Monthly Archives: April 2009

Holy Thursday

When Jesus Christ entered the supper room to eat the Passover meal that last Thursday night, he was aware a dark fate awaited him. Powerful forces were drawn up against him ready to take his life. His enemies were moving to stop him.

Beside him were his disciples, “his own who were in the world.” Arguing among themselves as they took their place at table, they gave him little support. Not only did Jesus face their pettiness, he also sensed their impending betrayal of him.

What would he do? Understandably he might respond with caution and draw back. Like the servant, whom Isaiah described, he might well say, “I toiled in vain; and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength…” (Is. 49).

Jesus, however, took bread and gave it to his disciples. “Take this,” he said, “this is my body.” He took the cup and gave it to them. “This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, to be poured out in behalf of many.”

That night, without wariness or regret, he gave himself in love to his Father and his disciples. As Savior and Redeemer he gave himself unhesitatingly for the life of the world.

We remember that love each time we celebrate the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament which makes a supper room of every time and place. Until the end of time, the sacrament says, Jesus Christ will offer his body and blood for all.


Lord Jesus,
once in the wilderness
your people ate heavenly manna
and they were filled.
And once in a desert place
you fed the hungry
with blessed bread.

A simple thing, we say,
costing our mighty God
litte effort.

But what if bread is
a body offered for all,
and a cup of wine
your own life-blood
given to those who hardly care?

A costly thing, we say,
Is there anything more
God could have done?
Anything more
Love could do
than lay down his life
for his friends?

Black Money Crucified My Lord

Holy Week is usually a time to turn away from the world and return to the mystery of Jesus Christ who died and rose again nearly 2,000 years ago.

But we should forget our present world as we celebrate Holy Week?  If we do, we may fail to understand what this mystery is really about.

Last night on PBS’s Frontline, there was a story about international bribery called “Black Money,” a sordid tale of bribes by international corporations and governments paid secretly to powerful individuals and government officials to get deals done.

International treaties have been signed against the practice, of course, but when the “national interest” or the “corporation’s interest” is a stake, people find ways to evade the law.

Petty thieves may get 10 years or more in prison for breaking into a store; governments and corporations mostly get off free for  enormous crimes of bribery.

Jesus died for the sins of the world. Doesn’t this kind of sin, which produces a chain of other injustices, have a place in his death? Herod and Pilate, the powerful clique in charge of the temple in Jerusalem were also “there when they crucified my Lord.”

If Jesus was stood up against them when he died, shouldn’t we stand up to this world of injustice?

End of a Mission

Just finished conducting a parish mission at Immaculate Conception Parish Melbourne Beach, Florida. I’m always impressed with the people you meet in an ordinary parish like this. Here’s where believers meet.

How much power they have! Literally, those I talked to this week reach around the world. I tried to help them realize their potential by pointing out just one thing: they’re reaching out across the world already on the internet, which most of them use.

So I asked them to use their parish website and this blog as a way of thinking together about the gift of faith they’ve been given. We have to stir up the gift of faith we’ve been given, together. It will make us at home in the world we live in and thirst for the world still to come.

Some parishioners took me to a wonderful play on Sunday afternoon in the neighboring parish. It’s called “Miracles,” about the miracles of Jesus, told in gospel songs. Beautifully done, by hometown talent.

I hope they keep doing that kind of thing. We need artists to help us imagine our faith and point out its beauty. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful idea to combine a play like that with a parish mission, I thought. Maybe some day.

We need to think about our faith as well as approach it imaginatively.
For thinking about faith, I’ve found some books helpful. Here they are:

What Happened at Vatican II, John W. O’Malley, SJ, Cambridge, Mass, 2008
A fine explanation of Vatican II and its blueprint for the future of the Catholic Church.

The Faithful. A History of Catholics in America.  James M. O’Toole, Cambridge, Mass. 2008
A interesting look at the church in America from Colonial days till the present.

A Secular Age, Charles Taylor, Cambridge, Mass  2007
Hard to get into, maybe, but for me it’s the best explanation of the times we live in now.

United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, US Bishops, Washington, 2006
A good modern catechism. In the mission I used the catechism’s approach, which introduced doctrine through the lives of saints and people of faith.

Besides books, there are blogs. It’s getting harder to keep up on things as magazines and newspapers, both secular and religious, decline. Cable news is so often shallow. But here are a few blogs of Catholic interest that I follow. If you know any more let me know.

http://cnsblog.wordpress.com/ Catholic News Service
http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/ The Jesuits, God bless them
http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/ Laypeople write this one
http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/ Plenty of Roman stuff from Rocco

Palm Sunday

The liturgy, following the chronology of John’s gospel, records Jesus’ entering into Jerusalem, the Holy City, city of prophets and kings, site of God’s temple, just before Jesus’ passion and death.

Crowds excited by the news of Lazarus raised from the dead welcomed him. Some were natives of Jerusalem, some pilgrims for the Passover from other parts of the world, some his disciples now convinced of his extraordinary power. Most misunderstood him still.

“God save the Son of David!” they cried, casting coats and palm branches before him as he approached the city gates. They wanted a new David to breathe life into their nation. Wearing David’s mantle he could liberate them this Passover, the feast of Jewish liberation.

John’s gospel records that Jesus rejected the call to be their warrior king. Mounting a young donkey, he rode into Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of Zephaniah: “Fear not, Daughter of Sion, your king is coming, mounted on a donkey’s colt.”

Not a fearsome warrior, he was the humble king the prophet described. In Jerusalem he would open his arms to the poor outcasts of the world..

“At the time his disciples did not understand this…” John concludes.

And do we yet understand,
Lord Jesus,
as the year go by
and we hear the story again?

Can a poor man on a donkey
dying like a slave
succeed?

We like success so much,
the kind you feel and touch
and put your hands on
right away.

What success
can anyone find
in a Cross?

Or is there success
in faithfulness?
When you can say:
“Your will be done!”
“Father, forgive them.”

Like the two from Emmaus
we hope for easy gain.
Come walk at our side,
and tell us what matters most,
O Lord.

Mission: Wednesday Evening–Elizabeth Seton

St. Elizabeth Seton

Here’s a biography of Mother Seton: http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/

How can she help us see Jesus today?

1. She tells us to seek God faithfully day by day.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (pages 1-8) offers her as an example of the human quest for God. “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” (Augustine, Confessions)

In the changing times and circumstances of her 46 years of life, Elizabeth Seton followed God’s call, from the loneliness of her youth, to the prosperity of her life as a happily married woman with a good husband and five children, to the suffering of financial loss and her husband’s death, to the search to serve a small church that became her spiritual home. She thirsted for God and sought to do his will.

Life changes for us too. We face an unknown future, not only personally, but as a world and as a church. Elizabeth Seton says to us: find God as you go through life.

2. Find God in the world you live in.

Elizabeth Seton was born into a privileged world. Her father, Richard Bayley (1744-1801), was a distinguished physician who taught medicine at Kings College, later Columbia University, and was first Health Officer of the Port of New York.

Dedicated to medicine and medical research, he traveled back and forth to England to learn the latest in his field. He was a health-care crusader, who fought against diseases like yellow fever that regularly infested the city, especially its vulnerable immigrant population.

Her husband William Seton was part of a family that made its fortune in banking and shipping. Elizabeth and her husband belonged to a world that included Alexander Hamilton and other members of the America’s elite. She enjoyed the cultural and social benefits status brought her.

William’s shipping interests gained the family a fortune, but shipping was a risky business and just as easily could collapse and bring financial disaster. In 1802, it did.

From great wealth the Setons were plunged into bankruptcy. Elizabeth sought to bolster her husband, now failing in health, by a sea voyage to Italy to visit some business friends, the Filicchis, in Livorno.

Her husband died in the quarantine station in Livorno, with Elizabeth and her little daughter at his side; Elizabeth was left a widow with no financial resources.

What spiritual resources did she have to draw upon?

A childhood loneliness led her to look to God for support. She found God in the beauties of nature and in devotional books that she found comfort in.

The church to which she looked for support was Trinity Church in downtown New York City. The Bayleys and Setons were Anglicans, and Trinity Church, with its annex St. Paul’s Church, was the parish church of the city’s elite.

In her time the Anglican Church in America was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, a movement that put its hopes in human reason and science.

By the later colonial period, writes Anglican historian, David L. Holmes “Following the lead of the left wing of the Enlightenment (of which Benjamin Franklin represents a prime example), large numbers of Anglican gentry came to believe that reason and science provided all-sufficient guides for believing in God and living morally; any special revelation that occurred through Scripture, they decided, was superfluous or in need of radical pruning. They were intent on returning humanity to a primitive natural religion consisting in belief in the existence of God and a simple morality.” (A Brief History of the Episcopal Church , Valley Forge, PA 1993 p 40)

Alexander Pope expressed the opinion famously:

Know thyself,
Presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

Elizabeth’s father and her husband were men of the Enlightenment, who were completely absorbed in their careers and their business. Revealed religion, prayer,  were not important to them.

Elizabeth said that the only time she heard her father mention the name of God was on his deathbed.  She complains that her husband Will never shared in her own religious insights, until he came to die in Italy.

The two men most dear to her belonged to the church, regularly attended its services, but saw it mainly as an institution for upholding moral principles rather than as a place of God’s revelation.

However, as a married woman, here in Trinity Church, Elizabeth’s spiritual life grew. A new assistant minister, John Henry Hobart, came to Trinity in 1800 and he brought a reforming movement that gradually influenced the Anglican church.  In the mid 1800’s it’s most prominent expression was the Oxford Movement, one of whose leaders was John Henry Newman.

Reverend Hobart lead Elizabeth to a life of daily prayer, the reading of scripture, a devotion to Jesus Christ, and a life of charity, helping widows and orphans from Trinity church.

Today we still experience the effects of the Enlightenment. Commentators say we living in an age of secularization. (Charles Taylor, An Age of Secularization, Harvard University, 2002) One of our greatest challenges today is to engage those who, like Richard Bayley and William Seton, are deeply involved in the world, but have little interest in any revelation of God or in church.

Elizabeth and Catholicism

After the death of her husband in Livorno the Filicchi family took Elizabeth and her little daughter into their home there and treated her with exquisite kindness. They were devout Catholics and invited their American guests to church with them. The liturgy of the church was a revelation to Elizabeth, especially the Mass. She wrote home to a friend:

“How happy we would be, if we believed what these dear souls believe–that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick…O God! How happy I would be…if I could find You in the church as they do…”

The Catholic Church, which was only a poor tiny congregation in her native New York, suddenly became for her a place that revealed Jesus Christ.

When she returned to New York City, she decided, against the strong objections of her friends and family, to become a Catholic.

In his history of the Catholic Church in the United States, “A Faithful People” (2008) James O’Toole describes the Catholic Church that Elizabeth Seton entered in 1805 as a “priestless, popeless” congregation, held together by believers who kept the Catholic faith alive in their homes and through occasional visits from the few priests that had come to the New World.

It was a “popeless church” because the popes of the late 18th and early 19th century struggled under the crushing control of Europe’s monarchs and could pay little attention to the faithful at the far ends of the earth.

It is extraordinary that Elizabeth Seton would enter the Catholic Church at this time, with few resources, few members and largely seen as a suspect religion in American eyes.

Can we in a declining American church today, as priests become fewer and parishes close, find her faith in the church an example?

After a few hard years as a Catholic in New York City, Elizabeth was invited by Bishop John Carroll to go to Maryland, where there were more Catholics to establish a school and support her family.

Elizabeth’s years in Maryland marked the beginning of a new period in American Catholic history. Not only did she establish a small school, but she began a community of religious women, the Sisters of Charity. Eventually her community, joined by others, would establish networks of schools, hospitals and social endeavors that became the backbone of the church in America.

As millions of Catholic immigrants arrived in America in the mid 1800’s  growing numbers of women religious welcomed them to the Catholic Church and formed the great immigrant church that became the face of Catholicism in America. American women religious were at the heart of a growing church. We owe them an enormous debt.

Elizabeth Seton invites us to look at our own role in the world we live in and in our church. She was a woman of prayer and we invites us to be people of prayer. So many of her decisions came through prayer. Ours must come through prayer too.

She reminds us that our quest for God takes place in the life and the world where God places us. We live in a secularized world; how do we engage it? We live in a changing church; how do we help it fulfill its divine destiny? As children of the church we must draw close to her .

This is our time to seek God.

Telling the Truth in Dangerous Places

The two places recalled in today’s Mass readings are dangerous places for telling the truth. The three young men in Babylon tell the truth in the hearing of a king who wants all to bow down to him. They remain loyal to their God and they are thrown into a fiery furnace, but God keeps them unharmed.

Jesus speaks the truth in the temple in Jerusalem. His message is inflammatory, according to the temple leaders. They would rather he be silent or go somewhere else, preferably back to some little village in Galilee. But he speaks his truth and tells them they are not children of Abraham, but people looking after their own interests. Their dialogue as recorded in John’s gospel still crackles with controversy.

Jesus will be sent to death, but God will raise him up.

From what we know about the Jewish temple at that time it does seem like a place where you had to watch what you said. Though the Romans kept Judea on a loose leash, they didn’t like rebellions. Their representatives in the area were not the best  administrators then–Pontius Pilate really wasn’t good at managing Herod or his Jewish subjects. Historians say he was incompetent.

In the late 60’s some young Jewish leaders attached to the temple would massacre a detachment of Roman soldiers and bring Titus and his legions into Judea to level the temple and Jerusalem itself.

The temple was a volatile place; the temple area today still is. Martin Goodman’s book, Rome and Jerusalem, tells the story of the sad tale of Jerusalem’s destruction and the events that led up to it.

But we still have to speak the truth at dangerous times and places. Yes, even today. Not everyplace or everybody wants to hear it. Don’t mention things like the need for addressing the inequalities that exist in our world in some places.  How can we make sure people everywhere have enough to eat and drink and a place to live? How can we respect human life, from birth to death? How can we deal with the climate change? How can we live together as a human family in our world?

You can’t speak about issues like this in some places, even some of our churches. But if Jesus offers an example, we should.