St. Paul of the Cross

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA saint’s work is never done because, like Jesus Christ, the saints reach beyond their own time and place.  They are agents of God’s plan. Their work is not finished at their death, our belief in the communion of saints reminds us, and even in old age they saw something yet to do.

They never say “The work is done,” and neither should we.

I’m reminded of a poem called “What then?” by W.B. Yeats; which he wrote as an old man at the end of a successful career filled with literary honors, financial rewards and a host of friends. You would think he’d sit down and enjoy it all, but listen to him as to him as he hears the challenge of more to do:

‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost,’What then?’

I’m sure St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of my community, the Passionists, is saying something like that from his place in heaven where he guides us still. I just finished writing a piece about him and I will write some more. He’s not done yet.See:

Today we are also launching a site on the Passion of Christ. Take a look:

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29th Sunday – Paying Taxes


To listen to the Homily please select the audio below:

In today’s gospel, the enemies of Jesus try to trap him with their question about paying taxes to Caesar. Taxes are always controversial, and they were more so in Jesus’  time. Refusing to pay them might make you a hero in people’s eyes, but your moment of glory would soon bring you the sentence of death.

Jesus’ answer squarely acknowledges the rights of a government to be supported by their people. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He seems to imply there are bigger things than paying taxes. Stay where you are, he says, you can be a revolutionary there.

Can we be revolutionaries where we are? In unfavorable times, in times as they are? And is that where Jesus asks us to follow him, in our lives as they are?

The gospels say Jesus called some like Peter, James and John to leave their lives as they were and follow him, but most of those he called remained where they were as his followers.

Think of one of the first he called, Peter’s mother in law. When he raised her from fever she got up to wait on them. She was back at her life as it was.

He told many whom he cured to go home to their lives as before. When Jesus left Jericho for Jerusalem he left behind Zachaeus, the chief tax collector, evidently still the chief tax collector but now a changed man.

And what about Mary his mother? She did not seem to follow him on his missionary journeys but remained in Nazareth until the days when her son went to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Nazareth at that time must have been a hard place to be.

Perhaps the hardest places to follow Jesus and revolutionize are where we are.


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A Wedding Garment: 28th Sun A


Scholars find this story from Matthew’s gospel difficult to understand, especially when you compare it to the same story more simply told in Luke’s gospel. (Luke 14,16-24) Both evangelists describe a banquet in which last minute rejections by those invited cause the host to send out his servants to scour the land for others to come in.

In Matthew’s account the story is directed towards the “chief priests and elders of the people,” whose refusal to accept God’s invitation through Jesus leads others to take their place. “Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find… bad and good alike.” God’s big net, cast far and wide, brings Jews and Gentiles to fill the halls of his kingdom.

But there’s a cautionary part in Matthew’s account. An invitation to God’s kingdom doesn’t mean you’re safely in and automatically saved. Seeing a guest with no “wedding garment,” the king has him thrown into the darkness outside where there’s “wailing and grinding of teeth.”

A “wedding garment” is not something you freely get and freely wear. Once called to the banquet, you have to shed your old clothes of sin and clothe yourself in goodness. There were probably people in Matthew’s church (in our church too?) who thought being a church member was an automatic ticket to heaven. Not so, you need a wedding garment, and that means living a life of faith and goodness.

Are you wearing your wedding garment today

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Martha and Luke

Martha Mary 2

Today at Mass we read the passage from Luke about the visit of Jesus to Martha and Mary.

It’ s hard for us to keep the gospels separate and let each evangelist tell his own story the way he wants, and so when we hear about Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel, we can’t help but think about the Martha and Mary in John’s gospel, who live in Bethany, whose brother Lazarus dies and Jesus will raise from the dead.

In John’s gospel Martha is the one who seems to shine, as she runs to meet Jesus and express her faith in him when her brother dies:

“’Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.’

“Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’

Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,kand everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”* lShe said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’” (John 11, 21-27)

You can’t ask for a stronger expression of faith than that.

But Luke presents the two women differently in his gospel. This is the only mention he makes of them. It’s all he tells us about them. He doesn’t even say they live in Bethany or that they have a brother named Lazarus who died and was raised.

Luke’s propose is to tell us that Jesus the prophet is making his way to Jerusalem and when he enters your house you should listen to him. That’s what Mary does, she listens to him. Martha is too concerned with taking care of things and she misses what he says.

I suppose we can say that like Martha we can get so caught up with what we’re doing that we miss what Jesus the prophet wants to say to us. We might be doing very good things, but we all need to listen more. We might be the best people, but even the best people may not listen enough.

Still, we find it hard to dismiss Martha as we listen to Luke’s gospel. St. Augustine obviously had a soft spot for her; he says that Martha cared for “Word made flesh,” who was hungry and thirsty, tired and in need of human care and support. “She longs to share what Mary enjoys, his presence, his wisdom and his gifts. And she will find her desires fulfilled.

“You, Martha, if I may say so, will find your service blessed and your work rewarded with peace. Now you are much occupied in nourishing the body, admittedly a holy one. But when you come to the heavenly homeland you will find no traveller to welcome, no one hungry to feed or thirsty to give drink, no one to visit or quarrelling to reconcile, no one dead to bury.”

“No, there will be none of these tasks there. What you will find there is what Mary chose. There we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed. What Mary chose in this life will be realized there in full. She was gathering only fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.”

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On to the Rhine


I’m going with a group on a cruise of the Rhine River leaving Wednesday. Here are a few notes about the trip for those on the cruise and those who may wish to follow us.

The Rhine River is a living history book as it winds its way 820 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.

Look for signs of Roman forts along the way. The ancient Romans tried to make the Rhine a kind of “Iron Curtain” to contain the barbarian tribes that wanted to enter the empire. They also found the fertile lands near the river good for growing grapes and other crops, so some of the forts became centers of trade, like Mainz.

After the Peace of Constantine (312 AD), Christianity brought the gospel to the lands along the Rhine. St. Boniface is an important figure. (c. 675 – 5 June 754 AD) A missionary from England he preached to the various Germanic tribes, became bishop of Mainz, and established monastic settlements along the river to fulfill his mission.


Should he be our patron for the trip? “In her voyage across the ocean of this world the church is like a ship pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship, but to keep her on course…Let us stand fast for what is right and prepare our souls for trial…Let us be neither like dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor servants who run away before the wolf.”

In the 12th century with the growth of cities majestic cathedrals, like those in Strasbourg and Cologne, were built. Castles and buildings of local rulers line the river’s banks as defenses against invaders and symbols of power.

In the 14th century, the shrines and churches of the Franciscans and the mendicant orders appear. The 16th century brought the Reformation. We hope to sample some cathedrals and churches along the river.

The Rhine was a battleground through the centuries; the last two world wars have left their mark on the lands along the river.

We land in Basel, where John Calvin wrote his “Institutes” in 1536, a defense of Protestantism which he sent to Francis 1 of France. Francis kept France Catholic, however, and Calvin fled to Geneva and made it into a key Protestant center that had influence worldwide.

I hope to reflect particularly during our trip on the Reformation and the relationship of Protestants and Catholics today. Much has changed since the stormy beginnings in the 16th century. Pope Francis recently remarked to a group of European bishops that “Speaking about God has become more and more marginal” in Europe. The pope, a strong advocate of ecumenism, hopes all Christians will come together to face the challenge.

We will see many churches and signs of its Christian past on our trip down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam, but I don’t think we’ll hear much about God or see many signs of Christian practice. Europe is increasingly secularized.

Some books that I’ll bring along on the trip.

“A Brief History of Spirituality” by Philip Sheldrake, Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Sheldrake has a wonderful gift for summarizing spiritual movements like monasticism and relating them to the world in which they take place.

“The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770” by R. Po-Chia Hsia, Cambridge University Press. The Catholic Church responds to the Reformation. A good study in social history.

“Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church” E.A. Livingstone, Oxford 1977 Just what it says: a lot of concise information about the Christian Church.

I also mentioned the Rhine trip in a previous blog:


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27th Sunday A: News from the Vineyard

For audio version of the sermon, see below:

I visited the Holy Land some months ago and stayed for five days in East Jerusalem at St. Martha’s, a house belonging to my community, the Passionists. East Jerusalem is a crowded, predominantly Muslim part of the city, but once you go through the gates of St. Martha’s you’re in a world that reminds you of Jesus.

In his time the area was called Bethany, where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts. Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus lived there. Jesus spent his last days there before he was arrested, sentenced to death, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. The traditional tomb where Lazarus was raised from the dead is only a short distance away from that house.

St. Martha’s is on a hillside of the Mount of Olives; a grove of olive trees surrounds the house and the trees still produces good oil, the priests who live there say. You can see a cave where the olives were pressed, probably dug at the time of Jesus or before. On the western end of the property are the foundations of small houses that archeologists believe go back to the time of Jesus.

When I hear Jesus using a parable about a vineyard, which he often does, I see the vineyards and olive groves of Bethany. Jesus used the world around him when he wished to teach. He’s in Jerusalem shortly before his death when he speaks this parable, Matthew’s gospel says. The olive trees and vineyards of Bethany were there before him. Likely, some of the vineyards were let out to tenant farmers who were expected to make a return to the owners at the harvest.

So Jesus explains what’s happening to him through a parable, which the Prophet Isaiah also used before him. “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.

Notice how much the owner of the vineyard did before entrusting it to the tenants. He did everything. The vineyard is a tremendous gift that he put into their hands. Then, at harvest time the tenants seize the owner’s servants who are looking for his share. Those are the prophets who came to Israel before me, Jesus is saying. They were reviled and mistreated and killed.

“Finally, he sent his son.” And they will kill me, Jesus is saying.

The parable is a stark story about the goodness of God and the ingratitude of Israel. It’s about a lack of response to the gift that was given; it’s about the failure to see that God expects a return for his gifts. “No,” the tenants say, “This belongs to us.”

We can look at the parable as Jesus’ words to the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem long ago. But suppose Jesus was here speaking to us. What would he say? Would he look around and say, “You have a beautiful church here and you come from nice homes. This is a good area; you have good roads, good schools, a lot of nice things. Are you using all this the way you should? Are you using these gifts I’ve given you?”

Maybe we would say. “This is all ours. It belongs to us. We can do what we want with it all.”

Sounds a little like the parable then, doesn’t it?


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St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

A large statue of St. Francis of Assisi with arms outstretched stands facing the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. From behind the statue, facing the basilica, it looks like the saint is holding up the church in his arms. That’s what St. Francis did: he raised up a church that was falling down

We need to see saints in the light of their times, because they answer the needs of their day. Chesterton called saints “God’s antidotes for the poison of their world”.

What was poisoning Francis’ world? Twelfth century Italy’s economy was booming and Francis was born into its new rich merchant class. As a young man he had everything money could buy, but then, as now, money can poison values.

Italy’s cities fiercely competed with one another and were often at war. A thirst for power was everywhere. It was the time of the crusades and there was a belief in settling things through force of arms.

It was a time too when the church had become weak and there was a yearning for reform. Before Francis, saints like Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and popes like Gregory VII (1015-1085) and Innocent III (1160-1216) sought renewal and change.

And so when Francis of Assisi came with twelve disciples to see the pope in Rome about reforming the church in the summer of 1220, he came at the right time. They say that the pope had a dream the night before that the Lateran Basilica, the mother church of Christendom, was falling down and a young man resembling the 28 year old Francis came to hold its walls up.

The pope asked Francis what would he do and Francis replied with three verses of scripture. The first was from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus says to the young man ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’(19,21)  The second from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus sends his disciples out saying “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.”( 9,3) The third from Matthew: Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” (16,24)

The pope, a good judge of people, sensed the grace of God in Francis and told him to live those gospel teachings and sent him on his way. Francis and his companions did that and their movement spread like fire throughout Europe.

Francis made Jesus’ teachings his own. He embraced poverty, not just by renouncing the rich lifestyle that he was born into, but by renouncing any way that led to power. For example, he never became a priest or a bishop or a pope, because they were positions of power some fought for and sometimes paid for in his day.

He did not want a monastery or a religious order as a base of power. Saints like St. Bernard and St Norbert before him thought monasticism was the way to bring about church reform, but Francis wanted a life style where you had nothing, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” He distanced himself and his movement from the religious institutions of his day, because he feared them becoming places of power.

He took the gospel teachings literally and lived them literally. His renunciation of power became an antidote to the poisonous attraction to power that crippled his world and his church. He imitated the “Son of Man” a poor man who said to his followers the “foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Like the Son of Man, who suffered and died on a cross and rose again, Francis experienced the mystery of the cross and was blessed by it.

Remembering him, we also might wonder– and maybe pray: Will God send us a saint to deal with the poison of our time?

“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.”      

T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

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