Monthly Archives: September 2009

Shepherds for Changing Times

I’m going to Scranton today to discuss with Fr. Cassian Yuhaus some material on Fr. Theodore Foley, who is being proposed as a candidate for canonization. Someone asked me yesterday, “Why him?”

I said he was a man devoted to the common good and devoted to the future of the church and his community at a time when it looked as though everything was falling apart–the 1960’-70s.  He was thoroughly grounded in the past, personally conservative in his thinking and in his habits of life, yet willing to engage others and trust in them and their ideas.  He trusted in God’s plan when it was hardly visible.

In a time of “expressive individualism” he believed in the basic institutions that support so much of our lives and he gave himself to shepherd them through dark valleys of change.

We need people like him today. Shepherds for changing times. It’s a holy, saintly task.

The Cross in Dark Waters

There’s a story in the NYTimes today about the writer, Neil Sheehan, whose book “ A Fierce Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon,” a history of the arms race between America and Russia, will be published tomorrow.  He’s described as “an extremely patient bat” who works long and hard, mostly at night, without research assistants, at his writing.

Sheehan’s book has been 15 years in the making.

What attracted me most were Sheehan’s remarks at the end of the article.

“I really felt I was casting light in darkness. I have a habit of going to church on Good Friday and saying a prayer that I’ll be able to cast light in what I write. And in this case I felt I was writing about a period of history that had been overlooked, and now enough time had passed that we could begin to look at it clearly.”

It takes awhile to throw light on issues like the arms race, which cast its dark shadow on so much of our world since the Second World War. It looks like Sheehan is prompted by the mystery of Good Friday to do it.

Yesterday the Greek churches in our area gathered on the Jersey Shore to participate in the beautiful ceremony in which their bishop takes a cross and casts it into the dark waters of the ocean and waits till it’s retrieved by young divers. It’s part of their celebration of the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, September 14th.

The Cross brings a powerful blessing to the darkest of waters.

Learning like children, part 2

Sometimes you hear that religious formation is nice, but other things are too. It’s  more important that kids take ballet lessons or learn to play soccer. There’s not time for everything.

Think about that. What’s one of the most important issues of our day? I think health care might be one of them. Where do children learn about health care, an issue that will affect them all their lives?

From parents? In a social studies class in school? From a talk show on the radio or television?

I think our own religious tradition has a lot to say on this matter. Look at Jesus. The gospel says clearly that he reached out to those in need, and taught his followers to do the same. It was one of the most important lessons he taught. He cured the sick and sent them home again. The gospels we hear every Sunday tell stories again and again of his concern for those in need.

We don’t have to go back to the times of the bible, however, to see his teaching.  Look at the strong tradition our church in this country has in health care. There are over 2,000 Catholic health systems, facilities and related organizations in the United States now.  Almost 13% of the hospitals in the United States are sponsored by the Catholic Church.

It was especially for the needs of the poor that so many of them were begun. Think of great Catholic figures who founded these hospitals and charitable works. Mother Cabrini, for example, an Italian immigrant woman who came to this country in 1889 and by the time of her death in 1917 had founded 67 institutions for the poor, among them a number of hospitals.

They say that when she went to visit a bishop looking for money in one of the many cities where she wanted to founded a hospital,  the bishop said to her, “Mother, what am I going to tell the bankers.” She said to him, “You talk to the bankers, I’ll talk to God.”

I think our children should learn about health care from Jesus Christ, from Mother Cabrini, from Mother Teresa rather than from some loud-mouth on the radio. They need to learn about this more than they do ballet or soccer.

Learning like children

The catechical programs are beginnning in many parishes these days. Circumstances for formation in faith are so different  for young people today than they were in my day.

I was raised in a Catholic neighborhood, in a Catholic school and in a Catholic family. My youth revolved around our church and our parish. The Catholic faith was in the air I breathed.

Today’s so different. We live in a pluralist society, with people who have many different ways of seeing life. Our schools are pluralistic; they try to present things fairly, without favoring one philosophy or way of looking at things over another.

To get along today you have to respect everyone’s point of view.

One weakness of pluralism, however, is that you don’t pursue your own spiritual tradition or draw from its wisdom. You can get lost in a world of many ideas and never follow one of them. You listen to the latest teachers and watch for the newest trends.

Or, worst still, you end up listening only to yourself and what you think and what you want.

Our Catholic spiritual tradition comes from Jesus Christ. We believe he is the Son of God, who came to teach us the way to live here on earth and to prepare us for a life to come. He is God with us, our Teacher, our Guide, our Companion all our days. He is the great sign of God’s love.

He is more important than Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Oprah, or the latest celebrity at the top of the charts.

To know him, to love him and to be like him is the most important thing we can do in life. He’s the Rock on whom we stand; the Bread that feeds us; the Love that dies for us.

In Sunday’s gospel (Mark 9,30-37)  Jesus tells his disciples to become like little children and learn from him. Young or old, we’re all called to do that.

The Triumph of the Cross


The Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross (September 14) originated in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus died and rose again. An immense throng of Christians gathered on September 13, 335 A.D. to dedicate a church built by the Emperor Constantine over the empty tomb of Jesus and the place where he was crucified– Golgotha.

The resplendent church, one of the world’s largest, was called the Anastasis (Resurrection), or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. From then on, Christian pilgrims from all over the world flocked there to see where Jesus was buried and where he died.

Until the Moslem conquest in the 7th century, vast crowds of bishops, priests, monks, men and women from all over the Roman empire continued to come annually to celebrate the feast, which went on for 8 days. It was Holy Week and Easter in September. One visitor, Egeria, a widely-traveled 4th century nun, said the celebration recalled the Church’s dedication, but also the day when “the Cross of the Lord was found here.”

Many Christian denominations continue to celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross on September 14th.

Visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City today see a smaller, shabby successor to Constantine’s great church, which was largely destroyed in 1009 AD by the insane Moslem caliph al-Hakim and was only half rebuilt in the 11th century by the Crusaders. Today the church bears the scars of sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires, and natural disasters.

The scars of a divided Christendom also appear in the church, where various Christian groups, upholding age-old rights, warily guard their own turf. Visitors have to wonder: Does this place proclaim the great mystery that unfolded here?

Like our reaction to the sacraments, we ask Is This All There Is? It takes time to discover the Cross and its triumph.

The Mystery of the Cross

Mark’s gospel (Mk 8, 27-35) describes a journey that Jesus and his disciples made from the town  of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee– an area predominantly Jewish– to the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, about 25 miles to the north.

The town of Caesarea Phillipi and its surroundings stood at the foot of Mount Hermon where many of the sources of water for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. In Jesus’ time it was also a gentile region where Roman and Greek gods were honored and, as its name indicates, Caesar and Roman power proclaimed.

As he often does, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in a center of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” His disciples name powerful Jewish figures:  John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod, and Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel. Some compared Jesus to them.

However, Peter, speaking for the disciples, goes beyond these Jewish heros. “You are the Christ,” he says, more powerful than the prophets and certainly more powerful than the figures honored at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.

In response, Jesus tells him he is a suffering Messiah, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, will suffer death and rise again. The scriptures had announced a Messiah like this: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” (Isaiah 50)

When Peter rejects this description of the Messiah and tells Jesus to abandon it, Jesus calls him “Satan,” someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.

We’re not far from Peter’s thinking, human beings that we are. The mystery of the cross is hard for us to accept, whether we see it in Jesus or in ourselves or in the unfolding events of our time.

We celebrate the triumph of the Cross tomorrow, September 14th.

Peter Damian


Last Wednesday the pope spoke of St. Peter Damian, the 11th century saint  from Ravenna, Italy, who was later named cardinal bishop of Ostia, the port of Rome.

Though Peter was drawn to the silence of the monastic life, he was called to work for the reform of the church, which suffered then from abuses resulting from lay investiture. In many places, bishops, abbots, pastors appointed by lay patrons weren’t fit for the job, and the church suffered from the immorality and lack of leadership the practice brought on.

Pope Benedict stressed Peter Damian’s dedication to the mystery of the cross. The hermitage that he loved was dedicated to Holy Cross. He wrote, “He does not love Christ who does not love the cross of Christ,” and he called himself: ” Peter servant of the servants of the cross of Christ.”

He saw the cosmic dimensions of this mystery in the  history of salvation.  “O blessed cross, you are venerated in the faith of patriarchs, the predictions of prophets, the assembly of the apostles, the victorious army of the martyrs and the multitudes of all the saints.”

Peter Damian also saw the cosmic dimensions of the cross in the struggles of his own time, it seems. He wanted a quiet, contemplative life. But he couldn’t just  lose himself in the beauty of contemplation, the pope says. He had “to assist in the work of renewal of the Church,” and the mystery of the cross gave him strength to do it.

I was noticing the cross on top of the church across the way, looking down on the crowded streets below. The mystery’s here too.