Father of the poor

Vanity of Vanities
All is Vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2

Saint Thomas of Villanova, whose feast is celebrated today, had all the reasons in the world to boast – a good family, a good education, a professorship in philosophy at twenty-six, prior and provincial of the Augustinians, archbishop. But I think he would more likely glory in being called “father of the poor” and “the almsgiver.”

When he was named archbishop of Valencia in 1544, he walked to his new archdiocese on foot, in his well-worn Augustinian habit with an old hat. The canons of the cathedral raised money to buy furniture for his dwelling, but he donated it to a local hospital. All that he accepted was a new hat.

He proceeded to reform his diocese, but he was most known for his generosity to the poor. Hundreds were fed every day. When someone complained that there were “unworthy poor,” taking advantage of his largesse, he noted that this is a concern for the police; he was called “to assist and relieve those who come to my door.”

He was, like many bishop saints, concerned for the poor – not only fed them but caring for foundling and poor brides. As he approached death he gave all his goods to the poor. He donated his bed to the prison but borrowed it until his death on September 8, 1555.

All is vanity – unless it is given to God and the poor.

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Statue on the grounds of Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania 

 

What do I know…

“What do I know of hunger?” Asked the corpulent politician in a dream I had this morning.

With this rhetorical question, the politician was deflecting a serious inquiry about his policy on hunger.

But it is a question that I ponder this morning.

What do I know of hunger? I have lived and live a comfortable life, not really needing to worry about the next meal.

What do I know of poverty? I have lived with the loving care of parents who went out of their way to give me many opportunities. I now live with a very adequate Social Security monthly payment.

What do I know of suffering? Personally not much. I am in fairly good health, with the normal aches and pains of a 69 year old.

But I have seen suffering and been touched.

Yesterday I went with several of the Dubuque Franciscan sisters to San Pedro Sula to visit Mario Catarino Hospital. We had a chance to see a critically injured seminarian in intensive care. He is a bright young man, who impressed me. I noted that he loves to read, not a common trait here.

I spoke and prayed with him. Though in pain, unable to speak, and immobilized, he is very responsive and mouthed “Amen” several times while we prayed. Who knows what his prognosis may be, though he may have several surgeries when enough money is collected.

One of the sisters also made contact with a mother whose three-and-a-half year old was in the hospital, suffering severe pains. Though the mother thought the doctor told her it was anemia, it is cancer.

But then this morning my neighbor, Gloria, passed by to tell me that Juan Ángel of Debajiados had died – of pneumonia. A young man, a candidate for Communion minister, was a very devoted father, son, and follower of Christ. I loved his simplicity and his beautiful smile.

Twice this year, visiting Debajiados, I went with him to bring Communion to his parents who lived far from the center of the village. The last time I saw him I asked him about his parents. They were doing well, having seen a doctor.

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Going with Juan Ángel  to bring Communion to his parents, July 16, 2016

But he has died, leaving a wife and four children.

Such suffering. And what can I do but be present?

Sitting down at prayer this morning and looking at my calendar of witnesses, I realized that today is the anniversary of the murder of Father James Gudalupe Carney, a US Jesuit who came to Honduras, lived with the poor, gave up his US citizenship to identify more with the Hondurans he worked with. His radical commitment led to his being expelled from Honduras. He spent several years in Nicaragua and returned clandestinely to Honduras in 1983 as a chaplain to a band of guerrillas. Captured by the Honduran army he was pushed from a helicopter in northern Honduras on September 16, 1983.

Though I do not feel called to follow Padre Guadaulpe’s example, especially in his support of violence, I do find his life and death a challenge. Years ago, long before coming to Honduras, I read the autobiography To Be a Revolutionary he left with his family shortly before his death.

This quote from Padre Guadalupe is particularly compelling, especially in light of the question of the politician in my dream:

“To love Christ really is to try to live as He lived. If I love the poor as Christ did, I, too, freely choose  to become one with them, live with them, share their lives, besides trying to use my talents to help and teach them… He freely chose to become one of the masses of poor people of the world, of the eighty percent of the world who ‘have not,’ rejecting the comfortable life of the twenty percent who ‘have’ (even though he loved them too). And he tore into the system and those that held the masses in the bondage of ignorance and poverty…. And he was killed for it. To be killed for my following of Christ would be my greatest joy too….”

But for me, the question is slightly different:

How can I live, following Christ and sharing in the suffering of the poor?

Whose table?

On September 12, 1977, Steven Biko, a young black South African activist, died in a South African jail – as a result of beatings and lack of medical attention.

His death, one of many by the apartheid regime of South Africa, was but one of many. But his life and struggle came to be known throughout the world. I read and was moved by Donald Wood’s Biko and found the movie Biko challenging and inspirational.

But one quote from Biko in Wood’s book captured my imagination and has formed my conscience.

“We are aware that the white man is sitting at our table. We know that he has no right to be there; we want to remove him from our table, strip the table of all the trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African terms, settle down and then ask him to join us on our terms if he wishes.”

We whites think we can help people while we are still sitting at a table that does not belong to us. This is even more so when we whites are the oppressors, as in South Africa and in the South of the United States in the past, and in many parts of the world today where white, most often US, interests dominate and control the economic systems that keep people down.

Biko suggested that we should be removed – if we don’t have the good sense to get up and leave the table – so that they can eat. Then the poor, the oppressed, will strip the table and decorate it in their terms.

I don’t find this offensive. I find it realistic and indeed empowering. The poor, the people of color have something to offer and, if I don’t let them do what they can, I am impoverished.

But note that Biko suggests that we be invited back to sit down at table with them – if we are willing.

If we are willing to give up control, privilege, setting the agenda, being at the center, power.

And then maybe we can enjoy life and the food and company they offer us.

This has happened to me!

The welcoming mercy of God

Mercy within mercy within mercy…
Thomas Merton

Can we forget God’s mercy? Sadly, yes. Today’s lectionary readings remind us of God’s overwhelming mercy.

Moses reminds God of His mercy and the people are spared, despite their worship of the Golden Calf. (Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14)

David mourns his sins – adultery and murder of Uriah – beseeching God for mercy. (Psalm 51: 3-4, 12-13, 17, 19)

Paul recalls the mercy of God which embraces him, a blasphemer and a persecutor. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

Jesus shares three parables of mercy: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the father who welcomes the lost son. (Luke 15:1-32)

But what struck me this morning was the beginning of the Gospel:

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus…

I wonder if our churches are filled with sinners and our enemies, drawing near to Jesus.

Yes, we’ll say that we all are sinners. But what about those we despise as sinners – Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, Communists, terrorists, right-wingers, left-wingers?

Are they welcome as we come together to worship?

Or, even more importantly, do we seek them out as the Good Shepherd does?

Or are our churches full of satisfied sinners?

This morning, perusing Facebook, I came across this photo of a sculpture of Timothy Schultz. It’s almost too difficult to consider – but our God is a God of mercy within mercy within mercy.

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A bishop of the Church of the Poor

“What do you think?”
Monseñor Leonidas Proaño

Though the Latin American bishops did not have a very pronounced role in the Second Vatican Council, a number of them proceeded to put the reforms of the Council into practice. In November 1965, just before the close of the Council about 39 bishops got together and formulated what has become known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” A translation of an article by Jon Sobrino can be found here.

One of those bishops was the Ecuadoran Leonidas Proaño, who died on August 31, 1988.

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After the Council, he proceeded to help in the founding of IPLA, the Latin American Pastoral Institute, which held short training sessions for many priests, including the Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande. After the session he and another Salvadoran, Higinio Alas, spent a month in Bishop Proaño’s diocese of Riobamba. It was there that Higinio was impressed by the persistent question of Monseñor: “What do you think?”

Monseñor Proaño was a great defender of the poor indigenous campesino. They saw him as one who treated them with a deep respect. He often went throughout his diocese wearing a poncho.

Respect was not enough and needed to be shown in social changes. One of the ways Monseñor Proaño did this was a redistribution of the land owned by the church in Ecuador. I don’t know the full details of this but this preceded later government efforts to redistribute land.

All this was based in a deep faith in God, expressed in this Credo:

   “Above all, I believe in God. I believe in God the Father. It is he who has given me life. He loves me infinitely. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. According to God’s plan, he became poor, lived among the poor and preached the Good News to the poor.
“I believe in the [person] that is within me and that is being saved by the Word of God. I believe in the person that is within all of my brothers and sisters because this same Word of God was sent to save all of us. Therefore, I can also say that I believe in hope. And for the same reason, I believe in justice. I believe in reconciliation, and I believe that we are walking toward the Kingdom of God.
“I believe in the poor and the oppressed. I believe that they are tremendously capable, especially in their ability to receive the salvation message, to understand it, and to put it into practice. It is true then that we are evangelized by the poor.
“I believe in the church of the poor because Christ became poor. He was born poor, he grew up in poverty, he found his disciples among the poor and he founded his Church with the poor.”

Martyrs and the Ministry of the Cup

The beheading of John the Baptist is one of my favorite feast days. There is something compelling about the witness of my patron saint and his willingness to give his life for truth and justice, as the prayer at Mass today reads.

I have been fascinated by martyrs for many years. I deliberately use the word “fascinated” which comes from the Latin word which means “bewitched” or “spell-bound.”

The willingness to give one’s life is bewitching, compelling me to look closer.

For me, several twentieth century martyrs hold me spell-bound – Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero who gave his life for the people of El Salvador, not flinching from speaking the truth and being a voice for those without a voice; Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army because he saw Nazism as a hell-bent movement; Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who died in the Algerians desert, living as a poor man among the poorest.

But I have been deeply moved by the Trappist martyrs of Tibhirine, who lived among their Muslim brothers and sisters in Algeria and stayed in the face of threats. Their death by extremists is a witness to love for all. The Testament of their prior, Christian de Chergé, is a witness to the power of forgiving love.

Yesterday, during Mass in San Agustín, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, I raised the cup of the Blood of Christ – as the deacon is called to do.

At that moment I recognized that Jesus is calling me to give my life – even to the point of death – for Him and for the People of God.

It was not a moment of fear – but of consolation.

Yet, as I reflect this morning, I realize that giving one’s life is not a question of a last minute decision in the face of the executioner. It is a question of a daily dying, a daily giving, a daily putting of myself at the service of God and all, especially the poor.

In the rite of ordination of a deacon, I was asked

“¿Quieres imitar siempre en tu vida el ejemplo de Cristo, cuyo cuerpo y sangre servirás en el Altar?”

Are you willing to always imitate in your life the example of Christ, whose Body and Blood you will serve at the altar?

The response is:

Si, quiero hacerlo, con la ayuda de Dios.

Yes, I am willing to do so, with the help of God.

It is the only response in which I said “with the help of God.”

Perhaps because it’s only with the help of God that I can witness – that is be a martyr – for the love of God.

May God give me the courage to live this witness every day – not only in the hour of death.

 

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A panel in the baptistery in Florence.

Truth Arrogance and Saint Augustine

DSC02420 - Version 2Saint Augustine, writing to an opponent in 397 AD, counseled mutual understanding. He did not call for an easy tolerance but asked for care-filled mutual respect.

There has been a lot of discussion in the blog-sphere, often filled with invective. Fr. Thomas Rosica has warned about the toxicity that can be found on some sites, especially in the comments. This past week, a national catholic [sic] newspaper has fired at least two of its regular contributors.

But what did Augustine write to a heretic? “Lay aside all arrogance.”

“On the other hand, all must allow that you owe it to me, in return, to lay aside all arrogance on your part too, that so you may be the more disposed to gentleness, and may not oppose me in a hostile spirit, to your own hurt. Let neither of us assert that he has found truth; let us seek it as if it were unknown to us both. For truth can be sought with zeal and unanimity if by no rash presumption it is believed to have been already found and ascertained.”

Augustine calls for a mutual search for the truth, recognizing that Truth is beyond us. This is not to deny Truth but to recognize that our way of expressing or explaining it may be different.

Augustine refuses to agree to the position of Manichaeus and if he remains unconvinced, he wants nothing to do with their worship or dogma.

“But if I cannot induce you to grant me this, at least allow me to suppose myself a stranger now for the first time hearing you, for the first time examining your doctrines. I think my demand a just one. And it must be laid down as an understood thing that I am not to join you in your prayers, or in holding conventicles, or in taking the name of Manichaeus, unless you give me a clear explanation, without any obscurity, of all matters touching the salvation of the soul.”

Augustine is clear that he would not accept and tolerate merely accepting what another said, but he was also open to searching for the truth with another with whom he did not agree. (However, Augustine – in contrast to theSecond Vatican Council – was not adverse to using force against heretics.)

Maybe we all should take this quote of Augustine a little more seriously and put aside arrogance and be more disposed to gentleness – seeking Truth, not scoring points.