Monthly Archives: July 2011

Come out of the desert

Michael Harrington, socialist leader, died on July 31, 1989. His book The Other America, influenced the War on Poverty of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

His democratic socialism had roots in his Catholic upbringing and education, as well as his connections with the Catholic Worker. He once said, “I am a pious apostate, an atheist shocked by the faithlessness of the believers, a fellow traveler of moderate Catholicism who has been out of the church for 20 years.” A person of hope he wrote about the call to leave the desert and make the earth a home for all, especially the poor.

In his book Socialism he wrote:

“In desert societies — including the American Southwest — water is so precious that it is money. People connive and fight and die over it; governments covet it; marriages are even made and broken because of it. If one were to talk to a person who has known only that desert and tell him that in the city there are public water fountains and that children are even sometimes allowed to turn on the fire hydrants in the summer and to frolic in the water, he would be sure one were crazy. For he knows, with an existential certitude, that it is human nature to fight over water.

“Mankind has lived for several millennia in the desert. Our minds and emotions are conditioned by that bitter experience; we do not dare think things could be otherwise. Yet there are signs that we are, without really having planned it that way, marching out of the desert. There are some who are loathe to leave behind the consolation of familiar brutalities; there are others who in one way or another would like to impose the law of the desert upon the Promised Land. It may even be possible that mankind cannot bear too much happiness.

“It is also possible that we will seize this opportunity and make of the earth a homeland rather than an exile. That is the social project. It does not promise, or even seek, to abolish the human condition, for that is impossible. It does propose to end that invidious competition and venality which, because scarcity allowed no other alternatives, we have come to think are inseparable from our humanity.”

U.S. martyr in Guatemala

Fr. Stanley Rother, U.S. missionary priest from Oklahoma, was martyred, in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, on July 28, 1981. A simple priest, he was loved by the people who experienced the massive repression that the indigenous people in Guatemala suffered for decades. Although he was not given to prophetic pronouncements, he worked hard with the indigenous in his parish, helping them and participating in their projects. He once said, “To reach out your hand to an indigenous person is a political act.”

After his death his body was sent back to the US but, at the request of the parishioners, his heart was left in the church he had served for many years.

Father Stan was an unlikely martyr, except for the fast that he stood firm, in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. In a Christmas letter months before he was killed he wrote:

“A nice compliment was given to me recently when a supposed leader in the Church and town was complaining that ‘Father is defending the people.’ He wants me deported for my sin.

“This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger. Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”


A Dutch priest, witness against Nazism

In the early 1960s I became aware of the Holocaust and was somewhat concerned about the lack of opposition by many in the church. And so I have been fascinated by the stories of those witnesses who spoke up and often gave their lives to speak out against Nazism and the Holocaust. Thus I deeply respect people like the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp, Sophie Scholl and the other young members of the White Rose, the Austrian peasant conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer, and many others.

Fr. Titus Brandsma, O.Carm., was a Dutch priest, theologian, and journalist, who continued to speak out against Nazism even when it became dangerous. As a journalist he advised Catholic publications in Holland not to publish Nazi ads or propaganda. After the Dutch bishops spoke out against Nazi policies, he and others were arrested. He killed by lethal injection by the Nazis, at Dachau, Germany, on July 26, 1942.

A Carmelite, raised in the mystic tradition of Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, he combined a deep spirituality with a passion to tell the truth, even if it was costly for, as he wrote, “The cross is a blessing from which we should not flee.”

Thus we need to be saints, even if it costs our lives – as it did his – for, as he would say, “the sanctification” of the world:

“If we consider the intercession of a saint or the influence of a soul favored by God as a special grace from heaven, then we can equally consider it a disaster if such saints do not cross our path of life, if we miss the sweet influence which a chosen soul could exert on us. All Catholics should be so saintly that God through them could sanctify millions, just as He would have saved cities like Sodom and Gomorrah for a few just men.”

He was beatified in 1985.

The joy of letting go

“so happy is he
that he goes and sells everything he has”
Matthew 13, 44

 Reading today’s Gospel I was struck by the joy with which the person sells everything. The Christian Community Bible translation puts it so beautifully and starkly:

“The one who finds [the treasure hidden in a field] buries it again, and so happy is he that he goes and sells everything he has, in order to buy that field.”

I have not sold everything. I have boxes (mostly of books) stored with friends in the US. But when I decided that God was calling me here to Honduras a little more than four years ago, I was faced with the question of what to do with all I had.

And so I sold and gave away a lot. (I didn’t give it all to the poor, though, but put some in savings for the future.) It was hard to part with some things but gradually it became easier.

It became especially easy when I decided that on my 60th birthday – two weeks because I left for Honduras – I’d have a party and invite friends to come and take away something – mostly some things I prized in some way (textiles, prints, art work) but wanted to give away to people I knew.

Somehow I was freed up to be able to distance myself from most of what I had, I was able to let go of many of my possessions.

And so the joy that the person in the parable experiences, the joy that led him to sell all, is something that I can recognize and appreciate.

It is the joy of the Reign of God. As Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote in his commentary on today’s Gospel, in Sharing the Word of God through the Liturgical Year  (Orbis Books, 1997):

Joy is the reaction which corresponds to the grace of the kingdom. Selling all that we have does not mean doing that begrudgingly, as if it were a sacrifice. It should be a spontaneous gesture, something that we gladly do because we have discovered something which gives meaning to our lives.

What more can I let go of – with joy?

Prophetic women saints

Today the Catholic Church honors St. Bridget of Sweden. She is but one of several medieval queens and princes who are noted, not only for their holiness but also for their profound care for the poor.

Like St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Elizabeth of Portugal she shared her goods with the poor and personally cared for the poor and sick.

St. Bridget was also a mystic, with a deep love for the suffering Christ. Like other women mystics, including St. Rose of Lima, her love for Christ flowed out into a deep love for the poor.

Also, like St. Catherine of Siena, her mysticism found its parallel in an acute prophetic stance, especially in regard to the papacy and their abandonment of Rome for Avignon. She was not slow to call Pope Clement VI “a destroyer of souls, worse than Lucifer, more unjust than Pilate, and more merciless than Judas.”

St. Bridget had eight children and lived a happy married life with her husband, Ulf Gudmarrson. After he died, after 28 years of married life together, she entered a convent but soon started her own religious order, the Brigittines, which combined men and women religious living in separate houses but worshipping together.

Her mystical writings are many, filled with responses to interesting questions, such as “Why do animals suffers, though they cannot revel?”

In Benedictine Daily Prayer,  the reading for Vigils includes one of her prayers. These lines struck me:

Joy and eternal praise be yours, Lord Jesus, for sending the Holy Spirit into the disciples’ hearts and filling them with limitless love for God.

The Lord filled her with a love of God which flowed out into a deep love for the poor and sick and was not loathe to challenge the unjust and sinful.

A good woman – like so many others.

She is one of the women patrons of Europe with Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein.


A South African leader

A few days ago, the world celebrated Nelson Mandela, the leader of the liberation of South Africa. But he was not the first South African black leader.

Chief Albert Luthuli, South African black leader, advocate of nonviolence, winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, died on July 21, 1967. A deeply religious man, he wrote:

“Law and conditions that tend to debase human personality — a God-given force — be they brought about by the State or individuals, must be relentlessly opposed in the spirit of defiance shown by St. Peter when he said to the rulers of his day: ‘Shall we obey God or man?’ ”

“It is inevitable that in working for freedom some individuals and some families must take the lead and suffer: the road to freedom is via the cross.”

Defender of the indigenous in the Americas

Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Dominican friar, bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, protector of Indians, died on July 18, 1566, in Spain where he was advocate for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

He had come to the Americas as an adventurer and, though a priest, participated in the encomienda system in Cuba, where he had indigenous as his fiefs. But a conversion led him to renounce the privileges, to join the Dominicans, and to begin to advocate for the rights of the indigenous people.

He was appointed bishop of Chiapas but did not serve there long because the Spanish there revolted against his defense of the indigenous and his refusal to grant absolution to anyone who held slaves.

He then went to the Spanish court where he wrote and advocated for the rights of the native peoples and provided several historical accounts of the plight of the indigenous in the Americas.

He was a prophetic voice whose words are challenging even today:

“All the gold and silver, all the pearls and other riches that you have extracted from this New World is robbery and must be returned to its rightful owners. Otherwise, those who have pillaged and stripped the land will have to respond before the divine tribunal. If these stolen goods are not restored, you cannot be saved.”

And thus, he would say, we have an obligation:

“All of us, great and small, educated, uneducated, ruler and ruled, public or private individual, all of us are bound unconditionally to help the oppressed, to help those suffering under violence, injury, any evil, with whatever power we have, official or personal.”



Fr. Lawrence Martin Jenco, O.S.M., Servite priest, was a hostage in Lebanon. The experience did not harden him but opened him up to a deep forgiveness. As he wrote in Bound to Forgive:

“Some people advise me to forgive and forget. They do not realize that this is almost impossible. Jesus, the wounded healer, asks us to forgive, but he does not ask us to forget. That would be amnesia. He does demand we heal our memories.
“I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities.”

He died in Illinois, on July 17, 1996.

Faithfulness in little things

“One becomes holy only by doing common things well and being constantly faithful in small things.”
St. Bonaventure 

St. Bonaventure (c. 1218-1274) was minister general of the Franciscans in a critical time for the order, just a few decades after the death of St. Francis. A philosopher and theologian he was a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was made a bishop and cardinal shortly before his death at the Council of Lyons where he was influential in the effort to unite the Western Church with the Orthodox Church, a union which lasted only a few years. He was named a doctor of the church of his writings, particularly on the mystical life.

But despite his education he seems to have preserved the simplicity and humility of a “lesser brother.” It is said that when the pope’s representatives arrived with the cardinal’s hat they had to wait until Bonaventure finished washing the dishes.


Lily of the Mohawks

Today is the feast day of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, virgin, Iroquois, Lily of the Mohawk. She was born and raised in what is now upper New York state. Orphaned at an early age, smallpox marred her face and severely limited her vision.  When a Jesuit missionary visited she sought to be baptized in the faith of her mother. She became a Catholic at the age of twenty and then, because of the pressure, left for a Catholic mission near Montreal, Canada. She died April 17 1680 in Caughnawaga, Canada, at the age of twenty-four. She is the first native American region recognized as a blessed.

“I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love. The state of helpless poverty that may befall me if I do not marry does not frighten me. All I need is a little food and a few pieces of clothing. With the work of my hands I shall always earn what is necessary and what is left over I’ll give to my relatives and to the poor. If I should become sick, and unable to work, then I shall be like the Lord on the cross. He will have mercy on me and help me, I am sure.”