The faith of Saint Peter and Blessed Franz

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 14:22-33, Peter, at the call of Jesus, begins to walk on water. He was daring enough to risk this, but his faith faltered. Jesus grabbed him by the hand and then asked him, “Why did you do doubt, you of little faith?”

Sometimes I think we are a little too hard on Peter. The other apostles cowered in the boat, but he had  the audacity to ask Jesus to call him out of the boat to walk on the water. Yet, when he lost sight of Jesus, he was afraid and started to drown.

On August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter, Austrian peasant, husband, father of three girls, was beheaded for his refusal to take the military oath to serve in the Nazi army.

His story has moved me since I first read it in the 1960s in Gordon Zahn’s In Solitary Witness.

What is remarkable is that, despite the opposition to his stand of his neighbors and even of religious authorities, he persevered. He saw evil and refused to cooperate. Sustained by his faith in God and the love of his wife, Franziska, he persevered, even when the waves of the evil around him threatened him with death. As he wrote to his wife from prison:

“I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth, even if it costs me my life.  For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by his secular ruler.”

He persevered in his faith, despite death. The faith of the saints is not something that flounders when beset by difficulties. Though there may be doubts, these doubts strengthen the commitment to have confidence in God. As Franz wrote,

“If the road signs were stuck ever so loosely in the earth that every wind could break them off or blow them about, would anyone who did not know the road be able to find his way? And how much worse is it if those to whom one turns for information refuse to give him an answer or, at most, give him the wrong direction just to be rid of him as quickly as possible?”

My prayer corner

“The modern saints by Gracie” facebook page has asked people to share their prayer corner. Here are two photos of the place where I pray in a small room set apart in my house here in Plan Grande, Concepción, Copán, Honduras,

On the upper left is the San Damiano Cross mounted on a piece of wood. I Huntington, Indiana, I mounted it on a piece of wood from St. Feliz Friary. In the mid-1970s, they were doing some renovations of the sanctuary and I believe this may have been part of an altar rail. I cherish this because Blessed Solanus Casey, OFM Cap, had lived in that friary,

On the upper right is a cross I put up composed of pieces of paper with laments. I did this about the beginning of March this year, in light of the pandemic.

In the center is an original icon of Mary and Jesus, written by Yaroslav Surmach Mills.

The image of Saint Francis was a gift from Assisi from my former pastor who died a few years ago from cancer.

The image of Saint John the Baptist is the first icon I had. I purchased it at Mount Saviour Monastery, near Elmira, New York, which was the place where I returned to the practice of the faith in the early 1970s, after about a year alienated from the church.

On the far left is an angel which I purchased in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I believe it is in the style of the nearby Missions.

On the far right is an icon of Saint Oscar Romero, whose beatification and canonization I was blessed to attend.

In front of the icon of Mary and Jesus there are four small pieces.

There is a piece of the Berlin Wall which a couple I know gave me after their visit to Berlin.

There is a piece of a tile of a house in Hiroshima which was a gift from Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, a sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who was a co-founder of Pax Christ USA and whom I knew from the board of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

There is a piece of what I think is a small bone (or olive pit) which I found under an olive tree in Lydda, Palestine – now in Israel. A friend’s mother and grandparents (Orthodox Christians) had lived there until they were forced out in 1948.

About 2001 I participated in a Mass in a small unfinished chapel in Los Leones, Canton Platanares, outside Suchitoto, El Salvador. There, on July 24, 1980, the seminarian Othmaro Cáceres and twelve young people with him were murdered by a death squad.

At the front is a wooden cross, made locally from a cross I purchased in the Pauline Sisters’ shop in New York City a few years ago. We had copies made to give to the sick, since the cross fits comfortably int he hand.

Around the cross is a thirty three bead “rosary” which I use for praying the Jesus Prayer each morning.

A small angel and a small dove were gifts from two young women I worked with when I was a campus minister in Ames, Iowa.

Other Images from my Prayer Room

Saint Oscar Romero and Saint Lawrence
Dove of cloth made by a friend many years ago.
Poster of two martyrs beatified inGuatemala about two years ago.
Saint Benedict the Black (gift of a Franciscan friar in the late 1950s) and an image of Mary (Guadalupe) bought in a market in Guatemala City.
Between them is a gift from the Iowa City Catholic Worker, Jesus in the boat with the disciples. The image is from the Andes.
There is also a shell with the Our Father carved on it; this belonged to my father. There is also a hand cross with the image of the Australian Saint Mary McKillop.
Icon of Elijah the prophet and a carved wooden cross from Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala,where BlessedStanley Rother were martyred, 1981.

Lazarus, Martha, and life in the face of death

Although today is the feast of Saint Martha in the Catholic Church, the Benedictines celebrate Saint Martha, together with her sister, Mary, and her brother, Lazarus.

In today’s Gospel, (John 11: 19-27),  Jesus had come to the tomb of Lazarus; Martha runs to Jesus and asks him to raise her brother. The dialogue is moving as Jesus identifies Himself as the Resurrection and the Life and Martha affirms that He is the Christ, the Messiah. In the verses after the Gospel Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb – to live.

Lazarus had a new chance to live. He could start over again. And it was his sister Martha who interceded for him.

After meditating on this Gospel, I came up a song of John McCutcheon, “Dearest Martha.” McCutcheon has a way of bringing out the pain and the pathos all around us. The song is a letter of a farmer to his wife. His farm was going under and, as happened with a good number of farmers in the MidWest during the farm crisis of the 1980s, he was going to kill himself. This was his failure letter.

As I listened, I thought of the many who are depressed, the many who are desperate, the many who cannot see a way out. They are like Lazarus in the tomb.

But Lazarus had a sister who loved him and intervened with Jesus for his life.

How can I be one who intervenes for those who are desperate, helping them see that new life is possible, that God is calling them out of their tombs?

The raising of Lazarus can give us hope, but it also calls on us to be there, in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the desperation.

Drawing by Cerezo Barredo

Many paths to holiness

There are many paths to sainthood and holy people are found in every corner of the globe.

I keep a calendar of witness to holiness and justice with quotes from many of them. Today and tomorrow are filled with witnesses.

Today, July 13, is, in Chile and among the Discalced Carmelites, the feast of Saint Teresa de Jesús de los Andes (1900-1920). Born into a well-off family, at 19 she entered a very poor convent of Carmelites – without electricity or adequate sanitation. She contracted typhus with the year and died young, as did the Carmelite Saint who inspired her, Saint Thérèse of Lisiuex, the Little Flower.

Today is, among the Orthodox, the feast of the holy martyr Saint Alexander Schmorell (1918-1943), who was a member of the White Rose, a group of mostly young Germans who opposed the Nazi regime and clandestinely distributed pamphlets and wrote on walls. He was arrested and executed as were many members of the White Rose.

Today is also the feast of Blessed Carlos (Charlie) Manuel Rodríguez Santiago (1918-1963), a lay promoter at the Catholic University Center of the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. Among his concerns was the reform of the liturgy.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of the Little Brother of the Gospel, Arturo Paoli (1912-2015), an Italian missionary, who lived more than thirty years in Latin America, working as a poor man and living the spirituality of Saint Charles de Foucauld. His writings have inspired me and many others.

Tomorrow, July 14, the church also celebrates several witnesses.

The Franciscans and the church of Perú celebrate Saint Francis Solano (1549-1610), a Spanish missionary who spent years among the native peoples on Perú. He tried to defend them and spoke forthrightly against corruption and injustice.

The Church in the United States celebrates Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks (1656-1680), the first Native American to be canonized. Born in what is now New York State, she died in Canada, having left her home to escape persecution.

July 14 is also the feast of St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614), an Italian who after living the life of a rowdy soldier began to care for the sick and founded the Ministers of the Sick.

On July 14, 1980, Brother Mauricio Silva, Uruguayan priest, Little Brother of the Gospel, street sweeper, was killed, Buenos Aires, Argentina, another victim of the Dirty War.

On July 14, 2002, Sister Marta Inés Velez Serna, member of the Little Sisters of the Poor of St. Peter Claver, active and peace and human rights work, was killed, Mogotes, Santander State, Colombia.

I have written about some of these in other posts. (Click to access)

      Blessed Carlos, Saint Teresa, and Saint Kateri

     Saint Kateri and Saint Francisco

     Saint Kateri

    Arturo Paoli 1

Arturo Paoli 2

Saint Camillus

All these holy people lived very different lives but they sought to follow Christ. Quotes from two of them may help us contemplate how they sought to follow Jesus.

Hermano Mauricio Silva

When loving is a humble and dark furrow
which claims the grain in order to be fertile and die in solitude,
then I know that You are present, Lord.

From the last letter of St. Alexander Schmorell to his parents

This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!”

Photos of mosaics in the church of San Apolinare, Ravenna

St. Thomas and the Church in India

Today is the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle. He is known as “doubting Thomas,” though he is the only person in John’s Gospel to call Jesus “My Lord and my God.”

According to tradition, after Pentecost he evangelized the people of India and was martyred there. The church he established there has endured to this day. When the Portuguese arrived in southern India, they were surprised to find a flourishing Christian community.

All too often western Christians identify Christianity with its western manifestations. This reminds me of something that happened in Ames, Iowa, many years ago, that some friends shared with me.

There was an Indian family who were members of the parish. He was a professor at Iowa State University. One of their sons became a diplomat.

One day someone asked the wife, “When did your family become Catholic?”

Of course, the answer which followed was unexpected.

“We became Catholics when St. Thomas the Apostle came to India.”

I recall this today in the midst of the trials of the Church in the United States in the face of racism. There were followers of Christ in India and Ethiopia (Acts 9: 26-40) way before any western European heard about Jesus. They are our foremothers and forefathers in the faith.

Don’t forget that.

A Last Supper from Ethiopia

The hairs of your head

“All the hairs of your head are numbered.”
Matthew 10:30

Notes for a homily, Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle A

For some of us, God doesn’t have to take a long time to number our hairs. But he still knows how many we have and cares for us.

Last month I read a most interesting commentary on this theme in Alive in God by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.:

Preaching on the text ‘Even the hairs of your head are all counted’ (Mt. 10.30), one of my brethren described delousing the lice-ridden scalps of street kids in Glasgow, hair by hair. God counting the hairs on our heads, an ever easier task in my case, is an image not of useless divine omniscience but of the infinite tenderness and patience of his care. Nothing is too small for his attention. I have occasionally seen parents carefully examining the hairs of a little kid, gently removing the lice. It’s a tender moment and show us the tender care that many parents have for their children – and the even more tender love of God who does not hesitate to get his hands dirty, delousing the hairs of a child, washing the dirty feet of his followers, and even dying for us.

I have occasionally seen parents, usually a mother, carefully examining the hairs of a little kid, one by one, gently removing the lice. It’s a tender moment and show us the care that many parents have for their children – and the even more tender love of God who does not hesitate to get his hands dirty, delousing the hairs of a child, washing the dirty feet of his followers, and even dying for us.

God does this for us. How can we not do it for others!

My baptismal day

“Living my baptism is letting go of that narrow and boring little story [of my  private life] so that I can flourish with my brothers and sisters in the spacious love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
-Timothy Radcliffe, OP, Taking the Plunge,  p. 166

Pope Francis has asked us to remember the date of our baptism. Even before his request, I knew that I was baptized two weeks after my birthday, on June 15, 1947.

A few years ago I came across these photos of the day of my baptism.

In the arms of Fr. Peter Vandergeist who baptized me.
With my godparents, Aunt Sis Rechner and Uncle George Barrar
My parents John and Eleanor Donaghy
With my grandmothers, Mom-mom (Regina) Barrar and Nana (Elizabeth) Donaghy

I give thanks to God for my baptism – for my biological family and for the family of faith.

Later today I will renew my baptismal vows.

Elijah and Ahab

This week the first lectionary readings are from the Elijah cycle in the First Book of Kings. Elijah is one of those prophets that I love but who has a few character flaws – most notably his killing of the 450 prophets of Baal.

What surprised me today is that the lectionary skips over three very important stories.

The first is a follow up to Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath in Tuesday’s reading. The widow’s little boy dies and Elijah raises him to life (1 Kings 17:17-24).

The second is the end of the drought and his encounter with Obadiah, the master of the place who had hid 100 prophets when Queen Jezebel (the original one) was slaughtering all the prophets of the LORD.

But the scene that strikes me most is the meeting of Elijah and Ahab (1 Kings 18: 16-21).

When Ahab saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is it you, you disturber of Israel?” He answered, “It is not I who disturb Israel, but you and your father’s house, by forsaking the commands of the LORD and you by following the Baals.

Dan Berrigan in The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power puts it even more boldly:

The king enters. His welcome is decidedly frigid: “So it’s you, the scourge of Israel!”
Not at all set back, the prophet retorts, “Not I; you are the scourge of Israel!” And he proceeds to upbraid the king unmercifully for his defection to Baal, and to propose a test, a public showdown between himself and the entire coterie of practicing Baalian priestdom.
Bracing, we say – and bravo! At long last we encounter a spirit undaunted daunted by royal persiflage, threats, blandishments.

As I read about the letter of Archbishop Viganò to Donald Trump and the archbishop’s unkind, probably calumnious words about Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and I wonder if we are in the midst of a “Baalian priestdom” who worship the false gods of power, violence, and domination and pretend to provide divine blessings on the US president.

Who is the real prophet – Archbishop Wilton Gregory or the retired archbishop who is spouting conspiracy theories and defending Trump?

Who is more like Elijah? Who is more like the court prophets?

I have my opinions. I may be wrong, but I don’t see vitriol or calumny as a sign of a follower of Jesus.

Today I am breaking my usual reticence to speak about specific persons and politics, but recent events have caused me a bit of perturbation.

Saint Ephrem – model deacon

[Ephrem] remained a deacon all his life,
and to escape episcopal consecration
he is supposed to have feigned madness.
Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J.

Ordained a deacon late in life, St. Ephrem the Syrian declined the priesthood and escaped being ordained a bishop by pretending to be mentally disturbed.

I like him for that. He did not seek higher “rank” within the Church, finding his service as a deacon – as a servant – as his calling, his vocation. The diaconate as a permanent state is something that many people here in Honduras don’t understand – even some clergy. They are so accustomed to the diaconate as something transitional – and therefore not as important.

Saint Ephrem distinguished himself in many ways. He wrote commentaries on much of scripture and was renowned for his preaching – so much so that he was called the Harp of the Holy Spirit. He is also acknowledged as a Doctor of the Church, the only deacon so named.

As a deacon, he instructed the people in the faith with words but also with songs. He knew the value of music and how it forms us. About 500 of his hymns survive and some are still used in the Syriac liturgy.

He came to write some of his hymns – and set them to popular melodies – in response to a Gnostic sect that set its teaching to such melodies. He had no qualms in taking secular tunes to sue for his hymns. His hymns were often sung in church by a choir of women!

The liturgy was very important to Saint Ephrem, but he did not neglect charity. Though he lived in a cave outside Edessa, he did not separate himself completely from the world. In fact, a few months before he died he organized a major relief effort for famine victims. He left his cave and went to help the victims, because the people asked him to oversee the distribution of grain because they trusted no one else with the task.

He was a diakonos, a servant of the Word, the Altar, and Charity. What all deacons should be.

I especially treasure his prayers.

He wrote a prayer which is used during Lent among the Orthodox and which expresses the spirituality of a servant of God:

O Lord and Master of my Life,
give me not a spirit of sloth, lust for power,
and idle talk.
But give me, your servant,
a spirit of charity, humility, patience, and love.
O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own faults
and not judge another,
for blessed are you forever.

There is not madness in such a prayer – but much wisdom.

In 1975 I encountered another prayer. I had sent a donation to the Catholic Worker and received a thank you card back. On it is written this prayer, taken from Helen Waddell’s Desert Fathers:

  Sorrow on me, beloved! that I unapt and reluctant in my will abide, and behold winter hath come upon me and the infinite tempest hath found me naked and spoiled and with no perfecting of good in me. I marvel at myself, O my beloved, how I daily default and daily do repent; I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have builded.
At evening I say, tomorrow, I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I water the day. Again at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when night is come I am full of sleep.
Behold, those who received their talent along with me, strive by day and night to trade with it, that they may win the word of praise and rule ten cities. But I in my sloth hid mine in the earth and my Lord makes haste to come, and behold my heart trembles and I weep the day of my negligence and know not what excuse to bring. Have mercy upon me, thou who alone are without sin, and save me, who alone art merciful and kind.

I still have that card and occasionally pray this prayer. I keep the card in a book of the Grail translation of the psalter, at Psalm 51, the psalm of repentance.

In many ways, his service of the Altar with his hymns, his service of the Word with his preaching and commentaries, and his service of Charity with his care for famine victims and others exemplify what a deacon is and what a deacon does.

Saint Ephrem, pray for all deacons and all God’s people.

Looking in the Wrong Place

Reflections for the Ascension

After Jesus ascended into heaven, his disciples were gaping at the clouds. The angels admonished them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1:11).

Just forty days beforehand, angels had asked the women who had come to the tomb of Jesus, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)

In 2004, while visiting the Holy Land, I took a day walking in Jerusalem – from the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, I walked the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

As I entered the tomb, I found two women there. (Isn’t that interesting – and biblical?) One was a Catholic sister who left after some time in prayer; the other was an Orthodox woman, praying in a low voice, bowing frequently while making numerous signs of the cross.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

All of a sudden, I had a revelation, recalling other words of the angels, “He is risen; He is not here.”

After I left the tomb, I went back to Bethlehem where I was staying with a friend. I was the only non-Palestinian on the bus.

As I look back, I recall that as I walked the Via Crucis I saw people going about their daily lives – a father walking with his son, Israeli soldiers patrolling, shopkeepers displaying their wares. On the bus I encountered a friendly man who helped me get back to Bethlehem, despite our differences of language and religion.

Jesus walked with me that day – and still walks with me – in many different ways.

Do we look for God in the wrong places? Do we think that he is contained in a tomb – or, even, in our church buildings?

I read of many people, here in Honduras as well as in the US, who are clamoring to open the churches.

I understand the longing to celebrate the Eucharist in community; I’ve only been in one Mass in more than two months. I’ve been in only two other Celebrations of the Word, where I presided over two funerals. I’ve only watched one complete live-streamed Mass, the ordination to the priesthood of a friend in Iowa. But, for me, these are not community participations in the Eucharist.

But God has graced me with time to pray, to read, to reflect on my life.

Being blessed with internet I have been able to connect with friends in several parts of the world – by Skype and Zoom. I have also participated in a few zoom sessions with other folks on a variety of topics. (What was surprising was finding people I know on the same Zoom sessions.)

I’ve also been writing a bit – not just for my blogs but also on a few projects. I’m trying to write something more on celibate deacons, since there is almost nothing available. I am also trying to write a longer work on my vocation as a deacon; my path to the diaconate is very different from most permanent deacons and, therefore, my vision of the diaconate is rather unique.

Two weeks ago, I decided to find a few ways to use this time for some ongoing formation. Since I need a refresher, I’m taking ten hours of classes in Spanish by internet. I am also taking a four week diplomado (a certificate program) with CEPROME of the Mexican Pontifical University on Prevention of Domestic Abuse. Abuse is a real problem here in Honduras and I think it’s important to be prepared to respond.

Twice I went out with local municipality workers to deliver bag of food and soap products to people in the villages, driving with a loaded pickup and several of the workers. Over 1600 households got bags. There may be a third distribution in a few weeks.

Though I have served as a deacon at Mass only once, I presume (and, thus, may be presumptuous) that I am trying to live out my vocation in a different way.

I wish I could get out more – but we are restricted to once every two weeks.

I am asking for a letter from the mayor’s office that will let me get out more often. There are about twenty couples that are prepared for marriage but haven’t done the final interview which I usually do in the parish office. The pastor and I are proposing that I go out to the communities and do the interviews there. If I get permission to circulate a little more often, I’ll at least be able to get to the villages in our municipality.

I have also told the pastor and the mayor that I am available to transport people if there is any need. It’s the least I can do.

And so, where am I looking for the Lord?

In the many ways God calls me to be faithful – to glorify God and to serve the poor.