Monday, December 29, 2014

One's orenda needs care

Some friends who live in western Indiana had me visit during the Christmas holidays. Years ago they completed what had been a weekend cabin for themselves and their children and today they enjoy a beautiful and somewhat rambling retirement home somewhere in the woods.

I've previously visited them and one of the things I most enjoy about seeing them is that they have a huge library of books, all of which they've read, and continue to read. One wall of their living room is full of books as is another wall in an upstairs loft. They are both voracious readers. Cynthia worked for me at one time and she continues to regularly put forth practical wisdom in the archdiocesan newspaper. She and her husband Ed continue to travel as well given that their family is scattered from the East coast to Europe. One family member, their eldest son, a retired naval officer, was in an English comp and lit class I taught about 40 years ago.

I am always eager to catch up on Ed and Cynthia's lives and adventures and reading. They are regular participants in conferences about Ernest Hemingway and are looking forward to one in his home town Oak Park, Illinois, in the coming year.

This year I told them of discovering a new book of fiction and for me a new writer. "The Orenda" is a book I couldn't put down and yet it is a book that did not leave me with warm, fuzzy feelings. Narrated by three different people, the story relates the clash of cultures between two tribes of native Americans and the French Jesuit missionaries of New France in the 17th century. Bird is a Wendat (Huron) who has killed an Iroquois family taking the daughter as his own. The daughter, named Snow Falls, does everything she can to alienate Bird but eventually comes to accept her new life. A French Jesuit missionary priest named Christophe is abandoned by his native guides and taken prisoner by Bird. All three provide the narration, obviously from different perspectives and motives, and the novel moves relentlessly toward a tragic end.

Christophe seeks converts. Bird seeks the welfare of his tribe, dependent on agriculture, and now prepares to move them to a new place as their planting grounds have become exhausted. Snow Falls only wants to return to her people. Each wants to outdo the other.

The title is a word defined as "a supernatural force believed by the Iroquois Indians to be present, in varying degrees, in all objects or persons, and to be the spiritual force by which human accomplishment is attained or accounted for." Just what each seeks to accomplish is far more simple and ordinary than modern ambitions demand. 

I came across the book while working at the Jesuit Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ontario this past summer. Someone there told me about this novel by a Canadian writer that was apparently quite popular in Canada. Published in 2013 it is the third novel of Joseph Boyden and I enjoyed it such that I now want to read more of his work. When I told Ed and Cynthia about this, Cynthia commented to me that she thought it was exciting not just to find a new book one enjoys reading but to find a new author and to want to read more of that author's writing.

Though historical fiction, Boyden takes liberties with his characters and events. The story roughly follows that of the Jesuit missionaries in New France. Christophe is modeled on Jean de Brebeuf though he often exhibits much less compassion and understanding of the natives than the Jesuit relations, the letters the missionaries sent back to France, convey. Two other Jesuits who arrive later - one named Gabriel and the other named Isaac - suggest Gabriel Lalemant and Isaac Jogues. In fact, the Isaac in the novel had his fingers chewed off in torture by the natives as the real Isaac Jogues did. But the novel's Isaac also loses his mental stability toward the end and attempts to poison everyone as the Iroquois attack so they may avoid similar torture.

The book is not an easy read because of the narrative style and because it is quite graphic in its depiction of torture. What helped put the story in perspective, however, and what left me with a very slight glimmer of hope, was the book's last line as Bird invokes his native goddess's wisdom. "What's happened in the past can't stay in the past (because) the future is always just a breath away. Now is what's most important. Orenda can't be lost, just misplaced. The past and the future are present."

God's tenderness

I have a friend who cared for his brother in the last few months of the brother's illness from cancer. The brother was a successful man, single, and in need of nothing materially. The brother was not a man of faith, at least, not a man of faith who followed certain religious practices. The brother had abandoned these a long time ago and my friend stated that his brother had great difficulty understanding or accepting any notion of faith. What did make sense to him was the virtue of hope and that's where they left their discussions on faith - with the possibility of hope. The brother was heard to say before he died, "I am receptive!". Had he heard someone invite him to greater hope? To whom was the brother speaking? No one knows.

Abraham received promises from God that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky (Genesis 15). Abraham was an old man and he and his wife Sarah were childless. Yet Sarah bore a son. Abraham put his faith in the Lord. He believed God and he hoped. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that "by faith" Abraham obeyed and led his people from their home in the Chaldees and walked to Palestine. "By faith" Abraham obeyed and received the power to generate. Again Abraham obeyed and "by faith" offered up his son Isaac. Abraham believed that God's promises would be fulfilled. How is such faith possible?

Simeon and Anna waited in prayer in the Temple to see God's promise fulfilled. Simeon understood from the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he would see 'God's consolation' with his own eyes. Simeon trusted God with great faith and lived in the hope that God's promise would come true. Anna gave praise and thanksgiving for the fulfillment of the promise. Both lived in faith and awaited the fulfillment of God's promise in hope.

In his homily for midnight Mass, Pope Francis asked, "How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close? 'But I am searching for the Lord' – we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant’s presence is: do I allow God to love me?" Somehow Abraham, Simeon, and Anna all let God love them. God sought each of them and loved them. It is a challenge to admit that none sought God themselves but God sought each of them.

These figures of the Old Testament experienced the tenderness of God. This seems so despite the difficulties each experienced - Abraham uprooted his family and moved to a strange new land. Then God asked him to sacrifice his son. Simeon waited patiently for an answer to prayer. Anna endured her life as a widow. Did my friend's brother experience God's tenderness through his care?

God's tenderness often seems absent in our relationships with one another. Only by offering it to someone else can we receive it ourselves. What opportunities do I have to provide tenderness to those in need of faith and hope?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Turning hearts around

One of my spiritual directees reminded me that liturgy cannot change our lives. We were talking about the tendency of some of our seminarians to give all their attention to rubrical matters when celebrating liturgy. A few fret about the number of candles on the altar, their position on the altar, the use or non-use of bells for the consecration, the exact position of the chalices and other externals that they tend to magnify out of proportion. They can sometimes become so concerned about such non-essentials that they miss the spirit of the action in the liturgy. Our young men are idealistic and searching for certitude in an environment - our society - that offers very little. Their desire is that liturgy will change their humanness into holiness.

Holiness is sought when we participate in the liturgy but it will not lessen our humanness. If we did not bring our humanness to the liturgy, the Mass would be less meaningful. Our humanness is caught up in God's love and mercy. It is there we meet God's saving action, but we are not likely to become disembodied angels by our presence. We still live ordinary, daily lives. We may be disappointed that we remain so far from perfection. Liturgy reminds us we journey to life with God.

Some want the liturgy to remain static. Keep it on a shelf like a statue of our favorite saint. Admire it but keep it distant and do not allow it to permeate our being. Liturgy becomes that thing we go to each week, or even each day, and we keep our eyes closed and our hearts turned inward failing to notice God's presence around us. We sometimes tend to keep the liturgy locked away like a favorite photograph. We often remain frightened of it and do not always allow it to touch us and give us the momentum to bring change to our lives.

A priest recently told me that he felt judged by some of our seminarians. His parish hosted an event for which our seminarians were asked to serve the Mass. Where were the bells? they wanted to know. His parish does not use them. For these seminarians liturgy can become a theater piece and the object is to put on a good show. As a young seminarian myself, I recall meeting Msgr. Martin Hellriegel, author of the words to the hymn "To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King," who was using English in some of the sung parts of Mass at his small parish in the 1920s and 1930s. In later years he became upset with some of the experiences he saw in how some celebrated liturgy after the Council's reform. He remarked that the object of the liturgical movement was to turn hearts around, not to turn altars around. It was not that he favored the altar facing the wall. Too much emphasis, he felt, was being placed on externals and one set of expectations were being replaced by another.

When I was growing up Mass was a silent affair. Not necessarily a reverent one. Just silent. As one of a few hundred children in the pew at the daily school Mass, I recall lots of squirming and dozing and whispering (if one could get away with it). We did not participate. We observed. If you were smart, you had a St. Joseph Missal and followed the priest. But there were no parts for the laity. The priest read everything. In Latin. One hoped the priest prayed. He read everything to himself. There were no lectors. Anyone attending Mass had to be in the pew by the time the Offertory began. Otherwise one missed the beginning of the principal parts of the Mass and thus one must confess that in confession. One could not leave Mass until after communion. As soon as you received communion, you were free to leave.

It was only with the advent of the Second Vatican Council that we began to be taught about the unity of the liturgy. It was not just being present for the consecration that was important. The whole Mass was important. Christ was present in the Eucharist (we always formerly just called it communion) not only in the host and its elevation but also in the priest, the Scripture that is read, and in the people who are present. The liturgy was a whole. It was not just the elevation of the host that made the liturgy.

Two Latin terms were familiar to us. A successful Mass occurred ex opere operato. It made no difference what the priest or the people did or did not do correctly. Sacramental graces existed because the Mass was the Mass. A Mass that was offered Ex opere operantis meant the priest did his part.

Jesus once asked if the Son of Man will find faith when he returns? Sometimes we get caught up in Pharisaism and forget to live as Christians. We forget that the liturgy cannot change our lives. What we can do is seek to enrich our prayer and deepen our faith by investing ourselves completely in the liturgy rather than expecting it to be this week's top entertainment event.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Losing mentors

Today at St. Michael parish, the pastor, given today is the feast of Thanksgiving, encouraged all of us to recapture a spirit of gratitude in ourselves - not only for the big things in our lives, but especially for the small things. I am grateful for the smiles of the two small children in front of me. I am grateful for the text messages from seminarians wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for the decorations I am beginning to put up for Advent.

I am also grateful for big things. In particular, I am grateful for the life of Sr. Laurencia Listerman, an Oldenburg Franciscan sister who died late last week at 101 years of age. Sister Laurencia never stopped thinking. Her mind was as clear as a bell to the day she died. Recently, she asked for a list of the names of all U.S. senators and congressmen as she had a few letters she wanted to write to them about some issues that were important to her.

She also recently told one of her sisters that all her life, when she reads a book, she reads it twice. Given her age, she had decided that she was going to start reading books only once.
When I was a student at Scecina Memorial High School where Sister Laurencia was an important mentor to me, she once told us in class, "Remember that it isn't always what you know. It is who you know." Her practical nature was a close second to her idealism.

Sister Laurencia was a true wit and an excellent listener. I recall that she took any thought from her students very seriously. She might look at you incredulously and even disagree with you or sometimes even argue with you - though it was really more of a dialogue - but she always listened to you. She showed her amazement about something you might tell her by opening her mouth and rolling her eyes.
She had the look of a patrician when she wanted to and would raise her head with a glare that suggested she was ready to pose for her closeup.

Sister Laurencia's death was the second of two this week that affected me deeply. The other was John O'Connell, a Chicago native, a layman six years older than I, who, along with his wife, befriended me when I was in the seminary in St. Louis. It was in the late 1960s and the seminary offered some lectures on the Second Vatican Council to the public. John attended and, never knowing a stranger, got familiar with the seminarians. Some of us were invited to his home for dinner and to meet his wife Judy and the five children they called their own. The family eventually left St. Louis and moved to Louisville briefly before ending up In Indianapolis where they have lived for more than 30 years. John was another kind of mentor as he ultimately became someone who practiced what we call the works of mercy most generously and frequently. His faith was one of the deepest I knew.

These losses are as important to me as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, is to the nation. They mean more to me than the terror that is in the Islamic state. My world has become much smaller.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Extraordinary in the ordinary

Most of us don’t want to live dull lives. While we’re young, we like things to be exciting and new, fresh and unusual. We cling to the latest invention, song, personality. Sometimes we forget that everything passes and what is new is always replaced by something that is newer. The worst thing some people can think of themselves is ordinary. Who wants to be ordinary? Most of us want to be special. We want to be extraordinary.

The readings for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica each define a little differently the word “temple.” An angel shows Ezekiel a vision of the temple as a source for life in Israel - water flows from the temple to irrigate the land and provide food for the Israelites, nourishment for people. This is an extraordinary example of God’s care for his people.

Paul then describes the first Christians as buildings which God constructs and then encourages them to build upon the foundations knowing they are made for God. This too is an extraordinary example of God’s care for his people.

In the Gospel Jesus flares up in anger at the way in which the Jewish temple is desecrated, misused and abused by those failing to respect its purpose and meaning. This is a really extraordinary example of God’s care for his people because he reminds them not only what they must do but also what they must not do.

Here is another example of a major feast of the Church being celebrated on a Sunday displacing the ordinary Sunday feast. Like All Souls, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, SS. Peter and Paul, we’ve seen a number of church feasts since the spring replacing ordinary feasts. We might think of these as a little more extraordinary but they vary. Today’s feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran doesn’t mean much to most of us because the building is not widely known among Catholics outside Rome. It is the cathedral church for the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is not quite as big as St. Peter’s and is not located in Vatican City but it is the oldest church in the West. It was dedicated in 324 A.D. Of course, it was more than 1,500 years before it was completed as we know it today. It is considered the mother church of Roman Catholicism. It is quite splendid and extraordinary and there are those who know beautiful churches who prefer it to St. Peter’s. 

So we celebrate a piece of architecture that is quite extraordinary. The anger of Jesus regarding the abuse of the temple in Jerusalem is a testament to the inability of the merchants to regard the temple as something extraordinary. The angel with Ezekiel helps him regard the temple as the extraordinary resource for life in Israel. And Paul reminds us that we ourselves are temples and perhaps more extraordinary than any building humans can make. We are extraordinary because we are holy. The temple in Jerusalem was a sign of holiness for the Jews. The Lateran basilica is a sign of holiness for Catholics in Rome. But the holiest object of all of this is the person who comes to the temple, to the basilica. Human beings make the basilica holy because God has deemed us holy. There is ordinariness in our lives, witnessed by the repetition and sameness of much of life. But our lives made extraordinary because of God’s work in us. We ordinary people are the stuff with which God works in order to realize the extraordinariness of the saving task of His Son Jesus.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Souls' Day

On the day of one’s baptism, one is clothed in a white garment. On the day of one’s funeral, a casket is covered in a white pall. The reminder at baptism is that one has been initiated into the life of Christ. The reminder at the time of one’s funeral is that the baptized person has been fully welcomed into the life of Christ for eternity.

Few of us are unfamiliar with death. Some of us more than others. But it is not usually on our minds when we are young. There is too much life to be lived to think of death.

I was 15 when my grandmother on my mother’s side died. By the time I was 20 my other three grandparents were dead. Of aunts and uncles, I have only one aunt left and she is confined to a nursing home with dementia at age 99. Three sides of my family are German and funerals were occasions for celebration. Everyone chipped in with a prepared dish for the reception after the funeral. One of my cousins remembers our family funerals as being more fun than family weddings.

Death didn’t really mean much to me until I was a senior in high school. A classmate I did not know very well died in an automobile wreck the night before graduation. But it was only in college that it sank in. A girl I knew well in high school was also a close classmate at college. She married at the end of our sophomore year to a graduating senior. Their honeymoon took them to Mexico in their Volkswagen beetle and on the return drive somewhere in Texas a drunk driver in a pickup truck plowed into them killing them both. I remember spending a lot of time with other classmates grieving and disbelieving.

There is a woman in Oregon I’m told who has decided to end her life because she apparently has an inoperable brain cancer. I am told that she had set November 1 as her death date but that she has put it off for a bit longer as the love she is experiencing from family and friends is having an effect on her she didn’t expect and she wants to enjoy them a bit longer. I suppose death becomes more desirable to one who does not experience any form of human love than it does for those who do.

For all the things that bother people about the Church, I have never found in my 45 years as a priest that many people have ever complained about the way we do funerals. The liturgy itself focuses us. The souls of the just are in the hands of God. Hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. And there are the words of Jesus himself. This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.

Bishop Blaise Cupich (soon to be Archbishop Cupich of Chicago) has written, “By setting aside a single day exclusively for those who have passed from this life, we are testifying to our obligation to pray for them. That obligation is founded on our understanding of what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. We are linked to each other in a bond which death itself cannot break. Death does not diminish our responsibility to support each other as fellow pilgrims. We take that responsibility seriously when we gather for the Eucharist, visit cemeteries, pray for the dead. This day of prayer for the dead offers a corrective to the tendency to reduce our funeral rites to memorial services or mere celebrations of life. While there are good reasons to recall the virtues of someone when they have died, Catholic funerals are first of all about the Body of Christ praying for one of its members. We are confident that just as our prayers assisted the deceased in life, so too they do in death.”

The commemoration of the faithful departed is a celebration of the hope each of us has that this life is not the end, but the beginning. We are not creatures wallowing in the morbidity of death or the superstition of demonic practices. Our focus is not on what is dead but what lives. Those who have gone before us live and they live in the safety, comfort, and rest of the one who died and rose again. That hope remains ours.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Love of God and love of neighbor. The two greatest commandments, Jesus claims. I’m not always certain we believe that they are. My experience suggests that we often try to emphasize one over the other. And it is not uncommon for some adherents of love of God to beat adherents of love of neighbor over the head - and vice-versa. Often we are more interested in scoring points than in practicing either one - love of God or love of neighbor.

And yet Jesus is clear. They go together. In the 1950s Frank Sinatra recorded a song with the verses “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like the horse and carriage. This I tell you, brother; you can’t have one without the other.” So it is with love of God and love of neighbor. We can't have one without the other.

Today’s Old Testament reading warns the Israelites not to oppress the strangers who live among them, nor to extort the poor among them. All too often we are guided by fear of the unknown. So today some fear the immigrant who comes to us from a foreign land. And these days anyone coming to us from West Africa is regarded not just with fear but with angry fear. With each proscription in today’s first reading, God reminds the Israelites that he will hear those who cry out to him, even to destroying those who fail to care for those most in need.

Paul exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica who turn from idols to the living God. Perhaps we need to exhort our fellow citizens to turn from the idols of prejudice and fear and anger to await the Son of God in heaven who delivers us from the coming wrath.

Then there are the Pharisees in the Gospel. They are not unlike us in this respect - we often look for the magic bullet that will have the answer to everything - the total cure, the diet that works - the app that makes everything possible. The Pharisees want to know what the greatest commandment is. What is the one thing I must do that will make trying to please God easy? So that I don’t have to do all these other little things. Tell me what I must do to get to God so that I don’t have to worry about all 10 commandments, or all the laws on the books, or whatever rules I must obey. Simplify my life.

The question asked by the Pharisees is another way in which they try to trap Jesus. They didn’t care about helping strangers or the poor except for the very narrow proscriptions in their own law. They didn’t really care about his answer. They had their own ideas of loving God and loving neighbor and they wouldn’t have listened to Jesus even if they agreed with him.

So their question is asked so that they can justify themselves. We do similar things do we not? In following God’s law, am I not often more interested in being right rather than wrong and less interested in the practice of love itself.

All of this only makes sense in the larger context of the whole Gospel. Eventually, Jesus will die and return to His father. The disciples will find themselves hiding in an upper room fearing for their own safety. It is only because the Holy Spirit fills them that they leave that room and begin to preach and witness the life of Jesus. We can be like these disciples. It is tempting to remain in the upper room in fear. But we cannot stay there. Our faith must be lived. God and neighbor both must be loved. We do this by our practice of faith - by prayer and charity.

Jesus gives us his body and blood to eat each time we come to the Eucharistic celebration that we may be nourished and strengthened to love God and neighbor. It is tempting to remain always before the tabernacle or in Eucharistic adoration and think we are fulfilling God’s commands to us. We are often convinced of our unworthiness and we fall back on the notion that it may be better just to sit and look at Jesus. We imagine that we are better off gazing on God from afar. Yet Jesus never stops inviting us to come to him. We are called to receive and to act in love by saying yes to God’s invitation and then witnessing by our example to one another that Christ is indeed Lord.

Friday, September 19, 2014

New wineskins

Some years ago a young man I knew who was a home school student told me his mother had used the Baltimore catechism to teach him religion. He said he learned all about sin and the devil but he never knew God loved him. I nearly jumped out of my chair at that revelation and wanted to strangle the young man's parents.

There is a Gospel story in Matthew in which Jesus dines at the house of a Pharisee when a woman comes in with oils, bathes the feet of Jesus and then dries them with her hair. She is praised by Jesus for her great love. She does what Jesus' host did not do. She washed and dried his feet. There was no etiquette in Jewish law requiring such a thing. The host did no wrong. But Jesus makes the point that the woman went farther than what was required. This is the stuff of following Jesus. This is what makes a Christian - doing more than what was required.

The woman showed great love and so she receives a great reward. Her great love canceled out her sins. Jesus acknowledges this and we ought to learn this too and stop judging and condemning one another, even our own children.

In an address to priests learning about the sacrament of penance in 2008, Pope Benedict said, "When one insists solely on the accusation of sins, which must nevertheless exist and it is necessary to help the faithful understand its importance, one risks relegating to the background what is central, that is, the personal encounter with God, the Father of goodness and mercy. It is not sin which is at the heart of the sacramental celebration, but rather God's mercy, which is infinitely greater than any guilt of ours."

It is worthy to note that this is from Pope Benedict not Pope Francis. It is also noteworthy that Pope Francis frequently refers to Popes Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Paul VI when making a point. It has probably been said before but in a different way. The gift of Pope Francis is his tone. He does not say new things but he does repeat the old things in a new way.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Strange connections

Today is the 13th anniversary of my profession of final vows as a Jesuit. It is also the feast of the Birth of Mary and the 10th anniversary of the founding of the college seminary where I serve as director of spiritual formation.

Thirteen years ago I was assigned to the headquarters of the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C. I spent five years there as director of communications for the 10 Jesuit provinces. In 2001 I was approved to receive final vows and I made plans to do so in my Jesuit community there. Although I announced the event to family and friends, I expected to go through a simple ceremony within my local community. The president of the Jesuit Conference had been my provincial just a few years prior to this and I asked him to receive the vows. 

My family and friends were not to be deterred, however. What I expected to be a simple event with myself and my fellow Jesuits turned out to be a social event of large proportions. All my brothers with their wives came into town. So did an aunt and uncle and three cousins and their spouses. In addition, some friends from home in Indiana also traveled to the east coast as did the family of a fellow Jesuit from Ohio. The ceremony occurred on a Saturday afternoon. The entire weekend was a festive family reunion. The ceremony took place in the Holy Trinity Parish chapel in Georgetown, a much smaller edifice than the parish church itself but historical because it was the parish's original building.

The one thing everyone remembered were the shadows of the airplanes flying down the Potomac river toward landing paths at Washington National Airport. Because the Potomac sat just below the university campus, the planes followed a path down the curving river just before landing. The chapel has a large window at its rear and the shadows of planes passed by regularly.

Exactly three days later terrorists struck targets in New York and Washington and the festivity of that weekend was gone. The World Trade Center was no more and the Pentagon was badly damaged.  One of my brothers and his wife had stayed on in D.C. for a few days to do some sightseeing. They were able to leave Washington at their own leisure as they had driven in for the event. But a couple I knew well had flown in. They too remained to do some sightseeing and were due to fly out that September 11. They had even checked out of their hotel and were on their way to National. When it became evident there were no flights leaving, they returned to D.C. and tried to check back into their hotel to no avail. It took some doing but they found another hotel where they stayed an extra couple of days before finding a flight that took them through Charlotte getting back to Indianapolis.

Washington was all chaos and it continued for a month. I recall not sleeping well those nights. At that time no one knew what might happen but there was wide speculation as to what could happen. We all began to realize that if we had to evacuate the city, the only way to do so was to start walking the direction opposite central Washington. Later that week I took a walk down to the Mall and walked into a mostly deserted National Gallery of Art to view the section of American art. I remember buying a hot dog from a vendor on the street and the woman selling the food just shook her head when I asked how business was those days.

It is difficult to get very "spiritual" or think pious thoughts recalling my final profession. The weekend seems years away and the vows strike me as unimportant in the face of the disaster of that week. Only the reminder that one is obliged to keep living faithfully to God keeps the vow profession important in my mind and life. Evil can make us forget who we are and can frighten us into forgetting that God remains in control of what a Preston Sturges character once described as a 'cock-eyed caravan.' Only love destroys the hate and there sometimes does not seem to be much of that going around.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Whither religious life?

In recent years I have been on a number of teams at retreat houses directing individual persons on silent retreats of eight days. The number of retreats on which I've worked is not huge but I have guided my fair share of persons seeking closer relationships with God. Many, if not the majority of these individuals, are women religious. I am more and more puzzled by this work.

The women religious have begun to all sound very similar. The more elderly sisters speak completely sincerely and faithfully about their relationship with God. They have developed disciplines of prayer and reflection through years of struggle with the many changes of religious life. They are resilient women and want to be active in their religious lives as long as they can. In other words, they want to remain faithful to the lives of prayer they have nurtured and to be of service to whomever they can. They still see themselves as women on mission. Sometimes this service may be directed only toward others like themselves who are growing older and advancing in physical helplessness. These women still see and know God.

But there are also many religious women who come to retreat from another direction. These women seem to have given up on religious life altogether. Many of them have created an environment of religious life that suits their needs. They do not intend to make any adjustments or adaptations for anyone or for any perceived ideal of religious life. They are close to spitefulness if one even hints of assuming degrees of authority or proclaim obedience a virtue. They have carried renewal to a point of engagement within professional lives emphasizing the identity and power of women within their own ranks. Often they appear to have uncritically adopted ideas and positions that disregard thinking with the Church. There is often negative reaction to patriarchies real or imagined.

The most worrisome issue for me is the impression I get from some women religious that their orders are dying out and yet they have no problem with this. It is an historical fact that religious orders come and go. But some of these women seem unwilling and uninterested in reinventing themselves as members of the Church. The desire seems to be redefining theselves according to their identities as women and not their identities as women in Christ. Thus, some live a sort of religious life that is really something quite different.

One newly professed woman religious came from a highly responsible and highly well paid position in business and she has returned to that position now that she is professed. What does that have to do with religious life? How is she centered in community life? I thought of Philippa Talbot in Rumer Godden's novel "In This House of Brede." Philippa gave up a successful business career to become a contemplative nun. At the end of the novel she becomes novice mistress to the crop of Japanese novices in the order's mission to that country. Thoroughly grounded in contemplative life, Philippa uses her leadership skills from the business world and offers her service to younger members of her community. Her mission is to renew the best of religious life in a new generation of women religious.

Another woman religious I knew was bothered most by a decision she made to move out of the apartment she shared with another woman religious and move back into the larger motherhouse. She was tortured by the lack of freedom she expected there. She worried about the view she would have from any particular room she might be assigned. Are these the prescient issues in community life? Scores of religious women I know either live alone or in groups of two or perhaps three. What is this witness? Whether the religious be female or male, which comes first - religious life or the professional occupation?

Religious life often seems a life of professionalism and a kind of witness of women proving they can work in the larger world much as men. But where is the religious life here? What is mission? Who are they serving? There was and still is somewhat a period in which many religious women were forced from their convents in order to find good paying jobs in order to support their convents. What has that done to religious life? 

I grew up in an elementary school, high school, and even a college education led by religious women. I recently visited my high school journalism teacher, a 101 year-old very alert, very brilliant woman who still maintains her religious life faithfully. There are many, many women religious still struggling to redefine their lives for this century. But I have also met women religious, aging ones, who tell me they cannot have Eucharistic adoration in their motherhouses because middle-aged sisters will not allow it. What is that all about? Or that they will not allow priests to concelebrate in their chapels. A contemporary antipathy toward men is understandable given historic actions and attitudes on the part of many in the hierarchy. Perhaps religious life has to die somewhat. But what will replace it? Can an authentic witness of religious life ever grow out of a sense of individualistic pursuit of one's own interests?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dreams, assumptions, illusions

Hold on to your dreams! Hold on to your ideals! Beginning a new life, a new project, means bringing fresh thinking to something we've admired from afar. It means considering your goal in a new light, acquiring a different way of thinking. In the seminary, new men arrive with assumptions about seminary and the priesthood which quickly grow confusing and uncertain. It doesn't take long to become disillusioned about the life of a seminarian. If you think we all walk around with our hands folded in prayer, it comes as a surprise to realize that we are more likely to be working our electronic devices.

So we begin to wonder if this is the place for us. I can never emphasize enough that the reason we stay is never the reason we arrive. You will be challenged about your ideals all through your college life. Sometimes, perhaps often, you will have to find better reasons for continuing your formation than those for which you came.

Calvin tells Hobbes in the comic strip, "I go to school but I never learn what I want to know." Some ideals you will adjust as you gain knowledge and experience. Some ideals you will abandon because they no longer apply. Some ideals will grow stronger. The key is our openness to God's will. Are we ready to look at our new lives from God's perspective or from ours alone? We constantly have to question who is in charge - do we only see things our way or do we see them God's way?

Today's Gospel (Matthew 16: 13 - 20, Peter's profession of faith) is so familiar that we can be tempted to idealize it and not look more deeply. As a younger Catholic, I was sure this Scripture passage proved beyond doubt that Peter was the first pope but my Protestant friends weren't convinced and I didn't have enough knowledge to explain it. This reading does nothing of the sort, of course. It does show us that Jesus appointed Peter for the most important leadership role among the Apostles. But being a pope wasn't a question that came into being until after Jesus died. Many bishops in the first years of Christianity had the title 'Pope' but it wasn't until nearly the fifth century with Pope St. Leo the Great that the title was exclusive to the bishop of Rome.

What the Gospel does here reminds us that it is really more important that we focus on Jesus' question. Who do you and I say that He is? Our concern should not be Peter but Jesus. Are our minds and hearts open to hearing God's will here. Apparently Peter's mind and heart were. It is less important that Peter is the chosen one, that Peter is called the first pope, than that Jesus chose Peter to play a special role among the Apostles. Peter is the one who recognizes the hand of God here and thus Peter receives recognition none of the others do. Peter was open to hearing God's word as it was and not as Peter thought it was. It is Jesus who calls.

But the emphasis here is not on Peter. Peter is only as important as his recognition of Christ as the Messiah. Christ is the one who has come to save Israel. Christ is the Son of God. We may want to use this Scripture to beat our non-believing friends over the head but be careful. They may come back and tell you to read this Scripture in context. The passage that follows here in Matthew's Gospel is the one in which Jesus begins speaking to his disciples about his death and resurrection. In that reading the chosen Peter tells Jesus that he would never allow that to happen to him. Jesus calls him Satan.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A feast of a pope

There are two things the feast of Pope St. Pius X - which we celebrate today - brings to mind from my Catholic past. One is the late 19th and early 20th fight against the heresy of Modernism which very few contemporary Catholics remember. The other is the significant liturgical changes which that pope made and which most Catholics today take for granted.

Concerning the so-called Modernist heresy that means little to Catholics in practical terms nowadays, I have one recollection. The year I was ordained I was required to take the Oath against Modernism which the seminary rector was required to administer to those of us about to be ordained. I clearly recall his being somewhat embarrassed after we were called in to his office as a group and advising us just to do it. By 1969 the Oath had become somewhat laughable and seemed to us as well as to him and the faculty a remnant from a less enlightened time. It was no longer taken seriously, a rule that had lost all meaning.

As far as the Eucharist is concerned, what Pope Pius X did was probably farther reaching. Msgr. John Doyle, former head of the philosophy department at Marian University, told me that when he was an eighth grader at Holy Cross grade school in 1910 every student there made their first communion. Before that time Holy Cross and other Catholic school students made their first communion in the eighth grade. Reception of the Eucharist was not permitted on a daily basis. Frequent communion meant monthly or possibly weekly but not daily. The pontiff encouraged more frequent reception as a better understanding of the theology of the sacrament came to be.

The feast of Pope Saint Pius X reminds me once again that Catholic practice changes as time passes by. We can never assume that the way we do things is the way it always was.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

On the road without Jack Kerouac

A long summer on the road is coming to a tiring end. It began with a road trip from Indiana to Massachusetts for retreat. Then there was a road trip to Wisconsin for a July 4 holiday with some fellow Jesuits. Lastly, there was an odyssey to Ontario and two weeks' worth of Masses and pastoral work at the Jesuit Martyrs' Shrine.

In between I assisted with a directed retreat in Indianapolis itself.

After a good amount of time on the road, I notice the peculiarities of other drivers. There is nothing peculiar in my own driving, of course. People just need to get out of my way. It does seem clear, however, that most of us are not giving our full attention to one's driving. I suppose this has always been true. Whenever I watch anyone in a movie driving a car with at least one other passenger, I am always amazed the driver can carry on a conversation with the other passenger and look directly at the person riding shotgun for what seems to be an interminable length of time. How do they do it? 

Today the distractions are ubiquitous. Cell phones are the worst, of course, which is why I turn mine off when I drive. But then I have to be more alert the more I become aware of other drivers who seem not to be quite in charge of their own cars as they drive down highways.

One has to scrutinize the attention of other drivers frequently. From the left lane on a freeway a driver lurches over three lanes to an exit ramp just a few yards ahead. A glance proves the driver is talking on a cell phone. How many times I have witnessed a driver moving over at least two lanes and sometimes more in traffic to make a turn or an exit and the driver has not bothered to look to make certain there is no other traffic in the area. Some folks are just lucky to be alive. 

Some folks are in such hurries that they pay no attention to what is around them. A stop light changes and suddenly a pickup truck barrels areound from behind me because my four cylinder engine doesn't have the pickup to go from 0 to 120 in five seconds. The driver of the pickup truck obviously has something important to do, someone to see, or is behind schedule, or just doesn't like anyone in front of him that he bursts forth in his moment of power.

Speed limits are likewise meaningless. While driving in Canada, I found myself constantly trying to translate miles into kilometers (my dashboard is not very bright and I could not see the smaller numbers) but I eventually noticed that those 80 kilometers per mile speed limits usually meant 90 or even 100 to some local drivers. i eventually learned to keep up with traffic unless I were on a two-lane highway and leading the pack.

Billboards. I've learned to ignore them but I had to get a college degree to do so. Driving in Canada was so nice because you notice these things called trees and landscape as you drive along.

On this trip, however, I discovered a curious distraction. I checked my maps to drive south on the freeway numbered 400 and saw that I could short circuit that trip by exiting at a freeway numbered 407 in order to get to freeway 401 that would take me to the border. As I exited 400 to go onto 407 I noticed the signage indicated this 407 was an ETR (express toll route). I hadn't planned on a toll road, but, oh, well, I was only going to be on it about 30 kilometers or so. But I never passed a tollbooth. At one point I did pass a sign that read "Non-Ontario drivers will be billed." Does someone in Canada have my. mailing address, I thought? I must check this out for it may be something that Americans can learn from Canadians about toll roads.

Wikipedia tells me that the 407 ETR is the world's first privately owned all electronically controlled highway. It was built by Canadian and Spanish investors to alleviate the traffic burdens of Ontario highway 401 which is deemed the busiest highway in North America. The complete highway is now 107 kilometers long. was on the 407 about 33 kilometers. There is a web site that helped me calculate my fee. For the time of day I was on the freeway I should be getting a bill for about $26 Canadian dollars. The highway is apparently quite controversial but use was quite heavy and I kept waiting for a toll booth . According to Wikipedia, only some U.S. states link their license plate registries with the highway. So I may or may not be billed for those 33 kilometers.

So summer is at an end even though it is only early August. My great nephew began first grade so it is time to get to work. Now I have but a short distance before returning to life with college seminarians.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Of quiet solitude

Many are celebrating the summer solstice today. For some it is the beginning of the end of summer. The longest day of the year anticipates the shortening of days over the next few weeks. We must now fill the rest of summer with all we had planned at its beginning. For us at the seminary that began May 10. Three weeks of a considerably lessened schedule gave way to a week of my own private retreat. Some appointments were filled and changes began at the seminary for the coming year. Our executive secretary of eight years moves on this week. Our rector is finally taking an extended vacation. Cosmetic changes to the grounds have begun and continue.

The week of retreat with the monks at Gethsemani renewed years in college when Thomas Merton sat somewhere in the choir stalls and a very strict silence was observed. There have been many physical changes to that monastery but most noticeable to me was the loss of the gatehouse (it has probably been 25 years or so since I've been there) and the tree-lined lane that I imagined Merton approaching as he entered about 1941.

Where I am today directing five individuals in an eight-day retreat is also experiencing change. The house will close in September for many months of much needed maintenance. What will be here on the Atlantic coast a year from now? It has been a pleasant surprise to meet with five individuals whose faith and prayer lives are such that what they seek is greater solitude and an ever deepening relationship with the Lord. These are experienced pray-ers and they do not require basic training in finding God. They just recognize that the world in which they are surrounded militates against their establishing a deeper relationship with Christ.

The ordinariness of daily life is a blessing. Spectacles can be appreciated when they come. But the simple movement of the earth revolving around the sun, the hands of a clock revolving around a circle, the sameness of every day - all these have their own specialness. Today is - and it's a good one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Onward and upward

Ten days ago nine of our seminarians graduated from Marian University and received their bachelors' degrees and will now move on to major seminary. Another seminarian who has been in an intensive English language study at IUPUI will also move forward to major seminary. The day was a poignant moment for me because I began my seminary career with most of them. So it was time for me to move on as well.

We provided formation for 46 seminarians from 10 different Midwestern dioceses this past year. Of the 10 graduates, two have decided not to continue with major seminary. Another six underclass seminarians decided to discontinue their formation. So we will have 30 returning seminarians and we won't know how many new ones will appear on our doorstep on August 14, which is move-in day.

For myself and the rest of the seminary formation staff, the break is welcome. We move on - not away from the seminary - but on to a new class and new thinking. This time is akin to recharging the battery of one's computer decices. I spent all last week vegetating. I found myself really tired and I indulged in the luxury of sleeping in late. I have been piddling around updating family history, watching back episodes of Midsomer Murders and Rumpole of the Bailey, visiting friends, getting the summer organized, disposing of clutter in my apartment and reacquainting myself with my Jesuit community who see little of me and who don't seem worse off for it. I have been avoiding people as much as possible and trying to pray but without much success.

This week there are things to do. What I cannot come to terms with is the gratitude I have been receiving from a number of seminarians thanking me for all the help I have given them. I try to convince them that whatever has changed in their lives has been their cooperation with God but somehow they still think I am a part of that. I suppose I just have to accept the pleasure of witnessing their growth.

The seminary is quiet these days save for two underclassmen who are doing manual labor for a couple of weeks. Their devotion is extraordinary and their commitment is real. We await the results of the archdiocesan restructuring of the Indianapolis deaneries. Meanwhile life goes on and the Church survives. The rector had an operation on both his knees, not knee replacements, and that has allowed him also to vegetate for a while as well. The vice rector continues to provide doughnuts on Sunday morning either from Long's bakery or Krispy Kreme.

I am grateful for another joyous year despite its turbulence and perhaps its being the hardest of the four I've spent here. It has been emotionally charged. In some way I feel like a parent watching his children struggle and move on. The faces keep changing but their lives just roll on. Life never stops surprising us. In the long run the totally self-assured freshmen seminarians are no longer so self-assured for they have come smack up against the ambiguities of growing up. It is an amazing process to witness and I cannot be thankful enough to be a part of that.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Easter

What do we make of Scripture this Fifth Sunday of Easter? The first letter of St. Peter (2: 5) invites us to “let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”? What is Scripture asking of us when we are invited to become a spiritual house?

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6: 1) describes the growth of the numbers of the first Christians. The growth is so incredible that the twelve Apostles come together to tackle a practical problem. Some of the needy members of their community were being neglected because they were being missed in the daily distribution of food. The work of the Apostles was to preach the word and yet they were unable sometimes to do so. They were also the practical hands of the early Church as well. This is not unlike the expectations we can put on the pastors of our own communities today. Sometimes we expect them to do everything for us, to unlock doors and sweep floors, to meet our every need, and our every demand. We complain when our pastor does not pay enough attention to us, as if we are totally helpless in caring for our own spiritual and human needs.

The first Christians are obviously concerned about the needs of those in their community who cannot provide for themselves. At the bottom of the food chain in this first century after Christ were widows and orphans. They had no rights in this society. They had the least ability in society to take care of themselves. They had only the good will of others to keep them alive.

The work of the Apostles was twofold - prayer and the ministry of the word. The solution was to choose a number of disciples to engage in the task of caring for the daily needs of the community. When Pope Francis calls us to be a missionary church, he is calling us - among other things - to also take responsibility for the human and spiritual needs of members of our communities. We cannot simply tend to our own needs. We must care about the needs of others.

We see here the image of the two parts of the Church therefore. One is to care for the daily needs of the community, particularly those in most need of help. The other is to continue preaching the message of God’s love and forgiveness. Preaching that word may sound an easy task to some but most people are quite reluctant to believe they are good in God’s eyes. Pastors spend innumerable hours encouraging their own parishioners.

To some extent these tasks - preaching the Gospel and taking care of the community’s needs - intermingle but it was a practical problem in the early believers that required a solution that had not yet been discovered.

Is it any wonder that the disciples in the Gospel (John 14: 1-12) worry when Jesus tells them he is leaving them? What will we do? How can we survive? Jesus tries to reassure them that he has everything worked out. But he is also trying to tell them that it is time for them to step up and take responsibility, to take ownership for their own faith life, their own spiritual life. He has prepared them to live without him. He has prepared them to continue doing the works he had already begun.

The holy temple in Jerusalem, the central religious symbol and place for first century Jews, is the symbol represented in all three readings on this Sunday. The temple was the place where Jews met God. Jesus is the new temple. Things sought previously in the temple were now sought in Jesus. Jesus is the place where we meet God. Christ is the new temple. And Christ has prepared his disciples to become the Church which in the absence of Jesus is now the fulfillment of the temple. Church becomes a priestly people. What Jesus has done for us is to invite us to do his work. Father Robert Barron describes this process when he says, “The integrity of our lives are a sign of hope and a place of refuge for all around us.” Which is why our faith is not just about my own spiritual benefit. It also has a missionary benefit. My life is a sign to others of the work of God in creation.

I grow in life of Christ in order to become a place of growth for others. Jesus is the cornerstone of this temple. Jesus is rejected by the Jewish people but he is approved by God. He is the foundation for this new temple. As the letter of St. Peter recognizes, we are a holy people, a holy priesthood. We are all chosen.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Return to Jerusalem

The week after Easter Sunday rejoices as each day repeats the Resurrection in increasingly surprising ways. The Church begins its cycle of readings from the Acts of the Apostles with Peter at Pentecost proclaiming to the Jewish citizenry of Jerusalem that God raised Jesus from the dead and has begun an entirely new relationship with human beings. Fear begins to set in. The chief priests concoct stories to prevent blame or outrage from settling on themselves.

Many of the Jews are intimidated by Peter's preaching and wonder what to do. We hear the compassionate episode in which Mary Magdalen encounters Jesus thinking him to be the gardener. Peter and John heal a crippled man in the temple who leaps up, walks, jumps and praises God inside the temple. Astoundingly, two disciples encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Peter has to convince many people that the crippled man's healing is not the result of the apostle's magic but is the work of Jesus who died and rose. Then Jesus appears to the disciples and begins setting a plan of action for them.

The disciples are arrested and interrogated by the chief priests. Jesus makes another appearance, this time to the disciples, as they go fishing and they are overwhelmed by his appearance. Finally, the chief priests are convinced to let well enough alone lest the people turn on them. A recapitulaion of Jesus' three appearances after the Resurrection ends the week.

What does it all mean? Those of us living in northern states can appreciate the appearance of spring after this long, harsh winter we've experienced. I can watch fresh pine cones growing on the tree outside my window. Everything seems alive and new. Students are bursting with energy and ready to finish the restraining semester's work.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus may express the change most of all. They are going away from Jerusalem. They are leaving the place at which something remarkable and different has occurred. They fear the challenge laid out before them. They are confused and disappointed for their expectations were not met. How do we make sense of these events?

Someone had to explain it to them. Someone had to show them how to see in a new way. They were thinking in old categories. Jesus himself shows up to answer them. But they don't know it is Jesus. They only know that things have changed and they are uncomfortable with the change even though they had pinned their hopes on Jesus for another kind of change. They are getting something more. When they listened to Jesus explaining the meaning of the events, their hearts burn. In fact, their hearts are on fire. When Jesus displays his hospitality to them and shares bread with them, their hearts burn. All becomes new and Jesus now occupies rheir hearts and disappears from their presence. Scripture says their eyes were opened, they recognized Jesus, and he vanishes from their sight. They return to Jerusalem and they announce to the disciples what has happened to them.

This week of readings is crucial to anyone preaching God's word. Unless we ourselves are filled with the excitement of these events, we cannot possibly understand or relate anything else that happens to Jesus in the Scripture. We cannot understand what happens to any other human being in their time spent on earth. We cannot be good pastors or preachers if we have not shared in the joy of the Resurrection. We cannot go forward into the heavenly future. We may be tempted to remain in our upper rooms and hold tight with the Jesus we've possessed since childhood. But Jesus is inviting us out of our childish prison and offering us the reward of an uncertain human future on his terms.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Thoughts on the Francis effect

Just what is the so-called Francis effect?

Those who wish Pope Francis ill proudly claim that church attendance has not increased and Catholic churches do not seem to be experiencing the same kind of enthusiasm found in St. Peter's Square on any given day.

Is church attendance the measure of the Franis effect, I wonder, and is that not a question only an American would ask? Last fall I overheard a bishop wonder what Francis had up his sleeve and then commented that he thought Francis was trying to get bishops to work. 

It has been reported that after his first six months as pope Francis had garnered more attendance in St. Peter's Square than both Popes John Paul and Benedict combined. This is not to disparage either one of those great and holy men. But it does indicate that Francis has a charisma that neither of the other two possessed. A different pope brings a different gift. John Paul and Benedict each brought great gifts and great personality to the office. The gift and personality of Francis just different.

Estimates of the crowd in St. Peter's Square on this past Easter Sunday suggested an attendance of about 150,000 people. Francis can draw big crowds. No doubt. And he seems to love nothing more than being in their midst. All of which says that Francis is carrying out a ministry of presence like never before. And when he has to preach his preaching is merciful.

There is no competition among popes. One commentator summed up John Paul's pontificate by identifying him with the words, "This is what we believe." and much of John Paul's pontificate seems to have reminded us of our identity as Catholic Christians.

The same commentator noted that Benedict's papacy could be summed up in the words, "This is why we believe it." Benedict provided our Catholic identity with a solid grounding, a very necessary rationale. The same commentator now claims Francis can be summed up with the words, "Now go out and do it."

What is different in Francis is that he can be identified much more with the sense of Catholic Christians living fully their faith. The emphasis is on action, an active verb.

The Church in my archdiocese is faced with numerous possible parish closings and consolidations. There already has been reaction from parishioners whose parishes are on the block. There are those who want things to stay the same even though there is almost no life left in their parishes at all. One parish whose parishioners are complaining has reportedly not experienced a single baptism in three years. What is the reason for keeping a parish open whose parishioners appear to be indifferent to its current future and growth?

The machine to which many are clinging is enough to keep them alive but it is not enough to get them to do what Francis wants us to do. It is not enough to get them to do what Jesus asks of us - to preach the Gospel! To tell the Good News to others! To go out on mission like the first disciples did! Instead we wait for the unbeliever to come to us. And then in some places we have to look them over to make sure they fit into our plan.

The bishops call for evangelization but this is almost a joke. What will get parishioners who want their parish to make them comfortable Sunday after Sunday energetic and enthused about preaching the Gospel to neighbors and strangers? What will move us from coffee and donuts after Mass to knocking on doors and inviting others to come join us? Few clergy want to do this.

Oh, of course it's not true of all, but the truth is there is a lot of dead weight among North American Catholics. Our German and Irish and Italian and eastern European immigrant ancestors have built us a church that is a now a haven of rest for us. And we want to keep it that way. Do not bother us with even the cry of Emma Lazarus to give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Let the government take care of them and let us remain in our shells.

The Francis effect is challenging all the moribund thinking in the American church including that of our bishops - some of whom are more concerned about their personal housing than they are about spreading the Gospel. What can we do? Not much really. Except to place ourselves into the hands of God and his mercy. Only God can draw us out of our torpor.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Almost a century

My Aunt Dorothy turned 99 years of age on March 25. She is in a nursing home now, somewhat alert though very hard of hearing. She is the last of my aunts and uncles. Her distant relatives in Louisville, Ky., told me that she has now outlived everyone of her relatives there and several of them lived into their 90s.

Aunt Dorothy is the older of my mother's two sisters. My mother died in 1998. The younger sister died in 2005. There was also a brother who died in 1970. I had been relying on Aunt Dorothy for a number of years for remembering details about their lives growing up. As in most families, there are stories that abound and some of them seem unverifiable. There were always memories of "cousins" but I hadn't been able to verify their membership in our family.

Aunt Dorothy did give me clues that I was able to track down. She used to talk, for example, about a trip she and my mother and the other two siblings made in their grandfather's Ford to New Castle to visit some cousin in the late 1920s. Their grandfather apparently drove the car off the road, overturning the car. No one was hurt apparently but their grandfather never drove again, she claimed.

She was no longer able to remember the names of these cousins. Through some genealogical sleuthing I wrote down the names of every head of household in the 1930 census in New Castle, Indiana. Aunt Dorothy said one name on that list seemed to ring a bell for her. I kept tracking the name and eventually discovered this to be the granddaughter of the husband (by his first wife) of Aunt Dorothy's great aunt (who was the second wife of the husband). The relationship is technically not close at all but there seem to have been a number of other families we would hear about from the distant past who were "cousins" to Aunt Dorothy's grandfather. And all of them seem to have originated in a small town in southwestern Germany.

What has always seemed strange to me is that neither of my aunts or uncle on that side of the family - nor my own mother - seem to have inherited any of my grandfather's talents. He was a musician as was his father. My mother played the violin as a youngster. Indeed, she and all her siblings were made to take music lessons but none of them persisted. I recall my mother's broken violin sitting on the floor of a closet in our house for many years. Aunt Dorothy's memory of music lessons is practicing the piano under her father's guidance. If she hit a wrong note, he would slam the cover on her fingers.

Aunt Dorothy has been active all her life. She spent most of her adult years in various kinds of secretarial work at a large local department store. Into her early 90s she worked part-time standing on her feet several days a week doing demos in a large supermarket. She favored wearing large oversize hats when she went out socially.

I would like to know more about her ancestors but it is almost too late. When we are young, we have no interest. Now that I am approaching my senior years, I have the interest but the individuals who could answer questions are mostly gone.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent

With gratitude to Fr. Edmund Montgomery

Mary and Martha have something to teach us about Jesus. These two women and their brother Lazarus are friends of Jesus. This word ‘friend’ is key in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are friends of Jesus. That they are friends means that the four of them loved each other, provided companionship for each other, gave support to each other, provided consolation to each other. Indeed, all four of them – Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus – were really and truly human beings.

The loss that Jesus felt for Lazarus is a real loss. He is not just play acting. The Scripture tells us that “Jesus wept.” It should not surprise us. Did not Jesus already experience other members of his family having died? We do not know, for example, when Joseph died, but it appears from the Scripture that he was not around during the period of Jesus’ ministry. Would not Jesus have experienced the loss of his grandparents as well? We do not know much about the family structure of Jesus but he lived in a culture and society in which parents and grandparents would have been well revered. 

Lazarus is a friend, a real friend. For many of us, our friends can be closer than members of our family, and when Lazarus dies, it clearly affects Jesus very deeply. He was in ‘great distress,’ the Gospel tells us. He made that groan that only those who are mourning can make, a ‘sigh that came straight from the heart,’ and he began to weep openly. So moved were those around him, they said, ‘See how much he loved him!’ We like to speak of Jesus as Savior, as Redeemer, as Son of God, and he is all of these things, but we must never lose sight of the Jesus we see in today’s Gospel: ‘Jesus the Mourner, one who knows the depths of hurt and suffering, and the cost of death. As the Bible tells us, Jesus can sympathize with us in our weaknesses because he has been tested with suffering as we are. 

A young man was murdered on 16th Street this past week. News reports have interviewed his numerous siblings and friends. There is grief in the city over this loss. There is grief among us whenever any of us lose a friend or family member. Depending on the relationship, the grief is stronger or weaker. As I reached my 50s, I wondered what it would be like when my own parents would die. They died within three years of each other and I am here. What I know now that was not uppermost in my own mind at that time is that I will follow them sometime in the future.

Martha’s faith must have been incredible. She said to Jesus, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.’ She is saying that Jesus could have healed Lazarus had he arrived in time, but that even now, even though Lazarus died four days previously and was buried and sealed in a tomb, Jesus can even save this situation. 

What incredible confidence Martha had in him, and what pressure this must have put on Jesus. ‘He has to act now,’ those around him must have thought. ‘This will show whether he is who we claims to be.’ Martha accepts the reality that Lazarus is dead, but still believes Jesus can do something. And something Jesus certainly does. 

What must the crowd have thought? What was the smell as the tomb was opened? Jesus raises his voice in prayer and cries aloud for Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus walks out of the tomb! Imagine the screams of shock, the emotion, people fainting, running away, falling to the ground in horror. Wrapped in his burial shroud still, Lazarus stands there before them all. Jesus asks them to ‘Unbind him,’ and ‘let him go free’. 

In this Gospel Martha teaches us to have faith in Jesus even when the situation seems impossible. The tubes and wires connected to loved ones who are dying in hospital are like the bands of cloth that shrouded Lazarus in the tomb, and, as their life slips away, it may be that the Lord is saying the same words to us as he said after raising Lazarus, ‘Unbind him, let him go free’: don’t be afraid of letting our loved ones slip away from us in death, because it is into God’s hands we pass them. 

Poor Lazarus died, was raised and lived, only to die again! But that promise Jesus made to Martha, ‘Your brother will rise again,’ is the certainty that ought to sustain us, too when we are faced with the death of a loved one, or the certainty of our own death. Jesus’ love for his friends is real, his sense of loss at Lazarus’ death is genuine, and his promise of life without end is true, too. 

The more we come to know Jesus the more we will find ourselves fascinated by his life, and by the reality of what he promised. ‘I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’