Monthly Archives: January 2014

The dangers of wealth

Pope Francis has been getting a bit of criticism recently for his critique of the “culture of prosperity.” But his critique is not without precedent. Not only did Jesus warn about “filthy mammon,” but so did many of His followers.

When St. John Bosco went off for the seminary, his poor illiterate mother warned him, “If you have the misfortune to get rich, I shan’t set foot in your house again.”

Don Bosco remembered this and dedicated his life to poor youth, especially in the industrialized cities of northern Italy in the nineteenth century. The congregation he founded, the Salesians, still devotes itself to the education and care of the young, even though in some places their school are havens for the rich. But Don Bosco maintained a commitment to the poor. As he noted:

I have promised God that until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people. I study for you, I work for you, I am also ready to give my life for you.

In fourth century Rome, St. Marcella had come from a wealthy family and married a wealthy Roman. After only seven months of marriage he died. As a widow she devoted herself to prayer and study of the Scriptures. She gave away her wealth, preferring to store her money in the stomachs of the needy than hide it in a purse.”

On January 31, 1915, Thomas Merton was born. He subsequently entered the Trappists and became one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.

Though Merton lived in a monastery, he too was aware of the dangers of wealth. As he wrote in 1949 to Sister Marialein Lorenz’s class,

I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.

Like Don Bosco, St. Marcella, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis is warning us about the dangers of wealth, as he writes in  Evangelii Gaudium,  ¶ 54:

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us…

This is a danger for all of us – no matter how much or how little we have. This merits our prayer and careful examination of our lives and our hearts.


Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins

On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

Gandhi, often called “Mahatma” – the “Great Souled” one – had struggled for many years to free India not only from the British but from dependency on British, from discriminatory policies against the untouchables, and from the divide between Hindus and Muslims.

In the course of his life he articulated what have been called the seven deadly social sins:

Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Science without Humanity
Knowledge without Character
Politics without Principle
Commerce without Morality
Worship without Sacrifice

For us Christians, these could provide a great assistance in our examinations of conscience.

Some day I need to reflect more deeply on each of them. But today I offer them for our examen.


The bellowing of the Dumb Ox

Students, even members of religious orders, can sometimes be rather caustic in their evaluations of their fellow students.

The Dominican friars who studied with St. Albert the Great in Cologne called Thomas Aquinas “The Dumb Ox,” for they saw this rather large man as very taciturn.

St. Albert, however, advised them that the lowing of this dumb ox would one day resound throughout the world.

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

St. Thomas Aquinas statue, detail, Ames, Iowa

For many years the work of St. Thomas was the norm for Catholic theology – though more in terms of scholastic treatises that ignored the dialectical nature of Thomas’ Summa Theologica, where he discusses the pros and contras of hundreds of questions about faith and practice.

Thomas at times has been dismissed as cold and dry, more interested in “truths” than in the life of faith.

I think this is mistaken. And this is not only because I took a grad school course on “The Perfection of the Universe according to Thomas Aquinas.”

One of the more interesting remarks about Thomas comes from G. K. Chesterton:

He [Thomas Aquinas] had from the first that full and final test of truly orthodox Catholicity: the impetuous, impatient, intolerable passion for the poor; and even that readiness to be rather a nuisance to the rich, out of a hunger to feed the hungry.

This quotation from Thomas’ Summa Theologica (Ia–2ae ii, 4) bears this out:

 Four general reasons can be brought forward to show that perfect happiness consists neither in riches, nor in fame, nor in power. Of which the first is that perfect happiness is not compatible with any evil. The second is that happiness is self-sufficient; once obtained, no other human prize is wanting, such as good health and wisdom. The third is that no harm results from happiness, whereas sometimes riches are kept to the hurt of the owner, and this may be also the case with the other goods we have mentioned. The fourth reason is this: true happiness wells from within, but the goods we have mentioned come from external causes and often from good luck.

Thomas has often been invoked as a defender of orthodoxy – of orthodox Catholic ideas; but this quote and others would indicate that he was a defender of an orthopraxy (right practice of the Christian faith) that includes a skepticism about riches, fame, and power.


The quote above is taken from a collection of quotes from Aquinas gathered by the late Father John Kavanaugh, SJ, in America,  here.


Gregorian chant and the Holocaust

“Only the person who cries out for the Jews
may sing Gregorian chant.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

Today is the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration- and death-camp where millions of Jews and others were killed.

Almost ten years ago, before going to visit to the Holy Land I watched a video on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis and was executed for his involvement on a scheme to assassinate Hitler.

In the video I encountered the words that begin this post: “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

These words struck me deeply.

How can we sing to the Lord, with the contemplative melodies of Gregorian chant, if we do not speak up for those who are oppressed?

Since learning about the Holocaust in the early 1960s, I found myself troubled by the lack of open resistance by leaders of the Catholic Church. There were some who spoke out. Others did help Jews escape the Nazis. But my impression, then and now, is that the Catholic Church was too careful, perhaps fearing persecution and losing political power.

How often do we fail to do what is right out of fear? How often do we fail to take risks because we don’t want to lose power or influence? How often do we speak “prudently” so as not to offend?

My visit to the Holy Land includes a visit to the church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem – the reputed site of the birth of Mary.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

The twelfth century church has an incredible resonance. I noted that as I spoke quietly to my friend who had shown me the church and the nearby ruins of the Pool of Bethesda.

Almost without thinking I quietly and slowly sang the Regina Coeli, the Easter hymn in honor of Mary. My words resounded from the walls.

I later reflected that I had sung Gregorian Chant. But am I willing to speak out for the oppressed – Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land, as well as the people I now serve in Latin America?

Remembering the Holocaust moves me to recommit myself to stand firm and speak out for the oppressed – not matter now quietly.

Even our quiet songs can resound throughout the world – as my voice did in Saint Anne’s Church in Jerusalem.

What is important is that we speak.

Light to those in darkness

I read today’s reading from Isaiah with a heavy heart.

People here in Honduras are suffering. The economy is poor; the coffee harvest is poor and the prices are low; taxes have been raised; the cost of the basic food basket is rising; violence continues and the new president thinks that a military police is the solution; there are fears of a devaluation of the currency; and more.

The people are walking in darkness.

But Isaiah promises that

The yoke that was weighing them down,
the heavy bar across their shoulders,
the rod of the oppressor –
these you have broken…

The yoke of poverty, the bar of inequality, the rod of repressive economic and political policies burden our people here.

And it’s worse than I thought.

This week I was talking with the pastor of the parish where I work. Many people, he said, many be losing their homes or their lands because of their debts.

People take out loans at the beginning of the year in the hope that the harvests – especially the coffee harvest – will yield enough to pay them back, But this year with many fields of the poor devastated by the roya fungus and with prices lower than they have been in several years, cash is hard to come by, even if one hires oneself out for the coffee harvest of the large landowners.

But the promise if Isaiah is that these burdens have been broken.

The words of Gustavo Gutiérrez speak to me:

“I do theology as one who comes from a context of deep poverty, and thus for me, the first question of theology is how do we say to the poor: God loves you?”

How do we tell them of the Good News of God’s love?

Jesus, after the darkness of the imprisonment of John the Baptist, goes out “proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom [of Heaven], and curing all kinds of sickness and disease among the people.” (Matthew 4: 23)

How can we be signs of the Kingdom, bringing healing and hope?

That is my challenge for the year.


The quote from Gustavo Gutiérrez is taken from In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a book I strongly recommend.



Speaking new tongues

These signs will accompany those who believe:
… they will speak new languages.
Mark 16: 17 

St. Paul

St. Paul outside the Walls

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle.

An ardent Pharisee Saul, as he was known at that time, was going to arrest followers of Jesus in Damascus. He fell to the ground, surrounded by light. (There is no account of any high horse that he fell from, though that is the common image we have of the event.) Paul went on to preach Jesus to people in many lands, opening the Way for non-Jews. After many travels, he was arrested and sent to Rome, where he was eventually beheaded.

The Gospel for today is Jesus’ sending of the apostles at the end of Mark’s Gospel. As I read it this morning I came across something that I hadn’t noticed.

Among the signs of those who believe is “speaking new languages.”

I never thought of this as a sign of belief. I just thought that learning and speaking a different language was part of what we missionaries often have to do.

But it is a sign of God’s presence, as Jesus notes.

Though I’ve been here in Honduras for more than six years, I still sometimes struggle with Spanish. (I don’t think I’ll ever get the subjunctive right.) I sometimes wonder if people can understand me.

And so I am comforted by this Gospel passage, as well as by the words of the St. Louis Jesuit’s hymn “Be Not Afraid”:

you shall speak my Word in foreign lands
and all will understand.

 But I wonder if “speaking a new language” is just being able to speak another language fluently.

What is the new language that we need to speak?

In a world where the poor are despised, where they are treated like dirt – or worse, what language do we need to speak?

In a world where people lack hope, struggling to survive or to find meaning in their lives, what language do we need to speak?

I think it’s the language of love, of friendship, of solidarity.

Gustavo Gutiérrez puts the challenge simply:

 the first question of theology is how do we say to the poor: God loves you?

That is the language we need to learn – and, “the first thing to do is listen,” as Gutiérrez says.

Paul listened to the voice that he heard on the ground near Damascus and he learned how to speak in other tongues and to speak to people in many lands.

It starts with listening – to God and all those around us. Not always easy, but part of the process of conversion.


The two quotations from Father Gustavo Gutiérrez are from In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis Books). I highly recommend this recently published book.

Gentle strength

There is nothing so strong as gentleness
and there is nothing so gentle as real strength.
St. Francis de Sales

Today is the feast of Saint Francis de Sales, a Swiss bishop who pioneered a spirituality for lay people which emphasized patience with oneself and living God’s love.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, a Dubuque Franciscan sister, who died in 2008 at the age of 94.

She was a remarkable little sister, a tireless advocate for peace and human rights. She took part in one of the walks for peace across the United States and continually protested against war in all its forms.

She was arrested several times, including an arrest at the age of 88 at the School of the Americas, protesting US involvement in Latin America.

In this she remembered the witness of her brother, Ron Hennessey, a Maryknoll missionary in Central America who lived under the oppression of the indigenous in Guatemala. (Ron’s witness is told in Thomas Melville’s Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America.)

Her persistence in witnessing for the poor and oppressed is a sign of how God uses all sorts of people to show His love and justice.

Today is also the anniversary of the death in 2011 of Don Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. A detailed homage can be found at Mex Files here.

He was a bishop totally devoted to the poor, especially to the indigenous in his diocese in southern Mexico, who called him Jtatic Samuel. Although despised by those in power he was asked to meditate during the Zapatista rebellion because he was probably one of the few persons the people trusted. He had spent his life with them and had risked his life many times.

He also was not always appreciated by the Vatican, especially for his efforts to promote indigenous deacons in the diocese. A coadjutor was appointed, Monseñor Raúl Vera, who ironically has become one of the most progressive bishops in Latin America and is now the bishop of Saltillo, Mexico.

Don Samuel was beloved by his people. I saw a manifestation of that love when I visited San Cristobal in late January 2012 for the wedding of a friend. His tomb, behind the cathedral’s main altar was decorated with flowers.

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

But he was more than a beloved pastor. He was a prophet.

Reflecting the words of Mary in her Magnificat, he once said:

Justice means bringing down from their throne those who are privileged and elevating those who are humble to the same heights.

The gentle strength and the strong gentleness of Sister Dorothy and Don Samuel offer us a way into living the Gospel, in solidarity with the poor.


Agnes: sex, weakness, and love

Today is the feast of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, who was beheaded at the age of 12 or 13, about the year 304.

The young virgin Agnes was sought by many suitors. When she refused, she was denounced as a Christian. When she refused to sacrifice to the idols, she was sentenced to a brothel. When an “aura of purity” prevented her from being raped, she was condemned to death by beheading.

The story sounds so pious and sentimental that it can be easily dismissed as part of a puritanical Catholic approach to sexuality.

But it is more than that.

The first hint is the prayer for today’s Mass when we pray to God who chooses “what is weak in the world to confound the strong.”

By chance this year the first reading is the anointing of David. When Samuel thinks that the oldest son of Jesse ought to be the new king, God tells him:

Do not judge from his looks or his stature…. The Lord does not judge as humans do; humans see with the eyes; the Lord looks into the heart.

Agnes had the courage to stand up for her faith, her integrity. Despite her age, she “confounds the strong” by her faith.

I think that the best  commentary on Agnes is in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a book which I have been reading regularly for the past few years.

In the story of Agnes… the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According ot the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worships sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.”

In a highly sexualized culture, persons – especially women – are reduced to commodities, things to be bought and used. But the example of Agnes is the example of one who refuses that narrow notion of the person.

God made humans for love – not as “love” objects, but as persons, subjects, who can love and be loved with the love that God shows us in becoming human and living with us.

We can live this love as married persons or a single persons. The key is whether we love.

The Glory of God

You are my servant, Israel,
through whom I show my glory.
Isaiah 49: 3

How do I manifest the glory of God?

How do I, in my daily life, show God’s glory?

There is a temptation to think that one can best show the glory of God by grand spectacles, by spectacular deeds, by lives that make people look on in admiration.

But, Jesus is manifested not as a Lion, but as the Lamb of God. As Jean Vanier notes, “We are called to be gentle followers of the Lamb, not people of power.”

But what is the glory of God?

St. Irenaeus put it succinctly:

The glory of God is the human person fully alive, and to be alive consists in beholding God.

Martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero added:

 Gloria Dei, vivens pauper.
The glory of God is the poor person fully alive.

When a person is fully alive God shines through. The person lives as a child of God – a person who is be loved as we love God. The human person fully alive lives with dignity.

That means that we must love and respect that person – and, better, accompany that person in the path of life and love.

In my ministry that means letting my presence, my accompaniment, be a means by which the people can see their dignity, their capabilities, their relationship with a loving God.

In speaking of catechists in Evangelii Gaudium, ¶164, Pope Francis put it well:

the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”

We are called to manifest that love of God, especially for the poor, in our lives.

Recently I finished Eloi Leclerc’s The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi. At the end of this fictional account, he has St. Francis say these words to Brother Tancred:

“Can’t you see, Brother, that to evangelize a person is to say to that one: ‘You─yes, you too are loved by God in the Lord Jesus.’
“And you must not only tell that person so, but you must really believe it, and not only believe it, but conduct yourself with this person in such a way that this person can feel and discover there is something within that is being redeemed, something more majestic and noble than had ever been dreamed.”

How can I show the glory of God in my life so that the poor discover that power of God, that grace of God – in their personal lives and in their lives as community – that shows forth redemption, life, and love?


Like other nations

Today’s reading from 1 Samuel 8: 4-22 has fascinated me for many years.

The elders of Israel are sick and tired of relying on charismatic judges to rise up and govern the people. They want a king to rule over them.

Samuel feels rejected but God tells him that they are really rejecting God – wanting to rely on human power and might. God tells Samuel what is wrong with this and Samuel relates the message to the people.

A king will be a tyrant; he will tax you, take your children for his personal servants, make you his slaves, recruit your sons for his armies, and take your land.

The list sounds like an anarchist’s diatribe against government. Yet it is not like the libertarianism of the Tea Party but more like the personalist anarchism of Dorothy Day – who emphasizes personal responsibility in place of relying on “Holy Mother the State,” especially a state that is based on militarism.

The elders want someone to lead them, someone who will be their spokesperson. Moreover, they want someone who will make them look as strong as other nations, even if he “lords it over them.”

We too must be like other nations, with a king to rule us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles.

The elders are blinded by the desire to have power over others, like other nations do. The king will lead them in warfare.

In order to have power over others they are willing to let a tyrant have power over the people.

But what does the Lord ask of us?

Jesus offers a different vision of leadership, in  Matthew 20: 25- 28;

You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. [The Christian Community Bible translates the second half of this verse as “the powerful oppress them.”]

But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall become your servant; … the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life to redeem many.

This is both a political and a personal challenge.

Do we want a Jesus, who was a servant king, washing feet, dying for us – and calling us to be servants who give our lives for others? Or will we look for rescuers who rely on violence, on oppression – as long as we retain our national power?

Are we willing to give up “power over” others – and serve them as Jesus does?