Monthly Archives: April 2013

St. Catherine of Siena – mystic activist

Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.
John 14: 21

From her early childhood, Catherine of Siena had intense mystical experiences of God’s love. She devoted herself to prayer and contemplation.

But at one point she experienced God’s call to leave the comfort of the contemplative life to show God’s love to others. She resisted but finally she found God in caring for the poor, preaching penance to great crowds of people, working for peace, and castigating lax church leaders, and goading the pope to return to Rome from the “Avignon captivity.”

Recalling her own reluctance to leave the quiet of her cell, she wrote to those who wished to cling to their personal consolation:

These people find all their pleasure in seeking their own spiritual consolation — so much so that often they see their neighbors in spiritual or temporal need and refuse to help them… But they are deceived by their own spiritual pleasure, and they offend me more by not coming to the help of their neighbors’ need than if that had abandoned all their consolations.

God’s revelations and consolations are not for ourselves, but are a call to love God and neighbor. As a wise Jesuit priest once asked me on a retreat, “Are you seeking the God of consolation or the consolation of God?”

Catherine of Siena experienced deeply the love of God and had a strong devotion to the Passion of Christ, But she ultimately wore herself out in her work for peace and for the unity and reform of the church – as well as by her harsh ascetic practice. She died in Rome on April 29, 1380, at the age of thirty-three. She is buried under the main altar of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

As Robert Ellsberg well puts it:

What was distinctive about Catherine was the way she mediated through her own heart the burning love of Christ and the needs of her time.

The tomb of St. Catherine of Siena

The tomb of St. Catherine of Siena

The end of the world as we know it

It’s the end of the world as we know it
and I feel fine.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.
The former heaven
and the former earth had passed away.
Revelation 21: 1

 Today’s second reading from Revelation, reflecting Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Isaiah 25: 6-8, is one of my favorite passages, full of hope.

The promise that “God will wipe every tear from their eyes” always touches me deeply. We have a compassionate God who wants and promises something altogether different, altogether new.

When I spoke at the Antioch retreat for college students at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, Iowa, I often recalled this passage and connected it with R.E.M.’s somewhat mysterious song which seems to reflect the problems of the old world and its values:

… world serves its own needs,
dummy serve your own needs…

… Save yourself, serve yourself.
World serves its own needs…

If it is the end of the world as we know it, with all its injustice and selfishness rampant, if a new heaven and a new earth are promised, that can help us live in a different way in the midst of the old earth.

But, if God is making all things new, how do we respond?

I think a verse from today’s Gospel, John 13: 34, offers us the way.

I give you a new commandment:
love one another.
As I have loved you,
so you also should love one another.

If we begin to live this new call to love, we will begin to offer signs of the new heavens and the new earth in the midst of the world as we know it.

And we will begin to feel fine – even if loving hurts, for our God present with us will wipe away all our tears.

Guatemala’s Martyred Bishop, Juan Geradi

The history of Central America, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, is bloody. Many know of the violence in El Salvador, partly because of the killings of Archbishop Romero and the four US women missionaries in 1980, partly because of the overt US support of the government and military – in the mid-1980s at a rate of about one million US dollars a day.

The history of Guatemalan oppression is much less known, though it is bloodier and lasted longer. After the war was over, the Guatemalan Archdiocesan Human Rights Office supported the Recovery of Historical Memory Project [REMHI], to investigate the killings. The project released a report that implicated the Guatemalan government and military in 90% of the 200,000 plus killings and disappearances.

Guatemala City auxiliary bishop Juan Gerardi led the investigation and spoke at the release of the report. He had experienced the repression first hand when he was bishop of Santa Cruz de Quiché. The violence got so bad that he and the priests withdrew from the diocese, partly at the urging of the people. He went into exile but later returned.

Two days after the REMHI report was released, Bishop Gerardi was killed on April 26, 1988, fifteen years ago today.

When he reported the findings of the REMHI report on April 24, 1998, he noted the importance of the report and the dangers in releasing such information:

We want to contribute to the building of a country different than the one we have now.  For that reason we are recovering the memory of our people.  This path has been and continues to be full of risks, but the construction of the Reign of God has risks and can only be built by those that have the strength to confront those risks.

Even today there are dangers as can be noted in the trial of former Guatemalan general and president Rios Montt, which was revealing more of the massacres of indigenous peoples. The status of the trial is unsure now. For more information, look at the Central American Politics blog of a friend and University of Scranton professor, Mike Allison.

Impunity for crimes against the poor and indigenous are not uncommon in Latin America.

But that means that we are called even more to practice the virtue of solidarity, that is, as Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [On Social Concern], paragraph 28, wrote, the “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….”

This is not something political, nor is it merely the social aspect of our faith. Solidarity is, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “an encounter with God.”

Bishop Gerardi put it more starkly, on March 10, a few weeks before his martyrdom:

We ought to reflect on the suffering of Christ in his Mystical Body. That means, that if the poor person is not part of our life, then, perhaps, Christ is not part of our life.

El sufrimiento de Cristo en su cuerpo místico es algo que nos debe hacer reflexionar. Es decir, si el pobre está fuera de nuestra vida, entonces quizás, Jesús está fuera de nuestra vida.

May Christ – present in the suffering and the poor, in the crucified peoples of this world – become ever more central to our lives.

Casting out demons

Because our imaginations have been formed by films like “The Exorcist” (which I’ve never seen) and by artistic representations of hell or the last judgment like Michelangelo’s, we have this image of Satan as a positive force that seeks to do evil.

There is some truth to this, as Peter writes in today’s first reading (1 Peter 5:8)

Your opponent the Devil is prowling around
like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.

But the image of the devil as tormentor and tempter can sometimes lead us to forget that Satan is the accuser or the one who hinders.

One of my favorite passages from the Book of Revelation (12: 10b) is found in Thursday’s Evening Prayer:

For the accuser of our brothers is cast out
who night and day accused them before the Lord.

I am not exactly sure what this means, but to me it suggests that the power of God, his loving mercy, outwits the power of the Accuser to think that we are beyond God’s loving mercy, that we are identified by our sinfulness.

But the image of the devil as the one who hinders us touches me even more.

The Hinderer keeps us from being what God wants us to be, from being God’s people, a people of love and hope. The Hinderer keeps us paralyzed with fear, with a sense of powerlessness.

I think Pope Francis, in an early Twit, spoke to this point:

We ought not fear the Evil One when he tells us that we cannot do anything to confront violence, injustice, and sin.

The forces of evil do not have the final word. They are not all-powerful.

Rather, as disciples of Christ, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Mark 16: 17):

in my Name, you will cast out demons

What are the demons that need to be cast out of our lives, of our world?

I would suggest that they are the demons of Satan the Hinderer who concentrates on the evil, who makes us feel powerless in the face of injustice and violence, who takes away our hope.

But the message of Jesus is that He, the Risen One, has trampled down evil, gives us a vision of justice and peace to spur us onward, and gives us hope.

And so, we can – with His love – cast out demons as begin to live as children of God.

Cesar Chávez and servanthood

Twenty years ago today, Cesar Chávez died. A founding organizer of the United  Farm Workers, he did much to improve the lot of migrant farm workers. He was also a man of deep faith and simplicity as well as an advocate of nonviolence.

He loved the Church and challenged the church to be what it should be – a sign of God’s Kingdom and an advocate of the poor.

He once said:

What do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches of fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.

This is a theme that, I believe, is central to our mission as followers of Jesus.

At his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis noted:

Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.

It was also at the heart of Martin Luther King’s vision, which was well stated in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon:

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving.

May we be servants, also, serving God and all God’s people, especially the poor.


Stinking sheep

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday when we contemplate Christ the Good Shepherd.


Yet, sheep stink, at least two friends have confirmed.

We have this image of cuddly lambs – but sheep stink.

In the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis said that the church needs “shepherds living ‘with the smell of the sheep,’ shepherds in the midst of their flock…”


You shall know the real shepherds by their smell and by their willingness to live with the smells of their flocks.

I know what this means when I give a ride to a campesino whose clothes give off an odor of sweat from working under the hot sun in his cornfield, when I sit next to a woman who smells of the smoke from the wood fire where she has spent many hours making tortillas and preparing meals. At times it’s difficult.

Today is the day of prayer for religious vocations. Do our priests and our bishops smell like their sheep? Do we who work in the church know that “odor of poverty”?

I know that many women religious live with the smell of their sheep, working among the poorest in the US and throughout the world. The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and other followers of Charles de Foucauld smell of their sheep, as they live and work among the poor. I know priests here who spend their days out in the remote villages.

What I find most encouraging about Pope Francis is his concern as Archbishop of Buenos Aires to send priests to the villas miserias, the slums, as well as his personal willingness to connect with the poor and marginalized.

It’s a challenge – and not all are called to this. But if we really want to follow the Good Shepherd, all of us probably need to be out among the poor, at least some time each week.

If we do not know the “odor of poverty,” can we expect to share the “odor of sanctity”?


Taught by God

“How can I understand unless some one shows me the way?”
Acts 8: 31

“They shall all be taught by God.”
John 8:45

Reading the Bible can be a perilous endeavor, especially if we try to do it alone. It is so easy to bring our own prejudices into our reading and miss what God is trying to tell us.

In today’s first reading, the Ethiopian eunuch is reading the prophet Isaiah when Philip ran up and listened. Philip then asked him if he understood what he was reading.

The lectionary text gives Philip’s answer as “How can I, unless someone instructs me?”

But a better translation is

“How can I unless some one shows me the ways?”

“Instruction” sometimes gets reduced to the teacher telling the student what the text means. But “showing the way” involves the student much more in the process. It recognizes that each student is different and learns differently. In fact, it acknowledges that texts, especially scriptural texts, don’t have one meaning.

They have a depth of meanings – and so the teacher must help lead his fellow learners so that they move to the depths of meaning found there and can steer around the obstacles to learning the living the scriptures.

It is a blessing when we find people – even books – that help us open up the treasures of the bible for us. Some do it by their words, some by their deeds. these teachers are in tune with God, listening to the Wisdom of God in the scriptures, in the Body of Christ which is the Church, in the sacraments and the poor. Some even can come from outside the community and help us to comprehend the scriptures in a  richer way.

We need to be open to listen to these voices so that we can, like the Ethiopian eunuch, come to know Christ Jesus and change out lives, listening for the Word of God, Jesus, who instructs us in so many ways.

In this was we can indeed begin to “be taught by God.”


Holy Fool Benedict Joseph Labré

The tradition of the Holy Fool, the person who is odd, at the edge of society, is strong in Russian Orthodoxy.

St. Benedict Joseph LabreThough the term is not used much in western Christianity, today’s saint, Benedict Joseph Labré, patron saint of the homeless, might well be considered a holy fool.

He was first educated by an uncle who was a priest. During an epidemic his uncle died as he was attending the victims.

Though Benedict Joseph tried to join the Trappists and the Carthusians, he was rejected by several monasteries. Accepted at a Trappist monastery, he left after several months, convinced that his vocation was to be a wandering poor pilgrim, like St. Alexis.

Though the Franciscans have claimed him, and some list him as a secular Franciscan, he was probably only a member of the Franciscan confraternity of Cordbearers.

He traveled as a pilgrim on foot, all over Europe. Finally he settled in Rome, living in the Coliseum, visiting churches, especially where the Eucharist was exposed during the Forty Hours devotion.

He did not beg but took what was given to him, often sharing his meager rations with other poor.

He had one set of clothes plus a few books to aid his prayer (including a New Testament, a breviary, and The Imitation of Christ.  My guess is that he emitted a rather foul odor.

He is buried in the church of Santa Maria dei Monte in Rome, one of his favorite churches. Barely 35, he collapsed outside the church and was carried to a nearby house where he died, on April 16, 1783.


Almost immediately the word went throughout Rome, “The saint has died.”

When I was in Rome in February of this year I went to his tomb and prayed in the simple, yet seldom visited church.  The bright sun illumined the church and his tomb (on the left).


His poverty and his simplicity have touched me for many years. “I am only a poor, ignorant beggar,” he told his confessor who thought he had been trained in theology.

He is a saint who calls us to solidarity with the poor, to be willing to love and accompany even the most repugnant and smelly persons. (This is sometimes a challenge to me here in Honduras.)

It is a call to become free of concern for acceptance and being recognized and free of our fear of being ignored or despised.

As Jim Forest has written:

“Holy fools pose the question: Are we keeping heaven at a distance by clinging to the good regard of others, prudence, and what those around us regard as ‘sanity’? The holy fools shout out with their mad words and deeds that to seek God is not necessarily the same thing as to seek sanity.… Does fear of being regarded by others as insane confine me in a cage of ‘responsible’ behavior that limits my freedom and cripples my ability to love? …

“Holy fools challenge an understanding of Christianity that gives the intellectually gifted people a head start not only in economic efforts but spiritual life. But the Gospel and sacramental life aren’t just for smart people. At the Last Judgment we will not be asked how clever we were but how merciful.”

May St. Benedict Joseph Labré inspire us to love without “clinging to the good regard of others.”

More on Holy Fools may be found in Jim Forest’s Praying with Icons, published by Orbis Books, 2008.


Sitting together on the mourning bench

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne

When tragedy strikes, some of the best characteristics of people come to the surface. People run to help, to bind up wounds, to carry away the victims.

The compassion gene comes to the fore.

When such a response moves people to a wider compassion, then God’s love can flourish in our lives.

DSC01469The image that comes to mind tonight is pacifist Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture in Berlin – a modern day Pietà, Mary with Jesus in her arms.

Being a pacifist, I abhor and condemn all violence, especially cowardly violence that takes lives without taking any personal risk.

And so, I mourn and condemn the killings and violence at the Boston Marathon.

But I also condemn and mourn those killed in wars and bombings by governments, including the US or US-supported governments.

And so tonight I pray for the dead and the wounded in Boston, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Israel and Palestine, in El Salvador and Guatemala, in East Timor and Viet Nam, in Hiroshima and Dresden, in Mozote and Auschwitz. And I cry with the families here in Honduras who lose loved ones to the violence – about twenty killed each day.

But I don’t merely mourn and pray for the dead.

I think of how I can commit myself to be an instrument of God’s peace in a violent world.


The title of this entry comes from recalling a quotation of Nicholas Wolterstorff that I read years ago in Stanley Hauerwas’ Naming the Silences: God, Medicine and the Problem of Suffering:

To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.


One word in today’s Gospel, the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus at the sea of Tiberias (John 21: 1-19), struck me.


Jesus addresses the seven apostles who have gone back fishing as children.

I checked numerous translations of the Greek παιδία – children. Almost all the English translations render this as “children” though the Jerusalem Bible uses “friends,” and the French La Bible de Jérusalem uses “les enfants.

Two Spanish translations use “muchachos,” which also means children, though I hear it more often used in Honduras for young people, “guys.” A friend said he translates “muchachos” as “boys.”

But the most intriguing translation is from Msgr. Knox: “lads” – so very British.

Jesus is calling his disciples “kids.”

Are we like kids in our relationship with Jesus, going about our daily tasks, not thinking about him, intent on what we want to do, unaware of his presence and unable to recognize him?

Peter has to face this directly when Jesus questions him.

“Do you love me [ἀγαπᾶς με]more than these?” asks Jesus. And twice Peter responds, “You know Lord, that I’m your friend [φιλῶ σε].”

Then Jesus asks him, “Are you my friend?” Peter, exasperated, answers, “Yes Lord, you know that.”

At the end of the scene, Jesus invites Peter: “Follow me.”

Don’t follow your old occupation, but follow in my path, my way that brings life – even though you will suffer.

I love you as a parent loves her children, but I want more from you. I want your wholehearted love, the love of agape which comes from following me – even to the Cross. For having passed through death on the Cross, the Lord Jesus offers us the risen life.

Yes, in many ways we are kids in our faith; but Jesus wants us to be more, to have a fuller life.

A fuller life comes from willing to let ourselves be led by Jesus – wherever that may lead us. It led Peter to a Cross and only God knows where it will lead us.

Slightly revised at 5:30 pm.