” was received at “the table of the Lord” which included a meal.  In fact, St. Paul chastised a community for gathering at the special meal, and then not sharing their food with everyone.  Dining was a meal, and all were invited to eat and “break bread” with one another.  Later on, in the Church’s liturgical archives, we see a bishop’s letter telling people to take better care of the Eucharist (which they took home).  It was too often getting stale, and being eaten by mice.

Still later, in the Middle Ages, our ancestors in the faith reflected the European cultures within which they evolved.  Namely, when God is seen as being the Overlord of all creation —the emphasis became “Christ the King.”  Likewise, clerical offices in the Church reflected the secular political order.  Just as there were hierarchical princes, so there were “princes of the Church,” or cardinals.  Eventually, Church offices had parallels within the secular realm of a hierarchical government.

Even the angels had different ranks—seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, virtues, powers, principalities, and archangels.  “Angelology” no longer interests theologians, and is largely regarded as a product of the era (a hierarchical period in human history).

The clergy had different offices with varied titles—minor orders of lectors, exorcist, and other statuses like that of sub-deacon, deacon, priest, archpriest, monsignor, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and pope.  Meanwhile, Eucharistic liturgical practice likewise changed with the time.  Instead of taking the consecrated bread to their homes, the eucharist was now locked in a “tabernacle” and kept at a distance from the people by having laity stay out of the sanctuary and remain behind a communion rail.  Not only were people kept at a distance from these things, but people were also not allowed to touch the consecrated bread.

Vatican Council II, in an attempt to bring the liturgy up-to-date and not riveted in the Middle Ages—allowed us to receive in the hand and drink from the cup, and read at mass in the sanctuary.  While these changes were greeted with enthusiasm by many, some did not want to see the old ways step aside for this effort to return to our sacramental roots.  This group remains a vocal minority that insists upon returning to the Latin mass of the Middle Ages, and these other customs that bore no resemblance to what Jesus initiated.

Such is life!  We are products of the past—and Pope John the 23rd tried to show that we need not be prisoners of it.  He brought about changes that were long overdue—just as our ancestors reduced the number of sacraments from 30 to 7.  John Paul the 2nd did not have the same spirit as John the 23rd and so allowed the winds of change to stop so that medieval traditions might continue to prevail within Catholicism.  Our dear first communicants inherit this history, and we can only hope that they make a dynamic contribution to Church-life as they grow in their faith.

The Body of Christ Sunday calls attention to what its sacred reality is.  As St. Augustine said that sacraments are a visible sign of an invisible reality.  The visible signs of a special, candlelight meal—remind us of when Jesus had a sacred meal with his family and friends.  In giving us this sacrament, he gave us an experience that would make his presence felt once again—centuries after his resurrection and ascension.  We gather with one another—in remembrance of Jesus once being at table with us.  Our mass is the visible sign of the invisible reality of Christ’s presence among us.

When we gather in the intimate setting of a Thanksgiving Day dinner with family and friends, we are not celebrating the turkey—but what the turkey represents—an occasion of shared values, love, caring, and the memory of those who were once with us, but who are now with God.

Coincidentally, the word “eucharist” means “giving thanks.”  Which sadly brings to mind that some within our faith community no longer attend mass.  It’s as if they are saying “no” to Thanksgiving Day—not wanting to be with those we love, care about, and want to learn how we can be a better person for them (which the mass helps us become).

Some people get confused by language in scripture in which Jesus says his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink.  This way of speaking is not to be taken literally.  That is, we don’t take a bit of his arm, or foot, or other body part.  Not at all (despite some Catholics who think we’re talking about the anatomy).  Think instead along these lines.  Namely, I was once “in love” and so wrote of this darling girl: “You’re my London.  You’re my Paris.  You’re my Athens.  You’re my Rome.  You’re my Boston.  You’re my Denver.  You’re my old Kentucky home.”

 Just as today’s gospel passage tells of people asking “How can we eat his blood and flesh,” so could someone say to me “How can that girl be a city in Europe or America, or a house in Kentucky?”  I’d have to explain that when I refer to these cities, I’m referring to Europe’s greatest classical and modern urban sites, and America’s great eastern and western cities.”  Together, they convey some sense of the girl who is for me the greatest place to be—as they become a composite of warmth, acceptance, and belonging in the iconic “old Kentucky home” of a nostalgic Stephen Foster.

Similarly, Jesus can refer to him as the new “manna” that has come down from heaven—manna being the miraculous food that fed the Israelites who had to travel so long over so many desert dunes until God fed them.  So it is with a Jesus who “feeds” us as we travel through different kinds of deserts today—deserts of depression and discouragement, lost paths, and tearful trials.  Jesus equivalently says to us that he is manna in our desert experiences.

I baptized a child and later gave him his first communion.  His name was Adam.  One night, his mom prayed with him at bedtime and did not know what he meant when asking God to help him the next day when he was on patrol at school.  Before kissing him goodnight, his mom asked what he was referring to when speaking of “patrol.”  He said that he goes around the playground and looks for kids who don’t seem to have anyone talking to them or including them.  And he goes to try and befriend them.

Our first communicants, like each of us, are called to go on patrol.  We call it our Christian identity and ministry.  Think of what an effect we could have on communities if each Christian thought each day of “going on patrol.”  As for the young ones making their first communion, I told them that when they feel alone—go to mass and communion.  When you need help at school—go to mass and communion.  When your family is having tough times—go to mass and communion.  In fact, go to mass and communion WHENEVER you need God’s help—because God will give it to you in some special way.

And the same goes for us older people.

June 11, 2023

Trinity Sunday—a day set aside for us to think theologically—and confront a dogma we can’t fully understand?  This might sound pretty dry or cerebral and unrelated to our daily lives.  Non-Christians might think we are polytheists—that is, we believe in plural gods (3, to be exact)  But our claim, based on scripture, is that God has been revealed as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  We say there are 3 “persons” in ONE God.  To quote Mary when learning she was pregnant: “How can this be?”

That’s where the “mystery” of the Trinity confronts us.  We can partially understand how this can be—but not fully.  For example, as I’ve said on other occasions, you probably pray to the Trinity without thinking of the 3 persons, per se.  That is, you might address the Father in prayer when thanking God for creating all the wonders of nature: “Thank you, Lord, for all the beauties around me—the sky, the water, the land, the animals . . . you have given us a wonderful paradise.”

Or, “Thank you, Jesus, for coming as one of us.  You know what it’s like to face challenges, to carry crosses, to suffer . . . “  And finally, “Come, Holy Spirit, inspire me to face the challenge of this day.  Give me words to speak . . . “

So these examples at least give you a sense of praying to 3 distinct persons—who are our God.  You can also think of yourself as being a daughter, wife, and mother—or son, husband, and father—again, and example of three in one/one in three.  So too, don’t you often think of yourself as mind/body/spirit?  There you go again—3 in 1.

Today’s reading from Acts shows how Luke blended the Old Testament, Genesis-God with the New Testament risen Lord.  The Creator BREATHED life into Adam and Eve while the post-resurrection Christ BREATHED on the cowardly disciples and similarly brought them to life via the Holy Spirit.

Anthropologically speaking, our ancient ancestors would often kill people who didn’t speak the same language as them. The Tower of Babel story describes how everyone once spoke the same language—but pride, ego, and ignoring God’s premier role led to their demise.  They became people who spoke different languages—and so did not identify as children of the same God.  Disunity led to what we desperately call “the human condition”—a state of being that so often sees our best laid plans go awry.  When God created the world, earth did not have boundaries separating one people from another.  It was we who created borders and divisions.

But on Pentecost Sunday, the risen Lord BREATHED on the disciples (as occurred with Adam & Eve) and turned them from cowardice to courage.  Luke says they were able to speak to everyone as if speaking the same language to all the nations.  Babel was reversed!  This commissioning of the disciples depicts the Spirit and risen Christ making everyone see themselves as children of the Father—assigned to go forth and make the gospel known.  That’s the Trinity at work in an event described in Acts.

 Today’s reading also cites what might be the most well-known verse in the New Testament—John 3:16.  The address of the university where I taught was 316 Washington Avenue, and I often wondered if the Jesuits who built the school persuaded the city to give them the 316 address.  All would be reminded of the verse saying “God so loved the world that He gave His only beloved Son.”  Among other things, this verse brings to mind a really important point about religious practice as a whole—a point that many no doubt miss.  Namely, God does not benefit from us coming to church or receiving the sacraments—BUT WE DO!

A phrase I heard this week for the first time was a reference to the growing numbers of people who don’t practice the faith.  True of churches everywhere, this growing number is called the “religiously disaffiliated.”  That is, your sons, daughters, and grandchildren are simply not affiliated with a church.  They have better, more fun, things to do (so they say to themselves).  “I don’t get anything out of church” is what many will say—having grown up in a culture where push-button machines give instant service or gratification of some kind.  “I want it, and I want it now”—as they are accustomed to think.

They fail to recall the saying “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”  Meaning that if you don’t practice your faith, or try to cultivate it, it never finds a place in your heart, your mind, or your actions.  I was reminded of our religious practice requiring just that—PRACTICE (and not just showing up at Christmas or Easter or a funeral or wedding).  You’ll never get the strength of faith if you don’t practice it.

This came to mind when speaking with a former student this week.  When he graduated from high school, his grades were such that he could only go to a junior college.  There he became a junior college all-American basketball player—and transferred to our Jesuit school.  He became an all-American there, too, and went on to earn his Master’s degree.  For some years he has been a head coach.

He and I were talking about a student of mine and a player of his at the university.  Haywood Highsmith graduated 4 years ago after becoming the Division 2 player of the year and all-American at our place.  Haywood was a young man who practiced all the time—wanting a career in basketball.  He wasn’t drafted.  However, sticking to it, he is today playing for the Miami Heat in the NBA championship series.

My student-coach friend said: “I truly believe if you put your mind to doing something and work extremely hard, anything can be accomplished.”  His observation reminded me of our religious faith.  That is, God won’t become any Godlier or more powerful if you or I go to church.  Nor will God punish us for not attending church or not going to communion.  HOWEVER, WE WILL PAY THE PRICE for our inattention to religion.  The “religiously disaffiliated” are making themselves lemmings in a rush to the sea—lost.

 “God so loved the world” that we were given a way to live—a path to walk—the path of Jesus.  But we apparently prefer going our own way and picking apples from the tree that look so nice but have a bad aftertaste.  God loved the world—and we are the world—and it is our human condition that God embraced.

I was also reminded this week of writing a Hollywood legend several years ago.  As a boy, I was a fan of the TV series “Cheyenne”—a cowboy raised by the Cheyenne Indians and roaming the west having one adventure after the other.  The star of the show was Clint Walker.

Reading about his encounter with death when skiing, I decided to send an email to his website address.  Thinking I’d never hear from what was probably an agent running the site. I picked up the phone a couple of hours after sending the note, and heard the following: “Is this Michael Steltenkamp?”  I answered “Yes,” and was greeted with “Hi, this is Clint Walker. I thought I’d call you after getting your email.”

Had that call come to me when I was 10 years old, I would have fainted.  Instead, I said “Well thanks so much, Clint, for replying.”  We had a long conversation about religion and some film talk.  This story came to mind when I was thinking about us having to PRACTICE the faith if we’re going to benefit from a religious grounding.

Clint said that when he left the Merchant Marines, he went to Las Vegas where he became a policeman by day and security guard at night.  A Hollywood patron spoke to him at a casino one night and said that he’d try and get him an interview for a movie.  Two weeks later, the call came and he was to have an interview with Cecil B. DeMille (then a kind of god in Hollywood).

Heading to the Freeway for the interview, Walker saw a woman trying to change a tire.  He didn’t want to miss his appointment, but there she was—a person in need—like the people he helped as an officer of the law.  His value system didn’t let him pass her by.  He changed the tire and she said she hoped he didn’t have anything he was missing.  He said he was okay—and parted—arriving late for an interview of a lifetime—which he had perhaps lost due to living his value system.

He told the receptionist who he was, and she told him to go right in Mr.  DeMille’s office.  DeMille greeted him with “Do you arrive late for all job interviews?”  Walker told him that he stopped to help a woman with car trouble, and DeMille said: “I know.  She’s my secretary.”  Walker got the role—playing a soldier in Pharaoh’s army for the blockbuster classic “The Ten Commandments.”

Haywood, Dan, Clint—3 examples of people who gave time to what they valued and wanted to see bloom within them.  How about you?  People who cultivate a faith practice benefit themselves—not God.

God writes straight in crooked lines—through basketball, acting, and your life.  Read what God has written in your life—and know that his writing is a Valentine.

June 4, 2023

“Pentecost” is known as the ”birthday of the Church.” That is, Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. These disciples “ were christened” to proclaim the “Good news” (the meaning of “gospel”) that Jesus brought.  Since we are “Church,” I wish you happy birthday.

Some years back, we had the “charismatic movement” in the Church which emphasized the coming of the Spirit.  Protestant groups used a different name—Pentecostalism.  Both groups would have prayer meetings that saw people spontaneously get up from their pews and appear as if they were shaking or gesticulating in some kind of seizure.  Some would fall to the floor this way.  This behavior was referred to as being “slain in the spirit.”

Sometimes, people claimed to “speak in tongues” a language they never previously knew, or just make utterances which they understood to be the Holy Spirit gripping them and infusing them with overpowering Spirit feelings.  Not all Catholic charismatics spoke in tongues or got slain in the Spirit, but these behaviors characterized a religious renewal that many people embraced.  Over time, the charismatic renewal lost its popularity.

The behaviors, people thought, were real-life re-enactments of what was described in Acts of the Apostles.  Luke reported Jesus “breathing” on the disciples (reminding readers of God “breathing” onto Adam and Eve and giving them new life).  He also said that they were inspired to go into the streets and “speak in tongues” to the diverse people from all the nations who were in Jerusalem—and that these foreigners actually understood what they said!

Charismatics and Pentecostals took this account literally and thought they were doing as the apostles had done—claiming the ability to understand languages when in the Spirit’s grasp.  However, bible scholars say Luke’s report is a theological one—and that the coming of the Holy Spirit eventually led to the gospel being preached to the world.  Instead of people being separated by language as they had been at the Tower of Babel, they were united in being able to speak the same language of faith in the Lord Jesus.

Recall my telling you that Black Elk of the Sioux said his people killed anyone whose language they didn’t speak.  In short, this “kill or be killed” lifestyle was common to tribal peoples everywhere.  If one wasn’t a relative or friend, they were a threat.  Jesus came to do away with this behavior, show humanity that it spoke the same language and not have to kill one another—since we were all children of God and brothers and sisters to one another.

When charismatics and Pentecostals were speaking in tongues and being slain in the spirit, my anthropological studies were describing for me how any number of religious groups—globally—had similar practices—only they were not related to Christianity.  Known as “ecstatic” religions, they included people claiming to speak or understand languages they never previously understood, go into trances after dancing to drums, or falling onto the ground.

You see why I’ve told you about St. Ignatius writing about “discernment of spirits.”  He knew that we humans can get caught up into some behavior that claims to represent a “good” spirit—but that we can be seduced by others that are NOT good.

The plains Indians of the 1880s embraced what’s known as the Ghost Dance religion, and it, too, included speaking to spirits while flailing about on the ground in some kind of ecstasy.  The widespread message that Sioux Indians were receiving said that white people, black, and white cavalry would be swallowed up by the earth, while the dead would arise and the buffalo return.  They were also told that “ghost shirts” would deflect bullets and protect anyone who wore them.  This doctrine was NOT a good “spirit” voice to believe.  Unfortunately, ghost dancers weren’t stopped until between one and two hundred men, women, and children were killed by the cavalry at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Was it God who spoke to the “Heaven’s Gate” people—their leader convincing his 39 followers that they should commit suicide so that they could return to the planet he said awaited their return?  If only the Sioux or the Heaven’s Gate people had been familiar with the teachings of St. Ignatius regarding how we identify the Holy Spirit—and avoid voices that are NOT from God.

A Christian group still operating in WV, KY, and TN was started at the turn of the 20th century—known as the “Holiness Churches.”  A video classic of 1967 is on Youtube which goes for 51 minutes.  Type “youtube holy ghost people,” and you can see a group having its church service—that includes holding rattlesnakes and drinking poison—behaviors their founder claimed the gospel of Mark told us to do.  The only Christian group in the world who interprets scripture this way, you’d think people would question their embrace of the practice, or sanity of the founder.

Nope!  We humans can fall prey to most any thought or deed if they are packaged by a gifted con artist, or salesperson.  That’s why the old prayer began with the words “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Its author knew—as the prayer to St. Michael says—that there are OTHER “spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”  We need to cry out for the HOLY SPIRIT—who is truth itself.

Thank you, St. Ignatius, for showing how we can “discern” spirits (i.e., be able to tell them apart and know what is “of God” and what is NOT “of God”.)

So where does all this take us on the feast of Pentecost?  It takes us to a theme I regularly address—God calling YOU, yes YOU into exercising your apostolic identity.  You might think I’m here to give you a pep talk each week, but what I say is far more than that.  It is, rather, Jesus. He is the one who gave the apostles power to fight against evil power, or “spirits,” or forces that affect your mind and mood and thinking.

Recall he “BREATHED” on them when giving the Spirit?  That’s a reference to God breathing life into Adam and Eve—and making them a new reality.  And so it is with you (and me).  The Spirit in scripture is symbolized by, among other things, the wind—perhaps the most potent power that our ancestors in faith comprehended.  Its power, spiritually, was breathed into us—to accomplish our apostolic role and not be deterred by other powers.

Again, recall he “BREATHED” on them when giving the Spirit? That’s a reference to God breathing life into Adam and Eve—and making them a new reality (humans).     Luke is saying that this is the same process for us as apostles.  In baptism and confirmation, the Holy Spirit comes to us.

One symbol of the Spirit in scripture is the wind—perhaps the most potent power that our ancestors in faith comprehended as reflecting the power of God. Its power, spiritually, was breathed into us—to accomplish our apostolic role and not be deterred by other powers.

In saying this to you regularly, it’s not me being some kind of preacher-cheerleader.  When you hear me speak about naming and claiming your life ministry, I am simply echoing what Paul said to the Corinthians about our Christian identity.  Namely,

“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God.”  My religious order, the Jesuits, puts it this way.  We are called to be “men and women with and for others.”  How’s this going for you?

May 28, 2023

This feast of the Ascension is celebrated on a weekend when many families are celebrating a graduation.  The lectionary gives us readings that should resonate with both graduates and all others who draw life from scripture.

For example, you might recall how Matthew began his gospel and reported the birth of Jesus—calling him “Emmanuel” and saying that this name means “God with us” (now in the person of Jesus).  Matthew apparently likes symmetry. He ends his gospel having Jesus bidding farewell to his disciples and reminding them again that he “will be with them until the end of time.”

How important it is for us to know that—despite how we might feel at times—God is with us!  In good times and bad, in sickness and in health—always!  And God’s presence is always a positive one—through the Holy Spirit.

You should recall from other homilies that whenever a mountain scene appears in scripture—Old or New Testaments—be prepared for something really special about to take place—notably, an appearance of God in some way.  And so Matthew prepares his audience for that certain something by saying that the disciples went to the mountain to where Jesus told them to go.

Sure enough—Jesus appears and tells them that they each have an identity—to represent him throughout the world.  He is leaving, but he passes the baton to them (which also means US since we are the disciples today).  And what’s almost humorous is Luke’s portrayal of this scene in Acts of the Apostles.

Luke states that Jesus ascended into the heavens and that the disciples stood there looking upward.  Suddenly, two “angels” appeared, and asked why they were looking to the heavens.  It was as if they were saying—in our contemporary mode of speech—“What the heck are you standing around for?  He told you to go make disciples of all nations—AND YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO DO THAT IF YOU JUST KEEP STANDING HERE!”

As I reflected on this biblical scene, and the disciples getting ready to start a new life, I was reminded of young people graduating this Spring from high school.  They’re about to leave the familiar school scene that they’ve known since childhood and move on to college, or the labor world, or the military—and like the apostles responding to the call of Jesu—will be facing new terrain, new social turf, new people whose lifestyle and attitudes may bear no resemblance to what they’ve heard back home or here at Mass.

Students may have had exposure to drugs and booze in high school, but access to these things will be even more available.  So, too, they’ll see students miss classes, or take online courses that don’t require attendance.  Time management may become an issue for them because no parents or teachers will be overseeing how they conduct themselves.

A smorgasbord of social behaviors will be available that would, if tested by their now “adult” child, embarrass their parents and make them sad.  In short, graduates will have their challenges–ESPECIALLY since the human brain doesn’t fully mature until sometime in the 20s.  If at college, students skip opportunities to hear a guest lecturer on some topic—and instead, go kill time doing something unproductive.  Thus, skipping classes, enrichment opportunities, reading, and studying, students often waste the thousands of dollars it takes to get them a real education.

What came to mind in thinking of what I witnessed in many years of campus life, was that graduates are facing challenges just like the early disciples did when moving from their comfortable home lives and heading to places we read about in scripture.  Because they were human, like us, they no doubt made decisions that weren’t the best.  But they re-anchored themselves in the lifestyle of Jesus—and carried on.

Challenges are many for young people who seek to carve out an identity in American society.  I think of the many with little to no religious practice—and feel bad that they’ll be seduced with the superficial, transitory novelties of life—and cling only to a “what’s in it for me” (at the expense of others) philosophy.

The fact is—that the disciples faced similar challenges—as did all of us older people who make up most of in the faith community.  We can help by telling our stories of faith to them—and ask them to accompany us to church.  Make self-centeredness work for you—and tell them that they’ll be more successful in life if they internalize the values of Jesus and filter out what’s bad by looking through His lens.

Strangely enough, John’s gospel makes no mention of the Ascension.  Why?  What’s all this ascending into clouds, Jesus bidding farewell,  and angels appearing nearby?

Maybe John simply wants to talk about the disappearance of Jesus in a way that would echo other New Testament comments..  Maybe he was challenging his readers not to think of Jesus miraculously disappearing en route to heaven on the clouds.  Rather, the other gospels reported that people “recognized him in the breaking of bread,” or saw him as a gardener, or as one on the shoreline cooking fish.  Maybe John was saying to us, his readers, that we need to look and find Jesus in the ordinary things of life—in people and at places where we never expected to see him.

Blessing of Graduates

May God the Father bless you with discomfort. Discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that your efforts may all be grounded in the heart of God.

May God the Son bless you with anger. Anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God the Holy Spirit bless you with tears. Tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

May the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless you with foolishness. Enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world; so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

May the blessing of our Creator, who has called you to be a disciple of Jesus—inspire you to go from here and be a blessing for everyone you meet—as you represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—alive in the world through you.  Amen.

May 21, 2023

The religious Order to which I belong is formally known as the Society of Jesus.  Informally, we are known as “Jesuits.”  It was founded in the mid-1500s by a Spaniard, Ignatius Loyola, who was from the Basque region of Spain.  An interesting fact about the Basques is that they speak a language that linguists are unable to trace to other languages.  Where did it (and they) originate?  A mystery.

You might think that Ignatius was always a devout little boy until manhood—whereupon he embraced a pious life-style.  That was not the case.  Just the opposite.

Ignatius loved the ladies and loved the chivalric code of his era.  For victories in war, and glory, and plunder–could have been his motto.  However, his adventures in battle, with the ladies, and with wealth came to an end when he was injured in battle by a cannonball that shattered his leg.  Several surgeries resulted in his walking with a limp.  Gone were the days when he could move about and win the admiration of people with whom he used to party.

When recovering, he asked if the care-home had romance novels for him to read.  To his chagrin, all they had were books on the life of Jesus and lives of the saints.  It is at this point you’ll see why I chose to tell of his story on a weekend that tells of the “Advocate” (the Holy Spirit) coming to the disciples when Jesus departed. Ignatius was clueless about the Holy Spirit, but he was quite experienced in dealing with his on-again/off-again moods that swung from highs to lows.  Eventually, he came to identify the “good” Spirit of God who contrasted with “the evil spirit.”

As the days passed and he read about the saints and Jesus, he felt his heart soar with excitement and interest in doing the many good deeds that saints had done in the past.  He could fantasize doing as they did, and his mood was elevated.  He called this state of mind, this state of the soul—“consolation.”  Over time, he wrote what is now a classic in spirituality: The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.  In this work, he describes how the Holy Spirit gives us quiet, peace of mind and heart, joy, and inspiration to do good deeds of serving others in their time of need.

Because of his dreams shattered, Ignatius also profoundly experienced what he came to call “desolation.”   The modus operandi of the evil spirit is to agitate one’s mind and heart, disturb one’s peace and inject fear and discouragement into one’s thoughts. Modern psychologists who are familiar with the writings of Ignatius have commented that his counsel—although 500 years old—is right on target in offering a “psychology” of human emotions that influence our thoughts and decisions.  Because the language he uses needs translation for modern readers, one is advised to have a spiritual director help them understand the Spiritual Exercises (along with prayer).

That said here is a sampling of Ignatian observations.

He told of riding his donkey on a road and came upon a Muslim also traveling on it.  The two men stopped and discussed their differing theologies and then parted.  Ignatius said that he was so emotionally upset at the Muslim’s not converting to Christianity, that he decided to go back and kill the Muslim.  He would do this if his donkey, on its own, went in one direction where the road split into two.  Fortunately, the donkey took the other road—and Ignatius did not engage the Muslim in a fight to the death.

That experience, and others, made Ignatius realize that we humans make plenty of bad decisions in our lifetime—and that we should make decisions based on the discernment powers which God gave us to use.  Acting on pure emotion—not good.  Acting on pure desire—not good.  Acting like a spoiled child and wanting something NOW—not good.  In this latter case, Ignatius advised us to realize we sometimes had to be a “mother” to the “spoiled child” within us—put our foot down, and say “NO!”

You want something now—a behavior that is immoral or sinful or bad.  There’s an insistent voice within you saying you should do thus and so.  E.g., you want to steal something, your co-worker is sexually tempting—even though you are married, or you want something NOW/IMMEDIATELY.  The more you entertain the “spoiled child” voice that arises within you—the more you’ll crash.  Tell the child to shut up.

In important matters, we ought to reflect, pray, and tap the wisdom of a spiritual director or someone whose wisdom is known.  In our behavior, we need to “discern” (reflect on variables that exist within an experience or decision that needs to be made—and choose the one that comes “from God” and not “of the evil spirit).  We need to ask “Where is this impulse from–God or the evil spirit (away from God)?”

Scenario #1: If you are heading in a positive direction (e.g., volunteering at a soup kitchen, or going to med school) or college, the good spirit will encourage you and inspire you and give you a sense of tranquility and hope—so the person may go forward with the good.  By contrast, the evil spirit will thrust obstacles in your way—making you doubt yourself, feel limited, be filled with anxiety, and coming up with false reasons for why you should not proceed.

In my experience, I can recall many reasons that came to mind that prompted me to NOT want to enter the Jesuits, NOT ask to serve on the missions, NOT go to grad school, NOT get ordained, NOT take on pastoring a parish in Sault Ste. Marie, etc.  The list can go on and on.  Responding to the Holy Spirit almost assures one of getting the exact opposite motivations to go in the opposite direction.  It’s not always easy to respond to God’s call—especially when a force exists which Ignatius called the “evil spirit”—that tries to lead us elsewhere.  If you don’t like the term “evil spirit,” maybe “fallen human nature” sounds better to you.  Whatever you call it, each of us is prone to making bad decisions—and we need help to make good ones.  Voila—what scripture today refers to as the “Advocate” (the Holy Spirit).

Scenario #2:  If you go from one bad behavior to another, the evil spirit makes one imagine delights and pleasures of the senses in order to plunge the person deeper into the pits & keep them on the same path.

If you’re doing sinful/immoral/wrong behavior, evil spirit will make you feel GOOD about these things, e.g., sleazy business scheme & thoughts come to mind of how much money you’re making and how no one will find out.

Contrary to the above, the good spirit will prick one’s conscience—challenging the person to stop.  Look at the lives of the saints (Ignatius included).  They often changed their corrupt ways and had what’s called a “conversion experience.”

Scenario #3: When one considers something good, like working at an abused women’s shelter, one is barraged with thoughts of “what if they don’t like me….what if I’m mugged….what if I’m too inexperienced…..”  The evil spirit presents all the possible reasons AGAINST doing something good.

“If only I had done this previously,” “if only I had chosen another job”—these sorts of self-doubts produce a gnawing anxiety focused on the past. Sometimes “if onlys” and “what ifs” move us to conversion and new dreaming, but if they produce gnawing anxiety, it’s not from God.

A very practical Ignatian tip:  During a time of desolation, one should never make a change or decision.  Because when in this mode, one is more vulnerable to the evil spirit’s motivations—and downward momentum will increase.

Sort of the same as making a decision when freaking out over something. Does this make sense—to make a decision when freaking out, or emotionally unstable, or down?  No.

Ignatius says that when in desolation, one should pray & meditate even more & do more self-examination—reminding yourself that you’re not all-powerful. Try to be patient.  Most importantly, God’s voice always affirms you.  Maybe not your behavior, but YOU—because God loves you.  And has sent “the Advocate” to help you and me make good decisions.  After all, God made each of us for a very special reason—and we need to give our best shot at discovering it—and doing it.

May 14, 2023

When our ancestors in the faith left the greater Jerusalem area, they met with people who had very different cultural traditions—European, African, Middle Eastern, Asia, and eventually the whole world.  Black people, white people, and every shade in-between—which makes me smile.

There’s a TV show that traces the genealogy of well-known people, and 2 celebrities who were featured came from the country-western music world.  Seen as stereotypes, these singers would be associated with the “good ol boy,” “redneck,” shotgun-rack in the pick-up culture of the Klan and other racist groups.  However, in tracing their genealogies—researchers found that these “lily-white” performers had “genotypes” that showed that some of their roots were African (“genotype” refers to one’s genetic identity while “phenotype” refers to how one appears, e.g., brunette, blond, black, brown hair, skin color, eye color, etc.).

When the show’s host (Henry Louis Gates) asked the celebrities what they thought of themselves having African roots, they both said that they thought it was great—and were happy to learn all they did about their ancestry.  And so it was with our Christian apostle-missionaries of old.  They met all sorts of people with diverse phenotypes, genotypes, and religious practices.  At some point in history, Christian missionaries met YOUR ethnic ancestors—and devised ways to relate ‘the Word.”

Most people at mass today have ancestors who did not believe in one God.  Instead, the ancestors were like most American Indian groups.  They believed in a world of many spirits who had power of one kind or another.  Globally, humans felt they had to enlist the aid of these spirit-forces in order to survive.  These powers were “capricious.”  That is, in spirit worlds of old, we humans were at the mercy of forces that could drown a village one day, and bring a rainbow the next; bring us victory over an enemy one week, or have us slaughtered by some other group the following week.

People tried to appease or manipulate these spirit forces, win their protection, or plead their case with offerings (child sacrifices, animal sacrifices, rituals of many types, etc.).  In short, our ancestors lived in a very tough world—a world where spirit powers forced them to behave in what we would consider strange, or silly, or appalling in some way.  Religion, call it, was a harsh taskmaster that insisted we humans pay our dues throughout life.

The book of Acts reports that our Christian leaders of old had to speak to the longings of people from different continents who knew nothing about Hebrew scripture or the life of Jesus.  They would speak with people and learn that everyone was curious about what made the world tick, and what power, or deity (god) put everything together into “life on planet earth.”  Voila—Christian missionaries preached of a Father-God who created everything, and that his human Son revealed WHO this Father/Creator God was.

Today’s gospel reports what our ancestor-missionaries said about God—namely, “If you know me, then you will also know my Father.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  As John’s gospel and other scripture defined God as “love” made evident in Jesus—the appeal of such a “spirit power” was strong.

However, the above ultra-brief view of Christian history and theology just touches on the basics.  When they came into contact with Christian teachings, people wanted to know who “the Father” was and who the “Holy Spirit” was.   Were they three separate gods?

Long ago, the Church said that the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was a mystery that we cannot fully understand.  It said that we know the Trinity through scripture and experience.  An early, key figure in this discussion (d. 373) was Athanasius—who spoke of “3 in 1 and 1 in 3” (three persons in one God).  Later on, a bishop named Arius created problems when he attracted followers by saying that Jesus was not as godly as the Father—a kind of 2nd place god.

This bishop’s teachings became known as the Arian heresy—which still exists today in some parts of the world.  Mormons, for example, do not subscribe to Trinitarian theology—and

so are technically not Christian (even though the main body of the Mormon Church calls itself the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.  By not accepting the Trinity, this group puts itself outside all the churches of Christianity—since the Trinity is at the heart of so much theology.

Our cousins in the faith are Judaism and Islam—with Islam outside Christian belief in saying that Christ Jesus was not God (Allah).  Or, as they say, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.”  Scholars have speculated on the influence of Bishop Arius (the Arian heresy) on Islam since this religion does not equate Jesus with God, but comes awfully close to recognizing him as really praiseworthy and spiritually without equal (other than perhaps Mohammed).  Recall that the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an (Koran) has one woman mentioned in it—a chapter named after her.  The woman’s name?  Mary, mother of Jesus.  So it’s thought that Mohammed picked up the story of Jesus and integrated into what he considered God’s revelations to him. He perhaps mixed Arianism with Islam. Who is to say?

With this week’s scripture raising the topic of the Trinity, you might wonder how this reality of 3 persons in 1 God that we call a “mystery” touches your life.  Here’s one way to understand how you might pray to the Trinity in true-to-life experience.

For example, when you walk beaches, or look at mountains, or other wonders of nature (or your child, or grandchild), you might find yourself spontaneously saying “Thank you, God in heaven, Creator of all that is good.  Thank you for these gifts.”  Or on another day you might say to Jesus something like “Lord Jesus, you carried your cross.  Please help me carry mine.  You know what it means to be human, and I really feel my humanity weighing me down.  Show me how I can carry this weight—this cross.”  And still on another day, you might say to God: “Please, God, inspire me to face the challenge that now confronts me.  Touch my heart and mind so that I might be able to face this challenge and lift this weight.”

In praying like this, which you probably do all the time without thinking specifically of the Trinity, you are speaking to Father, Son, or Spirit.  And all of our prayer should have practical consequences—as stated by Jesus in the gospel today: “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do.”

 Is your prayer helping you be this way?

May 7, 2023

In the weeks after Easter, many of our readings will be from Acts of the Apostles—regarded by scholars as a kind of second gospel of Luke.  The first one began with the birth of Jesus, and takes the reader to Calvary.  Acts begins where the gospel left off.  By the end of the book, Luke has shown that through the Holy Spirit, disciples were able to spread the Word to the ends of the earth (symbolized by the book ending in Rome—the capital of the world).

Written in the 80s during the persecution of Emperor Domitian, its audience was gentile (non-Jewish) whereas Matthew’s gospel was written for a largely Jewish audience (Matthew quotes the Hebrew bible more than Mark, Luke, and John).  In short, Luke is giving an account of how Christianity spread from Jerusalem and became “catholic” (in the sense of being “universal”—the meaning of “catholic”).

You might even think of Acts as still being written.  Luke’s book covers the first century—with us being in, and writing Chapter 2023.  What would the paragraph in this Chapter say about your witness to the faith?

If Jesus was the first martyr of Christianity, Stephen is the second—as Acts tells us of his being stoned to death.  Luke inserts an observation about who was present at the martyrdom—and his comment is worth pondering.  “Saul” witnessed the death—and he was described as one who was rounding up Christians and jailing them.

Talk about “food for thought” (or prayer), think of this book’s characters describing YOU (and me).  WE are Saul—this brief reference to him reminding us that our bullying or persecution of God’s people might not be exactly like Saul’s, but in some way, this scripture is reminding us that we do likewise.  However, the hopeful element of this passage—urging us forward to insight and conversion—is knowing that the bad-guy Saul became the great-guy, Paul.  And so it can be with us.  We need not remain in the shoes of Saul and retain that part of our biography.

If you’re the type of person who has confronted your demons, and feel like you committed an “unforgiveable sin,” this passage is for you.  Our God is not one who keep us forever in some “guilt trip.”  Our God is one who calls each of us from our Saul identity to our vocation as Paul.  Neat passage, for sure.  It reminds us of God always calling us to resurrection.

At the opposite end of forming a conscience are persons who think they have little to apologize for—to anyone.  Called a “lax conscience” in spiritual literature, one’s “bar is set quite low.”  Behavior sees one person boast of doing 25 sit-ups a day—not knowing their neighbor does 2500 each day.  So Acts can force us to speculate or evaluate ourselves—when reading what these early Christians did.  To what extent are you Stephen?  Saul?  Paul?

Jesus as a shepherd and we as lambs didn’t speak to me very much until someone explained how lambs behave.  Apparently, they find it easy to get lost when out in a pasture or field of some kind.  They lose their way and in frustration just plop down on the ground and bleat (cry out).  Once I learned about lamb behavior, I realized what a great metaphor we have in the lamb and shepherd.  WE get lost, get into tight jams, are vulnerable to predators, and need someone to show us the way.

And so it is with Vocation Sunday.

I’m sorry that more people don’t consider pursuing the religious life—entering the diocesan priesthood or an Order or Congregation.  The work brings one into contact with diverse life experiences with diverse people.  Plus, all sorts of opportunities are accessible to a man or woman.  As the old saying put it: you could have no better employer than God.

At the same time, our human identity given by God—is to shepherd one another.

Communion Reflection

Dear God, On this day I ask you to grant this request,
May I be aware of myself Every moment of this day.

And not just robotically go about my business.
May I be a catalyst for light and love,
And bring inspiration to those whose eyes I meet.
May I stand tall in the face of conflict,
And the courage to speak my voice, even when I’m scared.
May I have the humility to feel compassion

And the fire to live the way you inspire me to do.
May I seek to know the higher truths
And dismiss the gravitational pull of my lower self.
May I embrace My darkness as well as my light—and

Grow in the direction you lead.
May I be brave enough to hear my heart,
To let it soften so that I may gracefully
Choose faith over fear.
Today is my day to surrender anything that stands
Between the sacredness of my humanity and your divinity.
May I be drenched in your goodness
And engulfed by Your love.
And May all else melt away.

April 30, 2023

This weekend’s gospel tells the well-known story of disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus (7 miles from Jerusalem. Its location today an unknown site).  The fact that modern-day cartographers or historians or archaeologists can’t find it—only adds weight to the theological point of the story. The story reminds us that it could take place anywhere.

Simple, but strange, plot in Luke, it tells of 2 disciples walking on the road, and Jesus joins them—but they don’t recognize him.  They ask the fellow traveler what he thinks of the recent events.  He claims ignorance of what they’re talking about and they tell him of the crucifixion and the body of Jesus gone from the tomb.

He then lets them have it and explains how all the scriptures pointed to this day coming—along with the Messiah, the chosen one of God rising from the dead and showing people how to live.  He enlightens them on all of scripture.  He acts as if he’s moving on, but they beg him to stay.  And while with them, he takes the bread, blesses it, and offers it to them (do those words sound familiar?). He then does the same with the wine.  Whereupon he vanishes from their sight.

They’re excited because “they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”  They go back to the apostles, report what occurred, learn that Peter saw him, too, and the community is thrilled that others have seen him along “the Way.”

This straightforward story tells of much more that is veiled behind the simple plot.  How so, you wonder.

We’re seeing a story about the Eucharist in the early Christian community.  Luke is writing many decades after the death of Jesus and his Gentile audience wonders how it is that this Jesus/Son of God/Savior can still be present to them after so long a time.  Luke tells them about the sacrament of the Eucharist in story-form.

Notice first that Jesus comes as a stranger—and you already know that Jesus said that “when you do something for the least among you, you do it to” him.  That element of the story is addressed—Jesus not having to be a replica of the physical Jesus.

Element 2 is that the story says a couple of times that they “Met him on the Way”—“Way” being the early Christian community’s self-description.  They referred to themselves as the “people of the Way.”  Amen—one meets Jesus in community—the 3 of them gathered “on the Way.”

Note the story’s structure.  They come and gather (as does the community—like us—at church/the Mass/the Eucharist).  They immerse themselves in the teachings of scripture (as we do when reading Old and New Testaments).  We call this part of the mass “the liturgy of the Word” with us hearing God speak that word to us (as did the anonymous Jesus when explaining all the scriptures to the men in the story).

Finally, we see what we call “the liturgy of the Eucharist” when we “break bread” as Jesus did in the story—and the disciples “recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.”  Voila—the mass—concluding with them going from that experience and telling of their experience of the risen Lord (which is supposedly what we do when leaving mass).  In short, Luke is telling his readers/listeners that the memory and presence of Jesus is to be found in the Eucharist. In the liturgy of the word and liturgy of the Eucharist we are sent out to tell others of our experience.

We can’t let this weekend pass  without acknowledging the annual recognition of “Earth Day” (started in 1970).  Right away, some might have a political position that the late Rush Limbaugh was paid millions to belittle and convince people that “tree huggers” were misguided.  Unfortunately, as Christians we are supposed to adhere to what scripture teaches us—and not what corporate voices that destroy natural resources tell us.

Just this past Holy Saturday—what was the first reading?  It was about how God made the universe, us, animals, and plants—and said we were to be good stewards of the environment—and preserve this garden of paradise.  Lo and behold, look at what we’ve done!  Just down M 46 at St. Louis MI is a polluted river that has caused death.  And for decades—just as the tobacco industry knew it was poisoning us but denied it–so the oil companies have known their businesses have caused climate change and is killing animals, people, and floral life globally.

This is not a political issue—but a religious one!  Where do you stand on this RELIGIOUS issue?

I’m no biologist or geologist or climatologist, but I try to be a Christian.  And when I learned that box turtles in West Virginia were vanishing due to environmental damage—I started to breed them and restore them to the landscape.  Similarly, I went around campus trying to organize different people to plant milkweed (to save vanishing Monarch butterflies), dispose of chemical waste, recycle cans (not done WV), and a number of other initiatives.

By the way, in the course of saving Monarchs by growing milkweed, I learned that the milkweed flower was both pretty AND fragrant. “Weed” is a cultural word. or cultural prejudice and not an objective reality–because all flora have their place in creation.  When we cut down “weeds,” we’re actually just asserting a cultural value judgment.  I once chopped down milkweed but now am a big fan of the flower.

The fact is—that I was not at all a “specialist” in any of the initiatives I tried to get going on campus. One day I found an ad from the University of Notre Dame asking for “papers” on “The Catholic University and the Environment.” Two would be chosen for the conference.

Long story short is that I submitted a paper written as well as I could write, and submitted it.  A few weeks later, Notre Dame invited me to be one of two speakers at this national conference.  As stated, I was not a specialist in box turtles or Monarch butterflies or other matters affecting campus life—but I took the call of Genesis seriously—largely because I was so appreciative of the wonderful creation God gave us.  I wanted to help preserve it—and try my best to not destroy it.

And so it goes with each of us here.  We are all stewards of the environment—called by God to take care of this paradise we’ve been given.  On of our parishioners is an expert on orchids while another specializes in bees.  We have fishermen and women who love fishing—and you, yourself, no doubt have some special concern for creatures or flora or fauna of some kind—whose care you might be part of.

When we care for creation, we are doing as God calls us to do.

Maybe my talk at Notre Dame accomplished zilch.  It probably affected no one, I must admit. However, I was pleased in getting my university to issue a mandate that no animal was to be killed on the premises.  The creek that ran through campus had a beaver arrive one day, and this was the first beaver in the area for as long as anyone could recall.  Sadly, an employee wanted a beaver fur—and so trapped the little creature within a couple weeks of its arrival.

Incensed at the self-centered thoughtlessness of the person, I pled for administration to announce that the campus was a safe zone for wild life.  A simple action—but it was better than doing nothing.  Maybe other beavers will one day return to the region—and we will not be deprived of their special presence in the future.

April 23, 2023

We’ve just come off Holy Week—and that time period had us remember.

The fact is—that when we gather for any sacrament—especially the mass—we are ritually remembering why we were created, who did it, and what is out destiny.  For example, last Holy Thursday we remembered how Jesus would be with us in the Eucharist as we REMEMBERED how he ate with his disciples and family.  He told us to do what we’re doing now at mass (i.e.,”do this in memory of me”).

And we remembered Good Friday’s passion, and how the passion continues today.  There are not just 12 or 14 stations of the cross.  No, there are new stations of the cross each day—and we ritually recall that each of us pounds nails into the hands of Jesus, and how we are called to be Simon of Cyrene and help others bear their cross.

We read a number of scripture passages that make us recall that God made the earth and all that exists—and that creation is not complete without us being part of it.  And we are called to remember that God made us “good.”  We HAVE to ritually remember these lessons because we forget.  We need to be reminded of our sacred story which the gospels report when telling of the Jesus story.  And when we don’t teach our young ones about THEIR story/biography in scripture—they suffer for their lack of knowledge.

We do sacramental remembering via 7 sacraments and scripture because we FORGET, over and over again—like the biblical figures and Israelites forgot what God instructed over and over again.  Thankfully, we were taken to Easter Sunday—where we learned that God calls us forth from our tombs of indifference to others, our crypts of racism, greed, and self-centeredness.

Easter Sunday offers us hope—but does not cram it down our throats. We can stay in the dark or we have a choice. We have a choice to live how ever we wish to live.   We are offered light—which brings us out of the tomb’s darkness.  We are reminded that God made each of us for a purpose—and that we are still here to accomplish that goal.

But WAIT!!  What’s this first Sunday after Easter addressing?  Oh no!  It’s reminding us again—trying to make us not forget—that each of us is a “doubting Thomas.”  Unless we can put our fingers in the nail marks, and our hand in his pierced side—we can’t believe.  And lo, Jesus appears to Thomas tells him to touch the wounds, and believe.

This story, well known to people everywhere, reminded me of what helped me enter the religious life as a Jesuit and get ordained.  Remember, Jesus didn’t tell Thomas to get lost for having doubts.  Instead, said to Thomas “follow me.”  What’s going on here?

What came to mind was that my vocation, call it, and the Christian vocation of people I respect—young and old, rich and poor—all came by way of touching the wounds of the crucified Jesus.  I’m speaking figuratively (and theologically).  I wasn’t inspired by pious priests or nuns who seemed holier than thou.  They were probably good people, but my heart experienced conversion when having these types of experiences.

As a high school kid, I taught summer bible school to black kids in Detroit as part of a religious group to which I belonged.  One day, a little black girl came to me with tear droplets on her cheeks—and said: “Brother Mike, she called me the N word.”  Next to her was a little girl I knew to be her friend.

I was stopped in my tracks as this little innocent came to me—a “white guy,” seeking affirmation, love, concern—all the wonderful sentiments that racist words oppose.  And she was coming to me—unaware that it was “white people” who primarily spit out name-calling against her, her family, and friends.

I recall, in general, wiping away her tears, and asking her friend if she didn’t like the crying girl—because I thought they were friends.  She confessed being her friend and saying the wrong thing. So I reminded the girl with hurt feelings that her friend was just angry and didn’t mean to hurt her feelings, and that we should not call one another names—but instead hug one another and go back to the playground.  We hugged, and they ran back to the other kids playing.

My dad was the president of the Children’s Leukemia Foundation one year (volunteer work) and each year a picnic was held at the John F. Ivory Farms for children sickened with blood diseases.  Each year, new faces were at the picnic because the children had gone back to God.  Because of fund-raising done by “Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Harry”—family friends who were Jewish—those blood diseases have been significantly cured. This Jewish couple were more “Christian” than the many who are anti semitic today. Each year I operated the pop dispenser and gave pop to little kids who I knew I’d not see the following year.

When teaching at Pine Ridge, our school bus took home 6 year old Donnie He Crow, and a semi-truck barreled down the 2 lane highway at 70 miles an hour in a 35 mile zone, bus-lights flashing—and sent little Donnie back to God.  At the trial in Rapid City, an all-white jury decided “not guilty” against the truck driver who already had other driving offenses on his record.  Before dismissing the jury, the white judge said “I’ve never seen a more racist verdict in my 30 years on the bench.”

What came to mind in reading the story of doubting Thomas—was that I (and you) have been shown the wounds of Jesus in our life-experiences.  Maybe we’ve looked the other way when seeing them, or thought “that’s not problem,” or some other hand-washing so well known to Pontius Pilate.

What occurred to me was that over the years the wounds of Jesus have cried out to me—seeking some relief from the pain—or some way off the cross.  What came to mind was that the above experiences and many others—were the voice of Jesus—looking at me from the cross and saying “I thirst.”

From somewhere in my heart, I wanted to quench his thirst in some way—and his thirst—his wounds—led me to the vocation I have.  Those same wounds present themselves to you each day—in different ways—at home in your neighborhood, or in some larger social context.  You can define your Christian vocation by evaluating to what extent you’ve sought to quench His thirst.

April 16, 2023

As I mention often enough, so I REALLY mention it this week.  Namely, in reading scripture, we are not just reading about events from 2000 years ago.  No, we are reading about our lives and life NOW!  We are at the last supper, the Good Friday execution, the vigil, and resurrection.   Or rather, try and put yourself in a frame of mind that pictures you there at the table or in the crowd.

Traditionally, Holy Thursday is the birthday of the Mass and the priesthood.  We call to mind that night when he gathered with his disciples, broke bread, and said he would be with them always (which echoed Matthew’s gospel saying his name was “Emmanuel” or “God with us.”  We know where his story is going—to death on the cross—but we cling to the other shoe dropping—his resurrection.  He’s STILL  with us and had done what he said he’d do.

Holy Thursday is like the other days of Holy Week.  It is a remembering—a remembering of his continued presence promised to us—via the sacrament of the Eucharist.  This is how his friends and family would keep his memory alive—the memory of his attending weddings and baptisms and healings; the memory of his speaking and inspiring people in the Temple. This special, prayerful, and joyous gathering for people of faith made his presence felt, or tangible.  Ever since that first Holy Thursday, the faith community has gathered at a table or an altar and did as Jesus instructed—his presence there in the Eucharist, the scripture, and community.

Over the centuries, Mass “rubrics” (rules on how to do something) have changed, but it is the same sacrament of God’s presence to us at the Eucharistic table.  A part of liturgical history relates to that part of the Mass when you see the priest put water in the chalice with the wine.  Apparently, a Jewish custom of the first century saw people diluting the wine for pragmatic reasons.  However, Christians forgot why diluting was part of the ritual.  So a reason was inserted into the priest’s preparation of the gifts (bread/wine).  The celebrant pours the water into the chalice of wine while referring to Jesus humbling himself to share in our humanity (symbolized by the water while the wine symbolized the divinity).

Early Christianity also saw our Mass be part of a dinner at someone’s house—but even Paul chastised our ancestors for drinking too much, and not sharing all they had with the poor. In the first century, Christians used regular bread instead of the unleavened hosts we have today (which became standardized centuries later).  The pomp and circumstance of gold, silver, and hierarchical offices in the church developed in the Middle Ages—and remained with us into the 20th century.  The communion rail kept the “common people” away from the noble clergy who were permitted to be near the altar and tabernacle.  We can only wonder what the mass will entail centuries from now—if centuries remain in our earthly paradise that we’re converting into a sewer of extinction.

For Good Friday, we had the stations of the cross—adapted to our modern world.  Again, to put us in the mood of this day, we might bring to mind and heart the sadness we felt when losing a loved one—a mom, dad, spouse, or child.  We can recall the tears and felt-loss of the loved one.  THAT’S the experience of Mary and the disciples.  They felt as if their world had ended (recall scripture saying it felt like an earthquake).  Put that in emotional terms.  All was bleak—as our beloved Jesus, son of God, Savior—was hanging on the cross.  Where do we go from here?

The risen Lord, of course, would not want us to well up tears for an event of 2000 years ago.  He’d want us to get in touch with the really tearful death caused by a Russian tyrant who, one by one, is murdering his corporate and political opponents in Russia (another one this past week—all in an effort to consolidate his dictatorial power).  Jesus would want us to mourn the reality of our Supreme Court justices being illegally paid large sums by the wealthy who control them.

Jesus would look at inflation and ask us why corporations insist on raising the prices of food when these same corporations are already making a 300% profit.  Well-paid commentators tell listeners over and over again that “inflation” is out of control, but don’t say that all countries are fighting inflation and that the U.S. is better off than most countries in having a lower inflation rate.  It might help for newscasters to be “old fashioned” and point to the deadly capital sin of “greed” at the heart of economic issues.

Good Friday’s message is not a “feel good” sense of Christianity since it indicts each of us on some level for being the cause of suffering.  It’s a day that tries to stir our conscience and confront our complicity in not bringing about God’s kingdom.  Good Friday is a day we realize there are MANY stations of the cross.  We might be in the role of Jesus at some of those stations, but we also might be the soldiers who pounded nails at the Calvary of everyday life.

Holy Saturday reminds us of the dark days after the death of Jesus—and hammers home the sense of loss felt by those he left behind.  Well—THAT’S what Mary and the disciples felt.  Optimism was gone and people feared for their own lives.  Where do we go from here—now that our leader is dead and our hopes have been dashed?

The 9 readings of Holy Saturday recount the creation of the world and of us and our other animal friends.  All gifts from God.  And we read of our repetitive failing to be the children of God we were called to be.  Name the worst behavior possible—and that behavior described us humans.  WE are those humans.  We are those who suffer, who inflict death on others, and who wonder why we’re even here on earth.  In short, Holy Saturday night’s readings tell of the history of the universe, our history, and the future God calls us to embrace.

Embrace, you say?  How’s that?

Because if Jesus were to sit with you now, he’d smilingly, lovingly, caringly, humanly say “It’s so good to be with you—because creation is not complete without you.  And remember how Genesis said that when I created everything, I created it good?  Tell me of the good you have brought to others.”

You and I might then scramble to think of what “good” we brought anyone, and may find it easier to come up with things we DIDN’T do, or did poorly, or of no service to anyone.  But no matter what we’d reply to Jesus asking us to report what we’ve done.  He’d put his hand on our shoulder and smilingly encourage us to begin NOW to make our special contribution with our goodness.  He’d tell us that he KNOWS we can accomplish much good.

And THAT is the resurrection we celebrate at Easter.  It is our call by Jesus to new life—regardless of whatever we’ve left behind.  It’s a call from out of the tombs that lock us away from being life for others.

Happy Easter.

April 9, 2023

We today read the Passion.  Each week we do this on a smaller scale at mass.  In both instances, we are remembering God among us, the Jesus of history who walked with us, attended our weddings and funerals, walked through our marketplace, went fishing with friends, and prayed in our temples.  REMEMBERING His presence is ritually accessible in the sacraments—especially at mass.   So when we gather as a faith community at the altar, it is Palm Sunday all over again—as we do this in memory of Him.

Sadly, younger generations aren’t all that familiar with names associated with Christianity’s most sacred story—names like Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, and many others.  Even we who faithfully gather regularly at the altar need to hear the story over and over again—because we are inclined to forget the guidance they taught us in our youth.  We need to hear the Passion Story read each year so that we not forget the life truths it reported.  In hearing it, we are reminded of how crowds once shouted “Hosanna in the highest—blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  And at each mass, we echo this hal·le·lu·jah prayer acknowledging his presence with us still at the altar.

But repeating the Passion story is more than a history lesson that refreshes our memory of the living, breathing, and dying of Jesus around the year 33 A.D.   We listen to what took place and the people involved, and once again we are reminded that the gospel tells our story, too.  The persons are like mirrors that reflect our different identities at different times in our lives.

We are the chief priests who find it easy to criticize others but not ourselves.  We find it easy to condemn Judas, but what price do we have that compromises our integrity or to look the other way when Gospel values are trampled?  We’re often enough just like Peter—who remains uninvolved just when our voice or action is needed.

While Pontius Pilate reflects our tendency to “wash our hands” of involvement with parish life, or find excuses that we think justify our non-support of the CMA or other valid charities, his story is also instructive within religious education circles.  Namely, the Coptic Christians of Ethiopia reverence Pilate as a “saint.”   To quote Mary when speaking to Gabriel “How can this be?”  Here’s why all Christians (except the Coptics) evaluate Pilate the way they do.

When the Christian “canon” of New Testament books was officially adopted by Christian leaders, a number of “apocryphal” works (not acknowledged as acceptable) still managed to attract readers.  One text, the Epistle of Pontius Pilate, managed to find a home among the Coptic faith community.  It told of how Mr. and Mrs. Pilate realized Jesus was God and that they should be missionaries for Christianity.  The text claimed that this couple lived out their days in faithful service to the Lord Jesus.   To this day, Coptics honor the memory of the Pilate portrayed in this “apocryphal” text.

Not only did the early Christians know that this document was fictitious, but so did secular historians.  That is, everyone but the Coptics knew that the Pilates lived out their days in retirement on a Mediterranean island with zero connection to Christianity—enjoying the self-centered life they had always known as non- Christian Romans.  Just as we today are vulnerable to tall tales and conspiracy theories, so were the Coptics.  In short, while it was kind of the Coptics to fantasize a conversion for the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Pilate were NOT role models of Christianity.

In hearing the Passion Story, we’re once again reminded of Jesus having real fears, and of his praying that he not face persecution.  WE have been in that position, and like him we are challenged to pray “not my will, but Yours be done.”  Similarly, Simon of Cyrene probably didn’t want to help Jesus carry his cross—but he did so.  Many among us help others in need.  Do you?  When we can’t physically help someone, there are other ways to provide assistance.  It becomes a broken record to remind you that Christ’s Mission Appeal is worthwhile in helping mid-Michigan people.  If you can’t physically do something for others, CMA is one way of helping them.

I recommend a 1950s film titled “Barabbas” with the lead role played by the great actor Anthony Quinn—who plays the role well.  It’s the fictitious story of what happened to Barabbas after he was released from prison and set free—Jesus replacing him on death row.  Barabbas reminds us that we, too, benefit from the suffering of others.

I’m reminded of “name brand” clothing made by slave labor on the island of Saipan—this merchandise sold as “Made in the USA” (Saipan was a Japanese island before WW 2).  The shirt you buy costs very little to make in Saipan—but sell for high prices here.  Or when you buy palm oil in some product, think of the orangutan homeland being devastated to supply us with non-essential products like palm oil.  Orangutans are close to our human line along with chimps and gorillas—all of whom are fast becoming extinct.  We are Barabbas.

And where were the men when Jesus was dying?  Nowhere to be found.  But Magdalene and other women were there up until the end.  Am I or you as committed as they were?  The women were heroes—as was Dismas—the name given to “the good thief” crucified on one side of Jesus.  We are often enough the other crucified thief—blaming others for life giving us a raw deal, thinking only of our own discomforts or hurts, and turned in on ourselves.  Meanwhile, Dismas confesses to Jesus that he’s sorry for how he led his life—and asks Jesus to remember him in the new paradise of heaven.

Can’t you just picture yourself as Dismas?  You look at some incident, or several, in your life—and acknowledge to Jesus that you could have done better.  Can’t you just picture Jesus smiling at you—quite aware of when you weren’t your best self.  He looks at the Dismas identity you carry—sees your repentance and says “this day you will be with me in Paradise.”

We are not yet called to the new Paradise, but our reflection on the lives of people in the Passion Story—motivates us to “seize the day” and make up for the times we weren’t the best version of ourselves.  May God inspire us to be the Dismas who failed to reveal the blessing he could be for others—but who has been given a second chance this Holy Week of 2023.

April 2, 2023

This past week we had a speaker address some basic elements about Catholic social justice.  There is so much we need to learn about our traditions—so that we can be an informed voice on the many matters that face all people in all places.  Over the centuries, the Church has given us many encyclicals—on the many aspects of life that are controversial or which need clarification so that we don’t just echo a popular non-Christian position on some current topic (about which “everyone has an opinion”).

The speaker’s presence brought to mind an award winning film from the 70s tilted “Network.”  It was about a TV network placing last in the ratings until one of its on-air commentators (“Howard Beal”) gave a wild-eyed speech about “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  He cited issues that were making life difficult everywhere and called all his listeners to go to their windows and shout with him that they weren’t going to take “it” anymore.  Overnight, the network ratings sky-rocketed.

It started hiring other wild-eyed emcees for oddball shows—and ratings remained high.   The network capitalizing on the psycho-physical reality that humans tend to feed on emotion-laden topics or photos (the idea of not being able to avoid watching a train wreck).  The network was able to sustain its popularity by offering America little news but much controversy that would keep their adrenalin flowing.  The film came out when the term “infotainment” was becoming popular.  That is, instead of broadcasting actual nightly news, audiences were also being fed “entertainment” that would stir their chemistry.

Eventually, the Howard Beal character “had to go” because his insanity was becoming too apparent.  Network executives didn’t care about his declining mental health if it meant more viewers, but now he was becoming a liability.  How to handle this?  Murder him “on air.”  This shocking event will draw return viewers.  And network executives were happy.

In retrospect, the film was prophetic of what the Fox Network is having to address now.   Knowing the election was fairly won, its big-name commentators pushed the lie that there was corruption perpetrated by the Dominion voting machine company.  Hannity, Carlson, and the others all knew that what they were preaching each night were lies.  However, just as in the film, they knew that what they broadcast kept their viewers tuned in–and their ratings high.

Fox has long had an elderly, conservative demographic and has long been criticized for not being a news network (which Fox admitted in a lawsuit).  It has, instead, been a mouthpiece for conservative causes espoused by its owner Rupert Murdoch.  The film “Network” could have been a script right out of today’s news—showing how the public is manipulated by unscrupulous media executives who make a buck off telling us lies on a nightly basis.  Meanwhile, the Church issues encyclicals on social justice and morality in media that are ignored or simply not known by the public.  We are a nation of Lazaruses—dead to truth and vulnerable to forces that kill us in different ways.

You and I can talk about some current affair over coffee, and draw conclusions that might satisfy us on some level—and not realize our conclusions fly in the face of a long Church tradition that has addressed the matter.  Most Christian churches don’t have a position on all the issues which the Catholic Church addresses.  Name the topic, and there is probably some document addressing it.  Mainstream Christian groups (e.g., Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran) often address different theological or social issues of the day, but many do not.  As a result, different positions are preached from different pulpits in the diverse array of Protestant churches.

But just because the mainstream churches have a coherent, public position on important matters, members do not always embrace their Church’s teachings.  After all, when the Church addresses an issue, it’s usually one that is causing  friction within families and society in general.  Along with the Quakers, we might be opposed to war and violence, but Catholic diverge from Quakers when accepting what is known as the “just war theory.”  Affirmed as far back as the time of Thomas Aquinas, this theory clarified what conditions permit Christians to wage war.

When the Iraq war was sold to the American public with one lie after the other, people shouted “nuke em.”  Not only was this knee-jerk response an unchristian position at the time, but the war as a whole became transparently immoral when years later Secretary of State Colin Powell divulged that even he was sold a bill of goods (lies) when he preached the party line that war had to be waged.  Demonic HUMAN forces won this political debate.  A bad or evil choice was pursued by many who thought war the only option (these persons not familiar with the just war theory).  Revving up the war machine included seductive patriotic behaviors such as shouting “we’re number one” and the waving of American flags by vested interests that were contrary to Christian teaching.

As with so much of our experience, we have different opinions on all sorts of subjects.  This is normal.  However, in matters of life and death, justice, freedom, fair labor, and numerous other things, we need moral guidance.  After all, everyone has an opinion on everything—but what is an informed Christian opinion?

These sorts of thoughts came to mind after listening to our speaker on social justice morality and reading this week’s gospel about Lazarus.  A simple story on the surface, it tells of Jesus bringing a corpse back to life.  But is that what the story is really about?  Quick answer: no.

Don’t you think that if Jesus was in the habit of resuscitating corpses, every family would be knocking at his door—asking him to bring back their loved one?  Instead, there’s passing mention to this sort of treatment that Jesus provided.  So what IS the point of this story?

Remember that gospel stories are about you and me.  So we are Lazarus.  We are “dead” to some thing—or many things.  We are persons “dead” to Catholic social teaching.  Like you, there are matters with which I have trouble “buying” within Church teaching.  But I sure value my membership in the Church for being the best forum “out there” struggling to make the best sense of complicated issues on the world stage.  That is, I prefer hearing the voice and conscience of the faith community over and above the voice of a friend over beer or coffee.

How DO you or I make a decision, or come to a position on some important matter?  This topic reminds me of being in the tough position of deciding whether or not my Jesuit Order should close one of its schools, or move it, or keep it where it was and see what happens.  As a province consultor, I was one of 8 people having to cast a vote that would decide the matter.

Like so many issues in life—in our families or workplace or neighborhood—opinion was divided.  Some people angrily held onto their opinion as to what should be done.  Tempers flared, threats voiced, and me part of the 8 decision-makers cast in the role of alienating many people.

How would you go about making the decision?  Jesuits first of all ask God in prayer to help them be “spiritually indifferent” to the outcome.  This basically asks God to help us say “Your will, Lord, not mine—be done.”  Having gathered as much information as we could regarding school finances and prospects for the suburbs.  After all, Detroit’s Catholic high schools had closed, and several of the all-boys high schools had moved to the suburbs to begin afresh.  We Jesuits had to decide if our apostolate (ministry) would be improved by leaving the city.

Long story short is that we did not argue one position or the other, but instead set forth the positives and challenges of each option.  The provincial superior said we should take an hour to pray individually and return to cast our vote—and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.  I had no idea how  my colleagues would cast their vote.  Thinking I’d be taking a minority position, I rejoined the group and we wrote “move” or “stay” on our ballot.  Once collected, the vote was 8-0 that we remain in Detroit at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School.  And today it is one of Michigan’s most prominent schools.

So it IS possible to be among people with diverse and conflicting positions on some familial or public issue—and still “discern” (find God’s will) in the long run.  You can be a Lazarus that rises from the grave of group prejudices and foregone conclusions.

March 26, 2023

Today’s first reading echoes a major biblical theme that’s found throughout the Hebrew AND Christian scriptures.  On one level, we simply read that Jesse’s son, David, was chosen to be the king—INSTEAD OF the other sons.  Whereas Jesse suggested one son be named king and everyone else accepted his decision, GOD said “Wait a minute!”

We’re told that God’s ways are not our ways, and so God makes the choice—picking young David, 18 year-old shepherd boy (his life work is clearly a symbolic thing—“shepherding” not just sheep but God’s people). Here is what is at play.

Jesse and the brothers thought they should choose a king who is in keeping with their tradition—but God says NO.  God chose the least likely son to become the great leader.  And so it goes throughout scripture.  Cut this sentence from the bulletin—and read it each day:

God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things!

For example, Abraham and Sarah—aged and in their declining years—become the parents of a great nation (Israelites—Jews, Christians, Muslims).  They laughed when God said they’d be very fertile.  And there was David who defeated the great warrior, Goliath.  The apostles evangelized Christianity after living their lives as poor fishermen, and remember the gospel line “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  And locally, the Hemlock girls’ basketball team—STATE CHAMPS!  Who would have thought?

God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.  As Mary herself said: “How can this be?”

Isn’t it interesting that Luke said that Jesus cured many people who were blind—but only mentions one case?  Coupled with this is the existence of a document in the first century known as “The Book of Sign”—which contained 7 miracle stories of Jesus.  Why weren’t there more stories collected about this miracle-worker?  After all, when John said at the end of his gospel “If all the stories about Jesus were collected, there’d not be enough libraries in the world to house them!”

So bible scholars have proposed that the evangelists used the Book of Signs and each writer contoured them to the point being made in each gospel.  But there’s more.

In John’s gospel, references to Jesus as the “light” of the world go hand-in-hand with the blind man (remember WE are the blind man—and it’s quite possible that the story did not occur exactly as presented).  After all, “light” banishes “darkness,” while blindness can refer to many more matters than just physical blindness.  For example, “Can’t you SEE what I’m saying?”  or “That’s what I think and no preacher/person/family member is going to change my mind!!!” (Stubborn).

So the curing of a blind man (or woman) is really about Jesus bringing a new “take” on some matter.  We acquire new insight (“sight into some issue”).  Sometimes a person has a “conversion experience” and their new perspective is LIKE having a miraculous change of heart.

A friend was an usher at mass (at a parish not in Michigan).  An underworld boss was being buried from the church and a man in the funeral party wore sunglasses in the church.  He was.  also smoking, so my friend cordially asked him to put out the cigarette.  The underworld guard there at the casket flicked his cigarette into the baptismal font.  His behavior no doubt reflected a pattern of behaviors that no doubt saw him respect no one, and it’s this sort of behavior that I often think is gaining an upper hand just in terms of civil behavior.

One of our faculty meetings in West Virginia addressed “civility in the classroom.”  Numerous articles were being published that addressed failing state of affairs in the U.S.—many young people not just learning nothing about their faith tradition—but also knowing little about civility with people.

My usher friend was also stopped by a woman who demanded that her son come from serving mass.  She told the usher that they had a dinner engagement and wanted her son NOW.  My friend asked if she could wait a few more minutes but she would hear nothing of this.  She stormed out of the church and 10 minutes later returned with an officer of the law.  Pointing to my friend, she said “There he is.”

The policeman said “I’m told a kidnaping is occurring here.”  My friend kindly informed the officer that the woman’s boy was there on the altar—serving mass.

The officer said: “This is above my pay grade.”  And walked out of the church.  I always wondered whatever happened to that 8-year old server.  If his mother’s value system continued to influence him—the boy might have ended up flicking cigarette butts in baptismal  fonts.  Learning about one’s faith takes time—and like vision, is developmental.  A newborn “grows into” their new eyes and eventually sees well (unless like my brother who had poor sight from the beginning).

 Jesus had the blind man wash in a pool named Siloam—which means “the sent one.”  So who do you think “the sent one” is?  Remember John is writing about us!  In language and stories clothed in incident from the life of Jesus.

In later thinking about the man in church who flicked his cigarette in the font, for all I know, the guy might have had ended up being a priest.  After all, God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.  

March 19, 2023

We all remember our old friend, the “good Samaritan” from another gospel passage.  Today we learn of another Samaritan—from the story often titled “The Woman at the Well.”  Since young people are largely illiterate when it comes to biblical characters and stories, they might know the name “Samaritan” if they live in Cincinnati—where “Good Samaritan Hospital” is located.  Or, they might have seen the Sylvester Stallone hero-figure film titled “Samaritan.”  Or, you may be familiar with what’s referred to as a “good Samaritan law.”  This law allows us to help someone who is in physical danger and who needs help on the spot.  A citizen can come to their aid without fear of getting sued.

Even for older people, the Samaritans and their culture are not well known.  Today’s Samaritan is a woman.  The other story is about a Samaritan helping nurse a man back to health—after the man was robbed and beaten on the highway.  Who were these Samaritans?

First of all, we need to realize that in the time of Jesus, no Jew would interact with a Samaritan.  These two groups of people had a longstanding argument with one another that made them enemies.  It began 700 and some years earlier when the Babylonians conquered the Israelites and took them into slavery at Babylon.  The Samaritans were a kind of sub-tribe of Israelites who said they’d intermarry with Babylonians if they could stay behind.  Jews traced descent through the mother’s line, so when the Samaritans allowed some wiggle room on this point—they incurred the wrath of the Israelites.  Israelites thought one should go out of their way to avoid mixing with Samaritans.

I recall attending an Indian conference one summer and meeting a woman who identified herself as a Huron Indian.  I told her that I thought the Hurons had been wiped out by the Iroquois in the 1700s, but she said her people escaped to northern Lake Huron and are still there today.  I touched her shoulders saying I was thrilled to meet someone from this famous tribe—honored to touch a real, live Huron.  I’m reminded of this experience because at one time, there were a million Samaritans.  Today, it’s estimated that there are between 500 and 800 still on the face of the earth.  But they’ll always be alive and present in the gospel.

If interested in conducting or attending what people refer to as a “bible study,” one needs to realize that biblical literature requires putting in the time to read commentaries on passages.  This is because scriptural material is not like ordinary literature you read in contemporary novels and short stories.  There is MUCH content in biblical material that doesn’t jump out at you clearly.  Yes, some does come across to readers, but there’s often more than meets the eye.  An example from this passage occurs when Jesus refers to himself as “living water.”  In that part of the world, water is scarce—and so is a symbol of LIFE.  Great connection, no?  Jesus with water and water with life.  But there’s more.

Water at the hallowed well of Jacob is nice—as is any water one drinks when thirsty.  However, in that part of the world, cistern water was different from stream water.  The latter was fresh and greatly valued—and such water was called, colloquially, “living water.”  So Jesus is drawing a term from everyday life and applying it to his identity: water, life, stream water over cistern water—Jesus!  Great associations John makes as the author of this story.

How many people can read the story about the woman at the well—and know that men and women were not supposed to speak in public with one another as Jesus did with the woman?  How many knew that a woman was not supposed to be at the well at noon?  Or that her people were quite at odds with the Jews another—as the story itself suggests, but which is missed by most readers.  For example, the woman and Jesus refer to their religious history—addressing the fact that Jews worship in the Temple and Samaritans in the land where the well is located (land passed down since the time of Jacob—who changed his name to Israel, had 12 sons, and who was the grandfather of Abraham).  All this religious history is lost to most readers of the passage—and which should be known if one is to fully understand what Jesus and the woman are talking about.

Jesus reminds her that she has had 5 husbands—which may mean more than her being married to 5 different men.

Some scholars have suggested this is a veiled reference to her people’s having a “Samaritan Bible” which consisted of the 5 books of the Torah alone (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).  The Hebrew bible has the Torah and other books—just as the Christians do—but the Samaritans have only 5 books in their bible.

The woman is “counter-cultural” in behaving as she does, and so is Jesus—especially when he muses aloud that the day is coming when people finally realize they don’t have to worship in a temple or on Jacob’s land—but wherever they are—as when Paul refers to us being “temples” of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is reflecting aloud about the end of time, yes, but also our call to transcend temples and places—and be God-fearing people in our everyday lives (WHEREVER we are).

Scripture scholars think that this story probably never took place.  It was written around the year 100 a.d.—70 years after Jesus had died—to a community that had story fragments that John pieced together into the woman at the well story.  John was perhaps evangelizing people who needed to realize that ANYONE—even a Samaritan—can quench the thirst of Jesus in some way (as the woman did in the story).  Maybe John was suggesting to his community that they needed to look outward for new members—people whose value Jesus saw but whom they did not.

Who are the Samaritans in society today?  Who are the scorned, the ones we turn our back on, the ones who can, in fact, quench our thirst?

Again, think of yourself as each character in scripture—you being Jesus in this story and you being the woman at the well.  Create a conversation for the two of you.  Spend time in dialogue there at the well—triggered by Jesus saying to you “I’m thirsty . .  can you give me a drink of water?”

Take it from there, and have it end with you somehow saying—in some way—“it was good speaking with you—maybe I’ll see you again—thanks”—and conclude the encounter with both you and Jesus walking away with an appreciative smile.

March 12, 2023

What would you do if famous biblical figures or even God appeared to you in your living room, or at your kitchen table, bedroom, or garage?  If you were Peter, James, or John, you’d set up a tent—which sounds pretty lame to us.  We’d think of something more apropos for our time—“let me fix you some nice dinner,” “get you a bottle of beer or glass of wine,” or potato chips and dip.  We’d be thrown off guard trying our best to be cordial, friendly, or welcoming.

The scenario Matthew sketches is one in which Jesus is with those 3 apostles when Moses and Elijah appear (along with God’s voice in a cloud from heaven). Well, knowing the theology you do, right away you recognize some themes in this story that are common in scripture.  Right away you notice the event takes place on a mountain (where all sorts of great events take place in scripture).  Plus, since you know that Matthew is writing his gospel for a Jewish audience, you understand why he has Moses and Elijah appear.  These 2 men are heroic in the Hebrew scripture—with Moses the giver of the law and Elijah representing all the prophets from of old.  His audience will tune in right away to hearing their names mentioned in association with Jesus.

The lectionary has us read about Abraham.  So just as Jesus becomes the new law and new prophet—fulfills and eclipsing what Moses and Elijah represent—so does Abraham’s story go beyond the experiences that were reported in Genesis before his appearance.  Earlier in Genesis, we read about the fall of Adam and Eve, the killing of Abel by Cain, the flood, and the building of the Tower of Babel.  These stories report the human capacity to err, to make mistakes, to go against what God intended—or in the words of theology, to “sin.”

With the story of Abraham, we hear a story of how one man (Abraham) reverses what Adam’s progeny did, and cooperated with God.  At Babel, people said they’d make their name great by building a monument to themselves, but in the story of Abraham we hear GOD say that Abraham’s name will be made great by the hand of God!  And so it came to pass that Babel was destroyed . But the names of Abraham and Sarah became great by the action of God.  They have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  The rest of the Bible tells the story of what became of these people—telling of their lawgivers (like Moses) and prophets (like Elijah) leading to God’s son, Jesus—the greatest law giver and prophet.

Meanwhile, back on the mountain, we return to the story of Peter wanting to build 3 tents, and a voice from heaven saying Jesus is God’s son.  Keep in mind that Isaac is the son of Abraham just as Jesus is the son of God—both boys being miracles from God.  Jesus represents the long line of descendants who are Jews, Christians, and Muslims (the so-called “Abrahamic religions”).  Hence the children born of Isaac are the beginning of that line (to which we belong).  You can see why it is “sinful” for you and me to be “anti-semetic” and call Jews and Muslims names.  That behavior isn’t just discourteous, bit it is also oddly weird—because these people we “hate” are OUR RELATIVES in the faith!!!  What sense does that make?

Again, back on the mountain, recall a technical word that’s part of our theological vocabulary is “theophany”—which means “an appearance of God.”  Throughout scripture, when something profound occurs, it takes place on a mountain (as in Jesus giving his “sermon on the mount”).  His places are considered holy places, as when God gave the 10 commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  You can see all these themes blended together in Matthew’s account of this transfiguration” (referring to the change of appearance for Jesus).

The disciples see him in a new way—a glorified way with God’s stamp (or word) of approval, and in this blending, we see scripture pointing to you and me here today  at the altar.  Huh?  You wonder.

Look at our altar elevated above the floor into a kind of mountain top—with a sacred spot (altar) whereon Jesus appears—calling us together to gather around him.  Yup!  Each Sunday we have the “transfiguration” re-enacted.  You and I bring our history to the altar (from Adam and Eve onward)—our good, bad, and indifferent behaviors throughout life.  And you and I are SUPPOSED to get the affirmation each week of God saying or whispering to your heart “You are my beloved one—in whom I am well pleased” (pleased that you are here—ready and willing to continue your pilgrimage forward).

You and I might want to preserve these moments of affirmation when we feel purposeful and in control of our lives—but Jesus says to us (as he said in the gospel), we need to go down off the mountain.  We are called to bring our experience of affirmation and be a word of life and new beginnings to others.  As parishioner Michele Bell said: —-“The glorious mountaintop experiences only better prepare us for the valleys that await.”

March 5, 2023

We’ve entered the season of Lent, and have 40 days for prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.  So say guidelines in all sorts of Christian literature—that doesn’t really translate very well for you and me.  Why 40 days, why those 3 behaviors, what do these words mean?

First of all, the number 40 appears throughout the Bible.  Recall Noah holding an umbrella as it rained for 40 days?  What happened when the rain stopped and he could leave the ark?  A new creation presented itself to him and his family.  A new beginning!  They could start over.

And remember the 40 years in the desert once the Israelites escaped slavery and the Pharaoh’s Egyptian army?  They struggled from oasis to oasis and finally made it to the “promised land.”  A new life for them, and new beginning.  Or today’s reading which has Jesus in the desert (like the Israelites) praying and fasting—and coming forth to confront Satan’s temptations—and telling the demon to go back to hell.

And so it is with us.  We begin a 40-day called “Lent” (which means springtime).  Just as 40 signifies experiences of new life and rebirth, so we hope to emerge with new strength and with a new beginning—leaving our past behind.

A humorous element of our Lenten history is that our ancestors also abstained from eating meat.  However, Germans in the 1100s decided that they could eat the tail of a beaver!! Why? Because it “looked like” a fish and swam in water.  When Vatican 2 reduced Lenten rules of fast and abstinence, it placed on our shoulders the responsibility of making our Lenten practice more meaningful.  For example, if you’re a vegetarian, what do you care if people are abstaining from meat?  You could observe the letter of the law and not eat meat—but what meaning is there in avoiding something you already avoid?  Fasting laws (found globally in different religions) are intended to hone one’s consciousness on spiritual issues.  Vegetarians, by abstaining from meat, are not sharpening their spirituality at all.  Fast and abstinence are practices you might adopt and contour to areas of your life that need attention—about which you can talk to God (prayer).

As for the gospel reading, it once again presents us with a similarity to another gospel—Luke’s.  They say the same thing verbatim about the Satan tempting Jesus.  Matthew’s order of the temptations is different, but its content the same.  Scholars say Mt, Mk, and Lk used the same source—perhaps a document floating around that simply had quote of Jesus.  These evangelists then structured stories around the Jesus quotes.  Eventually, the source document wasn’t needed because the gospels contained what it had.  Or so goes the speculation.

Interesting, too, is the appearance of a “Satan” character in Genesis AND in Matthew.  Curiously, however, is that in the Hebrew book of Genesis, the serpent named Satan is NOT a demon.  In the oral literature of all ancient cultures, there were animals who talked.  In this pre-Israelite story of a talking snake named Satan, he is what you might think of as an attorney-prosecutor who is good at making arguments (recall he’s described as “cunning”—which isn’t demonic).  He’s able to argue with Eve about God telling them not to eat the fruit (notice that no specific fruit is mentioned—so our tradition of an “apple” is non-scriptural).  Satan is a convincing speaker—and Adam stands there silently as his wife falls prey to the con-man snake.

The story is filled with lessons for its hearers.  It’s a kind of primitive “Psychology 101” course on human behavior.  For example, we’re told what is righteous behavior by our God—yet we are easily victimized by someone who is able to convince us to act contrary to God.   And we’re easily deceived—making us “naked” before people who can manipulate us easily (i.e., a snake can persuade you to act a certain way but God CAN’T???? Yikes!  How gullible is that?).  Plus, Eve (us) knows there’s strength in numbers—so getting Adam to join her brainless behavior might work to her advantage if God gets ticked off.

We want a friend like Adam to “share” our “airhead” point of view—so we enlist people like him to join us (again, as with all scripture—you and I ARE these characters in some way at some time in our lives). Think of occasions in life where you equivalently say to someone “Join me in doing this deed, avoiding this person, bullying that person, cheating that customer; after all, everyone is doing it.”  We give the fruit to our silent friend (voiceless Adam who stands for NOTHING by simply being a character who listens to the argument and goes along with Eve).  Big mistake.  They pay for going contrary to how God instructed them to behave.  Actions, or inaction, have consequences!!

So the poor snake in Genesis has got a bad rap from Christians (since Jewish people never thought of the snake as a demon in their tradition—and after all, it was THEIR sacred literature before it was ours, too).  However, some 1400 (or so) years after Genesis, Matthew’s world had adopted the notion of angels and demons all over the place.  In writing his gospel, Matthew portrayed Jesus as facing Satan after his prayerful fast of 40 days (with all the association “40” had for his Jewish audience).

Historically, when Alexander the Great conquered the world and went to Persia, he encountered a religion that still exists today, viz., Zoroastrianism.  Soldiers brought back with them stories about demons and angels—stories from this religion.  Gradually, they made their way into the stories/thinking of people in Israelite territory.  You can Google the Internet and find the names of many angels, but Catholicism/scripture only refers to Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.  All the other “angel names” are from Zoroastrianism and other religions.

The 3 temptations of Jesus should sound familiar.  He represents you and me.  When he’s weak from fasting, and at a low point physically/emotionally—here come the challenges, temptations, or urges to be self-satisfied and self-centered.  Or will Jesus/you/me be the opposite of Adam and stand for something?

When Jesus says we “do not live on bread alone,” he’s reminding you and me to have a faith practice that speaks to our hearts and motivates us beyond the narrow vision we all tend to have when left to our own thinking.  The prayer and fasting that Jesus did in the desert symbolizes how WE are able to resist the forces that bring us down when we emerge from the outback.  And this is how prayer helps us during Lent (and year round).

The child or adult who has no church practice—acquires a sense of right and wrong and vision from where? Family? Moral instruction from where? Knowledge about their religious tradition from where?  The values of Wall Street?  The values of an economic world that is predatory?  The values of acquiring whatever you can for yourself—and let others fend for themselves?  Demons suggest in reasonable ways how YOU can make it in the world and survive.  And we easily fall for the allure of freshly baked bread that promises to satisfy the diverse hungers we have in a materialistic world.  There are many “breads” in the world that are actually, as the gospel states—just lifeless stones.

Life is filled with many mirages of what we hear referred to as “the good life.”  Wouldn’t you just love to win the lottery?  Then we’d have it made.  We’d have our own kingdom of gold and silver.  Just like the pro athletes who get millions of dollars in contracts.  Often enough, the athlete ends up in poverty.   The glitter of gluttony is what they and Jesus were offered by the seductive snakes of society.  Remember Eden.  The snake presented itself as someone worth listening to—and one who offered good advice.  And so, evil does not come at you and me as a monser/Dracula/Frankenstein—but as someone whose presence casts appeal.

Wealth is tantalizing to us.  It can, in fact, produce good for people.  But with most of the world in poverty, American children going to bed hungry, and health needs not being met—you can see that we humans do not handle wealth as God intended.  We eat the fruit of a tree we’ve been told to avoid—the tree of self-centeredness.

The third and related temptation is “almsgiving” during Lent.  Yes, it refers to giving financial assistance to the needy—such as Catholic Relief Services  (N.B., we still have about 40k to collect for Christ’s Mission Appeal).  Almsgiving is the third area of reflection we are called to consider.  In short, Lent asks us to honestly ask what we’re doing with our treasure, time, and talent.

Each of us has been blest by God with different gifts—so what are we doing with them?  The basic idea of these reflections is to address the issue captured in the maxim: Evil flourishes when good people do nothing.  Lent asks us “What are you doing as God’s child—as a disciple of Jesus?”

A season of gray calling us to get in touch with our blues—

Learn how to turn our water into wine.

February 26, 2023

Some people want short homilies.  Some want homilies that educate them about some passages in scripture—and they don’t care how long it goes.  Some people don’t want to hear a homily at all—and so get agitated if mass is more than a half hour long.  Some people prefer a “sermon”—which is not a homily.  A sermon can be about any topic under the sun, but a homily usually follows a prescribed reading from scripture that their church publishes.  Overall, a homily is supposed to inform listeners about what the scripture passage is saying to the audience for which it was intended in the first century—and the second part of a homily is supposed to show listeners how that first century writing applies to us today.

Some people will say that a homily should not be more than 3 minutes, or 5 minutes, or 8 minutes.  Would these same people want their heart surgeon to sit through 5 minute classes of instruction?  Some clergy want short homilies or sermons, too.  This is, unfortunately, due their priorities being mixed up.  Preparing a good service requires time and energy—and skill—which some ordained people simply do not have.  Many clergy resort to reading a homily they get in the mail from a homily service.  All they are required to do is read.

Meanwhile, there are—choose the word you prefer—charlatans, con men/women, snake oil salesmen, charismatic wolves in sheep’s clothing, and predators of all ages and backgrounds—who are able to find a flock of gullible followers—and fleece them. A film entitled “Marjoe” from many years back reported the story of young Marjoe Gortner—whose parents raised him to be a little boy preacher—all a scam.  Adults saw the little boy and thought he was filled with grace from God.  They dug deep into their pockets so that the little boy’s ministry could carry on, and Marjoe became rich over the years.  We humans can really be taken advantage of.

I’m reminded of this fact of life when reading Matthew’s gospel, and the passages we’ve been given the past couple of weeks.  In order to fully appreciate what is being said in these verses, one needs to have a commentary—a biblical theologian’s guide to understanding a text.  Otherwise, you or I could read scripture and become a second David Koresh.  He was the handsome preacher of a group that called themselves the “Branch Davidians”—a group named after people they thought were mentioned in the bible.  Koresh “instructed” his followers at “bible studies” and eventually led them to their death at Waco, Texas in the 1990s.  One needs to be careful when reading scripture—as they can draw wrong conclusions from it that weren’t intended by the authors.

Last week, I noted how people took the words “fiery Gehenna” from scripture and concluded it was Jesus preaching about hell—a place of torment, on fire, where we might go if we led a bad life.  This image of “hell” was not taught by Jesus, but was a misinterpretation of what Gehenna was (a one-time place of child sacrifice for non-Israelites and where people later dumped their garbage). Moreover, in these weeks we’ve been reading “the sermon on the mount”—a classic piece of literature known to both Christians and non-Christians. Reading Matthew, one gets the impression that Jesus gathered a large crowd and he instructed it while on a knoll overlooking the masses.  Others, however, might read the gospel of Luke and find the words of Jesus addressed to people on flat ground—and Luke would have fewer references to the Hebrew bible which, in Matthew’s gospel, were numerous.  Why these discrepancies?

First of all, we know that Luke and Matthew wrote at different times, and each to a different type of listener/reader.  Key within Matthew—which you should always remember when reading something from “Matthews Gospel”—is that he is writing to a Jewish audience.  He is converting them to a new understanding of the Torah and Hebrew scriptures as a whole.  Unlike Luke (who is writing to Gentiles, or non-Jews), Matthew is trying to diplomatically and intelligently show his listeners that Jesus is “fulfilling” the Old Law—not destroying it.  In last week’s reading and this week’s, when we hear Jesus say “You have heard it said that . . .”—Jesus is alluding to what we call “Old Testament” material (Jews call it the Hebrew Bible—since they do not read our New Testament books—but just their own, or what we call the “Old” Testament).

This week’s reading shows Jesus take Hebrew Scripture and expand its meaning. For example, what classic legal literature refers to as the “lex talionis” or “Law of retaliation” is more commonly known by the phrase “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  What this means, legally/morally, is that a punishment must fit the crime—and not allow vengeance to rule the day.  If someone knocks out your eye or tooth, you can knock out their eye or tooth.  This is found in the Old Testament and in other cultures around the world.  An alternative law that I ran across within a tribal setting is to say to the aggrieved party: “Dry the tears of the family you have wronged.”  It’s then up to both families to determine what will be appropriate compensation for the killing of someone, dishonoring someone, stealing from someone, or any wrong perpetrated against them.

The point Jesus makes is not just to give equal payback, but to rise above the natural vengeance we feel.  That’s the same point he makes when saying “turn the other cheek.”  He’s not just saying for someone to back down, or be a pansy, but to avoid anything resembling “getting back” at someone.  It was a first century custom to dishonor someone by ritually insulting them with a slap on the cheek with the hand you do your cleaning.  Jesus is EXPANDING the Old Law and saying to rise above insults—and offer another cheek.   Show people that you’re above dishonoring.

Much of this counsel is pure pragmatism on the part of Jesus.  Namely, avoiding vengeful behavior avoids what always follows from it—MORE vengeance committed by the people at whom you’re lashing out.  Similarly, he echoes what the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures said, i.e., “love your neighbor.”  But wait!

That command is found in the Old Testament BUT—“neighbor” referred there to your Israelite neighbor—and not people outside your ethnic group.  Jesus expands this to be more inclusive—“neighbor” referring to people of every nationality. That’s why scripture has Jesus ask “what’s so great about loving your family members —even great sinners do that!”  Once again, Jesus is trying to expand our identity to how God intended it.  We are relatives to EVERYONE.  So we’re hearing again the Christian DUTY to respect people whose skin color and language and cultural ways are different from your own.

More pragmatism is at play when Jesus says to settle your business so as to avoid going to court and airing your grievances in public.  This sort of public display can only bring accusatory or unsettling glances or distrust among the public.  And of particular relevance to avoiding violence and supporting peaceful protest, you have Jesus say to “go the extra mile.”  You and I totally miss the deeper meaning of this statement—and so tend to simply think of the statement as Jesus encouraging us to be nice to people.  Yes, it’s that—but it’s more, too.  This is another example that shows how a scripture commentary can help you better understand what you’re reading (and not draw incorrect conclusions).

When Jesus was around, the Roman occupied his homeland.  The Romans recruited Jewish mercenaries and a soldier could tell a citizen to carry his equipment. However, the citizen could only carry it one mile.  To carry it further would be a violation of the law—and get the soldier in trouble.  The Romans knew they were not popular with the local population, so they didn’t want to add more fuel to this fire of frustration among the citizenry.  So the Romans didn’t want to see soldiers burden people with servitude.  Jesus is showing his followers how they can non-violently get soldiers reprimanded, irritate Roman authorities, and be remunerated for the injustice.  So he’s telling his followers to “go the extra mile” in order to pester the occupiers of their land—and hopefully leave the area.

Remember, too, that Matthew’s sermon on the mount was Luke’s sermon on the plain.  Scholars think Matthew and Luke had a list of “sayings” of Jesus which they put together into a gospel.  Recall that all 4 gospels were written in different decades of the first century—and so addressed changing times (the “sayings” tailored to those circumstances which Jesus is portrayed as addressing).  e.g., Matthew quotes the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures more than any other gospel—BECAUSE he was addressing Jewish converts to Christianity.  He wanted to show them the connection, and not the separation, between the Old and the New.  As last week’s readings have shown, he has Jesus say: “You’ve heard it said” (in the Old Testament) “but I say to you” (the New Testament expansion of the Old).  So whenever you read Matthew, always look for a Jewish resonance within the material (whereas Luke’s has a Gentile focus).

The great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner, said that 2 of the 3 pivotal moments in Church history took place in the first century.  The 3rd was Vatican Council II, organized by Pope John the 23rd.  Think of it—2000 years of NON-pivotal moments until “Vatican 2.”  Its emphasis was to make the Church “universal” (a word that means ‘Catholic’). That is, he sought to de-Europeanize the Church, take it out of its archaic Roman ways, and be open to new thinking, new ways of “being in the modern world.”

Unfortunately, no institution (or person) finds change easy to do.  All sorts of resistance took place to changes that were proposed (such as having countries do the mass in their native language).  The Italian tradition since the time of Jesus was to have everything done in Latin (the language of the empire that executed Jesus).  Most Cardinals were European when Vatican 2 began in 1962—with a few Americans and others.  Most were Italian (whose mother tongue was rooted in  Latin —see the connection to not changing anything?).

To this day, over 60 years after the Council, resistance to change still hampers innovative or creative thinking.  Some clergy refer to themselves and their lay friends as “restorationists”—those who seek to “restore” what was lost when Vatican 2 made so many changes.  Being a “restorationist,” and serving longer than any pope in history, John Paul 2 tried to re-create the church of his youth.  As a result, throughout the Catholic world you see people divided into progressive Catholics and “restorationists” Catholics (lay and clergy).

I mention this because Matthew’s gospel this week is an example of what we contend with today in the Church.  He tried to get first-century Jews to “be born again” into the freshest version of their fathers’ faith, and become perhaps the only bible someone ever reads.  So in thinking of yourself as a post-Vatican 2 Catholic, think of yourself as a kind of second St. Matthew —an evangelist in your own way—called to make a difference in the world on behalf of what the man from Galilee brought afresh to his family’s faith tradition.

February 19, 2023

Today’s gospel has a name in it that has a rich history.  Namely, Jesus basically says that if we don’t follow his teachings, we deserve to be thrown into “fiery Gehenna.”  Generations of Christians have understood his words to be a reference to hell.  Dante’s Inferno is the Italian classic that was written centuries after the time of Jesus, and it set in stone the widespread understanding of hell being a place of eternal punishment by fire.  An alternative name for “hell” became “Gehenna.”  But what DID Jesus mean by referring to fiery Gehenna?

Before the Israelites became dominant in the region, there were other people with other gods.  Non-Israelites, it appears, practiced child sacrifice to their gods Moloch and Baal.  The area where these sacrifices took place was Gehenna, and so was associated with death and killing and behavior that was not a trait of Israelites tradition (although you see a vestige of the practice in Abraham thinking he should sacrifice Isaac which God stopped).

Keep in mind that human history is filled with behaviors that are irrational or misguided (such as child sacrifice).  With the rise of instant communication, people can read materials or be told something which stirs their fears—and so are led to believe aliens from outer space are going to attack, or take us to their planet.  Some of this material has sophisticated technology presenting people who appear to be knowledgeable of some subject but who are “snake oil salesmen” (i.e., con men).  Viewers are led to believe all kinds of “propaganda” (information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular point of view).

I’m reminded of child sacrifices around the world.  At some point, someone plants an idea among a few people, and the idea spreads.  Voila!  It’s a good idea to sacrifice children because the spirits or gods want it done.  In my field of anthropology, scholars have long encountered people who interpret land-forms as alien flight paths, or the remains of giant ancestors.  One by one, the propaganda of con artists gets blown out of the water.  Our tendency to believe anything validates the expression “a sucker is born every minute.”

Sadly, people can be persuaded to believe what 99% of the population realistically considers absurd.  In the past, I cited the example of Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite who convinced their followers to commit mass suicide.  In the political arena, there was the man who shot up a pizza parlor because he heard on a podcast that children were being slaughtered there by Democrats in order to collect certain chemicals in adolescent bodies.  This is bizarre thinking, but it is believed by people like congresswoman Green who said Jewish billionaires were causing fires in California via laser beams.   As I mentioned last week, this type of political rhetoric is the same kind that was used in Nazi Germany when it pointed at the Jewish population for causing problems in Germany.

The gospel sure is needed by a world that is prone to offering human sacrifices, murdering millions of one or another ethnic group (the Hutu and Tutsi killing one another in Rwanda in the 90’s, and believing a big lie (and small ones) that Hitler said could be sold to people if it is repeated often. I had a video which had people join a cult for CBS hidden cameras, and they admitted that the cult leader was so manipulative of people that even they—after a while in the community—thought they might believe the earth is flat if they continued their infiltration.  Naturally, the cult leader had people sign over their life savings to him when they joined the group.  For those who were patriotic, he claimed to be George Washington in a previous life—and people believed him!

Israel apparently had enough of Moloch and Baal worship in the area, so they preserved a tradition of NOT making human sacrifice.  However, Matthew had a tough time converting his fellow Jews to the new teaching that Jesus preached.  This was because his audience was Jewish, and they fear that Jesus had come to abolish “the Law.”  How could they abandon the 10 commandments given to them on Mt. Sinai?

Remember that the 4 gospels weren’t written in 1 year, but were written by 4 different people (at least) in 4 different decades—to audiences that had different “issues” they needed to address.  Thus, Matthew’s Jesus had to show his fellow Jews that he had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

In this week’s reading, for example, Jesus says “you have heard your ancestors say not to kill, commit adultery, steal, etc.” BUT I SAY—and he expands the teaching.  Voila—the Jesus Matthew pitches to the Jews is a fellow Israelite who has come to clarify the Torah, and all of the Hebrew scriptures.  They needn’t see him as a threat—but as a prophet calling them to greater union with the God of their ancestors.

Think of us saying on any given day that we “haven’t done anything bad.”  We’ve not killed anyone, or violated any laws of the covenant.  HOWEVER, maybe our problem is our LACK of doing something.  The commandments and Old Testament gave us a skeletal structure for living our faith and the New Testament puts flesh on those bones.  That is, we might not have COMMITTED any “sinful” behavior, but maybe we’ve OMITTED doing something that Jesus is calling us to do.

From my own life, here’s an example.  When I was moderator of the Jesuit honor society, I wanted to have those students be known for doing something special—since they were the “cream of the crop” within the school.  A woman colleague suggested I have them collect food at Easter to give to the poor.  Okay, that seemed decent for starters.  But then I had in class the president of a chain of grocery stores, and asked him if the honor students could pick up food from his stores.  Long story short is that we ended up going to a number of stores each day of each week and taking the haul to the Catholic Neighborhood Center.  The hungry of the area were fed—and during the summer, University employees subbed for students.

On another occasion, I found a box turtle crossing the road.  Fascinated by turtles all my life, I put him in my campus garden and, over time, had 12 adults and many box turtle eggs that hatched into babies.  I started this turtle sanctuary because box turtles were disappearing—and this my way of trying to be part of the solution.  When I left Wheeling, I contacted a nearby university that operated a zoo program, and gave them the turtles to use for instruction.

Those are 2 examples I draw from my life which illustrate how I, for one, tried to flesh out my Christian identity.  Setting up these projects was no easy task, and I didn’t have 20-20 vision in doing any of the organizing.  These 2 small successes were a labor that helped ME be a better person.  I expanded the 10 commandments of my teaching contract to include something more, something greater, something in line with what Jesus said in scripture today.  “Mike, you have heard it said that you are required to teach well at the university, but I say to you—feed the hungry and take care of the turtles in need.”

Scripture doesn’t say those words, but that’s how I applied scripture to what arose in everyday campus life.  And so, what arises in everday life with you?  It’s different for each of us—but it’s God’s call to you.  A personal call that will help you become a better person.

It might be something like praying the rosary every day for someone or some issue, or it might be doing some parish involvement, or community work, or ?????  what?  Listen for the call of God.

The Sioiux Indian word for “child” is “wakan haycha.”  It means “sacred gift.” As I told you last week, mass is a time when we listen for God’s loving voice asking us “how’s it going?”  You could picture God’s arm around your shoulder in asking you to share your thoughts.

God wants to hear what you, God’s sacred gift to the world, is doing with your life.

February 12, 2023

When Jesus was a young boy, he’d help his parents get the oven ready to cook dinner.  This entailed his collecting dry dung patties which he and his playmates made from donkey and camel droppings.  Like American India did with bison, and people from Indian still do with cattle, dung fuel can be used like we use charcoal briquettes.  So picture Jesus putting these patties in the oven ALONG WITH slabs of salt.  This was used to moderate the flames—so that what was cooking would not burn up (salt apparently being a kind of muffler for fire and smoke—so I’m told).

When the salt was not doing its job, Joseph might shout to Jesus and ask him to throw out the old salt, and put some new salt in the oven with the patties.  Gradually, as with our stoves today, the fire that would get the heat to 350 or 425 Fahrenheit (or whatever degree they thought best).  And along would come Mary, and bake a pizza for everyone (or something they liked to eat in the metropolis of Nazareth).

Joseph would probably point to where Jesus should throw out the old salt.  Often enough, it would be in the road—so that one could have decent footing when the rains came and made walking in mud a slippery challenge.  Salt was, therefore, a catalyst, or trigger, that helped the fire do its job—and was responsible for a good meal being cooked perfectly by Mary.

No wonder it’s a compliment for someone to describe someone as the “salt of the earth.”  Such a soul is one who, like salt, makes things happen, adds taste to life’s banquet, and gives us stability in the shifting sands of life.  No wonder, too, that salt was used as currency by the Roman empire—its soldiers paid with salt (a word at the heart of “salary”).  Not only this, but salt was also used by farmers to fertilize crops—salt apparently protective of roots.

Jesus used a neat metaphor to describe the spirit of an apostle.  They (we) are “the salt of the earth.”  Wielding such value, our lives are consecrated to God (at baptism).   The book of Leviticus says: “. . . with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

Jesus, however, doesn’t stop using figurative language.  He also calls his followers “light” and “a city set on a mountain top.”  Hmm  What’s he getting at?  And why?

First of all, notice that he says you ARE salt, a city on a mountain top, and light.  I’m reminded of this past week’s honoring what’s called the “presentation in the temple” (i.e., Joseph and Mary, as dutiful Jews, bringing their baby boy to the Temple and, being poor, could only offer 2 pigeons—instead of a lamb and birds).   You were “presented,” too, when you were young—in church at the baptismal font.  There you were consecrated and were made salt of the earth and light to the world—revealing your Christian identity like a city on a mountain top.  When it comes to Christian witness, there’s no being a wall flower.

With the gospel telling us that our Christian identity isn’t in name only, but in how we live our lives, our position on racism should be clear.  If  you interact with people who are big into “white” nationalism or supremacy, — those identities are not Christian.  It’s good old fashioned prejudice and racism when elected politicians say that wealthy Jewish people sent laser beams to California to start fires.

I grew up watching WW2 documentaries and as a young boy thought “It sure is good the human race learned its lesson about hate speech and hate-behavior. I couldn’t imagine people walking that road ever again.  And yet, hate-peddlers are everywhere.  I recall a paper presented at a Civil War conference and a presentation said that wealthy plantation owners were able to enlist poor, uneducated white boys into rebellion—based on the fear that free Blacks, if released from slavery, would take the few low-paying jobs that were available to poor whites.  Slave owners were the only ones who benefitted since they’d pay zilch wages to poor white workers (up to the present day).

When I hear anti-Semitic language directed at Jewish people, I think of “family” members we called “aunt” and “uncle” who had been in a Nazi concentration camp.  Both had tattoos on their arms—as done to inmates at the camps.  They somehow escaped being put to death.  Thankfully, they influenced my young mind and social morality.  And who is influencing your children and grandchildren?  Bigots and bullies?  Misinformed and misguided malcontents?  Or people rooted in the gospel?

When each of us was baptized, family members and others expressed affection for us.    These were expressions of thanks to God (and parents) for us little ones. This was an initial way of us being told that we are the salt of the earth, light for the world, and a city on a mountain top that should be seen by all.  We were ritually informed, as were our parents and family members, that we were a very special blessing from God.

As we know, time has taken its toll on us bundles of joy, and left us with bumps and bruises and scars along the way.  The little angel fresh from heaven that we once were—doesn’t look quite the same.  We’ve also incurred some interior hurts along the way.  We can think of blessings we’ve received but over time we tend to see life as going by quickly, and we wonder if our salt has any strength left in it.  Can we season anything?  Have we ever positively seasoned anything?

When we come to mass, it’s common for us to somehow say to God that we need help.  In fact, it’s important when you come to mass—to listen for God’s loving voice saying to you—in the most caring voice you can imagine: “How’s it going?”  Those words are what God asks us—and God is sincere in asking.  In fact, God’s voice to you at mass—along with saying “How’s it going?”  also tries to make you hear “You’re the salt of the earth!  You’re a light!  You’re a city on a mountain top that should be seen by all!  That’s why I created you.”

It doesn’t matter how you got your scars or bruises.  God’s words don’t dwell on the mis-steps you’ve made, but on the potential you were given at birth, affirmed in baptism, and reminded of in scripture, the sacraments, and prayer.  Try your best at mass to listen for a loving voice say “How’s it going?”  God is initiating a conversation with us—which we call prayer.  Report what’s been happening and how you feel.  God’s response to whatever you say will always be an affirmation.

February 5, 2023

Paul refers to his first-century Christian audience as people of “the Way” since they were followers of Jesus—who referred to himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

We also read from Acts that Saul/Paul was knocked to the ground and found himself in darkness—looking for the light.  Hmm.  Does that sound like the familiar language that we use even today?  That is, we’re in the dark looking for light?

The well-known story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is NOT something strange or foreign to our experience.  Rather, as with the bible as a whole, we can identify with each person in each story in some way.  Maybe you’ve known someone, for example, whose life was just not working out as they had hoped.  Maybe the person was you, or a friend or family member.  There comes a day when the person just can’t continue doing what they’ve been doing.  They have to change their life script.

And so it was with Saul—whose conversion on the road to Damascus was perhaps an experience that was playing havoc with his mind/spirit/body for some time.  Maybe his persecution of Christians was similar to Nazis in the 2nd World War who hunted down Jewish children and adults.  People like Saul and some Nazis—could no longer live with themselves. They could not carry on business as usual!

We tend to think of the Damascus experience as some sort of God-intervention with Saul and magically transforming him into one dynamite apostle.  No! Instead look at Saul’s blindness and face in the dirt as YOUR wasted experience and confrontation with reality.  Namely, you were going nowhere in continuing down the roads you’ve taken.  This was the same experience that St. Ignatius had, and that others had, too.

I’m especially reminded of some AA friends.  2 men at my parish in the Soo had good lives and good families as young men.  Then alcohol got the best of them—and they led lives that ruined the lives of their kids, their wives, and themselves.  These men who had once known “the good life”—were in the gutter (“where the bottom seemed like up to them”).  Staring upward and crying for the light in their darkness, my friends found their way to an AA meeting—and the rest is history.  In following the 12 step program, they became (in the words of Jesuit spirituality) “men for others.”  When someone needed help—they were there to provide it.  They were the best men a parish could have—a real blessing to the priest (me) and others.

As for today’s gospel, we have what has been known for centuries as Matthew’s account of “the sermon on the mount.”  What’s humorous and interesting about this well-known incident is that there was neither a “mount” nor a “sermon” in reality (or so the bible exegets tell us).  While books have been written on the “beatitudes” sermon, here’s why an issue even exists.  Namely, while Matthew speaks of a mountain, Luke speaks of a plains setting.  Also, Matthew gives 8 or 9 beatitudes while Luke only gives 3 or 4 (had Luke fallen asleep?  Had Matthew thrown in a few of his own?)

Recall that scholars tell us that Matthew’s audience was a Jewish one (citing the Hebrew scriptures far more than any of the other  gospels). Profoundly, Matthew presents in the beatitudes scenario a new man on a mountain getting instructions from God to give to the people.  How’s that, you may ask.  Well, Matthew’s crowded mountainside reminds people of Mt. Sinai where 10 laws were given to Moses and the Israelites long ago.  Hence we have in Jesus a new Moses giving a new Law.

Did Luke’s few beatitudes occur because his tape recorder batteries wore out? No, his audience was primarily composed of Gentiles—so he didn’t need to construct a new Mt. Sinai, new Moses, and new Commandments.  The gospels of Mark and John don’t have a mountain or plains account of beatitudes.  But even this omission provides us with reflection material.

It allows us to take time and reflect on who, exactly, has been (or is) “honorable” (the meaning of “beatitude” in the time of Jesus).  You and I could take time to compose a list of “honorable” whose life-blessing we have received in some way.  For example:

I’ve tried and failed in life–blessed are the triers.

Blessed are the doers.

Blessed are they who struggle.

Blessed are they who are lonely.

Blessed are the inviters.

Blessed are cats and dogs who bring smiles to our face. 

Blessed are the anxious.

Blessed are the experts who seek truthful answers.

Blessed are they who provide love and encouragement.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for encouragement.

Blessed are those who forget and who try to remember to share with us.

Blessed are the drivers, those who navigate buses, those who navigate carpool.

Blessed are those who come from afar to live and make a contribution with their life.

Blessed are the dishwashers, the cooks, and those who do the grocery shopping.

Blessed are the organizers, those who make copies, and those who advertise events.

Blessed are the workers who work an 8 hour day in positions that make society function. 

Blessed are the teachers who correct reading and spelling mistakes, those who grade, and the students whose minds need their assistance.

Blessed are the tutors, the aides, the after-school workers, and all those who provide extra help.

Blessed are the cleaners, those who organize, those who sanitize, and those who polish.

Blessed are the administrators, and those seeking employment.

Blessed are those who give of their time, their prayers, and their money to make the world a little extra welcoming for all of us who need to feel valued.  

And so it goes.  There are beatitudes everywhere, but we pass them by or take them for granted.  Take a few moments to reflect on the people, the natural world, and all that you use each day, and thank God for these blessings.  if we look in the mirror, try to hear God say “I made you to be a blessing for others.”

January 29, 2023

In Chinese folk tradition, we begin this week the “year of the rabbit.”  The Chinese zodiac associates different animals with different years—2023 being with the rabbit, and the rabbit symbolizes prosperity, abundance, and fertility.  One who is born this year of the rabbit is said to be gentle, quiet, humble, courteous, and meticulous.  Cultures the world over have these sorts of systems—and there sure isn’t anything wrong with living up to the virtues of the rabbit.

Mateo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who “enculturated” Catholicism when he lived in China and when he became a friend of the Emperor.  Sadly, Rome told Ricci to keep the Latin forms of liturgy and prayer—and NOT adapt Catholicism into Chinese religious modes.  Many think that China has so few Christians today because of the ethnocentrism of Italian Cardinals and popes who insisted that their cultural expression of the gospel be the sole face of Catholicism.  This became known as the “rites controversy” in the Church.

Adapting Christianity to local conditions has been a challenge since its founding.  Recall how Jews didn’t want to mix with Gentiles (and vice-versa).   And today’s letter to the Corinthians has Paul trying to tell the people that they shouldn’t divide their loyalty to one Christian teacher over another—because they are all ONE people.  This is the same lesson from last Sunday’s readings—from Isaiah (when he says the Messiah is coming to ALL people—and not just “God’s chosen people—the Jews”).  Recall that in the Grecian city of Corinth, there was a long tradition of philosophers with their different philosophies—and Paul was trying to tell them that they really only needed the one great philosopher (Jesus) with the one great philosophy (the gospels).

And this week’s gospel reading sets forth another interesting issue within our tradition.  Namely, when reading John’s gospel, you’re reading about a Jesus who was baptizing when John the Baptist was doing his work.  But then we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and learn that John the Baptist was dead when Jesus was baptizing. Hmm. Doesn’t the gospel say what it means and means what it says?  People make such a statement—and they’re correct—in a way.  That is, the different gospels need to be seen as different portrayals of Jesus which have him addressing issues that were current at the time of each gospel.  For example, Mark was writing to a persecuted community (Nero was killing Christians).  Matthew was concerned with keeping his Jewish converts to Christianity, etc.

When we were growing up, and probably in many churches today, the “call of the apostles” reading tended to be described for us as a call to being a priest or brother or nun.  That’s okay, or a valid application of the passage, but there’s more.  For example, it’s kind of a peculiar reading—no?  After all, if some stranger passed you in downtown Saginaw (or any city), you’d probably walk fast to avoid them.  Instead, this reading has the apostle drop what they’re doing and “follow” him to become fishers of people.

That’s a nice thought, but what was the reality?  Might the fishermen have seen Jesus at the synagogue?  Heard him speak?  Engaged in conversation with him?   In that period of Jewish history, people didn’t go to synagogue on Friday night thru Saturday to observe the Sabbath.  They instead visited the synagogue any day, or days, of the week they wished to visit.  They’d pray, speak to people, give a sermon, read scripture, etc.—so Jesus probably knew these fishermen—and these were guys who liked what he said.  When he passed by them on the shore of Galilee asking them to “Follow,” they were ready to go.  He probably knew these men and asked them to be part of his group.  This was a common practice in the first century (enlisting men to join in one’s grievances).

So this scene is not foreign to our experience—and his “call of the apostles” isn’t the exotic, mysterious drama it might seem to be.  I recall when Barack Obama was running for president, some commentator said he met his future wife, Michele, when they were community organizing.  The commentator referred to community organizing in a sarcastic way—making me think that this guy was probably a member of some Christian church—AND DIDN’T KNOW THAT JESUS, TOO, WAS A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER.  He tried to rally people around different causes.   A principle of community organizing is that “in numbers there is strength.”  This was illustrated when Samuel Gompers organized the AFL-CIO or when labor leader from Wheeling WV, Walter Reuther,  led the United Auto Workers.  And so it was with Jesus calling together the first apostles described in today’s gospel.

It appears that Jesus first baptized people, but then came to be adept at healing people.  Recall the scripture that says “some think you are John the Baptist”—probably because he was baptizing.  Initially that may have been the case, but later his art was that of a healer.   In tribal cultures, “casting out demons” was often part of healing—as our ancestors weren’t aware of bacteria or viruses.  They thought an evil spirit was causing one’s problems—something Jesus could address.

With this week’s readings traditionally used in sermons to encourage young people to be a priest or nun, I was reminded of my own vocation being based on God “calling” me through my life experience.  For example, my dad worked for what is today the Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit.  It was, and is, an exclusive hotel which saw my dad hire me as a “house man.”  We would set up weddings, banquets, meetings, and all sorts of social events—me wheeling in tables and chairs for the different occasions.   I’d be in the presence of people in the news, the president, senators, and all sorts of social classes who were able to attend the costly places.

I was reminded of this experience when a Jesuit friend of mine told me that he presided at the wedding of Paul Manafort’s daughter (Manafort being the convicted felon who was Trump’s campaign director—sent to prison and then given a presidential pardon because of their ties).  My friend said that Manafort spent $50,000 for a wall of red roses in the banquet hall of the wedding.  And this week, I saw an episode of the TV series “The Office” which saw characters Jim and Pam at their rehearsal dinner.  At these types of costly affairs, one sees people wear expensive apparel, interact with one another in an alcoholic haze, and orchestrate conversations, body language, and superficial, sexually seductive ways that seemed to define each event as simply the variation on a theme of escapism—people’s retreat ultimately leading them home to the same, lifeless routine that led to waking up early Monday morning to an alarm that reminded one that next weekend would be just as robotic as the one just ended.

As a house man at high society events, I’d wait for the “glitter” to leave the premises, return to their hotel rooms or fine cars, and then turn up the ballroom light full blast in order to take down the tables, chairs, and other fine dinnerware used at the party.  That’s when I’d see what attendees did not.  We’d see the dirty carpeting, the dried-up vomit from a previous event, and overall mess that had, hours earlier, presented itself in low-lights as a heavenly hall.  My older workmates would gulp down the half-consumed alcohol beverages left behind (my comrades working for little pay and seeking some little “perk” for the unpleasant job we did).

These experiences at the hotel, or depicted on TV, or imagining 50 thousand dollars’ worth of red roses being thrown in the trash—moved me to seek something in life that would offer “more” to my spirit—or something that would sustain me after the party lights were turned off.

That’s when I learned about the “Magis.”  This Latin word was used by St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits) to refer to what is at the heart of our daily life.  Translated to mean “the more,” it’s what God/Jesus calls each of us to realize.  Each of us is called to find “the more” we are called to be for others, or to give of ourselves to others.  As I’ve said so many times before, you or I might think we’ve done our deeds, we’ve earned our retirement, and we now need to just settle down and, and, and, and WHAT?????  From God’s point of view, our task is to attend mass and pray (speak to God) and ask what “more” our presence in the world is still being called to shine forth.

You’re a mother, a father, a grandmother, grandfather, widow, widower, youth, male, female—WHATEVER you are, God calls each of us to imagine what “more” we called to be.  Your life is NOT ON CRUISE CONTROL.  Your spiritual development requires taking turns, going down new roads, driving in the dark, without a map.  But since Christmas just told us that God is Emmanuel (“God with us”), our journey to wherever is assuredly going to be a blest one.

January 22, 2023

The lectionary we read each day is structured such that weekday readings do not have a theme that connects them, but the Sunday readings do!

Isaiah tells us today that Israel will be a light to all nations—a prophetic statement that is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus.  Initially, this basic theological statement might make us yawn—with us somewhat haughty in thinking “so what’s new?”  Here’s what’s “new” with Isaiah making that statement.

We’ve been raised hearing that the Israelites were “God’s ‘chosen people’.”  Anthropologically, that type of self-congratulatory assertion has probably been said by every culture under the sun.  ALL people’s of the world have literature and rituals that acknowledge their nation above all others—and so it was with the Israelites.

But when Isaiah says the Israelites will be a light to all nations, and when Jesus tells us to pray to OUR Father in heaven, we see a new orientation or emphasis.  We are being told that we are—believe it or not—BROTHERS AND SISTERS in Christ.  As we just celebrated, he came to share the human condition—his message being one that isn’t tribal solidarity or ethnocentrism, but one of our common identity as children of God.

Recall I’ve told you that Black Elk pretty much spoke for all ethnic identities when he described his Sioux (Lakota) people as: “killing anyone who didn’t speak our language.”  His statement pretty much distills how generations of world cultures interacted with one another.  If you weren’t related in some way, you killed people who weren’t in allied with yours.  Vestiges of this age-old behavior can be seen in sporting events in which one team’s fans shout that they want to pummel the opponent—the other team.  The Lions hope to “kill” the Bears, or the Packers steamroll the Steelers, etc.  Whatever your ethnic background, your “people” were once victimized in America for being—whatever it is that your group was.(e.g., Italian, Irish, German, etc.)

When you or your family members or friends make some negative comment about blacks or Hispanics or Jews or Muslims—or WHOEVER—they are simply expressing a prejudice that is deep-seated in our human condition.  And it is that prejudice which Jesus said was misguided.   With “catholic” meaning “universal,” the Jesus revelation of our “Catholic” Church is that we’re all in this together.  And an irony of this Christian truth is that 20th century biology showed that—genetically—all people are related.  If you’re a “white” supremacist being hostile toward someone whose skin color is darker than yours—your prejudice doesn’t change the fact that dark-skinned people are RELATED to you.  Same with Jewish people.  If you’re “anti-Semitic,” you’re being hateful of someone who is related to you!  What sense does that make?

This is the same point being made by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.  He could just as well have written the following: “You are narrow-minded—and are closed off to growth because of your biases.  Your world view is small and your attitudes very parochial.”  Paul is equivalently saying this because the Corinthians were in the heart of Greece—home of ancient Greek philosophers and schools of philosophy.  The crowds he spoke to were filled with people who belonged to one or another “school” of philosophy—and were proud of their membership in their particular school (e.g., think of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Heraclitus, and NUMEROUS others).  Paul looked these folks in the eye and eloquently told them of the one, premier Philosopher whose “school of thought” they’d be wise to adopt—the teachings of Jesus, Son of God.

What’s interesting about the gospel is hearing that John the Baptist did NOT recognize Jesus.  How could that be?  They were cousins—living in a culture where one’s social universe and status and sense of belonging was to family.  Heck, first-cousins married one another in that culture, and the region was not all that large.  Why would the gospel of John report that the Baptist did not recognize Jesus?

Probably, in part, because he was reminding his readers that THEY (us) also tend not to recognized Jesus.  Come to think of it, do YOU recognize Jesus?  Who is he?  Where do you see him?  What’s he like?  After all, he said “I am with you always until the end of time.”  Again, if he IS with us, where is he in your experience?

This topic reminds me of the word “messiah”—which you’ve heard many times.   What does it mean?  Does it mean “Lord?”  “God?”  Another word for Jesus?

First of all, in English we say “muh-sigh’-uh,” but the Hebrew is pronounced “muh-she’-uh.”  This Hebrew word in Greek is “Christos” which, in English, is “Christ.”  It translates to “the anointed one of God” (or Jesus as the Lord of  life showing us how to find the meaning of our life as individuals and as a community gathered in His name—under His leadership or “messiah-ship”).

With all this background of history and theology, what concretely does any of this have for you and me?  Here are some verses that point in the direction of scripture’s message to us this Sunday.

We look at our church and see the decorations gone.  We recall how pretty they were, and how parishioners did so fine a job in depicting Christmas and Epiphany’s first, second, third, and fourth wise visitors.

We think back to Mary and Joseph gone from Bethlehem, how the inns now have rooms because everyone has gone home.  We’ve had our festive time of visiting, and are on our journey back home—and we wonder how the trek will be.  Will we lose our way?  Will we meet others to befriend as we return home to normal ways?  Will God be with us—in good times and bad, in sickness and in health (as promised us when being called “Emmanuel”—God with us)?

Faith tells us the answer to the last question.  Yes, God is with us.  As for carrying on, we might try to take to heart the following:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:  

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,

To bring peace among people at odds with one another
To rally the spirits of everyone who God puts into our lives.

January 15, 2023

This past week was the Feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany is a word you sometimes hear in everyday speech—as when someone says “I had an epiphany!”  The word does not necessarily refer to anything religious, but instead simply means “suddenly seeing something in a new way.”  The word usually refers to something important and not, for example, learning the score of a football game.  An epiphany generally sees one referring to a new insight they’ve discovered—one that has perhaps changed the way they see life.

Within Christendom, we often speak of the Western Church and the Eastern Church—the former with roots in the Roman empire and the latter with roots in Constantinople (Istanbul).  Whereas we in the Western Church celebrate Christmas on December 25th, the Eastern Church celebrates Christmas on Epiphany Sunday.   The gift-giving of the Magi is honored by children moving statues of 3 men on camels moving from room to room of the house in the days leading to Christmas.  Imitating the wise men, Eastern tradition (Orthodox and other Christians) imitate the Magi and have their gift-giving on this date of Epiphany.

Much has been written about the “wise men,” and here are some facts, legends, and speculation about these curious visitors.   Right off the bat, we notice that scripture does not give a number for them.  Maybe there were 2, or 4, or 12.  In the Middle Ages, they were portrayed as numbering 3 because of their bringing 3 gifts (of gold, frankincense, and myrrh).  These gifts are listed as fitting gifts for a king as early as the year 200 B.C.—so that tradition seems solid.  Gold was a precious metal, frankincense an aromatic herb used for arthritis and aches, while myrrh was a special ointment.  Some have tried to find deeper meanings to these gifts, but we thus far we know very little more about the gifts.

It’s not surprising that Matthew says these men came from the East, as that direction had long been associated with wisdom.  Identified only as coming from the East, it is assumed that they are also Gentiles—the non-Jewish people of the world who are seeking the true king—a fitting contrast to a real-life Herod who executed family members in order to retain his power.  The gentle babe was the exact opposite of Herod.

In the Middle Ages, sketches depicting the Magi were as numerous as those of Jesus.  Names were given to them as was their place of origin.  “Balthazar” was said to be from Africa, while “Melchior” and “Caspar” were from Europe and Asia.  The 3 of them were piously thought of as representing the 3 continents at the birth of the heavenly child.  Theologians are more careful with their interpretations, so pretty much only allow for us to say that these men “from the east” represent Gentiles being drawn to Jesus—expanding his message to include more than just Israelites.  Why NOT convey this theological truth via the rich imagery of 3 wise men coming to a stable and bringing their kingly gifts—thanking God for embracing our humanity.

This gospel passage was brought to the hearts of many people through a 19th century short story titled “The 4th Wise Man.”  Made into a film (on Youtube), it told the story of Artaban—whose 3 friends left with a caravan to follow the Star without him.  He carried gifts of a ruby, sapphire, and pearl of great price.  In order to catch up with them, Artaban buys a camel with one of his jewels and heads to Bethlehem.

There he finds Roman soldiers going from house to house killing Jewish babies at the command of Herod.  He prevents a soldier from killing a child by handing him his 2nd jewel—leaving him with just the pearl to take to the newborn king.

Much to his dismay, Artaban is never able to catch up with the Bethlehem baby whose name, he learns, was Jesus.  He was always being prevented from finding Jesus because of one problem after another—like the man who got beaten up and robbed and left to die.  Artaban always seemed to come across people in need, and their concerns forced him to be of help to them.

30 years after beginning his search for Jesus, he finds himself in Jerusalem the very day Jesus is being led to his death at Calvary.  By this time, Artaban is old and exhausted and struggles up the hill to give Jesus the pearl he had managed to save all these years.  Lo and behold, a slaver was selling a young girl to the highest bidder and Artaban could not bear to see her hauled off into a life of abuse.  He hands the slaver the pearl of great price and tells the girl to return to her family.

Falling to the ground, Artaban is dying, but there stands Jesus in front of him—and says to Artaban “We meet again.”  But Artaban apologizes and begs the pardon of Jesus by saying he had failed to find him all his life.  Whereupon Jesus corrects Artaban and says that they have met many times over the years—when Artaban saved him from a Roman soldier in Bethlehem when he took care of him so many times on the roads which made traveling so difficult.

Artaban closed his eyes and smiled as he heard “We met when I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me.”

Artaban had found his king.

We are reminded in both the Christmas story and this one of Artaban—that we are a wise man or woman or child—if we seek where God is to be found—and not presume we know where God is, or what God looks like, or how God will come to us.

January 8, 2023

One of the Christmas readings we didn’t use this year was Mathew’s genealogy.  It reminded me of teaching “kinship” in an anthropology course and showing how some cultures place great importance on who one is related to.  For example, a student approached me after class and was smiling as he said it sounded like I was talking about his culture back home in South Africa.  He said it would take him 20 minutes to introduce himself to a stranger.  He’d have to go through the long line of ancestors until finally saying something to the effect of “. . . who was related to the moon god” (he thinking his people, like many other tribes around the world were tracing their roots to some mythical ancestor). Americans tend to fall asleep when hearing this part of the Christmas story.  By contrast, tribal peoples (such as the Israelites to whom Matthew was addressing his gospel) were more sensitive to what the genealogy was saying to them.  Namely, these are your ancestors to whom God came—INCARNATE as Jesus—making you brothers and sisters in Christ.  Like later biologists would tell us, this genealogy of the bible was telling us that we are all related!

Another feature of the Christmas story that we’ve not addressed is that of the shepherds & their sheep.  While much could be said, here are some thoughts on sheep and shepherds.   With us not having the kind of rituals that took place at the Temple 5 miles from Bethlehem, it’s hard to fully appreciate what’s being told us in Matthew’s gospel.

We know that shepherds were in their fields, but we don’t know that secular historian Josephus reported that about 250,000 lambs were slaughtered each year at the Temple—and that those lambs were inspected so that they’d be worth sacrifices.  While waiting for Temple priests to inspect the lambs (since for sacrifice they had to be free of any blemish), shepherds would wrap them in swaddling cloth and lay them in a trough (the “manger” referred to at the birth of Jesus—he being the LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD).  Our theology says Jesus was like us in all things but sin—reflecting his being a lamb that was blemish-free at birth.

Bible scholars tell us that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience and so had to show it how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.  Isaiah is read by Christians at Christmas time with its reference to a young woman bearing a child who would be the messiah.  The imagery of his gospel—of shepherds and lambs—would have been very familiar to those who read or heard his gospel.

Meanwhile, we meet on this first Sunday after Christmas to celebrate what’s called the “Feast of the Solemnity of Mary.”  I asked an elder who was raised in Catholic schools if she knew what the “solemnity of Mary” referred to, and she said she wasn’t sure.  Not surprising.  Here’s the feast’s history.

In 1960, our namesake, John 23rd, changed the name of this feast.  It was then called the “Feast of the Circumcision.”  Pope John and others seemed to know that most people had no clue as to why we were celebrating the circumcision of Jesus—since that medical/cultural procedure had not religious meaning for most of the world in any helpful way.

Catholics who paid attention to such things knew that it referred to the Jewish custom of circumcising a baby boy 8 days after birth.  And some knew that this “ritual scar” represented the pact between Abraham and God—who made the Israelites his special people (“Chosen people”).  Fewer people knew that such scarification ceremonies were practiced around the world by all sorts of cultures—unrelated to Judaism or Christianity.  The cutting of lips or arms or faces or genitals—was (and still is) widespread.

While Christians gave up the practice in the year 50, circumcision is still observed as a sacred rite within Judaism (and among other cultures, too, with different meaning attached to it).  In 1960, John 23rd basically stated that there’s no great reason for us to hold onto this feast.  But since institutions change very slowly, they simply changed its name to “The Octave of the Nativity.”  Now the problem was that most people didn’t know what “Octave” referred to.  Musicians might think of “do re me fa so la tee do” (an octave of note)—but that’s not what it meant.  It was referring to the 8 days between the birth of Jesus and his circumcision.  Again—a distinction without a difference—giving the universal Church a feast day that made little sense to its everyday lives.

Maybe someone in Rome felt this disconnect and pushed for the new-year date to have some relevant meaning to the people of God.  There again, maybe some pious cleric simply pushed for another day to honor Mary.  However it occurred, the name was again changed in 1969 to “The Solemnity of Mary.”  As so often happens, the ball was dropped again, and as the elder told me last week “I don’t know what the name of that name refers to.”

Aha!  Here’s a teaching moment.

In May, businesses make billions of dollars selling candy and flowers and jewelry and other things to “mothers.”  The secular feast day of “Mother’s Day” takes place—hatched by Wall Street to get your money.  Fine.  Nothing wrong with that.  Just don’t be manipulated so easily as to simply do what everyone else is doing—and spend your life savings on whatever con artists want to sell you.

Within our religious universe of experience, the “Solemnity of Mary” is a feast that celebrates HER motherhood.  And if Catholics were on the ball and thinking of important things, they’d push for our members to celebrate “mother’s day” on this, her feast—appropriately celebrated as a new year begins, the birth of another year given us by God.  This feast day honors the mother of all mothers—a reality that our  brother and sister Muslims recognized.

Few Christians realize that Mary is probably more honored by Muslims than she is by Christians.  Muslims regard her as the most important person ever created by God—her name mentioned more in the Quran than it is in the New Testament.  Muslims regard her very positively—the hijab (head covering) part of that honoring code of behavior.  Meanwhile, some Christians (by no means all) are critical of Catholics for rosary-praying.

So let this “Solemnity of Mary” feast day be a day when you can say to your mother or grandmother, or think of her/them as being a kind of Mother Mary in your life—the beloved of God who bore you, who loved you as best she could as your mom—trying her best to do as the mother of Jesus did for him.

This feast is the most noble mother’s day of all.

January 1, 2023

Welcome to the annual Christmas party! Help yourself to a hot buttered rum. Don’t touch the big bowls of popcorn; we’ll be needing those later.

Now, before we begin our annual holiday festivities, there are a couple inveterate party poopers in attendance that I’m just going to have to address.

First, we have a number of critics who point out that a lot of Christmas traditions come from earlier pagan celebrations. I’m not talking about people who point out things like that because they think it’s a fun historical fact; I think it’s a fun historical fact, too.  I’m talking about people who honestly believe they’ve disproved Christianity because, for example, Christmas celebrations today resemble those that were occurring in the Roman empire (e.g., parties at the winter solstice when the sun begins to shine longer in the day, people exchange presents, light candles, gather with family/friends for a big dinner, and decorate homes with evergreens symbolizing the green-ness of new life, etc.).

When some say that this mingling of traditions “disproves” Christianity, we need to offer them the course of Christianity 101.  We’re Christians, so we bring out the best in one another.  That’s what we do. We baptize pagans” (i.e., non-Christians).  We also take elements of all the many cultures we come from and cast new meaning on them in the light of the Gospel.  We baptize yule logs, mistletoe, candles, pine trees. We baptize the name “Brigid” and 3-leaf clovers. We baptize temples and make them churches. We baptize special times of year. We baptize goddess imagery and use it differently to illustrate truths about the Virgin Mary or God loving us as a mother loves the baby at her breast. We baptize everything. Want me to baptize you? Christians aren’t threatened by our signing God’s name to the many beautiful gifts that God as given.

With that yearly “issue” out of the way, let’s move on to another matter that elicits debate.  Namely, the “holy family” (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) should not be thought of as being homeless, poor, or in need of something to eat, or anything, really. Mother’s milk will take care of the baby.  That family can take care of itself—right?

I guess the 10 Koreans who were vacationing in Buffalo this week could afford to take care of their needs—until the “worst storm on record” hit the city.  I wonder how many people looked out their windows and saw the tour bus stranded.  One couple told the people to come into their home—and for 2 days stayed together (the bus unable to be moved).  One of the tourists said “We became a much bigger family through all of this; I hope they can come to Korea and stay with us.”  There are probably several “moral of the story” accounts.  Some read the story of Bethlehem and wonder why the holy family did not make a reservation. Meanwhile, others saw a family in need and gave what they could.

At this time of year, like all times of the year, commentators will say the Holy Family was not REALLY poor or not REALLY being refugees. People who assure us that Mary wasn’t anything like today’s single mothers or that Joseph wasn’t the same as an immigrant dad taking his children to safety. They want to keep Jesus, Mary and Joseph up on a pedestal lest anybody sully them by pointing out that they were humans and can teach us something about the inconvenient humans we encounter in our day to day life. Whatever correlations you can make or disprove, thoughts of these very human scenarios come to mind—and so scripture does its job.  It rattles our cage, awakens our conscience, gives us food for thought about life today—based on the holy family.

The nice story about Christmas is nice—yes—but at the same time, it reminds us to empathize with marginalized people. While our hearts are touched each year by the song “Little Drummer Boy,” we need to remember that the last thing a young mother would have wanted—at the end of a long day of caring for a colicky baby who she just put to sleep—has no interest in some guy stopping to play for her a drum solo.

Theologically, Jesus could care less about his birth date or birthday.  The MEANING of his birth is that by taking on the human form (incarnation) he told us that OUR birth date/birthday is supremely important.  Spend time on THAT reflection—that the Lord of all creation declared that it was not complete without you being part of it.

December 25, 2022

When people talk about being part of a “bible study,” it’s important to know exactly what they’re referring to.  We use those 2 words loosely—when referring to a group that gets together, reads a passage, and individuals share with the group what thoughts they drew from the verses.  Or one might be referring that gathering with someone who has formally studied biblical literature, and teaches the group what bible scholars have concluded about the passage.  People can be inspired, misinformed, challenged to be more committed in their faith, more lax, educated, etc.

Last week, I called attention to scripture being meaningfully read on a “literal” level or a figurative or “metaphorical” level.  Metaphor occurs when a writer uses a  word to refer to something other than what it literally says.  For example, on a literal level, you might look for the “number of the beast” that is found in the book of Revelation—666.   One might think of the economic policies initiated by Ronald Reagan as the beginning of the end for the middle class (the wealth gap growing because of policies he started—like a snowball down a hill)

If one subscribes to that theory, they might say “’666—Ronald Wilson Reagan—6 letters to each of his names—he’s the demonic beast!”  The problem with this thinking is that 666 is not a reference to Reagan but to the Christian killer Emperor Nero.  The 7-headed monster isn’t LITERALLY a monster but a veiled reference to the 7 hills of Rome (the empire that was killing Christians).  People of goodwill don’t intentionally offer faulty interpretations at bible study groups.  Their experience reminds us to have a bible commentary (a good one) when reading scripture.

This past week, a broadcaster said that Christianity was founded on violence by Jesus.  He then quoted Luke’s gospel: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other.”  To some at a bible study, these verses might be understood as the broadcaster understood them, viz., Jesus came to disrupt relations between people. At this point, one hopes that a participant brought a commentary.

The group would learn that Luke was addressing—via quoting Jesus—the challenge it’s going to be for people to accept the new law and go beyond the old law.  Luke is trying to tell his audience that Gentiles are now part of the salvation plan—not just Israel.  Luke’s Jesus is telling people that they might have to sever ties with family members who won’t accept the new law he brings.  He knows his words will divide people.  For example, Jesus says racism is evil and that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  If you can’t accept this basic fact of Christian life—you are not with us.

I’m reminded of metaphorical versus literal meanings in the bible when reading this weekend’s story of Mary and Joseph betrothed, Mary getting pregnant, and Joseph learning in a dream that he should name the baby and keep the girl for his bride-to-be.  In short, one really needs to know about Jewish marriage rules in first-century Jerusalem.  Otherwise, you might read about shepherds, the Magi, a star in the sky, and other Christmas images—and not fully appreciate all the story reports.

First of all, it’s important to know that parents arranged marriages—not the prospective groom or bride (Mary was probably around 12 or 13 years old).  The couple barely knew one another—if at all.  Their relationship had no affection or comforting of one another, no dating or courtship or caring, kisses or warmth.  Marriage was, in short, a political/economic alliance struck by fathers of both families.  Men and women did not mix with one another.  Both genders had their separate spheres of activity with the marriage being a ritual removal of the girl from her family.

The groom’s father offers gifts/services to the father of the bride-to-be.  The girl’s father makes the final decision with women negotiating how the girl will help her family when she is gone (provide goods and services of some kind).  When the groom took her into his home, the deal was struck.  If for some reason the couple changed their minds, a divorce was required (of the betrothed).  If the girl had sexual relations before they were married, the prospective husband (Joseph) was expected to report her “adultery” to authorities who would/could execute her.  Something of this nature took place in Pakistan a year or two ago—so these kinds of customs are not ancient history.

Matthew describes Joseph as a good guy—someone you might think of as laid back enough to think “Heck, I don’t want this girl to die. I’ll simply encourage her to ask the other guy to marry her, and I’ll quietly let her go.”  That’s basically what we’re being told.  And then came “the dream.”

In the first century, people saw dreams as a way God spoke to people.  So when we read that Joseph had a dream—this is important.  When Matthew is telling us that Joseph had a dream, he’s telling us a cultural fact (about the role of dreams). For Joseph to have a dream at this time of life is a significant statement—especially since only about 5% of men lived beyond the age of 30.  So God is telling him that he should stay with Mary, that the pregnancy is one that’s heaven-blest, and that he should name the boy “Jesus” (in this culture, fathers named the child).  His name will translate to mean Emmanuel–“God is with us.”

Pow!  That’s the point of this Christmas holiday, this mystery of our faith, this dogma of the “Incarnation” (the “enfleshment”) of God in Jesus. Christmas celebrates God becoming one of us!  That God-Jesus is “like us in all things but sin.”  Our God doesn’t throw thunderbolts from the sky but walks where we have walked, cried, laughs, smiled, was lonely, was happy—the whole spectrum of being human.  And so our God is someone who knows what we’re going through.  Our God is blessing our creation by taking on our created-ness.

By being like us, Jesus is telling us that our human-ness is a blessing from heaven—however, you look, act, or think.  Yes, you and I might make plenty of blunders in our lives, but the coming of God as one of us is God’s way of telling us that our birth is a precious gift to the human family.

Advent Reflection

THE STABLE, IT IS SAID, WAS JUST A CAVE, A SHELTER FOR ANIMALS AND SOME STRAW

–A CAVE AS WAS THE COMMON SHELTER OF OUR ANCESTORS WHO SHARED THE COMMON EARTH.

SOMEWHERE IN TIME WE LOST OUR LOVE FOR CAVES.

WE INSTEAD SOUGHT THE STARS–AND NOT UNWISELY–FOR THERE IS TRUTH IN THEM, ALSO.

BUT WHEN THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD CHOSE A PLACE FOR BIRTH TO GIVE US HOPE IN OUR DARKNESS, IT WAS A CAVE HE CHOSE–LEADING US THERE BY A STAR–IN ORDER FOR US TO FIND THE BIRTH OF STARS WITHIN.’’’

December 18, 2022

When Jesus was growing up in the 1st century, there was no uniform idea of what or who the “messiah” would be like.  Would he be a conquering military leader, an inspirational prophetic voice of God?  What?  There were also a number of Judaism-s (people like John the Baptist, the Essene communities, Zealots, Sadducee, and Pharisee types).

Today’s scripture has Matthew echo Isaiah in speaking of Jesus being responsible for the blind seeing, the lame walking, lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the poor having good news preached to them.  In passages like these, we have an example of scripture offering insights to us in both a literal AND figurative way.  That is, we can read that God/Jesus can literally accomplish what scripture says in a straightforward way. Or God can accomplish in us what God says in a figurative, or metaphorical, way.

For example, I might say to you: “Go jump in the lake.”  You might reply to me: “Which one?  Lake Huron or Lake St. Clair?”  Someone else might correct this literalist interpretation of my statement by replying: “ He doesn’t mean you should jump in the lake.  He means that you’re incorrect in thinking the way you do” (about some issue).  The same goes for an expression such as “Go stick it in your ear!”  You know that the person saying this DOESN’T mean you should stick anything in your ear.  Rather, they’re just colloquially saying you’re wrong about some point or other.

With this week’s scripture, literal and figurative/metaphorical speech is at play.  Yes, God CAN heal people of their physical limitations—those who are lame or blind or deaf.  But perhaps more importantly, God can show us where our thinking is lame, or that we’re not seeing the real causes of poverty, or that we’re blind to our role in perpetuating racism or poverty.  We need new eyes to see and new ears to hear where God—and not Wall Street—is calling us.

Scripture today reminds us that whatever we say to others, it should be “good news” to them.  Is what you say to others “good news” (or bad)?  As James writes, we will be “judged” by the deeds we perform—so do you bring sight to others?  Do your deeds help others walk through hard times?  Do you help someone see the meaning of their lives in better light (especially that God loves them)?  You get the point.  Scripture has broad meanings—speaking about us, and to us (showing us our deeper identity and indicating what we should do with the one life we’ve been given).

With this weekend being the anniversary of my ordination, I can’t help but think back over the years and regret when my vision was blurry, my legs wobbly, my hearing impaired, or simply not being the best version of myself.  In reminiscing, I could confess shortcomings, but prefer recounting here the seeds of “vocation” (for anyone, and not just a priest) that were planted at a young age.   Two prayers that influenced me in high school appear below.

The first I acquired in a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant a group of us high school kids frequented.  I read the prayer/reflection, put it in my wallet, and have it in my scrapbook to this day.  It has been attributed to John Wesley, but apparently was not composed by him.

Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

When I read the above reflection, it struck me as a good way to live—maybe even as a priest is called to live—which I should perhaps consider.  Such was my thinking when the reflection seemed to call its readers to a nobler life than they ordinarily thought of pursuing.

The prayer below is one we sing from time to time, and has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (and is called the “prayer of St. Francis”).  The prayer was actually composed in 1925—600 years after the time of Francis.  Whoever composed it, the prayer is vintage Gospel themes.  They appealed to me as a 17-year old—and motivated me to apply to the Jesuits during my senior year in high school.  They seemed to flesh out the reflection I acquired at the Chinese restaurant.

In following through with these noble thoughts, I experienced what I later learned as a Jesuit.  St. Ignatius wrote that when we make a good decision that is “of God” (and not from the opposite direction)—we need to realize that our good decision will be challenged by what Ignatius called the “evil spirit.”  We’ll be encouraged to choose some alternative to the decision that felt good and just and right for us (senses we feel when moved by the Holy Spirit).  At such times, Ignatius wrote, we need to stick with our original, good decision.  And not go in some other direction.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;   to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Again, while I might not have lived each day of my life as a saint, the content of these prayers is what I TRIED to embody—knowing that whatever “vocation” I pursued, God would be with me every step of the way.  I could hardly imagine that the heartache of having no helpmate would give way to becoming the only one of twenty-two Jesuit classmates to remain in the Order. When I walked with my friends from the Chinese restaurant at age 17, my journey eventually included bumps on the road and lumps in my throat.  Thankfully, my challenging but graced odyssey took me to Hemlock, Merrill, and Ryan.  A white fortune cookie was the heaven-sent ticket that was my fare.

December 11, 2022

Our Anglican (in England) brothers and sisters in the faith (or “Episcopalian” in America) call this day “bible Sunday.”  The rest of us Christians call this the 2nd Sunday of Advent—calling us to reflect on our need for an increase of faith.   Each week at mass, we of course read scripture and ask God for an increase in faith.

Reflecting on these angles of our faith practice, we might add to the list a nuance of the Advent season.  Namely, we’re NOT just preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas (Advent meaning “coming”), but also coming to each of us in some new way.  Remember, it’s the time of year when darkness covers the earth in the evening—a symbol of what comes over us, like a veil, from time to time.  As the Christmas song says, we’re a people who “walk in darkness,” and we seek a great light that will dispel our blues/darkness.  Isaiah puts this thought in a unique and poetic way.

The first reading at mass has the well-known verses that give us the vivid imagery of a lamb asking a wolf to be its guest, a leopard to lie down with a goat, a calf to browse with a lion, a cow to be neighbors of the bear, and a baby to play near a cobra’s den.  On one level, these images catch our attention.  Enemies somehow manage to co-exist, and even be friendly toward one another.

Now think of the various “battles” or problems or fights or issues that have come into your life and disrupted everything.  You could, if you thought about it, apply the animal encounters to those moment of conflict you had (or still have) in your life, e.g., the wolf/goat incident, the calf/lion conflict, the cow/bear conflict, etc., etc.  You might even add a few animal-like encounters you’ve had (or have) in your life and put them on the list.

Isaiah is simply saying that our experiences of conflict ARE resolvable.  And like the Old Testament as a whole, so the prophet Isaiah is offering hope to us when saying (symbolically) that our conflicts can be tamed. Isaiah suggests we can bring an end to these troubles by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and bringing justice to those abused by elites (the wealthy, the corporate executives, etc.).  At the same time, John the Baptist says we need to admit our self-centeredness and ask for God’s help in overcoming their hypocrisy.  He calls the scribes and Pharisees “snake bastards”—knowing that this name-calling would irritate them to the core.  In the time of Jesus, one’s genealogy was very important—so in being called this name, the authorities would put John to death (since John equivalently called the Temple officials men who had no honor).  By contrast, traits of real leaders were intelligence (called wisdom & understanding in the bible), practical ability, and piety/faith.

This week’s feast days give us examples of Christian leadership that I think are worthy of our reflection at mass.  The first this week is Andrew the apostle—patron saint of fishermen and of people who want to get married!!  One of the original followers of Jesus, he reminds us that our effort to be a person of faith, hope, and love—can lead to martyrdom (the fate of many Christians).

His feast was this week—just as was Francis Xavier—a friend of Ignatius Loyola and a kind of co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).  As a student at the University of Paris, he met Ignatius and several guys, and they wanted to do something glorious with their lives.  They didn’t want to just fit into some job, or do what was expected of them as minor nobles.  They instead vowed to “set the world on fire.”  While others were raising their swords and saying “For the greater glory of the king!” Or, “For our greater glory!”—these college buddies said “For the greater glory of God”—they would commit themselves to.

And so, these many years later, Francis Xavier is the patron saint of missionaries—having gone to India, Japan, the far East, and China—to spread the story of Jesus.  I was given on my first communion a book titled “St. Francis of the 7 Seas” by Jim Bishop (a one-time well-known Catholic writer).  I still have that book—which made me lumpy-throated as a young boy—little knowing I would one day be a Jesuit myself—whose middle names are “Francis Xavier.”  Maybe there’s someone in your family who would benefit from getting a book from you this Christmas—a book that might motivate them to “set the world on fire.”

This week, December 6th, is the feast of St. Nicholas. Because the Lakota (Sioux) medicine man/mystic was baptized on this day in 1904, the Jesuit officiating at his baptism chose the name “Nicholas” for Black Elk.  Today, this famous Indian holy-man is known as a “Servant of God”—the first stage en route to canonization.    “Nick” Black Elk became a devout catechist and is thought to be responsible for over 400 baptisms on his reservation.

Finally, we commemorate the martyrdom of 4 American women who died in 1980.  3 nuns and a laywoman—all young women, were found shot in El Salvador when they were doing missionary work there.  The Reagan administration’s foreign relations expert, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, said “We should be clear about these people.  They weren’t just nuns.  They were political activists.”  Similarly, the Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested the nuns might have had a running gun battle with “communist rebels.”

At the time, the U.S. was giving military aid to El Salvador, and all sorts of religious congregations were begging the government stop collaborating with the corrupt government we were supporting.  Because of Jesuit and other religious orders being in El Salvador, we knew what was really taking place, and that the American government was lying to news reporters in waving the flag in our faces and saying we were trying to stop “communists” from taking over Central America and rushing across the border to conquer the U.S.

Reagan’s own ambassador, Robert White, resigned from the job—unwilling to tell the lies he was told to tell.  As he said to a congressional committee, he (and we who had contact in El Salvador) knew the first day the bodies were found that they had been killed by the El Salvadoran military (whose weapons were supplied by the U.S.).  The U.S. knew the women had been raped and killed via orders from El Salvadoran military, and that the women did NOT engage in a running shootout and were NOT providing arms to rebels, but rather caring for the sick and teaching catechism.

None of these people had a clue they would one day be known around the world as people who gave their lives in the service of others—and remain for us role models of service to the God who made us.

In 1990, President Bush designated on November 14th that November be Native American Month.  27 years later, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously for Black Elk to be placed on the road to canonization.  His cause was introduced by Bishop Gruss (then the bishop of Rapid City SD).  He came to the diocese of Saginaw—as did I, in 2019.  With my birthday being November 14th, American Indian month designated on November 14th, and Black Elk’s cause for sainthood started on November 14th, I feel blest.

However, my reason for telling you my story here, or the story of the others above—is to remind you that none of these people had a clue they would one day be part of something of significance to people elsewhere.  And so it is with each of you in our pews here today.

God is still working with you—calling you (and me) to further discipleship—regardless of whatever you’ve done, good or bad, already in life.  Your greatest contribution may still await your being courageous enough to tap the Holy Spirit and move in the direction it prompts you to do.

Here are testimonials from the 4 women who were killed in El Salvador.  The year after their deaths, numerous people volunteered to take their place with the Maryknoll missionary lay volunteers (the group to which the 4 women belonged).  A modern day example of the centuries old aphorism “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity.”

Jean Donovan

I’m 26 years old.  I should be married.  I shouldn’t be running around doing all of these things. . . . .then I sit and talk to God and say why are you doing this to me?  Why can’t I just be a your, little, suburban housewife?

Ita Ford

I have no solutions to this situation.  I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, search with you, be with you.  Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity?  Can I look at and accept my own poorness as I learn it from the poor ones?

Maura Clarke

Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must share the same fate as the poor. And in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, to be tortured, to be held captive, and to be found dead by the side of the road.

Dorothy Kazel

We talked quite a bit today about what happens IF something begins.  Most of us feel we would want to stay here.  We wouldn’t want to just leave the people.  I thought I should have said this because.  I don’t want to say it to anyone else, because I don’t think they would understand.  Anyway, my beloved friend, just know how I feel and ‘treasure it in your heart.’  If a day comes when others will have to understand why I remain here, please explain it for me.

December 4, 2022

We’re beginning the liturgical season of “Advent” (a word that means “coming”—and refers to Jesus coming at Christmas time).  Appropriately set at this time of year, the season addresses our seeing it get dark outside by 5 p.m.  The universe is more-or-less saying to us that we are walking in darkness and we seek light.

Voila, Advent celebrates the coming of the light of the World to us.  The sun/Son is on the way to bringing light to us.  If we didn’t acknowledge these realities, this time of year would simply come and go.

People would spend lots of money on Christmas gifts because, well, that’s what people do at this time of year—be they Christians or atheists.  Practicing Catholics try to get in touch with the darkness in their lives at this time of year, and reach up to God for light.  Family issues?  A family member?  A work-related matter?  Our lives have plenty of darkness that needs light shed on it.

Advent references go as far back as the 300’s, but some claim that the tradition of lighting candles was started by German Lutherans, and that Catholics adopted the custom in 1925.  I’m unsure of this piece of history and will do my best to nail down the facts—some of which we ARE better known.

Evergreen in the Advent wreath is like the Christmas tree—a symbol of hope—withstanding the cold snows of winter and being a sign of new life (when it feels just the opposite—with coldness and snow).  Red berries can be on a wreath, too, and they can symbolize blood—reminding us that our Christian identity can lead to martyrdom.  Like Advent’s meaning, the blood-colored berries confront us with reality—our human condition that can see us led to the cross.

The 4 candles represent 4 virtues (during the 4 seasons of the year)—one of which we reflect on each week.  The first week calls us to bring our blues or discouragements or depressions to the God of HOPE.  The weeks then have us reflect on faith, joy, and peace.  These are virtues we need to internalize.  After all, we easily fall prey to NOT having hope, faith, joy, and peace.  Plus, since each of us is called to be an apostle who brings life to others—we NEED to spend time asking God to help US find these Christ-like traits so that we might spread their contagion.

For this process to take root within us, we need to speak with God about our lack (or what we have) of hope, faith, joy, and peace.  This is why our candle-lighting ritual and church color has violet surround us—the color being a reminder of us having to pray (i.e., speaking with God).

Our Orthodox cousins must think we take the low road in our liturgical practice.  During Advent, the Greek Christians would fast from meat, butter, milk, and eggs.  Meanwhile, we Western Catholics light candles!!!  Some sacrifice we make—not.

HOWEVER, we USED to fast during this Advent time of year.

As for this first week’s readings, we hear Isaiah having a vision of the great Temple.  When you or I think of the word “temple,” not much comes to mind—other than something exotic and not part of our experience.  However, to the Israelites (Jews), the Temple was the heart of their religion—God dwelling in the Temple, and all sorts of sacred and secular affairs taking place there.

Come the year 70, the Romans were tired of Jewish terrorists (called “zealots”) causing them trouble all the time.  So Rome destroyed the Temple—a remnant of it still around today in what we know as the “wailing wall.”  Tourists and devout others pray there still—a large stone chunk that was once part of a Temple wall.  Its destruction moved the Jews (and Christians) to leave Jerusalem and spread throughout the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Matthew and his fellow Christians (who were once Jewish) were being teased since Jesus had not returned from the dead.  He had died some 50 years earlier, so Christians were still waiting for his 2nd Coming.  Years earlier, Paul thought Jesus would come back at any minute—and since the Middle Eastern culture was one that looked only at today—and didn’t think of future events (which only God knew)—many of Matthew’s group were wondering how much longer they would wait for this 2nd Coming.

Paul’s early letters indicate he had the Middle Eastern attitude of a NOW orientation (e.g., “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”—as in the Our Father prayer)—but he changed his timeline.  In order to quiet his critics, Matthew used today’s gospel material.

He told people they should always be ready to meet the Lord—whenever it would be.  He’d not give a day or hour the 2nd Coming was to be.  Instead, he simply told his audience (and us) to be prepared at any time.

This reality was slammed home to me when the stroke came from out of nowhere—unexpected—and threatened my earthly existence.  It reminded me that I shouldn’t be so presumptuous that I’m not going to go just yet.  I learned that it’s definitely up to God—not us—to determine that time.

A wing of the Baptist Church subscribes to a theology that other Christians don’t particularly embrace.  Known as “rapture” theology, it was popularized in the first half of the 20th century, and uses this weekend’s gospel to prove its point—literally.  A series of popular books in the 1990s was titled “Left Behind” and somehow attracted an audience.  These books literally asserted that you or I could be whisked away at any moment—up into heaven—and “leave behind” others who’d not be admitted to heaven.

As stated above, this type of scenario need not be embraced if we simply do as Matthew suggests—be prepared to meet God at any moment.

As you know, young people don’t go to church in large numbers.  They’ll pay a price—unless we can somehow influence them.  Which brings to mind a custom you might try establishing with your little ones at home.

One custom at this time of year is for the 3 wise men statues to make their way around the house during Advent—and arrive at Bethlehem’s stable on Christmas.  You can enhance this or ritualize it however you wish—or think helpful to your children or grandchildren.  For example, maybe start in one child’s room (or wherever)—and pray there aloud.  Say something like “Help Mary/John on their journey back to you, Lord Jesus”, as they are represented in this statue of the wise man.  And then represent another family person by another wise man, or several people to a wise man, etc.

You might do the same at dinner some night of each Advent week—have a child light a candle—praying that light come to that child (whatever their age—13 or 30).  Bring to your prayer a creative way of expressing what “gifts” your family really needs at Christmas—gifts of the Spirit.  Or think of some creative way to bring this religious season to life—not in a consumer culture way, but a spirit of the heart way.

The following quote captures the spirit of Advent.

 Prayers we used at mass

May my mind seek truth with humility and openness.  May my heart forgive and my appreciation for others increase without limit.  For these intentions, we pray to the Lord.

 May I seek beauty around me and be struck with the wonder of the earth.  May I find new ways to appreciate friends, family, and others I meet.  That I learn more about the mystery of their unique creation.   For these intentions, let us pray to the Lord. 

 May I seek to relieve the suffering of others.  May I reverence the existence of all living things.  May my steps be on a journey of justice for all & not only for me and mine. May my tongue speak on behalf of the poor without fear of reprisal.  May my imagination create new ways for people’s lives to improve. Let us pray to the Lord

 May we not forget that our role model is not a movie star, or athlete, politician or wealthy person—but is the Lord Jesus.  May we follow his example in how we think, speak, and view the world around us—let us pray to the Lord.

 Advent reflection

Count your blessings instead of your causes

Count your gains instead of your losses

Count your joys instead of your woes

Count your friends instead of your foes

Count your smiles instead of your tears

Count your courage instead of your fears

Count your full years  instead of your lean

Count your kind deeds instead of your mean

Count your health instead of your wealth

Count on God instead of yourself

November 27, 2022

When I was in grad school at Indiana University, an assignment for a course was to interview people and get what stories we could about ghosts or demons or spirits of some kind.  One of the places we could “collect” these stories was the courthouse in the middle of town—where elders sat daily and “shot the breeze” with one another.  No one I spoke with could think of any ghostly encounter.  However, one elderly man introduced me to a word I did not know.  He said it was all he could tell me about the spirit world or strange supernatural occurrences.  He introduced me to a concept that you might already know—but which I didn’t learn until age 23.  The concept and word is drawn from today’s epistle, became a household word in some Southern Baptist homes, and is known as “the rapture.”

Over the years, I have spoken with people who subscribe to its concepts but, as Wikipedia and theology texts report: “Most Christian denominations do not subscribe to rapture theology.”  An easy way to remember its basic teaching is to recall that the “elect” (i.e., those saved from eternal damnation) will be gathering with Christ in heaven.  Those NOT saved will be “left behind” (one person will be taken up into the clouds while their nearby friend will remain on earth (as described in Matthew 24: 35f.  A popular series of films was titled “Left Behind” (a phrase popularized from rapture enthusiasts).  I was really surprised that these films cast appear to anyone, but college students told me they loved the films!

The College Theology Society, a Catholic biblical organization that is ecumenical in its membership, conducted a symposium one summer.  It attracted a number of Southern Baptist scripture scholars because they were disappointed that their denomination’s academic wing was trending too much toward a rapture theology they found intolerable. They were fine scholars and were welcome at the CTS gathering—whereat they delivered papers and attended presentations on non-rapture theology. In the political realm, Q-anon has shown that we can be persuaded to believe anything (echoing P.T. Barnum’s “a sucker is born every minute”).  Getting promoted in the 19th century and drawing members in the 20th, rapture theology illustrates that new versions of Christianity can arise 2000 years after its founding.

When Matthew wrote his gospel sometime around 80 or 85, people were concerned about the 2nd Coming NOT coming.  Non-Christian Jews critiqued Christians for waiting the return—and got after them for entertaining the thought that Jesus was on his way back (as they had already waited for 50 years. Theologian John Pilch has noted that Middle Eastern culture in the time of Jesus was focused on the “now,” the present moment—and so when saying “give us this day our daily bread,” we are being very first century—focused on immediate concerns and NOT thinking like a modern American (or Westerner).  We are all focused on the future, as when we grow up looking to be on our own and out of the house, or going to college, or anywhere on our own.  We save money for a rainy day, or have a savings account for things to buy later on, or a pension, or retirement—things all aimed at the future.

And so it is with Paul thinking that end-times are near, or that the 2nd Coming is to take place at any moment.  We seem to always prepare for this future event of Christ’s return.  But scripture reminds us to be prepared for the return at any moment—as we don’t know WHEN Jesus will return.  Let “end times” take care of themselves—so we can attend to the present.  When the Temple was destroyed in 70 by the Romans, the Jewish rebellion was at an end, and their spirit was broken.  Surely, it was thought, the end is near and we need to obsess about it.  No, says Matthew.  Think instead about the 2nd Coming only when you know it is here—as no one can predict when the end has arrived.

Paul thought the end was near early in his career, but he came to appreciate that we don’t know when it will occur—so let’s just ACT as if it’s tomorrow, and live our lives to the fullest thinking Jesus might come for us at any time.

As for Thanksgiving, it was named a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  While not a holy day in our Church calendar, we make it a sacred day if we remember that it represents our harvesting crops at this time of year and earlier.  We also look at ourselves and evaluate whether or not we’ve harvested, or even recognized, the “graces” we’ve received this year.  If you didn’t do it on Thanksgiving, take the time now to thank God for blessing you with family members, friends, a dog or cat or bird or some other animal friend. Thank God for what health you have, and thank God for being a Creator who feels for you when you’re not well, or when you’re blue.

As I mentioned in the past, my mom broke down crying one Thanksgiving because all we had to eat was bacon and eggs—on paper plates with turkeys sketched on them.  We all rallied her spirits by saying we had one another, and the bacon and eggs and toast were really good.  We didn’t need a turkey and dressing and gravy and pumpkin pie and other nice things.  We were all together and glad we could be at table having a dinner that filled us up.

Try to count the different things you can be grateful for—be they the best things money can buy, or be they bacon and eggs that can bring happiness just as well.

November 20, 2022

Finance chair Russ Milan addressed each mass this past weekend.  He reminded us that we’ve hit our goal the past couple of years, and that the needs we address still exist.  So it’s our gospel responsibility as the Catholic community of mid-Michigan to meet the challenge.

As in the past, our regular weekly envelopes support the parish while any loose change or bills will go to CMA.  This mode supplements what people give in envelopes distributed by the diocese to each parish.  While charities of all sorts campaign at this time of year (and year-round), CMA makes its request at this time of year.  It throws the ball to parishes, and asks them to run with it.

Each year, some donations are in the thousands.  Most are less than that.  My assumption is that everyone tries to do their best.  Some charities are so well funded (with high salaried staff) that they can produce heart-rending appeals for television.  We have nothing of the sort.  We are simply a faith community who is trying to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to God’s people as best as we can.

Ideally, we could meet our goal by Christmas—seeing our contribution as a kind of Christmas present allocated to the many worthwhile needs addressed by CMA.  No parish has performed so swiftly—so it’d be neat for us to be able to shout “We’re number one!!”

Maybe we can’t be out on the streets like Mother Theresa, but we can support those who ARE in roles of different ministries.  So let’s give it our best shot.   As Russ said, the parish has been really good in supporting emergency appeals.  When this occurs, your outreach is inspiring.  May it be the same, again, for CMA.

Bishop Gruss asked that his letter on the following page be read or published in the bulletin this week.

November 13, 2022

Last week’s gospel reading was about “the widow’s mite” (a coin of minimal worth—sort of like a penny; I have one from the 1st century if you care to see what they look like).  Translating that gospel story into terms we’d understand today, it’s the story of how multi-billionaires Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos might donate a billion dollars to some charitable cause.  They might be praised for their action.  However, someone like the Sioux holy-man’s daughter gives a dollar to Catholic Social Services—and her “reward in heaven will be great” for her action.

How many billions of dollars does it take for Musk or Bezos (or you or me) to live comfortably?  What would Jesus say to them about their donation of a small percentage of their wealth?  What would Jesus say to Black Elk’s daughter, Lucy, for whom a dollar was very important?  THAT’S the point of the gospel story.  Not surprisingly, studies have shown that poorer people tend to give a greater percentage of their wealth to charity than do the rich.  As you know, the wealthy also have tax breaks that see less-wealthy people pay more than they do (which is why it makes news when Warren Buffet and other wealthy people admit that they should be paying their fair share instead of using loopholes (his secretary paying more in taxes than he did).

The film, Wall Street, popularized the very anti-gospel message-quote of “greed is good.”  The main character was a corrupt businessman who made millions of dollars the good old-fashioned way (i.e., stealing, lying, cheating).   Greed goes by different names in our culture.  One is not called greedy, but is thought of as a “go-getter,” “enterprising,” “always on the go,” “supporting the family,” etc.  Like the pro athletes in Detroit who made millions in their playing career but who were recently arrested for bilking medical insurance funds (a few thousand dollars).  Once the greed virus sets in, a person grasps for whatever they can.  Millions, thousands, hundreds of dollars?  I wonder what these people tip waiters and waitresses—anything?

A spiritual writer said of this pattern: “as a person’s wealth goes up, their empathy goes down.”  People focus solely on their own well-being–which is why greed is considered a mental illness and why hoarding is not allowed in tribal societies.  This echoes the point made in a recent bulletin.  Namely, a study showed that the more expensive the car, the more likely its driver engages in going through red lights and speeding.  The study concluded that some in society (those “who have”) feel “entitled” to behaving any way they want—regardless of how their actions affect others.

On the Covid front, some newscasters reported that Colin Powell was fully vaccinated and still died—the newscasters offering the thought that the vaccine is unreliable.  The greater TRUTH is that being fully vaccinated DOES protect you.  It’s important to get vaccinated to protect the Colin Powells of the world who have a compromised immune system due to having multiple myeloma—a blood cancer.  Plus, it’s estimated that half of those who get Covid will suffer dementia, heart issues, or some other byproduct of the virus which children are beginning to show.  It’s hard to believe that our great, educated, super-power country leads the world in Covid cases. “We’re number One!” –of the 220 countries that report it—is not something we want to shout out.

Why are we #1 in such a grim area?  Here’s one reason why.  The newly-appointed Surgeon General of Florida would not wear a mask when visiting a State Representative’s office—the rep asking him to wear a mask because she has cancer (and so is quite vulnerable to Covid killing her).  This governor-appointed doctor thus violated his Hippocratic oath (“do no harm”).  This same doctor has spoken publicly about there being no need for masks or the vaccine (echoing the state’s misguided governor), and that Covid can be reduced by one taking zinc (it can’t).  This same physician said he worked with Covid patients on the “front line” of UCLA’s medical center—his claim later revealed to be untrue. Based on his politics and not on scientific facts, the governor may well be re-elected—we humans being like lemmings rushing to our deaths (N.B., apparently lemmings don’t actually commit mass suicide but their herd-behavior sometimes sees them drown in large numbers when crossing a body of water or going over a cliff they didn’t realize was in front of them).

Cult behavior: Some people gathered in Dallas this past week to see John Kennedy, Jr. rise from what we thought was his grave (surprise-surprise he didn’t appear).  Meanwhile, some people think the vaccine has alien genes in it that are being put into our bodies.  It is apparently thought that the several companies that manufacture the vaccine have kept this a secret along with their thousands of employees.  There are also those who believe some Democratic politicians are alien reptile creatures wearing human masks, and abducting children to abuse, kill, and drink their blood.  There are also those who deny climate change and the damage it is already causing around the world.

I used to teach a course on cults—the leaders of which said they were the reincarnation of Jesus (spiritual) or Washington (political) or some other historical figure whose wisdom they now owned and came to preach once again.  What surprised me in watching videos of groups and interviews with the followers—was that they usually came across as regular folk who might be your aunt or uncle, brother, or sister.  With a smile on their face, they could report that the Hale-Bopp comet was an alien spaceship that had come to pick up their leader, and he would take his followers with him.  They would join the mothership by committing suicide together.  I USED to think that beliefs like these were so bizarre and “off the charts,” that they would not attract large numbers.  I was mistaken.

In light of us humans being so vulnerable to various ideas, it’s not surprising to hear people like the Pope and countless other religious and scientific leaders call us to address the climate issue—and their pleas are ignored or fought.  I’m reminded of the tobacco industry swearing on a stack of bibles that their crack research teams showed no connection between smoking and cancer.  As you know, their lies came to light long after smoking took its toll.  Oil companies have followed the tobacco trail—reporting that their science people see no connection between fossil fuels and environmental damage.  The reality, revealed decades after their studies, is that the oil industry has long known its products are destroying the earth and its atmosphere.

Rather than repeat what all people of goodwill and concern for humanity say about these things, it’s perhaps best to keep in mind what St. Augustine said 1600 years ago in one of his sermons.  He called upon people to observe “the great book of created things. Look above you. Look below you. Read the book of the natural world.” Remember–“God so loved THE WORLD that He gave His only son” to save it from self-destruction.

Christians in the early centuries did not experience a gulf between their experiences of nature and their faith experiences.  Clement of Alexandria, 1800 years ago, wrote: “The initial step for the soul to come to knowledge of God is contemplation of nature.”  St. Basil said: “one blade of grass or one speck of dust is enough to occupy your entire mind beholding the art with which it has been made.”

According to Thomas Aquinas, a mistake in our understanding of creation will necessarily cause a mistake in our understanding of God. Imagine what this means for us humans in our 21st century when our understanding of God’s universe and its Earth has undergone such a radical change.

Greetings at this time of year: Merry Christmas,  Happy Holidays.  Give me your credit card.  Over the last few years, the consumerist frenzy known as holiday shopping has gone from December to November and into October. This season it crept even earlier.  Pointing to problems with the global supply chain, retailers have been calling us to shell out any cash we squirreled away during the pandemic on gifts.  Surely, these retailers have your well-being in mind—right?

Expressing our appreciation of one another with the ritual handing over of consumer products seems a welcome return to normalcy. Why not stock up now on the Funko Pops and Paw Patrol gear and Nintendo Switch games that our kids are coveting, before the store runs out of them? Isn’t this what Christmas is all about?  NO! It’s not.

Christmas is also not about being a Grinch or a Scrooge. Just the opposite. It’s about a time to really contemplate God’s embrace of our human condition—and our call to embrace the humans around us.  One way of doing this is to break out of a consumer mind-set that demands we constantly buy things—things that we then store in a closet, basement, or attic after their appeal has worn off (when Madison Avenue seduces us with some NEW fashion or toy or material item that assures us of great, great happiness).

One reason why I like CMA to start at this time of year is that it reminds us of apostolic works that need our support.  Yes, we need to be lovers of our family members, but we also need to help our brothers and sisters beyond our families–through our Church programs.  I know demands are made upon us that are hard to meet.  As Jesuit Father Dan Berrigan said: “To be Christian means you have to look good on wood.”

November 6, 2022

This week’s liturgical festivities included All Saints and All Souls feast days.  On the one hand, they might sound like pie-in-the-sky holy days designed for pious people whose eyes always look heavenward.  In reality, the opposite is the case—especially in light of the gospel reading for all saints—the reading that cites the “beatitudes” (‘blessed are the . . . “).

Instead of thinking about saints who were martyred or who led exemplary lives, it might be more practical to simply think of people who have been loving toward you, kind, caring, and affirming of you.  THAT brings a sense of what it mean to be a “saint” (the early Christians called themselves the community of “saints”—a word that doesn’t have the baggage that it does today).  Saintly souls are those who go the extra mile with you, who communicate in some way that you are an important person.

The following verses show how one can be “blessed” in the eyes of another, and how one can be “saintly” in everyday life.

Blessed are they who looked away

When coffee spilled at table today.

Blessed are they with a cheery smile

Who stop to chat for a little while.

Blessed are they who never say,

“You’ve told that story twice today.”

Blessed are they who know the ways

To bring back memories of yesterdays.

Blessed are they who make it known

That I’m loved, respected and not alone.

Blessed are they who know I’m at a loss

To find the strength to carry the Cross.

Blessed are they who ease the days

On my journey Home in loving ways.

People who behave in this way merit scripture’s judgment of them:

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. 

Lighter verses also remind us of sainthood being a diverse enterprise.  There are all types of them—you being a candidate.

I sing a song of the saints of God
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God — and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right, for Jesus’s sake,
The whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
And there’s not any reason — no, not the least–
Why I shouldn’t be one too.

They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus’ will
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are folk just like me,
And I mean to be one too.

 Bringing sainthood home.

How about trying this?

With the gospel reminding us who are “blessed” types of people, SURELY someone comes to your mind who is “blessed” in special to you.  A mom, dad, grandparents, brother, sister, friend, etc.—who has shown to you a kindness or caring that you’ve really appreciated.  Maybe you’ve thanked them for being this way.  Maybe you haven’t.

How about taking a moment (or more, if the timing allows it) to simply say something to the effect of “At mass the scripture reading was ‘Blessed are those who . . .’ and that passage reminded me of you.  So I wanted to thank you for being a “blessed” person in my life.  I’m not starting a long conversation that analyzes what I’m saying—but just telling you ‘thanks for being you’.”

I thank you for being saintly toward me.

October 30, 2022

We’ve been reading the gospel of Luke these days, and it occurred to me that a refresher course on scripture would be appropriate since the rest of my homily is acknowledging a feast day that occurred this week: the feast of the North American Martyrs.

In scripture classes this past summer, I spent time citing the many gospels that floated around in the early centuries of Christian history.  Although there existed “the gospel of Thomas,” “the gospel of Peter,” and Mary, and others, in the 300s the Church settled on the 4 we have used for 1700 years (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

The oldest of these is Mark while the most recent (written around the year 100) is John.  Luke’s gospel seems to have been addressing gentile (non-Jewish) concerns while Matthew’s seems directed at a largely Jewish reading audience (most reference to the Hebrew scriptures).  We don’t know who wrote the gospels (they weren’t composed by any of the apostles).

This week’s gospel makes us wonder what’s going on—when we see Jesus saying that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalts themselves will be humbled.  One wonders why Luke would have Jesus make this same statement elsewhere in his gospel.  Matthew also has it as does the letter of Peter.

Not exalting one’s self reinforces the theme of this week’s feast of the North American Martyrs.  These Jesuit lived in the 17th century, came to this region, and lived with the Huron Indian Indians and other tribes of the Great Lakes region.  They were not all “martyred” at once, but were murdered by individuals who were angry at one or another individual. They were killed by a group commonly, but erroneously, referred to as the “Iroquois.”  These people were actually 6 tribes—Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Tuscarora.  Saint Kateri Tekakwitha’s story indicates how difficult it is to generalize about “European/Indian” relations.  She was a Mohawk whose behavior was extremely pious—she wanting to feel what Jesus felt on the cross (her spiritual director was a Jesuit who told her to stop practicing corporal punishment, e.g. whipping herself in order to feel what Jesus felt).

I’ve been on the phone in recent weeks with a Frenchman who is doing research on Indians and the Catholic Church.  Knowing the response before it was given, I asked him if he ever heard of John Brebeuf.  As expected, the answer was “no.”  I reviewed a book several years ago that reported the “martyrs” were barely known in their mother country (France) or hometown.  Ask any resident of Indianapolis what they think is a premier school in the region and they’ll no doubt include “Brebeuf Prep.”

A Nouvel CC graduate has taught there for many decades and won awards for her teaching.  Sherry LaFave was a wonderful student there-person when I was there, and continued to make all who knew her feel a sense of pride.

I include below an account of Brebeuf’s martyrdom.  One really needs to understand the context to fully appreciate what is reported.  Namely, the Jesuits considered martyrdom a gift from God—seeing it as their ultimate sacrifice for God’s people (just as Jesus had done).  They lived with the peoples for years and knew that torture might be directed at them—so they prayed with one another that they would be good examples for the people.  They were present when Huron would be tortured—so they knew what type of death they might suffer.  They lived the Christian tenet that even one’s suffering can serve God.

Fr. Henri Nouvel was a French Jesuit who worked in the Great Lakes, said the first mass in the area, and is the man whose name was bestowed on the high school (because “nouvel” in French mean “new” and the high school was the new entity that came from the schools that were closed).

Keep in mind that “missionary” does not just describe heroic pioneers like these Jesuits or Paul and Peter.  Missionary is part of our CHRISTIAN identity.  YOU are a missionary—to the people around you or anyone with whom you interact.  Christian identity is not a simple matter of being good to family members.

The names of the martyrs followed by an account on Brebeuf.

Jean Brebeuf, Gabriel Lallemant, Rene Goupil, Charles Garnier, Isaac Jogues, Noel Chabanel, Antoine Daniel.

They seized Father Brebeuf, stripped him, and fastened him to a post. They tore the nails from the fingers and beat him with a shower of blows on the shoulders, loins, belly, legs, and face.  They further told us that Fr. Brebeuf, although overwhelmed under the weight of these blows, did not cease continually to speak of God, and to encourage all the new Christians who were captives like himself to suffer well, that they might die well.  In mockery of baptism, one of the tormentors took a kettle of boiling water, and mockingly baptized him with it.

They made a collar of red-hot hatchets and put it on the neck of this good Father.  They then put on him a belt of bark full of resin, and set fire to it, which roasted his whole body.  During all these torments, Father Brebeuf endured like a rock, insensible to fire and flames, which astonished all the wretches who tormented him.  So great was his zeal that he preached continually to them of God and of their conversions.  To prevent him from speaking more, they cut off his tongue, and both his upper and lower lips.  After that, they set themselves to strip the flesh from his legs, thighs and arms, to the very bone; and then put it to roast before his eyes, in order to eat it.

Seeing that the good Father began to grow weak, they made him sit down on the ground; and one of them, taking a knife, cut off the skin covering his skull.  Another one, seeing that the good Father would soon die, made an opening in the upper part of his chest, and tore out his heart, which he roasted and ate.  Others came to drink his blood, still warm, which they drank with both hands–saying that Father de Brebeuf had been very courageous to endure so much pain as they had given him, and that, by drinking his blood, they would become courageous like him.

October 23, 2022

Readings this week address “perseverance in prayer.”  Exodus reports how Moses helped the Israelites win by holding up his arms toward heaven.  When his arms got tired and he let them hang down, the Israelites would start to lose the battle.  So, he got some of his people to hold up his arms—and sure enough, the battle turned in their favor once again.  Victory to the Israelites due to elevated arms!!!

As odd as this story might sound to us, it is in a long tradition within human communities that rely on “magic” to solve problems or serve as answers (they think) to problems.  For example, within Catholic tradition, one might hear someone say that if they go to mass X number of times, or say a prayer X number of times, the person will get their prayer answered.

This type of thinking is found in all religious communities (or secular ones).  We humans tend to think in such terms.  We attribute success to some action that has no real connection to the issue, e.g., if I cut my body in certain spots, I will be a successful hunter.  Huh?

The gospel parable is about a widow who nags a magistrate so much that he accedes to her pleading.  Voila—persistence pays off—just as it did when the Israelites held up the arms of Moses to win a battle.  But maybe the Israelites won because they were the superior force.  And since there were no inheritance laws for widows in the time of Jesus, maybe the woman’s nagging worked to her advantage by irritating the judge.

One gets answers that satisfy their search for closure.  Arms held high won the battle.  End of story.  A widow’s badgering the judge wins the day.  With prayer being the theme of these readings, it seems the simple point being made is that one should remain constant, or be persistent, in their pleas.   More on this topic at the end.

We need to acknowledge a feast day that took place this week.  Known as Angelo Roncalli to his friends, we knew him as Pope John the 23rd.  When Pius the 12th died, this portly Italian cardinal was a grandfather-figure who, if elected the new pope, made cardinals think he’d not change anything and let the 70 of them continue their status quo ways.  When elected pope, he surprised everyone by saying it was time to open the windows of the Vatican and let fresh air come in.  He believed it was time to update the Church—and so called for Vatican Council II.

Of the many issues the Council addressed, liturgy was one.  Thus, we saw churches everywhere change from using Latin to having mass said in the “vernacular” (the language of the people among whom the mass was being celebrated).  This was an issue that Martin Luther (and others) had promoted 400 years earlier.  As you know, although we’ve had the mass in English since the 1960s, there are some who still want the mass said in Latin.   A document issued by the Council was titled “The Church in the Modern World,” and so it was that Pope John wanted Catholicism to speak to the new issues that arose in the post-World War 2 world.

He expanded the College of Cardinals to number 75 and ordained the first Japanese and Filipino Cardinals.  For centuries, the Catholic Church had more Italians in leadership positions, but John wanted the Church to live up to its name, i.e., “Catholic” (which means “universal”).  If only Italians were in leadership roles, this would hardly be a universal Church.  Today there are 226 Cardinals, but Italians still have the highest representation.

Institutions (be they churches, clubs, businesses, families) “only change if threatened with extinction—and then only change enough to offset the threat.”  So, it is not surprising that John Paul the 2nd was not known for change, but instead encouraged returning the Church to its pre-Vatican 2 identity.  A sociological curiosity on this period in history is that John 23rd was not a wild-eyed radical in his effort to see Roman Catholicism update itself.  He simply saw that some changes were long overdue (despite what some “conservatives” were bemoaning).

Some quotes for which John is known are worthy of our prayerful reflection:

Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. 

Think not about your frustrations but about your unfulfilled potential

Think not of what you tried and failed in—but with what it is still possible for you to do.

Do not walk thru time without leaving worthy evidence of your passage

Returning to the topic of prayer, Pope John said: “Prayer is the raising of the mind to God. The actual words matter less” (which is why each day can be our prayer—as we raise our mind to God in pondering what wonderful life-blessings we have in everyday behaviors).  One writer put it this way:

What is Prayer?  To pray is to laugh, whistle, dance on happy feet, sing, shout, and jump higher than ever before.  But it is also to whisper, wonder, stumble in dark places, cry, scream or just hold a tired head in tired hands and wait.

Prayer is our tired reaching out to the one who holds us closer and loves us more than we can imagine.

You might be tempted to think of prayer as asking God for something—and not getting it.  Therefore, praying is useless—of no value—dead in the water.  If tempted to think in these terms, you might consider that prayer doesn’t so much change something outside of ourselves, but it has the power to  praying ourselves.

And if you feel blue or down or depressed, you might reflect on what John 23rd said.  “When God created shadows, it was done to better emphasize the light.”  It’s as if the “shadow” of some experience is pointing us to the “light” we need to find.

And finally, John 23rd encouraged us when saying:

“Anyone can be the pope.  The proof of this is that I have become one.”

October 16, 2022

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1228) is one of the great saints of Christianity—a religious order (the “Franciscans”) bearing  his name, and the present pope (Pope Francis) taking his name.  It was Francis who was the first to have the “stigmata”—the wounds of Christ appear on his body in the 1100s—the first in Church history to have these marks.  Named the patron saint of ecology, his name is invoked all the time for issues related to care for creation and the animals with whom we share the earth.  His feast day is October 4th.

A well-known story associated with Francis is that on his deathbed, his donkey wept.  A not so well- known story is that of Francis and the wolf of Gubbio, Italy.  Perhaps it is a parable or perhaps there is some historical truth to the story.  Here it is.

A wolf was killing the livestock of Gubbio, and some persons were even attacked.   Francis learned of this problem and went into the wilderness looking for the wolf (might here be some moral to the story about not running from wolves but confronting them—with kindness?).  Francis confronted the wolf (and didn’t run from it or ignore it or let it carry on with its behavior) and didn’t back down, but instead confronted it, and told the wolf that he was needlessly causing trouble in the community (you can see parallels with people being “wolf-is” against others in society—and Francis “standing up against” such people).

N.B., people talk to their dogs, cats, and birds, but speaking to wild animals came home starkly to me one day in West Virginia.  I was tending my garden/box turtle sanctuary when a “murder” (technical name for a flock) of crows excitedly “cawed” back and forth.  It got so loud and carried on so long that I finally looked up and addressed the group.  “Please tone it down. I don’t mind you guys talking, but you’re really being loud today and some people are probably still sleeping.”  At once, they stopped.  Gradually one would fly away, then another, and another—until the scene was quiet.

The wolf was hungry and needed food, so Francis said that if the wolf stopped raiding the village, the people would take care of him—and feed him.  Francis extended his hand to shake, and the wolf extended his paw.  Francis returned to town, and the wolf followed him.  People screamed but Francis assured them that the world would not be a problem.  He shook the paw of the wolf in front of everyone—and from that day on, the people left out a bowl of food for the wolf, and he never again caused a problem.  Once his basic needs had been met, he no longer had to be a predator (not unlike what happens when poor populations are given work and wages-and crime statistics plummet).

With this week being the feast of Francis, and with me thinking of this wolf story, I was reminded of a contemporary story.  You can Google the story on the Internet by typing “Romeo, Alaska black wolf”).  A photographer and his dog were on the outskirts of a town that had a small lake.  In taking photos, the man noticed a black wolf coming near, but could not stop his dog from running toward the wolf.  He feared the worst.  Instead, the wolf and the dog proceeded to play—running after one another, resting, and running again.

Over time, people came to skate on the lake, and the wolf mixed with their dogs and some of them.  It was a Garden of Eden scene of people and nature together in harmony.  Until the day 6 years later when 2 poachers killed the black wolf.  The people of the town put up a marble marker at the lake site—commemorating the town wolf’s appreciated presence among the people.  He had no pack—except being with the people.

A good, concrete example of the power of good versus the power of evil—the wolf and townspeople  versus the poachers—symbols of what the New Testament addresses.  We have the power to be one or the other.

The more St. Francis grew in wisdom and in his understanding that God’s love goes out to all creatures, the more he began to see that all creatures make up one family. The most important key to Francis’ understanding that all creatures form one family is the Incarnation.

This week St. Francis came to me in the form of a man at the gas station where I was getting a coffee.  There I stood in line looking for enough change to pay for my coffee—when the clerk said “No need to pay.  That man paid for it.”  An older black man was exiting and was still within voice range as I exited.  I said “thanks very much,” and he pulled out his wallet and asked if I needed money.  The next day, I was in the Meijer parking lot leaning against the hood of the car when a black woman stopped and asked if I was feeling okay.  I answered yes, and thanked her for her bothering to ask.

Both examples reminded me of Francis helping fellow creatures—in this instance 2 humans helping another human, their black and white ancestors representing a history that was not always one that saw them helping one another.

Centuries before an “ecology/environmental movement” began, the prayer that follows was composed by Francis.  It is known as “The Canticle of the Sun.”

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!  All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.  No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.  

And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!  Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom You brighten the night.  He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You; through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace, for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.  

Woe to those who die in mortal sin!  Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will, for the second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve Him with great humility.

October 9, 2022

Last week, I mentioned how the wealthy Philadelphia heiress, Katherine Drexel, chose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by becoming a nun.  She eventually founding a religious congregation (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) that addressed the needs of Blacks and American Indians.  She died in 1955 and was canonized October 1st on the feast day of St. Theresa of Liseux in 1970.

Born into very different circumstances in 1873 was Therese Martin, one of 5 sisters whose parents were Louis and Zolie Martin of Liseux, France.  Dying in 1894, Theresa would become known around the world as “the little flower.”  She was canonized a saint (as were her parents—the only married couple so honored by the Church).  The Martin family was poor in material goods but wealthy in spirit.  The 5 sisters all became nuns.

With little education, Theresa entered the convent at the age of 15, wanted to travel to foreign lands as a missionary—but remained a lifelong resident in her hometown of Liseux–dying of tuberculosis at age 24.   How could this uneducated, homebound, peasant girl become the patron saint of missionaries and be named a “doctor of the Church?”

While confined to the infirmary, Theresa’s superior asked her to write her autobiography.  Shortly after her death, Theresa became known around the world.  The Story of a Soul was published and became a best-seller, and is a “classic” within religious literature.

In reflecting on one of the great women of Christian history, Theresa of Avila, Theresa thought of their respective identities.  The following reflection inspired the name by which she is best known–“the little flower.”

Comparing herself to the giant of spirituality, St. Theresa of Avila, she wrote:

“In God’s garden, there are big flowers and little flowers.  Not all of us can be big lilies and roses.  Some of us have to be content to be little daisies—and God loves those little daisies just as much as he does those big lilies and roses.”

A spirituality that she embraced has become known as “the little way”—born of her desire to serve God as best as she could (given her illness).  These are the 5 points that define this “way”: 1) humility in all endeavors, 2) confidence in God’s mercy and loving kindness, 3) tranquil trust in God, 4) persistence in prayer, and 5) daily prayer to walk the way of love.  She described the purpose for these exercises as follows: “I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way – very short and very straight little way.”

If someone belittled her in some way, she thought the Christian response should be to not retaliate defensively or angrily, but simply to absorb the person’s sharp tongue.  Similarly, she would choose to sit at the dinner table next to persons who were a challenge socially.

Some might think of Theresa as a pious young nun whose vision of being a Church member was crafted solely by traditionalists.  Not so!  This came to mind some years back when John Paul II issued the mandate that no one was to discuss the issue of women’s ordination.  His position led many women to leave the Catholic Church and affiliate with Episcopalian, Lutheran, and other denominations that ordained women.  Had the pope spoken with Theresa, his position might have changed.  She wrote “If only I could be a priest.”

Perhaps seeking a Polish counterpart to Theresa, John Paul II submitted the name of Sr. Marie Faustina (Helena Kowalska) for consideration as a saint.  He did this when he was Archbishop of Krakow.  Faustina’s diary gave rise to what today is known as the Devotion to the Divine Mercy—which became popular in Poland. When her Diary was submitted to Rome, Vatican readers found it filled with misspellings, bad punctuation, and poor sentence structure.  Her claim to having visions probably contributed to the Vatican’s concerns. Church theologians could not make much sense of the diary and, judged the devotion heretical.

However, Faustina was not to be denied.  Eventually becoming the pope, her countryman (JP2) who first introduced her cause to Rome—no doubt had some influence with a new set of Roman officials entrusted with determining who merited sainthood.  Not to be deterred by judgments of the past, JP2 canonized her in the year 2000.  Born to a family of 10 children (not just 5 as in Theresa’s case), Saint Faustina also served in menial roles within the convent and, like Theresa, died of tuberculosis at a young age (33).

So the Church has given us the examples of St. Katherine Drexel, St. Theresa, and St. Faustina.  Be one born into wealth or poverty, or be one a great intellect, or one of questionable ability—their lives remind us of God’s calling each person to discover their gifts and use them in whatever unique way they might.

We might question our ability to make a positive mark on anyone or any thing.  If you feel blue and consider your life not going anywhere, consider the following account.

While on her deathbed, Sister Theresa Martin heard another nun say: “I wonder what our Prioress will say about Sister Theresa when she dies.  She has certainly never done anything worth speaking about.”

May we be the person God calls us to be—in any “little way” we can.

October 2, 2022

For the 2nd week in a row we have a “guilt trip” laid on us by the Prophet Amos—the “social justice prophet.” Last week he slammed us by saying we trample upon the poor.  This week, he continues that condemnatory language.  He’s not saying we’re bad because we have nice things.  His concern, again, goes farther–calling attention to our neglect of people-in-need around us.  Woe to us who stare at our navels as the world’s people die from wars, diseases, and environmental decay.

Keep in mind that scripture is not just a history of people in the past—but is a description of OUR behaviors in the present.  Each of us is being called to examine our behavior through the lens of what we read in scripture.

How does Amos describe us?  Stated in terms we might use today, we plop down on ivory-colored beds and nice couches—eating lamb and veal—and getting massaged with the finest oils.  We don’t just drink wine from cups.  Instead, the people in the time of Amos (and now) guzzle “BOWLS” of it to “get high”–as we dance the night away—oblivious to those outside their bubble who are just trying to “get by.”  Prophet Amos sees these behaviors and can’t comprehend why “those who Have” don’t “get sick” at what they see among the “Have-nots.”  People live what the self-absorbed call “the good life” and say to themselves “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

The thoughts and feelings of Prophet Amos are echoed centuries later by Jesus—when he tells the story of Dives (a rich man) and Lazarus (penniless). The story depicts the theme that Amos expressed.  The rich man (us) is indifferent to the poor man lying outside his door (recall the people who Amos described had the best of everything—eating “sumptuously” (like Dives)–orgy-like–each day).

With dogs licking the poor man’s sores, Jesus portrays Lazarus as being in REALLY bad shape.  A significant point you might miss is that we aren’t told if Lazarus was from Greece, Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Middle East.  We only know that the “star” of this story is a PERSON in need.  We don’t know his skin-color or his ethnic identity. With Jesus telling the story, it’s clear that we are Dives—a rich person who only pays attention to his own needs.

The parable starkly reminds listeners that the way of Dives is not the way to eternal life.  Moreover, we’re cautioned to not be so judgmental toward Lazarus-types.  It’s persons like him who end up in “the bosom of Abraham”—while the well-bred, well-fed, well-mannered, and wealthy people everywhere may well be in torment.

It is implicit in the parable that we are NOT called to live as Dives did.  The letter to Thomas spells out the way we are called to walk.  Namely, Paul’s epistle suggests that if we pursue faith, we’re on the right track (recall “seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened?”).

When someone says they don’t know if there’s a God, they thus excuse themselves from undertaking the quest. Presumably, they find their time better spent looking for a “sweet spot” that tells them “it doesn’t get any better than this.”  Jesus and Paul, of course, beg to differ with that line of thought.  Maybe they’d be best served by following Paul’s counsel to foster other modes of living in the world, namely, righteousness, love, patience, and gentleness.   THOSE are the “sweet spots” of human existence which defeat the mirages of meaning that seduce us to pursue behaviors that are ultimately lifeless (as in the case of Dives).

Paul noted the qualities I seek to find more in evidence within human behavior.  Even if I had trouble believing in the existence of God, I’d STILL want to be in a world, or associated with people who manifest these behaviors.

Once again, the week’s scripture readings dovetailed with the feast day of someone whose life was reflected in them.  Padre Pio was an Italian Franciscan born into poverty (NOT the “good life”) who was devoutly Catholic at an early age.  Uneducated, he received special training, was ordained, and sent to minister at his family’s village.

He received the “stigmata” at an early age—that term referring to people who get mysteriously marked with the crucifixion wounds of Jesus.  St. Francis of Assisi was the first to receive the stigmata (a thousand years after the time of Jesus—so the phenomenon didn’t appear during the first thousand years of Christianity).  Opinion is divided with regard to the reason for stigmatics arising (there have been others, but not recognized as Padre Pio).  People came from around the world to see him and get his blessing—reports saying he was in the confessional for 12-14 hours each day.

This poor, uneducated Lazarus-like man became a blessing for millions.  By contrast, Pennsylvania-born Katherine Drexel was born into wealth and well-educated.  Like Pio, she was devout, and entered the convent—eventually founding a religious order of nuns dedicated to ministry within Black and Indian communities.  Like Pio, she gave what she had to the service of God—and achieved sainthood.

Last week, the wealthy and famous and idolized quarterback, Bret Favre, was vilified in the news for financial dealings (taking taxpayer funds for the poor) that were immoral (if not illegal).  Each day, we are presented in some way with these extremes—Bret Favre types versus Pio/Drexel types.  Each day we can try to make our own contribution like they did—or like Favre did in Mississippi.  It’s our call in choosing which path to follow.

September 25, 2022

Sunday’s first reading is from the book of Amos—the man who is known as the “prophet of social justice.”  In attending workshops on such topics as fair wages, aid to infants and children, racism, poverty, and other realms of human suffering, one will usually hear a reading from Amos or see a poster with a quote such as “You tread upon the needy!”

As you know, if a vote arises in Washington, and if Church people (at home or in public venues) try to influence your vote, someone might say “don’t mix religion with politics.”  But what IS religion?

The “God-man” Jesus came to help us live our everyday lives.  Our everyday affairs include our wrestling with public issues that are “political.”  Is one’s religious practice something they do in the quiet of their room?  Is one’s church not supposed to address “real life” issues (and just send the “flock” into the marketplace and think/do whatever they want to think or do?)

Stated more directly, didn’t Jesus challenge us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked?  Political parties and candidates for public office usually take opposing positions on topics that affect God’s people (who are our “brothers and sister in Christ”). Prophet Amos argued that the rich oppress the poor, and Jesus echoed that teaching.

We hear people say “God helps those who help themselves”—assuming this verse is from some book in the bible.  Surprised—surprise: the line is NOT from the bible.  Remember, Christian theology says that God’s outreach is to all people (e.g., we’re all prodigal sons and daughters in some way).  The phrase could just as well be uttered by a person who has no interest in helping anyone.

Such a soul is equivalently saying “Hey! I don’t want to give financial or any kind of support to anyone—because God will help those who help themselves!”  By using this quote, people are thus able to horde their wealth—and present themselves as actually helping others by saying one’s lot in life totally depends on the individual and God (“not me”—they think to themselves).

A friend recently visited the poorest county in the U.S.—an Indian reservation.  He said that the scene was tragic—leading the nation in all sorts of bad statistics (poor schools, addiction, unemployment, infant mortality, suicide, etc.).  Knowing people on this reservation, I felt for them and the tribe as a whole.  Why is poverty so overwhelming there—year after year?

I think that everyone at mass (myself included) does not think of themselves as “trampling upon the needy.”  But since scripture applies to each of us—no matter what our circumstances—I reflected on the phrase “if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”  Many people subscribe to the thought that “there are no coincidences” and that came to mind when a scandal broke this week. It is the type of incident that would have been addressed by the prophet Amos.

The national news reported that football legend Bret Favre was part of a scandal in Mississippi that brought prophet Amos to life.  Keep in mind that Mississippi is a state that vies with West Virginia for being counterpart to Pine Ridge.  They have the highest unemployment, lowest education scores, poverty everywhere, and welfare aid that tries to keep people from starving.If it isn’t one, it’s the other state leading the nation at being ranked #50 (the poorest).

Turns out that a number of wealthy individuals (Favre included) managed to get 77 million dollars from the state’s programs that funded poverty programs.  Remember, the “Hall of Fame” quarterback made millions during his career.  His “take” in this affair was several million dollars.  With it, he built a volleyball court at the university his daughter attended (and where she played the spot.)  Maybe the people who took the money did so on legal grounds.  But what may be legal isn’t necessarily ethical.

I’ve often wondered why the Pine Ridge reservation has suffered poverty ever since the tribe settled into sedentary ways.  Like Mississippi, the reservation apparently has predators who know how to gain access to funds that were intended to bring the people out of poverty.  Prophet Amos would be a very relevant voice in Mississippi and Pine Ridge.

We turn to our sacramental identity as Catholics and Christians hoping to nurture our best instincts.  They can then spawn behaviors that change the social order (which is how religion walks hand in hand with “politics”).  For example, when I was at a grocery store, a well-dressed woman carried a container of strawberries.  Trying to do my good deed for the day, I told her that she could get 2 pounds for the price of one at a different counter.  Instead of saying thanks, ignoring me, or telling me to mind my own business, she simply said: “I don’t care about prices.”

I thought of Pine Ridge poverty and this person’s dismissive comment about saving a couple of dollars.  2 worlds of experience—haves and have-nots.  One tries to put food on the table while the other doesn’t care what the price of food is (since the cost is not an issue).  This same week, a television show featured homes for sale in Hawaii.

These homes cost millions of dollars—their cost being enough to subsidize the construction of enough domestic units to end Pine Ridge’s overcrowding (sometimes 4 generations and numerous people in a small bungalow).
The weekend’s gospel also addressed how one handles their wealth (Jesus spoke of people who were corrupt—and where their destination would be after death—a theme taken up in next week’s reading, too).

Something to keep in mind: When scripture or Church tradition addresses the topic of wealth, feelings can be stirred and arguments wages on different fronts.  Some Christians—in the Franciscan tradition especially—might favor the “desert fathers” tradition of living on scraps and barely getting by (and saying that this is how Jesus wants us to live).  Others, meanwhile, adopt a spirituality that simply stated that Christians use whatever they need to use to accomplish great things for God’s people.  In this tradition, one must not confuse the created with the Creator.

Our culture is largely one formed by Madison Avenue—calling us to be possessed by our possessions.   We confuse created things with the creator—and pledge allegiance to acquiring “the good life.”  St. Ignatius said we were created to praise, reverence, and serve God—and attain eternal salvation.  Most American youth know only the Madison Avenue creed that stresses “what’s in it for me.”

What to make of this week’s readings and economics?  Keep in mind that God made us because God loves us and wants us to be happy.  God doesn’t care if you have a yacht or cottage on the lake or nice clothing or other material things.  Think instead of God calling you and me to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick, etc. The weekend readings are, instead, a call to consciousness (via Amos and the parables of Jesus).

Does your vision extend beyond the mirror?  Do you extend to others ANY kind of assistance?  If you seek to serve God by being a Franciscan or Jesuit—great!  There are many roads on which to take in accompanying Jesus.

Of all weeks (again, “coincidentally”) the news reported that a billionaire (whose name I can’t recall—which I had never previously known)—donated his fortune to all sorts of charities.  Something must have moved him to do this deed (which perhaps incurred the wrath of his heirs).  God calls each of us to be a disciple in our own unique way—and we’re here at mass to hear his voice which gives  us guidance.

The type of world that I want to sustain and see grow is expressed in these simple verses I came across, coincidentally, this week.  They resonate with what scripture calls us to envision.

Kind hearts are the garden.

Kind words are the roots.  

Kind deeds are the flowers.

Kind deeds are the roots.

Take care of your garden.

And keep out the weeds.

Fill it with sunshine, kind words, and kind deeds.

September 18, 2022

Here are a few words about the “lectionary”–the book of scripture readings used for weekdays and weekend masses.  The book is structured such that one sees a theme common to the 3 weekend readings.  However, the weekday readings appear randomly—without a theme connecting them.

I raise this topic now because there appears to be little connection between the Philemon epistle and the other two readings.  After saying a few words about Philemon, we can attend to Wisdom and Luke.

Here’s the cultural setting.  Philemon is a slave.  Paul is in prison.  Onesimus is the one who owns Philemon.  Paul reflects on his friendship with Philemon and the ministry they performed together.  Perhaps Paul felt in his heart that slavery was not unlike the unjust imprisonment he was then experiencing himself.

It dawns on Paul that his companion-minister deserved something far better than slavery.  Paul thus pleads with Onesimus to give Philemon his freedom.  Recall Paul elsewhere said there is no Jew nor Gentile nor man nor woman nor slave nor free person when it comes to Jesus.  We are brothers and sisters!

Leading up to the Civil War, the North cited this epistle as a Pauline statement calling for an end to slavery back in his time.  The South used the same epistle to push for continuing slavery. Meanwhile, European nations had forsaken slavery and plantation owners convinced poor whites that free slaves would take jobs previously held by whites.

Over the years, popes have issued encyclicals that address “just wages,” slavery, and the morality of other economic systems—the issue being one of “haves” and “have nots” (a topic that apparently never goes away). Regardless of what Paul had in mind relative to slavery as an institution, he at least called attention to something not being “right” in the case of his fellow Christian and co-laborer.

When scripture was read to me this weekend (since it takes me so long to read), my reader was surprised and disappointed to hear Jesus say that his following had to abandon spouse, parents, children, and other relatives—if they are to follow him.  Taken literally, these are harsh words.  However, Jesus was exaggerating in order to make his point.  Recall he enjoined us to observe the commandments (honor father and mother) and to love one another—so he’s not calling people to turn their backs on family members.

Instead, Jesus is making a simple point in strong words that initially would shock his listeners (abandon your family???  Huh??).  He’s speaking to a culture that was bound together by familial relationships.  Family members were beholden to one another—in business and all practical matters. While helpful in some ways, family obligations were a constant challenge.  To be relieved of this burden (by following Jesus instead of family mandates), one could find new life (offered by Jesus).

As the book of Wisdom said in the weekend reading, God knows all things and we don’t.  It’s a no-brainer as to where we should cast our lot.  St. Ignatius would say that this weekend’s readings call us to “discern spirits” (prayerfully seek and find what God is calling us to do or say—REGARDLESS of what’s popular or what our families/friends say we should do or think).

Maybe the reading from Philemon is in today’s script since it reminds us of Paul coming to a new awareness about slavery.  Just as Paul realized he should change his position on the slavery of Philemon, so we are being called by God/by Jesus—to change our thinking about some life-issue.  Each of us needs to “discern” where the Spirit of God is calling us to new growth and new ways of thinking.

September 11, 2022

Here are a few words about the “lectionary”–the book of scripture readings used for weekdays and weekend masses.  The book is structured such that one sees a theme common to the 3 weekend readings.  However, the weekday readings appear randomly—without a theme connecting them.

I raise this topic now because there appears to be little connection between the Philemon epistle and the other two readings.  After saying a few words about Philemon, we can attend to Wisdom and Luke.

Here’s the cultural setting.  Philemon is a slave.  Paul is in prison.  Onesimus is the one who owns Philemon.  Paul reflects on his friendship with Philemon and the ministry they performed together.  Perhaps Paul felt in his heart that slavery was not unlike the unjust imprisonment he was then experiencing himself.

It dawns on Paul that his companion-minister deserved something far better than slavery.  Paul thus pleads with Onesimus to give Philemon his freedom.  Recall Paul elsewhere said there is no Jew nor Gentile nor man nor woman nor slave nor free person when it comes to Jesus.  We are brothers and sisters!

Leading up to the Civil War, the North cited this epistle as a Pauline statement calling for an end to slavery back in his time.  The South used the same epistle to push for continuing slavery. Meanwhile, European nations had forsaken slavery and plantation owners convinced poor whites that free slaves would take jobs previously held by whites.

Over the years, popes have issued encyclicals that address “just wages,” slavery, and the morality of other economic systems—the issue being one of “haves” and “have nots” (a topic that apparently never goes away). Regardless of what Paul had in mind relative to slavery as an institution, he at least called attention to something not being “right” in the case of his fellow Christian and co-laborer.

When scripture was read to me this weekend (since it takes me so long to read), my reader was surprised and disappointed to hear Jesus say that his following had to abandon spouse, parents, children, and other relatives—if they are to follow him.  Taken literally, these are harsh words.  However, Jesus was exaggerating in order to make his point.  Recall he enjoined us to observe the commandments (honor father and mother) and to love one another—so he’s not calling people to turn their backs on family members.

Instead, Jesus is making a simple point in strong words that initially would shock his listeners (abandon your family???  Huh??).  He’s speaking to a culture that was bound together by familial relationships.  Family members were beholden to one another—in business and all practical matters. While helpful in some ways, family obligations were a constant challenge.  To be relieved of this burden (by following Jesus instead of family mandates), one could find new life (offered by Jesus).

As the book of Wisdom said in the weekend reading, God knows all things and we don’t.  It’s a no-brainer as to where we should cast our lot.  St. Ignatius would say that this weekend’s readings call us to “discern spirits” (prayerfully seek and find what God is calling us to do or say—REGARDLESS of what’s popular or what our families/friends say we should do or think).

Maybe the reading from Philemon is in today’s script since it reminds us of Paul coming to a new awareness about slavery.  Just as Paul realized he should change his position on the slavery of Philemon, so we are being called by God/by Jesus—to change our thinking about some life-issue.  Each of us needs to “discern” where the Spirit of God is calling us to new growth and new ways of thinking.

July 3, 2022

Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds us of a powerful theological mystery and reality—that God is “Our Father who art in heaven” but also “Our Mother,” too.  Isaiah alludes to us as God’s children, and draws upon a maternal image of God as “a mother [who] comforts her child.”  Like a mother does with her baby, “so will I comfort you.”

The oldest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel have Jesus sending both 70 or 72 disciples into the world.  Scholars think Luke’s intention was to show that Jesus sent them to all the nations of the world (computed as 70 or 72)—so the number is symbolic.  As with Acts of the Apostles, Luke is showing that Jesus himself (and not just the institutional Church later on) commissioned his followers to take the Gospel to all peoples of the world (“Gentiles” as well as Jews).  So you can see that “the harvest” is a big one (all the people of the world) and so needs ALL of his followers to be laborers now.  This passage has been (and still is) used for recruiting Christians to be priests, nuns, and brothers.  While they are included, the call is broader than that.

Did you notice Jesus saying that his followers should not speak to anyone they pass on the road?  That they should dress poorly? Rely on people to feed them? And take nothing with them?  Surprise!! His counsel was not a call for his followers to be vagrants.  Christian history has seen some people and religious groups embrace this passage as a call to living a strict life of poverty, or as a member of a “mendicant” (begging) order.  However, the statement Jesus made has nothing to do with spirituality. He even sounds unfriendly and not very “Christian” when advising them not to speak to anyone.  Here’s what was at play.

As I’ve told you previously, and as illustrated in the 2013 Mark Wahlberg film “Lone Survivor,” the custom of “hospitality” is hard-wired into Mediterranean, Afghan (the site of the film), and other cultures.  In departing their family village, one entered a hostile world where death was always a threat.  One HAD to rely on the kindness of a village elder to extend hospitality and protection.  Jesus was stating a cultural truism: “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (among strangers and non-relatives).

If one dressed poorly when traveling and was obviously not wealthy, they had a better chance of survival.  Jesus was giving pragmatic advice to the people he was sending.  Not only that, he was underlining the importance of what they were doing.  Namely, there are many “wolf-like” philosophies “out there” in public—and they are ready to pounce on bearers of the Gospel message.  Little Red Riding Hood was a moral tale.  People of good will (like the disciples) must be on their guard not to fall prey to those in society who have no regard for people preaching faith, hope, and love.

Times haven’t really changed—because human nature hasn’t changed.  WE are Adam and Eve who make bad decisions that hurt us and others.  WE are people who look at the serpent’s apple and think to ourselves “Boy, that’s a beauty—surely there’d be nothing wrong with my taking a bite.”  Remember: temptation comes at us as PLEASING and has some truth to it.  Evil reveals itself only after we’ve abandoned what we know in our hearts was NOT our best self (in whatever behavior we’ve participated).

So what are some of the “wolf-like” philosophies or “moralities” that exist in our world today which you and I encounter, and perhaps embrace to some extent or another?  There are secular moralities along with moralities based on a religion’s teachings.  Religions and societies don’t want to produce “amoral” citizens—a behavior you have no doubt encountered in some form.

When someone is “amoral,” there is an absence of, indifference to, or disregard for the rightness or wrongness of an action.  The person simply does what they want to do—regardless of its effect on others.  The individual is the sun around whom all planets orbit (so they think)—which is why a baby could be considered “amoral.  They have no sense of right or wrong.  This is not the same as someone being “immoral.”  Immorality occurs when one does something they know or believe to be wrong within the code of conduct their social group espouses.

Moralities determine actions that are good or bad within a cultural context–according to a clear set of rules.  What’s interesting sociologically is that in America, many people probably have a very generic sense of morality that is based more on “pop culture” trends than a religion they practice or don’t practice.  For example, you may recall the 60s spawning the “rule of thumb” morality of “If it feels good, do it.”  This was often associated with the sexual revolution which, in turn, saw people trying all sorts of sexual expression.  However, this guiding principle could just as well apply to anything one decided—on their own—to be “good”—business, child-rearing, drug-taking, wearing or not wearing clothes, fashion styles, etc., etc.  The focus was on what an individual wanted to do that made them “feel good” in some way (steal something if they knew they wouldn’t get caught?).

A religion that started in England in the 1950s was begun by a husband and wife team who didn’t like any religion’s strictures or beliefs.  They consulted books in libraries and designed what they called “Wicca” (an “Olde” English word that means “witch”).  Don’t think evil, nasty, demonic witchery.  Instead, this “church” came to America (California) where it got a following—and is today recognized by the Armed Forces as a legitimate religion with its practitioners allowed access to military bases to conduct services (ideally conducted in what they refer to as “air clad” or nude—“clad” meaning clothed and “air” meaning “air”).

If interested, Google Wicca to learn more.  It is a near-perfect blend of all the social movements in America since 1960 (women leaders, environmental weddedness, interest in the “original” religion of one’s ancestors, Eastern religion elements, sexuality, and a few others.  Notably, the premier Wiccan moral principle (known as the “Wiccan Rede”) is: “If it harm no one, do what you will/wish”).  Once again, this is a “morality” based on what an individual thinks is right or wrong, and is presumptuous enough to know if what they do will harm anyone.  Like other philosophies/moralities that have formed many, if not most, Americans—Wicca’s emphasis is on one’s “independence” FROM a community of faith that discerns tough moral positions to take on all the many aspects of human existence.

The popular film “Easy Rider” also captured a tenet of moralities which so many live by today.  We still use this expression when encouraging someone to follow their dream.  The line is “Do your own thing.”  The film’s main character was aptly and intentionally named “Captain America” (because Americans were becoming more and more disciples of the morality his behavior “preached”—via actions and not words).  Actor Peter Fonda said: “Do your own thing—in your own time.”

Dovetailing nicely with the above pop culture  “wolf moralities” is a widespread mentality that has been around a long time—and it’s the opposite of what the Gospel teaches.  It’s the self-centered code of conduct: “Do whatever you can to get ahead”—a no holds barred fight to make sure you survive at least—and flourish at best.  If it’s at the expense of others—who cares?  You’re #1!!!  All is fair game in the business world (or any area of life).  There is no need for empathy, compassion, or concern for the well-being of others.  Doing unselfish deeds (altruism) is simply not on the table of this morality.  Some university business departments teach Ayn Rand’s writings as praiseworthy—her works contrary to every encyclical any pope ever wrote.  From a Christian perspective, her self-centered business ethic has—UNFORTUNATELY–influenced many people.

Ethics is a provocative topic.  Should we eat meat?  Should we experiment on animals?  Should we use nuclear weapons?  Should we execute people, or kill them when they suffer a disease?  The list is endless.  Most Catholics (and Christians generally) probably know little about their faith tradition’s position on most topics.  This is understandable.  Even I—someone who should keep abreast of things in order to help people—have lots of blind spots.

In light of our need to know WHAT, exactly, we lambs should be offering the secular wolves who could care less about the Gospel—here’s a short list that condenses Church teaching on social issues that are always in the news in some way.  Your friends and neighbors express opinions over coffee, or beer, but they may not be familiar with generations of Catholic moralists/ethicians who have hammered out positions to consider as our own, personal morality. They are:

1) The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.  Notice this isn’t condemning people who are rich, but rather stating that the Gospel priority is people’s NEEDS and not the wealthy’s WANTS.

2) The freedom of the dominated takes priority over the liberty of the powerfulFor this principle, I thought of American novelist Sinclair Lewis—his works of the early 20th century eerily drawing a parallel to the American political scene of the past 3 years. He was a voice on behalf of child labor laws—against American businesses that abused minors in the workplace—until voices like his were able to rally people/politicians to end the abuse.  In short, the “powerful” were well-served by the slave-labor of “dominated” children—and it is this sort of condition that this principle addresses.

3) The participation of marginalized groups takes priority over an order which excludes them.  An easy way to think of this principle is recalling the European (and other) countries that had a royal hierarchy.  Those born into the wealth of the “realm” were sitting pretty—while the rest of the population didn’t.  In 1789, the French Revolution put an end to this disparity of wealth (the Church took it on the chin, too, because of abuses within it).  The revolutionaries weren’t necessarily heroes, but they do at least serve as an illustration of this principle.

An example closer to home would be for any of you who have Irish ancestry. Your ”people” were considered the dregs of society. They were unclean, uneducated, ugly beggars—in short, they were the “marginalized” of American society (along with blacks and Italians).  Each group has its story of oppression—by the prevailing “order which excluded them.”

The above is a lot of material to cover—and really requires more thought, reflection, meditation, and prayer.  We can ask ourselves what kind of morality we have, or what do we WANT it to be?  To help you in the process, what follows is what Jesuits refer to as the “First principle and foundation” from the book by Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits): The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The following thoughts are a modern translation from the Exercises done by an American Jesuit.  They begin the book—and orient the Christian who seeks direction in life.  Ignatius is basically saying: accept these thoughts as your starting point—or at least TRY to accept them in prayer.

The goal of our life is to live with God forever.  God, who loves us and gave us life.  Our response to this gift allows God’s life to flow into us and move us to do good things with our life.

All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily—and more readily behave as Jesus did.

As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God—only insofar as they help us develop as compassionate persons who live the values Jesus did.  But if any of these gifts become the CENTER of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not hindered by some infirmity or bound by some obligation (e.g., if you’re married with small children you shouldn’t try to join a monastic order—because you have an “obligation” to your spouse and family.)  We should be indifferent to all things—and not fix our desires on health over sickness, wealth over poverty, success over failure, a long life over a short one.  For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better lead to God’s deepening His life in me.

June 26, 2022

A survey on religion in America this week spoke of dwindling church attendance and fewer people believing in God. When today we read of Elijah’s role of prophet being passed to Elisha, and us having that same role, I get discouraged.  Why?  Because many probably don’t know that the role of “prophet” is part of our Christian identity, because fewer people are at church or reading scripture to even think about the role, and because those who DO attend mass or read scripture probably think a prophet is one who predicts events that will take place in the future.  One can hardly perform the duties of prophet if they don’t know it’s theirs to perform or what the role entails.

So let it be known that a prophet in our faith tradition refers not to someone who predicts the future but to one who sees what God is calling us to do NOW.  Recall that Jesus reduced the 613 laws in Hebrew scriptures to 2—that one love (respect/honor/reverence, etc.) God, and that one love (respect/honor/reverence, etc.) their neighbor.  Paul said that love of God can only express itself historically as love of neighbor.

These understandings are all well and good—FOR THOSE WHO GO TO CHURCH OR STUDY SCRIPTURE, but what about our family members whose consciousness is filled with thoughts that relate solely to secular things?  According to what value system are children being raised—MTV or the sleaze and superficiality that floods the social media that occupies their time?  Do our young (or middle-agers) even think about a Creator’s existence, the person of Jesus, and our relationship to one or the other (or both)?  According to the survey, many DON’T think of these things—much less speak to God (prayer) or attend church services.

If only non-religious people (who prefer calling themselves “more SPIRITUAL than religious”) would expose themselves to our “Sabbath” experience, they might best deal with what scripture refers to as “the Spirit and the flesh.”  Unfortunately, when some people hear that phrase (Spirit/flesh), they think it refers to mind over matter, or your mental functions versus your bodily-ness—and that the focus here is on the fight against so-called “desires of the flesh” (or sexual behavior).

Instead of that understanding, it is more helpful to think of “the Spirit” as the fullest, most sacred identity scripture calls us to live or achieve.  It is the vision of “righteousness” or goodness or grace that should guide us in life.  A tension exists when our “human condition” contends with this vision—and we are tempted to be self-centered (this human condition is the “flesh” referred to).  Its focus is not on sexuality, but our entire identity as living/breathing children of God who interact with one another—with challenges these include—on a daily basis.  Spirit tries to orient our “flesh” in all areas of life—and help us transcend self-centeredness so that we can “love our neighbor.”

In the time of Jesus (and still largely practiced by Orthodox Judaism today), there were many Sabbath rules and regulations one had to observe.  Like any religion’s rules, they were intended to keep one’s mind and actions rooted in a knowledge, reverence, and service of God in the everyday world of human life.  There were 39 categories of observance (they can be found on the Internet).  In general, within Jewish life, one could do very little on the Sabbath, e.g., one could go outside clothed, but not wearing a watch or carrying anything in their pockets, no lighting a fire, no cleaning clothes or planting seeds or harvesting or kneading dough or sewing, etc., etc.  One’s attention was oriented toward the God who made us—and could not be distracted by the many behaviors that occupy our time on other days of the week.

Whereas the Jewish Sabbath was from sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday (and not the ONE HOUR mass we attend on a weekend), emperor Constantine changed the Christian Sabbath to Sunday—naming it the first day of the week (to honor the resurrection—which should be a thought that stays with us throughout the days of the week that follow).  Jewish Sabbath rules were all-encompassing but ours have been whittled down over the centuries.

Our colonial ancestors may not have observed all 39 categories, but they weren’t far behind our Jewish roots.  Among a number of mandates, the Massachusetts Bay colony said that people could not do unnecessary walking on Sunday, or riding, or courting your beloved, or playing games of any kind.  Even laughing on Sunday was discouraged (after all, as one sermon described, we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God”).  A ship captain returned from weeks at sea, and was reprimanded for kissing his wife upon return on a Sunday.  When some religious people get secular power, their religion can become like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Because Sunday laws were printed on blue paper, they became known up to our present day as “blue laws,” and some places still don’t permit selling alcohol on Sunday (I’m familiar with a township in the upper peninsula that prohibits alcohol sales).  Many might recall seeing signs on their windshields saying “Stop, don’t shop on Sundays” when the trend to do business 7 days a week was gaining momentum.  Now, of course, we can shop at most (not all) businesses on Sunday.  “Mammon” is a powerful deity that can command the allegiance of many people. Google the word “mammon.”

Although this weekend is in “ordinary” time, and not like Corpus Christi, or Trinity, or Pentecost weekends, it does remind us of God being a God of us “ordinary” people.  In that sense, it ranks right up there as a “solemn” feast day we should observe like we do those other feasts.  Just think of it: the God of all creation—Who made the universe, the Rockies, the Pacific, all the animals and wonders of nature—is a God who cares about, and knows, YOU!!  Hard to believe, yes—but that’s our faith tradition.

This past week, 2 feast days were honored—one for St. Thomas More, and the other for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In light of what is playing out in D.C., More’s life is especially relevant—as it sheds light on Spirit and flesh issues that unfold at the national level.  He was somewhat like England’s parallel to the Speaker of the House.  That is, he was a very high government official who had to deal with Henry the 8th’s effort to assert control over all things in England—including the Church.  He made everyone sign what’s known to history as the “Oath of Supremacy.”  Thomas More wouldn’t sign this document—because he believed the Pope was the leader of the Church (not any king).  In refusing to roll over and do what Henry said, he was sent to the guillotine.  His final words were: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

The Sacred Heart devotion started in the late 1600’s with a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque (now a saint).  Her spiritual director was Claude Colombiere (now a saint).  Here’s what St. Margaret Mary claimed Jesus asked her to tell people if they practiced the devotion to His Sacred Heart:

“I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.  I will give peace in their families.  I will console them in all their troubles.  I will be their refuge in life and especially in death.  I will abundantly bless all their undertakings.  Sinners shall find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.  Tepid souls shall become fervent.  Fervent souls shall rise speedily to great perfection.  I will bless those places wherein the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.  I will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts.  Persons who propagate this devotion shall have their names eternally written in my Heart. In the excess of the mercy of my Heart, I promise you that my all powerful love will grant to all those who will receive Communion on the First Fridays, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance: they will not die in my displeasure, nor without receiving the sacraments; and my Heart will be their secure refuge in that last hour.

The above piety is not what most people today embrace.  Its spirit, however, is at the center of our faith.  Namely, the “heart” of Jesus refers to God’s love for each of us.  The “rules and regulations” (reminiscent of Sabbath laws and colonial laws and blue laws) are a “discipline” or are “exercises” that people can observe so that they acquire a felt sense of God’s affection for them.  She and Claude really had a great experience when getting in touch with this love.

The same reverence/honor/affection for God motivated Thomas More to lay down his life.  He wrote the following prayer:

God, grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.  Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”  Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.

June 19, 2022

In hearing Luke report that 5,000 men were present for the miracle of loaves and fishes, we might think he’s sounding sexist—thinking it important that only men be mentioned on this occasion (i.e., “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”).  If his description of the event didn’t resonate well with you, be at peace.  He was simply reporting a cultural practice of the time, viz., women and men did not mix in public—nor did they eat together at home.  Instead, women and children ate before the men—who gathered later on (when boys reached puberty, they joined the men).

If you were listening attentively to the gospel, you heard words that sounded familiar—since you hear them at mass.  When Jesus was presented the loaves, he gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples (sounding very much like the words of consecration that we’ll hear in a few minutes). But there’s more to the passage than words echoing Holy Thursday’s “last supper” event.

When learning that “the disciples gave their food to the people,” we might get a sense of Jesus moving people to share what they had brought to the deserted place.  Maybe some people had a picnic basket with more hot dogs than they needed, and some had brought more hamburgers than their family could consume—and so on down the line.  Perhaps the miracle performed was incentivizing people to share what they have with others.  Voila!  5000 are fed (sort of like us raising $3500 for Ukraine relief one Sunday—or reaching our CMA goal by August—when the NEW appeal for the coming year begins once again!!!!!).

With America having more billionaires today than ever before (and a wider gap between the wealthy and middle class), one can’t help but wonder what people do with all their money.  How much does one really need to have a comfortable life?  Just think if more people extended their largesse to the 4999 others in the crowd—and said to someone nearby “Want a bite to eat of this?” Jesus seemed to suggest that this sort of behavior will improve the lot of all (instead of us hording our wealth).

When our relatives die of some incurable disease, we cry that not enough funds exist to do the research and find a cure.  People buy yachts and houses and cars and clothes and jewelry and, and, and . . .   What about helping fund some cancer research or Alzheimer’s or COPD, or Catholic mission, or parish church, or, or, or? The 5000 is a symbolic number representing MANY people in need all around us. But there’s more.

When Moses was in a “deserted place” with the Israelites, he was given the Torah (the word of God).  The people complained about everything, and about not having enough to eat—whereupon God gave them “manna in the desert.”  But Deuteronomy (a book of the Torah) reminded them that “when you were afflicted with hunger, God fed you with manna . . . to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”  The miracle of feeding the 5000 brings this association to mind within the context of an event also referred to as the “sermon on the mount.”

And who does John’s gospel call the “Word of God?”  Jesus!  And who feeds the 5000 in the desert?  Jesus.  And where did the Israelites put the Torah?  In the ark of the covenant—replaced today by a tabernacle in each synagogue.  And where is the Christian “Word of God” preserved?  In our tabernacle—in the form of our manna in the desert, the consecrated bread from the Eucharist.  So Jesus in today’s reading is the continuation of a story begun with the Israelites being fed by God.

We can sometimes be distracted by language that refers to the “body and blood” of Christ (as when a fellow student in grad school asked me how I could participate in what he called “ritualized cannibalism”).  Not knowing a theology of the Eucharist, he misunderstood what comes natural to us.  I didn’t know how to tell him that the Eucharist refers to the risen Lord—the Christ risen and alive among us—and not to the historical Jesus.  The body and blood of Christ refer not to things in themselves but to an event–the much larger reality of the risen Lord.  Think of St. Augustine’s telling us that the sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality—the invisible reality of God’s love and God’s presence to us at the altar (in scripture and within the faith community).

We are not at mass to venerate bread on the paten and wine in the chalice, but the larger reality of God’s love communicated to us in the real presence of the risen Lord.  Think back to when you first kissed someone whose kiss of you meant that they LOVED you, cared about you, wanted to be with you always.  Think of all the positivity you felt with that kiss—and that person’s presence to you.  Theologian Karl Rahner suggested we think of the Eucharist as a kiss from God (communicating love to us).  When kissed by our beloved, we aren’t venerating their lips—but their total package and presence.  And so it is with God trying to self-communicate to us the reality of your Creator’s love for you.

A similar analogy occurs at Thanksgiving when our family is seated around the table with a turkey in the center.  We’re not there to worship the turkey, but the reality of our presence together as a family—mindful of family members who were once with us at the table, but are no longer present.  We are grateful, hopefully to the tune of someone praying, that we continue to support and love one another—and value one another’s giftedness to us. We pray that we might be a better family member to those present and to those unable to attend this special event (a mini-miracle reminiscent of 5000 eating together as one).  On this occasion, or on the occasion of a special kiss that overwhelms our heart, an accompanying affectionate hug, or warm sense of being valued within our family—are all signs of God’s tangible presence for which we give thanks (the meaning of “eucharist”—to give thanks).

You might even think of us being present at a candlelight dinner—at table with God, our beloved who invited us here.  As when we take someone to a special, candlelight dinner (the low lights dilating our pupils so that our sensory experience of “the other” is more intense).  Such is the meaning of Eucharist—the candle-lit altar/table with bread and wine on it.  We can say “I was at dinner with God”—and the memory of our prayerful conversation on this occasion lingers in our heart (God perhaps changing our hearts and giving us instruction as to how we might better lead our lives in becoming the wonderful person this sacramental meal is celebrating).

So on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (formerly “Corpus Christi” Sunday), don’t think of Jesus sitting in the tabernacle—as a kind of spiritual presence radiating outward.  Nor should you think of a Benediction ceremony as a service in which God wants us to worship a large piece of bread.  Instead, think of Eucharist as “God calling us beyond ourselves, beyond appearances of isolation and helplessness to a vision of ourselves transcending limitations that make us think the cross is where it all stopped.”

Come communion, the host will be held in front of you, and you will hear: “the body of Christ”

This is a question asking you if the Lord is risen and alive in your heart?  When you say Amen—you’re saying yes. It is also another question: “Will you BE the body of Christ alive in the world for others?  We come to mass for consolation and affirmation, but receiving those graces we also are challenged.  We’re being called to go forth from the altar and be manna in the desert for others.

When we’re posed those questions that are implicit in the minister saying “the body of Christ,” may we have the faith to reply “I’m going to give it my best shot: Amen.”

All the while keeping in mind what St. Theresa of Avila said:

Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.  You are the body of Christ.

Communion reflection from poet Emily Dickinson

He was my host — He was my guest,

I never to this day,

If I invited him could tell,

Or he invited me.

June 12, 2022

This being Trinity Sunday, the topic of “3 persons in 1 God” is a rich one.  Appearing nowhere in the bible, the word “trinity” refers to the monotheistic God that is “implicit” in scripture.  Reference is to a “mystery” we cannot fully understand but whose reality we encounter all the time in prayer.

For example, one day we might pray along these lines to “the Father” (a form of address in Israelite culture; a reference to the Creator, to Grandfather-Great Spirit, or to the Mother-like God who is neither male nor female and who has no ethnic origin): “Father in heaven, you made this beautiful earth and this wondrous summer day with the shiny blue-water lake nearby.  Thank you for these many gifts of nature all around me that I take for granted.  And I thank you for my dear helpmate, children, and grandchildren—who I love so much.  They are gifts from you, oh God of all creation.  Inspire me to show them that I love them. For all these gifts, I raise my heart to you in thanks.”

On another day, we might pray to the Son: “Lord Jesus, you know what I’m going through now.  You were human—like me.  You faced the cross and fell on your way to that cross. Please give me strength to face this cross I now confront.  It seems too much for me to carry—but you have shown me that I can carry it.”

And still another time, we might pray: “Holy Spirit, place a fire in my heart—that I might face the challenge of today.  I feel so overwhelmed in dealing with this—that I feel defeated before I’ve begun.  So, kindle within me the strength to rally myself and my spirit—with your grace—so that together we might bring about something good.”

Even though you might naturally speak to “the Godhead” this way, other friends and family members might debate the existence of a Creator.  Or they might say that Jesus was a good man, but not God (which is what the heretical bishop, Arius, preached to his many followers—(Islam’s high regard for Jesus being a kind of Arianism).  The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove or fire or whirring wind—but is also linguistically feminine in some biblical texts and translations.

However, regardless of the metaphor of gender in describing God, one can be outright dismissive of the Holy Spirit’s existence.  Some simply attribute good or great occurrences not to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but simply to the commingling of circumstances and hard work (or good luck).  We who are Christian, by contrast, acknowledge God as 3 persons in 1–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the only person of the trinity who doesn’t speak in scripture).

This Sunday’s reading from Proverbs associates “Woman” Wisdom as present “When the Lord established the heavens.”  She “was there…beside him as his craftsman”–depicted alongside God with divine status, participating in and facilitating creation.  Again, this is a merging of God not just with the masculine (“Our Father, who art in heaven,” “my heavenly Father,” etc.) but also with the feminine (gender being metaphors that point to a God who is beyond those categories).  Today, “she” (Lady Wisdom with the Father at Creation) calls us to be thoughtful and wise—but we ignore her; and she critiques us for being arrogant and close-minded (this being said of us today and not just Old Testament’s “stiff-necked” peoples).

In everyday conversation, we might refer to someone as an “icon” of something—such as Lou Gehrig being an icon of baseball or John Wayne/Marilyn Monroe being icons of Hollywood.  The word refers to someone or some thing or event that represents something else or symbolizes some other reality.   In Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity, the word is used in a very special way.  An icon is a painting not just in the sense of what we ordinarily think of when seeing an artistic portrait.

Icons are, rather, religious images that hover between two worlds—the natural and supernatural–putting into colors and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect.  For Orthodox Christians, they render the invisible visible. Eastern churches have what is known as an “iconostasis”–a wall of icons and religious paintings, according to Wikipedia, that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church.

Like stained-glass windows in cathedrals of old Europe, icons are visual equivalents of scriptures—instructing pre-literate peoples via colorful images.  Among the Lakota Sioux, Black Elk was taught Old and New Testament stories by means of a catechetical chart with pictures known as the “2 Roads Map.”  He, in turn, taught the faith to elder Lakota by means of this “picture catechism.”

Considered a premier icon of Russian iconography is Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” (Google it and do what millions have done over the centuries, viz., spend hours gazing at it and listening for its message).  At first, you might react as I did—and think it a pretty lame piece of art.  I came to see the icon succinctly show forth our Trinitarian theology.

When shown its deeper meanings, I acquired a new appreciation for the Trinity–the Father sending the Son who sent the Spirit who helps us live as the Son instructed.  Although mentioned 75 times in the Hebrew scriptures and 275 times in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit becomes vocal through us. And yet, we are capable of mistaking the Spirit for other spirits.  For example, bible translators try their best to produce an accurate text.  However, they can, unintentionally, err in their effort.

When the Our Father prayer was translated into English, why did they not follow the lead of Spanish translators—who “got it right?”  Perhaps recent editions/translations stuck with the older version of a line because they thought readers would not accept change, or a revision.  Maybe translators thought they might as well just “stick with” what’s familiar—and not provide a more theologically accurate rendering of the Koiné Greek.

For centuries, English speakers have prayed “Lead us not into temptation” (as if God is responsible for pushing us into inescapable temptations—and we are pleading that God NOT torture us this way).  The Greek was best translated by Spanish scholars who rendered its meaning as “Do not let us fall into temptation.”  Even when doing the Lord’s work to the best of our ability, we need the Spirit to help us communicate well.

On that note of having good communication, we can leave behind the many theological issues that challenge our ability to understand the Trinity—and simply live with the mystery of 3 persons in 1 God.  We might instead just say a simple prayer that distills what our attitude should be toward God of the Old and New Testaments.  Let us pray each day: “Hi, God. What can I do for you today?”

June 5, 2022

The readings for Pentecost illustrate how the New Testament counterpoints the Old.  They begin with the tower of Babel story which says that at one time everyone spoke the same language. God made them speak different languages for trying to build a tower that would arise into heaven where they could become powerful like gods.  Anthropologically, this is called an “etiological tale”—a story that tells how something came into being (in this case, diverse languages).  Theologically, among other things, it demonstrates how God can stop human pride by stopping us in our tracks. By contrast, today’s reading from Acts reports how the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to speak a language that all the diverse peoples of the world could understand (the language of the gospel).  Jesus reversed Babel!

Among the Israelites, the feast of Pentecost was originally a sacred day celebrating the grain harvest.  Over time, it became a day celebrating the giving of the Law (the Torah, or first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures).

For Christians, the feast of the Law becomes the feast of the Spirit.  Pentecost is a prime example of Luke, the author of both a gospel and Acts, shows how the story of Jesus went from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

 Okay.  So this is all very interesting history, but what relevance does it have for you or me?

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being with people and sensing that the tone of conversation is NOT what you’d associate with the voice of Jesus.  In fact, the tone might seem outright demonic.  We are also capable of making comments that are not particularly “Christian.”  Carrying this thought further, we might even be aware that what we’re saying or doing is NOT at all Christ-like—but we say or do it anyway.  How is it that we know right from wrong, or what’s Christian and what’s not?  Ta-da—as baptized and sacramental Christians, we are told by our faith-tradition that we have received the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.”  We might not put them into practice all the time, but they do reside within us—and alert us to what values we SHOULD embrace.

As a child learning what these “gifts” were, I knew their names but really didn’t know what each one entailed, or what it concretely meant in my everyday life.  Pentecost is our celebration of receiving these gifts—and I’ll take a stab at how they come into play within our experience.

Wisdom” is considered the greatest of the gifts—but does not equate to “intelligence.”  Instead, it acts upon both our intellect and the will—affirming that “the heart sees what is invisible to the mind.”  Blending mind and heart, wisdom gives us insight as to how we need to act.

 Understanding” illuminates one’s understanding of scripture, religious ritual, & profound appreciation for God’s providence.  One is able to interpret experiences, good or bad, with a perspective that makes them say such things as “but for the grace of God . . . “

Counsel” enables a person to judge promptly and rightly—an instinct for decision-making especially in difficult situations.  On a less dramatic level, it perfects the cardinal virtue of “prudence” (knowing when to say or do something instead of just spontaneously giving your gut-reaction, e.g., a verbal or physical attack).

Fortitude”—gives us the power to stand up for what is right and in doing so accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm.  As a bishop once said to me regarding a matter that had several options: “That might be the easy decision to make but it’s not the correct decision.”

Knowledge” is our seeing things from God’s perspective.  Regrettably, everyone has an opinion on what “God’s perspective” should be—even people who have little to no religious practice or prayer life.  In the words of actor Mark Wahlberg “People want ‘cheap grace ’”—a quick answer to their problem. But if you don’t encounter God in prayer or ritual on a regular basis you really don’t have a clue what God thinks about something.

 Piety” is not mere outward religiosity—but rather makes us turn to God each day as a child to a parent—recognizing God is ultimate reality and not the passing reality we see each day; it’s a “what would Jesus do mentality”?

 Fear of the Lord“ does not refer to being afraid or scared of God but rather is that of having a “profound reverence for, and being in awe of, God.”

The above shorthand description of the gifts doesn’t capture what the apostles experienced when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection.  All we’re told is that they had SOME KIND of empowering experience that made them go out into the streets even though they had fear of prosecution.

In his novel-turned-movie, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway confirms what one critic observed, viz., he “converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-eight for marriage and proved religiously indifferent throughout his lifetime, despite a preoccupation with biblical themes in many of his works.”  For Whom the Bell Tolls influenced me as a junior in high school as it did presidential candidate John McCain and president Obama when they were young men.

The lead-character was Robert Jordan who joined guerilla opponents of the government during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.  He fell in love with “Maria”—a young woman who had been raped and abused by soldiers, and who was “redeemed” by the wonderful, savior-like man who came from what she saw as a heavenly America where people walked on “streets of gold.”

In short, Jordan is what literary scholars refer to as a “Christ-figure.”  One can’t help but think Hemingway drew upon (consciously or unconsciously) John’s gospel and epistles in describing Jordan’s farewell to Maria.  For us, Jordan represents Jesus and Maria represents his love–the human race.  His farewell includes the giving of the Spirit to the apostles—words of love intended to bolster their sense of self and the gospel.  America represents heaven—the salvation promised Maria.

In the film from 1943, Gary Cooper played “Jordan” (an allusion to the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized) and Ingrid Bergman played “Maria”/Mary (an allusion to Magdalene—a woman of the “world” and thus an image of all people in that world?).  The concluding scene has the guerillas escaping from soldiers in the mountains.  Jordan is shot and can’t continue with them. He stays behind with a machine gun to hold off those in pursuit.  He asks for Maria (a farewell of love from Jesus to us)–the script reading as follows:

Maria–We won’t be going to America this time.  But always I go with you, wherever you go, understand?  You go now. If you go, then I go too. 

 Don’t you see how it is?  Whichever one there is, is both of us.

 But if you go, then I go with you, that way I go too.  I know you’ll go now, Maria, for both of us, because we love each other always. 

 I know it’s harder for you, but now I am you also.  If you go, I go too.  That’s the only way I can go.  You’re me now, surely you must feel that, Maria.

 Now you understand.  Now you’re going, and you’re going well, and fast, and far, and we’ll go to America another time, Maria. 

 Stand up now and go, and we both go.  Stand up, Maria.  Remember, you’re me, too.  You’re all there will ever be of me now.  Stand up.  No, stand up.   There’s no good-bye, Maria, because we’re not apart.  No, don’t turn around, go now, be strong, take care of our life.

 Maria leaves and Jordan is left reflecting—as Jesus might have reflected when on the cross tempted to think his sacrifice was in vain.  Notice Hemingway having Jordan use the word “God” when beginning his reflection—not as a prayer, but as one might casually use the word when reflecting aloud.  However, in this instance, with Jordan as a Christ-figure, saying “God” does, in fact, become a prayer of Jesus dying on the cross.

God, that was lucky I could make her go.  I don’t mind this at all now.  They’re away.  Think of how it would be if they got Maria instead of you.  Don’t pass out, Jordan!  Think about America!  I can’t.  Think about Madrid!  I can’t.  Think about, Maria!  I can do that alright!  No, you fool, you weren’t kidding Maria about that.  Now they can’t stop us ever!  She’s going on with me.

Such is the message of Pentecost—the Holy Spirit moving us Maria-types to carry on as the continued presence of Jesus alive in the world.  On this Pentecost, try and internalize—personalize—the words of love that Jesus (Jordan) said in today’s gospel to us (Maria): “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

May 29, 2022

One would think that the departure of Jesus from an earthly existence would get considerable coverage.  Surely, the followers of Jesus would want to know where his final appearance took place, who was present, and what was said on the occasion of his “return to the Father”—no?

For John, the answer to that question is “No!”  The “beloved disciple” (how the evangelist refers to himself) simply reports that they had breakfast, that Jesus said a few words, and that he (the evangelist) could have written much more about Jesus but that there is really no need to say more.  In that sense, theologically speaking, John’s message is a simple one.  He is equivalently saying “SURELY you readers know by now that what I have reported should convince you to practice what he preached—in your everyday behaviors.”

Luke, on the other hand, thought the exit of Jesus was well worth reporting—so much so that he gave two DIFFERENT accounts.  In his gospel, Luke said: “He led them out as far as Bethany [N.B., not TO or AT or a half-mile south of Bethany—but a more imprecise “as far as”] . . . and as he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.  They did him homage and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”  Note also that HOW he “was taken up” received no coverage.  Might Luke’s meaning be the same as ours when we say of someone “Well, God took him to heaven,” “she went back to God,” etc.

Not content with that lackluster depiction, Luke expanded his coverage in Acts of the Apostles when he wrote: “He was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.  While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.  They said “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

Again, the evangelist has angelic visitors (as those at the birth in Bethlehem) tell those gathered that now’s the time to see Jesus AMONGST us here on earth—and not up above in some heavenly realm.

Mark, the first gospel written, simply said that “the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.  But they went forth and preached everywhere.” Again, “taken up into heaven” is all that we’re told—a statement that probably inspired Luke’s first report.

A more fleshed out account is that of Matthew. Although not giving an exact location, he says that “the disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.”  How appropriate and scriptural!  His setting is that of a “mountain”—the place of encounter with God in the Hebrew scriptures.  How pastoral—when Matthew recounts “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.”  Matthew speaks to the experience of his late first-century audience by describing the early followers as capable of “worship” but also capable of “doubting” what they had witnessed.  Just as we are here at worship, so were the early followers able to worship.  And just as their human condition saw them “doubt,” so do we—just like them.  We wonder if our life has meaning, if there’s life after death, if God exists, and if there’s a God who actually cares about us.

We’re then told that “Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’.”  No one here goes out every day and baptizes anyone—so what does Jesus mean in saying what he did?  Baptize people with your example.  Show them that the Trinity exists by being a steward of the Creator’s environment, by practicing the ethics of Jesus, and the representing in all activities the power of the Holy Spirit alive in you!

And just as Matthew began his gospel by referring to the baby Jesus as “God with us,” so he has the resurrected Christ remind his followers “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.”  And so we have the departure accounts for Jesus in the New Testament—which we call  Ascension” (formerly on Thursday but the American bishops finally followed the example of the Canadian bishops and have us celebrate this holyday on the nearest Sunday 40 days after Easter). But what concrete meaning does this (and Pentecost—which is associated with the Ascension) have for each of us?

Last week I told you of my finding an article that spoke of my parents losing their business when I was a child.  I indicated that the circumstances of our life can change overnight—and how we can be shaken by a turn of events.  However, as people of faith, we are given eyes that see beyond the present and minds that evaluate experience by a sacred, not secular, metric.  Stated simply, by the power imparted to us through the Holy Spirit, we can see beyond and evaluate more insightfully all of life’s up-and-down occurrences.

For example, my brother’s World War II experiences in the Pacific were at beaches that saw much bloodshed.  In the eyes of the world, he was a returning Marine vet who saved American democracy (and who brought us back a Japanese rifle taken off a dead soldier).

The term “PTSD” was not used in that era, and it was only in later years that I associated his war experience with alcoholism (which led to his early death).  On the surface, he was a handsome, intelligent, executive on the rise—the demons of war not visible even to family.

In emailing a parishioner about life experiences, I was reminded of a high school friend who had a star-studded young life—captain of the cheerleaders, captain of the girls’ basketball team, 4-year class officer, homecoming queen, and National Merit Scholarship Finalist that won her a full ride to UM. We spent alone-time talking about love, life, and our futures—having no clue our paths would lead where they did.  Ann Arbor brought her drug addiction and hepatitis due to needle poisoning, and life was a challenge until her premature death a month after her daughter’s drug-induced passing.

I visited her out-of-state graveside a year to the day after her burial—on the feast of St. Ignatius (coincidental since as high schoolers she and I talked about our perhaps having a religious vocation). She suffered other challenges that seemed to conflict so stridently with the multi-talented and popular teen queen that she once had been.  I wondered how many of our high school crowd envied her successes.

She was not unlike my mom—in the sense of them both being young girls with males always in pursuit.  Even as an older woman, my mom caught the eye of suitors.  Each of us knows our family members to be just that—our mom, our dad, sister, brother, etc.  It was a life lesson to see my mother “appeal” to strangers—a target of lust for others but in my eyes a very human person with hurts and needs–and not the sexual object others perceived her to be. Again, an example of judging people by externals, or surface appearance.

Even a Jesuit friend revealed this theme.  His appearance projected confidence, intelligence, and all-around success—no one knowing he contended all the time with a condition known as “sleep paralysis” (his form being an extreme case that forced him into retirement at an early age).  In this state, one cannot move, and can hallucinate—as he did.  The hallucination can be of a monster-type, humanoid being in the dark room who comes and sits on the person’s chest.  The experience no doubt laid the groundwork for belief in demon-possession among our ancestors.  Fortunately, today it can be treated.

A last example I draw from my work on the Black Elk biography.  Actor David Carradine won fame in the 70s for his television show “Kung Fu.”  He played a Buddhist Shaolin “priest” who could dispatch bad guys with a form of the martial arts.  The character was also a pacifist who quoted wisdom statements throughout the show.

Carradine played Black Elk in a New York production and wanted to visit Pine Ridge and meet the family.  He brought his young son and the little boy was a challenge (an unpleasant child who did not reflect well on Carradine or his mother, actress Barbara Hershey—at the time going by the name Barbara Seagull because of what she termed a mystical encounter with a seagull).  I interacted with Carradine and found him even more challenging than his son.

Surface judgements moved me to pray that the picnic come to a close and the visitors leave me with Black Elk’s daughter and family.  Only later did I learn that this period was David’s “cocaine years.”  And reading Parade magazine one Sunday, I learned that his son was successfully working in the performing arts and had a family of his own. Unfortunately, his dad did not fare so well.  I always held out hope that Carradine would influence the world in a positive way instead of leaving just the La La Land fantasy of the Kung Fu series.

While these examples illustrate that appearances are deceiving, they also show that we walk in a land of people whose wounds are often invisible.  In terms of Ascension Day, Jesus parted and bequeathed to us through the Spirit and sacramental participation–new eyes to see and new minds to evaluate people with whom we interact and world events that need the Christian perspective we possess.  Our Christian identity is NOT something we keep in a jar by the door, and pull out only on special days of the year.  Rather, our new eyes and new minds are analytical tools for everyday life.  Jesus came for us HUMANS who have human problems.  He did not come to make sure we prayed the rosary or built churches, but to help us live better lives.  THAT’S the gift of Ascension.

May 22, 2022

Got Milk?  The image of a milk mustache comes to mind.  Got a tattoo?  If you have one, an image of yours comes to mind.  Or maybe a family member has a tattoo.  Or maybe you belong to a gang and have a “tat” that identifies your gang membership.  Or maybe you were in prison and have tattoos that broadcast some kind of message to the world.  In the 60s and 70s, how one wore their hair, or if they had facial hair, often identified the political persuasion of the person.

These cultural trends are a distant cousin to what peoples the world over did at one time—cut some part of their bodies in some way so that they be “marked” (via a ritual) as a member of the nation, e.g., circumcision (cutting of foreskin), clitorectomy (excision of the clitoris), lines across the forehead, arms, etc.  Called tribal scarification rites, they include one that became a widespread medical practice in America for reasons unrelated to religion or some kind of ethnic identification.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics says the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, the AAP does not think the benefits are great enough to recommend that all male newborns should be circumcised.  Where it was once the standard practice in American hospitals, it has become an elective procedure.  Misinformation has created a vocal resistance to the procedure such that parents are advised to read about its benefits and not just assume it’s a primitive holdover.

Unrelated to medical concerns, the Israelites claimed that one of their patriarchs, Abraham, was told by God to circumcise all boys within the 12 tribes.  The bible reports that on their 8th day of life, a baby boy is to have the “bris” ceremony (also a naming ceremony still practiced by Jewish people). To the joy of all Jewish males, all subsequent birthdays are celebrated with cake. Humor aside, did you know that foreskins are an ingredient used by the cosmetic industry for beauty products (Oprah-endorsed)?

Our tribal ancestors called their people some name (such as the mountain people, river people, rice people, or as in the case of the Israelites, “God’s chosen people”).  Wearing their scar and moniker proudly, a tribal person knew who was considered a member of their nation.  Do tattoos or jewelry which punctures the skin do that for us today in some way—making that practice a vestige of the more ancient, uniting trait?

This discussion leads us to what the first reading from Acts is describing. Namely, a dispute arose with the influx of “gentiles” (non-Jews) into the Christian fold.  Since Genesis commanded that circumcision take place, should gentiles be required to get circumcised?  Some said yes, and some said no—so they met around the year 50 to debate the matter and come to a conclusion.

They decided that circumcision was not an “essential” of what Jesus taught.  Instead, he wanted to circumcise minds and hearts—to convert people from individual and tribal self-centeredness to an other orientation.  Instead of being known by some bodily mark, Christians should be known by the actions they perform (the corporal works of mercy and Matthew 25).

As the gospel today reports, Christians have the “Advocate” (Holy Spirit) who would help them lead lives of truth-seeking and truth-telling).  His telling the apostles that they would have this “Advocate” had an importance that is not as clear to us as it was when he said it to first-century people in Palestine.  In that time and place, it was a world of secrecy and deception—and one’s cards were always close to the vest.  With no “Freedom of Information Act” to help them, people needed an Advocate who’d inform them and provide what we’ve come to know as Christian “discernment”—prayerfully learning what is true and not true—since Jesus is called the TRUTH. Hallelujah!  The Holy Spirit is accessible to us and this Advocate will unfold new understanding, interpretation, and application of “all that I have said to you.”

In thinking of our search for truth today, I was reminded of a family experience from childhood.  Namely, my dad came from Kentucky to Detroit as a young man and saw a “help wanted” sign in a window on Woodward Avenue (the main street of Detroit).  Not many years later, he owned the business himself and was its president.  The entertainment Mecca of the city, the Graystone Ballroom was described in these terms:

With its vertical marquee towering above Woodward Avenue, the Graystone was Detroit’s ultimate hot spot for jazz. From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, it stomped and swayed with the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and other jazz luminaries. Joe Louis, the pride of Detroit, held a huge birthday party under its roof. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker dueled there in a battle of the bands.

It was a place known nationally for great jazz.

In a website article I discovered by accident this week, I read:

On Nov. 30, 1957, after a Stan Kenton show that failed to break even, the Graystone closed its doors. “We were up against a brick wall. The young people stopped dancing. And we couldn’t get them to start again,” said Francis M. Steltenkamp, president of Graystone Ballroom Inc. He blamed the rise of television and the popularity of house parties for the lack of young customers.  Steltenkamp said that “Whatever they do, they don’t dance.”

I was too young to understand the implications of what my parents experienced at this time, but dad’s loss of everything he had (bankrupt and broke) changed our family experience from leading what some call “the good life” to

May 15, 2022

It was good timing that our parish had a wedding this weekend.  After all, weddings are about love, and the Sunday’s gospel had Jesus say that people will know his disciples if they have love for one another. So hurray for love!

But what the heck IS love?  In the 2nd grade, I had eyes for Patty Fallon, and she kissed me on the cheek when we played in her backyard one day.  That meant the world to me—especially since I got regular reports that she kissed Richard Palazzolo in the “wrap room” where we hung our coats in the back of class.

Being kissed by the prettiest girl in the world at age 7 is, on the barometer of affection, some kind of “love.”  Hmm.  Erotic love is one of the 4 classical types addressed by ancient philosophers and theologians (those 4 being, in Greek, storge, affection; phileo: friendship; eros: romantic; agape: divine).  I don’t think I’d consider my fondness for Patty “erotic” at so tender an age. So maybe my affection for Patty is a 5th type of love.

The other kinds of love (love between friends—without a romantic component, love of parents for children and vice-versa, and God’s unconditional love of all people) see the latter as being what Christians try to imitate.  They do something for another whether knowing them personally or not.

Still, however, it’s not easy to use this word, love, and know what it concretely means as an identifier of Christian behavior.  What DOES one mean when they say “I love you?”  Giving hugs and kisses?  Sacrificing one’s life for another?  What?  The word is like “sin”—a tough word to apply and have everyone agree upon.  We say that murdering someone to get their wallet is sinful, but we also say that it’s sinful to eat a big dessert. Some see behaviors and statements of politicians as sinful while others justify those same behaviors and statements.

As if knowing we would wrestle with the meaning of love being the mark of Christian discipleship, St. Paul spelled out some concrete behaviors which each of us might reflect upon for a few moments.  In thinking of how you interact with people, see if the following behaviors describe you?  Here’s Paul’s checklist (his words are underlined; they are not my words).

–do you contribute to the needs of the community?  Monetarily—as in Christ’s Mission Appeal or some other charity?  volunteer work?

–do you extend hospitality to strangers? Or do you withdraw and say “I don’t bother anyone and they don’t bother me?”  The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not one related to sexuality, but to inhospitality.

–bless those who persecute you; Do you reflectively act, or do you unthinkingly “get even?”

–bless and do not curse them.

In tandem with the above trait, are you able to curb your “Hatfield and McCoy” tendency to retaliate (and so create feuding that lasts generation to generation)?

–rejoice with those who rejoice (instead of being jealous)—after all, our joys in life are transient.  They last for only a while—like an oasis in the desert. Besides, one might look like they have the tiger by the tail but in reality appearances are deceiving.

–weep with those who weep—do you have empathy for others—having “been there” in a state of tears?  We need emotional support—and give it as Jesus did.

–be patient in suffering—having been called to a parishioner’s bedside, I found their patience inspiring me!

–Live in harmony with one another; If it’s possible, live peaceably with all people.  You might feel strongly negative feelings toward another—but we are called to be bridge builders and people who upbuild others.

–do not be haughty –do not claim to be wiser than you are; compare yourself with God and there see how you have no reason to be  arrogant. To God, you are a child in need.

–associate with the lowly; Speaking with a Cree Indian from Hudson’s Bay, I was told of the government agent who went to the tribal meeting hall, and ignored “the old man who looked like a street person”—not knowing “that old, lowly-looking man was our chief.”

–Do not repay anyone evil for evil; Otherwise, you are giving birth to sin—which is the source of chaos and confusion within communities.  Don’t do it!

–but do what is noble in the sight of all. Don’t do what’s popular.  Don’t jump on the bandwagon. But instead do the “noble” course of action—which is what Jesus calls us to do.

–never avenge yourselves.  Leave that to God;  That’s self-explanatory along with the next two.

–“if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

–if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

–Do not give in to evil, but overcome evil with good; There is an old spiritual principle called “agere contra” which means you should counter temptation with its opposite. That is, if you’re tempted to steal, give something to someone.

AND HOW CAN WE ACCOMPLISH THE ABOVE?  So much of the above seems super-human, but St. Paul says the above behaviors are solid ones which we CAN put into practice—if only we—“persevere in prayer” (ask God to help us incarnate those traits).

By behaving in these ways, people will know that we are the Lord’s disciple and the world is a better place because of our presence in it.  I once stayed at a relative’s house because they were in the hospital and I was keeping an eye on the property.  As I looked around at the person’s belongings and decorations, I was reminded of their uniqueness, their specialness, their one-of-a-kindness–and was emotionally moved with the reality that the world would be less beautiful if that relative did not return from the hospital.  Their house was missing something.  Their bed, clothing, kitchenware, and pets–would not be the same without that person’s presence restored to the property.

And such is your identity and contribution to God’s landscape of life–unique, special, and singularly you.

You might look at the list of Christian traits, and think it’s not possible to make them your own.  You might think “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”  If that’s how you describe yourself, you’re throwing in the towel on your life’s possibilities.  God thinks more of you than you do of yourself.  So counter that tendency with another proverb: “You’re never too old to learn.”

When thinking of Christian “love,” we tend to minimize it—and apply it to our relationship with family members.  We tend to say “Yes, I’m doing my best in relating to the family.”  But Christian love goes beyond that group.  When Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor,” he’s saying THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS

Recall my telling you about Back Elk, the Lakota holy-man?  He spoke for many tribal cultures when he said: “We killed anyone whose language we didn’t speak.”  In order to survive in a cruel world, our ancestors (like Black Elk) often resorted to extreme measures—such as killing people with whom they shared no common ties.

Black Elk was baptized a Catholic in1904 and changed his perspective on people whose language he did not speak.  He became so committed to the gospel that he is today on the track to sainthood.

Still, however, the challenge remains for us.  We can praise Black Elk’s growth as a religious leader within the Church, but you and I still confront issues within our families, neighborhood, work, and social world—that we do not know how to address.  That’s why it’s important to let another trait of Christian discipleship be our guide.

Namely, when we’re at a loss in knowing how to deal with someone, try to remember and put into practice the fact that: KINDNESS is the language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.

 May 8, 2022

Unbeknownst to most people is that Mother’s Day did not begin as a holiday dedicated to expressing gratitude for moms.  Nor was Jesus executed for being an all-around “good guy” who was well-liked by everyone.  Instead, both Mother’s Day and Jesus represented social protest in their time—but have been detached from these roots and transformed by corporate interests into economic goldmines.  Call it sin. Call it human weakness.  There’s something about our condition that sees us do well in some area of life, but then go off the tracks.

Take Mother’s Day, for example.  In 1858, Ann Reeves Jarvis organized what she called “Mothers’ Works Days” in West Virginia—a social justice effort to improve water sanitation in Appalachia (still, by the way, a problem).  She then got women to care for the Civil War wounded on both sides and “worked to overcome the animosity of the opposing sides”–eventually organizing a “Mothers Friendship Day” for Northern and Southern soldiers and their families.

These efforts led to the more famous author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe, campaigning for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” (which would be our nation’s commitment to abolishing war). In 1870, she spear-headed the movement to honor Mother’s Day as a day to resist militarism and to work for peace—writing: Arise then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!  Say firmly: ‘We will not have . . . Our husbands come to us, reeking with carnage, For caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.  We, the women of one country, Will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’

[T]he voice of a devastated Earth . . . says: “Disarm! Disarm!”  The sword of murder is not . . . justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor . . . As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil At the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home For a great and earnest day of counsel.  Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.  Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace . . .  Each bearing after . . .  the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality . . . promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions, The great and general interests of peace.

Middle-class 19th century women believed they bore a special responsibility to care for the casualties of society—and so played a leading role in the abolitionist movement, campaigns against lynching, consumer fraud, improved working conditions for women, protection for children, public health services, and welfare assistance to the poor.  To activists, the connection between motherhood and economic justice was self-evident.

Ann’s daughter (Anna) built on her mother’s vision, and lobbied Congress to declare a special day to honor mothers. Given the human condition, it was not surprising to see companies teach Americans HOW to honor their mothers.  Take them to a restaurant, buy them flowers, candy, or cards. As the Florists’ Review, the industry’s trade journal, bluntly put it, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.”

When florists sold carnations for the then-exorbitant price of $1 each, Anna Jarvis began a campaign against “those who would undermine Mother’s Day with their greed.” But she was hardly a match for the flower and card companies. Soon, the Florists’ Review announced, with a certain triumphant tone, that it was “Miss Jarvis who was completely squelched.”

Not surprisingly, a billion-dollar industry was born. After all, who dares ignore a holiday that has come to reflect our love and appreciation for our own mothers? What parent doesn’t hope for just a few words of love and appreciation from their children? But what would Julia Ward Howe and the Jarvis women think about the day’s commercialization?

They’d be the first to ask why Mother’s Day honors the love of mothers–but not all mothers.  Buying some transient gift on one day of the year brings lots of cash to big business but means nothing to the unemployed mothers who need child care, job training, health care, and higher minimum wage.  Legislatively, this can all be addressed—along with the working mothers who need governmental assistance provided by every other industrialized society.  What happened to their original idea that got “squelched?”

The same thing that happened to Christianity.  Jesus protested against the power structure of his day—the Sadducees, scribes, and Pharisees who burdened the oppressed and did nothing to help them.  He did not win friends in high places when saying that resources should be diverted to the poor and away from the wealthy.  Nero’s famous burning of Rome was his way of addressing the substandard housing in the city—and then blame it on the Christians.  He found a scapegoat—instead of improving the lot of citizens.  One Roman emperor even said: “The Jews oversee the welfare of their people in need.  We oversee our people.  But the Christians help everyone.”

The seminal insight of Christianity—that we’re all brothers and sisters seeking justice for all—does not serve the interest of those who seek to benefit monetarily from others.  Why just care for and share Eden’s apples when we could use them in some self-serving way?

Over time, Christianity is reduced to being simply a humanitarian philosophy about being nice to your family and friends, buying a Christmas tree and gifts in December, candy and Easter baskets in the Spring.  Keep a lid on Christian activism and don’t stress too much that the Good Shepherd set an example for us to care for the welfare of ALL the sheep—seeing that they received good health care, clean water, and food that kept them healthy.

This Sunday’s scripture could just as well be a commentary on how our “sinful condition” continues to play itself out today.  Namely,the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory.”  Those in power don’t want to hear the Shepherd’s voice, via our Christian identity, raised in defense of those in need.

As with the activist agenda of 19th century women with Mother’s Day, so Christianity is similarly in the process of being “squelched.”  We can certainly honor the original meaning of this day and at the same time not lose sight of the Divine agenda advanced by Jesus.  With May honoring the role of Mother Mary in the life of Jesus, we can recommit ourselves to doing what she instructed her son to do—always be a good shepherd laboring on behalf of those in need.

Like Paul and Barnabas in today’s reading—we are sent to be people who convert the Gentiles—all those who seek greater self-worth and greater purpose in life.  That vast population awaits our effort to help them in their time of need (which is always)—for as said by John: “I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  These are the “Gentiles” who have to contend with many wolves who regard them as prey—and we are shepherds Paul and Barnabas alive today.  Based on our experience with those Calvary wolves and the sly and deceptive words of serpents bearing apples, it’s our duty to water the roots of both Mother’s Day and the gospel.

May 1, 2022

With this weekend being our parish’s “first communion” weekend, we can once again reflect on the different understandings of why Christian communities gather at the “table of the Lord”—or should I say “altar” whereon sits the bread and wine (or should I say “grape juice?”).  After all, some say altar, some table, and some use grape juice instead of wine.  What is this all about?

As they go through life, our first communion people will hear some people refer to what we’re doing as a “meal” while others speak of a “sacrifice.” They’ll hear some describe what we’re doing as a sacred ritual that requires utmost reverence and much silent worship while others speak of it as a community gathering where the sound of children present is everywhere heard. Some will call this gathering the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, or breaking of bread, or Mass.

Our first communion class will encounter people who see this as a manifestation of one’s denominational faith—or as an invitation to anyone wishing to join their common worship.  They’ll hear some say that this event makes present Christ’s suffering and is thus a place where one feels His empathy for our suffering.  Meanwhile, others joyfully celebrate the risen Lord’s victory over death, and sing hallelujah.

Our young people receiving communion this weekend will speak with those who speak of a sacrament that makes present the real, physical body of Christ, but which for others is the making present of Christ in a real but spiritual way.  Some will celebrate this reality once a year, or a few times a year, or every Sunday, or even every day.

People will tell our first communicants that they gather in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming, while others will speak of their celebration of the risen Lord already present among us.

Over time, our young communicants will wrestle with these different understandings and wonder “Who’s right?”  What IS the Eucharist and which understanding is correct?

Like our understanding of the Trinity, the Eucharist is a mystery—often referred to in Catholic liturgical language as the “sacred mystery.”   It is all the above and more–carrying different layers of meaning–in tension with one another—but always evoking powerful, spiritual senses within the Christian Church’s faith community.

This is nothing new—since early on, different groups had different understandings of what it should be called, and how often it should be celebrated. Some called it the “Lord’s Supper,” connected to the Last Supper, and celebrated it less frequently than the Johannine community (who connected its theology to God now feeding people daily with NEW MANNA).

Early Christians, like later ones, reflected on the paradoxical elements within its central symbols.  For example, bread symbolizes joy/fellowship/freshness—but is also made of broken kernels of wheat that had to be crushed in their individuality and baked in fire to become that bread (an early Christian reflection being “we, though many grains, become the one loaf”). Wine is a festive drink—but is made of crushed grapes that represent the blood of Jesus and the blood and suffering of all that is crushed in our world and in our lives.

As said above, trying to understand all of the reflective, spiritual thoughts and behaviors generated by “Eucharist” might seem to be a problem—but is instead a mystery we behold.  Like the Trinity, we are dealing with an at-times indescribable richness that defies our explanations.

Like love—we can’t fully communicate it.

Think for a moment of one’s attempt to express their heart-and-mindfelt love for that other, special someone.  No amount of precious stone rings, or presents, or kisses, or poems can explain to a friend or to the beloved themself—one’s depth of appreciation or affection or thanksgiving (the meaning of “Eucharist”).

Why do you love her/him?  For this, this, this, this, and this reason.  I just do!  But words fail to fully describe my love for another. And so it is with “communion.”  It is the expression of God’s love that tries to speak to our hardened, broken, hungry hearts.

Eucharist is also analogous to wind—which scripture explains is like God—all around us—BUT WE CAN’T SEE IT. God is that all-around presence who can come to us in the form of a Breath, a Breeze, a Gust, a Gale, or Hurricane.

All the above explanations are true of the Eucharist. Any attempt to nail down its full meaning sees us try—but fall short.  We pound the nail again and again—only to open our hand and see the nail still there—along with the loaf and the cup on the altar-table— along with our desire to tag along with—and learn more about the person who bequeathed them to us.

Dear First Communion Class of May 1st 2022, Peace.

It is our honor to be at your first communion mass.  This special day allows you to go to any Catholic church in the world—and be part of that faith community–gathered at the altar, and receive communion.

Maybe going to communion in some other church will remind you of this day—your first communion at St. Mary’s church. When you think of this day, you can smile in knowing the Creator of the world—God—is helping you wherever you are.

As you go to the communion line, you are with people of all ages—famous people and people who are not well known, girls, boys, men, and women.  You are now part of a very fine group of people who go to communion so that they can grow into the good person God created them to be.  YOU are one of those good people.

And we welcome you into the Catholic community of people who made their first communion just as you have done this day.

We will ask God in prayer to help you be like Jesus was—a person who feeds the hungry, who gives to the poor, who finds clothing for those who need it, and who treats everyone with kindness—whatever they look like.

Being this way, you are like communion itself.  You are feeding others with the blessing of support.

Edited from: National Catholic Reporter

I began to see situations where . . . longtime friends and family members [were] unable to find sources of information that both would find trustworthy. I was witnessing signs of a different sort of pandemic — a conspiracy pandemic . . . QAnon, the origins of COVID-19, the safety of vaccines, the supposedly stolen 2020 presidential election . . . Occasionally even the Flat Earth Society makes a reappearance.  What links these narratives is a common disregard for widely available factual data and an overemphasis on data that is missing or limited in scope

I can sometimes hear St. Thomas Aquinas as if through a bullhorn wanting to wake all of us up to the dangers of this phenomenon and the urgency of a coordinated response, not just as a nation, but as a church. I believe he would see conspiracy thinking as a matter of concern not only politically — pertaining to the health of our common life with one another — but in terms of faith.  He would remind us that truth is having a picture of the world in your mind that aligns with how the world really is.

On a theological plane — as Christians, we reverence “Truth” and “Ultimate Reality” as names for God and any time that we have a picture in our mind that is less true than it could be — we are also one step further from God than we could be. Conspiracy thinking has spiritual consequences.

Across history, many conspiracy theories that perhaps seemed inconsequential at first have led to horrendous results. The obscure 1905 “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” book of anti-Semitic FICTION asserted a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. Three decades later it was used by Nazis to justify Jewish genocide [and is again popular in the U.S. among neo-Nazi and supremacist militia groups]. The denial of the existence of AIDS in the 1980s by the government of South Africa contributed to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Current disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 vaccines have already contributed to unnecessary deaths as well. The very real impact of conspiracy theories makes them not only spiritually but morally troublesome.

Aquinas said that if we know information to be fictitious and nevertheless assert that it is true, then we are lying and in a state of sin. Moreover, if others have tried to point out to us that we are mistaken and we refuse to receive more accurate information when we could do so as creatures gifted with reason, we are in a state of sin.

As a church we need to treat conspiracy thinking with the same vigor as other significant moral issues of our time, such as immigration policy, racism, and human trafficking. Pope Francis regularly confronted disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine in his preaching this past year.

Parishes and dioceses could be doing much more to take on conspiracy thinking as a moral crisis. Possibilities include bulletin articles, preaching from the pulpit, faith formation opportunities on media literacy, book studies and discussion of films like Netflix’s The Social DilemmaA commitment to truth is fundamental to our lives as Christians. We witness to this by trying to always make sure that our own minds are aligned with reality.

 

The above article echoes material I’ve presented in bulletins–indicating what theologians have been observing about the American social scene.  As contemporary as the topic might be, we see truth in the aphorism: “As much as things change, they stay the same.”  I say this because people were at one time just as confused about which scriptures to read as we are today about who we should listen to on socio-political issues.  

In the first 3 centuries of Christianity, MANY gospels and epistles floated around–teaching people erroneous stories about Jesus, his teachings, and other scriptural characters.  The Church met in Council and said that “We have to do something about  the misinformation, disinformation, and lies that now circulate.”  For example, one group taught that God wanted Christians to eat only melons.  One text, still kept by Coptic Christians (not in union with Rome), is an “epistle” that depicts Pontius Pilate and his wife as saints who preached the faith (not true at all since other historical sources clearly indicate that Mr. and Mrs. Pilate died wealthy pagans–and never did anything for anyone but themselves).

Just as in the past–so today–people are vulnerable.  Erroneously attributed to P.T. Barnum (of circus fame) was the statement: “There’s a sucker born every minute”–and so it was in the days of early Christianity.  The Church realized it had to nail down a “canon” of New Testament scripture (i.e., which gospels and epistles were theologically accurate).  The issue wasn’t that people will begin to believe in nothing–but that they’ll believe in anything! And all Church people today need to be alert in this era of deception (as they were 1700 years ago when establishing the canon of scripture).

April 24, 2022

In 1969, an oil company got authorities to suspend rules related to the construction of a rig off the beautiful coastline of Santa Barbara, CA.  Predictably, drilling went awry, and oil killed much wildlife—this being the worst oil disaster until that time (it’s now the 3rd worst).  Protests followed, and the first Earth Day took place (along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency).

This week saw the 52nd anniversary of Earth Day—an event our Catholic faith certainly supports in light of the encyclical of Pope Francis “Laudato Si” (“Praise be to you”).  This was a worldwide wake up call to help humanity understand the destruction that people are inflicting upon the environment and themselves.  This 2nd Sunday of Easter addresses this theme in tandem with scripture raising the topic of faith.

Care for the environment parallels tending to our faith life.  We can try to gain greater insight within each realm–or disregard them.  The classic work of St. Ignatius is titled “The Spiritual Exercises”—he is saying that in order for one to advance in faith, one has to EXERCISE (and not just sleep in on Sunday morning or watch TV on Saturday at 4—instead of going to church).  Does a person think an angel will appear to them—and THEN a faith-life ensues–and the person need not make any effort?  To discover something, one must search.

The same process is at play with environmental care.  It never dawned on me that hens and roosters spoke to one another.  This changed after speaking with someone whose upbringing was on a farm.  She said that when a hen lays an egg, she shouts “Look, look, what I did”—and nearby the rooster says “Good, good, for you.”  This was, of course, SEEING language exist where others didn’t.  My friend’s upbringing gave her this perspective.

When our ancestors were trying to survive at the band or tribal level of society, they were hyper-conscious of the natural world—seeing “the Sacred” in all of creation.  This is what Genesis described in the story of Adam and Eve.  They lived in close contact with the Creator.  Since Adam and Eve represent us, we need to “get in touch” with the reality of our own life on planet Eden.  Earth is the beautiful garden of creation we are gradually destroying—and banishing ourselves from.  We have too long been choosing, via bad decisions, to “get ahead” by eating apples of self-interest.  [Which led, theologically and historically, to God showing us how to tend our garden and our lives—by being Christ-like.]

Although a Crow Indian, Grace Pretty Shield’s experience as a young girl reflects how our ancestors behaved.  She one day threw stones at the chickadees who were laughing after a big meal.  Grandma saw her do this and took her to a bush and asked the chickadees to forgive her saying: “This is my grand-daughter who did not know what she was doing.”  Grandma explained to her that the chickadees’ call gives hope–when it tells the people “Summer’s coming” and that come fall, they tell us when to prepare food for the cold months by saying “winter’s near.”  Her biography is filled with accounts that tell of her people’s reverence for creation—a reverence that she, us, and all persons were created to internalize.

With many children now being raised with little to no religious instruction, the following story would be hard to find.  By contrast, the experience of one child (raised within a devout home) shows what the “eyes of faith” can see.

A little girl walked to and from school daily.  Though the weather that morning was questionable, and clouds were forming, she made her daily trek to the elementary school.  As the afternoon progressed, the winds whipped up, along with thunder and lightning.

The mother of the little girl felt concerned that her daughter would be frightened as she walked home from school and she herself feared that the electrical storm might harm her child.  Following the roar of thunder, lightning, like a flaming sword, would cut through the sky.  Full of concern, the mother quickly got into her car and drove along the route to her child’s school.

As she did so, she saw her little girl walking along, but at each flash of lightning, the child would stop, look up and smile.  Another and another were to follow quickly, and with each flash the little girl would look up at the streak of light and smile.

When the mother’s car drew up beside the child, she lowered the window and called to her, “What are you doing? Why do you keep stopping?”  The child answered, “I am trying to look pretty. God keeps taking my picture.”

Today’s scripture reports the “doubting Thomas” episode (found only in John’s gospel).  This is also the only gospel reference to nails pounded into the hands of Jesus (tying was another way to crucify).  Scholars think this story might have been created by John with Thomas made to typify the “doubts,” skepticism, and hesitation that plagued his community at the end of the 1st century (the name Thomas means “twin”—and we are that twin).  John was telling his audience that they (and we) were not the first ones to cope with doubt.

A powerful idea is communicated in this reading from John that might be missed by a casual listener of scripture.  Namely recall that the first line of John echoes the first line of Genesis.  Both books start with “In the beginning.”  Today’s reading again brings Genesis to mind when John reports that Jesus “breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  This gospel scene hearkens back to when God breathed life into Adam at creation, and when God’s Spirit blew over the waters of the abyss.

The risen Lord created us anew in giving the Spirit to the apostles–opening people’s minds that to live as Jesus instructed will bring us new life.  We are here today with our brothers & sisters in faith—who have doubts, like Thomas—about whether God exists, and whether our existence has any meaning at all.  Like Thomas, we belong here—with all our doubts or misgivings.  We still belong at the Lord’s table—the message of Jesus being one that offers us new hope and new vision of our possibilities.

Take to heart and remember that Jesus did not come to chastise but to inspire.  He did not come to be worshipped but to serve.  He did not come to condemn but to rally our spirit and serve our best interest. By internalizing the gospel, we can acquire, as John reports, “life in his name.”

In thinking of what Thomas experienced, what came to mind was what occurred with Susan Boyle in 2009 on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent.”

The WORLD (secular reality) is represented by judges Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, and Amanda Holden—judges who are all polished and beautiful and glitzy and glamorous and in life’s fast-lane—the world!  The middle-aged contestant, Susan Boyle, appeared very ordinary, very plain and, in the eyes of the entire audience, soon to be escorted off the stage.  Instead, the woman proceeded to sing so beautifully that everyone in attendance stood and applauded (see for yourself on Youtube).  Her giftedness cut through everyone’s condescension.

Ironically, the song title she chose was “I dreamed a dream”—no doubt a thought she had many times in life when doubting her worth or her future or purpose.   Like Thomas, disbelief was seared into her soul—feeling success of any kind unrealistic.  Upon seeing everyone’s response, she said what Thomas must have felt when Jesus spoke to him.  In awe, she (and presumably Thomas), said: “unbelievable.”  John reported the Thomas equivalent “my Lord and my God.

A spiritual exercise you might try is this.  Since scripture speaks to our experience and depicts us, reflect upon the various times you’ve been Thomas.  Are you the one who sees no reason to harbor hope in some area?  Have you had an emotionally powerful experience of being affirmed or given hope?  Have you undertaken what might be termed your life ministry (being part of people’s lives in some constructive, positive way)?

You who are parents—think back to seeing the birth of your child and seeing that little person—born of you.  If you were a doubting Thomas before that moment, there was an instance when your agnosticism vanished—and you believed there was a God (in viewing the miracle of your baby).

Like the little girl in the rain, may we always sense God’s presence in the storms of our lives.  Tradition says that Thomas went on to become the beloved apostle to India—people reverencing his memory still.  Like him, our twin, may we remember that Mass isn’t just something you go to—but are sent from.

April 17, 2022

With four Holy Week liturgies, this week’s bulletin features themes that were addressed—the first of which being a prayer that began Holy Thursday.

Father in heaven, as we come to the table of your son this evening, we are reminded of having a special kind of candlelight dinner—with you, your son Jesus, with the apostles, Mary, and our faith community of John the 23rd.  Help us realize on this anniversary of the sacrament—that we are called to be ministers of communion in every encounter we have with anyone we meet.  Because we ourselves are starved for encouragement and appreciation—we are not always a ray of light for others.  Father, Son and Spirit—nourish us at the Eucharistic table this special anniversary night.  Replace the dimness of our light with a bright shining and sharing of our unique gifts.

The above opening prayer spoke of our gathering here at a candlelight dinner—and that’s exactly what it was with the early Christian faith communities.  While the early liturgies were meals that included food and drink, Paul chastised a community for some people drinking and eating too much, and not letting some people (the poor) even join in the meal.  In the first two centuries, this dinner setting would occur at someone’s home in the evening–characterized by inclusivity, care for one another, and unity.  By the 3rd century, it had ceased to be a banquet and had become a ritualized small meal instead.

Being human, we Christians make mistakes—and so it came to pass that Rome had to reprimand churches for allowing the consecrated (Eucharistic) bread to get stale and be eaten by mice.  Western Christians even changed the bread from leavened (with yeast) to unleavened (without yeast).  However, our Orthodox cousins retained leavened bread.

The Middle Ages brought into the liturgy such things as silver and gold altar-ware and tabernacles (a mouse-proof bread box?).  Jesus was referred to as Christ “the King” and Mary as “Queen” of heaven.  Being within Europe’s hierarchical societies of the time, all sorts of “offices” became part of the institutional church (e.g., sub-deacon, deacon, priest/monsignor, archpriest, auxiliary bishop, archbishop, cardinal)—with a communion rail keeping laypeople out of the sanctuary (lay commoners remaining in their place while ordained clergy could be present near the altar).  The church embellished liturgies with kneeling before King Christ (as that’s what people did when in the presence of a King).  Forgotten was the early Christian commentator who described early liturgies this way: “we don’t kneel at our services like the pagans do, but stand like the resurrected Christ Jesus.”  Not until the 20th century was standing restored to the mass.

Remember that a sacrament is the visible sign of an invisible reality—the Mass having the risen Christ present to us in scripture’s “word of God,” the people of God, and the celebrant presiding.  For this special sacrament of Christ’s presence, the Church will probably always walk the tightrope of formality and informality—trying to keep the sacrament a sacred gathering not like any other.  Also, however, it must reflect the humanity of a Jesus who was at feasts like Cana’s wedding—always being watchful of being too rigid or too lax.

Meanwhile, we can reflect on what St. John Chrysostom said around the year 400 a.d.

 “Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ?  Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my Body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,” and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also for me.” What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with gold chalices when your brother or sister is dying of hunger? Start satisfying their hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”

 Similarly, St. Augustine’s observations are still apropos of our era:

“The bread is Christ’s body.  The cup is Christ’s blood. If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your Amen may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them.”     

Today we try and feel what the apostles felt when Jesus was executed.  Generations have also wondered what Jesus felt as he made his way to Calvary, and what the experience meant to his followers who had placed all their hope in him.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Franciscans popularized what became known to us as the “Stations of the Cross” or “Way of Sorrows.  There have been as many as 30 “stations” (scenes), but they started with 7 and now appear in most Catholic churches as 12 to 14 imaginings of what Jesus experienced that Friday in Jerusalem.

When doing the stations (which can take place year-round), we become the people along the way—some present as if at a carnival—looking at what we’d today call a “train-wreck”—the grotesque beating and suffering of some guy. The man’s mother was there—along with other women who seemed to really be emotional about what was happening.  Maybe we’re glad we had no part of this public killing—thinking Governor Pilate played his cards well when washing his hands of involvement.

You can also picture someone in the Jerusalem crowd on Good Friday saying “Well, yes, they’re kind of going overboard with the torture—but the guy did tend to make people angry—especially the powerbrokers.  Maybe they made a good decision in getting rid of him.  We can return to peace and just accept the way things are.  There’s nothing we can do to change the way things are.”

Or we see stations dedicated to people named Veronica and Simon—who are, of course, symbols of who we should be—helping others carry their cross and tending their wounds as best we can.

We’d do well to reflect on what St. Theresa of Avila said in the 1500s.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

The Conference of Bishops insists that a homily be given at the Holy Saturday service.  They say this even though priests are no doubt tempted simply to move on with the liturgy and just consider the scripture and liturgical theater as sufficient for parishioners.  In my Jesuit training, a priest abided by the instruction but also gave what was theologically a really sound AND SHORT homily—that was applauded by those in attendance and glad that he said what he did.  Here’s what he said:
Resurrexit sicut dixit” (“He has risen as he said”).

Easter weekend’s scripture includes the account of creation in Genesis.  After God creates each element of creation, it says that “God saw that it was good.”  How appropriate that the bible begin with this text—which repeatedly states that God saw creation as “good.” Unfortunately, too many people do not feel good about themselves—and this unfortunate emotional/mental state gets compounded in thinking of the passage that refers to Adam and Eve getting fooled by the snake.  That incident gave rise to the notion of “original sin” and conceiving of ourselves solely as sinful or inherently “bad” beings.  While we humans certainly create hell for ourselves or others in small or large ways, we can’t let this “sinful condition” make us forget what Genesis says about God creating us good.

Always remember that creation is not complete without you.  And THAT is a fact of faith that Easter Sunday affirms.  It slams home the reality that God loves you (as a loving parent loves their child).  God had you in mind when designing the masterpiece of creation.

Our faith is also affirmed when Jesus says from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  The Hebrew word that translates into “commend” or “give back” has a meaning that we need take to heart.  Namely, it carries the same meaning as when you check your coat at a booth when attending a dinner at some hotel or meeting hall.  You expect to get back your coat.  And so it is with the faith of Jesus.  He gives his life to the Father—trusting in God that he will get back his life.  And so that is our faith, too.  When we know our end has come, we echo the words of Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit”—trusting that God will receive us lovingly into eternal life.

Jesus came as the son of God—making us brothers and sisters in Christ.  He told us to “love one another as I have loved you”—which is a reference to “love” being something other than hugs and kisses.  His meaning was that you and I “feel for,” “put ourselves in the shoes of,” or recognize that other persons are like us.  They might be from another country, be another gender, have a different religion or skin color—but they are someone we, as Christians, must identify with—and help in time of need.

Easter reminds us that people in Jerusalem 2000 years ago became “church” for one another.  And now, there are people around us here in church who have at some point in their life CHOSEN to be part of what we call “Church”—and so are also choosing to be with you, a fellow member of what we call “the body of Christ.” And in a while, you will see them filing up to Communion like a walking litany of potential saints, and you might just feel an Alleluia rising through your chest. And then you, too, will join the line, walking with them, trying to build the kingdom of God–however long this task may take.

April 10, 2022

Introductory Prayers for Palm Sunday’s Theme

God our Creator, we gather on this Palm Sunday weekend—remembering how excited people were in welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.  That day was like America celebrating the end World War 2—joyous that all was okay once again.  Since that joyous time, there has been bloodshed in Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Ukraine, and numerous other places.  We ask your forgiveness in never seeming to learn from the Prince of Peace, Lord, have mercy

Son of the Father, Jesus our brother—you gave us Palm Sunday joy, but we have chosen other paths that lead to Calvary.  We gather now in prayer—asking that you take us to the road which leads to eternal life, Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit, we need your inspiration to be the blessing for others our Father in heaven created us to become.  Be the kindling we need to become your fire of change in our world, Lord have mercy.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday joy that takes us to Holy Thursday’s table fellowship with Jesus at the “Last Supper” (or, as some say, the “First Supper” that led to our Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist).  We then reflect on the crucifixion defeat of Good Friday, the rekindling of hope on Holy Saturday, and resurrection victory of Easter Sunday.

Each week, we read what scripture scholars refer to as a “pericope” (prrr—ick’—up—ee).—an anecdotal story/proverb/remembrance related to Jesus that was handed down in oral tradition before being committed to the gospels.  Whereas these stories were discrete snippets, the passion narratives differ from them because they were handed down in tradition as one, continuous narrative.

And so it is that with each Palm Sunday, we continue that tradition by reading the passion narrative all the way through.  Some might benefit from being seated during its reading while others observe the tradition of standing.  Your call.

Much like the Christmas story, this section of the gospels provides us with a cast of memorable characters—memorable largely because their actions reflect our own—for good and for not-good.   As you listen to scripture today and the rest of the week, be attentive to which characters make you pause and think.  That might be God’s way of speaking to you and me—calling our attention to a person whose role in the passion narrative might mirror our behavior today.

Stated in a generic, overall way, we are each gospel person at different moments in our lives–the fair-weather friend of Palm Sunday, the table companion of Jesus on Holy Thursday, absent when the going gets tough on Friday, expectantly wondering if, or praying that, our journey with Jesus still has legs on Holy Saturday, and rejoicing on Sunday that he has risen as he said he would.

Our task this week is to reflect on and look at ourselves objectively by looking at the persons depicted in the gospel.  For example—to stir your thoughts . . .

Judas Iscariot—what’s your price when not being faithful to values you in some way betray?

Chief priests—do you find it easy to pass judgment on others?

Peter—are you called to stand for something but have legs of straw?

Jesus in Gethsemane—what fears are you forced to confront? Do you talk to God about your fear?

Pontius Pilate—do you wash your hands of involvement? Are you apathetic?

Barabbas—do you benefit at other people’s expense (your business price-gouges, but blames the cost on hard economic times–your greed quietly rejoicing in the dividends you receive)?

Simon of Cyrene—do you help others carry their cross, or are you just someone in the crowd who sees bad things happen to others (glad it isn’t you stumbling toward Calvary)?

Soldiers who whip Jesus—do you participate in oppression of others (besides the targeted animals, does your trophy-hunting of rare animals—or any creature who simply wants to live—

deprive them of life—and humanity of their companionship on planet Eden)?

Magdalene, mother Mary, & women at the cross—you’re a faithful presence to others in their time of need (driving people to the doctor, visiting them)?

 The good and bad thief—do you admit mistakes and ask for forgiveness—or do you complain that someone’s always done you wrong?

In each of the persons cited above, we see that Jesus is still being crucified today; that we are washing our hands of involvement, that we are denying that social ills are our problem, and that acting on behalf of our own self-interest seems to be our strongest trait.

But you are not just the routine cast of negative characterizations portrayed in the passion story.  You are also faithful Magdalene, helpful Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus himself—as both he and us confront crosses of our own—in fear and trembling.

If nothing else, the passion narrative shows that we are all in need of new life in some way—to amend the pock-marked life we’ve led–or to further affirm the good legacy we try to bequeath.  Which is why we need to remember and take to heart the bible’s summary message: that God calls ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.  May we ordinary people benefit from this year’s Holy Week.  It calls us to accomplish those extraordinary things—in our own space and time.

April 3, 2022

I was tempted simply to use a line from the gospel as the homily for today: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”  That one sentence is a stark reminder to each of us that we do, in fact, make critical judgments of people and somehow overlook the reality of our own shortcomings.

Jesus seems to make his position clear in this chapter when he further states “I judge no one” (8:15).  However, in 8:26, he says “I have much to judge.”  Hmm.  I wish he’d make up his mind!!!  Understanding scripture can sure be a challenge, especially when scholars think the accused woman story was later inserted into John’s gospel—drawn from Luke or an oral tradition that was strong.  Since it addressed judging, why not put it there?  Besides, Jesus also talks about the “last judgment”—so different contexts bring out different emphases of judging (and other behaviors).

Maybe the Pharisees and scribes brought the woman to Jesus so that they could trap him.  If he said to release the woman, he’d be violating the Mosaic law that said to punish her.  If he says she should be stoned to death, he’d get in trouble with the Roman authorities who had taken the power of capital punishment away from the Jewish leaders.

When I was in grade school, a teacher said that when Jesus doodled on the ground, he was jotting down the sinful behavior of each Pharisee and scribe who was present—and that’s why they departed (knowing they were guilty and that Jesus knew of their guilt).  Commentators today say that within the Mediterranean region, it’s common for peasants to jot in the dirt when thinking or distraught.  What Jesus did was a well-known behavior to gospel listeners of the first century.

Instead of answering their question, Jesus challenged the lynch mob to examine their motives.  Perhaps the wronged husband cynically arranged to have his wife caught instead of trying to win her back with love (as Hosea tried to do in the book of Hosea).  A lesson on “judging,” Jesus also reminds the mob, and all zealots, to strive for purity of motive.  Do away with hidden agendas, and be transparent in your dealings with people—in an up-building way.

As for “judging” people (and ourselves when examining our conscience during Lent), it’s important to remember that the gospel does set standards we are called to observe and behaviors we are taught to avoid.  Although not stated outright in the New Testament, these behaviors have been discerned by Christian ascetics, saints, and spiritual directors since the time of Jesus.  Variously called the “capital sins,” “cardinal sins,” or “deadly sins,” these behaviors are flashing red lights to us that signal something destructive is taking place.  Common to all people everywhere, we need to identify how these deathly behaviors surface in our experience—and try our best to eradicate them.  If we reflect long enough on each one, we will probably admit that “Yes! We are guilty as charged.”

Unfortunately, these behaviors are often touted in society as admirable traits we should foster..  We each have our version of these 7 deadly ways of presenting ourselves to the world—and Lent is the time we try to identify our version.

Some years back, a commercial for Braniff airlines popularized their corporate jingle that hypnotized all of us into thinking that “When you’ve got it—flaunt it.” Considered the parent of the 6 remaining spiritual infections, “pride” is one’s boastful (in obvious or subtle ways) presentation of themselves to others.  Also known as selfishness, arrogance, or vanity, one’s focus is on their own desires, urges, wants, whims, and welfare—before anyone else’s.  Their world is one of I, me, and mine.

The second deathly behavior was popularized in the 2010 film “Wall Street.”  It depicted a worldly-wise Michael Douglas who was a multi-millionaire who used women as toys, and other people as suckers he could rip off financially.  He was a “role model” for moviegoers who found his character alluring. His character had fast cars, fast women, and fantasy homes in several locations.  Americans found no problem echoing what the Douglas character proclaimed to the applause of a captive audience: “Greed is good.”

One can only wonder if Christian churchgoers were concerned about the worldview they were being fed on the silver screen.  They were being given a role model who cultivated an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than he ever needed. Worshipping the created over the Creator, Douglas embodied materialism (the absence of spirituality or sense of the transcendent).  Being “covetous” (passionately wanting to acquire) of some thing or someone is the first stage of wanting still more.  Generosity toward others is minimally exhibited only if it promises to bring greater acquisitions to the greedy person.

Some might not think pride or greed is their “issue” but instead be able to relate to sexual fixations of one sort or another.  Under the umbrella term “lust,” reptilian sexual behaviors can create turmoil—abuses of various kinds that are well known to hospital emergency rooms, police precincts, and counselors.  However, one can also have a “lust” for power or authority over others that likewise creates other forms of harassment.

One’s lust for recognition can include yet another behavior that destroys relationships—envy.  Defined as “sadness at another’s good fortune,” envy reflects a person’s inability to sense or perceive in any way the Christian reality that God made each person unique, that creation is not complete without each person, and that one’s assets are simply different.  Holding someone at a distance because they have something you want—is destroying the bridges a child of God was intended to build between people.  Resentment grows and one might be prompted to say “They think they’re too good for us” when, in reality, that sort of judgment does not at all define the person’s attitude. Instead, we PROJECT that divisive description upon them.

When we were young, a parent or grandparent might have told us that little children in China are starving, and here we are—not eating our dinner (because we probably gorged on something else before dinner).  Starving children exist—here in the U.S. (believe it or not)—and globally.  And our gluttony does affect people elsewhere in the world.  Gluttony refers to us wanting all sorts of foods (such as almonds that make almond milk that depletes fresh water supplies), or we want palm oil which destroys land on which wonderful species (like orangutans) are going extinct because of our gluttonous craving for “creature comforts.”

When at a lake this summer, look at the various water craft consuming gasoline—and that scene repeated day-after-day at lakes everywhere.  Like the old Pac-man game of a yellow chomping head—we chomp, chomp, chomp away our natural resources (like the Amazon) and despoil this garden of Eden which God gave us to tend.  Thinking only of satisfying our gluttonous wants, we destroy God’s gifts.

And as we watch the Ukraine war unfold, we see the very obvious death-dealing behavior of wrath (gluttony, envy, and the other diseases described above are also involved).  Mr. Putin wants to show that resistance is useless, so his people slaughter men, women, and children.  The Hatfields and McCoys are an American parable that showed how your families can let a moment’s anger flare into intergenerational agony.  As with the other human viruses of spirit described above, anger or wrath has “spinoff” comorbidities—suicide, drug abuse, poverty, etc.

The final nail in the coffin of non-Christian living is a word that shouldn’t be confused with the darling animal from South American that seems to always have smile on its face.  That animal, is a “sloth”—pronounced as in eating “cole slaw” (with a “th”) on the 2nd word.  The death-dealing behavior is also spelled “sloth” but can be pronounced “slow-th.”  It can be thought of as “laziness” or an overall sense of apathy and indifference to working or contributing to anything.  Christians know they are created by God to make their special contribution, but the slothful person more-or-less doesn’t care about much at all.  As a result, the world is missing their contribution.  I don’t want to go to church.  I’ll just lay around and watch TV.

And so we have 7 words that refer to “capital sins,” “deadly sins,” or “cardinal sins.”  Forget those terms, and just think of the above 7 terms as behaviors that spawn hurt in everyday life—that make you less than what God intended you and me to be.  These behaviors are found throughout the human race, and during the Lenten season we are encouraged to look at ourselves and see where these viruses lurk within our life.

Thank God we have a vaccine for them.  Let’s rendezvous at church to get our shot of that vaccine-grace we need.

Lord, as tempting as it might be to judge others, inspire us to realize that you love them.  Help us heal by avoiding words that pollute and replacing them with speech that purifies.  Open our eyes to all that we can be grateful for, and mute our pessimism by touching our hearts with hope.  Neutralize whatever bitterness we taste in thinking of someone or some event, and give us the curative power of forgiveness.  Lord, we admit to needing your help in curbing our critical tongue. Please give to us words that up-build others and not words that tear them down.  Show us the poverty of pride, gluttony, envy, lust, greed, wrath, and sloth by teaching us the grace of humility, generosity, kindness, patience, and other virtues that create a community of support.  Inspire us at John the 23rd parish to create such a community.

March 27, 2022

On this winter-like Spring weekend, I was reminded of a Motown song of years ago when coming to church.  The verses are: “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.  When it’s cold outside, I got the month of May.”  And so it is with our coming to mass.  Whatever difficult issues we bring to the altar, God will provide us a sense of hope or new growth.  This is especially true with the gospel this week.  We prodigal sons and daughters are reminded that when we wander off the track of virtue, God more-or-less pines for our return.

Were we first century people hearing the wayward child’s story, we’d first of all be struck by the violation of etiquette BOTH brothers displayed toward their father.  In those days, a child did not demand their inheritance (as the young one did and which the older one did not protest).  So the story is about different generations taking their father’s largesse for granted—and not behaving as they should (think Israelite history and prophets reprimanding people for not observing a right-relationship with God).

The story traditionally is referred to as that of “the prodigal son,” but since most people don’t use the word “prodigal”—its title might not communicate anything.  With prodigal meaning “wastefully extravagant,” the story is about how God has given US all that we have, and has blest us with many things—but we have not led our lives reflecting this divine heritage.  This isn’t a story about life-embarrassments—such as when I unknowingly taught classes all day only to learn that Coffeemate was across the bridge of my nose the entire time (no one asking me about the white powder that I had sported).

Have you not had experiences which prompt you to groan in recalling them—sorry you had not lived up to being the best person you could be?  Like the prodigal son, you roll your eyes and realize that there is an alternative to a former or current behavior.  You (the prodigal child) were/are in a place of “famine” (notice the son was in a country not at war, and he was not a slave, or unemployed—but was HUNGRY—and needed sustenance).  A hint of Eucharist is thus in the passage—along with returning to the faith community that could give him the real food his spirit needs.

When reading that the father spotted his son “when he was still a long way off,” and that he embraced him upon return—further emphasizes a return to the sacramental community.  RECONCILIATION is taking place—as when the sacrament of penance/confession is depicted.  Unfortunately, some people’s memory of this special rite is like what I experienced as a young kid.  With my family tradition being to show up late for mass and leave early, I once “confessed” and the priest asked: “have I ever denied you absolution?” 

He put the fear of God into me—making me not wanting to return to what was intended to be a “healing” experience.  The threatening priest was certainly not playing the role of the father in the story.  He sure wasn’t welcoming me back into the fold and celebrating my desire to behave in better ways.  When that man left the priesthood a few years later, I mused that he had perhaps made a good decision.

Another key element of the passage is the Pharisees and scribes being critical of Jesus mixing and dining with people who they defined as sinner-outcasts.  This isn’t a depiction of Jesus being a humanitarian social worker but of God outreaching us so much so that even GOD will violate religion’s rules to win us over (the same point is made in the good Samaritan story).

What about the elder brother?  Could he represent us—when we are unable to change our mind about one thing or another—remaining a slave to our opinions on all subjects?  Or is he the Jewish element of Luke’s audience not changing to the new way of life that the evangelist is communicating to the Gentiles (younger brother)?  Obviously, today’s gospel is about more than just a prodigal child.

We can’t let this past week’s feast day pass without comment.  Namely, the “feast of the Annunciation” took place—honoring the angel Gabriel speaking with Mary about giving birth to Jesus (the liturgical cycle is acknowledging that March 25th is 9 months before December 25th).  All of which is a “take” on Christian history.

The gospel incident is more importantly a theology and spirituality lesson that is wise for us to ponder and take to heart.  That is, the annunciation is not just an historical moment related to Mary and Jesus, but is a story about us.

God says to each of us “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with” me.  We are being told that each of us is called to give birth to Jesus in our own special way.  And we are shocked—saying “How can this be?”  For us to be so special—IN THE EYES OF GOD—is like telling us we could be a mother without having sexual relations with anyone.  And in our moment of disbelief when realizing the God of all creation regards us in such special light—we are told that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. for nothing is impossible for God.”

To be an apostle, or an “alter Christus” (another Christ) is a role we can refuse, and carry on our lives as agnostics—not knowing if God exists or not.  Or we can be people of faith, acknowledge God making us for a special role—and responding: “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Enough of prodigal children and angels speaking to us as they do to Mary!

Here are reflections on the concrete meaning of discipleship that we are called to embody.  Spend a moment on each thought—and let’s try to make the world better by internalizing their content.

Refrain from words that hurt people and instead say kind things to them

Refrain from sadness and each day count even the simplest things for which you can be grateful

Refrain from knee-jerk angry reactions to what people say and be filled with patience

Refrain from pessimism and force yourself to light one candle of hope

Refrain from worries and replace them with trust in God

Refrain from complaining and contemplate simplicity

Refrain from pressures that bring anxiety and replace it with speaking to God

Refrain from bitterness and somewhere find its antidote—joy—if only it be a teaspoonful

Refrain from self-centered behavior and try to feel what another feels when hurt or alone—tap your inner resource of compassion

Refrain from holding grudges and make some effort to be reconciled

Refrain from words and be silent so you can listen

May I risk reputation, comfort, and security to bring hope to the downcast.

May I respond “yes” to the angel Gabriels who ask me to bring life to others.

March 20, 2022

We call this liturgical season “Lent”—a word that means “spring.”  And so it is that we seek new life at this time of year—a spiritualizing of the season when the death of winter gives way to blooming and birthing. At this time, we try to tend our spirit and find new insight into why God made us who we are and what God calls us to be.

The 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 days Noah’s family spent on the ark.  The sun eventually rose and revealed a new creation and new beginning for them.  And that is what we spiritually seek when focusing on our Easter destination.

We’re reminded of Israelites wandering 40 years in the desert—recalling the desert experiences we have had at different times.  We looked at mirages only to realize that they were illusions of security and not the promised land we sought.  And we think of Goliath taunting the Israelites for 40 days until David showed everyone that God helps us overcome all forms of intimidation.

As for scripture this week, we read about 18 people being killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them.  This horrible event made people think that God was punishing the 18 for something they had done.  When Jesus was asked if he thought this is why the people died, he more or less said that they died because the tower fell on them—period!  God wasn’t punishing them.

The mentality represented in this passage is one found in tribal societies everywhere.  That is, if anything goes wrong with someone or some event (a broken arm, an illness, a devastating flood), people think it’s because a spirit or a god was offended.  When health care workers went to help stamp out smallpox from a community, people resisted because they thought the smallpox god would take out its wrath on them.

You might even hear a relative sigh something to the effect of: “I think God is punishing me for ________” [fill in the blank].  Humans seem to think the spirit world wants to beat us up for committing some wrong.  By contrast, the God revealed in Jesus has no interest in slapping your face or punishing you for some misdeed.  Our God is one who wants to love you into, or draw out, the person you were intended to be.

The flip side of the punishing-god stereotype is the capitalistic-god whose message is today heard by preachers of what’s known as the “prosperity gospel.”  Called “the worst idea” of the recent past by the religion editor of the Chicago Sun, these wealthy preachers woo poor and lower-middle class listeners into conceiving of a God who wants them to be wealthy, and that by living the gospel, wealth will not be far behind.  The roots of this “heresy” (false teaching—but which is believed by some to be Christian-teaching) are in our colonial American experience.  Much has been written about how our colonial founders were influenced by religious teachings that cited wealth as a special blessing from God. 

A summary of countless books that addressed the colonial experience—shows that people wondered if they’d be one of “the elect” who’d go to heaven.  How could one tell if they were on the right road to eternity?  Answer?  If people were blest with wealth, that must mean they’re doing something right.  Therefore, they wrongly concluded that one “sign” of being among the “elect” was wealth—so people better work hard to gain wealth (blending religion with commerce—and producing what has become known as the “Protestant work ethic” in America).

The other part of this weekend’s gospel takes us into the world of 1st century horticulture and Israelite care of the Palestinian fig tree. In order to fully appreciate this story, you need to know the Aramaic language and the book of Leviticus.

Leviticus says that the fig tree must be allowed to grow for 3 years while the next 3 it is forbidden to eat its fruit.  The 7th year’s harvest is to be given to the Lord—and THEN the orchard owner can pick and sell the figs. Scripture scholars point out that the story is addressing leadership (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.).  Is leadership self-serving, or does it truly serve the people’s best interest?

When the owner says to get rid of the tree, listeners of Jesus would hear a play on words—the word for getting rid of (or digging up) is the same as mercy/forgiveness.  The worker wants to exercise mercy/forgiveness while the owner does not.  And so it is with leadership.  Will it serve its own interests or that of the people?  Like the tree, people need the gardener’s (God’s) help (and not be cut down by the uncaring, self-serving orchard owner).

Today’s readings (and others during Lent) have such phrases as “If you do not repent, you will perish.”  But what does “repent” mean to us?  I think of such things as going to confession, or “giving up” something for Lent, or I think of people in the Middle Ages wearing sackcloth and ashes or standing out in the cold enduring physical pain to “make up for” something they did wrong. 

It might be more meaningful if we thought of repentance during Lent as taking the time to get in touch with how we deceive ourselves into thinking we are living the fullest Christian life that we can.  Think of repentance as saying to God in prayer that you AREN’T knowledgeable of lapses you’ve committed in being Christian, and that you DON’T know what the gospel calls you to further embody in your everyday life.  Try saying to God in prayer that you want to be shown where you can expand your sense of personal mission as a baptized Catholic.

Instead of leaving this topic at a cerebral or abstract level of reflection, I thought you might benefit from challenges I face each time I read Catholic/Christian journals, magazines, and newspapers. They often challenge me, or simply remind me of matters I am SUPPOSED to address as one who claims a gospel identity.  I often realize I’ve neglected to give attention to some important issue. I then fail as a priest in communicating those issues to you!  After all, it’s my duty to move people’s thought processes into realms they might not wish to go.  I have this same experience when reading articles related to diverse topics.

Here are titles of articles drawn from sources authored by theologians, clergy, religion scholars, and spirituality writers.  The sources are from one week’s set of readings I came across—written for Catholic clergy and pastors from all the different denominations.  They offer us this material with the hope that we, in turn, enlighten our respective flocks in the matters addressed.  If these are not on your radar—why aren’t they?  You might say “I never think of them.”  Precisely—because you and I aren’t as fully engaged as we could be—and this material challenges us to repent/re-examine our consciousness. 

I quote from the sources the following titles (and make an occasional comment).

“Christians fight cruel outdated prison policies,” and “What does the bible say about Prisons?”  I wonder how pastors/preachers address prison reform if their church has people employed by the local prison. Or better still, since the corporations that produce weaponry have factories (intentionally) in major population areas where votes are cast—how do clergy in those districts address such things as “It’s time for the bishops to speak up again about the threat of nuclear war?”  When jobs are in play—where will people stand?

Some Christians have a strong position on gender roles.  How can a preacher address their congregation after reading “Reimagining Biblical Womanhood?”  Or if one’s flock has people who like associating the U.S. with a Christian identity, will they listen to their shepherd question the merit of the association (having read “Putin’s religious vision underscores the danger of Christian nationalism”—which reported the man’s effort to get public support for his war crimes from the Russian Orthodox church).

“How Silicon Valley’s ‘Techtopia’ turned work into a religion” brought to mind a southern state’s lieutenant governor encouraging people to go to work during the worst period of the pandemic.  He said it was a great good for people, if necessary, to lay down their lives in order to bring about a booming economy.  His handlers didn’t ride this line of thought very long because most people probably thought as I did.  We associate martyrs in religion laying down their lives—but to do so for Wall Street and the stock market?  No thank you.

Most people seem to realize there’s a problem with the environment and climate change, but for those who have no interest in the subject, might they read “How Environmental care is not just a hot topic but a biblical command?”  Or “Can religion and faith combat eco-despair?”  

I came across an article titled “Teach black history better by learning from Jesus.”  It was written as a rejoinder to people who’ve made an “issue” of a topic born in Harvard’s law school.  Known as “critical race theory” to the relatively few people who knew of its existence, it refers to a set of ideas related to black history and why we have “race” issues in the U.S.  Keep in mind that there are TONS of books written about race issues in the U.S.—and that “critical race theory” was unknown to 99% of the population until some people made it a household word on the nightly news.  

Being an anthropologist, my field of study rarely uses the word “race” in discussing human diversity—the term being old-fashioned and not helpful.  After all, does anyone really think that the world’s population can be significantly defined as red, white, yellow, or black?

Trying our best to “learn from Jesus” SHOULD help us cut through ALL topics that confuse us.  I read that there are thousands of Russian “bots” (“robotic” programs on the Internet/Facebook that seek to create divisions within American society—racial, ethnic, economic, gender, etc.–by posing as real people with real arguments of one kind or another).  On 60 Minutes I saw a man identified as a Pennsylvania farmer standing in his field with daughter nearby criticizing some policy his local representative sponsored.  60 Minutes traced this “bot” footage to a computer lab in Russia—the “farmer” a Russian actor. 

The article cited above simply reminds Christians that we learn FROM JESUS what our perspective should be on ANY topic–be it human relations, ecology, war, or sexuality.  Yes, even sexuality—as one article was titled “Texas faith groups mobilize against governor’s order to probe child trans treatments.”  Human sexuality will forever present us with wonderment.  Again, Christians are supposed to “learn from Jesus” about ANY issue! 

Other titles that appeared in one week’s offering from reputable print media were “Will they know Christians by their love or by their reckless obsession with liberty?” “I went to a Ukrainian Catholic Church to pray a rosary for peace. I didn’t expect to find Muslims there in solidarity.”  “How to be an anti-racist this Lent” and “Jesus, the living water, welcomes our mess at the well–will we let him draw us?” 

This last article hits the nail on the head of “repentance.”  You and I are being called to re-evaluate–all the time (not just during the Lenten season)—our thinking on all matters, great and small.  As Christians, we are called to be in the world as a Christ-presence—performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and seeing where we can further bring life—in concrete ways—to all God’s children in all sectors of life.  You and I might not like being challenged to “grow” into some new awareness, but that’s the call to discipleship we claim to hear.  Apart from indicating what Christian literature addresses, I ask for your prayer that I might join your successful effort to “repent” and grow where God calls me to new life this spring-lent. 

Dear God, Spirit, Divine Mother, Father in heaven–Inspire me to bring a smile to those whose eyes I meet.  May I have the strength to stand tall in the face of conflict, And the courage to speak my voice, even when I’m scared.  I ask not for easier tasks but just enough talents to meet any tasks which come my way.  May I seek to know the highest truths And dismiss the pull of my lower self.  May I learn more profoundly why you created me, How to overcome darkness and have the gospel wisdom To Choose generosity over selfishness.  Today I want to surrender anything that Undermines the sacredness who you made me to be.  So drench me with a knowledge of your affection for me—a child, like you, born in the Bethlehem of my family. 

March 13, 2022

Lent is such a serious time of the liturgical year that it’s good to inject a little humor into the season.  Thus, the following:  A man took his son to a baseball game. The dad asked the boy what he was giving up for Lent. The boy replied, “I don’t know, Dad. What are you going to give up?”

His father said, “I’ve decided to give up liquor.” During the game, the beer man came by, and the dad ordered a beer and his son said “I thought you were giving up liquor!” His dad replied, “Hard liquor, son. I’m giving up hard liquor. This is just a beer.” To which the boy replied, “Well then, could you buy me a 3 Musketeers bar and a Snickers bar?   I’m giving up hard candy.”

It seems the father observed the letter of the Lenten law while his son was attuned to its spirit.

I wonder if that conversation even takes place within Catholic families today. Do parents and children talk about religion at the dinner table, or what Lent means, or why “giving up” or sacrificing something at this time of year is observed?

Thinking of what is addressed in family settings reminds me of what clergy face when giving their sermons or homilies.  Do they direct their comments to the senior parishioners—and so “preach to the choir?”  Or do they paternalistically pat them on the head with pious remarks about praying the rosary, or lighting candles to Jesus and Mary, or do they present to the older crowd the same gospel challenges that would be addressed to younger parishioners? 

Material I present is intended for all ages.  Finding a vocation that’s pertinent to your life-situation is what the gospel calls people of all ages to undertake.  There’s no retiring at 65—and telling everyone that you’ve “arrived” and are content in your Christian identity.  It doesn’t work that way—because God is calling us from an early age to our dying breath—my mom being an example of this lifelong quest.

Throughout my growing up years, my mom was not a churchgoer.  She was baptized a Catholic when she married my dad—but was a victim of “panic attacks” before that term came into use.  Attending church would trigger panic attacks.  So it came to pass that mom was widowed at age 52 and went into mourning for many years.  I tried my best to rally her spirit into finding a new life, but she could only find a heart attack that compounded an already depressive state.

And then it happened.  Not because of me saying anything, she somehow got connected with the local Catholic parish—and emerged from mourning and the blues.  I never thought I’d hear her speak on the phone about the weekend’s homily or issues within the archdiocese of Detroit.  This was not the mother I knew growing up.  And so it is with searching and finding, knocking and a door opening.

Late life resurrection comes to us in today’s first reading from Genesis and its reference to Abraham and Sarah (initially called Abram and Sarai)—people who today are known as a patriarch and matriarch of our faith. They were elderly people long passed their childbearing years. But God said Abraham’s descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky—and so it came to be.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are known as the three “Abrahamic” faiths because each one traces its origin to our “father in faith,” Abraham. 

Sad,  isn’t it, that our religious cousins have borne the brunt of our prejudices—in the widespread anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has again become popular within militia groups and Ku Klux Klan.  It’s in our tribal loyalties that prejudice is bred—our ancestors seeing the world in terms of “us versus them.”  Look at European soccer games and you’ll see riots break out when one city’s team plays another city’s team. We’ve not gone that route in most of our sports here in the U.S., but each of us can identify with “not liking” people associated with some ethnic group, some religion, some hairstyle, some clothing style, some ANYTHING. 

And because this trait is so ingrained within our “sinful human nature,”  we have to keep remembering that Jesus came to reveal that we are ALL children of God, and brothers and sisters in Christ.  Black Elk pretty much sums up how our ancestors interacted with one another.  He said: “We’d kill anyone who didn’t speak our language.”  He came to embrace a Christianity that called him to be a better person than one who simply killed others who were different.  Spiritual writer Louis Evely said to readers who abhorred some person: THAT MAN IS YOU.   There’s a lot in that first reading today—and even more in the gospel.

Today’s selection reports what our tradition refers to as the TRANSFIGURATION.  Did you notice the passage began with Jesus “taking them to a mountain?”  And do you remember my mentioning that whenever scripture refers to a mountain—it’s like a warning to the reader that something really different and cool and sacred is going to take place?  Last week I told you about American Indians “going up on a hill” and undertaking a “vision quest.”  And last week the gospel told us about Jesus going into the desert to pray.  These places, a mountain, hill, or desert are what Celtic spirituality refers to as “thin spaces”—geographical locations where people feel very little separation between this world and the Sacred world.  Individuals go to these places and make some kind of “connection” with the two realms.

It’s on a mountain where Peter, John, and James see Moses (who symbolizes the Old Testament law) and Elijah (who symbolizes all the prophets of old).  Theologically, this is quite a vision—with the voice of God affirming Jesus and telling them to listen to him because he is the “Chosen” one through whom God now speaks.  Jesus thus embodies the law and the prophets—and more.

On a theological level, all of the above shows how dots connect to one another—with a 5-syllable word (“transfiguration”) describing the event.  But who uses that word in everyday speech?  And how many people are familiar with Moses and Elijah, and their connection to “the law and the prophets?”  Hearing this theology does not keep everyone on the edge of their seat. To first-century Christians—from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, the theology broadcast in this New Testament episode was very important.  It spoke to their experience and the concerns they discussed.  I think most parishioners at any parish would not find the passage particularly moving or of much relevance to their weekday experience.

Which is why we need to translate the scene into something that speaks to OUR experience.  Here’s a suggestion.

Picture the mountain scene—with Jesus being affirmed by the Father, and YOU are standing there instead of Moses and Elijah.  You are there representing not the law and the prophets—but your “issues”—of loneliness, unemployment, addiction, depression, marriage struggles—whatever your unique concern is that you’ve brought to the altar today.  God’s voice is saying to YOU at this “thin place” altar mountain top “listen to him.”

The gospel story is telling us that we can have a transfiguration experience—not necessarily in learning via the law and the prophets, but in how to deal with the issues we’ve brought to this thin space.

Peter wanted to build a tent and preserve the revelation.  He, James, and John had to come down the mountain—the tents built later on as churches which house the thin place of the altar, the thin place of the tabernacle, and the thin place of each sacrament that is administered in the tent of churches everywhere—sites of transfiguration experiences for us.  Our contact with the sacred is not contact with a Jesus who is Batman, or Captain America—but a person whose life shows us THAT we can face all threats, and HOW we can face them.

Take us, Lord, from this sacred thin place of sacramental encounter to other thin places of insight—so that we can be the apostles so needed by those who stand alone on mountains with no sense of inspiration or guidance. 

Jesus, you have known me from the beginning of time, you have known me in the depths of my dreams and darkness of my problems.  As saint or sinner, I am your beloved.  Help me to own that core identity more and more in this season of prayer, repentance, and charity.  Give me the covenant-assurance that you gave patriarch Abraham– of your unwavering faith in me as I seek greater faith in you.  God be in my head and in my understanding; God be in my eyes and in my looking; God be in my mouth and in my speaking; God be in my heart and in my thinking; and at the last, God be in my death–at my departing.

March 6, 2022

Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted in different ways.  Sound like anyone you know?   How about you, me, everyone?  In the varied deserts of our lives, we are tempted to make decisions or choices that are solely self-serving!  Jesus, of course, shows us that we needn’t cave in to this very human experience.  We can resist the allures that end up being mirages of oases in dry periods of our lives.

The devil tempting Jesus is a reminder that when a public official wields power, it is SUPPOSED to be done on behalf of all—not themselves.  The demon tempted Jesus to wield power for personal gain whereas our decisions should always be for the greater good.

During the Lenten season, we try and get in touch with the stark reality that we have NOT always been Jesus in our decision-making.  Call it the devil.  Call it fallen human nature.  Call it sin.  Whatever name you give it, there’s something within us that sometimes makes us wrongly assess some event, some person, or some opportunity.  We act on our instinct, or limited knowledge, or idea that does not result in good. The gospel also reminds us that even if we draw upon our strengths and are a worthy role model, there’s a force that is temporarily letting peace prevail—only to be coming again and attack via some other temptation.

We think of Lent as a season of ashes and giving up things—but it’s more a season during which we can grow more fully into who God intended us to be—a season in which we get in touch with past misdeeds and realize God is STILL calling us to be more than we have thus far imagined ourselves to be.

Here’s an incident from my past that I think illustrates an experience common to many people.  Namely, we can look at our experiences—and realize we were not “on target”—even though, at the time, we thought we were a Master of the Universe (the Greek word for sin in scripture means “to miss the mark, or target”).

For many years, there was a radio show on WJR that was described this way: “The opinion of youth expressing itself is given voice on WiR’s unique feature ‘Junior Town Meeting of the Air’ . . .  the series originates from a different high school each week. Four teen-age panel members, selected by competition from the student body, discuss subjects chosen for current interest to young and old alike. Questions from the audience directed to panel members follow the discussions.”

My school participated and 4 of us won the competition (2 Junior boys and 2 Senior girls). The boy who came in 5th place later became a much-respected heart surgeon at UM and Beaumont Hospital—a great guy and really sharp student–who SHOULD have been selected over me.  My debate-mate was an award-winning scholar athlete who made girls swoon and guys wish they were him.  Several years ago, I saw his name on the Internet—listed as one of the top 100 highest-paid attorneys in the country.  Both senior girls were Honor Society members—one of whom became a successful attorney (me befriending a student when I was at Nouvel and learning that she was his aunt).  All of which is simply to say that I was the weakest link in this panel that debated “Is conformity good or bad?”

When the debate ended, my buddies and I were pleased that we had clearly triumphed in a debate that was broadcast to all of Detroit.  My brother worked at the radio station and recorded the debate so that my parents could hear it later that night–and so that I could have a keepsake from my high school days.

Although I informed my parents that victory was ours, my recollection of what they said was that: “We think the girls did a great job and that you weren’t as victorious as you thought.” From time to time over the years, I have listened to the recording—rolled my eyes in embarrassment–and said to God in prayer: “That high school experience shows I needed your help then—and that hasn’t changed, Lord.  Come, Holy Spirit—open my mind to YOUR wisdom and knowledge—which I need so badly.”  

That debate was a touchstone experience that made me aware of self-deception—realizing that we are often not fully aware of the bigger picture—and NOT as knowledgeable as we think we might be—relative to ourselves, others, and issues of the day. 

In lifelong conversations with God, I came to see that post-debate experience define reality—that I am only partially aware of what’s good or what’s wrong or what’s right—and that God calls each of us to expand our vision, our sense of self and why God dreamed us into being. 

What I’m describing is a process that pretty much defines what Lent is all about—getting in touch with our limitations and asking God to open our eyes and ears and minds to how the gospel is calling us to greater self-knowledge and greater understanding of our role in creation.  Today’s gospel also reminds me of the American Indian world—where exists the Lent-like “vision quest” religious exercise (found in different forms from the Arctic to Mexico). 

Native peoples everywhere were acutely aware of NOT having all the answers, NOT winning debates, and NOT in touch with higher powers that could make their lives more meaningful.  Variations of this phrase appear in prayer samples: “I send my pitiful voice to you” or “Pitifully, I cry to you in prayer.”  The famous Crazy Horse undertook vision quests year-round (signaling to everyone that he wasn’t an arrogant or smug leader who had all the answers).

Just as the gospel reported Jesus going by himself into the desert to pray, so a quest entailed one secluding themselves away from the village, perhaps “going up on a hill” (or desert-like place), with movement restricted to a designated area they were not to leave except as needed.  In that marked-off area, one would “cry” for a vision that would help them become a better, more accomplished, person (becoming a more-skilled hunter, finding a spouse, learning some special cure, becoming a good warrior, etc.).  The individual would usually perform this exercise for 2 to 4 days, but some were able to endure a longer period (not eating during this time). 

Just as St. Ignatius counseled people to “see God in all things,” so one was advised to look for some spirit-revelation in anything that occurred while on the hill.  A messenger might be a mosquito, a shadow, a bird, or other animal.  Some social scientists have suggested that one’s lack of food and water during this time possibly triggered hallucinations (which the quester would regard as a supernatural revelation).  That analysis, of course, could apply to anyone having a “mystical” experience within any religious tradition that includes fasting.  As with getting “spiritual direction” within Christian practice, so one would speak to a “wisdom keeper” about their experience on the hill in order to interpret correctly what took place.

Like the vision quest, Lent calls us to introspection—looking at our life experience—realizing once again that we’re not god—-and that we have lots of room to grow. This Lenten season might include fasting or some other practice (“giving up” a food or activity we like or pro-actively doing something FOR others, e.g., working at a soup kitchen, helping at the parish in some way, donating to Christ’s Mission Appeal, or other creative involvements). 

These efforts during Lent are intended as reminders that we are on a quest for resurrection.  Lenten practices remind us that we get side-tracked throughout life—and need to get back on the good road that leads to eternal life.  There’s nothing noble or sacred about not having candy during Lent or not eating meat on Friday (especially if you’re a vegetarian year-round and consider fish & chips more preferable).  But our life-values and activities and presence to others is VERY sacred—and Lenten practices are aimed at us honing our vision of the journey we are all making back to God.

It might help to take to heart what the Lakota-Sioux mystic, Black Elk, said: “Wakan-tanka (God) always helps those who cry to him with a pure heart.”

February 27, 2022

Russ Milan, chair of the parish finance committee, addressed us last weekend and apprised the assembly of our progress on Christ’s Mission Appeal (the yearly collection that supports the diocese throughout mid-Michigan).  Importantly, Russ reminded us of our responsibility to support the Church’s efforts to ‘RE-GROW’ our parishes.  Moreover, programs that help people in need are sponsored by the diocese—and it is our financial support that permits this Catholic outreach to so many.  We can’t individually provide all the services throughout the diocese, but our subsidy of these efforts makes us a partner in serving the Kingdom.

Russ stated that our targeted goal is $85,000 and that we’ve thus far collected about $50,000.  However, that 50k has been donated by just half of the enrolled parishioners.  The range of donations has been from $25 dollars to $2000.00—and everything in-between those figures.  Imagine if the other 50% of our parishioners offered their support.  We’d hit the goal easily.

I confessed to not liking the role of asking you to contribute to ANYTHING—because my assumption is that 1) you are generous people who have a good track record of supporting the people of God in diverse collections, and 2) I take for granted that you give what you can—and that you don’t need me or anyone getting after you about sharing what you have with others. I presume you know we Catholics have a responsibility to support the diocese/Church/gospel/faith community—whatever term you prefer when thinking of our corporate Christian identity. 

I don’t know if people are on fixed-incomes or if they’re poor or if they’re well off.  I only know that they are fellow parishioners of John 23rd, and that we all are called to pitch in where we can. On this aspect of us all “giving,” I informed each mass that l have never given to diocesan collections until now.  I do so now because I am a member of the parish.  I’ve diverted funds given to me–to CMA (and the parish). In giving to CMA, you might have the experience I have on Thursday or Friday mornings when a number of people who attend the early mass go to have coffee afterwards.  I’ll buy the coffee from time to time—drawn from funds I received from parishioners at Christmas time.  Just as I feel good in getting people coffee, so you can feel good in knowing your CMA contribution is helping others regionally and globally.

At funerals, I often quote the gospel that has God say “Welcome, faithful servant, to the kingdom prepared for you . . . you fed me, clothed me . . . when you did these things to the least among you.”  I never read those verses that I don’t wonder if my behavior here will merit that Divine welcome. 

When I was a pastor in the Soo, I thought the construction of a casino just a few hundred yards away would see winners thank God by dropping something in our collection.  I witnessed zero increase once the casino was operational.  So I have no expectations of the parish being helped if people pay fewer taxes, hit the lottery, or get a decent income tax return. How we help others is ultimately a matter each of us talks about with God in prayer.

Here is an example of giving to the larger world outside one’s immediate world of experience.  When interviewing the elderly daughter of the Lakota holy-man, Black Elk, I one day noticed her put an old, crinkly dollar bill in an envelope.  She sealed the envelope, and asked if I might mail it for her.  I noticed it was addressed to “Catholic Relief Services,” and I wondered why this destitute elder would send a dollar to an organization that helped people overseas who were in better financial shape than she was.  Lucy Looks Twice was the woman’s name, and she replied “Mike, my father said there were other people worse off than us Indians, so we should remember to help them, too.  That’s why I send a dollar each year to the Catholic Relief Services.  It’s what he would have wanted me to do.” 

This testimony came from a woman whose log cabin had no running water.  She used a wood stove to heat its 2-rooms, and had an electric line that powered an old television, radio, and lights.  An outhouse was a hundred feet away—providing little comfort on winter days that were often well below zero.  We might use the saying “Charity begins at home,” but Lucy respected the Church’s responsibility to take care of others.  I always think of my experience with her when dealing with charitable giving–such as CMA. What do I do with my crinkly dollar bills?

Russ and I joked about seeing parishioners after mass rush to the altar with checks and cash to see that our goal is reached right away.  Since that didn’t occur, we encourage you to leave loose change or cash or a check in the collection box at the back of church.  And if you are not inclined to be part of CMA, I assume you have a good reason.  You—me—we all have our reasons for doing what we do. 

You should be receiving my Lenten letter in the mail.  If you don’t get one, call Irene.  In the letter, I translated into ordinary English the devotional practices we are called to perform at this time of year (celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans is NOT one of our devotional practices).  Fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving refer to behaviors we perform to become stronger in our faith (summarized in this bulletin).  Some literature calls us simply to pray about what we are doing with our time, talent, and treasure.  We have a lot to think about in these 40 days of Lent.

In the letter, I also inform you of upcoming programs, an hour long, to be held on certain Sundays of lent at 4 p.m. (that will be announced in the bulletin).  2 speakers are committed and 3 have had to cancel (Covid prevented one of them).  More to come on this.

This first Sunday of Lent, our young ones who will be making their first communion—will be receiving the sacrament of reconciliation after the 11 a.m. mass.  Down the line, we will have our “first communion Sunday.”  2 baptisms are also on the horizon as the faith community expands its membership. Louanne Larsen and I conducted an Ash Wednesday service at Merrill Fields.

Could you render an opinion on my offering Thursday’s weekday mass at a time when the workday is over and others might wish to attend, e.g., 5:30, 6, 6:30, 7?  This thought came to mind because anyone who has to begin work at 8 a.m. can’t attend what we currently offer. Call or email the office with thoughts on this.  Plans are taking shape for the parish brunch to be held at Sacred Heart on Palm Sunday—all of us hopeful that Covid won’t strike again.

At the masses, Dennis told us about the “Synod” called by Pope Francis.  Whereas Vatican Council 2 was attended by cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and theologians to discern many issues facing Catholicism, the “Synod” is a call to all parishes of the world—asking them for input on matters related to the Church’s mission in the 21st century.  As time passes, there will be meetings at which you can suggest how the Church might address the world’s issues.

February 13, 2022

Whenever I mention some real-life issue in a homily, or offer some reflection on what I think our response as Catholics should be to some social problem, I (and any clergy person from any Christian church) run the risk of stepping on someone’s toes.  This usually occurs when addressing some specific issue that’s current.  I can appreciate this scenario—because I, too, have been in the pews hearing someone advance a position that I think is not consistent with what the gospel says.  My concern is what the “gospel” says–and not some party-line that’s being bandied about by news people—with politicians provoking arguments among citizens. My focus is solely ”what would Jesus do (or say).”

Here’s an example.  Because of Jesus always stressing love of neighbor, and because he was executed by the state, I see capital punishment as not a gospel position.  Yes, I fully appreciate my heart being ripped out if someone murdered a loved one—but my Christian identity calls me to transcend the visceral anger that would well up within me.  Advancing this proposition for us to think about might irritate those for whom capital punishment is a legitimate course of action. But a kind of moral imperative requires clergy to raise the issue (countries that have abolished it number around 141 while 55 have retained it–China executing the most).

All issues on the nightly news call for you and me to ponder what our Christian perspective ought to be on them.  For example, because of Covid, inflation is a global concern—all countries experiencing their highest upswing in years.  No debate there—just fact.  But what is BEHIND this economic fact—that might move us to adopt a Christ-like position on the topic? 

Any introductory political science textbook could report what I sketch here (that is, I’m not spinning my wheels on original thought).  If this example “steps on your toes,” don’t blame me for reporting a reality that affects us all “behind the scenes” of everyday life.  I did some lobbying work in D.C. many moons ago, and was introduced to a shadowy world I never knew existed (my cousin working in the White House from the Nixon administration through the Clintons—she having a treasure trove of stories—and a photo of her waving sadly as Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace).

Pertinent to what I report below, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were “persons” who had all sorts of rights that you or I would think can only be associated with a HUMAN.  Critics (and follow-up studies) showed that the ruling catered to wealthy corporate power-brokers.  The ruling, in effect, made it legal to buy congressional votes (see how representatives and senators cast their vote—and then see which corporations are listed as their donors).   You want lower cost of drugs—but for some reason your representative or senator won’t sign on to a bill that will lower them?  Look to see which pharmaceutical companies are contributing to your elected officials.  Fortunately, not everyone is “bought and paid for,” but the issue is a moral one—which is why “politics” can’t be avoided when you or I try to define our gospel identity in what Christians traditionally refer to as a “sinful” world.

Again, keep in mind that Jesus was executed by the state, and that he enraged powerbrokers by calling them out for hurting the poor—and not providing for the common good.  Since you and I are supposed to think as he did, and do as he did, it is our identity as Christians to look at everyday real-life, socio-political issues that appear on the nightly news. 

Here’s an example of the above–that would be addressed in a moral theology course.  As with anything I’ve put in bulletins, I draw material from Wikipedia, pastoral journals, theology newsletters, and magazines like Christianity Today/Crux/America, etc.  Some have criticized what I’ve reported from these sources, and I miss seeing those people in church.  Darn thing is that I wish I could claim having the fertile & reflective mind that produces the quotes or paraphrases that you see me put in the bulletin.  I’m giving you material from a wide array of Catholic and Christian sources—not unique to me.  I’ve offered solid source material from the citations above.  Which is my copout way of saying “don’t shoot the messenger.”

So let’s say you’re a Catholic who works for, or are an executive at, a multi-national corporation.  I won’t mention the company but simply say it’s related to the food industry upon which all of us rely.  As you know, inflation is a global reality—the U.S., Asia, Europe, Africa—everywhere coping with inflation.  Some countries have a higher inflation rate than us—all of which being a geo-political fact that no one disputes.  Just as it’s a fact that we all have to eat, and we turn for sustenance to this mega company at which you hold a well-paid position.  Your company has been described as one of the 10 companies that “control everything you buy.”

Your CEO informs you that the company is going to warn wholesale buyers about an impending price increase that will be passed on to shoppers.  Prices on many of its products will go up by as much as 20% (brand names you all know that I won’t list) and the company will issue press releases which say that it feels for all of its valued customers, and will keep prices as low as possible in this challenging time.  Madison Avenue will produce messages for television and varied social media that let you know the company “really cares” about you.

Meanwhile, back at the office, you learn that for the quarter, the company reported a profit of 91 cents per share, 6 cents MORE than analysts had estimated.  Revenue came in well above expectations at $4.52 billion compared to Wall Street’s view of $2.02 billion. In its 2021 fiscal year, the company reported net sales of $18.1 billion, a 3% increase from the year prior, as well as an operating profit of $3.1 billion (up 6% from the previous year).  Stockholders are quite happy.  They’re doing quite well—and fully expect to do better in the coming year.

Because you’re an informed administrator, you know that the CEO has a base salary of $1.25 million, with another $5.25 million in stock awards—his total compensation for the year being $15.57 million. The 2021 compensation for the Group President totaled just under $5.65 million, while the CFO received just under $3.45 million.  The moral challenge for a Catholic (Christian) who navigates this sector of the business world may be that they have no idea at all as to how the company can sustain a profit and at the same time not make others suffer.  This is the story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens—an old and honored story about the reality of Scrooge-like business people who care only about the bottom line for themselves. 

As with A Christmas Carol, you and I are challenged to somehow 1) see where the gospel is being ignored, 2) brainstorm solutions or strategies with like-minded people of faith, and 3) do what we can to convert Scrooge’s way of life and thinking.  Sadly, Christian churches will always be around because there are so many battlefronts.

For example, this past week, a substitute teacher at Farmington High said to a really well-spoken, black teen “get your cotton-pickin hands off that.”  The year is 2022 and a TEACHER referred to a nice young black kid’s “cotton-pickin” hands?  I salute the school’s kids (Black, White, Hispanic—all of them) leaving classes and marching to the Superintendent’s office.  The teacher was sent packing.

A Protestant theologian titled his book Moral Man and Immoral Society—indicting us for either ignoring the pain around us, or just not honing our consciences.  Thank God there are all sorts of people in the pews who seek to make whatever gospel contribution they can make. 

I wish I had answers to society’s ills.  I don’t.  I can, however, prayerfully discern how Jesus might approach topics—like the one that follows.  This is a kind of “socio-political Church” issue that confronts us globally.  Maybe the “Synod” that is unfolding throughout the Catholic world—will offer some creative initiatives.

If you live in western Europe or in some parts of the United States, where parishes are closing or consolidating and Mass attendance is in free fall, you’d think membership in the Catholic Church was dropping.  Just the opposite.  Catholicism added 16 million new members in 2020.

Globally, Church membership in 1900 was 267 million.  In 2000, it was 1.045 billion.  Today, it is 1.36 billion (in a world population of 7.9 billion). Catholics represent 17.7 percent of everyone on earth.  The vast majority of this growth is outside the western hemisphere. This past year, for example, the Catholic population grew in Africa 2.1% and in Asia 1.8%. 

Africa had 1.9 million Catholics in 1900 and an estimated 236 million today (20% of the global total).  By the middle of this century, 75% of Catholics will live outside the west. Maybe you have relatives who are involved with militia groups that are also White supremacists.  If any of these people somehow claim a Catholic identity, one wonders how they will adjust to a Church whose membership is so diverse.

In 2020, there were 410,219 Catholic priests in the world, with 40% living in Europe and 13% in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.  That’s 53% of priests in countries with fewest Catholics (but highest per capita income).  60% of all seminarians are from Africa and Asia. 

The priest-to-Catholic ratio in Europe is 1 to 1,746 (keep in mind that in Europe–most of the laity are not attending church).  The priest-to-Catholic ratio in Africa is 1 to 5,089 (where most laity ARE attending church).  Hmm.  What’s wrong with that picture?

North America has 84 million Catholics. Africa has 236 million Catholics.  The number of priests in North America is about equal to all of Africa.  John Allen of the Catholic journal Crux asks: “If the Catholic Church were a well-run business, would it not reallocate personnel to serve the area of greatest market growth?”  He further observed that “Not only are church authorities not doing anything to correct the situation, they’re actually making it worse by signing off on transfers of personnel from Africa & Asia to Europe and North America.”  He’s referring to African and Indian priests serving in the U.S. instead of their home countries.

All of the above is intended to say that the “issue” for us is not capital punishment, inflation, price gouging, political payoffs, or any of the countless issues that create a world in which we see Russia wanting to militarily conquer Ukraine.  The “issue” is our human condition—on all fronts of life—and as Catholics we are called to ask how we, in our little world here in Michigan, can be Christlike in addressing a human condition that is both graced and sinful.  Please know that whatever I bring to the table each week–is intended to be a grace of hope, just as you have been a grace of hope for me.

February 13, 2022

One of the involvements I had in the Jesuit training period was to work for the saintly Msgr. Clement Kern of Holy Trinity parish in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.  My job was to open up each day what he called the “reading room.”  This was a store front on Michigan Avenue that had a bathroom, chairs, and tables with magazines and books.  It was a place out of the cold for what we’d today call “homeless people.” 

They called themselves “banner carriers”—men who preferred being on the street instead of flop houses.  All had alcohol problems—and would sometimes sip the poisonous content of Sterno (70% denatured alcohol) heating fluid. As a high school student going to a Tigers game, I’d see these men and was a bit frightened of them.  Now in the role of being with them each day—I found myself doing what might be called a ministry of conversation, and just relating to them as a regular guy.

I’d learn of their past, and learn that some had families in the suburbs—alcohol creating the hell in which they now lived. When I was asked to write up my experience and report what I learned, I titled my reflections after a Motown record done by the Marvelettes (its title was “Danger, heartbreak dead ahead”).  I did not report how the men inspired me or how easy I found relating to them.  Most encounters were challenges on some level.  Instead, my essay’s basic point was that as a young guy I thought I knew the score—what to avoid in life—like people I’d see around Tiger Stadium.  But in getting to know these men, I realized they faced each day with a sense of danger and heartbreak, dead ahead on their streets of everyday life.  They didn’t need my analysis of why they were lost souls, and they didn’t need my avoiding them.

All this came to mind when reading of an incident in Florida—which I’m going to read for you—and it will serve as the homily.  It illustrates that when the gospel tells of abandoning your fishing nets and following Jesus—it doesn’t mean fishing nets.  It means seeing the world with new eyes—the eyes of Jesus—and acting like him in all that you do.  He could feel what others felt—and responded—like the Merrill man I buried yesterday, Don McMahon—about whom it was said “he helped anyone in need.”  The story I’m about to read reminded me of Don—and in prayer I asked him if he thought I should read it for the homily. I sensed his response would be “right on!”

Because the following story shows a scene typical of what you might encounter anywhere, it is a story that concretely and pragmatically addresses how we can be apostles in today’s world.

It’s not pleasant to see someone trying to survive on the streets.  People see the matter differently. Some get angry, and want them gone, but to where no one can answer.  Others feel pity, but don’t have solutions for handling so many lost souls.  It’s an intimidating social issue.

The powers that be have not made sure that more humane options are available.  Many find it hard to imagine what it would be like to have no home, no support system, or to be cold and hungry and alone.  God forbid being sick on top of it. 

Many people walk by the homeless and don’t realize that it’s the little things, those small actions–the common kindnesses–that can make a huge difference.  A smile acknowledging someone’s humanity is tremendous—as is simply giving someone a drink of water.  These small acts of kindness can have positive repercussions in the lives of others.  And within ourselves.

Barbara Mack doesn’t have much in terms of wealth.  She lives in an RV park in Florida, and delivers food that people order from the grocery store.  In the afternoon of a scorching summer day, she was heading out of a convenience store when she spotted a familiar homeless man outside sitting on the grass.

“I’ve seen him around several times. I’ve given him leftover food before, if I get a cancellation and have food leftovers in the car. He didn’t look good . . . like he was 10 seconds away from heatstroke.”  She also said he has “the mind of a child,” and she was concerned that he “doesn’t know he needs to stay extra hydrated when it’s super-hot outside.”

She turned around and grabbed two more bottles of water, and seeing a long line, she called out to the lone cashier that she was taking the water to the guy outside and will come right back and settle up.  Here’s what unfolded in her own words (some cleaned up).

When I came back in, the lady in front of me turned around, hands on hips, and told me that I was just enabling that ‘homeless person’ (said with a sneer) and that I shouldn’t be wasting my money on him.  It’s hot as hell in Florida right now–mid 90s with humidity around 80%. It’s a good day for heat stroke, and I told her so. I said I’d rather give him a water than call an ambulance.

I was going to shrug it off–let it go—and chalk it up to ignorance and the heat making everybody cranky.  And then she told me I should be ashamed of myself. That someone should call the police on him, and that it should be illegal to beg for money. That people who give the homeless money just encourage them to stay homeless and that should be illegal, too.

Ashamed? I should be ashamed for giving some poor old guy a water that cost a dollar.  And she thought I should get in trouble for making sure he didn’t stroke out in this heat.  I guess I look nice. Approachable. Like I wouldn’t rip your head off. I am nice, most of the time.  But not always.  And I lost my temper.

I told her to call a cop and report me for buying stuff at a convenience store.  I told her that I wasn’t in the mood for crazy right now. That it’s a hundred degrees outside, and I’m hot and tired and sick to death of stupid people. That if she had an ounce of compassion in her whole body, she’d buy him a cold drink, too. That maybe she should figure out why she needs to accost complete strangers. And how’s about after that, she back the heck up outta my face and outta my business and turn back around and not say one more darn word to me.

I’m just about deaf in one ear. I try to modulate my voice. Unless I get angry.  It got pretty loud there at the end. There was dead silence in the store and then someone said loudly “For real!”

And the guy at the front of the line told the cashier to add a sandwich to his purchases for the guy outside.  The guy behind him bought an extra ice cream. The girl behind HIM got change for a twenty—saying: ’cause that guy could probably use some cash.’

Every single person in line got him something. Every one, except the now very embarrassed lady in front of me, who slunk out without saying another word.  When I got to the cashier, she didn’t charge me for either of the waters, because she was going to take him one anyway. And mine was free because of the entertainment I had provided.

When I went outside, he was eating his ice cream and drinking his water with a pile of stuff all around him, a big old grin on his face. He didn’t look shaky anymore.

And there, people, is the story of why I hate people. And why I love people. All in the same damned minute.  I sat in the car and drank my water and laughed with tears in my eyes, same as I’m doing now.

When things seemed to get worse, the atmosphere in the convenience store changed. The assault made those in the store realize that compassion still means something.  Since the original posting and a million hits, thousands have commented on how this story was a catalyst for their own acts of humanity.

Says Barbara, “I do believe people are mostly good. I think sometimes we all need a reminder not to be selfish. I don’t have it in me to walk past people who need help. I’m not saying I’m a saint because I’m certainly not. I have a lot of empathy.  I’ve had hard times myself. People have tried to help me, and I pay it forward.”

Until those in charge try to tackle this complex societal issue with compassion and expediency, when we see a person in front of us with a clear and immediate need, and we see a clear and immediate way to meet that need, well?  Like Barbara, we’re just keeping a sensitive and concerned eye on each other.

Brothers and sisters of John 23rd, when I saw a photo of Barbara Mack—I thought she could be any parishioner here—her face blending with yours.  She wasn’t some Hollywood starlet or wonder-woman but just a regular soul like you or me.  Her experience at the store was an example of Christian identity alive in the world—and it reminded me of who we buried yesterday–Merrill High graduate Don McMahon–about whom it was said “he’d help anyone in need.”

People like Barbara Mack and Don McMahon were able to feel with, and see through the eyes of such people.  Instead of fleeing or condemning those poor souls in purgatory, they simply remind us of what those banner carriers see each day: danger and heartbreak dead ahead.  Being an apostle doesn’t just mean throwing aside your fishing nets in Galilee.  It can be a role you assume at the local convenience store.

February 6, 2022

One of the involvements I had in the Jesuit training period was to work for the saintly Msgr. Clement Kern of Holy Trinity parish in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.  My job was to open up each day what he called the “reading room.”  This was a store front on Michigan Avenue that had a bathroom, chairs, and tables with magazines and books.  It was a place out of the cold for what we’d today call “homeless people.”

They called themselves “banner carriers”—men who preferred being on the street instead of flop houses.  All had alcohol problems—and would sometimes sip the poisonous content of Sterno (70% denatured alcohol) heating fluid. As a high school student going to a Tigers game, I’d see these men and was a bit frightened of them.  Now in the role of being with them each day—I found myself doing what might be called a ministry of conversation, and just relating to them as a regular guy.

I’d learn of their past, and learn that some had families in the suburbs—alcohol creating the hell in which they now lived. When I was asked to write up my experience and report what I learned, I titled my reflections after a Motown record done by the Marvelettes (its title was “Danger, heartbreak dead ahead”).  I did not report how the men inspired me or how easy I found relating to them.  Most encounters were challenges on some level.  Instead, my essay’s basic point was that as a young guy I thought I knew the score—what to avoid in life—like people I’d see around Tiger Stadium.  But in getting to know these men, I realized they faced each day with a sense of danger and heartbreak, dead ahead on their streets of everyday life.  They didn’t need my analysis of why they were lost souls, and they didn’t need my avoiding them.

All this came to mind when reading of an incident in Florida—which I’m going to read for you—and it will serve as the homily.  It illustrates that when the gospel tells of abandoning your fishing nets and following Jesus—it doesn’t mean fishing nets.  It means seeing the world with new eyes—the eyes of Jesus—and acting like him in all that you do.  He could feel what others felt—and responded—like the Merrill man I buried yesterday, Don McMahon—about whom it was said “he helped anyone in need.”  The story I’m about to read reminded me of Don—and in prayer I asked him if he thought I should read it for the homily. I sensed his response would be “right on!”

Because the following story shows a scene typical of what you might encounter anywhere, it is a story that concretely and pragmatically addresses how we can be apostles in today’s world.

It’s not pleasant to see someone trying to survive on the streets.  People see the matter differently. Some get angry, and want them gone, but to where no one can answer.  Others feel pity, but don’t have solutions for handling so many lost souls.  It’s an intimidating social issue.

The powers that be have not made sure that more humane options are available.  Many find it hard to imagine what it would be like to have no home, no support system, or to be cold and hungry and alone.  God forbid being sick on top of it.

Many people walk by the homeless and don’t realize that it’s the little things, those small actions–the common kindnesses–that can make a huge difference.  A smile acknowledging someone’s humanity is tremendous—as is simply giving someone a drink of water.  These small acts of kindness can have positive repercussions in the lives of others.  And within ourselves.

Barbara Mack doesn’t have much in terms of wealth.  She lives in an RV park in Florida, and delivers food that people order from the grocery store.  In the afternoon of a scorching summer day, she was heading out of a convenience store when she spotted a familiar homeless man outside sitting on the grass.

“I’ve seen him around several times. I’ve given him leftover food before, if I get a cancellation and have food leftovers in the car. He didn’t look good . . . like he was 10 seconds away from heatstroke.”  She also said he has “the mind of a child,” and she was concerned that he “doesn’t know he needs to stay extra hydrated when it’s super-hot outside.”

She turned around and grabbed two more bottles of water, and seeing a

long line, she called out to the lone cashier that she was taking the water to the guy outside and will come right back and settle up.  Here’s what unfolded in her own words (some cleaned up).

When I came back in, the lady in front of me turned around, hands on hips, and told me that I was just enabling that ‘homeless person’ (said with a sneer) and that I shouldn’t be wasting my money on him.  It’s hot as hell in Florida right now–mid 90s with humidity around 80%. It’s a good day for heat stroke, and I told her so. I said I’d rather give him a water than call an ambulance.

I was going to shrug it off–let it go—and chalk it up to ignorance and the heat making everybody cranky.  And then she told me I should be ashamed of myself. That someone should call the police on him, and that it should be illegal to beg for money. That people who give the homeless money just encourage them to stay homeless and that should be illegal, too.

Ashamed? I should be ashamed for giving some poor old guy a water that cost a dollar.  And she thought I should get in trouble for making sure he didn’t stroke out in this heat.  I guess I look nice. Approachable. Like I wouldn’t rip your head off. I am nice, most of the time.  But not always.  And I lost my temper.

I told her to call a cop and report me for buying stuff at a convenience store.  I told her that I wasn’t in the mood for crazy right now. That it’s a hundred degrees outside, and I’m hot and tired and sick to death of stupid people. That if she had an ounce of compassion in her whole body, she’d buy him a cold drink, too. That maybe she should figure out why she needs to accost complete strangers. And how’s about after that, she back the heck up outta my face and outta my business and turn back around and not say one more darn word to me.

I’m just about deaf in one ear. I try to modulate my voice. Unless I get angry.  It got pretty loud there at the end. There was dead silence in the store and then someone said loudly “For real!”

And the guy at the front of the line told the cashier to add a sandwich to his purchases for the guy outside.  The guy behind him bought an extra ice cream. The girl behind HIM got change for a twenty—saying: ’cause that guy could probably use some cash.’

Every single person in line got him something. Every one, except the now very embarrassed lady in front of me, who slunk out without saying another word.  When I got to the cashier, she didn’t charge me for either of the waters, because she was going to take him one anyway. And mine was free because of the entertainment I had provided.

When I went outside, he was eating his ice cream and drinking his water with a pile of stuff all around him, a big old grin on his face. He didn’t look shaky anymore.

And there, people, is the story of why I hate people. And why I love people. All in the same damned minute.  I sat in the car and drank my water and laughed with tears in my eyes, same as I’m doing now.

When things seemed to get worse, the atmosphere in the convenience store changed. The assault made those in the store realize that compassion still means something.  Since the original posting and a million hits, thousands have commented on how this story was a catalyst for their own acts of humanity.

Says Barbara, “I do believe people are mostly good. I think sometimes we all need a reminder not to be selfish. I don’t have it in me to walk past people who need help. I’m not saying I’m a saint because I’m certainly not. I have a lot of empathy.  I’ve had hard times myself. People have tried to help me, and I pay it forward.”

Until those in charge try to tackle this complex societal issue with compassion and expediency, when we see a person in front of us with a clear and immediate need, and we see a clear and immediate way to meet that need, well?  Like Barbara, we’re just keeping a sensitive and concerned eye on each other.

Brothers and sisters of John 23rd, when I saw a photo of Barbara Mack—I thought she could be any parishioner here—her face blending with yours.  She wasn’t some Hollywood starlet or wonder-woman but just a regular soul like you or me.  Her experience at the store was an example of Christian identity alive in the world—and it reminded me of who we buried yesterday–Merrill High graduate Don McMahon–about whom it was said “he’d help anyone in need.”

People like Barbara Mack and Don McMahon were able to feel with, and see through the eyes of such people.  Instead of fleeing or condemning those poor souls in purgatory, they simply remind us of what those banner carriers see each day: danger and heartbreak dead ahead.  Being an apostle doesn’t just mean throwing aside your fishing nets in Galilee.  It can be a role you assume at the local convenience store.

January 30, 2022 (feb 6

January 23, 2022 (Jan 30

Happy feast day!!  Why do I say that?  Today is “Word of God” Sunday—and each of you—me included—is a word of God spoken into creation. 

Yes, the day refers to the bible being God’s word, but each life is a “bible.”  Each life tells what one believes about God, and how God has been involved with that person.  The adage is accurate in saying that you might be the only scripture someone ever reads.  What will they learn from the bible of your life?  What is your current chapter reporting—about how you have either cooperated with God’s action in your life or just sort of carried on without even thinking about God?  After all, that’s what “the good book” is all about (people’s on-again/off-again relationship with God).  That’s what your “good book” is all about (recall God declaring everything “good” at creation). 

The 1st reading tells of everyone in the community listening to the sacred scriptures.  What came to mind were our Muslim cousins who go to the mosque or at home, pray and read from their holy book, the Qur’an 5 times a day.  They know their scripture! 

How nice it would be if we could make the same claim.  The popular bumper-sticker asked: “What would Jesus do?”—which is a good guide to go by when trying to know what course of action to take.  The problem is that since so few come to church or read scripture, they don’t know WHAT Jesus would say or do.  Still, some people are arrogant enough to claim they know what Jesus would think about different subjects—and then project their own biases into a discussion (claiming inspiration from God). 

As you know, a homilist is supposed to educate people as to the meaning of a week’s passages—and then suggest how those passages might apply to them.  However, because Catholic schools have closed, and contact with “the faithful” is limited to Sundays, the homily becomes a priest’s one shot at educating people in ways of the faith.  Meanwhile, some are indifferent to having a homily or are irritated that it lasts longer than a couple of minutes. 

Some priests have washed their hands of preparing anything for a homily, simply find a commentary on the scripture, and read its bland content to parishioners in a monotone voice for 2 or 3 minutes.  Reading the Eucharistic prayer robot-like, its delivery uninspired, and relevance lame, people can race home after a 40-minute liturgy.  Aware of how this pattern was unfolding, the Conference of Bishops saw a need to devote at least 1 Sunday to stir people’s interest in the “Word of God.”   

When reading commentaries this week, one jumped out.  It said that today, Luke reveals “the frightening dimension of preaching situations. Both preacher and listener face serious risks.”  Hmm.  Are you frightened, or do you feel any kind of “serious risk” right now in hearing me speak?   

Here’s what the commentator was raising.  Luke shows initially that “All spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at his speech.”  But doubt arose!  Since when does a carpenter speak to us like this?  And then Jesus delivered an insult–saying Gentiles have a better understanding of God than they do. They respond with rage and drive him out of town to hurl him off a cliff. 

The commentator was saying that yes, people will get affirmation in reading God’s word and learning how much God loves them.  But they also should be challenged by the Word to make a difference in a sinful world.  The homilist faces the same threat as Jesus did.  When the homilist reminds people of responsibilities they might not want to address, they might want to “kill the messenger.”    

Is the commentator encouraging homilists to lay a guilt trip on parishioners each week?  That sure would go over big with everyone—not!! 

Instead, today’s passage tells us how Jesus used scripture to discover his own identity (which we are called to imitate).  What is that identity?  Here goes.  Are you ready to evaluate your discipleship?   

To what extent did you this week “bring good news to the poor?”  Locally? Globally? How did you “proclaim release to captives?” Where are “captives” of some kind suffering (I’m reminded of the sociological observation “trapped in poverty”)?  Have you “given sight to the blind?”  Or shown someone the error of their ways, or a new direction to take?  And when did you “liberate the oppressed” this past week (there being so many forms of burdens people bear)?  In short, Luke presents a Jesus whose ministry is to the marginalized.  In doing so, he’s telling us in what direction our attitudes and behaviors should go. 

My religious order, the Jesuits, has been criticized at different times for “living the good life” by operating expensive prep schools and colleges throughout the land.  We’ve been charged with living an ivory-tower existence where the “marginalized” don’t intrude or disrupt our rosy existence in an affluent neighborhood.  Fortunately, because we don’t cling to such a lifestyle but instead seek to have the scent of the sheep on our wardrobe, we Jesuits train our students to become “men and women for others.”  They might attend costly schools but are eventually proud in being “ruined for life” (a battle cry proudly uttered) by coming to terms with the gospel’s call to them.   

THAT’S what the commentator meant when suggesting a homily can be frightening to both the homilist and congregation.  Scripture presents both with challenges. And so, I admit to daily discerning how I’m matching up with the ministerial identity Jesus spelled out for us today. 

Theory aside, here are some practical points about how to pray with scripture adapted from St. Francis de Sales (whose feast day is Jan. 24th):  

1) read a passage slowly (and aloud).  For some reason, we are more attuned to the verses if we hear them in addition to just seeing them in our mind’s eye. 

2) find a word or phrase that resonates with you (one way God deals with us is our “taking note” of something we see, hear, read–something that for some reason catches our attention; in scripture, this is God speaking to us through it);  

3) meditate on the word or phrase, e.g., why did I spend a millisecond more time of thought on the donkey in a scripture snippet?  This doesn’t seem very theological.  But maybe the associations evoked by the thought of a donkey is what God wants me to ponder, e.g., animals, animal cruelty, environment, bearing another’s burdens, helping others by taking them somewhere, etc. 

  4) ask God for guidance on the text’s meaning for others and you (do any of the above associations have implications for people around me, local or global community?) 

I leave you with this scripture question to ponder:  If God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to read it, and see what God had to say? 

3 Vignettes of life on my radar this week  

1) When I left Wheeling, a former student (with whom I had very little interaction) wrote an article for a Wheeling magazine—the memory of which brought a lump to my throat this week—not because of the student’s kind affirmations but because of a reference she made. 

 I had a Jesuit priest whose lectures were like entertaining performances. We learned about Native American religion, and we listened to a Meatloaf song and dissected the lyrics . . . This class was only held once a week for three hours. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was some of the best three hours of my week.  

Reference to Meatloaf is what caught my eye—since each semester I analyzed his classic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” song (if you don’t recall the song, it is the vivid depiction of two 17-year-olds “parking” in lover’s lane—a bird’s eye view of teenage dating, USA). This wonderful performer, Meatloaf, died this past week—doing what so many have done.  He declared there was no need to get vaccinated.  And yes, he died of Covid.  After learning of his fate, I came upon the following. 

2) Hana Horka was a well-regarded Czech folk singer. Influenced by the anti-vaxxer movement, she decided to catch the virus herself.  When her husband and son caught Covid, Horka refused to isolate from the two men—in order to expose herself. She posted on social media: “I survived.  It was intense. So now there will be the theatre, sauna, a concert and a trip to the sea.” 2 days after that post, Horka said she wanted to go for a walk but her back began hurting. She went to lie down, and 10 minutes later, she died. “This is how fast it was.”  

Mourning his mother, Horka’s son warns how insidious the anti-vaxxer movement is. “If you have living examples from real life, it’s more powerful than just graphs and numbers. You can’t really sympathize with numbers.” He said his mother’s brand of anti-vaxxer beliefs had nothing to do with grand conspiracy theories, but with the [mistaken] belief that natural immunity was better. He directed his anger at those peddling misinformation and fear. “You took away my mom . . . I despise you.”  

  He tried many times to convince his mom to get vaccinated, but it was no use, and would usually result in high emotions and distress. The BBC reports that the Czech Republic’s fully vaccinated rate is “around 63%.” The average rate throughout the European Union is 69%. Saginaw County is 50%.  No country’s Covid mortality rate is anywhere close to that of the U.S.  We’re far and away #1 in cases and deaths, hands down.

3) Last week the bulletin listed the protocols issued by the diocese 2 weeks ago.  While not mandating masks, the diocese encouraged everyone to wear masks at church. The Methodist Church went one step further—canceling in-person services until further notice.
 

4) I periodically refer to our “cousins” in faith—the Jewish and Muslim peoples (all of us being descendants of Abraham). Sadly, some of our fellow Catholics do not reflect well on this shared heritage.  This past week, a student at St. Francis College in Brooklyn was arrested for spitting on 3 young children (think of how Covid spreads) who were standing in front of a synagogue. She said to them “Hitler should have killed you all. We will kill you all. I know where you live, and we’ll make sure to get you all next time.”  

Having been in Catholic higher ed, I could only imagine how sad St. Francis officials must feel in seeing one of their students represent the faith in this manner.  I was also reminded of my childhood years spent regularly with “Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Harry” and their kids.  Not blood-related, their relationship to my parents was familial.  Aunt Sylvia & Uncle Harry founded the “Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan,” and my parents joined their effort.  Dad served as president of the Foundation (it later giving the annual Francis M. Steltenkamp Award to the most active volunteer).  The Brooklyn Catholic woman described above–who abused the kids this week–brought a lump to my throat.  Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Harry, truly great people who profoundly influenced me, were Jewish.  

January 16, 2022

The Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the coming week as one during which we should pray for Christian unity.  This dovetailed with the parish maintenance committee meeting this week.  The two brought to mind how different churches pursue different strategies with their maintenance committees—illustrated by what follows.

The Presbyterian church called its maintenance committee meeting to decide what to do about their squirrel infestation. After much prayer and consideration, they concluded that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and they should not interfere with God’s divine will.

Meanwhile, at the Baptist church, the squirrels had taken an interest in the baptismal font.  Their committee met and decided to put a water-slide on the font—and let the squirrels drown themselves. The squirrels liked the slide!  Instinctively they knew how to swim–so twice as many squirrels showed up the following week.

The Lutheran church decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creatures.  So, they humanely trapped their squirrels and set them free near the Baptist church.  Two weeks later, the squirrels were back when the Baptists took down the water-slide.

The Episcopalians had maintenance committee members unanimously volunteer to help set out pans of whiskey around their church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning.  Thinking it important to show the squirrels how to sip from the pans, they still managed to leave enough for the little creatures to consume.  Sadly, the only result of this strategy was that they learned how much damage a band of drunk squirrels can do.

But the Catholic church came up with a more creative strategy!  They baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the church.  Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter.

Not much was heard from the Jewish synagogue.  They took the first squirrel and circumcised him.  They haven’t seen a squirrel since.

___________________

Which leads to our consideration of today’s readings and the miracle at Cana (considered the first miracle in the ministry of Jesus—at about the age of 30).

While the Protestant tradition has not paid as much attention to Mary as Catholics have, some people want more devotional attention directed her way.  What would these people say to gospel-writer John—who doesn’t even mention her name in his entire gospel?   Notice that today’s reading had Jesus refer to “Mother” and John referred to her as “the mother of Jesus.” Curiously, it’s John’s gospel that has the tender scene at the end when Jesus, speaking from the cross, tells John to “behold his mother,” and tells Mary to “behold your child.”  So on the one hand you see Mary unreferenced by name, while on the other designated as our mother—since John represents us “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Which reminds me: if you’re quick to be critical of our Muslim cousins, hold your tongue. Their sacred book, the Qu’ran, has an entire chapter devoted to Mary (and her name is the title of the chapter). Both Islam and Christianity arose out of Judaism—they being the 3 “Abrahamic” faiths (that trace their origin to Abraham).

Wouldn’t you think that the first miracle Jesus worked—would be reported in all of the gospels?  Nope.  John’s is the only one that has it—prompting Thomas Aquinas centuries back to wonder if the miracle was perhaps performed at his, John’s, wedding.  The facts?  We have no idea why Cana isn’t in the other gospels.

On the other hand, you might think that the event never took place at all!  Maybe John was just hearkening back to Moses freeing the people from slavery in Egypt—and the first plague being Nile’s water changed to blood.  Maybe John is associating Jesus with Moses—Jesus being a new liberator.  And hinting at what would later occur when wine would be his blood at the Eucharistic meal?

In this same symbolic vein, a wedding is a new beginning.  John started his gospel quoting Genesis (“In the beginning”)—and in doing so tells his readers that a “new beginning” or new creation is what he’s about to report in this gospel. Similarly, this marriage scenario is a new beginning for a man and woman (an Adam/Eve resonance?).  Why NOT begin the public ministry with this story of a new beginning (the marriage being the creation of a new, sacred entity).

Bible scholar Bart Ehrman tells the story of an evangelical Christian whose Church claims Jesus didn’t drink alcoholic beverages.  She told him the Greek word for “wine” in the passage means “new wine”—and that “new wine” refers to wine that has not yet fermented (so that it has no alcoholic content).  She reminded Ehrman that Jesus would never encourage people to drink.

In telling the story (which I’ve heard him report on 2 occasions), he said this experience reminded him of how people try to get around an uncomfortable reality by seeing only what they want to see.

Ehrman said that the FACT of the matter is that the Greek word used for “wine” is not a special word meaning “new wine.”  It is simply the word for “wine”–with alcohol init.  Ehrman is fluent in biblical Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Coptic (ancient languages all), but my guess is that the evangelical woman cannot conceive of a Jesus drinking wine (in a culture that sees people drink wine from childhood to old age). 

A digression.  As you know, my doctorate is in anthropology (“the study of what it means to be human”).  The field covers all topics unearthed in all cultures, past and present.  As a result, anthropologists delve into all matters pleasant and nasty—because we are “open” to analyzing human behavior and trying to account for it.  In the course of anthropological studies, one does not bring “value judgments” to any topic, but instead tries to understand how one reflects their culture or how a culture affects an individual.  When aberrations occur, those, too, are evaluated.

Without being specific, all matters are “on the table” for analysis–in an attempt to understand why they exist the way they do, or why something happened the way it did.  Anthropologists do their analyses via the “comparative method” which, in general, entails finding all examples of a behavior or philosophy or physical artifact found globally.  Religion, economics, politics, sexuality, language, art, biology—and all areas related to these generic realms—are the focus of anthropological inquiry.  For example, if you come from a home in which a principle of interaction is “That subject will never be raised in this household!”—you’re not in the home of an anthropologist J  Ehrman’s evangelical woman could not be an anthropologist.  I THINK I’m one of only 3 anthro-priests in the U.S. while few to none are elsewhere in the world.

Can you imagine the Chief steward going to his Master at the wedding and saying: “Most people serve the best wine first and then bring out the second-rate stuff.  But you have outdone yourself!   At first we were drinking good wine, but now you have given us GRAPE JUICE!!  People are starting to leave and are grumbling!  The party is becoming a bust.”

If this passage is an example of Jesus preaching temperance, it wouldn’t be much of a miracle-story.  Just as people today ignore facts, so does the evangelical.  Consider the testimony of Bishop Papias from the 1st century.  He knew people who knew Jesus, and one of them quoted Jesus as saying: “Vast amounts of the best wine await us in the kingdom of God.”  Numerous Old Testament readings make similar references.  Grape juice?  Uh, no.

Here’s some straightforward, helpful spiritual direction based on the Cana story:

1) ask Jesus for help (as Mary did)—especially if it’s intended to be of help to others (all the people at the feast);

2) cooperate with what he asks of you (as the hired help did); keep in mind the staff probably didn’t jump with joy in hearing Jesus request jugs of water

3) transformation can result (water to wine) from doing those 2 things—asking for God’s help and then complying with what God asks of you.

In the first 2 readings, Scripture says that you and I are: “God’s delight–as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so does your God rejoice in you.” THAT’S what God thinks of you (worth taking to heart).  Through the Holy Spirit, different kinds of spiritual gifts have been given to us. “So what!” (you might dismissively say).  Here’s how Holy Spirit information can help you.

You’ve been in conversations in which you know some, but not all, of the facts.  At the end of the day, you’re left with “taking a position” on whatever it was that was addressed (which could cover a range of issues—moral, economic, social, political, familial, business,  etc.)  Conversations that leave you unsure as to WHAT position to adopt are part of everyday life.  Most aren’t earth-shaking in their implications, while other decisions you make can affect people profoundly.  On those occasions, I’ve relied on our theology that tells of the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit.  To the extent those “fruits” are present or absent in the competing lines of thought—determined how I would decide.

What follows are the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit—with me stirring the waters of your prayerful thought on each “fruit.”  If you see them at play in one position over another—go with THAT position.  Here they are:

charity (does it characterize the speech of people advancing the positon), joy (“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”), peace (Ignatius counsels never to make a decision in times of desolation or disturbance; await being centered on options to emerge and don’t rush), patience (not quick-temperedness but calm), kindness (does this characterize the presentation and course of action—its advocates reflecting gospel values), goodness (will the choice you make reflect the goodness of God in making you unique—and others unique, too), generosity (are your actions or decisions grounded on self-interest or are they other-directed with your time/talent/treasure), gentleness (will your course of action bully someone into submission for your own purposes or assure them that you are with them in facing the future), humility (you have come to serve and not be served—Jesus says to us), faithfulness (to your identity as being Christ-like and living the gospel codes of conduct), self-control (or is your position simply asserting your ego or control in some way over others), self-restraint (are you like the Pac-man icon wanting to do whatever you want to do and get whatever you want to get for yourself—if so, that’s not the behavior of Jesus).

An African child is lost. The people look everywhere. Next day, the village leader says “Let’s all hold hands and walk in a long line across the savannah.” They find the child—dead.  That night, through her tears the mother could be heard to cry, “If only we had all held hands yesterday!” 

If we try to bring about the fruits of the Holy Spirit in all our conversations—using our unique gifts of the Holy Spirit, it would be an example of us “holding hands.”  In this way, we can better address issues that might otherwise be deathly.

January 9, 2022

Not with you on this feast of the baptism of Jesus, I offer these additional reflections drawn from theologians John Pilch and others who have studied this biblical event.  Critical to Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the testimony of the voice from heaven which identifies Jesus as “my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As reported in other bulletins, the ancient Mediterranean world believed that the male deposited a fully formed miniature adult (a seed) into the female (viewed as soil in which the seed can grow).  Since this understanding prevailed, there was no way to prove paternity at the biological level.  For this reason, the public and social acknowledgment of paternity by the male was of critical importance. This act not only gave the child legitimacy and appropriate social standing in the community but also publicly obliged the father to accept responsibility for the child.

Understanding the culture in these terms, you can appreciate the ”theology” of an event which asserts that God is the Father of Jesus. At some point, the gospel writer has to tell his audience who, exactly, is this Jesus person.  Voila, he is not just another charismatic leader but is the son of the Father in heaven (as later repeated in the Transfiguration story).

This baptismal event reminded me of the Hebrew scripture it echoes, namely, Prophet Isaiah reported God identifying him in these terms: “my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.”  In turn, these associations brought to mind that our baptism calls each of us to be a “prophetic voice” (in our own, unique way).  Isn’t THAT something to think about?  What has YOUR prophetic voice been saying?  Keep in mind, prophets get killed for saying what they do—which is why I’m periodically reminded of the observation: “In order to be Christian, you have to look good on wood.”

Remember, to be a “prophet” does not mean you predict what will happen in the future.  Our baptism doesn’t “christen” us to be fortune tellers.  Rather, a prophet is one who shows people what God is calling them to do NOW.

Instead of just “going along with” popular group opinions and behaviors, the Christian “prophet” (all who have been baptized) says “Wait a minute.  It seems to me that the gospel calls us to more than this.”

In my case, that of a priest offering homily reflections at masses, am I fulfilling my call (as a Christian first, and priest second) to simply affirm whatever parishioners think or do?  Or is the priest’s role one of discerning where GOD is calling him to foster the good things people are doing and also rallying them to discovering new “epiphanies” (revelations that powerfully influence their perspective on events, themselves, and others)?

We’re all familiar with the phrase “you go along to get along,” and there’s wisdom in that adage. By the same token, if it becomes one’s only mode of social participation, it fails the litmus test of what it means to be a Christian prophet.

Luke’s baptism narrative (and entire gospel) draw upon Mark for much of his material and then adapts it to his audience (largely Gentile) and his theology.  He has people ask if John is the messiah bring up a topic that is still with us today. That is, people arise whose charisma (of some kind) draws many followers.  I spoke of the Ghost Dance of the 1880s which swept through Indian country—telling tribes that the messiah had come to them in Nevada.  In our own time of the 20th/21st centuries, we’ve had Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, Gabriel of Sedona, and others—who possessed a special ability to draw followers and persuading them to do things that were not at all in their best interest. 

One of those religious, charismatic people was the “Reverend” Jim Jones—who told his followers to kill themselves—and over 900 people “drank the Kool Aid” that was laced with poison.  Now, this event is alluded to in everyday conversation.  Whenever a person is skilled at touching nerves within a crowd and motivating the crowd to think and behave a certain way—we try and warn these followers “not to drink the Kool Aid.” The Christian’s prophetic role is the opposite of what these charismatic leaders preached.  Nonetheless, Luke’s gospel rightly points out that we have difficulty recognizing WHO the real Christ-presence is.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t outright state that John baptized Jesus.  Rather, we just learn that Jesus was baptized.  Since a rule of scripture calls for us to see ourselves in each person or element mentioned in the bible, might this passage remind us that our behavior and outreach to others have the prophetic power to “baptize” persons who can likewise be Jesus to others.  Each of us has the power to be John the Baptist.

January 2, 2022

In everyday conversation, you might hear someone say “I had an epiphany”—and then wonder what the person meant.  If you practice the Christian faith, you’ve heard the word “epiphany” associated with a Sunday during the liturgical year.  In that context, it refers to the arrival of the Magi at the manger in Bethlehem. Recall from previous bulletins that the Magi represent “gentiles” (non-Jews) being drawn to Jesus (i.e., Christianity).  Thus, Matthew is telling his Jewish-convert-audience that the gospel is for ALL people (and not a Divine revelation intended solely for Israelite descendants).

Because Matthew mentioned gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, generations have assumed that there were 3 visitors who brought them.  In ancient times, astrology and astronomy were not separate disciplines—so reference to these men as “astrologers” is not how we would refer to them today.  Nor can we conclude that they were “kings.” This notion arose in the 2nd century—just as “Balthasar” arose as the name associated with one of the wise men around the year 700 (recall it was during this time that the “3” men represented 3 continents—Balthasar being a black king from Africa).  With no evidence to support any of these claims, the number of wise men varied over the centuries–ranging from 2 to 12.  In 1895, “The Fourth Wise Man” was written by Henry Van Dyke—a theologically compelling and fictional portrait of what it means to know Jesus (made into the film “The Other Wise Man”—now on Youtube).

Meaning “appearance” or “manifestation” in Greek (the language of the New Testament), its theological reference is to God’s “manifestation” or “appearance” among us as Jesus (witnessed by these GENTILE visitors).  A theological term that is akin to “epiphany” is “theophany” (a manifestation or appearance of God to someone—such as Moses on Mt. Sinai or the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain).  From a secular perspective, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the Anglicized epiphany word as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”  The word should be understood as referring to a profound insight that came to you in some fashion and not just your learning a random fact such as the Spartans winning their bowl game.

Be they theological or secular, epiphanies are not restricted to celebrities.  One could be your sudden realization that you really wanted to marry the person who became your spouse, or that God forgave you for something you thought was unforgiveable, or that your alcohol consumption was not just social drinking but an illness you needed to address.  An epiphany might be an “elephant in the room” of our life that we refuse to see.  We can be one of the Magi who never really arrives at the manger and sees the different faces of Jesus that we encounter.

 DePaul University theologian, Jaime Waters, states that Matthew wanted his readers “to understand that Christ is both the fulfillment of the [Jewish] faith and the radical openness of God to all people . . . [and] to remind all future disciples that they must be reluctant to draw lines of division.”  Waters asks readers “What is your star today? What holds your gaze and leads you closer to Christ? The traditions of the Epiphany invite us to think about how we can find our way to Christ throughout the year. We should look for events, people and actions that can help us to encounter Christ. The magi were a group on a journey together, and we should remember that we are not on a solo trip. In addition to relying on our community, we should also seek ways to help others to draw nearer to Christ.” 

If theologian Waters is too generic in her counsel and not more “down to earth” in suggesting how we, as Christians, are called to conduct our lives meaningfully, here’s something very concrete for us to consider.  It comes to us from Martin Luther—the Catholic priest of the 1500’s who led a “protest” within the Church that saw him excommunicated in 1521.  The “PROTEST” he spearheaded eventually led to the formation of “protest-ant” (Protestant) Christianity–his name attached to a denomination within that wing (“Lutheran”). 

Just as today, Luther’s era was one of much socio-political turbulence—with one divisive issue being how people were handling/addressing/coping with the “black plague.”  Written in 1527, what follows could have appeared as an editorial in any newspaper of the past year.  Two quotes come to mind, viz., “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”  Here’s Luther commenting on how people were dealing with the plague:

People . . . are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are.  They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.

 . . . a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide.

 It is even more shameful for a person . . .  to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.

 Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire.

 No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you . . .  shun persons and places . . . and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?

 I have been told that some are so incredibly vicious that they circulate among people and enter homes because they are sorry that the plague has not reached that far and wish to carry it in, as though it were a prank like putting lice into fur garments . . . if it is true, I do not know whether we Germans are not really devils instead of human beings.

 It must be admitted that there are some extremely coarse and wicked people. The devil is never idle . . . So these folk infect a child here, a woman there, and can never be caught. They go on laughing as though they had accomplished something . . . I do not know how to preach to such killers. They pay no heed. I appeal to the authorities to take charge and turn them over to the help and advice not of physicians, but of Master Jack, the hangman.

December 26, 2021

Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that report the birth of Jesus—and nowhere does scripture speak about celebrating his birth in December.  That custom came about a few centuries later.  There’s even debate as to where Jesus was born (despite our singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem).  After all, Mark refers to Jesus of Nazareth, and like John’s gospel—says nothing about the birth.  On the feast of the Holy Family, Luke says that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.  Not only that, but there’s apparently a dating issue with references to Quirinius (governor of Syria) and Herod of Jerusalem.  Maybe Jesus was born 4 or more years earlier than what we’ve assumed the year to be for centuries (and on which our calendar is based).

Let the debate about the birth year and place continue—because the bible is not a history book.  Nor is it a biology, astronomy, geography, or geology text.  It is, rather, a compilation of books that try to communicate who God is, and how we should relate to God.  Think of the Magi, for example, three “kings” who came following a star. Where were they from?  We don’t know, but we do know that they were probably outside the Israel cultural tradition—leading readers to associate their presence with all people outside the Old Testament heritage.  This thought was reflected in the Middle Ages when the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar were given the “wise men” (whose actual number scripture doesn’t cite) and who were associated with Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Moreover, you find Luke, and not Matthew, referring to a stable and manger—this evangelist emphasizing the association of Jesus with sustenance.  With Bethlehem being a Hebrew word meaning “house of bread, or food,” his baby Jesus is in a manger—a feeding trough.  It’s not surprising that Luke’s last chapter tells the road to Emmaus story. The resurrected Jesus, not recognized by fellow-travelers, stops and eats with them.  In that context, their eyes are open when they see him “take bread, break it, and pass it to them” (as said at consecration time in mass).  The first and last chapters of Luke’s gospel are telling us that Jesus came to “feed” us via the example his life provided, and the Eucharistic table.

Matthew’s birth narrative likewise emphasized a theme that is echoed in his last chapter.  These weeks of Advent we sang O Come O Come Emmanuel—a name that appears within the Nativity story which means “God with us” (literally with us, in the newborn baby Jesus at Bethlehem). It is not surprising that Matthew’s final line of the gospel depicts Jesus saying to his followers: “Remember! I’m with you always until the end of time.” N.B., when a priest blesses one’s hand and forehead in the sacrament of the sick, the person should be reminded that God is with them—holding their hand and wiping their brow at a time when they might feel very alone and afraid.

Matthew’s final paragraph even has an echo of the Magi when he tells the apostles to “go and baptize all people.”  He might have added “like the foreign travelers from afar who were present at my birth.”  In short, we have Luke and Matthew telling us that the world has new life in the person and message of Jesus—new life that is still accessible to all people in the sacraments.  Matthew’s inclusion of shepherds is an especially hope-filled reminder.  Why?  Because shepherds were in same category as thieves, tax collectors, and prostitutes (the life of Jesus showing us how to be a “good” shepherd.

In a previous Christmas homily, I reported an experience that made the gospel message come alive for me in a very different way.  I recounted my visit to where the most sacred artifact of Lakota Sioux culture was kept.  Their religious tradition tells of God sending a woman to the people, and that she carried what appeared to be a child.  It turned out to be what’s now known as the sacred pipe.  When one smokes the pipe, they are communing with God, and God will hear their prayer. 

On this privileged occasion, after undergoing a ritual known as the sweat lodge, I was allowed entry into a red shed wherein the pipe was kept—the original pipe brought by that sacred lady centuries ago.  A flashlight on a shelf was the star that hovered above me in a small shed that had rakes and shovels, gas cans and tires laying around on the dirt floor. 

There was the pipe—sacred simplicity—with me in what was a kind of stable.  It reminded me of the same kind of place that Christians think of as Bethlehem—whereat God joined the human condition—OUR shed-like/stable-like lives that have all sorts of things strewn within them over the years.  Emmanuel actually seemed real in the presence of the pipe.

The Indian world left a similarly powerful impression on me one Christmas Eve.  It was the first one after my mom and grandmother had died (just two months earlier).  In Sault Ste. Marie at the time, I was called by an Indian deacon who asked if I might say mass for the people at Batchawana Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior on Christmas Eve.  I had subbed there in the past, but the church had been closed for a few years and the “first nations” Native community would be happy to ready the place for mass.

Heated by a stove with logs, a group of about 30 gathered around the altar—winter coats worn that cold and silent night—me still recalling the faces who so valued our gathering at the manger of their faith community. All the bible stories get represented at a time like that—for a major theme of the bible’s “old” and “new” testaments is this: God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.  Be it a baby in the manger, a boy facing Goliath, fishermen tending their nets, or a once-unknown woman named Magdalene whose name is known the world over—it is our lives who the creator of the universe has fashioned and placed on earth for a special reason.

Now I recall these experiences for you not to simply reminisce, but to tell you how those two experiences—rooted as they are in Bethlehem—relate to us here.  As you know, I’ll often begin our Sunday gathering by telling you I need to scan the assembly and see who God has called to be with us that morning.  I scan the faces and am buoyed in seeing God at work among us—calling each of you in different ways to the altar.  And when I see you here, I’m taken back to the shed of the sacred pipe, and the faces of Batchawana Bay—and reminded once again of Emmanuel, God being with me, through you.

COMMUNION REFLECTION

If as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and then again with more things; if we fill every moment of our lives with activity–when will we have time to make the long, slow journey of purposeful reflection–across the deserts of life–as did the Magi?  Or sit and watch the stars–as did the shepherds?  Or contemplate the coming of the child as did Mary?  For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.

December 19, 2021

During the advent season, a “holy day of obligation” known as the “Iaculate Conception” is celebrated (on December 8th). Until 1911, in addition to Sundays, there were 36 days of obligation—reduced to 8 that year in the United States.  The number of “Holy Days” varies from country to country, e.g., Hong Kong with 1, the Vatican with 10. The number also varies from year to year because the obligation is lifted if they fall on a Sunday or Monday (Canada observing them each year, however, on the Sunday nearest a Holy Day’s date).  Since 1992, Hawaii just observes Christmas and Immaculate Conception.  Given this overview, what does this “Immaculate Conception” refer to?

Some mistakenly think of the day as honoring the conception of Jesus (a layman once telling me that he attended mass and was concerned that the senior priest defined it this way). Dogmatically proclaimed in 1854, the doctrine instead refers to Mary being conceived free of original sin.  Here’s what the document states:

 We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.  —Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854.

Why the Church decided at this time to declare a dogma not scripturally based—has been a topic of discussion since the teaching was announced. Some think the 19th century’s renewal of Marian devotions was a motivating force for the Pope to make the declaration.  The commission that Pius IX had called together declared that neither scriptural proof nor a broad and ancient stream of tradition was required to promulgate Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

While the holy day’s focus was Mary, it also concerned another realm of Christian theology.  Namely, we teach that “Jesus was like us in all things but sin.” And that he was “fully human and fully divine” (a mystery of our faith that we call the “hypostatic union”—his having 2 natures—divine and human in 1 person).  However, this theology has a problem—if we also teach that all people are born with “original sin” inherited from Adam and Eve.

This belief became fully formed with the writings of St. Augustine (354–430), who was the first author to use the phrase “original sin” (peccatum originale). He said that it came through semen, and this conjecture posed a problem. That is, if God was the Father of Jesus—okay, no sin there.  But what about Mary? Since she was human, she had original sin—and so passed it to her son!  Flashing red theological light!!!!  How can we resolve Jesus “being like us in all things but sin?”  Enter Joachim and Anne–the names associated with Mary’s parents (via the apocryphal Gospel of James and not the canonical gospels).

Church teaching had to explain how Jesus did not inherit original sin—if such a condition came—gene-like—to each person through their parents. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would solve the matter. Namely, through a special act of God, Anne and Joachim did NOT pass that sin-gene to their daughter, Mary.  Thus, Jesus did not inherit sin from his divine Father or human mother.

While not so much an issue in the recent past, Protestant Christians were critical of Catholicism’s seeming elevation of Mary to unwarranted heights.  That is, eliminating “original sin” from Mary gives Jesus sinless parentage, but also makes her different from all other mortals—in a way that verges on making her semi-divine.  While discussions related to original sin, the hypostatic union, Mary’s sinless state, and numerous other topics have engaged Christian thinkers for centuries, we can lose sight of, or be distracted from, considering how our own self-image and gospel-identity are associated with the Immaculate Conception feast. The feast goes hand-in-hand with this season’s celebration of the birth of Jesus, his, Mary’s, and OUR conception.

Called upon by the Church to reflect on God’s creation of Mary and her “yes” response to God’s call—is a really powerful reminder to each of us that we, too, were created by God.  We, too, have been called to live the special “ministry” God calls each of us to perform.  Mary’s conception is symbolic of our own—reminding us that we are, as scripture says, “God’s work of art.” 

Stay with that thought—and look around you.  Each face you see—is the product of God’s inspiration—just as magnificent as the Pacific Ocean, the Rocky Mountains, or Grand Canyon. You are not just some random biological entity—but a miracle crafted by the Creator—and placed on earth to do something no one else is to do. Think of the innocent and precious babies we baptize.  We smile at them and are emotionally moved to give them kisses and cuddle them. And so it is with God in creating you, conceiving you, and placing you—his darling child–(regardless of your age) in a community to perform some special, unique deed.

THAT is what we are called to reflect upon when honoring the conception of Mary.  Her humanity is the same as ours.  She was God’s daughter placed on earth to give birth to Jesus.  And so are we.

 The Marian feast is a springboard to week 4 of Advent—for this is the week that leads us, like Magi, to the Bethlehem event.  In the week ahead and Christmas week, we will see decorations and receive cards that depict Mary, Joseph, and the cast of characters involved that silent night in what we now refer to as the “Holy Land.”  Here is how you might make the most of what you see and hear—when scripture is read, or when you see references to the little town of Bethlehem.

We’re the Magi—looking for God in our life—and where to place our gifts, and in doing so, be a gift to others.

Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.

We’re lambs—needful of a “good shepherd” to guide us (not the many pretenders who sell us some product or person that promises happiness).  We’re the donkey—helping others to carry their burdens, and providing hospitality–and in doing so, help give them life.

We’re Herod—jealous of attention paid to others and jealous of their gifts—unable to realize we have gifts of our own (which God calls us to use in service of others).

We’re Jesus in the manger—just as helpless and needful of Mary’s and Our Father’s care.

We’re the manger—called to feed others—receiving whoever comes our way as if they are Jesus himself.

And in thinking of these traditional themes of the Christmas story, we appreciate our own “immaculate” conception afresh—and realize anew that God blest all the animal nations by having their representatives be present at that sacred place.

And we pray for God to inspire us to be the star of Bethlehem—one who points others to where they might find new life.

December 12, 2021

John the Baptist is our Advent man.  References to him occur during this period of the liturgical year (and not so much at other times).  Scripture said he baptized people but scholars don’t know what his baptism was about—an initiation rite? A spiritual cleansing of some sort? They do, however, know that his message was a call to repentance.  But what does THAT mean? Does it mean saying you’re sorry for something?  And doing penance of some kind?

In the Greek of the New Testament, “repentance” implied “a change of mind,” a “broadening of one’s horizons,” “a transformation, conversion, or reform of one’s life.”  It also carried the notion of a “debt” to God for all God has given you.  And that’s what Advent is about—taking stock of yourself, admitting you don’t have all the answers, and resolving to open yourself to more fully appreciating what God has done for you.

This past week we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception—a feast that reminds us that, like Mary’s, our conception was a very special creation. One point of that feast is that each of us—through our identity as Christians—is called to give birth to Jesus, metaphorically, in our lives (just as Mary did literally). Once again, what does THAT mean?  What does it mean, exactly, for each of us to bring Christ into the world (especially since we’re preparing to celebrate his “incarnation”—his taking on of flesh—and coming into the world)?

Clergy everywhere try to answer that question in their sermons and homilies—and in doing so, face challenges. For example, they might mention how we need to make sure everyone can cast their vote. In saying something like this, they run the risk of being criticized for preaching “politics.” However, listeners should realize that clergy who preach that it’s important for us to guarantee people’s right to vote—aren’t echoing a partisan political position. They are reminding their congregation that Paul’s letter to the Philippians says we are called to create a just society.

The “corporal and spiritual works of mercy” are the centuries-old list of issues that Christian theologians and mystics have said are at the core of our gospel identity.  They are well worth our reflection during Advent—since they are our Tradition telling us how to “birth” Jesus.  If they are not on our radar of daily life in some way, our Advent is a success—in calling our attention to where we have been remiss in our practice of the faith.

Spend a few moments considering if these “works” reside in your conscience or are part of your behavior.  Again, they are not any party’s political platform but are what have traditionally defined how Christians “give birth” or incarnate Jesus in everyday life.  The Corporal Works: Feed the hungry—–Give drink to the thirsty—–Clothe the naked—–Shelter the homeless—–Visit the sick—–Visit the imprisoned—–Bury the dead; The Spiritual Works: To instruct the ignorant—-To counsel the doubtful—To admonish sinners—–To bear wrongs patiently—–To forgive offenses willingly—–To pray for the living and the dead—–To comfort the afflicted (and afflict the comfortable).

When the “rubber meets the road” and these topics enter into meaningful life events, they often become socio-political topics that hit “too close to home” for some people, e.g., Shelter the homeless–at our southern border? Forgive offenses–but retain the death penalty?  Feed the hungry–but stop food stamps for the poor?  The list of challenges to these basic “works of mercy” could go on and on.

Since the gospel addresses how we should live, and since people have different ideas about how we should live, you can see why even the corporal and spiritual works of mercy become contentious—with clergy equivalently told not to address them in any meaningful way. But this is how Christianity has failed at different points in history.  As the aphorism says: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  THAT quote is drawn from a 19th century secular philosopher who actually said: “Bad men need nothing more . . . than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name.”

The essence of those quotes was captured in Christian terms by the late scripture scholar, John Pilch.  He addressed our challenge to preach and live the gospel when he said:

“What is an American believer to make of the Baptizer’s exhortations? Greed, selfishness, and abuse of power and position are still with us. Who among us will be the modern voice crying in the wilderness? Who will call us to conversion and invite us to live fully the good news?”

 These thoughts come home to me especially this weekend because it is the anniversary of my ordination. I’ve been in a mode of thinking “what do I have to show” for going ahead with the decision to be ordained.  Thankfully, if nothing else, my trek has taken me to John the 23rd parish—where good people abound.  It’s good to be with such decent fellow-travelers.

I recalled the theme of my first homily being that I conceived of my priest-role as being one that helped others discover their priestly ministry.  I also wanted company when taking potshots for trying to live the Christian life.  I knew that, as Jesuit Daniel Berrigan once said: “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”  Enlisting others to exercise THEIR ministry was, in a way self-serving.  I preferred a group portrait and not be the only one looking good on wood.

All this boils down to is that we’re in the Advent season, and we’ve got a long way to go to Bethlehem.  Liturgically, we come to realize that all our life is an Advent—a journey in which we seek the birth of a new conscience, a journey that sees us stumble along, take dead-end paths, and are always in need of better direction.  It’s the season we once again make decisions to carry on as righteously as we can—aware that we can be a better companion on the journey with others.

Try and internalize this basic message of the gospel–which the following parable reports:

God was going to come to earth, so sent ahead his angel to survey the scene and report back.  The angel returned with this report.  “Most of them lack food.  Most of them lack employment and need assistance of all kinds.”

God said: “Then I shall become flesh in the form of food for the hungry.”  Looking at parishioners of John the 23rd parish, God continued: “I will become flesh—in the form of YOU.”

And so it came to pass that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated our birth as Jesus—alive today in each of us.

 Communion prayer

I’ve seen you stalking the malls, walking the aisles, searching for that extra-special gift.  Stashing away a few dollars a month to buy him some exquisitely-crafted leather boots, staring at a thousand rings to find her the best diamond; staying up all night Christmas eve, putting that new bicycle behind the tree awaiting discovery.

Why do you do it?  So the eyes will open wide.  The jaw will drop.  To hear those words of disbelief: “You did this for me?”

And that is why God did it.  Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain in that moment.  Say nothing, and listen as heaven whispers, “Do you like it?  I did it just for you.”

Liturgical music can be can aid to the reflective life

At my ordination mass, the song below was performed by dancer friends.  It’s sung at the first site by its composer. Dan Schutte—who taught with me on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFvdGv2pEy0

Sung worldwide, the version below is by a young people’s choir in the Philippines.  Their youthful enthusiasm (not quality of performance) is my reason for placing it here.  May their spirit be contagious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dyuq2UkRWM8

December 5, 2021

The past couple of weeks, I cited a phrase we use in everyday speech–“connect the dots.”  I was pointing to how we need to see the big picture of our life experience and God’s presence to us, God’s call to us—God showing us how to live. I indicated that politicians often “connect the dots” which make you vote against your own self-interest. They use slogans manufactured by Madison Avenue and by the 12,000 lobbyists in D.C.—which win your allegiance.

They know that most people don’t follow the news very closely but that they WILL hear one or two “sound bites” that SOUND enlightening—but are self-serving and NOT in your best interest. An example outside the political realm is the list of “charities” I put in the bulletin that SOUND worthwhile, but which are, in reality, scams that aim to take your money, e.g. “Children’s Wish Foundation,” “The Cancer Fund,” etc.  The “point” of these reflections was to indicate that the Feast of Christ the King calls us to always look for what course of action the GOSPEL calls us to take—and not political affiliations we might have. Nationalism should take a back seat to our Christian allegiances.

Another phrase from everyday life applies to religious practice: “go it alone.” This is said by busy people with so many things to do that coming to church and being a member of the faith community is deemed unnecessary. People will say “I’m a good person and I relate to God in my private life.”  America, in general, has long been known for its “rugged individualism”—people “going it alone” and being self-reliant.

In recent history, people have applied this national trait to religion.  They think they’re doing okay with all that life throws at them, and stop attending mass and being part of a parish. Maybe they would be drawn to church if told that we have a special “medicine” or “pill” from heaven that is the best vitamin they could take. Or that we’re offering certain “spiritual exercise classes” in the church-gym that will make us well-balanced individuals.

We’ve always used the word “sacrament” when referring to this medicine, pill, or spiritual exercise, but maybe that word has become over-used. People yawn when they hear it. However, when we come to mass, or get baptized, or confirmed, or when we’re blest when sick and given God’s forgiveness in a purification ceremony (called “reconciliation”)—people become more functional, more centered, and more hopeful. They do this through what we call “sacraments.” They’re the best booster shot our spirit could receive. You and I are here because we know we need help. Others aren’t here because they think they can “go it alone.”

Connecting dots in my experience

December 6th this week marks a special anniversary that has become a special part of my life (and that of others). It will illustrate how dot-connecting came to pass in my experience and how others have been affected by my sometimes-unconscious connecting of them into something productive. Keep in mind that people “connect dots” all the time—and do so ERRONEOUSLY. I’ll provide an example that is positive.

Although born and raised in the Motor City, I always took an interest in American Indians—reading books about them whenever I could. After entering the Jesuits, I liked hearing about our guys in Indian country. Readers globally read a classic of Indian Studies titled Black Elk Speak: The Life-story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. The man was born in 1866 and died in 1950. He was in battles with cavalry and, at age 10, killed 2 soldiers at the Battle of Little Bighorn (“Custer’s Last Stand”). He lived to see the vast buffalo herds disappear, family members die in war and due to disease, and he was present at the infamous “Battle of Wounded Knee.”  Many have called this latter event a massacre. It saw the most medals of honor awarded in U.S. military history. A petition now seeks that they be rescinded because more elders, women and children were killed at this event than warriors.

Wounded Knee was preceded by what’s known as the “Ghost Dance”—a religious movement that convinced many in the population that Jesus would return for Indian people—raise their dead, restore the buffalo, defeat the white and black solders (called the “buffalo soldiers” because their hair resembled that of the buffalo), and rid the world of non-Indians. Wearing “ghost shirts” would protect people by deflecting bullets. And so it came to pass that 300-some Sioux (Lakota) wore ghost shirts at Wounded Knee creek in 1890, encountered the cavalry, and found their shirts did not protect them. Most today are buried in a mass grave there at Wounded Knee (a protest in 1972 was staged at this site and drew international attention). Black Elk Speaks concludes with this event—the holy-man reflecting that his people’s dream died that day at Wounded Knee—the passage unrelenting in its sadness.

In reporting the “dots” of my experience that follow, they are like the dots of YOUR life, too. That is, we don’t necessarily see the meaning of an experience until it passes, and we then say “Aha!” This is like the men walking to Emmaus with Jesus after the resurrection—not recognizing him—and then later on saying “Dang!  That was HIM—and we didn’t even realize it at the time.” There are more to report, but here are the key experiences that eventually became the dots of my life’s portrait.

When in studies at U of Detroit, I was preparing most immediately for a high school teaching career as part of the Jesuit training program. Knowing of my interest in Indians, a Jesuit priest introduced me to the principal of a high school who was attending a conference on secondary education which was held on campus that year (dot 1). He invited me to visit Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation (Black Elk’s home)—dot 2. The subsequent visit moved me to ask for an assignment to Red Cloud—a school which, at the time, was not anyone’s first choice (dot 3).

Before heading west, it seemed wise for me to learn more about the culture. This was the first year Jesuits were allowed to pursue an M.A. immediately after the B.A.—and I was approved to pursue the degree (dot 3.5 & 4). Indiana U had a program that seemed appropriate, so I applied, was accepted (5)—and learned upon arrival that a premier scholar of Indian studies taught anthropology there (6), and that the premier scholar of Indian religion was a visiting professor that year (7). I took both of their courses (7.5 & 8).

One day while teaching in the high school, its boiler broke down (which never occurred) and school was called off for the day (9). Never free at 1 p.m. on a school day (10), I went outside (11) for a smoke and sat next to a grandmother on a bench (never previously doing such a thing—12). Unprompted, she told me that the yearbook was dedicated to her brother Ben (13). Because I was the faculty member who moderated the yearbook (14), I knew Ben was Black Elk’s only surviving son. Had she just said her name was Lucy Looks Twice, I’d not have made the connection with her famous father (15).

That serendipity set of experiences started my relationship with Black Elk’s only surviving child, who died 5 years later. My interviews with her and others eventually produced Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (reviewed as “a real step forward in American Indian religious studies”) and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic (16).

In the Fall of 2017, I was called by the bishop of Rapid City, SD who asked me to write an overview of Black Elk’s life that he could use when proposing the man for canonization as a Catholic saint (17). The bishop’s name was Gruss (who I didn’t know). He told the national conference of bishops that “Jesuit Father Michael Steltenkamp” researched the life of Nicholas Black Elk and found him to be a devout Catholic catechist whose baptism was December 6, 1904 (this past week—one reason why I provide this account now). Gruss asked that Black Elk be named a “Servant of God” (the first stage of the canonization process leading to “Saint”). His request was unanimously accepted (18) on November 14th (my birthday)—which I interpreted as a “wink of the eye” from Black Elk and God (19) to an effort I never imagined would come to pass.

So Black Elk’s story is that of a medicine man coming to cure a sick child in 1904, encountering a Jesuit priest at the bedside, and leaving with the priest to get instructed in the faith and learn more about Jesus—whose message had been MISINTERPRETED by Ghost Dance teachers. Black Elk preached the gospel for the rest of his life.

He and the old-timers learned scripture and Church teachings by means of a catechetical chart known as the “2 roads map”—its red road in the center being the centuries since the time of Jesus, the black road leading to it. Black Elk understood his vocation as leading his people from the black road of pre-Christian experience to the red road of walking in the ways of Jesus.

The Sioux saw poverty/death/despair—and were told that Ghost Shirts would save them. 130 years later, all kinds of stories circulate on “social media” telling how Hilary Clinton and others kill children, how doctors put alien DNA in vaccines, and how so-called “antifa” groups of black, white, and Mexican radicals are coming to small towns in busses to shoot you. In short, we are just as gullible as the Sioux were in 1890. Have you seen the Qanon people marching in Dallas carrying signs of John F. Kennedy and saying he is returning to make Donald Trump president? Those marchers are ordinary –looking people like you and me. Like us, they are vulnerable—just as Black Elk was.

Nicholas Black Elk confronted more loss and pain than anyone—the loss of his people’s entire way of life. Lifelong, he lived in poverty. Instead of cursing people and calling them names, he embraced the vision Jesus provided and chose not to “go it alone.” He instead chose to be part of the Catholic faith community and have the sacraments help him connect the dots of his life.

Communion reflection

Lord, so often we are the un-Wise men and women who think we know the score and can “go it alone.  Instead, we are Magi who have trouble connecting the dots of our lives.  We’re without a map and are left to reading the signs with lens that need focusing.  We’re Magi who are not always sure where our decisions will take us.  Which is why we have gathered at this sacred moment of the mass—and asked you, each in our own way, for the guidance we need—to walk the good red road that leads to You, a path of real life and rebirth.  Save us from seeking mirages that seduce us so often. Continue to lead us through this Advent season to a new birth of our minds and hearts.

November 28, 2021

In everyday conversation you’ll hear people say: “Connect the dots!”  This expression refers to seeing the “bigger picture” when discussing the different points of some issue. Sort of like the “star quilts” I had at the churches.  Everyone could see the star points and lovely colors, but how many saw the buffalo in the one at St. Mary’s or the eagle in the one at Merrill? Sometimes, we know the “dots” of an issue, but fail to see the bigger picture, e.g., as in the case of drinking that leads to alcoholism—early consumption leading to addiction.

I’ll try to “connect the dots” as to why Christians of most denominations celebrate “Christ the King Sunday” (a phrase that conjures up images of royal courts and loyal subjects on bended knees—with trumpets blaring, as Jesus walks toward a throne. In short, “Christ the King” is a phrase that few of us relate to. HOWEVER, its meaning is really important to most everything we do.

For example, under debate for some time is the “build back better” bill. In theory, your elected representatives sincerely represent the best interests of you and the country as they argue the pros and cons. However, many factors come into play that are not all that apparent to you, the citizen. You and I only know about SOME of the dots—and are not aware of what other influences motivate our representatives to say or vote the way they do. This is illustrated on television when a senator says one thing on CNN, and then the opposite when interviewed on Fox. Knowing some of their constituents watch Fox and some watch CNN, they play to the audience—knowing that most people won’t carefully follow the news—but be educated solely on some “sound bite.”

When I was in West Virginia, I had contact with Joe Manchin—the senator now in the news for being a Democrat who has resisted supporting the “build back” bill. He seems to be allied with those opposing the bill (N.B. surveys show that most Americans want its provisions).  Listening to the “dots” presented by Joe make one think the man makes sense—but they’re not aware of other “dots” which may motivate him.  Namely, his status as a millionaire derives in large part from his investments in fossil fuels (coal & oil).  The bill seeks to help make America rely on renewable energy (and AWAY from coal & oil).

Why might he oppose lessening the cost of medicine? Perhaps because his daughter is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company that pays her $18 million. In fairness, maybe Joe is NOT influenced by his holdings in fossil fuels or his daughter’s role in “big Pharma,” but those are “dots” that most people outside WV don’t know exis