Friday, May 31, 2013

Listening at Eastern Point

Almost annually since 1988 I have been making my eight-day retreat at the Jesuit retreat house at Eastern Point near Gloucester, Mass. This year I hoped for lots of silence and time to listen to God. The second night I went for a walk down a path that separates a large pond from the cove that drinks from the ocean. Nor'easters last February spilled good-size rocks onto the path. At first I proceeded thinking I would locate the path. Almost immediately I lost my balance, fell forward, gashed my head above my right eye, came down hard with my left arm, broke the small finger of my left hand, bruised my hand and later discovered large bruises on my chest. That was five nights ago.

I spent four hours in the ER at the local hospital. The doctor that night was an Irish doctor who served me well even after I whooped loudly when she pulled my finger back into place. She also sewed five stitches in the gash. Today an orthopedist at a sports medicine clinic half an hour away put a cast on the hand after removing the splint and wrap that held It together from that night in the ER.

On Sunday the stitches are to be removed and I will hopefully be returning to Indianapolis. Eastern Point maintains the wildness and harsh beauty that has been here for ages. Each year I look for the pair of swans on the pond. One year momma swan swam right up to me on the shore to show off her seven babies (cygnets). Two chatty women walking by with a leashless dog were confronted by an angry momma swan when the dog took after it. I was betting on the swan.

This year the swans are gone. Two years ago a coyote reportedly got papa swan and last summer there was only momma swan. Now she has gone. Nor'easters have caused the ocean to intrude into the pond so frequently that it is no longer a fresh water pond. Retreat directors have explained that in recent years a couple of folks have had to be rescued from the ocean after being swept off the large rocks that line the coast. Apparently they either did not understand tides or know the power of water or didn't care.

I always enjoyed Eastern Point because it seemed to represent a harmony between God and nature. We humans were invited to enjoy it but also to respect it. Even my limited injuries suggest to me that perhaps I too have been taking it for granted. Genesis 1:28 reports God's command that human beings fill the earth and "subdue" it. Does that not mean we must get to know it, respect it, and learn from it?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Vigil of Pentecost 1969

This Vigil of Pentecost 2013 is the 44th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. In 1969, however, the Vigil of Pentecost fell on May 24. For my first Mass one of my aunts made for me a bright red chasuble with matching stole, a plain creation unlike many of the more traditional looking vestments that are popular today. Three concelebrants joined me - Fr. Bill Cleary, a priest of the archdiocese of Indianapolis, who had been our associate pastor when I was growing up; Fr. Pat Smith, another priest of the archdiocese who taught Scripture at Marian College where I earned my B.A. degree; Fr. Bill Thurmer, a priest of the archdiocese of St. Louis, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Hazelwood, Mo., where I served as a deacon while studying at Kenrick Seminary. A classmate - Pat Malone, now a retired priest of the Diocese of Wichita - served as deacon for the Mass. A first cousin - Barbara Binder - made her first communion during the Mass at age 8.

Though now a Jesuit I am engaged in the formation of college-age men discerning vocations to the diocesan priesthood. It's a job I never sought and one I wasn't sure I could do. The work is tiring and I am available to our seminarians 24/7 (I do take one day off each week). Still I find the last three years to be some of the richest of my priesthood.

That's not because of the work. It's because of the seminarians who have renewed my hope in the ideals of human nature and my belief in the never ending and constantly challenging grace of God.

Our numbers the first year I served in the college seminary included three veterans of recent U.S. wars - two had been in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Two had sustained wounds in battles and knew both fear and death. Along with these three late 20s aged men were nearly two dozen more who had just finished high school or who were in their sophomore, junior, or senior year. The contrasts and the issues were mountainous.

Still all were there because they thought they might be interested in becoming priests. In my three years so far, about two-thirds have continued on to major seminary. I feel certain that some of them will continue on to priesthood. To ponder that I might have even a minimal part in their accomplishment is an astonishing thought to me.

I was ordained in a year when we struggled to be considered "just like everybody else" and we wanted our friends and families not to put us on pedestals. Whether they did or not, the intervening years have certainly shoved us from those places of honor. Part of that has to do with revelations concerning church scandals. An additional part, however, has to do with our becoming more human and, in some cases, becoming more holy. Priests should not be put on pedestals. We are indeed human beings as the rest of humanity. Yet we are still singled out for a work that is like no other. And, if everything else has worked, we have developed a relationship like no other, a relationship with Jesus Christ, who must be the central focus of our lives if we are to be at all worthwhile.

Last summer I participated in a three-week seminar for seminary spiritual directors. I was blown away with a course on the spirituality of the diocesan priesthood. None of the content had ever been available to me when I was in seminary formation. Had it been so, I might never have made my own choice to leave diocesan priesthood after 16 years to become a Jesuit. The spirituality of the Society of Jesus offered me so much more than I knew as a diocesan priest.

I am able to share what I learned last summer with our college seminarians. But I am also able to enrich my own priesthood now because of what our seminarians continue to teach me. Their humanity mirrors my own. Their desire for God excites me. Their failures remind me of my own. I am grateful that the Lord has sent me to them so that I might give them my life - incomplete though it may be.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fried chicken and Sibelius

The shouting is over. All the seminarians have left the premises except for three - two who will work this week facilitating some maintenance issues in the building. The third seminarian is deprived of his long drive into Kentucky today because an informational readout on I-65 this morning indicated very long delays over the bridge into Louisville. He may stay another night. Even if it's only for a few hours or a day, it's nice not to have to be on a deadline.

Graduation was graduation. Our reception for the four grads we gave to the world went smoothly, the food went fast (the rector stole away into the night with a leftover box of chocolate √©clairs) and families dispersed to their own celebrations. A couple other Marian grads stopped by to bid adieu. I was not around to see them as I left for another dinner, a bigger one, this at Hollyhock Hill Restaurant (known for its fried chicken family-style dinners), invited by a couple I know who live in Chicago. Trish’s mother died a month ago at age 102. Saturday was the memorial service but I could not take part because of graduation. However, they insisted I join them for the dinner. Trish, Mike, and myself graduated from Marian University in the early 1960s. I reconnected with them in the late 1990s when I was stationed in Chicago.

The dinner was filling, the chatter was lively, the personalities all fascinating. Trish’s brother is a former local TV news anchor. Mike and Trish’s only son is a very successful advertising man and proves they aren’t all caught up in “Mad Men” mode. He is now doing work for Disney. Mike and Trish’s two daughters both have their own families and their accomplishments are too lengthy to list. They have always made me feel welcome at family birthday and holiday gatherings.

I got back to the seminary to rest up before attending a concert at the Indianapolis Symphony. It’s the final ticket I had this season. Attending the symphony is one of the really great pleasures of my life. This program included one of my very favorite pieces – the Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius. Some works move me so much that I want nothing more than to bask in their afterglow. This was one of them. The orchestra was rich and complex, full and alive. A cousin of mine who studied music once described Sibelius’ music as “like granite.” I will now have to wait until the fall season to enjoy further delights.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Catherine, Gentiles, and Christ

The 14th century mystic Saint Catherine of Siena lived but a scant 33 years. We celebrate her feast on April 29. Catherine is significant in the annals of saints because she is one of only four women who hold the title doctor of the Church. A young woman who longed deeply to live in seclusion in prayer, she spent much of her life working for the poor. But her final years were spent working to restore a very corrupt Church. From 1309 until 1378 popes chose to take up residence in Avignon, a provincial town in France, rather than live in Rome. The reasons were more political than spiritual and reflected the power of the French Church over the Italian Church at the time. Catherine succeeded in getting Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome in the year 1378.

In her only written work, known as the Dialogue, she describes, among other things, her great agony at the corruption in the Church of the time. But she is consoled by what she hears as the words of God, “Daughter, your refuge is to do honor to my name and to offer ceaseless prayers .. Your refuge is in my only Son, Christ Crucified … In his pierced heart you will find love for me and your neighbor  … Fill yourself at the table of the cross, and bear with your neighbor with true patience.”

There is more to this quotation but Catherine’s focus on Christ Crucified is exemplified in the Scripture readings during the Easter season. The readings follow the slow growth and development of the first believers and followers of Jesus Christ for whom such belief is life changing. On Easter Sunday we listened to the story of the risen Jesus. Jesus is the man who rises from the dead. Not in any other period of history has such a thing ever happened. We take this story of our faith for granted. Jesus suffered and died for us and rose from the dead. In doing so he signified that our lives would and could be different. Indeed, our lives are different because of this.

The Acts of the Apostles have to deal in an authoritative way with the first big problem the believers faced as a group. What are they to do about the non-Jews who are now following them? The Apostles and other first disciples understood that what Jesus did was for the benefit of members of the Jewish faith. Jews traditionally saw their religious practices as totally different from all other people. The work that Jesus did was to bring salvation to the Jews, to bring them a new life, a new degree of dignity that they had not previously found.

So some of the disciples were amazed that non-Jews might even be interested in what Jesus said and did. But since this was so, well, the non-Jews must then adapt to some Jewish customs. Primarily, this meant circumcision for males. This was the distinguishing mark of identity for Jewish males.

Peter and Paul disagreed on this point. Paul argued that the only thing required for non-Jews to follow Jesus was to simply profess their faith in him. Circumcision was the demand of the old law. The new law demands only faith in Jesus Christ. And this is what is in the letter which the disciples take to the Gentiles in Antioch. It is our decision, it reads, not to put any burden beyond the necessities on you. These necessities concern fasting and marriage. Circumcision is not one of them.

Throughout Christian history, the argument has continued. What is required to be a Christian? Though it may seem obvious, the answer is our focus on Christ Crucified. This is our first and primary focus that supersedes all others. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his first followers: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” In order to know God the Father and to enter into our final goal of heaven, it is necessary to get to know and to follow the person of Jesus Christ. We cannot call ourselves Christians without doing so. Just as the Gentiles were strengthened by the decision of the Apostles, so we can be strengthened by our focus on Christ Crucified. This Jesus is found in the Eucharist we share. He offers his life for us and he offers himself to us as spiritual food, real food, to give us strength and nourishment in order to live our lives as sons and daughters of God.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Another year down

The second semester of the 2012-2013 seminary year is almost at a close. Classes have concluded for the seminarians. Only finals week remains. Graduation for four of our seminarians will be held Saturday morning along with the other Marian University seniors. Tony Cecil has published his last electronic seminary newsletter and continues to harass and insult me.
We began the year with 35 seminarians from nine Midwestern dioceses. Two left by the end of the first semester. Three others – juniors – are spending the second semester in Rome. We are not sure they will not become entranced by European splendor and decide to remain in the old world. They may perhaps return with the arrogance of a character in U.S. author Don Delillo’s novel who said, “I’ve come to think of Europe as a hardcover book, America as the paperback version.”
I have been with the seminary three years now. About one-third of the young men I’ve seen join us have opted not to continue. That’s not a bad percentage.
We are well into our second year using the new Roman Missal and while the formality has added a touch of excellence to the overall liturgical sense, the clumsiness of some of the prayers – especially during Lent – has meant, as a celebrant, one has had to keep on one’s toes.
Seminarians are intrigued by the liturgy and by ritual when they first come here, but after a while they realize that human beings must enact the ritual and none of us is perfect. Some are truly taken by the more pious forms of ritual that most of us abandoned many years ago. Recently we sang “Bring Flowers of the Fairest” as the chosen Marian hymn on a Saturday in Easter time. I hadn’t heard that hymn since I was in grade school in the early 1950s. Our rector, who wasn’t born until the early 1960s had never heard of it. As we sang it, I could feel the sugary sweetness just pouring over us like a chocolate waterfall.
The Catholic American author Flannery O'Connor once reviewed a book of short stories by a Catholic author for a diocesan newspaper and claimed to be struck "with how limited the range of experience was – all those baby stories and nun stories and young girl stories – a nice vapid-Catholic distrust of finding God in action of any range and depth. This is not the kind of Catholicism that has saved me so many years in learning to write, but then this is not Catholicism at all . . . "
What is most interesting and similarly challenging is watching college-age seminarians grow in their experience of their faith and life itself, of finding God in action in their own lives. Though I was not in a seminary when I attended college, it seemed to me that those years were spent in doing something similar. I had only been exposed to a single family – my own. My grade school and high school classmates and I were fairly homogeneous. It was only in college that I met and mixed with people who came from other states. There were also classmates of other races and religions. It wasn’t the greatest experience of the United Nations but it made me realize there was a lot more to the world than what I had known as a child.
I also began to realize there was much more to my religious faith. Father Al Ajamie taught us a course in liturgy that included some historical development. What an insight to find out the Mass hadn’t always been as I experienced it in 1960. Father Pat Smith taught Scripture and I discovered that the Gospels frequently contradict one another. Those are miniscule things to remember now.
Still I am reminded of such things as our seminarians continue to grow and to learn. It is a joy and delight to witness this – as a well as their own personal growth – as I look back on the year. It makes me think it is still possible for me to change – and grow.