Monthly Archives: August 2013

A church of the poor

Regarding fraternal love (phladelphia)
you do not need anyone to write you,
since God has taught you to love (agape) one another.
1 Thessalonians 4, 9

Today is the feast of St. Aidan, the Celtic bishop of Lindisfarne, as well as the anniversary of the death of two twentieth century witnesses to God’s love ifor the poor:  Monseñor Leonidas Proaño of Riobamba, Ecuador, and John Leary of Boston.

There is a story that reveals St. Aidan as “most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched.” King Oswin gave him a horse, which St. Aidan gave to the poor, with all its fancy trappings. Oswin was upset and suggested that there were less valuable horses which could be given away to the poor. But Aidan replied, “What are you saying, your majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable than this child of God?”

Monseñor Leonidas Proaño, bishop of Riobamba, Ecuador, died  twenty five years ago, on August 31, 1988.

One of the prophetic bishops of Latin America, he lived and served the church with a deep love for God and for the poor, which showed itself in a struggle for justice, in particular in solidarity with the indigenous.

He once wrote a creed, which I read in Carta a a las Iglesias  many years ago. My translation follows:

Above all, I believe in God.
I believe in God the Father.
It is he who has given me life.
He loves me infinitely.
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
According to God’s plan, he became poor,
lived among the poor and preached the Good News to the poor.

I believe in the human person that is within me
and that is being saved by the Word of God.
I believe in the human person that is within
all of my brothers and sisters
because this same Word of God was sent to save all of us.

Therefore, I can also say that I believe in hope.
And for the same reason, I believe in justice.
I believe in reconciliation,
and I believe that we are walking toward the Kingdom of God.

I believe in the poor and the oppressed.
I believe that they are tremendously capable,
especially in their ability to receive the salvation message,
to understand it, and to put it into practice.
It is true then that we are evangelized by the poor.

I believe in the church of the poor
because Christ became poor.
He was born poor, he grew up in poverty,
he found his disciples among the poor
and he founded his Church with the poor.

A tribute to Monseños Leonidas Proaño can be found here at the blog Iglesia Descalza.

John Leary died on August 31, 1982, at the age of twenty-four, jogging to his home at the Haley House Catholic Worker from his work with the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War.

His short life was given to service of the poor at Haley House as well as nonviolent witness against war, nuclear weapons, the draft, and abortion. An unassuming young man, he radiated respect for others – as well as a profound commitment to the God of peace and the poor God made incarnate in Jesus.

I met him several times. I only wish I had taken to time to know him more.

These three men, from different continents, show us a bit of our vocation to be a poor Church and a Church of the poor (and not only for the poor).

Losing your head

Call me a bit odd but today’s feast, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is one of my favorites.


It does help that my name is John – but losing one’s head?

More than two decades ago at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames we did a skit at Thursday Night Liturgy where I lost my head.


The tale as told in the Gospels is intriguing. John is in prison for criticizing Herod’s taking Herodias for his wife. But Herod is still awed by John and likes to listen to him.

The prophet is dangerous, but still it’s fun listening to him.

At Herod’s birthday party, the daughter of his consort dances. Herod offers her anything. Salome goes to her mother for advice.

“The head of John the Baptist,” cries the offended consort.

The child returns and asks for “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

I’d love to know why she adds the platter. Does she not want to get her hands bloodied with John’s head? On does she see this as just a play, and this is the perfect ending for a banquet?

Whatever it is, John is beheaded. His disciples take away his body.


John is a prop in this drama. His active role was before – baptizing in the Jordan, preparing the way for Jesus, sending his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come.

But John is someone to be reckoned with.

His message is clear – prepare the Lord’s way. Change what needs to happen, whether it be your relations to others or your relation to God. He had no qualms confronting the leaders of his day – religious or political. But it was all in terms of his willingness to give his all – even his head.

He lost his head in service of God.

Am I willing to lose mine?


Dreams, nightmares, and a call to conversion

Fifty years ago, in 1963, thousands gathered in Washington, DC, calling for justice for African-Americans.

I remember watching it on a black and white television at home in Darby, a blue collar suburb of Philadelphia.

Martin Luther King’s speech inspired many of us with his dream of a country that lived out its belief that “all men [and women] are created equal.”

His speech laid out the biblical roots of this dream as well as the cost of trying to live this dream.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places made plain, and the crooked places be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

But Martin Luther King also saw the nightmare that has always been a possibility for the United States and other nations.

In ”Beyond Vietnam,” a speech a year before his death, he warned of what the US had become in the world.  He pleaded for an end to the Vietnam War:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

And he identified the roots of this madness, this malady, this sin in the giant triplets of “racism, materialism, and militarism.”

But, like a good prophet he offered a way out:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Today as the US remembers Dr. King’s vision, the US government is considering the use of military violence in Syria and continues to support with arms and training repressive regimes.

King’s dream has been robbed of his prophetic power – the power to give us something to live for as well as the power of knowing what we must turn from if we want to live this dream.

And so we who are citizens of the US should take into account what Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 23: 29-31):

 Woe to you teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous. You say: “Had we lived in the time of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you yourselves confess to be descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

Dom Helder and a church of the poor

Dom Helder Câmara died on August 27, 1999, at the age of ninety.

Dom Helder Camara, 1982

In many ways his life was a reflection of what we hear in today’s first reading (1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8):

After we had suffered and been insolently treated…we drew courage through our God to speak to you the Gospel of God with much struggle…. We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.

He was a small man, just over five feet tall. His English was highly accented. But he was full of energy. His whole body was expressive of the energy of God in his heart.

A man of deep prayer, as bishop of Recife in the poor northeast of Brazil, he took the side of the poor, before the “option for the poor” became the motto of the Latin American Church. He was such a threat to those in power that the Brazilian military government banned him from speaking publicly for thirteen years and prohibited the media from mentioning his name.

He was a man of both prayer and action. He would rise at 2:00 am to pray and began his day with Mass.

He was an outspoken advocate of the poor and of non-violence, rooted in a prayerful love of God. He lived simply in a small house, not in the archbishop’s mansion. His pectoral cross, like that of our Savior, was wooden.

At the Second Vatican Council he and 39 other bishops saw the need to be not just “a poor church and a church for the poor,” as Pope Francis has called for. They saw the need to be  “a church of the poor.”

These bishops prepared a document, The Pact of the Catacombs, translated here, that committed the bishops to a simple life, to solidarity with the poor and with those who work with the poor, and to a ministry rooted in the Gospel, that embraces both justice and charity. They believed that episcopal collegiality “finds its greatest evangelical fulfillment in communal service to the majority in physical, cultural and moral poverty — two thirds of humanity…”

Dom Helder lived this and is an example of what a minister – a servant – of the Gospel can be – living in the presence of God and present to the poor.

Dom Helder also knew the importance of a ministry that is prophetic. He allied himself with those struggling for land, with the poor and oppressed, with movements for nonviolence and disarmament.

I love his most famous quote: “When I give to the poor they call me a saint; when I ask ‘Why are they poor?’ they call me a communist!”

But what impressed me when I saw him up close in the early 1980s was the energy that he radiated, an energy that, I believe, came from a life rooted in prayer and lived among the poor. He lived a church nor only for the poor, but of the poor.

Can we do less?

Simone Weil — at the threshold

Seventy years ago today, Simone Weil died of tuberculosis.

Born Jewish, she studied philosophy, taught school, worked in a factory, volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, fled to the US during the Nazi occupation of France, tried to return to France but was stuck in England, where she sought to help the French resistance.

She was only thirty-four when she died. But her death was jus another example of a life lived at the threshold. She probably could have recuperated but she refused to eat more than the rations available to those who lived in occupied France.

As a young teacher she got herself in trouble for taking part in union organizing. Then she took time off to spend a year in a factory, trying to understand the oppression of workers. Later, she joined the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, serving for a while with an anarchist brigade.

Recently an op-ed on her in The New York Times was entitled “Recalling the Apostle of Nonpartisanship.”

But her actions were based on her conviction that

Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.

This was also her stance toward Catholicism.

Simone Weil could be described as a mystic. She writes about falling to her knees, for the first time, in the Porziuncula, the little church of Our Lady of the Angels in Assisi. In 1938, a year later, suffering from severe headaches, she experienced the presence of God at the Abbey of Solesmes. Praying George Herbert’s poem “Love,” she had a strong sensation that “Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”

But she remained at the threshold of the Catholic Church. Partly this may have had its roots in her almost Gnostic conception of Christianity. But more than anything else is was due to her desire not to exclude non-believers.

I cannot help wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is submerged in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and who yet remain outside the church.

Simone Weil, at the threshold of faith, identified with those at the outside, at the margins – not only of faith but of social and political life.

Might she not be an example for us who believe, who are part of the Church, of the necessity to go out to the margins of society, to identify with them, to accompany them in their struggles, evangelizing – being good news to the poor – by our solidarity.


Robert Ellsberg has a short biography of her in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.  Orbis Books has included a volume on Simone Weil in its Modern Spiritual Masters Series. My introduction to her came reading her plan for post-war France, The Need for Roots. Many of her essays, including “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” are more accessible.

Rose of the Americas and love

Santa Rosa de Copån, 2007

Santa Rosa de Copån, 2007

Rose of Lima, the first canonized saint of the Americas, is widely loved, especially here in Santa Rosa de Copán but she is an enigmatic figure. Her mortifications, her self-mutilation, her bulimia are troubling. But there is still something very attractive about this young woman from Lima who died young.

Her parents denied her wish to enter the convent and so she made of her little room a convent. When her parents’ fortunes plummeted, she helped the family by embroidery and raising flowers for sale. 

She had a deep devotion to the Cross and spent long times in prayer.

But, at some point she began taking in children of the streets and the sick elderly.  Her love of Christ opened her to love of the poor.

For her it was simple. In The Catechism of the Catholic Church,  ¶ 2449, it is noted that

When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and the sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her: “When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.

In that way she lived out Jesus’ response to the scribe in today’s Gospel:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

May Saint Rose and her contemporary in Lima, Saint Martin de Porres, remind us of these two great commandments and inspire us to love.

Kingdom wages

Today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 1-16) confounds us in the West.

The landowner hires people in the morning and promises them a day’s wage. He goes out several times a day and sees men sitting idle and invites them to work. At one hour before quitting time, he goes out again and finds some men standing around and hires them.

When it’s time to pay wages, everybody gets the same – the daily wage. Will anybody ever work again for this landowner?

I never really got the context of this parable until I spent a few days in Houston, Texas, in the 1980s. Each morning I passed a corner where a number of Latino men were hanging out.

At first I had no idea why they were there.

But one time I saw a pick up drive up. Men ran toward the cab and begged for work. The driver took a few and drove off.

They were seeking work.

And so the men who were hanging around at the last hour were also seeking work. But as they said, “No one has hired us.”

The landowner knew what the people needed – a job and a daily wage.

Another hint is that they are all paid at the end of the day. They are not salaried worker, assured of a job.

They are people living off whatever they can get each day. If they don’t work, it’s very possible that their family won’t eat. If they only get a part of a day’s wage, their families will hardly have enough to eat.

So the landowner is concerned that all may have enough to live.

Work is for sustaining life – not for building up assets.

So in our discussion of economics from a faith perspective we need to remember this parable. Everyone who works should get what is needed to sustain life.

Those who are standing around idle may not be lazy; they may be the victims of an economic system that does not provide enough opportunities for work or which hoards wealth.

The ethics of the Kingdom of God confound all our economic theories.

Receive a hundred times more

Some people, hearing what I did a little more than six years ago, think it was a great act, something marvelous and beyond their capacity.

I left a secure job in campus ministry in Ames, Iowa, and ongoing chances to teach a course at the university and came to serve as a lay missionary in the poorest diocese of Honduras.

But when I look back I see it as a great blessing, which continues to bless me.

In many ways, we are all like Gideon in today’s first reading from Judges 6. He discounts his ability to do what the angel of the Lord asks: “My family is the lowliest in Manasseh, and I am the most insignificant in my father’s house.”

But God chooses the simple, the weak, those who recognize their weaknesses – and promises, “I shall be with you.”

“But, you left behind so much,” some might think. I was even told that one person suggested that I was not really using my training and talents by doing this, especially when I began to help a priest in a rural parish.

But, Jesus’s words to Peter in today’s Gospel (Matthew 19: 23-30) are almost literally true:

 And everyone who has given up houses
or brothers or sisters or father or mother
or children or lands for the sake of my name
will receive a hundred times more,
and will inherit eternal life.

I pray that I may inherit eternal life, but I feel as if I have already received a hundredfold.

In some ways I now have a huge family – not only the people whom I minister with and to in the parish of Dulce Nombre. They have welcomed me into their homes – giving me food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and they’ve even helped me start my car when the battery went dead. But even more they have revived my spirit and my ministry with them have helped me develop an ability to teach in a participative style.

I helped a few years ago with a lunch program for kids, which sadly was not continued when the new bishop arrived. But as I walk the streets of Santa Rosa there are innumerable times when I hear a kid yell out “Juancito.” I sometimes feel as if this bachelor now has a lot of kids.

This has been a blessing – reminding me of how God has blessed us, a reminder that I need all too often.



Follow me in poverty

“If you want to be fulfilled,
go, sell what you have,
give it to the poor…
Come, follow me.”
Matthew 19: 21

 Today’s Gospel of the rich young man startles us from the United States. Why would Jesus ask the young man, seeking fulfillment, to sell all, give to the poor, and follow Him?

The man wants to know what good he should do to have eternal life. Note the phrases he uses: “What good shall I do?” It’s about what I’m supposed to do; it’s something I can do. “To have eternal life”:  I want to have it, so that it’s my possession.

But Jesus replies, “If you want to enter into eternal life…” It’s a life we enter into; it’s not just something we do, something we have control of by our actions. “Keep the commandments”: follow the guidelines of the Covenant between God and Israel.

After Jesus lists the commandments, the young man says he’s observed them, but what is lacking. He feels an emptiness in only following the laws.

Jesus offers his something more. He offers his the opportunity to be fulfilled. (The normal translation is ”If you want to be perfect.” But I think the Greek τέλειος might be better translated in this context as “fulfilled.”)

But it involves giving up what one has, but even more, I think, it means giving up control. The money is to be given to the poor and he is called to follow Jesus.

But the young man goes away, sad, “because he had many possessions.”

Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. Having things ties us down, for they have us in their possession.

But following Jesus demands giving up control, letting us be led where we might not want to go. And our goods keep us tied down; they hold us to a comfortable life.

It doesn’t matter if we have many possessions. Even holding on to a few possessions, with a spirit of detachment, can hold us bound, can keep us from the “more” that God asks of us.

But this is not a mere question of possessions. It’s question of whether we are willing to follow Jesus wherever He goes – even to the Cross.

It’s not a matter of what good deeds we must do. It’s an invitation to join in the company of Jesus and walk with Him – in the way of poverty, detachment, and loving commitment.

It’s not easy – but God can give us strength to walk the way with Jesus.


The divisiveness of peace

Marx said that religion was the opium of the people.
But I also know that charity can be the opium of the rich.
St. Alberto Hurtado, S.J.

 The proclamation of the love of God
will always shock the powerful of this world.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P.

 Do you think that I have come to bring peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
Luke 12: 51

 Most of us want a religion that brings us peace and tranquility, that makes us feel good. And, in one sense, that is good. Our God is a God of peace.

But so often we settle for a peace that is just the absence of conflict.

In several workshops I’ve facilitated here I ask people to tell me what come to mind when I mention the word “conflict.” In almost every case, the descriptions are negative.

But Jesus tells us that he, who is our peace, brings conflict and division.

Real consolation – and peace – can be found in the midst of conflict, when we have our eyes fixed on God, when we cling to the Truth, and act with love and mercy.

It’s not enough to cling to God and the truth. We need love and mercy.

How often I have run across people whose causes I support who just turn me off. (I’ve probably done this to people, also.) Their manner of advocating for peace or justice or whatever just turns me off. They don’t seem to reflect love and mercy.

And so, when divisions arise, it is important to consider whether the division is because of me or because of the Truth of God in what I am doing or saying. That makes all the difference.