Monthly Archives: January 2014

Be Merciful, O Lord, For We Have Sinned


David penitentBecause Jesus is often called “Son of David” in the New Testament and so many of the psalm prayers we say are attributed to David, we may tend to idealize the great king, an important figure in Jewish history. David is credited with uniting the tribes of Israel and establishing a nation with its capitol in Jerusalem. Jesus himself appealed to David’s example when his enemies accused his hungry disciples of eating grain on the Sabbath.

Yet, the long narrative we read in the Book of Samuel today and tomorrow at Mass offers a darker picture of the famous king– he was a murderer and an adulterer. David had Urriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier in his army, killed so that he could have Bathsheba, his wife. (2 Samuel 11, 1-17)

Psalm 51 is the response we make at Mass after listening to the king’s sordid deed. Tradition says it’s David’s own response when he realized what he had done. The Book of Psalms calls Psalm 51: “A psalm of David when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
And of my sin cleanse me.”

The psalm, the first of the Seven Penitential Psalms, asks God to take away both the personal and social effects of our sin, for our sins do indeed have emotional, physical and social consequences. Only God can “wash away” our guilt and cleanse our heart. Only God can “rebuild” the walls that our sins have torn down and the lives they have harmed. Only God can restore joy to our spirits and help us “teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you.” Only God can bring us back to his friendship.

In the scriptures, David is a complex figure– a saint and a sinner. He’s really a reflection of us all. That’s why our response in the psalm at Mass today takes the form that it does –

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

The Galilee of the Gentiles

We’re beginning to read from the Gospel of Matthew at Sunday Mass and we’ll read from it most Sundays till the First Sunday of Lent in early March. Today ‘s reading from Matthew is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. (Matthew 4, 12-23)

It’s after his baptism in the Jordan; John the Baptist has been arrested and Matthew says that Jesus goes to Galilee, which he calls the “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where people “sit in darkness.” Jesus will bring them light. It’s a land “overshadowed by death.” Jesus will bring it life.

This is not just a description of the past, as if his miracles, his teachings and his great works are only for that time. Jesus lives for all time, and so we’re the Galilee he comes to now; we’re the people who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.

I just buried a cousin of mine last week. He was a few years ahead of me and I learned a lot from him in life, but in these last few months he taught me and his children and a good many other about the “art of dying.”

Not much said about that art these days. I doubt the subject can be found in the “How To” section in the bookstores. It used to be a subject for spiritual writers centuries ago, but not any more. Might be a good one to look at today.

Here’s the homily I preached for my cousin Bill last Saturday.

Bill O’Donnell

+January 19, 2014

“He’s your cousin, your first cousin. His name is Bill. He’s my brother Bill’s youngest son. He’s an O’Donnell, and that was my name before I got married.”

I don’t know when my mother told me that. Maybe 70 years ago. But it was important, because I learned I belonged to a family. I was a few years younger than Bill O’Donnell, and we belonged to the same family. We lived in the same house growing up. He and his brother and mother and father lived on the 1st floor at 335 Boulevard in Bayonne, NJ and I lived with my mother and sister and Aunt Mae on the 2nd floor.

We went to the same schools, the same church; we knew the same neighbors and had some of the same friends. We played together on the streets and in the parks as kids. The kids called him “Binker.” I’ve never figured out what the name meant, except that there were so many O’Donnells around they needed a name to distinguish him from the others.

You learn a lot growing up together. We don’t realize how much. Bill taught me how to play Pinochle, one summer, I remember. We learned from the same people and in the same environment. We both owe a lot those who raised us.

Bill’s father was very much like him, maybe a bit quieter. He was a hard worker who often worked the night shift at one of the oil refineries in Bayonne. In the summer before he would go to work I would sometimes sit on the porch with him and we’d talk about the New York Giants (before they left for the coast) and sports. He was an easy man to talk to, a good man to be around. For one thing, I think he taught me how to read the box scores in the paper.

People lived close to each other then: they walked to the store or church, or to see their friends or family. When they walked by our house, Bill’s father knew them all; he talked to them all and they talked to him. You learn from someone like him how to appreciate people and how to talk to them.

Bill was like him. A hard worker, he loved his family, and he had a wonderful gift for appreciating people and knowing how to talk to them.

As I remember, the doors of that house in Bayonne were hardly ever locked. There were always cousins, or neighbors, or sometimes people you didn’t know at all in our house. Everybody was welcome. Priests were always in and out. I suppose Bill’s brother and I got interested in becoming priests meeting them.

The O’Donnells believed the bigger the crowd in your house the better. In business terms I guess you would say they believed in mergers and acquisitions. And so when Bill brought Mary White around, they knew they had a good thing. It was the perfect merger and acquisition. Not only did you get Mary, but you got her nine brothers and their wives and all their kids too.

Whenever I visit the O’Donnells now, too infrequently I’m afraid, I feel connected to those old days. Maybe it’s because Mary has every family picture ever taken over the years on the walls of their house. But really, it’s because of the values there– love of family, love of children, love for others. Bill exemplified that love, a love good for any time and place.

He had the art of living; you could say; he loved life. I’m sure his greatest wish would be that his family pass that love on to their children and their children’s children.

But besides the art of living, Bill showed us another art these last months, and that was the art of dying. Today, some of the most difficult issues we face are end of life issues–medical decisions, decisions about health care. But at the heart of these issues is how we face death and how we leave this life.

As his health declined and his strength began to slip away, Bill had to know his life was coming to an end; it was plain to see. His weeks at St. Mary’s Home, for all the wonderful care he received, were not going to bring him home. He was going to another home.

And so he gave himself, with the little strength he had, to giving thanks, to everyone who came to see him, for everything that was done for him, the smallest thing– he gave them thanks. He left this world giving thanks. Giving thanks seems to be a key to the art of dying.

But Bill also left this world with faith, a faith that was underneath the way he lived and was with him in the way he died. Life was changing for him, not ending. What ever we saw as we watched his wasted body, his withdrawal and increasing silence, life was changing for him, not ending. That’s the great statement of faith. “I believe in life everylasting.”

His daughter Nancy told me her father said to Fr. Hart at the nursing home. “Do I have to say all these prayers?” He had one of his cousin’s prayer books on his night table. “No, you don’t have to say all those prayers,” Fr. Hart told him, “ just think about them.”

I’m sure that’s what he did. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Think of it: another world beyond this, another home whose doors are never closed, another family waiting for us, another life that will never end, a Father who loves us all. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said.

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Think about it: Now is the time to give thanks, to give and to love, and do it with all your heart. The hour of death is God’s time, the time to say “your will be done,” to accept God’s call and to go into the beautiful unknown.

Thanks, Bill.

Paul in Sin City

I usually look first at the gospel when I look over the readings for Sunday Mass, but today I’m looking at Paul’s brief introduction to his First Letter to the Corinthian, which we’ll be reading from the next few weeks at Sunday Mass.

Paul wrote a number of letters to the Corinthians, the Christian community he founded after reaching Corinth about the year 50. It was the most exasperating community Paul dealt with, but the Corinthians made him think about faith, so we can thank them for keeping Paul on his toes.

Corinth was a rich, sprawling seaport, being rebuilt as Paul arrived, a frontier city attracting ambitious people from all over the Roman world. They were people who wanted to get ahead, many of them were building large homes for themselves from the money they were making. Corinth was a city of “self-made” people; only the tough survived there. It also was a big center for prostitution and sexual commerce. Today we would call it a “sin” city.

That may be one reason why Paul wanted to establish a church there. He was chosen by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles and bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. Where could that be better done than from a seaport with connections to the whole world. He also thought that if Christianity could take root there, it could take root anywhere.

When Paul came to Corinth around the year 50 AD, he did what anybody has to do when they go to a new place– find a place to stay and get a job. He stayed in the house of Prisca and Aquila, a Jewish Christian couple who owned a small shop in Corinth. He worked as a tentmaker in their shop. As he worked he met people, and Paul spoke to them of Jesus Christ, and they believed.

Then on the Sabbath in the synagogue he made contacts too, but I think Paul probably did most of his preaching when he was working. A lot of things can happen when you are working.

To form new believers, Paul asked some of his friends with large houses to hold meetings there. A lot of things happen in homes that don’t happen in church.

Paul generally founded a church and moved on. But when he moved on, troubles often started in many of those communities, so sometimes he wrote them letters, and sometimes he had to come back himself to try to straighten things out. There were a number of grave problems in the church at Corinth. The church was split into factions, based on wealth, status and friendship. It also was confused about sexual morality.

Paul reminded the Corinthians where they came from and who they were. Not many of you were wise or well-born, he told them. God chooses the weak things. God still does.

Be Little Children

363px-Virgin_salus_populi_romaniOn Tuesday at Cedarbrake Retreat Center in Belton, Texas, I gave a presentation on the icon of Mary in Saint Mary Major in Rome, the oldest icon of Mary in Rome. Mary is a disciple of Jesus, as the Cross that marks her forehead indicates. She hold in her arms her Child who is our teacher.

He calls us to be children. According to St. Leo the Great, a child of God is free from crippling anxieties, forgetful of injuries, sociable and stands wondering at all things.

Her story is told in this great pilgrim church.

Mary, Mother of Ordinary Time

Mother and ChildThe pope raised some eyebrows a month or so ago when he saw a little baby crying in its mother’s arms as he was going through the crowds in St. Peter’s Square in his pope mobile. “Give the baby something to eat, Madam,” he was reported to have said to the baby’s mother. Breast feeding in St. Peter’s Square! It seems he did the same thing last week on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Sistine Chapel when he baptized 35 infants. “If your baby is hungry, don’t be afraid to feed it,” he said to the mothers there according to reports.

In one of the magazines, an art historian wrote asking why should we be surprised at the pope’s words. Catholic artists have pictured nursing Madonnas for centuries. That’s what Mary did.

I spoke about Mary to priests on retreat from the Austin diocese this morning. We easily forget Mary’s fundamental role in the life of Jesus.

“Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” “Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.”

Her role meant more than giving him birth. The apocryphal gospels often picture Jesus as showing signs of divine powers growing up, but the church condemned them because they negate the role of Mary and Joseph and the whole extended family that raised him in Nazareth.

Mary especially raised him as his mother. She did all those things a mother does for an infant, a young child and an adolescent. She fed him and took care of his basic needs. Her motherly care embodied a spirituality that’s still fundamental for the advance of human life.

The church makes her motherly spirituality its own.

If you extrapolate Mary’s spirituality to a wider arena, as I think Pope Francis does, you have to be concerned with the children of God in our world who hunger. We have to feed them. We can’t let poverty weigh them down with worries and cares. We have to relieve global poverty.

In Mary’s image, the church is a mother.

The Long Christmas Season

1 Jn 5:5-13
Lk 5:12-16

The Christmas season closes with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus on Sunday. The season’s already ended for most people, however. The decorations are away. Valentine’s Day is coming up.

But it takes time to celebrate mysteries of God; more than a day or an hour or two. It takes time for the mysteries of God to sink in. And so we prepare for the celebration through the days of Advent. Then on Christmas Day the poor shepherds come from the dark hills to see the Child announced by the angels. A Savior is born for us, a Child is given to us. Yet, as the ancient carol says, “We scarce can take it in.”

The Feast of the Epiphany is a further reminder that the Child is the savior of all nations. He came, not just for one people, but for all. The Magi represent people far away and they bring him their greetings and gifts. Then, they leave to bring back the good news of his birth. That colorful story isn’t over; it’s still unfolding.

The Feast of the Baptism of Jesus may seem like a poor way to end the Christmas season, so far removed from the days and events of Jesus’ birth as it is. But baptism is about birth too, a birth that conquers death.

Jesus Christ “came through water and Blood,” St. John says in his First Letter today. His Spirit is given to us. It’s not enough to just look upon the mystery of the Incarnation. We’re meant to share his life, and baptism is a sign of our union with him.

We need time to understand all this, however. So the Christmas season is a long season. And we’ll celebrate again next year.