Monthly Archives: October 2012

God, weak and compassionate

[Every High Priest] is able to deal gently
with those who are ignorant and those going astray
since he himself is subject to weakness.
Hebrews 5:2

 We so often want a strong God, a God who will solve all our problems, defeat our enemies, and put us in positions of power.

But Jesus shows Himself as a God who is willing to be weak – and thus shows us the compassion of God.

As Jeremiah 31: 7-9 says of the Lord God, who brings back the remnant from exile, he will “gather them from the ends of the earth, the lame and the blind, mothers and women in labor.”

And so, in today’s Gospel, Mark 10: 46-52, we see Jesus giving sight to the blind Bartimaeus, whose name can mean ironically “son of honor” or, perhaps more appropriately, “son of fear.”

What I think is often missed in this story is the context. Jesus is going up to Jerusalem, the center of power, where he will experience conflict and ultimately the extreme of powerlessness, his crucifixion. He is “on the way.”

Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by and pleads for mercy. Despite the efforts of people to have him shut up, Bartimaeus continues to plead.

Jesus, filled with compassion,  hears and Bartimaeus is told: “Take heart – courage! Get up! He is calling!”

Jesus heals Bartimaeus and sends him on his way, “Go your way.”

But what is the way Bartimaeus follows?

The Gospel tells us, “he followed Jesus on the way.”

What is the way that Jesus is walking?

Jesus is walking to his death, to the powerlessness of the Cross. He will be raised up, but only after suffering, giving himself up, adhering firmly and gently to His mission, of being “good news to the poor.”

So often we want the resurrection without the cross, the glory without the suffering, the honor without the identification with the poor,  the exaltation without the identifying ourselves with the emptiness of Jesus (Philippians 2: 7).

And so today, will I be like Bartimaeus, asking to be healed, but taking this healing as a call to open myself to suffering with Christ Jesus – in the poor and the marginalized of this world?

What is the way I will follow?


I urge you to walk worthily
of the call
to which you have been called.
Ephesians 4:1 

Often, in Catholic circles, the word “vocation” has been restricted to vocations to the priesthood or religious life. However, our calling comes from our baptism and we all have a vocation, a calling.

I have long tried in my ministry to inspire people with a vision of life as vocation, as calling.

When I was a campus minister I would often include this quote from Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking, in my talk for the student retreat called Antioch:

      [Vocation] comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work one is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
Neither the hairshirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger meet.

I still think this description of vocation as the intersection of the world’s needs and your joy is an important insight. But I think it lacks at least one aspect of vocation, every true call has a communal dimension.

I believe that a true vocation needs to be within a community, for the sake of the common good. Otherwise, we can fool ourselves.

As I thought about coming here to Honduras over five years ago, an important part of the discernment process was consultation with others – not only the bishop here in Santa Rosa de Copán, not only my spiritual director and several close friends, but also with the St. Thomas Aquinas Church community in Ames.

A calling is not just about my joy, or even just about the needs of the world. It is about serving in and with the Body of Christ, as Paul notes in today’s first reading, Ephesians 4: 1-6.

Let there be one body and one spirit, for God,
in calling you, gave the same Spirit to all.

Father Dean Brackley

Last year, on October 16, Jesuit Father Dean Brackley died in El Salvador. Dean joined the faculty of the Central American University in San Salvador after six Jesuits were killed there in 1989.

I got to know him there – and I would occasionally try to have visitors visit with him. Here’s a part of a reflection he wrote, “Meeting the Victims, Falling in Love”:

These people [the poor] shake us up because they bring home to us that things are much worse in the world than we dared to imagine. But that is only one side of the story: If we allow them to share their suffering with us, they communicate some of their hope to us as well. The smile that seems to have no foundation in the facts is not phony; the spirit of fiesta is not an escape but a recognition that something else is going on in the world besides injustice and destruction. The poor smile because they suspect that this something is more powerful than the injustice. When they insist on sharing their tortilla with a visiting gringo, we recognize there is something going on in the world that is more wonderful than we dared to imagine.

It seems that the victim offers us the privileged place (although not the only place) to encounter the truth which sets us free. The poor usher us into the heart of reality. They bring us up against the world and ourselves all at once. To some extent, we all hold reality at arm’s length — fending off intolerable parts of the world with one hand and intolerable parts of ourselves with the other. The two go together. As a rule, our encounters with the world place us in touch with internal reality, as well. In particular, when the world’s pain crashes in upon us in the person of the victim, the encounter dredges up from within us the parts of ourselves that we had banished. The outcast outside us calls forth the outcast within us. This is why people avoid the poor. But meeting them can heal us. We will only heal our inner divisions if we are also working to heal our social divisions.
The victims of history — the destitute, abused women, oppressed minorities, all those the Bible calls “the poor” — not only put us in touch with the world and with ourselves, but also with the mercy of God. There is something fathomless about the encounter with the poor, as we have said — like the opening of a chess game with its infinite possibilities. If we let them, the poor will place us before the abyss of the holy Mystery we call God. They are a kind of door that opens before that Mystery.



Being a missionary

I often identify myself as a lay missionary, since I have left my homeland and try to serve the people of God in western Honduras, in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

But, soon after arriving here, I was gently put in my place. I introduced myself as a missionary to the people assembled at Mass in the church of San Martín de Porres. The priest presiding at the Mass, Padre Fausto Milla, reminded me that we are all called to be missionaries.

I soon learned that many of the people of the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán do identify their role as missionaries, which was reaffirmed strongly at the 2007 Latin American Bishops’Conference in Aparecida, Brazil, where the bishops called on all of us to be “disciples and missionaries.”

In my work in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María I find that many people see their role as missionaries, spreading the faith to other members of their villages, inviting them to join their base communities. Also, once a month the pastoral teams from some villages visit other nearby villages to lead the Celebration of the Word.

The people do have a missionary spirit, though I sometimes think it is too confined to church work. I thus often urge them to see their role as missionaries in their homes, where they work, and to the larger world.

On October 13, 1964, Madeleine Delbrêl,  a French Catholic lay woman died. She had founded équipes (small core groups) of women living simply in community and was an advocate of peace and of dialogue with the Communists.

She saw her world of missionary activity in the streets of Ivry, France, where she lived.

She once wrote:

 We, the ordinary people of the streets, believe that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness.

God is not encountered only in foreign lands; God is encountered in our daily lives and work. There we are called to show forth the marvelous beauty of God’s presence – in the joys and sorrows of the people we encounter, in the little things of daily life.

As Thomas Merton once wrote:

A saint preaches sermons by the way he walks and talks; the way he picks up things and holds them in his hands.

Today is a good day to reaffirm my sense of being a missionary – wherever I am. Today, in Ames, Iowa, where I am visiting and in two weeks back in Dulce Nombre de Copán, Honduras.


Called out of great love

This morning, reading the Christian Community Bible translation of the first lectionary reading, Galatians 1:13-24, I was struck by the translation of verse 15:

But one day God called me out of his great love.

The word translated as love, χάρις, is usually translated as grace, though dictionaries also give mercy or kindness as its meaning, though it is also etymologically related to charity.

God called Paul, one day, out of great love, as he calls us.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates Blessed John Henry Newman, a nineteenth century convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism.

A brilliant professor at Oxford, he had to leave his position because his interpretation of part of Anglican doctrine seemed too Catholic. As a result he set out to prove that the tradition of the Church was held onto by the Anglican tradition, in the face of changes by Catholicism. He came to the opposite conclusion, published  On the Development of Doctrine,  and was received into the Catholic Church on October 9, 1845.

In the Catholic Church his intellectual honesty led him to be suspect by the more conservative members of the English Catholic Church. But he persisted in his work and tried to be a voice amid the factionalism of the Catholci Churhc in England.  He was, surprisingly, made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.

Cardinal Newman has been taken as a patron for Catholic campus ministry in the United States, where many Catholic student centers on secular campuses are called Newman Centers.

A few years ago, a friend shared this reflection of Cardinal Newman, which reflects the sense of Paul’s comments to the Galatians:

God has created me to do Him some definite service.
He has committed some work to me
which he has not committed to another.
I have a mission.
I may never know it in this life
but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain,
a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught.

I shall do good — I shall do His work;
I shall be an angel of peace,
a preacher of truth in my own place,
while not intending it,
if I but keep His commandments.

Therefore I will trust Him.
Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.
If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him.
In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him.
If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.

He does nothing in vain.
He knows what He is about.
He may take away my friends.
He may throw me among strangers.
He may make me feel desolate,
make my spirits sink,
hide my future from me —
still He knows what He is about.


A journalist of the poor

There are many types of journalists.

Some are spokespersons for those in power and report only what supports the continuation of their friends. They may be tempted by their access to power, to privilege.

Some only look for the strange and titillating, whether it be macabre deaths or the sex lives of the rich and famous.

But there are those who take their calling as journalists seriously and seek to find out what is really happening, in service of the truth.

Their writing challenges the status quo.

This can be dangerous. In Honduras in the last three years, 25 journalists have been killed, many for speaking out against political corruption, structural injustice, and organized crime.

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1989 of a US journalist who dared to speak the truth, Penny Lernoux.

She worked in Latin America and laid bare the structures of injustice in society and the church but even more she told the stories of the poor and those who cast their lot with the poor, especially in her first book, Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America — The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy.

But she was not one to just show up at press conferences or to get stories from US Embassies or government spokespersons. She listened to the poor where they lived. As she wrote:

It was through them that I became aware of and entered into another world — not that of the U.S. Embassy or the upper classes, which comprise the confines of most American journalists, but the suffering and hopeful world of the slums and peasant villages. The experience changed my life, giving me a new faith and a commitment as a writer to tell the truth of the poor to the best of my ability.

That brought her back to a practice of her Catholic faith and a deep understanding of the power of the powerless Christ. As she wrote:

 You can look at a slum or a peasant village… but it is only by entering into that world — by living in it — that you begin to understand what it is like to be powerless, to be like Christ.

Penny Lernoux’s challenge is to see the world through the eyes of the poor, to enter their lives to be with them in their joys and struggles.

It is the challenge that begins with the story of the Good Samaritan that is today’s Gospel (Luke 10: 25-37):

seeing the man who fell among thieves,
being moved by compassion,
going near,
touching the man,
pouring out oil and wine over wounds,
and lifting him up to take him
to a place of healing and rest.

 The priest and Levite looked on from afar; but the Samaritan drew near. So did Penny Lernoux. And so are we called to draw near.

This entry, as many others, owes much to Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.



A Catholic politician, defender of the poor

Blessed Alberto Marvelli died on October 5, 1946, was killed at the age of 28, hit by a truck while bicycling to a meeting of the Christan Democratic Party in Rimini, of which he was a leader.

Born and raised in Rimini, Italy, his mother was a major influence in his life – not only for her piety but for her openness to the poor. At times she would take half of Alberto’s meal and give it to the poor. “Jesus has come and he is hungry,” she would say.

He studied in the Salesian oratory in Rimini and later obtained an engineering degree at Bologna University.

He was active in Catholic Action in Rimini and at the university. One of his major concerns was caring for the poor.

After graduating he worked for a while with Fiat.

During the Second World War his family moved out of Rimini, but Alberto would bicycle into the city after the air raids, rescuing people and bringing supplies for the hungry and homeless. He at times returned home without his shoes or bicycle, because he had given them to the poor.

But there is one story about him that touches me deeply. At times during the war he would go to the railroad station, cut the locks on the trains that were carrying people to concentration camps, and letting them go free. One of the rescuers! What courage!

After the war he was put in charge of allocating housing in the ravaged city, where he soon was named a town councilor. he even opened  a soup kitchen.

After the war he joined the Christian Democratic Party, because he saw politics as a way of being faithful and of seeking justice. He was respected by all, even by the Communists. One of them said, “I don’t mind if my Party loses. So long as the Engineer Marvelli becomes mayor”.

He sounds almost larger than life. But I think there may be others like him, hidden sources of love and identification with the poor, who keep our world from falling into chaos.

I found it hard to find many quotes from him, but here’s one to think about:

What a great deal of work is needed in this world which is so far from Christ; it is necessary for us to offer sacrifices; we must act to the utmost of our strength to make Christ known and loved. It is the call of duty we are urged by, and we are obliged to realize it.

Blessed Alberto, pray for us that God may give us courage to be true to God and the poor.

Francis, the Little Poor Man of Assisi

Today the world celebrates the feast of Francis of Assisi, the Little Poor Man of Assisi, whose life has inspired so many. Born into a merchant family, he abandoned privilege and saw his calling as a follower of Christ Jesus, God who became poor.

At times, his radical message has been hidden behind bird-bath statues and biographies that hide his challenge to the Church and the world. (Paul Moses, in The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, looks for the real story of Francis and the Sultan, hidden by some early biographers.)

Francis appeals to many because of his love of all creation; but his deep love for the poor and the outcast, his embrace of the leper, and his call to love one’s enemies sometimes gets lost in the sentimental Francis of the birds and fishes.

Recently I’ve run across two books on Francis from Protestant sources: Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale and Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis, and Life in the Kingdom. Francis’s radical living of the Gospel moved these and other authors.

But what is Francis’s message for us today?

A few years ago, a Conventual Franciscan friar told me that the three Franciscan male orders each has emphasized a different aspect of the message of Francis. He suggested, if I remember correctly, that the Friars Minor emphasize “minoritas” – being the “lesser” brothers, identified with the outcast and lower classes; the Conventuals emphasize community; and the Capuchins, poverty. That was helpful.

For me Francis is one who sought to follow Christ as a poor man, spreading the Good News of Jesus by a life of radical commitment, which meant embracing Lady Poverty. Thus, Carlo Carretto’s I, Francis, really speaks to me.

I am far from living the poverty he did and from following the Gospel with such great abandon. But Francis is a light in the midst of darkness.

As Francis was a sign of God’s kingdom in the midst of a medieval Church that had become corrupt and identified with power, violence, and riches, Francis offered a vision of the power of humility, nonviolence, and poverty.

So today we need to recall his identification with the humble, nonviolent, and poor Savior, so that we may be signs of hope for our world.

This coming February I’m hoping to get to Assisi and so I’ll be reading a lot about Francis this year. I pray that this may help me live out my calling better, filled with love for the poor Christ and the poor whom I daily encounter.




The Church, the Poor, and Carlo Carretto

Carlo Carretto, Little Brother of the Gospel, follower of Charles de Foucauld, died on October 3, 1988.

I read his Letters from the Desert soon after it was first published in 1972. I bought copies and handed it out to friends. In this book, Little Brother Carlo wrote of his desert retreat as he began his life as a Little Brother after being a leader of Catholic Action in Italy. He felt called to the desert spirituality of Charles de Foucauld who lived among the poorest of the poor in Algeria.

His writings have continued to nourish me, especially his first person account of St. Francis of Assisi, I, Francis.  It is probably not a coincidence that he died on the very same day as St. Francis did in 1226.

In his last years he wrote a number of books that challenged the church, but he was quick to say, “No, I shall not leave this Church, founded on so frail a rock, because I should be founding another one on an even frailer rock: myself.”

But he sought a church that was poor, that accompanied the poor. He was especially disturbed by those who dream of a triumphant church in this world. (I wonder what he would say about the church today.)

The true Church is the Church of the defeated, of the weak, of the poor, of those on the fringe of society.

It is a pity that the great gatherings of Christians too often take place in St. Peter’s Square, where Bernini, son of a pagan period sick with triumphalism, designed everything as a triumph.

We must beware!…

In that square there is no sign of the Church’s agony, of human agony … and everything may go wrong if I forget the reality, even when everything seems on the surface to be fine.

Rallies of Christians are more suitable in hospitals, in prisons, in shanty towns, in mental homes, where people cry, where people suffer, where the devastation of sin is being physically endured, sin in the form of the arrogance of the rich and the powerful.

Jesus’ face is there and reveals itself there because it is there that “the lost” are to be sought and saved (Luke 19:10)

Let’s go there with Carlo – and see Christ.

Gandhi and the courage we need

On October 2, 1869, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi was born in India. He is now known as Mohandas – the Great Souled One.

In the late 1960s I read Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Non-violence which has a marvelous essay by Merton, “Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant,”  followed by quotations from Gandhi.

What I most remember is Gandhi’s insistence on courage.

Gandhi had more respect for a soldier who risked his life in battle than for a supposedly nonviolent person who fled in the face of violence and conflict. He would rather a person fight with a weapon than flee, especially in the face of injustice.

A coward cannot be trained as a satyagrahi, a nonviolent activist, but a soldier could.

 It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

But how to train to become a non-violent person? Gandhi’s response is simple, though not all that easy:

Nonviolent persons will get all their training through nursing the sick, saving those in danger at the risk of their own life, patrolling places which may be in fear of thieves and rioters, and in laying down their lives, in necessary, in dissuading them from their purpose. The first and last shield and buckler of nonviolent persons will be their unwavering faith in God.

This Hindu man may have been one of the few persons in the twentieth century who really knew what the sermon on the mount was about and then lived it – without becoming a Christian.

He, like Dorothy Day, put his life on the line and lived for and with the poor and in the process preached a sermon on nonviolence that we need to hear today.