Monthly Archives: August 2015

Ecological Conversion

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Today, September 1st, Pope Francis asks Catholics and all people to pray for the care of creation, the subject of his recent encyclical “Laudato Si.” We may need to pray, if recent surveys are right that claim that American Catholics aren’t much interested in the pope’s recent encyclical. That might be true of Catholics elsewhere as well.

There’s an ecological crisis, the pope says in his letter, and we have to do something about it. Some may deny the crisis exists; some may claim it’s exaggerated; some may just throw up their hands thinking it’s too big to deal with. Some may think it can be easily fixed by the eventual play of “market forces.”

For the pope and many today the ecological crisis is real, it endangers the world and it has to be dealt with now. To meet it Francis recently urged Christians to “first rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation.”

That’s important advice. The first step is not to immerse ourselves in conclusions of science, although the pope in his encyclical obviously respects scientific conclusions. The ecological crisis is not going to be taken care of with a few quick moves, like changing a couple of light bulbs at home. The first step, the pope says, is to undergo an “ecological conversion” guided by our spiritual patrimony.

Caring for creation isn’t going to be an easy task. People of faith are needed who, in the pope’s words, understand that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si, 217).

In his encyclical the pope looks to the scriptures, from Genesis to the books of the New Testament, to provide wisdom for our steps. He looks to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, as signs that creation itself figures in God’s plan.

An interesting feature in “Laudato Si” is the way Francis turns to the Eastern Church for guidance to ecological conversion, almost as if he recognizes the weakness of western theology and spirituality. A prayer suggested by the Vatican for today’s prayer service is inspired by the prayers of the Eastern Church:

We praise and bless you, O Lord,
for you are the King of all ages,
and through Christ your Son you have made all that is.
In the beginning of the beginning,
you breathed upon the waters of creation,
and filled the earth with life through your vibrant Spirit.
The heavens declare your glory, O Lord,
and the stars of the sky bring light to our darkness.
You spoke, and the earth burst forth in life,
you saw that it was good.
You called forth creation, and enlivened every creature on land and sea.
You made human beings in your image,
and set us over the whole world in all of its wonders.
You gave us share in your dominion,
and called us “to till and to keep” this garden, the work of your hands.
As day gives way to evening, we praise you for your manifold gifts.
May our adoration this night give glory to your name,
so that we may serve you with faithfulness and love.
May our daily care for your creation show reverence for your name,
and reveal your saving power in every creature under heaven.
We make this prayer in the name of Christ your Son,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Amen.

Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

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Pope Francis is asking that September 1st be a world day of prayer for the care of creation. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has provided suggestions for a 1 hour prayer service for the day:

Click to access PCJP_WorldDayPrayerCreation2015_PROPOSAL_ENG.pdf

September 1st marks the beginning of the Church Year for the Orthodox Church. Pope Francis quotes from the Orthodox tradition in his encyclical “Laudato Si”
We need a spiritual conversion, Pope Francis wrote to Cardinals Koch and Turkson. ( August 6, 2015)

“As Christians we wish to contribute to resolving the ecological crisis which humanity is presently experiencing. In doing so, we must first rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation. We need always to keep in mind that, for believers in Jesus Christ, the Word of God who became man for our sake, “the life of the spirit is not dissociated from the body or from nature or from worldly realities, but lived in and with them, in communion with all that surrounds us” (Laudato Si’, 216). The ecological crisis thus summons us to a profound spiritual conversion: Christians are called to “an ecological conversion whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them” (ibid., 217). For “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (ibid.).

22nd Sunday B: Keeping Up Appearances

You may have seen the British comedy on PBS Keeping Up Appearances, about Hyacinth Bucket (she insists pronouncing it “Bouquet”} Hyacinth believes in keeping up appearances. She’s intent on impressing people with who she is, what and who she knows and what she owns. She’s superior to others, she thinks. Some of her “low-brow” family members embarrass her terribly. She tries to bring her long-suffering husband, Richard, up to her standards, but never succeeds.

The comedy pokes fun at what Jesus warns his disciples and the Pharisees about in our gospel today–appearances. Putting your trust in appearances. It’s not things outside, like the house you live in, the car you drive, the job you have, the clothes you wear, the health regime you follow that count most. Appearances inevitably disappear. It’s what’s within you, what’s in your heart, that remains.

Certainly Jesus wasn’t against external things, like washing your hands before you eat or cleaning the pots and pans afterwards. He knew the value of customs and external practices in society and religion and he kept them himself. He knew outside things influence us. He wasn’t against a good home, a good job, a good life. It’s extravagance he’s warns against, an excessive dependence on appearances that don’t last. It’s failing to pay attention to what’s in the human heart he warns against.

The world within is more important; what’s in our hearts makes the difference. Our search for God ends there, nowhere else.

Notice in today’s gospel Jesus seems to describe the world within as a battleground. What comes out of your heart can defile you and the world around you.

“Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.” Mark 7

Now, we’re not used to hearing that that kind of negative description of ourselves these days. We like to see ourselves in a more positive light. We’re beautiful people, with gifts and talents. But take a look at the shootings, the murders, the rapes, the greed, the anger that we see all around us. Where do they begin? In the human heart. Are those things absent from our own hearts? The greatest saints call themselves the greatest sinners. They’re right.

Yet, God comes to dwell in our hearts.

A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Augustine. He certainly understood the battleground of the human heart very well. In his Confessions he describes frankly his own unlikeness to God and then God’s grace brings him to see and hear and love. It wasn’t his brilliant mind or human gifts that brought him the recognize God in his heart. It was the grace of God, which we all look for and are given.

Listen to him describe his conversion, when the Light that filled the universe came to rest in him. “Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so.”

“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking you there,
and upon the shapely things you made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;

I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.” Augustine, Confessions

Blessed Dominic Barberi, CP

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We continue reading at Mass today from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. This letter is not a theological treatise like his Letter to the Romans, nor can you find a list of corrections in it as in his letters to the Corinthians.

This is Paul’s first letter, written shortly after the year 50 AD, and it’s mostly Paul’s way of telling the Thessalonians how thankful he is for the faith he sees in them.

He’s just come with his companions from Philippi where he narrowly escaped death. He would be shaken, for sure. The apostle seems surprised at the faith he finds in them. He’s delighted by it all. Paul reminds them he didn’t come with nice words or looking for affirmation for himself or for what he could get from them. He describes himself as a nursing mother: “We wanted to share with you the Gospel of God and our very selves as well.”

Today the Passionists remember one of their own great missionaries, Blessed Dominic Barberi, who had Paul’s qualities of zeal and humility. Dominic was born in Viterbo, Italy, in 1792. Early on, God gave him a desire to be a missionary, especially to England.

As a Passionist priest he dedicated himself to work for Christian unity and in 1842 he went to England with the desire to bring the English church and the Catholic church together as one.

Dominic had a good mind and wanted to engage the leading religious scholars in England, but the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of that country; thousands of poor Catholic immigrants from Ireland were flocking to the great English factory towns looking for work.

They needed priests and Dominic, though he never mastered the English language, tirelessly preached and ministered to them. He shared with them the Gospel of God and his very self as well.

Dominic never got his wish to engage the learned scholars of England as a lecturer at Oxford, for example, but he was noticed by them all the same.

One of the greatest of England’s intellectuals, John Henry Newman, was attracted to Dominic, not by the tracts he sent to him, but by his zeal and humility. Newman needed to see those qualities in the Roman church.

“If they want to convert England,” Newman wrote earlier, “let them go barefoot into our manufacturing towns, let them preach to the people like St Francis Xavier–let them be pelted and trampled on, and I will own they do what we cannot…Let them use the proper arms of the Church and they will prove they are the Church.”

Humble, zealous and faithful, Dominic used “the proper arms of the Church.” When Newman decided to enter the Catholic Church, he asked for Father Dominic Barberi receive him.

“All that I have suffered since I left Italy has been well compensated by this event,” Dominic wrote later, “ I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great.”

21st Sunday B: A Journey of Compassion

 

Who am I? Who are we?

Our first reading this Sunday from the Book of Joshua is all about those two questions. “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” It’s a reading worth reflecting on.

Joshua, you may remember from your bible history, succeeded Moses as the leader of Jewish people when they came out of Egypt. He’s generally remembered as a soldier who led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land, a land disputed then and a land disputed now. The Book of Joshua is a litany of the battles he fought, beginning with the famous battle for Jericho. “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin down.”

Our reading today is from the end of the Book of Joshua. Joshua is over a 100 years old, and the old soldier calls together the different tribes and families of Israel to Shechem to speak to them for the last time.

Your work isn’t finished, your journey isn’t over, he reminds them. But he’s not an old soldier interested in recalling old battles or strategizing military planning for the future. You have been called by God, he tells them. Are you going to listen to that call or not, he asks them? You can drift away and follow other voices, other gods. Make your choice.

“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” Joshua says.

And the people respond:
“Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods. For it was the Lord who brought us and our ancestors out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among the peoples through whom we passed. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

For Joshua the most important thing is remembering who you are. It’s remembering who you are as an individual and remembering who we are as a people. Everything depends on how we choose to answer those questions.

There’s the personal call: “Who am I?” Where did I come from, who gave me life? Why am I here, what am I to do? Where am I going? What’s my future going to be? God is there in those questions. How do I answer him?

My personal call is not for me alone, though, I’m part of a call to others. We go to God together. We make this journey together.

Joshua and the people see God’s call not just as a personal call When God called them from Egypt, he called them all, the old and the young, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, to journey together and they did. That’s the way the bible describes it and that’s the way it should be, even today. No matter how sophisticated our society gets, how difficult our circumstances are, God calls us to make the journey together.

A French geophysicist and philosopher, Xavier Le Pichon, says that the world evolves the way it should when we respect the fragility of the earth and the fragility of our human community. We advance as a people when we take care of our weakest members; our earth community advances when we respect its fragile nature.

One important way we differ from the animals,Le Pichon says, is the care we take of our weakest members. It’s a trait he finds in our earliest ancestors, the Neanderthals, over one hundred thousand years ago. One study of a Neanderthal burial ground in Iraq revealed the skeleton of a 40 year old severely malformed male, who evidently had been carried from place to place by this group of hunters and then buried with them. He would have been a burden to them, he must have slowed them down, but they carried him with them just the same. He meant something to them.

Unlike animals who cast aside their weak to die on the way, humans have developed a feeling for the weak, Le Pichon says. Like animals, they nourish and care for their young, but they reach further to the weakest. This sense of compassion separates humans from animals. It makes us humane.

Le Pichon disputes Darwin’s all embracing principle of the “survival of the fittest.” That principle, when applied to human evolution, does not take into account the spirit of compassion, he says.

Jesus, of course, taught the importance of the spirit of compassion when he told us that what we did for “one of these, the least, you did it to me.” You grow in love through your care of the least. We are truly human, made in God’s image, when we take care of the weak. We make the journey together.

Praying for Politicians

Maybe the Book of Judges, our Old Testament reading at today’s Mass, can offer some perspective on the election process going on in our country now.

The Book of Judges describes the period in Jewish history from the death of Joshua, who led the Israelites in their conquest of the promised land of Canaan, till the installation of Saul as Israel’s first king by the prophet Samuel. During that time, the Israelites were spread out in various parts of Canaan and were led by local leaders, “judges”, a Hebrew word that doesn’t mean people who preside in courts, but ordinary leaders like mayors or city managers or local chiefs.

Without an overall leader, the Israelites were prey to stronger enemies. Eventually, they realized they needed a king, like Saul and David and Solomon, but in this period they were small vulnerable pockets of people living throughout the land.

Gideon and his frightened community are described in today’s reading. They’re taking to the hills to escape marauding bands of Midianites. God calls Gideon to lead his people against them, but he shrinks from the call; he’s a poor farmer who can hardly take care of his own vineyard. He has no talent, no experience or strength, he says.

“Go with the strength you have,” was God’s message to him.

We’re certainly a divided people today; we may wonder is there’s anyone who can unite us and lead us? Is there anyone adequate to govern us?

The Book of Judges says that the “Spirit of the Lord” can come upon the weakest and transform them into leaders, as it did Gideon. A leader’s not made from human qualities alone, or political contributions or a powerful media that promotes one’s cause.The political world is not off-limits to the spiritual. The Spirit can move in the world of politics as in other areas of life, enhancing the strength one has, giving eyes to see and a mind to understand.

We may not pray for politicians enough.

Where did Mary die?

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Different Christian traditions point to two places where Mary may have died and was buried– Jerusalem or Ephesus. I lean towards Jerusalem since Mary was part of that church from its beginning. We don’t know how long she lived or other details of her life, but her role as mother of Jesus and her memories of him assured her of an influential place in the Jerusalem church. She had an important role in its development.DSC04013

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Today two shrines in Jerusalem recall her passing. The Church of the Dormition on Mount Sion, where the first Christian community met, recalls Mary’s death, her “falling asleep.” The Tomb of the Virgin at the base of the Mount of Olives next to the Garden of Gethsemane contains her empty tomb.

(cf. Jerome Murphy O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide)

Her tomb is empty, as visitors can see who go down into the dark church near Gethsemane. Like the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it contains no bodily remains. God has taken her body and soul into heaven.

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“We believe in the resurrection of the body,” our creed says. The Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives have been vast burial grounds over the centuries. This was where the Messiah would come to raise up the dead, Jews believed, (Zechariah 14,4) and so Mary’s burial there places her among those who hope for resurrection. Here Mary in her Assumption becomes a sign  that Jesus , the Messiah, the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep,” is calling all humanity to share in his resurrection.

Significantly, Mary is buried close to Gethsemane where her Son entered into the mystery of his passion and death. She follows him into this mystery, as she does through all the mysteries of  his life.

The eastern church beautifully expresses this belief in its icons and its liturgy for the Dormition of Mary on August 15. The apostles gather from all parts of the world to bury Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He himself stands at her deathbed as the angels look on and holds her soul in his hands to take her to heaven. The apostles then bury her body in a tomb.

Thomas the apostle, a late comer for her funeral, goes to Mary’s tomb three days after her burial and finds it empty. Her body has been taken up to heaven to share in the resurrection of her Son.

The bodily assumption of Mary not only speaks about the future resurrection of the dead, it also calls us now to respect  the creation destined to share in the resurrection of Jesus. Our bodies as well as the world they are taken from have a destiny beyond this time and place. We must honor and care for them.

20th Sunday B: Taste and See

I stopped for something to eat the other day along the seashore at Montauk, Long Island, a place I stopped by chance. “We have a nice fish chowder, everything fresh from near here,” the waitress said, so I ordered the fish chowder. Couldn’t have been better, better than anything I expected.

Our first reading today for Sunday Mass is about a meal that’s even better, better than we could expect or plan for. Someone wise provides it. It’s not a meal for just one or two; we’re all invited to the table. Amazingly, it’s free; we don’t have to pay for it.

Listen again to the Book of Wisdom: “Whoever is simple turn in here; to the one who lacks understanding, she says, Come eat my food and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

“Whoever is simple turn in here.” I suppose that means whoever is hungry, whoever is weary, whoever is burdened, come and eat. Aren’t those the ones Jesus felt compassion for. “Come to me, and I will refresh you,” he said. Don’t we qualify for an invitation like this? His refreshment is beyond what earthy food or drink can bring.

Where can we find this meal, except in the Eucharist, where “we taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” A goodness beyond our expectations.

“Take and eat, this is my body.” “Take and eat, this is my blood.” The people in today’s gospel (John 6,51-58) are repulsed by Jesus when he says “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood you cannot have life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day.”

“How can he give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink?” They take his words in too narrow a way. Who tells us to do this? Who’s the One who offers us his body and blood? The Lord of all, who made all things. He contains all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He’s the Lord of life who gives life. He promises resurrection, while knowing the reality of our death.

No other meal can compare to this. No other food can satisfy us; no other drink can quench our thirst .

Moses and the Quest for God

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120 years old. That’s how old Moses was when he died, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, which we’re reading today at Mass.

Biblical exaggeration we wonder? Maybe. Yet scientists said recently life expectation in our society might be heading to 120 in the future, so perhaps we need to look at Moses a little more closely. Our society is aging.

The 4th century Cappadocian mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, in his classic study “The Life of Moses” considers Moses, not mainly as a leader of the Israelites, but rather as a example of the way God calls all of us. His life shows us our way to God.

Gregory divides the life of Moses’ 120 years into 3 parts. The first part of his life (Exodus 2, 1-15) is marked by dangers. Pharaoh has decreed that all Jewish new born boys be killed, but Moses is taken by his mother after his birth and placed in the river in a little boat ( the word for Moses’ boat in Exodus is the same word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark) In the river of life, Moses is protected by God and has a mission to fulfill. We too have been placed in the river of life, in God’s boat as it were, and have a mission to fulfill.

Adopted and brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses enjoys the gifts of Egypt. Like him, we’ve been given many gifts in life. We have to use them well, wherever they come from. Gregory writes. That’s a way to make the journey.

Moses’ first forty years end with the killing of the Egyptian and his subsequent flight to the desert of Midian. Choosing to stand with his own people Moses chooses to stand with God. In life we’re constantly called to make this same crucial choice. If we wish to see the face of God, we must choose it.

The next forty years Moses spends in solitude in the mountains of Midian where he lives a simple virtuous life, which prepares him to meet God in the burning bush. Then, at eighty years, he’s sent on to the next stage of his life: leading his people through the desert to the promised land.

Eighty years old– hardly a good time to begin such a momentous task. But Gregory of Nyssa sees Moses’ life as an inward journey, rather than an outward one. This is more than an historical journey. It’s a journey that doesn’t stop, defying age and the circumstances of life. One is never too old, or too young, for this inner journey. Gregory describes it beautifully in “The Life of Moses.”

“…the great Moses, becoming ever greater, never stopped his ascent, never set a limit to his upward course. Once setting his foot on the ladder that God set up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because there was always a step higher than the one he attained…though lifted up through such lofty experiences, he’s still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for what seems beyond his capacity… beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity, but according to God’s true being.

“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul who loves the beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty that’s seen to what ‘s beyond; it always kindles the desire for what’s hidden from what’s now known. Boldly requesting to go up the mountain of desires the soul asks to enjoy Beauty, not in mirrors, or reflections, but face to face. “ (Gregory of Nyssa)

In his final instructions to his people before his death, Moses does not offer words of human advice gathered from his years. He leaves no memoirs, no recollections. God will be with his people as God was with him. Beyond land or treasures of human conquest, they will see the face of God.