Monthly Archives: February 2011

An extraordinary Jesuit archbishop

Archbishop Thomas Roberts, S.J., an English Jesuit bishop of Bombay [Mumbai], India, died on February 28, 1976. He had resigned from his see in 1950  in order to allow a native of India to become archbishop.

Archbishop Roberts was also a notable advocate of peace and opponent of nuclear weapons. His written intervention at the Second Vatican Council on conscientious objection to war is notable:

“What we must do here [at the Second Vatican Council] is to give clear testimony that the Church affirms the right of the individual conscience to refuse unjust military service and assure those of the Faithful, who bear such witness, that they will always have her full support. Once this has been done, martyrs like [Franz] Jägerstatter will never again have to feel that they take their stand alone.  . . . Perhaps the major scandal of Christianity for too many centuries now has been precisely that almost every war has allowed itself to become the moral arms of its own government, even in war later recognized as palpably unjust. Let us break with this tragic past by making a clear and unambiguous affirmation of the right and obligation of each Christian to obey the voice of his or her informed conscience before and during a time of war.”

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, did include a recognition of the right of conscientious objection to war and in 2007 Franz Jägerstëtter, killed for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army, was declared a blessed.

Archbishop Roberts was outspoken and, it seems, quite the character with a quirky sense of humor. I once read, in The Catholic Worker I think, about the time an obsequious Catholic met Archbishop Roberts and wanted to kiss his ring – a practice common before Vatican II. Noticing that the bishop wasn’t wearing the ring, the man asked the bishop where his ring was. “In my back pocket,” remarked Archbishop Roberts.


Holy indifference

Way back when I was in high school (in the early sixties) we were given a list of books to read over the summer. One that struck a chord was called More than Many Sparrows. I don’t remember much more than the name and the message that because we have a great value – made in the image and likeness of God – we don’t have to be anxious.

The message still hits home with me as I meditate on today’s Gospel, Matthew 6: 24-34. I tend to be a worrier, to want to have everything planned. But the message Jesus gives today is, “Don’t be anxious.”

But this is not a call to close oneself in, to forget about the cares of this world. It’s a call to develop the holy indifference that Saint Ignatius called for. But that word can be confusing.

Jesuit Father Dean Brackley, in The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, writes

“Indifference” means inner freedom. It is the capacity to sense and then embrace what is best, even when that goes against our inclinations…. It means being so passionately  and single-mindedly committed, so completely in love, that we are willing to sacrifice anything, including our lives for the ultimate goal. It means magnanimous generosity, abandonment into God’s hands, availability. It is not so much detachment from things as “detachability.” It means being like a good shortstop, ready to move in any direction at the crack of the bat.

Am I willing to follow Jesus’ admonition, “Set your heart first of the kingdom and the justice of God…”?

Am I willing to trust in the loving Providence of God?

That will mean commitment – but with a loving trust and freedom to serve. As Father Gustavo Gutiérrez comments on this Gospel,

…trusting God, who loves us like a mother, means placing our lives in the hands of God’s provident care and being free to serve him and the poor.

May I learn that trust and live that liberating service.

Bishops martyrs

In the twentieth century the church in Latin America suffered, mostly at the hand of military dictatorships. Many Christians – laity, sisters, priests, and even bishops  — suffered and were martyred for their commitment to justice.

Martyrdom for justice, though, is not something new. On February 26, 1550, in the  city of  León,  Nicaragua, the Dominican bishop, Antonio de Valdivieso, was killed, together with two other priests, by the son of the governor and some of his henchmen.

In the sixteenth century the Dominicans were outspoken in the Caribbean and Central America in their defense of the indigenous population and their condemnation of Spaniards who abused and enslaved them. Prominent among them was Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, bishop of Chiapas, who was one of the bishops who ordained Valdivieso as bishop.

Valdivieso advocated for the indigenous before the king of Spain. In 1545 he and de las Casas brought their cause before the Audiencia de las Confines in Gracias de Dios (now Gracias, Lempira), without much positive response. Indeed, both were called “cocinerillos de los monasterios” – little monastery cooks – by their opponents.

Las Casas returned for a short time to Chiapas   but left within two years to advocate for the indigenous at the Spanish Court.  Valdivieso, despite efforts to prevent him reached León and struggled for about five years, visiting his flock, trying to influence the governor, and writing letters to the King of Spain asking for justice for the indigenous.

He gave his life for the poor  and suffered martyrdom. Many in Central America continue to give their lives for the poor – and, even more importantly, many of the poor devote their lives to transform this world of injustice and poverty into a world more in line with the Kingdom of God, a reign of justice, love, and peace.

Cuban priest and patriot

On February 25, 1853, Felix Varela y Morales, a Cuban priest and patriot, died in Saint Augustine, Florida.

Born in Cuba in 1788, he became a priest there and was a notable professor in the university. He was in many ways ahead of his time, teaching in Spanish, instead of Latin, and using the inductive method in his attempt to help his students reconcile their faith and science. A patriot and advocate of Cuban independence from Spain, he studied law and constitutions and was made the chair of constitutional law in the university.

He was soon chosen by his students to go to Spain to represent Cuba at the Spanish Cortés where he advocated for the abolition of slavery in Cuba and the Caribbean and the end of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba.

Because of this he had to flee and ended up in New York in 1823. There he ministered to the many arriving immigrants from Ireland and Germany. He later obtained a doctorate in theology and was made Vicar General of the New York diocese.

He did not forget his homeland and established a newspaper, La Habanero, advocating Cuban independence. For his efforts he once had to confront an intended assassin whom he won over.

Ill, he retired to Saint Augustine, Florida, where he died, not having seen his homeland since he left in 1821 for Spain.

A remarkable man, he united faith and science, faith and politics, pastoral care and political advocacy, priesthood and work for justice. He was a man ahead of his times.

Power, the poor, and us

Today’s reading from Sirach 5 is a challenge to us North Americans:

Rely not on your wealth;
say not “I have the power.”
Rely not on your strength
in following the desires of your heart.

It’s so easy for us who have some wealth, power, and strength to rely on them, to think they will save us.

In 1980 when I was peace coordinator for the Vermont Ecumenical Council, I frequently quoted Psalm  33, 16-17:

A king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is no delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
and by its great power it cannot save.

A critical question for all of is, personally and as communities and nations, is where do we put our trust. So often we rely on wealth, power, and strength. We think they will save us.

But God looks at things in a different way.

On February 24, 2004, Sister Maria Augusta Neal, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, died at the age of 82. I met her once and read two of her books ages ago, A Socio-Theology of Letting Go: First World Church Facing Third World Peoples and The Just Demands of the Poor: Essays in Socio-Theology. A Harvard-trained sociologist with a deep love of the poor, she taught at Emmanuel College in Boston.

A quote of hers  that I saved reveals the wisdom that, unwittingly, I have learned here in Honduras:

The poor, who experience the injustice of the present system, are summoned by God to change that system. For the rich and the powerful, the summons is to let go.

Saint Polycarp

Today the Church remembers Polycarp, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, who was bishop of Smyrna in what is now Turkey.

He was active in combating heresies that denied the humanity of Christ and the authority of the Old Testament. Bu he is mostly remembered for his martyrdom and the account that has been handed down to us from his flock – one of the earliest written stories of the Christian martyrs.

Polycarp was arrested when he was about 86 years old. The Roman proconsul demanded that he recognize Cesar as Lord. Polycarp refused and was condemned to be burned at the stake. Because the fire did not consume him the executioner stabbed him to death. According to the account, so much blood flood that the fire was put out.

The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom was written to parallel the death of Jesus, trying to show that the martyrs were not reverenced for themselves, but as witnesses of Jesus, calling us to witness to the presence of the Lord, even in simple ways in our daily lives.

The White Rose

During the Second World War a few young people in Germany – Catholics, Lutherans, and Orthodox – decided that they must speak up against Nazism. They began secretly printing fliers and distributing them clandestinely.

Sophie and Hans Scholl and Cristoph Probst, members of “The White Rose,” were captured and executed by the Nazis on February 22, 1943. Others were later captured and executed.

They were ordinary young people, mostly in their early twenties, who decided that they could no longer acquiesce to the tyranny. As one of their pamphlets read: “We cannot remain silent. We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” They found simple but regime-threatening ways to speak the truth and try to mobilize others.

They overcame the fear of death that keeps most of Germany bound in slavery. (cf. Hebrews 2: 15). As Christopher Probst wrote in a farewell letter to his sister:

“I never knew dying is so easy… I die without any feeling of hatred… Never forget that life is nothing but a growing in love and a preparation for eternity.”

Characteristic of the faith that impelled them, Sophie Scholl wrote:

Isn’t it bewildering…that everything is so beautiful, despite all the horrors that exist? Lately I’ve noticed something grand and mysterious peering into my sheer joy in all that is lovely—the sense of a Creator whom innocent creation worships with its beauty. Only man can be hateful or ugly, because he possesses a free will to cut himself off from the chorus of praise. It often seems that he will succeed in drowning out this chorus with of his cannon thunder, curses and blasphemy. But it has become clear to me this spring that he cannot. And so I must try to throw myself on the side of the victor.

They are an inspiration for us when violence, war, and poverty weigh down on us. We too must try to throw ourselves of the side of the Victor – the suffering and risen savior.

A fairly recent film, Sophie Scholl, details the days before she and her brother were executed. I recommend it. See the note of Jim Forest on the film on his blog.

Jim Forest also has an excellent article on the White Rose with a special emphasis on Alexander Schmorell, an Orthodox member of the group, on the website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

St. Robert Southwell, S.J.

In the 16th century many Catholics were killed in English including many priests who had secretly entered England to care for the hidden Catholics.

One prominent Jesuit was Robert Southwell, a poet, who was hung on February 21, 1595. I few days ago I ran across this relatively unknown poem of his which has served as a good meditation on what I should value.


I dwell in Grace’s court,
Enriched with Virtue’s rights;
Faith guides my wit, Love leads my will,
Hope all my mind delights.

In lowly vales I mount
To pleasure’s highest pitch;
My silly shroud true honour brings;
My poor estate is rich.

My conscience is my crown,
Contented thoughts my rest;
My heart is happy in itself;
My bliss is in my breast.

Enough, I reckon wealth;
That mean, the surest lot,
That lies too high for base contempt,
Too low for envy’s shot.

My wishes are but few
All easy to fulfil;
I make the limits of my power
The bounds unto my will.

I fear no care for gold;
Well-doing is my wealth;
My mind to me an empire is,
While grace affordeth health.

I clip high-climbing thoughts,
The wings of swelling pride;
Their fall is worst that from the heigh
Of greatest honour slide.

Since sails of largest size
The storm doth soonest tear;
I bear so low and small a sail
As freeth me from fear.

I wrestle not with rage,
While fury’s flame doth burn;
It is in vain to stop the stream
Until the tide doth turn.

But when the flame is out,
And ebbing wrath doth end,
I turn a late enraged foe
Into a quiet friend.

And, taught with often proof,
A temper’d calm I find
To be most solace to itself,
Best cure for angry mind.

Spare diet is my fare,
My clothes more fit than fine;
I know I feed and clothe a foe,
That pamper’d would repine.

I envy not their hap
Whom favour doth advance;
I take no pleasure in their pain
That have less happy chance.

To rise by others’ fall
I deem a losing gain;
All states with others’ ruin built,
To ruin run amain.

No change of fortune’s calm
Can cast my comforts down;
When fortune smiles, I smile to think
How quickly she will frown.

And when, in froward mood,
She prov’d an angry foe;
Small gain I found to let her come, –
Less loss to let her go.

Conflict and civility

I, like many people, don’t like conflict. I like to have everything calm and peaceful, but conflict is a part of life, at times a necessary part.

Frederick Douglas (1817-1895), escaped slave, abolitionist, author, died on February 20, 1895. In a speech in 1857 he said:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
“I am not trying to abolish conflict. There is great value in healthy conflict. And the dangers of group-think are real. Conflict can inspire creative leadership. Where there are fundamental conflicts over values, they should not be ignored in a sentimental yearning for consensus. The problem in our communities today is not that we have conflict, but that we manufacture conflict and exaggerate differences to the point where it is very difficult to make meaningful change. Too often we abandon basic civility and cannot disagree without questioning the motives of our adversaries. Our standard as we debate should be similar to doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: ‘Do no harm.’ Disagree, but don’t tear the community apart as you do. “

Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus also saw the value of conflict:

“The Pope does not, of course, intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively. The Encyclical Laborem exercens [of Pope John Paul II] moreover clearly recognized the positive role of conflict when it takes the form of a ‘struggle for social justice’; Quadragesimo anno [of Pope Pius XI] had already stated that ‘if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice’.”

And so, let conflict flourish when it leads to justice, but let it be civil – and, if it is heated, let it be “generously angry,” a felicitous phrase from George Orwell’s reflection on Charles Dickens:

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer…. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”

Seeing beyond appearances

Today’s Gospel is Mark’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, where Jesus resplendent in light shows his divinity to three apostles on the mountain.

I find Mark’s Gospel sometimes includes simple, almost folksy, details that the other evangelists leave out.

When Matthew and Luke narrate the Transfiguration, they note that his clothes become “dazzling white.” But Mark adds, “such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.” In the feeding of the 5000, Jesus has the people sit down in groups not just on the grass, but “on the green grass” in Mark’s account.

In the Transfiguration – metamorphosis in Greek – the divinity of Jesus shines through his humanity. This is a very important insight for Eastern Christianity who speak of “divinization” and quote Saint Athanasius, “God became human so that humans may become ‘god-like’ God.”

For me, the Transfiguration is a reminder to look for the presence of God hidden – not only in the humanity of Jesus, but also in the works of God in this world – the green grass, the whitening power of bleach, the poor who struggle.