Category Archives: Motivational

February 8: St. Josephine Bakhita

An heroic African woman from the Sudan, Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped by slave traders when she was 9 years old and forced into slavery for almost 12 years. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of her in his encyclical letter “On Hope” as an example of God’s gift of hope. “To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope.”

“I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.

Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person.

She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited.
What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God.

She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.

On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people.

The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.”

Benedict XVI “Spes salvi” 2007

Josephine Bakhita died February 8, 1947 and was declared a saint in 2000.She is the patron saint of the Sudan and victims of human trafficking. For more on her, see here.

Numbers

Polls are everywhere in the political world today. Numbers indicate power and popularity.

I think Jesus’ disciples were interested in numbers too. In Mark’s gospel, which we’re reading at Mass these days, Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)

But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him; religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. His numbers go down.

His disciples must have wondered why. Why are the numbers going down? It didn’t make sense.

Jesus answers them in today’s gospel. God‘s working in this world, the kingdom of God is coming, but human beings are mostly unaware of it.
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)

A greater power is at work in the scattered seed; but we know little about how it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but still there’s mystery.

Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are a growing number of Americans–almost 25%– giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.

What can we do? Treasure the seed we have, scatter it as we can, look into the signs of the times. The Kingdom of God comes.

St. John Bosco, January 31


St. John Bosco, (1815-1888) was born in northern Italy, then experiencing the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. His father died when he was two and he was brought up by his mother who struggled financially raising him, yet took care he had a good religious and humanistic education.

At twenty, John entered the seminary and once ordained a priest he devoted himself to helping young men facing a society moving from farms to factories, from an apprentice-based economy to one based on machines. He provided for their education and spirituality. He was joined by Mother Mary Dominic Mazzarello who took on the education of young women.

As young Italians began to immigrate to other countries in search of work, John Bosco and his companions accompanied them to North and South America. The Salesian community he founded spread throughout the world as educators and missionaries.

The opening prayer for his feast calls John Bosco “a teacher and father of the young.” He believed firmly that young people needed a good educational formation, but he also believed they needed teachers who took a fatherly interest in them, as God is Father of us all.

“The young should know that they are loved,” he said. As a boy he himself knew what the loss of father meant. As a young man he enjoyed circus entertainers, so he knew we need entertainment. But he also said, “ I do not recommend penance, but work, work, work.”

“Let us regard those boys over whom we have some authority as our own sons. Let us place ourselves in their service. Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority. Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better.

This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles. He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity. He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalised, and still others to hope for God’s mercy. And so he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.” (Letter, John Bosco)

The church must always look at the “signs of the times in the light of faith.” We pray for people like John Bosco to meet the needs of the young today.

Learning about Water

In his letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis says that the sacraments teach us to respect and reverence creation. Water, bread, wine, oil–sacramental signs– not only bring us into the divine mystery, they also bring us to the created world, our common home.

Water, for example, the sign of the sacrament of baptism, is more than something to drink, it’s a sign of life and death. In the beginning, God moved over chaotic waters to make them life-giving;’ In the time of Noah the Lord moved over the flood waters that threatened death to recreate dry land where life could flourish. . (Genesis 1, 1-2)

Because water symbolizes the life and chaos of the world, Jesus began his ministry going down into the waters of the Jordan River. The waters of the Jordan are muddied today, I doubt they were sparkling then. The world was muddied then; it’s muddied now. .

jordan-396

When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan, he entered the world as it is and brought new life to it by the power of God. The liturgies of the eastern churches emphasize the blessing brought to water by the Word made flesh. They see the Jordan, filled with the blessing of the Word flowing out to the whole world. Every river, every land, every baptistery holds the blessing of God.

Water is holy. We baptize in clean water because, by the power of Jesus, we are given new life and the promise of eternal life. We become a new creation. Water is holy, but it can be chaotic. The disciples on the Sea of Galilee knew that. “Did you not know that when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death.”

Jesus was revealed when he went into the water at his baptism. “This is my beloved Son,” a voice from heaven proclaims. He is revealed in the waters of life. He quieted the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he turned water into wine at Cana. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,” he said. Blood and water flowed from his side on Calvary.

Today, water plays a major role in climate change. In the last century sea levels globally have risen almost 7 inches and in the last 10 years have risen more rapidly than ever. The rise in sea level is caused primarily by two factors related to global warming: the added water from melting land ice and the expansion of sea water as it warms.

This affects us especially in the New York/New Jersey area where I’m writing from. More than 20 million people live along our coastlines, near the water. Flooding and drought from changing patterns of rainfall can affect the homes we live in, our water supply for food and drink. The poor and the vulnerable will be affected most deeply as sea levels push salt water onto our coasts and further upstream in our rivers.

Water, in which Jesus was revealed, now calls us to live responsibly and care for the earth.

St. Agnes, January 21

St. Agnes
January 21, 2019

St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, one of the most popular Roman women martyrs of the 3rd century, is among the seven  women mentioned in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer:  “Felicity, Perpetua,  Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” She’s honored in a special liturgy in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Her story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but some basic facts about her seem historically reliable. Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him because she believed as a Christian she had the right to remain unmarried. A deeply religious young woman, she wanted to give her life to God.

That wasn’t an option for Roman women then. Women were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed citizen soldiers then to grow and hold on to its empire. Only reluctantly did Rome come to depend on foreigners for its fighting. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. 

When Agnes refused to marry, she went against Roman expectations. She was also a Christian and since she lived in times influenced by Diocletian, a notorious enemy of Christianity, she was a target of religious persecution. They pressured her to give up her beliefs; when she refused they declared her an enemy of the state.

Tradition says the authorities brought her first to the Stadium of Domitian, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of degradation, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her to the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith. 

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Commentators like St. Ambrose, writing afterwards about Agnes, marveled at the young girl’s bravery. In Roman households of the best kind, young girls were protected and not expected to speak for themselves. Here was a young girl who stood up to the Roman establishment, even till death. How did she do it ?

“God chooses the weak to confound the strong” the prayer for the Mass of St. Agnes says.  She confounded the way Roman Christians thought about holiness. Men like Peter and Paul and other disciples of Jesus, soldier saints like Sebastian, who witnessed to the faith by dying for it were  the usual measure of holiness then. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, grew later in the 4th century, as disputes took place about the human nature of Jesus. In Agnes’ time women were hardly seen or heard. 

Agnes and women martyrs like her redefined the way early Roman Christians thought about holiness. Women, even young girls, could be heroic witnesses to the Jesus Christ. 

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city and has been honored there ever since. A majestic ancient church stands over her grave. Another 16th century church honoring her in on the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl endured great suffering.

Some say the 1st Eucharistic Prayer mentioned above goes back to the 6th century pope, St. Gregory the Great, whose family home was on the Celian Hill in Rome, Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women listed in that prayer, all strong women who died for their belief.

One of the new Eucharistic prayers asks us to see “the signs of the times by the light of faith.” What’s the role of women in our times and in our church? 

Wonderful churches to visit, if you go to Rome.

st. agnes church
St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

Ordinary Time and Daily Prayer

We’re into Ordinary Time in our liturgy after the Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus which we celebrate this Sunday. Christmas Time is over. So there’s nothing to do till Lent and the Easter season?

Sure there is. Ordinary Time is a time for daily prayer, and daily prayer is never over. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy said that daily prayer is at the heart of the Christian life and created a daily lectionary of scripture readings so “ the treasures of the bible be opened more lavishly for the faithful at the table of God’s word.” (SC 51)

The daily lectionary is a treasure for praying with the scriptures, but don’t take it for granted. Treasures, Jesus said, are usually hidden and you have to dig for them. That’s what we do in daily prayer. The liturgy is always a “work”, our daily work, an important work, a daily prayer. It’s the “summit” of the Christian life. We’re always at the beginning, not at the end.

We begin Monday to read the Book of Samuel and the Gospel of Mark from our lectionary. There are feasts of the Lord and his saints to celebrate in the days ahead. It’s a lifelong learning we’re into, a school God provides,  and we learn day by day.

The Calendar on the Kitchen Door


About this time every year when I was a boy, my mother would put up on the kitchen door the calendar we got from church. She marked down the anniversaries of family deaths and birthdays and other celebrations coming along, and she added other dates as the days passed. The pictures on the calendar interested me most then. When we put up the calendar, we were ready for the days ahead.

The calendar’s still a good way of getting ready for the days ahead. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” one of the psalms says.

Our calendars today may be on our computers instead of the kitchen door, and they’ve changed in a number of ways since the Second Vatican Council. The council created a general calendar of the main feasts and seasons, Christmas and Easter, advent and lent, to be celebrated by the whole church throughout the world. The general calendar also lists the days for celebrating saints honored the world over, such as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa of Avila. It also lists scripture readings read at Mass for the weekdays and Sundays throughout the year. It guides us to the treasures of our faith.

The council left countries and regions to decide on some celebrations of their own. In our particular calendar here in the United States, for example, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day and American saints like St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Elizabeth Cabrini and St. John Neumann.

The calendar’s still a good way to keep our lives in order, not only doctors’ and social appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, but our spiritual lives as well. They go together. We’re meant to live from feast to feast and be formed by the mysteries of Christ, his saints and the scriptures.

Every Sunday evening I try to publish the week’s calendar on my blog – http://www.vhoagland.wordpress.com . It’s my kitchen door. Through the week I reflect on the feasts and seasons and saints on that blog. The calendar’s a teacher helping us to “number our days aright.” It’s our daily catechism.

December 18: Joseph, Son of David

Nativity

In today’s gospel from Matthew we meet Joseph, the husband of Mary, who has an important part in Jesus’ birth and early years.

Matthew’s gospel calls Joseph as a just man, someone who listens to God rather than to himself, and does God’s will. He’s a carpenter, the gospels say, certainly not privileged – but he’s a “son of David” from the royal family who gives the world a Messiah.

During their betrothal, which in Jewish tradition was more than the modern engagement we know, Joseph finds that Mary is pregnant. A just man, he struggles to find a way to divorce her quietly when, in a dream, an angel of God tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

Here is the key part of the angel’s message: “For it is through the Holy Spirit 
that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Like Mary, Joseph believes God’s message. Like Mary, he sees more than human eyes and a human mind see. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” He believed what we say in our creed: “(Jesus) was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” Jesus became one of us, God was with us.

Artists early on pictured Joseph with his head in his hands, listening in sleep to the angel’s message. In a dream later he heard the angel telling him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod, the king. He was a man of great faith.

The medieval artist who painted the picture above has Mary pointing to Joseph as a witness to whose Child this is who’s’ born in a stable. They are the first to believe and they will care for Jesus with all the love and care they can give him.

Joseph has his hand on his head, as he does in so many portrayals of him. The angel spoke to him in dreams. Faith is like a dream where God speaks to us in another way.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

Wednesday, 2nd Week of Advent

Isaiah


Yesterday, Second Isaiah said to the exiles in Babylon: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” In today’s reading Jesus says:“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.” A favorite reading.

Notice Jesus speaks to the “crowds” in Matthew’s gospel, not just to the disciples who know him or to the Jewish Christian church Matthew wrote for at the end of the first century.  God’s love and God’s promises reach far beyond the circle of disciples or the church.  Jesus Christ reaches out to refresh the world that labors and is burdened, even if it doesn’t know him.

Who does Second Isalah speak to? Scholars say today’s readings that begin with the 40th chapter of Isaiah come, not from Isaiah the priest who spoke in Jerusalem as Assyrian armies threatened the city in 8th century BC, but from an unknown prophet speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon centuries later. He urges them to return to Jerusalem and build it up. He uses Isaiah’s name and language, perhaps,  to avoid trouble with Babylonian’s leaders for suggesting such a thing .

Not many Jews returned to Jerusalem at his call. historians say. Some did, but others were not interested in the prophet’s invitation. Taken captive to Babylon centuries before, they’re part of the place now. Babylon’s their home. They have families and jobs there; Jerusalem is far away and its future uncertain.

Yet, many remain faithful Jews in Babylon, and in Rome and other parts of the world in exile. Later, the Christian church became established in the world through them. 

We need to study Judaism more fully as a template for our own church today, I think, especially the mystery of Exile. We’re now experiencing an exile in our church– in the United States for every one person who join’s us, six leave. We need to study the exile of the Jews. 

Will those we lose be our way to become a more universal church?

The unknown prophet in today’s readings warns Jewish exiles not to abandon God for Babylon’s gods. 

“To whom can you liken me as an equal?
says the Holy One…
Do you not know
or have you not heard?
The LORD is the eternal God,
creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint nor grow weary,
and his knowledge is beyond scrutiny.”

We have to pray for our own exiles. God still holds them in his hands, sustains and comforts them, even if they do not know him or seem to care.  God’s Spirit is still within them.