Monthly Archives: December 2013

Another martyred archbishop

Ten years ago today, the papal nuncio to Burundi, Michael Courtney, was ambushed and shot 25 times in southern Burundi

The government blamed rebels, but further investigations suggest that he was targeted by high-ranking members of the government, because he had evidence of government misuse of international funds. See the Catholic News Service report here.

Irish-born Archbishop Courtney was trying to broker peace in the troubled nation, where tribal conflicts had resulted in massacres (as in neighboring Ruanda) and a civil war. He was seeking to help the people of Burundi find a sense of being brothers and sisters, instead of identifying themselves by ethnic background.

I don’t know much more about his life or his witness. But he was committed enough to risk his own life.

Trying to seek peace and justice is not sitting back, talking about reconciliation. It is a hard process, demanding sacrifice – of oneself.

That sacrifice begins when we start treating others, even our enemies and opponents, with respect and love – speaking the truth, but seeking to find what is common to all of us: our identity as children of one God.

Canterbury tale: murder in the cathedral

Thomas Becket: Canterbury Cathedral window

Thomas Becket: Canterbury Cathedral window

On December 29, 1170, four of King Henry II’s knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and killed the archbishop, Thomas Becket.

Thomas had been a good friend of the king who had Thomas, his chancellor, appointed archbishop. He probably hoped to thus consolidate his power.

But Thomas took his role seriously. Upon being ordained priest and then bishop, he donned clerical dress and began to pray and study – and distribute alms – like a real priest.

But it was Thomas’ defense of the rights of the church that put him at odds with his former friend. The last straw was when he excommunicated the bishops who had participated in the coronation of Henry’s son.  When informed of this in Normandy, King Henry is alleged to have said, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights took on that task.

Whether he was a martyr for the faith or a martyr for the rights of the church can be debated. But he was a person not afraid to stand up to one who sought absolute power.

All too often we are intimidated into silence by those in power. Today in places like Honduras, the power of politicians and the rich, backed up by soldiers and police, can intimidate some. In places like the US, the intimidation is more likely to come from peers whom we don’t want to alienate. The result is the same.

But people like Thomas Becket and other bishop martyrs (St. Stanislaus and Archbishop Oscar Romero – also killed in churches) ought to inspire us to ask for the courage to “speak truth to power,” as the Quakers say.

Fear and the Innocents

It is the constant fear of every tyrant
that somewhere, perhaps in a obscure village,
perhaps at that very moment,
there is a baby born who will one day signal the end of his power.
Robert Ellsberg,  All Saints

 Today we remember the Holy Innocents, the male children two years and under who were killed by Herod’s troops, told only in Matthew’s Gospel. Herod was threatened by the report of the Magi of the newborn King of the Jews. In fear and rage he responded with what the powers of this world always have at their disposal – death.

Tyrants and all those who seek to hold on to control are threatened by the new and react in fear. As St. Quodvultdeus said in a sermon:

You destroy those who are tiny in body because fear is destroying your heart.

Fear destroys others because it destroys the person who fears. Fear pales in the face of uncertainty and the lack of control. Fear keeps us from welcoming the newborn king of the Jews.

Today activists recall those children whose lives have been taken in war and whose lives are threatened by war and nuclear weapons. Other activists recall those killed by abortion. We should also remember those children killed each day by hunger, oppression, and injustice.

About 1965, Emily Sargent Councilman wrote a short poem that, perhaps, shines some light in the darkness of the death of the innocent:


The Herods of the world,
fearful for their power,
send soldiers
to slaughter
The Caesars of the earth
dispatch armies
to implement decrees
for conquest
and taxes.
But the God
above all governors
came himself,
his armor and his purpose:
We have read the pages
of centuries.
will we dare
to write



The ladder of love

Christ has set up a ladder of love,
and every Christian can climb to heaven on it.
St. Fulgentius of Ruspe,
Sermon on St. Stephen’s feast

 The message of the tender and merciful love of God has been a central theme of the preaching and practice of Pope Francis.

It is also the message of the season of Christmas.

Love has become flesh.

It is a Love that is tangible – because this Love is a Person, as the first letter of John (1:1) puts it:

What was from the beginning, what he have heard and seen with our own eyes and touched with our own hands, what we were observing and our hands were touching…

Love has taken up His abode with us.

And we are called to live in the dwelling place of love.

There is a story that Jerome tells of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast is today.

When he was old and had to be carried into the assembly, he kept repeating the same message:

My little children, love one another.

A little put off, some asked him why he always had the same message. His reply was to the point:

Because it is the word of the Lord, and if you keep it, you will do enough.

Love is the ladder that God has thrown down to us and love is the way we climb this ladder, accompanied and helped by Love made flesh.


Christ has come uninvited

My favorite Christmas quote is from Thomas Merton’s “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room” in Raids on the Unspeakable.

Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because He cannot be at home in it,
because He is out of place in it,
His place is with those others for whom there is no room,
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in the world.
He is mysteriously present
in those for whom there seems to be nothing
but the world at its worst. . . .
It is in these that He hides Himself,
for whom there is no room.

This past Sunday I went with Padre German to visit an elderly woman in her home. She had been abandoned by some relatives in Tegucigalpa but a daughter and her family had taken her in – in a dirt-floor shack in the countryside outside the town of Concepción, Copán.

As Padre baptized 81 year-old Adela, anointed her with the oil of the sick, and gave her the Eucharist, I noted a small poster of the baby Jesus in the manger above the bed.

Christ had come there – uninvited.

As he comes in all our lives – if we open our hearts.

Pastorela in Gracias, Lempira

Pastorela in Gracias, Lempira

Birth of John the Baptist

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

His name is John.

Today the Gospel relates the birth of John the Baptist.

The relatives want to give him the name of his father.

But, surprise!

Elizabeth and Zacharias insist on the name “John.”

In Hebrew, John means “God is gracious.”

Graciousness is, for me, one of the most important starting points for believing and living.

God is gracious – and gives us all, without cost.

And so we too are called to be gracious, to be giving – and above all to be forever “giving thanks.”

All is grace.





Raising up the lowly

He has cast down the mighty from the thrones
and raised up the lowly.
Luke 1: 52

 If today were not the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading would be the Magnificat, the canticle of Mary in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1: 46-56).

Mary visiting Elizabeth sings a song of rejoicing in the hope of a Messiah. She acknowledges a God who looks on the lowly and takes their side.

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of Chico Mendes, a rubber worker who organized other workers and sought to defend the Amazonian rain forest. Cattle ranchers and large land-owners would often burn the forest to have land for their cattle.

For his efforts, Chico was killed by a rancher and his son.

Mary’s son would also die and it appears that the mighty are not cast down from their thrones and the hungry are not filled with good things.

The world does not seem to work as Mary’s canticle proclaims.

But God calls us to have hope, to keep the vision of God’s love and justice in our hearts and in our sight – spurring us on to work for the Reign of God.

The Gospel which will be read in Catholic churches today is the vision of Joseph who is told that his wife’s child is God-with-us, the One who is to come to save God’s people.

As Father Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it:

Joseph is confused and this perplexity prepares him to understand God’s action. When we think that everything is occurring “normally,” we are not capable of perceiving what is new. The unexpected interrupts our plans.

Can we see God’s plan interrupting our lives – calling us to work with God in raising up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things?

In the midst of darkness, light shines. Will we reflect that light – or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the darkness?

After Chico Mendes died, his wife observed:

Chico had a lot of faith. When he died, I was filled with despair. But God comforted me and inspired me to work alongside others to carry on Chico’s work. They killed him, but they didn’t kill his ideals or crush the struggle.

Will we let God inspire us to continue the struggle that Christ may be born in our midst?

The solidarity of Mary and Elizabeth

Painting in the church of El Sitio, Suchitoto, El Salvador

Painting in the church of El Sitio, Suchitoto, El Salvador

Mary went in haste
to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
Luke 1: 

Mary, pregnant with the Word of God, goes to visit her aged cousin, Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist.

Did she go just to help her cousin or did she go seeking the help and advice of an older relative who was also experiencing pregnancy?

Did she go confident of what she had experienced when the angel appeared to her or did she go to share her misgivings with a cousin whose husband had also been visited by an angel?

We will probably never know.

But I think this is a case of real solidarity, real accompaniment. Both are sharing and caring for each other. Both have something to offer. Both experience the presence of the Lord in very physical ways – Mary with Jesus in her womb and Elizabeth with John jumping (kicking?) in hers.

When we realize that God is present, we can be more open to accompanying the other person, being there with them in joys and sorrows, in pain and in laughter.

May this season be a time to renew experiences of solidarity and accompaniment – so that we can remember that God is present.

Saying yes

The angel of the Lord declared to Mary;
and she conceived of the Holy Spirit.
The Angelus

Philippine Annunciation, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

Philippine Annunciation, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth

With Mary’s “Yes,”
the Word became flesh.

It’s that simple.

The “yes” of a poor woman in Nazareth became the way through which God became flesh in our midst.

Not “Yes, but…” – only Yes:

I am the handmaid of the Lord;
be it done to me, according to your word.

Will we let ourselves be servants of the Lord, seeking God’s will?

Will we say “yes” to the many small – and great – ways that God may become flesh in the world?



Surprised by an agel

Convent of the Capuchin nuns, Antigua, Guatemala

Convent of the Capuchin nuns, Antigua, Guatemala

The angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
Luke 1: 11

Today’s Gospel recounts the visit of the angel Gabriel to the priest Zechariah, announcing the birth of John the Baptist.

To say the least, Zechariah is surprised – so much that he loses his power of speech. Of course, one might also say that he lost his speech because he didn’t accept the words of the angel.

The angel’s first words are words of comfort, words that we hear throughout the Gospels: “Fear not.”

Though few of us may encounter the heavenly angelic spirits, I believe that we often are sent angels – Greek for messengers – who announce Good News to us, news that will often shake up our lives.

But we so often fear any news that will shake up our lives and ask us to change. We often fear the stranger who may be God’s messenger in disguise.

Fear often binds us.

But the message of the angels in our lives is “Do no fear!” God wants to do great things with us – even such simple great things as having a child.

Do not be afraid.

Let yourself be surprised by angels. And, as it is written in Hebrews 13:2:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for, by doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.”