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.


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).


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






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.


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.


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.


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 exist. “Conflict of interest” is a “dot” that sadly characterizes many representatives—there being 12,000 lobbyists in D.C. offering an apple to them day in and day out.  I, you, they—are all vulnerable to the temptations they present us.

Which is why I like hearing from objective sources of information, or find solidly researched data on which to make an educated judgment.  You’ll hear one or another politician feelingly say the “build back” bill will ruin the economy.  However, 17 Nobel Prize winners in Economics have issued a statement saying the bill will reduce inflation, create jobs, and provide all sorts of needed infrastructure.  As a citizen, I’ll listen to the Nobel Prize winners before listening to a politician who might be bought and paid for by lobbyists.  Remember Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential farewell warning: “Beware of the military-industrial complex” and its destruction of democracy via the wealthy who become the real lawmakers who control our representatives.

Now what does all this political talk have to do with the Feast of Christ the King?  Let me connect the dots.

I have said this on other occasions and will repeat it here.  I belong to no political party and pledge allegiance first and foremost to God and the Gospel.  In having this “affiliation,” I am committed to Christ the King. 

Each year on July 4th, there are people at every parish who want to sing patriotic songs, decorate their church with flags, and perhaps have a gun salute to honor America.  One’s love of country is very common—as seen every 4 years at the Olympic games.  Each person feels somewhere in their heart a love of country.  However, there is a theological problem with this natural tendency. How could German Catholics and Lutherans kill American Catholics and Lutherans in World Wars 1 and 11?  This horrible betrayal of the gospel is what Pope Pius 11th  tried to  address in 1925 when he made the Feast of Christ the King a solemn occasion.

Having seen WW I kill millions, and watching Mussolini’s rise in Italy, the Pope wanted people to know that the church was NOT the place wherein to sing patriotic songs.  There had been a disconnect between one’s church life and life away from church.  The dots of what our faith says and what we were doing—were not being connected.  Sadly, Christ the King Feast Day was not internalized by enough people to stop Hitler’s rise, WW II, and the killing of Jewish millions, and 2400 Catholic priests at the Dachau concentration camp alone.  Remember these figures when seeing people listen to the American Nazi Party.  In short, Christ the King Sunday could be called Pledge of Allegiance Sunday—only we Christians worldwide are pledging allegiance to the God who made us and Jesus who taught us how to live. 

Jesus is quoted as saying: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  His statement reminded me of the millions who listened to a talk radio host whose website refers to him as “America’s truth detector.” His statements command the loyalty of countless listeners who, in turn, vote for issues he espouses.  In light of the influence he wielded, Politifact (a non-partisan monitor of the airwaves) evaluated the man’s “truth-telling” on major, not minor, issues.  This is what Politifact found. On important issues, what he said were: 26% major lies, 36% false statements, 21% Mostly False, 10% half true, 0% mostly true. You can see why Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King when a broadcaster who tells lies daily—is awarded the Medal of Freedom and honored by a president the broadcaster daily praised.

A former congressman from the same party as the broadcaster said that the man was “trafficking in so many lies and conspiracy theories, he helped ensure that a sizable segment of the American voting population no longer believes in basic truths . . . the most successful TV network employs the same model of dishonesty and manipulation of its audience.  And it will take years to undo this [legacy].” 

Thank you, Pope Pius XI, for giving us Christ the King Feast—which reminds us to listen to the gospel that Jesus broadcasts. As He states: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Christ the King feast day reminds me of the importance of having good people holding public office.  Otherwise, we will continue to see corruption and death.  It was 32 years ago this week that 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper & 16-year-old daughter were killed in El Salvador.  One of those Jesuits was my dear friend, Ignacio Martin-Baro—the soldiers who killed him wearing uniforms and using weapons paid for by your tax dollars. Because Jesuits and the Church have “boots on the ground” globally, we get information first-hand from people who report to us the real news.  When you were being told that America was helping El Salvador fight against the communists and for democracy, we knew otherwise.  When the nuns were killed there, our own Secretary of State suggested the nuns might have exchanged gunfire with soldiers—which was a lie (because when that comment was made, the Secretary knew there was no exchange of gunfire—and that it was a simple case of rape and execution—by soldiers bought and paid for by U.S. dollars).  When friends you know die because of congressional votes–you have additional reasons for seeking truth by connecting as many dots as you can. 

A Jesuit friend was asked to resign his position as the House chaplain in D.C.  He had been chosen by Republican Boehner and Democrat Pelosi—both of whom wanted a Jesuit priest as chaplain.  When my friend said prayers that called for the U.S. to perform the corporal works of mercy, his prayer was judged “too political” by an administration that emphasized self-interest. 

My friend Ignacio’s spirituality was “see the face of Jesus on everyone you meet.”  For that position, he was considered a subversive.  When he and the others were killed, their skulls were busted—the act signifying these guys thought too much—so stay away from people like them. Their deaths reminded me of Bishop Helder Camara in Brazil.  He said: “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint.  When I asked, ‘Why are they poor?’ they called me a communist.”   

November 21, 2021

Reflections on Christ the King gospel reading

Jesus was crucified on the charge of being a messianic pretender. This is established by the sign on the cross: “the King of the Jews” (“King” being the Roman equivalent of “Messiah”)

It is not certain precisely what attitude Jesus took toward this charge at the investigation before the Sanhedrin and at his trial before Pilate. Some traditions present him as preserving a stony silence (pleading the fifth amendment), while others present him as not rejecting the charge but correcting it (the answer “You say that I am a king” would be equivalent to “That’s your word, not mine”).

In John’s version of the trial before Pilate, Jesus corrects the charge by offering a reinterpretation of what kingship means for him. Here’s how that encounter goes.

Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king and Jesus asks where Pilate got this idea. Was it a charge raised by the Jewish authorities? Pilate says yes, and then asks what basis there is for his behavior.  To which, Jesus replies what his kingship is not.  That is, it is not political in nature.  However, Jesus insists that in a certain sense, he IS a king. Pilate therefore repeats the first question, thus giving Jesus a chance to state his own definition of kingship. He has come into the world to be the bearer of the divine revelation.  Jesus prefers to be known as one who “bears witness to the truth.”

In John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t preach the kingdom of God or of heaven as in the Synoptics. John rather presents Jesus as one who uniquely reveals and speaks the truth about God. Like the prophets of old, John’s Jesus speaks the will of God for the here-and-now.

Jesus’ followers are not subjects in a kingdom but persons who hear the truth and respond to it. It is in this and not in a political sense that Jesus can be understood as king and possessing a kingdom. Jesus concludes his comment to Pilate with a veiled challenge: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” The implicit challenge is clear to Pilate: “Will you listen to me and accept the truth, God’s plan for salvation?” Pilate chooses to evade the challenge and says: “Truth, eh? What is that?” Jesus’ challenge to Pilate challenges us as well: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Have you heard and responded to the voice of Jesus?

The Pandemic Challenged Our Critical Thinking Skills

What follows is part of an article written by a physicist.  This scientist was chagrined at how people were so easily misled during the epidemic–when cool heads needed to prevail.  The virus had to be addressed by minds that could employ science in the fight against it.  Since this scientist’s observations are applicable to many topics we confront, I offer it for the benefit of us all.  The title of this paper is “Science and Pseudo-science.”

The word “pseudo” means “false.” The surest way to spot a fake is to know as much as possible about the real thing — in this case, about science itself.  Because the media bombard us with nonsense, it is useful to consider the earmarks of pseudo-science. The presence of even one of its traits should arouse great suspicion. 

Pseudo-science displays an indifference to facts. Instead of bothering to consult reference works, its advocates simply spout bogus “facts” (i.e., fictions) where needed. 

Pseudo-science “research” is invariably sloppy.Pseudo-scientists clip newspaper reports, collect hearsay, cite other pseudo-science books, and pour over ancient religious or mythological works.  The aim of pseudo-science is to rationalize strongly held beliefs, rather than to investigate or to test alternative possibilities. Pseudo-science specializes in jumping to “congenial conclusions,” grinding ideological axes, appealing to preconceived ideas and to widespread misunderstandings.

Pseudo-science is indifferent to criteria of valid evidence.  The emphasis is not on meaningful, controlled, repeatable scientific experiments. Instead, it is on unverifiable eyewitness testimony, stories and tall tales, hearsay, rumor, and dubious anecdotes. Genuine scientific literature is either ignored or misinterpreted.

Pseudo-science relies heavily on subjective validation, e.g., Joe puts jello on his head and his headache goes away. To pseudo-science, this means jello cures headaches. To science, this means nothing since no experiment was done. Many things were going on when Joe’s headache went away — the moon was full, a bird flew overhead, the window was open, Joe had on his red shirt, etc.. A controlled experiment is needed.

Pseudo-science does not progress. There are fads, and a pseudo-scientist may switch from one fad to another (from ghosts to ESP research, from flying saucers to psychic studies, from ESP research to looking for Bigfoot). But within a given topic, no progress is made. Little or no new information is uncovered. New theories are seldom proposed, and old concepts are rarely modified or discarded considering new “discoveries,” since pseudo-science rarely makes new “discoveries.” The older the idea, the more respect it receives. Pseudo-scientists almost always deal with phenomena well known to scientists, but little known to the general public — so that the public will swallow whatever the pseudo-scientist wants to claim.

Pseudo-science attempts to persuade with rhetoric, propaganda, and misrepresentation rather than valid evidence.  Non sequitur is Latin for “it does not follow.” For example, there is the “Galileo Argument.” This consists of the pseudo-scientist comparing himself to Galileo.  He says that just as he is believed to be wrong, so Galileo was thought wrong by his contemporaries.  Therefore, the pseudo-scientist must be right too, just as Galileo was. Clearly the conclusion does not follow!  Here are further points of contrast between science and pseudo-science.


1) Their findings are expressed primarily through scientific journals that are peer-reviewed and maintain rigorous standards for honesty and accuracy. 2)  Reproducible results are demanded; experiments must be precisely described so that they can be duplicated exactly or improved upon. 3) Failures are searched for and studied closely, because incorrect theories can often make correct predictions by accident, but no correct theory will make incorrect predictions. 4) As time goes on, more is learned about the physical processes under study.  5)  Convinces by appeal to the evidence, by arguments based upon logical and/or mathematical reasoning, by making the best case the data permit. When new evidence contradicts old ideas, they are abandoned. 6) Does not advocate or market unproven practices or products.


1) The literature is aimed at the general public. There is no review, no standards, no pre-publication verification, no demand for accuracy and precision. 2) Results cannot be reproduced or verified. Studies, if any, are always so vaguely described that one can’t figure out what was done or how it was done. 3) Failures are ignored, excused, hidden, lied about, discounted, explained away, finalized, forgotten, and avoided at all costs. 4) No physical phenomena or processes are ever found or studied. No progress is made; nothing concrete is learned. 5) Convinces by appeal to faith and belief.  Pseudo-science has a strong quasi-religious element: it tries to convert, not to convince. You are to believe in spite of the facts, not because of them.  The original idea is never abandoned, whatever the evidence. 6) Generally, earns some or all of his living by selling questionable products (such as books, courses, and dietary supplements) and/or pseudoscientific services (such as horoscopes, character readings, spirit messages, and predictions).

The above characteristics could be greatly expanded, because science and pseudo-science are precisely opposed ways of viewing nature.

Science relies on — and insists on — self-questioning, testing and analytical thinking that make it hard to fool yourself or to avoid facing facts. Pseudo-science on the other hand, preserves the ancient, natural, irrational, unobjective modes of thought that are many years older than science.  Many of these thought processes gave rise to superstitions and other fanciful and mistaken ideas about human nature — from voodoo to racism; from the flat earth to the house-shaped universe with God in the attic, Satan in the cellar and man on the ground floor; from doing rain dances to torturing and brutalizing the mentally ill to drive out the demons that possess them.  Pseudo-science supplies specious “arguments” for fooling yourself into thinking that all beliefs are equally valid. Science begins by saying, let’s forget about what we believe to be so, and try by investigation to find out what is so. These roads don’t cross; they lead in completely opposite directions.

A distressing amount of pseudo-science is generated by scientists who are well trained in one field but plunge into another field of which they are ignorant. A physicist who claims to have found a new principle of biology — or a biologist who claims to have found a new principle of physics — is almost invariably doing pseudo-science. Some pseudo-science is generated by individuals with a small amount of specialized scientific or technical training who are not professional scientists and do not comprehend the nature of the scientific enterprise yet think of themselves as “scientists.”

Like anyone else, scientists can get hunches that something is possible without having enough evidence to convince their associates that they are correct. Such people do not become pseudo-scientists, unless they continue to maintain that their ideas are correct when contradictory evidence piles up. Being wrong or mistaken is unavoidable; we are all human, and we all commit errors and blunders. True scientists, however, are alert to the possibility of blunder and are quick to correct mistakes. Pseudo-scientists do not. In fact, a short definition of pseudo-science is “a method for excusing, defending, and preserving errors.”

 Pseudo-science often strikes educated, rational people as too nonsensical and preposterous to be dangerous and as a source of amusement rather than fear. Unfortunately, this is not a wise attitude. Pseudo-science can be extremely dangerous.

      Penetrating political systems, it justifies atrocities in the name of racial purity.

      Penetrating the educational system, it can drive out science and sensibility.

      In the field of health, it dooms thousands to unnecessary death or suffering.

      Penetrating religion, it generates fanaticism, intolerance, and holy war.

      Penetrating the communications media, it can make it difficult for voters to obtain factual information on important public issues.

November 14, 2021

This weekend’s masses are on an American Indian theme–for 2 reasons.  One is that November is Native American Month in the United States, and two is that Indian religious practice dovetails well with our gathering for this sacrament.  What I present here will give you a sense of what takes place in Native Catholic practice around the country.  Over the past 40 years, non-Indians have adopted certain Native practices, integrated them into other ritual forms, and created what’s called “new age” religion.  What we do here is NOT part of that trend.  We are simply honoring and participating in prayer forms common within the Indian religious world.

You might wonder why I use the word “Indian” when referring to America’s 1st people.  Some might think the word is pejorative and should be avoided.  However, most Indians use the word, the government has the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and many reservations welcome people to the [tribal name] “Indian reservation.”  It’s thought that since the term came about by mistake—Columbus thinking he was in India—it should be avoided.  “Native American” has become a “polite” reference used by both Indians and non-Indians but it can also refer to anyone born in America.  It’s usable but technically confusing.  Meanwhile, Canada uses the phrase “First Nations” and globally, traditional groups in America, Australia, Africa, Asia and elsewhere are more and more being referred to as “Indigenous peoples.”

Russell Means, a Lakota (Sioux) activist and actor, promoted the use of “Indian” because he claimed Columbus might have been geographically confused but he wasn’t confused when thinking of Natives as the “in Dios” (“in God”) people.  The term seemed to point to a key trait of Native cultures—the people’s spirituality.  I use all the terms but tend to favor “Indian” because I share Russell’s point of view.  I’ve often mused to myself that it’s a challenge to find an atheistic Indian—so deep is the appreciation of a “Creator’s” (God’s) existence.

The “star quilt” on both altars reflects an art form within some western tribes, and also a theological truth.  Colorful quilts with a star design can have a beautiful star-burst quality to them but also have an image within the star that is not immediately detectable.  Once a person notices a buffalo (at St. Mary’s) or eagle (at Sacred Heart) or other form on other quilts, the individual is reminded that God exists within all created things or, if one looks, can be seen within them as their artisan.  This idea of “God in all things” is what Jesuits know as “Ignatian spirituality” (formulated by St. Ignatius)—a concept shared by Indian peoples.

Vestments worn at the weekend masses reflect something seen in Native ritual everywhere—what many groups refer to as the “4 sacred colors”—black, red, yellow, and white. Different ritual specialists associate a color with each direction while each direction is associated with some spiritual, physical, or animal power.  Whenever one sees a sacred color, one can think of the powers represented—much like one can be reminded of Jesus when seeing a cross.  Or, I see something that’s “red” and a flurry of thoughts come to mind.

For example, red might signify the sun in the east and be associated with the eagle who reminds us that our thoughts should be of high-minded and not lowly things.  Michigan’s “3 Council Fires” of Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Chippewa would begin offering a sacred pipe in the east, then south, west, north, toward the sky, and finally earth (western tribes tend to begin their offering in the west).  The presider places tobacco in the pipe bowl (made of “catlinite” quarried at Minnesota’s Pipestone National Monument), and each grain represents the issues we bring to the praying moment.  Government commissions often reported a treaty session beginning with a leader offering prayer to begin deliberations—using a sacred pipe.

Common to ceremonies is also a ritual known as “smudging.”  Traditional Catholics would recognize this as “incensing” the sacred area—purifying it, with the smoke carrying our prayer to God (burning one or more of the 4 sacred herbs: tobacco, cedar, sweetgrass, sage).  On Veteran’s Day, a group of Crow (Absaroke) Indians (from Montana) conducted a smudging ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier–a parishioner sending this site for it: https://wjla.com/news/local/watch-crow-nation-pays-respects-tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier-century-after-chief-plenty-coups-arlington-national-cemetery?fbclid=IwAR1g_JtU3Gmnwcgj-VFFfCHbsw1WUDID7peFFz0Sh-7FisOUK3iOhUgqTD0    The website reports exactly what was done at our weekend masses, viz., “Before paying their respects at the tomb, the group performed smudging, a ceremony for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts of a person or place.”

A sacred story (captured in Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”) tells of the pipe’s being given Native peoples by the Creator.  The poem can be accessed on the Internet, and contains many Chippewa words (Ojibway is the Canadian alternative to this American tribal reference for a group who call themselves “Anishnabay”).

On the altar are jugs from different regions of Native America—representing the water jugs of Cana—whereat Jesus worked his first miracle (changing water into wine).  Each time we come to mass, we re-live the Cana experience.  We bring the water of our lives to the altar (represented by the pottery jugs) and God changes our water vision of life to one of fine wine. 

Also on the altar is a 3-million-year-old fossilized turtle shell.  You might hear someone say that we live on “turtle island” and not know the reference.  Here it is.  A creation story tells of the Creator putting mud on the back of mackinac (“turtle”), and from that shell the earth spread over the water—giving us land to walk on.  Hence we live on the back of a turtle—and we are on turtle island.

There exists within Native America a religious practice whose leader is called a “road man.”  He will say at the beginning of an all-night prayer meeting something to the effect of: “We are going to be taken down a sacred road tonight.  I will lead you down this sacred path.  Remember!  In the beginning, God created light!  He intended it for you!  To enlighten your minds.”

The song “Golden Feather” by Cayuga (Iroquois) Indian artist Robbie Robertson had lyrics worth reflecting on.  The singer asks “should I paint my face, should I pierce my skin” and although referring to Native ritual could also be asking if we wear cosmetics that never reveal to others who we really are, or are we manipulated by fashions which come and go (body piercings at different places, tattoos)?  And might this behavior make us ask the question “Does this make me a pagan?” (i.e., getting all caught up in fashions of different periods and living the superficial life never really finding the special purpose of our existence).

The singer refers to the Native ritual of a sweat lodge but the line can refer to other behaviors that put us in different kinds of physical and spiritual jeopardy, e.g. “Sweating out my sin” for which we turn to narcotics of one sort or another to anesthetize our wounds: “We ate the sacred mushroom, And waded in the water, Howling like coyotes, At the naked moon.”  The song’s concluding reflection contains a gospel message we all might take to heart: “When you find out what’s worth keeping–With a breath of kindness–Blow the rest away.”  Leave behind the dead ends you’ve followed and return to the red path that leads to God—the path of kindness to fellow-travelers.

 Christmas Shopping

Gift-giving at the end of December was a Roman custom before Jesus was born–so one aspect of our Christian identity is to discern what makes our celebration of the holiday season any different from that of atheists. Here are some thoughts to stir the waters of your thought.

his year, in mid-October, one could hear Christmas music at stores.  Once again, marketers are stealing Christmas, like the Grinch, for commercial gain.  Tech products promise to make your Christmas more “magical” than ever.  Customers will have bought most presents in November—at full price—ahead of the sales season in the days before Christmas. The ultimate doomsday-scenario is that people’s Christmas may be ruined by being unable to get more products to put under the tree.

By December 25th, most people will be “Christmas-sed” out.  As a faith community, how do we have a chance of doing Advent when the waiting season has effectively been abolished, and the trees and decorations are up in November?

It takes an heroic effort to be in an Advent mindset when everyone else is wearing their premature Christmas garb. Christians have to fight for Christmas because it’s being smothered out of existence by the retail sector. We need to be mindful that Christmas involves a wait and an Advent journey during which we prepare our hearts for Bethlehem.

November 7, 2021

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.”

October 31, 2021

Today’s gospel reminds us why the cross is such a great symbol of Christianity.  It has a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension—making obvious what our religious mindset should be: Vertically, “you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Horizontally, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  We cannot separate our relationship to God from our relationship to one another.

Keep in mind that the term “love” in this context does not refer to a emotional, romantic attachment to God and people (although it could).  Rather, “love” is the attachment one feels toward a group or person of their group via kinship, village, or factional ties of some kind.  In short, Jesus is simply saying that all of our decision must be made in relationship to our commitment to God.  What does GOD call me to think or do (relative to life’s activities).  We do NOT place loyalty to a fad, or country, or hobby, or cultural trend, or political party before our loyalty to God.

One way we strengthen our sense of dependence upon and commitment to God is through what we call “Holy Days of Obligation.”  If we were in Hawaii, the only such days are Immaculate Conception and Christmas whereas for the rest of the U.S., Catholics are “obliged” to attend mass on All Saints, Assumption, Ascension, and Solemnity of Mary.

 This weekend, we are honoring All Saints, All Souls, and Halloween.  Some Christian groups oppose anyone celebrating this latter holiday, but they might re-evaluate their position.  Christian history is filled with missionaries building upon the religious traditions of different peoples (and not just stomping them into the ground in a culturally imperialistic way).  And so it is with Halloween. 

Once people of “the way” (Christianity) could gather legally, Roman temples were “converted” into Catholic churches, and German evergreens representing forest spirits became Christmas trees.  Celtic and Roman festivals honored the dead at this time of year (as nature died with the onset of winter).  Pomona, the Roman goddess who oversaw fruits and forests, was honored via costume wearing and “bobbing” for apples (the apple being her symbol). 

Do you know anyone who “bobs’ for apples or who dresses up as a Celtic forest animal—and thinks of a Roman goddess or Druid spirit?  These once “pagan” festivals have been thoroughly secularized.  However, Catholic tradition preserved “Hallow” een by creating All Saints Day (“Hallow” referring to “saint” and “een” referring to “evening”).  This festive Celtic day preceded what became All Saints Day celebrated since the 8th century.  HOWEVER, over time a clarification was made by Church officials.

Since some virtuous people within Christian tradition were clearly perceived as attaining heaven, they were deservedly declared a “saint,” “canonized” and honored as a “saint” both on a feast day of their own during the year, and one, catch-all feast day called “All Saints.”  Everyone else, who may or may not have led similarly virtuous lives, could be honored with a day of their own, viz., “All Souls” Day.  This is why we celebrate all 3 special days this weekend—combining them into one.

Secular society has its own “saints” who we call American patriots, or war-heroes, or entertainers, or politicians—and recognized with statues and monuments like Mt. Rushmore or Washington Monument, or the thousands of other places where people can “worship” their memory.  This is known as secular religion, and sometimes people conflate the two.  Think of statues to Saddam Hussein that were torn down once he lost power, or those of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and countless other “demi-gods” of one or another country whose regime took power and led their people into hell on earth.

We have sports Halls of Fame—with “saints” of basketball, football, baseball, and other athletics of every ilk.  The Church is SUPPOSED to thoroughly research a person’s life and affirm that one or two miracles have taken place because of the person’s intercession.  If some major wrongdoing was found within the life of some Hall of Fame candidate, their candidacy is dropped.  Baseball aficionados, for example, debate if Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson will ever be admitted if charges for gambling on games is perceived as harmless.

But what does “sainthood” have to do with us ordinary folks today?  Aren’t “saints” a kind of otherworldly person whose behavior was the opposite of our own (and even bizarre at times)?  Maybe not.  St. Theresa of Liseux, known as the “little flower,” was one of the most admired of all time within Christian history.  She made this observation: “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.”

We might think saintliness is for geeky folks who were out of it, socially, but I like what Gandalf, a “white magic” maker,  said in the film Lord of the Rings:  “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check.  But that is not what I have found.  I have found that it is the small things– everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.  Small acts of kindness and love.”  Whoever composed those lines (it was not the book’s Catholic author, Tolkien) certainly knew Catholic theology when writing the above.

May this folksy, down-to-earth poem be our attitude:

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 help me 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 want to do God’s 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 like you and me,    And I mean to be one too.  

 Sunday Speaker

Come at 4 p.m. Sunday to hear a speaker at St. Mary’s church—Steve Spreitzer, CEO of Michigan Roundtable–an inter-faith organization of southeastern Michigan—who will present: Standing With the “Other”–Reflections on God Dwelling Among Us

October 24, 2021

What great readings we have this Sunday.  They describe us so well.  We are reading about ourselves and our relationship to Jesus.

On the surface, the story is about Bartimaeus (remember that with scripture nothing is ever “nothing but,” it is always “something more”).  He is blind (sound familiar?).  What is he blind to?  Suffering around him?  Blind to his self-centeredness?  Blind to prejudices he exhibits but isn’t aware of them?  Or is this story just about a guy who was physically blind?  Hmm.  Let’s see.

He shouts to Jesus (as we do at the beginning of each mass with the Kyrie “Have mercy on me (or us)!”).   Recall what the 2nd reading said “The Lord delivers people from their oppression.”  That thought is good to keep in mind if we’re the Bartimaeus-like people who are oppressed in different ways, and we cry out for mercy.

And each time we come to mass or pray in the quiet of our room, or walking on a lakeshore, we are asked by Jesus: “What do you want me to do for you?”   In some way, each time Jesus asks us that question, we Bartimaeus-like people reply: “I want to see.”  I want to see how I can best handle conflict (best human behavior is gospel behavior).  I want to see where I’m not relating to loved ones the best I am able.  I want to see where you, Lord (and not the changing fads of cultural trends), are calling me to make my life-contribution.

Being cured means that Bartimaeus had his metaphorical, perhaps literal (or both), prayer answered in some fashion—and he followed Jesus on “the way” (recall the early Christian community called itself “the Way”).  So this concluding line of the passage is fraught with special meaning.  Relating to Jesus in prayer gives us new vision—which will continue to sustain us if we carry on as a person of “the Way.”

How does this relate to the weekend masses being called “World Mission Sunday?”  Because one “model” of the church is to see it as a “missionary” Church in which we all participate—AS missionaries in some way.  We tend to think of missionaries only as people in foreign lands and unexplored frontiers—such as the North American martyrs whose feast we celebrated this past week.

My first assignment after ordination was to be pastor of St. Isaac Jogues parish in Sault Ste. Marie—there being a boulder in downtown Sault Ste. Marie noting that Jogues said mass there in the 1600s.  He and 7 other “blackrobes”—the name given Jesuits who wore black cassocks—were martyred by the Iroquois (actually, these people called themselves the Hoedeenuhshow’nee—a confederacy of 6 tribes that included such groups as the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, and Oneida).

The Jesuits came to our area from France and left behind a treasure trove of cultural information they reported in a series of volumes titled The Jesuit Relations.  This was correspondence they sent from the Great Lakes region to their headquarters in Rome—describing life among the Native peoples here.  The reports of Fr. Henri Nouvel (after whom the school was named) are contained in these documents.

One of the better known early Jesuits was John de Brebeuf—after whom a Jesuit prep school in Indianapolis is named.  A wonderful Nouvel grad, Sherry LaFave Annee, has taught there for years and represented Saginaw very well.  Brebeuf’s martyrdom is no doubt well known to each high schooler who has attended this top-drawer institution.  Here’s how it was reported in the Relations.

 They seized Father Brebeuf . . . and 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.  The /Iroquois/ further told us that Fr. de 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 derisively baptized him by pouring it over him.

 They made a collar of red-hot hatchets and put it on the neck of this good Father, after that they put on him a belt of bark, full of pitch and resin, and set fire to it, which roasted his whole body.  During all these torments, Father de 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.

Noteworthy about the above is that the Jesuits lived among the Huron and had often witnessed the above sort of torture (these same sorts of torture are done today by 21st century “civilized” non-Indians.  They encouraged one another to die well so that their deaths would inspire their tormentors to pursue the faith for which they died.  When the Mohawk drank the blood of Brebeuf—they were honoring him (and fulfilling exactly what Brebeuf wanted to see occur).

The commitment of my brother-Jesuits indicts me for not having it in equal portion.  Their example is exotic but their story is the same as ours.  They weren’t storybook heroes, but were, instead, regular “guys” who simply wanted to do something with the one life they’d been given.  Like them, we’re called to a new frontier each day—an encounter with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers—whose life we will touch in SOME way. 

Will we make any effort at all to influence their mind or heart with some sense of the goodness or graced-ness or Jesus-ness we’re called to represent as a member of a missionary Church?  That’s the simple motivation that these North American Martyrs tried to carry with them—across the ocean from France to the Great Lakes region.  400 years after they died, we read about them.   Which makes me wonder what people 400 years from now will say about the Catholics in America of this era.  We’re creating that legacy now.

October 17, 2021

Christians have what is known as a “Christology.”  We may not use that word, but we live its meaning because it is a technical term that refers to our understanding of who the historical Jesus of Nazareth was (in everyday life) and what it means for him to be the resurrected “Messiah.”  Theologians will speak of a Christology “from above” and one “from below”—a given person’s sense being one that emphasizes the Divine nature (from above) of Jesus or his human nature (from below).  Our theology says that Jesus had both a Divine and human nature, and that he was “like us in all things but sin.” 

Voila!  Christology studies this mystery of our faith—and tries to help us keep in check the tendency to imagine the historical Jesus as a kind of human superman (able to do anything because he knows everything—since he’s “divine”).  It also helps us keep in check the tendency to make him solely human (and regard him as Muslims do—a great prophet-teacher but not divine).

Mark’s gospel today is articulating a Christology because there were 2 heresies that were popular at the time of his writing.  People were imagining a Divine-man, heroic, miracle-working Jesus who was able to exorcise demons, raise the dead, and heal people.  Mark de-emphasize this sense by presenting a Christology “from below.”  He presented a Jesus who was not bringing a new kingdom to earth at any moment.  Instead, Jesus called us to a Christian life of taking up our cross and following him in SERVICE to others (not as their rulers—or as society encourages us to do—“flaunt” our possessions and power in front of everyone).

Were we to meet Jesus in the first century, we’d meet a layman just like us—in “civvies” (civilian clothes—not clerical garb).  As today’s gospel reports, he was a “teacher.”  The Letter to the Hebrews has the distinction of being the only New Testament work that refers to Jesus as a “high priest”—and in describing him this way, the letter’s author is speaking theologically, not historically.  In order to understand Hebrews, we need to know something about the Israelite high priest’s actions in the temple.

In the Temple, a high priest would move from the “symbolic” earth part of it where the people were gathered—to the symbolic heaven area in the sanctuary.  They had a tabernacle that held the Torah (Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament books) whereas we have a tabernacle (continuing this Abrahamic tradition) that houses the Eucharist (the New Testament).  Jesus is the especially qualified “high priest” because he knew what our human condition entailed—and represents us feelingly to the Father.  He is the living Torah—come down from heaven—to share our humanity and be God’s mediator to us and our mediator to the Creator-Father-God.

Pause for a moment and reflect on the last couple of sentences.  Think for a moment of the confusing thoughts you’ve had in the course of your life—the social skills you lacked, the temptations you’ve coped with, and the joyous or hurt spirit you’ve felt at different times.  Try to appreciate anew that the Christian revelation of Jesus-among-us is that your life-experience is something he knows only too well.  He’s very much “in touch” with what you feel. 

Ultimately, like us, he faced death—which he did not face laughingly and dismissively (since one’s death is no laughing matter).  He didn’t want to die on a cross–and prayed that he not have to endure it.  At the same time, he served as our role-model by simply saying to “our” Father: “your will, not mine, be done.”  Or as Mary stated, “be it done unto me according to your will.”  [It is not coincidence that these two figures uttered the same theological/spiritual idea.]

Mark’s fight against the prevailing heresies is well expressed in the anecdote of James and John (who represent us) saying to Jesus “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  We can picture Jesus covering his face as he rolls his eyes and sighs.  Two of his “brothers” are TELLING him to do something for them (does this sound like a good prayer style for you and me?  That is, WE tell God to give us what we want—or ASK God for WHATEVER help we need? 

After all, God knows better than us what we most need.  Jesus replied in characteristic fashion—not in a “yes” or “no” answer, but in an instructional way.  Knowing the culture of the time helps us appreciate more deeply what Jesus said in response.

In that region and era, the head of the family filled the cups of all at table.  Each one was expected to accept and drink what the head of the family gave them.  Translate this customary behavior into theological terms (which Mark’s Jesus is stating.  Namely, God the Father is pouring YOUR cup—gifting you with your one, unique life—with your own distinctive “you-ness.”  The Father gave James and John (you and I) our cup at the table of life—assuring us that each of us is blest and is called to be a blessing—in our following of the One who shows us how to live.  Ours is the cup or chalice at Mass—what religious literature refers to as “the mystical body of Christ” represented in the chalice (water and wine symbolizing humanity and divinity).  Jesus is telling James and John that the Father has filled their cup—not he; and that he, Jesus, is the broker who models for them how to live (the Father is the patron).

Mark’s Jesus is telling them that following him means serving others—and that service is the trademark of his followers.  They are NOT to seek kudos and places of privilege—which brings to mind the example of Hall of Fame pro basketball player “Pistol” Pete Maravich.  Considered by many to be one of the best in the game (at both college and pro levels), he knew what it was to be in the limelight and center of attention.

However, before his premature death (due to an undiagnosed heart condition), he was asked in a talk show what he thought his legacy would be.  The great “Pistol Pete” responded: “I want to be remembered as a Christian—a person who served Jesus to the utmost–and not as a basketball player.”   This famous pro athlete had internalized the gospel of Mark!

The same was true of a fellow with whom I coached on the reservation.  He was co-captain of his college basketball team with future pro Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens at Providence when Providence won the national championship.  After his playing days, he coached the legendary Georgetown coach, John Thompson (backup center to the great Bill Russell).  He served as a coach for the Celtics when one day he flew into New York–saw people below, and knew he’d been blest and that God called him to do more than just live the good life.

He told his wife who’d been a cheerleader at Providence that they needed to change their lifestyle, and to kind of pay God back for all God had given them.  The two of them then spent the next 10 years on the Pine Ridge reservation teaching and coaching basketball—followed by 10 years on the Aleutian Islands teaching basketball to the Inuit (Eskimos).

In my formation as a young guy out of high school in the Jesuit Order, I had many such people influence me and form my conscience over the years.  I may not be able to function as well as they did, but I at least always have them in memory—calling me forward to more closely TRY and imitate Christ-like behavior.  For me, they embodied Mark’s Jesus who said: “whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” 

 Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life.  And so it is that we should be.  Each of us is a cup on the altar—filled with a uniqueness bestowed by God.  May our realization of being so created and blest–motivate us to be an apostle. 

October 10, 2021

A little girl born into the 19th century Cheyenne tribe was named Pretty Shield. She recalled throwing stones at some chickadees “who were laughing after having a good meal.”  Her grandmother came over and asked: “Granddaughter—why did you do that?”  The little girl said nothing as her grandmother proceeded to tell her that the Chickadee nation and their people are friends. Grandma said that “the chickadee’s call gives hope when it tells our people ‘summer’s coming’ and tells us when to prepare food for the cold months by saying ‘winter’s near’.” 

Grandma took the little girl to a bush and asked the chickadees to forgive her: “This is my granddaughter who did not know what she was doing, and that your people and ours are old friends.” And the little girl never again threw stones at the chickadees—but would, as the years passed, greet them with a smile as she passed them. 

Imagine coming to Church today—and you saw a tarp over something hanging from the ceiling. Once assembled, I pull off the tarp—and what you see is a miniature earth suspended. On it, we can see fish and whales swimming, elephants browsing, kangaroos jumping, eagles flying, clouds floating, mountains being magnificent, rivers running, and bears eating honey—all a great eco-system of beauty. 

This describes what has been called “The blue marble” revelation—the name given to the photograph taken on December 7, 1972, by the Apollo 17 crew 18,000 miles from the planet’s surface. This photograph and view of our planet came on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency founded in 1970. 

It was this first photo of planet earth seen from a distance—which Pope Francis addressed in 2015 with his encyclical titled Laudato Si—“Praise be to you (my Lord)”—the opening line of a St. Francis of Assisi canticle. It was subtitled “on care for our common home.”  In the Pope’s letter was echoed what 6th-century saint Columbanus said: “If you wish to know the Creator, come to know his creatures.” 

 Pope Francis observed—with others—that the photo elicits our awe–just as would our miniature globe suspended here in the church would make us smile with pride. Now picture people rushing into the church and spraying paint on our beautiful blue marble replica–spitting on it, sticking gum on it, and grabbing chunks of it such that it became terribly defaced.

We’re the person in the gospel today who sincerely says to Jesus: “Teacher, I’ve observed the commandments from my youth. What more do you want me to do?” 

I’m reminded of Jesus knowing so much more than this young man in the gospel. The young man is like the person who takes his dog for a walk, and the dog can never tell him what it knows from the smells of the world. In comparison, the young man knows almost nothing. And that’s why we’re the young man in the gospel–with Jesus looking at him/us and knowing we THINK we’re knowledgeable, but we are really clueless about so much.

What’s touching about this passage is that “Jesus looked at” the young man, and “loved him.”  He didn’t call him a dunce or berate him for thinking he was such an observant man of God. Jesus simply proceeded to instruct him—in an effort to expand the horizon of his knowledge.  Jesus said what he knew would send the man back to the drawing board of reflection: “Sell all you have.”  

Like us, for the most part, the young man looked at the commandments and mused to himself: “I’ve observed them.”   But if we REALLY apply the commandments to our lives, are we, in fact, observant? Here’s how they might be applied to the environment:  

We say we don’t kill—but nations of animals go extinct each year (28 this year alone). Our poisoning of earth and water takes lives.  Legislators claim to address environmental issues under deceptive names such as the Clean Water or Clear Skies Act–but these names bear false witness to the truth—adulterating the land and water which all life depends upon,  stealing the future from the grandchildren we say we love. We thus fraudulently say we care about the environment but do little to insure its health. If we truly honored our father and mother, we would imitate what Jewish and tribal traditions tell us: “make no decision without first thinking how your decision will affect the next 7 generations.”  E.g., a typical description of too many rivers in the U.S. is that they are “extremely polluted due to leaks and spills from chemical plants that produce explosive, toxic, and carcinogenic compounds” (a quote).

As long ago as 800 A.D., a Catholic saint said: “Every visible and invisible creature can be called . . . an appearance of the divine.”  So why in 2021 are we destroying these manifestations of God?

The 1960s song “Tar and Cement” addressed this issue from a personal, secular perspective. Here are some of its pertinent lyrics:  

The town I came from was quiet and small. We played in the meadows where the grass grew so tall. In summer the lilacs would grow everywhere. The laughter of children would float in the air. As I grew older, I had to roam. Far from my family, far from my home. Into the city, where lives can be spent, lost in the shadows of tar and cement. . . . Many years later, tired at last, I headed for home to look for my past. I looked for the meadows, there wasn’t a trace. Six lanes of highway had taken their place. Where were the lilacs and all that they meant?  Nothing but acres of tar and cement. Yet I can see it there so clearly now. Where has it  gone? Where are the meadows? (tar and cement).  Where are the lilacs? (tar and cement).  Where is the tall grass? (tar and cement).  The laughter of children? (tar and cement) Nothing but acres (tar and cement).  Acres and acres.   

 Biologists tell us that all life forms are related—but it was Francis of Assisi centuries ago who called all the different beings “brother and sister.” They were special persons of their kind—related to us. So too, the Sioux (Lakota) Indians conclude all rituals and prayer with the phrase “mitak oyasin”—”All are relatives!” 

These spiritual perspectives remind me of a YouTube video of a woman raising a baby opossum to adulthood.  The opossum now thinks it’s human and the woman its mother–quite a touching presentation of 2 different species interacting with one another. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VW73ZFZiLI

This past week, I stopped at a zoo west of St. Ignace. In one pen, there was a brown Labrador dog living with two large brown bears. I watched the lab hold a ball in its mouth, come to the two bears, drop it in front of them, and start barking.  I later asked the zoo manager about this behavior and was told that the dog was the alpha” (leader) of the three  They had been raised as babies together and the lab was asking them to play ball with her. I was reminded of Isaiah 11: 6-7: “The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . . The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” 

Jane Goodall tells of walking through the jungle with a troop of chimpanzees who stopped at a waterfall. Each took a seated position viewing the falls meditatively for what seemed a reflective moment of awe—watching the water plunge into the pool below and spray diamond-like droplets into the air. After a while, they got up and continued their march.

This week’s feast of St. Francis, patron of the environment, calls us to internalize the sentiments expressed in Laudato Si. Doing so, we become new Adams and new Eves—this time properly caring for the paradise given us by God—where bears and dogs can play together, where opossums be regarded as innocent children, and humanity proclaim together that “all are relatives.”

October 3, 2021

Some Catholics believe that human origins began with two individuals named Adam and Eve as described in Genesis.  Meanwhile, paleo-anthropologists find the skeletal and cultural remains of creatures who clearly lead to “our kind” of creature (homo sapiens). Because of this latter development, other Catholics see Adam and Eve representing a step forward in evolution–their characters being a literary depiction of humanity’s emergence. 

One point that makes a literal interpretation questionable is that the English of our translations does not capture what subtle meanings are at play within the original Hebrew.  For example, when we read about a “rib” used to fashion “woman,” we don’t know that the word for rib is elsewhere translated as “side”—suggesting that not until the creation of woman was the human race complete—she being the other half (or “side”) that makes us—us! 

So too, the name “Adam” apparently means “earth creature”—so not until Eve can one acknowledge that the two beings together represent the beginning of humanity (and that they are not just some “earth creature”).  Further complications arise when we realize that we share our genus with Neanderthals and others.  So where the biblical Adam & Eve fit into this genealogy should puzzle people of faith whose literal understanding presents confusion.

Because of the above issues (and more), it’s probably more helpful for people of faith who read the bible to see that the Adam & Eve story sheds light on our human experience TODAY (so forget about getting bogged down in origins).  Taking this approach, we recognize ourselves in the Genesis figures.  We are Adam and we are Eve.  Their story is our story. 

Elsewhere in scripture, it’s wise to make sure that our understanding of a given word is the same understanding at play in the text.  For example, if we look at the institution of marriage cross-culturally, that simple subject (marriage) becomes more complicated than one might think.  Growing up, we think of boy meeting girl, they fall in love, and marry.  Voila!  Marriage!

But wait a moment.  Anthropologists pretty much regard the global phenomenon of marriage as “an economic transaction that unites two groups (not just 2 individuals).”  Our stereotype-fantasy mentioned above is precisely that—a fantasy.  Dating and finding our beloved is NOT normative in human history and is still relatively rare in a world population of 7 billion people. 

Marriage within the human race has traditionally been (and still is) a matter decided by elders on behalf of their offspring.  At best, a young man or woman might express an opinion about a possible marriage mate, but in the words of a traditionalist: “marriage is too important a decision for a young person to make.”  This ancient human mode is present in our American experience when parents and other family members raise objections to one or another individual their child brings home to “meet the parents.”

With this in mind, it follows that just as children cannot choose their parents, so too children do not choose their marriage partners.  God chooses one’s parents—and through one’s parents God chooses one’s future spouse.  Thus you understand why Jesus, a product of his religious culture, can say in today’s reading: “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”  He’s stating the status quo position of cultures everywhere (and in his time among his people).

A recent Sunday’s reading showed us how our worldview is not the same as it was for people in the gospel stories.  It referred to us becoming like little children.  This week’s reading tells us to accept what Jesus taught just as if we were a child being obedient.  You, the modern-day reader, need to know that a child’s social value at the time of Jesus was NOT the same as it is for us.  Whereas we would claim to sacrifice our lives for a child and care for children as most precious commodities, this was not their social status in the first century.  Instead, they could not inherit property.  Their survival rate was low.  They were to be seen and not heard.  And they were to do as told. 

In this week’s gospel, the apostles were told to be like children who “accept the kingdom” (since it’s a child’s duty to do as they’re told).  We thus see the early Christian community including children as members—and so expanding community numbers.  Like children, the apostles would be doing as they’re told to do—just as a child does what it is told to do.  N.B., some commentators have said this passage about children might be associated with the baptism of little ones in the early Church (later stopped by some Christian groups which translated baptism into being an adult acceptance of the faith ritual).

Always being one to build community (and not tear it down), Jesus is urging listeners to not break the marriage transaction—for very practical reasons.  Namely, the bride and groom’s extended family members went out of their way to see the union come about.  If divorce occurred, all sorts of embarrassment and shame would come upon these planners—so Jesus is doing his best to provide olive branches for everyone.

This week’s Adam/Eve story applies to Current Events—Facebook, the Papacy, & Politics

As it does so often, the American political scene has us and our elected officials addressing issues without using the biblical lens through which we are called to see all matters.  I’ve watched with interest how Catholic Senator Manchin of WV has addressed the current infrastructure bill.  I’m interested because I spoke with both him and Mrs. Manchin about his running for national office (when he was governor).  I hoped his presence in D.C. as a practicing Catholic could lead to progress in important areas. 

For example, all sorts of news services reported this week that Pope Francis has been joined by 40 faith leaders in calling upon the government for urgent action to combat climate change.  Has the Catholic senator recognized the importance of this issue?  Sadly, he apparently has not.  The infrastructure bill includes funding initiatives to fight climate change—but he and others resist this funding on the spurious grounds that it is not money well spent.  They apparently prefer to watch billions of dollars go up in literal smoke as fires rage everywhere, as floods and tornados destroy towns, and as the polar ice caps melt and submerge islands and coastlines. Since the Pope is well aware of what transpires in Washington, surely the timing of his and the 40 faith-leaders was intentional.

But American power-brokers have paid “lip-service-only” to combating climate change.  Manchin has made millions from the coal and oil industries—while natural resource corporations drop mega-funds into the coffers of other senators to likewise resist climate change initiatives.  These corporate interests just don’t seem to care that, as Pope Francis says, “Future generations will never forgive us” (for dancing around this issue and not pouring funds into it).  Like Adam & Eve, our inaction will banish the human race from Eden once again.  

What a sad reflection to make this week on the feast of St. Francis, patron saint of the environment.

What must it take for us to realize that on this good ship earth, there are no passengers?  We are all crew.  The same can be said for all associated with John 23rd parish—so continue discerning your role and take your post. 

Yes, take your Gospel post to fight self-aggrandizing corporations like Facebook (who also owns Instagram and What’s App).  In testimony this week (on 60 Minutes and before a congressional committee), a former Facebook executive showed she owns what so many politicians and corporate executives do not have—a conscience.  Offering internal documents from Facebook, she showed how the company always chose to side with profits over people.  That is, the company’s own studies showed how people can be manipulated by these social media—causing death and destruction not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Facebook/Instagram/What’s App monitors what its consumers watch and caters to them.  Knowing that users will not remain “online” if viewing the photo of a puppy but WILL remain online when offered something that engages their anger—the company always pushes the angry emotion switch—the socially divisive topic—DISINFORMATION that caters to the user’s demonstrated interest areas.  For example, the January 6th storming of the Capitol saw Facebook run clips about how EVERYONE was going to be there—and will exchange “bullets for ballots.”  All sorts of DISINFORMATION was spread and made users THINK that 10 million Americans were going to crash the Capitol.

[I forget the exact figure, but governments that seek to destroy America have something like 40k users who masquerade as true-blue Americans or pious Christian groups calling for people to resist (one thing or another), e.g., “Jesus wouldn’t get vaccinated!”  (or lines like that). Coming from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Lithuania, or any number of other countries, you’ll read or hear posts saying something like: “all red-blooded Americans” should take up arms and fight other U.S. citizens (black, Latino, Muslim, etc.).  All meant to stir social stresses—calling upon the worst in our make-up and leading us to believe that large numbers of our patriotic fellow citizens are ready to re-claim our white Anglo-Saxon heritage.  While some of this hate-mongering is home-grown, much is from overseas.  None of it is what Christianity/Catholicism teaches.]

In the non-political and in the personal arena, studies apparently have shown that young girls have been especially vulnerable to, and adversely affected by, Instagram material related to self-image, eating disorders, and suiciding.  Testimony drawn from Facebook’s own internal documents have shown that the company values cash more than lives—and cash more than our political institutions—and so normatively opt to feeding poison to consumers.  All in the name of earning MORE than the 100 billion the company now makes.

Keep in mind that the above is NOT me offering some “take” on current events.  It is fact-based reality in the news at this time.  In an effort to be an attentive shepherd, I once again caution you to realize how easily we can be manipulated—and that we need God’s help in recognizing which fruit trees offer us something edible and which ones sicken our souls.

September 26, 2021

Today’s gospel has a word which some might recognize as the name of a town near Columbus, Ohio—Gahanna.  And some might recognize that word as a synonym for Hell. Others might have no clue what the word refers to or what it means.  Just as with the town in Michigan named “Hell,” so with Gahanna, Ohio—why would people name their village after Satan’s abode?  N.B., the town of Hell shares the same zip code with Pinckney, MI and the origin of its name has several possibilities (none confirmable).  It does, however, have commercial value—with people sending post-cards from Hell, and wearing shirts saying they were in Hell, or being the honorary mayor of Hell, etc.  Clever marketing.

Jesus refers to “fiery Gahanna” and his reference came to be associated with Hell—all of which raises our curiosity about such things as hell, devils, exorcism, angels, afterlife, and our scriptural, theological, and folklore traditions related to these topics.  Best known within Christianity’s tradition of demonic creatures is our old friend the snake—from the garden of Eden.

However, Judaism never associated that snake with the devil while the name Satan doesn’t appear in Hebrew scripture until the book of Job (where he is not a devil but a heavenly figure referred to as a “son of God” playing out his role as one testing Job’s fidelity).  You can find the names of angels and devils in other religious traditions such as Iran’s Zoroastrianism.  These celestial figures are NOT in our Judeo-Christian tradition (but later centuries popularized a belief in these entities—so much so that Islam says its membership MUST believe in angels).  Angels are not a dogma of our Catholic faith.

Books in the Hebrew bible don’t see angels addressed until the centuries just before the time of Jesus and the first centuries of the Christian era.  This occurred because Alexander the Great’s soldiers brought back from Persia stories of angels and devils.  Mediterranean people thus learned of a good god fighting a bad one—the angels versus devils of the Zoroastrians—and in that era we read about Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (the 3 angels of biblical tradition).  Ever since this period, Christians have bandied about the topic of devils and angels—the reality of which might be thought of in different ways.

In the Hebrew bible, we are introduced to a figure known as Beelzebul.  The reference is to a god of the Philistines whose name translates to “exalted Master.”  At some point, however, a scribe familiar with the Hebrew language changed BaalzebuL (“Exalted Master”) into BaalzebuB: “Lord of the Flies.”  This made a mockery of the Philistine god.   

Why?  Because the Israelites, by contrast, burned their sacrifices of lambs and doves (in accordance with ritual directives) whereas the Philistines sacrificed children and did NOT burn these sacrifices (which they performed in a place outside the city of Jerusalem called “Gahanna”–where flies could swarm around cadavers).  It was as if Israelites told the Philistines “your god is a god of flies.”  In our time, the rock group “Queen” popularized a song titled Bohemian Rhapsody that includes the line “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me” (youthful listeners probably not familiar with any theology related to the lyric).

Literate folks can think of Beelzebub ruling over Gahanna and, over time, the terms came to be associated with a mythological demon ruling in hell. While the Salem witch trials of the 1600s could relate to these terms, the notion of exorcising devils was a pretty dead topic in the mid-20th century.  That is, it was dead until the book and film titled The Exorcist popularized scary demons coming from hell to kill, torture, or control in some way the likes of ordinary children and adults.  Instantly, Christian “ministers” sprang up overnight, and once again popularized these figures as active agents of evil in everyday life.

Dante is the 14th century Italian poet whose literary classic, The Divine Comedy, depicted ideas associated with most people’s understanding of hell.  His Inferno was a fiery Gahanna that was Satan’s abode.  So too, the number “666” was associated with the demon via a literal understanding of the book of Revelation.  However, this book was not written to be understood literally.  “Gematria” is a Jewish interpretive method that assigns the numerical values of Hebrew letters to words, phrases, and/or sentences.   As a result, the “number of the beast”  (Satan) that Revelation claims to be “666” is actually a “gematrian” reference to Emperor NERO (during whose reign Peter and Paul were martyred, in the 60s).

What can we make of this complicated history of demons and angels?  Rather than debate their reality, we can certainly know they exist when seen as representing powers that reside within each of us.  A Jesuit who was part of the exorcism made popular by Hollywood said that he saw the face of the devil far more clearly when he was in Vietnam as a chaplain.  There he saw sin alive and well—its harvest being the hell inflicted on men, women, and children.  Flies were everywhere on the cadavers of a Vietnam Gahanna. 

More subtle senses of the demonic infiltrate our conversations, interactions with family and friends, our business dealings, and political life.  Often called the “master of confusion,” “Satan” is alive and well in the landscape.  We fall prey to lies and predators of diverse kinds who Matthew refers to as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  English lay-theologian G. K. Chesterton was acutely aware of how easy it is for us to “go astray.”  He observed that our challenge is not that if people stop believing in God, they’ll believe in “nothing,” but rather they’ll believe in “anything.”

Given our vulnerability, we need to realize that we are not defenseless.  All of the above addresses our need to take advantage of the sacraments.  Given to us by God, they are our protection against demons that, in the words of St. Michael’s prayer, “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”  You don’t need to think of zombie-like vampires stalking you and harvesting you for hell.  Instead think of your everyday interactions with family, neighborhood, and headline news—the sacraments helping us go from this table of the Lord—equipped to be an angel-like presence wherever we go (“angelos” in biblical Greek meaning “messenger of God”).

Consider yourself an angel, or consider yourself an apostle, we can embody the biblical meaning of those 2 words.  For example, this past week was the feast day of St Matthew, the apostle.  How is it that Jesus could call this tax-collector (a man who took a share of the taxes he collected)?  In the time of Jesus, tax collectors were no one’s friend and were not Mr. Popularity.  They were just the opposite.  And yet, Jesus saw beyond what other people saw—and called him to realize a new identity and reason for being.  And so it is with us.  You could show to God a list of your worst life-moments, and God would look back at you and say—“Okay, I get it—but I’m calling you” (while throwing your list into the fire).

This week also saw the feast of Padre Pio—the Italian Franciscan known for the marks of the stigmata.  Dying in 1968, he was canonized a saint in 2002.  He had a vast following of admirers.  HOWEVER, our own Pope John XXIII was not a fan of him (nor were many other lay and Church people).  And yet, isn’t that the way it is for all of us?  To some people, we are not the cat’s meow while to others we are appreciated.  In both Matthew’s case, and Padre Pio’s, God did not nail them for being less than perfect, but instead called them to service of the people. 

I recall a Jesuit who I found difficult to accept fraternally.  He ended up being a dear friend—for whose funeral mass I delivered the homily.  These examples remind me of us!  You and I—we are Matthew and Pio.  And as we look at others, we certainly have trouble interacting with some people—as I had trouble with the Jesuit who became my friend.

I’m reminded of a phrase we used to use in the novitiate.  When confronted with someone whose words or behavior annoyed us, someone would say: “Give him the ‘plus’ sign!”  The “plus sign” (+) symbolized both the cross and the call to in some way think positively about the person instead of negatively.  As Jesus recognized with Matthew, each person is gifted in different ways.  We learn how to serve by doing it, and each of us is to be an apostle in our uniqueness. 

We need God’s counsel, and get it in prayer—today’s being: Christ Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua—you go by many names.  Messiah, Savior, Christ, Rebel, Teacher, Story-teller, Living Bread, Light of the World.  Good Shepherd.  The Way, The Truth, The Life.  Draw me close to you so that I may call you Friend.  As my friend, help me be as good for others as you have been good for me.

September 19, 2021

On today’s market, there are many good translations of the bible.  People sometimes speak of there being a “Protestant” and “Catholic” bible, but all bibles from both traditions will contain the same number of books.  The difference between the 2 is that  some texts are placed within the Old Testament section and those same texts placed outside the OT and appearing as an appendix.  What’s more interesting than this issue—is that no two translations are identical.  Keep in mind, however, that these translations appear to readers as saying the same thing.  That is, the differences are not major ones.

The real problem for readers is translating what’s said into our everyday speech.  Most translations no longer use words like “Ye, Thou, Hast, Speaketh, etc.” from Olde English but even contemporary English editions often have words that we tend not to use in conversation.  So each reader is challenged to render yet another translation of the text.

Today’s reading from Wisdom is understandable if we carefully reflect on the passage.  While Wisdom makes its case more violently, here is one way of translating it:

 Wicked people say: “I’m tired of hearing this man of God criticize the way we live.  We make a pretty good living for ourselves—and at the same time take care of our own.  Others can care for their people. This prophet has no clue what it takes to get where we are today.  Let him talk all he wants about how we should live our lives. We’d just as soon see him take a hike.  He and other voices try to badger me about others needing help–but my conscience is clear.  He has no right to tell me what to do.  I can live however I want to live.  He can keep his opinions to himself.”

The second reading is from the Letter of James (for the 4th week in a row).  As we’ve seen, James lays it on the line to us in clear terms.  He’s been very explicit in defining how Christian behavior is different from the behavior of others—telling us to put our money where our mouth is.  Remember the Roman emperor bemoaning how Christians, unlike Jews and Romans, take care of everyone—and not just their own people.

As the Book of Wisdom showed, it’s common to hear people say: “You’re free to do what you want to do.” However, James says “No.”  He again defines the nature of Christian behavior (which is different from conventional secular thought).

Think of yourself as God listening to the “Wicked People” speaking in the Book of Wisdom.  They’re basically telling the representative of God to shut up, or he’ll be run out of town.  They claim to know what life is about, and don’t want this person telling them anything different.  They’re basically telling God to “get lost.”  If we were God, our temptation would probably be to “stick it in the ear” of these know-it-all people.  Who do they think they are—telling me, God, what’s right and what’s wrong?

James reminds us that we’re not God, and that God does not angrily speak to us.  James instead has God referring to us as “Beloved.”  He’s showing us that God’s perspective is not ours—and that God is able to love us even when we say despicable things or behave in nasty ways.  We are, in short, God’s “beloved.”  You could spend days reflecting on that one word alone—realizing that were you to make a list of your worst behaviors—God would still love you, and call you BEYOND those negative experiences.

Here’s the counsel James provides: “Beloved: Jealousy and self-centeredness bring trouble to you.  Wisdom from above gives you good guidance—and makes you peaceable, gentle, accommodating, and merciful.  God’s wisdom produces good fruits for everyone—and steers you away from taking advantage of others.  God’s wisdom calls you to seek the common good.   So where do the conflicts among you come from? It’s your passions which spawn self-centeredness.  You covet things you don’t have, and envy what others have or what they do—which only creates ill-will because you care about what will benefit you alone.” 

I’ve told you that because of his military background, St. Ignatius viewed life as a big battlefield with some people fighting under the flag of Jesus and others under the flag of Satan.  If images of a battlefield don’t work for you, and if Satan-versus-Jesus is not helpful, then think of life pitting good things against bad things, or grace and sin vying for our attention, or (for Star Wars fans) you might think of there being a “disturbance in the Force.”  This is just to say that life is embroidered with hurts and joys.

To illustrate this with examples from “the battlefield” of my life, here’s a pattern I found.  Namely, whenever I decided to do some clear good (such as teaching somewhere or working at some institution on behalf of people in great need) there would inevitably creep into my mind (via conversation or experience of some kind) the thought of abandoning that course of action and pondering an alternative that would give me more satisfaction.

Let’s face it, most people say they always choose what they think is the best course of action.  After all, what sane person would choose something they thought was evil and that would bring about some disaster?   No sane person thinks to themselves “I’m going to follow this demonic-looking zombie and do what he instructs me to do.”  A famous theologian pondered this topic and wrote a book that addressed the problem this poses.  He titled it “Moral Man and Immoral Society.”   It addresses how each person claims to be moral—so why is there so much horror all around us?  I’m sure before she took cyanide pills with her beloved Adolph that Eva Braun would say: “If only people knew him, they’d see what a good guy he is.”

Don’t think of ourselves as noble knights riding against the horrible enemy.   You don’t have to think of good/evil in terms of cannons blasting away on battlefields.  The battle is more subtle. We are presented attractive, shiny apples by all kinds of persuasive snakes.  So how do Christians navigate minefields, and manage their lives productively? Here’s what today’s gospel proposes. 

Mark’s gospel regularly refers to something Jesus is keeping secret.  That’s a large topic to think about for another occasion.  For now, it need only be said that in the time of Jesus and Mark, people were looking for a secular leader, miracle-worker.  Jesus instead had to break the news to them that he’d be put to death, and that his kingdom was not of this world.  However, they’d inherit his kingdom if they welcomed people like the little child he brought into their midst.  But to understand the meaning of this pleasant vignette of a caring Jesus, we need to know the status of children when he would have used them as an example.

After being born in Bethlehem, Jesus was lucky to make it to age 16—because 60% of children died before that age.  Childhood was, in short, a time of terror in that era.  Children had no status until the teen years (when they could inherit property). An “ice-breaker” game with people in group meetings is called “lifeboat” (an old time movie depicted this scenario).  A lifeboat is in the ocean and occupied by an older couple, a middle-aged couple (with kids at home), a single man, single woman, a blind teen girl, teen boy, and a child.  The boat can only save 4 of these people (each of whom has a biography that makes them “special,” e.g., Nobel scientist elder, prostitute woman, ex-con, etc.).  Who would you save?

GENERALLY, people from American culture tend to save the youths.  However, in the time of Jesus, the elders would be saved.  The great Catholic Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, even wrote that in a fire, a man should first save his father, then his mother, then his wife, and the children last.  The same would happen in time of a famine—children fed last (if there was enough to go around). 

With this in mind, read the gospel now and you’ll see more clearly what Jesus was saying: “If anyone wishes to be first, they shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” 

 The apostles had been arguing about who among them would have the highest status—Jesus trying to awaken them by showing the type of person they were to serve (i.e., the lowliest, such as children, widows, outcasts, poor, etc.).  When our Christian religion calls us to live this life of service, we feel the challenge (at least I do).  Here’s a prayer that asks God to help us accept the challenge.

Open unto me, light for my darkness
Open unto me, courage for my fear
Open unto me, hope for my despair
Open unto me, peace for my turmoil
Open unto me, joy for my sorrow
Open unto me, strength for my weakness
Open unto me, wisdom for my confusion
Open unto me, forgiveness for my shortcomings
Open unto me, tenderness for my toughness
Open unto me, love for my hates.

Open unto me, Thy Self for myself!  

Lord, open me to reach out to others in need–be they the people I know, or be they the stranger who, behind a mask of anonymity, wants to be known–and needs my recognition, or even maybe my companionship.  Open me to seeing that anonymous person is God–looking at me from behind the many disguised faces I pass each day.  

September 12, 2021

As I’ve said in the past, a homilist is charged with explaining something about the day’s scripture—so as to educate parishioners and make them biblically literate. The other part of a homily is supposed to provide listeners with something they might personalize or apply to their daily lives.  Today I will first state 2 points related to scripture, and then address this weekend’s 20th anniversary of “9/11.”

Once again, the Letter of James is looking us straight in the eye and telling Christians to “put their money where their mouth is,” or to align what they say with what they do in everyday life.  On this point, I salute you for your response to the special collection for Haiti.  I asked the diocese what the average contribution was for parishes.  I learned that our contribution was TWICE the average that other parishes donated.  Way to go, John the 23rd parish.  You responded to the needs of people you don’t even know—black-skinned Haitians who have so often been the victims of prejudice.

I’m reminded of the Roman emperor who took his administration to task when saying: “We take care of our people.  The Jews take care of their people.  But the Christians take care of everyone!”  John the 23rd parish—you have carried out what the Christian community has done since the first century.  Your reward in heaven will be great.

The gospel reading has Jesus say we need to “take up our cross.”  Often enough, people leave this passage at the level of everyone suffering in some form or other, and that we have to accept this challenge.  While this is true, there’s another angle you might consider.  Namely, Jesus is saying to you and me—as we confront our diverse crosses of illness, unemployment, poverty, depression, loss of a loved one, etc., he is telling us that we CAN pick up those crosses.  He is walking with us—being our Simon of Cyrene and helping us press forward with whatever burdens our spirit.

With this weekend being the anniversary of “9/11,” the nation is called to special reflection on why we humans inflict different crosses of suffering and death upon one another.  Each year on 9/11, I think of certain people whose experience of horror makes me wonder how I might live the last hour of my life (or any period in life that is challenging).

I’m reminded of a young boy in 1985 being given a white handkerchief by his dad, and told it should go in his sport coat pocket.  His dad also gave him a red bandana—which his dad said he could put in his back pocket and use for many purposes.  Welles Remy Crowther was 6 years old when his father gave him that red bandana, and it became his trademark headwear.  He had it when joining Nyack, New York’s volunteer fire department, and for when he played hockey in high school and lacrosse at Boston College.  

Crowther graduated from the Jesuit university in 1999 with honors and a degree in economics.  He was right away envied for being offered a position as an equities trader on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center.  On September 11, at 9:03 a.m. a plane crashed into the south tower, and 9 minutes later, at 9:12, Welles called his mom and left the message: “I wanted you to know that I’m OK.”

Crowther’s body was found 6 months later, and his family knew nothing of his activities between that last phone call to his mother and his death.  Sometime later, his mom read a survivor’s firsthand account in The New York Times.  The woman reported that she and others were saved “by a man in the red bandana.”  His mother had to know—and she 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—a sense of which follows.

Crowther made his way to the 78th-floor sky lobby, where he encountered a group of survivors. He carried a young 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 New York Fire Department–before the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m.  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).  In light of his words and his deeds (think “Letter of James”), Crowther was in 2006 posthumously named an honorary New York Fireman—his photo today in their hall of fame.

With the support of a MICHIGAN foundation (we are connected), 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 Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, with which they fund charitable work. 

Being a Jesuit apostolate (ministry or work), Boston College emphasized the gospel call for us to be “men and women for others.”  He loved “BC” and internalized that Jesuit credo which Welles lived until his final breath.  The University also sponsors each October the Red Bandana 5 Kilometer Run.  As our parish began the 4 p.m. mass on Saturday, Boston College began its game against the University of Massachusetts—BC’s players wearing an Adidas-designed “red bandana” jersey.  Each year on the weekend nearest to 9/11, BC players and fans are garbed in red bandana gear.

The Jesuit superior of the Order is called the “General”—one such man being Spaniard Pedro Arrupe (“general” when I entered the Order).  He could not have known that being sent as a missionary to Japan, he would find himself in Hiroshima on August 9, 1945.  Spared because the Jesuit house was outside the city and shielded by a hill that rose above the house, he and several Jesuits spent the next weeks caring for the disfigured and dying survivors of the bomb.

Just as Crowther and Arrupe never dreamed they would be involved with an earth-shaking historical moment, nor did Jim Hayes, S.S.S.—the initials after his name indicating he is a member of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation of priests and brothers.  He was assigned to a parish just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center.  When we were housemates for 3 years in Chicago, we had zero inkling that something of the scale of 9/11 would befall him.

Later honored for a kind of heroic presence, Jim survived by jumping under a car as shrapnel flew about—later working in the temporary street morgue which he said was nowhere for the faint of heart to be.  How proud I felt in knowing this good guy who never had any delusions of grandeur or over-sized ego.  Like Crowther and Arrupe, Jim was the Jesuit and gospel and Blessed Sacrament “man for others” when his number was called.

I choke up each time I think of these guys and what they did.  Part of the emotional response is based on knowing I might well have legs of clay if challenged by some horrible experience.  At such moments of self-awareness, I think of the philosophy and virtues associated with the gospel—and think that by practicing these virtues and this philosophy—I (we) might be better able to face our most challenging hour—and lift our heaviest cross.

I suggest you and I ponder the following traits raised by scripture passages in this past week’s readings at mass.  Internalizing them, we might be able to tap the Crowther, Arrupe, Hayes that resides somewhere within our otherwise ordinary lives.  For a few moments now, we can contemplate our living of these gospel values: heartfelt compassion . . .  kindness . . .  humility . . .  gentleness . . . patience . . . bearing with one another and forgiving one another, being careful not to try and remove the splinter from our neighbor’s eye when we have a beam in our own!`

 Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold.   Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Pray for your enemies and do good to them; and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great

 As we continue with mass today, picture the altar cloth as not being white—but that of a red-bandana.  How nice it would be for us to have such a reminder on this date each year—a red bandana altar cloth.  It might remind us to be a red bandana people.

September 5, 2021

I am a living symbol of today’s gospel.  All week I’ve been on an antibiotic fighting a cold and, like the man in today’s scripture, I’m asking God to heal me.  I also symbolize people grateful for blessings—as the MSU Spartans began their season with a victory.  And that’s the way it is each week.  We come to the altar with illnesses of body or spirit, and gratitude—each of us asking God for help.  Today’s readings are both consoling and challenging—as scripture always is.

Isaiah, for example, speaks of us being blind, deaf, and hungry—and that God will unseal our ears, give us new eyes to see, and satisfy our varied hungers.  That is the vision of what can be—in contrast to what IS the scene so often in our lives.  We are being called to a greater vision of who we can be—instead of remaining who we’ve settled for.

The Letter of James continues what it started last week—and is very concrete in calling our attention to social situations.  Namely, we interact with people who are good-looking, in positions of power, and who look just like members of my family—but so often we’re off-putting toward others (avoid them or even belittle them). 

This passage reminds me of a Cree Indian woman from Hudson’s Bay who told me about life on her “reserve” (what Canadiens say instead of “reservation”).  She said the government agent there paid no attention to an old man who sat at the door of their meeting hall—probably thinking that old man was a nobody.  He didn’t know that the old man was our leader. 

That incident from Cree country brought to mind my not wearing clerics (clerical collar) except for certain occasions (otherwise, I appear in secular clothes).  I intentionally seek interaction with people as a “neutral” person undefined by a status.  I’ve also never referred to myself as “Professor” or “Doctor” in dealing with the public.  The Letter of James—and the gospel as a whole—calls us to break down barriers that separate us from one another.

Today’s gospel presents Jesus “spitting” and somehow healing a deaf-mute by touching and saying “be open” to the man.  This scene would not be all that uncommon in the first-century world of the bible.  Healers used such things as spittle and touching to bring about cures.  Early Romans and Greeks had the custom of spitting toward someone who is thought to be the source of an “evil eye” (a curse).

The gospel might have a metaphorical meaning, too.  That is, maybe the person needs to “be open” to, or be able to listen to, or see, change that needs to take place (instead of carrying on as they have).  Jesus might be asking and showing I need to be more open than I’ve been—more universal in my outlook instead of being so parochial, or close-minded.

This topic dovetails with what the prophets of old encountered—“stiff-necked” people who would not change, and not listen to what the prophets said.  And this is a topic which anyone in pastoral ministry confronts on a very personal level—a rabbi, a priest, or clergyperson from any denomination.

All clergy have the challenge of speaking scripture’s truth—just as the prophets did.  But what happens if what they say (i.e., what the bible says) goes AGAINST what people in the congregation think?  The rabbi, priest, or clergy woman or man is confronted with “I have to live in this community—and if I suggest that people are not thinking as the bible instructs—my family (wife/husband/children) will be without an income.” 

So the temptation for someone in pastoral work is to not say anything that will make their congregation think about things in new ways.  Don’t say anything that’ll upset anyone, but instead just offer pious and patriotic affirmations at prayer meetings and church gatherings.  As today’s scripture reports, we are blind and deaf to God’s word—and when Jesus tells us to “be open” to change, it’s easy to resist.  “Thank you, Jesus, but no!  I have all the truth.  Who better to lead the blind than the blind!!”

People say they can do without churchgoing by saying they are good people and that they talk to God on their own time.  But withdrawal from one’s communal, social identity as a Christian/Catholic cuts them off from input their faith calls them to consider.  Not hearing what their Church is saying about different issues, these persons are lessening the impact of the gospel on earth.  For example, they won’t know about the annual Labor Day statement put out by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Last week, the Letter of James reminded us that if our faith consists only of wishing others well–but doing nothing to improve their condition—that’s not much faith.   Which is why I think our collection of $2800 for Haiti was really beautiful.  How many non-churchgoers sent donations to Haiti?  How many even heard of the problems in Haiti?  THIS is an example of locking horns with current issues as a faith-community (and not assuming you know all there is to know about the issue).

The bishops’ letter is an example of how our identity as Catholics is more than a private affair just between “me and God.”  People who aren’t part of our faith community don’t have access to the reflections and guidance offered by top-notch theologians from around the world calling us to greater discipleship.  Do non-churchgoers think of what the bishops have offered us for reflection?  Here are some quotes from their document—our challenge being to help the faces behind the statistics:

There is a grotesque inequality of billions of people facing extreme poverty while the richest one percent own half of the world’s financial wealth.

 47% of adults experienced employment income loss from 3/20 to Feb 2021.

 Women accounted for more than half of the job losses [yet they are less than half the work force].

 42 million people in the United States experienced food insecurity this year, including 13 million children [roughly 1 in every 8 people].

 43,000 minor children in the U.S. have lost a parent as a result of Covid.

 We sometimes justify our indifference to the poor by looking the other way and living our lives as if these people simply do not exist. Not only are our actions insufficient, but our sight as well, when we ignore the poor and do not allow their pleas to touch our hearts.

All of these speak to priorities of the Gospel and the principles of the church’s social doctrine.

 The “present ills of our economy” invite Catholics to reflect on ways to propose new and creative responses to vital human needs . . . an economy that works for all of God’s children.”

 The answer to economic inequality lies in engaging in politics for “proactive policies centered on the common good.”

 As a faith community, we can ask God here at mass to open our ears so that we hear his word afresh—and not assume we have all the answers.  In prayer we can ask God to open us up to the conversion of heart we need to experience on issues of our day.

Communion Reflection

The past 2 weeks, I’ve referred to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.  Being a military man, he saw the world as one big battlefield—and we have chosen to fight under the banner of Christ or the banner of Satan.  Here is a prayerful reflection on this theme:

Nurturing the Life of Prayer

My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar,

Nor a confession of love.

Nor is it the trivial reckoning of a small tradesman:

Give me and I shall give you.

My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general:

This is what I did today,

This is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector;

These are the obstacles I found,

This is how I plan to fight tomorrow.

My God and I are horsemen

Galloping in the burning sun or under a drizzling rain.

Paled, starving, but unsubdued, We ride and converse.

“Leader,” I cry.

He turns his face towards me.

And I shudder to confront his anguish.

Our love for each other is rough and ready;

We sit at the same table, we drink the same wine in this low tavern of life.

Thank you, Lord, for calling us together in this low tavern of John the 23rd parish.

August 29, 2021

As the gospel points out today, the Pharisees had many, many rules and regulations they insisted people observe.  In today’s passage, they accuse Jesus and his followers of not following purification rules.

Whenever I read this passage, I’m taken back to the Jesuit novitiate and I was living at Flint St. Joseph’s hospital on what we called a “hospital probation.”  We worked as an orderly 15 hours a day—having a room on the maternity ward.  A complete bed-care patient was hanging onto life as his body deteriorated and his mind remaining sharp.  He was a joy to converse with, and one of his only pleasures was to smoke.  We would hold the cigarette for him since he was paralyzed.

Asking me one day to light up for him, I was presented with a moral dilemma. Our superior pretty much elevated “no smoking” to be the 11th commandment from God (and so I told my patient that I couldn’t light up for him).  He apologized for asking—saying he forgot about the rule.  I finished my visit and went to my room.  During my prayer period, it occurred to me that I had been a Pharisee.  I went to the patient’s room, lit a cigarette for him, held it when he wanted a puff, and had a nice visit.  He died a week later.

All religions present rules to live by, and the challenge is for one to observe the “spirit” if not the “letter” of the law.  Islam, for example, has members pray 5 times a day and wash each time.  If no water is near, they can “wash” via gesture with sand (the Middle East providing much sand).  The letter isn’t observed but at some point someone found a compromise of “sort of” washing by using sand.   A Jewish friend of mine, whose son is a rabbi, thinks nothing of violating the prohibition against eating pork—and will have a ham sandwich for lunch.  His position is that times have changed and religion needs to adapt to changing times.

Many moons ago I would be a sub at masses throughout Michigan and did one in the Irish Hills (the Adrian area).  I did the mass as I do masses here, and people visited with me afterward asking if I could come again.  They were very affirming when all of a sudden an older man pushed his way through the crowd—and angrily chastised me for saying mass in a way that differed from what he thought mass should be (at homily time I moved about in front of the altar when speaking to people).  The man’s behavior was scary.  I thanked him for his input and was eager to leave the place (all sorts of parishioners apologized for his behavior as I left the premises).

The man’s memory haunted me over the next couple of months—me realizing that people can fly off the handle on all sorts of subjects.  When I subbed at a town 60 miles northwest of the parish here, I processed in and right away spotted that same man in the congregation.  Had he been stalking me?  Was he going to shoot me?  I asked God to help me be a gospel presence to the faith community gathered that Sunday morning.

After mass, people again surrounded me and enthusiastically expressed gratitude for my coming to their parish—and there he came, as before, to the crowd that was gathered.  At worst, he’d shoot me.  Short of that, he’d simply be another Pharisee challenging the theology I professed (all solid material and nothing bizarre).  Surprisingly, he held back until the crowd dispersed and approached me saying: “You probably don’t remember me.”

If only he knew!  I replied that I did remember him and that it was good to see him (Jesus would have greeted him kindly, I thought).  Whereupon he confessed, as near as I recall: “I went after you down in the Irish Hills, but up here you celebrated mass just as you did there, and people loved it—so I was wrong.  God IS using you.  Would you like to go to breakfast with me and my wife?”  Not wanting to push my luck, I declined.

Following Jesus, observing the gospel, letter or spirit of laws—how DO we define being Christian?

Last week I told you that my vocational search was the same as yours—and that each of us is called to learn how BEST we can use the gifts God gave to each of us.  In further shortening the distance between our respective identities, I suggest you consider yourselves as taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—and that these words are not scary behaviors designated solely for monks to pronounce.  Here’s what I mean.

There are 4 religious “orders” in the Church—Jesuit, Dominican, Franciscan, and Benedictine.  Diocesan priests do not belong to an “order” and do not formally take the vows.  Non-diocesan priests, brothers, and nuns belong to “congregations” (e.g., Little Sisters of the Poor, Vincentian Fathers, Servite priests, etc.) who likewise take the 3 vows. 

In the first millennium of the Christianity, priests married, but the rule was changed in 1139—a pragmatic move related to inheritance of property.  As you know, there are different “rites” in the Catholic Church—ours being the “Roman” rite with unmarried priests.  We belong to the Latin or Roman Catholic Church–the largest of 24 Catholic Churches (the 23 others referred to as Eastern Churches–with their own traditions and forms of liturgy).  Some of these Churches have married clergy—as does the Roman Church since it received Lutheran and Episcopalian priests in recent decades.

People might think poverty, chastity, and obedience are exotic penances undertaken by priests and nuns when, in reality, they are simply words that describe gospel orientations or frames of mind which all Christians are called to internalize.  Alternative words have been proposed—such as “stewardship” (for poverty), “hospitality” (for chastity), and “partnership” (for obedience). 

Understood colloquially, “poverty” refers to the destitution of reservations or Appalachia.  The God of the gospel does NOT call people to live a life of destitution but rather a life in which they “steward” (judiciously oversee) their belongings and reach out to others in need, e.g., clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc.  This weekend all parishes are being asked to take up a collection for Haiti—which is one way we can “steward” our resources in a way Jesus calls us live.

Similarly, God has zero interest in someone undertaking “chastity” as a penance.  What’s the “essential?”  A potent Old and New Testament theme is our call to be “hospitable” to the alien, receptive of others, gracious in greeting people whose lives touch ours, visiting the sick and imprisoned, etc.  Sexual activity has nothing to do with these behaviors.  When nuns and priests choose not to have families, they do so in order to more fully devote their time to all of God’s family. 

So too, each of you who is married know that a good marriage is a good “partnership”—and that quality of partnership is at the heart of what we traditionally call the vow of obedience.  A nun, brother, or priest—just as a married couple SHOULD do—discern with their religious community how they are to serve God, their family, community, and world.

In the end, vows point to one thing—living our gospel identity.  Today’s Letter of James puts it this way:  What good is it . . .  if someone says they have faith but does not have works? . . . if someone is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”         

Remember!  Jesus is coming—so look busy.

Communion Reflection

While today’s gospel listed things we should NOT do, the prayer of St. Francis reminds us what we SHOULD do.  Last week I told you about entering the Jesuits after high school.  It was this prayer I carried with me each day of my senior year.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.  Where there is discord, let me bring union.  Where there is error, let me bring truth.  Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.  Where there is despair, let me bring hope.  Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.  Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.  Let me not seek as much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.

August 22, 2021

Sunday’s 2nd reading from Ephesians is one that some parishes will not read because of the controversy it has stoked over the years.  It is a passage much cited to criticize Christianity’s “take” on women.  Misunderstanding the passage arises if one interprets it literally–not knowing the cultural context or paying attention to what Paul himself stated.

The passage in question is “wives be submissive [or subordinate] to your husbands.”  Stated simply, Paul was not writing a theology of marriage but was instead articulating a theology of Church—based on an example taken from everyday life of the eastern Mediterranean region.

Paul’s reference to wives was based on early Christian codes that were common to Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures of the period.  These codes set forth the duties of wives, husbands, parents, children, masters, and slaves.  The “point” of the wife/husband relationship in these codes was that of devotion to one another.

Paul was not setting forth a Christian position paper on the meaning of marriage for all time and in all places.  Rather, the last sentence of the passage is his topic.  Namely, Paul writes “I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.”  He is NOT talking about decision-making or power differentials in a marriage. Rather, he’s simply using an example from everyday life.

The 1st reading, like so much of scripture and our faith-tradition, presents to us a challenge—one which you might not consciously think about.  Here it is: every morning God says to us: “Choose this day whom you will serve.”

A theological term is “polytheism”—the belief in many gods.  By contrast, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are examples of “monotheism”—the belief in one God.  You might muse to yourself “Right.  I’m a monotheist.”  But are you?  Do you live that belief each day? 

Maybe you’ve just not noticed your own polytheism!  Huh?  Yes, there are many gods in everyday life which compete for your allegiance/devotion/time/attention.  Do your possessions own you?  Are you solely family-oriented or do you have any sense of responsibility to the larger community?  Do you feed the hungry, and clothe the naked?  Are you a “consumer” of every new fashion, food, or “fun” entertainment—but do not share your plenty with those in need?

Being a military man, founder of the Jesuit Order, St. Ignatius, asks us: “Under whose banner do you fight in this battlefield of life? Christ’s or Satan’s?”  Different forces face off against one another in subtle ways—evil gods camouflaged by advertising and seductive ads that hammer away at your mind and heart—in a battle for your soul.  

There are different value-systems, and our faith daily asks us “by whose values will you live?”  Are you fighting for self-giving care for others or Satanic self-interest?  Gods other than our Creator seek to immunize you from asking that tough question—and make you think that whatever you’re doing is what Jesus taught.  Joshua (Hebrew name for “Jesus”) said what each of us should say, type out, and put on our refrigerator at home: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

This weekend is the anniversary of my entrance into the Jesuit Order.  Instead of just sharing a reminiscence, I think the event can be instructive for everyone here.  The point I hope to make is that my experience might illuminate your own—when having to decide a course of action.

The 2nd semester of my senior year in high school, I was accepted into the Jesuits for August 20th of that Fall.  Although my course seemed set and God’s “will” clear, I was to experience the powerful meaning of “God writes straight in crooked lines.”  As luck would have it, I became a 17-year-old who totally lost his heart to a 15-year-old girlfriend—a relationship developing that swept me off my feet as never before.  My parents were quite frustrated with my desire to live in la-la land forever with Molly, or become a vowed religious confined to a monastery.

My diary reported that on June 26th Molly and I attended her sister’s wedding.  I wrote: “That night was most memorable in that we were with one another—she in her yellow bridesmaid outfit.  We danced to the flip side of a Zombies record and I recall how our dancing would become motionless and we would simply stand there embracing.  It was on that night she whispered to me ‘I love you’.”

In short, the memory of a night like that competed with my entering the Jesuits 2 months later on August 20th.  Which option seems more attractive or magnetizing to you?  Powerful emotions and thoughts warred within my heart (me angry at my parents for badgering me to make a decision—entering the Jesuits or staying home and going to college). 

Here is a point I hope you find instructive with decisions you make. What came to mind was that I had for a long time considered a religious vocation, so I might as well give it a try.  Since teaching bible school to inner-city youth had been a positive experience in the past, I decided to do it again that summer.  It would affirm whatever sense of the gospel I carried within my heart.  The point?  Go with the decision that MOST reflects self-giving to others.

22 of us entered the Jesuits on August 20th, and one of them emailed me this week: “This is the anniversary of you saying to me as we left our first meeting, ‘Well, I will be the first one out of here’.”  I also recall telling my parents that I’d probably be home within the week.  As it turned out, my fate (God’s will?) was not to be the first to leave the Order, but to be the only one of those 22 who remained IN the Order.

Today’s gospel reminded me of this history—since my life pretty much followed the script reported in John’s gospel.  Down through the years, as nuns and priests left the religious life, I was always being confronted with what was said about people who followed Jesus: “Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”  Meanwhile, I heard what the gospel has Jesus say: “Will you also go away?”

Like Peter, I always asked: “Lord, to whom shall I go?”  Over the years, I experienced the same wrestling as that of my friends.  I felt the fantasy represented by Molly and me dancing motionless with her.  But how could I cast my lot and leave the priesthood on the basis of a fantasy when I was seeing how much God had blest me as a Jesuit? 

Nuns and priests left the religious life for various reasons and I knew what they experienced.  For example, a diary entry reminded me of someone who moved me to write: “She seems to have come right from God.”  Many chose to pursue a different lifestyle, but for me the question seemed to be: did I want to leave the religious life and serve my own, emotion-based self-interest, or use what gifts I had in the service of God’s people?  Eventually, it seemed that my wrestling was no different than anyone else’s. 

Every Christian is called to exercise their God-given abilities and not just go with the flow of life that all cultures present each citizen.  My call, or rather “our call” is to first learn what “skill-set” is ours, and then apply those skills in a manner consistent with the Gospel.  Via sacramental participation, spiritual direction, and prayer, we discern/discover/learn where to employ our “gifts” (the meaning of “grace” is “gift”).  

My entering the Jesuits illustrates yet another key point about Christian decision-making.  Namely, our decisions do not automatically present us with a heavenly sense of peaches and cream.  Our decision might entail “biting the bullet” and moving ahead with what seems to be what God (not I, necessarily) emotionally want.

I’m reminded of when it came time to teach high school (in the Order, we have a period in our training which has us teach at a high school or college for 3 years).  Jesuit high schools tend to be well-endowed prep schools that draw tons of teacher applicants because of the institution’s prestige.  I was scheduled for assignment to 1 of 4 top-drawer schools within my province.  However, for years I had a hobby-like interest in the American Indian world and requested to teach at one of our Indian schools.  When it came time to go to Red Cloud Indian School, I was feeling resistance—other gods competing for my time and attention. 

Just as occurred with Molly, I acted on the best intentions within me—putting my self-interest aside and acting on whatever sense of Christian outreach I could muster—and off I went to South Dakota.  Best decision I could make—even though fraught with anxiety and pulls to the contrary.  Similarly, after ordination, I hoped to have my first assignment as a priest be in campus ministry at a Jesuit college. 

My superior (who we call the “provincial”) asked me instead to go to Sault Ste. Marie as pastor of St. Isaac Jogues parish.  I had no interest in parish work and even reminded the provincial that our guys don’t serve as pastors until they’re much older than my 29 years.  He countered my resistance and said that I was the only one with experience in the Indian world, and so he really hoped I’d have a more positive sense of the assignment.  Rather than kick and scream, I complied willingly and in retrospect consider that assignment to be a highlight of my life.

Since entering the Order on August 20th, and since leaving behind that bridesmaid in a yellow dress, I have been blest with many life-highlights–experiences with good people from different backgrounds on our common journey back to God.  I look at parish faces and once again see many blessings for which I’m grateful—and which I never would have received had I chosen differently that August day.

August 15, 2021

Whenever a Marian feast occurs, I stroll down memory lane to when I was in high school—a school named “St. Mary’s”—and my being a member of the “Legion of Mary” (a very traditional Catholic organization dedicated to prayer and apostolic work inspired by Mary’s example). Back then, NO high school boy would join the Legion of Mary.  If one wanted to be in the category of being “cool,” the route to that identity was NOT the Legion.  

Although considered a good guy by my peers, I was one day reprimanded by a nun who was in charge of the group. As a punishment that she thought I merited, I was told to attend a Legion meeting.  Over the next 2 years, I was the only guy in the group, and surprisingly enough it was this membership that helped direct me to enter the Jesuits upon graduation (my anniversary of entering the Jesuits is this week, the 20th of August). 

From time to time, someone might characterize me as not appreciating Catholic tradition when, in point of fact, I was literally a member of the Catholic choir throughout grade school.  Taught by nuns from kindergarten through the 12th grade, I was raised with the Latin mass and lived as traditional a Catholic life as anyone.  So these Marian feast days (such as the Assumption this weekend) have a longstanding role in my experience.  I fully appreciate Church tradition—and certainly do my best to serve the people of God within that tradition. 

Just as my devotion to Catholic tradition is sometimes challenged, so is my patriotism when I don’t orchestrate the singing of patriotic hymns at mass.  With my brother a Marine in WW 2 in some of the worst Pacific hot spots, and with his PTSD partly responsible for his early death, I was raised in a family that honored the USA more than most.  My brother and family, however, never confused patriotism with allegiance to God. 

Had German Catholics and Lutherans separated their faith from their “fatherland,” Hitler might never have created the hell that he did.  My brother and family knew better than to mix patriotism with the mass.  We pledged allegiance to God–who we never confused with flag-waving and toxic nationalism.  After all, people from every country wave their flag–as at the Olympics–thinking God is on THEIR side most of all.  That’s not what Jesus preached.

With today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation, a peculiar aspect of our Catholic tradition came to mind.  Namely, when the New Testament books were “canonized” in the 4th century (i.e., were officially recognized as inspired), half of the Catholic dioceses did NOT want Revelation included (and did not read the book for a few hundred years), Eventually, debate subsided, but over time, the book was read and did, in fact, create confusion due to misinterpretations it spawned.  Today’s reading shows how a text can be variously read. 

For the Assumption text today, we read about the heavenly woman fighting the demonic dragon, and assume it’s depicting Mary versus Satan. However, this is only one possible reading of the text—an interpretation that became popular in the Middle Ages.  After all, the woman could also be Israel—with the 12 stars of her crown representing the 12 tribes of Israel.  The child she is about to bear could be referring to the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. While some think the dragon is clearly the devil, bible scholars instead say it represents the Roman empire—the dragon’s 7 heads being the 7 hills of Rome.  The Book of Revelation was a late first-century work that was written after the Jewish revolt in 70 AD (the year the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem). 

Apart from being Israel, the woman might also be the Church. Why? Because Revelation says that the dragon “became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.”  So the reference to her “other” offspring suggests she’s NOT Mary (whose only child was Jesus).  Since the Roman empire persecuted the Christians after putting down the Jewish revolt, this understanding of the woman being the Church makes perfect sense (i.e., the Roman empire dragon first went after the Jews and then the Christians–which is exactly what took place historically).

What ARE we to think?  Is the woman Mary, Israel, or the Church?  Let’s settle this by saying she is all three.  The reading describes the reality of Israel and Church being persecuted, and of us called to be “Mary-like” in fighting the world’s evils.  This, of course, leads to what we here in the parish can draw from this feast of the Assumption. 

First of all, you should know that only the Catholics and Greek Orthodox observe the Assumption.  For Protestants, the Assumption is not a concern (whereas the Catholic Church declared it a “dogma” in 1950).  To be exact, the Church stated that “having completed the course of her earthly life,”  Mary was assumed into heaven.  

As Catholics, we are supposed to believe that either Mary died and went to heaven, or that she was spared death and went to heaven (which is what Renaissance artists depicted).  The early Church Fathers were split on this topic (her Assumption not an issue for the first few hundred years of the Church’s existence).  Some Fathers thought she died and was assumed  into heaven while others thought she went directly to heaven “at the end of her life.”  

Protestant critics sometimes say that Jesus alone went to heaven first, but both Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament are thought to have ascended there somehow.  Saying Mary’s Assumption is a Catholic obsession with Marian devotions isn’t the case on this point.  Ultimately,  I doubt any Christian would have trouble accepting that Jesus accommodated Mary, his mother, being in heaven with him in some way.  So the Assumption seems nothing to debate. 

A few weeks ago, I used 15 year-old Greta Thunberg as an example of God calling us to serve one another–she being the teenage girl who has captured world attention for her advocacy of fighting climate change.  While the issue is considered by many to be the world’s #1 problem, some think it is overblown (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).  Her role in changing minds is an illustration of one of the bible’s main themes–which should be typed and taped to your mirror so that you see it each morning.

 God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.

Aged Abraham and Sarah became the parents in their old age and had descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Moses with a speech-defect led his people out of slavery and to the promised land.  Young shepherd-boy David slew Goliath, and doubting Thomas preached faith in the risen Lord.  And at age 13, Mary said her “Magnificat” prayer that we read in today’s gospel: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord who has done wonderful things to me.”

We are like Mary–an unlikely person called to accomplish something great.  

Her example this day calls us to realize that each of us is an unlikely revelation of the Divine—because each of us is a word of God—and you might be the only bible someone ever reads.  

So what do people read when they read you—do they see you as one willing to forgive? as one who upbuilds others? as one who admits error?  who shows compassion and caring? who lends a hand and asks “what more can I do?”

What follows is called a “Contemporary Magnificat.” Based on: Gospel of Luke (1:46–55)

Why not write your own?           _______________

If there’s anything I am sure of, it’s that God is #1 and is the final word on all things great and small.  Although I fail at times to realize this, deep in my heart I am glad to know that my God is a God of love.  Such a God looks at me, smiles, and holds me close because my God is like the most loving mother or grandmother, father or grandfather that I could ever have.

I rejoice in having the Creator of all things actually care about me this way.  Who am I to deserve such loving?  In light of my smallness and God’s largeness, and in light of God knowing me through and through and still having affection for me, I will never speak ill of God.

This is the God who has mercy on all of us who realize we are not Gods.  He alone is number one.

No one can match God’s strength—even though many think they are powerful.  Arrogant people who think they are praiseworthy, are nothing compared to God.

Those who Lord it over others will eventually lose their power, and be replaced by those they once oppressed.

God has compassion on us who hunger for the basic things of life—health, food, and a roof over our head.  Those who take these things for granted might one day find themselves without anything.  Will they remember how they once took so much for granted—when they find themselves in the very same position?

God is true to his word—and will pick us up when we’re down.  This is the story reported in scripture—and it is the same story that unfolds in my life.  Like Mary, may I always ponder these things in my heart—and reveal in my everyday life that I am God’s child.

August 8, 2021

Some may recall the 1971 musical Godspell having a song within it titled “Day by Day.”   Its verses were “Day by day, oh dear Lord, three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”  This song came to mind when this week I received a prayer-site email attributing those verses to St. Ignatius.  While I like to think of the Jesuit founder saying that prayer, I was not sure that he did.

Further investigation (Wikipedia) revealed the verses were drawn from a deathbed prayer of St. Richard of Chichester (1197–1253).  Richard was canonized nine years after he died—it being the custom at one time in Church history for people to be named saints shortly after their death.  It seems that if anyone was popular, or a decent ruler, they were canonized—such that if the Church hadn’t changed its rules for the canonization process, it might have named Princess Diana a saint, or John Lennon, or Prince, Janice Joplin, or Michael Jackson.  Eventually, Church practice required 50 years to pass before one could be named a saint.

2 recent exceptions to that rule were Mother Theresa and John Paul the 2nd.  Interestingly, biographies since their canonization show why the Church instituted the 50-year-rule.  While admirers might think otherwise, there was no pressing reason to put them on the “fast track” to sainthood.

St. Richard’s deathbed prayer was reported in Latin.  Since there were no tape-recorders at the time, its scribe’s role in composing the piece will never be known.  Moreover, the poetically rhyming triplet of “clearly, dearly, nearly” did not come about until the Latin was creatively translated in 1913 (700 years after Richard’s death)!  So the question of “who composed the prayer familiarly known to us?”—will never be known with certitude.   

One is reminded of how little we know about so much (which applies to most people’s knowledge of liturgical history).  We attend mass our entire lives but may well not know why certain rubrics exist (“rubrics” are the ritual gestures we see at mass).

Early depictions of the Eucharist show that people reclined at table, and that bread was broken and passed around.  However, modern depictions exist which show Jesus wearing vestments and distributing hosts from a ciborium to people kneeling at a communion rail.  Some might say that they miss the communion rails and that only the priest should distribute, but those traditions were not how “mass” was celebrated until centuries after Jesus was at table with the apostles.

There was, in fact, a time when the Church adopted a liturgical theology that was the exact opposite of what took place in the early Church.  Of particular note is that it came about that people only received communion once or twice a year.

All were required to attend mass, but their participation consisted only of looking AT a consecrated host (not receiving communion).  Bells would be rung before the consecration—calling people into the cathedral in case they were outside having a smoke.  And when the words of consecration were uttered, the bells would be rung again—calling people’s attention to the priest elevating a large host for all to see.  He would hold the host on high and perhaps show it to the right and left—bells ringing (and perhaps reminding people that the bread/wine was now body/blood of the risen Lord).  Not until the last several centuries did regular reception of the Eucharist become our tradition once again (promoted by Jesuits).  People might think it’s nice to hear bells during the mass, but their purpose now is primarily to give servers something to do.

People also see a priest put water into the chalice and say a prayer about the humanity and divinity of Christ being present.  This theological interpretation of water & wine mixing was a nice thought, but it came about only because the Church had lost track of why it had this rubric in the first place.  Like non-Christian religious rubrics, so do our rubrics “hang on” for long years after their meaning has been forgotten.  Ritual specialists in those other traditions, if asked why they do certain rubrics, will often enough just say “It’s our tradition,” or “We’ve always done it this way,” or “You don’t understand. This is just how we do it.”  It is thought that if the action did not take place, the ritual would not “work.”  We can own this same mind-set.

In the case of mixing water with wine, this was an ancient custom in the eastern Mediterranean related to diluting the wine into something more palatable.  The custom was practiced by the Greeks, Romans, Israelites, and everyone else from that region long before the time of Christ.  Advances in “enology” (wine-making) and time obscured our liturgical reason for blending the two liquids—and so a religious meaning was associated with the mix.

What we know as the “fraction rite” in the mass emerged out of 2 traditions.  This refers to the priest breaking off a piece of consecrated host and dropping it into the chalice.  It is common for contemporary Catholics to receive from the cup and see a piece of host floating in it.  Some will conclude that the piece of host came from someone’s mouth—unaware that the priest had placed it there.

This custom is rooted in the Roman bishop breaking off bread for suburban communities who were unable to be at his mass.  Consecrated bread from his mass would be taken to those communities and a chunk put in their chalice.  This showed their being in union with their bishop.  This was reinforced when the pope put a piece of previously consecrated bread into his cup—showing that this mass was descended from the “first supper” which Jesus had on the first Holy Thursday.  A theology arose saying that it symbolized the body and blood of Jesus being together fully in the Eucharist.

Whatever the history or interpretation of the mass, we can read scripture’s theme of Eucharist these past weeks—and simply be assured that we have the Lord’s physical (and spiritual) presence here at mass.  And we can be assured that this “bread from heaven” that John addresses—can feed us still (like those fed through 5 loaves and 2 fishes).  We can leave the liturgy and face whatever life throws at us.  God’s tangible presence is not an antidote against all pain or suffering, but it is a guarantee that we’re not alone in facing challenges or in being “good news” (“gospel”) for others.  And on this note, a return to Day by Day is apropos.

Below is the Youtube conclusion of the film-musical Godspell.  The songs from this musical were popular—especially the concluding one “Day by Day” (based on the prayer of St. Richard of Chichester).  Of theological interest in this concluding “finale” is the joyous disciples carrying Jesus from the cross.  Viewers may or may not spend time thinking of the conclusion’s meaning—but you can do so now.  Namely, are the disciples taking the dead Jesus into modern life to show that modern life is crucifixion in diverse forms—thus a commentary on modern life being the crucified Jesus?  OR, are the joyous disciples taking the dead Jesus into modern life—knowing that his ultimate message for them is one of resurrection (thus, their happy dancing as “pall bearers” and bringing “good news”—the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon word “godspell”)?


Today’s first reading spoke of an angel helping Elijah.  Keep in mind that “angel” in scripture refers to any “messenger of God.”  One needn’t think only of winged-creatures.   I don’t hear of angels in our lives without thinking of a prayer experience I once had at a retreat house.  Chagrined at various life experiences, I spoke to God and said that it’s nice to be on the retreat house grounds and have hope because the landscape is like Eden—a river flowing through the premises and deer feeding everywhere; rabbits and birds visiting with one another and benches on which to sit and meditate (as I was doing).   However, walking off the retreat house grounds, I encountered a loud truck kicking up dust and dirt as it sped by, and horns honked angrily at one another.  Where are you, God, when life ISN’T like Eden—and it’s more like hell!

Reflecting in that vein, I passed a white picket fence and was attacked by a viciously barking, demonic little dog that walked with me shouting nastily the length of the fence.  “Where are you, God, when devil-dogs are barking at me in everyday life?”  No sooner did I think that thought than a woman opened the door of her house and shouted “Here, Angel!”  And the little dog went happily running toward her and inside the house.

  I couldn’t help but think God was reminding me that when I feel alone and assaulted by unpleasantness of some kind, I need to be aware that angels are present—just difficult to recognize.

May we recognize or be angels of the gospel–alive in the world today.

Pastor’s Pen August 1, 2021

Scholars tell us that between blinks of the eye and what are known as “saccades” (rapid eye movements), we are functionally blind about a third of our life.  Added to this peculiar deficiency, some social psychologists have said that, at most, a person develops 10% of their mental/emotional/physical potential.  For example, an Olympic athlete might score a “10” in their event while I would score a “1” (at best).

A friend was teaching a class on the Dead Sea Scrolls—an important archaeological find of the1940s that advanced our knowledge of the bible.  After class, a student approached the professor and said: “I just don’t understand why finding some squirrels by the Dead Sea is so important!”  

Confusing “scroll” with “squirrel” reminded me of a colleague’s experience when teaching political science.  Throughout the course, he referred to how many revolutions, especially the Russian revolution, was waged by peasants against the ruling regime.  Come the final exam, a student submitted their test and told my colleague that she never realized how important pheasants were in human history.  She said she regularly saw them in the field near her home and took them for granted.  My friend was speechless when he realized she wasn’t joking but had, in fact, confused “pheasant” with “peasant.”

All of the above examples point to our blindness, weakness, deafness, and ability to miss the point in ordinary communication with one another.  Aren’t we a sorry lot?  

Yes.  But all is not lost.  After all, one reason we come to mass is because individually and communally we confess to God our need for grace, for strength, for insight into ourselves and the world around us.  Our faith-life and sacramental practice provides us with much-needed help.  God sees we are like sheep without a shepherd (in the readings of 2 weeks ago) and so alleviates the varied hungers we long to satisfy (as indicated in last week’s story of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes feeding the crowd).  That is, last week’s miracle story is not about feeding a famished crowd but of a God who can send you from mass knowing you can face anything that confronts you.  Despite evidence to the contrary, our sacramental practice reminds us that our life has a purpose (and that, as I’ve mentioned so often, creation is not complete without you).

This week, we read about Israelites starving and being at the end of their rope.  All of a sudden, they’re saved by what seemed a miraculous, supernatural act of God.  They woke up to find “manna” and quail to eat—as if buckets of Kentucky fried chicken suddenly fell from the sky—garnished with honey.  Historically, the Israelites found “manna” which, in reality, was the sweet excretion from certain insects of the region, and quail that were migratory fowl dropping onto the ground from exhaustion in their flight over the Sinai desert. These natural phenomena still take place today, but the Israelites interpreted the occurrence as God’s special intervention to save them.  Therein lies a key lesson for us.

We are the Israelites.  Do we see God’s saving action, love, and concern for us, in the ordinary—non-supernatural—occurrences of our lives.  That’s the example set for us when reading of the Israelite experience—to see God in all things (a concept emphasized by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, whose feast is this weekend).

Speaking of which–2021 is the 500th anniversary of St. Ignatius being wounded at the Battle of Pamplona.  A cannonball disabled him for life by shattering his knee—an event that sent him into a great depression.  Having been somewhat of a playboy of the royal court, his “lady’s man” appearance was lost with his now walking with a limp.  His “cannonball experience” led him to change the course of his life, found the Society of Jesus, and write a classic in spirituality titled The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  He referred to “exercises” being just like an athlete regularly exercising to stay in shape.  If you don’t go to church, don’t pray, don’t reflect on God’s making you, don’t read scripture, or have just a passing relationship to the faith-community—your spiritual state will suffer.

Ignatius, being from a military background, saw life as being on a battlefield, or as having 2 kingdoms at odds with one another.  He said that individuals must choose which kingdom they will serve—Christ’s or Satan’s.  Which “standard” will you follow?

Everyone probably thinks their decisions are good ones, but are they?  A classic work on this topic is titled Moral Man and Immoral Society.  That is, with everyone thinking they’re making good decisions, why is it that we have all the problems we have—from murders, to robberies, to domestic violence, to drug abuse, to the varied forms of bigotry?  If everyone’s so “moral” or so “Christian,” why are we in personal or social turmoil so often.

How can we overcome the heat of the moment or the stress that accounts for so much emotional disruption?  Being at mass is one way—as we try to center our self and be more mindful of how to be with Christ under his “standard?”  

When things are going our way and we’ve won the lottery, or been kissed by the love of our life, it’s easy to do as Ignatius said and “find God in all things.”  It’s not so easy when we confront hurt of some kind.  Sacramental participation doesn’t provide an antidote to suffering, but minimally, it can remind you that God is with you in your travail, your tears, or worries.

How can you see manna and quail in your life?  How can you see God working in natural events that happen every day?  Ignatius proposed what is known as the “examen.”  This is an exercise intended to make one more attentive to how God can be felt within our lives.  The Internet has descriptions of the examen—the essence of which is below. 

At the end of a day, find a place where you can be alone—and ask God to be with you in this moment of reflection.  Ask God to help you review your day (for which, you give thanks).

From when you awakened, recall the events of your day—who you spoke to, what you spoke about, how you interacted with each person (as if it were a film you were watching of your day). 

Pay attention to your emotions—what moved you (God speaks thru them).  You may be shown and remember some ways that you fell short of the Christ-like person you intended to be. 

Thank God for seeing you thru the day, and ask for help relating better than you did to the day’s cast of persons the next time you meet them. 

A Chinese film featured a hero who fought on behalf of the poor and the mocked—and the children who were pushed around by the warlord’s brutal men.  The kids loved the hero—and called him “monkey king” because the monkeys seemed to play with him.  After he got the kids to safety, he left to face the warlord’s horrible men who would kill him.

The children all shouted: “don’t leave us, monkey-king.” He calmed them by saying: I have to go and protect you.  I am going to fight monsters.   

Ignatius said this a different way.  Seeing 2 standards fighting against one another, he said that once you are grounded on the gospel: “Go forth and set the world on fire.”   And so it is with our Christian identity. 

Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the 28th Jesuit Superior General, wrote:   In our schools and parishes today, our prime objective must be to form men-and-women-for-others . . .  people who cannot think of God without thinking of their neighbors at the same time; we need to form people who are convinced that love of God includes seeking justice for all human beings. All of us would like to be good to others, and most of us would be relatively good in a good world. What is difficult is to be good in an evil world, where the egoism of others and the egoism built into the institutions of society attack us. Evil is overcome only by good, and egoism is overcome by generosity. It is thus that we must sow justice in our world as the driving force of society—and eliminating love for self-interest.  

Pastor’s Pen July 25, 2021

(For a change of pace, here’s a Catholic baseball story for the baseball season)

“. . . there is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey has struck out.”  This 1888 lyric about a fictional baseball player is just a few years older than the real-life failure of a Detroit Tigers pitcher.  Just as “Mighty Casey” became an immortal in people’s imagination, pitcher Aloysius (“Al”) Stanislaus Travers became a real-life immortal in professional baseball history.  He also came to claim a unique place within American Catholic history.

Details of Travers’ stint on the mound have varied over the years and from one telling to the next.  What did not vary was the man’s baseball legacy.  His name became equated with failure. Ninety years after his pitching debut, the Batter’s Box website even created the “Allan Travers Award (sic),” bestowed on “the outstandingly bad pitcher of the year” in each league.

As transparent as a pro baseball player’s career might seem, statistics do not tell the whole story.  He was not a professional, or even an amateur ballplayer but was instead a college junior who played the violin and kept the books for his school’s baseball team.  His “pro” debut saw him stay on the mound despite being pummeled so he could earn the full salary, $50. Knowing that his baseball career would be short-lived, Travers was quite happy to pocket the money and the memories he would make for giving it “the old college try.”

But how did a kid from Philly, a student at Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s College, end up on the mound against some of baseball’s toughest hitters? It was infamous baseballer Ty Cobb who started it all. After an altercation with a fan from an opposing team, during which Cobb allegedly attacked a physically handicapped onlooker (one Claude Lueker) who’d been jeering him, the slugger was suspended from play.  Teammates rallied around the future Hall of Famer, and decided that if he did not play, neither would they.

In fairness to the Tigers, the fan apparently was like many others in that era.  He belittled and taunted players who, in turn, harbored legitimate concern for their safety.   The Tigers were standing up for Cobb, but they were also standing up for a principle.  Before walking off the field in baseball’s first strike, the Tigers were told by American League president Ban Johnson that if they refused to play, he would fine the team $5,000 for each missed game.

Since there was real concern that a lengthy walkout could jeopardize the future of the franchise, Tigers owner Frank Navin recruited replacement players — including the 20-year-old Travers — from around the Philadelphia area (where Detroit was scheduled to face its opponent). Travers pitched his first and only game on May 18, 1912 against the world champion Philadelphia Athletics, allowing a staggering 26 hits and 24 runs from the 50 batters he faced.  He walked seven batters and struck out one (shortstop “Jack” Barry, later inducted into the baseball coaches Hall of Fame for his forty years at Holy Cross College).  Never pitching another major league game, Travers entered the record books with a lifetime record of no wins, one loss, and an earned-run-average of 15.75.

“To fight and not to heed the wounds” is a line from the Prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola that became part and parcel of the pragmatic spirituality Travers received while in college at St. Joe’s.  This spirituality served him well when asked to compete against professional ballplayers whose skills created a gross mismatch.

Even with the sorry pitching, Philadelphia’s mighty lineup could not produce one home run against Travers — either by future Hall of Fame third baseman Frank “Homerun” Baker or future Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins. Try as they might (and they did try), these legends of the game could not solve Al’s slow curve.

In fact, most of the runs were scored by fly balls that sailed over the heads of the sandlot outfielders who misjudged most everything hit their way, or the third baseman who often was unable to pick up the ball.

When the game ended with a 24-2 score, the crowd of 20,000 was livid, some demanding a full refund.  So irate were the fans that the replacements had to be escorted off the field by police. Travers, meanwhile, despite his performance on the mound, was approached by scouts after the game and asked to sign a contract!  Perhaps those scouts were doubly impressed with his handling of seven chances in the field (all assists) without an error (thus finishing his career with a fielding average of 1.000).

“For the greater glory of God” is the well-known motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits).  It cast special appeal to young Travers because of what he learned on the baseball diamond (that human “glory” is very fast-fleeting, or here one moment and gone the next).  His Jesuit mentors at St. Joseph College instilled within the young man a desire to devote his life in the service of a God (who ultimately deserved all the glory).  Upon graduation in 1913, he entered the Order and thereafter sought to showcase God’s grandeur.  His ordination in 1926 won for him the distinction of being the only major league baseball player to become a Catholic priest.

For his religious confreres, the one-time pitcher who became Father Al Travers seemed to symbolize something more important than athletic fame or failure.  His mere presence would remind them of how important it was to know about one another’s metaphorical experience of striking out, or singling, or hitting a home run in the course of everyday events. Those who knew this down-to-earth, regular guy valued his presence among them and easily came to understand why Travers neither identified with, nor accepted, the label of “failure.”

Over the years, Travers was assigned to Georgetown University, St. Joseph University, and several high schools.  While he was at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., he drew upon his baseball experience when concocting a plan that worked to everyone’s advantage.  At Gonzaga, he was in charge of a school band that did its best to stumble through two or three tunes a year.  With a reputation for so modest a repertoire, the band surprised spectators at the annual May procession of 1919.  Marching through the streets, the band stepped lively, and its tunes came through loud, clear and crisp.

No one knew that the band’s moderator had drawn upon his experience as a replacement ballplayer.  Each family saw its son play, and did not notice that Gonzaga’s band had grown in size.  Travers had recruited a dozen crack musicians from the nearby Fort Myer Army Band, dressed them in Gonzaga’s cadet uniforms, and interspersed them among his high school charges.  Experience taught him to choose replacements who could perform decently.

As a young Jesuit, Father George Hohman lived with Travers and recalled Travers giving advice on how to preach a homily.  His mentor suggested that the homilist always be short and succinct in stating scripture’s message.  He illustrated his point by drawing upon the gospel story about the man who was beaten and robbed.  Others passed by him, but the Good Samaritan stopped and helped the man get proper care.

Travers said that most listeners will have heard the story, so the challenge was to keep their attention with an economy of words—fast balls down the center.   He then told the priest to present the homily this way:

“Those who assaulted the man said, ‘What’s yours is mine. I’ll take it.’  The priests and Levites who passed him by said, ‘What’s mine is mine.  I’ll keep it.’  The Good Samaritan said, ‘What’s mine is yours.  I’ll share it.’  And that is what God does with each of us.  God has shared all of creation with us.”

Hohman listened to Travers’ simple homily, and detected the pace of a pitcher intent on taking care of business.  Zip.  Zip.  Zip.  Three up.  Three down.

Travers bequeathed the memory of a good man whose dark life-moment was almost always a ray of light for others.  He was a living reminder that Jesuit community life would be more livable if those men of the cloth somehow communicated that they were one another’s “fans”—listening to, applauding, or commiserating with, one another’s experience of the day.

The legacy of Al Travers had nothing at all to do with failure.  Instead, he bequeathed to his fellow priests the Hall of Fame memory of a man whose well-known stats did not tell the whole story.   For those who went beyond those stats and got to know him, he was a winner.

Post Script Oddly enough, while Fr. Travers is associated with one of baseball’s worst performances, it is another Catholic priest whose one-liner is similarly associated with one of the sport’s lowest, but emotionally moving and memorable, moments.  As a child of 12, a Fr. Kenney learned of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s involvement with the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Going to Comiskey Park in Chicago when the news broke, it was this future priest who pleadingly shouted at the idolized ballplayer a question that has become part of baseball mythology “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

I wrote the above for Catholic Digest

Pastor’s Pen July 18, 2021

This week, I noticed our natural world was very different from the world I had known all my life—or the world you have known all YOUR life.

Seeing this major event occur, I found it strange or coincidental—that the weekday reading was about Moses also seeing something very different in his world—a burning bush.

I could say that the occurrence of these 2 events was a coincidence, but in both instances, I need to remember that “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

Moses saw a burning bush—something that captured his attention in a distinctive way—-and I saw a burning bush-event.

Another part of this coincidence was this week having the feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha —patron saint of the environment & 1st Indian saint.  Born in NY state, she was a Mohawk who piously practiced the faith under the guidance of Jesuit priests.  She died at the age of 23 in 1680, and the two Jesuits who were present at her death reported that her smallpox-marked complexion became creamy smooth. After her death, the Jesuits claimed to see apparitions of her.  A chapel was built where she was buried (it being a pilgrimage site over the years).

Zoom ahead to 2005 on the Lummi reservation in Washington state where 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner is shooting baskets.  He slams into the upright pole holding the basket and cuts his lip.  Taken to the hospital, he was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis (a flesh-eating bacterium that scarred his face).  Hmm—a facially-scarred Indian woman of 1680 and Indian boy of 2005.

Doctors did all they could to clear up the infection but had to induce a coma.  They advised the family to call their priest to have the child anointed.  The family learned of Kateri being on the path to canonization and contacted the national office of the Tekakwitha Conference (then located in Montana, now in Louisiana).  They asked its director, Mohawk Sister Kateri Mitchell, if she might come to Washington and pray over Jake with a relic of Blessed Kateri.  Maybe his cure would be the miracle needed for Kateri’s canonization to sainthood.

As it turned out (coincidence?), Sr. Kateri was leaving for the Lummi reservation that week since a meeting was planned for the reservation long months before.  She rendezvoused with Jake’s mother, and they prayed over him (his mother pinning the relic to his pillow).  Within a day, doctors were surprised to see the boy’s condition improve.

When Jake came to consciousness, he said that he had visited with God and had a wonderful time.  He also said that God told him that he’d be returning to his family because God had a mission for Jake to fulfill.  With all this unfolding, the local bishop appointed a committee to investigate this “miracle,” and in 2012, Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized a saint and “patron of the environment.”

At a Tekakwitha Conference some years earlier, I met the “Postulator” for the cause of Kateri.  He was a Canadian Jesuit named Henri Bechard.  His role was that of what used to be called a “devil’s advocate”—the person in charge of collecting all the good and bad facts of a saint-nominee’s life.  He knew of my work with Indians, so I hoped I might acquire a “first-class relic” of Kateri from him (a tiny piece of bone within a “reliquary”—a container 1¾ x 1¾ inches).

The visit was cordial, but Bechard said that relics would be needed for churches that would one day be named after “Saint” Kateri (should she be canonized).  I returned to Nouvel CC in Saginaw (where I was then stationed), and some months later wrote Fr. Bechard thanking him for a nice visit.  I also asked one more time if he might make an exception and send me a relic.

Some weeks later, I received a box from Montreal, and it contained a relic of Kateri—sent by Fr. Bechard.  I was elated—until receiving a notice that week saying Fr. Bechard had died days earlier.  One of his last deeds was to send me that relic.  Since that time, as mentioned above, Kateri has been named a saint, and named patron of the environment—which takes me back to the “burning bush” point I initially raised.

An environmental matter (burning bush) slammed home to me this week when I noticed there were no songbirds anywhere.  In fact, I saw only an occasional mourning dove or starling or sparrow.  Where before I used to hear the music of bird voices in the morning, I was hearing nothing this week but an occasional chirp.  Investigating the matter, I learned that some epidemic was taking out the birds.  Researchers are not sure why they were disappearing in such large numbers.

I was reminded of the secular “patron saint” of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson, who wrote the 1962 classic titled Silent Spring.  This book addressed the effects of DDT on eggshells of eagles (eagles endangered because DDT caused the shells to break easily).  Carson was trying to draw our attention to the use of pesticides which might one day produce a Springtime in which there were no songs to be heard sung by our bird friends.  I never thought 2021 would bring us this silence.  N.B., a former Jesuit friend recently learned that his use of pesticides affected his heart negatively (making this more than just an eagle eggshell issue).

As you drive, count how many birds you see.  You won’t see many because they’re gone—Rachel Carson’s prophecy fulfilled.

The “burning bush” experience of Moses should be understood as something that happens to each of us—and is not, literally, a burning bush that eventually turned to ashes.  Rather, the experience is one in which you are stopped in your tracks and made to pause and reflect on some event, or some person, some special encounter, or some tragedy.  Moses had an experience of God trying to speak to him and inspire him to new self-awareness and his role within the world.  If you read the story of Moses and the burning bush, and simply say “Boy, that was weird.  I never saw a bush like that”—you’ve missed the point.  You and I are Moses—and we have burning bush experiences throughout life.

Loss of our bird friends is one such experience.  God is speaking to us.  What will be our response?

Some might say “Thank God, I won’t have to clean bird-do off my car windows.”  Others might commit themselves to helping our fellow creatures survive in a world that decimates their numbers daily.  Still others might see animal numbers diminish, and not care one way or the other.

God gives us all that we have—and we are free to live our lives as we please.  God speaks to us in all of our experience—and we are free to live our lives as we please.  God gives us burning bush experiences—and we are free to live our lives as we please.  In short, we have the freedom to choose.  This is a life issue—because in looking at what we’ve been given, we are seeing and hearing God’s revelation to us.  If we are attentive, we can learn more about our unique vocation.

A fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut, addressed “the purpose of life” in his best-selling novel Breakfast of Champions.  Essentially, he was addressing a person’s identity—which changes over time (e.g., you are not the person you were 20 years ago or who you were 20 days ago).  It is burning bush experiences that make our identity what it is.  They (i.e., burning bushes all around). They can  reveal what our “purpose in life” is supposed to be.

A character in the novel is asked about everyone’s purpose in life, and he equivalently replies just what the gospel says our purpose is: “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe – you fool.”

And so, we pray: “Grant each of us here today, O God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are honored and not destroyed just to serve self-interest; a world where different skin shades, cultures, and creeds live in peace and harmony, with equal regard for one another; a world that provides liberty and justice for all.

To the extent we are able—in our own unique way–give us the inspiration and courage to go forth with willing hearts, minds, and hands to build such a world as called to do through Christ Jesus, our Lord, Amen.

Pastor’s Pen July 11, 2021

I knew a married couple who really took today’s scripture to heart, and as they home-schooled their children, they traveled the country as itinerant singers of church music.  They relied on the charity of parishes to take them in via parishioners, and in exchange for being taken care of—would provide concerts.  They relied on the goodwill of fellow Catholics who’d “take them in” just as people in the gospel provided accommodations for the apostles.  The couple took the words of Jesus literally, but their interpretation was incorrect.  Why?  Because Mark’s gospel only reports Jesus giving pragmatic travel advice for the first-century Mediterranean region.

Sending people out two by two is important because it was never wise to travel alone.  Had Jesus fleshed out this travel-formula, he probably would have said “and join a caravan heading for your destination.”  Moreover, traveling light was likewise important so that brigands would not assault you for the goods or cash that you carried.  If predators saw that you carried only a walking stick, they would not be inclined to rob you.

Mark’s gospel also reported that the apostles had authority over unclean spirits. In order to understand the healing profession that the apostles practiced, it is necessary to understand the “power hierarchy” of the first century’s unseen world.  Notably, at the top was one’s God—FOLLOWED by the gods and archangels of others.  In 3rd place were non- human persons such as angels, spirits, and demons.  THEN came humans.

In these ancient cultures, illness, misfortune, or any physical suffering was seen as caused by spirit-power of some kind.  When Jesus imparted power to his apostles, this was their commission to “heal” illnesses which were associated with the spirit-world.  Healers who were not apostles likewise reported acquiring their power via some vision or experience of some dream-sort.

When Jesus told them to go where they would be welcomed, he was acknowledging the premier custom of the region: HOSPITALITY.  This custom was well-depicted in the film “Lone Survivor.”  In it, real-life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell was saved by an Afghani village.  The village’s effort was a good example of the traditional code of honor known as the Pashtunawali.  This entailed being a good host, and granting asylum to the outsider (i.e., Luttrell OR the apostles).

Scholars say that Mark is giving a good example of the historical Jesus (and not making a theological point).  Jesus knows a cultural norm and rightly says that apostles should stay in a house until finished with business.  Or if the host was not hospitable, they were to shake the dust off their feet.  In short, Jesus is not teaching any great spirituality or theology in this passage (although it is true that being people who do not flaunt their wealth is a mode of being within Christian spirituality).

This role of blessing and healing continues the theme from last week.  Like Amos in the first reading, each of us is called to be a prophet (that is, we don’t predict the future but rather point to what God is calling us to do NOW).  Like us, Amos doesn’t “feel” like a prophet (but says he is a “shepherd”—which appropriately is what the God of the Old & New Testament calls us to be—a shepherd of others).  We’re NOT to be like Amaziah—court chaplains or spokespersons for an uncritical patriotism.  Our role is instead to do what a weekday reading reported—healing the mute person and helping them find their prophetic voice.

But is finding your prophetic voice, or rebuking unclean spirits just a question of telling someone where to go if they disagree with your opinion on any issue?  NO. We’re not called to be opinionated bigots, racist newsmakers, or someone who spouts out prejudices against one or another individual or group.  In finding our voice, we need to come here to the sacrament—as we seek to understand how each of us, in our individual identity as child of God—can speak OUR  revelation—since each of us is a “word” of God.  Our task is to speak that word in the manner of Jesus.

Here’s one practical way to know if you’re speaking a prophetic voice.  Namely, can you picture Jesus saying what you’re saying when speaking about a person or issue?  If you CAN, then go ahead and speak your prophetic word.  Unfortunately, this strategy won’t help everyone.  Why?  Because fewer and fewer people are going to church or reading scripture—and so they don’t know WHAT Jesus would say, or what his tone would be (because they’ve not read or heard about him in scripture).

Here’s yet another way to speak your prophetic voice.  As St. Francis of Assisi said: “Each of us here is ALWAYS to preach – and if necessary, through words.”  May our actions be the best homily one could hear.

Mother Teresa had these words of wisdom hanging on her wall in Calcutta:

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 them anyway.

 Communion Reflection:

May the God of Surprises delight us, inviting us to accept gifts not yet imagined.  May the God of Transformation call us, opening us to continual renewal.  May the God of Justice confront us, daring us to see the world through God’s eyes.  May the God of Abundance affirm us, nudging us towards deeper trust.  May the God of Embrace hold us, encircling us in the hearth of God’s home.

May the God of Hopefulness bless us, encouraging us with the fruits of faith.  May the God of Welcoming invite us, drawing us nearer to the fullness of God’s expression in us.   May God Who is Present be with us, awakening us to God in all things, all people, and all moments.

“May we be forever freed to reach out to the God who is among us that together we may approach the God who is beyond us and within us. May that God bless us, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Pastor’s Pen July 4, 2021

This week’s readings have “prophecy” as a theme.  It’s an important topic because our baptism and gospel identity calls each of us to be a “prophet.”  Unfortunately, we tend not to use the word “prophet” very much in everyday speech.  When we use it, we are referring to a person who is able to predict some future event. This meaning is NOT how it is used in scripture or our theology.

Instead of predicting the future, our theological use of the word “prophet” is a reference to someone able to see what God is calling us to do NOW.  In the case of scriptural prophets, they’d tell the people what God was asking of them—and the people would revolt—and want to kill the prophets.

And so it goes with us today.  Scripture has entered our street talk when someone we know moans that people are avoiding them—and we try to console them with a line drawn from today’s gospel: “No prophet is accepted in their hometown.”

Part of each Christian’s identity—is to be a PROPHET—which is a role that challenges people, conscience-like, to re-think what they’re doing.  One doesn’t have to be an “in your face” critic-prophet, but sometimes one has to tell those around them “Stop!”

You might come into a family, neighborhood, or business setting—and see the need to change how people are interacting with one another.  Often enough, change will not come easy.  People will either ignore you, or flat-out state: “Look, we’ve always done it this way” (and your effort to be a Christ-figure in the new setting falls on deaf ears).

I’ve often said that when we read scripture we’re reading about ourselves.  Today’s 1st reading from Ezekiel humorously reminded me of coming here to John 23rd parish.  In personalizing this passage, I could have read it this way:

The LORD spoke to me [and said] I am sending you to Hemlock, Merrill, and Ryan–rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.  Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. They are a rebellious house—they shall know that a prophet has been among them.

Thank heaven, I have not experienced you in these terms—and still wonder how on earth I am supposed to be a “prophet” among you.  I have no idea what my prophetic contribution is to be for the people of this parish.  Rather, I am like you—and I come to mass asking God for help in articulating a gospel vision.

Each of us is like Paul in the 2nd reading.  Like us, he had to contend with “false apostles” who were seducing the Corinthians with slick appeals that went counter to those of Jesus.  He felt hampered in speaking a prophetic voice because of what he calls a “thorn in the flesh.”

Readers have speculated what this “thorn” was—epilepsy, vision problems, and chronic depression being possibilities argued by some commentators.  The consensus position now is that we just do not know what the thorn was (which is good for our edification—because we can identify our problematic “thorn” with Paul’s).  Each of us has SOMETHING that badgers our progress in life.  Paul was like us, too, in that he never met Jesus one-on-one in everyday life, but he did meet him in some kind of sacred encounter—and therein discover his call to make a difference.   So we thorny people carry on like Paul.  We’re told to have confidence in being apostles with our own unique identities.

In contemplating prophetic voices, I’m reminded of John 23rd.  He was elected Pope with people thinking he’d continue being a nice grandfatherly presence who’d retain the status quo and not make any changes in the Church.  Lo and behold, he assumes the papacy and sees a need to open the windows and let fresh air come into a Church still living in the 1500s.  And so came Vatican Council 2.  As expected, many cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity wanted no change at all.  Studies have shown that this is a typical institutional response.

Here’s the rule of thumb: an institution will not change unless threatened with extinction—and then it will only change enough to offset the threat.  This explains why new ideas take decades to become normative.  People don’t like change.

John 23rd had to contend with thorns who resisted his call for adapting to modern times—a battle that still goes on today.  Many today refer to themselves as “restorationists” who say they are changing with the times and simply wish to “restore” what was lost in the years after Vatican 2.  To a large extent, if you hear a bishop, priest, or layperson speak in these terms, “restore” is a code word for eliminating Vatican 2 changes and returning to the Latin church.  EWTN, a Catholic TV network, is within this mold—a Jesuit friend of mine is one of its leading lights (Mitch Pacwa, S.J.).

Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was also a prophetic voice.  Like John 23rd, he was a conservative El Salvadoran bishop who did not “make waves” and who remained neutral toward the military and corporations who were oppressing the working class.  Not until priest-friends of his were murdered by the military and corporate folk did he have a conversion-experience and speak out against the oppression.  Assassinated for being a prophetic voice, he is today a canonized saint and inspiration to millions (the film “Romero” is really good).

I’ll even give an example from my life.  Namely, when I finished studies at MSU and became “Dr. Michael Steltenkamp, Ph.D.”—I wanted to get my dissertation published.   Thus began my submitting it to one publisher after another.  Long story short is that I have many rejection letters over a number of years—each one of them a thorn in my ego telling me that my contribution to the world was not going anywhere.  I nonetheless trudged forward and finally got it accepted at the premier university publisher of Indian books, the University of Oklahoma.  Not only did my book get reviewed in the prestigious NY Times Sunday Book Review Magazine, but it was also called “a real step forward in American Indian religious studies” (and won a national award given by the honor society of 33 universities).

As I stated earlier, my task now is to discover what “prophetic voice” I am being called to speak within the parish context.  My book adventure and challenge is a thing of the past, and this new parish horizon is where I ask for God’s help afresh.   Same with you.  I cite my book experience above to suggest that YOU are being called to write your own book, make your own contribution, and speak your own prophetic voice within the thorn bushes of your life.

Finally, here’s an example that I think dramatically illustrates how we are to live the gospel call.  I turn to a 15-year-old Swedish girl who, for all I know, is an atheist with no religious motivation.  Still, her story is instructive and her name is Greta Thunberg.  Just as I suggested God is calling you to write your own book, so God is calling you and me to be her—in our own way.

Greta is an introvert, and is shy.  She is also the youngest to win Time magazine’s person of the year award (along with the “Ambassador of Conscience Award” from Amnesty International).  As Time explained why she was its choice: For creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions . . . into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change . . . [and] For sounding the alarm about humanity’s predatory relationship with the only home we have [planet earth], for bringing to a fragmented world a voice that transcends backgrounds and borders, for showing us all what it might look like when a new generation leads.”

When I speak to you about the Holy Spirit accessible to you—empowering you to have new imaginings—it’s easy to shrug off what I say.  Which is why I share the following thought that Greta said (which echoes what I’ve told you):

“If a Swedish, teenage, science nerd who refuses to fly and has never worn makeup or been to a hairdresser can be chosen a Woman of the Year by one of the biggest fashion magazines in the world then I think almost nothing is impossible.”

Hers was a nice, upbeat message which the gospel tries to communicate to us down through the centuries—but as we know, Greta’s prophetic voice is offensive to powerful corporations and governments.   She said her parents weren’t “thrilled” when she decided to join protests against the fossil fuel industries.  Her simple response to them was that there would be no need for her to get an education—much as she wanted one—if the world itself would not exist by the time she became an adult.

Jesus speaks through Greta and you, too.  Let us pray that we find our prophetic voice so that we can speak His word.

Lord, help us realize that our limited charity is not enough.  Help us know that our soup kitchens and secondhand clothes are not enough for the Church to be the ambulance service that goes about picking up the broken pieces of humanity for American society.  Lord, help us know that God’s judgement demands justice from us as a rich and a powerful nation.  We pray that the Holy Spirit will provide new gifts to meet new needs.  We pray that There will be new voices of justice, and new prophets who will hear the words of the Lord and stand up, as Christians, to say: Yes, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me–sending me to bring glad tidings to the poor.  Lord, make our parishioners the kind of people who follow in the footsteps of an earth-shaking Pope John 23rd, someone open to conversion like Romero, and youthful spirited visionary like Greta–so that together we might be the change so needed in our world.

Pastor’s Pen June 27, 2021

The book which a priest reads during the Eucharistic prayer is called a “sacramentary.”  It is different from the book which contains the epistle and the gospel.  This latter book is called a “lectionary.”  It is designed such that the readings for Sunday have a common theme whereas the readings for weekday masses do not necessarily have a common theme.  This Sunday’s selections are different in that the second reading has no relationship to the other two.

Paul is dealing with a Corinthian community that does not want to raise funds for the community in Jerusalem.  Paul is trying to win them over by saying they are rich with the blessings Jesus provides and should share their wealth with others.  The more I read commentary on this letter, the more I mused that human nature has not changed.

In my life as a Jesuit, my assignments have been to places that exist because of generous benefactors supporting the “ministry” (also called an “apostolate”).  For example, before coming here, I was at a university in Appalachia—which the Jesuits and graduates could no longer support financially.  Benefactors could not be found.  There at the college, we needed a St. Paul to get for us the assistance of Corinthians.  None were found.

When I was at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the entire operation depended upon donations that our Development Office raised through mailings sent nationwide.  Maybe you have received one of those mailings.  One year, our fund-raising efforts suffered a blow due to a “scandal” (some thought) that unfolded at Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska.

You may recall the old Spencer Tracy/Mickey Rooney film “Boys Town”—which showed how one Father Flanagan started an orphanage for boys in the 1920s.  It grew to be quite the institution—expanding to include girls, becoming a 1300-acre suburb of Omaha, operating a renowned hospital, and having living quarters for children from pre-school through the 12th grade.  Unfortunately, when it was learned that the institution was well-funded, many people stopped giving to many charities.

It was thought that places like Red Cloud Indian School were wealthy, using the Indians as a way to raise funds for Jesuit schools elsewhere, and just another example of how the Church’s “white people” oppress Indians.  As you should know, none of these charges or suspicions had any substance.  The Development Office was unable to raise enough funds to sustain the place, so the Jesuit province subsidized it with manpower and funds.

For example, I was one of about 10 Jesuits who taught, coached, did the bus driving, operated the dormitory, and oversaw students 24 hours a day—our services all gratis.  Had we been at one of our nice, well-subsidized SJ schools in large cities, our salaries would have been high, our accommodations comfortable, and we’d be doing half the work load we were expected to perform at Red Cloud.  [N.B., My living space for 3 years was a room in the boys dorm that was a 10’x15’ former storage closet with desk, bed, and chest of drawers.  I held the record for catching 14 mice in one week in that room.  So much for the Jesuits getting rich and living “the good life.”]  Critics would indict us as minions of the Church getting wealthy off Indians—all because of the Boys Town scene prompting people to think all Catholic charities were corrupt.

And so it goes—down through the centuries—new Pauls telling new Corinthian communities—that we need to support Church efforts elsewhere, and not just in our own place.  Naturally, this reminded me of the diocesan collection—named “Christ’s Mission Appeal” by Bishop Gruss.  I think we’ve done pretty well with it—and that we’ll hit our target one of these days.  The diocese informed us that 35% of the parishioners have given to the CMA (the diocese keeps tabs on this—we don’t).  This made me muse that if EVERYONE had donated to CMA, we could have TRIPLED our donation J.

The Corinthians were just like people today.  Some were not fond of donating funds to certain places (like the Jerusalem community) or didn’t like certain points that Paul addressed (he wrote against the practice of some people who followed philosophies that were not Christian).  Over the years, I’ve often thought that priests or nuns or deacons or anyone with the task of fostering Christian responsibility—is bound to upset someone’s apple cart (i.e., get someone upset).

Had Paul just told the Corinthians to take care of themselves and no one else, he’d not have to bother with raising funds for Jerusalem.  Or had Paul told any of his audiences to just embrace whatever faddish leader or thought that was making the rounds—he’d never have to spell out what, exactly, Jesus tried to communicate.  But therein is the lesson of the 2nd reading for this week.  We HAVE to reach out and perform corporal works of mercy—and outreach others beyond our community.  We HAVE to wrestle with how to apply the teachings of Jesus to all aspects of life.  Jesus did not come to just say “keep doing and thinking whatever appeals to you.”  He told us to look at our behavior and determine if it was consistent with the gospel.

MEANWHILE, the first and third readings are about far more than fund-raising!

We’re first of all dealing with the gospel of Mark—which itself is a uniquely different presentation of Jesus (just as each of us CAN be a uniquely different presentation of Jesus).  For example, Mark is the shortest gospel, is the first written, has no birth account, speaks of Jesus as the “son of Mary,” is the only gospel to call him a carpenter, and only gospel to use Aramaic words (as in today’s reading having Jesus say “talitha koum—arise, little girl”).  Like the other gospel writers, Mark was not an apostle, and is the only one to refer to “sisters” of Jesus.  This is in all probability a reference to cousins (and not what we’d call sisters) since the Hebrew kinship system has one call certain cousins “brother” or “sister.”

Did you notice he starts today’s story talking about the daughter of Jairus being sick and his going to visit her to see if he can help the 12-year-old girl?  Then, all of a sudden, this story-line is interrupted by another one—about a woman wanting to touch his cloak—she suffering with an affliction for TWELVE years.  Then it returns to the Jairus story.

How old was the sick girl?  Hmm—she was 12.  And again, how long did the woman suffer?  12 years!  Hmm.  And there were 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles. A symbolic number at play?   Hmm—maybe these stories are referring to more people than just these 2 characters (of a twelve-year-old girl and adult woman suffering for 12 years).  Maybe what we’re reading about is a story about US—we being that girl and that woman—we being an apostle or tribe of Israel who is afflicted in some way and in need of the help Jesus offers.

WE are that woman when we come to mass—reaching out to God—asking for help that might heal us of (fill in the blank).  We are but one person in a crowd and tempted to think that God can’t possibly know us as an individual.  We’re one of 7 billion people in the world!  But wait.  Jesus stops—and asks his apostles “who touched me?”  And the apostles are WE—who can’t imagine God knowing who, on earth, “touched” him/reached out to him in the crowd of humanity.  Whereupon Jesus sighs—aware of their lack of knowledge—and addresses the woman (us).  “I hear you.  I feel you.  I am here to help you.”

And he arrives at the home of the girl—someone about whom the crowd no longer has hope.  The girl is lifeless—lost—not worth visiting—at a dead end.  Hmmm.  That sounds like the young girl could be us—when we are dismissed by others, or when we have gone astray and are “lost” in some way.  We’re “down and out”—and Jesus says to you and me “Little girl, get up, arise—and be the blessing I intended you to be.”

We never again hear what happened to that woman or that girl.  However, we DO know their legacy.  All we need do is look around us—and see fellow parishioners who have taken the girl’s and woman’s place—bringing our afflictions to God at mass, needful of new life, and being told here at the Eucharist by Jesus—exactly what he told the girl 2000 years ago.  “Have something to eat.”  He has invited us here to the table of the Lord to find new life.

The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, popularized a prayer called the Suscipe (“receive”).  It no doubt captures the spirit of the woman and the girl who were transformed by personally experiencing God’s love for them through Jesus.


TakeLordreceive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will–all that I have and all that I possess. You have given all to me, Lord; I here pledge myself back to you. Do with me as you wish, according to your will. All I ask is that you continue to bless me with your love and your grace.  With these, I have all that I need.”

Pastor’s Pen     June 20, 2021

Coming to mass is like going to a doctor appointment and explaining your ailments and getting the therapy you need.  You might not like going to a doctor’s office or mass, but somewhere deep in your heart you know it’s good for you to get treatment.

Some people don’t go to a doctor.  Or they go to one infrequently (as when church-goers attend Christmas or Easter mass only).  And some people say they get the same health care by sleeping in on a Sunday or walking through the woods or on a beach. 

Just as a physician provides counsel, so the church-goer hears “the word of God” read or interpreted or sung, and somewhere within their mind, body, and spirit—something healthy is being provided.

We leave this special time set aside—sacred time—with a prescription that offers us hope and guidance for steering a healthy course in life.

The book of Job tells of his suffering and of his friends explaining why suffering takes place.  At the book’s conclusion, God interrupts their conversation and subtly puts them (us) in their (our) place.  God asks them “Where were you when I put the mountains in place?  And when I dug out ground into which I placed the seas?  And where were you when I set the sun, moon, and stars in sky?  Since you think you know everything, just give me the answer to where you were on those days?”  They, of course, could not give an answer to God—and that they need to have faith and trust that God knows what God is doing (even if we don’t).

Today’s reading from Job brings to mind the lightning storm that killed his sheep and servants.  And the “powerful wind” that destroyed his house and killed his children.  Mark draws upon the Old Testament understanding of Yahweh (God) who stills the raging sea and about whom the prophets said could calm the raging storm.  Mark is showing us that Jesus is the God of the storm and sea, and that Jesus can control these mighty, primal forces.

Did you notice the contrast between the apostles and Jesus?  The boat is tossed upon the waves—water coming in to sink it—the fishermen hysterical in trying to keep themselves afloat—and where is Jesus?  Asleep on a cushion???  Huh???

The most basic message of the passage is that Jesus has what you and I want—peace in the storm.   It might sound like a cliché, but another basic point being made is that “we’re all in the same boat”—the good ship “Mother Earth.”  All God’s children in the quiet times and turbulent times together.   

We hear people say variations of: “it’s their problem, not mine,” “it’s their life—so they can do what they want—it’s none of my business,” or like Cain (who killed Abel) we can defensively retort “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (the answer being “YES! We are one another’s keeper.”   

And so the passage in Mark plays out in our lives, too.  Jesus shouts at us in our desperation: “Silence! Be still!”  In the face of life’s storms, we lack faith, and we are those “stiff-necked/hard-hearted” people of the Old Testament.  We are Job’s friends who claim to have answers but don’t.  

There are a lot of lessons we learn about God in the middle of the storm.  When challenged, we cry to heaven like the apostles saying “Don’t you care about us?” (we’re drowning, perishing, complaining, and adrift).

A dear Indian grandmother-friend was the only woman to own a commercial fishing license in Ontario—and she knew the storms of Lake Superior, and life, well.  She lost 5 of 10 children to various forms of early death.  And was a woman of great faith—me thinking of her being in the boat with Jesus holding his sleeping form on her lap.  Asking how she was able to endure the loss of her children, she calmly said that she knew God took care of them, so how could she feel bad about their being with God?

Boat symbolism is not unique to the New Testament.  Recall Noah’s ark?  That ancient story calls us to be people of faith, like him—and trust that God is present in our varied storms—even if silent.  Humorously regarded, we are called to be brave like Noah—who was asked to sail in a wooden boat with two termites.

Here’s a prayer which can be our prescription from today’s visit with our Divine healer.

Lord, Open unto me, light for my darkness. 

Open unto me, courage for my fear.

Open unto me, hope for my despair. 

Open unto me, peace for my turmoil. 

Open unto me, joy for my sorrow. 

Open unto me, strength for my weakness.  

Open unto me, wisdom for my confusion. 

Open unto me, forgiveness for my wrongdoing.

Open unto me, tenderness for my toughness.  

Open unto me, love for my hates.

Open unto me, Thy Self for myself.

Lord, Lord, open unto me.  

Pastor’s Pen     June 13, 2021

This past Friday was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—after which the Merrill church was named.  There are many places named “Sacred Heart”—such as the regional seminary in Detroit that supplies priests to this diocese.  There are Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and “academies” named Sacred Heart.  Curiously, for the first 1000 years of Christianity, there was NO devotion to what we today call the “Sacred Heart of Jesus.”  Hmmm.   How did this  change take place? No one thing was its source, but momentum fanned by saintly luminaries made it reach a crescendo with the 1673 experience of a French nun who is today known as “Saint” Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Having a Jesuit spiritual director who today is “Saint” Claude de la Colombière, this pious nun had “visions” which became the impetus for the devotion.  The mission of propagating the new devotion was especially confided to the Visitation nuns and to the priests of the Society of Jesus.  Margaret Mary’s “visions” might today raise skepticism among some, but whatever the devotion’s source, many have benefited from contemplating the heart as a symbol of God’s love for us.  It also symbolizes our being called throughout life to experience a “conversion of heart.”

Throughout the land this weekend, dioceses ordained young men to be priests—and this event in their lives reminds me of the “conversion of heart” they, and we, are called to experience—not on one day of our life, but EACH day in our life.  I read one young man’s reflection and he said—without knowing it—what each of us SHOULD have asked at some early point in life.  Namely, “why did God put me here?”

The parable in scripture today can play into this question, but it has a theological point that’s not quite that explicit.  The tiny mustard seed growing into a shrub that provides shade for all sorts of birds—refers to the lowly Jewish boy from Bethlehem fulfilling the Hebrew scriptures.  From these small beginnings will grow the worldwide kingdom foretold thru Israel/Prophets And yes, secondarily, we are small seeds who can grow mightily by accepting this Messiah.

Which leads to combining the reading from Paul and this gospel.  The point of doing good works is to fulfill OUR human destiny—not God’s.  Our “good deeds” are not a laundry list that wins us entrance to heaven but are how we achieve fulfillment.

Recall Luke’s gospel saying that Jesus grew “in wisdom and understanding?”  His story was also the story of the Sacred Heart devotion.  People reflecting on the life of Jesus made the devotion arise out of nowhere after the first millennium of Christianity.  And the bible itself tells of Israel growing in its understanding of God—which is our story, too.

When Moses told the people they should leave Egypt and head into the desert in search of a promised land, do you think everyone cheered and said: “Yay, let’s pack the car with all our stuff and get out of here—even though we just got this house and even though I have a decent enough job?”  Or how about when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and announced that God had revealed laws by which they should live?  Do you think the people cheered?

“Yay, we no longer need to murder one another, or steal from one another, and lie to one another.  Thank God, we can now share our wealth with one another and not keep it solely for our personal benefit since that will manifest greed.”  Instead of cheering, Moses probably met with “booing.”  People no doubt found fault with each “commandment,” reduced them to “suggestions,” and found exceptions in each case—which prompted him to describe his fellow Israelites as “hard hearted” and “stiff-necked.”  People no doubt said: “You can’t tell me what to do!  I know what’s best for me.”

And WE are those Israelites—in plus and minus sorts of ways.  Positively, we go through life and HOPEFULLY realize we do NOT have all the answers that that we need to grow into a “conversion of heart”—realizing we have “not” arrived in the promised land, but are at least making progress toward it.

I spent many years in Ohio State country—and realized Buckeye fans are identical to Wolverine fans.  As a Spartan, I’d talk to fanatical OSU people, and they were as blindly loyal to the Woody Hayes tradition as my UM relatives are to Bo Schembechler’s legacy.  Neither group cares about my Spartan identity.  If you don’t follow sports, forgive my stab at trying to find a relevant example in this realm.

Devotees of UM/OSU (maybe all schools) are as stiff-necked as the Israelites.  When Woody Hayes pushed an opposing player in the middle of a play, excuses were made to justify his behavior.  In the news now is Bo being accused (by his son and others) of ignoring abuse that took place within athletics (similar to what occurred at Penn State).  And at MSU, Tom Izzo is being criticized for not intervening when warning signs arose among his players (his one-time team captain now charged with murder).  The bible and religious tradition TRY to steer us through our human condition.

How do we navigate the worlds of opinion and behavior on all fronts of life?  You and I are here because we know that the best answers are here at church—tough as they may be to discern.  But a first step is that we need to realize we DON’T have all the answers.

I’m reminded of the college student’s conversion of heart (conversion of opinion and behavior) when coming to campus and saying after the first semester: “I thought I was middle class until I went to college and learned that I was poor.”  The same can be said of you and me thinking we know about a subject until meeting a specialist in the field who makes us realize we are misinformed.  And so it is with us thinking we are living the Christian life—until we encounter someone who is really living it.

My fellow mustard seeds—we have the potential to grow and provide comfort to many by becoming more and more the blessing-for-others who God intended us to be.  May we admit that each of us needs watering to become that special grace.

P.S. When thinking of the parables of Jesus, realize you have experienced many in your life.  Here is one from your childhood.

Parable of Kindergarten—the kingdom of God is like kindergarten

by Robert Fulghum

Some years back, an author said he learned all the important rules of life in kindergarten.  He said: These are the things I learned:  Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup. The seeds go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and sane living.

Think of what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put things back where we found them and cleaned up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

Pastor’s Pen                                 June 6, 2021

Last week, I mentioned that the sacraments were like spiritual vaccines.  They don’t fully immunize us from falling prey to toxic behaviors, but they sure help us face life’s challenges.  Whereas epidemics hit the world from time to time, we always have to deal with assaults to our spirit.  Left on our own, we fall prey to a world that can’t avoid war, and countries that forever struggle to keep their people from killing one another.

Many can recall getting the polio vaccine (I still have a memory from age 5 of a playmate who had polio and couldn’t walk; he proudly showed me one day that he could stand up—but not move).  Dr. Salk’s vaccine eliminated polio from the U.S (416 reported cases of polio worldwide in 2013).  Times change and instead of getting vaccinated for Covid, many Americans choose not to receive it.  Meanwhile, Central American and African nations cry out for the Covid vaccine.

Today, the Church has set aside this Sunday for what USED TO be known as The Feast of Corpus Christi.  It now goes by the name of “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ” (“corpus Christi” is Latin for “body of Christ”).

Just as some people argue against vaccines, the Church has not been spared from people arguing about the sacraments.  In the 1500s, we had between 20 and 30 sacraments, but reformers who “protested” (thus, the world “Protestant”)—persuaded the Church to reduce the number to 7.  However, most Protestant groups today just recognize baptism and the Eucharist.  Different groups likewise have different “theologies” of baptism and Eucharist.

Differences of opinion back in the 1500s shouldn’t be a surprise.  Studies done on contemporary American Catholics also show disagreement on many issues.  Even the gospels reveal different “takes” on subjects.  Today’s account in Mark, for example, places the “Last Supper” (sometimes called the “first supper”) within the context of a Passover meal.  John, by contrast, says it was not a Passover meal.  This variance is not a major problem.  It is simply showing that the theology of the 2 evangelists is different—both depicting what Jesus did for a particular theological reason.  They are not writing a biography of his activities.

As for understanding the Eucharist, Catholics tend to speak of the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament.  This is rooted in what might be called a theology of “table fellowship” that defined what Jesus did with his apostles.  That is, eating together in a ritual context meant that people shared common ideas and values, and their “breaking of bread” with Jesus signified his union with them—and us at the table/altar.

Interestingly, you may recall Judas separating himself from the group—going off and betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  This has moved many to see in Judas a reflection of ourselves.  The story of Judas reminded me of  Marjoe (1972), a behind-the-scenes documentary about the lucrative business of Pentecostal preaching that won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.  Cameras followed him on his final set of revival meetings in California, Texas, and MICHIGAN (are we Michiganders particularly vulnerable to con artists?).

Unknown to everyone involved – including his preacher-father – he gave “backstage” interviews to the filmmakers between sermons–explaining how he and other ministers operated (as grifters). The filmmakers also shot footage of him counting money he collected (Marjoe commenting how he was able to con people into giving donations to him).  As disappointing as it was to see this man’s “ministry” portrayed in these terms, a ray of light was that Marjoe himself was quitting the business—and eventually did some good charitable work.  His conscience got to him?

Since the gospels are mirrors for each of us, we are Judas, too.  Judas does not just refer to “apostles” like Marjoe who got wealthy passing himself off as an evangelist.  Through the example of Judas, we are called to reflect on whether or not we’ve sold our souls/conscience/heart for 30 pieces of silver.  For example, I read an article that showed the yachts of famous people—sports stars, corporate heads, and celebrities who acquire fortunes in different ways.

I’m not a stick-in-the-mud sort of person who thinks everyone should go around wearing “sackcloth and ashes,” but I do know that Christians are called to “steward” their resources so that God’s people are helped (clothe the naked, feed the hungry, etc.).  Could I, as a Christian, own a 50-million-dollar yacht for my use only?  As I read the article, and saw some yachts costing 75, 100, 150 million dollars—I could only wonder if the message of Jesus was for me to invest such vast sums only in myself and my own pleasure.

In fairness to yacht owners, I then thought that if Jesus had 50 million dollars, maybe he WOULD acquire a yacht!  However, he’d use it to take kids for a ride on the Sea of Galilee, or teach kids how to captain a boat, or take people out to go fishing—thus investing his 50 million in more people than just himself.  And so it is with each of us at John the 23rd parish.  The gospel calls each of us to “steward” our “pieces of silver” not just on behalf of ourselves but on others, too.

Returning to the “first/last supper,” St. Augustine said that a sacrament is something given to us by Jesus—which is a visible sign of an invisible reality.  The bread and wine re-presents Jesus with us (today’s apostles) at the table-altar.  We claim to be united with him in shared values—just as at Thanksgiving time, we’re not celebrating the turkey, but rather the felt sense of gratitude for loved ones who are near.

Each celebration “makes present” that mighty deed of God for those present—the visible signs of bread and wine (food) of the invisible reality of God’s presence—in scripture and in the people.  The Israelites felt God’s presence in the Torah (the “word” of God) while Jesus WAS the Word of God at table in the Eucharist.

Another angle of eucharistic theology is that many people come to mass for consolation, or a sense of God helping them with life’s challenges.  This is certainly a valid aspect of the Eucharist.  However, gathering at the Lord’s table also includes a challenge or confrontation—not in the nasty sense of challenge or confrontation—but in a sense of helping us expand our horizon of understanding.

When we come here, we are admitting that we’re NOT saints or persons with all the answers.  Just the opposite!  We are SUPPOSED to come to mass to get our conscience more in conformity with the gospel.  After all, if you claim to be Christian, your conscience is NOT formed by TV, movies, clubs or political parties you belong to.  Let non-church-goers be formed by those media, Madison Avenue, or Internet forums that peddle A to Z philosophies.   As people of the gospel, we gather to have our attitudes and behavior formed by the gospel.

A neat experience reminded me of sacramental experiences—from a totally odd point of view.  I was looking out the window and noticed 3 brothers, ages 7-11, uprooting flowers from the church’s front garden.  I knew these boys, so went outside and shouted their names as they ran away.  Calling them to return, I wondered what on earth I could say to them that hadn’t been said to them a hundred times before (since they tended to get in trouble).  Kneeling down and extending my arms creating a kind of huddle in a football game, I told them how much I considered them my friends and how sad it was to see them hurt the flowers which people in the parish really liked.  I said something to the effect of friends not treating one another this way—and suggested we start afresh—with a group hug.

The experience came to mind this weekend when reading a theologian’s reflection on Corpus Christi.  He wrote: “So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond words. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us close to his heart.”

Among the many things that might come to mind during the mass, try and get a sense of God embracing you—holding you close to his heart.

Communion Reflection

From St. Theresa of Liseux (the “little flower”—d. 1897)

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

 From St. John Chrysostom (d. 407)

“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.” 

Pastor’s Pen    May 30, 2021

This past week we had a full moon and lunar eclipse–that some call the “blood moon” or some other name.  Since full moons are thought to affect people’s moods, you’ve perhaps felt emotional tugs this past week (or now).  It is during times of emotional unrest that we often turn to God for peace of mind and heart—so it’s good that we be here on what’s known as “Trinity Sunday.”  We need to be here—because we have disturbances of spirit that need the spiritual strength we derive from this sacrament.

Fact is, we need the sacraments year-round—be it full moon or not.  The human condition is such that we need the “vaccines” of grace which ARE the sacraments.  They protect us from the various epidemics of spirit that challenge us year-round.  Today we offer the sacrament of the sick to anyone who wishes to receive it during the Mass.

The gospel reading for this Sunday is a foundational one for my spirituality.  It’s at the end of Matthew’s gospel and it tells of Jesus calling the apostles to a mountaintop (recall a mountaintop throughout all of scripture is a signal to us that God is going to make a major revelation or announcement).  Jesus tells them that he’s about to depart, but that he’s leaving them with a very important message.

Oh?  What’s that?

He tells them that their life, their existence, their every-day-ness—is VERY important.  Why?  Because all that he lived for is now in their hands—to spread the word that each life is sacred—is meaningful—is here for a reason—and that we are all brothers and sisters of one human family—his!

And as he departs, he says “Oh, and one more thing.  Remember I’ll be with you in a special way until the end of time.”

Appropriately, we celebrate “Trinity Sunday” with this reading because he says the above via what Protestants tend to call “the great Commission”. (“Baptize all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”).

The Trinity

This basic understanding of the Christian “godhead” is what our theology describes as a “mystery” of our faith.  That is, we can’t fully understand how there are “3 persons in 1 God” (Father/Son/Spirit).  We can “kind of” conceive of analogies of 3-in-1 when thinking of a 3-leaf clover or musician/sheet music/sound—but distinct “persons” is hard for us to conceptualize.

Nonetheless, grounded in scripture, we have an understanding of God as Father (or Creator/Grandfather, or Grandmother/Mother, Elder wisdom keeper, etc.), Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit (symbolized by a flame or whirring-wind sound at Pentecost).  We even pray to these 3 persons without consciously thinking “I’ll now pray to the Holy Spirit,” “Next I’ll pray to the Son,” and “Finally, I’ll pray to the Father.”

No, we tend to pray in this fashion, for example, to the Father: “Father in heaven, you made this beautiful earth and this wondrous summer day with the shiny blue-water lake—thank you so much for so many gifts all around me that I take for granted.  And my wonderful wife/husband/kids—who I love so much—gifts from you dearest God of all creation—to you I raise my heart in thanks.”

Whereas 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 do so.”

Or to the Holy Spirit we might say: “Holy Spirit, place a fire in my heart—that I might match the challenge of today’s meeting.  I feel so overwhelmed in dealing with him/her/them—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.”

These illustrations show that we naturally pray to the Trinity—and don’t really have to think of how they are 3-in-1.  We simply relate to God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.  And today we’re called to reflect on this theological reality.  Sadly, most Catholic young people (not to mention everyone who isn’t Christian or who has no faith-life background) don’t know what you’re referring to when you say “Trinity.”

Our religious formation programs have had to contend with too strong a secular culture for our youth to learn about or care about theology.  Electronic games and hand-held devices are far more appealing.

That said, today’s mass is offering people the opportunity to receive the sacrament of the sick.  Our lector will first lead us in a litany of prayer:

Our response to the following petitions is: “Compassionate God, hear us.”

Lord, we entrust to your care our loved ones of John the 23rd parish.  May they be given a strong faith in your healing power.  Trusting in God’s care for us, we pray:  COMPASSIONATE God, hear us.

May the Spirit bring consolation to any who are struggling with discouragement.  Trusting in God’s care for us, we pray, “Compassionate God, hear us.”

For all who are seriously ill, may they be given a courageous faith in God’s saving power.  Trusting in God’s care for us we pray, “Compassionate God, hear us.”

Let us pray for divine assistance for all who feel the burden of years or whose minds are not as reliable as they once were.  Trusting in God’s care for us, we pray.  “Compassionate God, hear us.”

For Persons facing treatment and care-decisions for themselves or those they love, May your wisdom guide them.

Trusting in God’s care for us, we pray, “Compassionate God, hear us.”

We ask your blessing upon all health care personnel and caregivers.  May they be instruments of your healing and compassion.  Trusting in God’s care of us, we pray.  “Compassionate God, hear us.”

Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  May the Lord renew your confidence in his loving care at this time and always.

Pastor’s Pen                              May 23, 2021

Pentecost is celebrated 10 days after Ascension Thursday (unless the Ascension is celebrated on a Sunday—in which case Pentecost Sunday is one week after Ascension Sunday).  It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. The term “Pentecost” comes from the Greek and means “fiftieth.”   It refers to the Jewish festival celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Jewish First Fruits holiday.  In rabbinic (“rabbi”) tradition, the Jewish feast of Pentecost (“Shavuot”) was primarily a thanksgiving for the first-fruits of the wheat harvest, but it was later associated with a remembrance of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai (the 10 commandments). Christians changed this feast of the Law to a feast of the Spirit.

Although Pentecost is now celebrated 50 days after Easter, the New Testament is not unanimous on this point (Luke saying it occurred 50 days after Easter while John saying the Spirit came on Easter).  It is considered to be the birthday of the Church—and since we are “church,” it is our spiritual birthday.  The color associated with the Spirit is red—which also is used for martyr feast days (signifying blood).

So often within discussions of Christian practice, all we hear about is the word “sin” (hamartia in Greek).  All sorts of images probably come to mind when that word surfaces.

It technically refers to “missing the mark” as with a bull’s eye target.  With excellent, value-laden behavior represented by the bull’s eye, we sometimes hit it, sometimes miss it by a little, and sometimes by a lot.  Traditionally, near-misses of perfect behavior are called “venial” sins while major misses are called “mortal” sins.  Overall, “sin” refers to an evil force or power within our experience with which we all contend.  And our arsenal of defense against sin is the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians gives some (but not all) examples of missing the mark and begins his list with “immorality.”  Morality or immorality is today a synonym for “ethical” or “unethical” behavior.  But regardless of which word you use, morality or ethics, what do you think of when you hear those words?

Many might think of sexual immorality.  However, much more is involved than how we handle our sexual drives.  They are good in themselves (gifts from God) but as with anything, those drives can be misdirected and cause us many problems.

How about the morality of nuclear war?  Are you quick to say we should bomb some place in the world and make a parking lot of that country?  Would you be waving the flag when the nuclear sub named the “Corpus Christi” was launched (“Corpus Christi” translates to “body of Christ”)?  Is it “right,” or is it hitting the bull’s eye of what Jesus taught to associate his name with nuclear weapons that can destroy millions of people?

How about the viral video a couple of years ago which showed the young teen girl smiling next to the giraffe she shot in Africa?  Or those who go on hunting trips to shoot elephants?  Both creatures are fast disappearing from the face of the earth, but some people—for some reason—want to shoot and kill them.  Is that hitting the bull’s eye of Christian morality?  Is the killing of majestic creatures who evolved over millions of years and bringing them to extinction—what Jesus taught about being a good steward of creation?

You get the point.  There are different kinds of “immorality” and “sin” in the world.  As with the word “immorality,” so it is with “impurity.” Often enough we hear that word and think of “impure” sexual thoughts.  St. Paul, however, was referring to many other things, too.  There were dietary laws and ritual behaviors that were common to the Mediterranean cultures—and he implored people to observe practices that kept God foremost in mind.  Cultures observe “purity” laws—and these are what he was referring to.

Sadly, many people today are so uninformed about religious behavior of ANY kind, that they don’t think of impurity of any sort—related to anything.  Maybe they think of impure water, and so they buy some bottled water which they think is “pure.”  Religion?  God?  Many have no sense of what’s Christian and what’s not.  Their only sexual morality is what they see on the Internet—(which is every behavior you can imagine).  As for having any sense of the Sacred—in any religion—and acting in respectful ways that honor that religion’s teachings—is foreign to many people.  They don’t have a clue about sacred behaviors.

Paul refers to “lust” which, of course, can refer to seeing another solely as a sexual object.  Lusting entails feeling passion for someone (which is okay), but no compassion (which falls short of the bull’s eye).  Lust, as we all know, can lead us into diseases that can kill us (venereal diseases which we soften with the term “sexually transmitted disease”).  This is a good example of all practices which Paul designates as sin.  Namely, if we choose to miss the Christian bull’s eye, we’re asking for trouble.  God doesn’t want us to hurt ourselves.

So don’t think of missing the bull’s eye as opening the door for God to punish you for your behavior.  No.  God gets no thrill out of bullying you for your being weak in some area.  If anything, God wants to help you work on your aim.

Some thinkers have said there’s no such thing as an atheist.  Why?  Because everyone has some “ultimate concern.”  I might think of God as my ultimate concern while another might think of acquiring wealth as their ultimate concern.  All sorts of things can become our preoccupation or focus of our life’s efforts.  Call that your “god.”  It’s just not the God who Jesus revealed.

Each of us can be guilty of another sin that Paul points out—idolatry.  What “shrines” do you worship at?

Paul lists such things as “hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, creating dissension, occasions of envy, drinking, orgies, and the like.”  I especially like this last one “the like”—meaning that you and I can list any number of behaviors which we, as individuals, have that prevent us from being the person of blessing we are called to be.

All of our families have been affected by alcohol or some other addiction, and AA individuals have shown us that these addiction-demons can be overcome or held at bay.  And think of those who are known as “anarchists.”  There is a “force” (that’s sinful) within some people which moves them to create chaos—for no reason at all.  Computer “hackers” who just want to create problems for people are examples of anarchists.

Paul says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  What he means by that is NOT that you won’t go to heaven when you die, but that you will not find fulfillment NOW if you behave these ways.

So what behaviors SHOULD you practice?  Paul lists them, too.  You can identify where God exists when you see people exhibit these traits when conversing with you.  They have an aura, or mode of dealing with people and issues, that reflects joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

When you see people behave or speak the OPPOSITE of these traits—be careful.  They are not exhibiting what Christianity calls the “fruits of the Spirit.”

I’m reminded of a video on M-Live which showed a militia man shooting his military weaponry, stopping, and facing the camera, and nastily saying something to the effect that he’s going to shoot anyone who doesn’t go along with what he and his army of patriots are going to “restore” in America.

Seeing the traits that Paul lists tells you the kind of language and behavior that Jesus would use.  If we are Christian, we do our best to live those traits and have our language, behavior, and tone of voice reflect what the gospel offers.

Communion Reflection

It makes me angry, Lord, when people treat me discourteously—and are unfriendly to me.

I also get upset when I see on television or hear of anyone killed or abused by those who unleash their hostility on others.  I think of the man who went and killed a number of people at worship—thinking they were Muslims.  Turned out they were Sikhs—not Muslims—a religion out of India and not related to Saudi Arabia’s Islam.  One man’s ignorance brought death to good people praying.

We think of some people as having the wrong family tree.  They belong to the wrong race, ethnicity, or social class.  And when I think of it, so do you, Lord Jesus.  You’re a nobody.

Your line has black sheep like Adam, white murderers like David, liars like Jacob, and in-laws like Ruth.  Boaz bought a foreign girl after a wild night on the threshing floor.

You certainly didn’t pick your ancestors.  Or did you?

You came as a nobody to give every person from everywhere the joy of discovering that it’s a gift to be born, a privilege to be human, and an honor to be the person they are.

But more than that.  You became flesh of my flesh, my family tree of sinners, fools, and oppressed.

You came to give dignity to the human family, to set all of us free from fear, and instill in us the power to live a new life where love means building community and bridging differences.

In you, I have worth.  I am somebody—and so are they–the other, the man, the woman, and child who lives everywhere in the garden of Eden you gave to humanity.  Thank you, Lord, for reminding us of this truth on Pentecost.

Pastor’s Pen                                  May 16, 2021

When we think of the Ascension, we might get images from Renaissance art of Jesus rising into the sky and waving goodbye to his friends.  Luke offers this depiction while the gospel of John mentions nothing of the sort.  Hmm.  What DOES the Ascension refer to, and what DOES it mean for me?

In Acts of the Apostles, we’re told the departure of Jesus took place 40 days after the resurrection, but theologians say this number is used in a symbolic way—as the number “40” appears a number of times in Hebrew scripture and the New Testament—signaling something important.  For example,  the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert before finding promised land, Noah was adrift for 40 days of the flood (at which time, significantly,  a new creation appeared), 40 is the period of years it takes for a new generation to arise,  Eli, Saul, David, and Solomon ruled for “forty years,”  Goliath challenged the Israelites twice a day for 40 days until David got tired of him, Moses spent 3 consecutive periods of 40 days/nights on Mt. Sinai, and Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert.

Interestingly, for 300 years, the early Church did not celebrate what we today call the Ascension.  Theologically, the resurrection and ascension are 2 aspects of the Easter event.  Jesus faced the cross, overcame it, rose to new life, and passed the baton to us.  When we liturgically address this one event’s two aspects, we are paying special attention to the meaning of resurrection for us as individuals, and the meaning of ascension for us in our everyday lives.

Today’s reading has the apostles being asked “Why do you stand looking up to the heavens?”—waiting for Jesus to return?   The point here is that there’s no need to look up to heaven for some sort of divine intervention in our lives.  It has already occurred—so be up and on your way to be a witness of it. 

The magi looked heavenward at a star which led them to the child of Bethlehem.  But that child told us to look for the stars within us—within our minds and hearts and limbs—and everyday lives. 

 Spirituality-wise, Matthew’s account of the departure reminds us that God is with you in good times and bad, whether you’re rich or poor, whether you’re sick or in good health, until death & beyond.  Luke says the Holy Spirit is now with us to be the presence of Jesus alive in the world.

But what is it that we are to evangelize?  To share?  What “good news” is it that we’re supposed to preach (the Anglo-Saxon word “godspiel” meaning “good news”)? 

I recently watched a video of a Church leader speaking.  His presentation was dead on arrival—no “affect” in his tone of voice or on his face and speaking robotically.  How sad, I thought.  This wooden prelate didn’t seem to be feeling any “good news” at all.   But what IS he, or you, or me supposed to feel?

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are SUPPOSED to feel the incarnation of Jesus as being an affirmation or embrace or divine blessing of OUR incarnation—its value now, and our value eternally.

When Jesus bade adieu to his friends, it’s as if he was speaking to their hearts and saying it was time for him to return to the Father, and for our incarnate, enfleshed reality to speak volumes about God, our Creator.

It’s as if Jesus were to take each of us one-by-one and stand us in front of our community—introduce us to the assembly—and tell everyone what a miracle you are—what a blessing you are to all creation—and the assembly is to rise and applaud your creation.

Now the fact of life is that each of us has fallen flat on our face at different times in our lives.  Like the beautiful turkey I saw on television courting lady turkeys.  He was beautiful—strutting near the girls and showing them his beautiful feathers.  Then, all-of-a-sudden, I heard a rifle shot, and that beautiful creature was dead.  I didn’t realize that I had channel-surfed to a hunter’s show.  One moment the beautiful turkey was happy—and the next moment he no longer exists.  He reminded me of us humans.

As did the several deer I saw running scared on I-70 one day.  Frightened by the traffic, the lead deer leaped over the railing—followed by the others—not knowing they had come to a bridge and would land on pavement 50 feet below.  They reminded me of us humans.

With all our missteps in life, our ups and downs, and in-betweens, each of us is a person who could stand in front of the assembly–as God’s beloved—valued as a pearl of great price.  

On Ascension day, the angels ask us “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”  Instead, you should look in the mirror and smile at the child of God you are.  And BE the good news you were intended to be in the unique circumstances of your life.

Language and Lies

I watched a presentation on how language can be deceptive.  Our human ancestral tendency is to accept as truth what someone tells us, e.g., there are no deer to hunt over there, don’t eat this berry because it’ll kill you, that river is too deep and dangerous to cross, etc. Consequently, when someone speaks to us, we EXPECT to hear the truth.  Deep in our genetic makeup is the desire for truth–because lying can lead to physical death.  

What makes the topic interesting is that in today’s world, a person can lie–but then be caught in their lie due to cameras recording what really took place.  Lies can temporarily get one out of a bad situation (e.g., I’ve never been there, I didn’t know the gun was loaded, I never spoke with that person, etc.) but later on, the person’s lies catch up–and they’re revealed as an untrustworthy liar.

Examples of lies-that-kill in American history are those of the “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq (which didn’t exist), the tobacco industry saying there was no connection of smoking to lung cancer, and the petroleum industry knowing for decades but denying that climate change was occurring because of our using fossil fuels.  

Moreover, someone can state a bald-faced lie, but reports of the lie are couched in gentler terms.  Listeners (or readers) are led to be more kind-hearted if they hear a lie referred to as a “falsehood,” “false claim,” “inaccurate claim,” “unsupported claim,” “erroneous description,” or “unsubstantiated fact.”   The phrases “alternative fact” and “alternative reality” were used by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway who was reminded by listeners that a fact is a fact and reality is reality–and that no “alternatives” to fact and reality exist.  One can only imagine what dinner table conversation is like in her household–given her husband’s well-known, vocal opposition to Trump.

I didn’t lie.  No.  I just made an “unsubstantiated” claim.  See how language can alter perception?

Now part of everyday conversation is what’s known as “the big lie.”  Of German origin long before now, the Oxford dictionary defines it as “a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts, especially when used as a propaganda device by a politician . . . ”  Coined by Adolph Hitler in his book Mein Kampf, it describes the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone could “distort the truth” to such an extreme degree.  His use of a “big lie” was to blame the loss of WW I on the Jews–historians today saying the lie brought about the holocaust.  Another was his claim that Germany was not defeated in WW I, but rather was betrayed by internal groups.

In WW II, the new CIA said this of Hitler’s psychological profile: His primary rules are: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; take advantage of every opportunity to raise a political whirlwind. People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one, and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it. 

The “big lie” reality is still alive–now at play in the news with Arizona’s senate re-counting the Arizona vote–despite multiple state-conducted audits that each time proved the integrity of the 2020 election. The new re-count is being done by a company that was founded by a Republican donor with no experience in anything related to voting.  Tired of the nonsense and expense caused by this group and Mr. Trump’s series of lies related to Arizona, Maricopa County’s Republican election board said that the re-count was “outrageous, completely baseless and beneath the dignity of the Arizona Senate”–Trump loyalists simply lying in an effort to raise funds for the 2022 and 24 elections–selling the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent.  After refuting each charge laid against them, the Board said: “We ask everyone to join us in standing for the truth”–a statement similar to what Congresswoman Lyn Cheney said and for which she lost her leadership position in the Republican party.

[See: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/5/16/2030707/–Wow-This-is-unhinged-writes-Maricopa-County-Election-Official-about-trump-s-deranged-tweet?detail=emaildkre]

Meanwhile, Georgia congressman Andrew Clyde had the gall to say this week that the January 6th insurrection was a normal tourist visit and that if a camera was showing shots of the Capitol that day, it would capture tourists, casually and in an orderly fashion, looking at statues.  He probably knew that none of his constituents saw a video of him fearfully shouting on the 6th and trying to hold back protesters from breaking down the door leading into the congressional offices.  He used the gimmick used by others (accuse them of what you’re guilty of) and called people liars who said January 6th was anything but peaceful.  Lie about the election and then lie about the many people who stormed the Capitol–committing acts of sedition for which they can be sent to jail for not longer than 20 years.

I suspect that lots of these lying people consider themselves “Christian.” They apparently aren’t aware of the Christian tradition that teaches us not to lie.  As our genetic inheritance tells us, lying can lead to death.  God is a God of life.

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                               May 9, 2021

Imagine if we were to have St. Peter as a guest speaker.  People would come from miles around to meet him.  We’d be in awe of this key, New Testament, figure.  And he would say to each of us, as he did to Cornelius in today’s reading: “Don’t make me out to be someone I’m not. I myself am also a human being.  God shows no partiality.”

What he said is a major theme of Christianity. That is, God doesn’t favor one people over another.  Recall the scripture passage that says: “rain falls on the just and unjust alike?”  So it is with God.  If you think you have more rights than anyone else—you’re wrong.

Another major theme in scripture is that “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.” God does not benefit from our practice of the faith—but WE do.  That’s the point of Jesus coming to us. Concretely, this means that through belonging to a faith community our sense of self is enhanced along with a better sense of what mission in life we were created to fulfill.  Church practice broadens our vision of who we are, who other people are, and where we fit within creation.  Belonging to a faith community awakens our consciousness of the world beyond our narrow-mindedness or limited vision.

People who don’t go to church or have no active faith life are not bad.  They might be saintly souls.  I’m simply saying that non-church people could be better people if they DID attend mass and receive the sacraments.  Hear me correctly.  I’m not saying you’re BETTER than non-church goers, but YOU are better for it—as they would be if they attended mass (they’d be even more saintly than they already are).

People have a hundred different reasons for not going to mass or having a Church identity.  I actually agree with many of the reasons people find church attendance a drag.  But what alternative do they have—sleeping in on a Sunday morning? Reading the sports section of some magazine or newspaper?  Watch television?  Playing music?

Where will people get their souls refreshed or enlivened?  Where will their minds be touched with thoughts of the world that exists beyond their front porch?  Our country’s experience in the Facebook experience of 2016’s election shows how vulnerable we humans are.  Foreign propaganda was bought hook, line, and sinker by many Americans.  The word “disinformation” was born—referring to foreign countries and political lobbyists planting lies within the population—and selling those lies as truth.

Courts and Trump-appointed judges have ruled that the 2020 election was clearly and fairly won by Biden, but people ignored this fact and stormed the Capital building—threatening the life of the vice-president and representatives.  Some of these people likewise believe that space aliens started fires in California via laser beams shot from their spacecraft.  Others believe that “lizard people” exist who are camouflaged as humans.  Again, Russia (primarily), Iran, Iraq, and a few other countries “plant” these stories on Facebook and other social media—and too many Americans accept this “disinformation” as fact.

I’m reminded of an example I saw featured on the “60 Minutes” TV show several years ago.  It was the video of a man in farmworker clothing standing with a little girl in a field.  It SEEMED to be the picture of a good old American pie dad and daughter.  The man used speech that was not “educated” but was, instead, the “down-home” vocabulary of a dad who loved his daughter and feared that Hilary Clinton would destroy the American farm, ruin his life, and that of his daughter.  In a pleading tone of voice, he told the interviewer that “It’ll be a sorry day for America if Hilary Clinton is elected.”—the camera capturing his sad face and that of his devoted daughter.

“60 Minutes” then showed where this “interview” was conducted.  Not in Pennsylvania as it claimed, but in Moscow—where a propaganda lab works 24 hours a day.  And it was found on Facebook and Youtube.  It was all a crock of disinformation peddled by Russia.  And we Americans eat up these lies and accept them as truth.

Even when turning to Christian ministers, we need to be wary.  Longtime TV evangelist Kenneth Copeland—also longtime dodging questions about his being a con-man—is worth 750 million dollars (which raises the question of Christians keeping for themselves vast amounts of wealth).  Mr. Trump’s White House-appointed “Christian minister,” Paula White, has been so associated with bankruptcies, multiple marriages, and preaching heresy, that it’s surprising she has anyone listening to her. She follows a trail that was blazed by Jim Baker who went to prison for fleecing his flock of funds, but who has returned to the airwaves and is again conning followers to subsidize his lifestyle.  In short, these are all illustrations of how we are all vulnerable to wolves in sheep’s clothing.

The above scenarios are contrary to what our religious practice teaches. However, many folks no longer go to church—and so are influenced by the inanity and ridiculous claims made by these “evil” forces.  You don’t have to think of satanic forces from hell led by Lucifer.  Demonic powers appear in us humans—as we interact with one another—and we are a blessing or curse for people. 

 Especially contrary to the gospel are those who foment anger and hatred among minority groups.  One current ploy used by the wealthy is to stir antagonism between Hispanic peoples and blacks.  Get the poor to hate those they perceive as taking from them—and the poor are distracted from looking at those with vast wealth who should be the real targets of complaint. 

Southern plantation owners during the Civil War got poor whites to see slaves as becoming “uppity” and taking from them (the poor whites)—and so got the poor whites to don Confederate uniforms and fight ON BEHALF OF THE WEALTHY PLANTATION OWNERS.  In the U.S. today, Hispanics outnumber blacks, and well-funded special interest groups are buying up Spanish-speaking radio stations and hiring Rush Limbaugh types to broadcast hate-speech (veiled as political opinion).  Hispanic listeners are stoked to see blacks as culprits who prevent Hispanics from rising out of poverty (instead of a social system controlled by the wealthy).  I’m reminded of a waitress at Olive Garden 2 weeks ago telling me her hourly wage was 2.83–tips presumably elevating her take-home to a living wage (and relieving Olive Garden from paying her a just wage).

In today’s reading from Acts, the issue of circumcising converts is addressed.  The historical reality was that non-Jews (Gentiles) were becoming Christian, and many Jewish-Christians insisted that male converts be circumcised—as prescribed by God to Abraham (it being a “mark of the covenant” between God and Israel).  In the year 49, Church leaders met to settle this issue: to circumcise or not?

Today’s reading says that “circumcised believers” (Jewish) were shocked that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles.  How could this be (they thought)?  Could it be that “those people” who looked different from them and who had different cultural traditions—could actually be children of God—loved just as much by God as the Israelites?Yup!! 

Again, this event in Christian history points to our faith community asserting that we are all in this together—people with different backgrounds and appearances all loved by God (whether they’re circumcised or not). It should be clear how this applies to issues in our time.  As Christians, we are called to see all people—from all cultures—as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are NOT less-than-human. 

  There’s also the lesson of “spirit over law” in today’s readings.  If you go by the literal law, you might miss its spirit.  The early Christians learned through experience that God called them to suspend some laws in order to progress.  New circumstances required new thinking (but some Church contingent wanted to rely solely on the legal tradition, and not think creatively). 

We can’t let this weekend go by without saying something about mothers. 

Some people mistakenly think that the God of the Old Testament is solely a punishing God—and they have no interest in going to church and hearing about this nasty old man.  Contrary to what they think, the Hebrew scriptures have a number of “takes” on God.  The prophets, for example, saw an almighty power who could judge harshly but was much concerned about the people’s well-being.  Exodus saw God as a mighty warrior while Leviticus depicted deity as wholly “other” and approachable only through elaborate ritual.  The Wisdom books saw God as the essence of wisdom, thought, and profound insight in all matters.    

Cultures tend to see God/Jesus in cultural terms (as with this week’s bulletin showing a dark-skinned Mary and baby Jesus; or American Indian churches having Indian Jesus statues and portraits; and so it is with cultures everywhere).  One theologian said that if you think of color, God’s is the color of clear water.  

 Do you picture God with a body?  Male or female?  Older or younger?  3-headed?  What color eyes?  Is God a father—yes; a mother—yes.  Hmm.  How DO we conceive of God?  All we can be sure of is that Jesus said God is LOVE. Aha!!  So God can be thought of as “mother” (as scripture says “can a mother forget a baby at her breast” when speaking of God’s devotion to us). Could God be thought of as a faithful dog who’d fight to the death for you?  Why not? The fact is, God transcends our labels.  

I was in a Detroit mall parking lot and came upon a woman sobbing deeply.  I asked what was wrong, and she said she couldn’t find her car.  She made me think that God sees each of us lost and alone and crying—and it is God who wants to lead us to safety and comfort us.  

God is much like our mothers.  When my mom died, I then realized that I no longer had a home to visit.  I was on my own—no matter how kind or friendly anyone else was.  I’d always be welcome at mom’s house—with access to the refrigerator, front couch, tv room, etc. Maybe that’s why there’s a traditional phrase which refers to “holy mother the Church.”  The Church as mother is a good image of God.  We’re always welcome at God’s house, and always accepted when we visit. 

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                            April 25, 2021

Earth Day was on Thursday of this past week.  Today is Good Shepherd Sunday.  Because Pope Francis calls us to be good shepherds of the earth, here are reflections on our role within the environment.

Within geology (which anthropologists like me have to tap when doing archaeology and studying a people’s adaptation to various “niches” around the world), some say we are now in the “Anthropocene” epoch.  

To refresh your memory, there have traditionally been 7 epochs: the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene.  An epoch refers to an extended period of time usually characterized by a distinctive biological development or earth-modifying series of events, e.g., monkeys emerging in the Oligocene or weather changing in the Pleistocene.   It was recently proposed that the Holocene has given way to the Anthropocene because we now live in a world that has been so affected by the “footprint” of “man” (from the Greek word “Anthropos“) that a new epoch name is required, hence Anthropocene.  

More than 80% of the world’s surface has been changed by human habitation or alteration of some sort, e.g., mountain-top removal in West Virginia.  The Amazon forest is called “the lungs of the world” and acres of it are being cut down each day.  Meanwhile, there’s a mass of debris/garbage/refuse that’s floating island-like in the Pacific and that covers an expanse of water the size of Texas.    

Even our bodies are right now being affected.  Just as they evolved in the other epochs to what they are today, our bodies are experiencing “perturbations” (a term referring to something happening in the environment which causes a species to go extinct or adapt in some way, e.g., upright posture, skin-color, etc. were adaptations that came about over time–not consciously changed by humans but because of perturbations of some sort in the environment). 

As one scientist stated: “. . . the Anthropocene continually inscribes itself in all our bodies – we all have endocrine disruptors, microplastics, and other toxic things chugging through our metabolisms – it manifests differently in different bodies. Those differences, along with the histories that generated them, matter a great deal – not just to the people who suffer from them, but also to humanity’s relationship with the planet.”

The papal encyclical, Laudato Si, further notes: “Apart from a few obvious signs of pollution, things do not look that serious, and some say the planet can continue as it has for some time. This mentality serves as a license for us to unthinkingly carry on with our present lifestyles and modes of production and consumption. Having this mentality is the way human beings feed their self-destructive vices: they try not to see them, try not to acknowledge them, delay important decisions and pretend that nothing will happen.”

Laudato Si calls us to realize that care for the environment is woven into the Christian call to care for one another.  “It is inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking and being unconcerned about the poor . . . “  

Recall the photo of earth taken from the Apollo spacecraft?  It showed us for the first time in human history an objective view of our planet—a beautiful blue orb with green and brown (and white at the polar caps).  A thing of beauty—our human home and home to all that we know–floating in space.

If it was a small thing that you could care for as a terrarium—it’d be the main feature of your house—which you’d proudly show people.  Over time, however, people smoke in your house and you do your cooking, and these activities leave a residue on the orb.  Kids use crayons on it and roll it around as a ball to play with.  Then one day you pick it up and it isn’t the beautiful blue and white and brown and green fragrant thing of beauty it once was.  You contemplate throwing it in the trash or giving it to Goodwill.  

That is equivalently what we have done with the planet described in Genesis that God made.  Here’s another way of looking at what the papal encyclical addressed.

There was a huge forest being consumed by fire. All the animals in the forest came out and watched in horror as the forest burned.  They felt overwhelmed and very powerless–except for a little hummingbird. It said, ‘I’m going to do something about the fire!’ So it flew to the nearest stream and took a drop of water. The hummingbird put it on the fire, and went up and down, up and down, up and down, as fast as it could—with one beak-full after another trying to put out the blaze.   

Meanwhile, all the other animals, much bigger ones like the elephant with a big trunk that could bring much more water, they were standing there helpless. And they were saying to the hummingbird, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak is so small that you can only bring a small drop of water at a time.’   

But as they continued to discourage the hummingbird, it turned to them without wasting any time and it told them, ‘I am doing the best I can.’                                             _______ 

God calls each of us to be like the hummingbird. My efforts might be small, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching the forest around me be destroyed.  And so it is with taking care of the earth.  I will be a hummingbird and do the best I can.  

You might dispense my reflections as those of a “tree hugger” priest who pushes a liberal agenda.  Not so.  As with many issues, I was not born with a Laudato Si point of view.  Just the opposite.  As a kid, I was apprehended by the police for shooting birds and squirrels in my Detroit neighborhood.  Later on, I used to do target practice on rabbits, prairie dogs, and other wildlife.  Ashamedly, I confess having that background.  Today, I wouldn’t think of taking life of any kind–be it an ant or spider.

This past weekday’s scripture spoke of Paul’s conversion.  He went from persecuting Christians to becoming what some refer to as “the founder of Christianity” (since his writings were so influential in the beginning).  And so it was with me–and with all of us–as God calls us to change and have a conversion of heart in many areas of life.  We are always being called to be hummingbirds–making our distinctive contribution in diverse contexts.

I don’t speak as an authority on ecology but as a Catholic whose life took twists and turns leading to new self-awareness.   As with you, so with me–one thing led to another after some sort of Damascus experience (Paul was en route to Damascus when he got converted).  For me, it was finding a box turtle on the road. 

The local zoo’s director said “Years ago, we used to see them all the time.  Now we never see them.”  Sad to hear of their decline, I put the turtle in the campus garden and word spread that it was there.  Campus employees, visitors, and students stopped to see the turtle.  Some brought their box turtle to the garden where it could mix with others (and they’d no longer have the challenge of keeping it at home–or fear being fined for keeping a wild animal).

Wanting to “save the box turtles” for the region, I learned how to oversee their laying of eggs and care for hatchlings.  My vocation as box turtle caretaker and breeder was confirmed when I stopped at a nature Center outside Washington, D.C.  Before an appointment later in the day, I thought I’d stop at the Center to simply see what was on display.  To my surprise, many people were there–and I learned why when an announcement was made saying that the keynote speaker would soon be giving her presentation.  Looking at the auditorium sign, I learned that I had come upon the “National Conference on Box Turtles!”  Joining the group, I proceeded to hear authorities speak, and I conversed with them about caring for these special members of the turtle nation.

Believing that “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” I was driving back to campus on I-70 and saw a large turtle on the side of the highway.  I stopped and picked up the wayward traveler (whose tribe I could not identify), but which had only half of a face.  Seeing with one eye only, the old girl apparently had some encounter that damaged her face years earlier.  I gave her to the zoo director and she lived out her final days in the zoo pond.

As I maintained a “box turtle sanctuary,” other thoughts came to mind as to how the campus could “be part of the solution instead of part of the problem” of environmental care.  I wrote up the thoughts in an essay and presented it to the university’s administration.  Shortly after, the University of Notre Dame sent out a “call for papers” to be presented at a national conference entitled “The Catholic University and the Environment.”  I put my thoughts together, submitted them to Notre Dame, and was one of two speakers invited to make a presentation (in addition to the keynote speaker and one other person).

I was NOT an authority on anything related to the environment.  I was like you–a hummingbird just trying to make some contribution to the region in which I lived.  I share my story with you so that it might be instructive for you (like the encyclical was supposed to be instructive for us).  YOU are being called to conversion–and can make a distinctive contribution to the well-being of all God’s creatures.

On that note, the following story: 

Star Thrower  

There was a man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

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 paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled man.

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the older, wise man commented, “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.”  

Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we be the best hummingbird and star thrower that we can be.

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                     April 18, 2021

When we come to mass, think of all the concerns people bring with them. We have ages spanning from little ones to great-grandparents.  

Why do people attend mass?  Some might come out of habit.  They’ve been coming to church since childhood and continue reserving Sunday for mass.  Others might come to receive communion—a devotional basis for their presence.  Interestingly, Church history once reserved communion for reception once a year, and then Jesuits emphasized regular reception (which continues to be our practice).  

Some people are perhaps here because they might be lonely or wish to socialize face-to-face with others.  Others might seek a greater understanding of scripture or get religious wisdom of some kind from the homily.  And while some simply wish to be consoled when coming to mass, others want to be challenged—called to some new awareness of personal or social issues.     

Many probably come because they want to hear God say to them what Jesus said to the apostles in today’s reading: “Why are you troubled?  And why do questions arise in your hearts?”  They want to hear him say: “Peace be with you.”     

One challenge to that peace is what we’ve just celebrated during Holy Week. We confronted the death of Jesus—which brings to mind our own death—and we rejoice in His resurrection—and wonder if such a thing as life after death awaits us. 

When someone close dies, it’s common for us to wonder if there’s life after death.  It’s easy for someone to say “I don’t have a clue” if there’s such a thing.  We in the faith community DO have a clue—the story of Jesus and His resurrection.  But even we Christians experience what the apostles did.  The gospel says that they were terrified, startled, alarmed, skeptical, overjoyed, and in a state of wonder.  You could probably add that they felt frustrated, guilty, faithless, ignorant, and several other adjectives—when trying to make sense of what they were experiencing with the risen Jesus. 

Seeing what they thought was a “ghost” is a way of saying that they had an experience of SOME kind of an alternate reality.  Like them, we try to make sense of our experience—the highs & lows of our lives, why we think/behave the way we do, how to live our lives now, and making sense of what our eternal destiny will be.   

What’s neat about the post-resurrection passages—such as today’s–is that Jesus sits down at table with his friends.  He’s there to help them MAKE SENSE of their reality and answer their questions (or at least assure them in what direction they should go).  In the very real setting of having a meal with them—is the legacy we’ve been given in the mass.  Our gathering here is an alternate reality—God’s presence to us in this sacramental gathering.   

Luke’s reference to a fish at the meal reminds his early Christian readers that the Greek word for fish (ICTHUS) is an acronym for “Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior”—and THAT is who we are with at table in the sacramental experience.  At which, he asks us to set forth our troubles and tries to console us by saying “peace” to our hearts.    

As for the existence of heaven, the following, non-biblical parable offers some sense of its possibility. 

Twins in the womb 

The 1st baby asks the other baby “do you believe in life after being here?”  

The 2nd baby replied “Why of course!  There has to be something more than this–call it ‘delivery.’ I think we did not just suddenly appear for no reason–but that we’re here preparing ourselves for something more.”   

The doubting baby replied “Nonsense!  There is no life after delivery.  What would that be like?”    

The second baby replied “I don’t know . . . but there should be more light.  Maybe walk with our legs and eat with our mouths!”  

“That’s absurd.” said the first baby. ”Walking is impossible and eating with our mouths is ridiculous.  The umbilical cord supplies all nutrition.  The umbilical cord is just too short for us to walk in this life you call ‘delivery’.”  

The second baby held its ground.  “There is something . . . maybe it is just different than it is here.”  

The first baby replied.  “No one has ever come back here from this place you call delivery.  If this life stops, there is nothing.” 

“Well, I don’t know,” said the twin, “but certainly we will see Mother.  She will take care of us in some way.”  

“Mother?” the baby scoffed.  “Do you believe in this Mother?  Where is she now?”  

The second baby tried to explain: ”She’s all around us.  Without her, there would not be this world.”  

“Ha! I don’t see her—so it’s only logical she doesn’t exist.”  

To which the other baby replied “Sometimes when you are in silence you can hear her, you can sense her presence.  I believe there is a reality I call delivery.  And we are here to prepare ourselves for that reality when it comes.”  

When God calls us to eternity, we might have fears and tears about leaving life—JUST AS WE HAD when entering this world at delivery time—frightened at what was happening to us and where we were going.    

One of Easter’s messages is that come eternity—loving hands will catch us—as they did when we were born; and we’ll be affectionately greeted.  The alternate reality presented to the apostles in the post-resurrection stories tells of the alternate reality  of Christ’s presence at mass and what eye has not seen nor ear heard.    

Communion reflection (as the baseball season gets underway)

Lord, help me be a good sport in this game of life. I don’t ask for an easy place in the line-up. Put me anywhere you need me. I only ask that I can give you 100 percent of all I have. If all the hard drives seem to come my way, I thank you for the compliment. Help me remember that you never send a player more trouble than they can handle.

Help me, Lord, to accept the bad break as part of the game. And may I always play on the square, no matter what the others do. Help me take to heart your word so I’ll know the rules.  

Finally, Lord, if the natural turn of events goes against me and I’m benched for sickness or old age, please help me to accept that as part of the game, too. Keep me from whimpering or squealing that I was framed or that I got a raw deal. And when I finish the final inning, I ask for no laurels. All I want is to believe in my heart that I played as well as I could and that I didn’t let you down.   


The parish thanks Mike Kenny and Kenny Inc. for donating screened black dirt and use of their equipment to haul the materials to Sacred Heart Cemetery. Jerry and Justin Buckley trucked and leveled the dirt.  This was a generous donation from Mike Kenny and Kenny Inc. 

Maria Becerra and Carol Jurek have also been making a great contribution to the parish via the fine landscaping at St. Mary’s.  

Pastor’s Pen         April 11, 2021

Being the author of 2 biographies, I really identify with what John writes at the end of his gospel.  I could say the same thing about Black Elk that he said about Jesus—in this sense: he wrote that Jesus did “many other things NOT reported” in his gospel (just as I could have written more about Black Elk—who did many more things not reported in my books).  John further stated that he hopes his readers will come to believe what he has written about Jesus—“and have life in his name.”  Not on a divine level, but on a human level, I hope my readers come to know Black Elk better and believe his faith was what moved him to be a saintly soul.  In learning about him (as with Jesus), readers will benefit. 

This is only to say that for me, John’s gospel has a ring of authenticity to it.  I affirm what the author of the gospel wrote about his authorial perspective—having had the same perspective myself. 

Here are some scriptural points to take away from today’s reading: John says the apostles rejoiced upon seeing the risen Lord while Luke says they were in fear & amazement (they were probably all this and more). Also, where it says Jesus breathed on them, “breathe” is the same Greek verb used in Genesis when the Creator breathed life into Adam—here implying Christian community/discipleship is the new creation. 

John also gives a rationale for why the gospels were written.  They are not histories but are “written that you may come to believe . . . and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”  Religious practice & faith are thus for OUR benefit—not God’s. OUR life will be better if we live the gospel. God won’t be any godlier or happier if we come to mass.  Instead, we will be called to greater self-definition, self-realization, and fulfillment in becoming the person God calls us to be. 

Interestingly, John’s gospel is the only one that refers to nails (the others speak of crucifixion).  Several years ago, archaeologists found an ankle bone from the first century with a nail in it—evidence that Romans nailed people to the cross and did not just tie them to it.  John speaks of Thomas as “the twin” but makes no reference to a brother named Jeff or Tony, or a sister named Jeannie or Sandra.  Hmm, we muse to ourselves.  I wonder who his “twin” is.  Ta-da—every time you look in the mirror, you are looking at that twin.  We are very much like our twin brother—doubting Thomas. 

The community for whom John writes is a 2nd generation group of Christians—the first generation pretty much all having died off.  He is addressing the issue of belief and unbelief in this story about Thomas (Jesus saying “blessed are those who have NOT seen [him] but believed”). 

Sunday’s 2nd reading dovetails with this Thomas vignette—this story about him confronting the nail marks in the hands, and spear mark in the side of Jesus. The 2nd reading spoke of Jesus as “the one who came through water and blood.”  Huh?  What does THAT mean? 

Think of water itself—and you can think of growth, fertility, new life, baptism—and so we associate water with good things, smiles, community, and growth! But today’s passage with Thomas is reminding us of the flip side of the coin—the other part of Christian discipleship.  Blood!  Martyrdom, sacrifice, hurt, pain, separation, aloneness.  When we come to mass, yes, we are coming to receive the bread of life, to be part of a community of earth-shakingly good people.  But we are also being confronted by Jesus, like Thomas, to look at the nail-marks, and reflect on how we have been responsible for his crucifixion still taking place today—in diverse forms. 

One might say to me “I don’t like what you said in the homily about—whatever.”  Or they might say “You say some things that are good, but other things I don’t like or disagree with.”  I can only reply that what I say at homily-time is not me preaching me, but it’s me calling our attention to what the Word of God is telling us, what our Church’s tradition is, or what contemporary theologians are calling us to contemplate.  Even I don’t like some of the things I have to say!!  I don’t like the gospel’s confrontational challenge. 

But that’s why our experience is the same as reported for Thomas.  We come to mass and God asks us to reflect upon and pray about our responsibility, or role, in making those marks in the hands—in our homes, communities, nation, or globe.  You might not like what I say at mass—and I join you in not wanting to be like Thomas.  WE don’t like looking at our attitudes or behaviors being nail-wounds.  WE don’t like realizing we are close-minded and just plain wrong in the opinions we spout, the vote we cast, the actions we perform, or the good we ignore doing.   

Put yourself in the role of Jesus.  If you or I lived as he did,