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Blessed Felipe de Jesús Munárriz and Companions,

Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro

 

Barbastro is situated in upper Aragón (Spain), near the highlands of the Pyrenees.

In the summer of 1936, it was a place tragedy.  A torrent of hatred over ran the city, resulting in the deaths of many innocent people.  By the grace of God, however, a rampart of pardon and love was raised up, and that rampart remains a cause of hope and a foundation for peace in today’s world of hatred and conflict.

The Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro, 51 in all, most of them seminarians in their early 20s, heroically shed their blood.

Blessed Felipe de Jesús Munárriz and his Companions, Missonary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were beatified by Pope John Paul II on July 25, 1992.  Their memory is observed on August 13.  Seminarian Francisco Hernández will renew his vows as a Claretian Missionary the same day.   

In the eyes of many they are dead, but their faces, their voices, and their testimonies remain alive.  In them is manifested the glory of the Lord, praiseworthy in his saints.

Besides the Martyrs of Barbastro, there were many other Claretians who shed their blood for the Kingdom of God.  Twenty-three from Siguenza, Fernán Caballero, and Tarragona will be beatified on October 13, 2013. 

The names of our martyrs will always hold a privileged place in the hearts and memories of all Claretian Missionaries.


Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

 

          Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century British philosopher, spoke of the life of human beings in our natural state as, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Leviathan part 1, chapter 13).

 

            For nearly half, if not more, of the world’s population that remains the case.  Indeed, hardly fifty percent of the world’s population survive beyond the age of six. 

 

            Few of us have had to deal with such insecurity and uncertainty.  Rather, most of us here – by no means all – were born into at least fairly secure circumstances, and we were taught from early age to reinforce out security with a good education and other advantages.

 

            Unfortunately, we may have come to believe that our efforts guaranteed our security.  Even if our ambitions and desires were modest, we may have felt for extended periods of time that all was good and we were just fine.

 

            The underbelly, however, of our desire to encourage the young to succeed is fostering the illusion that success eliminates insecurity and uncertainty, when even the most successful younger people among us will readily confide that it does not.

 

            And many of them just wish we would understand that.

 

            As we begin to grow older, we begin to recognize illusions of security and certainty for what they are.  Illusions.  Even if we are blessed with fairly good health in our seventies, we’re no longer fooled.  This night your life might be demanded of you.

 

            But wait.  That’s no reason in itself for us walk around thinking terminal.  What’s the point of that?  Where does it get us?

 

            I’m reminded of a high school student thirty years ago.  His first year as a wrestler he went to the state tournament but was eliminated in the first round.  His second year he went to state but was eliminated in the second round.  Knowing that Sean was entirely comfortable in his own skin, I chided him: “What was it like, your back to the mat, looking up at the lights?”  “I just felt lucky to be there,” he responded.

 

            I’ve found that the shedding of illusions of security and certainty – or being stripped of them – can leave us feeling lucky just to be here.  In fact, it can leave us feeling grateful at every turn, and cause us to dedicate ourselves to thankfulness (Colossians 3.15b).

 

            Why should we worry about when our life might be demanded of us, when we have reason for being thankful at every turn?           

 

‘Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

 

            Of the four evangelists, or gospel writers, Luke delights in portraying Jesus as turning conventional wisdom upside down and inside out.  In this respect, he never disappoints.  Unfortunately, the scandal caused by Jesus’ words and actions is all but lost on us today.

            When I was younger, and being raised in very different kind of church, today’s gospel reading was customarily interpreted as referring to what were called active and contemplative religious communities of priests, brothers and sisters in the church, and in this case the contemplative life trumped the active life.  Mary had chosen the better part, sitting at the feet of Jesus and taking in his every word.  Can’t beat that, right?

            When Catholics began to be exposed to more sophisticated scriptural interpretation, following the Second Vatican Council, this gospel passage received an entirely different interpretation.  “It’s about hospitality, stupid.”  And lo and behold, in the context of Jesus’ time, that makes perfect sense.

            Still, Mary trumped Martha.

            However, there might yet be a surprising element in Luke’s account.

            The hinge, on which the Gospel According to Luke swings, is Luke 9.51.  All is before and after in relationship to that verse.

            “As the time approached when he was to be taken up from this world, he resolved to proceed to Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51).  Another translation says, “He resolutely set his face toward Jersualem.”

            At any rate, Jesus had recognized that confrontation and a face-off with Jewish authorities was inevitable, and that it had to take place on their turf and, it might appear, on their terms.

            So, he and his hapless disciples head toward Jerusalem.  Jesus sends out seventy-two, who return pounding their chests about their accomplishments.  Then Luke recounts the story of the Good Samaritan, which was last Sunday’s gospel reading.

            Now, Martha and Mary, and here’s what I suggest.

            Given all that weighs on Jesus’ mind and heart, as he heads to Jerusalem, must we assume that Jesus was always in teacher mode?  Must we assume that Mary is basking in Jesus’ teaching?

            Isn’t it possible that Jesus desires nothing more than a respite from the crowds, to be with good friends, and have time and a place to collect his thoughts, as he draws closer to Jerusalem and his conflicts with the Jewish leaders intensify?   Isn’t it possible he’s dying for someone just to listen, and Mary allows him to pour out his heart? 

            I’ve never seen this scene in that light, but it make a lot of sense to me.

            As often as not, hospitality is much less about making folks feel good and filling their bellies, than about simply giving them space and listening to them.  No doubt, Jesus appreciated sharing a home cooked meal with good friends, but I suspect that, more than anything, he needed to be able to confide in them.

            Just imagine what Jesus must have shared with Mary.  

            

            Salvador Ramírez grew up in the San Gabriel Valley.  As a student at Basset High School, he participated in Upward Bound and other programs, which allowed him to experience a much larger world and impelled him to encourage other youth to avail themselves of the opportunities available even to those in the most modest of circumstances.  As a junior in high school, Salvador served as a summer intern at the United States Capital, and following graduation, he travelled to Europe.  As a student at UCLA, he was a member of a fraternity, whose members devote themselves to mentoring minority youth and helping them avail themselves of opportunities to deepen and broaden their education.  A major in American Literature, he spent a summer studying Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon.  Salvador spent the month of July with Gabe’s Place, a parish-sponsored program for children of elementary school age.  This past week, he began a sixteen week training program in Oakland, CA in community organizing.  This is a description of his first week.

             “I have been meaning to get in touch with you and let you know what we are up to. It's an interesting project; We are working with the Hayward Fire Dept and Alameda County Health Services to bring in a Fire Station Health Center. That's right: Fire Station Health Center. The plan is to remodel the existing Fire Station and also build a brand new health center in the same lot.

“On Monday we started canvasing around the proposed area for development. We went door to door talking to people about their needs, and asking to fill out a petition in support. It's very diverse: anglos next to latinos, next to afro-ams, next to asian-ams, next to indian. Everyone speaks different languages so it's really interesting. 

 

“The project aims to provide a Health Center offering Primary Care Services for all Alameda County Residents. This would serve to mitigate the number of Hospital/ER visits and minimize the costs as well. 

 

“Next Monday we will be canvassing Full Time. Then we pick up building our own 'mini-campaign' by recruiting volunteers and bringing in support from the community (business, organizations, etc.). And this is how we are staying busy =).”

 

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2013

            A good story speaks for itself.  If it requires explaining, how good a story is it?

            When it comes to stories in Scriptures, explanation may be needed, since what would have been obvious to people of those times is easily lost on us today.  So the good guy was a Samaritan, so what?

              At any rate, rather than dwell on the lessons to be drawn from today’s gospel reading, I will be content, and I hope you will be content, with allowing it to speak for itself.  On the other hand, I am going to share a Good Samaritan story of my own.  Not that it rivals Jesus’ story, but it certainly shows that someone, twenty centuries later, got the message.

            It is 1986.  I am associate pastor at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Trenton, NJ.  Monday through Friday, we open the huge front doors at precisely 11:00 am for confessions, followed by Mass at noon.  Every day, Andrew, a blind, shabbily dressed, homeless man, is waiting, leaning against the planter outside.  Using his cane, he insists on making his own way up the steps into the church.  It being a blighted neighborhood, we close and lock the doors within five minutes after Mass has ended.

            On this particular day, the sidewalk in front of the cathedral is set to be replaced.  The crew arrives during the Mass, and the pastor secures the front doors.

            Most of those in attendance are employees of the state government, who resent the fact that a twenty-minute Mass requires them to scarf down their lunch, before returning to their cubby holes in the state offices nearby.  Scarfing down the Eucharist?  Apparently, another matter.

            Then there is Michael.  Michael is well over six feet tall, in his thirties, handsome,

well-knit, friendly to all, whose voice resounds from his accustomed place halfway down the aisle – the fifty yard line, it seems, the cathedral is so huge.  The fact is, and I say this fondly, Michael was always just one pill short of being committed to a mental health facility.     

            Well, Mass has ended.  I come out of the sacristy a few minutes later.  Since the front doors are locked, Andrew is shuffling around in panic.  Who rushes to his rescue and escorts him out a side door?  Not a government worker, most of whom are out of there before the final blessing.  Michael.

            A month or so later, local teens pushed Andrew into the Raritan Canal, which flows through the city of Trenton from the Delaware River to Raritan Bay on the Atlantic coast.  I don’t know who fished him out, but parishioners were outraged.

            I took it upon myself the following Sunday to exercise my own outrage.  “Andrew has been walking the streets and seated on our doorstep for years, and who has paid him a lick of attention, except Michael?”

            There are several homeless, who sit outside this church on weekends.  Some folks insist we have to do something about them.  A few weeks ago, as I was greeting parishioners after Mass, I noticed an older, well-dressed lady go, sit down next to one gentleman.  That told me it was high time I went over and introduced myself.

            Jesus doesn’t ask us to throw caution to the winds.  He does demand we take chances.

            Last Sunday, we announced that CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, is collecting sundry articles to aid persons in danger of dying, as they trek across the Sonoran Desert to the US.  Many are mere children.

            No matter one’s stance with respect to immigration reform, it is neither Christian, nor Catholic, nor American – it is absolutely indefensible - to allow these desperate people to succumb to the desert.  There is a giving tree off to the side of the altar.  We should be embarrassed at the size of the box to receive our donations.  After hearing today’s gospel reading, we should be satisfied with nothing less than a truckload of donations.  In lieu of items, checks are welcome.

            Abraham was ten years old and living in El Salvador, when his father was murdered.  His mother, fearing for the family’s safety, sent Abraham north in the custody of a coyote.  After surviving the desert, Abraham was picked up by the border patrol.  He spent his teenage years in various foster homes.  This year he graduated as an accomplished student from a magnet school in Los Angeles.  He speaks impeccable English.  He dreams of attending Stanford University and studying mathematics.  More important, he dreams of becoming a citizen of the country he regards as his own.

Jesus would ask, “Who do you think was neighbor to the homeless person sitting outside your church?  Who do you think was neighbor to this young man Abraham?”

Every one of us can respond only as best we can, but we must respond


Pentecost Sunday 2013

            For several years, the Claretian Missionaries in Stone Mountain, Georgia, celebrated Sunday Mass with families of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We priests spoke English.  The readings and music were in Dinka, the tribal language, and at least one reading, as well as the announcements, in Arabic, the official language of their homeland.  (There was another language as well, the language of drums, pulsating all but imperceptibly from the beginning to the end of the Mass.)  The Boys had mastered English during years spent in a refugee camp in Uganda.  Doing so was a prerequisite to their being relocated.) 

I have never understood why so many Americans make a big deal of speaking a second, let alone a third, language.  In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for even the uneducated to speak more than one language.  It certainly is not unusual for Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans to speak at least two languages.  Indeed, not a few of my Asian American acquaintances speak three: their native language, English and Chinese.

Our first reading says that Jews from every nation under heaven had gathered in Jerusalem, yet all heard in their native language.  We are not told that the apostles spoke in foreign languages but that they were heard by all in their native language.

I have often related what I heard a professor at Harvard University, a Native American, say many years ago: “Languages are not simply different ways of saying the same thing.  Languages are entirely different ways of experiencing the world.” [Repeat.]   In other words, a translation always disappoints.  For example, we can say that abuelita is Spanish for grandmother, but that’s not the half of it.  Ask any Latino/a, who learned his/her prayers from his/her abuelita.  English speakers refer to a priest as Father, but Father doesn’t begin to express what Spanish speakers mean by el padre.  Indeed, Father conveys respect, but to be honest, it goes right by me.  On the other hand, when in a Latino setting I am referred to as el padre, that’s a call to duty as the father of the community, which I dare not ignore.

The point is that it speaks volumes to say that the Jewish pilgrims from every nation under heaven heard the apostles speaking in his/her native language – the language, to cite a Spanish saying, in which they counted money, made love and spoke to God.  Not only was God concerned that absolutely nothing of the apostles’ preaching be lost on any of their hearers.  God wished the apostles’ preaching to be heard and absorbed in all of the nuance and richness of a particular language.

Let’s push the envelope further.  Is it not possible that people of a particular language and culture pick up on elements of the Word of God, which are less appreciated by Christians of another language or culture?  How else explain the unique role of La Virgen, La Morenita, La Virgen de Guadalupe, for example, in Mexican Catholicism?  How else explain the significance of Our Lady of La Vanh among Vietnamese Catholics or the Black Madonna of Częstochowa among Polish Catholics?

 

                I often mention that, before coming to San Gabriel Mission, I spent eight wonderful years at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where the Claretian Missionaries have served for twenty-years and had the opportunity to welcome refugees from over seventy countries.  Every Sunday is Pentecost there.  We used to wonder what new population would show up the following weekend.

            Imagine the opportunity we as Catholics are given, not just to hear the Word of God in our own language, but to overhear and to welcome what strangers among us are hearing.  By the way, even the drums of different nations speak a language of their own.  Listen closely and you’ll pick it up.


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The Solemnity of the Ascension 2013

          Today’s first reading describes the apostles seeing Jesus being lifted up, until a cloud takes him from their sight.   Hence, the name of today’s feast, the Ascension of the Lord, right?  Yet, none of the four gospels describes the parting of the Risen Lord in this way. 

Each of the four gospels describes the events following the resurrection somewhat differently.  For the sake of brevity, let us take a look at Luke’s account.  Luke is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, from which today’s first reading is taken. 

Luke concludes his gospel account with Jesus appearing to the eleven and those who were with them.  It is the same day, on which the Risen Jesus had  appeared to Mary Magdalene and her female companions, who in turn brought the news to Peter and the others.  Two disciples return from a short journey, during which they had been accompanied by the Risen Jesus, but whom they recognized only in the breaking of the bread.  By now, the Lord has appeared to Simon.  While the disciples are conversing, the Lord stands in their midst.  Dispelling their doubts, he asks for something to eat.

“Then, he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24.45).  He alludes to their role as missionaries, but insists they remain in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high.  The next day, he leads them to Bethany, where he blesses them and is taken up into heaven.  The disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy and are continually in the temple praising God. 

There is no mention of forty days in Luke’s gospel account, yet in the Acts of the Apostles, of which Luke is also the author, there is, and the mention of forty days would not have been lost on Luke’s original audience.

 Forty years, forty days, or forty days and forty nights are not necessarily literal or factual indications of time.  They are literary devices, employed in the Scriptures, to mark the passing of one era and the beginning of another.  So, whenever we hear forty years, or forty days, or forty days and forty nights, we need to perk up and listen up.  God is about to do something new! 

How new?  Well, not simply new and improved like an upgrade of sorts, like Microsoft Word Version 14 compared to Version 12 – Microsoft skipped Version 13, or like an Apple iPod Touch 5th Generation compared to 4th Generation, or even 1st Generation. 

Thumb through the Scriptures and notice how forty years, or forty days, or forty days and forty nights signal that God is about to do something entirely new –as in we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Perhaps, we ain’t seen nothing yet - like the role women play in the

post-resurrection narratives. 

When Mary Magdalene and her female companions arrive at the tomb, they are told by two men in dazzling garments that Jesus has been raised.  Remembering what Jesus had said, while still in Galilee, the women bring the news to the eleven and all the others, but the apostles refuse to believe them. 

How about all the others? (Lk. 24.1-12).  Is it possible that the unimportant types believed first?  After all, it’s not unusual for the Word of God to emanate from the lowly and only with reluctance be accepted by the high and mighty.

The significance of the precedence shown Mary and her companions was not lost on the first Christians.  A reputable bible dictionary begins the article on woman by stating: “…the word woman is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to a weak and helpless man,” as in Isaiah 3.12 and 19.16.  A Jewish prayer declared, “I thank thee that I was not born a woman.”  On the other hand, the concern and respect, which Jesus showed women, bordered on the scandalous in his day.  In his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul, never one to backpedal, is unequivocal.  “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28).   

All four gospel writers acknowledge that Mary Magdalene and her female companions were the first to know of the resurrection.  (It is interesting that Luke, who more than any other gospel writer is concerned with Jesus’ care and respect for women, is the only one of the four, who fails to mention that Jesus himself, not just messengers, appeared to the women.)

Can we help but be reminded of the pagan woman, who got in Jesus’ face?  “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the tables of their masters” (Matthew 15.27).  I am reminded of a fellow Claretian Missionary, raised to high station in the church.  Following the ceremony, he was swarmed by hundreds of well-wishers.  One, a woman of little if any influence, put her finger in his face and said: “Don’t forget your mother.”

Is it of small significance that women of faith loom large in our lives and are often the first to share the Good News with us?

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TEENAGE SPIRITUALITY

Long before Art Linkletter’s  House Party and Kids Say the Darndest Things, there was the proverb: “Out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems.”

And long before that there was Matthew 21.16:  “Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise.”

Somewhere in between was comedian W.C. Fields, who is said to have said: “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”  He didn’t. 

Well, enough about babes and nurslings.

I spent a numerically negligible part but an immeasurably significant part of my adult life teaching 15 year old boys.  Religion.

Actually, my entire adult life I’ve been closely involved with teens and young adults.  Twenty-some years ago, a colleague suggested I develop a parish program for teens.  “You know how to talk to them,” he said.

My jaw dropped.  I stopped in my footsteps and answered:  “Well you just talk to them.”

[Parents of teens, it’s easy for me to say, right?]

Whatever the incongruity of teaching religion.  In the 70s – not the worst decade of the 1900s, unless we’re talking colors, really fake wall paneling, shag carpeting, Nixon and a few other things – someone observed that kids don’t learn religion, they catch it.

Here are two events – yes they deserve to be called events  - from my years of teaching religion to adolescent males.

 A sophomore raised and his hand and asked, “May  I say something?’  “Of course,” I responded.  And he did.

I was quite impressed with what he had to say, and I allowed him to go on for two or three minutes, before I got the feeling he was beginning to enjoy  hearing – but not necessarily listening – to himself speak.

The name Brian still comes to mind.  “Brian,” I said, “you certainly know now far more than I knew at your age.  But you don’t know what I know now.”

By no means, was it meant as a put-down.  I knew next to nothing at his age about life, compared to what he knew and was forced to know.

I continue to respect what teens are forced to know.

The second event, a retreat for high school seniors,  January, 1980, at a lakeside home in Wisconsin.  Sixteen participants carefully chosen from a junior class, divided into cliques like nothing I – and other faculty members –could remember.

After the first session on Saturday morning, the guys headed outside to play football on the lake.  It was scheduled to be a half-hour break, but Upper Midwest adolescent males take to a frozen over lake in mid-January the same way their counterparts in southern California take to the surf year around, and the adult team decided to let them  enjoy themselves as long as they wished.       

Finally, they trouped  in for lunch. 

After lunch, I told them that our next gathering would be at 5:00 pm – four hours later.  I assured them that the afternoon was theirs to spend as they chose.  Take a nap, walk in the woods, sit in the sauna , etc.  One condition: absolute silence.  No one was to assume his buddy wanted to talk.

Yeah, sure.  Right?

I lay down by the fireplace and fell asleep.

A few minutes after 4:00 pm,  I awoke to absolute silence.  The guys began to come in, but conversation was hushed.   At 5:00 pm, we gathered around the fireplace.  Lasagna, prepared by their mothers, was in the oven, and the schedule was to do a short wrap-up of the afternoon and eat.  I sat in the background.

“Who would like to talk about how he spent the afternoon?” I asked.

Possibly the most introverted, super-intelligent, even nerdy one in the group spoke up.  “I took a walk around the lake.  It was very quiet.  I didn’t run into anyone.   God seemed really close, so I just prayed.”

“What do you mean?  How do you pray? one of his peers  asked.

For two hours, I remained silent in the background, listening to 17 year old young men talk about their spirituality.

I was not ordained at the time, so on Sunday a priest from the school came to celebrate the Eucharist, but disappeared soon afterwards, which I asked him about on Monday morning.

“I sensed something very special had taken place over the weekend, in which I didn’t play a part.  I felt the boys needed to be allowed their own time and space.”  RIP a priest’s priest, to whom nothing human was foreign, Thomas Kolar.                 

 

               

          

 

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OUT OF TOUCH     

 

In his book Sexual Celibacy, Donald Goergen, OP, observes: “Touch is essential to being human…[On the other hand] American culture is a ‘no touch’ culture.”  Goergen compares American culture to other cultures, in which people are far more comfortable with interpersonal touching.  “There are clearly contact-peoples and non-contact peoples and Americans are among the latter.”

Goergen wrote his groundbreaking book nearly forty years ago, and was referring to Caucasian Americans, particularly those of Anglo-Saxon descent.  Obviously, forty years later Buddha has met Guadalupe – the title of a Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine article in the early 1990s – Mohammed has met Bernadette, and Confucius, etc., etc. etc.  Just look around the 626.  And, with a nod to the opening chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, there’s been much begotten and begetting.

So, perhaps, Goergen’s point of view would not be as dour today.

This is preface to two presentations I made in the last couple of weeks.  The first was a very brief homily at a weekday Mass.  The second was a longer presentation to participants in our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

My point in both instances was that the exercise of our Catholic faith is unabashedly hands on.   Just look at Jesus.  There is not one of the seven sacraments, in which touching is not assumed –  not even the Eucharist or the sacrament of Reconciliation.  I was trained to allow my hand to touch the hand of the recipient of the Body of Christ in acknowledgement of the fact that we and the Eucharist are dimensions of the same mystery of the Body of Christ.  Ideally, the priest should lay hands on the head of the penitent.  (Recently, I heard the confession of a youngster about eight or nine years old.  When I raised my hands in absolution, he gave me a high five.  Made my day.)

Moreover, two of my graduate school professors - both in the forefront of liturgical reform for several decades before Vatican Council II, both monks of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN, one well known, the other content to wield influence all but anonymously as the editor of a highly regarded publication – impressed upon their students that sacramental gestures should always be grand gestures, lest their significance and power be lost on all parties involved.

 Goergen also comments on the effects of tactile starvation.  The reality is that not simply the body, but the heart and spirit, are starved, when we do not experience touch.  A firm handshake, a tight hug, and even an unexpected pat on the shoulder nourish the spirit as well as the body.

 It is tragic that, with age, many feel physically unattractive and no longer expect to be touched – and others are less inclined to take their hand, let alone embrace them.

 Well, this morning I celebrated our 6:30 am Mass.  It struck me, not for the first time, that when I asked that we greet one another with a sign of the Lord’s peace, many waved or gave the peace sign to folks twenty or  more feet away from them.  Yikes, I thought, this is no sign of the Lord’s peace.

 Jesus touched people from head to foot.   With time, Christians imitated him in the celebration of hands on sacraments.  In fact, in the Gospel According to St. John there is no account of the institution of the Eucharist.  Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

 



Excommunication and Being Invited to Dinner


            When I was a youngster, the mere mention  of excommunication caused one’s very bones and soul to shiver, if not to freeze.  Absent in those days any mention of primacy of conscience as the first principle of Catholic, morality, Catholics were often given to believe that their very relationship with God, let alone the Church, could be severed at the whim of ecclesiastical authority.

            I don’t know if it’s actually the case, but I have the impression that in recent years the threat of excommunication is invoked somewhat frequently.  Not that most would cowl at the threat or as a result of excommunication.  Nowadays, as likely as not, the excommunicated party might simply find another parish or another faith community, in which to worship. 

            There are religious traditions, in which shunning, the equivalent of excommunication, amounts literally to having no communication with an errant member. In the Catholic tradition, however, the principle effect of excommunication is to be turned away from communion or not being allowed to participate in the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Church.  Literally, the excommunicated is turned away from the table. 

            This time of year can be difficult for broken families as well as for members of families, who feel unwelcome at the family table.  Some families endure their brokenness, though not without regret, for years, while other families are willing at least to endure the company of errant or obnoxious family members – or the ones they consider such, because there are times, when the value of family and the simple fact of being family take precedence.

            For over twenty years, my father and his brother did not speak to one another.  As  children, we didn’t get the entire story, and when as a adults we did, most of us rolled our eyes in disbelief.  “Over that?”  My mother was the one, who initiated the reconciliation.  As she would have said, “I’m fed up with this simpleness.”

            One Saturday evening, she picked up the phone and dialed my uncle’s number. When my uncle answered the phone, my mother greeted him warmly and asked him to hold.  Then, handing the phone to my father, she said, “Talk to your brother.”

            After that, they talked a number of times, but separated by three thousand miles, they never had the opportunity to see one another.  I stood beside my father at my uncle’s wake.  I didn’t have to read his thought.  He expressed the fact that something very trivial – in the grand scheme of things – kept two brothers apart for so long.

            At this point in my life, I shutter at the mention of excommunication, not because I believe that the Church is able to sever one’s very relationship with God, but because excommunication entails turning a brother or sister away from the Lord’s table.  It is, of course, his table, not ours, and he was accustomed to dining with tax collectors and sinners.


            More than once, the eminent theologian Karl Rahner, SJ, cited this text from the Gospel According to St. Matthew in his criticism of ecclesial – or ecclesiastical, if one prefers, though there is an important distinction – leadership: “[The scribes and Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt. 23.4).


            At the opening of Vatican Council II, Blessed Pope John XXIII declared: “Nowadays the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than of the arms of severity, by showing the validity of her teaching, rather than by issuing condemnations.”


            Recently, a parishioner remarked on the words on the t-shirt I was wearing.  I explained that the words are carved in marble over the entrance of Corpus Christi Catholic Church, in Stone Mountain, GA, a parish served by Claretian Missionaries.  “This is my church.  This is my house.  This is my family.”  “Can we do that?” he asked.  “Certainly,” I answered.


            Set an extra place or two at the table this season.

           



____________________________



Skip {LeRoy) McMahon

            No one I knew would ever have called him LeRoy.  He was Skip.  For a third generation of students he was Skip, though to his face he was always Mr. McMahon.  He was a rite of passage, the teacher of Algebra I, as he had been for fathers and grandfathers.  A rite of passage but, by no means, Mr. Chips.

            He was also the athletic director, and often he and I were the only faculty present at freshman and jv games, watching insufferably gangly freshmen play basketball, or freezing our asses off – almost literally – watching an ice hockey game in an arena at what seemed , and a few times was, the middle of the night.  Given that the activity was not all that exciting, we got to chatting and knowing each other, as different as we were.

            Skip attended Marquette University and played in the first Cotton Bowl.  Like a number of his colleagues, he interrupted his teaching and coaching career at St. Thomas Academy – on the old campus – to serve during World War II – only to return to serve the rest of us life at the Academy.

            We were the most unlikely of friends.

            One day, he walked by my basement classroom.  Twenty more feet and I would have been teaching in the faculty parking lot.  He waved.  I waved back.

            A fifteen year old student protested.  “Mr. Curran, I don’t get it.  You and Mr. McMahon are friends and you’re not even alike.”

             I hardly inspired the fear of God in 14 year olds.  On the other hand, Skip had admitted to me it was, to a large extent, bluff on his part.  It was what students’ fathers and grandfathers  had led them to expect, and it certainly didn’t impede their education.

            I responded to the youngster:  “We might not seem alike, but Mr. McMahon is able to do things with kids that I could never do, and I’m able to do things with kids that he could never do.  We respect that in one another.”

            Though a towering man, Skip hated the limelight.  It actually took little to have him tear up.  In that respect, he was like Hubert H. Humphrey, a Minnesota legend, an icon, senator and vice president.  Just months before he died of cancer, Humphrey was invited to speak at an event, at which he would receive an award of some kind.  Muriel, his wife, pleaded with him to beg off.  “You’ll only break down crying,” she said.  He responded, “Mom, a man without tears is a man without heart.”

            I had a poster with his words in my classroom.  At the end of the school year, a 16 year old asked me if he could take it home.

            I was privileged to preside at Skip’s funeral.  I still remember that wave.

             


_______________________________


Rev. Thomas Kolar, RIP

 

            In August, 1975, I began teaching religion at St. Thomas Academy in St. Paul, MN.

            Actually, I didn’t begin teaching.  The first year was hell, as it often is, when a new and relatively young teacher wades into a nearly century old, and at that time more than a little complacent, setting.  Be that as it may, this isn’t about me.  Suffice it to say, by the third year I was treated as if I walked on water, which, of course, I didn’t, but fifteen year old boys err to the extreme when judging the favorable or unfavorable.  It’s the still developing frontal cortex.  Seriously.

            It’s the middle of the night.  The second night in a row I’ve awakened around 3:00 something am, and knowing there was no way I was going back to sleep, decided to do something other than watch Japanese pro wrestling on Youtube.  I was on my way to doing something else, when, flipping through some papers, I came across a piece I’d tried to find just a few weeks ago, but ended up thinking I’d lost it forever.

            So, I’m glad to be awake at this hour of the night.  Fortunately, I’m not assigned to preside at Mass until 5:00 pm.

            I was the first lay person to teach religion.  The rest of the religion faculty were priests, all but one of them insufferably clerical, although two of them seemed to think they were really cool.     

            Okay, this is about Fr. Thomas Kolar, ordained presbyter – in everyday life they’re called priests rather than elders - of the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis – dare not reverse the order – in 1960.  I would do him discredit not to begin by saying he was first and foremost a priest, except that many priests claim to be – first and foremost – priests, but I won’t go there

            A Master of the Fine Arts – all of them, I swear - from The Catholic University of America.  Painter, sculptor, photographer, he encouraged me in my first steps as a photographer, an extremely valuable talent when teaching high school.  “Leave the technical stuff to others.  Just take advantage of your eye.”

            A master of every element of stagecraft and acting.  Producing and directing at St. Thomas Academy – Visitation Convent, as well on the grander stages of Minneapolis-St. Paul.  A stunning performance in I Never Sang for My Father, although he once confided in me what a wonderful relationship he enjoyed with his father.

            He was beloved by the faculty and, for that reason, his cutting through BS – in the most urbane way imaginable – was received so graciously.  In the faculty room one morning, stuff was being said about controlling one’s classroom.  Tom – as he insisted on being called: “I dare say that, on any given day, when the children [not a hint of derision] don’t allow us to govern, no one controls the classroom.”

            Saturday evenings, Tom hosted dinner at the priests’ residence to allow younger and older faculty to get to know one another.  “My mother calls this a one butt kitchen,” he used to say.

            Well, over the course of my seven years at the Academy, we faculty members accompanied Tom, as Parkinson’s Disease set in and took its toll.  He accompanied us as well.

            A once eloquent preacher, whose eloquence was not artifice, but his own expression of being deeply in touch with the Word of God as well as human experience, gradually became intelligible. 

            Confined to a nursing facility, he confided – haltingly - to one of our former students, and a priest, that he had figured out that there were certain times of the day, when he was aware and energetic.  During those hours, he used his skills to sew hangings for the dining room..

            He also wrote a play, performed on one of the more prestigious stages of Minneapolis-St. Paul in his honor.   This is one scene from Seven Scenes About Assisi  by Rev. Thomas Kolar (1934-2002).

            FRANCIS    Sniffles?  Do I hear sniffles?  Who is it that dares regret God’s disposition of things?  It’s one thing to stand before the Creator and pray for understanding of His will.  After all, that’s why we’re here – to understand His will and do it.  But even if that understanding is withheld, we embrace it all the same.  So let’s have none of that.

            GIOVANNINO   But that’s not fair?

            FRANCIS   And who says so?  My youngest child in the spirit?   Is it Giovannino that is so upset?

            GIOVANNINO   I’m not the only one.  You’ve taught us to see our good in everything that happens, and here you are, in pain and blindness, with death on your doorstep.  How can you find God in all that?  Haven’t you been misled?  Even cheated?

            FRANCIS   That’s not even possible, let alone likely.  In fact, there is really no need to find God in pain and darkness.  There is more than enough of Him in the light.  We don’t seek for what we’ve already found.  I have seen the sun, so I don’t fear the darkness.  I have felt the fire, so the winter is welcome.  I have heard the birds – the snarl of the wolf is nothing new.  The barren branch smells like the memory of blossoms.  I know the Lord of all these things.  I don’t have to seek him.

            RIP, Rev. Thomas Kolar, presbyter of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Before all else, a splendid human being.

 


_________________________________


The Man of Today and Religion

     “LONG BEFORE, we can even begin to hear or read this WORD, we are already imprisoned in this world of today as sceptics and rationalists, people brought up on scientific and historical derivations and explanations.

     “WE EXPERIENCE even the Bible at first as an echo of a long lost world, as an expression of a world picture no longer familiar to us.”

- Karl Rahner, The Man of Today and Religion     

      It’s okay.  As much and much more depends on our faith in God revealing himself than in our ability to picture God.   



_______________________________________________________


29th ANNIVERSARY OF MY ORDINATION

            We made a big deal of my 20th anniversary, since my mother was still living, but who would have placed bets on which of us would last another five years.  I would have bet on her, although she was 95 years old.  We made a pretty big deal, again, of my 25th anniversary, since that’s expected. 

            So, the 29th, and why does it seem like a big deal?  I don’t know.

            I used to tell our younger Claretians that one goes through the seminary – formation, as we call it, has all kinds of bright ideas about how he’ll do things, gets ordained, assigned and, the next thing he knows, people are teaching him what it actually means to be a priest.

            And that never stops.  He never graduates.  Unless he’s a fool, he never says, “Okay, I’ve got it.”

            One learns or one doesn’t.  He can resist and take a stand, but only to find himself standing alone, or he can learn from the oddest of people in the oddest of circumstances, as well as the ugliest of people in the ugliest of circumstances.

            I’ve long seen Jesus as a learner as much as a teacher. 



I JUST WANTED TO HELP

 

            I don’t recall his name.  I never could.  I had trouble pronouncing it.

            No matter, I read about him in the Atlantic Journal Constitution – the AJC.  A refugee as a result of the Kosovo War in the late 1990s, he was 17 years old and a paraplegic, when we met.  He lived with two sisters in a low rent but clean apartment complex in Atlanta. 

            One evening, he heard a woman’s voice crying for help.  He ran outside, saw the door of a nearby apartment wide open, and rushed in.

            He was greeted with two shots to his groin.  The perpetrator escaped.  The young man, who had grown up accustomed to ducking bullets and heavier ammo, lay bleeding on the floor, near death in the land, which was to be his refuge.

            I visited him and asked him to speak to the boys in our summer youth program.  He agreed.

            I am accustomed to watching teenage boys tense up at the sight of one their own age being wheeled in.  There’s body language and silence.

            I allowed the boys, 13 to 15 years old and raised in the middle class, mostly Black suburbs of Atlanta, to ask questions.

            The best question: “Why did you do that?”

            “I just wanted to help.” 

 



CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE

            Some y’all get tired of my talking about my “eight wonderful years in Georgia.”  As one of our seminarians reminded me this summer: “Fr. Jim, there’s more than one exciting Claretian parish in the US.”  He he, he’s right.  His home parish in Fresno, CA, where the Claretians have served since 1951 is also exciting. 

            Okay, I’m going to brag.  This past summer, I preached a mission appeal on behalf our Claretian Missionaries worldwide.  After one Mass, an older, stately gentleman approached me and said: “I worked with the Claretians in Rio Sucio, Colombia.  Claretians are extraordinary people.”  Whoa!  I had to ask our prefect for ministry in Rome to communicate that to our missionaries there.

            I’ve never had any reason to believe I’m extraordinary.

            At any rate, one of the most striking experiences during my eight wonderful years in Georgia, was a photo exhibit, portraying Children of Violence from around the world.  It took some time to get through the exhibit.  Every board stopped me in my tracks. 

            The last two boards, however, struck awfully close to home, certainly geographically.  I suspect that by design these were the last, but hardly the least compelling, boards.

            “After I met Eddie, I stopped being afraid all the time.  I know I still might not live to grow up, but I think I have survived this long because I had a little courage.  I always told myself I could do it.  I could get home safe.” – Vincent Quinn, 14 years old, Jackson, MS

            “I worry all the time about being hurt or killed by another kid.  I’ve been on the alert since I was 10…I wish there were a man in my family who could tell me the secrets of life.  My father died of alcoholism and I don’t have anything to go by.  We did play catch once when I was seven.  That really stands out in my mind…” – Chris McCord, 16 yo.  

 

            


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^


From A Christmas Story by Truman Capote

"Buddy, the wind is blowing."

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we've run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I'm as happy as if we'd already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

"My, how foolish I am!" my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. "You know what I've always thought?" she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. "I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are"—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—"just what they've always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."

This is our last Christmas together.

 


******************************************************



It Takes a Common Cold

            I happen to require treatment for several serious conditions, but since none of them causes me discomfort, I tend to go about my daily life, giving them little or no thought, and often forgetting to take my medications.  That’s not good, but I suspect I am not all that different from other folks in their early 70s or later.

 

            It took a bad cold, a week or so ago, to cause me discomfort and to knock me off my feet for nearly three days, and believe me I felt the urgency of dealing with the cold and discomfort, and getting back on my feet.

 

            We may not even realize we’re doing it, but it’s easy to temporize in dealing with what causes us little discomfort or inconvenience, even if it’s debilitating.  Discomfort and being reined in for a few days can yank one’s chain. 

 

             Should I pray for more discomfort? 


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 


Trenton, NJ


            Some twenty-five years ago, I was serving at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Trenton,     

 NJ.  The neighborhood around the grand edifice – the length of a football field - had long ago fallen on hard times.  Well, that depends on who’s telling the story.  Right?

            At any rate, several times a day I would step outside the rectory.  (While entrance to the cathedral next door, appropriately, required climbing a number of steps, entrance to the rectory was one step over the stoop – a word, I suspect evokes a smile and a memory from east coast folks.  Then, there’s my mother’s often threatening to ‘knock you for a row of brick houses,’ which never hit home, until at age 22, I visited the neighborhood, in which she was raised, and saw?  A very long row of brick houses!)

            Well, I used to step out of the rectory and nod to or chat with anyone who came along.

            One day, a woman accosted me and grabbed my arm.  “Fr. Curran, do you have any idea who you were talking to?  You’re a priest!”

            “Actually,” I responded, “I’ve had breakfast with him.  One great thing about being a priest is I get to talk or eat with everyone.”

            The cathedral was a few blocks away from a cluster of state government buildings, an easy walk, since several blocks in between had been leveled.  State government workers appreciated the opportunity to attend Mass during their lunch break, and expected Mass to be cut short to allow them to grab lunch.

            I took my time.  It was fine for them to slip in ten minutes after Mass had begun, but intolerable if I began Mass a second after noon.

            We unlocked the big front doors of the cathedral at 11:30 am.  Unfailingly, Andrew, a scruffy, elderly homeless, blind man was waiting.  Andrew was a familiar figure downtown – what downtown there was left of Trenton, let alone who still went there.

            On this particular day, the front doors of the cathedral were abruptly shut during the noon day Mass.  Even I hadn’t been informed that the sidewalk along Warren Street was being replaced.

            At the end of Mass, the state government types made their usual swift exit out the side doors.  I came out of the sacristy to behold a sight, which still stops me in my tracks.

            The only one, who stayed behind to guide Andrew out along an unfamiliar path was Michael.  

            Michael was a tall, handsome guy, who by his looks would give you to think he was the vice president of the local bank.  Actually, Michael was always one pill short of being committed to the state hospital – absolutely no offense intended, and I hope not taken.  His voice resonated above an entire congregation.

            That day, Michael was the one who noticed and responded to Andrew’s confusion.

            Weeks later, the news spread that several teenagers had shoved Andrew into the Raritan Canal (which runs from the Delaware River into Raritan Bay, which feeds into New York Harbor), and all of Trenton, according to the local newspaper was appalled.

            From the pulpit, I observed that Andrew had gone unnoticed or ignored for years, and made his way around town, guided only by his cane, most people keeping their distance.  Now, everyone was appalled. 

            The cathedral, of course, hosted gatherings of Catholics from all over central New Jersey, from the Delaware River to the Jersey shore.  At least, the leveling of the surrounding blocks provided adequate parking.    

            On one occasion, I stood near the entrance as the procession marched out.  The bishop muttered to me, “All the local nuts are here, I see.”  He meant the Michael types.  I muttered in return: “Bishop, count your blessings.”  

            Finally, one dark, chilly and windy winter’s night, I was returning along Broad Street to the rectory.  A car was stalled and unresponsive.  A father and his teenage son, not residents of the neighborhood, were beside themselves, afraid to get out of the car.  I introduced myself and assured them that all I need do was to shout for help and a dozen folk – those Puerto Ricans, of course – would pour out the darkened buildings to help out.

            I didn’t need to shout out.  A couple of guys happened along.  I called them over.  They recognized me as el padre, although I had no idea who they might be.  Everything got squared away.

            We all went our separate ways - if indeed we really do - and I wonder if the stranded strangers, or the guys from the neighborhood, would remember that night.  



Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

December 7, 1941

            [I was looking for something else, when I came across this account, written my late mother.]

            When we first went to Hawaii, we lived just about fifty feet from Waikiki Beach, which made it great for a daily swim and seeing notable tourists.  We lived next to the Fort DeRussey Army post, where everyday we could hear the bugle glowing in the early morning and early evening, when the flag was taken down.  It was the first I had ever living so close to the military, and many evenings we would go to the lowering of the flag.  It really gave me a feeling of realizing a wonderful country we have.

            The children went to school in Waikiki.  Our youngest son [Laurence, Jr.]  went to kindergarten, and left in the morning with the girls, but I walked up Waikiki Beach at noon time to pick him up, and we walked home along the beach, so he could play in the sand for a while.

            In June, 1941, we were assigned a house in military housing at Pearl Harbor.  We were just across the street from the Hickam Field gate and a block and a half from the main gate of the Navy Yard.

            On December 7th, we got up to prepare for church.  It was a beautiful day, and while we were eating breakfast, the planes started flying over our house.  They were low and swooping, which made us all duck our heads as they flew over.  We laughed about all of us doing this at the same time.  Larry said it was unusual to have maneuvers on a Sunday, but then never knew what to expect.  Though we had blackout practice, when we went to the show in the Navy Yard every week, none of the activity made us feel anything big was about to happen.  We all felt very safe.

            When breakfast was over, the children, their dad and the Hawaiian girl who worked for us left for church.  I stayed home, watching the maid’s baby and our new son [me].  I watched Larry and the rest walk down the street and could see clearly all the way to the Navy Yard.  Suddenly, a sailor approached them, and after some discussion, they turned around and came back home.  Just before getting to our front door, another sailor came by and told me we were to stay indoors and keep our radios on at all times, as we were being attacked by the Japanese.  Shortly after, a notice came over the radio for civilian employees living in military housing to return to their jobs at the Navy Yard.  Larry left.

            Our neighbor from three doors down came and asked if she and her children could stay with us, since her husband was on a submarine and had gone back to the boat.  We told her we would be glad to have her, and she came back with her four children, along with two neighbor’s children she had been watching overnight, while the mother was in Honolulu.  Twelve children and three women just milling around, trying to decide what to do.

            Word came over the radio to store water but to boil it before, since they were turning off the water.  We did a little of that, but then the gas was turned off too.  A couple of times, they told us the gas was being turned back on, but it was never on long enough to cook anything worthwhile.  A friend told me later that her husband came up with a novel idea.  He made cheese sandwiches  by heating their iron as hot as it would go, holding it bottom side up and toasting the bread.  Pretty novel, I think.

            Finally, in the afternoon, after things settled down, we were told they would evacuate by bus anyone, who wished to go into town.   Our neighbor decided she would go to her family in Honolulu.  In the meantime, the other women and children had gone back home.  Our family was all alone, waiting for Larry to get back and tells us what he had seen.

            During the attack, I had gone upstairs for something and looked out our bedroom window.  Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion, and though I hadn’t seen a bomb drop, I saw the hangar at Hickham go up in smoke.  It suddenly dawned on me that we were certainly in the middle of something, but I still realize how dangerous it was.  Others have told me they felt the same.  I went to another window and saw a great cloud of smoke, and the noise told me something very big must have been hit.  For days after, a large cloud of smoke rose from the spot.  The USS Arizona had been hit.  Finally, just before dark, Larry got home.  We were told to keep all the lights off.  So, we sat around in the dark, talking about what Larry had seen and done that day.

            The next day, while hanging out wash, I turned on the radio very loud, so I could hear it outdoors.  An announcement came on that war had been declared.  For some reason, it suddenly dawned on me what it was all about.

            The next week, they laid black iron drain pipes behind each section of housing.  They were over five feet in diameter and intended as shelter for us, whenever the attack siren sounded.  Needless to say, the children loved running in and out of them after school.  At school, there were trenches to serve as shelter.  Each of us was fitted for a gas mask, which we were required to carry with us at all times.  If a child’s face was too small for a mask, a bottle of water and a towel were to be kept ready.  Larry Jr’s face was too small, so I made him bag to carry over his shoulder, and he still has it.

            In late April, we were told we would be evacuated to the mainland and were assigned passage on Aquitania.  The ship landed troops one night, and we boarded the next morning.  We left on a beautiful Sunday morning and were the first to go without an escort.  It took us seven days on a zig zag course.  The size of the ship was unbelievable.  Of course, I had to fix formula for the baby [me].  In the middle of the night, I had to walk almost two city blocks – I’m not exaggerating – to the galley.  Since he was only six months old and couldn’t walk on his own, I had to carry him.  You can bet I made it in a hurry, as there was little light and it was so quiet it was spooky.

            When we arrived outside the Long Beach Harbor breakwater, we were met by one of the small boats, which goes from Long Beach to Santa Catalina Island.  Our ship was too large to enter the harbor, so we were taken off the Aquitania onto a barge, then onto the boat, which took us to the pier, where we were met by the Red Cross.  They served us hot chocolate and doughnuts and assigned us to hotels, where we would stay, while awaiting passage home.

            As we watched our luggage being lifted in a large net from the barge, the line broke and everything went into the ocean.  As luck would have it, one line held and nothing was lost.  By the time it arrived on the east coast, everything was still damp and covered with mildew.  Strange thing, however, the radio and the iron still worked.

            After two days in Long Beach, we were given train tickets to Chicago, where we were to be given tickets home.  When we got to Chicago, the terminal was very crowded and I was having a time keeping the four walking children from wandering, while I carried the baby and a diaper bag.  A policeman saw me trying to get my bearings and asked I he could help.  I was showing him our Navy papers, when people seemed to become curious about what was going on.  Finally, the turned and said to them: “This family just got here from Pearl Harbor, and I want all of you to get on your way.”  Well, you would have though from then on that they were getting the chance to see some freaks.  Some kept following us, even though he ketpt telling them to get going.  Once we got to the ticket window, he took charge of the children until I was taken care of.  Then, he took us to the waiting room and stayed with us until we boarded the train.  Those who hadn’t heard him at the ticket window but saw him huddling us into a corner, waiting for our train, must have come up with a lot of reasons why he was sticking with us.

            After twelve days traveling, we finally arrived in Philadelphia, where we were met by my cousins Ruth and Clare Hare.  We had finally made it back to Camden, and though I was glad to see everyone again, I regretted what had happened and that we had to leave such a beautiful place.

-  Berniece Curran



TEENAGE SPIRITUALITY



Long before Art Linkletter’s  House Party and Kids Say the Darndest Things, there was the proverb: “Out of the mouths of babes oft times come gems.”

            And long before that there was Matthew 21.16:  “Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise."

            Somewhere in between was comedian W.C. Fields, who is said to have said: “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”  He didn’t. 

            Well, enough about babes and nurslings.

            I spent a numerically negligible part but an immeasurably significant part of my adult life teaching 15 year old boys.  Religion.

            Actually, my entire adult life I’ve been closely involved with teens and young adults.  Twenty-some years ago, a colleague suggested I develop a parish program for teens.  “You know how to talk to them,” he said.

            My jaw dropped.  I stopped in my footsteps and answered:  “Well you just talk to them.”

            [Parents of teens, it’s easy for me to say, right?]

            Whatever the incongruity of teaching religion.  In the 70s – not the worst decade of the 1900s, unless we’re talking colors, really fake wall paneling, shag carpeting, Nixon and a few other things – someone observed that kids don’t learn religion, they catch it.

            Here are two events – yes they deserve to be called events  - from my years of teaching religion to adolescent males.

            A sophomore raised and his hand and asked, “May  I say something?’  “Of course,” I responded.  And he did.

            I was quite impressed with what he had to say, and I allowed him to go on for two or three minutes, before I got the feeling he was beginning to enjoy  hearing – but not necessarily listening – to himself speak.

            The name Brian still comes to mind.  “Brian,” I said, “you certainly know now far more than I knew at your age.  But you don’t know what I know now.”

             By no means, was it meant as a put-down.  I knew next to nothing at his age about life, compared to what he knew and was forced to know.

            I continue to respect what teens are forced to know.

            The second event, a retreat for high school seniors,  January, 1980, at a lakeside home in Wisconsin.  Sixteen participants carefully chosen from a junior class, divided into cliques like nothing I – and other faculty members –could remember.

            After the first session on Saturday morning, the guys headed outside to play football on the lake.  It was scheduled to be a half-hour break, but Upper Midwest adolescent males take to a frozen over lake in mid-January the same way their counterparts in southern California take to the surf year around, and the adult team decided to let them  enjoy themselves as long as they wished.       

            Finally, they trouped  in for lunch. 

            After lunch, I told them that our next gathering would be at 5:00 pm – four hours later.  I assured them that the afternoon was theirs to spend as they chose.  Take a nap, walk in the woods, sit in the sauna , etc.  One condition: absolute silence.  No one was to assume his buddy wanted to talk.

            Yeah, sure.  Right?

            I lay down by the fireplace and fell asleep.

            A few minutes after 4:00 pm,  I awoke to absolute silence.  The guys began to come in, but conversation was hushed.   At 5:00 pm, we gathered around the fireplace.  Lasagna, prepared by their mothers, was in the oven, and the schedule was to do a short wrap-up of the afternoon and eat.  I sat in the background.

            “Who would like to talk about how he spent the afternoon?” I asked.

            Possibly the most introverted, super-intelligent, even nerdy one in the group spoke up.  “I took a walk around the lake.  It was very quiet.  I didn’t run into anyone.   God seemed really close, so I just prayed.”

            “What do you mean?  How do you pray? one of his peers  asked.

            For two hours, I remained silent in the background, listening to 17 year old young men talk about their spirituality.

            I was not ordained at the time, so on Sunday a priest from the school came to celebrate the Eucharist, but disappeared soon afterwards, which I asked him about on Monday morning.

            “I sensed something very special had taken place over the weekend, in which I didn’t play a part.  I felt the boys needed to be allowed their own time and space.”  RIP a priest’s priest, to whom nothing human was foreign, Thomas Kolar.             

 

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JOSEPH FLAHERTY

Christmas Eve, let’s say 1994 – year isn’t important. I was serving as Catholic chaplain at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, CA. Mid-afternoon, I received a call from the hospital: “Can you come immediately? Joseph Flaherty is dying.”

Half an hour later, I arrived at the hospital, only to find Joseph Flaherty sitting up in bed, apparently in full control of his senses, and conversant. Puzzled, I struck up a casual conversation. Finally, I gathered the courage to say, “Joseph, I’ve been told you’re near death.” “I am,” he said. He spoke with a delightful and declarative Irish accent.

“Well,” I said, “I’m happy to stay with you as long as you wish. As far as prayers are concerned, we can celebrate the Anointing of the Sick, our sacrament of healing, or we can pray the prayers of Commendation of the Dying. The Commendation of the Dying is, uh, launching the boat?”

“I prefer launching the boat,” he said with a clip to his voice.

I prayed the Commendation of the Dying, spent a while with him, then asked if I might excuse myself. “Of course,” Joseph said.

I went from the hospital to our family Christmas celebration. I returned home around 9:00 pm. I no sooner stepped in the door then there was another call from the hospital. “Can you come immediately? Joseph Flaherty is dying.” I explained that I’d visited Joseph earlier in the day.

“We know, but his family has left and told us to call the priest.”

I was livid, not because I was being asked to return to the hospital, but because his family had walked out in the man’s final hours.

Arriving at the hospital, I find Joseph lying in bed but as lucid and conversant as hours before. Once again, we chat for a few minutes. It’s Christmas and the hospital has discharged as many patients as possible. I haven’t seen a nurse look in in the last forty-five minutes. I can’t leave this man alone.

A nurse, whom I recognize, comes in. She’s working on another floor, but she’s heard about Joseph, and she’s come to spend her break at his bedside. It’s getting late.

I tell Joseph, who is still articulate: “It’s getting late, Joseph. I have two early morning Masses. Is it ok for me to leave you with Debbie?” “Yes,” he responded.

“Joseph,” I said, “You’re going to enjoy a Christmas like nothing you’ve ever imagined.”

We clutched each other’s hands. I left.

Joseph passed away in the very small hours of Christmas day.



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PUTTING ONE'S EAR TO THE GROUND

            My father often referred to me as a depository of curious but useless information.

            Thanks, Dad.

            How about this?  Putting one’s ear to the ground.  It works.

            Nearly fifty years ago, I and several fellow Claretian seminarians were hiking a two lane highway from the Benedictine monastery at Valyermo, on the desert floor, to our campsite nearly 8,000 ft high in the San Gabriel Mountains. 

            The climb was steady with few, if any, level segments.  The desert sun was on our backs.  Dumb us, we hadn’t thought of bringing along a lot of water. 

            It wasn’t exactly the trek portrayed in the movie Stand by Me, but it had its lessons for us 20-something seminarians.

            I had a walking stick, carved – by someone else - from southern California chaparral.  I had no idea I could have been put jail for abusing a protected plant.  I used the stick to set the pace.  Every hundred yards or so, I needed to sit down.  My companions, though grateful for the break, complained: “Well, you’re the one setting the pace.”

`           I think of that as we troupe to the altar, and the other ministers get far out ahead of me., and people must wonder if there’s a priest behind them.  Even with a cane, I no longer set the pace.

            I’ve never thought the clergy have to set the pace.

            We began to notice that the highway vibrated, when an automobile was climbing the twists and turns of the road behind us – from in front of us as well – and without a word we stepped to the side of the road.  Hmm.

            One among us remarked, “You know, if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear vibrations from miles away.  Animals do.”

 We tried that and it worked, though I’m not sure it was a matter of miles away.

            Jesus castigated some of those who opposed him, because they could read the signs of good or bad weather from looking up to the sky, but seemed incapable of reading signs of the approach of the Reign of God.

            Perhaps, down on one’s knees, one’s ear to the ground is more effective for recognizing the onslaught of the reign of God in our individual lives as well as all creation.

            What do I remember most clearly from that hike?

            We reached the crest, then had to walk about one hundred yards downhill to our campsite.  After miles of walking uphill, it took everything we had to keep our legs from giving out as we walked downhill. 

            Meanwhile, the weather in southern CA is very hot and very dry.  Every trace of a ridge, a ravine, a canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, just five miles away, and rising above 10,000 feet, beckons.  On the other hand, I know those mountains.  I trekked a good portion of them in my youth.



TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

                It’s 2:30 am, and as seems to happen with folks of a certain age, I’m wide awake.  I’m not sure what possessed me to pull up Fiddler on the Roof on YouTube – rather than the Fung Brothers 626.

                You know, there’s a load of very good theology in Broadway musicals.  Fiddler on the Roof is as instructive, and certainly more heart wrenching than the Baltimore Catechism, on which folks my age were raised. 

               We need something like the Baltimore Catechism today, but just something like it.   Something to keep us from falling off the roof.

                Centuries and centuries before there was a geographically catholic or worldwide church –  actually a very recent development, Christians took pride in being catholic – that is universal – because we saw ourselves as embracing goodness, truth and beauty in every place and culture.

                The missionary is not the agent of a foreign world view, a foreign language, let alone a superior culture.  The first task of the missionary is to put his ear to the ground.  To listen, to observe humbly, and to discern the presence of God in the strangest of places and circumstances – strange to the missionary, at least.

                These days, the American church welcomes the assistance of missionaries from around the world.  Nonetheless, we must expect of them what they would expect from us – first, to listen and to observe humbly...

                Then, after a suitable length of time, the missionary may be in a position to – and welcome - to suggest how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fit into all this.

                Some years ago, I read a story written by the archbishop of Chicago, a member of a missionary community.  He describes a visit to Africa, when he was a member of the council of his religious congregation.

                He was standing by himself, taking in the view of the river, alongside which the parish center was built.  Two men came out of the woods, and the three struck up a conversation.  After a few minutes, one of those who had come out of the woods excused himself.  He was going to speak to the Father.

                The other man volunteered the information that his friend was preparing to become a Christian.

                “And you?” the American priest asked.

                “Well, no,” the man responded.

                “I’ve listened to all the stories about Jesus,” he said, “but to me it all seems too good to be true.”

                Speaking only for myself, “Whoa!  I wish it all seemed just too good good to be true.”



Sunday Go-to-Meeting Clothes  

                It is by no means absolutely the case, but it can be safely said that in the southern part of the United States the tradition of dressing up for church remains strong.  My eight years in Stone Mountain, GA, certainly left me with that impression.  By the same token, I feel safe saying that in this part of the country it is not unusual for people to attend church in attire that is beyond casual.

                I’m not given to crusades.  I prefer that ideas carry their own weight, but first ideas need to be considered, even pondered.  They may need to be discussed with others.  So, my intention is simply to broach the subject, encourage individual reflection and, perhaps, civil discussion.

                At any rate, here are links to two thought provoking article on the subject. 

 

                http://www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/church-practice/dressing-up/dressing-up-for-church.php

 

                http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/januaryweb-only/clothingmatters.html?order=&start=1

 

                The following is an excerpt from the second article.

 

Now We See In a Mirror

                None of the above leaves us with a dress code for public worship. It certainly does not translate automatically into coats and ties for men and fancy dresses for women. Idealizing bygone eras won't work here; the meaning of human clothing is too contextual for that. It varies too widely from place to place and time to time, and there are too many other variables to consider. We are left having to judge for ourselves what is appropriate for worship and what is not.

                But all of the above should at least warn us away from the glib assumption that God does not care about what we wear to church; or that what I choose to wear for worship doesn't matter; or that how I dress for church is a purely personal affair; or that my own convenience and comfort are all that need concern me. The truth is, one of the ways we express ourselves as human beings is by the way we dress. Wittingly or unwittingly, our clothing gives us away. God certainly does not need this expression to know our hearts. But as for the rest of us, we do indeed look on the outward appearance, even when peering into our own mirrors. In this way the clothes we choose for church may have things to tell us about our hearts that God already knows, but that we need to hear.

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SOMETIME in your life,

hope you might see one starved man,

the look on his face

when the bread finally arrives.


HOPE you might have baked it

or brought it –

or needed it yourself.

 

FOR that look on his face,

for your hands meeting his

across a piece of bread.

You might be willing to lose a lot

or suffer a lot

or die a little, even.

 

- Daniel Berrigan

 


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Last week, I was sandwiched during lunch between Fox News on the one side and some guy pontificating on intelligent design.  I guess he was entitled, since he springed  (sprang, sprung?) for his friends’ lunch.

            My point is we have no idea, whatsoever, how God thinks.

 
            Although human intelligence is often cited as precisely how we are created in the image of God, God does not reason, nor think.  God does not deal in concepts, propositions or syllogisms.


            We cannot picture or imagine God in any other way, but that doesn’t mean that God fits into our ability to imagine God.


            Intelligent design implies that one needs a plan laid out, in order to proceed step by step.


            We do.  God doesn’t.



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when we feel the church simply doesn't speak the language of our children, well, most of the time it doesn't.

my theological mentor karl rahner, sj wrote the following half a century or more ago:

  "long before we can even begin to hear or read this WORD, we are already imprisoned in this world of today as sceptics and rationalists, people brought up on scientific and historical derivations and explanations.  WE EXPERIENCE even the Bible at first as an echo of an long lost world, as an expression of a world picture no longer familiar to us."

 well, we do, so let's get on with it.

 i was asked recently to speak on the immaculate conception.  i declined.  it's not that i don't believe in the substance of the doctrine.  i do.  but our catholic vocabulary might be threadbare - as threadbare as that of biblical literalists.

 my laptop - or notebook - has ten times as much memory than my first pc, which i bought in 1996.  to the average person computer related language is not a second language.   rahner's observation was made well before personal computers or cellphones.



 i had lunch recently with fox news coming at me from one side and some guy pontificating on intelligent design from the other.  i guess he felt entitled, since he paid for his two friends.

 let's get it right, however.  whatever intelligent design means, and although human intelligence is often seen as precisely what establishes us as created in the image of god, it's not a digital image.  design implies one who needs a design, because human intelligence is necessarily linear and sequential, and can handle only a bit - a byte - at a time.  god does not think, nor does god think sequentially, in propositions or bytes.

christian life would be much easier - and far more authentic! - if we realized that we have no idea how god thinks.








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IMPORTANT!  PEW RESEARCH   (NO PUN INTENDED)  

  One in ten Americans are former Catholics.  One in three of those raised Catholic have left the church.  Departures appear to be mostly among younger adults.  The proportion of Americans, who are Catholic, remains stable (roughly 24%), largely because of the increase among Hispanics.

- Pew Research


I Gotta Ask 

    I don’t know if John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is still required high school reading, as it was when I was in high school over fifty years ago.  Actually, I didn’t read the book until I was out of college, and I had already seen the movie, which I ordered from Netflix this week.

     Early in the movie, Casy and Tom Joad run into each other in the midst of a dust storm.  Tom is making his way home after being released from prison.  Casy is a vagabond former preacher.  Gradually, Tom recognizes Casey as a preacher in his family’s church years before.

      Casy tells Tom: “Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’.  I don’t know it right yet myself.  That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again.  Preachers gotta know.  I don’t know.  I gotta ask.”

      These words cut to the quick, when I read the book at a young age and, even more, when I watched the movie shortly before my ordination to the priesthood in my early 40s.  At that point in life, however, I had come to believe that Casy got the first part straight, but that his conclusion was sadly mistaken.

     Allow me to rewrite Casy.  “Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’.  I don’t know it right myself.  That’s why I’m still a preacher.  I don’t know.  I gotta ask.”              

     Henri Nouwen, a prominent Catholic writer in the latter decades of the 20th century, popularized the notion of the wounded healer.  The gist of his writing on this theme was that a credible and effective minister really has nothing to offer other than his/her brokenness and his/her questions.  “I gotta ask.”



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I Don’t Carry Placards 

              The number of parishioners was small.   The last Mass on Sunday was at 11:00 am, and it was unusual for the phone to ring before 9:00 am on Monday morning, but this Sunday would be different. 

                My two colleagues had left for a meeting in Chicago.  I had the house to myself and was all set to enjoy the peace and quiet - and movies on HBO - well into the evening.  That was not to happen. 

                No sooner had I plopped down on the couch, clicked on Footloose – yes, the first one with Kevin Bacon, than the doorbell rang.  I put down the newspaper, slipped my shoes back on and answered the door, hoping the interruption would be brief.  It wasn’t. 

                I opened the door to a woman, so disconsolate and sobbing that she could hardly speak.  I invited her in and we sat down in my office.            

                “Father, why did you tell my husband he could divorce me?”  Whoa!  I had spoken to her husband, but that was not what I had told him – in so many words.  In fact, I had taken pains to have him understand that the solution to the problem, as he presented it, was not at all that simple.

                The woman had decided to abort the unborn with whom she was pregnant.  Still sobbing, she explained that they had three small children, her husband couldn’t keep a job, his behavior was reckless and caused damage to the family, they were always in financial straits, more than once she had had to take the children to stay with grandparents, and it was always she who ended up taking the brunt of it all.  She couldn’t go on doing that, and she couldn’t subject another child to that.

                 I listened, and I listened, and I listened.  For over two hours I listened. 

                Finally, I asked if it might help if she spoke with another woman.  I explained that there was a parishioner, who was active in the local pro-life organization.  “I respect her a great deal,” I said.  She said she would like to speak with her.

                I called and within an hour the woman arrived.  I introduced them to each other, spent a few minutes summing up the situation, then excused myself.  I went back to the living room, turned off the TV and – quite distracted – perused the Sunday paper.  Two hours later, the two came out of my office.

                Both were wiping tears from their eyes but they were beautiful tears.  It had been good for them to spend time together.  The first woman explained that she still didn’t know what she was going to do, but that she felt so much better for having had the opportunity to speak heart to heart with another woman. 

                The next day, the husband and wife came to see me.  The husband received a good dose of Plain Talk from Honest  James – to borrow a phrase.

                A year later, I happened to visit the parish and celebrate a Sunday Mass.  After Mass, the woman rushed up to me, beaming and exuberant.  “Father, would you like to see our baby?”

                Yes, her husband had got his act together.  The child will soon be turning thirty.

                I don’t carry placards.

 

August, 1978

Mason City, Iowa

            In the summer of 1978, taking advantage of Greyhound’s Ameripass, which allowed unlimited travel in the US and Canada for two months for $265, I travelled from Minneapolis/St. Paul to our four corners of the US.  On a Friday afternoon in August, I boarded a bus in Minneapolis, planning to travel south to Dallas, Texas, then west to California, up the West Coast to Seattle, and across the upper tier of states to home.

            The first stop was Mason City, Iowa, about 130 miles south of the Cities (which is what the  so-called Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are called for hundreds of miles around).  Mason City was the birthplace of Meredith Wilson and inspired his play The Music Man.  It’s a few miles from the interstate to the bus station in town.  As the bus pulled into the station, I hoped the stop would be short.  I was not inclined to step off the bus, it being August and unbearably hot and humid.  Within minutes, I thought we might be there forever.         

            Out the window, I could see inside the station a Marine, huddled with a number of other people.  I watched impatiently as they chatted, appearing in no hurry to get on the bus.  I thought they were holding us up, when in fact the bus was probably ahead of schedule.

            Finally, the driver climbed on the bus and the group came out of the station.  The impeccably dressed Marine was accompanied by two young men and members of their families.  The latter paused for hugs and handshakes, the women only half successful at holding back their tears, the men obviously more accustomed to doing so.  The Marine shook hands with the two young men and they stepped onto the bus.

            Both young men were handsome and athletic looking.  Though neither would have stuck out in a crowd, they projected the modesty and wholesomeness associated with folks of the Heartland.        

            They took the front seats by the door.  I was seated in the second seat on the other side of the aisle.  The door closed, the bus backed up and pulled into the street.  For the next few minutes, roughly until we were back on US 18, headed toward the Interstate, the young men remained silent, then began to talk quietly.  Ten or fifteen minutes down the Interstate, their conversation trailed off, and for seemed a very long time they remained silent again.

            The bus was hardly half full and it was quiet.  For miles upon miles upon miles, the only scenery consisted of corn fields, pleading to be harvested.  Best bring a good book or magazine along or doze off.  Even the beauty of a countryside can begin to wear on a person.

            I knew the young men were headed for basic training with the Marines in San Diego.  Had I not changed buses in Oklahoma City and headed to Dallas, I might have accompanied them most of the way.  We might have struck up conversation.  We might even have been in touch after the trip.

            But that might have diminished the poignancy of my observing them that afternoon, or caused it to be lost forever.  I remember vividly the impression that Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken made on me, when I was just 15 years old.  A copy remains on my desk to this day.  The big Midwestern sky, the gathering late afternoon clouds, caused me to wonder what lay ahead for those two young men.  A gifted novelist, playwright or film director would have captured the scene on the bus.  I struggle to put it into words.

            In 2001, I had occasion to drive through Mason City on a Friday afternoon in August.  I looked everywhere for what might have been the Greyhound station - fully aware that cross country travel by bus was a thing of the past.  I stopped at a supermarket and asked a number of people where the bus station was or had been.  It seemed strange that people old enough to know couldn’t remember a place I recalled so vividly.  Finally, almost offhand, a cashier remarked that there was hamburger joint down the street.  “It’s called The Depot.”  The place had undergone considerable reconstruction and not aged well.

            “Hmm,” I thought to myself, and drove away disappointed.  What did I expect?  Time and history are cruel, even in Mason City, Iowa, and Gary, Indiana.  Gary, Indiana…

            All these years later, I wonder about those two young men – now in their 50s.  Did they marry happily?  Did they see the world?  Did they go into combat?  Did they go back to Iowa?  Did they….?

          

Robert Frost (1874–1963).  Mountain Interval.  1920.

 The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

         

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


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Sixth Sunday of Easter 2013

            There is a candy store in Orange County.  It’s named O’Malley’s but it appears to be owned by Mr. Nguyen.  At any rate, the store features an array of delightful chocolates.  My favorite – on those very rare occasions, when I eat chocolate – is a 2”x2” bar, which costs $10.00.

 

            “$10.00 for a slab of chocolate?” you ask incredulously.  $10.00!  But that small slab will last you a week.  I defy you to have more than a sliver at a time.  I’m reminded of a cognac a friend brought home from France years ago.  As much was inhaled as was imbibed.           

Allow me to be honest.  Most of the time, I can take the Gospel According to John only a sliver at a time.  John’s gospel has always struck me as more suited to private, reflective reading than to public proclamation.  A sliver, even a sliver of a single verse, might puzzle us and call for further thought, or perhaps it so touches us that we cannot but take the time to savor it.  Then, there are those instances, it seems to me, when a gospel reading presents us with far more material than we can address in the few minutes we have, and we feel compelled to take just a sliver.  That’s the case with today’s gospel reading.       

 Jesus says to his disciples: “I have told you this while I am with you.  The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (14.25-26). 

Why did I choose this particular sliver?  Well, to be honest, since these verses have always spoken to me, I figured I could get some traction from them.  Still, my mind kept drawing a blank, until I returned to today’s first reading.  Then, wow!  

            Near the end of the reading, the Gentile Christians – in other words, those Christians who  were not Jewish and had not been raised to observe Jewish religious traditions – are told: ‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…” (Acts 15.28). 

            Immediately, I was reminded of what, on one occasion, Jesus said of the Scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders.  “They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will not lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23.2). 

            Nodding my head, I thought.  Well, I wondered, did the Holy Spirit remind the first leaders of the church of these words of Jesus?  Once more, the words of Jesus: “They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders.  The first leaders of the church: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…”

            Once I stopped nodding my head, I found myself frowning.  An eminent Catholic theologian of the 20th century dared say of the authorities of the church what Jesus said of the Scribes and Pharisees: “They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will not lift a finger to move them.” 

            For all too many people, this is their perception and, indeed, their experience of the church.  We cannot be, we must not be, such a church.  Once more, the words of the first leaders of the church: “‘It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…”

            Wait a minute!  The last time I checked circumcision was not peripheral to the Jewish Law.  It’s not as if male converts to Judaism were told: “Dude, it would be nice if you got yourself circumcised.”  Circumcision was considered essential, an indispensable expression of one’s identity as a member of God’s people, yet the first leaders of the Christian church, circumcised Jews themselves, appear to dismiss it as an unnecessary burden.

            No me digas!  [Don’t even say that!]

            “The church can’t budge on this,” or, “The church can’t budge on that,” we’re told.  According to today’s first reading, the church is more than capable of budging and capable of much more than budging. 

            The Spirit must have reminded the first leaders of the church of how often Jesus budged – from one table to another, as he dined with tax collectors and sinners 

            Truth be told, the church is more than capable of budging.  It’s capable of quantum leaps.

            The church, of course, is all of us, and that’s where the budging begins.  In our family.  In our work place.  In school.          

            At the very least, as an octogenarian Claretian colleague, a Doctor of Canon Law and an eminently pastoral priest, says, “Absolutely never should a priest say, ‘there’s nothing we can do’”.  Neither should the rest of us.

                         

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[I first read this piece in 1999.  It’s remained among a small stack of materials I’ve saved.  I hope it speaks to others as strongly as it has to me.]

 

God’s Reign as Jesus’ Madness

            This was the vision for which Jesus lived and died.  As Thomas Sheehan has written, God’s reign was Jesus’ madness.

 

He celebrated it with anyone who would

join him at table, declared everyone free in its name, broke all rules that stood in its  way, and finally gave up his life for it – or

rather, gave up his life to save the only thing he lived for.  (The First Coming [Random House Vintage Books, 1988], 67)

 

     Jesus did not define God’s reign or explain precisely what it meant.  Rather, he enacted it by the way he lived and explained its meaning by becoming, in his body, all that God’s reign stands for.  Conversion, Jesus knew, can happen only if our usual religious expectations are subverted, reversed, spun around and turned upside down.  So he preached in parables, pithy stories that sound pious – until they suddenly turn on you with the force of a tornado. 

            Think for a moment about the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13.31-2).  In Jesus’day, the wild mustard plant was, even when domesticated, widely recognized as potentially dangerous and deadly.  It reproduced so easily and spread so rapidly that, if planted as an herb for medicinal or culinary use, it could still take over a garden and destroy it.  Left to grow wild in a grain field, it choked off all other plant life.

            The point about mustard is not that it starts small and grows big but that its bigness is not desirable, either horticulturally or agriculturally.  In other words, mustard takes over where it is not welcome or wanted; it spreads wildly out of control, attracting birds to cultivated areas where you would rather they not congregate.  And that, Jesus said, is what God’s reign is life: a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties, a pestilential nuisance you try to control and find that you cannot.

 

- Nathan Mitchell

 

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