Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mary White O’Donnell

I gave this funeral homily at a church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where my cousin was buried today……….

The Catholic Church ended the first phase of its Synod on the Family a few months ago, and now Pope Francis wants to hear from the church throughout the world how marriage and family life can be strengthened and understood. If Mary and Bill O’Donnell were alive today I would have suggested to Pope Francis to talk to them, because I thought they knew more about family life than any priest or bishop or (forgive me if this seems irreverent) even the pope himself.

Mary and Bill didn’t write books or give lectures, they weren’t self-proclaimed experts, but they were living books on marriage and the family. If you watched them you learned a lot.

Whenever I visited 5 Farmhouse Lane, I often spent a few minutes looking at the big wall of pictures that Mary created in the room where she and Bill would sit in their later years, watching television, waiting for the phone to ring or the door to open. Some were old pictures of the White and O’Donnell families, lots of wedding pictures, pictures of baptisms and plenty of pictures of kids. The pictures stretched through generations, the latest usually were stuck on the refrigerator in the kitchen or near the telephone.

For Mary those pictures represented the treasures of her life. They were what she loved and gave her life to. She had a story for each of them, and she was a wonderful story-teller. The pictures summed up her life as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a friend. They were gifts from God and Mary loved them all.

Most of you who were pictured most prominently on that wall are here in church today–her children, their husbands and wives, her grandchildren. I know you wont forget how she lived and how she loved you.

We bring her body to church to remember our ties with her, but more importantly to offer her to God though Jesus Christ, his Son, for the next phase of her life. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus told his disciples before he died. We listen to his words as if they were spoken to us.

“I go to prepare a place for you,” a place with many rooms. What a beautiful, concrete description that is of that unknown place we’re all called to, the new life we’re promised by Jesus Christ. A place of many rooms. What does that mean except, perhaps, that we’ll be gathered there together, with the ones we loved and we’ll see them again.

So is that a promise that Jesus makes only to his disciples then? No, it’s a promise he makes to us now.

Later in our prayers at Mass we’ll say:

“Remember Mary whom you have called today from his world to yourself. Grant that she who was united to your Son in a death like his may also be one with him in his resurrection.”

That’s true, isn’t it? This last year or so, particularly, Mary shared in the Passion of Christ at home and then at St. Mary’s Home in Cherry Hill, NJ, where she died. Many of you stood by her. The Lord was with her then as he is now.

Our prayer goes on:

“Give Mary, with all the others, kind admittance to your kingdom. There we hope to enjoy forever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For seeing you, our God, we shall be like you for all ages, and praise you without end through Christ through whom you bestow on the world all that is good. “

So where is Mary now? Her tears are being wiped away, I think, and she’s in one of those rooms that Jesus speaks of, with those who went before her, with her husband Bill and her family. I think too, she’s hanging up the pictures, waiting to see us again.



6th Sunday B: Moved with Pity


To listen to the audio for today’s homily just select play in the audio bar below:

For the last four Sundays, we’ve followed Jesus beginning his ministry in Galilee according to Mark’s Gospel. Mark has a very lively, concrete way of describing Jesus entering fully into the life of our world. He describes Jesus after his baptism going to Galilee, calling four disciples to follow him and share his life, and then in one momentous day, a Sabbath day, entering a town, Capernaum, a little fishing village along the Sea of Galilee. He enters the synagogue at Capernaum where his teaching amazes the people and he drives out an unclean spirit who calls him “the holy one of God.” All through his life on earth Jesus will give life and face evil.

From the synagogue Jesus goes into Peter and Andrews’s house, a compound near the synagogue, where he cures Peter’s mother in bed with a fever. News about someone speaking with authority and curing the sick in Caphernaum spreads like wildfire. At the end of the day the whole town is at the door of Peter’s house.

We watch a whole town come alive in Mark’s gospel because Jesus is there. He changes the place and its people, the synagogue, the church where they worship, the homes they live in. Mark wants us to realize also that what happened there in Capernaum is meant to happen again, in other people, in other places, in other churches and homes.

That’s why Jesus says “Let’s go to the nearby villages; this is why I have come” to Peter and the others the next day after the momentous day opening his ministy. “And so they went to the villages nearby, where he taught in their synagogues and healed many.” (Mark 1,38-39) But it’s not just to the nearby villages around the Sea of Galilee that Jesus will go, not just to the world back then. It’s to the world here and now that he comes. It’s not just to the people back then, it’s the people here and now that he comes– to us.

It’s important that we keep that in mind when we hear in today’s gospel about a leper who approached Jesus. The leper probably met Jesus on his way to one of the nearby villages. A leper in those days would be outside the villages and towns, in a deserted place. His disease made him unclean, dangerous, and so he had to leave his family and society to live alone. If anyone came near him, he had to warn them off. “Unclean, unclean!”

But the leper in our story comes up to Jesus and kneels before him. “If you wish you can make me clean.” How did he know about Jesus? Did he hear the news from Capernaum, from people who told about him? Someone from his family?

Mark says that Jesus “was moved with pity, stretched out his hand, touched him and said ‘ I do will it, be made clean.’”

The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.”

This is the first miracle in Mark’s gospel where details of how Jesus healed are given. “He was moved with pity.” “He stretched out his hand, touched him and said, ‘I do will it, be made clean,’” Then Jesus told him to go show himself to a priest, who would verify that the man was free from leprosy. He also told him not to tell anyone about what happened, but the man told everybody.

Jesus heals the leper, not as a show of power, but because his heart was moved with pity. He touches the leper, whom everyone pushed aside and feared to touch. His words are not just words; his heart speaks in them. “I do will it, be made clean.”

That was the miracle then, but if this is not just about then, what about now? Today there are probably only a few people in the world with the leprosy the man experienced then, but certainly there are those now who feel like him, like a outsider, a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong, a failure perhaps.

Jesus brought his disciples with him then to do what he did. Now, are we to have our hearts moved with pity and reach out and touch somebody like the leper?

Or, are we the ones who need to experience the love of Jesus. Are we like the leper ourselves, out in a desert place, alone and adrift? Do we need his healing?

This is our Sabbath day, this is Lord’s time; he has come to our place and to us.

Come With Me

Jesus garden

You went into the garden and fell to the ground
and prayed
yet all humanity was there
holding the cup of death
and hearing itself in your words.
“Father, if it possible, let this cup pass from me.
The cup of death.
you drank
contained our fears and cries too,
our sweat of blood.
“Your will be done,” you said.
“Your will be done,”we say
and wait for an angel to strengthen us.

Scraps from the Table

syro-phonecian woman

We’re reading at Mass today the story of the Syrophoenician woman who asks Jesus to cure her daughter. Mark 7, 24-30

My mother (God rest her) used to sneak food under the table regularly to her beloved cocker spaniel, Buffy. Once when I visited home after becoming a priest I said–in a losing attempt to keep Buffy’s weight down– “Mom, you shouldn’t feed that dog scraps from the table.”

She replied, “You don’t live her. He does. Besides, I’m not feeding him scraps from the table. He’s eating the same food we eat.”

I could never understand all the logic of her answer, but I gave us trying to stop her. I remember her every time this gospel is read. She put me in my place.

Maybe that’s what the Syrophoenician woman did to Jesus when she met him on his excursion north into gentile territory near Tyre.

Father John Donohue, SJ, offers an intriguing commentary on Jesus and this woman in Mark’s gospel. (The Gospel of Mark, John Donohue, SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Sacra Pagina), Collegeville, Minnesota 2002. ) Their meeting takes place  following the feeding of the 5,000 in Jewish territory (Mark 6, 30-44) and Jesus’ announcement to the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem that “all food is clean.” As a sign that the gentiles too would receive the Bread of Life from his hands, Jesus journeys into gentile territory to feed another 4,000. (Mark 8,1-10)

Now, you would expect him to welcome any gentile he met near Tyre, but the woman who meets Jesus alone in a house is harshly rejected when she asks him to heal her daughter. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

The woman doesn’t take no for an answer. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps, Lord.”

Matthew’s gospel, written after Mark, says the woman’s daughter was healed because of her faith. Not so, Father Donohue says. According to Mark, it was because she got the best of her argument with Jesus, the only one who does that in the gospels. “It’s not right to ignore us,” the woman says to him. Jesus heard the truth from her and accepted it.

The Two Creations

In his homily on the readings for Mass on Monday, Pope Francis spoke of two creations, the first described in the Book of Genesis and the second described in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus goes among the people, and “as many of those who touched him were saved.”

Regarding the first creation, God gives us the responsibility to nurture creation, Pope Francis said.

“It’s our obligation as Christians. For us there is a responsibility to nurture the Earth, to nurture creation, to keep it and make it grow according to its laws. A Christian who does not protect creation, who does not let it grow, is a Christian who does not care about the work of God, that work that was born from the love of God for us. And this is the first response to the first creation: protect it and make it grow.”

We advance the second creation by advancing in faith, by touching Jesus in faith.

The popes daily homilies can be found here. Gems of spirituality.

Who are the Passionists?

SignWho are the Passionists?

A good question in this year the church devotes to the Consecrated Life.

Religious movements begin with a call. Usually God calls one person first – like Peter, James and John – who in turn call others. The Passionists, – a religious movement of priests, brothers, women religious and laypeople – are found in most parts of the world today. Their founder is St. Paul of the Cross and they’re called to keep alive the memory of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul of the Cross: Saint for Hard Times

The first thing you should know about the Passionists is their founder.  His name was Paul Danei. He lived in 18th century Italy and for 81 years experienced hard times – times in many ways like our own.

Italy’s economy then was severely depressed as countries along the Atlantic Ocean like England, Spain and France captured world markets. As its trade dwindled, poverty and unemployment spread across the Italian peninsula.   “Poor Italy!” Paul would say of his battered land.

The church in Italy also experienced hard times as Europe’s monarchs grabbed its resources and held the popes under their thumb. It was the beginning of the Enlightenment in Europe, and “enlightened” scholars and scientists were teaching that real progress came through human efforts alone. No need for revealed religions or prayer or spiritual help, they said.  God, if God exists, was little involved in human affairs.

Some 18th century pundits were predicting that religion, and the Catholic church in particular, was coming to an end.

Just the time for God to call for saints.

In 1714 young Paul Danei had a striking experience of God.  It happened during an ordinary sermon in an ordinary church, preached by an unknown priest. A sense of God and a desire to serve him filled his heart. Over the years his experience grew and it centered on the Passion of Jesus Christ. So taken was he by this mystery that eventually Paul Danei preferred signing his name as Paul of the Cross.

If you asked St. Paul of the Cross today for some words of wisdom, he probably would point to a cross he usually carried and tell you to look at the world you live in, then look at Jesus Christ in his cross. Maybe he would say something like this:

“Are your times bad? Is your church shaken? Is God nowhere to be seen? Well, what about him? A dreadful time, when God seemed to have abandoned his Son? Yet, God was never closer than in that dark moment, and God is close to you now.

“I found him first at a bad time, in an ordinary church, listening to an ordinary sermon. You can find him too. Don’t be afraid of the darkness. And be ready: God uses simple things to come to you.”

In his youth, Paul worked for his father, a “poor tobacconist” who moved his family and small store from one town to another in northern Italy to make ends meet. Six years after hearing the sermon in church the young man had another strong experience of God.

“In the summer of 1720, at the time of the grain harvest, after communion at the Capuchin church in Castellazzo on a street corner near my home – I was raised up in God in the deepest recollection with complete forgetfulness of all else and with great interior peace…”

Shortly after, Paul made a retreat of 40 days in a small room in a nearby church where he experienced temptations and spiritual consolations as he prayed in imitation of Jesus Christ.  At his local bishop’s request he kept an account of how God worked in his soul; his retreat account is considered a classic of Christian spirituality.

The Passion of Jesus was at the heart of his experience; it would always be at the center of his spirituality. For him, it was the door into the Presence of God where one rested “in the bosom of the Father” and received the blessing of “great interior peace.”

Paul’s retreat is one of the reasons Passionists today promote retreats and spiritual direction as important ways to discover God in our lives.  In the United States alone, they staff 10 retreat centers, like Holy Family Retreat Center in West Hartford, CT, Our Lady of Calvary Retreat Center in nearby Farmington, CT, Holy Name Retreat Center, Houston, TX, Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center, Citrus Heights, CA, and Bishop Molloy Retreat House, Jamaica, NY.

It’s the reason why the Passionist nuns keep a guest house for those who wish to come apart and rest awhile at St. Joseph Convent located on 170 acres of peaceful woodlands in Whitesville, KY.

Paul ended his 40-day retreat convinced that God wanted him to begin a new community in the church, but the times were unfavorable. Most church and government authorities thought there were already too many religious communities in the world.

After a disappointing attempt to interest the pope in his cause, Paul and his brother John Baptist lived as hermits, then as priests, on Monte Argentario, an isolated mountain on the Mediterranean Sea at the edge of the Tuscan Maremma (at the time the poorest part of poor Italy). They began preaching missions in this run-down land of small towns built above unhealthy swamplands, where bandits roamed the lonely roads and foreign armies periodically fought battles for control of Italy.

Traveling from town to town, they would set up a large cross on a platform in the town square, preach to the people for 12 to 13 days and then move on to another place. Paul emphasized daily prayer, especially meditation on the Passion of Jesus, as the door into the Presence of God and strength in the darkness of life.

After the missionaries left, some wrote to Paul looking for spiritual help. His letters back to them (over 2,000 remain) focus mainly on helping them to pray. If people prayed, he said, his work was done; God would do the rest. He was tender and blunt, enormously patient with them, because he knew from his own experience that God works slowly, tenderly sometimes bluntly.

They told him their doubts, their fears, their temptations, their yearnings, their questions and sufferings. He called these things their “darkness,” and drawing on John’s gospel, a favorite source, told them that darkness is where the Light shines. Don’t be afraid of it.

“Darkness and suffering can be your friends,” he wrote, “faith comes alive in the dark.”

By a “high providence” God sent Jesus Christ to dwell among us. In the darkness you share in the mystery of his Passion and Resurrection.

“We carry the cross with Jesus and don’t know it.”

Paul never probed into the causes of human darkness by social analysis nor did he offer much psychological advice or counseling, so popular in spirituality today. “I am a blind guide,” he said of himself and warned against over-analyzing. “You shouldn’t be looking at what you’re going through and philosophizing minutely about it and reflecting so much on yourself… By thinking too much about yourself, you lose sight of the Sovereign Good.” The wise and tender book of the Passion of Jesus will teach you to understand yourself and understand life, he taught. Let it guide the way you pray and the way you live.

But for him the Passion of Jesus was not limited to the words of the gospel. It was a mystery found everywhere.

Certainly, Paul saw the Passion of Jesus relived in the Tuscan Maremma, the poorest part of Italy, where he spent most of his life. “I saw the name of Jesus written on the foreheads of the poor.” He lived among poverty-stricken people but could do little to change the economic and political systems that kept them poor.

Like Paul, Passionists today still see the Passion of Jesus burnt into “the foreheads of the poor” and point to the strengthening message of the cross. But in solidarity with the poor they are also trying here and now to stand up for human rights and build a just society, especially in some of the poorest parts of the world. They see the struggle for justice and peace and the integrity of creation as a vital part of their spirituality.

In earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Father Rick Frechette, a Passionist priest and medical doctor, runs a free hospital for children and sets up schools for street kids near Port-au-Prince. In Jamaica, West Indies, Passionist Sister Una O’Connor built the Catholic College of Mandeville to train teachers for the next generation of Jamaica’s youth.

Young volunteers belonging to Passionist Volunteers International currently are offering a year’s service to the rural poor in Jamaica and Honduras.

At the United Nations, Father Mirek Lesiecki, CP  heads up Passionist International, a NGO group that brings dreams for peace, justice and the integrity of creation to bear on the decisions made by 191 nations. On television, The Sunday Mass brings the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to households around the United States.

Since the 18th century, the Passionists have given the world a remarkable number of saints, besides their founder, Paul of the Cross. Their martyrs and holy men and women testify to the community’s holiness.  They’re hoping God will send them saints as a new global age begins. 

Father Victor Hoagland, CP,   is the author of  “A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. Paul of the Cross”  Christus Publications, 2011

February 10, 2015

5th Sunday B: He Takes Our Hand

Audio version of homily here:

If you’ve had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land, you may have visited Capernaum, the fishing village on the Sea of Galilee which was the base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  Archeologists have uncovered much of that town in recent years; you  can see the ancient black basalt stones of houses from the time and the foundations of a synagogue where Jesus may have taught and prayed. It’s a fascinating place.

Jesus called this place home after he came from the Jordan River where he was baptized. Nearby, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he called Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, to  follow him. On the Sabbath day, he began his ministry by going into the synagogue where he taught and  all were amazed at his teaching. That same remarkable day, he drove out an evil spirit from a man in the synagogue.

The synagogue wasn’t the only place Mark’s gospel mentions that day. He tells us Jesus  left the synagogue and went with Peter and Andrew into their house, a short distance from the synagogue, where he would stay much of his time in Galilee.

In recent times,  Franciscan archeologists have identified its location of what they call “Peter’s house” among the houses closely packed together. (See the picture above) The house is actually a compound where a number of families lived together. Peter’s mother in law was in bed with a fever. Jesus “approached her, took her hand, and raised her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.”

This may seem to be a minor healing when you compare it to some of the miracles Jesus worked: the paralyzed man who would later be lowered through the roof of Peter’s house, the lepers, the blind, the deaf, the dead like Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus.

But maybe this healing tells us something important, namely, that God is concerned for our every need, however small it may seem when compared to others. Think of it: shortly before this, in the Jordan River, the heavens opened and God said of Jesus “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”

Now here the Son of God comes to this small village, to this little house, and his first concern is to take this woman by the hand and raise her up. As he does on other occasions, he gives the woman the power to live and do again what she did before. “She waited on them.”

We may think that God as interested only in great things. Jesus, the image of God, shows us God is interested in the smallest things. The very hairs of our head are numbered. The smallest concerns that no one sees, but God sees.

After Peter’s mother in law is healed, others come from Capernaum and all over, crowding around the door. And Jesus meets them all. The same Lord of heaven and earth, the same Jesus, the Risen Christ who always walks with us is with us here.