Thursday, January 31, 2013

Past and present

“Only those generations who have lost faith in themselves and in the future prefer the past to the present; and the school or doctrine which evokes past principles to the exclusion of experimentation and innovation must inevitably stifle initiative. The new or unusual must not be suspect merely because of its ‘newness’. But since new experiences are often difficult to assess, we must be prepared to make the necessary effort – often a very considerable one – to comprehend the unfamiliar in our own times or in other cultures.”
Helen Gardner, Art Through the Ages

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The power of the word

The “C” readings for the liturgy on this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time say less to us about events in the life of God and Jesus than they do about the power of the word of God, the word of Jesus.

Nehemiah contains this beautiful passage in which Ezra reads the book of the law to the Israelites. There is great detail provided in the description. Ezra stands on a wooden platform. The passage identifies who is standing next to him and on which side – six on the right and seven on the left. All the Levite priests who explain the law are named. What is really striking, however, is that the people are weeping. Why? Some commentators say it is because hearing the law reminds the Israelites of their sins and remorse sets in. That’s probably true but I also believe that reason should be scratched more and underneath we become aware that hearing God’s word read to us is a powerful action.

As Catholics we recognize the power of the word in the Eucharist, e.g., This is my Body. We recognize it in the sacrament of penance, e.g., I absolve you, etc. These are two very important examples, but not there are many others as well. Ezra’s admonition to the people is that they should not weep, they should rejoice. “Do not be saddened, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah wants us to recognize our strength. Rejoicing in the Lord. The Lord is our strength.

Something similar – that is, a similar example the power the word has – occurs in the Gospel for today. Jesus enters the synagogue, is handed a scroll, unwraps it, reads from it, and then makes an announcement. He tells the Jews that what he has just read has been fulfilled. Jesus identifies himself with the words of Isaiah. He is the answer to the prophecy. He has been anointed by God to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, return sight to the blind, give the oppressed their freedom and proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

But just as the weeping of the people in the first reading remains the thing we remember, so in the Gospel we remember the silence and intensity of the looks of the Jews in the synagogue when Jesus finishes reading the prophecy. Both readings are testaments to the effect the word of God has on us. God’s powerful word makes us weep and then we rejoice in it. God’s powerful word gives us pause and we have to consider its ramifications.

There is a story, supposedly true, told about a Shakespearean actor invited to speak at a parish. He accepted but declined to do a reading unless the pastor also read. The actor read and received a thunderous standing ovation. He insisted the pastor read. The congregation wept. The actor stated, “I read the scene. Your pastor felt it.”

Does Scripture ever have that kind of effect on us? Does hearing the word go to the center of our being? Would we react as the Israelites did if we heard someone read the Scripture to us? How would we react if Jesus stood before us to tell us that he is the answer to everything. In the end, that is the point. Jesus is the answer to everything. Have we heard and understood?



Saturday, January 26, 2013

The society of fear

Recently a gun show customer, interviewed by the media, reported his attendance at the show out of solidarity for the Second Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment, he stated, is the centerpiece of the Constitution and without that amendment we wouldn’t have any of the other amendments. It enables us to live out the other amendments.

His conviction was so heartfelt that I immediately ran to locate my copy of the U.S. Constitution to find out just what is in the other amendments. Once I did, I remembered that these amendments are not per see part of the Constitution. These amendments constitute the Bill of Rights. Or rather the first ten of them do. The first amendment protects the free exercise of religion. I wondered, if the second amendment is so important, why does the first one deal with religion? The second is actually a little fuzzy. The actual text reads, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That is usually interpreted to mean I personally can keep a gun. It also means I might have to be ready to join the Army.

There are incredibly strong feelings present in many Americans on this issue. But to tell you the truth, gun control doesn’t really concern me. Human control is a greater worry and it seems harder to manage. Yes, ‘guns don’t kill, people do’. But guns need people to pull the trigger. What really worries me though is fear. We live in a society in which, from birth, we are taught to fear everything around us. Hence the need for guns or any weapon that will supposedly protect us.

I would quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line that we have nothing to fear but fear itself but I’m not sure many ‘Amurricans’ even know who Franklin Delano Roosevelt was and I’m not sure they would understand why he said it nor why it is meaningful today. Fear is a disease and it eats away at our good judgment and sense. It undermines whatever joy and consolation may exist in our lives. And judging from attitudes in our society, there isn’t much joy or consolation present.

Since the Newtown shootings, there have been more shootings around schools that have made the national news. It is ironic that during an explosion of gun shows in recent weeks that a number of individuals were accidentally injured when guns were misused by them. Isn’t it apparent that the object of owning a gun nowadays is so that we can complete for ourselves the logical end of fear? We must wipe out our neighbors before they wipe us out.

Fear means that no one can be trusted. And if we do not trust our neighbors, what else can we do than pull up our drawbridges, boil the oil, prepare the battlements, and wait for the onslaught? In 2009 the U.S. death rate by firearms was 10.2 people per 100,000. Among developed countries, that’s the highest in the world. The next closest was Finland which in 2008 had 4.47 deaths per 100,000 people from firearms. All that is left is for us to turn on ourselves.

As Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us.



Saturday, January 19, 2013

Reality check

Is Manti Te’O a real person?

We’ve learned his girl friend was not real. Why should we assume he himself is real? Do not most of us know him only from watching televised football games? Has anyone actually passed him on the street? Or sat down with him face to face? Perhaps Te’O is himself not real and the public has been flummoxed once again by a media in love with itself.

An ESPN reporter met with him this past week (so I’m told) and asked a lot of questions. But how can I be certain that reporter was even real and not just a computerized figure developed by other computerized figures and fake images?

Te’O is a stranger to mainland North American culture. Of Samoan ancestry, he grew up in the Hawaiian Islands. At least that is what the news biographies state. Perhaps he is truly ignorant of the behavior of technology and doesn’t understand that technology makes what is real false and what is false real. In that respect, he is no different from other people his age. Te’O is like a five year old child who discovers the gun in his parents’ dresser drawer. He is playing with a weapon that not only can but will backfire on him.

But perhaps Te’O doesn’t really exist either.

Te’O never met his girlfriend. That challenges our language. What do the terms “girl friend” or “boy friend” mean if two people never actually meet but just simply exchange text messages or “talk” on the telephone? So many “relationships” today are based on illusions. A machine mediates the relationship – or – perhaps the machine actually controls the relationship, which is seemingly what happened in this case.

Yet does it really make any difference? The ESPN reporter concluded his report acknowledging that the case won’t make any difference in terms of Te’O’s draft possibilities in the NFL. “He’ll soon be a millionaire,” the reporter stated blandly, as if some kind of cause and effect principle were at work here. Do not only do your job well or exercise your talent well, but do something sensational to get your name and face in print, on TV, and – more importantly – online. And you'll be rich!

Like many young people, Te’O has a thirst for celebrity status. Talk about the unreal. Just as horror movies of the past featured characters called “the undead,” celebrities are half human at best and live only when spotlights are turned on. The rest of the time they are closeted away until the electricity is turned on.

There obviously are no rules for celebrities. Celebrities can do what they will. They are not accountable to the rest of us. Te’O is truly living the American dream! Te’O is now an entry in Wikipedia! He is immortal.



Sunday, January 13, 2013


The Gospel of Luke for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord begins with the words “The people were filled with expectation” and the people wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ. It is an important day for John. This is the penultimate event in his life in Scripture followed only by the event of his death. As he himself reminded his disciples in John 3, he knew his time was at an end. I must decrease, he told them; while Jesus must increase.

This past week my family gained a new member. My nephew’s wife gave birth to a new daughter. Most of my attention these past several weeks has been on that expectation. There will be a baptism soon. Very few of us can remember our own baptism mostly because most of us were baptized before we were able to know what it meant. Someone else spoke for us. Someone else – our parents – admitted us to this sacrament.

Jesus didn’t need anyone to baptize him and yet he chose to be baptized. As Pope Benedict has written, “It was the action of the One who wanted to make himself one of us in everything … to take upon his shoulders the burden of the sin of all humanity, by the desire to bring about true solidarity” with us and with our human condition.   

That should tell us that, like so much in our Church, the sacrament of baptism is about our relationship with others. This is one of the first things our parents ask for us – that we admit our newborns into a relationship with Jesus. And our relationship with Jesus admits us to a relationship with his Father. How many of us take that relationship seriously enough to recognize the presence of Jesus in our lives?

Secondly, baptism is about our relationship with the Church. That means it’s about our relationship with the community of believers. Baptism welcomes us into this or that parish community. But it also welcomes us into that larger Church that we can call the communion of saints that has been and that is going to be. What are our relationships like?

For those of us baptized as infants, so much depends on our parents. They must show us that they have a relationship with God. They don’t need to spell it out in words. They just need to show it. They must be living it.

So on this feast the people are filled with expectation. John has to point the way for them, however. They want to establish a relationship with John that means hope for their lives. And John tells them to look to Jesus. In Jesus you will find the things you expect – hope for your life, mercy, justice, and the kind of interior peace that comes from nowhere else. Once that relationship is established, how will we live? Justice and mercy are not always readily available. Giving them birth infers a certain readiness to relegate my own desires to second place, if not third or fourth or even last place. Justice and mercy are not the same as fairness and equality. Justice is not always equal and mercy is not always fair.

The baptism of Jesus was witnessed by a large crowd of people. Not only did they observe this event, they also heard the voice of God’s pleasure. This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a servant with whom God was well pleased. Jesus became that servant. It is not always easy to remember that Jesus lived his life as he did because he chose to do the will of his Father. Perhaps the most important thing to take from this feast is a greater appreciation of that relationship. It is a model for us. Is my relationship with God such that I strive at every moment in my life to do the will of God?

After this feast, the Church moves us into Ordinary Time and we witness Jesus in his public ministry healing and curing. What meaning does this have for us? Our baptism calls us to great expectations. Our baptism calls us to continue the healing work of Jesus where we are. Our baptism calls us to be merciful and to act justly both among ourselves and all those we encounter. Baptism points up the expectation for us as leaders in whatever community we find ourselves. We may not have realized the import of our own baptism when it occurred. It is time we realize that baptism has marked us for something new and special. To live as Jesus did. Jesus lived for nothing but doing the will of his Father. Nothing less is expected of us.



Friday, January 4, 2013

Words and values

Early in 2012 I visited a Jesuit community in which I was once a member. One new member asked what ministry I am pursuing. Explaining that I worked with college-age seminarians, I sensed a fog suddenly descending over the conversation. After a second, as the Jesuit took another sip of his cocktail, I was asked, “How conservative are they?”

This was not the first time I was asked such a question in response to my naming my ministry. And not just by Jesuits. There are many middle-age and older clergy who are fearful of the assumed outlook of most seminarians today. The ‘conservative vs. liberal’ conversation about the attitudes of seminarians, priests, bishops, or anyone else does not intrigue me. To oversimplify it, clergy of my generation think many, if not most, of today’s seminarians want to return the Church to its pre-Vatican II status. If that is true, then I wonder how it will be done, since none of today’s seminarians even remotely experienced life before Vatican II.

Vatican II is the red line. For many clergy today, everything before it was bad. Everything that immediately followed it was good. In other words, value judgments have been laid out blanketing any sensible dialogue. My OED defines the word ‘conservative’ as “characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged.”

The word liberal is a little more complex. It comes from Latin meaning ‘pertaining to a free man.’ The word originally meant ‘the distinctive epithet of those ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’ that were considered ‘worthy of a free man.’ Its secondary meaning is ‘free in bestowing; bountiful, generous, open-hearted.’ It further means ‘free from restraint; free in speech or action; free from narrow prejudice, open-minded, candid.’

Both words suffer connotations that give them negative implications. Both apply to politics but they are also used in Church environments as well. And each age views them differently. History, once lived, lets the deeper senses emerge.

Seminarians are at one and the same time conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional. The best of them are well-rounded in their views. The worry is that some are very rigid in their views. The best are open-minded and willing to learn. Most seminarians I know are much more conservative than I was when I was one of them. But they are not easy to label. Many of them also have a much greater openness to God and spirituality and ministry than I ever remember in the seminary.

The bottom line for me is that these young men seek holiness; they are eager and enthusiastic; they want to serve. They are also novices on the road to the priesthood. They are not finished products. The rigid ones – and I’ve only met enough to count on one hand – do not last. If they do, they tend to isolate themselves from everyone else, including the institutional Church. I am not as unhopeful about the future of priestly ministry as some others are.


Elizabeth and I

Today РFriday, January 4 Рis the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint. Her relationship with Bishop Simon Brut̩, first bishop of the Diocese of Vincennes (now the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the Diocese of Evansville), is well described in the following link:


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Unanswered questions

“ … life really is worthwhile if in your autumn you can see realities which in the springtime would have surpassed all your dreams.”

John LaFarge SJ,The Manner is Ordinary”

Humanity is road kill on the information superhighway.


Many years ago I wrote a weekly newspaper column titled “Living the Questions,” a name I took from the Rilke quote posted on Dec. 20. I decided to title this blog “STILL Living the Questions” to make that connection with the past and because I have decided that answers will only come when one finds oneself in the world to come

A priest classmate once asked me when I was going to answer some of the questions I posed at that time. I still have none. Observations and a tendency to judge, perhaps, but mostly questions. Judgments aren’t any help either.

I come from a newspaper family. My dad was a newspaperman for 48 years. He was proud that he was a newspaperman rather than a journalist. His distinction was that the former were the professionals, the hard drinking, constantly smoking men and women who would rather be out in the street getting the story than sitting around a newspaper city room reading copy. The journalist was the academic who, it seemed to my dad, was more likely to remain in the office without getting his/her hands dirty.

My dad retired in 1987 and died in 1995. I do not hesitate to say that he would be a very disillusioned man if he could see the state of newspapers today.

Modern technology has killed life as we knew it and newspapers are among its largest casualties. It was inevitable. The technology of any new age kills life as it was known in the previous age. (Read “Hamlet’s Blackberry” by William Powers) Every age requires new styles and print no longer commands the respect it once had.

The problem though is that so much of what we find in modern technology is shallow and ignorant. Perhaps it was the same when print burst on the scene over 500 years ago. Perhaps that is always true when we are at the beginning of something new and different. Perhaps we are just used to some of the shallowness that we still find in print. Will we outgrow the shallowness? One would have hoped that as each age progresses, so would the transition from one medium to another. But, alas! It does not seem so!

One of the blogs I enjoy reading is from Ruth Holladay (, a former Indianapolis Star reporter. Among other things, Ruth often comments on the foibles of the dying press. It’s dying, however, because the focus is on profit making and profit taking, not in reporting the news. Her critiques, however, are pleas for compassion and humanity, for justice for readers as well as for newspaper employees. She carries a passion for truth as well. There is not really much in today’s media that cares for the truth. In fairness, I will have to say that even in my dad’s lifetime the goal was ‘getting the story’. I find, however, that there was a lot more fairness and honesty in getting the story then than seems to be today. Moreover, there often seems to be an inability on the part of many ‘journalists’ today to know just what is newsworthy as opposed to just what is entertainment.