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September 11, 2022

Here are a few words about the “lectionary”–the book of scripture readings used for weekdays and weekend masses.  The book is structured such that one sees a theme common to the 3 weekend readings.  However, the weekday readings appear randomly—without a theme connecting them.

I raise this topic now because there appears to be little connection between the Philemon epistle and the other two readings.  After saying a few words about Philemon, we can attend to Wisdom and Luke.

Here’s the cultural setting.  Philemon is a slave.  Paul is in prison.  Onesimus is the one who owns Philemon.  Paul reflects on his friendship with Philemon and the ministry they performed together.  Perhaps Paul felt in his heart that slavery was not unlike the unjust imprisonment he was then experiencing himself.

It dawns on Paul that his companion-minister deserved something far better than slavery.  Paul thus pleads with Onesimus to give Philemon his freedom.  Recall Paul elsewhere said there is no Jew nor Gentile nor man nor woman nor slave nor free person when it comes to Jesus.  We are brothers and sisters!

Leading up to the Civil War, the North cited this epistle as a Pauline statement calling for an end to slavery back in his time.  The South used the same epistle to push for continuing slavery. Meanwhile, European nations had forsaken slavery and plantation owners convinced poor whites that free slaves would take jobs previously held by whites.

Over the years, popes have issued encyclicals that address “just wages,” slavery, and the morality of other economic systems—the issue being one of “haves” and “have nots” (a topic that apparently never goes away). Regardless of what Paul had in mind relative to slavery as an institution, he at least called attention to something not being “right” in the case of his fellow Christian and co-laborer.

When scripture was read to me this weekend (since it takes me so long to read), my reader was surprised and disappointed to hear Jesus say that his following had to abandon spouse, parents, children, and other relatives—if they are to follow him.  Taken literally, these are harsh words.  However, Jesus was exaggerating in order to make his point.  Recall he enjoined us to observe the commandments (honor father and mother) and to love one another—so he’s not calling people to turn their backs on family members.

Instead, Jesus is making a simple point in strong words that initially would shock his listeners (abandon your family???  Huh??).  He’s speaking to a culture that was bound together by familial relationships.  Family members were beholden to one another—in business and all practical matters. While helpful in some ways, family obligations were a constant challenge.  To be relieved of this burden (by following Jesus instead of family mandates), one could find new life (offered by Jesus).

As the book of Wisdom said in the weekend reading, God knows all things and we don’t.  It’s a no-brainer as to where we should cast our lot.  St. Ignatius would say that this weekend’s readings call us to “discern spirits” (prayerfully seek and find what God is calling us to do or say—REGARDLESS of what’s popular or what our families/friends say we should do or think).

Maybe the reading from Philemon is in today’s script since it reminds us of Paul coming to a new awareness about slavery.  Just as Paul realized he should change his position on the slavery of Philemon, so we are being called by God/by Jesus—to change our thinking about some life-issue.  Each of us needs to “discern” where the Spirit of God is calling us to new growth and new ways of thinking.

July 3, 2022

Today’s reading from Isaiah reminds us of a powerful theological mystery and reality—that God is “Our Father who art in heaven” but also “Our Mother,” too.  Isaiah alludes to us as God’s children, and draws upon a maternal image of God as “a mother [who] comforts her child.”  Like a mother does with her baby, “so will I comfort you.”

The oldest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel have Jesus sending both 70 or 72 disciples into the world.  Scholars think Luke’s intention was to show that Jesus sent them to all the nations of the world (computed as 70 or 72)—so the number is symbolic.  As with Acts of the Apostles, Luke is showing that Jesus himself (and not just the institutional Church later on) commissioned his followers to take the Gospel to all peoples of the world (“Gentiles” as well as Jews).  So you can see that “the harvest” is a big one (all the people of the world) and so needs ALL of his followers to be laborers now.  This passage has been (and still is) used for recruiting Christians to be priests, nuns, and brothers.  While they are included, the call is broader than that.

Did you notice Jesus saying that his followers should not speak to anyone they pass on the road?  That they should dress poorly? Rely on people to feed them? And take nothing with them?  Surprise!! His counsel was not a call for his followers to be vagrants.  Christian history has seen some people and religious groups embrace this passage as a call to living a strict life of poverty, or as a member of a “mendicant” (begging) order.  However, the statement Jesus made has nothing to do with spirituality. He even sounds unfriendly and not very “Christian” when advising them not to speak to anyone.  Here’s what was at play.

As I’ve told you previously, and as illustrated in the 2013 Mark Wahlberg film “Lone Survivor,” the custom of “hospitality” is hard-wired into Mediterranean, Afghan (the site of the film), and other cultures.  In departing their family village, one entered a hostile world where death was always a threat.  One HAD to rely on the kindness of a village elder to extend hospitality and protection.  Jesus was stating a cultural truism: “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (among strangers and non-relatives).

If one dressed poorly when traveling and was obviously not wealthy, they had a better chance of survival.  Jesus was giving pragmatic advice to the people he was sending.  Not only that, he was underlining the importance of what they were doing.  Namely, there are many “wolf-like” philosophies “out there” in public—and they are ready to pounce on bearers of the Gospel message.  Little Red Riding Hood was a moral tale.  People of good will (like the disciples) must be on their guard not to fall prey to those in society who have no regard for people preaching faith, hope, and love.

Times haven’t really changed—because human nature hasn’t changed.  WE are Adam and Eve who make bad decisions that hurt us and others.  WE are people who look at the serpent’s apple and think to ourselves “Boy, that’s a beauty—surely there’d be nothing wrong with my taking a bite.”  Remember: temptation comes at us as PLEASING and has some truth to it.  Evil reveals itself only after we’ve abandoned what we know in our hearts was NOT our best self (in whatever behavior we’ve participated).

So what are some of the “wolf-like” philosophies or “moralities” that exist in our world today which you and I encounter, and perhaps embrace to some extent or another?  There are secular moralities along with moralities based on a religion’s teachings.  Religions and societies don’t want to produce “amoral” citizens—a behavior you have no doubt encountered in some form.

When someone is “amoral,” there is an absence of, indifference to, or disregard for the rightness or wrongness of an action.  The person simply does what they want to do—regardless of its effect on others.  The individual is the sun around whom all planets orbit (so they think)—which is why a baby could be considered “amoral.  They have no sense of right or wrong.  This is not the same as someone being “immoral.”  Immorality occurs when one does something they know or believe to be wrong within the code of conduct their social group espouses.

Moralities determine actions that are good or bad within a cultural context–according to a clear set of rules.  What’s interesting sociologically is that in America, many people probably have a very generic sense of morality that is based more on “pop culture” trends than a religion they practice or don’t practice.  For example, you may recall the 60s spawning the “rule of thumb” morality of “If it feels good, do it.”  This was often associated with the sexual revolution which, in turn, saw people trying all sorts of sexual expression.  However, this guiding principle could just as well apply to anything one decided—on their own—to be “good”—business, child-rearing, drug-taking, wearing or not wearing clothes, fashion styles, etc., etc.  The focus was on what an individual wanted to do that made them “feel good” in some way (steal something if they knew they wouldn’t get caught?).

A religion that started in England in the 1950s was begun by a husband and wife team who didn’t like any religion’s strictures or beliefs.  They consulted books in libraries and designed what they called “Wicca” (an “Olde” English word that means “witch”).  Don’t think evil, nasty, demonic witchery.  Instead, this “church” came to America (California) where it got a following—and is today recognized by the Armed Forces as a legitimate religion with its practitioners allowed access to military bases to conduct services (ideally conducted in what they refer to as “air clad” or nude—“clad” meaning clothed and “air” meaning “air”).

If interested, Google Wicca to learn more.  It is a near-perfect blend of all the social movements in America since 1960 (women leaders, environmental weddedness, interest in the “original” religion of one’s ancestors, Eastern religion elements, sexuality, and a few others.  Notably, the premier Wiccan moral principle (known as the “Wiccan Rede”) is: “If it harm no one, do what you will/wish”).  Once again, this is a “morality” based on what an individual thinks is right or wrong, and is presumptuous enough to know if what they do will harm anyone.  Like other philosophies/moralities that have formed many, if not most, Americans—Wicca’s emphasis is on one’s “independence” FROM a community of faith that discerns tough moral positions to take on all the many aspects of human existence.

The popular film “Easy Rider” also captured a tenet of moralities which so many live by today.  We still use this expression when encouraging someone to follow their dream.  The line is “Do your own thing.”  The film’s main character was aptly and intentionally named “Captain America” (because Americans were becoming more and more disciples of the morality his behavior “preached”—via actions and not words).  Actor Peter Fonda said: “Do your own thing—in your own time.”

Dovetailing nicely with the above pop culture  “wolf moralities” is a widespread mentality that has been around a long time—and it’s the opposite of what the Gospel teaches.  It’s the self-centered code of conduct: “Do whatever you can to get ahead”—a no holds barred fight to make sure you survive at least—and flourish at best.  If it’s at the expense of others—who cares?  You’re #1!!!  All is fair game in the business world (or any area of life).  There is no need for empathy, compassion, or concern for the well-being of others.  Doing unselfish deeds (altruism) is simply not on the table of this morality.  Some university business departments teach Ayn Rand’s writings as praiseworthy—her works contrary to every encyclical any pope ever wrote.  From a Christian perspective, her self-centered business ethic has—UNFORTUNATELY–influenced many people.

Ethics is a provocative topic.  Should we eat meat?  Should we experiment on animals?  Should we use nuclear weapons?  Should we execute people, or kill them when they suffer a disease?  The list is endless.  Most Catholics (and Christians generally) probably know little about their faith tradition’s position on most topics.  This is understandable.  Even I—someone who should keep abreast of things in order to help people—have lots of blind spots.

In light of our need to know WHAT, exactly, we lambs should be offering the secular wolves who could care less about the Gospel—here’s a short list that condenses Church teaching on social issues that are always in the news in some way.  Your friends and neighbors express opinions over coffee, or beer, but they may not be familiar with generations of Catholic moralists/ethicians who have hammered out positions to consider as our own, personal morality. They are:

1) The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.  Notice this isn’t condemning people who are rich, but rather stating that the Gospel priority is people’s NEEDS and not the wealthy’s WANTS.

2) The freedom of the dominated takes priority over the liberty of the powerfulFor this principle, I thought of American novelist Sinclair Lewis—his works of the early 20th century eerily drawing a parallel to the American political scene of the past 3 years. He was a voice on behalf of child labor laws—against American businesses that abused minors in the workplace—until voices like his were able to rally people/politicians to end the abuse.  In short, the “powerful” were well-served by the slave-labor of “dominated” children—and it is this sort of condition that this principle addresses.

3) The participation of marginalized groups takes priority over an order which excludes them.  An easy way to think of this principle is recalling the European (and other) countries that had a royal hierarchy.  Those born into the wealth of the “realm” were sitting pretty—while the rest of the population didn’t.  In 1789, the French Revolution put an end to this disparity of wealth (the Church took it on the chin, too, because of abuses within it).  The revolutionaries weren’t necessarily heroes, but they do at least serve as an illustration of this principle.

An example closer to home would be for any of you who have Irish ancestry. Your ”people” were considered the dregs of society. They were unclean, uneducated, ugly beggars—in short, they were the “marginalized” of American society (along with blacks and Italians).  Each group has its story of oppression—by the prevailing “order which excluded them.”

The above is a lot of material to cover—and really requires more thought, reflection, meditation, and prayer.  We can ask ourselves what kind of morality we have, or what do we WANT it to be?  To help you in the process, what follows is what Jesuits refer to as the “First principle and foundation” from the book by Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuits): The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The following thoughts are a modern translation from the Exercises done by an American Jesuit.  They begin the book—and orient the Christian who seeks direction in life.  Ignatius is basically saying: accept these thoughts as your starting point—or at least TRY to accept them in prayer.

The goal of our life is to live with God forever.  God, who loves us and gave us life.  Our response to this gift allows God’s life to flow into us and move us to do good things with our life.

All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily—and more readily behave as Jesus did.

As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God—only insofar as they help us develop as compassionate persons who live the values Jesus did.  But if any of these gifts become the CENTER of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not hindered by some infirmity or bound by some obligation (e.g., if you’re married with small children you shouldn’t try to join a monastic order—because you have an “obligation” to your spouse and family.)  We should be indifferent to all things—and not fix our desires on health over sickness, wealth over poverty, success over failure, a long life over a short one.  For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better lead to God’s deepening His life in me.

June 26, 2022

A survey on religion in America this week spoke of dwindling church attendance and fewer people believing in God. When today we read of Elijah’s role of prophet being passed to Elisha, and us having that same role, I get discouraged.  Why?  Because many probably don’t know that the role of “prophet” is part of our Christian identity, because fewer people are at church or reading scripture to even think about the role, and because those who DO attend mass or read scripture probably think a prophet is one who predicts events that will take place in the future.  One can hardly perform the duties of prophet if they don’t know it’s theirs to perform or what the role entails.

So let it be known that a prophet in our faith tradition refers not to someone who predicts the future but to one who sees what God is calling us to do NOW.  Recall that Jesus reduced the 613 laws in Hebrew scriptures to 2—that one love (respect/honor/reverence, etc.) God, and that one love (respect/honor/reverence, etc.) their neighbor.  Paul said that love of God can only express itself historically as love of neighbor.

These understandings are all well and good—FOR THOSE WHO GO TO CHURCH OR STUDY SCRIPTURE, but what about our family members whose consciousness is filled with thoughts that relate solely to secular things?  According to what value system are children being raised—MTV or the sleaze and superficiality that floods the social media that occupies their time?  Do our young (or middle-agers) even think about a Creator’s existence, the person of Jesus, and our relationship to one or the other (or both)?  According to the survey, many DON’T think of these things—much less speak to God (prayer) or attend church services.

If only non-religious people (who prefer calling themselves “more SPIRITUAL than religious”) would expose themselves to our “Sabbath” experience, they might best deal with what scripture refers to as “the Spirit and the flesh.”  Unfortunately, when some people hear that phrase (Spirit/flesh), they think it refers to mind over matter, or your mental functions versus your bodily-ness—and that the focus here is on the fight against so-called “desires of the flesh” (or sexual behavior).

Instead of that understanding, it is more helpful to think of “the Spirit” as the fullest, most sacred identity scripture calls us to live or achieve.  It is the vision of “righteousness” or goodness or grace that should guide us in life.  A tension exists when our “human condition” contends with this vision—and we are tempted to be self-centered (this human condition is the “flesh” referred to).  Its focus is not on sexuality, but our entire identity as living/breathing children of God who interact with one another—with challenges these include—on a daily basis.  Spirit tries to orient our “flesh” in all areas of life—and help us transcend self-centeredness so that we can “love our neighbor.”

In the time of Jesus (and still largely practiced by Orthodox Judaism today), there were many Sabbath rules and regulations one had to observe.  Like any religion’s rules, they were intended to keep one’s mind and actions rooted in a knowledge, reverence, and service of God in the everyday world of human life.  There were 39 categories of observance (they can be found on the Internet).  In general, within Jewish life, one could do very little on the Sabbath, e.g., one could go outside clothed, but not wearing a watch or carrying anything in their pockets, no lighting a fire, no cleaning clothes or planting seeds or harvesting or kneading dough or sewing, etc., etc.  One’s attention was oriented toward the God who made us—and could not be distracted by the many behaviors that occupy our time on other days of the week.

Whereas the Jewish Sabbath was from sundown Friday to Sundown Saturday (and not the ONE HOUR mass we attend on a weekend), emperor Constantine changed the Christian Sabbath to Sunday—naming it the first day of the week (to honor the resurrection—which should be a thought that stays with us throughout the days of the week that follow).  Jewish Sabbath rules were all-encompassing but ours have been whittled down over the centuries.

Our colonial ancestors may not have observed all 39 categories, but they weren’t far behind our Jewish roots.  Among a number of mandates, the Massachusetts Bay colony said that people could not do unnecessary walking on Sunday, or riding, or courting your beloved, or playing games of any kind.  Even laughing on Sunday was discouraged (after all, as one sermon described, we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God”).  A ship captain returned from weeks at sea, and was reprimanded for kissing his wife upon return on a Sunday.  When some religious people get secular power, their religion can become like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Because Sunday laws were printed on blue paper, they became known up to our present day as “blue laws,” and some places still don’t permit selling alcohol on Sunday (I’m familiar with a township in the upper peninsula that prohibits alcohol sales).  Many might recall seeing signs on their windshields saying “Stop, don’t shop on Sundays” when the trend to do business 7 days a week was gaining momentum.  Now, of course, we can shop at most (not all) businesses on Sunday.  “Mammon” is a powerful deity that can command the allegiance of many people. Google the word “mammon.”

Although this weekend is in “ordinary” time, and not like Corpus Christi, or Trinity, or Pentecost weekends, it does remind us of God being a God of us “ordinary” people.  In that sense, it ranks right up there as a “solemn” feast day we should observe like we do those other feasts.  Just think of it: the God of all creation—Who made the universe, the Rockies, the Pacific, all the animals and wonders of nature—is a God who cares about, and knows, YOU!!  Hard to believe, yes—but that’s our faith tradition.

This past week, 2 feast days were honored—one for St. Thomas More, and the other for the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In light of what is playing out in D.C., More’s life is especially relevant—as it sheds light on Spirit and flesh issues that unfold at the national level.  He was somewhat like England’s parallel to the Speaker of the House.  That is, he was a very high government official who had to deal with Henry the 8th’s effort to assert control over all things in England—including the Church.  He made everyone sign what’s known to history as the “Oath of Supremacy.”  Thomas More wouldn’t sign this document—because he believed the Pope was the leader of the Church (not any king).  In refusing to roll over and do what Henry said, he was sent to the guillotine.  His final words were: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

The Sacred Heart devotion started in the late 1600’s with a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque (now a saint).  Her spiritual director was Claude Colombiere (now a saint).  Here’s what St. Margaret Mary claimed Jesus asked her to tell people if they practiced the devotion to His Sacred Heart:

“I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.  I will give peace in their families.  I will console them in all their troubles.  I will be their refuge in life and especially in death.  I will abundantly bless all their undertakings.  Sinners shall find in my Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.  Tepid souls shall become fervent.  Fervent souls shall rise speedily to great perfection.  I will bless those places wherein the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.  I will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts.  Persons who propagate this devotion shall have their names eternally written in my Heart. In the excess of the mercy of my Heart, I promise you that my all powerful love will grant to all those who will receive Communion on the First Fridays, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance: they will not die in my displeasure, nor without receiving the sacraments; and my Heart will be their secure refuge in that last hour.

The above piety is not what most people today embrace.  Its spirit, however, is at the center of our faith.  Namely, the “heart” of Jesus refers to God’s love for each of us.  The “rules and regulations” (reminiscent of Sabbath laws and colonial laws and blue laws) are a “discipline” or are “exercises” that people can observe so that they acquire a felt sense of God’s affection for them.  She and Claude really had a great experience when getting in touch with this love.

The same reverence/honor/affection for God motivated Thomas More to lay down his life.  He wrote the following prayer:

God, grant me a healthy body, and the necessary good humor to maintain it.
Grant me a simple soul that knows to treasure all that is good and that doesn’t frighten easily at the sight of evil, but rather finds the means to put things back in their place.  Give me a soul that knows not boredom, grumblings, sighs and laments, nor excess of stress, because of that obstructing thing called “I.”  Grant me, O Lord, a sense of good humor.
Allow me the grace to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy,
and to be able to share it with others.

 

June 19, 2022

In hearing Luke report that 5,000 men were present for the miracle of loaves and fishes, we might think he’s sounding sexist—thinking it important that only men be mentioned on this occasion (i.e., “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”).  If his description of the event didn’t resonate well with you, be at peace.  He was simply reporting a cultural practice of the time, viz., women and men did not mix in public—nor did they eat together at home.  Instead, women and children ate before the men—who gathered later on (when boys reached puberty, they joined the men).

If you were listening attentively to the gospel, you heard words that sounded familiar—since you hear them at mass.  When Jesus was presented the loaves, he gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples (sounding very much like the words of consecration that we’ll hear in a few minutes). But there’s more to the passage than words echoing Holy Thursday’s “last supper” event.

When learning that “the disciples gave their food to the people,” we might get a sense of Jesus moving people to share what they had brought to the deserted place.  Maybe some people had a picnic basket with more hot dogs than they needed, and some had brought more hamburgers than their family could consume—and so on down the line.  Perhaps the miracle performed was incentivizing people to share what they have with others.  Voila!  5000 are fed (sort of like us raising $3500 for Ukraine relief one Sunday—or reaching our CMA goal by August—when the NEW appeal for the coming year begins once again!!!!!).

With America having more billionaires today than ever before (and a wider gap between the wealthy and middle class), one can’t help but wonder what people do with all their money.  How much does one really need to have a comfortable life?  Just think if more people extended their largesse to the 4999 others in the crowd—and said to someone nearby “Want a bite to eat of this?” Jesus seemed to suggest that this sort of behavior will improve the lot of all (instead of us hording our wealth).

When our relatives die of some incurable disease, we cry that not enough funds exist to do the research and find a cure.  People buy yachts and houses and cars and clothes and jewelry and, and, and . . .   What about helping fund some cancer research or Alzheimer’s or COPD, or Catholic mission, or parish church, or, or, or? The 5000 is a symbolic number representing MANY people in need all around us. But there’s more.

When Moses was in a “deserted place” with the Israelites, he was given the Torah (the word of God).  The people complained about everything, and about not having enough to eat—whereupon God gave them “manna in the desert.”  But Deuteronomy (a book of the Torah) reminded them that “when you were afflicted with hunger, God fed you with manna . . . to show you that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”  The miracle of feeding the 5000 brings this association to mind within the context of an event also referred to as the “sermon on the mount.”

And who does John’s gospel call the “Word of God?”  Jesus!  And who feeds the 5000 in the desert?  Jesus.  And where did the Israelites put the Torah?  In the ark of the covenant—replaced today by a tabernacle in each synagogue.  And where is the Christian “Word of God” preserved?  In our tabernacle—in the form of our manna in the desert, the consecrated bread from the Eucharist.  So Jesus in today’s reading is the continuation of a story begun with the Israelites being fed by God.

We can sometimes be distracted by language that refers to the “body and blood” of Christ (as when a fellow student in grad school asked me how I could participate in what he called “ritualized cannibalism”).  Not knowing a theology of the Eucharist, he misunderstood what comes natural to us.  I didn’t know how to tell him that the Eucharist refers to the risen Lord—the Christ risen and alive among us—and not to the historical Jesus.  The body and blood of Christ refer not to things in themselves but to an event–the much larger reality of the risen Lord.  Think of St. Augustine’s telling us that the sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality—the invisible reality of God’s love and God’s presence to us at the altar (in scripture and within the faith community).

We are not at mass to venerate bread on the paten and wine in the chalice, but the larger reality of God’s love communicated to us in the real presence of the risen Lord.  Think back to when you first kissed someone whose kiss of you meant that they LOVED you, cared about you, wanted to be with you always.  Think of all the positivity you felt with that kiss—and that person’s presence to you.  Theologian Karl Rahner suggested we think of the Eucharist as a kiss from God (communicating love to us).  When kissed by our beloved, we aren’t venerating their lips—but their total package and presence.  And so it is with God trying to self-communicate to us the reality of your Creator’s love for you.

A similar analogy occurs at Thanksgiving when our family is seated around the table with a turkey in the center.  We’re not there to worship the turkey, but the reality of our presence together as a family—mindful of family members who were once with us at the table, but are no longer present.  We are grateful, hopefully to the tune of someone praying, that we continue to support and love one another—and value one another’s giftedness to us. We pray that we might be a better family member to those present and to those unable to attend this special event (a mini-miracle reminiscent of 5000 eating together as one).  On this occasion, or on the occasion of a special kiss that overwhelms our heart, an accompanying affectionate hug, or warm sense of being valued within our family—are all signs of God’s tangible presence for which we give thanks (the meaning of “eucharist”—to give thanks).

You might even think of us being present at a candlelight dinner—at table with God, our beloved who invited us here.  As when we take someone to a special, candlelight dinner (the low lights dilating our pupils so that our sensory experience of “the other” is more intense).  Such is the meaning of Eucharist—the candle-lit altar/table with bread and wine on it.  We can say “I was at dinner with God”—and the memory of our prayerful conversation on this occasion lingers in our heart (God perhaps changing our hearts and giving us instruction as to how we might better lead our lives in becoming the wonderful person this sacramental meal is celebrating).

So on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (formerly “Corpus Christi” Sunday), don’t think of Jesus sitting in the tabernacle—as a kind of spiritual presence radiating outward.  Nor should you think of a Benediction ceremony as a service in which God wants us to worship a large piece of bread.  Instead, think of Eucharist as “God calling us beyond ourselves, beyond appearances of isolation and helplessness to a vision of ourselves transcending limitations that make us think the cross is where it all stopped.”

Come communion, the host will be held in front of you, and you will hear: “the body of Christ”

This is a question asking you if the Lord is risen and alive in your heart?  When you say Amen—you’re saying yes. It is also another question: “Will you BE the body of Christ alive in the world for others?  We come to mass for consolation and affirmation, but receiving those graces we also are challenged.  We’re being called to go forth from the altar and be manna in the desert for others.

When we’re posed those questions that are implicit in the minister saying “the body of Christ,” may we have the faith to reply “I’m going to give it my best shot: Amen.”

All the while keeping in mind what St. Theresa of Avila said:

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

Communion reflection from poet Emily Dickinson

He was my host — He was my guest,

I never to this day,

If I invited him could tell,

Or he invited me.

June 12, 2022

This being Trinity Sunday, the topic of “3 persons in 1 God” is a rich one.  Appearing nowhere in the bible, the word “trinity” refers to the monotheistic God that is “implicit” in scripture.  Reference is to a “mystery” we cannot fully understand but whose reality we encounter all the time in prayer.

For example, one day we might pray along these lines to “the Father” (a form of address in Israelite culture; a reference to the Creator, to Grandfather-Great Spirit, or to the Mother-like God who is neither male nor female and who has no ethnic origin): “Father in heaven, you made this beautiful earth and this wondrous summer day with the shiny blue-water lake nearby.  Thank you for these many gifts of nature all around me that I take for granted.  And I thank you for my dear helpmate, children, and grandchildren—who I love so much.  They are gifts from you, oh God of all creation.  Inspire me to show them that I love them. For all these gifts, I raise my heart to you in thanks.”

On another day, we might pray to the Son: “Lord Jesus, you know what I’m going through now.  You were human—like me.  You faced the cross and fell on your way to that cross. Please give me strength to face this cross I now confront.  It seems too much for me to carry—but you have shown me that I can carry it.”

And still another time, we might pray: “Holy Spirit, place a fire in my heart—that I might face the challenge of today.  I feel so overwhelmed in dealing with this—that I feel defeated before I’ve begun.  So, kindle within me the strength to rally myself and my spirit—with your grace—so that together we might bring about something good.”

Even though you might naturally speak to “the Godhead” this way, other friends and family members might debate the existence of a Creator.  Or they might say that Jesus was a good man, but not God (which is what the heretical bishop, Arius, preached to his many followers—(Islam’s high regard for Jesus being a kind of Arianism).  The Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove or fire or whirring wind—but is also linguistically feminine in some biblical texts and translations.

However, regardless of the metaphor of gender in describing God, one can be outright dismissive of the Holy Spirit’s existence.  Some simply attribute good or great occurrences not to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but simply to the commingling of circumstances and hard work (or good luck).  We who are Christian, by contrast, acknowledge God as 3 persons in 1–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the only person of the trinity who doesn’t speak in scripture).

This Sunday’s reading from Proverbs associates “Woman” Wisdom as present “When the Lord established the heavens.”  She “was there…beside him as his craftsman”–depicted alongside God with divine status, participating in and facilitating creation.  Again, this is a merging of God not just with the masculine (“Our Father, who art in heaven,” “my heavenly Father,” etc.) but also with the feminine (gender being metaphors that point to a God who is beyond those categories).  Today, “she” (Lady Wisdom with the Father at Creation) calls us to be thoughtful and wise—but we ignore her; and she critiques us for being arrogant and close-minded (this being said of us today and not just Old Testament’s “stiff-necked” peoples).

In everyday conversation, we might refer to someone as an “icon” of something—such as Lou Gehrig being an icon of baseball or John Wayne/Marilyn Monroe being icons of Hollywood.  The word refers to someone or some thing or event that represents something else or symbolizes some other reality.   In Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity, the word is used in a very special way.  An icon is a painting not just in the sense of what we ordinarily think of when seeing an artistic portrait.

Icons are, rather, religious images that hover between two worlds—the natural and supernatural–putting into colors and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect.  For Orthodox Christians, they render the invisible visible. Eastern churches have what is known as an “iconostasis”–a wall of icons and religious paintings, according to Wikipedia, that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church.

Like stained-glass windows in cathedrals of old Europe, icons are visual equivalents of scriptures—instructing pre-literate peoples via colorful images.  Among the Lakota Sioux, Black Elk was taught Old and New Testament stories by means of a catechetical chart with pictures known as the “2 Roads Map.”  He, in turn, taught the faith to elder Lakota by means of this “picture catechism.”

Considered a premier icon of Russian iconography is Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” (Google it and do what millions have done over the centuries, viz., spend hours gazing at it and listening for its message).  At first, you might react as I did—and think it a pretty lame piece of art.  I came to see the icon succinctly show forth our Trinitarian theology.

When shown its deeper meanings, I acquired a new appreciation for the Trinity–the Father sending the Son who sent the Spirit who helps us live as the Son instructed.  Although mentioned 75 times in the Hebrew scriptures and 275 times in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit becomes vocal through us. And yet, we are capable of mistaking the Spirit for other spirits.  For example, bible translators try their best to produce an accurate text.  However, they can, unintentionally, err in their effort.

When the Our Father prayer was translated into English, why did they not follow the lead of Spanish translators—who “got it right?”  Perhaps recent editions/translations stuck with the older version of a line because they thought readers would not accept change, or a revision.  Maybe translators thought they might as well just “stick with” what’s familiar—and not provide a more theologically accurate rendering of the Koiné Greek.

For centuries, English speakers have prayed “Lead us not into temptation” (as if God is responsible for pushing us into inescapable temptations—and we are pleading that God NOT torture us this way).  The Greek was best translated by Spanish scholars who rendered its meaning as “Do not let us fall into temptation.”  Even when doing the Lord’s work to the best of our ability, we need the Spirit to help us communicate well.

On that note of having good communication, we can leave behind the many theological issues that challenge our ability to understand the Trinity—and simply live with the mystery of 3 persons in 1 God.  We might instead just say a simple prayer that distills what our attitude should be toward God of the Old and New Testaments.  Let us pray each day: “Hi, God. What can I do for you today?”

June 5, 2022

The readings for Pentecost illustrate how the New Testament counterpoints the Old.  They begin with the tower of Babel story which says that at one time everyone spoke the same language. God made them speak different languages for trying to build a tower that would arise into heaven where they could become powerful like gods.  Anthropologically, this is called an “etiological tale”—a story that tells how something came into being (in this case, diverse languages).  Theologically, among other things, it demonstrates how God can stop human pride by stopping us in our tracks. By contrast, today’s reading from Acts reports how the Holy Spirit empowered the apostles to speak a language that all the diverse peoples of the world could understand (the language of the gospel).  Jesus reversed Babel!

Among the Israelites, the feast of Pentecost was originally a sacred day celebrating the grain harvest.  Over time, it became a day celebrating the giving of the Law (the Torah, or first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures).

For Christians, the feast of the Law becomes the feast of the Spirit.  Pentecost is a prime example of Luke, the author of both a gospel and Acts, shows how the story of Jesus went from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

 Okay.  So this is all very interesting history, but what relevance does it have for you or me?

I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being with people and sensing that the tone of conversation is NOT what you’d associate with the voice of Jesus.  In fact, the tone might seem outright demonic.  We are also capable of making comments that are not particularly “Christian.”  Carrying this thought further, we might even be aware that what we’re saying or doing is NOT at all Christ-like—but we say or do it anyway.  How is it that we know right from wrong, or what’s Christian and what’s not?  Ta-da—as baptized and sacramental Christians, we are told by our faith-tradition that we have received the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.”  We might not put them into practice all the time, but they do reside within us—and alert us to what values we SHOULD embrace.

As a child learning what these “gifts” were, I knew their names but really didn’t know what each one entailed, or what it concretely meant in my everyday life.  Pentecost is our celebration of receiving these gifts—and I’ll take a stab at how they come into play within our experience.

Wisdom” is considered the greatest of the gifts—but does not equate to “intelligence.”  Instead, it acts upon both our intellect and the will—affirming that “the heart sees what is invisible to the mind.”  Blending mind and heart, wisdom gives us insight as to how we need to act.

 Understanding” illuminates one’s understanding of scripture, religious ritual, & profound appreciation for God’s providence.  One is able to interpret experiences, good or bad, with a perspective that makes them say such things as “but for the grace of God . . . “

Counsel” enables a person to judge promptly and rightly—an instinct for decision-making especially in difficult situations.  On a less dramatic level, it perfects the cardinal virtue of “prudence” (knowing when to say or do something instead of just spontaneously giving your gut-reaction, e.g., a verbal or physical attack).

Fortitude”—gives us the power to stand up for what is right and in doing so accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm.  As a bishop once said to me regarding a matter that had several options: “That might be the easy decision to make but it’s not the correct decision.”

Knowledge” is our seeing things from God’s perspective.  Regrettably, everyone has an opinion on what “God’s perspective” should be—even people who have little to no religious practice or prayer life.  In the words of actor Mark Wahlberg “People want ‘cheap grace ’”—a quick answer to their problem. But if you don’t encounter God in prayer or ritual on a regular basis you really don’t have a clue what God thinks about something.

 Piety” is not mere outward religiosity—but rather makes us turn to God each day as a child to a parent—recognizing God is ultimate reality and not the passing reality we see each day; it’s a “what would Jesus do mentality”?

 Fear of the Lord“ does not refer to being afraid or scared of God but rather is that of having a “profound reverence for, and being in awe of, God.”

The above shorthand description of the gifts doesn’t capture what the apostles experienced when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection.  All we’re told is that they had SOME KIND of empowering experience that made them go out into the streets even though they had fear of prosecution.

In his novel-turned-movie, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway confirms what one critic observed, viz., he “converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-eight for marriage and proved religiously indifferent throughout his lifetime, despite a preoccupation with biblical themes in many of his works.”  For Whom the Bell Tolls influenced me as a junior in high school as it did presidential candidate John McCain and president Obama when they were young men.

The lead-character was Robert Jordan who joined guerilla opponents of the government during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.  He fell in love with “Maria”—a young woman who had been raped and abused by soldiers, and who was “redeemed” by the wonderful, savior-like man who came from what she saw as a heavenly America where people walked on “streets of gold.”

In short, Jordan is what literary scholars refer to as a “Christ-figure.”  One can’t help but think Hemingway drew upon (consciously or unconsciously) John’s gospel and epistles in describing Jordan’s farewell to Maria.  For us, Jordan represents Jesus and Maria represents his love–the human race.  His farewell includes the giving of the Spirit to the apostles—words of love intended to bolster their sense of self and the gospel.  America represents heaven—the salvation promised Maria.

In the film from 1943, Gary Cooper played “Jordan” (an allusion to the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized) and Ingrid Bergman played “Maria”/Mary (an allusion to Magdalene—a woman of the “world” and thus an image of all people in that world?).  The concluding scene has the guerillas escaping from soldiers in the mountains.  Jordan is shot and can’t continue with them. He stays behind with a machine gun to hold off those in pursuit.  He asks for Maria (a farewell of love from Jesus to us)–the script reading as follows:

Maria–We won’t be going to America this time.  But always I go with you, wherever you go, understand?  You go now. If you go, then I go too. 

 Don’t you see how it is?  Whichever one there is, is both of us.

 But if you go, then I go with you, that way I go too.  I know you’ll go now, Maria, for both of us, because we love each other always. 

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

 Now you understand.  Now you’re going, and you’re going well, and fast, and far, and we’ll go to America another time, Maria. 

 Stand up now and go, and we both go.  Stand up, Maria.  Remember, you’re me, too.  You’re all there will ever be of me now.  Stand up.  No, stand up.   There’s no good-bye, Maria, because we’re not apart.  No, don’t turn around, go now, be strong, take care of our life.

 Maria leaves and Jordan is left reflecting—as Jesus might have reflected when on the cross tempted to think his sacrifice was in vain.  Notice Hemingway having Jordan use the word “God” when beginning his reflection—not as a prayer, but as one might casually use the word when reflecting aloud.  However, in this instance, with Jordan as a Christ-figure, saying “God” does, in fact, become a prayer of Jesus dying on the cross.

God, that was lucky I could make her go.  I don’t mind this at all now.  They’re away.  Think of how it would be if they got Maria instead of you.  Don’t pass out, Jordan!  Think about America!  I can’t.  Think about Madrid!  I can’t.  Think about, Maria!  I can do that alright!  No, you fool, you weren’t kidding Maria about that.  Now they can’t stop us ever!  She’s going on with me.

Such is the message of Pentecost—the Holy Spirit moving us Maria-types to carry on as the continued presence of Jesus alive in the world.  On this Pentecost, try and internalize—personalize—the words of love that Jesus (Jordan) said in today’s gospel to us (Maria): “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

May 29, 2022

One would think that the departure of Jesus from an earthly existence would get considerable coverage.  Surely, the followers of Jesus would want to know where his final appearance took place, who was present, and what was said on the occasion of his “return to the Father”—no?

For John, the answer to that question is “No!”  The “beloved disciple” (how the evangelist refers to himself) simply reports that they had breakfast, that Jesus said a few words, and that he (the evangelist) could have written much more about Jesus but that there is really no need to say more.  In that sense, theologically speaking, John’s message is a simple one.  He is equivalently saying “SURELY you readers know by now that what I have reported should convince you to practice what he preached—in your everyday behaviors.”

Luke, on the other hand, thought the exit of Jesus was well worth reporting—so much so that he gave two DIFFERENT accounts.  In his gospel, Luke said: “He led them out as far as Bethany [N.B., not TO or AT or a half-mile south of Bethany—but a more imprecise “as far as”] . . . and as he blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven.  They did him homage and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”  Note also that HOW he “was taken up” received no coverage.  Might Luke’s meaning be the same as ours when we say of someone “Well, God took him to heaven,” “she went back to God,” etc.

Not content with that lackluster depiction, Luke expanded his coverage in Acts of the Apostles when he wrote: “He was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.  While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.  They said “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

Again, the evangelist has angelic visitors (as those at the birth in Bethlehem) tell those gathered that now’s the time to see Jesus AMONGST us here on earth—and not up above in some heavenly realm.

Mark, the first gospel written, simply said that “the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them, was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God.  But they went forth and preached everywhere.” Again, “taken up into heaven” is all that we’re told—a statement that probably inspired Luke’s first report.

A more fleshed out account is that of Matthew. Although not giving an exact location, he says that “the disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.”  How appropriate and scriptural!  His setting is that of a “mountain”—the place of encounter with God in the Hebrew scriptures.  How pastoral—when Matthew recounts “When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.”  Matthew speaks to the experience of his late first-century audience by describing the early followers as capable of “worship” but also capable of “doubting” what they had witnessed.  Just as we are here at worship, so were the early followers able to worship.  And just as their human condition saw them “doubt,” so do we—just like them.  We wonder if our life has meaning, if there’s life after death, if God exists, and if there’s a God who actually cares about us.

We’re then told that “Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’.”  No one here goes out every day and baptizes anyone—so what does Jesus mean in saying what he did?  Baptize people with your example.  Show them that the Trinity exists by being a steward of the Creator’s environment, by practicing the ethics of Jesus, and the representing in all activities the power of the Holy Spirit alive in you!

And just as Matthew began his gospel by referring to the baby Jesus as “God with us,” so he has the resurrected Christ remind his followers “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.”  And so we have the departure accounts for Jesus in the New Testament—which we call  Ascension” (formerly on Thursday but the American bishops finally followed the example of the Canadian bishops and have us celebrate this holyday on the nearest Sunday 40 days after Easter). But what concrete meaning does this (and Pentecost—which is associated with the Ascension) have for each of us?

Last week I told you of my finding an article that spoke of my parents losing their business when I was a child.  I indicated that the circumstances of our life can change overnight—and how we can be shaken by a turn of events.  However, as people of faith, we are given eyes that see beyond the present and minds that evaluate experience by a sacred, not secular, metric.  Stated simply, by the power imparted to us through the Holy Spirit, we can see beyond and evaluate more insightfully all of life’s up-and-down occurrences.

For example, my brother’s World War II experiences in the Pacific were at beaches that saw much bloodshed.  In the eyes of the world, he was a returning Marine vet who saved American democracy (and who brought us back a Japanese rifle taken off a dead soldier).

The term “PTSD” was not used in that era, and it was only in later years that I associated his war experience with alcoholism (which led to his early death).  On the surface, he was a handsome, intelligent, executive on the rise—the demons of war not visible even to family.

In emailing a parishioner about life experiences, I was reminded of a high school friend who had a star-studded young life—captain of the cheerleaders, captain of the girls’ basketball team, 4-year class officer, homecoming queen, and National Merit Scholarship Finalist that won her a full ride to UM. We spent alone-time talking about love, life, and our futures—having no clue our paths would lead where they did.  Ann Arbor brought her drug addiction and hepatitis due to needle poisoning, and life was a challenge until her premature death a month after her daughter’s drug-induced passing.

I visited her out-of-state graveside a year to the day after her burial—on the feast of St. Ignatius (coincidental since as high schoolers she and I talked about our perhaps having a religious vocation). She suffered other challenges that seemed to conflict so stridently with the multi-talented and popular teen queen that she once had been.  I wondered how many of our high school crowd envied her successes.

She was not unlike my mom—in the sense of them both being young girls with males always in pursuit.  Even as an older woman, my mom caught the eye of suitors.  Each of us knows our family members to be just that—our mom, our dad, sister, brother, etc.  It was a life lesson to see my mother “appeal” to strangers—a target of lust for others but in my eyes a very human person with hurts and needs–and not the sexual object others perceived her to be. Again, an example of judging people by externals, or surface appearance.

Even a Jesuit friend revealed this theme.  His appearance projected confidence, intelligence, and all-around success—no one knowing he contended all the time with a condition known as “sleep paralysis” (his form being an extreme case that forced him into retirement at an early age).  In this state, one cannot move, and can hallucinate—as he did.  The hallucination can be of a monster-type, humanoid being in the dark room who comes and sits on the person’s chest.  The experience no doubt laid the groundwork for belief in demon-possession among our ancestors.  Fortunately, today it can be treated.

A last example I draw from my work on the Black Elk biography.  Actor David Carradine won fame in the 70s for his television show “Kung Fu.”  He played a Buddhist Shaolin “priest” who could dispatch bad guys with a form of the martial arts.  The character was also a pacifist who quoted wisdom statements throughout the show.

Carradine played Black Elk in a New York production and wanted to visit Pine Ridge and meet the family.  He brought his young son and the little boy was a challenge (an unpleasant child who did not reflect well on Carradine or his mother, actress Barbara Hershey—at the time going by the name Barbara Seagull because of what she termed a mystical encounter with a seagull).  I interacted with Carradine and found him even more challenging than his son.

Surface judgements moved me to pray that the picnic come to a close and the visitors leave me with Black Elk’s daughter and family.  Only later did I learn that this period was David’s “cocaine years.”  And reading Parade magazine one Sunday, I learned that his son was successfully working in the performing arts and had a family of his own. Unfortunately, his dad did not fare so well.  I always held out hope that Carradine would influence the world in a positive way instead of leaving just the La La Land fantasy of the Kung Fu series.

While these examples illustrate that appearances are deceiving, they also show that we walk in a land of people whose wounds are often invisible.  In terms of Ascension Day, Jesus parted and bequeathed to us through the Spirit and sacramental participation–new eyes to see and new minds to evaluate people with whom we interact and world events that need the Christian perspective we possess.  Our Christian identity is NOT something we keep in a jar by the door, and pull out only on special days of the year.  Rather, our new eyes and new minds are analytical tools for everyday life.  Jesus came for us HUMANS who have human problems.  He did not come to make sure we prayed the rosary or built churches, but to help us live better lives.  THAT’S the gift of Ascension.

May 22, 2022

Got Milk?  The image of a milk mustache comes to mind.  Got a tattoo?  If you have one, an image of yours comes to mind.  Or maybe a family member has a tattoo.  Or maybe you belong to a gang and have a “tat” that identifies your gang membership.  Or maybe you were in prison and have tattoos that broadcast some kind of message to the world.  In the 60s and 70s, how one wore their hair, or if they had facial hair, often identified the political persuasion of the person.

These cultural trends are a distant cousin to what peoples the world over did at one time—cut some part of their bodies in some way so that they be “marked” (via a ritual) as a member of the nation, e.g., circumcision (cutting of foreskin), clitorectomy (excision of the clitoris), lines across the forehead, arms, etc.  Called tribal scarification rites, they include one that became a widespread medical practice in America for reasons unrelated to religion or some kind of ethnic identification.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics says the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, the AAP does not think the benefits are great enough to recommend that all male newborns should be circumcised.  Where it was once the standard practice in American hospitals, it has become an elective procedure.  Misinformation has created a vocal resistance to the procedure such that parents are advised to read about its benefits and not just assume it’s a primitive holdover.

Unrelated to medical concerns, the Israelites claimed that one of their patriarchs, Abraham, was told by God to circumcise all boys within the 12 tribes.  The bible reports that on their 8th day of life, a baby boy is to have the “bris” ceremony (also a naming ceremony still practiced by Jewish people). To the joy of all Jewish males, all subsequent birthdays are celebrated with cake. Humor aside, did you know that foreskins are an ingredient used by the cosmetic industry for beauty products (Oprah-endorsed)?

Our tribal ancestors called their people some name (such as the mountain people, river people, rice people, or as in the case of the Israelites, “God’s chosen people”).  Wearing their scar and moniker proudly, a tribal person knew who was considered a member of their nation.  Do tattoos or jewelry which punctures the skin do that for us today in some way—making that practice a vestige of the more ancient, uniting trait?

This discussion leads us to what the first reading from Acts is describing. Namely, a dispute arose with the influx of “gentiles” (non-Jews) into the Christian fold.  Since Genesis commanded that circumcision take place, should gentiles be required to get circumcised?  Some said yes, and some said no—so they met around the year 50 to debate the matter and come to a conclusion.

They decided that circumcision was not an “essential” of what Jesus taught.  Instead, he wanted to circumcise minds and hearts—to convert people from individual and tribal self-centeredness to an other orientation.  Instead of being known by some bodily mark, Christians should be known by the actions they perform (the corporal works of mercy and Matthew 25).

As the gospel today reports, Christians have the “Advocate” (Holy Spirit) who would help them lead lives of truth-seeking and truth-telling).  His telling the apostles that they would have this “Advocate” had an importance that is not as clear to us as it was when he said it to first-century people in Palestine.  In that time and place, it was a world of secrecy and deception—and one’s cards were always close to the vest.  With no “Freedom of Information Act” to help them, people needed an Advocate who’d inform them and provide what we’ve come to know as Christian “discernment”—prayerfully learning what is true and not true—since Jesus is called the TRUTH. Hallelujah!  The Holy Spirit is accessible to us and this Advocate will unfold new understanding, interpretation, and application of “all that I have said to you.”

In thinking of our search for truth today, I was reminded of a family experience from childhood.  Namely, my dad came from Kentucky to Detroit as a young man and saw a “help wanted” sign in a window on Woodward Avenue (the main street of Detroit).  Not many years later, he owned the business himself and was its president.  The entertainment Mecca of the city, the Graystone Ballroom was described in these terms:

With its vertical marquee towering above Woodward Avenue, the Graystone was Detroit’s ultimate hot spot for jazz. From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, it stomped and swayed with the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and other jazz luminaries. Joe Louis, the pride of Detroit, held a huge birthday party under its roof. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker dueled there in a battle of the bands.

It was a place known nationally for great jazz.

In a website article I discovered by accident this week, I read:

On Nov. 30, 1957, after a Stan Kenton show that failed to break even, the Graystone closed its doors. “We were up against a brick wall. The young people stopped dancing. And we couldn’t get them to start again,” said Francis M. Steltenkamp, president of Graystone Ballroom Inc. He blamed the rise of television and the popularity of house parties for the lack of young customers.  Steltenkamp said that “Whatever they do, they don’t dance.”

I was too young to understand the implications of what my parents experienced at this time, but dad’s loss of everything he had (bankrupt and broke) changed our family experience from leading what some call “the good life” to

May 15, 2022

It was good timing that our parish had a wedding this weekend.  After all, weddings are about love, and the Sunday’s gospel had Jesus say that people will know his disciples if they have love for one another. So hurray for love!

But what the heck IS love?  In the 2nd grade, I had eyes for Patty Fallon, and she kissed me on the cheek when we played in her backyard one day.  That meant the world to me—especially since I got regular reports that she kissed Richard Palazzolo in the “wrap room” where we hung our coats in the back of class.

Being kissed by the prettiest girl in the world at age 7 is, on the barometer of affection, some kind of “love.”  Hmm.  Erotic love is one of the 4 classical types addressed by ancient philosophers and theologians (those 4 being, in Greek, storge, affection; phileo: friendship; eros: romantic; agape: divine).  I don’t think I’d consider my fondness for Patty “erotic” at so tender an age. So maybe my affection for Patty is a 5th type of love.

The other kinds of love (love between friends—without a romantic component, love of parents for children and vice-versa, and God’s unconditional love of all people) see the latter as being what Christians try to imitate.  They do something for another whether knowing them personally or not.

Still, however, it’s not easy to use this word, love, and know what it concretely means as an identifier of Christian behavior.  What DOES one mean when they say “I love you?”  Giving hugs and kisses?  Sacrificing one’s life for another?  What?  The word is like “sin”—a tough word to apply and have everyone agree upon.  We say that murdering someone to get their wallet is sinful, but we also say that it’s sinful to eat a big dessert. Some see behaviors and statements of politicians as sinful while others justify those same behaviors and statements.

As if knowing we would wrestle with the meaning of love being the mark of Christian discipleship, St. Paul spelled out some concrete behaviors which each of us might reflect upon for a few moments.  In thinking of how you interact with people, see if the following behaviors describe you?  Here’s Paul’s checklist (his words are underlined; they are not my words).

–do you contribute to the needs of the community?  Monetarily—as in Christ’s Mission Appeal or some other charity?  volunteer work?

–do you extend hospitality to strangers? Or do you withdraw and say “I don’t bother anyone and they don’t bother me?”  The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not one related to sexuality, but to inhospitality.

–bless those who persecute you; Do you reflectively act, or do you unthinkingly “get even?”

–bless and do not curse them.

In tandem with the above trait, are you able to curb your “Hatfield and McCoy” tendency to retaliate (and so create feuding that lasts generation to generation)?

–rejoice with those who rejoice (instead of being jealous)—after all, our joys in life are transient.  They last for only a while—like an oasis in the desert. Besides, one might look like they have the tiger by the tail but in reality appearances are deceiving.

–weep with those who weep—do you have empathy for others—having “been there” in a state of tears?  We need emotional support—and give it as Jesus did.

–be patient in suffering—having been called to a parishioner’s bedside, I found their patience inspiring me!

–Live in harmony with one another; If it’s possible, live peaceably with all people.  You might feel strongly negative feelings toward another—but we are called to be bridge builders and people who upbuild others.

–do not be haughty –do not claim to be wiser than you are; compare yourself with God and there see how you have no reason to be  arrogant. To God, you are a child in need.

–associate with the lowly; Speaking with a Cree Indian from Hudson’s Bay, I was told of the government agent who went to the tribal meeting hall, and ignored “the old man who looked like a street person”—not knowing “that old, lowly-looking man was our chief.”

–Do not repay anyone evil for evil; Otherwise, you are giving birth to sin—which is the source of chaos and confusion within communities.  Don’t do it!

–but do what is noble in the sight of all. Don’t do what’s popular.  Don’t jump on the bandwagon. But instead do the “noble” course of action—which is what Jesus calls us to do.

–never avenge yourselves.  Leave that to God;  That’s self-explanatory along with the next two.

–“if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

–if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

–Do not give in to evil, but overcome evil with good; There is an old spiritual principle called “agere contra” which means you should counter temptation with its opposite. That is, if you’re tempted to steal, give something to someone.

AND HOW CAN WE ACCOMPLISH THE ABOVE?  So much of the above seems super-human, but St. Paul says the above behaviors are solid ones which we CAN put into practice—if only we—“persevere in prayer” (ask God to help us incarnate those traits).

By behaving in these ways, people will know that we are the Lord’s disciple and the world is a better place because of our presence in it.  I once stayed at a relative’s house because they were in the hospital and I was keeping an eye on the property.  As I looked around at the person’s belongings and decorations, I was reminded of their uniqueness, their specialness, their one-of-a-kindness–and was emotionally moved with the reality that the world would be less beautiful if that relative did not return from the hospital.  Their house was missing something.  Their bed, clothing, kitchenware, and pets–would not be the same without that person’s presence restored to the property.

And such is your identity and contribution to God’s landscape of life–unique, special, and singularly you.

You might look at the list of Christian traits, and think it’s not possible to make them your own.  You might think “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”  If that’s how you describe yourself, you’re throwing in the towel on your life’s possibilities.  God thinks more of you than you do of yourself.  So counter that tendency with another proverb: “You’re never too old to learn.”

When thinking of Christian “love,” we tend to minimize it—and apply it to our relationship with family members.  We tend to say “Yes, I’m doing my best in relating to the family.”  But Christian love goes beyond that group.  When Jesus tells us to “Love your neighbor,” he’s saying THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS

Recall my telling you about Back Elk, the Lakota holy-man?  He spoke for many tribal cultures when he said: “We killed anyone whose language we didn’t speak.”  In order to survive in a cruel world, our ancestors (like Black Elk) often resorted to extreme measures—such as killing people with whom they shared no common ties.

Black Elk was baptized a Catholic in1904 and changed his perspective on people whose language he did not speak.  He became so committed to the gospel that he is today on the track to sainthood.

Still, however, the challenge remains for us.  We can praise Black Elk’s growth as a religious leader within the Church, but you and I still confront issues within our families, neighborhood, work, and social world—that we do not know how to address.  That’s why it’s important to let another trait of Christian discipleship be our guide.

Namely, when we’re at a loss in knowing how to deal with someone, try to remember and put into practice the fact that: KINDNESS is the language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.

 May 8, 2022

Unbeknownst to most people is that Mother’s Day did not begin as a holiday dedicated to expressing gratitude for moms.  Nor was Jesus executed for being an all-around “good guy” who was well-liked by everyone.  Instead, both Mother’s Day and Jesus represented social protest in their time—but have been detached from these roots and transformed by corporate interests into economic goldmines.  Call it sin. Call it human weakness.  There’s something about our condition that sees us do well in some area of life, but then go off the tracks.

Take Mother’s Day, for example.  In 1858, Ann Reeves Jarvis organized what she called “Mothers’ Works Days” in West Virginia—a social justice effort to improve water sanitation in Appalachia (still, by the way, a problem).  She then got women to care for the Civil War wounded on both sides and “worked to overcome the animosity of the opposing sides”–eventually organizing a “Mothers Friendship Day” for Northern and Southern soldiers and their families.

These efforts led to the more famous author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe, campaigning for a “Mother’s Day for Peace” (which would be our nation’s commitment to abolishing war). In 1870, she spear-headed the movement to honor Mother’s Day as a day to resist militarism and to work for peace—writing: Arise then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!  Say firmly: ‘We will not have . . . Our husbands come to us, reeking with carnage, For caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.  We, the women of one country, Will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’

[T]he voice of a devastated Earth . . . says: “Disarm! Disarm!”  The sword of murder is not . . . justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor . . . As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil At the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home For a great and earnest day of counsel.  Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.  Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace . . .  Each bearing after . . .  the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask That a general congress of women without limit of nationality . . . promote the alliance of the different nationalities, The amicable settlement of international questions, The great and general interests of peace.

Middle-class 19th century women believed they bore a special responsibility to care for the casualties of society—and so played a leading role in the abolitionist movement, campaigns against lynching, consumer fraud, improved working conditions for women, protection for children, public health services, and welfare assistance to the poor.  To activists, the connection between motherhood and economic justice was self-evident.

Ann’s daughter (Anna) built on her mother’s vision, and lobbied Congress to declare a special day to honor mothers. Given the human condition, it was not surprising to see companies teach Americans HOW to honor their mothers.  Take them to a restaurant, buy them flowers, candy, or cards. As the Florists’ Review, the industry’s trade journal, bluntly put it, “This was a holiday that could be exploited.”

When florists sold carnations for the then-exorbitant price of $1 each, Anna Jarvis began a campaign against “those who would undermine Mother’s Day with their greed.” But she was hardly a match for the flower and card companies. Soon, the Florists’ Review announced, with a certain triumphant tone, that it was “Miss Jarvis who was completely squelched.”

Not surprisingly, a billion-dollar industry was born. After all, who dares ignore a holiday that has come to reflect our love and appreciation for our own mothers? What parent doesn’t hope for just a few words of love and appreciation from their children? But what would Julia Ward Howe and the Jarvis women think about the day’s commercialization?

They’d be the first to ask why Mother’s Day honors the love of mothers–but not all mothers.  Buying some transient gift on one day of the year brings lots of cash to big business but means nothing to the unemployed mothers who need child care, job training, health care, and higher minimum wage.  Legislatively, this can all be addressed—along with the working mothers who need governmental assistance provided by every other industrialized society.  What happened to their original idea that got “squelched?”

The same thing that happened to Christianity.  Jesus protested against the power structure of his day—the Sadducees, scribes, and Pharisees who burdened the oppressed and did nothing to help them.  He did not win friends in high places when saying that resources should be diverted to the poor and away from the wealthy.  Nero’s famous burning of Rome was his way of addressing the substandard housing in the city—and then blame it on the Christians.  He found a scapegoat—instead of improving the lot of citizens.  One Roman emperor even said: “The Jews oversee the welfare of their people in need.  We oversee our people.  But the Christians help everyone.”

The seminal insight of Christianity—that we’re all brothers and sisters seeking justice for all—does not serve the interest of those who seek to benefit monetarily from others.  Why just care for and share Eden’s apples when we could use them in some self-serving way?

Over time, Christianity is reduced to being simply a humanitarian philosophy about being nice to your family and friends, buying a Christmas tree and gifts in December, candy and Easter baskets in the Spring.  Keep a lid on Christian activism and don’t stress too much that the Good Shepherd set an example for us to care for the welfare of ALL the sheep—seeing that they received good health care, clean water, and food that kept them healthy.

This Sunday’s scripture could just as well be a commentary on how our “sinful condition” continues to play itself out today.  Namely,the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory.”  Those in power don’t want to hear the Shepherd’s voice, via our Christian identity, raised in defense of those in need.

As with the activist agenda of 19th century women with Mother’s Day, so Christianity is similarly in the process of being “squelched.”  We can certainly honor the original meaning of this day and at the same time not lose sight of the Divine agenda advanced by Jesus.  With May honoring the role of Mother Mary in the life of Jesus, we can recommit ourselves to doing what she instructed her son to do—always be a good shepherd laboring on behalf of those in need.

Like Paul and Barnabas in today’s reading—we are sent to be people who convert the Gentiles—all those who seek greater self-worth and greater purpose in life.  That vast population awaits our effort to help them in their time of need (which is always)—for as said by John: “I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  These are the “Gentiles” who have to contend with many wolves who regard them as prey—and we are shepherds Paul and Barnabas alive today.  Based on our experience with those Calvary wolves and the sly and deceptive words of serpents bearing apples, it’s our duty to water the roots of both Mother’s Day and the gospel.

 

May 1, 2022

With this weekend being our parish’s “first communion” weekend, we can once again reflect on the different understandings of why Christian communities gather at the “table of the Lord”—or should I say “altar” whereon sits the bread and wine (or should I say “grape juice?”).  After all, some say altar, some table, and some use grape juice instead of wine.  What is this all about?

As they go through life, our first communion people will hear some people refer to what we’re doing as a “meal” while others speak of a “sacrifice.” They’ll hear some describe what we’re doing as a sacred ritual that requires utmost reverence and much silent worship while others speak of it as a community gathering where the sound of children present is everywhere heard. Some will call this gathering the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, or breaking of bread, or Mass.

Our first communion class will encounter people who see this as a manifestation of one’s denominational faith—or as an invitation to anyone wishing to join their common worship.  They’ll hear some say that this event makes present Christ’s suffering and is thus a place where one feels His empathy for our suffering.  Meanwhile, others joyfully celebrate the risen Lord’s victory over death, and sing hallelujah.

Our young people receiving communion this weekend will speak with those who speak of a sacrament that makes present the real, physical body of Christ, but which for others is the making present of Christ in a real but spiritual way.  Some will celebrate this reality once a year, or a few times a year, or every Sunday, or even every day.

People will tell our first communicants that they gather in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming, while others will speak of their celebration of the risen Lord already present among us.

Over time, our young communicants will wrestle with these different understandings and wonder “Who’s right?”  What IS the Eucharist and which understanding is correct?

Like our understanding of the Trinity, the Eucharist is a mystery—often referred to in Catholic liturgical language as the “sacred mystery.”   It is all the above and more–carrying different layers of meaning–in tension with one another—but always evoking powerful, spiritual senses within the Christian Church’s faith community.

This is nothing new—since early on, different groups had different understandings of what it should be called, and how often it should be celebrated. Some called it the “Lord’s Supper,” connected to the Last Supper, and celebrated it less frequently than the Johannine community (who connected its theology to God now feeding people daily with NEW MANNA).

Early Christians, like later ones, reflected on the paradoxical elements within its central symbols.  For example, bread symbolizes joy/fellowship/freshness—but is also made of broken kernels of wheat that had to be crushed in their individuality and baked in fire to become that bread (an early Christian reflection being “we, though many grains, become the one loaf”). Wine is a festive drink—but is made of crushed grapes that represent the blood of Jesus and the blood and suffering of all that is crushed in our world and in our lives.

As said above, trying to understand all of the reflective, spiritual thoughts and behaviors generated by “Eucharist” might seem to be a problem—but is instead a mystery we behold.  Like the Trinity, we are dealing with an at-times indescribable richness that defies our explanations.

Like love—we can’t fully communicate it.

Think for a moment of one’s attempt to express their heart-and-mindfelt love for that other, special someone.  No amount of precious stone rings, or presents, or kisses, or poems can explain to a friend or to the beloved themself—one’s depth of appreciation or affection or thanksgiving (the meaning of “Eucharist”).

Why do you love her/him?  For this, this, this, this, and this reason.  I just do!  But words fail to fully describe my love for another. And so it is with “communion.”  It is the expression of God’s love that tries to speak to our hardened, broken, hungry hearts.

Eucharist is also analogous to wind—which scripture explains is like God—all around us—BUT WE CAN’T SEE IT. God is that all-around presence who can come to us in the form of a Breath, a Breeze, a Gust, a Gale, or Hurricane.

All the above explanations are true of the Eucharist. Any attempt to nail down its full meaning sees us try—but fall short.  We pound the nail again and again—only to open our hand and see the nail still there—along with the loaf and the cup on the altar-table— along with our desire to tag along with—and learn more about the person who bequeathed them to us.

Dear First Communion Class of May 1st 2022, Peace.

It is our honor to be at your first communion mass.  This special day allows you to go to any Catholic church in the world—and be part of that faith community–gathered at the altar, and receive communion.

Maybe going to communion in some other church will remind you of this day—your first communion at St. Mary’s church. When you think of this day, you can smile in knowing the Creator of the world—God—is helping you wherever you are.

As you go to the communion line, you are with people of all ages—famous people and people who are not well known, girls, boys, men, and women.  You are now part of a very fine group of people who go to communion so that they can grow into the good person God created them to be.  YOU are one of those good people.

And we welcome you into the Catholic community of people who made their first communion just as you have done this day.

We will ask God in prayer to help you be like Jesus was—a person who feeds the hungry, who gives to the poor, who finds clothing for those who need it, and who treats everyone with kindness—whatever they look like.

Being this way, you are like communion itself.  You are feeding others with the blessing of support.

Edited from: National Catholic Reporter

I began to see situations where . . . longtime friends and family members [were] unable to find sources of information that both would find trustworthy. I was witnessing signs of a different sort of pandemic — a conspiracy pandemic . . . QAnon, the origins of COVID-19, the safety of vaccines, the supposedly stolen 2020 presidential election . . . Occasionally even the Flat Earth Society makes a reappearance.  What links these narratives is a common disregard for widely available factual data and an overemphasis on data that is missing or limited in scope

I can sometimes hear St. Thomas Aquinas as if through a bullhorn wanting to wake all of us up to the dangers of this phenomenon and the urgency of a coordinated response, not just as a nation, but as a church. I believe he would see conspiracy thinking as a matter of concern not only politically — pertaining to the health of our common life with one another — but in terms of faith.  He would remind us that truth is having a picture of the world in your mind that aligns with how the world really is.

On a theological plane — as Christians, we reverence “Truth” and “Ultimate Reality” as names for God and any time that we have a picture in our mind that is less true than it could be — we are also one step further from God than we could be. Conspiracy thinking has spiritual consequences.

Across history, many conspiracy theories that perhaps seemed inconsequential at first have led to horrendous results. The obscure 1905 “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” book of anti-Semitic FICTION asserted a Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. Three decades later it was used by Nazis to justify Jewish genocide [and is again popular in the U.S. among neo-Nazi and supremacist militia groups]. The denial of the existence of AIDS in the 1980s by the government of South Africa contributed to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Current disinformation campaigns about COVID-19 vaccines have already contributed to unnecessary deaths as well. The very real impact of conspiracy theories makes them not only spiritually but morally troublesome.

Aquinas said that if we know information to be fictitious and nevertheless assert that it is true, then we are lying and in a state of sin. Moreover, if others have tried to point out to us that we are mistaken and we refuse to receive more accurate information when we could do so as creatures gifted with reason, we are in a state of sin.

As a church we need to treat conspiracy thinking with the same vigor as other significant moral issues of our time, such as immigration policy, racism, and human trafficking. Pope Francis regularly confronted disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine in his preaching this past year.

Parishes and dioceses could be doing much more to take on conspiracy thinking as a moral crisis. Possibilities include bulletin articles, preaching from the pulpit, faith formation opportunities on media literacy, book studies and discussion of films like Netflix’s The Social DilemmaA commitment to truth is fundamental to our lives as Christians. We witness to this by trying to always make sure that our own minds are aligned with reality.

 

The above article echoes material I’ve presented in bulletins–indicating what theologians have been observing about the American social scene.  As contemporary as the topic might be, we see truth in the aphorism: “As much as things change, they stay the same.”  I say this because people were at one time just as confused about which scriptures to read as we are today about who we should listen to on socio-political issues.  

In the first 3 centuries of Christianity, MANY gospels and epistles floated around–teaching people erroneous stories about Jesus, his teachings, and other scriptural characters.  The Church met in Council and said that “We have to do something about  the misinformation, disinformation, and lies that now circulate.”  For example, one group taught that God wanted Christians to eat only melons.  One text, still kept by Coptic Christians (not in union with Rome), is an “epistle” that depicts Pontius Pilate and his wife as saints who preached the faith (not true at all since other historical sources clearly indicate that Mr. and Mrs. Pilate died wealthy pagans–and never did anything for anyone but themselves).

Just as in the past–so today–people are vulnerable.  Erroneously attributed to P.T. Barnum (of circus fame) was the statement: “There’s a sucker born every minute”–and so it was in the days of early Christianity.  The Church realized it had to nail down a “canon” of New Testament scripture (i.e., which gospels and epistles were theologically accurate).  The issue wasn’t that people will begin to believe in nothing–but that they’ll believe in anything! And all Church people today need to be alert in this era of deception (as they were 1700 years ago when establishing the canon of scripture).

April 24, 2022

In 1969, an oil company got authorities to suspend rules related to the construction of a rig off the beautiful coastline of Santa Barbara, CA.  Predictably, drilling went awry, and oil killed much wildlife—this being the worst oil disaster until that time (it’s now the 3rd worst).  Protests followed, and the first Earth Day took place (along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency).

This week saw the 52nd anniversary of Earth Day—an event our Catholic faith certainly supports in light of the encyclical of Pope Francis “Laudato Si” (“Praise be to you”).  This was a worldwide wake up call to help humanity understand the destruction that people are inflicting upon the environment and themselves.  This 2nd Sunday of Easter addresses this theme in tandem with scripture raising the topic of faith.

Care for the environment parallels tending to our faith life.  We can try to gain greater insight within each realm–or disregard them.  The classic work of St. Ignatius is titled “The Spiritual Exercises”—he is saying that in order for one to advance in faith, one has to EXERCISE (and not just sleep in on Sunday morning or watch TV on Saturday at 4—instead of going to church).  Does a person think an angel will appear to them—and THEN a faith-life ensues–and the person need not make any effort?  To discover something, one must search.

The same process is at play with environmental care.  It never dawned on me that hens and roosters spoke to one another.  This changed after speaking with someone whose upbringing was on a farm.  She said that when a hen lays an egg, she shouts “Look, look, what I did”—and nearby the rooster says “Good, good, for you.”  This was, of course, SEEING language exist where others didn’t.  My friend’s upbringing gave her this perspective.

When our ancestors were trying to survive at the band or tribal level of society, they were hyper-conscious of the natural world—seeing “the Sacred” in all of creation.  This is what Genesis described in the story of Adam and Eve.  They lived in close contact with the Creator.  Since Adam and Eve represent us, we need to “get in touch” with the reality of our own life on planet Eden.  Earth is the beautiful garden of creation we are gradually destroying—and banishing ourselves from.  We have too long been choosing, via bad decisions, to “get ahead” by eating apples of self-interest.  [Which led, theologically and historically, to God showing us how to tend our garden and our lives—by being Christ-like.]

Although a Crow Indian, Grace Pretty Shield’s experience as a young girl reflects how our ancestors behaved.  She one day threw stones at the chickadees who were laughing after a big meal.  Grandma saw her do this and took her to a bush and asked the chickadees to forgive her saying: “This is my grand-daughter who did not know what she was doing.”  Grandma explained to her that the chickadees’ call gives hope–when it tells the people “Summer’s coming” and that come fall, they tell us when to prepare food for the cold months by saying “winter’s near.”  Her biography is filled with accounts that tell of her people’s reverence for creation—a reverence that she, us, and all persons were created to internalize.

With many children now being raised with little to no religious instruction, the following story would be hard to find.  By contrast, the experience of one child (raised within a devout home) shows what the “eyes of faith” can see.

A little girl walked to and from school daily.  Though the weather that morning was questionable, and clouds were forming, she made her daily trek to the elementary school.  As the afternoon progressed, the winds whipped up, along with thunder and lightning.

The mother of the little girl felt concerned that her daughter would be frightened as she walked home from school and she herself feared that the electrical storm might harm her child.  Following the roar of thunder, lightning, like a flaming sword, would cut through the sky.  Full of concern, the mother quickly got into her car and drove along the route to her child’s school.

As she did so, she saw her little girl walking along, but at each flash of lightning, the child would stop, look up and smile.  Another and another were to follow quickly, and with each flash the little girl would look up at the streak of light and smile.

When the mother’s car drew up beside the child, she lowered the window and called to her, “What are you doing? Why do you keep stopping?”  The child answered, “I am trying to look pretty. God keeps taking my picture.”

Today’s scripture reports the “doubting Thomas” episode (found only in John’s gospel).  This is also the only gospel reference to nails pounded into the hands of Jesus (tying was another way to crucify).  Scholars think this story might have been created by John with Thomas made to typify the “doubts,” skepticism, and hesitation that plagued his community at the end of the 1st century (the name Thomas means “twin”—and we are that twin).  John was telling his audience that they (and we) were not the first ones to cope with doubt.

A powerful idea is communicated in this reading from John that might be missed by a casual listener of scripture.  Namely recall that the first line of John echoes the first line of Genesis.  Both books start with “In the beginning.”  Today’s reading again brings Genesis to mind when John reports that Jesus “breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  This gospel scene hearkens back to when God breathed life into Adam at creation, and when God’s Spirit blew over the waters of the abyss.

The risen Lord created us anew in giving the Spirit to the apostles–opening people’s minds that to live as Jesus instructed will bring us new life.  We are here today with our brothers & sisters in faith—who have doubts, like Thomas—about whether God exists, and whether our existence has any meaning at all.  Like Thomas, we belong here—with all our doubts or misgivings.  We still belong at the Lord’s table—the message of Jesus being one that offers us new hope and new vision of our possibilities.

Take to heart and remember that Jesus did not come to chastise but to inspire.  He did not come to be worshipped but to serve.  He did not come to condemn but to rally our spirit and serve our best interest. By internalizing the gospel, we can acquire, as John reports, “life in his name.”

In thinking of what Thomas experienced, what came to mind was what occurred with Susan Boyle in 2009 on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent.”

The WORLD (secular reality) is represented by judges Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, and Amanda Holden—judges who are all polished and beautiful and glitzy and glamorous and in life’s fast-lane—the world!  The middle-aged contestant, Susan Boyle, appeared very ordinary, very plain and, in the eyes of the entire audience, soon to be escorted off the stage.  Instead, the woman proceeded to sing so beautifully that everyone in attendance stood and applauded (see for yourself on Youtube).  Her giftedness cut through everyone’s condescension.

Ironically, the song title she chose was “I dreamed a dream”—no doubt a thought she had many times in life when doubting her worth or her future or purpose.   Like Thomas, disbelief was seared into her soul—feeling success of any kind unrealistic.  Upon seeing everyone’s response, she said what Thomas must have felt when Jesus spoke to him.  In awe, she (and presumably Thomas), said: “unbelievable.”  John reported the Thomas equivalent “my Lord and my God.

A spiritual exercise you might try is this.  Since scripture speaks to our experience and depicts us, reflect upon the various times you’ve been Thomas.  Are you the one who sees no reason to harbor hope in some area?  Have you had an emotionally powerful experience of being affirmed or given hope?  Have you undertaken what might be termed your life ministry (being part of people’s lives in some constructive, positive way)?

You who are parents—think back to seeing the birth of your child and seeing that little person—born of you.  If you were a doubting Thomas before that moment, there was an instance when your agnosticism vanished—and you believed there was a God (in viewing the miracle of your baby).

Like the little girl in the rain, may we always sense God’s presence in the storms of our lives.  Tradition says that Thomas went on to become the beloved apostle to India—people reverencing his memory still.  Like him, our twin, may we remember that Mass isn’t just something you go to—but are sent from.

April 17, 2022

With four Holy Week liturgies, this week’s bulletin features themes that were addressed—the first of which being a prayer that began Holy Thursday.

Father in heaven, as we come to the table of your son this evening, we are reminded of having a special kind of candlelight dinner—with you, your son Jesus, with the apostles, Mary, and our faith community of John the 23rd.  Help us realize on this anniversary of the sacrament—that we are called to be ministers of communion in every encounter we have with anyone we meet.  Because we ourselves are starved for encouragement and appreciation—we are not always a ray of light for others.  Father, Son and Spirit—nourish us at the Eucharistic table this special anniversary night.  Replace the dimness of our light with a bright shining and sharing of our unique gifts.

The above opening prayer spoke of our gathering here at a candlelight dinner—and that’s exactly what it was with the early Christian faith communities.  While the early liturgies were meals that included food and drink, Paul chastised a community for some people drinking and eating too much, and not letting some people (the poor) even join in the meal.  In the first two centuries, this dinner setting would occur at someone’s home in the evening–characterized by inclusivity, care for one another, and unity.  By the 3rd century, it had ceased to be a banquet and had become a ritualized small meal instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today we try and feel what the apostles felt when Jesus was executed.  Generations have also wondered what Jesus felt as he made his way to Calvary, and what the experience meant to his followers who had placed all their hope in him.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Franciscans popularized what became known to us as the “Stations of the Cross” or “Way of Sorrows.  There have been as many as 30 “stations” (scenes), but they started with 7 and now appear in most Catholic churches as 12 to 14 imaginings of what Jesus experienced that Friday in Jerusalem.

When doing the stations (which can take place year-round), we become the people along the way—some present as if at a carnival—looking at what we’d today call a “train-wreck”—the grotesque beating and suffering of some guy. The man’s mother was there—along with other women who seemed to really be emotional about what was happening.  Maybe we’re glad we had no part of this public killing—thinking Governor Pilate played his cards well when washing his hands of involvement.

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

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

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

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

The Conference of Bishops insists that a homily be given at the Holy Saturday service.  They say this even though priests are no doubt tempted simply to move on with the liturgy and just consider the scripture and liturgical theater as sufficient for parishioners.  In my Jesuit training, a priest abided by the instruction but also gave what was theologically a really sound AND SHORT homily—that was applauded by those in attendance and glad that he said what he did.  Here’s what he said:
Resurrexit sicut dixit” (“He has risen as he said”).

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

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

Our faith is also affirmed when Jesus says from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  The Hebrew word that translates into “commend” or “give back” has a meaning that we need take to heart.  Namely, it carries the same meaning as when you check your coat at a booth when attending a dinner at some hotel or meeting hall.  You expect to get back your coat.  And so it is with the faith of Jesus.  He gives his life to the Father—trusting in God that he will get back his life.  And so that is our faith, too.  When we know our end has come, we echo the words of Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit”—trusting that God will receive us lovingly into eternal life.

Jesus came as the son of God—making us brothers and sisters in Christ.  He told us to “love one another as I have loved you”—which is a reference to “love” being something other than hugs and kisses.  His meaning was that you and I “feel for,” “put ourselves in the shoes of,” or recognize that other persons are like us.  They might be from another country, be another gender, have a different religion or skin color—but they are someone we, as Christians, must identify with—and help in time of need.

Easter reminds us that people in Jerusalem 2000 years ago became “church” for one another.  And now, there are people around us here in church who have at some point in their life CHOSEN to be part of what we call “Church”—and so are also choosing to be with you, a fellow member of what we call “the body of Christ.” And in a while, you will see them filing up to Communion like a walking litany of potential saints, and you might just feel an Alleluia rising through your chest. And then you, too, will join the line, walking with them, trying to build the kingdom of God–however long this task may take.

April 10, 2022

Introductory Prayers for Palm Sunday’s Theme

God our Creator, we gather on this Palm Sunday weekend—remembering how excited people were in welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem.  That day was like America celebrating the end World War 2—joyous that all was okay once again.  Since that joyous time, there has been bloodshed in Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Ukraine, and numerous other places.  We ask your forgiveness in never seeming to learn from the Prince of Peace, Lord, have mercy

Son of the Father, Jesus our brother—you gave us Palm Sunday joy, but we have chosen other paths that lead to Calvary.  We gather now in prayer—asking that you take us to the road which leads to eternal life, Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit, we need your inspiration to be the blessing for others our Father in heaven created us to become.  Be the kindling we need to become your fire of change in our world, Lord have mercy.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday joy that takes us to Holy Thursday’s table fellowship with Jesus at the “Last Supper” (or, as some say, the “First Supper” that led to our Sunday celebrations of the Eucharist).  We then reflect on the crucifixion defeat of Good Friday, the rekindling of hope on Holy Saturday, and resurrection victory of Easter Sunday.

Each week, we read what scripture scholars refer to as a “pericope” (prrr—ick’—up—ee).—an anecdotal story/proverb/remembrance related to Jesus that was handed down in oral tradition before being committed to the gospels.  Whereas these stories were discrete snippets, the passion narratives differ from them because they were handed down in tradition as one, continuous narrative.

And so it is that with each Palm Sunday, we continue that tradition by reading the passion narrative all the way through.  Some might benefit from being seated during its reading while others observe the tradition of standing.  Your call.

 

Much like the Christmas story, this section of the gospels provides us with a cast of memorable characters—memorable largely because their actions reflect our own—for good and for not-good.   As you listen to scripture today and the rest of the week, be attentive to which characters make you pause and think.  That might be God’s way of speaking to you and me—calling our attention to a person whose role in the passion narrative might mirror our behavior today.

Stated in a generic, overall way, we are each gospel person at different moments in our lives–the fair-weather friend of Palm Sunday, the table companion of Jesus on Holy Thursday, absent when the going gets tough on Friday, expectantly wondering if, or praying that, our journey with Jesus still has legs on Holy Saturday, and rejoicing on Sunday that he has risen as he said he would.

Our task this week is to reflect on and look at ourselves objectively by looking at the persons depicted in the gospel.  For example—to stir your thoughts . . .

Judas Iscariot—what’s your price when not being faithful to values you in some way betray?

Chief priests—do you find it easy to pass judgment on others?

Peter—are you called to stand for something but have legs of straw?

Jesus in Gethsemane—what fears are you forced to confront? Do you talk to God about your fear?

Pontius Pilate—do you wash your hands of involvement? Are you apathetic?

Barabbas—do you benefit at other people’s expense (your business price-gouges, but blames the cost on hard economic times–your greed quietly rejoicing in the dividends you receive)?

Simon of Cyrene—do you help others carry their cross, or are you just someone in the crowd who sees bad things happen to others (glad it isn’t you stumbling toward Calvary)?

Soldiers who whip Jesus—do you participate in oppression of others (besides the targeted animals, does your trophy-hunting of rare animals—or any creature who simply wants to live—

deprive them of life—and humanity of their companionship on planet Eden)?

Magdalene, mother Mary, & women at the cross—you’re a faithful presence to others in their time of need (driving people to the doctor, visiting them)?

 The good and bad thief—do you admit mistakes and ask for forgiveness—or do you complain that someone’s always done you wrong?

In each of the persons cited above, we see that Jesus is still being crucified today; that we are washing our hands of involvement, that we are denying that social ills are our problem, and that acting on behalf of our own self-interest seems to be our strongest trait.

But you are not just the routine cast of negative characterizations portrayed in the passion story.  You are also faithful Magdalene, helpful Simon of Cyrene, and Jesus himself—as both he and us confront crosses of our own—in fear and trembling.

If nothing else, the passion narrative shows that we are all in need of new life in some way—to amend the pock-marked life we’ve led–or to further affirm the good legacy we try to bequeath.  Which is why we need to remember and take to heart the bible’s summary message: that God calls ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.  May we ordinary people benefit from this year’s Holy Week.  It calls us to accomplish those extraordinary things—in our own space and time.

April 3, 2022

I was tempted simply to use a line from the gospel as the homily for today: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”  That one sentence is a stark reminder to each of us that we do, in fact, make critical judgments of people and somehow overlook the reality of our own shortcomings.

Jesus seems to make his position clear in this chapter when he further states “I judge no one” (8:15).  However, in 8:26, he says “I have much to judge.”  Hmm.  I wish he’d make up his mind!!!  Understanding scripture can sure be a challenge, especially when scholars think the accused woman story was later inserted into John’s gospel—drawn from Luke or an oral tradition that was strong.  Since it addressed judging, why not put it there?  Besides, Jesus also talks about the “last judgment”—so different contexts bring out different emphases of judging (and other behaviors).

Maybe the Pharisees and scribes brought the woman to Jesus so that they could trap him.  If he said to release the woman, he’d be violating the Mosaic law that said to punish her.  If he says she should be stoned to death, he’d get in trouble with the Roman authorities who had taken the power of capital punishment away from the Jewish leaders.

When I was in grade school, a teacher said that when Jesus doodled on the ground, he was jotting down the sinful behavior of each Pharisee and scribe who was present—and that’s why they departed (knowing they were guilty and that Jesus knew of their guilt).  Commentators today say that within the Mediterranean region, it’s common for peasants to jot in the dirt when thinking or distraught.  What Jesus did was a well-known behavior to gospel listeners of the first century.

Instead of answering their question, Jesus challenged the lynch mob to examine their motives.  Perhaps the wronged husband cynically arranged to have his wife caught instead of trying to win her back with love (as Hosea tried to do in the book of Hosea).  A lesson on “judging,” Jesus also reminds the mob, and all zealots, to strive for purity of motive.  Do away with hidden agendas, and be transparent in your dealings with people—in an up-building way.

As for “judging” people (and ourselves when examining our conscience during Lent), it’s important to remember that the gospel does set standards we are called to observe and behaviors we are taught to avoid.  Although not stated outright in the New Testament, these behaviors have been discerned by Christian ascetics, saints, and spiritual directors since the time of Jesus.  Variously called the “capital sins,” “cardinal sins,” or “deadly sins,” these behaviors are flashing red lights to us that signal something destructive is taking place.  Common to all people everywhere, we need to identify how these deathly behaviors surface in our experience—and try our best to eradicate them.  If we reflect long enough on each one, we will probably admit that “Yes! We are guilty as charged.”

Unfortunately, these behaviors are often touted in society as admirable traits we should foster..  We each have our version of these 7 deadly ways of presenting ourselves to the world—and Lent is the time we try to identify our version.

Some years back, a commercial for Braniff airlines popularized their corporate jingle that hypnotized all of us into thinking that “When you’ve got it—flaunt it.” Considered the parent of the 6 remaining spiritual infections, “pride” is one’s boastful (in obvious or subtle ways) presentation of themselves to others.  Also known as selfishness, arrogance, or vanity, one’s focus is on their own desires, urges, wants, whims, and welfare—before anyone else’s.  Their world is one of I, me, and mine.

The second deathly behavior was popularized in the 2010 film “Wall Street.”  It depicted a worldly-wise Michael Douglas who was a multi-millionaire who used women as toys, and other people as suckers he could rip off financially.  He was a “role model” for moviegoers who found his character alluring. His character had fast cars, fast women, and fantasy homes in several locations.  Americans found no problem echoing what the Douglas character proclaimed to the applause of a captive audience: “Greed is good.”

One can only wonder if Christian churchgoers were concerned about the worldview they were being fed on the silver screen.  They were being given a role model who cultivated an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than he ever needed. Worshipping the created over the Creator, Douglas embodied materialism (the absence of spirituality or sense of the transcendent).  Being “covetous” (passionately wanting to acquire) of some thing or someone is the first stage of wanting still more.  Generosity toward others is minimally exhibited only if it promises to bring greater acquisitions to the greedy person.

Some might not think pride or greed is their “issue” but instead be able to relate to sexual fixations of one sort or another.  Under the umbrella term “lust,” reptilian sexual behaviors can create turmoil—abuses of various kinds that are well known to hospital emergency rooms, police precincts, and counselors.  However, one can also have a “lust” for power or authority over others that likewise creates other forms of harassment.

One’s lust for recognition can include yet another behavior that destroys relationships—envy.  Defined as “sadness at another’s good fortune,” envy reflects a person’s inability to sense or perceive in any way the Christian reality that God made each person unique, that creation is not complete without each person, and that one’s assets are simply different.  Holding someone at a distance because they have something you want—is destroying the bridges a child of God was intended to build between people.  Resentment grows and one might be prompted to say “They think they’re too good for us” when, in reality, that sort of judgment does not at all define the person’s attitude. Instead, we PROJECT that divisive description upon them.

When we were young, a parent or grandparent might have told us that little children in China are starving, and here we are—not eating our dinner (because we probably gorged on something else before dinner).  Starving children exist—here in the U.S. (believe it or not)—and globally.  And our gluttony does affect people elsewhere in the world.  Gluttony refers to us wanting all sorts of foods (such as almonds that make almond milk that depletes fresh water supplies), or we want palm oil which destroys land on which wonderful species (like orangutans) are going extinct because of our gluttonous craving for “creature comforts.”

When at a lake this summer, look at the various water craft consuming gasoline—and that scene repeated day-after-day at lakes everywhere.  Like the old Pac-man game of a yellow chomping head—we chomp, chomp, chomp away our natural resources (like the Amazon) and despoil this garden of Eden which God gave us to tend.  Thinking only of satisfying our gluttonous wants, we destroy God’s gifts.

And as we watch the Ukraine war unfold, we see the very obvious death-dealing behavior of wrath (gluttony, envy, and the other diseases described above are also involved).  Mr. Putin wants to show that resistance is useless, so his people slaughter men, women, and children.  The Hatfields and McCoys are an American parable that showed how your families can let a moment’s anger flare into intergenerational agony.  As with the other human viruses of spirit described above, anger or wrath has “spinoff” comorbidities—suicide, drug abuse, poverty, etc.

The final nail in the coffin of non-Christian living is a word that shouldn’t be confused with the darling animal from South American that seems to always have smile on its face.  That animal, is a “sloth”—pronounced as in eating “cole slaw” (with a “th”) on the 2nd word.  The death-dealing behavior is also spelled “sloth” but can be pronounced “slow-th.”  It can be thought of as “laziness” or an overall sense of apathy and indifference to working or contributing to anything.  Christians know they are created by God to make their special contribution, but the slothful person more-or-less doesn’t care about much at all.  As a result, the world is missing their contribution.  I don’t want to go to church.  I’ll just lay around and watch TV.

And so we have 7 words that refer to “capital sins,” “deadly sins,” or “cardinal sins.”  Forget those terms, and just think of the above 7 terms as behaviors that spawn hurt in everyday life—that make you less than what God intended you and me to be.  These behaviors are found throughout the human race, and during the Lenten season we are encouraged to look at ourselves and see where these viruses lurk within our life.

Thank God we have a vaccine for them.  Let’s rendezvous at church to get our shot of that vaccine-grace we need.

Lord, as tempting as it might be to judge others, inspire us to realize that you love them.  Help us heal by avoiding words that pollute and replacing them with speech that purifies.  Open our eyes to all that we can be grateful for, and mute our pessimism by touching our hearts with hope.  Neutralize whatever bitterness we taste in thinking of someone or some event, and give us the curative power of forgiveness.  Lord, we admit to needing your help in curbing our critical tongue. Please give to us words that up-build others and not words that tear them down.  Show us the poverty of pride, gluttony, envy, lust, greed, wrath, and sloth by teaching us the grace of humility, generosity, kindness, patience, and other virtues that create a community of support.  Inspire us at John the 23rd parish to create such a community.

March 27, 2022

On this winter-like Spring weekend, I was reminded of a Motown song of years ago when coming to church.  The verses are: “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.  When it’s cold outside, I got the month of May.”  And so it is with our coming to mass.  Whatever difficult issues we bring to the altar, God will provide us a sense of hope or new growth.  This is especially true with the gospel this week.  We prodigal sons and daughters are reminded that when we wander off the track of virtue, God more-or-less pines for our return.

Were we first century people hearing the wayward child’s story, we’d first of all be struck by the violation of etiquette BOTH brothers displayed toward their father.  In those days, a child did not demand their inheritance (as the young one did and which the older one did not protest).  So the story is about different generations taking their father’s largesse for granted—and not behaving as they should (think Israelite history and prophets reprimanding people for not observing a right-relationship with God).

The story traditionally is referred to as that of “the prodigal son,” but since most people don’t use the word “prodigal”—its title might not communicate anything.  With prodigal meaning “wastefully extravagant,” the story is about how God has given US all that we have, and has blest us with many things—but we have not led our lives reflecting this divine heritage.  This isn’t a story about life-embarrassments—such as when I unknowingly taught classes all day only to learn that Coffeemate was across the bridge of my nose the entire time (no one asking me about the white powder that I had sported).

Have you not had experiences which prompt you to groan in recalling them—sorry you had not lived up to being the best person you could be?  Like the prodigal son, you roll your eyes and realize that there is an alternative to a former or current behavior.  You (the prodigal child) were/are in a place of “famine” (notice the son was in a country not at war, and he was not a slave, or unemployed—but was HUNGRY—and needed sustenance).  A hint of Eucharist is thus in the passage—along with returning to the faith community that could give him the real food his spirit needs.

When reading that the father spotted his son “when he was still a long way off,” and that he embraced him upon return—further emphasizes a return to the sacramental community.  RECONCILIATION is taking place—as when the sacrament of penance/confession is depicted.  Unfortunately, some people’s memory of this special rite is like what I experienced as a young kid.  With my family tradition being to show up late for mass and leave early, I once “confessed” and the priest asked: “have I ever denied you absolution?” 

He put the fear of God into me—making me not wanting to return to what was intended to be a “healing” experience.  The threatening priest was certainly not playing the role of the father in the story.  He sure wasn’t welcoming me back into the fold and celebrating my desire to behave in better ways.  When that man left the priesthood a few years later, I mused that he had perhaps made a good decision.

Another key element of the passage is the Pharisees and scribes being critical of Jesus mixing and dining with people who they defined as sinner-outcasts.  This isn’t a depiction of Jesus being a humanitarian social worker but of God outreaching us so much so that even GOD will violate religion’s rules to win us over (the same point is made in the good Samaritan story).

What about the elder brother?  Could he represent us—when we are unable to change our mind about one thing or another—remaining a slave to our opinions on all subjects?  Or is he the Jewish element of Luke’s audience not changing to the new way of life that the evangelist is communicating to the Gentiles (younger brother)?  Obviously, today’s gospel is about more than just a prodigal child.

We can’t let this past week’s feast day pass without comment.  Namely, the “feast of the Annunciation” took place—honoring the angel Gabriel speaking with Mary about giving birth to Jesus (the liturgical cycle is acknowledging that March 25th is 9 months before December 25th).  All of which is a “take” on Christian history.

The gospel incident is more importantly a theology and spirituality lesson that is wise for us to ponder and take to heart.  That is, the annunciation is not just an historical moment related to Mary and Jesus, but is a story about us.

God says to each of us “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with” me.  We are being told that each of us is called to give birth to Jesus in our own special way.  And we are shocked—saying “How can this be?”  For us to be so special—IN THE EYES OF GOD—is like telling us we could be a mother without having sexual relations with anyone.  And in our moment of disbelief when realizing the God of all creation regards us in such special light—we are told that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. for nothing is impossible for God.”

To be an apostle, or an “alter Christus” (another Christ) is a role we can refuse, and carry on our lives as agnostics—not knowing if God exists or not.  Or we can be people of faith, acknowledge God making us for a special role—and responding: “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Enough of prodigal children and angels speaking to us as they do to Mary!

Here are reflections on the concrete meaning of discipleship that we are called to embody.  Spend a moment on each thought—and let’s try to make the world better by internalizing their content.

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

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

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

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

Refrain from worries and replace them with trust in God

Refrain from complaining and contemplate simplicity

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

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

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

Refrain from holding grudges and make some effort to be reconciled

Refrain from words and be silent so you can listen

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

May I respond “yes” to the angel Gabriels who ask me to bring life to others.

March 20, 2022

We call this liturgical season “Lent”—a word that means “spring.”  And so it is that we seek new life at this time of year—a spiritualizing of the season when the death of winter gives way to blooming and birthing. At this time, we try to tend our spirit and find new insight into why God made us who we are and what God calls us to be.

The 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 days Noah’s family spent on the ark.  The sun eventually rose and revealed a new creation and new beginning for them.  And that is what we spiritually seek when focusing on our Easter destination.

We’re reminded of Israelites wandering 40 years in the desert—recalling the desert experiences we have had at different times.  We looked at mirages only to realize that they were illusions of security and not the promised land we sought.  And we think of Goliath taunting the Israelites for 40 days until David showed everyone that God helps us overcome all forms of intimidation.

As for scripture this week, we read about 18 people being killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them.  This horrible event made people think that God was punishing the 18 for something they had done.  When Jesus was asked if he thought this is why the people died, he more or less said that they died because the tower fell on them—period!  God wasn’t punishing them.

The mentality represented in this passage is one found in tribal societies everywhere.  That is, if anything goes wrong with someone or some event (a broken arm, an illness, a devastating flood), people think it’s because a spirit or a god was offended.  When health care workers went to help stamp out smallpox from a community, people resisted because they thought the smallpox god would take out its wrath on them.

You might even hear a relative sigh something to the effect of: “I think God is punishing me for ________” [fill in the blank].  Humans seem to think the spirit world wants to beat us up for committing some wrong.  By contrast, the God revealed in Jesus has no interest in slapping your face or punishing you for some misdeed.  Our God is one who wants to love you into, or draw out, the person you were intended to be.

The flip side of the punishing-god stereotype is the capitalistic-god whose message is today heard by preachers of what’s known as the “prosperity gospel.”  Called “the worst idea” of the recent past by the religion editor of the Chicago Sun, these wealthy preachers woo poor and lower-middle class listeners into conceiving of a God who wants them to be wealthy, and that by living the gospel, wealth will not be far behind.  The roots of this “heresy” (false teaching—but which is believed by some to be Christian-teaching) are in our colonial American experience.  Much has been written about how our colonial founders were influenced by religious teachings that cited wealth as a special blessing from God. 

A summary of countless books that addressed the colonial experience—shows that people wondered if they’d be one of “the elect” who’d go to heaven.  How could one tell if they were on the right road to eternity?  Answer?  If people were blest with wealth, that must mean they’re doing something right.  Therefore, they wrongly concluded that one “sign” of being among the “elect” was wealth—so people better work hard to gain wealth (blending religion with commerce—and producing what has become known as the “Protestant work ethic” in America).

The other part of this weekend’s gospel takes us into the world of 1st century horticulture and Israelite care of the Palestinian fig tree. In order to fully appreciate this story, you need to know the Aramaic language and the book of Leviticus.

Leviticus says that the fig tree must be allowed to grow for 3 years while the next 3 it is forbidden to eat its fruit.  The 7th year’s harvest is to be given to the Lord—and THEN the orchard owner can pick and sell the figs. Scripture scholars point out that the story is addressing leadership (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.).  Is leadership self-serving, or does it truly serve the people’s best interest?

When the owner says to get rid of the tree, listeners of Jesus would hear a play on words—the word for getting rid of (or digging up) is the same as mercy/forgiveness.  The worker wants to exercise mercy/forgiveness while the owner does not.  And so it is with leadership.  Will it serve its own interests or that of the people?  Like the tree, people need the gardener’s (God’s) help (and not be cut down by the uncaring, self-serving orchard owner).

Today’s readings (and others during Lent) have such phrases as “If you do not repent, you will perish.”  But what does “repent” mean to us?  I think of such things as going to confession, or “giving up” something for Lent, or I think of people in the Middle Ages wearing sackcloth and ashes or standing out in the cold enduring physical pain to “make up for” something they did wrong. 

It might be more meaningful if we thought of repentance during Lent as taking the time to get in touch with how we deceive ourselves into thinking we are living the fullest Christian life that we can.  Think of repentance as saying to God in prayer that you AREN’T knowledgeable of lapses you’ve committed in being Christian, and that you DON’T know what the gospel calls you to further embody in your everyday life.  Try saying to God in prayer that you want to be shown where you can expand your sense of personal mission as a baptized Catholic.

Instead of leaving this topic at a cerebral or abstract level of reflection, I thought you might benefit from challenges I face each time I read Catholic/Christian journals, magazines, and newspapers. They often challenge me, or simply remind me of matters I am SUPPOSED to address as one who claims a gospel identity.  I often realize I’ve neglected to give attention to some important issue. I then fail as a priest in communicating those issues to you!  After all, it’s my duty to move people’s thought processes into realms they might not wish to go.  I have this same experience when reading articles related to diverse topics.

Here are titles of articles drawn from sources authored by theologians, clergy, religion scholars, and spirituality writers.  The sources are from one week’s set of readings I came across—written for Catholic clergy and pastors from all the different denominations.  They offer us this material with the hope that we, in turn, enlighten our respective flocks in the matters addressed.  If these are not on your radar—why aren’t they?  You might say “I never think of them.”  Precisely—because you and I aren’t as fully engaged as we could be—and this material challenges us to repent/re-examine our consciousness. 

I quote from the sources the following titles (and make an occasional comment).

“Christians fight cruel outdated prison policies,” and “What does the bible say about Prisons?”  I wonder how pastors/preachers address prison reform if their church has people employed by the local prison. Or better still, since the corporations that produce weaponry have factories (intentionally) in major population areas where votes are cast—how do clergy in those districts address such things as “It’s time for the bishops to speak up again about the threat of nuclear war?”  When jobs are in play—where will people stand?

Some Christians have a strong position on gender roles.  How can a preacher address their congregation after reading “Reimagining Biblical Womanhood?”  Or if one’s flock has people who like associating the U.S. with a Christian identity, will they listen to their shepherd question the merit of the association (having read “Putin’s religious vision underscores the danger of Christian nationalism”—which reported the man’s effort to get public support for his war crimes from the Russian Orthodox church).

“How Silicon Valley’s ‘Techtopia’ turned work into a religion” brought to mind a southern state’s lieutenant governor encouraging people to go to work during the worst period of the pandemic.  He said it was a great good for people, if necessary, to lay down their lives in order to bring about a booming economy.  His handlers didn’t ride this line of thought very long because most people probably thought as I did.  We associate martyrs in religion laying down their lives—but to do so for Wall Street and the stock market?  No thank you.

Most people seem to realize there’s a problem with the environment and climate change, but for those who have no interest in the subject, might they read “How Environmental care is not just a hot topic but a biblical command?”  Or “Can religion and faith combat eco-despair?”  

I came across an article titled “Teach black history better by learning from Jesus.”  It was written as a rejoinder to people who’ve made an “issue” of a topic born in Harvard’s law school.  Known as “critical race theory” to the relatively few people who knew of its existence, it refers to a set of ideas related to black history and why we have “race” issues in the U.S.  Keep in mind that there are TONS of books written about race issues in the U.S.—and that “critical race theory” was unknown to 99% of the population until some people made it a household word on the nightly news.  

Being an anthropologist, my field of study rarely uses the word “race” in discussing human diversity—the term being old-fashioned and not helpful.  After all, does anyone really think that the world’s population can be significantly defined as red, white, yellow, or black?

Trying our best to “learn from Jesus” SHOULD help us cut through ALL topics that confuse us.  I read that there are thousands of Russian “bots” (“robotic” programs on the Internet/Facebook that seek to create divisions within American society—racial, ethnic, economic, gender, etc.–by posing as real people with real arguments of one kind or another).  On 60 Minutes I saw a man identified as a Pennsylvania farmer standing in his field with daughter nearby criticizing some policy his local representative sponsored.  60 Minutes traced this “bot” footage to a computer lab in Russia—the “farmer” a Russian actor. 

The article cited above simply reminds Christians that we learn FROM JESUS what our perspective should be on ANY topic–be it human relations, ecology, war, or sexuality.  Yes, even sexuality—as one article was titled “Texas faith groups mobilize against governor’s order to probe child trans treatments.”  Human sexuality will forever present us with wonderment.  Again, Christians are supposed to “learn from Jesus” about ANY issue! 

Other titles that appeared in one week’s offering from reputable print media were “Will they know Christians by their love or by their reckless obsession with liberty?” “I went to a Ukrainian Catholic Church to pray a rosary for peace. I didn’t expect to find Muslims there in solidarity.”  “How to be an anti-racist this Lent” and “Jesus, the living water, welcomes our mess at the well–will we let him draw us?” 

This last article hits the nail on the head of “repentance.”  You and I are being called to re-evaluate–all the time (not just during the Lenten season)—our thinking on all matters, great and small.  As Christians, we are called to be in the world as a Christ-presence—performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and seeing where we can further bring life—in concrete ways—to all God’s children in all sectors of life.  You and I might not like being challenged to “grow” into some new awareness, but that’s the call to discipleship we claim to hear.  Apart from indicating what Christian literature addresses, I ask for your prayer that I might join your successful effort to “repent” and grow where God calls me to new life this spring-lent. 

 

Dear God, Spirit, Divine Mother, Father in heaven–Inspire me to bring a smile to those whose eyes I meet.  May I have the strength to stand tall in the face of conflict, And the courage to speak my voice, even when I’m scared.  I ask not for easier tasks but just enough talents to meet any tasks which come my way.  May I seek to know the highest truths And dismiss the pull of my lower self.  May I learn more profoundly why you created me, How to overcome darkness and have the gospel wisdom To Choose generosity over selfishness.  Today I want to surrender anything that Undermines the sacredness who you made me to be.  So drench me with a knowledge of your affection for me—a child, like you, born in the Bethlehem of my family. 

 

March 13, 2022

Lent is such a serious time of the liturgical year that it’s good to inject a little humor into the season.  Thus, the following:  A man took his son to a baseball game. The dad asked the boy what he was giving up for Lent. The boy replied, “I don’t know, Dad. What are you going to give up?”

His father said, “I’ve decided to give up liquor.” During the game, the beer man came by, and the dad ordered a beer and his son said “I thought you were giving up liquor!” His dad replied, “Hard liquor, son. I’m giving up hard liquor. This is just a beer.” To which the boy replied, “Well then, could you buy me a 3 Musketeers bar and a Snickers bar?   I’m giving up hard candy.”

It seems the father observed the letter of the Lenten law while his son was attuned to its spirit.

I wonder if that conversation even takes place within Catholic families today. Do parents and children talk about religion at the dinner table, or what Lent means, or why “giving up” or sacrificing something at this time of year is observed?

Thinking of what is addressed in family settings reminds me of what clergy face when giving their sermons or homilies.  Do they direct their comments to the senior parishioners—and so “preach to the choir?”  Or do they paternalistically pat them on the head with pious remarks about praying the rosary, or lighting candles to Jesus and Mary, or do they present to the older crowd the same gospel challenges that would be addressed to younger parishioners? 

Material I present is intended for all ages.  Finding a vocation that’s pertinent to your life-situation is what the gospel calls people of all ages to undertake.  There’s no retiring at 65—and telling everyone that you’ve “arrived” and are content in your Christian identity.  It doesn’t work that way—because God is calling us from an early age to our dying breath—my mom being an example of this lifelong quest.

Throughout my growing up years, my mom was not a churchgoer.  She was baptized a Catholic when she married my dad—but was a victim of “panic attacks” before that term came into use.  Attending church would trigger panic attacks.  So it came to pass that mom was widowed at age 52 and went into mourning for many years.  I tried my best to rally her spirit into finding a new life, but she could only find a heart attack that compounded an already depressive state.

And then it happened.  Not because of me saying anything, she somehow got connected with the local Catholic parish—and emerged from mourning and the blues.  I never thought I’d hear her speak on the phone about the weekend’s homily or issues within the archdiocese of Detroit.  This was not the mother I knew growing up.  And so it is with searching and finding, knocking and a door opening.

Late life resurrection comes to us in today’s first reading from Genesis and its reference to Abraham and Sarah (initially called Abram and Sarai)—people who today are known as a patriarch and matriarch of our faith. They were elderly people long passed their childbearing years. But God said Abraham’s descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky—and so it came to be.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are known as the three “Abrahamic” faiths because each one traces its origin to our “father in faith,” Abraham. 

Sad,  isn’t it, that our religious cousins have borne the brunt of our prejudices—in the widespread anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has again become popular within militia groups and Ku Klux Klan.  It’s in our tribal loyalties that prejudice is bred—our ancestors seeing the world in terms of “us versus them.”  Look at European soccer games and you’ll see riots break out when one city’s team plays another city’s team. We’ve not gone that route in most of our sports here in the U.S., but each of us can identify with “not liking” people associated with some ethnic group, some religion, some hairstyle, some clothing style, some ANYTHING. 

And because this trait is so ingrained within our “sinful human nature,”  we have to keep remembering that Jesus came to reveal that we are ALL children of God, and brothers and sisters in Christ.  Black Elk pretty much sums up how our ancestors interacted with one another.  He said: “We’d kill anyone who didn’t speak our language.”  He came to embrace a Christianity that called him to be a better person than one who simply killed others who were different.  Spiritual writer Louis Evely said to readers who abhorred some person: THAT MAN IS YOU.   There’s a lot in that first reading today—and even more in the gospel.

Today’s selection reports what our tradition refers to as the TRANSFIGURATION.  Did you notice the passage began with Jesus “taking them to a mountain?”  And do you remember my mentioning that whenever scripture refers to a mountain—it’s like a warning to the reader that something really different and cool and sacred is going to take place?  Last week I told you about American Indians “going up on a hill” and undertaking a “vision quest.”  And last week the gospel told us about Jesus going into the desert to pray.  These places, a mountain, hill, or desert are what Celtic spirituality refers to as “thin spaces”—geographical locations where people feel very little separation between this world and the Sacred world.  Individuals go to these places and make some kind of “connection” with the two realms.

It’s on a mountain where Peter, John, and James see Moses (who symbolizes the Old Testament law) and Elijah (who symbolizes all the prophets of old).  Theologically, this is quite a vision—with the voice of God affirming Jesus and telling them to listen to him because he is the “Chosen” one through whom God now speaks.  Jesus thus embodies the law and the prophets—and more.

On a theological level, all of the above shows how dots connect to one another—with a 5-syllable word (“transfiguration”) describing the event.  But who uses that word in everyday speech?  And how many people are familiar with Moses and Elijah, and their connection to “the law and the prophets?”  Hearing this theology does not keep everyone on the edge of their seat. To first-century Christians—from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, the theology broadcast in this New Testament episode was very important.  It spoke to their experience and the concerns they discussed.  I think most parishioners at any parish would not find the passage particularly moving or of much relevance to their weekday experience.

Which is why we need to translate the scene into something that speaks to OUR experience.  Here’s a suggestion.

Picture the mountain scene—with Jesus being affirmed by the Father, and YOU are standing there instead of Moses and Elijah.  You are there representing not the law and the prophets—but your “issues”—of loneliness, unemployment, addiction, depression, marriage struggles—whatever your unique concern is that you’ve brought to the altar today.  God’s voice is saying to YOU at this “thin place” altar mountain top “listen to him.”

The gospel story is telling us that we can have a transfiguration experience—not necessarily in learning via the law and the prophets, but in how to deal with the issues we’ve brought to this thin space.

Peter wanted to build a tent and preserve the revelation.  He, James, and John had to come down the mountain—the tents built later on as churches which house the thin place of the altar, the thin place of the tabernacle, and the thin place of each sacrament that is administered in the tent of churches everywhere—sites of transfiguration experiences for us.  Our contact with the sacred is not contact with a Jesus who is Batman, or Captain America—but a person whose life shows us THAT we can face all threats, and HOW we can face them.

Take us, Lord, from this sacred thin place of sacramental encounter to other thin places of insight—so that we can be the apostles so needed by those who stand alone on mountains with no sense of inspiration or guidance. 

Jesus, you have known me from the beginning of time, you have known me in the depths of my dreams and darkness of my problems.  As saint or sinner, I am your beloved.  Help me to own that core identity more and more in this season of prayer, repentance, and charity.  Give me the covenant-assurance that you gave patriarch Abraham– of your unwavering faith in me as I seek greater faith in you.  God be in my head and in my understanding; God be in my eyes and in my looking; God be in my mouth and in my speaking; God be in my heart and in my thinking; and at the last, God be in my death–at my departing.

March 6, 2022

Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted in different ways.  Sound like anyone you know?   How about you, me, everyone?  In the varied deserts of our lives, we are tempted to make decisions or choices that are solely self-serving!  Jesus, of course, shows us that we needn’t cave in to this very human experience.  We can resist the allures that end up being mirages of oases in dry periods of our lives.

The devil tempting Jesus is a reminder that when a public official wields power, it is SUPPOSED to be done on behalf of all—not themselves.  The demon tempted Jesus to wield power for personal gain whereas our decisions should always be for the greater good.

During the Lenten season, we try and get in touch with the stark reality that we have NOT always been Jesus in our decision-making.  Call it the devil.  Call it fallen human nature.  Call it sin.  Whatever name you give it, there’s something within us that sometimes makes us wrongly assess some event, some person, or some opportunity.  We act on our instinct, or limited knowledge, or idea that does not result in good. The gospel also reminds us that even if we draw upon our strengths and are a worthy role model, there’s a force that is temporarily letting peace prevail—only to be coming again and attack via some other temptation.

We think of Lent as a season of ashes and giving up things—but it’s more a season during which we can grow more fully into who God intended us to be—a season in which we get in touch with past misdeeds and realize God is STILL calling us to be more than we have thus far imagined ourselves to be.

Here’s an incident from my past that I think illustrates an experience common to many people.  Namely, we can look at our experiences—and realize we were not “on target”—even though, at the time, we thought we were a Master of the Universe (the Greek word for sin in scripture means “to miss the mark, or target”).

For many years, there was a radio show on WJR that was described this way: “The opinion of youth expressing itself is given voice on WiR’s unique feature ‘Junior Town Meeting of the Air’ . . .  the series originates from a different high school each week. Four teen-age panel members, selected by competition from the student body, discuss subjects chosen for current interest to young and old alike. Questions from the audience directed to panel members follow the discussions.”

My school participated and 4 of us won the competition (2 Junior boys and 2 Senior girls). The boy who came in 5th place later became a much-respected heart surgeon at UM and Beaumont Hospital—a great guy and really sharp student–who SHOULD have been selected over me.  My debate-mate was an award-winning scholar athlete who made girls swoon and guys wish they were him.  Several years ago, I saw his name on the Internet—listed as one of the top 100 highest-paid attorneys in the country.  Both senior girls were Honor Society members—one of whom became a successful attorney (me befriending a student when I was at Nouvel and learning that she was his aunt).  All of which is simply to say that I was the weakest link in this panel that debated “Is conformity good or bad?”

When the debate ended, my buddies and I were pleased that we had clearly triumphed in a debate that was broadcast to all of Detroit.  My brother worked at the radio station and recorded the debate so that my parents could hear it later that night–and so that I could have a keepsake from my high school days.

Although I informed my parents that victory was ours, my recollection of what they said was that: “We think the girls did a great job and that you weren’t as victorious as you thought.” From time to time over the years, I have listened to the recording—rolled my eyes in embarrassment–and said to God in prayer: “That high school experience shows I needed your help then—and that hasn’t changed, Lord.  Come, Holy Spirit—open my mind to YOUR wisdom and knowledge—which I need so badly.”  

That debate was a touchstone experience that made me aware of self-deception—realizing that we are often not fully aware of the bigger picture—and NOT as knowledgeable as we think we might be—relative to ourselves, others, and issues of the day. 

In lifelong conversations with God, I came to see that post-debate experience define reality—that I am only partially aware of what’s good or what’s wrong or what’s right—and that God calls each of us to expand our vision, our sense of self and why God dreamed us into being. 

What I’m describing is a process that pretty much defines what Lent is all about—getting in touch with our limitations and asking God to open our eyes and ears and minds to how the gospel is calling us to greater self-knowledge and greater understanding of our role in creation.  Today’s gospel also reminds me of the American Indian world—where exists the Lent-like “vision quest” religious exercise (found in different forms from the Arctic to Mexico). 

Native peoples everywhere were acutely aware of NOT having all the answers, NOT winning debates, and NOT in touch with higher powers that could make their lives more meaningful.  Variations of this phrase appear in prayer samples: “I send my pitiful voice to you” or “Pitifully, I cry to you in prayer.”  The famous Crazy Horse undertook vision quests year-round (signaling to everyone that he wasn’t an arrogant or smug leader who had all the answers).

Just as the gospel reported Jesus going by himself into the desert to pray, so a quest entailed one secluding themselves away from the village, perhaps “going up on a hill” (or desert-like place), with movement restricted to a designated area they were not to leave except as needed.  In that marked-off area, one would “cry” for a vision that would help them become a better, more accomplished, person (becoming a more-skilled hunter, finding a spouse, learning some special cure, becoming a good warrior, etc.).  The individual would usually perform this exercise for 2 to 4 days, but some were able to endure a longer period (not eating during this time). 

Just as St. Ignatius counseled people to “see God in all things,” so one was advised to look for some spirit-revelation in anything that occurred while on the hill.  A messenger might be a mosquito, a shadow, a bird, or other animal.  Some social scientists have suggested that one’s lack of food and water during this time possibly triggered hallucinations (which the quester would regard as a supernatural revelation).  That analysis, of course, could apply to anyone having a “mystical” experience within any religious tradition that includes fasting.  As with getting “spiritual direction” within Christian practice, so one would speak to a “wisdom keeper” about their experience on the hill in order to interpret correctly what took place.

Like the vision quest, Lent calls us to introspection—looking at our life experience—realizing once again that we’re not god—-and that we have lots of room to grow. This Lenten season might include fasting or some other practice (“giving up” a food or activity we like or pro-actively doing something FOR others, e.g., working at a soup kitchen, helping at the parish in some way, donating to Christ’s Mission Appeal, or other creative involvements). 

These efforts during Lent are intended as reminders that we are on a quest for resurrection.  Lenten practices remind us that we get side-tracked throughout life—and need to get back on the good road that leads to eternal life.  There’s nothing noble or sacred about not having candy during Lent or not eating meat on Friday (especially if you’re a vegetarian year-round and consider fish & chips more preferable).  But our life-values and activities and presence to others is VERY sacred—and Lenten practices are aimed at us honing our vision of the journey we are all making back to God.

It might help to take to heart what the Lakota-Sioux mystic, Black Elk, said: “Wakan-tanka (God) always helps those who cry to him with a pure heart.”

February 27, 2022

Russ Milan, chair of the parish finance committee, addressed us last weekend and apprised the assembly of our progress on Christ’s Mission Appeal (the yearly collection that supports the diocese throughout mid-Michigan).  Importantly, Russ reminded us of our responsibility to support the Church’s efforts to ‘RE-GROW’ our parishes.  Moreover, programs that help people in need are sponsored by the diocese—and it is our financial support that permits this Catholic outreach to so many.  We can’t individually provide all the services throughout the diocese, but our subsidy of these efforts makes us a partner in serving the Kingdom.

Russ stated that our targeted goal is $85,000 and that we’ve thus far collected about $50,000.  However, that 50k has been donated by just half of the enrolled parishioners.  The range of donations has been from $25 dollars to $2000.00—and everything in-between those figures.  Imagine if the other 50% of our parishioners offered their support.  We’d hit the goal easily.

I confessed to not liking the role of asking you to contribute to ANYTHING—because my assumption is that 1) you are generous people who have a good track record of supporting the people of God in diverse collections, and 2) I take for granted that you give what you can—and that you don’t need me or anyone getting after you about sharing what you have with others. I presume you know we Catholics have a responsibility to support the diocese/Church/gospel/faith community—whatever term you prefer when thinking of our corporate Christian identity. 

I don’t know if people are on fixed-incomes or if they’re poor or if they’re well off.  I only know that they are fellow parishioners of John 23rd, and that we all are called to pitch in where we can. On this aspect of us all “giving,” I informed each mass that l have never given to diocesan collections until now.  I do so now because I am a member of the parish.  I’ve diverted funds given to me–to CMA (and the parish). In giving to CMA, you might have the experience I have on Thursday or Friday mornings when a number of people who attend the early mass go to have coffee afterwards.  I’ll buy the coffee from time to time—drawn from funds I received from parishioners at Christmas time.  Just as I feel good in getting people coffee, so you can feel good in knowing your CMA contribution is helping others regionally and globally.

At funerals, I often quote the gospel that has God say “Welcome, faithful servant, to the kingdom prepared for you . . . you fed me, clothed me . . . when you did these things to the least among you.”  I never read those verses that I don’t wonder if my behavior here will merit that Divine welcome. 

When I was a pastor in the Soo, I thought the construction of a casino just a few hundred yards away would see winners thank God by dropping something in our collection.  I witnessed zero increase once the casino was operational.  So I have no expectations of the parish being helped if people pay fewer taxes, hit the lottery, or get a decent income tax return. How we help others is ultimately a matter each of us talks about with God in prayer.

Here is an example of giving to the larger world outside one’s immediate world of experience.  When interviewing the elderly daughter of the Lakota holy-man, Black Elk, I one day noticed her put an old, crinkly dollar bill in an envelope.  She sealed the envelope, and asked if I might mail it for her.  I noticed it was addressed to “Catholic Relief Services,” and I wondered why this destitute elder would send a dollar to an organization that helped people overseas who were in better financial shape than she was.  Lucy Looks Twice was the woman’s name, and she replied “Mike, my father said there were other people worse off than us Indians, so we should remember to help them, too.  That’s why I send a dollar each year to the Catholic Relief Services.  It’s what he would have wanted me to do.” 

This testimony came from a woman whose log cabin had no running water.  She used a wood stove to heat its 2-rooms, and had an electric line that powered an old television, radio, and lights.  An outhouse was a hundred feet away—providing little comfort on winter days that were often well below zero.  We might use the saying “Charity begins at home,” but Lucy respected the Church’s responsibility to take care of others.  I always think of my experience with her when dealing with charitable giving–such as CMA. What do I do with my crinkly dollar bills?

Russ and I joked about seeing parishioners after mass rush to the altar with checks and cash to see that our goal is reached right away.  Since that didn’t occur, we encourage you to leave loose change or cash or a check in the collection box at the back of church.  And if you are not inclined to be part of CMA, I assume you have a good reason.  You—me—we all have our reasons for doing what we do. 

You should be receiving my Lenten letter in the mail.  If you don’t get one, call Irene.  In the letter, I translated into ordinary English the devotional practices we are called to perform at this time of year (celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans is NOT one of our devotional practices).  Fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving refer to behaviors we perform to become stronger in our faith (summarized in this bulletin).  Some literature calls us simply to pray about what we are doing with our time, talent, and treasure.  We have a lot to think about in these 40 days of Lent.

In the letter, I also inform you of upcoming programs, an hour long, to be held on certain Sundays of lent at 4 p.m. (that will be announced in the bulletin).  2 speakers are committed and 3 have had to cancel (Covid prevented one of them).  More to come on this.

This first Sunday of Lent, our young ones who will be making their first communion—will be receiving the sacrament of reconciliation after the 11 a.m. mass.  Down the line, we will have our “first communion Sunday.”  2 baptisms are also on the horizon as the faith community expands its membership. Louanne Larsen and I conducted an Ash Wednesday service at Merrill Fields.

Could you render an opinion on my offering Thursday’s weekday mass at a time when the workday is over and others might wish to attend, e.g., 5:30, 6, 6:30, 7?  This thought came to mind because anyone who has to begin work at 8 a.m. can’t attend what we currently offer. Call or email the office with thoughts on this.  Plans are taking shape for the parish brunch to be held at Sacred Heart on Palm Sunday—all of us hopeful that Covid won’t strike again.

At the masses, Dennis told us about the “Synod” called by Pope Francis.  Whereas Vatican Council 2 was attended by cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and theologians to discern many issues facing Catholicism, the “Synod” is a call to all parishes of the world—asking them for input on matters related to the Church’s mission in the 21st century.  As time passes, there will be meetings at which you can suggest how the Church might address the world’s issues.

February 13, 2022

Whenever I mention some real-life issue in a homily, or offer some reflection on what I think our response as Catholics should be to some social problem, I (and any clergy person from any Christian church) run the risk of stepping on someone’s toes.  This usually occurs when addressing some specific issue that’s current.  I can appreciate this scenario—because I, too, have been in the pews hearing someone advance a position that I think is not consistent with what the gospel says.  My concern is what the “gospel” says–and not some party-line that’s being bandied about by news people—with politicians provoking arguments among citizens. My focus is solely ”what would Jesus do (or say).”

Here’s an example.  Because of Jesus always stressing love of neighbor, and because he was executed by the state, I see capital punishment as not a gospel position.  Yes, I fully appreciate my heart being ripped out if someone murdered a loved one—but my Christian identity calls me to transcend the visceral anger that would well up within me.  Advancing this proposition for us to think about might irritate those for whom capital punishment is a legitimate course of action. But a kind of moral imperative requires clergy to raise the issue (countries that have abolished it number around 141 while 55 have retained it–China executing the most).

All issues on the nightly news call for you and me to ponder what our Christian perspective ought to be on them.  For example, because of Covid, inflation is a global concern—all countries experiencing their highest upswing in years.  No debate there—just fact.  But what is BEHIND this economic fact—that might move us to adopt a Christ-like position on the topic? 

Any introductory political science textbook could report what I sketch here (that is, I’m not spinning my wheels on original thought).  If this example “steps on your toes,” don’t blame me for reporting a reality that affects us all “behind the scenes” of everyday life.  I did some lobbying work in D.C. many moons ago, and was introduced to a shadowy world I never knew existed (my cousin working in the White House from the Nixon administration through the Clintons—she having a treasure trove of stories—and a photo of her waving sadly as Richard Nixon left the White House in disgrace).

Pertinent to what I report below, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were “persons” who had all sorts of rights that you or I would think can only be associated with a HUMAN.  Critics (and follow-up studies) showed that the ruling catered to wealthy corporate power-brokers.  The ruling, in effect, made it legal to buy congressional votes (see how representatives and senators cast their vote—and then see which corporations are listed as their donors).   You want lower cost of drugs—but for some reason your representative or senator won’t sign on to a bill that will lower them?  Look to see which pharmaceutical companies are contributing to your elected officials.  Fortunately, not everyone is “bought and paid for,” but the issue is a moral one—which is why “politics” can’t be avoided when you or I try to define our gospel identity in what Christians traditionally refer to as a “sinful” world.

Again, keep in mind that Jesus was executed by the state, and that he enraged powerbrokers by calling them out for hurting the poor—and not providing for the common good.  Since you and I are supposed to think as he did, and do as he did, it is our identity as Christians to look at everyday real-life, socio-political issues that appear on the nightly news. 

Here’s an example of the above–that would be addressed in a moral theology course.  As with anything I’ve put in bulletins, I draw material from Wikipedia, pastoral journals, theology newsletters, and magazines like Christianity Today/Crux/America, etc.  Some have criticized what I’ve reported from these sources, and I miss seeing those people in church.  Darn thing is that I wish I could claim having the fertile & reflective mind that produces the quotes or paraphrases that you see me put in the bulletin.  I’m giving you material from a wide array of Catholic and Christian sources—not unique to me.  I’ve offered solid source material from the citations above.  Which is my copout way of saying “don’t shoot the messenger.”

So let’s say you’re a Catholic who works for, or are an executive at, a multi-national corporation.  I won’t mention the company but simply say it’s related to the food industry upon which all of us rely.  As you know, inflation is a global reality—the U.S., Asia, Europe, Africa—everywhere coping with inflation.  Some countries have a higher inflation rate than us—all of which being a geo-political fact that no one disputes.  Just as it’s a fact that we all have to eat, and we turn for sustenance to this mega company at which you hold a well-paid position.  Your company has been described as one of the 10 companies that “control everything you buy.”

Your CEO informs you that the company is going to warn wholesale buyers about an impending price increase that will be passed on to shoppers.  Prices on many of its products will go up by as much as 20% (brand names you all know that I won’t list) and the company will issue press releases which say that it feels for all of its valued customers, and will keep prices as low as possible in this challenging time.  Madison Avenue will produce messages for television and varied social media that let you know the company “really cares” about you.

Meanwhile, back at the office, you learn that for the quarter, the company reported a profit of 91 cents per share, 6 cents MORE than analysts had estimated.  Revenue came in well above expectations at $4.52 billion compared to Wall Street’s view of $2.02 billion. In its 2021 fiscal year, the company reported net sales of $18.1 billion, a 3% increase from the year prior, as well as an operating profit of $3.1 billion (up 6% from the previous year).  Stockholders are quite happy.  They’re doing quite well—and fully expect to do better in the coming year.

Because you’re an informed administrator, you know that the CEO has a base salary of $1.25 million, with another $5.25 million in stock awards—his total compensation for the year being $15.57 million. The 2021 compensation for the Group President totaled just under $5.65 million, while the CFO received just under $3.45 million.  The moral challenge for a Catholic (Christian) who navigates this sector of the business world may be that they have no idea at all as to how the company can sustain a profit and at the same time not make others suffer.  This is the story of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens—an old and honored story about the reality of Scrooge-like business people who care only about the bottom line for themselves. 

As with A Christmas Carol, you and I are challenged to somehow 1) see where the gospel is being ignored, 2) brainstorm solutions or strategies with like-minded people of faith, and 3) do what we can to convert Scrooge’s way of life and thinking.  Sadly, Christian churches will always be around because there are so many battlefronts.

For example, this past week, a substitute teacher at Farmington High said to a really well-spoken, black teen “get your cotton-pickin hands off that.”  The year is 2022 and a TEACHER referred to a nice young black kid’s “cotton-pickin” hands?  I salute the school’s kids (Black, White, Hispanic—all of them) leaving classes and marching to the Superintendent’s office.  The teacher was sent packing.

A Protestant theologian titled his book Moral Man and Immoral Society—indicting us for either ignoring the pain around us, or just not honing our consciences.  Thank God there are all sorts of people in the pews who seek to make whatever gospel contribution they can make. 

I wish I had answers to society’s ills.  I don’t.  I can, however, prayerfully discern how Jesus might approach topics—like the one that follows.  This is a kind of “socio-political Church” issue that confronts us globally.  Maybe the “Synod” that is unfolding throughout the Catholic world—will offer some creative initiatives.

If you live in western Europe or in some parts of the United States, where parishes are closing or consolidating and Mass attendance is in free fall, you’d think membership in the Catholic Church was dropping.  Just the opposite.  Catholicism added 16 million new members in 2020.

Globally, Church membership in 1900 was 267 million.  In 2000, it was 1.045 billion.  Today, it is 1.36 billion (in a world population of 7.9 billion). Catholics represent 17.7 percent of everyone on earth.  The vast majority of this growth is outside the western hemisphere. This past year, for example, the Catholic population grew in Africa 2.1% and in Asia 1.8%. 

Africa had 1.9 million Catholics in 1900 and an estimated 236 million today (20% of the global total).  By the middle of this century, 75% of Catholics will live outside the west. Maybe you have relatives who are involved with militia groups that are also White supremacists.  If any of these people somehow claim a Catholic identity, one wonders how they will adjust to a Church whose membership is so diverse.

In 2020, there were 410,219 Catholic priests in the world, with 40% living in Europe and 13% in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.  That’s 53% of priests in countries with fewest Catholics (but highest per capita income).  60% of all seminarians are from Africa and Asia. 

The priest-to-Catholic ratio in Europe is 1 to 1,746 (keep in mind that in Europe–most of the laity are not attending church).  The priest-to-Catholic ratio in Africa is 1 to 5,089 (where most laity ARE attending church).  Hmm.  What’s wrong with that picture?

North America has 84 million Catholics. Africa has 236 million Catholics.  The number of priests in North America is about equal to all of Africa.  John Allen of the Catholic journal Crux asks: “If the Catholic Church were a well-run business, would it not reallocate personnel to serve the area of greatest market growth?”  He further observed that “Not only are church authorities not doing anything to correct the situation, they’re actually making it worse by signing off on transfers of personnel from Africa & Asia to Europe and North America.”  He’s referring to African and Indian priests serving in the U.S. instead of their home countries.

All of the above is intended to say that the “issue” for us is not capital punishment, inflation, price gouging, political payoffs, or any of the countless issues that create a world in which we see Russia wanting to militarily conquer Ukraine.  The “issue” is our human condition—on all fronts of life—and as Catholics we are called to ask how we, in our little world here in Michigan, can be Christlike in addressing a human condition that is both graced and sinful.  Please know that whatever I bring to the table each week–is intended to be a grace of hope, just as you have been a grace of hope for me.

February 13, 2022

One of the involvements I had in the Jesuit training period was to work for the saintly Msgr. Clement Kern of Holy Trinity parish in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.  My job was to open up each day what he called the “reading room.”  This was a store front on Michigan Avenue that had a bathroom, chairs, and tables with magazines and books.  It was a place out of the cold for what we’d today call “homeless people.” 

They called themselves “banner carriers”—men who preferred being on the street instead of flop houses.  All had alcohol problems—and would sometimes sip the poisonous content of Sterno (70% denatured alcohol) heating fluid. As a high school student going to a Tigers game, I’d see these men and was a bit frightened of them.  Now in the role of being with them each day—I found myself doing what might be called a ministry of conversation, and just relating to them as a regular guy.

I’d learn of their past, and learn that some had families in the suburbs—alcohol creating the hell in which they now lived. When I was asked to write up my experience and report what I learned, I titled my reflections after a Motown record done by the Marvelettes (its title was “Danger, heartbreak dead ahead”).  I did not report how the men inspired me or how easy I found relating to them.  Most encounters were challenges on some level.  Instead, my essay’s basic point was that as a young guy I thought I knew the score—what to avoid in life—like people I’d see around Tiger Stadium.  But in getting to know these men, I realized they faced each day with a sense of danger and heartbreak, dead ahead on their streets of everyday life.  They didn’t need my analysis of why they were lost souls, and they didn’t need my avoiding them.

All this came to mind when reading of an incident in Florida—which I’m going to read for you—and it will serve as the homily.  It illustrates that when the gospel tells of abandoning your fishing nets and following Jesus—it doesn’t mean fishing nets.  It means seeing the world with new eyes—the eyes of Jesus—and acting like him in all that you do.  He could feel what others felt—and responded—like the Merrill man I buried yesterday, Don McMahon—about whom it was said “he helped anyone in need.”  The story I’m about to read reminded me of Don—and in prayer I asked him if he thought I should read it for the homily. I sensed his response would be “right on!”

Because the following story shows a scene typical of what you might encounter anywhere, it is a story that concretely and pragmatically addresses how we can be apostles in today’s world.

It’s not pleasant to see someone trying to survive on the streets.  People see the matter differently. Some get angry, and want them gone, but to where no one can answer.  Others feel pity, but don’t have solutions for handling so many lost souls.  It’s an intimidating social issue.

The powers that be have not made sure that more humane options are available.  Many find it hard to imagine what it would be like to have no home, no support system, or to be cold and hungry and alone.  God forbid being sick on top of it. 

Many people walk by the homeless and don’t realize that it’s the little things, those small actions–the common kindnesses–that can make a huge difference.  A smile acknowledging someone’s humanity is tremendous—as is simply giving someone a drink of water.  These small acts of kindness can have positive repercussions in the lives of others.  And within ourselves.

Barbara Mack doesn’t have much in terms of wealth.  She lives in an RV park in Florida, and delivers food that people order from the grocery store.  In the afternoon of a scorching summer day, she was heading out of a convenience store when she spotted a familiar homeless man outside sitting on the grass.

“I’ve seen him around several times. I’ve given him leftover food before, if I get a cancellation and have food leftovers in the car. He didn’t look good . . . like he was 10 seconds away from heatstroke.”  She also said he has “the mind of a child,” and she was concerned that he “doesn’t know he needs to stay extra hydrated when it’s super-hot outside.”

She turned around and grabbed two more bottles of water, and seeing a long line, she called out to the lone cashier that she was taking the water to the guy outside and will come right back and settle up.  Here’s what unfolded in her own words (some cleaned up).

When I came back in, the lady in front of me turned around, hands on hips, and told me that I was just enabling that ‘homeless person’ (said with a sneer) and that I shouldn’t be wasting my money on him.  It’s hot as hell in Florida right now–mid 90s with humidity around 80%. It’s a good day for heat stroke, and I told her so. I said I’d rather give him a water than call an ambulance.

I was going to shrug it off–let it go—and chalk it up to ignorance and the heat making everybody cranky.  And then she told me I should be ashamed of myself. That someone should call the police on him, and that it should be illegal to beg for money. That people who give the homeless money just encourage them to stay homeless and that should be illegal, too.

Ashamed? I should be ashamed for giving some poor old guy a water that cost a dollar.  And she thought I should get in trouble for making sure he didn’t stroke out in this heat.  I guess I look nice. Approachable. Like I wouldn’t rip your head off. I am nice, most of the time.  But not always.  And I lost my temper.

I told her to call a cop and report me for buying stuff at a convenience store.  I told her that I wasn’t in the mood for crazy right now. That it’s a hundred degrees outside, and I’m hot and tired and sick to death of stupid people. That if she had an ounce of compassion in her whole body, she’d buy him a cold drink, too. That maybe she should figure out why she needs to accost complete strangers. And how’s about after that, she back the heck up outta my face and outta my business and turn back around and not say one more darn word to me.

I’m just about deaf in one ear. I try to modulate my voice. Unless I get angry.  It got pretty loud there at the end. There was dead silence in the store and then someone said loudly “For real!”

And the guy at the front of the line told the cashier to add a sandwich to his purchases for the guy outside.  The guy behind him bought an extra ice cream. The girl behind HIM got change for a twenty—saying: ’cause that guy could probably use some cash.’

Every single person in line got him something. Every one, except the now very embarrassed lady in front of me, who slunk out without saying another word.  When I got to the cashier, she didn’t charge me for either of the waters, because she was going to take him one anyway. And mine was free because of the entertainment I had provided.

When I went outside, he was eating his ice cream and drinking his water with a pile of stuff all around him, a big old grin on his face. He didn’t look shaky anymore.

And there, people, is the story of why I hate people. And why I love people. All in the same damned minute.  I sat in the car and drank my water and laughed with tears in my eyes, same as I’m doing now.

When things seemed to get worse, the atmosphere in the convenience store changed. The assault made those in the store realize that compassion still means something.  Since the original posting and a million hits, thousands have commented on how this story was a catalyst for their own acts of humanity.

Says Barbara, “I do believe people are mostly good. I think sometimes we all need a reminder not to be selfish. I don’t have it in me to walk past people who need help. I’m not saying I’m a saint because I’m certainly not. I have a lot of empathy.  I’ve had hard times myself. People have tried to help me, and I pay it forward.”

Until those in charge try to tackle this complex societal issue with compassion and expediency, when we see a person in front of us with a clear and immediate need, and we see a clear and immediate way to meet that need, well?  Like Barbara, we’re just keeping a sensitive and concerned eye on each other.

Brothers and sisters of John 23rd, when I saw a photo of Barbara Mack—I thought she could be any parishioner here—her face blending with yours.  She wasn’t some Hollywood starlet or wonder-woman but just a regular soul like you or me.  Her experience at the store was an example of Christian identity alive in the world—and it reminded me of who we buried yesterday–Merrill High graduate Don McMahon–about whom it was said “he’d help anyone in need.”

People like Barbara Mack and Don McMahon were able to feel with, and see through the eyes of such people.  Instead of fleeing or condemning those poor souls in purgatory, they simply remind us of what those banner carriers see each day: danger and heartbreak dead ahead.  Being an apostle doesn’t just mean throwing aside your fishing nets in Galilee.  It can be a role you assume at the local convenience store.

February 6, 2022

One of the involvements I had in the Jesuit training period was to work for the saintly Msgr. Clement Kern of Holy Trinity parish in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.  My job was to open up each day what he called the “reading room.”  This was a store front on Michigan Avenue that had a bathroom, chairs, and tables with magazines and books.  It was a place out of the cold for what we’d today call “homeless people.”

They called themselves “banner carriers”—men who preferred being on the street instead of flop houses.  All had alcohol problems—and would sometimes sip the poisonous content of Sterno (70% denatured alcohol) heating fluid. As a high school student going to a Tigers game, I’d see these men and was a bit frightened of them.  Now in the role of being with them each day—I found myself doing what might be called a ministry of conversation, and just relating to them as a regular guy.

I’d learn of their past, and learn that some had families in the suburbs—alcohol creating the hell in which they now lived. When I was asked to write up my experience and report what I learned, I titled my reflections after a Motown record done by the Marvelettes (its title was “Danger, heartbreak dead ahead”).  I did not report how the men inspired me or how easy I found relating to them.  Most encounters were challenges on some level.  Instead, my essay’s basic point was that as a young guy I thought I knew the score—what to avoid in life—like people I’d see around Tiger Stadium.  But in getting to know these men, I realized they faced each day with a sense of danger and heartbreak, dead ahead on their streets of everyday life.  They didn’t need my analysis of why they were lost souls, and they didn’t need my avoiding them.

All this came to mind when reading of an incident in Florida—which I’m going to read for you—and it will serve as the homily.  It illustrates that when the gospel tells of abandoning your fishing nets and following Jesus—it doesn’t mean fishing nets.  It means seeing the world with new eyes—the eyes of Jesus—and acting like him in all that you do.  He could feel what others felt—and responded—like the Merrill man I buried yesterday, Don McMahon—about whom it was said “he helped anyone in need.”  The story I’m about to read reminded me of Don—and in prayer I asked him if he thought I should read it for the homily. I sensed his response would be “right on!”

Because the following story shows a scene typical of what you might encounter anywhere, it is a story that concretely and pragmatically addresses how we can be apostles in today’s world.

It’s not pleasant to see someone trying to survive on the streets.  People see the matter differently. Some get angry, and want them gone, but to where no one can answer.  Others feel pity, but don’t have solutions for handling so many lost souls.  It’s an intimidating social issue.

The powers that be have not made sure that more humane options are available.  Many find it hard to imagine what it would be like to have no home, no support system, or to be cold and hungry and alone.  God forbid being sick on top of it.

Many people walk by the homeless and don’t realize that it’s the little things, those small actions–the common kindnesses–that can make a huge difference.  A smile acknowledging someone’s humanity is tremendous—as is simply giving someone a drink of water.  These small acts of kindness can have positive repercussions in the lives of others.  And within ourselves.

Barbara Mack doesn’t have much in terms of wealth.  She lives in an RV park in Florida, and delivers food that people order from the grocery store.  In the afternoon of a scorching summer day, she was heading out of a convenience store when she spotted a familiar homeless man outside sitting on the grass.

“I’ve seen him around several times. I’ve given him leftover food before, if I get a cancellation and have food leftovers in the car. He didn’t look good . . . like he was 10 seconds away from heatstroke.”  She also said he has “the mind of a child,” and she was concerned that he “doesn’t know he needs to stay extra hydrated when it’s super-hot outside.”

She turned around and grabbed two more bottles of water, and seeing a

long line, she called out to the lone cashier that she was taking the water to the guy outside and will come right back and settle up.  Here’s what unfolded in her own words (some cleaned up).

When I came back in, the lady in front of me turned around, hands on hips, and told me that I was just enabling that ‘homeless person’ (said with a sneer) and that I shouldn’t be wasting my money on him.  It’s hot as hell in Florida right now–mid 90s with humidity around 80%. It’s a good day for heat stroke, and I told her so. I said I’d rather give him a water than call an ambulance.

I was going to shrug it off–let it go—and chalk it up to ignorance and the heat making everybody cranky.  And then she told me I should be ashamed of myself. That someone should call the police on him, and that it should be illegal to beg for money. That people who give the homeless money just encourage them to stay homeless and that should be illegal, too.

Ashamed? I should be ashamed for giving some poor old guy a water that cost a dollar.  And she thought I should get in trouble for making sure he didn’t stroke out in this heat.  I guess I look nice. Approachable. Like I wouldn’t rip your head off. I am nice, most of the time.  But not always.  And I lost my temper.

I told her to call a cop and report me for buying stuff at a convenience store.  I told her that I wasn’t in the mood for crazy right now. That it’s a hundred degrees outside, and I’m hot and tired and sick to death of stupid people. That if she had an ounce of compassion in her whole body, she’d buy him a cold drink, too. That maybe she should figure out why she needs to accost complete strangers. And how’s about after that, she back the heck up outta my face and outta my business and turn back around and not say one more darn word to me.

I’m just about deaf in one ear. I try to modulate my voice. Unless I get angry.  It got pretty loud there at the end. There was dead silence in the store and then someone said loudly “For real!”

And the guy at the front of the line told the cashier to add a sandwich to his purchases for the guy outside.  The guy behind him bought an extra ice cream. The girl behind HIM got change for a twenty—saying: ’cause that guy could probably use some cash.’

Every single person in line got him something. Every one, except the now very embarrassed lady in front of me, who slunk out without saying another word.  When I got to the cashier, she didn’t charge me for either of the waters, because she was going to take him one anyway. And mine was free because of the entertainment I had provided.

When I went outside, he was eating his ice cream and drinking his water with a pile of stuff all around him, a big old grin on his face. He didn’t look shaky anymore.

And there, people, is the story of why I hate people. And why I love people. All in the same damned minute.  I sat in the car and drank my water and laughed with tears in my eyes, same as I’m doing now.

When things seemed to get worse, the atmosphere in the convenience store changed. The assault made those in the store realize that compassion still means something.  Since the original posting and a million hits, thousands have commented on how this story was a catalyst for their own acts of humanity.

Says Barbara, “I do believe people are mostly good. I think sometimes we all need a reminder not to be selfish. I don’t have it in me to walk past people who need help. I’m not saying I’m a saint because I’m certainly not. I have a lot of empathy.  I’ve had hard times myself. People have tried to help me, and I pay it forward.”

Until those in charge try to tackle this complex societal issue with compassion and expediency, when we see a person in front of us with a clear and immediate need, and we see a clear and immediate way to meet that need, well?  Like Barbara, we’re just keeping a sensitive and concerned eye on each other.

Brothers and sisters of John 23rd, when I saw a photo of Barbara Mack—I thought she could be any parishioner here—her face blending with yours.  She wasn’t some Hollywood starlet or wonder-woman but just a regular soul like you or me.  Her experience at the store was an example of Christian identity alive in the world—and it reminded me of who we buried yesterday–Merrill High graduate Don McMahon–about whom it was said “he’d help anyone in need.”

People like Barbara Mack and Don McMahon were able to feel with, and see through the eyes of such people.  Instead of fleeing or condemning those poor souls in purgatory, they simply remind us of what those banner carriers see each day: danger and heartbreak dead ahead.  Being an apostle doesn’t just mean throwing aside your fishing nets in Galilee.  It can be a role you assume at the local convenience store.

January 30, 2022 (feb 6

 

 

January 23, 2022 (Jan 30

Happy feast day!!  Why do I say that?  Today is “Word of God” Sunday—and each of you—me included—is a word of God spoken into creation. 

Yes, the day refers to the bible being God’s word, but each life is a “bible.”  Each life tells what one believes about God, and how God has been involved with that person.  The adage is accurate in saying that you might be the only scripture someone ever reads.  What will they learn from the bible of your life?  What is your current chapter reporting—about how you have either cooperated with God’s action in your life or just sort of carried on without even thinking about God?  After all, that’s what “the good book” is all about (people’s on-again/off-again relationship with God).  That’s what your “good book” is all about (recall God declaring everything “good” at creation). 

The 1st reading tells of everyone in the community listening to the sacred scriptures.  What came to mind were our Muslim cousins who go to the mosque or at home, pray and read from their holy book, the Qur’an 5 times a day.  They know their scripture! 

How nice it would be if we could make the same claim.  The popular bumper-sticker asked: “What would Jesus do?”—which is a good guide to go by when trying to know what course of action to take.  The problem is that since so few come to church or read scripture, they don’t know WHAT Jesus would say or do.  Still, some people are arrogant enough to claim they know what Jesus would think about different subjects—and then project their own biases into a discussion (claiming inspiration from God). 

As you know, a homilist is supposed to educate people as to the meaning of a week’s passages—and then suggest how those passages might apply to them.  However, because Catholic schools have closed, and contact with “the faithful” is limited to Sundays, the homily becomes a priest’s one shot at educating people in ways of the faith.  Meanwhile, some are indifferent to having a homily or are irritated that it lasts longer than a couple of minutes. 

Some priests have washed their hands of preparing anything for a homily, simply find a commentary on the scripture, and read its bland content to parishioners in a monotone voice for 2 or 3 minutes.  Reading the Eucharistic prayer robot-like, its delivery uninspired, and relevance lame, people can race home after a 40-minute liturgy.  Aware of how this pattern was unfolding, the Conference of Bishops saw a need to devote at least 1 Sunday to stir people’s interest in the “Word of God.”   

When reading commentaries this week, one jumped out.  It said that today, Luke reveals “the frightening dimension of preaching situations. Both preacher and listener face serious risks.”  Hmm.  Are you frightened, or do you feel any kind of “serious risk” right now in hearing me speak?   

Here’s what the commentator was raising.  Luke shows initially that “All spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at his speech.”  But doubt arose!  Since when does a carpenter speak to us like this?  And then Jesus delivered an insult–saying Gentiles have a better understanding of God than they do. They respond with rage and drive him out of town to hurl him off a cliff. 

The commentator was saying that yes, people will get affirmation in reading God’s word and learning how much God loves them.  But they also should be challenged by the Word to make a difference in a sinful world.  The homilist faces the same threat as Jesus did.  When the homilist reminds people of responsibilities they might not want to address, they might want to “kill the messenger.”    

Is the commentator encouraging homilists to lay a guilt trip on parishioners each week?  That sure would go over big with everyone—not!! 

Instead, today’s passage tells us how Jesus used scripture to discover his own identity (which we are called to imitate).  What is that identity?  Here goes.  Are you ready to evaluate your discipleship?   

 

To what extent did you this week “bring good news to the poor?”  Locally? Globally? How did you “proclaim release to captives?” Where are “captives” of some kind suffering (I’m reminded of the sociological observation “trapped in poverty”)?  Have you “given sight to the blind?”  Or shown someone the error of their ways, or a new direction to take?  And when did you “liberate the oppressed” this past week (there being so many forms of burdens people bear)?  In short, Luke presents a Jesus whose ministry is to the marginalized.  In doing so, he’s telling us in what direction our attitudes and behaviors should go. 

My religious order, the Jesuits, has been criticized at different times for “living the good life” by operating expensive prep schools and colleges throughout the land.  We’ve been charged with living an ivory-tower existence where the “marginalized” don’t intrude or disrupt our rosy existence in an affluent neighborhood.  Fortunately, because we don’t cling to such a lifestyle but instead seek to have the scent of the sheep on our wardrobe, we Jesuits train our students to become “men and women for others.”  They might attend costly schools but are eventually proud in being “ruined for life” (a battle cry proudly uttered) by coming to terms with the gospel’s call to them.   

THAT’S what the commentator meant when suggesting a homily can be frightening to both the homilist and congregation.  Scripture presents both with challenges. And so, I admit to daily discerning how I’m matching up with the ministerial identity Jesus spelled out for us today. 

Theory aside, here are some practical points about how to pray with scripture adapted from St. Francis de Sales (whose feast day is Jan. 24th):  

1) read a passage slowly (and aloud).  For some reason, we are more attuned to the verses if we hear them in addition to just seeing them in our mind’s eye. 

2) find a word or phrase that resonates with you (one way God deals with us is our “taking note” of something we see, hear, read–something that for some reason catches our attention; in scripture, this is God speaking to us through it);  

3) meditate on the word or phrase, e.g., why did I spend a millisecond more time of thought on the donkey in a scripture snippet?  This doesn’t seem very theological.  But maybe the associations evoked by the thought of a donkey is what God wants me to ponder, e.g., animals, animal cruelty, environment, bearing another’s burdens, helping others by taking them somewhere, etc. 

  4) ask God for guidance on the text’s meaning for others and you (do any of the above associations have implications for people around me, local or global community?) 

I leave you with this scripture question to ponder:  If God wrote a book, wouldn’t you want to read it, and see what God had to say? 

3 Vignettes of life on my radar this week  

1) When I left Wheeling, a former student (with whom I had very little interaction) wrote an article for a Wheeling magazine—the memory of which brought a lump to my throat this week—not because of the student’s kind affirmations but because of a reference she made. 

 I had a Jesuit priest whose lectures were like entertaining performances. We learned about Native American religion, and we listened to a Meatloaf song and dissected the lyrics . . . This class was only held once a week for three hours. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was some of the best three hours of my week.  

Reference to Meatloaf is what caught my eye—since each semester I analyzed his classic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” song (if you don’t recall the song, it is the vivid depiction of two 17-year-olds “parking” in lover’s lane—a bird’s eye view of teenage dating, USA). This wonderful performer, Meatloaf, died this past week—doing what so many have done.  He declared there was no need to get vaccinated.  And yes, he died of Covid.  After learning of his fate, I came upon the following. 

2) Hana Horka was a well-regarded Czech folk singer. Influenced by the anti-vaxxer movement, she decided to catch the virus herself.  When her husband and son caught Covid, Horka refused to isolate from the two men—in order to expose herself. She posted on social media: “I survived.  It was intense. So now there will be the theatre, sauna, a concert and a trip to the sea.” 2 days after that post, Horka said she wanted to go for a walk but her back began hurting. She went to lie down, and 10 minutes later, she died. “This is how fast it was.”  

Mourning his mother, Horka’s son warns how insidious the anti-vaxxer movement is. “If you have living examples from real life, it’s more powerful than just graphs and numbers. You can’t really sympathize with numbers.” He said his mother’s brand of anti-vaxxer beliefs had nothing to do with grand conspiracy theories, but with the [mistaken] belief that natural immunity was better. He directed his anger at those peddling misinformation and fear. “You took away my mom . . . I despise you.”  

  He tried many times to convince his mom to get vaccinated, but it was no use, and would usually result in high emotions and distress. The BBC reports that the Czech Republic’s fully vaccinated rate is “around 63%.” The average rate throughout the European Union is 69%. Saginaw County is 50%.  No country’s Covid mortality rate is anywhere close to that of the U.S.  We’re far and away #1 in cases and deaths, hands down.

3) Last week the bulletin listed the protocols issued by the diocese 2 weeks ago.  While not mandating masks, the diocese encouraged everyone to wear masks at church. The Methodist Church went one step further—canceling in-person services until further notice.
 

4) I periodically refer to our “cousins” in faith—the Jewish and Muslim peoples (all of us being descendants of Abraham). Sadly, some of our fellow Catholics do not reflect well on this shared heritage.  This past week, a student at St. Francis College in Brooklyn was arrested for spitting on 3 young children (think of how Covid spreads) who were standing in front of a synagogue. She said to them “Hitler should have killed you all. We will kill you all. I know where you live, and we’ll make sure to get you all next time.”  

Having been in Catholic higher ed, I could only imagine how sad St. Francis officials must feel in seeing one of their students represent the faith in this manner.  I was also reminded of my childhood years spent regularly with “Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Harry” and their kids.  Not blood-related, their relationship to my parents was familial.  Aunt Sylvia & Uncle Harry founded the “Children’s Leukemia Foundation of Michigan,” and my parents joined their effort.  Dad served as president of the Foundation (it later giving the annual Francis M. Steltenkamp Award to the most active volunteer).  The Brooklyn Catholic woman described above–who abused the kids this week–brought a lump to my throat.  Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Harry, truly great people who profoundly influenced me, were Jewish.  

January 16, 2022

The Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the coming week as one during which we should pray for Christian unity.  This dovetailed with the parish maintenance committee meeting this week.  The two brought to mind how different churches pursue different strategies with their maintenance committees—illustrated by what follows.

The Presbyterian church called its maintenance committee meeting to decide what to do about their squirrel infestation. After much prayer and consideration, they concluded that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and they should not interfere with God’s divine will.

Meanwhile, at the Baptist church, the squirrels had taken an interest in the baptismal font.  Their committee met and decided to put a water-slide on the font—and let the squirrels drown themselves. The squirrels liked the slide!  Instinctively they knew how to swim–so twice as many squirrels showed up the following week.

The Lutheran church decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God’s creatures.  So, they humanely trapped their squirrels and set them free near the Baptist church.  Two weeks later, the squirrels were back when the Baptists took down the water-slide.

The Episcopalians had maintenance committee members unanimously volunteer to help set out pans of whiskey around their church in an effort to kill the squirrels with alcohol poisoning.  Thinking it important to show the squirrels how to sip from the pans, they still managed to leave enough for the little creatures to consume.  Sadly, the only result of this strategy was that they learned how much damage a band of drunk squirrels can do.

But the Catholic church came up with a more creative strategy!  They baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the church.  Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter.

Not much was heard from the Jewish synagogue.  They took the first squirrel and circumcised him.  They haven’t seen a squirrel since.

___________________

Which leads to our consideration of today’s readings and the miracle at Cana (considered the first miracle in the ministry of Jesus—at about the age of 30).

While the Protestant tradition has not paid as much attention to Mary as Catholics have, some people want more devotional attention directed her way.  What would these people say to gospel-writer John—who doesn’t even mention her name in his entire gospel?   Notice that today’s reading had Jesus refer to “Mother” and John referred to her as “the mother of Jesus.” Curiously, it’s John’s gospel that has the tender scene at the end when Jesus, speaking from the cross, tells John to “behold his mother,” and tells Mary to “behold your child.”  So on the one hand you see Mary unreferenced by name, while on the other designated as our mother—since John represents us “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Which reminds me: if you’re quick to be critical of our Muslim cousins, hold your tongue. Their sacred book, the Qu’ran, has an entire chapter devoted to Mary (and her name is the title of the chapter). Both Islam and Christianity arose out of Judaism—they being the 3 “Abrahamic” faiths (that trace their origin to Abraham).

Wouldn’t you think that the first miracle Jesus worked—would be reported in all of the gospels?  Nope.  John’s is the only one that has it—prompting Thomas Aquinas centuries back to wonder if the miracle was perhaps performed at his, John’s, wedding.  The facts?  We have no idea why Cana isn’t in the other gospels.

On the other hand, you might think that the event never took place at all!  Maybe John was just hearkening back to Moses freeing the people from slavery in Egypt—and the first plague being Nile’s water changed to blood.  Maybe John is associating Jesus with Moses—Jesus being a new liberator.  And hinting at what would later occur when wine would be his blood at the Eucharistic meal?

In this same symbolic vein, a wedding is a new beginning.  John started his gospel quoting Genesis (“In the beginning”)—and in doing so tells his readers that a “new beginning” or new creation is what he’s about to report in this gospel. Similarly, this marriage scenario is a new beginning for a man and woman (an Adam/Eve resonance?).  Why NOT begin the public ministry with this story of a new beginning (the marriage being the creation of a new, sacred entity).

Bible scholar Bart Ehrman tells the story of an evangelical Christian whose Church claims Jesus didn’t drink alcoholic beverages.  She told him the Greek word for “wine” in the passage means “new wine”—and that “new wine” refers to wine that has not yet fermented (so that it has no alcoholic content).  She reminded Ehrman that Jesus would never encourage people to drink.

In telling the story (which I’ve heard him report on 2 occasions), he said this experience reminded him of how people try to get around an uncomfortable reality by seeing only what they want to see.

Ehrman said that the FACT of the matter is that the Greek word used for “wine” is not a special word meaning “new wine.”  It is simply the word for “wine”–with alcohol init.  Ehrman is fluent in biblical Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Coptic (ancient languages all), but my guess is that the evangelical woman cannot conceive of a Jesus drinking wine (in a culture that sees people drink wine from childhood to old age). 

A digression.  As you know, my doctorate is in anthropology (“the study of what it means to be human”).  The field covers all topics unearthed in all cultures, past and present.  As a result, anthropologists delve into all matters pleasant and nasty—because we are “open” to analyzing human behavior and trying to account for it.  In the course of anthropological studies, one does not bring “value judgments” to any topic, but instead tries to understand how one reflects their culture or how a culture affects an individual.  When aberrations occur, those, too, are evaluated.

Without being specific, all matters are “on the table” for analysis–in an attempt to understand why they exist the way they do, or why something happened the way it did.  Anthropologists do their analyses via the “comparative method” which, in general, entails finding all examples of a behavior or philosophy or physical artifact found globally.  Religion, economics, politics, sexuality, language, art, biology—and all areas related to these generic realms—are the focus of anthropological inquiry.  For example, if you come from a home in which a principle of interaction is “That subject will never be raised in this household!”—you’re not in the home of an anthropologist J  Ehrman’s evangelical woman could not be an anthropologist.  I THINK I’m one of only 3 anthro-priests in the U.S. while few to none are elsewhere in the world.

Can you imagine the Chief steward going to his Master at the wedding and saying: “Most people serve the best wine first and then bring out the second-rate stuff.  But you have outdone yourself!   At first we were drinking good wine, but now you have given us GRAPE JUICE!!  People are starting to leave and are grumbling!  The party is becoming a bust.”

If this passage is an example of Jesus preaching temperance, it wouldn’t be much of a miracle-story.  Just as people today ignore facts, so does the evangelical.  Consider the testimony of Bishop Papias from the 1st century.  He knew people who knew Jesus, and one of them quoted Jesus as saying: “Vast amounts of the best wine await us in the kingdom of God.”  Numerous Old Testament readings make similar references.  Grape juice?  Uh, no.

Here’s some straightforward, helpful spiritual direction based on the Cana story:

1) ask Jesus for help (as Mary did)—especially if it’s intended to be of help to others (all the people at the feast);

2) cooperate with what he asks of you (as the hired help did); keep in mind the staff probably didn’t jump with joy in hearing Jesus request jugs of water

3) transformation can result (water to wine) from doing those 2 things—asking for God’s help and then complying with what God asks of you.

In the first 2 readings, Scripture says that you and I are: “God’s delight–as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so does your God rejoice in you.” THAT’S what God thinks of you (worth taking to heart).  Through the Holy Spirit, different kinds of spiritual gifts have been given to us. “So what!” (you might dismissively say).  Here’s how Holy Spirit information can help you.

You’ve been in conversations in which you know some, but not all, of the facts.  At the end of the day, you’re left with “taking a position” on whatever it was that was addressed (which could cover a range of issues—moral, economic, social, political, familial, business,  etc.)  Conversations that leave you unsure as to WHAT position to adopt are part of everyday life.  Most aren’t earth-shaking in their implications, while other decisions you make can affect people profoundly.  On those occasions, I’ve relied on our theology that tells of the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit.  To the extent those “fruits” are present or absent in the competing lines of thought—determined how I would decide.

What follows are the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit—with me stirring the waters of your prayerful thought on each “fruit.”  If you see them at play in one position over another—go with THAT position.  Here they are:

charity (does it characterize the speech of people advancing the positon), joy (“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance”), peace (Ignatius counsels never to make a decision in times of desolation or disturbance; await being centered on options to emerge and don’t rush), patience (not quick-temperedness but calm), kindness (does this characterize the presentation and course of action—its advocates reflecting gospel values), goodness (will the choice you make reflect the goodness of God in making you unique—and others unique, too), generosity (are your actions or decisions grounded on self-interest or are they other-directed with your time/talent/treasure), gentleness (will your course of action bully someone into submission for your own purposes or assure them that you are with them in facing the future), humility (you have come to serve and not be served—Jesus says to us), faithfulness (to your identity as being Christ-like and living the gospel codes of conduct), self-control (or is your position simply asserting your ego or control in some way over others), self-restraint (are you like the Pac-man icon wanting to do whatever you want to do and get whatever you want to get for yourself—if so, that’s not the behavior of Jesus).

An African child is lost. The people look everywhere. Next day, the village leader says “Let’s all hold hands and walk in a long line across the savannah.” They find the child—dead.  That night, through her tears the mother could be heard to cry, “If only we had all held hands yesterday!” 

If we try to bring about the fruits of the Holy Spirit in all our conversations—using our unique gifts of the Holy Spirit, it would be an example of us “holding hands.”  In this way, we can better address issues that might otherwise be deathly.

January 9, 2022

Not with you on this feast of the baptism of Jesus, I offer these additional reflections drawn from theologians John Pilch and others who have studied this biblical event.  Critical to Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the testimony of the voice from heaven which identifies Jesus as “my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As reported in other bulletins, the ancient Mediterranean world believed that the male deposited a fully formed miniature adult (a seed) into the female (viewed as soil in which the seed can grow).  Since this understanding prevailed, there was no way to prove paternity at the biological level.  For this reason, the public and social acknowledgment of paternity by the male was of critical importance. This act not only gave the child legitimacy and appropriate social standing in the community but also publicly obliged the father to accept responsibility for the child.

Understanding the culture in these terms, you can appreciate the ”theology” of an event which asserts that God is the Father of Jesus. At some point, the gospel writer has to tell his audience who, exactly, is this Jesus person.  Voila, he is not just another charismatic leader but is the son of the Father in heaven (as later repeated in the Transfiguration story).

This baptismal event reminded me of the Hebrew scripture it echoes, namely, Prophet Isaiah reported God identifying him in these terms: “my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.”  In turn, these associations brought to mind that our baptism calls each of us to be a “prophetic voice” (in our own, unique way).  Isn’t THAT something to think about?  What has YOUR prophetic voice been saying?  Keep in mind, prophets get killed for saying what they do—which is why I’m periodically reminded of the observation: “In order to be Christian, you have to look good on wood.”

Remember, to be a “prophet” does not mean you predict what will happen in the future.  Our baptism doesn’t “christen” us to be fortune tellers.  Rather, a prophet is one who shows people what God is calling them to do NOW.

Instead of just “going along with” popular group opinions and behaviors, the Christian “prophet” (all who have been baptized) says “Wait a minute.  It seems to me that the gospel calls us to more than this.”

In my case, that of a priest offering homily reflections at masses, am I fulfilling my call (as a Christian first, and priest second) to simply affirm whatever parishioners think or do?  Or is the priest’s role one of discerning where GOD is calling him to foster the good things people are doing and also rallying them to discovering new “epiphanies” (revelations that powerfully influence their perspective on events, themselves, and others)?

We’re all familiar with the phrase “you go along to get along,” and there’s wisdom in that adage. By the same token, if it becomes one’s only mode of social participation, it fails the litmus test of what it means to be a Christian prophet.

Luke’s baptism narrative (and entire gospel) draw upon Mark for much of his material and then adapts it to his audience (largely Gentile) and his theology.  He has people ask if John is the messiah bring up a topic that is still with us today. That is, people arise whose charisma (of some kind) draws many followers.  I spoke of the Ghost Dance of the 1880s which swept through Indian country—telling tribes that the messiah had come to them in Nevada.  In our own time of the 20th/21st centuries, we’ve had Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, Gabriel of Sedona, and others—who possessed a special ability to draw followers and persuading them to do things that were not at all in their best interest. 

One of those religious, charismatic people was the “Reverend” Jim Jones—who told his followers to kill themselves—and over 900 people “drank the Kool Aid” that was laced with poison.  Now, this event is alluded to in everyday conversation.  Whenever a person is skilled at touching nerves within a crowd and motivating the crowd to think and behave a certain way—we try and warn these followers “not to drink the Kool Aid.” The Christian’s prophetic role is the opposite of what these charismatic leaders preached.  Nonetheless, Luke’s gospel rightly points out that we have difficulty recognizing WHO the real Christ-presence is.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t outright state that John baptized Jesus.  Rather, we just learn that Jesus was baptized.  Since a rule of scripture calls for us to see ourselves in each person or element mentioned in the bible, might this passage remind us that our behavior and outreach to others have the prophetic power to “baptize” persons who can likewise be Jesus to others.  Each of us has the power to be John the Baptist.

January 2, 2022

In everyday conversation, you might hear someone say “I had an epiphany”—and then wonder what the person meant.  If you practice the Christian faith, you’ve heard the word “epiphany” associated with a Sunday during the liturgical year.  In that context, it refers to the arrival of the Magi at the manger in Bethlehem. Recall from previous bulletins that the Magi represent “gentiles” (non-Jews) being drawn to Jesus (i.e., Christianity).  Thus, Matthew is telling his Jewish-convert-audience that the gospel is for ALL people (and not a Divine revelation intended solely for Israelite descendants).

Because Matthew mentioned gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, generations have assumed that there were 3 visitors who brought them.  In ancient times, astrology and astronomy were not separate disciplines—so reference to these men as “astrologers” is not how we would refer to them today.  Nor can we conclude that they were “kings.” This notion arose in the 2nd century—just as “Balthasar” arose as the name associated with one of the wise men around the year 700 (recall it was during this time that the “3” men represented 3 continents—Balthasar being a black king from Africa).  With no evidence to support any of these claims, the number of wise men varied over the centuries–ranging from 2 to 12.  In 1895, “The Fourth Wise Man” was written by Henry Van Dyke—a theologically compelling and fictional portrait of what it means to know Jesus (made into the film “The Other Wise Man”—now on Youtube).

Meaning “appearance” or “manifestation” in Greek (the language of the New Testament), its theological reference is to God’s “manifestation” or “appearance” among us as Jesus (witnessed by these GENTILE visitors).  A theological term that is akin to “epiphany” is “theophany” (a manifestation or appearance of God to someone—such as Moses on Mt. Sinai or the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain).  From a secular perspective, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the Anglicized epiphany word as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”  The word should be understood as referring to a profound insight that came to you in some fashion and not just your learning a random fact such as the Spartans winning their bowl game.

Be they theological or secular, epiphanies are not restricted to celebrities.  One could be your sudden realization that you really wanted to marry the person who became your spouse, or that God forgave you for something you thought was unforgiveable, or that your alcohol consumption was not just social drinking but an illness you needed to address.  An epiphany might be an “elephant in the room” of our life that we refuse to see.  We can be one of the Magi who never really arrives at the manger and sees the different faces of Jesus that we encounter.

 DePaul University theologian, Jaime Waters, states that Matthew wanted his readers “to understand that Christ is both the fulfillment of the [Jewish] faith and the radical openness of God to all people . . . [and] to remind all future disciples that they must be reluctant to draw lines of division.”  Waters asks readers “What is your star today? What holds your gaze and leads you closer to Christ? The traditions of the Epiphany invite us to think about how we can find our way to Christ throughout the year. We should look for events, people and actions that can help us to encounter Christ. The magi were a group on a journey together, and we should remember that we are not on a solo trip. In addition to relying on our community, we should also seek ways to help others to draw nearer to Christ.” 

If theologian Waters is too generic in her counsel and not more “down to earth” in suggesting how we, as Christians, are called to conduct our lives meaningfully, here’s something very concrete for us to consider.  It comes to us from Martin Luther—the Catholic priest of the 1500’s who led a “protest” within the Church that saw him excommunicated in 1521.  The “PROTEST” he spearheaded eventually led to the formation of “protest-ant” (Protestant) Christianity–his name attached to a denomination within that wing (“Lutheran”). 

Just as today, Luther’s era was one of much socio-political turbulence—with one divisive issue being how people were handling/addressing/coping with the “black plague.”  Written in 1527, what follows could have appeared as an editorial in any newspaper of the past year.  Two quotes come to mind, viz., “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “The only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.”  Here’s Luther commenting on how people were dealing with the plague:

People . . . are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are.  They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.

 . . . a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide.

 It is even more shameful for a person . . .  to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.

 Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire.

 No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you . . .  shun persons and places . . . and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?

 I have been told that some are so incredibly vicious that they circulate among people and enter homes because they are sorry that the plague has not reached that far and wish to carry it in, as though it were a prank like putting lice into fur garments . . . if it is true, I do not know whether we Germans are not really devils instead of human beings.

 It must be admitted that there are some extremely coarse and wicked people. The devil is never idle . . . So these folk infect a child here, a woman there, and can never be caught. They go on laughing as though they had accomplished something . . . I do not know how to preach to such killers. They pay no heed. I appeal to the authorities to take charge and turn them over to the help and advice not of physicians, but of Master Jack, the hangman.

 

December 26, 2021

Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that report the birth of Jesus—and nowhere does scripture speak about celebrating his birth in December.  That custom came about a few centuries later.  There’s even debate as to where Jesus was born (despite our singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem).  After all, Mark refers to Jesus of Nazareth, and like John’s gospel—says nothing about the birth.  On the feast of the Holy Family, Luke says that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.  Not only that, but there’s apparently a dating issue with references to Quirinius (governor of Syria) and Herod of Jerusalem.  Maybe Jesus was born 4 or more years earlier than what we’ve assumed the year to be for centuries (and on which our calendar is based).

Let the debate about the birth year and place continue—because the bible is not a history book.  Nor is it a biology, astronomy, geography, or geology text.  It is, rather, a compilation of books that try to communicate who God is, and how we should relate to God.  Think of the Magi, for example, three “kings” who came following a star. Where were they from?  We don’t know, but we do know that they were probably outside the Israel cultural tradition—leading readers to associate their presence with all people outside the Old Testament heritage.  This thought was reflected in the Middle Ages when the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar were given the “wise men” (whose actual number scripture doesn’t cite) and who were associated with Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Moreover, you find Luke, and not Matthew, referring to a stable and manger—this evangelist emphasizing the association of Jesus with sustenance.  With Bethlehem being a Hebrew word meaning “house of bread, or food,” his baby Jesus is in a manger—a feeding trough.  It’s not surprising that Luke’s last chapter tells the road to Emmaus story. The resurrected Jesus, not recognized by fellow-travelers, stops and eats with them.  In that context, their eyes are open when they see him “take bread, break it, and pass it to them” (as said at consecration time in mass).  The first and last chapters of Luke’s gospel are telling us that Jesus came to “feed” us via the example his life provided, and the Eucharistic table.

Matthew’s birth narrative likewise emphasized a theme that is echoed in his last chapter.  These weeks of Advent we sang O Come O Come Emmanuel—a name that appears within the Nativity story which means “God with us” (literally with us, in the newborn baby Jesus at Bethlehem). It is not surprising that Matthew’s final line of the gospel depicts Jesus saying to his followers: “Remember! I’m with you always until the end of time.” N.B., when a priest blesses one’s hand and forehead in the sacrament of the sick, the person should be reminded that God is with them—holding their hand and wiping their brow at a time when they might feel very alone and afraid.

Matthew’s final paragraph even has an echo of the Magi when he tells the apostles to “go and baptize all people.”  He might have added “like the foreign travelers from afar who were present at my birth.”  In short, we have Luke and Matthew telling us that the world has new life in the person and message of Jesus—new life that is still accessible to all people in the sacraments.  Matthew’s inclusion of shepherds is an especially hope-filled reminder.  Why?  Because shepherds were in same category as thieves, tax collectors, and prostitutes (the life of Jesus showing us how to be a “good” shepherd.

In a previous Christmas homily, I reported an experience that made the gospel message come alive for me in a very different way.  I recounted my visit to where the most sacred artifact of Lakota Sioux culture was kept.  Their religious tradition tells of God sending a woman to the people, and that she carried what appeared to be a child.  It turned out to be what’s now known as the sacred pipe.  When one smokes the pipe, they are communing with God, and God will hear their prayer. 

On this privileged occasion, after undergoing a ritual known as the sweat lodge, I was allowed entry into a red shed wherein the pipe was kept—the original pipe brought by that sacred lady centuries ago.  A flashlight on a shelf was the star that hovered above me in a small shed that had rakes and shovels, gas cans and tires laying around on the dirt floor. 

There was the pipe—sacred simplicity—with me in what was a kind of stable.  It reminded me of the same kind of place that Christians think of as Bethlehem—whereat God joined the human condition—OUR shed-like/stable-like lives that have all sorts of things strewn within them over the years.  Emmanuel actually seemed real in the presence of the pipe.

The Indian world left a similarly powerful impression on me one Christmas Eve.  It was the first one after my mom and grandmother had died (just two months earlier).  In Sault Ste. Marie at the time, I was called by an Indian deacon who asked if I might say mass for the people at Batchawana Bay on the north shore of Lake Superior on Christmas Eve.  I had subbed there in the past, but the church had been closed for a few years and the “first nations” Native community would be happy to ready the place for mass.

Heated by a stove with logs, a group of about 30 gathered around the altar—winter coats worn that cold and silent night—me still recalling the faces who so valued our gathering at the manger of their faith community. All the bible stories get represented at a time like that—for a major theme of the bible’s “old” and “new” testaments is this: God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.  Be it a baby in the manger, a boy facing Goliath, fishermen tending their nets, or a once-unknown woman named Magdalene whose name is known the world over—it is our lives who the creator of the universe has fashioned and placed on earth for a special reason.

Now I recall these experiences for you not to simply reminisce, but to tell you how those two experiences—rooted as they are in Bethlehem—relate to us here.  As you know, I’ll often begin our Sunday gathering by telling you I need to scan the assembly and see who God has called to be with us that morning.  I scan the faces and am buoyed in seeing God at work among us—calling each of you in different ways to the altar.  And when I see you here, I’m taken back to the shed of the sacred pipe, and the faces of Batchawana Bay—and reminded once again of Emmanuel, God being with me, through you.

COMMUNION REFLECTION

If as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and then again with more things; if we fill every moment of our lives with activity–when will we have time to make the long, slow journey of purposeful reflection–across the deserts of life–as did the Magi?  Or sit and watch the stars–as did the shepherds?  Or contemplate the coming of the child as did Mary?  For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.

December 19, 2021

During the advent season, a “holy day of obligation” known as the “Iaculate Conception” is celebrated (on December 8th). Until 1911, in addition to Sundays, there were 36 days of obligation—reduced to 8 that year in the United States.  The number of “Holy Days” varies from country to country, e.g., Hong Kong with 1, the Vatican with 10. The number also varies from year to year because the obligation is lifted if they fall on a Sunday or Monday (Canada observing them each year, however, on the Sunday nearest a Holy Day’s date).  Since 1992, Hawaii just observes Christmas and Immaculate Conception.  Given this overview, what does this “Immaculate Conception” refer to?

Some mistakenly think of the day as honoring the conception of Jesus (a layman once telling me that he attended mass and was concerned that the senior priest defined it this way). Dogmatically proclaimed in 1854, the doctrine instead refers to Mary being conceived free of original sin.  Here’s what the document states:

 We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.  —Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854.

Why the Church decided at this time to declare a dogma not scripturally based—has been a topic of discussion since the teaching was announced. Some think the 19th century’s renewal of Marian devotions was a motivating force for the Pope to make the declaration.  The commission that Pius IX had called together declared that neither scriptural proof nor a broad and ancient stream of tradition was required to promulgate Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

While the holy day’s focus was Mary, it also concerned another realm of Christian theology.  Namely, we teach that “Jesus was like us in all things but sin.” And that he was “fully human and fully divine” (a mystery of our faith that we call the “hypostatic union”—his having 2 natures—divine and human in 1 person).  However, this theology has a problem—if we also teach that all people are born with “original sin” inherited from Adam and Eve.

This belief became fully formed with the writings of St. Augustine (354–430), who was the first author to use the phrase “original sin” (peccatum originale). He said that it came through semen, and this conjecture posed a problem. That is, if God was the Father of Jesus—okay, no sin there.  But what about Mary? Since she was human, she had original sin—and so passed it to her son!  Flashing red theological light!!!!  How can we resolve Jesus “being like us in all things but sin?”  Enter Joachim and Anne–the names associated with Mary’s parents (via the apocryphal Gospel of James and not the canonical gospels).

Church teaching had to explain how Jesus did not inherit original sin—if such a condition came—gene-like—to each person through their parents. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would solve the matter. Namely, through a special act of God, Anne and Joachim did NOT pass that sin-gene to their daughter, Mary.  Thus, Jesus did not inherit sin from his divine Father or human mother.

While not so much an issue in the recent past, Protestant Christians were critical of Catholicism’s seeming elevation of Mary to unwarranted heights.  That is, eliminating “original sin” from Mary gives Jesus sinless parentage, but also makes her different from all other mortals—in a way that verges on making her semi-divine.  While discussions related to original sin, the hypostatic union, Mary’s sinless state, and numerous other topics have engaged Christian thinkers for centuries, we can lose sight of, or be distracted from, considering how our own self-image and gospel-identity are associated with the Immaculate Conception feast. The feast goes hand-in-hand with this season’s celebration of the birth of Jesus, his, Mary’s, and OUR conception.

Called upon by the Church to reflect on God’s creation of Mary and her “yes” response to God’s call—is a really powerful reminder to each of us that we, too, were created by God.  We, too, have been called to live the special “ministry” God calls each of us to perform.  Mary’s conception is symbolic of our own—reminding us that we are, as scripture says, “God’s work of art.” 

Stay with that thought—and look around you.  Each face you see—is the product of God’s inspiration—just as magnificent as the Pacific Ocean, the Rocky Mountains, or Grand Canyon. You are not just some random biological entity—but a miracle crafted by the Creator—and placed on earth to do something no one else is to do. Think of the innocent and precious babies we baptize.  We smile at them and are emotionally moved to give them kisses and cuddle them. And so it is with God in creating you, conceiving you, and placing you—his darling child–(regardless of your age) in a community to perform some special, unique deed.

THAT is what we are called to reflect upon when honoring the conception of Mary.  Her humanity is the same as ours.  She was God’s daughter placed on earth to give birth to Jesus.  And so are we.

 The Marian feast is a springboard to week 4 of Advent—for this is the week that leads us, like Magi, to the Bethlehem event.  In the week ahead and Christmas week, we will see decorations and receive cards that depict Mary, Joseph, and the cast of characters involved that silent night in what we now refer to as the “Holy Land.”  Here is how you might make the most of what you see and hear—when scripture is read, or when you see references to the little town of Bethlehem.

We’re the Magi—looking for God in our life—and where to place our gifts, and in doing so, be a gift to others.

Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.

We’re lambs—needful of a “good shepherd” to guide us (not the many pretenders who sell us some product or person that promises happiness).  We’re the donkey—helping others to carry their burdens, and providing hospitality–and in doing so, help give them life.

We’re Herod—jealous of attention paid to others and jealous of their gifts—unable to realize we have gifts of our own (which God calls us to use in service of others).

We’re Jesus in the manger—just as helpless and needful of Mary’s and Our Father’s care.

We’re the manger—called to feed others—receiving whoever comes our way as if they are Jesus himself.

And in thinking of these traditional themes of the Christmas story, we appreciate our own “immaculate” conception afresh—and realize anew that God blest all the animal nations by having their representatives be present at that sacred place.

And we pray for God to inspire us to be the star of Bethlehem—one who points others to where they might find new life.

December 12, 2021

John the Baptist is our Advent man.  References to him occur during this period of the liturgical year (and not so much at other times).  Scripture said he baptized people but scholars don’t know what his baptism was about—an initiation rite? A spiritual cleansing of some sort? They do, however, know that his message was a call to repentance.  But what does THAT mean? Does it mean saying you’re sorry for something?  And doing penance of some kind?

In the Greek of the New Testament, “repentance” implied “a change of mind,” a “broadening of one’s horizons,” “a transformation, conversion, or reform of one’s life.”  It also carried the notion of a “debt” to God for all God has given you.  And that’s what Advent is about—taking stock of yourself, admitting you don’t have all the answers, and resolving to open yourself to more fully appreciating what God has done for you.

This past week we celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception—a feast that reminds us that, like Mary’s, our conception was a very special creation. One point of that feast is that each of us—through our identity as Christians—is called to give birth to Jesus, metaphorically, in our lives (just as Mary did literally). Once again, what does THAT mean?  What does it mean, exactly, for each of us to bring Christ into the world (especially since we’re preparing to celebrate his “incarnation”—his taking on of flesh—and coming into the world)?

Clergy everywhere try to answer that question in their sermons and homilies—and in doing so, face challenges. For example, they might mention how we need to make sure everyone can cast their vote. In saying something like this, they run the risk of being criticized for preaching “politics.” However, listeners should realize that clergy who preach that it’s important for us to guarantee people’s right to vote—aren’t echoing a partisan political position. They are reminding their congregation that Paul’s letter to the Philippians says we are called to create a just society.

The “corporal and spiritual works of mercy” are the centuries-old list of issues that Christian theologians and mystics have said are at the core of our gospel identity.  They are well worth our reflection during Advent—since they are our Tradition telling us how to “birth” Jesus.  If they are not on our radar of daily life in some way, our Advent is a success—in calling our attention to where we have been remiss in our practice of the faith.

Spend a few moments considering if these “works” reside in your conscience or are part of your behavior.  Again, they are not any party’s political platform but are what have traditionally defined how Christians “give birth” or incarnate Jesus in everyday life.  The Corporal Works: Feed the hungry—–Give drink to the thirsty—–Clothe the naked—–Shelter the homeless—–Visit the sick—–Visit the imprisoned—–Bury the dead; The Spiritual Works: To instruct the ignorant—-To counsel the doubtful—To admonish sinners—–To bear wrongs patiently—–To forgive offenses willingly—–To pray for the living and the dead—–To comfort the afflicted (and afflict the comfortable).

When the “rubber meets the road” and these topics enter into meaningful life events, they often become socio-political topics that hit “too close to home” for some people, e.g., Shelter the homeless–at our southern border? Forgive offenses–but retain the death penalty?  Feed the hungry–but stop food stamps for the poor?  The list of challenges to these basic “works of mercy” could go on and on.

Since the gospel addresses how we should live, and since people have different ideas about how we should live, you can see why even the corporal and spiritual works of mercy become contentious—with clergy equivalently told not to address them in any meaningful way. But this is how Christianity has failed at different points in history.  As the aphorism says: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  THAT quote is drawn from a 19th century secular philosopher who actually said: “Bad men need nothing more . . . than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name.”

The essence of those quotes was captured in Christian terms by the late scripture scholar, John Pilch.  He addressed our challenge to preach and live the gospel when he said:

“What is an American believer to make of the Baptizer’s exhortations? Greed, selfishness, and abuse of power and position are still with us. Who among us will be the modern voice crying in the wilderness? Who will call us to conversion and invite us to live fully the good news?”

 These thoughts come home to me especially this weekend because it is the anniversary of my ordination. I’ve been in a mode of thinking “what do I have to show” for going ahead with the decision to be ordained.  Thankfully, if nothing else, my trek has taken me to John the 23rd parish—where good people abound.  It’s good to be with such decent fellow-travelers.

I recalled the theme of my first homily being that I conceived of my priest-role as being one that helped others discover their priestly ministry.  I also wanted company when taking potshots for trying to live the Christian life.  I knew that, as Jesuit Daniel Berrigan once said: “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”  Enlisting others to exercise THEIR ministry was, in a way self-serving.  I preferred a group portrait and not be the only one looking good on wood.

All this boils down to is that we’re in the Advent season, and we’ve got a long way to go to Bethlehem.  Liturgically, we come to realize that all our life is an Advent—a journey in which we seek the birth of a new conscience, a journey that sees us stumble along, take dead-end paths, and are always in need of better direction.  It’s the season we once again make decisions to carry on as righteously as we can—aware that we can be a better companion on the journey with others.

Try and internalize this basic message of the gospel–which the following parable reports:

God was going to come to earth, so sent ahead his angel to survey the scene and report back.  The angel returned with this report.  “Most of them lack food.  Most of them lack employment and need assistance of all kinds.”

God said: “Then I shall become flesh in the form of food for the hungry.”  Looking at parishioners of John the 23rd parish, God continued: “I will become flesh—in the form of YOU.”

And so it came to pass that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated our birth as Jesus—alive today in each of us.

 Communion prayer

I’ve seen you stalking the malls, walking the aisles, searching for that extra-special gift.  Stashing away a few dollars a month to buy him some exquisitely-crafted leather boots, staring at a thousand rings to find her the best diamond; staying up all night Christmas eve, putting that new bicycle behind the tree awaiting discovery.

Why do you do it?  So the eyes will open wide.  The jaw will drop.  To hear those words of disbelief: “You did this for me?”

And that is why God did it.  Next time a sunrise steals your breath or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain in that moment.  Say nothing, and listen as heaven whispers, “Do you like it?  I did it just for you.”

Liturgical music can be can aid to the reflective life

At my ordination mass, the song below was performed by dancer friends.  It’s sung at the first site by its composer. Dan Schutte—who taught with me on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFvdGv2pEy0

Sung worldwide, the version below is by a young people’s choir in the Philippines.  Their youthful enthusiasm (not quality of performance) is my reason for placing it here.  May their spirit be contagious.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dyuq2UkRWM8

December 5, 2021

The past couple of weeks, I cited a phrase we use in everyday speech–“connect the dots.”  I was pointing to how we need to see the big picture of our life experience and God’s presence to us, God’s call to us—God showing us how to live. I indicated that politicians often “connect the dots” which make you vote against your own self-interest. They use slogans manufactured by Madison Avenue and by the 12,000 lobbyists in D.C.—which win your allegiance.

They know that most people don’t follow the news very closely but that they WILL hear one or two “sound bites” that SOUND enlightening—but are self-serving and NOT in your best interest. An example outside the political realm is the list of “charities” I put in the bulletin that SOUND worthwhile, but which are, in reality, scams that aim to take your money, e.g. “Children’s Wish Foundation,” “The Cancer Fund,” etc.  The “point” of these reflections was to indicate that the Feast of Christ the King calls us to always look for what course of action the GOSPEL calls us to take—and not political affiliations we might have. Nationalism should take a back seat to our Christian allegiances.

Another phrase from everyday life applies to religious practice: “go it alone.” This is said by busy people with so many things to do that coming to church and being a member of the faith community is deemed unnecessary. People will say “I’m a good person and I relate to God in my private life.”  America, in general, has long been known for its “rugged individualism”—people “going it alone” and being self-reliant.

In recent history, people have applied this national trait to religion.  They think they’re doing okay with all that life throws at them, and stop attending mass and being part of a parish. Maybe they would be drawn to church if told that we have a special “medicine” or “pill” from heaven that is the best vitamin they could take. Or that we’re offering certain “spiritual exercise classes” in the church-gym that will make us well-balanced individuals.

We’ve always used the word “sacrament” when referring to this medicine, pill, or spiritual exercise, but maybe that word has become over-used. People yawn when they hear it. However, when we come to mass, or get baptized, or confirmed, or when we’re blest when sick and given God’s forgiveness in a purification ceremony (called “reconciliation”)—people become more functional, more centered, and more hopeful. They do this through what we call “sacraments.” They’re the best booster shot our spirit could receive. You and I are here because we know we need help. Others aren’t here because they think they can “go it alone.”

Connecting dots in my experience

December 6th this week marks a special anniversary that has become a special part of my life (and that of others). It will illustrate how dot-connecting came to pass in my experience and how others have been affected by my sometimes-unconscious connecting of them into something productive. Keep in mind that people “connect dots” all the time—and do so ERRONEOUSLY. I’ll provide an example that is positive.

Although born and raised in the Motor City, I always took an interest in American Indians—reading books about them whenever I could. After entering the Jesuits, I liked hearing about our guys in Indian country. Readers globally read a classic of Indian Studies titled Black Elk Speak: The Life-story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. The man was born in 1866 and died in 1950. He was in battles with cavalry and, at age 10, killed 2 soldiers at the Battle of Little Bighorn (“Custer’s Last Stand”). He lived to see the vast buffalo herds disappear, family members die in war and due to disease, and he was present at the infamous “Battle of Wounded Knee.”  Many have called this latter event a massacre. It saw the most medals of honor awarded in U.S. military history. A petition now seeks that they be rescinded because more elders, women and children were killed at this event than warriors.

Wounded Knee was preceded by what’s known as the “Ghost Dance”—a religious movement that convinced many in the population that Jesus would return for Indian people—raise their dead, restore the buffalo, defeat the white and black solders (called the “buffalo soldiers” because their hair resembled that of the buffalo), and rid the world of non-Indians. Wearing “ghost shirts” would protect people by deflecting bullets. And so it came to pass that 300-some Sioux (Lakota) wore ghost shirts at Wounded Knee creek in 1890, encountered the cavalry, and found their shirts did not protect them. Most today are buried in a mass grave there at Wounded Knee (a protest in 1972 was staged at this site and drew international attention). Black Elk Speaks concludes with this event—the holy-man reflecting that his people’s dream died that day at Wounded Knee—the passage unrelenting in its sadness.

In reporting the “dots” of my experience that follow, they are like the dots of YOUR life, too. That is, we don’t necessarily see the meaning of an experience until it passes, and we then say “Aha!” This is like the men walking to Emmaus with Jesus after the resurrection—not recognizing him—and then later on saying “Dang!  That was HIM—and we didn’t even realize it at the time.” There are more to report, but here are the key experiences that eventually became the dots of my life’s portrait.

When in studies at U of Detroit, I was preparing most immediately for a high school teaching career as part of the Jesuit training program. Knowing of my interest in Indians, a Jesuit priest introduced me to the principal of a high school who was attending a conference on secondary education which was held on campus that year (dot 1). He invited me to visit Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation (Black Elk’s home)—dot 2. The subsequent visit moved me to ask for an assignment to Red Cloud—a school which, at the time, was not anyone’s first choice (dot 3).

Before heading west, it seemed wise for me to learn more about the culture. This was the first year Jesuits were allowed to pursue an M.A. immediately after the B.A.—and I was approved to pursue the degree (dot 3.5 & 4). Indiana U had a program that seemed appropriate, so I applied, was accepted (5)—and learned upon arrival that a premier scholar of Indian studies taught anthropology there (6), and that the premier scholar of Indian religion was a visiting professor that year (7). I took both of their courses (7.5 & 8).

One day while teaching in the high school, its boiler broke down (which never occurred) and school was called off for the day (9). Never free at 1 p.m. on a school day (10), I went outside (11) for a smoke and sat next to a grandmother on a bench (never previously doing such a thing—12). Unprompted, she told me that the yearbook was dedicated to her brother Ben (13). Because I was the faculty member who moderated the yearbook (14), I knew Ben was Black Elk’s only surviving son. Had she just said her name was Lucy Looks Twice, I’d not have made the connection with her famous father (15).

That serendipity set of experiences started my relationship with Black Elk’s only surviving child, who died 5 years later. My interviews with her and others eventually produced Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala (reviewed as “a real step forward in American Indian religious studies”) and Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic (16).

In the Fall of 2017, I was called by the bishop of Rapid City, SD who asked me to write an overview of Black Elk’s life that he could use when proposing the man for canonization as a Catholic saint (17). The bishop’s name was Gruss (who I didn’t know). He told the national conference of bishops that “Jesuit Father Michael Steltenkamp” researched the life of Nicholas Black Elk and found him to be a devout Catholic catechist whose baptism was December 6, 1904 (this past week—one reason why I provide this account now). Gruss asked that Black Elk be named a “Servant of God” (the first stage of the canonization process leading to “Saint”). His request was unanimously accepted (18) on November 14th (my birthday)—which I interpreted as a “wink of the eye” from Black Elk and God (19) to an effort I never imagined would come to pass.

So Black Elk’s story is that of a medicine man coming to cure a sick child in 1904, encountering a Jesuit priest at the bedside, and leaving with the priest to get instructed in the faith and learn more about Jesus—whose message had been MISINTERPRETED by Ghost Dance teachers. Black Elk preached the gospel for the rest of his life.

He and the old-timers learned scripture and Church teachings by means of a catechetical chart known as the “2 roads map”—its red road in the center being the centuries since the time of Jesus, the black road leading to it. Black Elk understood his vocation as leading his people from the black road of pre-Christian experience to the red road of walking in the ways of Jesus.

The Sioux saw poverty/death/despair—and were told that Ghost Shirts would save them. 130 years later, all kinds of stories circulate on “social media” telling how Hilary Clinton and others kill children, how doctors put alien DNA in vaccines, and how so-called “antifa” groups of black, white, and Mexican radicals are coming to small towns in busses to shoot you. In short, we are just as gullible as the Sioux were in 1890. Have you seen the Qanon people marching in Dallas carrying signs of John F. Kennedy and saying he is returning to make Donald Trump president? Those marchers are ordinary –looking people like you and me. Like us, they are vulnerable—just as Black Elk was.

Nicholas Black Elk confronted more loss and pain than anyone—the loss of his people’s entire way of life. Lifelong, he lived in poverty. Instead of cursing people and calling them names, he embraced the vision Jesus provided and chose not to “go it alone.” He instead chose to be part of the Catholic faith community and have the sacraments help him connect the dots of his life.

Communion reflection

Lord, so often we are the un-Wise men and women who think we know the score and can “go it alone.  Instead, we are Magi who have trouble connecting the dots of our lives.  We’re without a map and are left to reading the signs with lens that need focusing.  We’re Magi who are not always sure where our decisions will take us.  Which is why we have gathered at this sacred moment of the mass—and asked you, each in our own way, for the guidance we need—to walk the good red road that leads to You, a path of real life and rebirth.  Save us from seeking mirages that seduce us so often. Continue to lead us through this Advent season to a new birth of our minds and hearts.

 

November 28, 2021

In everyday conversation you’ll hear people say: “Connect the dots!”  This expression refers to seeing the “bigger picture” when discussing the different points of some issue. Sort of like the “star quilts” I had at the churches.  Everyone could see the star points and lovely colors, but how many saw the buffalo in the one at St. Mary’s or the eagle in the one at Merrill? Sometimes, we know the “dots” of an issue, but fail to see the bigger picture, e.g., as in the case of drinking that leads to alcoholism—early consumption leading to addiction.

I’ll try to “connect the dots” as to why Christians of most denominations celebrate “Christ the King Sunday” (a phrase that conjures up images of royal courts and loyal subjects on bended knees—with trumpets blaring, as Jesus walks toward a throne. In short, “Christ the King” is a phrase that few of us relate to. HOWEVER, its meaning is really important to most everything we do.

For example, under debate for some time is the “build back better” bill. In theory, your elected representatives sincerely represent the best interests of you and the country as they argue the pros and cons. However, many factors come into play that are not all that apparent to you, the citizen. You and I only know about SOME of the dots—and are not aware of what other influences motivate our representatives to say or vote the way they do. This is illustrated on television when a senator says one thing on CNN, and then the opposite when interviewed on Fox. Knowing some of their constituents watch Fox and some watch CNN, they play to the audience—knowing that most people won’t carefully follow the news—but be educated solely on some “sound bite.”

When I was in West Virginia, I had contact with Joe Manchin—the senator now in the news for being a Democrat who has resisted supporting the “build back” bill. He seems to be allied with those opposing the bill (N.B. surveys show that most Americans want its provisions).  Listening to the “dots” presented by Joe make one think the man makes sense—but they’re not aware of other “dots” which may motivate him.  Namely, his status as a millionaire derives in large part from his investments in fossil fuels (coal & oil).  The bill seeks to help make America rely on renewable energy (and AWAY from coal & oil).

Why might he oppose lessening the cost of medicine? Perhaps because his daughter is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company that pays her $18 million. In fairness, maybe Joe is NOT influenced by his holdings in fossil fuels or his daughter’s role in “big Pharma,” but those are “dots” that most people outside WV don’t know 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.

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.

 Pseudo-science

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”)?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndOBdlL6Uwg

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.   

Announcements  

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, underwent torture and execution, and then rose from the dead—WE would probably say to our friends and family “Seeeee!  I told you so!!  I was right and you were wrong—you know-it-alls.”   That’s what you or I would say—but not Jesus.  Instead, he is pictured today (and other post-resurrection appearances)—as saying “peace” to those he meets.  He doesn’t lord it over anyone.  Like Thomas, we see the error of our ways and sigh to ourselves “My Lord and my God—I sure was wrong . . . I’m so sorry.”   

In response, Jesus speaks softly to us, does not chastise us or condemn us, but calls us to greater conversion—greater insight.  Which is what takes place each time we come to mass.  We participate in this sacrament—hopeful that somewhere in our hearts we might proclaim “My Lord and my God”—because we know deep inside that God loves us, and that we woke up this morning because God wanted us to.  And go into the day being our own unique source of hope, light, and resurrection for others. 

 

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                                Easter Sunday

Holy Week is filled with rich and profound portraits of Jesus and those who knew him. We witness his interaction with people who reveal behaviors common to our experience, i.e., various forms of caring for others or convicting them.

During Holy Week, some might be absorbed with thoughts of how our Church cares for others (as did Simon of Cyrene and Veronica—the only 2 stations of the cross that refer by name to persons other than Jesus). Some people might be absorbed by thoughts of how Jesus continues to be crucified in different ways, e.g., street crime predators and white-collar criminals. Some might relate national issues to what took place 2000 years ago, e.g., with the Roman empire executing Jesus and the early Christian leaders, should we support our national policy of executing people (especially since we are one of the few countries that still do so)?

During Holy Week, we learn to appreciate the early apostles preserving their experience of Jesus—especially their experience of him at the dinner table. He told them to “do this in memory of me”—not because remembering him would stoke his divine ego, but because our remembering him would make him present to us and motivate us to be tomb-busters on behalf of oppressed others. Our candle-lit dinner with one another at the altar would entail our remembrance of God’s word spoken to us down through history—a word of love spoken in-person through Jesus.

During Holy Week, one reading occurs each year at the Easter vigil, and it conveys a truth that our faith-tradition pleads we take to heart. Namely, in Genesis, we learn that “God looked at everything he had made and found it very good.” Everyone in the world knows people who suffer from what is sometimes called a “low self-image.” Some get professional help to remedy the pain that this cross takes. Some people might further damage their self-worth issues via alcohol or other drugs. Perhaps this “low self-image” thing is so common to the human condition that it is addressed in the bible’s first book.

How often do we need to hear that God made YOU good? God had someone very special, unique, one-of-a-kind in mind when creating YOU—and “saw that you were very good.” Maybe this Easter, one or another person in our parish might internalize this biblical revelation. We’ll all benefit when that person takes wing with this insight.

During Holy Week, other thoughts might come to mind—triggered by one or another verse—some of which are the following.

“Not my will, but Yours be done . . . Into your hands I commend my spirit.” At the garden of Gethsemane and Calvary, Jesus uttered these words. They capture a Christian spirituality that SHOULD be part of each of our lives. Namely, instead of us behaving in cut-throat corporate ways, or instead of lording it over people with an attitude of “It’s my way or the highway,” we instead are called to always ask what GOD wants of us. What is the most loving act, loving decision, or loving mode of communication to employ with someone? Throughout life, each day—right up to our last day—we are called to say in prayer “Into YOUR hands, Lord, I commend my spirit . . . not my will but yours be done.”

“This day you will be with me in paradise”–is what Jesus spoke on the cross to Dismas, the repentant thief who asked for forgiveness. We pray to hear those words when God calls us Dismas-like people to eternity.

A reflection that should come to our minds on Good Friday is: “When Jesus was dying, he was thinking of me.” How could Jesus be thinking of you when experiencing his own death? Jesuit Anthony DeMello would say that he had a strong grasp of God beholding you and smiling. This was the seminal insight that surged through him on the cross–

His was the look of love. It is the same gaze Jesus gave to his friends at the last supper when he knew he was with them for the last time–cherishing their closeness–pausing for a moment and saying “remember me being with you this way.” And this is what Easter is about—God loving you in a manner that looks past the Dismas-like elements of your life-story—and smiling at you here at mass.

The poem below reminds us that the person we find so easy to condemn is not someone from another planet. That person is you, or someone like you who also has feelings—as the Good Friday poem reveals.

Two Mothers

A long time ago, so I have been told, Two angels once met on streets paved with gold.

“By the stars in your crown,” said the one to the other “I see that on earth, you too, were a mother.

And by the blue-tinted halo you humbly wear “You, too, have known sorrow and deepest despair . . .

“Ah yes,” she replied, “I once had a son,

A sweet little lad, full of laughter and fun.”

“But tell of your child, and how you were blest. From the moment you held him close to your breast.”

“Well, my heart almost burst with the joy of that day.” “Ah, yes,” said the other, “I felt the same way.”

The former continued: “The first steps he took– So eager and breathless; the sweet startled look

Which came over his face – he trusted me so.” “Ah, yes,” said the other, “How well do I know.”

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

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

“How often I shielded and spared him from pain And when he for others was so cruelly slain.

When they crucified him – and they spat in his face How gladly would I have hung there in his place!”

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

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

“Tell me the name of the son you love so, That I may share your grief and feel for your woe.”

She lifted her eyes, looking straight at the other, “He was Judas Iscariot: I am his mother.”

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                                               March 28, 2021

Welcome to Palm Sunday of Holy Week.  Today we wear the color red—which on the one hand symbolizes the Holy Spirit.  On the other, red symbolizes blood and martyrdom.   Those 2 extremes of human experience are what will be addressed this week in our liturgies.

Today, for example, we are the fair-weather friends of Jesus welcoming him into Jerusalem with palm branches.  The people heard about the carpenter-man-messiah from Galilee and flocked to see if he was the real thing.  Will their fervor and excitement last, and is their welcome based on devotion to what he has taught?

We know the answer to these questions (that is, everyone abandoned him).  But instead of keeping this historical-Jesus-event buried in the misty past, try to personalize the gospel stories we read.  For instance, Palm Sunday may be a biblical variation of what’s been called the “cult of personality”—defined by Wikipedia as a group drawn together via “techniques of mass media, propaganda, lies, spectacle, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” 

Evident as far back as the Roman empire and generally applied to political leaders, the term was coined by premier Nikita Kruschev when his administration was “de-Stalinizing” Russia.  Previously, Joseph Stalin had been elevated to heroic status when in power but his murder of millions led to his downfall).  Despite this origin, the cult of personality is now applied to anyone who for some reason captures widespread public attention and interest.  Some recent examples are the following.

While serving a life-sentence for plotting several murders, a maniacal Charles Manson received tons of mail from “fans” and women who wanted to marry him.  By contrast and parallel, Pope John Paul II drew crowds that numbered in the millions—most of whom were by no means saintly Catholics wanting to hear him speak (he was NOT a riveting public speaker or homilist).  For both Manson and JP2—the cult of personality was at play.

Mafia leader John Gotti was “accorded almost folk-hero status by many because of his acquittals, his designer suits, hand-painted silk ties and defiant manner as he grandly enjoyed himself at restaurants and nightclubs.”  Despite being convicted of “racketeering that included five murders, an additional murder conspiracy, extortion, illegal gambling and obstruction of justice,” hundreds of his “supporters stormed the [courthouse] and overturned and smashed cars before being forced back by police reinforcements.”  

An even more recent example is that of President Trump.  He won the minds and hearts of a faithful following that included evangelical (and other) Christians—despite his lifestyle (personal morality and business dealings) at odds with many of their religion’s teachings.  Whether it’s a Roman emperor, Stalin/Hitler/Mussolini, Charles Manson, Pope JP2, Donald Trump, or Pope Francis, the cult of personality is part of our human condition.  Why some individuals and not others are captivated by certain figures is impossible to fully understand. 

As stated, the reception of Jesus into Jerusalem—which Palm Sunday commemorates—may be a gospel example of the cult of personality.  The crowd’s excitement did not last long—and the heroic leader was dead within a week.  Like the parable he taught, the vine-like crowd was not grounded or rooted in his teaching, had little to no faith, and so did not grow.  As with all of scripture, we especially need to keep in mind this Holy Week, that the stories we hear are descriptions of OUR behavior.  On this Palm Sunday, WE are the people whose roots in faith are not deep, and whose moral presence during tough times is often enough not evident.

Liturgically, we next gather to remember what has been called “table fellowship” with Jesus (sometimes referred to as the “first supper”—but which is commonly called the “last supper”—since it reportedly took place on “the night before he died”).  That special event recalls why we’re here at mass today.  We’re at a candlelight dinner in the presence of Jesus who we see in one another—along with the risen Christ.  Holy Thursday occurs each time we go to mass.

Soon, however, the inspirational red of our vestments turns into a moribund red of martyrs—for Good Friday takes place, and we are reminded of hope being lost.  The cross of Jesus reminds us of every bad day or incident we ever experienced.  We are in transit, or a kind of limbo, seeking new life as the old testament’s sabbath Saturday transitions into Christianity’s Easter Sunday.

Today’s gospel and the passages read this week at mass present us with a number of persons who were part of that day in Jerusalem when the “greatest story ever told” took place.   If we’re attentive this week, each of us will be able to see ourselves in those diverse characters.  If one or another character stays in your consciousness, it may be that God is calling you to reflect on why you’re keeping that person in mind.  On different days and at different times, we are/have been each of the persons who are part of the story we hear. To get our minds thinking along these lines, consider: 

Judas Iscariot—do you have a price; what values do you betray? 

Chief priests—finding it easy to pass judgment on others; do you judge a person based on 1 lame thing they did or said in their life of many experiences?

Peter—are you called to stand for something but find you have legs of straw?  or are you close-minded and KNOW you won’t cave-in (or aren’t wrong)—when, in fact, you will cave-in or ARE wrong?

Jesus afraid in Gethsemane—what fears are you forced to confront–and say to God you need help?

Pontius Pilate—do you wash your hands of involvement with national, local, family issues?

Barabbas—do you benefit at other people’s expense (is your clothing made in sweatshops)?

Simon of Cyrene—do you help others carry their cross; he was conscripted to help–me often not wanting to do something for another but dragged into the mix–and benefiting from it. 

Soldiers whip Jesus—do you participate in the oppression of others/animals-environment?

Mary Magdalene & women at the cross—you’re a faithful presence to others in need—like the women?  Or are you like 10 of the apostles and nowhere to be found when the going gets tough or when help is needed.

Dismas, the good thief—do you admit you made a mistake and ask for forgiveness?  There’s nothing you’ve done which God can’t bypass in an effort to embrace your conversion of heart.

IN EACH OF THE PERSONS CITED ABOVE, WE SEE  

–HOW JESUS IS BEING CRUCIFIED TODAY

–HOW WE ARE WASHING OUR HANDS OF INVOLVEMENT

–HOW WE ARE DENYING SOMETHING IS OUR PROBLEM

–HOW WE ARE CALLED TO FACE OUR FEAR OF CROSSES.   

And that each of us is being called to new life—and out of our self-imposed tombs of routine and sedated existence 

Communion prayer

Grant us, 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 shared
so everyone might enjoy them. 

A world where different races, cultures and creeds
live in peace and harmony, with equal regard. 

A world where peace is built with justice
and justice is guided by love. 

Give us the inspiration and courage to go forth with willing hearts, minds, and bodies to build such a world, through Christ Jesus. 

And may the God of hope fill us with every comfort and joy in believing. May the peace of Christ abound in our hearts and minds. and may the Holy Spirit gift and guide us now and forever.   AMEN. 

Pastor’s Pen

Last week I mentioned that Covid affected my olfactory sense.  I’ve always been accustomed to wearing cologne, but now I spray on “Aramis” and detect no scent at all.  Only by inhaling up close do I detect something.  I also read that Covid could affect one’s memory—and I identified with this, too.  Aging might take its toll on memory, but Covid people report being challenged more so. 

It occurred to me that this topic of “memory” or remembering is related to Lent.  We’re in a season when we look back at our life, and see where we’ve lived the gospel and where we’ve fallen short.  The Lenten season is a time for reflecting on where we need to improve our behavior—and simply acknowledge that we are very much NOT God. 

Last week I mentioned being concerned about young people completely missing the point of what we do at the Eucharistic prayer.  All they see and hear is a long prayer-narrative being read which has words that they might not know or which they think have no relevance to them (e.g., words like incarnate, savior, redeemer)   and that they lose interest.  In an era that has produced young people with short attention spans, the Eucharistic prayer becomes a test of endurance.  If they’re drawn to religion at all, young people might prefer going to a Christian service at non-Catholic churches that require little attention to any one thing (where services are not based on what we call the “Last Supper” or Passover Meal that Jesus gave as the Eucharist, or thanksgiving-meal we call “communion”). 

What comes to my mind each mass is that young people lose interest with each word the priest-celebrant recites.  In a way, I don’t blame them—because the language of what we call the “Eucharistic prayer” is not everyday speech.  Plus, they don’t know that what we’re doing is based on what Jesus did.  And what he did is based on a Jewish tradition that had families gather at table (our altar) and recount the history of God creating the world, saving them from floods and foes and famine, giving them prophet-leaders, and a promised land. 

Catholic tradition is rooted in this Jewish Passover meal that Jesus celebrated and told us to continue.  In the past weeks, I’ve indicated that Jesus did not come to abolish the Old Testament laws but to FULFILL them.  Sure, obey the commandments, but go BEYOND them (don’t steal—sure—but go further and be generous to others).  Our Thanksgiving meal, the Eucharist, puts us in “communion” with the resurrected Jesus—the Christ—and is the new “manna” God feeds us in the desert of life-experience.  It nourishes us to carry on and help others find the promised land of self-discovery as God’s beloved child—on earth with a mission of presence to others.  The communion host that we received is the sacred assurance of God’s presence. 

When we read scripture, and hear the Eucharistic prayer recited, we’re reading about earth’s history and the loving Creator-God who brought us here.  Each mass is a “remembering” of who we are and from where we came.  For example, today’s first reading refers to Nebuchadnezzar destroying the Temple (the destruction of the people’s identity) and taking the people into exile in Babylon.  Later, Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon, and let them return—to rebuild the Temple (and restore Israelite identity). 

See God in your own nitty-gritty history—is what the Old Testament stories tell us. That is, we are called to reflect upon how God seemed present or absent to us in our past.   

As stated earlier, Lent is a time for remembering and reflecting—NOT to wallow in our guilt for wrongs we’ve perpetrated but for discerning what God is calling us to be in our present?  Remember: we are products of our past—not prisoners of it. 

Some of you may belong to Alcoholics Anonymous—a great program that has helped countless people get a better handle on their lives.  When I think of recovering from our past and making progress in new ways, I’m reminded of AA.  I say this because if ever there was a strategy for renewing one’s self (besides the gospel), it can be found in the AA program. 

Its founder, Bill Wilson, had a Jesuit priest friend named Ed Dowling, S.J.  When Catholics read about or practice Bill W’s 12 step recovery program, they might right away see that its spirituality is what they’ve been taught in good religious ed classes (in contrast to bad ones).  The program is Jesuit spirituality without being called “Jesuit spirituality.”  The 12 steps should apply to each of us, and have been (like scripture) the basis of many “self-help” programs.   

If you’re not familiar with the steps, here they are.  I cite them here because like any good spirituality, they do not turn one inward, but rather help one find inner-strength to become a living, breathing outreach (apostle) toward others. 

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol that our lives had become unmanageable(substitute alcohol with your “unmanageable” area),
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity(admit help is available—which is what we do by coming to Mass). 
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him(a secular program like AA doesn’t impose the Christian God on anyone; but we try to turn over our lives to God when we come here).   
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  

(Lent is a period in which we reflect on how we got to where we are.  Admitting our blindness and responsibility in making decisions that hurt ourselves or others.) 

  1. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.(Sort of like the expression “confession is good for the soul”—which Catholics literally believe.If anyone ever asks you to be the person they tell, be that person and accept the role.  They aren’t coming to you for wise counsel or advice.  They’re simply asking you to listen to them courageously admit to being a sinner.) 
  2. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 
  3. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. 

(This step requires the person to focus on the positive aspects of his or her character – humility, kindness, compassion, and a desire for change—as well as step away from the negative defects that have been identified.  God takes no joy in seeing you in a constant state of shame). 

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.(These last steps are like “penance” one receives in the sacrament of reconciliation—penance which opens doors to growth). 
  3. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. 
  4. This step commits the one in recovery to continue their spiritual progress. For some, this may mean reading scripture every morning. For others, it may mean a daily meditation practice. AA doesn’t have stringent rules on what form spiritual growth takes. It simply involves a commitment to take time to reassess one’s spiritual and mental state. 
  5. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.(In Christian spirituality, this is the meaning of discipleship—each of us called to affect others positively through our words and deeds based on the gospels). 

Go for it. 

I can’t let Ephesians go by without comment.  Interestingly, although we speak of it as one of Paul’s epistles, scholars tell us that it probably wasn’t written by Paul.  Maybe one of his followers wrote it—because it’s the “sort” of thing Paul would write. 

Today’s verses raise an issue that was big during Luther’s time, viz., “faith and works” and their relationship to Christian identity.  Protestant tradition has tended to emphasize “faith” (professing “Jesus Christ is my personal savior”—as seen with people knocking on doors and “witnessing” to Jesus) whereas Catholic tradition embraces the Letter of James and asserts that any faith that produces no good works is not real faith.  As insightful as Luther was on many issues, he was deficient with this one.  He had the gall to claim that we should delete the Letter of James from the New Testament—since it directly contradicted what he was arguing. 

Today’s gospel reading is one whose chapter and verse you know—and maybe aren’t aware of your knowing it.  At most sporting events, you’ll see someone “professing their faith” with a sign that simply reads “John 3:16.”  Which refers to the section that says God so loved the world that He sent His only son—that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

Returning to and concluding with a line from Ephesians, I quote a line from the letter which I’ve quoted in the past and which I used on a holy card at my ordination.  The line reads: “We are God’s work of art.”  Think of that statement for a moment! YOU are God’s work of art—the God of all creation fashioned you! 

You were created by someone with skills that far surpass those of Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Grandma Moses or Andy Warhol. 

And in turn, God is always calling you and me to new insight, new understandings of who we are—and then proceed  

–to speak to others like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson wrote poetry,  

–to leave an impression on others like the impressionist painter Claude Monet, or post-impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.  

God calls us to learn novel ways of being present to others like novelists Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee.

We might be up there in years like Grandma Moses—and be naïve about many things (just as she belonged to what’s called the “naïve” school of art)—but God calls us to creatively paint our interactions with people that exceed in value the 1 million dollars that Grandma’s paintings now fetch. 

As Sacred Scripture says: you are God’s work of art–but are more precious than silver and gold. 

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                         March 7, 2021

Scripture is rich—such that if you went to 20 different masses, you’d hear 20 different perspectives.  I see the homilist’s role as one of a farmer throwing out seeds of reflection—some of which may bear fruit and some not. One person might find something helpful in one thought while another is touched by something else.  Key thing is that God will speak to us in the sacrament as a whole–in the scripture or homily we hear, in the quiet of our reflections, the songs we sing, or the eucharistic prayer and communion we receive. 

Today’s first reading is the 10 Commandments–which are found in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.  A homily could be devoted to 1 commandment each week for 10 weeks (or maybe longer–since the list ranges from 10 to 14 within the different traditions).  Sort of like the Big 10 Athletic Conference–there are 14 teams in the conference, but it’s still called the “Big 10” (the same goes for the commandments).   

When I learned the commandments, #9 was “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”  As a young kid, I wondered why “wife” was only mentioned, and not “husband.”  Couldn’t a husband be coveted as much as a wife (I wondered)?  And then I learned #10 was “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”  But some lists blend what I learned as two commandments into just one–“Thou shalt not covet your neighbors’ property.”  Similarly, I learned “I am the Lord your God” (was #1) and that “Thou shalt not have strange Gods before me” was the second commandment.  Some lists blend those two. 

The 10 commandments (known as the “Decalogue”) sound similar to an earlier set of Babylonian laws known as the “Code of Hammurabi.”   As with other cultures, the Babylonians and Israelites blended the sacred and the secular—the holy with the profane.  Not killing someone and not stealing from someone helped SOCIETY over which God (Shamash for the Babylonians and Yahweh for the Israelites) presided.  So, one’s civic duty in these cultures was the same as one’s religious duty, too.  Ideally, we conduct ourselves in the same fashion.  That is, we carry our Gospel perspective into our everyday lives.  

Last week, I mentioned that the commandments are the MINIMAL foundation of our religious identity—Jesus coming not to abolish the Old Law but to fulfill it.  He thus called us to expand the Old Law (the Old Testament) into new ways (the way of the New Testament).  For example, we might not be someone who steals, but when you go to your grave will people say “He/She was a really generous person.  She gave of her time to anyone who needed it.  He gave the shirt off his back if someone was in need.” 

Remember, when Christians quote the Old Testament, that’s fine.  BUT, those Hebrew scriptures were the foundation of the gospels and epistles—the Christian bible.  And we’re called upon to apply all biblical passages to ourselves.  For example, today’s 2nd reading has Paul saying the Jews do one thing and the Greeks do another.  When looking at the parish, we could say the Hemlock people do one thing and the Merrill/Ryan people do another. AND BE REMINDED BY PAUL that “For Hemlock, Merrill, and Ryan alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of Godis what we preach, and not just what’s good for your group.”  

What inspires me each time I see you here, is that you share Paul’s insight.  Each one of you is here because you need help.  You realize that you might be a pretty intelligent and strong person, but you and I know that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”  You and I are here because we learn God’s wisdom and tap God’s strength in scripture, the sacramental system, and within the faith community.  

The gospel is the well-known story about Jesus overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple.  We wonder why on earth there would be people with money on tables in the Temple.  Here’s why.  In the time of Jesus, they wouldn’t allow Roman/Greek coins brought into the worship area to be given as an offering (what would be our collection for the offertory procession).  The coins had images of Roman and Greek gods, so moneychangers were needed to swap coins that had those images for coins that didn’t have them.  This system was around for years.  The Temple was a busy place—people buying animals for sacrifice, too.  So John draws upon Hebrew scripture, and portrays Jesus as a kind of second Jeremiah: “Stop making the house of my Father a house of marketing.”  

This passage is found in all 4 gospels, but John portrays it as opening the door for his arrest and crucifixion.  The other gospels place the event at the BEGINNING of his ministry.  This again reminds us that the gospels are not biographies of Jesus but theologies of him.  John also adds the association of the Temple’s destruction with the body of Jesus being destroyed but rising to new life. Historically, the Temple had, in fact, been destroyed in 70 AD—before John’s gospel was written.   The theology he neatly weaves into these images is that we no longer need the great Temple where God resides—because each of us is a “Temple of the Holy Spirit.”       

This gospel passage also raises the issue of “anger.”  Each of us has been and can be—an angry person.  Sometimes our anger is the root of horror and pain inflicted on others.  However, anger is part of our human makeup and CAN be an instrument of good.  For example, we SHOULD be angry at some things–such as seeing people treated unjustly.  Our anger CAN lead us to action that brings about a good. 

I get angry at myself for recalling times in my life where I wish I hadn’t behaved or thought a certain way.  I had to have a conversion experience because my thoughts and actions were not what I eventually realized as non-Gospel.  Just as the Temple moneychangers had been around a long time, and people accepted them as part of the cultural/religious scene, so we have maintained thoughts and behaviors which elicit from us “We’ve always done it this way,” or “You can’t change this.”  Simply put, you and I have “positions” on topics that are NOT the “last word” on those topics.  

Today I might seem to have a “progressive” position on such things as racial, environmental, & gender issues–but I wasn’t born holding these positions.  I had “conversion experiences” which led me to let go of what I once thought about these things. I needn’t give examples, but I roll my eyes today when thinking of what I once thought and what I think today.  This is because I was moved to think beyond the world of thought I had come to accept.  The moneychangers in my Temple had been there a long time and experiences of anger led me to banish them from the premises of my thought.

A less socio-political example that can apply to many people is this.  All of you have been part of weddings.  Everyone wants to have a nice event.  From a GOSPEL perspective, marriage is supposed to be one of those touch-of-God moments in our lives–as we gather to pray for two people committing themselves to one another.  But how many ceremonies does God get a hearing amid the clatter of coins & party-fest?  

Often enough, people are all caught up with gowns to be worn, menus, bachelor/ette parties, a honeymoon destination, photographer/videographer to capture the event, guest list, and rings.  Almost as an afterthought, the couple/families pay attention to the sacredness of the occasion.  The couple and their families are so caught up in the social aspects of the occasion that they neglect to prepare their hearts as a dwelling place for God.  

Today’s Gospel is not just the report of some event that took place in the life of Jesus.  It instead poses a very personal question to each of us:  What needs cleansing in me so that I can fittingly house the Spirit of God?  May this Lenten prayer help us reflect on this question.  

Where there is fear I can allay, where there is pain I can heal,
Where there are wounds I can bind, and hunger I can fill:
Lord, grant me courage, Lord, grant me strength,
Grant me compassion That I may be your heart today.
Where there is hate I can confront,
Where there are chains I can release,
Where there are captives I can free
And anger I can appease:
Lord, grant me courage,
Lord, grant me strength,
Grant me compassion
That I may be your heart today.
When comes the day I dread
To see our broken world,  protect me from myself grown cold
That your people I may behold.  And when I’ve done all that I could,
Yet, there are hearts I cannot move, Lord, give me hope,
That I may be your heart today.  

Additional Considerations Unrelated to the Weekend’s Scripture

Last week, I mentioned that clergy are scrambling for ideas that might best serve their people.  One aspect of “ministry” is helping the flock not be seduced by cultural, philosophical, or theological “fads” that come and go.  For example, when cable TV produced networks like the History and Discovery channels, it seemed the public would be well-served in learning about history and science. Unfortunately, these and other networks now cater to our baser instincts and the least common denominator of human intelligence.  We are given a daily diet of space aliens visiting earth in the past and present, of monsters that stalk our forests, ghosts that haunt houses, and persons whose psychic abilities allow them to speak with the dead and report their messages to emotionally distraught family-members. 

Because of the influence of these outlets (reinforced via social media like Facebook, Twitter, and several other BUSINESSES), the people in the pews have become fair game for deceptions.  In light of this reality, I call your attention to entities that a Catholic should keep at arm’s length.  How could someone like actor Tom Cruise entertain becoming a priest as a young man, and end up being a poster child for what its creator named the “Church of Scientology?”  Like many other people in the pews, Cruise was influenced by the cultural acceptability of thinking space aliens are in our midst.   

Voila—Scientology’s founder (science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard) thought he might make an easy buck by starting a tax-exempt “church” of his own—and thus was born Scientology.  For reasons hard to fathom, a number of film stars (John Travolta, Anne Archer, Kirstie Alley, Gary Busey, Will Smith) were drawn to Hubbard’s fiction and are today part of its devout following (despite Hubbard’s son saying his father consciously created a big scam). 

I bother to cite the above because Georgia elected a Congresswoman in a landslide vote—she being a “Qanon” follower who believes in space ships setting California forests on fire.  And this past week, an event took place known as “CPAC” (Conservative Political Action Conference).  You may or may not share political positions that this group endorses, but you should take notice of who CPAC included in its list of speakers.  Right after Mr. Trump spoke, Hrioaki “Jay” Aeba took the stage.  He is a Japanese cult leader viewed as a messiah from the planet Venus.  The cult’s beliefs included the ability for its leader to serve as a go-between for various people, including gods—who reveal messages through him.  He also claims to be the incarnation of multiple Gods. 

It’s part of my role as a shepherd to warn you of what I see as misguided thinking that has gone mainstream.  It will lead you nowhere good.  I’ll elaborate on this in a video I’m preparing for our parish website. 

 

Pastor’s Pen               February 28, 2021

Today’s story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is a really strange story for us to hear. For some reason, Abraham thinks God wants him to sacrifice his son. Huh? What kind of God would want a parent to kill their child? Surely there must be some OTHER point to this story—other than it describing God as some sort of bloodthirsty deity. Fortunately, there IS another point that this story is making—and it’s not telling us that God wants human sacrifice. In fact, it’s saying just the opposite. Genesis reveals an Israelite God who is not like other gods. THEY want humans killed and offered at their altars—but not the God of the Israelites.

Recall that Abraham and Sarah never thought they’d become parents, but then God said they will be the parents of a great nation whose people will be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Sure enough—Abraham proudly sees the birth of his son, Isaac. No greater gift could he receive than this child—and it’s this pride in his child that the doting father Abraham is asked to surrender. God is asking Abraham what is the most important thing in his life. And God asks if he’d forfeit, or sacrifice, his most important possession (i.e., his son, Isaac).

At this point of the story, it becomes OUR story. What is our number 1 priority? Is God #1, or do we cherish other things more than we cherish God?

Abraham has to make a decision: is Isaac more important to me than my doing what God asks me to do? And the story ends with Abraham being a role model for us. He’s ready to give up his most important possession—his son—because he knows that what GOD wants is most important (not what he wants). At which point God says “Okay, okay—I see you have your priorities in order. I don’t want your son sacrificed.”

Are we like Abraham—ready to sacrifice all that we have in order to stand for what’s right? Or do we make ourselves #1? Russ told us how we as a parish were doing with “Christ’s Mission Appeal.” Are you part of the 35% who’ve “sacrificed” and given alms to the Appeal—which goes to help God’s people in need in different places? Or does your generosity include only yourself?

Today’s gospel story is called the “Transfiguration” (a word we never use in everyday speech). It refers to Peter, James, and John going with Jesus up the mountain where they see him “transfigured” or changed—appearing as the chosen one of God, the Christ, in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Observing the premier virtue of hospitality, Peter suggests they build tents for the heavenly visitors—but in the blink of an eye, Jesus is alone and the 2 Israelite luminaries have disappeared. What’s THAT all about?

Simple, actually. Moses represents “the Law” of the Old Testament while Elijah represents “the Prophets.” This passage is showing that with Moses and Elijah gone, Jesus embodies both the Law and the Prophets—and is the Christ, the chosen one of God who now enlightens our lives with a NEW covenant, the fulfillment of the Old covenant.

This past week a scripture reading illustrated what this idea concretely means—the idea of Jesus fulfilling the Hebrew scriptures (remember Jesus said that he did not come to do away with the old but to fulfill it?). The reading showed Jesus saying “You’ve heard it said ‘you shall not murder!’. I say that if you’re ANGRY at someone, lay down your gift before coming to the altar and make peace with the person.” He was quoting a commandment (the old Law) but saying we should go BEYOND its minimal requirement (that is, go BEYOND “don’t murder”). THAT is what fulfilling the Law and the Prophets is about.

You and I are called to read the Hebrew scriptures and reflect on what MORE they are calling us to do. For example, we’re told not to steal. Fine. Don’t steal—but are you known as a generous person, too? We’re told not to bear false witness against our neighbor—great. But are we known as someone who always has a good word to say about another? You’re here today keeping holy the Sabbath, but do you “keep holy” any other day, in any other way, by means of some other practice (e.g., devotions at home during the week, attending mass on days other than Sunday, etc.)? You don’t worship “false gods,” but where do you spend your time, or what absorbs your time each day—any sort of work/effort that helps others (belonging to a parish or civic organization that helps others in some way)?

It’s frustrating to hear Christians quote scripture—as a congressman did this past week—and do so only to appeal to a constituency that will re-elect him because he’s a good old boy quoting the bible. The fact that his application of the bible verse was horribly misguided and erroneous—isn’t comprehended. But people’s knowledge is limited (I’m included in saying this) and often enough aren’t aware of scripture’s meaning.

For example, why do you hear politicians and regular Christians quote only the Old Testament (better referred to as the Hebrew scriptures)? Why don’t they quote the NEW Testament which, as stated above, is the FULFILLMENT and fuller definition of the Old? Or do these people think that what Jesus said simply echoes the Old Testament? If so, then why do we bother being Christians, and why don’t we just pitch the New Testament and read the Old?

If you’re Christian, the Hebrew scriptures are part of your religious heritage (after all, Jesus was Jewish). But Jesus elaborated those readings, as the gospels and epistles report. As a Lenten prayer exercise, why not read through the commandments and think of what MORE each one is calling you to embody—BEYOND the minimalist dictate NOT to do (or TO do) one of the ten topics. And conclude your reflection with the following prayer of petition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pastor’s Pen              February 21, 2021

As you know, biblical scholars help us understand scripture within its cultural context. This weekend’s 1st reading about Noah reminds me of what they’ve discovered about an element of this story. Here is the answer to the question “what kind of lights did Noah use on the ark?” Answer? FLOOD lights.

Kidding aside, this reading provides what scholars refer to as an “etiological tale.” Within cultures globally, people have stories (tales) that tell of how something came into being, e.g., why the sky is blue, the grass green, etc. Peoples have forever tried to account for how the world began, how life began, how different ethnic groups came into existence, etc.

Imagine 4000 years ago, a child saying: “Mom—look at the pretty colors in the sky.” And the mom might have replied: “Yes, honey, that’s called a rainbow. Once upon a time a great flood ruined everything in creation—and God said that creation will never again be destroyed by a flood. God would be reminded of this when seeing the rainbow in the sky.”

As you also know, the stories of Genesis originally were oral tales told around campfires. Eventually, editors cobbled the stories together, and the finished product is what we know as the first book of Hebrew scripture (and our bible). How the rainbow came into being is an ETIOLOGICAL tale that got included within the longer narrative.

40 days of lent parallel the experience of Jesus reported in today’s gospel which said: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days tempted by Satan.” The number “40” is significant to readers of scripture—such that people hearing of Jesus going into the desert immediately reminds them of the #40 appearing in the first testament/Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. Namely, scriptural precedents include:

· Rain fell for “40 days and 40 nights” during the Flood

· Noah waited for 40 days after the tops of mountains were seen after the flood

· Spies were sent by Moses to explore the land of Canaan for 40 days

· Israelites lived in the lands outside of the promised land for “40 years”

· Eli, Saul, David, Solomon ruled for “40 years”

· Goliath challenged Israelites twice a day for 40 days before David defeated him

· Moses spent 3 periods of “40 days and 40 nights” on Mt. Sinai:

· Elijah walked 40 days/nights before arriving at Mt. Horeb

· Jonah warns Nineveh that “40 days more, and it shall be overthrown.”

Depicting Jesus in the desert for 40 days is intended to show that his experience surpasses ALL of the Old Testament precedents.

Like us, “He was among wild beasts . . .” and “tempted by Satan”—we being in the deserts of our lives coping with wild beasts that take advantage of us and temptations that seduce us into being something LESS than God made us to be. The Lenten season is a time for us to look at the desert of our life-experience wherein we encounter beasts of different kinds, and struggle like the Israelites in the desert—fashioning golden cows that we treat as gods—only to learn that our “gods” are mirages. Yes, we have the occasional oasis, but we’re always en route to the “promised land” of self-fulfillment and our

eternal destiny with God. A key thing to always keep in mind is that “Satan,” or “the demonic” in our lives never presents itself in ugly, scary, fear-producing, demonic terms. Who wants any of that? Not I! Not you! Well, then, how is it that we make bad choices, bad decisions, and bad actions that hurt ourselves or others. The fruit that looks so nice to eat—ends up making us sick to our stomach.

There’s truth to the saying: “The devil’s greatest deception is convincing us he doesn’t exist.” Lent is a time when we fast or do penance or SOME kind of spiritual discernment which helps us RECOGNIZE behaviors or seductions or temptations that make a mess of our relationships. Lent is time we try to look at ourselves objectively—as when I’ve heard my voice tape-recorded. I THINK I know what I sound like—but cringe when a recording is played back and I hear myself. I thought I sounded so much better than that recording indicates.

The same goes for seeing myself in a video. Is THAT how I appear? When speaking to a group, or playing basketball and THINKING I made a Magic Johnson move—only to see myself on tape—and roll my eyes at the person I see.

Lent is a time when we try to look at ourselves objectively and do something about those areas of our life which need improvement. Most important to remember is that God does not want this Lenten season to be a time when you beat up yourself. Not at all. It’s a time for you and me to discover where God is calling us to GROW—grow into the unique and gifted and blessed person-for-others who God created us to be.

Here are some reflections that you might ponder during Lent:

Fast from judging others; Feast on realizing Christ dwells in them.

Fast from fear of illness; Feast on the healing power of God.

Fast from words that pollute; Feast on speech that dignifies.

Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude.

Fast from anger; Feast on patience.

Fast from pessimism; Feast on hope.

Fast from negatives; Feast on encouragement.

Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness.

Fast from self-concern; Feast on compassion.

Fast from suspicion; Feast on facts

Fast from gossip; Feast on praising others.

Fast from problems that overwhelm; Feast on prayer that sustains.

Fast from anxiety; Feast on faith.

BEING A PERSON OF FAITH, PRAISING OTHERS, BEING COMPASSIONATE, ENCOURAGING PEOPLE, HAVING HOPE, BEING PATIENT AND GRATEFUL, USING LANGUAGE THAT DIGNIFIES, RELYING ON GOD’S HEALING POWER AND SEEING CHRIST IN OTHER PEOPLE—these are the qualities associated with being Christian—with us being a child of God.

May Lent bring us to rebirth as this kind of person.

Pastor’s Pen                                                                                           February 14, 2021                                                                                        

Valentine’s day took place this week.  While greeting card companies are quite devoted to this legendary (perhaps mythical) figure, the Church doesn’t reserve a Sunday celebration to honor the saint.  Nonetheless, when a saint’s day somehow gets national attention, I like to offer some reflection related to the event’s spirituality (in this case—balancing the focus on carnal “love” with that of something deeper).      

Scripture says many things about love (such as “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God”).  For example, Ecclesiastes 4:9 offers this reflection: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?”  Elsewhere, a narrator says in Proverbs 30:18-19: “There are three things that amaze me—no, four things that I don’t understand: how an eagle glides through the sky, how a snake slithers on a rock, how a ship navigates the ocean, how a man loves a woman.”     

Love is NOT what is depicted in the chocolate candy commercial that shows an attractive model hypnotically gazing at a chunk of chocolate—and consuming it with kiss-like affection.  In crafting the ad, Madison Avenue no doubt spent much cash to learn what it would take to make consumers buy the product.  Are you won over so easily?    

Valentine’s day is special for me because I was born on November 14th—9 months to the day later.  I consider February 14th to be my conception day.    

The readings this week address other matters this week.  Mark’s gospel once again refers to lepers coming to Jesus for healinr, you should know that in 1868, Norwegian scientist Gerhard Hansen discovered the cause of leprosy which, contrary to popular belief, is not a very infectious disease.  Even though biblical lepers had to cry out “unclean, unclean” and stay away from people, we now know that spouses rarely contract it from their partner.  Moreover, biblical references are NOT to “Hansen’s disease,” but to skin conditions such as psoriasis.       

So why does the bible tell us that sick people should be kept apart from healthy people and that we should avoid people with deformities or some other physical condition that burdened the suffering?      

Here’s why.  Physical sickness of any form was some kind of sign that there was an imperfect interior condition.  Since one was called to be holy as the Lord is holy, physical imperfection reflected that one is not holy.  And since bodily integrity was required, one was cast out of the community so that it wouldn’t be polluted (religiously) by their presence.      

If there was anything Jesus stood for, it was re-integrating one into community—the opposite of the laws in Leviticus.  That’s why there exists a liturgical song titled “all are welcome in this place.”  Jesus returns one to community—to be part of the community—whatever your shortcomings—because you can both give to and draw life from the community.  That’s why we’re a sacramental faith community     

By connecting with the sacramental system—we are the lepers being brought back into the faith-community and being healed—as last week’s readings also emphasized.   But once connected, what are the sorts of behaviors are we called upon to incarnate?     

An example came to mind this past week when speaking with a parishioner whose sister had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s disease”).  During the 1995 baseball season, people were waiting for Cal Ripken to break Lou Gehrig’s record of playing 2130 consecutive games.  I sent a letter to the Orioles office addressed to him.  I proposed that the day of the record-breaking game, he remove himself from the lineup.      

I suggested he announce that the name of Lou Gehrig had become synonymous with a disease that tortured and killed many people.  By telling people that he wanted Gehrig’s name to continue its association with the record, people will be reminded of the disease—and perhaps be motivated—to contribute to its cure.     

What an earth-shaking event it would be, I thought, for him to tell the world that conquering the disease was more important than his ego getting more accolades.  The eyes of the sports world had been on Ripken, awaiting the record to be broken.  He could use that time to solicit groundbreaking contributions to goodness (Ripken’s self-sacrificing act) and lose nothing (really) in the process (since everyone would know that all he needed to do was step onto the field to play consecutive game 2131; he’d break the record—so why hurt those afflicted with ALS when a simple act might proffer healing?).     

Maybe Ripken received my letter and threw it away.  Maybe he never got it.  Maybe someone screened his mail—and threw it away without telling him of the suggestion.  After all, the Orioles were making money on his record-breaking career. N.B. , He broke the record by playing 500 more games and is now in the Hall of Fame.      

Ripken later gave donations supporting research on the disease, so maybe he DID get my letter and offer something of value to the world outside the ring of public relations.  Too, the Orioles, along with private donors, created the Cal Ripken/Lou Gehrig Fund for Neuromuscular Research at Johns Hopkins University.     

I tried to think of examples from my own life where I did some self-sacrifice—and I had to rack my brain for examples.  I remember being Lieutenant of the Safety Patrol boys.  Like all patrol boys, I earned points that could be used at the patrol boys auction at the end of the year.  Thinking of how I missed some of my days, I didn’t want to unfairly deprive any of the boys of getting some auction item.  So I told the faculty moderator that I was withdrawing from the auction and would not bid on anything.    

While at St. John’s Student Parish in campus ministry, I befriended a couple.  After mass one Saturday night, the wife told me that her husband really liked my western shirt (snap buttons down the front).  Since I had a room in the building, I went and changed my shirt, and brought out the western shirt to the husband.  He was excited to receive “the shirt off my back” which I gave him.  From my perspective, I didn’t really need that shirt, so if giving it to him made someone happy—great.  That was the thinking I directed at Cal Ripken’s moment in the sun.  I proposed to him that he really didn’t need another accolade—especially if NOT receiving it would bring life (literally) to countless people around the world.    

The Gospel point to these illustrations is that we, as Christians, are called upon throughout life to offer “more” to others when performing some deed.  Would it have been morally okay to receive the “most consecutive games played” award?  Sure!  That’s okay.  But might Ripken have done something a little better that day?  Yes.  And could I have kept my western shirt? Sure.  But both of us, as people of the gospel, are forever presented with opportunities to make God’s world the place it was intended to be—by going a step further in each of our behaviors or actions.    

This is sort of like what so many of you do as parents and grandparents—when dealing with a young one.  The child sees that you’ve not taken your chocolate chip cookie.  Did you want it?  Yes.  But you see a young one looking for just a little touch of joy—and your caring heart hands the cookie to the child.  I’m sure you’ve done this sort of thing many times.  I’m reminded of older people at some social event—and some item is “the last one”—so everyone else will have to settle for the 2nd rate item.  The person next to you says something to the effect of “Darn! I looked forward to getting that __[item]___.”  Instead, you have “the last one.”  Keeping it for yourself is okay to do—like Ripken accepting the award, or the parent/grandparent keeping the cookie.  What will you do if given “the last one” of something just as the person next to you feels bad that they missed out?    

Communion reflection titled “Bouquet”—in line with the above.    

If I were to seek a precious gift, I’d gather wildflowers in a wicker basket.  To every blossom—a significance.  The biggest, understanding, is colored baby blue.  The warmest is affection—colored pink.  Patience, the hardest to pick, is deep purple.  The purest flower with milk-white petals is truth.  The strongest flower is yellow, like the sun—faith.  If I were to gather all these flowers–blossoms all different in meaning and hues–then there in the basket I would find one—you.  

May we be a bouquet for one another. 

Pastor’s Pen    February 7, 2021

This past week the Church celebrated 2 feast days of interest.  One is known as “Candlemas Day” (which included the same readings as we had on Presentation Sunday).  The gospel told of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple—as prescribed in Leviticus—33 days after his circumcision (the scarification rite of Judaism).  For Christians, Candlemas Day takes place 40 days after Christmas and is the official end of the Christmas season.  One is supposed to have their Christmas decorations down by this day (although in America people tend to take them down as early as December 26th).  From the 1600s are verses that relate to Candlemas: 

“Down with the rosemary, and so Down with the bays and mistletoe; Down with the holly, ivy, all, With which you dress’d the Christmas Hall.” 

Traditionally, Candlemas Day was set as February 2nd and was the day people brought candles to church to be blest, and then used at home to remind them that Christ is the light of the world (I’ve never had anyone ask me to bless candles on this day).   

The other feast day of this past week was that of St. Blaise.  He was a 4th-century physician/bishop/martyr who, while in jail, saved a boy who was choking on a fishbone. He became one of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages (500-1400)—and the tradition of blessing throats on his feast day has been observed up to the present.  Why this part of the body captured the popular imagination as worthy of blessing (and not the head, or foot, or hip)—one can only guess. 

Also, during this past week, the idea of “political conspiracy” theories have been in the news.  As you know, adversaries of the U.S. (Russia, Iran, and China at the top of the list but “homegrown” adversaries likewise) have bombarded the social media with all sorts of “lies” that are passed off as being true (“disinformation” is a term used by those who study this sort of espionage).  These sources report such things as Bill and Hilary Clinton behind the death of JFK, Jr., and that Hilary is part of a child-molesting group that operates out of a Philadelphia pizza parlor. 

While you or I might roll our eyes at ludicrous material like this that floats around, be assured that some of it “sticks” to our fellow Americans who are susceptible to believing different kinds of input.  Those who plant these lies deluge cyberspace and are pleased in being able to “recruit” anyone to believe their lies.  Some sew “conspiracy theories” because they have a political goal while some just want to sew anarchy (these people might be foreign powers or your fellow Americans who have a gripe against society).  Some just like using social media to exercise power and have a good time in the process.

I’ve previously called your attention to charismatic leaders who have led their followers into hell—such as Jim Jones who led 917 men, women, and children to Guyana where they committed mass suicide.  And Marshall Applewhite whose 39 followers likewise committed suicide—thinking that their bodies would be picked up, resuscitated by extra-terrestrials, and taken to another planet.  Recall, too, “Branch Davidian” leader, David Koresh, who presided over the deaths of himself and 76 followers in Waco, Texas.  They burned to death when confronting ATF agents who came to investigate the group’s illegal activities. 

Conspiracy theories and charismatic leaders who seduce their followers are the stuff of newspaper and TV coverage.  You may notice some commentators, instead of saying that a public figure is “lying” or telling a “lie,” they will use more gentle words such as “falsehood” or say a person has a “difference of opinion” (which both the commentator and person know is a lie and not just an “opinion”).   Audiences can be deceived by commentators who use words/phrases that sound less harsh, i.e., “I’m not LYING—just having a DISAGREEMENT,” “He didn’t LIE but just stated a FALSEHOOD.”    These examples from the political world also apply to our religious universe.   “Disinformation” has arisen within our own Catholic tradition.   

Dis- and mis- information, falsehoods, disagreements—or LIES—have caused many major-league problems in Church history.  The Jesuits, the religious Order to which I belong, your ancestors, and you have endured prejudice (a genre of lie) disguised as truth.  Along with Jews and Blacks, Catholics have been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan hate-group.  During Black History Month you might hear how Blacks were lynched or murdered in the South.  If you’re “White” and living in the north, this might not register as strongly as it would with a Black person whose roots were in the South.  Hearing that priests, nuns, or lay people were beaten up or killed for being Catholic—brings the issue closer to home. 

When I was pastor of a parish in the Soo, there was a “Christian” bookstore that sold cheese, pantry goods, and magazines.  One of the latter was titled “Alberto.”  It claimed to be the autobiography of a former Jesuit.  I browsed through the magazine and realized I was reading hate-literature.  I also noticed it was distributed by Chick Publishing (which the Southern Poverty Law Center has named a hate group).  The shop’s “Christian” owner (her denomination was anti-Catholic) said they would keep the magazine on their shelves after I encouraged her to remove it.  My social activism was not successful.

Readers of the magazine were told that Jesuits take a vow to kill any Protestant they could not convert, and that they were given a dagger with which to kill those unconverted Protestants. Were Alberto’s account true, I would have been obliged to stab my grandmother to death since she was not Catholic.  The facts are that Alberto was a real person, but just not a Jesuit.  He was a fraud who made up stories that capitalized on anti-Catholic attitudes which depicted Jesuits as immoral minyans of the anti-Christ Pope.   

How many people do you suppose believed what Alberto reported?  The first magazine was so popular that a 2nd one followed.  Much has been written about the psychological phenomenon that occurs when a politician repeatedly cries “hoax” (or some other catchy phrase).  Social scientists have shown that when a lie is repeated enough times—people begin to believe it.  In the 18th century, the Jesuits had many opponents who charged them with all sorts of crimes and misdemeanors they didn’t commit.  The result?  The Order was “suppressed” for 40 years. 

Alberto and others also “informed” (i.e., misinformed) the public that between rectories and convents there are tunnels in which priests meet with nuns.  It is in these tunnels where you can find the corpses of babies born of these liaisons.  Readers also learned (as did readers from the 19th century when the dis-information first appeared) that Jesuits were responsible for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  All of this is, of course, ridiculous.

We Catholics (once belittled as “mackerel-snappers” because of the tradition of meatless Fridays) were also charged with founding Islam—a bishop falsely reported to have asked a nun

in Saudi Arabia to marry Mohammed and convince him to start the new religion.  In case you didn’t know, Catholics also staged the sinking of the Titanic.  Businessman John Jacob Astor was aboard the ship and his death led to Catholics running the Federal Reserve Bank of the U.S.—and so be funded by it (a “conspiracy theory” as dim-witted as the one which claims the Pope has nuclear missiles in Washington, D.C. ready to unleash against the U.S.).  Most people MIGHT realize that the above “theories” are lies peddled as truth. However, there are some who accept these fictions as fact.

One could go on and on with all the lies that have been uttered in an effort to see the Jesuits and Catholicism go to the dustbin of history—and see YOU go to the dustbin of history.  They think you should be locked up, or lynched—because of the faith you profess by being a member of St. John 23rd parish. 

All in all, you and I need to be careful about sources of information—be it on the political or religious level.  As I’ve said in the past, even with Sacred Scripture we can be misinformed.  For example, at the root of our American colonial theology was a belief that there was one way you could tell someone was going to heaven–namely, if they had wealth.  This was the beginning of what has been called the “Protestant work ethic.”  A corollary to this “biblical thinking” was that poverty was a sign of not being within God’s “elect.”  THUS, wealth equals blessing & poverty equals personal sin. 

I raise this topic because one of today’s readings is from Job—a text that is used very infrequently during the liturgical year.  A basic thesis of this text is that suffering is NOT a punishment for sin.  Nonetheless, a misinterpretation of scripture guided or formed American thought and behavior—and this misinterpretation of scripture hurt many people.   

As I’ve said on other occasions, it’s best to have a good commentary on scripture if you’re going to understand it properly—and this leads into today’s gospel. 

Before the 4 gospels were canonized in the 4th century, many others were being read that portrayed Jesus as superman—a wonderworker who could change the weather, heal all diseases, turn people into stone, make birds and puppies out of clay, etc.   In these non-canonical gospels, performing miracles and exorcising demons were depicted as the principal feature of his ministry.  The human appetite for mythical figures is still with us.

Mark’s gospel, the first of the 4 written, corrects false Christological inferences (i.e., wrong conclusions) drawn from miracle stories.  For example, in today’s passage, Jesus does great things, but also gets up early to pray, and then moves elsewhere (and doesn’t hang around like a rock star to bask in the praise of his followers).  He flees the crowds—with miracles being only a subordinate feature of his ministry.  Mark “tones down” the “hero” depictions of Jesus.

The gospel today says “Everyone is looking for you, Jesus”—and so it is with us here AT MASS. Other than a couple of generic conditions, the healing stories don’t reveal what diseases he healed.  They just say that Jesus restored one to some kind of wholeness or health.  Which can happen within our lives by gathering here.  We, with varied illnesses (too numerous or embarrassing to name), encounter Him—who is our sacrament of the sick.  This sacrament is a re-enactment of today’s gospel. It entails reconciliation (acknowledging you are

frail/sinful and asking for help). It sends us forth to be a sacrament of healing in a world conflicted with cancerous, metastasizing prejudices.  

Mark writes contrary to the non-canonical gospels—and portrays a Jesus whose purpose was to preach good news of the coming kingdom—a kingdom whose inhabitants were touched by Jesus (like Peter’s mother-in-law) and “raised up” to wellness and serving others.  Like the mother-in-law, we come to mass to be “touched” by the Lord—and healed of our self-centeredness and motivated to “wait on others” as she had done. 

For Mark, to portray Jesus simply as a wonderworker would be misleading.  When we read the gospel today, we’re reading about how OUR demons can be silenced through our sacramental participation—of meeting Jesus in prayer and involvement with the faith-community.  Whatever “minor” miracles occur in the gospels or our lives–they foreshadow the ultimate messianic miracle—facing and overcoming the cross and finding resurrection—the greatest healing of all. 

May we leave here today realizing that we are the healing hands of Jesus called to bring the resurrection-miracle to others. 

Communion Reflection

Listen Christian

I was hungry–and you formed a humanities club

and discussed my hunger. Thank-you.

I was in prison and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar

and prayed for my release.

I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.

I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health.

I was homeless and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.

I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me.

Listen, Christian. You seem so holy, so close to God. But I’m still very hungry and lonely and cold . . .

Our prayerful response to the above.

Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous; teach me to serve You as You deserve: to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for any reward except that of knowing I do what you call

 

Pastor’s Pen                January 31, 2021

First a word about life in first-century Galilee, the stomping ground of Jesus. Mortuary archaeologists have concluded that the average man stood 5’5” tall and weighed 140 pounds. Imagining a group of people who were all this height brought to mind an experience I had when teaching at Loyola University in Chicago.

A student told me his parents were from southern India. I asked what faith his family practiced, and he said “Catholic.” I asked what “rite” did they practice and he said: “Syro-Malabar”—a group from southern India who is in union with Rome (we are members of the “Latin” rite). I’ll save the topic of “rites” or churches within Catholicism for another time, but the different groups celebrate the liturgy in a manner different from what we do each week. I had never been to a Syro-Malabar mass, so he was quick to invite me. The people there, very friendly, all stood about the same height as Galileans of the first century—about 5’5” tall. I was a giant among them. However, their hospitality was the real giant.

Also of historical note is today’s gospel speaking of Jesus in the “synagogue.” You may already know this, but Jewish people don’t go to “church.” They will say they are “going to Temple” or “going to the synagogue” (their gathering place—so named since the 1st century when the “real” Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans).

So today we see Jesus in the synagogue doing an exorcism. This might bring to mind the 1973 novel-turned-movie “The Exorcist” (based on a real-life exorcism). “The Exorcist” was the first R-rated movie to rule the box office (not due to sexual content but because of the subject matter being so abhorrent). It told the story of a young girl’s being possessed by “Pazuzu” (a demon). In real life, it was a young boy. While “The Exorcist” is the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history, its historical accuracy is lame, and its theology is not what a good catechism would contain.

Rid yourself of the film’s images and for today’s gospel, picture Jesus simply telling the possessed man in the synagogue to “SHUT UP.” Why did he command the “demon” to be silent? Because to name something is to have authority over it (as when God told Adam and Eve to name all the creatures). The demon had said, “I know who you are . . . Jesus of Nazareth . . . the holy-one of God.”

What is at play here is the demon speaking on behalf of the scribes and Pharisees (the religious and political leaders of the community). It is the demonic voice of these people who Jesus is commanding to be silent. They are the ones who don’t liberate, but who oppress the people—and it is Jesus who is putting a stop to their non-authoritative presence (recall the people comment how Jesus is unlike what they’ve been hearing from their religious leaders. Jesus actually “speaks with authority”).

Concretely, what do “demons” cause, or why is their presence so “evil?” In short, they are forces at play in our lives which destroy us, separate us from one another, create dissension within families, communities, and nations. But instead of thinking about Hollywood depictions of “devils,” think of real-life demons that affect us all (since none of us is immune to their seductions—seductions which offer us fruit that looks pleasing to eat but which will bring about our destruction).

Jesus sets the example for us today in the gospel passage. Like him, we have to NAME our demons—and in that way take the first step in having authority over them. I consider one of my life’s great experiences to have known Walt Halloran, S.J. He was the last living Jesuit who was part of the exorcism that became the grandfather of all horror movies. But what I learned from Walt was that the demonic is so much worse than what was portrayed in the film.

He said that he saw its many faces far more in Vietnam when he was a chaplain than what he witnessed in the exorcism. There in Vietnam, he found himself in a cesspool of death and human suffering—of killing and torture and addiction and rape and criminality that was normative. And sadly, these same demonic forces are in place all around us.

Can you name alcohol as a demon for you? It’d be a first step in exorcising it if you could name it. How about violence in your home—the untamed anger or moodiness you inflict on those close to you? Or self-centeredness? Or losing faith and thinking that there’s nothing you can do about one or another issue in your life?

Demonic forces have far-reaching social effects that make the world a battleground of wounded souls. Anthropologists more and more don’t use the term “race” because DNA has shown us that we’re ONE race—human—and that there exist cultural differences within the human community. You don’t have to look at someone who has more or less melanin (color) in their skin. People in Hemlock can say: “You know how those Merrill people are!” And Merrill people can say “You know how those Hemlock people are!” All sorts of forces are at play that pull people apart from the Christian teaching that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and children of one God.

When I lived in Sault Ste. Marie, I was in the “Marshunk” neighborhood (where Marquette and Shunk Roads intersect). People would characterize that section of the city as “THAT part of town” (negatively). It was home to me—and I loved my neighborhood and its people. The Federal government had to issue the city the threat of no more funding unless it paved those two roads—and not make excuses about how the earth wouldn’t take pavement. Once that threat was issued—surprise-surprise—the city discovered a way to pave the roads. Today, some of our parishioners go through the Marshunk neighborhood and land at the casino which is now there.

You hear the word “homophobia” at times—fear or dislike of gays. One issue for which we can be thankful—is the gay community calling attention to the importance of marriage! Some Christians might rail against gay marriage.  Meanwhile, people in their own churches live together and avoid the sacrament (or civil form). Gays have called us to appreciate more deeply the sacred bond that can exist when two people commit themselves to one another in good times and bad. Meanwhile, demonic forces move some people to stalk gays and persecute them.

Or what about political forces at play in our world that drive us apart? Recall when the U.S. declared war on Iraq based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction?” Despite UN inspections and nuclear experts telling the world that there WERE NO weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush’s administration sold to America the lie that we had to defend ourselves from an imminent invasion.

This isn’t me spouting off my private interpretation of what occurred. Even Colin Powell, then secretary of state, admitted years later that even he was misled with what a recent spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, would call “alternative facts” (i.e., lies—since a fact is a fact). France wouldn’t permit our air force to use its air space—and maybe some of you even tried to popularize the phrase “freedom fries” instead of “French fries” (since the French wouldn’t support our attacking Iraq).

A Catholic friend of mine on campus said she wrote her congressman—encouraging him to vote for war against Iraq. I bemoaned her report and asked if she had not been reading any analyses of the issue, or had she not been watching any TV news that was reliable? She angrily retorted that FOX news said it was a real possibility that Iraq’s missiles might be aimed at people like her. And so, contrary to the teachings of the Prince of Peace (Christ), the demonic forces ruled the day, and lies were the foundation of a war that was declared. It continues these 30 years later with thousands dead. Again, surprise-surprise, no weapons of mass destruction existed.

Demonic forces are at play when Muslims are targeted as the enemy here in the United States, and the American public is sold a bill of goods that present Muslims and riotous blacks as “the enemy” within. It should come as no surprise that more terrorist killings have occurred via white hate groups than by anyone else. Imagine if blacks and Muslims went to the capitol on January 6th. Police and the national guard would have been there right away—and one hates to think how many would have been killed. You might not like this reflection on how evil works in our lives. I don’t like thinking about it, either.

All of this is intended to point out that “demons” or “devils” or demonic forces are not the stuff of Hollywood movies in their depiction of fiends from hell. Rather, you and I deal with demons daily, either in our personal lives or social world. They are forces at play which move us to make bad decisions—decisions that hurt ourselves or others. They are forces in the world that separate people from one another—and move people to hate others. They are forces that place us at the center of the universe and think only of our own well-being—and not that of others.

When we gather at mass, we don’t retreat into prayer so as to resign ourselves to “evil” and hope we make it through the day. Rather, we gather at mass to learn how we might identify the demonic forces at work in our lives—name them—and create strategies to defeat them. Here at the altar, we ask God to inspire the “good angels” within us—to overcome the serpents that deceive us. Unless we name the demons, they will name us—and have authority over us. With Jesus, when confronted by seductive lines that promise mirages of happiness—we need to say: “shut up.”

 

Pastor’s Pen                    January 24, 2021

It’s “Word of God” Sunday—so here’s a brief explanation of today’s scripture.  

In scripture studies, the word “type” is used to refer to someone in the Old Testament who prefigures Jesus in the NT.  For example, today’s first reading refers to Jonah (whose 3 days in the big fish is a foreshadowing of the 3 days in the tomb) is depicted as preaching to Nineveh to repent.  Today’s gospel shows Jesus telling his audience in Galilee to repent.  Moses was a “type” of Jesus when leading people out of slavery and taking them to the Promised Land.  So was King David a “type”—as his leadership foreshadowed the greatest messiah-king, Jesus.  

The 2nd reading shows how Paul initially thought that the 2nd coming could be any day—but he changed his mind.  His later writings show him saying the 2nd coming might be in the distant future. The 3rd reading tells of the call of the apostles (and us).    

End of homily—3 minutes long.  Isn’t there more to say about the word of God?  Yes, there is!  

On Word of God Sunday, I’m sure we WISH we could hear Paul or the first apostles give the homily.  Surely, we’d be swept off our feet by their dynamic presentation.  

The problem with this “golden age” kind of thinking is that it’s a fantasy.  In Acts of the Apostles, we read: As Paul spoke on and on, a young man named Eutychus, sitting on the windowsill, became very drowsy. Finally, he fell sound asleep and dropped three stories to his death below.”

It appears that Paul didn’t set the bar very high when homilizing.  

I must admit to not pulling out a bible all the time.  Others are just the opposite.  They play what might be called “bible roulette” for decisions they have to make.  

For example, parents might say: “We’re having trouble with our son—give us direction, Lord.”  They then shuffle or fan through the bible pages—they stop and point a finger at some random page.  Voila!  Will they find an answer?  

What should the parents do if they land on these verses?  

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or mother and who will not listen to them after being chastised: Then shall his father and his mother bring him to the elders and say to them: “Our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” All the men of his city shall stone the son to death.

What if a couple is at a pub, and someone picks a fight with the husband?  Not to worry—as scripture provides the following counsel.  

When men fight, and the wife of one goes to rescue her husband from the other man—if she puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand.  

Does the above sound reasonable to you?  I hope not.  

Or what if you’re in love—and you can’t seem to win the heart of a certain person.  Calm down—for the bible will come to your aid with the following:  

“I am lovesick, so refresh me with apples, and sustain me with raisin cakes.”  

Oh, please!  I’ve been paralyzed with love—for which apples and raisin cakes served no purpose.  

Some scholars say there are 613 laws in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Among them are the following.  Do you, as a Christian, agree with what they say?   

Whoever has a blemish, let him not approach the sanctuary—nor shall a blind man, or a lame, or one with a flat nose, or a man with a broken foot, or broken hand, or crooked back, or a dwarf, or who has a blemish in his eye, or who has scabs–He shall not come near the altar, because he will profane my sanctuary. Moreover, no male whose private parts are crushed or cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.

Some people have no faith-practice.  Nor do they take the time to get a commentary on scripture—and learn what different passages mean.  Some people will agree with the writer who said: “Most of the Bible is neither horrible nor inspiring. It is simply dull and irrelevant.”

How sad that one bases their decisions and opinions on such ignorance. 

One way of looking at the Bible is to see it as the story of each of us—and the evolution of the human race as a whole.

Our biography begins in Genesis as each of us is born as an Adam or Eve in a universe we try to make sense of (i.e., Who made all these things in creation?  Where did I come from? Why do I make bad decisions? Etc.). 

Each individual (and the human race) goes thru a period of tribal identity in which our people recognize supernatural forces which they try to enlist on their behalf—by observing 613 laws (at least in the case of the Israelites—but all peoples everywhere went through a similar religious history).  Individuals and ethnic groups go through desert experiences in search of survival. 

The Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) shows God speak to us—and how we hear/don’t hear God’s voice in our history.  Over time, we strive as a world community to recognize our common bond, e.g., United Nations on a secular level (that we are all brothers and sisters—as the New Testament points out). 

In short, the bible is the story of humanity. 

The “Word of God” is also each element of creation.   This partly explains why, on Word of God Sunday, the Church didn’t offer the gospel that had Jesus reading from the book in the temple.  Instead, the gospel we’re given is the call of the apostles.  Why THAT passage? 

We read the call of the apostles—which is a call to each of us.  Be we a fisherman, tax collector, small business owner, politician, thief, construction worker (these are different identities of the apostles)—WE are the apostles being called to discipleship (their diversity reflecting our own). 

As I’ve mentioned in the past, each of us is a WORD OF GOD.   Creation is not complete without your being in it.  So how might you experience this personal call, this realization that the world would not be complete without your presence?  Try this. 

Founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, suggested we use our imaginations when praying and meditating.  So, imagine Jesus visiting you.  Picture him as a great friend/person/presence who right away puts you at ease and with whom you have a great back-and-forth conversation.  You can tell him anything, and he immediately understands what you’re expressing.   

After conversing with him in the privacy of your room, and covering all sorts of personal subjects, he thanks you for a great visit and now it’s time for him to go visit someone else.  You stand facing one another as he’s about to depart, and he puts his hands on your shoulders.  Smiling in a warm and loving way, he looks at you eye-to-eye and says your name in the same way he spoke to Magdalene when she discovered him in the garden on Easter Sunday: “Mary” (only it’s your name he utters—Jerry, Leona, Carol, Dennis, Mike, etc.).  Like Mary Magdalene, you get a powerful sense sweep over you that you are really loved and special and here on earth for a reason.  He knows all there is to know about you—the good, bad, and gray areas of your experience—and all that’s important is this farewell affirmation he bestows on you before leaving.

THAT’S why we read today about the call of the apostles—the “word of God” coming to individuals (you included).  Jesus knows your name—and that your name represents all that you are—whatever your shortcomings—whatever your strengths.  YOU have been called.  

Jesus is looking at you, saying only your name, and right away you get the sense that he is saying that all the paths you’ve walked, on which you’ve stumbled or moved with elegance, and that all the people and experiences you’ve encountered or lived—are the mysteriously gifted person he is calling from this moment on to be his apostle—his word of God.  

You are different from all others, and it’s that difference he sends forth to make a difference—with the family member, neighbor, storeowner, WHOEVER you encounter.  

Knowing this, whenever you come to mass from now on, when you hear the lector say, “This is the word of the Lord,” you know in your heart that YOU are that word—for which you can gratefully exclaimThanks be to God. “

From Russ Milan, Chair of Parish Finance Committee

As you may know, the Catholic Services Appeal (CSA) was changed by the Diocese in name and administration to Christ’s Mission Appeal (CMA). CSA used to be managed directly by each parish with the support of the Diocese. Beginning with the 2020-21 campaign, CMA is administered by the Diocese (with support from each parish). You may have noticed these changes from mailings sent by the Diocese.

The aspects that have not changed are the goal calculation formula and the requirement for each Parish to pay what remains if the targeted goal is not met. This campaign will conclude at the end of December 2021. Past campaign payments were due in June. The diocese has not officially determined the start date of the 2021-22 campaign, but we expect it to be in December 2021 or January 2022.

Our goal for the current campaign is $85,649. Based on the number of registered households of St. John XXIII, this means that each household needs to pledge and pay in the range of $124 to $200. We are 68% ($57,995) of the way toward our target (which is fantastic for only being a couple of months into the campaign). Only $27,654 to go!

Now that the holidays are past and ‘Ordinary Time’ is upon us, let’s try to meet our goal by Easter, April 4, 2021. The pandemic and surrounding economics is putting a strain on everyone–so if you cannot make a one-time payment toward CMA at the level suggested in the preceding paragraph; perhaps you could throw $5 a week into the collection box at Church.  All loose currency, change, and bills, are being put toward the CMA campaign.

If you have any questions about CMA, you can inquire with Irene during business hours or any of the Finance Council members at any time. Thanks and God Bless from Father Mike, Irene Kruth, Russ Milan, Bill Fleming, Mike Manzoni, Jerry Rohde, and Norma Brown.

Pastor’s Pen           January 17, 2021

In looking at this week’s scripture and thinking of the inauguration, I was taken on a stroll down memory lane.  Namely, I recalled being elected Junior class president–a short-lived victory since I did not win re-election senior year (my wounds were somewhat salved by being elected Student Government president).  Along with these thoughts of my election experiences as a teen, I also thought of this week’s holiday honoring Martin Luther King–a religious leader whose words and actions inspired so many.

I remembered witnessing over many years the activist-Indian leader, Russell Means, (probably better known to you through films like Last of the Mohicans, Natural Born Killers, Pocahontas, and a number of others).  Newspapers first brought him national attention when he and others occupied Alcatraz Island and the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in D.C.  He then became globally known for leading the American Indian Movement (AIM) takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation.   I later attended his trial in the Twin Cities of Minnesota where he was defended by the legendary William Kunstler.

While I shared his desire to see justice come to Indian America, I did not like his strategies for social change.  He was outspoken against Christian presence in Indian country at a time when I stood just a few feet from him at the funeral mass of Black Elk’s son, Ben (when I sang in the choir wearing my clerical shirt).  Before donning Indian garb, he wore a suit and tie when working in urban California.  Saying he “became a professional Indian” when attracted to AIM, he cut quite a figure with flowing braids and wearing silver & turquoise, and beadwork.  His ability to woo women was well known, but in his autobiography “Where White Men Fear to Tread,” he admitted to being a poor father to the 17 children who were known to be his.  He became a role model for many American Indian boys.

Sadly, one of his intoxicated sons broke into a Church rectory, and in shooting one priest (who survived) caused another to have a heart attack and die.  The 2 wayward souls who perpetrated the crime were not aware of Jesuit Father “Sarge” O’Connor being an outspoken social activist all his life on behalf of Indian people.  Raised on hateful rhetoric, young Means ended the life of someone who was a tireless advocate for wayward youth like him.

When I was asked to do a book signing in Pittsburgh, the store manager was pleased that I could be present.  She said that Russell would be there the week before me, and so the Lakota would be well covered in our respective visits.   I asked her how his appearance went, and she excitedly reported that “traffic stopped for him when we crossed the street.”  Her account was easy to understand since Pittsburgh drivers (and people everywhere) would no doubt stop or slow down for a 19th century-looking Indian crossing a busy downtown street.  I was not surprised when she said that he called her during the week and asked if they could get together.  I WAS surprised, however, to learn that he was eternally grateful to a Catholic nun who helped him get a handle on his addiction to anger.  At least in this one instance, he seems to have mellowed in his attitude toward Christians in Indian country.

In thinking of Means, and King, and one president leaving while another arrives, I was reminded of the many classes I taught which described religious leaders who cast some spell over people or who were charismatic in the minds of some.  I thought of Jim Jones–the Los Angeles preacher who convinced 918 people to “drink the Kool-Aid” laced with cyanide and commit mass suicide–his people thinking he was some kind of divine leader?  Similarly, Marshall Applewhite’s “Heaven’s Gate” group of 39 willingly feasted at a restaurant the night before drinking poison and killing themselves.  These people were taped before dying and came across as “regular” folks who are your sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers–good folk who seemed “normal” but who were convinced by Applewhite that an alien spaceship would pick them up if they all killed themselves.

In my specialization of Native American Studies, I covered what’s known as the “Ghost Dance” of 1890.  At that time, all the plains tribes were doing a dance taught by a Paiute Indian named Wovoka (he died in the 1930s).  He said that the dance would hurry the day of deliverance–when Jesus would return, and this time bring salvation to Indian people.  The earth would swallow up the white people (and black cavalry that patrolled the west), return the buffalo, and raise their dead.  The day of deliverance would be in the spring of ’91, but the 7th cavalry clashed with the Sioux (Lakota) at Wounded Knee in December of 1890, and that incident put an end to ghost dancing.  Men, women, and children were slaughtered, the spring flowers bloomed, but Jesus didn’t return.  The promises of a charismatic religious-political leader were empty.

Charismatic leadership will forever be the focus of anthropologists and sociologists because human communities are forever following one sort of person or the other.  We are vulnerable to people who can mislead us.  The American presidency of the past 4 years will forever be analyzed by scholars from around the world if for no other reason than how Mr. Trump won the hearts of half the population while the other half saw him as the embodiment of evil.  On this topic, the articles cited in the bulletin address how the Catholic community was so split.

An Australian psychologist studied 11 religious leaders (like Jim & Tammy Baker, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) and after a battery of tests found all of them to be quite ordinary in their skills but had “a way” in tapping a resonant note within their listeners.  German psychiatrist Heinz Kohut found “charismatic” leaders go according to their own lights and can’t be told anything contrary to their version of reality.  They also carry zero anxiety or guilt when their decisions affect people negatively.  Such people emerge in societies that experience social turmoil of some kind.

Thoughts of the above were triggered by this week’s Sunday readings which told of Jesus passing by, and of John the Baptist declaring that Jesus was the “lamb of God”–prompting Andrew to follow and for Andrew to get his brother, Peter, as a disciple of Jesus.  Also, the first reading was about Samuel hearing a voice–and eventually realizing that it was GOD’S voice calling him to discipleship.  Key to these followers was articulated in the 1st reading which had Samuel say what we’re SUPPOSED to say, viz., “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.”  How have you responded to God’s voice?  Why do you respond to certain human voices?

You and I might right away say “Of course!  I’ve always asked God for guidance and listened for a reply.”  Oh, really?   You’ve listened to God’s word to you and have acted upon it?  Or have you listened to voices in your head or on TV which simply confirmed longstanding prejudices or positions you’ve always maintained?  Has your “circle of inclusivity” expanded–such that you recognize the rights and beauty of people beyond your own family or neighborhood or nation?  To be “Catholic” means to be “universal” in our recognition of all people being brothers and sisters in Christ–and children of God.  Has the “voice” you’ve heard been the voice of self-interest–or self-giving?  

One day you’ll be an “ancestor.”  What’s the legacy for which you’ll be remembered?  Will it be one that your descendants will say was praiseworthy?  It WILL be praiseworthy if we are able to say, with Martin Luther King, the following: 

When I pass away, I’d like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.  

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major for anything, say that I was a drum major for peace, that I was a drum major for righteousness, and that all of the other shallow things that I accomplished will not matter.  I won’t have any money to leave behind.  I won’t 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.

Fellow parishioners of John the 23rd, I hope King’s reflection could just as well be our own.

A Catholic pastor speaks out

How should Christ-believers counter insurrectionist cults?
A “Respect Life Rally” followed by Mass with Bishop Gruss will be Friday, Jan. 22 (rally at 10 a.m. and Mass at 11 a.m.) at the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption,  615 Hoyt Ave.  Both will be live-streamed.
Pastor’s Pen                       January 10, 2021
New Testament scholars refer to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the “synoptic” gospels (from a Latin word which means “seen together”). These 3 gospels tell many of the same stories, often in the same words, frequently following the same order. Instead of repeating the 3 names, people will say something like “the Synoptics are filled with parables whereas John’s gospel is not.

The 3 have a similar account of the baptism of Jesus while John doesn’t report it in the same terms. John leaves it out and just records the meeting of Jesus with John the Baptist. In today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we see reference to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who we call the “Holy Trinity.”

A dogma of our faith (meaning we’re supposed to accept the truth of the doctrine), the Church says that “3 persons in one God” is a mystery we can’t fully understand. However, the early Church Fathers combed through scripture and tradition and named the Godhead. Non-Christians sometimes say we have a “polytheistic” religion (meaning we have more than one God). However, we are “monotheists” (like the Muslims and Jews)—and believe that these 3 persons are 1 God. We point to analogous examples—like a 3-leaf clover being a 3-in-1 thing, or a triangle being one thing (but 3 angles)

We “preach” this dogma when we make the sign of the cross. We might not think of ourselves as “preaching” theology, but the custom of the sign of the cross is essentially a catechism lesson.

The Orthodox have a sign of the cross that’s a bit more complicated. When they bless themselves, they put the tip of the thumb, index, and middle finger together. This represents 3 persons (joined together into one). They also join the baby finger with the finger next to it—and those 2 fingers represent the divine and human nature of Jesus. They then turn those 2 fingers toward the palm of the hand—representing Jesus coming to humanity.

The baptism of Jesus initiates his public persona—his work—his realization that he has been called to do something very special. Have you ever had that experience? Of sensing a special calling? Jesus wasn’t born as superman—but grew into his vocation (as we do).

His baptism was the moment he had an EPIPHANY—his awakening, a new awareness of what he was called to do.

We have infant baptism (as do Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and some others). Some Christian groups hold off baptism until later in life.

Some weeks back we had a darling 4-month old baptized. The baby has no clue as to what’s going on, but WE do. And that’s what sacraments are all about. They bring God to us in understandable terms and we get the grace, for example, of baptizing that baby and getting a sense of how God “feels” for each of us. That is, God loves you much like we love the little child being baptized.

Some parents don’t raise their child in a religious tradition. They’ll say that they want their child to make a decision about religion later in life—and not bias them toward Catholicism or some other faith.

I’ve always found this position pretty lame—because parents teach their children values all the time. Without raising their child in the faith, they’re equivalently saying “we don’t value being raised in the faith—or learning that there’s a God—or that God created the world—or that God loves you—or that you should regard Jesus as the premier role model.

Your child is raised in a secular culture that “preaches” its gospel of self-interest and self-centeredness. MTV evangelizes your children with its sterile teen trends. And young ones read from the gospel of Facebook and Twitter all the time. With no exposure to an alternative worldview, young people pursue mirages. I’m just saying I’d want my children raised according to the synoptic gospels and the sacraments.

I know it’s tough to raise children in the faith. I sometimes think God made me a priest because I’d not be able to face the challenge of raising children of my own. I rebelled against going to church as a young child. My parents were not regular church-goers (mom never, dad once in a while and on holidays). In reporting this background, I’m simply saying that I salute your efforts to make religious practice a reality in your homes. No easy job.

Baptism of the Lord Sunday shows Jesus receiving an affirmation from God and a commission. Same for us who’ve been baptized. We’ve received a call or commission to be Jesus alive today in the unique circumstances of our lives.

How do we do that?

When parents bring their baby to church, and then bring their children as they grow up, they’re telling their children that it’s in the sacramental context that God speaks to them—and helps them. You might be seeking counsel—God will give it. You might be seeking strength—God will provide it. That’s what mass attendance is all about.

God doesn’t get any godlier for you going to church, but you and I receive thoughts or inspirations from different angles—which are part of the liturgy. Scripture, songs sung, Eucharistic prayer, reflections that come to mind—are all ways that God speaks to you and me. Each of us is called to engage the world and bring our gospel perspective to the issues of our time. So maybe offertory petitions bring issues to your consciousness that you’d otherwise not think about.

When I have infant baptisms—I remind you that what we’re doing is communal—that God is speaking to us about OUR baptism. Yes, the child is being received into the church, but the sacrament reminds all present that God loves us adults—much like a proud mom and dad loves their little child.

Even though we are mature and in control of our lives—infant baptism tells us that we’re just as needy as the little person of the day.

In the gospel today, God the Father says to Jesus what we’re also supposed to hear. “You are my beloved One.”

In your own way—go, baptize all nations by this example you set. Our life work will be as God intended if only we remember:

Upon entering heaven, God won’t ask you what kind of car you drove. He’ll ask how many people you drove who didn’t have transportation. God won’t ask the square footage of your house, he’ll ask how many people you welcomed into your home. God won’t ask about the clothes you had in your closet, he’ll ask how many you helped to clothe. He won’t ask what your highest salary was, he’ll ask if you compromised your character to obtain it. He won’t ask what your job title was, he’ll ask if you performed your job to the best of your ability. He won’t ask how many people on Facebook you “friended.” He’ll ask how many people to whom you were a face-to-face friend. He won’t ask what neighborhood you lived in. He’ll ask how you treated your neighbor. He won’t ask about the color of your skin. He’ll ask about the content of your character.

We had 3 funerals this week. If you were called back to God today, what would you say to God that you think would qualify your going to what we call “heaven?”

What would you say you did with the gift of your life? If you’re not pleased with what you’d now reply, rejoice, you still have time to do better.

Pastor’s Pen               January 3, 2021

When I was 8 years old, my parents had to sell our 2 boxer dogs. I was heartbroken that this happened but because my parents needed the money, necessity forced their hand. I was pleased several weeks later when the family who got my pup called to report how things were going.

Their little girl was born with a full arm on one side and half of an arm on the other. The mother called to say that my pup and the little 5-year-old girl were inseparable. He was by her side all the time (like being another arm for her). When I later in life read about boxer dogs, I learned that his behavior was typical of the breed. In the 1890s, Germans created the breed to be a “super dog”–clean, affectionate, protective of children, and loyal to death when defending the family. Boxer-owners think the Germans succeeded in their experiment.

I report this to you because of a video I saw this week of a boxer greeting his family’s newborn baby. It reminded me of the Christmas season and the spirituality each of us should own. In our everyday life, we can learn from the most ordinary events–such as a boxer dog meeting the new member of his household.

Typical of boxer owners, a mother came home from the hospital, and upon entering the house, knelt down with her blanketed baby, and showed the child to the family’s almost-equally beloved boxer (whose stub tail was, typical of the breed, wagging a million mph). Gently, the boxer went face-to-face with the newborn, sniffed from head to toe, and licked the baby’s face. He sat down and peered, with the mother, at their bundle of joy (mother and boxer both lovingly looking at their newest family member).

I report this not because boxers are special to me and I need to express my affection for them. Rather, what came to mind were the Magi–whose experience was probably very similar to that of the boxer’s. They saw the baby–and waves of affection washed over them–the wise-men, in turn, pouring forth their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I wondered if anyone today really tries to imagine themselves in the stable–in the presence of a living God who tells them that He was there in the flesh–with them. Does anyone try to imagine themselves at the cradle—the God-child smiling at them as if feeling something very special for them? Do you ever feel a sense of God’s Bethlehem presence?

The feast of Epiphany that we celebrate this weekend addresses the Magi coming to Bethlehem. Again, their story ISN’T a quaint tale from generations past that tells of people long dead. No, it’s an account of our faith’s origin and our responsibility as Catholics.

In everyday conversation, one might say “I had an epiphany.” I wonder if they know that the word they used has religious roots (viz., the Magi at Bethlehem). In everyday English, the word means one has a sudden “discovery” or found new meaning in something. This is what took place with the Magi–and what’s SUPPOSED to take place with each of us. That is, in some way we come to realize why we were born, and that God loves us, and intended for us to be a great gift to all people.

On Christmas day we read Matthew’s lineage for Jesus. It showed that the great King David was his ancestor, and in keeping with that reality, he was born in the “City of David” (Bethlehem). However, this NEW “messiah” (“anointed of God”) is for ALL people (represented by the non-Israelite wise men from the East) and is not just an ethnic/Israelite God-leader.

Dispute exists regarding the story’s “slaughter of the innocents” which is what occurred when the Magi did not return to Herod. The king ordered all Israelite baby boys to be killed–Mary and Joseph learning of this in a dream and fleeing to safety in Egypt. Scholars report that there’s no record of Herod issuing such an order. However, others say that Herod did so many horrible deeds that the killing of 10 or 12 babies in Bethlehem–wasn’t as remarkable as other slaughters he oversaw toward the end of his reign. These slaughters got the press whereas the killing of babies did not.

Others will join the discussion and point to the THEOLOGY that Matthew is trying to teach his Jewish converts (regardless of the story’s historical accuracy). Namely, his readers/listeners knew the Exodus story of Egypt’s pharaoh ordering the death of all Israelite baby boys, of Moses being spared, and of Moses later leading his people out of slavery in Egypt to the “Promised Land.” The argument here is that Matthew is symbolically showing that Jesus is the new Moses–leading all people one day to the Promised Land of heaven, and showing them how to live.

There was a Mediterranean understanding that the East was a place of wisdom–and so the coming of the gentile Magi from the East reinforces the sense that all people with any intelligence should seek and find Jesus. Moreover, the star is a symbol of the Messiah (the “star of David” worn as jewelry by practicing Jews today), and a light in the darkness as it shines in the night sky. As the prophet Isaiah says: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. bearing gold & frankincense . . . . . “

I like to think of Epiphany being “the feast of attending mass on Sundays.” I say this because we need to celebrate and reflect upon the big mistake being made by family members and others who say they have something more important to do than come to mass. If you know someone who says they have more important things to do than go to church, or that they think they’re doing fine without mass–then simply ask them if there’s anything more important than discovering anew why God made them who they are, or why they even exist. Is there anything more important than reflectively talking to God about their unemployment, their drug addiction, their marriage, or any issue that is part of their life’s joy or struggle?

Tell them that one hour a week (at most) is not too much time to hear “God’s word” in scripture–and more importantly–God’s word in the thoughts that come to them during this time-set-aside. The simple fact is that people tend NOT to listen for God’s word during the week when they’re at work, at the bar, playing video games, or doing whatever they do. At mass, by contrast, people are exposed to life-realities (like the people and events and issues we pray for at offertory time) that blow past them without their paying attention. At mass, people are exposed to the witness of singers, musicians, readers, and helpers of various sorts–who might be sources of inspiration for them. Or maybe the occasional homily will remind them of something profound within themselves that is crying to be born, or come alive, or simply change.

The story of the Magi is the story of us coming to mass–and going to the manger (a feeding trough) which is the altar–and there discovering God’s presence. The Magi’s story is OUR story. It plot has us searching, and finding God in dark and dank stables that are sometimes our own lives. WE are the Magi looking for the God who created us and who calls us from the manger to tell people about the new life and new beginning that we have found spoken to us in the birth of Jesus.

Last year I told you of the Sioux (Lakota) Indian story of people starving and of 2 hunters sent to find food for the village. Instead, they found a woman carrying what appeared to be her child. When she unwrapped the bundle, it was the sacred pipe–which she said should be used in prayer. Each time the pipe would be used, God would hear their prayer. Such is the origin story of the sacred pipe. Interestingly, when the story is told, no further mention is made of people starving. The pipe came, and all was well. BECAUSE THE STORY IS ADDRESSING THE PEOPLE’S DEEPEST HUNGER!

Family and friends might offer some justification for not coming to church (often casting themselves in the role of a principled person making a good judgment call). But see what takes the place of church–watching a football or basketball game? golfing? jogging? mowing the lawn? The list is endless. I wonder how many will not return once the vaccine permits freedom of movement.

Unfortunately, the story of the Magi also reminds us that we are Herod–envious of others and willing to do anything to preserve what we have in the service of self-interest. This sort of reality, too, is what mass presents to us. It confronts us with the reality that we’re NOT the saintly/great person we imagine ourselves to be. Scripture this weekend is a reminder that we do our best NOT to return to the role of Herod we too often play. King Herod asked the Magi to be complicit in his self-centered scheming, and they refused to go along with his plan. Just as the serpent proposed a plan to Eve, so Herod did the same with the wise men. Their stories are our stories. Mass helps you NOT be complicit, or part of, behaviors that bring death to ourselves or others.

Better said by Henry VanDyke than I, The Other Wise Man is a story I quote each Epiphany Sunday. Heard enough times, people might eventually come to recognize that the story’s lead character, Artaban, is each of us. In summary form–here’s The Other Wise Man.

3 wise men tell Artaban that they’ll meet him at the oasis on a certain day to continue following the star. He’s delayed and misses them. He can’t cross the desert with only a horse, so he is forced to sell one of his treasures, a sapphire, in order to buy the camels and supplies necessary for the trip. He thinks to himself that at least he still has the ruby and pearl to give the great king they hoped to find.

Arriving in Bethlehem too late to see the child, whose parents have fled to Egypt, he saves the life of a baby who Herod’s soldiers were going to kill–at the price of another of his treasures, a ruby.

Years later, still searching for the Christ-child, Artaban saw a girl being sold into slavery. He took the pearl from his pocket. It seemed so luminous, so radiant, so full of tender, living luster. He laid it in the hand of the slave. “This is your ransom, daughter! It is the last of my treasures which I have kept for the King.” In Jerusalem as Jesus was taken to Calvary, an earthquake causes a building to fall, and Artaban is mortally wounded.

As he lay dying, the slave girl heard him say: “Not so, my Lord! When did I see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty, and give you drink? When did I see you a foreigner and take you in? Or naked, and clothed you? When did I see you sick or in prison, and come to you? 33 years have I looked for you; but I have never seen your face, nor ministered to you, my King.'”

The slave girl heard a faint voice near Artaban say: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you have done it to me.”

A calm wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy mountain peak. A long breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted. The Other Wise Man had found the King.

The story of the Magi, and Artaban’s story, asks each of us: “What are you doing with your life’s gold, frankincense, myrrh, sapphire, ruby, and pearl?”

Pastor’s Pen                    December 27, 2020

There are 4 stages we go through in our relationship to Christmas.  The 1st is: You BELIEVE in Santa Claus.  The 2nd is: You DON’T believe in Santa Claus.  The 3rd is: You ARE Santa Claus.  And the 4th is: You LOOK like Santa Claus.  🙂    

The Advent and Christmas season is rich with images associated with the birth of Jesus—aspects of which are disputed on different levels.

For example, the origin of Christmas itself is a matter of debate.  Some think that scripture points to a December birth while others suggest its roots are within the Roman religion of 313 (when Christianity was legalized by Constantine).

Mithraism was a religion out of Persia (Iran) that celebrated the “God of Light”—Mithras.  His feast was on the winter solstice (when daylight begins to overcome the darkness), and its members (who said they were “born again”) celebrated the Saturnalian rites at this time of year (with gift-giving, party-going, lighted houses, and greenery decorations).  Some think that Christianity simply capitalized on what people did with their “pagan” (which means “non-Christian”) religion—and built their Christian theology around the earlier form.

Or perhaps the Magi were the origin of gift-giving (young people today don’t know the word “magi”  but they MAY know who the “wise men” were).  Scripture says they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus—so maybe Christmas gift-giving is rooted in that element of the story.  As for the word “Christmas,” it means “Christ’s mass” and was first used in the year 354.

Although we think of there being 3 “magi,” scripture does not tell us how many there were or who they were.  During the Middle Ages, the names of Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper were given to these “astronomers” and popular piety said that one was from Africa, one from Asia, and one from Europe (3 continents of the world represented at the birth).  Maybe the magi are responsible for us having a tradition of gift-giving at Christmas.  What would the magi give today–financial support for Christ’s Mission Appeal?  The parish?  Their time to help people in need?  Are you being a modern-day magi?

You might say Jesus was from Bethlehem (as reported by Matthew and Luke), but Mark and John say he was from Nazareth (a town 90 miles from Bethlehem).  Maybe Bethlehem was cited because it is known as the “city of David”—Israel’s great king (implying Jesus is the new, great king and descendant of David’s line).  We are familiar with images of Mary riding on a donkey, but scholars say the couple would not have had one (but I still inserted a poem about the donkey in the bulletin).

 Origen, an early Church commentator, said Jesus was born in a cave, and Constantine built a church at the cave in 338—visited today by tourists.  Is this where the “virgin birth” took place?  Why did Matthew and Luke mention the virgin birth, and John, Mark, and St. Paul NOT mention it?  One would think that it is such a miraculous event that each writer would cite it.

Luke has shepherds but Matthew doesn’t.  Might they be symbolic of low-class folk Jesus would later attract? Or of his being a “good shepherd” of the people or sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world?  Maybe scripture writers didn’t mention some topics because “others have written about those things.”  

Today’s reading is called the “Annunciation” (the “announcement” of the angel Gabriel to Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus).  Instead of being an actual historical event, some scholars say that it is a literary device common to scripture.  In the Old Testament and here in the New, it announces the importance of the person identified—in this case, Jesus.  Scholars say this is not a historical account but rather an explanation that reality has been turned upside down with this child’s impending birth.

Because we’re supposed to internalize scripture and make it our own, the Annunciation is also speaking of OUR birth—and that OUR coming into the world was intended to be an awesome event that brought special grace to all of creation.  Is that what you’ve made of your life?  Put another way, the Old Testament told of the coming Messiah (Jesus).  In a way, you are a “mini-messiah” for others with the mark of baptism.

This past Thursday’s mass had as a gospel reading the genealogy of Jesus which, when read to American congregations, puts people to sleep with unpronounceable names and repetition of one person “begetting” another.  This is not the experience of listeners in other parts of the world.  Were we like cultures elsewhere (non-1st-world cultures), or were we in touch with our tribal background, we would be like them and listen respectfully to the account of the genealogy of Jesus. 

At one time, ALL peoples saw their ancestors as the foundation of society (the closest we come is referring to Washington as the father of our country and referring to our nation’s “forefathers”).  An African student of mine said that here in America, all one does when first introduced to another is say something like “Hey, how’s it going?”  Back home, he said an introduction would take him a half-hour to narrate (as he recounted his lineage).

Genealogies, traditionally, gave one their personal identity.  It gave their family name an upstanding reputation and a list of “heroes” worthy of reverence.  In this sense, the gospel’s genealogy account SHOULD present questions that each of us takes to heart—namely, am I living up to names in this legacy?  Will MY name one day be spoken as a proud part of this lineage?  What am I doing with my biblical DNA?  Is it alive and well in me–such that people know what I stand for?  

The cynic in me might negatively say “This generation of parishioners didn’t raise the funds for Christ’s Mission Appeal.  How can they claim to be heirs of a biblical identity?”  Instead of having that perspective, the realist in me says “Our parishioners are the ones who did their best.  That’s all that God asks of us–to do our best.”  When I look at our people in the pews, I think their names belong to that gospel genealogy.

And what about these visions of angels speaking to Mary and Joseph?  Have you had any angels speaking to you recently?  Maybe you have—via people or something that was angel-like in your life, or in the same manner as angels appeared to Joseph and Mary.  I say this because when people in traditional cultures report having a vision of spirit-animals or spirit-beings, they’re referring to what they’ve seen in DREAMS—not scary apparitions of ghosts in their bedroom.    

In the beginning, Matthew’s gospel has Jesus referred to as Emmanuel–which means “God with us.”  Like bookends, Matthew’s gospel begins and ends with that declaration (that “God is with us”–with YOU).  The last chapter concludes with Jesus saying to his apostles “I’m leaving now, and leaving everything to you.  And oh, yes, remember that I’m with you until the end of time.”  What a consoling thought!  God is with us—in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, til death and beyond!  You never face anything alone.

Now you might be musing something to the effect of: “My life was no grand event celebrated in a heavenly ‘Annunciation’-announcement—and no angels have ever appeared to me—and my genealogy is found on ancestry.com.”  If you think along these lines, I think you’re mistaken—because “angels” have been in your life since you first smiled at the nurse or parent when you were born.  Nature itself—direct from God–has smiled on you many times since you first arrived.  And you have, in ways not known, been Emmanuel to others in some small or great way.

Scripture tries to communicate that the stories we read are stories about us.  And that the God of all creation actually cares about—and loves you in a Godly way known only to God.  To which you might retort—“Baloney—how can any of what you say be true?”  To which I reply,  in quoting today’s gospel: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

Odds and Ends

Now that Christmas is past, wouldn’t you know that I forgot to suggest a really good present to give someone?  I have several copies of my book Nicholas Black Elk: Medicine Man, Missionary, Mystic.  I paid $20 for it—and you can have it for the same price.  Autographed, heaven only knows how much it’ll be worth some day 🙂  Kidding aside, I DO have copies of it.  Plus, it MAY be of interest to friends or relatives who are interested in Amer-Indian life (since Black Elk is so well known globally).

December 25, 2020        Christmas Bulletin

Christmas Poem

Just a little donkey–but on my back, I bore–The one and only Savior–the world was waiting for. Just a little donkey–but I was strong and proud— I gladly carried Mary–through the chaos of the crowd. I brought her to a stable–where she made a tiny bed… A place for Baby Jesus–to lay His little head. I pray the world remembers–that special Christmas night When just a little donkey–brought Heaven’s Precious Light.

Christmas Meditation

Are you willing . . . to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you? To ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world? To put your rights in the background, your duties in the middle distance, and changes you’ll make in the foreground? To see that others are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts (which hunger for acceptance)?

To own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life? To close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness? Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing . . . to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children? To remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old? To stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough? To bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts? To try to understand what family members really want, without waiting for them to tell you?

To trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you? To make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open? Are you willing to do those things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing . . . to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world, stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death–and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem two thousand years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?

Then you keep Christmas. And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?

Christmas Prayer I

We give you thanks, Holy One, for the light that has come into the darkness of our world, for the truth illuminated, for the pathway that has opened, for the rejoicing of your people.

We give you thanks for the feet of those who bring good news, friendship, comfort, food, shelter, and medicine for healing.

We give you thanks for the Church of Christ Jesus and for all people of faith whose attention to the way of peace tears down walls that keep us apart.

We give you thanks for every nation where wisdom reigns, where leaders work for the well-being of the poor so that no one is hungry or homeless, and every child is valued and nourished.

We pray for the knowledge and courage to be good stewards of all that you have given us: ourselves–our neighbors, the strangers among us, the oceans and rivers, the air and soil, creatures large and small, that we may continue to be blessed with health and life.

We pray for those whose flesh is harmed by poverty, sickness, and cruelty of any kind, that the Word-made-flesh may so fill your world with the power to heal that all people would be made strong and whole. We commend all these things to you and offer our thanksgiving, trusting that what we have left unsaid, your holy wisdom can unearth; in the name of the One who came among us.

Christmas Prayer II

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

I would (if wishing could make it so) have for you the gift of community, a nucleus of love and challenge, to convince you in your soul that you (yes, you!) are a source of light in a world too long believing in the dark. Not gold, nor myrrh, nor frankincense, would I have for you this season, but simple gifts, the ones that are hardest to find, the ones that you deserve.

Holiday Quotes

“The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year, but rather that we should have a new soul.”

“It is Christmas every time you let God love others through you.”

“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Connecting the Dots of Our Life-as-Citizens with Our Life-as-Catholics

This past week, a priest-friend in Tennessee (who is a regular guy and not given to exaggeration) said “Stelts, there just seems to be an evil spirit over the nation. I’ve heard people say ‘the new vaccine will change our DNA and make us demonic!’ What makes people say these things?”

I went to a doctor’s appointment last week and, unprompted by me, one of the workers was inspired to say: “I can’t stand Pelosi and Biden. They’re going to prevent people from getting a check.” I replied that I thought Democrats wanted relief for the middle class and blue-collar workers while their opposition thought the economy would benefit by stimulus checks going to corporations. The person was as committed to their misunderstanding as I was to the actual facts.

As explained to me, Democrats wanted to give 40 billion dollars to the working class (giving everyone a 600-dollar check) while Republicans wanted to give 960 billion more (than that 40) to corporations (instead of the working class). They also wanted legislation to say that workers couldn’t sue their employer if harmed on the job. Nuances aside, the health-worker had simply heard that Democrats were not being cooperative (when, in reality, the matter was more complicated).

Not judging either political approach, I simply note that they represent different economic philosophies. They are, in general, what has been in the news—which made the healthcare worker irate. I cite this not because I am especially interested in this issue, but for a whole other point I want to call to your attention.

When Advent began, I dreamed of our parish hitting the goal of Christ’s Mission Appeal during this Christmas season. It seemed to me that the number of parishioners on our rolls could easily hit the target by simply choosing the CMA as a most worthwhile charity their family could support. Well, with one week to go before Christmas, we haven’t even hit the half-way mark.

I sure over-estimated our response.  Naïve and Pollyanna me!! Darn. Now I have no clue as to what “the parish” will eventually do in this regard. What more can I say on the subject? Good luck?

Unfortunately, this in-house fund-raising, Catholic parish, diocesan appeal problem—reflects the human condition. I was reminded of this when I came upon an article that wasn’t about religion but which certainly challenges us to see economics through a religious lens. Here’s the gist of the article.

A study from “Americans for Tax Fairness” and “Institute for Policy Studies” reports that since the virus began in March, six hundred and fifty-one American billionaires have seen their collective wealth increase by more than a trillion dollars (some of the better-known names from this group are Elon Musk (Tesla), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Alphabet), and Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer (Microsoft). Musk’s worth rose by $118.5 billion (he, Zuckerberg, and Gates joining Bezos as “centi-billionaires,” meaning that each is now worth more than a hundred billion dollars). “Never before has America seen such an accumulation of wealth in so few hands.”

The report said that the billionaire class has been the biggest winner from the pandemic, and the working class has been the biggest loser. It argued that these wealthy people could well afford to bear more of the cost of providing additional financial relief to workers, small businesses, and state and local governments. Instead, they find and are given, tax loop-holes by legislators.

Just the gain of billionaires the past 9 months could provide a stimulus check of $3,000 to every one of the roughly 330 million people in America (and the billionaires would not feel a thing if this recent profit was taken from them).

The United Kingdom (England) has been hit as hard as the U.S. and is calling for an emergency tax on wealth. Its Wealth Tax Commission modestly urged the very wealthy to pay a 1% tax for 5 years–an exceptional response to a particular crisis. A one-time hit on wealth shouldn’t affect incentives to work and invest—especially since the wealthy wouldn’t feel a thing–the idea being to ask the country’s wealthiest people to help address an unprecedented economic emergency.

Recall World War 2 photos of bombed Japanese and European cities? The report recalls how those different foreign countries introduced wealth taxes that helped reconstruction. The pandemic isn’t a ruinous military conflict, but the shutdowns it engendered delivered an unprecedented financial shock to workers, small businesses, and state and local governments.

There is Republican opposition to any kind of wealth tax. And it’s not clear what Democrats would endorse, either. But the sight of billionaires getting even richer as tens of millions of Americans face titanic financial struggles is an affront to any notion of decency. In the extraordinary circumstance of a pandemic, it seems reasonable to many ATHEISTS to ask those who have benefitted financially during this crisis to help the country get beyond it. It would seem that people of faith—all the more—would similarly support policies that feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Or would Jesus say “Forget ‘em. It’s everyone for themselves. This crisis and Christ’s Mission Appeal can bark up other trees for assistance.”

If you’re a billionaire, my sense of our faith is that you should help the country get back on its feet. If you’re a parishioner, my sense of our faith is that you should subsidize Christ’s Mission Appeal by Christmas (or New Year). I’d like to think my sense is widely shared.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.

Pastor’s Pen            December 10, 2020

I read an article this week that cited the various “disorders” we suffer while at the same time dealing with the pandemic. The article said that what we ordinarily contend with is intensified during this viral period, i.e., our depression, sleep/eating disorders, chronic illnesses, substance abuse, etc. Also affecting some at this time of year might be a condition whose acronym is “SAD”—which refers to “seasonal affective disorder.” This condition occurs in climates where there is less sunlight at certain times of the year (e.g., our winter solstice period–NOW). The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, depression, hopelessness, and social withdrawal.

Besides medication and talk therapy, treatment includes light therapy (phototherapy)—which typically involves spending 30 minutes a day—usually after waking—in front of a box that emits bright fluorescent light.  What came to mind was that each of us could place ourselves in SOME category of disorder—reflecting the reality that we humans sure are in need of help.

And that’s how Advent fits into our current scene. It emphasizes, focuses on, or fosters the exact opposite of these conditions which bring us down. As I’ve mentioned during the first 2 weeks of Advent, this is the time of year when God is calling us to look at ourselves and be led to a new birth at Bethlehem. God calls us there not just to celebrate the “Incarnation,” but to awaken us to the new identity we are being called to more fully embody. Yes, we’ve conducted our lives a certain way until now—but Christian identity is always in a state of “conversion”—of God calling us to become more accurately the person we were created to be.

If you’re of a mindset that has you say: “Nice words, Mike, but I know who I am, and I know who I want to be. I know where I am now, and where I’ll be put to rest. I just want to carry on with the blessings that God has given me.”  If your thoughts bear any resemblance to a statement like that—then Advent is for you! God calls each of us to a NEW awareness which you and I don’t fully detect.  So, let’s give God credit for leading us to that new identity.

Immaculate Conception 

The 2ndweek of Advent had a focus on Marian spirituality—the “holy day of obligation” being the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. Knowing that not everyone could attend mass that day (as they were “obligated” to do), I thought I’d bring some highlights of the feast day to them at the weekend mass. Did you know that if we were living in 1910, we’d be “obligated” to attend 36 feast days (in addition to Sunday mass)? In that year, the number was reduced to 8.

Perhaps because the gospel reading reports Mary’s conception of Jesus being announced by the angel Gabriel, some have thought “immaculate conception” referred to her pregnancy. Instead, it refers to MARY’S conception. Why address this issue—especially when Mary’s conception is not even mentioned in scripture? The theological issue this topic was intended to address is the premier dogma that “Jesus was like us in all things but sin.” God the Father is sinless, but with Mary being human, it follows that Jesus would be sinful via his mother. After all, the great Church Father, St. Augustine (d. 430), was a real stickler on “original sin”—he being largely responsible for Church tradition emphasizing the effects of “original sin” which we inherit.

Over the centuries, but not often, some theologians raised the topic of Mary’s relationship to original sin—in an effort to reconcile Jesus being like us in all things BUT sin (which he presumably would have inherited through his mom). One theory held that seminal fluid carried original sin to the female—and God the Father did not use seminal fluid. There was an apocryphal text written a couple hundred years after Jesus—which said that “Anne” was the name of Mary’s mother, and that her father’s name was Joachim. No historical evidence for these people existing as named, the tradition got entrenched and today many think of Mary’s parents as these 2 souls.  Were their names “Anne” and “Joachim?”   Maybe.  Maybe not.

Folklore or fact, it is also reported that St. Brigid of Sweden had a vision of Mary telling her that the sex act of her parents was free of original sin because there was no sexual desire involved with the act. The great St. Thomas Aquinas and others addressed the topic, but it remained on a back burner until 1854 when Pope Pius IX declared it a “dogma” of our faith (i.e., you HAVE TO believe a dogma or else you’re a heretic). Many Church leaders objected to his decision, but it became a dogma of our faith (i.e., Mary was conceived without sin). A medieval thinker might be of help to us. He said that if God wanted to do something, God did it—and leave it at that!

More important to the practice of our faith is the gospel story of Gabriel’s visit. Since the gospel is not a history book, but is intended for OUR enlightenment and inspiration (and not God’s), what can we take from the angel’s announcement?

If an angel appeared to you from out of nowhere, would your reaction be as relatively casual as Mary’s—and would you just say something like “Hey! What’s up?” (and then converse in normal fashion)? Or would you be shocked at the sudden apparition? No shock is reported, but instead Mary calmly hears the announcement of her impending motherhood and replies to Gabriel with gratitude to God.  As with other visions in the bible, some scholars think the appearance of Gabriel came through a “dream” to Mary.

Since “angelos” is the Koine Greek for “messenger of God,” we needn’t think of winged creatures appearing to us in a vision.  Rather, “messengers” can be persons like our spouse, our child, nature’s beauty, or even my dear boxer who died a couple of weeks ago. “Mikey” revealed to me lots about God—and so was a special angel in my life. And so it is with Mary and each of us. Angels come into our life and tell us we are “filled with grace” and that we should not be afraid because “the Lord is with” us. Each of us is Mary in this scripture story. Each of us is being invited to give birth to faith, hope, and love—the essence of Jesus.  

Our Lady of Guadalupe 

The 2ndweek of Advent had another important Marian feast—Our Lady of Guadalupe—a special devotion that arose in what is today Mexico City. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Historically, its origin story took place just after Spain conquered the Aztecs (1519) and was trying to control the Native population.

5 apparitions are said to have taken place in 1531 to a young Indian named Juan Diego. A sacred lady referred to herself as the mother of “a very true God”—and told Juan to go to the Archbishop and have a church built on the ground where they stood. She instructed Juan to pick flowers (which she bundled in his cloak) and take them to Bishop-elect Zumarraga. When the cleric opened it, a painting of the lady miraculously appeared—and she has been identified ever since as Mary. Her likeness was replicated on banners during the 19th century Mexican war of independence from Spain, and today a large Mexican flag is draped near the Basilica painting.

It is not surprising that she was later declared “Queen of Mexico.” Then she was titled “Patroness of the Americas,” and by John Paul II in 1999 “Empress of Latin America,” and “Protectress of Unborn Children.” An inscription greets visitors to the Basilica which reads “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” These are words that Juan reported her saying to him.

St. Juan Diego

This 2ndweek of Advent also included the feast of “Saint” Juan Diego—whose life was investigated by the Church in 1666—118 years after his death. Authorities thought this wise to do because the Guadalupe devotion had spread, and because the Franciscans and Dominicans were arguing about the story’s reliability. Moreover, the writings of Zumarraga made no mention of Juan Diego (whose name didn’t surface until the mid-17thcentury).  That Zumarraga not refer to Don Juan seemed peculiar (given the spectacular circumstances of the heavenly vision). One would think that the Archbishop would say SOMETHING about the Juan Diego revelation.  Another peculiar angle on the account is that the site of Guadalupe was the site of where an Aztec goddess (Tonanzin) was honored. Questions arose concerning a possible Aztec grounding of the devotion—not in Mary, but in Tonanzin.

In 1883, Zumarraga’s biographer confided to the Bishop that his research suggested that Juan Diego did not exist. Nonetheless, in 1987, John Paul II declared him “venerable,” and then “beatified” him in 1990. In 1996, the Abbot of the Guadalupe Basilica was interviewed for a magazine and said that Juan Diego was a “symbol” and “not a real person.” Upon hearing what the Abbot said, Church authorities fired him—and in 2002 Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego a saint. In the 1990s, a Jesuit produced research that asserted the existence of Juan, but the Guadalupe story associated with him is still debated by scholars.

The Guadalupe story is near and dear to me because it resembles in some ways the story I told as a homily for last Christmas. I reported the Sioux Indians (Lakota) having a sacred lady within their tradition who brought the “sacred pipe”—an instrument of prayer that assures the people that God hears them when the pipe is used. Buffalo Cow Woman brought what appeared to be her child (the “sacred calf pipe”) and, ever since, the Lakota could pray and know that God listened to them. As time passed, many Lakota thought that it was Mary who visited the people and that the pipe forecast the coming of Christ to the nation.

For me, the 2ndweek of Advent also saw the anniversary of my ordination. Like you during Advent, I’m looking at my life and asking what new birth God is leading me to experience. What came to mind in recalling my first mass was the homily I gave. It prompted a smile because its theme echoes the point of this Advent season.  I told people that my task was to forever encourage others to discover their own call to priesthood—to service of God’s people. 

These many years after that first mass, my Advent homily remains the same as it was back then.  We begin week 3 of the journey to Bethlehem—hoping to discern, figure out, learn—whatever the word—what conversion God is calling us to experience.  As stated, to be Christian means to have an ongoing conversion experience, moving us from one level of insight (or ignorance) to a new vantage point.  God has faith in us!  During Advent, God helps us see beyond the disorders we cope with during the pandemic.  At this point of the Advent journey, we glimpse—in the distance–a stable of hope on the horizon.

Lord—each of us is Mary—asking you to be a midwife helping each of us give birth to compassion for others, understanding them as best we can, forgiving them, and moving on to discover Juan Diego’s image of Mary and Jesus tattooed on our hearts.  Inspire us to be a sacred pipe—communicating to others Your acceptance and our belonging to you (that we hope to one day experience fully with you in heaven).    

invasion.  It was all a scam—a “tweet” that went “viral” and spread the deception.  Violence can result from dis-information and we all suffer for our ignorance—which is why I pass to you a website that I’ve found helpful to consult.  It is: Snopes.com   It does a decent job of tracking down the truth and falsehood of whatever is being bandied about on social media.

Charitable giving is alive and well—but for what purpose?  Reports now in the news are that a political action committee (PAC) is behind all the lawsuits contesting the election.  Moreover, solicitations are sent from the different Trump family members asking for people to donate to the Georgia senatorial election in January.  People THINK they are donating to this effort when the fine print says that 25% will go to the Georgia election and that 75% will go to Mr. Trump’s post-election interests (for whatever he wants to do with the over 500 million dollars already collected in just these few weeks).

Stay with me on this.  I’m not debating one’s political affiliations.  You’re free to support whoever you want to support.  I’m on the topic of “charitable giving” and continue making my point with the following example.

I watched a football game at which the announcer reported that the grandmother of Buffalo’s quarterback died that week–and citizens of Buffalo raised over $70k dollars in her memory.   I sighed—because earlier in the day I mentioned at mass that Christ’s Mission Appeal is the most far-reaching charity of any that approach you at this time.  The Appeal goes beyond the diocese–helping people globally (it funded me on the Indian missions and in Appalachia).

Buffalo’s quarterback is yearly paid $5.3 million dollars—but then is given $70k dollars in a week from blue-collar folks in Buffalo?  Huh?  Their behavior is the same as the politically-inclined-PAC donors mentioned above.  These large amounts that have been collected from ordinary people like you and I show that we HAVE funds to give.  It’s just a question of what will we charitably support?  THAT is the point I’m trying to make.

SURELY, we can contribute to a more worthwhile and inclusive charity than a wealthy quarterback’s family or a wealthy TV personality/politician.  In terms of Gospel value, Christ’s “mission appeal” should trigger an even more generous and personal response than those 2 “charities.”  As I stated 4 weeks ago, we could easily knock off our 80k goal—if we chose to do so.   

Let’s see.  Into whose hand should I donate funds—a wealthy quarterback’s? a politician’s? or the hand of God?  If this logic doesn’t speak to you, then at Christmas time==just think of CMA before going out to spend 1 or 2 hundred bucks on Nike gym shoes or a similar amount for an athlete’s name-jersey.  For just a moment, think of all the people you’ll be helping through the CMA.  Maybe a germ of generosity will stir within your consciousness—and you can put your loose change/checks/cash in the collection box as you leave mass.

2) Christmas week masses will only be the ones on Christmas Eve day and Christmas day.

3) The January 1st  holy day mass will be at noon, at Sacred Heart.  No masses during that week Tues, Wed, Thurs.

Pastor’s Pen           December 6, 2020

I previously said that Advent is the Church’s yearly ritualizing of us making a journey to Bethlehem. We are being called to discover a new birth/identity. We’re not just celebrating God’s becoming incarnate (taking on flesh as a human)—but we’re called to discover more profoundly and more intimately the role God calls us to fulfill—with OUR incarnation.

Each of us has lived SOME identity—but it’s not the totality that God calls us to become. Thus—we have the yearly Advent ritual reminding us that we still have a new discovery to make (our new birth).

Try not to think of this as a speculative thing—the priest piously saying we’re on a journey to self-discovery. Rather, try and come to terms with this Advent season asking you and me if we want to be part of God’s design. Do we want to be on the Bethlehem side of life-issues, or do we want to continue eating apples of self-interest offered to us by the serpent.

A bishop recently commented that many of us have chosen “willful ignorance” instead of seriously evaluating the felonies that confront us on the nightly news. Too many of us say “I can’t be bothered” with unpleasant world or national events or issues when, truth be told, the gospel calls us to “being bothered”—and being Christ-like in addressing these things that we see unfold.

Each year at this time, I’m reminded of how this journey toward Bethlehem is serious business. In my heart of hearts, maybe I don’t really want to make it.

With my birthday toward the end of November, a grateful smile comes to mind and heart, but anniversaries that follow challenge my sense of comfort. 40 years ago this week, 3 Sisters and a laywoman were murdered in El Salvador. The U.S. government was criticized for its role in that country’s civil war—and was quick to respond to the criticism. The Reagan administration said that we were fighting “communists,” and that if we didn’t stop them in El Salvador—these monstrous communists would be attacking Hemlock and Merrill (that is, a scare tactic broadcast to all Americans making us think our lives were at stake).

U.N. ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, declared her “unequivocal” belief that the Salvadoran army was NOT responsible for the killings, adding that “the nuns were not just nuns. They were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear about this than we actually are.” Alexander Haig was the Secretary of State at the time, and he testified that “there might have been an exchange of gunfire between the sisters and whoever killed them.” He did not suggest why the women were raped before they were shot, execution-style.

Because the Church has people in all countries of the world, and plenty of Church-people in El Salvador, we knew at the time that Kirkpatrick and Haig and the administration as a whole, were lying to the world—and to the American people in what they were saying on the ABC, NBC, CBS nightly newscasts.

What saddened Jesuits is that Haig’s brother, Frank, is a Jesuit priest. The Reagan administration fired Ambassador Robert White because he would not lie as they instructed him to do—White testifying many times that the so-called “political activist” nuns were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick. Declassified documents and what became known as the “truth commission” later revealed that the administration knew of the widespread campaign of terror and torture perpetrated by the government whose weapons were paid for by American tax dollars.

Keep in mind that the Maryknoll Sisters and laywoman Jean Donovan were “just folks–” hometown “girls” as you might find in Hemlock or Merrill coming to mass at the parish. This needs saying because their fame today might make them seem larger than life. Their reality was that they could be your sister, or daughter, or neighborhood friend.

In 1984, four national guardsmen were convicted of murdering the women and sentenced to 30 years in prison (three were released in ’98). The rapist-murderers were acting on orders from higher officers who, with American officials, tried to cover up the plan. The officer responsible for the executions was General Vides Casanova. He eventually married a wealthy coffee-baroness who was also the El Salvador ambassador to the Vatican (yes, truth IS stranger than fiction). Living on the Palm Coast district of southern Florida until 2015, he was deported back to El Salvador. His torture victims successfully sued him for 54 million-dollars.

I spoke to you last year about the killing of 6 Jesuits in 1989—one of whom was a good friend. Both the Reagan and Bush administrations certified that El Salvador was progressing well in respecting human rights—but this, as occurred with the women, was another lie being sold to the American public. When the killing of the priests hit the airwaves internationally, there was an uproar over the atrocities in El Salvador that American foreign policy sponsored. Again, the administration was quick to raise suspicions about the victim-Jesuits—suggesting they were gun-runners assisting rebels, and even suggesting that the rebel “communists” had killed them for some deal gone bad.

Americans were told that in order to keep America the great nation that it was—we had to stop communists from coming across our southern border and attacking the Merrills and Hemlocks of the country. And Americans again bought these lies hook, line, and sinker. Later “truth commissions” discovered that the CIA was aware of the plans to kill the Jesuits, and knew who did the killings (the army who was trained by U.S. advisers).

In reality, the Jesuits were university teachers who were trying their best to solve the problems of a country that had very wealthy people controlling and owning most of the country’s resources (which is the case here in the U.S., too—especially since the “middle class” has been getting smaller and smaller due to fiscal policies started in the 1980s). The Jesuit role could be summed up by Bishop Camara of Brazil who said: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask WHY they have no food, they call me a Communist.” Just last year were the murderers of the Jesuits sentenced to life in prison.

The “in” word today is no longer “communist,” but “socialist.” Listen to how often the word is thrown around—as if it had a meaning we all agreed upon. Many Americans hear the word “socialist” and right away identify “the enemy.” Name-calling wins the day (because somewhere in their background, many Americans blended communism and socialism as the same thing—and both were “bad”). Polls show that to win voter support, one must say “I’m a capitalist” and make no mention of “socialist” ideas.

Pressed to define “socialism,” most angry Americans would be unable to do so. They’ll often give some angry statement about welfare being given to poor people who didn’t “earn” the handout. Blacks are often stereotyped as the welfare recipients—and so racial antagonism is also stoked in this name-calling (keep in mind that there are more “whites” on welfare than blacks). This shows how thoroughly we’ve been brainwashed.

From a Catholic perspective, what’s interesting is that the pope has spoken AGAINST the damage done to the world’s people by a free-wheeling CAPITALIST economic system. And in the new testament, if any economic system is known—it’s the “socialism” of the early Christians!!! In one encyclical, the pope warned against us having a “structurally perverse” economic system where the rich exploit the poor, turning Earth into an “immense pile of filth.” The pope says that this vision of “might is right has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the . . . most powerful: the winner takes all.” He wrote. “Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus.” What approach does your vision reflect? Maybe you don’t want to continue toward Bethlehem.

The Georgia senate race sees one candidate name-calling her opponent a “socialist” (as usual, no details as to what it would mean). Making this charge was a predictable ploy guaranteed to win support (of unthinking Georgians). Her opponent gave a good reply to the woman’s ridiculous question and reminded listeners that she was a senator bought and paid for by Wall Street—her focus being the corporate wealthy and not ordinary people. With her husband being CEO of the NY Stock Exchange, she has been accused (and cleared) of insider trading which brought her millions of dollars. I guess she was just lucky with timely investments.

Capitalism is based on what’s known as the “free market” where everyone, supposedly, has an opportunity to make a good living by supplying some goods or services that are in “demand.” The problem with this, of course, is those powerful corporations “own” the market—and you have next to no chance of competing with anyone. Which leads to the point of this digression.

The raped/murdered women and Jesuits were called “communists/socialists” by the Reagan/Bush administrations. This name-calling brought about their deaths. Should YOU confront someone throwing around the terms “capitalism” and “socialism,” stop the rant by simply noting that America is not fully capitalist. It is also—be prepared for a shock—partly SOCIALIST. Our economy is a hybrid.

Although Americans applaud when a politician says capitalism is what they espouse, all Americans receive the benefits of our country also being socialist. Focusing on welfare support to people in need is NOT a significant budget line. See who is donating to politicians who, in turn, choose the economy’s winners and losers. And who do the politicians choose? They give corporations enormous tax breaks and save banks from the managerial errors they made when creating the crash of 2002. This is called “corporate welfare”—money given to the powerful via what’s known as—tada–socialism.

American socialism takes place during this pandemic. While poor folk struggle to survive, corporations have made lots of money—because the government has pumped your tax dollars into those corporations. What other socialist expenditures do we have in America? How about social security, Medicare, mass transit systems, the bailing out of airlines, maintaining fire and police departments, dairies paid to produce or not produce milk, farmers paid to grow some crops and not grow others. The list goes on and on. Why? Because America is neither fully capitalist nor fully socialist. We’re a hybrid. So don’t brand anyone “communist” or “socialist.” The terms are meaningless for most Americans.

Analyses of the Civil War south have asked how wealthy plantation owners could get poor “white” people to fight to “preserve the Southern way of life” (wealthy plantation owners) from Northern invaders? Historians/sociologists concluded that poor white people weren’t a whole lot better off than the slaves who worked the plantations. They joined the southern war effort so that they, the poor white class, wouldn’t fall even lower than the slave class just below them.

The wealthy want the not-wealthy to blame one another for economic problems. And call one another names like “socialist” or “welfare queen”—and so be distracted from the REAL welfare queens (the corporations who buy the votes of politicians who, in turn, make them winners in the “free market” that controls the lives of the poor).

Written 2000 years ago, the gospel addresses how people exploit one another. This past week a revelation occurred that reminded me of our government’s lies of the 1980s. Namely, for the past couple of years, we’ve heard people debate the Mexican border policy that saw us separate children from their parents. We have 500 to 700 children still in custody with no idea where their families might be. At least, that’s what we were told.

It turns out that the government DOES have phone numbers and addresses for these children and, as of this writing, a judge has demanded to know why this information has been withheld. As stated a few weeks ago, Christ is our king. We pledge allegiance to the Gospel and our God. Beware of non-gospel people.

This first week of Advent saw the feast of Francis Xavier—whose life is a good example of God writing straight in crooked lines. Born of royalty, he went to college where he was a high jump athlete and, eventually, a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. Meeting Ignatius Loyola, he was asked “Is this what you think God wants you to do the rest of your life? Did you ever think God might be calling you to something more?”

Long story short is that Ignatius, Xavier, and a few college buddies started the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Asked to send a missionary to Asia, Ignatius asked one man, but this Jesuit fell sick. Ignatius turned to his college friend—the professor of philosophy, Francis Xavier. Ready to go wherever God wanted him to go (as decided by his superior), Xavier went to Japan, China, and India where he became, for the rest of his life, a dedicated missionary to those lands—where he died alone. Today he is the patron saint of missionaries.

As he lay dying, he reviewed his life and smiled at how God had written straight in the crooked lines of his experience. God took him to Bethlehem—giving him new eyes to see, new ears to hear—who God was calling him to be. Like each of us, Xavier was not fully aware of how God wanted him to use his gifts—but his Advent prayer was to ask that God lead him to new birth.

As you know, I’ve written biographies of the famous Lakota-Sioux holy-man, Black Elk.  Born in the 1800s buffalo-hunting culture of the Sioux, he grew up among a people who were dominant on the plains.  Battles took place between his people and the cavalry–his people winning at Little Bighorn, but eventually losing and confined to reservations.  He saw the massacre of men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in 1890, and could have become a despondent, brooding victim for his remaining years.

Instead, he saw that God wrote straight in the crooked lines of his experience, and he pledged allegiance to the “Wanikiye” (“savior Jesus”).  Baptized on December 6, 1904, he led the rest of his life as a faithful Catholic catechist–trying his best to lead others to Bethlehem.

I heard Bruce Springsteen interviewed, and think his story—his journey to Bethlehem—illustrates what each of us is called to realize. The interviewer said: “It must be incredible for you to draw 50,000 people to Yankee Stadium for a concert, and there see them hang on every lyric of your songs. It must be some powerful experience to see how much you’ve inspired people for over 4 decades now. What’s it like?”

Springsteen reflectively said that yes, it IS pretty moving for him to see this adulation—the rapt attention of so many. He continued the reflection saying—“I’d like to find a Bruce Springsteen, too, and I’d be at that concert, too—because I’d like nothing more than for someone to inspire me—and lead me out of what has been my lifelong, chronic depression.”

Knowing his son was a student at Boston College, I smiled and thought that he probably heard somewhere along the way, a Jesuit (or someone) speak of our common journey to Bethlehem—where we are called to bring the gold, frankincense, and myrrh—the gift—of our life. And share it along the way with others—en route to the new birth God calls us to discover. On this journey, we sometimes take a wrong turn or carry our depression or sense of shortcomings—needful of finding God’s word of new life.

May this 2nd week of Advent—continue to show us our need for new life, and the need others have for us to be a life-giving traveling companion with them, as they, too, seek rebirth.

Pastor’s Pen                   November 29, 2020

If I were Mark, and you were my community, I’d be doing my best to convey some consolation to you because you’ve been a persecuted community.  Nero martyred many of our number, and we are wondering if ever the Lord is going to return as promised.  In short, Mark tells us to be prepared for the Lord’s return.  We don’t know when his second coming will take place or when the eternal Kingdom will be established—but we can at least live our lives as he instructed–and be prepared.

During my absence, I was reminded of tears still shed within our faith community—when I learned of two parishioners going back to God.  It was disappointing that I was neutralized and unable to do anything for their families or anyone at this time.   

Then last week, a boxer pup I acquired 10 years ago died—tears of a different kind when we lose these special friends.  Being an anthropologist who forever reads or writes about burials from antiquity, I thought of all the human losses (and losses of pets) that have taken place down through the millennia—all of whose losses brought tears to people.

What came to mind was that our tears—past and present—for human or animal loved ones—are symbols of gratitude to a God who has blest us so powerfully with the lives we mourn. 

No sooner am I caught up with this reflection of how God has blest us with those who’ve owned our hearts—than I think of how we are bombarded at this time of year with thoughts of Black Friday, small business Saturday, and cyber Monday.  The gospel of Wall Street intrudes upon my reflection on God’s gift of loved ones and lures me into contemplating what I should buy—things advertised to bring me happiness, and produce within me the wonderful smiles that actors project into the commercials.

Before continuing, please know that I am not going to lecture against your acquiring another bracelet or gem to add to your already large collection of bracelets and gems.  Like you, I, too, am prey to the allure of accumulating the glitz and glamor of more “stuff” (which will one day be at a garage sale or given to Goodwill).  On this point, do what you think you need to do—get more stuff, donate to CMA or some other worthwhile charity, or simply be yourself and reverently observe the sacredness of the season as best as you can.

During my convalescence, I saw a television ad that showed a beautiful, heavenly model (an angel?) slowly taking a piece of chocolate and dreamily consuming it, kiss-like—lost in the greatest pleasure life offers (so the commercial would have us buyers-of-chocolate believe).

By CONTRAST, I thought of the Church’s Advent season reminding us of another hunger—which calls us to seek a manger—a feeding trough—where there is a food that can’t be bought on Amazon at some discount price.  Secular society calls us to self-indulgence while this sacred season calls us to metaphorically travel to Bethlehem.  The advent season calls us to find new life.  And we’re told that all we need do is seek—and that we’ll find it.

The cynic in us might muse “Yah yah–seek and you will find.  I’ve heard that one before.  Tell me something I don’t know.”

Okay.  Maybe these recent experiences in my life might inspire you to look at your own experience—and so draw closer to the outskirts of Bethlehem this first Sunday of advent.

Christian spirituality tells us that “God writes straight in crooked lines.”  I thought of this aphorism when thinking of my pup.  All dog owners will right away know what I describe—which is that our dog tells us what Advent is all about.  In short, we can find the new life God calls us to live–where we least expect to find it. 

When one lets their dog outside in the morning, they see their little friend behave as if they’re in a whole new world—as if they’d never been in that yard before (but which, in reality, they’ve been in 365 days a year).  We see our pup investigate a tree as if seeing that tree for the first time (when we, all-knowing humans that we think we are, wonder why the heck all this sniffing and inspecting is taking place).  Awake you humans–our pup’s sense of smell makes the backyard a whole new world that he’s trying to make sense of—because it IS A WHOLE NEW WORLD (that we don’t see or sense).

Since last being in that yard, the person and their pup have no clue what has passed over the grass or floated down from the sky—to modify the terrain substantially.  THAT is what our dog is discovering—their sense of smell so much more powerful than ours.  Meanwhile, we tell our canine friend to take care of business.  There’s nothing to see.  There’s nothing to discover.  We’re human.  You’re a dog, and we know more than you.  Really?  We know what the terrain of life is all about.  We know what the landscape of our past and present experience has produced. Oh, really?

Our pup is telling us, colloquially: “You don’t know NUTHIN!  There are all sorts of things to learn about the yard this morning.  All you see are the same crooked lines of a back yard, but there’s more to this yard than what you see.  You think you know everything—but you don’t.”

And so it is with Advent. We are in this period leading to Christmas—called to look at our lives—and discern where we need new life, new birth, new eyes, new heart.  Where we need to be reborn—and fed at the manger of our everyday lives.

We might say that we know our back yard.  It’s terrain we’ve traveled many times.  We know our spouse, our kids, our friends, neighbors, and what life’s all about.  Advent, however, is reminding us that we might not know as much as we think we do.  And what we might perceive as roots for our lives—are instead ruts that we need to move beyond.  God is writing straight but we are not detecting the sense of our live’s crooked lines.  Our mode might be one of just resignation “to the way things are.”  [Not God’s message]

Advent tells us that—like our pup—we need to look at our world more closely—peer past the material distractions and encounter God speaking to us—seeing how God writes straight in the crooked lines of our lives.

I was reminded of a homey example of this same reality when a parishioner brought me a plate of turkey on Thanksgiving.  It came on a paper plate, and I was reminded of a family Thanksgiving when I was about 9 years old.  Mom set on the table in paper, Thanksgiving-motif plates our dinner—bacon, and eggs.  No sooner did she do this than she started crying—my family consoling her that this was a great dinner.

The ”crooked lines” of that experience were that my dad had lost his business and we were reduced to poverty (which made for embarrassment, tears, and going without).  Previously, the family was “well off” and we used to have a wonderful banquet on Thanksgiving.  And God’s grace swept over us as we all agreed that bacon and eggs were great to have.  We at least had something—and we had one another.  I consider this experience to be one of the great graces of my life.  We had so much to be thankful for.

This past week, a few parishioners sent me a recently posted Diocesan article about my work with Black Elk (the famous holy-man).  As I’ve mentioned in the past, the man is globally known and admired—and two of my books placed him on the road to canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church (Episcopalians already call him one).  While this is all well and good, I confess to having had zero interest in learning about the man’s practice of Catholicism.  I instead sought to learn about his fighting the U.S. cavalry, his mystical experiences as a medicine man, his taking of scalps, and hunting buffalo.  This Catholic piety-thing was not on my radar of interest.

But as you know, God writes straight in crooked lines.  In the course of doing fieldwork in search of what I wanted to learn, God apparently used me/inspired me/led me (whatever phrase might apply to how God is active in our lives)—to uncover the man’s role as a Lakota Catholic (a role that was heretofore unknown and which now is a great contribution to Lakota historical studies).  Without wanting to be, I became God’s accomplice—struggling through the crooked lines of seeking other material but getting information or data that took me to a new world.

Today’s gospel passage simply tells us to be alert—to be on guard—on the watch for how God will come to us.  Advent calls us forward to Bethlehem—to hear God’s word afresh, to find not God’s birth at Bethlehem but our re-birth in 2020 as a more insightful, more grounded disciple. 

Advent RITUALLY reminds us that we are en route to Bethlehem.  So over these weeks, talk to God and ask that you might spot the signposts which lead you there.  Ask that you might not be stopped by distractions along the way—and that if you’re floundering in some life-area, tell God to drag you back to the road that leads to the manger—where you’ll be fed.

For each of us is Mary—naïve, embarrassed by our lowly condition. Each of us is Joseph, perhaps buoyed by our love for a girl from the village, devout in our faith—but then, things fall apart.  The girl is pregnant by who?  Where is God?  Dreams of angels call us to live our faith—but some experiences make living by faith really hard to do.

Like them, we move on—past the small weddings and well wishes of life, and we move on and look for a place to live.  Often enough, we feel as if we only see signs which say no vacancy (which can also mean we feel as if others exclude us or don’t welcome us).

Where is Advent taking Mary and Joseph—and us?   Faith propels us as we try and remember the promise of Bethlehem—and that new birth results from this life-journey of stops, starts, wrong turns, and getting back on course.  We’re comforted in belonging to a faith-community of wise men and women who likewise head toward the city of David—like us, called to read what God has written in the crooked lines of their life-experience.

November 22, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

This weekend is the feast of Christ the King. The title of the feast day seems old-fashioned since the word “king” does not resonate with our experience. It’s a word we associate with European history—and with countries fighting under the banner of different royal families. The word “King” smacks of bygone times and irrelevant images of dukes, duchesses, princes, and princesses.

It was Pope Pius XI who instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925. During this period (and before), the Vatican had been a secular power controlling a fair amount of land in Italy. A complicated history saw the Pope reach a settlement with Italy in 1929 that made the Vatican the smallest sovereign state in the world—in both area (129 acres) and population (825).

That said, and regardless of how irrelevant the word “king” is to our everyday life, the feast definitely has an important meaning for each of us—especially in these troubled political times. Back in 1925, the pope and his advisors thought we should reflect on the kingship of Christ as an antidote to the secularism and nationalism that were on the rise (remember Mussolini and Hitler, both “fascists,” came to power at this time).

Recall “fascism” refers to an authoritarian leader who emphasizes a national identity (“real” white Americans) over all others and who challenges freedom of the press and assembly. Fascistic leaders overthrow elections claiming corruption on the part of all opponents—thus setting up a dictatorship. A contemporary politician put it this way: “Don’t believe what you see or hear, but believe what I tell you.” THAT is pure fascism—American vintage 2020.

N.B., During the election, you heard reference to “Antifa”—which was made out to be an evil organization that was going to overthrow football, gun rights, Christianity, apple pie, and motherhood. What was the reality of “Antifa?” First of all, it stands for “anti-fascist.” People who associate with the word “Antifa” are people who believe in the Bill of Rights and Constitution. I would think that everyone in our parish has “Antifa” attitudes and thoughts. After all, Antifa is simply anyone who believes in the election process, that all people are created equal, and that our country is a democracy and not a fascist state.

Antifa is NOT an organization! However, its fascistic opponents made “Antifa” out to be a non-White, national gang of armed thugs heading to overthrow Hemlock and Merrill and all other small towns USA. This is utter silliness— but “conspiracy theorists” have made this image of Antifa popular among the misinformed.

To illustrate how tragic our times are, the recently elected senator in Alabama (former football coach Tommy Tuberville) proudly stated that his father fought against socialists in WW2. No, Mr. Tuberville—the U.S. and Russia were allies in WW2—Russia being a socialist country ally. We were fighting Italy and Germany— FASCIST countries. To quote our founding fathers, “these are the times that try men’s souls”—when an elected senator doesn’t know what his dad fought against in WW2 and doesn’t know basic American history.

Mr. Tuberville defeated an intelligent opponent whose service of people was unimpeachable. And Mr. Tuberville in 2014, founded the Tommy Tuberville Foundation, which said it would help American veterans. In 2020, the Associated Press reported that tax records showed the foundation spent only about one-third of the money it raised on charitable giving. Does that sound like someone you want to see in the Senate? Someone who runs a fraud-charity and who doesn’t know what his country stands for?

The relevance of our political times to Christ the King Sunday

When the Church declared this feast day, it was trying to address a problem it saw emerging in Europe (the rise of evil leadership in the persons of Mussolini and Hitler). THAT is the point this feast day addresses. It is telling you and me that none of our leaders are Christ. There is only one risen Lord, one Messiah—one “King” who we are called to honor and reverence.

This feast day speaks directly to a human phenomenon that regularly occurs throughout history. Namely, there often arises a charismatic leader who, for one reason or another, is able to appeal to crowds. The people, in turn, pledge their undying support of the charismatic leader who, sadly, often leads people to their deaths.

Reference here is not to current politicians at all. If it helps to think of Trump, Pence, Biden, Harris, Obama, Clinton, etc., etc.—fine. But the issue is broader than them. Most of you recall Jim Jones of Guyana fame—and how he convinced his followers that he had the words to eternal life. He persuaded them to “drink the Kool-Aid” and over 900 died. We now have a phrase in English “don’t drink the Kool-Aid”—which refers to stopping yourself from getting hooked by a master con-man (someone who persuades you to act against your own self-interest).

Then there was Marshall Applewhite—who founded Heaven’s Gate. This man convinced regular people like you—that a spaceship was on the other side of the Hale-Bopp comet. In order to get on board the alien spacecraft, people needed to commit suicide—which 39 followers of Applewhite did. They were not extremist, mentally ill people, but were regular souls who had families just like yours. One follower afterward regretted missing the opportunity to go with his crewmates—so ingrained can one’s delusion be.

For some years, “Gabriel of Sedona” leads a group in Sedona, Arizona who regard him as the representative of the “Divine Master of Navidon” (the name of some entity he claims is the creator of the universe). People give their belongings to Gabriel—a one-time musician from Pittsburgh whose charismatic style has won the minds and hearts of these regular, everyday U.S. folk. And when Charles Manson died (I lived about 5 miles from his birth home and knew people who knew him from childhood), he left behind thousands of adoring followers.

The list of charismatic leaders can go on and on (e.g., look at TV preachers rake in cash—how are they able to so manipulate people?). The idea of “Christ the King” is the idea that each of us is Christian— and that we pledge allegiance to one person only—the risen Lord Jesus. You do not pledge allegiance to any country, or organization, or a person who claims special powers. No—you are a Christian who has been baptized into a faith that calls you to love others as Jesus loved us.

This weekend’s gospel is often used as a summary statement of what Christians believe. It never grows old—and should be tattooed on your heart. This week’s gospel cuts through the rhetoric of politicians and charismatic leaders who sell themselves as the Messiah. Anyone who portrays themselves in such terms—should make you flee in the opposite direction.

The king of our lives is very near to us—in diverse ways. Sometimes we recognize him and sometimes we do not. Which is why it is important to keep in mind the following: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.’

When you hear someone speak in these terms, you are listening to the voice of God. When someone does NOT speak in these terms, you are not hearing the voice of God.

November 15, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

I’m taking this opportunity to elaborate a topic I’ve previously raised in passing–understanding marriage NOT as it is understood in 1st world countries today but how it has been understood down through the ages–and among most of the earth’s inhabitants still. I do so because the gospel passage about the 5 empty and 5 full lamps is a good entré to the subject.

Recall the main character apart from the girls is the groom coming back late to his house for the big celebration. Where’s his bride? Why is he late? (N.B.: we ask those sorts of questions but listeners of the first century probably assumed the bride was there so it wasn’t necessary to mention her, or anyone else, coming back later; also, it was probably not uncommon for grooms to return late).

In America, people commonly think of marriage as being the meeting of hearts, minds, and bodies. Young people think they can live up to this understanding of the institution: “when two people are under the influence of the most violent, the most insane, the most delusionary, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do us part!”

Cultures try to deal with faulty understandings of the reality of marriage. For example, all of our ancestors accepted a fact of life that could be phrased this way: “marriage is the foundation of society—so elders must be the ones to choose who marries who.” This thinking is at the heart of what you hear referred to as “arranged marriage.”  Stated another way: marriage is too important a decision for young people to make.

Contrary to definitions of marriage that poetically include notions of “love,” the global reality is the opposite.   That is, marriage is an economic and political transaction uniting two groups. That might not match your romantic notion of marriage when you were young and in love—but for most of the world today, that definition still rules the day.

Think of India with 3 times as many people as the U.S.—arranged marriages. Throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia—arranged marriages.

How this played out in the time of Jesus

Betrothal was the initial phase of the marriage process in which prospective spouses (who were first cousins) negotiated expectations (one could be betrothed at a very young age). A formal divorce was required to break the public establishment of the betrothal. Sex with a betrothed woman (“woman” in this context could be 10 years old) was considered adultery.

Israelite marriage saw the bride move to the area of her husband’s family dwellings. The couple did not just up and decide to “set up our own place by the sea.” Nor could the bride pout and plead that they remain close to her family “because I’m so close to my grandmother and aunts.” Nope. That sort of gamesmanship takes place in America, but in all cultures of the world—it doesn’t fly.

Marriages were arranged by parents to join extended families (not individuals). Neither the bride nor groom expected love, companionship, or comfort. In this rigidly gender-divided world, men and women had very little contact. Both realized that their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families.

There is a ritualized removal of a woman from her family after the groom’s father offers gifts and services. The bride’s father makes the final decision. HOWEVER, women of both families negotiate so that neither family is shortchanged (they don’t want a girl who can’t cook very well, or who is lazy).

The patriarch of each family ratifies the contract publicly. When the groom takes the bride into his home, the marriage process is completed. In the gospel story, think of the groom’s late arrival occurring because of last-minute negotiations–or having some Jim Beam with his future in-laws.

In the first century, listeners knew the highpoint of the ceremony occurred when the groom went to the family house of the bride to transfer her to his home. This sort of ritual is common globally—just not here in America!

Who were the sleepy lamp bearers? Neither “bridesmaid” nor “virgin” are helpful translations. They were the groom’s siblings and cousins—all very young (they should have taken a nap during the day—so they were being taught a lesson for not using good judgment and not being prepared.  There would be more feasts to attend, so don’t weep for the five sent home).

We have centuries of Marian devotions and perhaps fantasize Mary as a lovely bride—not realizing that Mary was probably 13 when she and Joseph took their honeymoon in Egypt as they escaped Herod’s wrath.

What was the role of the 10 girls awaiting the groom’s return with his bride?  They were to greet and celebrate at the house until the “consummation” of the marriage (i.e., until the couple have—pick your preference—copulated, had sexual intercourse, “made love”).  Keep in mind that “love” has no role in this physical act under these cultural rules.  A crowning moment of this “love story” (?) is the display of the blood-stained bed sheet demonstrating that the bride possessed physical integrity (an intact hymen) as required by Deuteronomy 22: 13- 21.

Now that you’re familiar with all the cultural “baggage” involved with this parable, what can you take away from the story?

Matthew’s community included recently converted Jews, so the 5 wise ones could refer to those who were ready to receive Jesus as the messiah (and the 5 unwise ones those who stuck to the old ways). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians awaiting his imminent return added verse 13 to the parable: “So keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Minimally, it is good advice if one is thinking about the return of Jesus or the end of the world. The parable provides both positive and negative models.

November 8, 2020

November 1, 2020

In the early Church, all baptized Christians referred to themselves as the community of the “saints.”  All Saints day was, in a sense, a celebration of their community.  They celebrated their membership who was now with God.  Eventually, centuries later, the community recognized all who died, and so came up with All Souls day (All Saints was reserved just for those who had been officially recognized by the Church).

The gospel reading for these two feast days is appropriate.  It’s Matthew’s account of the beatitudes (Luke’s gospel having another account of the beatitudes).  But what sense are we to make of Luke citing 4 (blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and those who are hated) and Matthew citing 9?  Did Luke’s tape-recorder lose power when he recorded Jesus speaking?  And why did Luke present the scene as taking place on the plain while Matthew had him speak the beatitudes on a mountain?  Why couldn’t the gospel-writers get the story straight?

Here’s one way of looking at the discrepancy.

Both men are simply describing a cross section of the faith-community.  We ALL, in some way, are “blessed” (which means “honorable” or deserving of respect).

Pope Francis did the same.  He proposed the following:

  1. Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart
  2. Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness
  3. Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover Him
  4. Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home
  5. Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others
  6. Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians. 

In seeing the Pope’s list, I thought of a few more–and encourage you to look at your life, and list the “blessed” ones who come to mind.

Blessed are you who are lonely but who are still able to smile at others.   Who feel you don’t have many friends, but still reach out to people.   Who are tempted to do things you know are not right, but don’t do them.  Who are depressed, but don’t spread your blues to those around you.   Who feel overwhelmed by various demands, but who still try to be of help where you can. Blessed are those who do–and those who try.  Blessed are the truck drivers, and bus drivers and those who organize carpools.  Blessed are those who are teachers and daycare workers.   Blessed are the frontline dishwashers, cooks, and those who do the grocery shopping.  Blessed are those who look over homework, those who are tutors, and teacher aides.  Blessed are the cleaners and those who sanitize.  Blessed are those who pray for those in need.  Blessed are lectors, ushers, collection counters—and all who try to serve the faith community in different ways.  And yes, blessed are those who take Christ’s Mission Appeal to heart–and make it part of their Christmas giving.

These holy days are a celebration of our faith community—and the beatitudes describe each of you.  You could add “Blessed is (your name).”  Seriously!  Theologically, that’s a fact.

That’s why the 2nd reading is appropriate for this holy-day celebration.  Notice you are being referred to as God’s “beloved.”  And so the faith community celebrates the memory of all those “beloved” of God who have returned to God.

Which is what we’re doing today—with our table of candles and pictures of our “beloved” who we lost this past year.  Family members feel the void these people have left, and we, the faith community, share their loss.

Our tears and sense of loss that family members feel are our testimony to how cherished they were in our lives.  God knows how you feel.

We look at the photos and think “This is my child, my wife, my husband, my sister, my brother, my father, mother, grandmother, friend . . .. “–but no sooner do we think of those we’ve lost, than God tries to remind us “Before you came to be, I was!  Before you knew them, they were mine.  They were, and remain, my beloved.  I take care of my beloved.”

In losing young, middle-age and older people this past year, it’s important to keep in mind that their perspective is different from ours.  They know what eye has not seen nor ear heard.   Their life, like ours, has changed—not ended.  We might wonder about “eternal life” or “heaven,” and wonder if our loved ones are with God.  It’s important to remember that in God’s eyes, our loved one is God’s beloved first.  That might suggest to you what their eternal destiny is—as God understands the human condition (and the human condition of our loved ones who’ve passed away) better than we do.

I received an email this week from a friend in Huron County which described life there.  It reminded me of life here—so I share with you her reflection on her home parish:

“Rural life . . . how painful I find it to watch this community fade away as my dad’s generation slowly dies off . . . one after another . . . and no young people to replace the quaint family farms that are now practically extinct. I don’t think I will ever recover from that sense of loss . . . it cuts me to my core. 

Women who led 4-H youth groups—who knew my name at church and neighbors who brought over coffee cakes at Christmas and Easter because that is what neighbors did back then.   Six people gone from the square mile my dad lives on . . . just in the past few years.   

Sometimes I recapture memories by escaping to my brother’s house where his children are a wonderful and joyful relief.  I always make cookies or some treat of sorts and they all huddle around the KitchenAid Mixer.  I am instructed to tickle them . . . “tickle me” they say . . . and so I do . . . and they laugh and laugh.” 

My friend’s reflections reminded me of us.  Her faith-community and ours—who will receive the torch passed from those we’ve lost?  Who will fill their vacancy?  We have our mission, so I share this poem apropos of the feast day.

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 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 folk just like we, 

So let’s try to be one, too. 

Pastor’s Pen           October 25, 2020

The first 5 books of Hebrew scripture—which we call the Old Testament—are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  It is said that there are 613 commandments in these 5 books (called the “Torah” by Jewish people)—248 of which are “positive” (“thou shalt DO” something) and 365 “negative” (“thou shalt NOT do” something).

People who were strong believers in “numerology” once thought that there are 248 bones in the human body (there are actually 206)—and that our bones should be “doing” all 613 commandments 365 days of the year (See the connection?  248 + 365 = 613).  More importantly, it was the custom of Temple teachers to try and reduce the Torah into one or a few statements, e.g., King David summarized the Torah in 11 verses, Isaiah in 6, Micah in 3, and Amos in 1—viz., “God said to Israel: Seek me and live!”

I like what Amos said—because it points to a truth that too many people don’t realize.  That is, God gave us everything and wants us to live life to the fullest.  God does NOT give us everything so that we feel eternally in debt, or beholden, or unworthy of such generosity.  Rather, God wants us to be happy persons who rejoice in all the wonders of creation around us—be they people, geographical features, all the plants and animals, or stars in the sky.  God doesn’t need anything—certainly not our animal sacrifices or other culturally-contoured religious behaviors. Rather, all God seeks is a relationship with us—the children of a loving God.  That’s why Amos reduced the Torah to: “Seek God—and live!” 

Knowing this background, you now know why Jesus is asked to summarize the law and the prophets (i.e., the Torah).  This is what people used to do—creatively express what the Torah said (in fewer words).  Which reminds me.  Some weeks back I gave you a sentence related to us living up to our Christian-Catholic identity.  I said that we need to remind ourselves: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”  Stated simply, we need to back up our religious thoughts and desires with action.  So how about coming up with your own summary of what the gospels say to you?  If you come up with something you think others should hear—email or call me or the office—and maybe it should go in the bulletin.  If you do not wish to be identified—fine—but maybe others will benefit from your reflection.

N.B., I’ll reserve the right to NOT put something in the bulletin if I notice it might be heretical.   For example, an early heresy said that Jesus wanted us to eat cantaloupe!  Uh—the early Church told this group that he taught no such thing.  I suspect they were upset with that judgment—but if feelings were hurt, they weren’t passed down to new generations.  I have not heard of that heresy preached anywhere recently.

Jesus blended Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18—the vertical/horizontal understanding that to love God was to love one’s neighbor.  HOWEVER, in the context of Leviticus, one’s “neighbor” was a fellow Israelite, or one’s “home boys” back in one or another Nazareth neighborhood.  That is, there was a certain ethnic bias one was called to observe—whether one “felt” warm and cuddly toward a kinsman—or not.   Just as we are closer to some relatives and friends, so were the Israelites—but Leviticus told them to transcend feelings and support their people.  In Luke, Jesus expanded the meaning of “neighbor.”  Which leads to a topic I need to address this weekend.

Parishes throughout the land—in every diocese in the U.S.—are part of the local, yearly, Church “appeal.”  Bishop Gruss has named ours “Christ’s Mission Appeal”—intending to convey that Jesus himself is asking us to reach into our pockets and, in doing so, reach out to the world beyond Ryan, Merrill, and Hemlock.  Like you, I have been in the pews over the years—rolling my eyes upon hearing a priest or layperson tell us that we needed to contribute to the diocesan appeal.  Like everyone else, I could not wait for the speaker to conclude.

And now I find myself having to address this topic with you—on my first anniversary weekend of being here.  On the one hand, I have no desire to represent the Church as a fund-raiser.  On the other hand, I find the role an extremely important one—God in a way telling me: “Mike—it’s not how you FEEL about this topic.  It’s that my people are in need—and you have to represent them to the parish.”  Therefore, people of Hemlock, Merrill, and Ryan—I present to you my understanding of Christ’s Mission Appeal.

I think the temptation is to think the diocese will spend funds frivolously, or not spend on the important matters that you think it should address.  The temptation exists for us to think to ourselves “The heck with this—I’m not giving anything to a diocese that _________________” (fill in the blank).  The fact is, each of us can be critical of one thing or another—in any institution, we might claim membership.  And not give anything to anyone.

When I was ordained, people asked me “why are you doing this?”  And they listed their reasons for why I should not take this route.  Although several reasons motivated me, I often said that my plan—as a member of the loyal opposition within the Church—was to infiltrate the institution in order to change it.  Young and naïve to think I could make a difference, time has tempered my Vatican 2 optimism.

Pope John the 23rd opened the Church windows in order to let in the Holy Spirit and freshen it up from centuries of mildew and mold—but rebellion in the ranks put people in place who ended the reforms that Vatican 2 initiated.  I’m at least glad that my books on Black Elk put this Sioux holy-man on the road to canonization as a saint.  I never could have known that the churchman who got the Conference of bishops to approve Black Elk’s nomination—would be the bishop responsible for bringing me to Merrill, Hemlock, and Ryan—our own Bishop Gruss.  It is he who now spearheads Christ’s Mission Appeal.  Guess what?  I am honored to represent this cause.

Why?  Because through the appeal, we are “loving our neighbor” as Jesus calls us to do in today’s gospel.  We are supporting Catholic Family Services—which provides counseling and assistance to young and old who are in need throughout the diocese.  As a one-time teacher-chaplain at Nouvel, I was grateful that the Appeal supported Catholic education—which has seen so many schools close.  I recently asked an engaged couple to take advantage of a pre-marriage seminar that the diocese conducted.  Recently, I received counsel from the bishop’s faith formation program.  THESE are just some of the services that Christ’s Mission Appeal PARTIALLY subsidizes (because so many more funds are needed to fully support all the different needs).

Last month an article appeared in Faith magazine that featured my presentation on Black Elk that was presented here at the parish.  Last weekend I cited all the different issues that our faith calls us to address—environment, right-to-life, hunger, refugees, etc.  It is the Communications Office that publishes material on these issues throughout the year—catechizing (teaching) us about them.  But what I cite here is just the tip of the iceberg of what our outreach accomplishes.

You may recall that we used to see 12-collections-a-year at parishes.  Now we have only 4—one of which was a couple of weeks ago–“Mission Sunday.”  We collected a little over $800 dollars for that collection.  I thought that sum was pretty decent.  Sure, people could say we should have collected more—but I’m grateful for anything.  I know that asking for donations can touch a nerve.  When I see $800 dollars going to people in need, I thank God for those who feelingly responded to those who rely on our help.  Which leads to my telling you what happened to the 8 other collections that used to be taken.

Christ’s Mission Appeal supports those 8.   They are: 1) the Church in Latin America (so much poverty there—which our lay and religious missionaries address); 2) the Black and Indian Missions (which meant so much to me when I was on the Indian missions—truly in need of our help); 3) the Holy Land (few Christians are at the sacred places—so our Appeal helps support the Franciscans, and others, who are a minority Catholic presence); 4) Catholic Home Missions Appeal (having spent many years in Appalachia, I can only say “thank you” for the help this collection brought to us); 5) Catholic Communication Campaign (keeps the Church visible on the national level—helping the Church play an essential public role in the nation);  6) Peter’s Pence Collection (which provides the Pope with funding to have “boots on the ground” in every country of the world—why “Catholic” means “universal”); 7) The Catholic University of America (while all Catholic colleges must raise funds on their own, this school exists because of a mandate issued in the late 1800s to have a sponsored Catholic university); and 8) the Solidarity Fund for the Church in Africa (the many African Catholic priests now serving in the U.S. were ordained because such a collection exists).

I would like to think our parish embodies what Paul’s letter today says.  We can be “a model for all believers.”  The $86,649 that has been set as our target—really is not that much to ask 452 envelope holders to support.  In considering what our contribution does—we should proudly give to what today’s Exodus reading refers—the widows, the orphans, the refugees so desperate to simply stay alive.  Like the God we say we serve, we “hear their cry and are compassionate.”

You may recall the photo of the little 3-year-old boy lying dead on a Mediterranean beach—his family’s boat capsizing as they fled Turkey’s oppressive regime.  There lay this little innocent—wearing shorts and gym shoes—a victim of adult sin—which our funding desperately tries to overcome.

You know of my books on the Sioux holy-man, Black Elk.  One day, his daughter said: “Mike, will you mail this for me?”  I saw it was addressed to Catholic Relief Services and asked her why she was writing them.  She said: “My father told us to help others financially because there is always someone worse off than us—and they need our help.  Each year I send them a dollar.”  I was emotionally moved to hear her say this.  Why?

Because Lucy lived in a log cabin with no running water—just an electric line.  An outhouse was her bathroom which, 50 feet distant from her house, was a challenge to access when 2 feet of snow covered the ground in winter.  She was destitute.

I’m not going to speak about this Mission Appeal again.  I have confidence in our parishioners knocking off our goal in the weeks ahead.  In fact, I look forward to the diocese calling me and saying that John 23rd has reached its goal (anything over it comes back to the parish—unlike my experience as a pastor in the U.P.).  I say this because we have people who donate generously out of the clear blue.  I do not know what motivates them to do this (anonymously or not)—but maybe they are moved by the same Spirit that prompted Lucy to donate her dollar bill.

Last Christmas I was touched that people gave me expressions of thanks.  If anyone feels so moved this year, donate instead to the Mission Appeal.  THAT is what I would appreciate.  It just seems to me that in the weeks ahead, all the charities in the world will be asking you for donations, and the Salvation Army will be at every business as you enter.  As today’s gospel states, I think our parish community will love God by loving our neighbor represented in the diverse outreaches of the Mission Appeal.  We are supposed to send our donations to the diocese (eliminating our office as the middle-man), but any loose bills or change that you put in the box at the back of church—will go to CMA.

It would really be great if one of us became a lottery winner and shared our success with the parish—but experience has given me a more sober attitude about such dreams.  My parish in the U.P. was 500 yards from the newly built casino, and I thought that lucky winners might thank God for their success and enhance our parish collection by dropping off part of their windfall.  Guess what?  Our collection went from about $350 a week to about $350 a week!  No increase at all.  Darnit.

Realistically, would it not be totally cool to have our light shine for the diocese as a whole?  How neat it would be for the diocese to announce that Merrill, Hemlock, and Ryan responded quickly to our responsibility—and hit our goal before Christmas.  The diocese as a whole will look to our country parish—and perhaps be inspired to do the same—so that Christmas for others will be more meaningful.  Their lives will be better because we took to heart the 10 word sentence about Christian stewardship: “If it is to be, it is up to US.”

Let this story be an inspiration to your CMA generosity 😊

Sitting by the window of her convent, Sister Barbara opened a letter from home one evening.  Inside the letter was a $100 bill her parents had sent. Sister Barbara smiled at the gesture.

As she read the letter by the window, she noticed a shabbily dressed stranger leaning against the lamp post below.

Quickly, she wrote, “Don’t despair. – Sister Barbara” on a piece of paper, wrapped the $100 bill in it, got the man’s attention, and tossed it out the window to him. The stranger picked it up, and with a puzzled expression and a tip of his hat, went off down the street.

The next day, Sister Barbara was told that a man was at her door, insisting on seeing her.

She went down and found the stranger waiting.  Without a word, he handed her a huge wad of $100 bills.  “What’s this?” she asked.

“That’s the $8,000 you have coming Sister,” he replied.  “Don’t Despair paid 80-to-1.”

TRUNK OR TREAT AFTER THE 11 A.M. MASS NOVEMBER 2 IN ST. MARY’S PARKING LOT

Need a retreat?

Dan Schutte is a liturgical musician well known for many songs you’ve sung at masses down through the years.  You may consider doing a “virtual retreat” under him.  See this website: https://www.danschuttemusic.com/wordpressstore/individual-virtu    OR

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+sing+a+new+song+schutte&&view=detail&mid=14ACA45C85F7539F718E14ACA45C85F7539F718E&rvsmid=633B1750C50C23EA0862633B1750C50C23EA0862&FORM=VDQVAP

Dan and I taught together on the Pine Ridge Reservation—a sampling of his songs are below—good to play as background music at home—inspirational and helpful for prayer and elevating your thoughts:

Though the Mountains May Fall          

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnGnGBlBc1k

You Are Near

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=neither+silver+nor+gold+youtube+musical+album&docid=607994664531461248&mid=8BB01B48622B76D184588BB01B48622B76D18458&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

With Merry Dancing 

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=with+merry+dancing+youtube+music&docid=608017311799250248&mid=0D2F6A7C3EF92C9174D80D2F6A7C3EF92C9174D8&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

Sing A New Song 

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+sing+a+new+song+schutte&docid=607990253569051352&mid=633B1750C50C23EA0862633B1750C50C23EA0862&view=detail&FORM=VIRE

City of God

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+sing+a+new+song+schutte&&view=detail&mid=F8328CBCECAFCE6EE081F8328CBCECAFCE6EE081&rvsmid=633B1750C50C23EA0862633B1750C50C23EA0862&FORM=VDQVAP

Here I Am, Lord (a favorite of all who appreciate sacred music—3 versions) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UkTlj2uPl4 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=endq52Jw7ag

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yv1arxTx

Faith formation needs a couple of teachers 

You can do it—a great experience forming little ones (1st & 2nd graders).

Christ’s Mission Appeal Formula for Assessing Parishes

If you wish to see the assessment formula—you can.  However, it is too complicated and long to include in the bulletin.  As I mentioned at mass, spread out over 452 envelope users, our target is not very much—which is why I encourage you to take care of this right now—as our Christmas charity.  We can complete this contribution in just a few weeks.  Remember to make checks payable to the diocese.  You can save a stamp and have us send it in, otherwise 5800 Weiss, Sag. 48603.  OR, put your change or bills or envelope in the box at church when you come to mass.

Different churches are implementing old and new protocols.  An epidemiologist friend of mine who has worked with Dr. Fauci said that now was NOT the time to relax our guard. 

October 18, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

This weekend’s first reading (I Thessalonians) is thought to be the earliest New Testament document—written around the year 50 A.D. (or, if you prefer, “CE”—the “Common Era”).

The gospel reading offers us the well-known passage related to politics—its appearance at this election time of year purely coincidental: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  Give to God the things that are God’s.”  Generations of Christians have used this passage in different ways—sometimes to the detriment of the gospel. 

For example, in having Christianity be the religion of the state, all sorts of problems resulted from the two blending together (e.g., the persecution of anyone who wasn’t Christian).  At the time of the Reformation, Germany’s emperor sided with Luther against the Pope (who at the time was not just a spiritual leader but also a secular ruler in charge of the “Papal States”)—and so split the Church not just on theological grounds but also on political grounds (Germany no longer “Catholic” and becoming a “Lutheran” state).

In the time of Jesus, there was no sacred/secular distinction.  The Temple was both a sacred and secular institution.  It was the center of everyone’s life—within the realms of religion, politics, and economics.  Jesus acknowledges that one has a duty of citizenship with taxes, but also (foremost) to God.

Missed by many readers down through the centuries was a point Matthew made within the dialogue of Jesus with the Temple authorities.  When he asked them to produce a coin, they did so—and that act alone won him the argument.  How so?  Because his opponents tried to pass themselves off as holier-than-thou observers of all laws within Hebrew scripture.  HOWEVER, by having in their possession a “graven image” of the emperor (who claimed to be a god), they were falling short of their religious identity as paragons of virtue.  Instead of being a passage that spells out the role of gospel within politics, it is one that more so depicts Jesus as having a keener intellect than his Temple-critics.

If you’re looking for any kind of “political” agenda within the teachings of Jesus, you have simply to look at what he did in his short public ministry of 3 years.  He observed what all observing Jews still today try to do (which we, whose roots are Jewish, are likewise called to do).  The phrase Judaism uses is “Tikkun Olam” (the repair of the world). As the Hebrew scriptures said to Jesus (and us), repairing of the world arises out of our hunger and thirst for justice—and hearing the cry of the poor (which Temple authorities were ignoring).

Jesus’s 3-year ministry revealed his agenda to be the following: 1) healthcare for any who wanted it; 2) hearing and responding to the voice of the oppressed—as in the case of women—whose voices were ignored in the patriarchal culture of his time; and 3) speaking out against systems wielding power over the poor, the defenseless, and the outsider.

Note that when he took on the Temple system directly, he was killed within a week.  Contrary to what many preachers have preached, and what might be consoling to you, is that Jesus did not concentrate on “personal” sins of the “flesh” nearly as much as the sins of corporate entities.  His opponents who considered themselves so righteous and self-important were associated with sinful systems and empires.  These are what we call sinful structures—which spawn such things as nepotism (i.e., being hired for WHO you know and not WHAT you know).  

Jesus could say: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!  Woe to you, Jerusalem and Capernaum!” and “Woe to you corporate Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes!”  He didn’t warn Bill of Bethsaida, Connie from Chorazin, Jerry of Jerusalem, Cathy from Capernaum, or Fred the Pharisee.  Individual penitents he forgave, but he challenged unjust structures.

Although this week’s gospel is not a political declaration on the part of Jesus, it lends itself to us considering what mandate the gospel places on us as individual Catholic voters who can cast a ballot this election year.

Over the past year, I’ve reminded you that the gospel knows no geographical or ethnic boundaries and that our identity as Catholics makes us citizens of the world–brothers and sisters with different languages and different appearances (Jesus telling us that we are all children of God—despite what is said by people with prejudices).  I’ve said that if we are to pledge allegiance to anything, it is first and foremost to God.  Had German and American Christians made this pledge in 1941, we might have avoided World War 2.  Instead, we chose as nations to kill one another—pledging allegiance to the tune of “Deutschland über alles” or the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

I make this observation as one whose brother was a U.S. Marine in the Pacific during WW2 and who returned home with what today would be called PTSD.  So, my perspective is that of one whose family included someone from “the greatest generation.”  Blind patriotism took Germany to war in hopes of gaining a cultural pride that had been lost in WWI.  May we never confuse our identity as God’s children with being citizens of our country of birth. 

Jesus reminds us of this in today’s gospel when he said: “Give to God the things that are God’s” (which is everything).  That statement was translated into action by Saint Thomas More during the reign of Henry the 8 (who condemned him to death for not recognizing Henry as the head of the Catholic Church).

Just before his beheading, More told the executioner to remind everyone that he was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”   And so it is with all citizens of all countries.

As with any election, issues are bandied about and people argue for or against different candidates.  This past week, the bishops of Michigan were reminded that divisive partisan activity was violating several Vatican directives and the commitment made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in their letter “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”  In short, a few bishops and priests are attracting attention by saying that Catholics are not Catholic if they vote a certain way (despite what Rome and the Conference have stated).  You might find Cardinal Bernardin’s guideline more helpful than what these few bishops and priests are saying.   

Seamless garment of life 

Calling for a “Consistent Ethic of Life,” Bernardin stated that Catholics need a “seamless garment” philosophy (named after the robe Jesus wore at his death).    That is, instead of being one-dimensional voters, we need to bring into our decision-making an all-inclusive ethic of life that links the diverse issues festering within society.  You hear me speak of environmental issues, but I (and others) need to expand our repertoire of Catholic concerns.

We might be someone who favors capital punishment.  Let’s face it, if someone we love is murdered, our instinctive reaction is to well up anger and vengeance (the “reptilian” part of our brain).  We can even quote Exodus 21:24 and say the death penalty is biblically justified: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  Our Catholic faith-community, however, reminds us that the NEW Testament (i.e., the gospels and not the Old Testament) says: “turn the other cheek.”  Plus, Jesus was executed by the State.  This is but one, of MANY, life-issues that we are called to pray about—and then cast our vote accordingly.

When the U.S. started the Iraq war (based on the lie that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction), jingoistic Americans shouted: “Nuke ‘em.  Make a parking lot out of Iraq.”  And when France didn’t allow American bombers to fly over their territory (because France knew the U.S. was being an unhinged aggressor nation), these same war-mongers pled for French fries to be renamed “freedom fries” (casting America’s aggression as patriotism). 

Agree or disagree with this analysis of what is now America’s longest war, our Catholic faith DOES call us to account for allowing it to occur.  With nuclear deterrence now able to destroy the earth, is it possible to have what used to be called a “just war?”  Quakers have long said “no.”  Where do you cast your lot on the topic of war—and what justifies it (if anything)? 

Like capital punishment, this is but one of many issues that Catholics are called to discern at election time.  Mercy-killing, climate change, abortion, the environment, air quality, water quality, refugees fleeing to survive, economic justice—the list is endless.  Were Jesus alive today as himself (and not through us), he’d be busy challenging powerbrokers 24 hours a day.  Since we Catholics belong to a faith community, we supposedly get more gospel input on issues than people who do not belong to a faith community.

I, for example, am not a business major nor an economics teacher.  I do, however, get literature from fellow Catholics (bishops, Vatican, theologians, etc.) who DO work within these realms.  Just as they did with war and capital punishment above, these sources provide us information that sheds light on where economic policy conflicts with the gospel.  Drawing from the respected journal, Business Insider,  for example, they report that since the “Reagan Revolution” (a name that suggests something positive but which, in reality, was detrimental to the poor), Americans have believed the enduring myth of “trickle-down economics.”  The result of this policy is that the country’s wealth has become concentrated in the hands of a very small percentage—the middle class shrinking and producing more than ever a U.S. population of “haves and have nots.” 

[Note: “Trickle-down” economics basically states that corporations and the wealthy should get large tax breaks so that they will reinvest their new fortune in producing jobs; this philosophy has gained congressional votes repeatedly—resulting in wealthy people and corporations NOT reinvesting their fortunes but instead keeping their gains—at the expense of everyone else.]  One-time architect of trickle-down theory and Reagan economic adviser David Stockman admitted that “Ninety-two percent of the wealth is owned by five percent of the people.” 

In discussions about the economy, the words of Bishop Camara of Brazil are worth keeping in mind: “I feed the poor and they call me a saint; I ask why they’re poor and they call me a communist.

Even in bleak times, the people who Jesus wanted to uplift get further victimized while others flourish.  During the COVID-19 pandemic so far, millionaires in the U. S. have increased their total net worth $637 billion.  Moreover, their taxes have decreased 79% since 1980.  Meanwhile, in 2019, the government reported that four in 10 Americans didn’t have enough cash in their bank accounts to cover a $400 unexpected expense.  I’m reminded of the person who awakened to the reality of accepting economic crosses as “normal” for life until they went to college.  There they observed: “I thought I was in the middle class until I went to college and learned that I was poor.”

The realms of war, capital punishment, and economics give us the dismal picture above—while dismal facts are also associated with each of the other issues.  Like you, I have friends of goodwill who are going to vote for the candidates of each political party.  Maybe all we can do is realize that no one candidate or political party can “repair the world” entirely.  As voters, however, we can move in the direction of repair and healing by doing what Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see.”

Odds and Ends

What used to be called the Catholic Service Appeal is now called Christ’s Mission Appeal.  As you know, this subsidizes A to Z ministries within the Saginaw diocese.  The goal we have been given is $85,649.00 (a figure based on zip code and envelope holders.

Parishioner Betty Blehm celebrated with husband Elmer this week their 69th wedding anniversary.

We seek applicants for teachers within the faith formation program.  One is needed for the kindergarten/1st grade and one is needed for 2nd graders.  I did this as a high school and college student—and found the role really helpful for ME.  Call the office if you wish to apply for the role.

Here is a documentary in which I and Bishop Gruss appear.  It addresses the life of Nicholas Black Elk—the man about whom I’ve written.

https://youtu.be/56B8Jd4iXc8

The parish thanks parishioners who said they’d remove the fallen trees at St. Patrick’s—quite a savings since their removal would have cost a pretty penny.  Speaking of which, our weekly collection continues to be half of what it would be in non-virus times.  Such is life.

A nice free film on Youtube—Eskimo behavior that it portrays reminded me of mask-wearing during this virus period.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngvrS-XWGJc

October 11, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

On Saturday morning we had a funeral (Jackie Jarabeck) followed by a wedding (McFall/Bott) followed by the 4 p.m. mass.  The day is a symbol of how we conduct our lives as people of the gospel.  We bring our losses and gains to the altar of the Lord and ask God to help us steer a course that’s steadfast in faith, hope, and love in times of hurt and times of joy. 

As Isaiah and Matthew say to us this weekend—our “steadfast course” will lead us to the “heavenly banquet,” or banquet on the mountain with God for all eternity.   

This meal metaphor depicting heaven is used in Luke, too, and the apocryphal gospel of Thomas.  These 3 writers point to different realities. 

Matthew once again (as he did in last Sunday’s reading) reports that a “King” is having the banquet for his “Son” (the parable here is an allegory wherein one character stands for something else; in this case, the King is God the Father, and the Son is Jesus).  Matthew, remember, is addressing a Jewish audience that is converting to Christianity—so he’s giving them a theological history. 

The King/Father previously sent messengers inviting the Israelites to the heavenly banquet, but they rejected his messengers and Son—so he is now inviting others to the table of fellowship, the table of the Lord, the Eucharist.  These non-Israelites are the Gentiles who Jewish converts now see sitting among them.

Matthew’s parable is a mini-history of Israel.  In allegorical language, we see Israel’s rejection of prophets and a historical reference to the Jewish war with Rome in the year 70–during which the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed. Matthew’s parable is interpreted as the punishment of Israel for rejecting the gospel and persecuting Christians.

Which leads to the point being made by Luke and Thomas (who don’t speak of a King and his Son but just of a person having a banquet).  One needs to know that in antiquity, meals were an exclusive affair.  Inclusive table fellowship in the early Christian community caused problems, as Paul noted in his letters to Corinth.  

People in a status-conscious culture such as this would feel more than uneasy with a wedding banquet that has different levels of social classes.  Since parables tell how God relates to us, you can see that Jesus’ parable in Luke and Thomas is directed against elites (chief priests/elders and anyone who observes a rigid exclusivity).  

The gospels contrast their exclusivity with the open-hearted inclusivity expressed in the line: “Invite everyone you find” in the city square.  The point is that God’s people ought to relate to each other in the same way.   Do we?

Scholars suggest that Luke/Thomas and their banquet was given by a private individual and is closer to what Jesus preached (inclusivity at the table) whereas Matthew’s main focus was on his audience of former Jews converting.  Were they willing to accept table inclusivity and other changes?  Are we? 

To be a gospel person, we’re always being called to greater conversion—but we have the human tendency to go into the more comfortable mode of “we’ve always done it this way.”  To which, with the history he presents, Matthew is asking “where did THAT get you?”       

Zoom ahead to the present, and we, too, have trouble expanding our circle of inclusivity.  We’re okay with family and friends; and we’re patriotic when thinking of our country—but Christianity calls us out of ourselves, out of the familiar, and into missionary lands of “the other.”   

This doesn’t mean that we are blind to behaviors and accept whatever comes our way. Matthew later has someone show up to the banquet not dressed properly—the ancient custom being to provide clothing for people upon arrival.  But this fellow, apparently, does as he pleases—like one who doesn’t wear a mask when asked to do so during the virus.   

We can be like that person, and examples abound.  With church attendance declining these past decades, more and more people think they don’t need a Church.  They define themselves as good people who don’t kill or steal—and so live their lives as followers of the gospel of MTV, Madison Avenue, social media bombardments of opinion unrelated to Christianity, and whatever social circuit they’ve made the pattern of their lives. 

Do these people (us) read theological articles or read/watch Christian-based material?  Do these people have a strong enough background on ethical topics such that they can express an intelligent opinion in meetings or at the voting booth?  Or is their education on important matters emerging from barroom chatter or having coffee in the morning with the TV on? 

They think they can make ethical or important decisions without anyone’s help—and do what pleases them—instead of what they OUGHT to do (which a faith community proposes to its membership). 

If you’re raised a certain way—that’s how you’ll behave—so one’s standard of behavior can be pretty low (what is “normal” for your family might be nasty behavior in another family—as in politics when commentators speak of the “new normal” of behavior previously considered inappropriate or even unlawful). 

Recall the gospel story of the rich young man?  He said he did “everything” one could do to live a good life.  What he was REALLY saying was that he’d done only what he knew and did as he pleased—and still wasn’t “right.”  He needed a real faith practice—which would expand his repertoire of spiritual insight.  Sadly, the passage ends with him walking away disheartened—apparently not willing to expand his consciousness. 

This topic is apropos for World Mission Sunday—as Catholic means “universal”—and we’re called to expand our circle of inclusivity as missionaries (which is one model of what it means to be Christian—that is, each of us is a missionary). 

Being on the Indian missions a number of years—I writhed when hearing people indict missionaries—as people I knew were great and were greatly appreciated.  I recall when an investigation of Boys Town finances showed that their endowment was through the roof.  This publicity hurt missions everywhere—as people thought places like mine (Red Cloud Indian School) were rolling in wealth (when the exact opposite was the case).  Donations plummeted everywhere for all sorts of Catholic charities.  

I found myself having to prove our operation was good and doing fine work—and that we needed to continue in bettering the lives of others.  I was living the life of a minority white-guy on an Indian reservation—and under attack from non-Indians who indicted people like me for getting wealthy while doing mission work (not true).  These were misconceptions and prejudices directed my way—with me having to defend my existence. 

However, I was not just on the receiving end of discrimination.  I could perpetrate it, too.  So much so that during a retreat I asked God for help in overcoming my felt-negativity toward a certain religious group.  I knew that harboring this animosity did not resonate with the gospel I supposedly embraced so profoundly. Later that summer, I was driving out west and had a conversion experience. 

At 3 in the morning, I noticed the gas gauge was on empty.  Eventually running out of gas, I was forced to stop—strangely enough at that time in the morning—behind 2 cars that were likewise stopped.  A man came over to me—me thinking a serial killer would soon end my life—but instead, he thanked me for stopping and said that they were fine (they were just taking a break).  I told him that I hadn’t planned to stop but was out of gas.  “No problem.  I can get you going.” 

Cutting the ends of his daughter’s jump-rope, he used it as a tube to siphon gas from his tank into mine.  He said an all-night station was open about 5 miles ahead and that I could fill-up there.  He refused to take the 20 dollar bill I gratefully offered.  “Nope. We need to help one another in times like this.  No price on helping people in need.”   

I drove ahead and bought 2 bags of groceries for the family as a token of gratitude.  They arrived and I visited with them in the parking lot.  There I learned that these people belonged to the religion I had previously found contemptible. God had given me this grace of encounter which helped me expand my circle of inclusivity. 

People speak of America being a Christian nation—but elements of our past have nothing to do with the gospel.  I advise you NOT to say your country is Christian anymore than any other country is Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist.  Being connected to the American Indian world, I’ve seen a history that can be called anything BUT Christian.  This leads me to share another formative experience. 

One summer I did lobbying in D.C.  In the introductory class, we were told that the U.S., and all countries, do not initiate any policy based on it being the “right thing to do” according to the gospel.  In fact, an initiative might be 180 degrees the opposite of what the gospel teaches.  Rather, countries make decisions based on what will bring them economic stability or growth and help strategic interests globally. 

My naïve sense of America being “under God with liberty and justice for all” wasn’t necessarily being played out around the world.  I learned that US policy has nothing to do with bettering the lives of other countries as its primary goal.  ALL countries operate this way—not just the U.S. 

I raise this because if you can’t rely on your country to improve humanity’s lot, who CAN you trust?  This is why we have World Mission Sunday.  Because you belong to a faith community/Church that has its representatives, its emissaries, its workers in the field globally.  You DO have charities who can be of real assistance to people.  

I’m reminded of my food-stamp recipient grandmother getting literature from “Reverend Ike”—a now-deceased con-man preacher who preyed upon the ignorant or poorly informed to amass a fortune for himself.  My poor grandmother was duped by his mailing of literature—and she sent him a dollar.  So beware even of church-people. 

My point, however, is that when you see a Catholic-sponsored mission, 9 times out of 10 you can count on your donation going to a good place.  But even saying that, I still caution you to investigate first.  Which you needn’t do for World Mission Sunday.  It is our Church at work in the world—calling us to expand our circle of inclusivity. 

Director of our faith formation program, Cheryl Stevens, concluded World Mission Sunday’s homily with an account of how our parish “missionizes” our young people.

Odds and Ends 

1) Put on your calendar the weekend of October 31st and November 1st when we will celebrate remembrance masses for people we’ve lost this past year. 

2) After the 11 a.m. mass on the 1st, we will have Trunk & Treat in the parking lot–what should be a wonderfully pleasant experience for young people.  Participate if you can–and let young ones know of this outreach.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll want to hang around church more often. 

3) If you know of anyone interested in the RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), let the office/pastoral team know.  Similarly, if baptisms or weddings are anticipated, let us know well in advance.  Families must prepare their minds and hearts for the reception of these sacraments.  The parish offers this essential formation in the faith. 

4) The pandemic continues forcing us to adjust our ways accordingly.  As you know, all are welcome back to regular attendance at mass.  Those in the at-risk category are free to stay at home (and know that we miss seeing you). 

Fact is that some dioceses have still not resumed masses. 

Since the scientific community insists on the wearing of masks and to socially distance ourselves from one another, we are following their counsel.  For some time, the concept of “herd immunity” has been bandied about as one way of addressing the virus, but with more and more people being re-infected with it–the concept is not embraced by the World Health Organization or our own Center for Disease Control.  Besides, it is estimated that even if herd immunity worked, about 6 million Americans would die in the process (if not more).  Some of our parishioners have Covid, so keep this matter in prayer. 

The Church is adhering to what the scientific community advises–and trying to replicate the success of other countries that have significantly decreased infections via the wearing of masks and social distancing (New Zealand and Vietnam being exemplars in this regard–and having very few cases).  We think their course of action beats the sacrifice of 6 million people here at home. 

To repeat what was noted some weeks back, if during the London blitz (when Germany bombed the city) Londoners were told to turn out lights.  ALL did so, and London did not get destroyed.  If Americans were living there at the time, would they have proclaimed “I’m free to do what I want?  I’m leaving my lights on!”  Caring about and tending to the well-being of others is the mark of a Christian.  Keeping lights out in London and wearing a face mask is not just a civic exercise but also a spiritual one. 

October 4, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

As I’ve stated in the past, some think homilies should be limited to 6 minutes—based on people’s attention span getting shorter and shorter in the 21st century.  Notice commercials change shots in the blink of an eye—50 different images in the span of 1 minute.  No conversation or homily or lecture can compete with what our brains have been trained to want (fast-paced visuals that overwhelm thoughtful reflection).     

One of Catholicism’s many challenges is the theological education and spiritual formation of its people (very few of whom subscribe to theology journals or Catholic newspapers or who read contemporary books that address Christian tradition).  As a result, priests have their people on Sunday—to take a stab at communicating something that will help the people grow in their faith and interior life.  

For those who favor no homily or one of just a few minutes, do you also want a surgeon operating on you who attended a medical school where lectures were 5 minutes long—once a week?  Catholics have a long history of wanting masses that last 20 minutes.  In the mind of many, all one needed was the consecrated host—the magic pill that put one on God’s good side.  Go to church, get communion, and return home in as short a time as possible.  That’s how I was raised.  

Back then, and now, I was unaware that Orthodox Christians have 2.5-hour services on Sunday—as do the Southern Baptists.  Jewish shabots are 1.5-2.5 hours in length, while Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian are roughly an hour.  I attended a Catholic mass in a black community of New Orleans, and enjoyed every minute of the 3-hour service.  

Once I found myself in the role of priest—responsible for a mass—this topic became a professional and personal undertaking.  I had to take seriously the task of spiritually “forming” the congregation in whatever time I was allotted at a given church, chapel, convent, retreat house, or other venue where mass was celebrated.  During my time at John the 23rd, I try not to exceed 60 minutes.  

As I’ve said many times, it’s a privilege and challenge to speak to you each week—and I feel bad that what I address will probably not be on the radar of very young people.  Their life-experience, vocabulary, and overall interests are just not particularly attuned to the issues raised in scripture and which adults address more easily (which is why I’ve said that I need your help in SOMEHOW conveying to your young ones some sense of their Christian identity.  

This week’s readings, for example, are over the heads of young people but quite interesting to us older folks.  For example, the 2nd reading has Paul tell his audience to be truthful, honorable, just in their business dealings, high-minded, hospitable, and virtuous.  These are good qualities associated with Christians, yes, but they’re also associated with lots of people—non-Christians, too.  So what’s the big deal, or the message we’re supposed to get from Paul this week?  

If you don’t know the context, you might just read this passage and conclude that these are nice qualities we should live by.  Okay.  Sure.  But there’s more.  

His audience was agitating for the circumcision of Gentile (non-Jewish) initiates.   They argued that circumcision marked Jews as God’s chosen people, and so we must continue the tradition of this tribal scarring rite.  Seeing the people get all caught up in this ritual expression of piety, this is what Paul is saying: “PLEASE!  What do you think God is more interested in?  –marking your body, or manifesting behavior that reveals your heart is committed to selfless action (love) and caring about others?”  THAT’S why he’s focusing on–behaviors that foster community, and not on tattoos or scarring.  

The gospel reading likewise has an interesting twist to it.  Namely, the parable of a vineyard owner sending his servants to collect the rent is found in Matthew, Mark, Luke AND the apocryphal (non-canonical) gospel of Thomas.  Scholars think the version in Thomas is perhaps the older form—which Jesus probably preached.    

Its meaning relates to the “bad guy” in the story being NOT the tenants who killed the servants, but the landlord who—in the time of Jesus—was widely experienced as a SLUMlord.  The poor farmers and workers were being taken advantage of—so their revolt against the vineyard owner is seen as a story that would appeal to listeners.  The point isn’t to rally listeners to killing anyone, but rather to asserting their identity as Christians with a social message that liberates the oppressed.  

Applying this to our day, I was reminded of a relative who was a Detroit slumlord—who owned dilapidated housing that he rented to poor people.  This early exposure to people being taken advantage of—helped me appreciate the symbols of today’s gospel (rich vineyard owner taking advantage of the poor).  I’d like to think that watching this in my family—contributed to my interest in being someone (committed Catholic) who asserted my gospel identity (whatever I’m able to muster).

I was also reminded of the Roman Cardinal who resigned last month when it was learned he let out contracts to family and friends—another example of the wealthy not being fair with the working class—even within the Church.  This same pattern existed at the university where I taught.  Fiscal mismanagement based on nepotism (rewarding friends/relatives instead of objectively getting best deals for the employer) helped bring about the school’s demise.  The gospel example of a corrupt vineyard owner thus still applies.  

The OTHER interpretation of this story is straightforward in Matthew.  He adds to the parable that “other people will get the goods of the landowner since the original tenants didn’t appreciate his largesse.”  This is clearly an allegory in which everything in the story stands for something else.  In this case, the vineyard owner is God the Father who sent prophets (his servants) to the Israelites—and these Jewish tribes killed them and all the leaders sent to them over time.  At last, God sent his Son, Jesus, and they killed him, too.  Voila—the plan now is to open the vineyard to non-Israelites—the Gentiles—who will, at last appreciate the great gift of the owner/God.  

With both interpretations applicable, the gospel shows how the community adapted parables to changing times—Thomas speaking to a sociological reality of the wealthy taking advantage of the poor and Matthew speaking to Christian-Jews saying the gospel is now going to the Gentiles.  That’s your scripture lesson for the day.

I can’t let mass this week go by without saying something about feast days observed the past several days.  As Catholics, you should know about these things—and this is the only time we have together in which I can tell you about them.  

This week saw the feast day of the “little flower”—Theresa of Liseux.  She was a peasant French girl who entered the convent and who died at age 24 in 1897.  She never traveled far from her village, and as she lay on her deathbed a fellow nun said: “I wonder what our Prioress will say about Sister Theresa when she dies . . . she has certainly never done anything worth speaking about.” 

Through her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Theresa became globally known and admired.  100 years after her death, a full-length motion picture was made about her life.  She dreamed of becoming a missionary, but never went anywhere (except Rome).  Her impact on the world moved the Church to name her the patron saint of missionaries and a doctor of the Church (although having just an elementary education).  

Her legacy of spirituality consists of teaching what she called “the little way.”  That is, in all the minor or small activities of everyday life—as we interact with others and live with others—these are the innumerable ways we can be a missionary.  To everyone we encounter, we have a missionary task to be the presence of Jesus to them.  Her “little way” is something each of us is called to practice.  

Similarly, the feast of guardian angels was this week.  Whereas Muslims have as a dogma the belief in angels, Catholics do not.  You can believe in them or not.  Muslims believe each person has 2 angels—one who records good deeds and one who records our bad deeds.  In Catholic tradition, we have the “archangels” Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, and in tribal cultures everywhere there is a belief in spirits.  So something very innate to the human condition seems to be this sense of a spirit presence—be one Catholic, Muslim, or tribal.  

Maybe we should minimally accept the fact that God is “Emmanuel” in the gospel of Matthew—which translated mean “God with us.”  In that sense, we can always be assured of God being with us as a guardian spirit-presence.  If others are with us, too, as protectors of some kind—well that’s also nice to know.  

Cardinal Newman wrote an 1865 poem titled the  Dream of Gerontius wherein a soul was met by their angel at the gates of heaven: 

My work is done.  My task is o’er.  And so I come.  Taking it home.
For the crown is won.  For evermore.  My Father gave.  In charge to me.  This child of earth.  Even from its birth.  To serve and save.  And saved is he.  This child of clay. To me was given.  To rear and train.  In the narrow way.  By sorrow and pain.  From earth to heaven. 
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Francis Assisi (1226) stood 5’ tall or less and had a carefree life until illness  laid him low.

Church of San Damiano vision, he heard:  “Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down . . .  all that now seems sweet and lovely to you will become intolerable”  [His family was well-off–and he opted for real poverty lifestyle]

He acquired the “stigmata” (wounds of Christ on one’s body) 2 years before death—there being no recorded experience of this kind in 1200 years of Christianity (400 since then, mostly Catholic—no Orthodox; 10 saints; 25 active now; 5 to 4 males to females).  Only in the last century have priests been stigmatized, e.g., Padre Pio (also named a saint). 

Founder of the Franciscan Order, he was named a saint 2 years after his death.  There is a legend that he thanked his donkey on his death bed for helping him in life—and that the donkey wept.   A line attributed to him but never uttered by him is: “Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words.”   It does, however, capture his thought of having your actions reflect the gospel.  Similarly, the well-known “Prayer of St. Francis” was not written by him, but was composed in the early 20th century.

He is the patron saint of animals, of Italy, and of ecology.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  

Summarizing  the above into a 30-second statement:

This week’s feast days remind us that we each have a missionary vocation to perform selfless action in little ways and be messengers of God’s encouragement and affirmation.  Has a bee ever landed on you and instead of getting scared you feel honored, and you appreciate the possibility that you got confused for being a flower?  

Communion reflection from St. Theresa of Liseux 

“The great saints, in their eagle strength, have gone close to the verge of folly in doing wonderful things for you, Lord. I am too poor a creature to do anything wonderful, so the only folly I know is that you love me.” 

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

Pastor’s Pen  September 27, 2020

This week I was reminded of lines from films that have stuck with me over the years.  One is from the classic “Easy Rider” which has actor Peter Fonda saying to someone: “It’s not every man that can live off the land . . . . You do your own thing in your own time.”  Another film has the lead-actor meet an old friend who describes life since they last met: “Yes, we’re very happy.”  

I recall rolling my eyes at both scenes because yes—on the one hand—God wants us to “do our own thing” and “be happy.”  BUT, as ends in themselves—those statements spell death (of spirit). This is perhaps why the “Priests Assembly” this past week spent a day addressing the topic of “happiness”—conducted by a Catholic spiritual growth institute.  I thought you might want to hear a summary of what was addressed—and then apply it to our circumstances and today’s scripture. 

Ancient sources, both secular and sacred, have addressed the role of “happiness” within our lives (Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, scripture, etc.).  God made you and me so that we might have the happiness that life provides.  The topic can be divided into 4 types—each of which applies to each of us. 

1)      The happiness of immediate gratification (i.e., physical pleasure via the senses that is immediate).  We seek to maximize pleasure and minimize pain—having food, drink, possessions, affection, etc.).  All this is part of our nature and is fine.  However, if we ONLY seek pleasure (“wine, women, and song,” “eat, drink, and be merry—for tomorrow you may die,” etc.), we will find the opposite of what we seek—EMPTINESS.    

2)       Personal achievement (self-fulfillment or achieving something such as a vocation in which we exercise our skills and are respected for what we do—carpenter, teacher, farmer, doctor, homemaker, plumber, parent, etc.).  In short, it’s all well and good that we strive for, and are known for, doing SOMETHING well.  HOWEVER, if we compare ourselves to others (as last week’s gospel addressed) and seek to win status at any cost—not good!  “Happiness” will not ensue.  Will your gravestone say “I should have spent more time at the office?”  or “He thought only of himself.”  

3)      Going beyond yourself—and seeking the “greater good.”  Justice for all, community building, donating time/talent/treasure to the community in some way (examples of which are numerous in the parish—in obvious and hidden ways).  This level of happiness and the next are what the gospel calls us to live—and are the hardest to achieve.    

4)      We become what spiritual literature calls a “contemplative in action”—a person whose spirituality allows them to always focus on the eternal—connecting the dots between God and humanity (that is, incarnating/enfleshing in themselves the person of Jesus).  This allows one to find eternal meaning in every direction and all events.  Psychologist Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in which he described his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  He saw people go to the gas chamber with a prayer on their lips—able to see meaning in their impending execution (witnessing to our conscience that we, tragically, can so mercilessly and demonically martyr one another).       

In short, level 4 is a tough one for any of us to attain (along with level 3).  However, this week’s epistle reminds us how we CAN reach for those levels: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of arrogance; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves–looking out not just for your own interests, but also for those of others­.”

So often we think of happiness instantly acquired by the athlete who gets a multi-million dollar contract for playing a sport, or a lottery winner who hits the jackpot.   An NBA coach friend said that they have seminars for new signees which address how they can be on skid row and penniless if they don’t steward their resources wisely.  As you know, we hear of lottery winners and athletes going this route after once having had millions of dollars.  Their quest for “happiness” took them to the poor house—because they lived at levels 1 and 2 only. 

This topic also reminded me of Billy Mills—a name that I doubt immediately registers with anyone here.  He was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation—which yearly competes with another reservation for being the poorest county in the U.S.  Born into poverty—his mother and father both dead by the time he was 12–he made it to Haskell Indian School in Kansas where he ran cross country.  Meriting a scholarship to the University of Kansas, he became an All-American there.  I saw him speak on 3 occasions—his presentation the same on all 3 occasions—and a little different from the “Ted Talk” that now can be seen on the Internet. 

He tells of being at one national meet, and that he got ready for the post-race photo with his fellow All-Americans. He thought of his parents and how proud they’d be.  “Then I heard one photographer,” Billy recalls. ” ‘You. Yeah, you — the darker-skinned one. I want you out of the photo.’ And that just went to the depths of my soul, and it just — it broke me.”  It led to suicidal thoughts. 

He wanted to be on the 1964 Olympic team, but he was the last man cut from the squad.  He was now in the Marines (he retired a Captain) and got permission to leave for Tokyo when one team-member could not make the trip.     

In Tokyo, he went to get good shoes for competition but the equipment store said he’d have to supply his own since they only gave shoes to those who’d seriously compete.  Meanwhile, reporters gathered around other runners and athletes but no one came to interview him.  He borrowed shoes from a friend.  

The 10,000 meter race is one long race—with 30-40 runners.  The Australian was the favorite, followed by a Tunisian and Ethiopian.   The game-day announcer noted: “And there’s Billy Mills—who no one expects to win this particular event.”   He was later fired for being TOO excited in calling the race’s concluding moments.

When I heard him speak, he said that as they came into the stretch, he thought of his mom who died of alcoholism and he thought to himself that he was running for her—and for all who were stricken with the disease.  And he passed the Ethiopian.  He thought of his dad, and his people who likewise died early deaths due to poverty and malnutrition—and he was running for them—as he passed the Australian.  Finally, he realized he was running for his dark-skinned people who, like so many other peoples, suffered discrimination.  He knew he was running for them—as he passed the Ethiopian—and the ribbon broke across his chest as he won the gold medal.   

At this point in his talk, Billy would say: “You can see what happened that day.”  On all 3 occasions, the lights went out, and the final moments of the race were shown on a big screen.   At all three venues, the audience broke out in applause and stood as the film shows him breaking the tape. 

See the event for yourself in color:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5F5iCsymMj0 

I report Billy’s story in this homily because it illustrates what I addressed earlier about the 4 levels of happiness.  As a world-class “star,” Billy did not bask in the glow of fame but instead committed himself to level 3 (and 4).  He founded a national organization, Running Strong for American Indian Youth.  He was also awarded the  Presidential Citizen’s Medal (the nation’s 2nd highest civilian medal).

He says that his most cherished medal is from the Anti-defamation League for his work against the spread of hate by different groups around the world (some in the U.S. today particularly noticeable—as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center).  

With author Nicholas Sparks, he authored a book (Wakini) in which he tells how a Sioux (Lakota) mythological demon diverts people from accomplishing a destiny envisioned for them by God.  This seducer/devil-figure tries to persuade one to think that happiness can be found in: 1) wealth, 2) fame, 3) a marriage partner, 4) in having more friends, 5) thinking that being more physically attractive will bring happiness, 6) not having a handicap, 7) not losing someone to death, or 8) inaction due to complaining that “if only the world were a better place—and not rigged to spoil what one tries to do.”  

He concludes his book asking: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TELLING YOURSELF THESE LIES.

What Billy Mills reports in his talks and book—is what the gospel tells us.  In order to find happiness intended by God, one has to realize you have your own special worth and that your specialness blossoms into happiness when you become part of something bigger than yourself (Level 3).  A man of faith, Billy’s counsel is right out of the gospel.  Each of us is called to run and win an Olympic gold medal of the Spirit.  

When I look over the congregation gathered in prayer, I don’t see halos over each person but rather an Olympic gold medal.  They represent the prayer that arises from each heart to God at mass—asking help in running a good race to levels 3 and 4.  

You are needed in this photograph of God’s action in the world.  

Recent article on Billy Mills. 

https://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2020/05/22/billy-mills-olympic-gold-runner  

A motion picture on the life of Billy Mills is on Youtube at the site below.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CY5PrJI8e0

 

Catechetical Sunday September 20

You and God have a relationship that no one else has.  You can compare yourself with another but that is useless to do. 

God gave you your gifts and God gave another their gifts.  They might have more money, more land, more children, more opportunities, be more lovely or more handsome—and you might be beating your head against the wall angrily complaining to anyone who’ll listen what YOU could have done if you had what they had. 

WRONG WRONG WRONG 

Your challenge and mine is to do what we can WITH THE GIFTS AND OPPORTUNITIES we’ve been given!!!  God gave you a set of skills/abilities/style–that is different from everyone else’s.  You have what you need to be YOU–and others have what they need to be them.  BOTH of you are needed to make the world complete.

While you’re bemoaning your lack of something that another has—you’re wasting time by not creating greatness with what you DO have. 

Like anyone, I can point to one or another success—like winning the best art sketch in the 6th grade—and being told I’d get a prize—which was never given.  And today I remain one of the worst artists ever—unable to draw a decent stick figure. 

Fact is, I did something that appealed to me—the sketch of an Indian that I knew I could do because it was easy.  No one had seen the book I read which inspired me—but knowing I could draw NOTHING decently, I knew I could at least give a try to mimic what I saw on the page of an Indian book.  Voila, the prize winner (again, of a prize that never came). 

I little realized that one day I’d be an established presence in academia as a specialist in Indian studies.  And write biographies of an Indian man who was known to the world only as an old-time medicine man, but whose life as a Catholic catechist would one day be known thru my efforts—which laid the groundwork for his being considered for sainthood.  [You can read about this in the recent issue of Faith magazine.]

My 6th grade experience reflects what everyone experiences.  I pursued an interest that for some reason stirred within my heart—and which competed with other drives and distractions that might have taken me away from something worthwhile.   As with everyone, life moved on and for some reason I acted on my God-given interests (skill set)–and that seed of interest in Indians blossomed into a lifetime involvement.

And so it is with each of you

Jesus is speaking to each of you today—saying you have a uniqueness that is intended to provide something to human existence that no one else can provide.  I can only guess what that might be for you.   At Saturday’s mass, we baptized a little darling named Colt—a new member of the faith community.  In his own special way, he made a contribution by reminding all of us that each of us is a child in God’s eyes–no matter how “adult” or “cool” we might be in human terms.  That little bundle from heaven had a “skill set” that affected all present as his father held him high for all to see (and applaud)–and little Colt smiled in thanksgiving.   Appropriately, that little guy’s middle name is Matthew–one of the evangelists–one of the first catechists in the Church.

I look at some people—and see that they really take their faith seriously, and actually do something to make the community better, or the lives of others better. 

One of the seeds of my interest in Indians was sewn during that art contest.  And one of the seeds planted in little Colt’s life was done at his baptism.  2000 years of Christian tradition has us initiating a new member–God’s word passed down through the generations (by catechists, or teachers of the faith) such that this little guy becomes a member of our faith community in Michigan!  From Bethlehem to here. 

He might one day contribute to the good of many people—or he might not.  So much depends upon his parents, family members, godparents, and us—to help him reach his potential.   Remember this.  Living the gospel does nothing to enhance God’s power, or joy, or happiness.  Rather, it enhances US by trying to live as God intended us to live.

As I say so often, our formation of young Colt will be competing with other philosophies of life which will try to seduce him into becoming a materialist–and thinking that happiness and fulfillment can be found by acquiring possessions.  Or, will pleasure be his life pursuit?  Or will he do as one book-title said some years back.  Will he want to get ahead by “Winning Through Intimidation?”  Or will his sole criterion for decision-making be “what’s in it for me?”  Hmm.  All these philosophies to choose from—and which one will he pick?

If we continue with his formation within the Christian tradition—sacramental participation–he can blossom into the person God calls him to be.  He can detect which “seeds” of life resonate with his core (as “Indians”–and not a career as an artist–resonated with me in the 6th grade art contest). 

Colt’s family members are the most important teachers, or catechists, of their child–so this weekend we had symbols right here in our presence for “Catechetical Sunday.”

I hope you’ll see Colt at church 20 years from now.  You can tell him that you were at his baptism.  Many get baptized and never see the church again for many years.

Today’s gospel spoke of a laborer asking the owner of the vineyard why he didn’t get more pay than another worker.  His example is one we need take to heart.  Don’t compare yourself with others, but instead use the tools in your toolkit and be the blessing for others YOU have been called to be in your uniqueness.

I think of the old spiritual which translates today’s gospel into understandable terms—the call of Jesus to each of us catechists:  

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.   

If you can’t be a highway, be a trail.   

If you can’t be the sun, be a star.   

For it isn’t by size that you win or you fail, be the best of whatever you are

 Post communion reflection:

As the bishop says in his message for catechetical Sunday—he quoted St. Theresa of Avila:  “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.” 

September 20, 2020

The Yanomami of the Amazon are taught from an earliest age to retaliate any real or perceived blow.  Older children will strike a three-year-old with a stick and make sure that the little one hits back at the older child.  “Turn the other cheek” is simply not in their vocabulary, or philosophy of life.   

I recall speaking with a young man who was dead set on getting even with another guy who’d done him wrong.  Seeing how volatile the young man was getting, I tried to allay his passion and said: “Hey man, forgive and forget, move on, get over it, lighten up” (and any other cliché I could think of).  I suggested the golden rule—to treat others as you’d like to be treated.  That didn’t work either.  He said he’d get more satisfaction out of beating up the other fellow—a position that is the exact opposite of what today’s gospel says about forgiving someone.   

Today’s gospel story is timely because just last week there was a White House breakfast with ministers, and the guest speaker spoke about forgiveness.  The president spoke up and said he disagreed with the gospel’s insistence on forgiveness.  Which only shows how secular philosophy-alternatives even influence the highest places in the land. 

Over time I’ve come to realize that basic Christianity—just doesn’t win the day with some people.  As I mentioned last week, most people do not have a Christian philosophy—such that today’s gospel which calls us to forgive one another—simply isn’t known by the young.  They know next to nothing about the stories or characters or teachings of scripture.   

Instead, most people live by the secular philosophies preached via MTV, Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Facebook.  The overall motif of these and other philosophies that control the young and many adults is the motto: “what’s in it for me.”  But these philosophies are subtle—and insidious.  They control you without you even knowing it.  

For example, no one here probably wants polluted rivers or skies.  But if your stocks in a company will make a profit by polluting the waters and skies, maybe you’ll start to have some wiggle room on the amount of pollution you’ll tolerate.  Stated in a phrase you’ve heard before: “what’s your price?”  THAT’S the nature of temptation—it appeals to something within us.  

Two years ago for 9/11, I organized a release of butterflies that a university teacher raised from caterpillars through cocoons.  Students could release a new Monarch that had been weaned on campus milkweed.  It was a ritual of hope for us on 9/11.  Note: perhaps you didn’t know (I didn’t), but Monarch butterflies are one of the million creatures now threatened with extinction.  One way you and I have contributed to their demise has been to cut down the milkweed they depend upon.  

The city of Omaha Nebraska had all the students in its public-school system devote a day of the school year to planting milkweed throughout the city.  It was one city’s ways of teaching its young to care for the environment—and to light one candle rather than curse the darkness. Not only that—but children learned that the milkweed flower is a pretty one, and its fragrance is like perfume.  Why have we been cutting it down?  

I said earlier that different philosophies are stifling the Christian approach to life.  I’ll tell you how butterflies helped me want what scripture teaches instead of what is taught by other “false prophets.”    

An easy-to-read book (with illustrations) that has a moral to its story is Hope for the Flowers.  It is the story of Stripe, a caterpillar born on a milkweed leaf.  Over time, he wonders if there’s more to life than just eating leaves.   

Deep within his heart-of-hearts, he feels a desire to get up to the sky—or reach for something more than just the life he’s been living.  He comes to a pile of caterpillars—one on top of the other—each wanting to get higher in life, too.  The pile is sketched in the book  

Yellow, a girl caterpillar who interests him, comes along and wants to go high, too, but thinks this isn’t how you do it.  Climbing over one another isn’t what her gut tells her is the right thing.  Stripe says to be great one must trample on others to get what you want.   

They part—Stripe to the pillar and Yellow off on her own where she lives her life as a nice caterpillar tending to her business.  She eventually spins a cocoon.  Meanwhile, Stripe has made it to the top—having stepped on many caterpillars on his way to the top.  But he feels empty in his accomplishments.  

Stripe looks up and sees Yellow in the sky—looking beautiful as a Monarch butterfly.  She called for him to join her—saying that you don’t have to hurt others to reach the sky.  All you have to do is be yourself and exercise the gifts you have.  Stripe came down from the pile, spun a cocoon, and the story ends with the two of them flying off together.  

With that as background, I was in a tough position—part of a group that had to decide the future of U of Detroit Jesuit High School.  Should it stay in Detroit or move to the suburbs?  All the Catholic schools had either closed or had moved out of the city—and there were good reasons given for moving to the suburbs (as done by Catholic Central and DeLaSalle) and for staying where it had been since 1877.  

7 of us met, weighed the pros and cons, had mass together, met again for more weighing of options, prayer and quiet time by ourselves before gathering to cast our vote.  

On a bench, I said to God in prayer: “Have a butterfly land on me if I should vote to keep the school in Detroit.  If none lands—the suburbs.”  No butterflies were with me when I set the conditions of my vote.  Then, one appeared high above, and as it descended to about 10 feet away, I said to God: “Just like you!  Stay just far enough away for me not to have any certainty.  Why don’t you ever give me a slap in the face experience of your presence and counsel?”  And with that, the butterfly came to rest on my left hand.  I had to blow it off—so tight was it clinging to my hand.  

I returned to the group for a vote, and we cast our ballots—all 7 of us voting to keep the school in Detroit.  And today it remains one of Michigan’s top schools.  MSU’s All-American basketball player, Cassius Winston, attended UD Jesuit High (I’m told he’s as good a man off the court as he is on it).  

Beyond the butterfly affirmation, my rationale for wanting to keep the school in Detroit was based on seeing a greater good for Jesuit presence in Detroit.  The gospel calls us to act on our best instincts, or most noble philosophy that is the opposite of “what’s in it for me.”  Not easy to do very often—but if you are able to do so, you’ll have the Stripe and Yellow experience of transcending yourself, ascending, and knowing you did the right thing.  

Odds and Ends

LandscapingParishioners have taken good care of the grounds at each church.  Although I know some, I don’t think I know all who have done work on the grounds (but would like to).  When I inquired in the Spring, I was told that people did the grounds at each church—some of whom I’ve seen and some not.   Let me know if you’ve been a “groundskeeper.”

 Cemetery Notes–Many trees in the Sacred Heart cemetery are targeted for replacement and trimming.   Be patient during a process that will eventually see the grounds look very nice.   Each cemetery should have all gravesite decorations removed by Oct 1st 

Parish “app”—the past 4 years, parishes have had free access to the “Parish app.”  Now the company will charge for the service ($450 a year).  Could you let me or the office know that you use it?  If you don’t use the app, you needn’t email or call to say so.  Just those who use it.

Study on religious practice of teens 

https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/pew-survey-shows-teens-parents-practice-faith-together-though-teens-are-less-religious

Bruce Springsteen’s Graduation Address at Boston College (Jesuit)  

https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2020/09/11/read-bruce-springsteens-message-boston-college-class-2024-covid-19  

Conscience at the Polls: Climate Change and Environmental Justice

Labor Day Weekend

Pastor’s Pen

With Labor Day weekend upon us, I’m reminded of the Benedictine motto: “ora et labora” (“pray and work”).  Of course, that should be the motto of all Christians—because prayer should inform all our actions.  All that we do should be rooted in what we do here in the Eucharist or at home on our knees.  I like the Benedictine motto more than what used to be a motto that somewhat sarcastically defined the hierarchical Church’s attitude toward its people—“pray, pay, and obey!”

More important, however, than either of these mottos, is what I’ve previously told you was my experience in the classroom semester after semester.  College students as a whole know very little about Christianity.  For them, it’s not a matter of which motto they like or dislike.  Many have no clue about what the Gospels teach or why any of us are even here today.

I would hear from many students that their parents left the matter of religion up to them—so parents didn’t teach them any religion.  The parental course of action might have been influenced by being in a “mixed marriage”–or a marriage in which one spouse has a modest practice and the other had no practice—or a single parent had too many stresses–or a divorce saw the parents dealing with other things to address than riding herd on kids going to faith-formation classes.  Whatever the reason, students active in their faith who came to a private, Catholic university were not numerous.  My task was to plant seeds in a field that had none.

That’s why questionnaires about religious practice have given rise to a new category of person.  I refer to those who, when asked to check their religious preference, make a mark in the box for “none.”  This is the group that sociologists pun-ingly refer to as the “nones” (as in “Sisters” in a convent—only here the word refers to people who have “no religion”).

I used to think that this was posing a real catechetical issue for the Church: how do we teach the young.  I realized, over time, that this was not just an issue among young people.  This past week, the results of a survey of Christian adults was released.  Even among those who practiced their faith, sometimes as many as 60% answered questions incorrectly.  In fact, practicing Christians actually gave the same answers that were given centuries ago by heretics (i.e., people who taught false doctrine).

The past few years, any number of people have been really outspoken against Muslims.  One man saw himself as “patriotic” by going on a rampage at what he thought was a mosque–killing people in Milwaukee.  Not only was he misguided in thinking such a thought, but also the people he killed were not even Muslims! 

Other, less dramatic incidents have taken place because of “bad-mouthing” (speaking ill of) Muslims who are thought by some to be anti-Christian.  Ironically, the survey showed that many Christians who harbor these sorts of attitudes—don’t realize that they hold beliefs that are identical to what Muslims say about Jesus!  Namely, when asked if God created Jesus, Christians answered “Yes,” and that “he was a good teacher.”

In short, Christians said what Muslim say: that Jesus was “created by God” and a great prophet.  Christians apparently aren’t paying attention to the Nicene Creed they say at church all the time—which tells us that there are 3 persons in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!  Christian teaching does NOT say that “God created Jesus.”   Actually, some Muslims regard Jesus in such reverential terms that he comes across as some sort of ultra-human—more than us but less than God (because, as Muslims say, “there is no God but God!”).

I’m calling your attention to the reality that both young and old are in need of catechesis or learning Christian doctrine (and how to put it into practice so our world can be a better place).  And since the first and third reading today basically say “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” I stand indicted.

Each week I’m entrusted with what religious literature calls “the care of souls” and speak to you at homily-time.  We’ve recently had first-communion masses and I’ve tried to focus on those young ones—gearing what I say to them.  But is that serving the adults who came?  Yet, if I geared everything to adults, the young ones are lost.

Some say that our attention span is 6 minutes for a homily. Hmm—a 6-minute attention span—to hear what might be your only religious instruction you ever hear on a given topic?  Do you want to go to a heart doctor, or have a surgeon operate on you—who attended medical school and only had classes that lasted 6 minutes?  I don’t think so.  Darn!  Scripture confronts me with a real problem.  How can I instruct, or catechize, our faith community–if I lose the adults by gearing what I say to the young and lose the young if I gear what I say just to adults?

Well, I certainly can echo Paul in the 2nd reading.  He says that to “love one another” is a summary of all the commandments.  Keep in mind that the phrase isn’t referring to X’s and O’s, hugs and kisses.  Rather, it refers to “selfless action.”  I sure see that behavior among many people here in the community—so that’s a relief.

But like you, I drive down the street and I see one house has a Trump sign and one that bad-mouths the governor, and then their neighbor has a Biden sign.  I think to myself that the people in those 2 houses might be parishioners.  After all, studies say that Catholics are divided on all sorts of issues.

Last week, I mentioned that 3 Catholics spoke at the 2 political conventions.  2 of the 3 listed issues that both parties should address but did not say anything about the environment—an issue that many think is THE most important issue of our time.  After all, Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the topic—and 2 Catholics made no mention of it?  Thank God, 1 of the 3 DID cite the environment.

I’m reminded of the 1960 election when JFK was elected the first Catholic president.  Many anti-Catholic prejudices were expressed everywhere, e.g., the Pope would come and rule the U.S.  Now, HOWEVER, the Catholics represent such a large voting block that Biden’s Catholicism can’t be attacked UNLESS he is cast as non-Catholic.  And so, the abortion issue becomes the strategy to win Catholics. 

What’s sociologically interesting (theologically, too) is that you’ll find priests and bishops on both sides.  One side says that abortion is the greatest evil and demands that we make it the one issue that determines how we should cast our votes.  The other side says that there are many evils—so one must see how they ALL can be best overcome.  https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/bishop-john-stowe-rebukes-trump-anti-life

This past week former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz was named as one who will be given the Medal of Freedom.  A longtime Republican benefactor who was a benefactor of VP Dan Quayle when both lived in Indiana, Holtz spoke out against Biden—which then forced the Notre Dame president to announce that Holtz wasn’t speaking on behalf of Notre Dame.  I’m reminded of Matthew 12:25: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

This full moon week was filled with other unpleasant news.  Namely, researchers found evidence in the Vatican archives that Pope Pius XII refrained from intervening much with the extermination of Jews for fear of alienating the many German Catholics who filled the rallies of Adolph Hitler.  So much for selfless action in the ranks of Catholicism!  I guess more people than just me are guilty of being part of the problem.

So that’s the global picture.  What about the local one?  You and I are called to be part of the solution to many things & perform selfless action–but we’re not all on the same page.  Who among us is God calling to conversion—on one or another issue or behavior in our lives?      

How many on the parish rolls have young ones who don’t come to church and so don’t have this minimal exposure to Christian tradition?  Heck, how many ADULTS are on the rolls and don’t have this basic religious formation of coming to mass? 

People will say “I practice my religion, and the gospel, on my own—over a cup of coffee in the morning on the back porch—walking on a beach or in the woods–and don’t need to go every Sunday.”  I smile—and have total respect for this person’s prayer-life.  At the same time, I think of how their behavior contradicts all of our Christian teaching and tradition. 

We are rooted in the Old Testament—the Israelites in slavery in Egypt—who were unable to gather and practice their religion.  Losing their identity as God’s chosen people, they eventually came to enshrine a principle that they would live by—so as to retain their identity as a people.  Namely,  KEEP HOLY THE SABBATH. 

Christians likewise kept this tradition—saying it’s essential to gather as a community—minimally once a week.  If we don’t, we’re not getting the spiritual strength we need to be the good person God calls us to be.  On our own, we can’t compete with the gospel of MTV, the gospel of Madison Avenue, or the gospel of Wall Street.  We fall prey to those who preach the importance of those 3 gospels. 

And so, we’re about to start faith formation classes.  But even if we didn’t, is there some way in which you—within your family forum—can somehow bring Christian teaching to your children, grandchildren, and godchildren? 

I speak as one who was not known as some sort of holy-roller kid.  Not at all.  My mom never went to church and dad attended irregularly, but I went to Catholic schools.  But even there—religion was one of my worst classes.  If I got a “C” in religion, I was lucky.

I’m not going biographical here to indulge my memory but giving you an example of how you might influence your young ones.  I’m NOT suggesting you get on a soapbox and be preachy.  There are other ways to influence the young.

In my case, movies were influential—me reminded of this because today’s gospel has a line in it which was the title of a film.  “The Keys of the Kingdom” was a Gregory Peck film about a missionary priest in China while the film “Joan of Arc” moved me to tears as a “cool high school” guy wondering how anyone could be burned at the stake instead of denying God’s word.  Ben Hur, Barabbas, The Mission, St. Francis of Assisi, and a number of other films influenced my religious mindset that led to me being here in Hemlock/Merrill/Ryan. 

A few years ago, I wrote Dolores Hart (Google her name if it means nothing to you)—saying that her role as St. Clare in the Francis of Assisi film influenced me.  A few years after writing her, a documentary on her life was up for an academy award—she having left the glitz life of Hollywood and entered a Benedictine convent.  Once the heartthrob of movie-going males and leading lady opposite Elvis, she left those roles behind and embraced the monastic life. 

What I’m suggesting is that Christian education extends beyond Dennis, Cheryl, our teachers, and me.  We have farmers in our community—and many others who garden and plant seeds.  Consider planting seeds within the minds of your young.  It can be via movies, fishing, gardening, or ANY activity that takes a child out of themselves and into something good and inspiring.  I’d like to think that your kindness and goodness toward your young prompt them to ask what makes you tick—what makes you be so loving—so good to them—and so lovable to them. 

Voila—the teaching moment! 

 

End of Mass Prayerful Reflection

September 1st saw the Catholic Church celebrate the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.”  We honored this theme by reading after communion the classic Christian text, Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun.”  Hearing it, you will see why he is the patron saint of the environment.

Praise be to You, O Lord and Father. Praise be to You and You alone.

We praise you, O Lord, for all Your creatures, Especially Brother Sun.  

For Brother Sun, he is strong and bright, and he gives us light as we live each day.  

Praise also Sister Moon.  And the sparkling stars Which Your Hand made  

Praise To you, O Lord, for our Brother the Wind. For weather that’s cloudy and weather that’s

clear.  Praise to you, O Lord, for sweet Sister Water–Helpful to all your children here.  

Praise to you, O Lord, for our Brother Fire. Praise how he warms and lights the night.  

Praise you, O Lord, for the Earth our Mother. She who sustains us that we might 

Be led to a love of all creatures great and small as they show your grace.  

Lord, help us each to learn Everywhere we turn we can see your Face. 

Be praised, my Lord, for those who forgive for love of you, and for those who bear sickness and

weakness in peace and patience.  You will grant them a crown.  Be praised my Lord for our

Sister Death—whom we must all face.  I praise and bless you, Lord, and I give thanks to you,

and I will serve you in all humility.  Praise Be to you, O Lord of all seasons.  Praise be to you, O Lord, for all reasons.

August 23, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

With it being a Marian feast day this weekend (the Assumption), it’s appropriate for some Marian humor.

On one occasion, Jesus said: “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”  And with that, a stone comes flying past him.  He turns around and says: “Mom, cut it out.” 

This joke is, of course, based on a theology of Mary that developed over time and produced a dogma of our faith that was declared in 1950–the Assumption. The humor of the joke relates to another holy day of obligation, the Immaculate Conception–which reverences her for being “immaculately” conceived or born “without sin.”  Recall that Christians claim that Jesus was like us in all things but sin–so in order for this to occur, his parents had to be without what a long tradition refers to as “original sin.”  

Since this tradition asserts that all people are born WITH “original sin,” Mary would thus be a “carrier” who’d pass it to Jesus (since the Father of Jesus was without sin).  Hence it was claimed by theologians that Mary must have been conceived without sin.  Voila–Jesus is born without original sin (because Mary was “immaculately conceived.”

The Assumption is somewhat related to this since the claim is made that original sin brought physical death to the human race.  Thus, Mary must have been somehow “assumed” into heaven in a special way. 

This notion arose in the 300’s and was in the air ever since within Christian thought.  However, it was the Catholics and Orthodox who retained a devotion to the concept.  Anglicans in England (Episcopalian church in America) abandoned the concept in 1539 and Protestant churches in general do not acknowledge the Assumption.  For some reason (that surprised many at the time), Pope Pius the 12th declared the Assumption a “dogma” (very few dogmas, or essential beliefs, have been named in the history of Christianity).

The dogma states that Mary went to heaven, body and soul, “having completed the course of her earthly life.”  The language of the declaration did not say that she avoided death, but it also doesn’t say that she died.  As a result, the dogma permits some Catholics to say she was “assumed” into heaven instead of dying, or that she died or slept away into heaven upon her death.  The Orthodox refer to this feast and dogma as the “dormition” of Mary (her sleeping into eternity).

This history aside, what’s important is that we need to take time to reflect on Mary from time to time.  Why?  Because she is a role model for all Christians—as each of us is called to give birth to Jesus in our lives.  She refers to herself in scripture as “lowly” which echoes the theme in last Sunday’s reading that said God was revealed not in earthquakes or storms but in a “whisper.”  Instead of looking for God in the spectacular, instead let it register somewhere within you that we are the “lowly whisper” through whom God appears to others.  Like the 13-year-old Mary, we ask “how can this be?”

Scripture refers to you as “God’s work of art”—so when you think of creation, you are a brother or sister to the Grand Canyon, the oceans, rivers, land, and stars—reflecting God’s artistry.  THAT’S how you are God’s lowly whisper with 13-year-old Mary—called in your giftedness to be resurrection for others.

This line of thought echoes a theme that appears throughout the bible. Namely, God chooses unlikely people to accomplish great things.  YOU are God’s unlikely person (you being a lowly whisper of a farmer sowing seeds, an elder sharing wisdom, a neighbor to someone in need—called to accomplish great things (with aged Abraham and Sara who were told they’d be parents of a nation more numerous than the stars, with shepherd-boy David called to slay Goliath, and with fishermen apostles who founded the faith community).  God “has looked with favor” upon Mary and you.

Sunday’s readings have Paul describe himself as the “apostle to the gentiles” (the outsiders, those to be avoided).  And the gospel shows Jesus refer to the Canaanite woman as a dog—a female dog!!  Huh?  Is that Jesus calling this woman a slang term?  Yes!  Because Matthew was writing for his Jewish converts, he showed them that Jesus had the same proud attitude that they had toward non-Israelites.  But Matthew’s Canaanite woman gave a witty reply to Jesus (“even dogs have to eat”)—which moved him to acknowledge her wisdom and humanity.  And so he worked a miracle for her.  He made outreach to a person who Israelites considered to be a dog.

Scripture is reminding us that our Christianity calls us to identify with those outcasts—those on the margins who are belittled today.  WE are the gentiles who Jesus calls to be inclusive of the many contemporary “gentiles” within our country and the world at large. 

Odds and Ends 

1) Reflect, Refresh & Renew Virtual Evening of Prayer will be held on Wednesday, September 9, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. for Befrienders, Grief Facilitators, Compassionate Companions, Pastoral Visitors and all who visit the sick and homebound.  Please join us individually online for this very special opportunity to reflect on your ministry during Covid-19 and to pray for refreshment and renewal as we move forward in these challenging times.  We have the ability to gather, reflect, pray and support each other while following restrictions and safety precautions. If you are new to virtual meetings, we will help you connect! There is no cost to attend this event, however registration is necessary to receive the link to connect, handouts and materials prior to the event.  To register to join online call/email Lori Becker at  989.797.6652 or lbecker@dioceseofsaginaw.org

2) As a child, I wanted to be a farmer.  God had other plans.  That said, if it’s not too much of a bother, I’d love to see what different farm-operations & crops look like “up close.”  I don’t want to just stop on the road, and mosey up to a corn stalk, pickle patch, or bean field and check out what’s growing.  I won’t understand much by just doing that.  So how about letting me know if I could stop by for a few minutes and actually see what an active farm looks like in operation?  I’m not looking for handouts, but just interested in seeing what I missed by taking the road I did in life.  I can be reached at the parish number or at 304-312-4911.

Ministry Schedule August 22 & 23 
Ministry  4:00 PM  9:00 AM  11:00 AM 
Sacristan  John G Marianne
Lector  Deb Jacovitch Laura Hoard Elaine Zelinko
Eucharistic Ministers  Lisa Wood Mary Gibson John Ostrander
Eucharistic Minister  Robin Doane Hope Seegobin Janice Doane
Ushers  Justin Garno Barry Playford Tom Rohde
Bob Wise Mike Manzoni Gary Braley
Cantor 
Ministry Schedule August 29 & 30 
Ministry  4:00 PM  9:00 AM  11:00 AM 
Sacristan  Lisa W. Marianne
Lector  Dave Reiber Mary Gibson Beth Rohde
Eucharistic Ministers  Virginia Pelton Marilyn Clark Elaine Zelinko
Eucharistic Minister  Carol Jurek Valerie Watson Joe Zelinko
Ushers  Justin Garno Barry Playford Tom Rohde
Bob Wise Mike Manzoni Gary Braley
Cantor 

August 16, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

This past weekend’s liturgies saw 2 first-communions on Saturday and a baptism and first-communion on Sunday. The gospel has Jesus asking “Who do you say that I am?” Through baptism and first communion, we tell the world who we are.

When teaching religious studies, I often heard students say that their parents didn’t raise them in a religious practice—because they wanted their children to make that decision on their own—later in life. Although raising them to go to church, some Christian groups don’t baptize their members until they make an “adult” decision, but I initially did not realize so many parents avoided the entire topic of religion.

I’m sure these same parents taught their children table manners, hygiene, and social courtesies. I hope they taught them the importance of going to school and getting educated—and that they encouraged them to get involved with extra-curricular activities and sports. After all, dutiful parents teach their children these sorts of basic values.

If parents DON’T teach young ones that there is a god, and that it is important to know why God made us, then they are, in fact, teaching their children that this topic isn’t very important—that extra-curriculars and sports take a back-seat to knowing what it means to be a child of God. Does the child internalize the values of MTV, Wall Street, and Madison Avenue? Or is the child raised to develop a value system based on the gospel?

This weekend at John 23rd is thus special—because 4 of our members are receiving the sacraments of initiation. Hopefully, they will be in pews of a church many years from now—having benefited from the example YOU have set for them. We salute the parents of these young ones for raising them within the Catholic faith community.

With the first communion ceremony, we’re reminded of when Jesus went to heaven, he said he’d still be with us in a special way. Yes, his presence is within the words of scripture, and within the members of the faith community. But he also said he’d be present to us at the table, the altar, where we break bread just as he once did with his friends. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, so am I.” And so it is with us in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

I hope our first communicants will always realize that Jesus is Emmanuel—“God with us” in this sacrament of the eucharist. Throughout our lives, in good times and bad, we need to come to the altar and get a renewed sense of this presence—especially when we leave the confines of the church and are out in the rough and tumble world. The eucharist is like a hug and kiss from God—a reminder of the presence of the risen Lord with us now.

It was a 4th grader who brought home to me an example of how our baptism and communion help us be the sacramental presence of the Lord outside of church. Here’s that 4th grader’s story.

I baptized Adam, and his parents faithfully took him to church and the sacraments. When his mom put him to bed one night, they knelt for prayer and Adam asked God for help when he’d be on patrol the next day. His mom had no idea what he was referring to—so when prayer was finished and he was tucked in, she asked him what he was asking help for. He said that during the lunch hour, he’d patrol the playground looking for kids who were alone and not playing with anyone. He’d try and get them involved.

Yikes!! If only each of us had the same apostolic sense within us!  Do YOU go out on “patrol” and seek out those who don’t seem to be included in activities or who are alone?  And do you try to bring them into community?  That’s what a 4th grader did!

With Jesus asking: “who do people say that I am?” we should be able to point to any one of us here and say: “THAT person is Jesus.” So don’t think of the Man in the gospel as some extra-terrestrial being. No! He is joy–to be shared, peace–to be given, and friendship extended.

But he is also still being crucified in different ways among us, and so Jesus is the hungry–to be fed, the thirsty–to be given drink. Jesus is the naked–to be clothed. He is the homeless–to be sheltered, the sick–to be healed. The lonely–to be visited. The unwanted–to be included. He is the leper—whose wounds need washing.

In our world today, we are called to see Jesus as the addict we are called to help liberate–the mentally ill—we must protect; the little one–to embrace, the blind–to be led; the voiceless—for whom we must speak; the lame—we must help to walk; the prisoner—who needs to be visited; the elderly—who need our care.

We need to remember that Jesus dealt with health care by providing it. He dealt with immigrants by becoming one. Jesus dealt with the powerful by taking the side of the weak. He dealt with entrenched privilege by stressing inclusion and not helping only his friends.

This past week saw the anniversary of my entering the Jesuit order. I rendezvoused with 2 guys who were in the novitiate with me—the finest guys you’d ever want to meet. They left the order years ago and started families of their own. Naturally, we spoke about our life-paths. Whichever one we took, their being married or mine being here alone at the rectory, each road has its blessings and challenges. We each stumble along the way at times, or take detours from inspired decision-making, but each of us was thankful for God steering us back on course whenever we found ourselves in a fog. I told the guys that one of the blessings I’ve had along the way—has been to find myself here at John 23rd parish with you.

All Jesuits know the prayer below. It is said or sung on their vow day.

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and whole will. You have given me all that I am, and all that I possess, I surrender it all to you, that you may dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace; with these I will be rich enough and will have no more to desire.”

____

Odds and Ends

Reminder that the 11 a.m. Sunday mass has the least attendance thus far. Tell those who are keeping social distance from large crowds that this one might be to their liking—along with the daily masses Tuesday through Friday.

Remember, too, that I’m happy to make special mention of a friend or relative at mass—so that you can bring them to that mass. Perhaps celebrate their birthday with a mass?

August 9, 2020

Pastor’s Pen 

I started mass suggesting we are like patients who come to the divine doctor on Sunday—each of us with some issue in life that needs healing. And God gives each of us a different prescription which will address our need.  Like this medical analogy and our need to come to this sacrament which heals, so we are like Elijah in the first reading.  Each of us comes to the mountain to encounter God—and acquire some revelation as to how we can best live our mission as God’s child.   

Recall that when scripture reports someone going to a mountain, that person is going to encounter God in some way.  A revelation is going to take place. 

Now here in Merrill, Hemlock and Ryan, we’re on flat land.  However, the sanctuary here is elevated.  Architecturally, we’ve constructed our own sacred mountain within the church—where our faith community meets—and where each of us encounters God within a sacramental context.  Like Moses, Elijah, the transfiguration event, and the sermon on the mount—so we are here at our sacred sanctuary mountain seeking an encounter with the God who made us.

Elijah sought him in the wind, in the earthquake, and in the fire—but God was not there.  Elijah sought God in the mighty and the powerful forces of nature—but where was God eventually to be found?  In a whisper.  Which is a comment about you and me.  After all, who are YOU and what is YOUR power—when compared with air, earth, fire, and water.  Is anyone here a Master of the Universe?  Anyone here a powerful politician who legislates?  NO.   

Instead, each of us is a whisper of God’s presence—alive in the world with the power to affect everyone we meet and make a contribution that only we can make with the particular skill-set or “presence” to others that only we can provide. 

This power we have, and our seemingly little role in the world, reminds me of the honeybee—the specialty of parishioner Dan Keene who is a bee specialist.  That little creature, the honeybee, is a symbol of our special power.  I say this because this small, winged creature is responsible for 70% of the world’s agriculture.  Their pollination allows plants to reproduce—upon which millions of animals feed.  Without the bee, the fauna (animals) would disappear (Einstein saying that once bees were gone, humans would have 4 years to live).  

I’ve told you repeatedly that when I come into the sanctuary at the beginning of mass, I stop and scan the assembly—the people God has called to gather at the altar so that their lives will be better for being here.  I feel a Sacred gathering of God’s children—who God is inspiring to leave and BE a sacrament of God’s presence outside these walls and off this mountain.  I look at you and see in each face a little bee who can pollinate others with a vision of self-giving.  You are the whisper of God’s love and encouragement to others. 

My being an anthropologist, I was particularly interested in today’s gospel reading because of the 1986 discovery in the Sea of Galilee (a lake, actually)  of a first-century boat that played a role in the scene described by Matthew.  It was 26.5’ long, 7.5’ wide, 4.5’ deep, used a sail, and was handled by 4 oarsmen and a tillerman.  It could hold this crew and 10 passengers (or cargo of fish in excess of one ton).  Archaeology was thus able to show us what kind of boat the apostles probably used. 

Moreover, Mediterranean people at that time believed that wind and storm spirits played havoc with our lives.  The only remedy for this was to find a more powerful spirit (e.g., Jesus) who could control the storm and calm the seas.  That’s why the apostles thought the appearance of Jesus walking on the water might have been a “ghost.”  Was it some spirit impersonating him?  Or was it truly Jesus who, after all, was depicted in the gospels as putting all sorts of bad spirits in their place. 

Learning it WAS him and that Jesus was calling to him (and you and me), Peter went toward him and, like Peter, we often enough say to Jesus “Lord, save me.”  The event is a metaphor of our experience of encountering troubled waters, fearful of being drowned and calling out to God for help.  For Matthew, the boat symbolized the Church during persecution being called to greater faith. 

I once asked a famous theologian if he ever doubted the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus, or was he so convinced of his belief system that his faith was not faith but certitude.  He replied that the way of Jesus was the way he wanted to live.  It was the vision of life and life-after that he found most appealing amongst all philosophies or theologies.  So he would live this philosophy and theology to the best of his ability–with hope and love that his faith would one day become eternal certitude.    

The boat also shows that we’re in this together—and that we must face life’s storm together.  Unfortunately, we sometimes have the attitude that “it’s their problem not mine;” or “it’s none of my business.”  We’re like Cain who killed Abel.  When God asked him where Abel was, he replied “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The answer to that question is YES, YOU ARE!! 

 Admittedly, it’s not easy to know how you can be of help to someone—which is part and parcel of your Christian identity.  How do you address someone’s drinking problem?  Or in my line of work, how do I bring up social or political issues—knowing that maybe half the congregation is not going to like what I say?  After all, polls show that Catholics split 50/50 on some issues. 

If I say the sky is blue, will half the congregation never again come to church because they think the sky is green?  How do I speak the gospel in a way that mobilizes people—and does not alienate them?  That’s the challenge that each of us has to accept.  And it’s why I come to this sacrament for help.  On our behalf, I pray:  

 Oh God of the storms, it is you I seek.  With your assurance of support, I will try to seek you in WHAT MIGHT SEEM TO BE lost or divisive causes and those dark places in human activity where I can’t imagine you present.  And yet you are there.  Help me to be there too, seeking, finding, proclaiming your call to be a light even when the day darkens and my spirit draws back into the false safety of my self-centered world.  Fill me with the wonder of your goodness and encouragement, replacing my doubt with confidence in you and your sure and steady help—especially when I am in troubled waters.  

Reflection after communion    

Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely Because we sailed too close to the shore.  

Disturb us, Lord, when With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst For the waters of life; Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision Of the new Heaven to dim.  

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, To venture on wider seas   

Where storms will show your mastery; Where losing sight of land,  

We shall find the stars.  We ask You to push back The horizons of our hopes; And to push us into the future In strength, courage, hope, and love.    

Odds and Ends 

Some people shoot elephants so that they can get the ivory tusks and sell them.  While most countries abide by an agreement NOT to trade in ivory, some countries (like people) just don’t care if elephants survive or die out. African forest elephants could be extinct within 10 years unless the poaching stops.  The topic is clearly a sad commentary on how sinful we can be in caring for the creation God has given us. 

An angle on this topic that I found provocative—relates not to elephants, but to us humans.  Namely, Damien Mander has been training anti-poaching rangers in Africa for more than a decade.  He says female rangers tend to be far more successful than male rangers. They’re better at de-escalating potentially violent situations, are less likely to accept bribes from poachers, and usually invest as much as 90 percent of their income in their families, as opposed to 35 percent with men. 

August 2, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

The first reading from Isaiah addresses why we gather here. It asks if we are thirsty? And answers that God is the water we need. You have no funds to buy food? God will feed us where we most hunger. We spend our money and time on superficial things—on every fad that comes along—and Madison Avenue seduces us into getting more and more “stuff” that we buy and store away. Our attics and garages are museums holding what defined us in years past. Did they provide something that endured? Isaiah says: “No.” And that instead we should listen and respond to God’s word.

Isaiah brings to mind a topic I sometimes address at funerals—when we lay to rest a pillar of the faith community—a grandmother or grandfather who will be sorely missed by family and friends. I look at family members and wonder if they realize their loved one drew strength from the sacrament that brings us together at the funeral. I wonder if these family members will connect the dots—and see that the legacy of their loved one’s life SHOULD entail family members taking the baton of a faith-practice, or parish membership—and continuing the family tradition of their loved one. If the loved one drew their values from the gospel, and the family members no longer do the same, from where will those family members acquire values? Wall Street? Madison Avenue? MTV? Facebook? Twitter?

This is exactly what Isaiah is addressing. He doesn’t use the term, but contemporary observers refer to “secularization” taking place in the U.S. (the exclusion of religion from everyday life and reliance upon secular, or non-Christian—value systems). Is this how family members will honor the memory of the mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather that they’re burying?

The 2nd reading has Paul cite the liberating theme I cite repeatedly: nothing will stop God from loving you, caring about you, and wanting to help you (and me). You might be the nastiest person alive. You might have committed what some refer to as “the unforgiveable sin.” NOTHING will stop God from loving you. If you ARE the nastiest person alive, or if you HAVE perpetrated some misdeed, and if you were to give God some human emotion—it would be sadness (that you are not being the precious gift for others that you were intended to be). God has no interest in calling you names and slaying you on the spot.

Matthew’s miracle of the loaves and fishes is, of course, a well-known passage that refers to what we’re doing here right now. Maybe some of you were perplexed or disappointed at the last line in the gospel: “Those who ate were about five thousand men–not counting women and children.” To our ears, the sentence suggests that including women in the account was an afterthought. Not so. Scripture scholars do not see this as a throwaway observation but rather as evidence for the incident actually taking place.

Why? Because it captures a cultural reality in this part of the world back then (and still today in Saudi Arabia). Namely, men were seated separated from women and young children. The oral tradition might have gone something like this: “You should have seen it. I’d guestimate about 5000 men were there—and that’s not even counting the women and children—because where I was standing I couldn’t get a good angle to count how many of them were there.” Voila—Matthew eventually writes down the oral tradition—cites the 5000 and then notes: “. . . not counting women and children.”

This passage is another powerful example of Matthew showing his Jewish converts that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus is the new Moses (who, miraculously, got Israelites manna in a “deserted place”). Here Jesus feeds 5k in a deserted place. We’re told that 12 baskets were leftover and that might suggest the 12 Israelite tribes or maybe even a new 12 tribes being fed beyond the Israelite nation (the world!).

And of course people wonder how they could have fed so many when the apostles said that they only had 5 loaves and 2 fish. Some have proposed that the apostles went around asking people if they had anything with them, and that once they pooled their resources, they had enough to feed everyone. Hence the notion of Jesus eliciting a response from the community to share what they had.

Another sentence in this passage speaks directly to our lives as Christians. It is Jesus telling the apostles (us) “Bring them to me” (by the way you interact with people). You don’t have to get on a soapbox or go door to door to evangelize. How about speaking to people and treating people in such a way as they are moved to think you have something worth imitating or embracing. THAT’S how you “bring people” to Jesus.

Which is why I hope younger family members of people we’ve buried will connect the dots—and carry forth the legacy of their loved ones.

I can’t let the week pass without saying something about a feast day that was celebrated Friday. Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits—the religious order to which I belong (we put “S.J.” after our name just as other religious orders do, e.g., Dominicans put “O.P.”). Ignatius was a Spaniard (from the Basque region of Spain, the Basques being an ethnic group whose language is not related to any other known language). He started the order in 1540 and today there are 15k in the world with 2200 in the U.S. We’re a missionary and teaching order—there being 27 colleges in the U.S. (172 globally) and over 300 high schools here and elsewhere.

While there are Dominican, Franciscan, and Benedictine nuns, there are no Jesuit nuns. However, many women’s congregations base their spirituality and structure on the Society of Jesus. Their spirituality draws much from a classic work that Ignatius authored: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Jesuits try to live today’s gospel by bringing people to Jesus through their commitment to justice issues—and training “men and women for others.” We try to help people on the margins—those who are the target of prejudice and abuse. In short, Jesuits try to bring relief to the oppressed by awakening the conscience of people in power.

The Ignatian legacy includes what spiritual directors around the world refer to as “discernment of spirits.” This refers to the process whereby we learn, figure out, or decide what God is calling us to do in a given situation or with our life as a whole. It includes finding the source of our “consolation” and “desolation”—moods or frames of mind that give us life, or which bring us low (a key insight of Ignatius being that God’s “voice” in our minds is an affirming voice—a voice that calls us to discover more about our goodness and our role in building the world into a better place. God’s voice is NOT one that calls us 4-letter words and cuts us down and tells us we’re no good).

Another thought that is associated with Jesuits is the concept of the “magis” (a Latin word meaning “the more”). Again, God is always calling us to new discovery, new horizons beyond our limited vision of self and others. To give a concrete example of how “magis” might work in our life, think of landscaping your property.

You have a nice lawn in the front and back, and you’ve planted shrubs and trees and flowers everywhere—and everyone is grateful that you care enough about the neighborhood to present your living space as something lovely to behold. This is wonderful. BUT, as Pope Francis reminded us in the encyclical Laudato Si, are we being the best steward of God’s environment that we can be?

Before acquiring a given tree or bush or plant or flower, did we check to see if it was an “invasive species” that, although pretty to look at, might actually HURT the environment that spawned life here in Michigan—over millions of years? THAT’S what doing the “magis” is about—exercising the best that we can be and do.

Now if you find yourself saying “Oh, I really can’t be bothered with this sort of thing. I’ll leave it to others.” On any issue of importance, ask yourself the following: do you want your gravestone to say “He/She didn’t care.” I don’t think any of us would want that to be our legacy-memory.

Which is why we all need to pray a prayer associated with Ignatius and Jesuits.

Lord, teach us to be generous. Teach us to serve you as you deserve. To give without counting the cost. To fight without heeding the wounds, To labor without seeking rest. To sacrifice without thought of any reward except that of knowing we do what you call us to do.

July 26, 2020

Deacon Larry’s Farewell

MIL GRACIAS! THANK YOU!

It has been my honor and privilege to have served St. John XXIII Parish this past year, especially during these extraordinary times we live in. Many changes have occurred since May of 2019. In the midst of troubling times, Bishop Walter Hurley sent me to St. John XXIII Parish. I came as a stranger without hardly knowing anyone at all. What I discovered was a community of deep faith and dedicated servants.

During my time at St. John XXIII Parish, together we endured many joys and some hardships. We celebrated the fifth anniversary of St. John XXIII Parish with hotdogs after Mass. We celebrated a wedding, anniversaries and birthdays, the baptism of an infant, walked in faith together, confirmed four RCIA faithful [oh my], mourned at funerals and vigils, rejoiced at the birth of new babies and countless other encounters. Seeing people at daily Mass and gathering for our “coffee clutch” brings some very good memories, too. In short, we journeyed together in life.

I am grateful for all of you. I was touched by the sendoff you gave me. You overwhelmed me with expressions of friendship and showered me with cards, messages and gifts. Your names are too numerous to mention but you know who you are. Of course, all the varied ministers hold a special place for me: those who volunteer to help out as long as God allows, persevering in their faith at all times. You are my MVPs, most valuable parishioners.

However, I would be remiss if I did not mention Fr. Mike and the staff I worked with, day in and day out. When Fr. Mike came in November, I did not know if he would keep me or not. It turns out, we worked very well together. In addition, Dennis Newman [my sidekick & piano man], Irene Kruth [my confidant] and John Letts [he always had my back] made up my A-team. I could not have asked for better friends.

We will always be connected by our hearts and our common faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Feel free to write me by email or snail mail at:

Deacon Librado Gayton, Director of Hispanic Ministry
Catholic Diocese of Saginaw
5800 Weiss St.
Saginaw, MI 48603-2762 ph: 989-797-6604
lgayton@dioceseofsaginaw.org

In this time of heightened awareness of racism across our country, we want to offer an opportunity to participate in a discussion about racism and the issues that surround it. This discussion will not focus only on the secular problems, but also how we as Catholics are impacted by racism, discrimination, and prejudice and how we can respond with the light of faith.

John Thorne, Executive Director of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, will be leading the webinar for parish leaders and catechists in the Diocese of Saginaw titled “Understanding Racism and our Catholic Response” on Thursday, August 18 at 7 pm.

In addition to directing the work of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, John was a consultant on the recent document from the US Bishops titled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” published in 2018, which addresses racism in the United States. He was also a presenter for the USCCB’s “Intercultural Competencies” workshop and is a former Director of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Detroit. His joyful spirit and deep Catholic faith are gifts he brings to his ministry and this topic, so please join us for what will most certainly be a blessed opportunity to learn, reflect and look forward with hope.

Although it is not required, you may want to read the document “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love” before the webinar. You can find it at this link:

http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/open-wide-our-hearts.pdf. A link to the document and other resources can be found on the USCCB website here: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/index.cfm.

If you would like to register for the event, please contact Pat Preston at ppreston@dioceseofsaginaw.org, and she will send you the link for the webinar. If you have other questions or need more information, please contact Mark Graveline at mgraveline@dioceseofsaginaw.org or 989.797.6639 or Peg McEvoy at pmcevoy@dioceseofsaginaw.org or 989.797.6608.

Pastor’s Pen

This weekend, we have a first communion mass at 11 a.m., so my homily thoughts are going to be a blend of what I’ll say there and what I say to more mature audiences at the 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. masses.

Let’s face it, whenever we come to mass, we bring to God a laundry list of needs or concerns. There might be a health issue that fixates us, or a family problem, or a discouraging frame of mind that haunts us. It’s always SOMETHING that we take to God in prayer at mass.

This weekend, 4 young people will be making their first communion, and I’m sure each of us can recall making our first communion many moons ago. And here we are—gathered many years later at the altar of the Lord. Hmm. Will the 4 young ones making their 1st communion today be here years from now—gathering at the altar, as members of a faith community? I hope so.

What will draw them? What has drawn us to keep returning to the table of the Lord?  It might be related to the first reading. God gave Solomon an “understanding heart”—one that could discern right from wrong. And let’s face it, there’s lots of “wrong” in life that seduces us. And there’s lots of “wrong” that God calls us to address.

Look at the issues all around us. Be it in our family or in national issues, all sorts of people disagree about what’s right and wrong. Some say what’s right is what others say is wrong. Studies of our Catholic community even say we are split 50/50 on issues. What on earth is happening to us? Do we not know the voice of Jesus? Do we not recognize what he’d say about family, local, and national issues? Apparently we’re divided on what Jesus would say.  Why is there this disconnect?

Could it be that even after going to mass and receiving communion all our lives, we STILL aren’t sure what the voice of Jesus sounds like? And we confuse it with patriotism,  political party affiliations, or prejudices we carry?

Today’s gospel says the kingdom of God can be compared to a pearl of great price. This is not a reference to a place but to an experience—an experience of you (and me) relating to God. THAT is the pearl of great price—to know what God is calling you to be, to say, to do with your life each day. You’ve FOUND the pearl if you’re able to know God is with you—calling you forward—past the limited horizon you have of yourself, and the prejudices you (and I) maintain.

This past week’s daily mass had a reading from the Song of Songs. That’s a book in Hebrew scripture that is erotic poetry. A reader might wonder why this sort of literature is in the bible. The answer is simple: the writer is simply saying that God loves you passionately. Great. God loves me. And so?????

And so you (and I) can move ahead and speak the “right” to the “wrongs” we see all around us. We might take flak from family, friends, and others, but we have the kingdom of God within our hearts. And we have the consolation of being Solomon for others—Solomons who know right from wrong.

I recall one day on the banks of the Miami River in Ohio—in prayer asking if there was a God, and if God existed—could I be assured of God’s presence. Parables tell us we’re a pearl of great price and that the sower sows us seeds to grow and produce a harvest. HOWEVER, there are weeds in my life. Would God still be with me when I make weed-like decisions?

I was thinking these sorts of thoughts when all of a sudden a black dog comes walking toward me from down the river. I wondered if he’d be friendly or mean. After all, I was bit by a dog on my 7th birthday, and had to get 14 rabies shots. Well, the dog came to me, and I said “What a good dog, what a nice dog” (hoping he’d take a hint). Sure enough, he sat down next to me—and just looked out at the river with me. A friendly dog, just sitting there with me.

And then I did something without thinking. In life, we do lots of things without thinking—and we pay a price. We make mistakes. We say or do the wrong thing. On this occasion, I unthinkingly threw a stick into the river. Right away, the dog took that as a cue to go fetch the stick.

Now the river bank was maybe 40 feet high, and steep and dangerous. And so, I shouted loudly to the dog: “No. Stay. No, no, no.” But he went about 50 feet to my right and stepped down the bank—only to start a long and horrible-looking tumble head over heels. I turned away in horror—thinking he’d for sure break his neck.

Upon crashing at the edge of the river, he got up, shook himself off, and proceeded to walk the river’s edge looking out into where the current was taking the stick I had thrown. Eventually, he splashed into the river, grabbed the stick, and made a wide circuit up the bank to my left. Coming to my side again, he handed me the stick, and sat down again.

I was so relieved—so glad this fine pup was okay. And so thankful for God showing me through this pup that God would be faithful to me no matter how many unthinking mistakes I made in life, or how many weeds I planted among the good seeds of God’s creation.  I had questioned God’s existence, but God is with us always—in different forms–like the black dog.  Or, like the wind, God might not be visible, but we feel God just as we feel the invisible wind blow against us.

The pup’s arrival and fetching was an immediate answer to my question about God’s faithfulness to me. It was as if God said to my doubting mind: “Let me show you how much I love you, and the extent to which I want you to know of my love.” And along came the black dog—as people who come into our lives and reveal to us God’s love.

The parable of the sower reminds me of the man who took great pride in his lawn. He found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally, he wrote the Department of Agriculture. He enumerated all the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question: “What shall I do now?” In due course of time the reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.”

So realize that God sowed your life—and that dandelions get into it. But God stays with you, dandelions and all, calling you to be a beacon showing others the difference between right and wrong–calling you to detect the voice of Jesus within the arguments of our day.

In the words of St. Theresa of Avila: Jesus 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. Jesus has no body now on earth but yours.

July 19, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

On some Sundays, we are given a long form of the gospel or a short one. This is one of those Sundays. I read the short form—the parable of the sower and the seeds. Here’s what scripture scholars tell us about this parable.

Matthew and Luke draw a fair amount of material from Mark’s gospel (the first gospel written). John’s gospel doesn’t have this parable in it. Interestingly, the apocryphal gospel of Thomas (one that wasn’t accepted by the church as “canonical”) also had the sower story. Matthew and Luke expanded it to include an interpretation—which Jesus may or may not have taught.

Scholars conclude that he probably told the parable since a number of sources have it. So what point is made in Matthew’s account? Recall it told of seed not taking root because it encountered hard ground, thorns, birds, scorching sun and other challenges. But some seed harvested 100 or 60 or 30-fold (in a land where 100-fold harvest is absurd and a 7-10% yield is normal).

Matthew has Jesus telling his followers that they will meet opposition and peril, but he encourages and exhorts them to carry on. I think of teachers who spend a lifetime planting seeds in young minds—wondering if any of those seeds will take root and provide the world with wonders untold. And so it is with us—as we allow scriptural seeds to be planted in our minds and hearts. Will they take root, and will we produce the harvest God calls us to reap?

This weekend we’re confirming four people in their faith—the 11 o’clock mass seeing 1 baptism, 2 first communions, and 4 confirmations. I was reminded of the sacrament of confirmation when I saw someone’s tattoo this week—as tattoos communicate some message about the person who has one (or more). I was then reminded of our tribal ancestors (remember we all come from tribal roots). They wore tattoos or scarred different parts of their body or wore insignia of some kind—to broadcast the message of who they were. Our Jewish ancestors had circumcision—which was understood by them as the “sign of the covenant” between Abraham and God. Every Jewish male was to have this sign.  Genital cutting still exists in many cultures–women sometimes included.

When out hunting, if an ancestor of ours met someone they didn’t recognize—they’d look them over to see if their ethnic/tribal/family mark of some kind was being worn by the stranger. If they didn’t see anything that marks that person as one of their own—out would come the knives.

I wear a Tiger or Lions cap—wanting to tell of my Detroit roots and teams. Some will see my cap and think “loser!” But I don’t think that way. Go Tigers!  Go Lions!  Others will wear their red cap in the political realm, or have a flag hang at their house, or have a hair or clothing style that makes a statement about who they are. It just seems to be in our genes to identify ourselves in these varied ways.

I bring up this topic this weekend because of the confirmations taking place. These 4 wonderful people are saying to the world via this sacrament, that they are scarring their hearts with the gospel. The flag they’re wearing is faith, hope, and love that clothes their spirit, and their minds are tattooed with the sermon on the mount—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

There is no outward sign that they’ll be wearing. Instead, it will be their behavior. At least, this is what they pledge in this sacrament. They’re publicly stating that they want to be known by a different flag, a different tattoo, a different scar—invisible to the eye except in people recognizing them as people who live the gospel.

From this day forward, they will reflect on what we who are already confirmed, supposedly, reflect upon. Namely, is my thinking and behavior any different from my atheistic or agnostic neighbor who attends no church? Are my opinions on social issues formed by my political party or the gospel? Is my #1 charity myself, or is any part of my life given to the care of others? Am I making any effort to bring about the change that Jesus preached, or does my lifestyle simply reflect me being a product of my culture and doing whatever is faddish?

Should you feel the same desire felt by our 4 confirmation people today, and not want to be a bystander in the parade of life; should you want to be someone whose invisible Christian tattoos make a difference that goes beyond divisive politics, blind patriotism, and ethnic prejudice—let this sentence of 10 words, 2 letters each–remind you of the change you are called to create:

“If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Just think of the positive impact we could have as a faith community if each one of us internalized this commitment.

Blessing for Confirmation

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

And may the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore. AMEN

The Prayer of St. Francis with an Addition to It

[The first part of the prayer below is known at the “Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.” It was composed in the 20th century, so was not uttered by him. At a weekday mass I read it along with the addition that is contemporary. A parishioner asked that it be put in the bulletin. Voila.]

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. Where there is sadness, joy.
May I be a safeguard for those who have no protection, A guide for those who journey along the way; For those who wish to go across the water, May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be a home port for those who yearn for landfall, And a lamp for those who long for the light; For those who are tired, may I be a resting place, For all who need help, their servant.

 

July 4, 2020

Pastor’s Pen

Just a quick show of hands to start this homily. How many of you are married to your first cousin?

Sure enough, I didn’t think I’d see any hands raise. As a culture, we’d be looked down upon by others if we admit to being married to our first cousins. HOWEVER, 25 states permit it, and prior to the Civil War of 1861, most marriages were between first cousins. Only toward the end of the 19th century did the trend see people marrying outside the family.

No European country bans first cousin marriage and in many parts of the world, they are still the most common marital liaison—as it was in the time of Jesus, the Jewish custom being to marry father’s brother’s child. If you broke this rule, you were being unpatriotic and your behavior shocking—because “We’ve never done it that way! We always marry our first cousin!”

Jesus, however, taught that kin-based marriage isn’t the highest form, and Matthew reminds us of this when noting that Jesus said we’re free to marry anyone. This upset traditionalists—who appealed to emotions of Jewish converts to Christianity. “Stick to your people’s tradition. Fear new ideas and those from other cultures.” This reminds me of instinctual drives we have, and how our brains are wired—and how leaders can appeal to different instincts or parts of our brain.

You’ll hear people speak of the “reptilian” part of our brain. It involves basic instincts associated with fear, pain, and mating. There’s a higher part of our brain that is associated with analysis and reflection—a basic fact of life being that each of us is capable of behaving in a reptilian way or a the more highly developed “human” way.

Leaders can appeal to our reptilian instinct or our higher ones—call them “aspirational.” For example, I told you about the Sioux Indian story about the coming of the sacred smoking pipe. 2 warriors found a beautiful woman and one of them assaulted her (a reptilian response)—and was instantly turned into a skeleton. The other warrior respected her as a sacred person (an aspirational perspective).

Or think of someone hurting you in some way. You feel like “getting even” with the person—maybe causing them harm of some kind (reptilian). But you have a choice. Someone tells you to “move on” and “turn the other cheek” (thus suggesting an aspirational behavior—transcending the base instinct of lashing back).

Charismatic leaders can be value-based (aspirational) or self-centered (reptilian). Think of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple—he convincing 900 people to kill themselves—somehow able to mesmerize/hypnotize his followers into adopting self-destructive behavior (death based on fear). Political leaders can be either reptilian or aspirational—those who push buttons that trigger fear, anger, retaliation, etc. among their followers, or those who try and describe a hopeful future, a better world where all can live together in peace (aspirational).

I provide this background so that you know what kind of leader Jesus is. He is aspirational—calling us to receive sacraments that elevate our vision of life and our place in life. The prodigal son/daughter took their inheritance and blew it (all reptilian) while his father welcomed him back and tried to upbuild his child (aspirational).

We often enough react in reptilian ways and we don’t always respond to issues in aspirational ways. Here’s an easy way to think of these terms—react/reptilian, respond/aspirational.

God calls us to sacramental participation and it, in turn, helps us transcend innate instincts—and reach out to something more visionary than those basic passions. The Old Testament has lots of history in it—the point being for us to look at OUR history—and see where we’ve been more reptilian than human.

You or I come up with excuses as to why we can’t achieve anything more than what we’re doing. We claim that some cross is too burdensome and that it prevents us from becoming the visionary person God calls us to be.

However, today’s gospel has Jesus tell us “pick up your cross”—meaning we CAN pick it up—and move on. Each of us can point to something in our lives that we say prevents us from being something different from what we are “settling for.” The gospel calls us NOT to settle for limiting our Christian influence on others—but instead tries to clarify our vision of what God calls us to be for others.

As a teen, I had a policeman shout at me “stop or I’ll shoot.” In looking back on my behavior, I can only shake my head and ask “what were you thinking?” I was picked up by police a couple of more times during that same period—so if I stayed on that track, I wouldn’t be with you today. Fortunately, God intervened and somehow showed me that my reptilian level of behavior wasn’t as rewarding as behavior that was more aspirational. I was somehow drawn to thinking God wanted me to be more than I was settling for.  Somewhere within my soul-searching it seemed God might actually be calling me to do whatever a priest does (my understanding of the role wasn’t real insightful in my formative years).

Transcending our reptilian instincts and perceiving more than primal drives of anger, fright, or reproduction is not limited to embracing some entirely new walk of life. Instead, it’s simply acquiring and acting on our God-given ability to appreciate afresh the many gifts of creation that surround us.

The following poem, on the one hand, has nothing to do with “religion.” On the other hand, it has everything to do with it—as it describes a person’s living one day with a consciousness of appreciation—for all the little things we might otherwise pass by without noticing. Titled “Aimless Love,” it is written by the US. Poet-laureate Billy Crudup.

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,

I fell in love with a wren

and later in the day with a mouse

the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

 

In the shadows of an autumn evening,

I fell for a seamstress

still at her machine in the tailor’s window,

and later for a bowl of broth,

steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

 

This is the best kind of love, I thought,

without recompense, without gifts,

or unkind words, without suspicion,

or silence on the telephone.

 

The love of the chestnut,

the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

 

No lust, no slam of the door –

the love of the miniature orange tree,

the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,

the highway that cuts across Florida.

 

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –

just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest

on a low branch overhanging the water

and for the dead mouse,

still dressed in its light brown suit.

 

But my heart is always propped up

in a field on its tripod,

ready for the next arrow.

 

After I carried the mouse by the tail

to a pile of leaves in the woods,

I found myself standing at the bathroom sink

gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,

so at home in its pale green soap dish.

 

I could feel myself falling again

as I felt its turning in my wet hands

and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

 

Were I to conclude this poem with a directly-stated religious angle to it, I’d write:

 

I looked in the mirror

And my gaze was returned.

A face was contemplating a hopeful destiny

born of a God who called for its discovery.

—–

Look in the mirror and realize you are blest.

 

Communion reflection

The young man was at the end of his rope. Seeing no way out, he dropped to his knees in prayer. “Lord, I can’t go on,” he said. “I have too heavy a cross to bear.” The Lord replied, “My son, if you can’t bear its weight, just place your cross inside this room and pick out any cross you wish.” The man was filled with relief. “Thank you, Lord,” he sighed, and he did as he was told. He put down his burden, wandered around the room, and saw many crosses, some so large the tops were not visible. Then he spotted a tiny cross leaning against a far wall. “I’d like that one, Lord,” he whispered. And the Lord replied, “My son, that is the cross you just brought in.”

 

June 28, 2020

Odds and Ends

1) When you see a surgeon depicted on television wearing a mask, the mask is worn to prevent the surgeon from exhaling into the open wound of the patient–much like our wearing of masks is intended to prevent us from unknowingly spreading the virus to others if we are asymptomatic. When you see someone not wearing a mask, they may THINK the only reason people wear a mask is to protect themselves. Not so. It’s to protect others.

2) Unless you get around and see “how the other half lives,” it’s hard to believe that one in five kids in America goes to bed hungry.

3) In an effort to protect the more vulnerable, we can always expand our list of communion distributors so that younger folk can take the role. Call the office and volunteer (for the role of reader and usher, too).

4) Last Saturday, mass was offered for someone’s mom and dad who celebrated both a birthday and an anniversary. This coming Friday morning’s mass is for someone else on their birthday. What a nice birthday gift it would be for someone to have a weekday or weekend mass said for them—and then you take them out for breakfast or dinner (on Saturday). Nice way of integrating one’s faith-life with one’s secular life.

Pastor’s Pen

For those who missed mass on June 21st, here’s the homily.

Today’s scripture brings to mind an image I have of the last judgment. Namely, in the gospel Jesus says: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” I think of God assembling everyone into an amphitheater and saying: “Okay, you will now watch Michael’s life-story from beginning to end. You will watch every second of his existence and see how he lived the gift of his life.” Jesus then turns on the video of my life for everyone to view. Naturally, there are times when I ask him to fast-forward the tape.

As the video plays, I think of today’s reading from Jeremiah and recall that my life as a Christian was supposed to include a prophetic voice. Remember that a “prophet” in Hebrew scripture’s “Old Testament” was not someone who predicted the future (the way we use the word “prophet” in everyday language). Rather, a prophet is one who sees what God is calling us to do TODAY!

I, as a Christian (and priest), am supposed to look at the sins of the 6 o’clock news and CALL ATTENTION to where we are going astray. I’m supposed to exercise my “prophetic voice” as Jeremiah (and Jesus) did.

But look what happened to both of them. They were killed by people who took offense at what they said. Choose any issue, and if I, or anyone, speak a prophetic voice addressing one of those issues—I’ll be rejected. That’s no fun—so there’s a big temptation NOT to speak a prophetic voice. Ministers of all churches are tempted to avoid contentious issues and instead address only topics that play well to their audience. One of the spiritual works of mercy is to “comfort the afflicted,” but it entails “afflicting the comfortable,” too–so ministers fear retaliation of some kind if their “flock” is not open to at least listening.

Remember, too, that a prophetic voice isn’t you or I rattli