Monthly Archives: November 2014

Waiting as we build

Advent is the time of waiting.

This year I’ve been waiting the completion of a house in the countryside, so that I can live in the center of the parish of Dulce Nombre where I am helping with the pastoral work. I hope to move in within three weeks.

But waiting is anything but passive – especially when you are building a house.

Waiting means being alert, attentive, watching.

So I’ve been stopping at the construction site at least three times each week – to check and see that things are going right and that there are enough supplies to continue the construction. I also stop to encourage the workers.

One day I found them building a wall where I wanted an open space. Another day I found them putting the plumbing for the toilet where the sink should have been.

But then there were the days when I found them doing something I didn’t expect – but which is really useful.

I even had to trust that the construction supervisor knew what he was doing when he designed the roof – so that, as he told me, that it wouldn’t blow off in the high winds.

Every once in a while I would bring the workers a three liter bottle of Coke, as a way of thanking them and encouraging them.

And one day I found that they had put my name in a floor with broken tiles.


Advent waiting might be like that.

We need to check to see that things are going right in our lives.

Have we constructed a wall where there should be an open space?

Have we checked to see that we have not put our priorities where they shouldn’t be?

We also need to be open to God’s actions in our lives.

Have we let ourselves be surprised by everyday events, realizing that all is not in our hands and sometimes someone else knows best?

Have we let the great builder – or the potter as Isaiah describes God in today’s lectionary reading (Isaiah 64: 7) – show us the design that we need and mold us according to that design?

Are we ready for the surprise of God’s presence in our lives and in our homes?

Are we aware that God calls us by our name?

And are we grateful for all the work that God puts into our lives, filling them with love?

A saint to change the social order – and herself

“Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper…. But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place?… Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

 Today is the anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day on November 29, 1980.

Dorothy Day may seem an anomaly to many people. Raised without religion, a radical activist, she hang out with literary and political outcasts. But her conception of a child led her to the Catholic Church, even though it meant separation from the man she loved who was the father of her child.

She embraced Catholicism, partly because she saw it as the religion of the poor masses. She was devoted to St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, an unlikely saint for someone who embraced radical change in society.

But for her change began from where she was. Yes, she struggled to change the world and politics, but it began where she was.

She situated herself among the poor – which was not easy for her. Her writings do not present an idealized poor; she knew their problems first hand – the smells, the quarrels, and more.

She loved the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the rosary – even as she struggled to feed the poor and help make real a little part of the world where love was made real.

She is the ideal saint for today – neither conservative, nor liberal.

She was a radical; she went to the roots. That meant she saw personal conversion as a first step, though not the only step, to personal and social transformation.

I met her once, at the end of a Friday night meeting at the Catholic Worker in New York City, as people were cleaning up. I don’t remember what she said, but I mostly remember her as being like a grandmother (which she was) – attentive, loving, present.

That reminds of the story of a little boy at a dinner at the Rochester, NY, Catholic Worker, who when he saw Dorothy said: “All day long they said Dorothy Day is coming and now she’s here and she’s just an old woman!”

She was who she was – not someone else. She sought to be the person who God made her to be.

Than meant being an old woman who prayed daily, who read Russian novelists, who listened to the opera, and one of whose last public actions was being arrested in support of farm workers.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

The nonexistent patroness of philosophers

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of us philosophers.

The trouble is she may not have existed – even though her tomb is at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai and St. Joan of Arc identified her as one of the voices speaking to her. She is also one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, revered for their intercession with God.

At the very least, the legend of her life is legendary.

St. Catherine, in San Miniato, Florence

St. Catherine, in San Miniato, Florence

According to the legend, she was a precocious 18 year old Christian in Alexandria. She was brought before the emperor who was astounded by her wisdom and learning. He brought in fifty philosophers to refute her, but they ended up converting to Christianity – so powerful was her logic. The new Christian philosophers ended up being burned alive.

Catherine was sent to prison where she converted the emperor’s wife, the jailer, and two hundred members of the imperial guard. This, of course, did not please the emperor.

What a missionary she was! What a great philosophic debater!

The emperor then tried to torture her on a spiked wheel, which broke apart (and, of course, injured bystanders). She was finally beheaded. After her death her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai.

Fantastic and amazing as the tale is there is probably an element of truth in the midst of all the legend.

A young woman probably converted many by her simple wisdom and suffered for her faith in a God beyond all human wisdom, perhaps revealing the subversive wisdom of the crucified and risen Lord.

Robert Ellsberg puts it beautifully in All Saints:

[St. Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

An added note: St. Catherine’s feast was suppressed from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar in 1969 but restored in 2002 as an optional memorial

Judgment of the nations

“What you did to the least, you did to me.”
Matthew 25: 40

Fr. John Kavanaugh summed up this parable of the Last Judgment very well:

In human mayhem, we dismember the body of Christ.

It’s not a mere failure to respond to human need, it’s a failure to respond to Christ Jesus.

This is a judgment not just of individuals. Jesus presents it as a judgment of the nations.

That makes things really problematic for us North Americans.

Pope John Paul II put it well at a Mass in Canada in 1984:

…in the light of Christ’s words, the poor South will judge the opulent North. And poor people and poor nations — poor in different ways, not only lacking food but deprived of freedom and other human rights — will be judging those who snatch away their possessions, accumulating for themselves the imperialist monopoly of economic and political predominance at the expense of others.

When will these words be taken seriously by my native land, the United States?

First love

You have left behind your first love.
Revelation 2:4

 In the beginning of the Book of Revelation, Jesus sends a message to seven churches in Asia Minor.

The first message is to the church at Ephesus, an important city in the region. In the city the church was struggling with the Nicolaitans, whose teaching was, as Pablo Richard notes in Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, “a pre-gnostic heresy that seeks to spiritualize Christianity in order to make it compatible to the empire.”

The Church has stood firm but it has lost, abandoned, or left behind its first love, the agape, the solidarity and love that first motivated them.

How easy it is to leave behind that first love, that spirit that inspired me to come here to Honduras, to be of service to those most in need. How important it is to recall this inspiration, this first love, so that it may grow even more.

In less than a month I will be moving out to the countryside, to live in a village in the parish where I am helping. The house is bigger than I need – but it is meant as a guest house and a place where people can come to rest.

But most of all it will enable me to be closer to the people, to be there more for them, since the town is in a central location in the parish.

I pray it will be an opportunity for me to return to that first love with a deeper sense of solidarity, with a greater commitment to justice.

Rather dead than a bishop

albertYesterday was the feast of St. Albert the Great, a great philosopher, scientist, and theologian. For him, no aspect of knowledge could not be recognized by a reasoned faith.

As a Dominican master of studies he taught the young Dominicans. One of his students was Thomas Aquinas, whose quiet disposition and body size had earned the name of “The Dumb Ox,” among Thomas’ fellow students. (Nastiness of students to each other is not a new phenomenon.)

St. Albert, though, rightly prophesied that “the lowing of this dumb ox will be heard throughout the world.”

Albert was later chosen to be bishop of Regensberg – a post he held for about two years. It was too much for him.

Today a Benedictine priest friend of mine, Father Albert, sent me this quote that Blessed Humbert of Romans, the Master of the Dominicans, wrote to Albert the Great about his elevation to the episcopacy:

“I would rather you were dead than a bishop…  Why ruin your reputation and that of the Order by letting yourself be taken away from poverty and preaching?  However troublesome you find the brethren, don’t imagine things will be better once you have secular clergy and powers to deal with … Better to be in a coffin than sit in a bishop’s chair!”

I could not stop laughing when I read it. St. Albert should have listened to Master Humbert.

It got even more hilarious when I discovered that the quote was cited by the new Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Anthony Fisher, O.P., in the homily of his installation Mass on November 12.

We need more bishops like him. And we would have a better world and a better church if we would be able to laugh at ourselves.


Crucified peoples

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of two women and six Jesuits at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador.


The Jesuits, only one of whom was a native Salvadoran, had spent their lives at the service of the poor, some in direct work with parishes and the poor, others as world-renowned intellectuals. Some were both – Father Ignacio Martin-Baro was a social psychologist and also served with the parish of Jayaque; Father Segundo Montes was a sociologist and an advocate for Salvadoran refugees and displaced because of the civil war.

I remember the morning when the word reached Ames, Iowa, where I was serving as a campus minister. I was outraged; I called my senator and spoke with an aide who insisted the killings were the work of the guerilla. I told him that he was absolutely wrong and that Salvadoran archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas had placed the blame directly at the feet of the US-backed Salvadoran forces.

In 1990, Orbis Books published Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, with article by Jon Sobrino, the martyred UCA rector Ignacio Ellacuría, and several other of the Jesuits. I used it several time when teaching the course “Belief and Unbelief” at Iowa State University.

What especially struck me were these words of Jon Sobrino that reflect on a meditation of Ignacio Ellacuría, related to St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises:

Something that was very original and extremely relevant to our situation was Ignacio Ellacuría’s interpretation of the meditation on our sins in the presence of the crucified Jesus. He related it to our Third World, and asked what have we done to cause all these people to be crucified, what are we doing about their crosses and what are we going to do to bring them down from the cross.

That is a good meditation for today – and for everyday, as we seek to look at the crucified peoples of the world, who often suffer from our sins as Jesus died for ours.


Paying the price

“What does it mean to be a Jesuit today? to commit oneself under the banner of the cross in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice which that very faith demands…. We will not work in the promotion of justice without paying the price.”

These words from the Constitution of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, were written in the 1970s. They were prophetic words in light of the Jesuits killed in many parts of the world.

Tomorrow is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Jesuit martyrs of San Salvador Central American University (UCA) who were killed by Salvadoran military forces who were trained and financed by the United States.

A plaque with the above words from the Jesuit Constitution graces the wall in the UCA chapel where they are buried.


But dying while seeking justice is not just a recent experience of the Jesuits.

Today is the anniversary of the killing of two Jesuits in Paraguay, Saints Roque González and Alonso Rodríguez, who were working among the Guarani in the Jesuit “reductions,” places of refuge for the native peoples. Though they were killed by chiefs who saw them as agents of the colonial exploiters, they had given their lives for the marginalized and often enslaved Guarani.

The struggle for faith and the struggle for justice are not separate; they are part of the same endeavor to live as members of the Kingdom of God. We need to show people the loving God we worship but we also need to accompany them in their efforts to live as children of that loving God.

It is not always easy and sometimes comes at a step cost. But God calls us to commit ourselves under the banner of the Cross, a banner of love, of mercy, of justice, of self-giving.


The poor and peace

El Greco's St. Martin

El Greco’s St. Martin

St. Martin of Tours, whose feast is celebrated today, is well known for a simple act of charity.

He had been forced to join the military, probably in part due to his father being a member of the military. One day, in Amiens, in the cold of winter, he encountered a beggar. Having nothing more than his cloak, he cut it in half and gave one half to the poor man. That night in a dream he saw Christ clothed in the cloak; Christ affirmed the charity of this simple act: “Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with this cloak.”

Martin then proceeded to be baptized.

But baptism brought another challenge.

Martin refused to go into battle. “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

He was accused of cowardice and imprisoned, though he was subsequently released from military service.

Martin shows us that the way of Christ is care for the poor, sharing what we have, and refusing to kill, even our enemies.

Neither of these acts is easy, but love of the poor and the love of the enemy should be the marks of a follower of the poor man of Nazareth who died on a cross, forgiving his enemies.

They are also what we need today.

Today is also Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I, the war to end all wars.

Recalling this, I want to share the words of General Omar Bradley, which compliment the example of St. Martin:

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world with its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Mankind is stumbling blindly through spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death….

“…the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience, Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace; more about killing, than we know about living.”

Would that we learn how to live and love as Martin showed us, following in the steps of Jesus.

Kristallnacht, the Wall, and a Basilica

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis fomented a massive campaign of destruction against the German Jewish communities. One hundred and ninety one synagogues were burned and seventy five hundred shops owned by Jews were destroyed.

Today is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Berlin Wall, 2012

The Berlin Wall, 2012 

Today is also the feast of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. It is an impressive building with a separate Baptistry.

St. John Lateran - facade

St. John Lateran – facade

St. John Lateran - apse

St. John Lateran – apse

But what I most recall from my February 2013 visit is the sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi and his companions facing the church, across the plaza.

St. Francis and companions facing the Lateran

St. Francis and companions facing the Lateran

According to the legend, Francis had come to the Lateran to ask the pope to approve his group of brothers. The pope had a dream that the basilica of St. John Lateran was falling down and that a poor man saved it. He later recognized that man as Francis.

Francis came in homage to the Church, both the building and the institution, but his presence was a challenge to the power and the glory of the medieval church.

Francis sought a poor church, a church of the poor, a church that followed the Poor Man of Nazareth.

Such a church will identify with the poor – not merely serve them,

Such a church will break down walls.

Such a church will protest all the Kristallnachts that oppress others.

Such a church will love and follow the Lord who accompanied His people.