Chant and the oppressed

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As I read a very challenging article by Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis here, I thought of what I had written more than ten years ago after a personal pilgrimage to Palestine and Israel with a friend. Here is one part of the journal I wrote.


The night before I left for my pilgrimage, I watched a documentary film on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who was killed in 1945 for his role in resisting Hitler.

The failure of the Christian community to resist Hitler, especially the timidity of the Catholic Church in Germany, has played an important role in my commitment to justice since my early years in college in the mid-sixties.

One phrase of Bonhoeffer’s in the video particularly touched me that night. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

I love chant and much medieval music. The music seems to give us a glimpse of the heavenly realm.

As I prepared to leave I wondered whether this statement might need to be expanded – “Only the one who cries out for the Jews and the Palestinians may sing Gregorian chant.”

But I wondered whether that might be pushing things.

The first day in Bethlehem, after visiting the Grotto of the Nativity, Omar and I went to St. Catherine’s, the attached Roman Catholic church. We passed into the crypt where we passed the tombs of the Holy Innocents and went to the chapel of the cave of St. Jerome, where he translated the bible into Latin.

It was almost noon and the Franciscan friars were preparing for prayer. We approached the grotto and were stopped by the door that led from the crypt. We turned, went upstairs to the church of St. Catherine’s and began to leave. As we left the friars were beginning to chant.

Truly, I thought, “Only the person who cries out for the oppressed – the Palestinians and others – may sing Gregorian chant.”

A few days later, visiting Jerusalem we stopped into the Church of Saint Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s an old Crusader church built in the twelfth century, on the grounds of the ruins of the pool of Bethsaida. It served for a time as a Muslim school but is now a church on the ground of the seminary of the Missionaries of Africa. As I entered the church I heard Omar humming and was astounded at the acoustics. I sang a few notes and realized that there is an incredible reverberation in the church, up to seven seconds someone later told me.

I wanted to sing a chant. All I could think of was the Regina Coeli, an Easter hymn in honor of Mary. This was quite fitting I later realized since this church was on the site of the house of Ann, the mother of Mary, and there is a shrine to Mary’s birth on the crypt.

As I sung, I heard my voice echoing in the vaults – my prayer continued by the stones. When I stopped singing, the sound continued. The prayer echoed in the church and it echoed in my heart.

That night in a conversation with the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem I shared my reflections on Bonhoeffer’s challenge.

But only a month later did I realize what I had done that day in East Jerusalem. In occupied land I sang chant. Had I, by singing chant, unwittingly committed myself to cry out for the Palestinians?

So I will continue to sing chant – but I will raise my voice even more for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. For only if you speak up for the oppressed may you dare to sing the praises of God.

May my chant and my cries of protest echo as forcefully as the hymn in Saint Anne’s.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Patron of the homeless

One of the churches I visited in Rome two years ago was Santa Maria ai Monti, where St. Benedict Joseph Labre is buried. He fainted there on April 16, 1784, and died soon after in a nearby house at the age of 35. He is buried there.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Deemed too frail or talentless by several religious orders, he became a wandering pilgrim. The Franciscan claim him as a Cordbearer, a Franciscan confraternity.

He lived among the poor and beggars, noted for his piety, especially his devotion to the Eucharist, and for sharing his food with the poor.

I read of St. Benedict Joseph many years ago and a friend told me of his devotion to this unlikely saint.

The visit to his tomb was for me a blessing – especially since the tomb and the church were bathed in sunlight.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Benedict Joseph shows us that holiness can be lived anywhere – and that we need to open our eyes and our hearts to those who appear the least likely to reflect the presence of the holiness of God.

In Mary, heaven breaks through

DSC04666Thursday and Friday in New York City I visited the Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. This time I was stuck by several images of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

In the Cloisters I came across a few images of the Virgin Mary, including one of my favorites – this Burgundian wooden statue made between 1130 and 1140.

What always struck me is that Christ is headless – incomplete – yet he is sitting on the lap of the Virgin Mary, the Seat of Wisdom.

But this time I noted another image from Spain, from about 1280-1300. What struck me is that both Mary and Jesus are smiling.


There is a deep joy that the unknown artist captured,


the joy that is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “that deepest freshness deep down things.”

Also in the Cloisters, in a series of carvings of the lives of Jesus and Mary, there is this image of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, depicting the scene from Luke’s Gospel.


Note that Elizabeth is gently touching the womb of her cousin.

Today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I got a new perspective at a painting I had seen before. It helped that I was there with two friends, who are sisters, and their children.

The painting comes from Florence in the early 1400s. Mary, with people at her knees, is touching her breast and saying to Jesus: “Dearest son, because of the milk I gave you, have mercy on them.” Jesus, in turn, asks the Father: “My father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the passion.”


What strikes me in all of this is how very human these images are – but how they open to all of us the transcendent nature of all that is. They show us that heaven breaks through in all creation.


One of the scenes of Good Friday that most touches me is Jesus being taken down from the Cross and laid in the arms of his mother.

There are two images that I would like to meditate on this year.

The first is Michelangelo’s Pietà in Florence. When I first saw it in 1973, in the Duomo of Florence, it deeply moved me, especially the emotion in the face of the man in the sculpture. Two years ago I encountered the sculpture again in the Duomo Museum in Florence. Though it is no longer in a place of prayer, it evokes prayer, more than the famous Pietà in the Vatican.


The second image is not exactly a Pietà. It is the image of a mother and her dead son in a memorial in the Neue Wache in Berlin. It is the work of Käthe Kollwitz, an artist and sculptor who identified with the cause of the poor and oppressed and opposed all war. The tragedy of the death of a son is evident in her hand holding her son’s.


As I meditate on these images I think of the mothers who have lost their children this year – to war, to illness, to preventable diseases.

Looking on them, may our hearts be opened to be filled with the mercy of God.

Like those in flight

… you shall eat
like those who are in flight.
Exodus 12: 11
(Douai Rheims translation)

 The instructions for the meal waiting for deliverance from slavery in Egypt were very clear. They were instructions for those who would soon flee.

Today I think of all those who are in flight in our world.

Those fleeing the poverty, unemployment, and violence in their home countries in Central America, looking for a better life.

Those fleeing the war and violence in the Middle East and Africa.

Those women and children fleeing situations of domestic violence.

Those fleeing the effects of floods and other disasters in nature.

Those fleeing persecution for speaking out for their rights and the rights of others.

Those trying to fleeing from prostitution or enslavement brought about by human traffickers.

The message of the Exodus is that their cries reach up to God.

But do their cries reach our ears?

Washing feet – diaconal service

If I, therefore, the master and teacher,
have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you,
you should also do.
John 13: 14-15

 DSC01489Central to the Holy Thursday liturgy is the washing of the feet. In many ways, this rite is central to my sense of mission.

When I was discerning about coming to Honduras as a lay missionary, my spiritual director asked me why. My immediate response was “to serve those most in need.”

Once a campus ministry colleague noted that my approach to ministry reflected Avery Dulles’ model of the church as servant, reflecting Christ as servant:

“just as Christ came into the world not to be served but to serve, so the Church, carrying on the mission of Christ, seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood of all men.”

Palm Sunday’s reading from Philippians is one that has shaped my life for many years:

 …he emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave…

Serving is central to who I am, central to my ministry, central to my following of Christ.

I am not always as “servicial” as I should be. I tend to do things as I want them to be done. As an introverted intellectual, I tend to retreat into ideas about service, rather than getting my hands dirty. I do not, as Pope Francis has advised us, smell like the sheep.

But it is the vision that impels me, that moves me, that gives me life. It is the spark that keeps me going.

Thus it was perhaps not surprising that last October our bishop, Monseñor Darwin Andino asked me if I would consider becoming a deacon.

I had my doubts and concerns – and I still have them. I will share some of them later. But after much prayer and study, after discussion with several close friends and spiritual advisers, after a month of discernment, I told the bishop that I was willing to go forward as a candidate for the diaconate in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.

As I read about the diaconate two things struck me.

First of all, the modern initiative for the diaconate as a permanent order began with discussions of priests in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. Struck by the failure of the church to respond to the evil of Nazism, several priests began to discuss how to enable the church to be more responsive. One of their ideas was to involve laymen involved in the world as deacons, ordained members of the Church.

Secondly, the Vatican decree on the mission activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, paragraph 16, provided one rationale for the reinstitution of the diaconate as not merely a transition to the priesthood:

Where episcopal conferences deem it opportune, the order of the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life according to the norms of the Constitution “De Ecclesia.”(23) For there are men who actually carry out the functions of the deacon’s office, either preaching the word of God as catechists, or presiding over scattered Christian communities in the name of the pastor and the bishop, or practicing charity in social or relief work. It is only right to strengthen them by the imposition of hands which has come down from the Apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar, that they may carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.

When I read that I saw something of myself in the person described. I am already carrying out many of the functions of a deacon – the ministry of the Word, of the altar, and of charity. The diaconate would add the sacramental grace of the diaconate and might aid me to be an animator of charity and justice.

And so, God willing, on Saturday, May 16, I will be received as a candidate for the diaconate. May God make me worthy to serve God, the Church, and the poor – with the love of Christ.

Please pray for me.

Mother Maria Skobtsova

Seventy years ago a Russian nun was killed in the gas chambers of the Ravensbruck concentration camp on March 31, 1945, Holy Saturday.

Mother Maria Skobtsova had fled Russia and lived in Paris, where she became a nun. But she did not live a cloistered life, but a life that embraced the world, especially the poor, for “each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.”

As a nun she fed and housed the destitute, especially caring for the many Russian émigrés. But many intellectual émigrés met in her home to consider the renewal of Orthodoxy.

A new phase of her life began with the German occupation of Paris. She began rescuing Jewish children from the Nazis, even hiding them in trash cans.

For her there was no barrier between worshipping God and serving God’s people. For her, the service of the poor was another way of recognizing the presence of God in our world.

“The meaning of the liturgy must be translated into life. It is why Christ came into the world and why He gave us our liturgy.”

May the example of Mother Maria Skobtsova move us to worship God and serve the poor.

A tribute to Mother Maria by Jim Forest can be found here.