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.