Tag Archives: preaching

St. Anthony of Padua

On Google you find a surprising range of pictures of St. Anthony. Some have him  blissfully holding the Christ Child in his arms, which is how someone saw him one day towards the end of his life– holding the Child Jesus. At times he’s pictured holding a book in his hand. Some pictures and statues portray him holding the Child and the book together and giving a loaf of bread to  a poor man.

The pictures and statues say a lot about him.

Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195 and died near Padua, Italy in 1291, acclaimed for his preaching and virtues.  Canonized shortly after his death, he’s invoked as a miracle-worker, especially good at finding something lost. But Anthony’s more than a miracle-worker.

His world was the complex, changing world of the 13th century when Europe’s economy was expanding; military crusades against the Muslim powers were in full swing in Spain, Sicily and the Holy Land, and new religious movements like the Franciscans were bringing reform and new vigor to the western church.

Anthony entered the Augustinian community in his birthplace, Lisbon, and studied at the renowned theological center of Coimbra as a young man. Just decades before, Portugal had been freed from the control of the Moors, but then, unfortunately, the victors started fighting among themselves for power and spoils from the crusades.

Anthony rejected the violence and avarice he saw in feuding leaders of church and state; he was a crusader of another kind.  When the bodies of some Franciscan missionaries martyred in Morocco in 1219 while preaching the gospel were brought back to Portugal, Anthony decided to join the new community.  He became a Franciscan and went to Morocco, hoping to preach the faith to the Muslims there, but illness forced him out and he went to Sicily, then to Italy, where he became a Franciscan missionary and teacher.

Only a few years before, in 1206 in Assisi, young Francis Bernadone stripped himself of his trendy, stylish clothes and put on the dress of a poor man, to follow the poor Man of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. Thousands followed him and the movement he began quickly spread through the Christian world. Like others, Anthony was attracted to this movement, eager to bring the gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

The Franciscan movement began with a dedication to absolute poverty and a simple life, but as church leaders requested them to preach the gospel throughout the world its members needed books, education, training and places of formation. Anthony emerged as a model Franciscan preacher and teacher.

Through northern Italy, then through France, Anthony’s vivid, down-to-earth preaching stirred people’s hearts and minds and showed other preachers how to preach.  At the time, the Franciscan movement was not the only movement attracting the people of Europe. Through northern Italy and especially in France, Albigensian teachers were preaching a message of simplicity and release from the burdens of life to believers dissatisfied with the church. They denied that Jesus was divine, they questioned the gospels and painted the world as an evil place.

“Wise as a serpent and simple as a dove” Anthony disputed their message in his preaching. Gifted with an extraordinary memory for the scriptures and an ability to illustrate his talks with homey examples simple people understood, he spoke “with a well-trained tongue.” Thousands came to hear him. The world was not  evil, Anthony taught, Jesus, the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Artists capture Anthony’s spirit in their portraits of him. As a preacher and teacher, he carries of book, most likely a psalter holding the Jewish psalms. St. Augustine, whom Anthony studied as a youth, always carried this one book of the bible with him, as a summary of the scriptures.

Some say this book is also clue to Anthony’s gift for finding lost things. He probably kept his notes for teaching and preaching in it. If he lost it–some say one of his students stole it– he lost something valuable to him. He found it, so he knows what it means when someone loses something too. “Good St. Anthony, come around, something’s lost and can’t be found.”

The Christ Child Anthony holds in his arms was more than a momentary vision he had.  Anthony was deeply attracted, as St. Francis was, to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh. God became a little child, who grew in wisdom and age and grace in the simple world of Nazareth. He died on a cross, accepting it as his Father’s will. Then, he rose from the dead.

Human life and the world itself has been blessed by this mystery. Because of it,  life can never be small or inconsequential. Even suffering and death have been changed. “The goodness and kindness of God has appeared.” We hold it in our hands.

I suppose this is why a picture of St. Anthony is down in our laundry where Brother Angelo and others wash sheets and towels and clothes. He speaks to this world.

Saturday, 2nd Week of Advent

Advent_heading copy 2I took the picture below at the Philadelphia museum awhile ago. Don’t know the artist’s name; he obviously didn’t know what Palestine looked like where John the Baptist preached, but he got the story right, I think.

The group listening to John are surrounded  by the over-powering wilderness. How did they ever find him, or how did he find them? Have they been baptized yet, or will they go down with him to the Jordan, which is so much wider in our picture than the real river? John will have to put them on the road and get them on their way; they wont make it on their own.

That’s what he’s there for, to guide them. We’ll always have guides. Did he get lonely or fearful or hungry here?  “What did you go out to see?” Jesus said. “a reed shaken by the wind? A man in soft garments?” John took his place in this fearful land and stayed there without wavering.  That’s why Jesus praised him.

St. Francis Center for Renewal

I’m preaching a retreat these days at St. Francis Center for Renewal in Bethlehem, PA, for a group of sisters from various communities. Surrounded by 108 acres of woodlands and meadows, the center belongs to and is staffed by the School Sisters of St. Francis. It’s a silent retreat for 7 days.

The center has some wonderful programs for Catholics and groups from other religious traditions. Its ecumenical reach is praiseworthy. True Franciscans, the sisters like the wide world God made.

Places like this need support because they meet the growing spiritual needs of so many today. In the balancing act that is our present church, I hope we keep retreat centers like St. Francis in play. We need them.

Go to Bethlehem.

Preaching “Out of Season”

CARA is a non-profit research group based in Washington, DC that studies the Catholic Church. Some statistics on its recent blog are worth reflection.

How many people in the US have been Catholic some time in their lives?  About 97 million.

Have many currently consider themselves Catholic?  Over 74 million.

How many go to church only on Easter and Christmas?  Over 50 million.

How many attend Mass at least once a month?    Over 36 million.

How many attend Mass weekly?  Over 17 million.

How many are actively engaged in their parishes? About 3 million.

There are about 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States, which are important sources for evangelizing those who infrequently or never practice their faith. They also have a significant role in reaching out to the unchurched.

But are parishes the only sources for bringing the gospel to others? We’re experiencing a priest shortage, that shows no signs of ending. A parish-based evangelization depends on a resourceful, innovative clergy. Without resourceful, innovative priests, I don’t see how we can evangelize from the parish alone. We need to turn to other sources for evangelization.

Seems to me the media in its many forms has a role.

I think too this is a time for Christian movements beyond the parish to arise to meet the need to preach the gospel, “in season and out of season.” Let’s pray for new movements, and also let’s pray that some of the older religious communities and lay groups rise up again.

Our time is certainly “out of season.” But that’s when preaching needs to be done.

Preaching, 2

Yesterday I offered some thoughts on preaching. Today a few more reflections. Who are those we preach to today? We should know them as they are and the church in which we preach as it is.

Let’s recognize we’re preaching to people and to a church experiencing a priest shortage, a declining number of women and men religious, and a weakened hierarchy.Statistics– surely we see it ourselves– tell us that people, especially the younger generation, aren’t going to church as they once did.  Our parishes are suffering from a decline in members and Catholic schools are closing.

It’s a church roiled by sexual scandals, controversy over the place of women, issues like gay marriage, abortion and government regulations. Certainly,  Jesus Christ will be with us always and the church will survive, but what can we do to strengthen it?

I think the closest historical parallel to our American church today may be the Catholic church in American colonial times, which one historian describes as a “priestless, popeless church.”  We might add  “sisterless” to describe our church, since religious woman had a major role in its growth until now.

The colonial church survived, according to historians, because it was kept alive in the home, by prayerbooks and catechisms. (cf. The Faithful: A History of Catholics in American, by James M. O’Toole, Harvard,  2008)

Historical parallels are never absolute, but that era may suggest a preaching aimed at building a home-based faith, that is strongly catechetical and that promotes a life of regular prayer in people.

What would the prayerbook and basic catechism for today’s church be? The bible, now providentially blessed with new tools to access the treasures of its spirituality. We need a preaching that directs people to this source and helps them mine it.

It’s important we recommend the best versions of the scripture available (The New American Bible, The Jerusalem Bible) and encourage people to use aids like The Magnificat and Give Us Our Daily Bread to follow the daily lectionary.

Who preaches?

I believe we need a new generation of preachers in our churches and wherever the gospel can be proclaimed: men and women, priests, religious and laypeople. I’m not looking for new Bishop Fulton Sheens, spell–binding orators to dazzle us with their eloquence.

I think I’d prefer preachers with more modest skills. Maybe preachers like the hosts on the cooking shows on television, who whip up good food and bow out modestly after they show you how it’s done. I think  laypeople will have an increasing role in the renewal of preaching.

What about canon law? “The times, they are a-changing.”

Browsing Through the Library

We have a big collection of books downstairs and I’m going through them choosing those we might bring to Noah’s ark, wherever that might be.  Like so many other religious communities we’re downsizing. Some books I’m putting aside, hoping to find a good home for them; some we’re selling on Amazon.com, some are on their way to the dumpster.

I’ve always like browsing through libraries. One of my best educational experiences as a young student was at Catholic University in Washington where a Redemptorist professor,  Fr. Al Rush, took us through the stacks of the university library, pointing out books and authors we might read in the future.

There’s something adventurous about  libraries and bookstores. They’re treasuries and junkyards all at once; you never know what treasure you’re going to stumble on. Yesterday, I stumbled on a book called Pride of Place: The Role of Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States, by Sr. Mary Charles Bryce.

Catechesis is on my mind lately, and this book which studies the history of catechisms and catechesis in our country from Bishop John Carroll to the 1980’s was something I was looking for. I think catechesis is one of the prime needs for our church today, as Catholic schools decline and dioceses, religious orders and parishes and their resources diminish. “Pride of Place” Sister Bryce called her book, a title from an old pastoral letter of the American bishops on catechesis.

Not a bad priority for the church today. I think particularly about our preaching, our missions and retreats. How are we going to pass on the faith we have received? What are the words and ways we’re going to use?

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”  (T.S. Eliot)

And yet, we speak about the Eternal Word.

They say you can get everything you’re looking for today on the Internet and in some sense you can. So, we need to build good catechetical sites like Bread on the Waters (www. cptryon.org) and we need to keep a catechetical dimension in our various websites, or else they become simply notifications or requests for donations.

Yes, we need to work on the Internet. Yet, there’s still something to be said for a library, even one as transitional as ours downstairs. It represents an ordered collection of knowledge that was put together by people before me, who were “on the same page” as I’m on now. Someone recognized  Sister Bryce’s book was a good book and put it in our library downstairs.

Thanks.

Where’s John the Baptist preaching today?

Where are our John the Baptists today? I was watching Fr. Corapi on television last night on EWTN, preaching before a large appreciative audience. His talk was about Why Catholics Leave the Church. They leave because of pride, he said.

They don’t recognize the truth of the Church or the authority of the pope. By missing Mass and the sacraments they cut themselves off from sanctifying grace. Pride is their downfall.  Fr. Corapi comes down hard on “lousy” seminaries and liberal schools, Catholic and secular. His world is black and white; he doesn’t like grey.

In today’s readings, John the Baptist speaks from the wilderness and with sharp eyes looks at the world of his day. They come from Jerusalem and Judea, from everywhere to hear him. No one is excluded from his call to repent, not even himself.

He’s especially hard on the Pharisees and scribes who think they’re safely home:  “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
 coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves, 
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you, 
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

When a John the Baptist preaches, no one is left out, including himself.  Try this one out as a John the Baptist sermon for today,