Monthly Archives: April 2015

A trouble-making mystic

Catherine of Siena, a Dominican lay woman from the fourteenth century, was a mystic who had a deep sense of the presence of God in her life. In her early life she spent much time in solitude, praying and fasting.

St. Catherine of Siena tomb; Santa Maria sopra Minerva

This did not, however, keep her from responding to those in need. After an intense experience of what is described as espousal to Christ, she began to work in a hospital with the sick.

But she did not stop at charity – though this was very important for her. She was asked several times to work to bring about peace including in the midst of a conflict between the papacy and the city of Florence. She also was an advocate of the poor and a champion of peace to others. As she wrote to the King of France:

“Repent! Think of death and its uncertainty. Be a father to the poor, as the steward of what God has entrusted to you. Don’t you consider what great responsibility for evil falls upon you when you refuse to do what lies in your power? What a devilish botch in the eyes of God is this war between brothers. Cut out these stupidities.”

She also attracted many followers who came to listen to her speak of God. But that led her to be a strong advocate for reform in the Church.

She was particularly appalled at the lifestyles of the bishops and priests:

“They ought to be mirrors of freely chosen poverty, humble lambs, giving away the Church’s possession to the poor. Yet here they are, living in worldly luxury and ambition and pretentious vanity a thousand times worse than if they belonged to the world! In fact, many laypersons put them to shame by their good and holy lives.”

She was especially critical of the pope who was living in Avignon, France, a virtual tool of the French throne. She managed to get Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. In the face of his fear of being poisoned, she told him: “Be not a timorous child, but manly . . .” She was a supporter of his successor, Urban VI, in the face of an anti-pope. But though she considered him the “sweet Christ on earth,” she was not afraid to exhort him also to be courageous and not a coward.

We find in St. Catherine an incredible combination of ways of following Christ – prayer, fasting, asceticism, mysticism, preaching, care of the sick, peacemaking, and advocating for the reform of the church. I wonder how she kept all of them together.

Perhaps it was because she experienced heaven in her life. As Catherine noted in a phrase often quoted by Dorothy Day who also combined many ways of following Christ – and was also a trouble-maker:

“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

Who am I to judge?

The Spirit told me to accompany them without discriminating.
Acts of the Apostles 11: 12 

 Peter is trying to explain why he baptized a Roman centurion and his household. His fellow followers of Jesus had a great problem accepting that non-Jews could embrace discipleship of Jesus.

He tells them about the outpouring of the Spirit on the household of Cornelius and remarks in Acts 11: 18:

“If then God gave them the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?”

This was a powerful moment in the early Church. Christ Jesus came not only to save Jews, but all people.

I would probably not be as attuned to these words of today’s first readings if Sister Pat Farrell was not visiting me here in Plan Grande. We are preparing a workshop on Conflict Transformation and last night she mentioned the importance of putting aside our immediate judgments when we are in the midst of a conflict. Doing this can help us see a bit of what the other person or group is trying to say.

So when I read the word “discriminating,” I was taken aback. So I checked the Greek which reads μηδὲν διακρίναντα. Sure enough, διακρίνω means not only discriminate, but can also mean evaluate or judge.

Peter was being taught by the Spirit to be open to what is different, what is other, what shakes up his worldview.

As I reflect on this I recall the remark of Pope Francis when asked about gay priests who were seeking to live faithfully, “Who am I to judge?”

In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, ¶72, Pope Francis amplified the meaning of this oft-quoted statement:

One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).

What a different world – and church – we would have if we adopted this openness to the actions of the Spirit, this willingness to look for the good in others, and this lack of judgmentalism.

Then I think we would be better disciples.

Laying down one’s life

A good shepherd lays down his life
for the sheep.
John 10: 11

Pope Francis has spoken often of the importance of sharing the “smell of the sheep.” As he wrote in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium – the Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 24:

An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.

Next month the world will celebrate the beatification of a Salvadoran bishop who took on the smell of the sheep and gave his life for them. As Monseñor Oscar Romero said in his July 22, 1979 homily:

 I want to repeat to you what I said once before:
the shepherd does not want security
while they give no security to his flock.

Today is the anniversary of the martyrdom  in 1998 of another shepherd, Monseñor Juan Gerardi, the Guatemalan bishop, who was killed days after the office he led had released a report – “Nunca Mas – Never Again” – on the many killings in his country.

He, like Romero, knew the risks of what he was doing. Years before he had fled his diocese because of the violence and death threats. As he said when the report was released,

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.

How can we who serve in the Christian community share the mission and courage of martyrs like Romero and Gerardi? How do we lay down our lives for others?

It’s not merely a question of martyrdom, but a question of laying down our lives, our agendas, every day, for others, especially the poor and suffering – even when we’d rather be sitting at home writing or reading about the poor.

To do this we must not be afraid to go out and smell like the sheep.

We must listen to them, hear their joys and sorrows, and accompany them on their journey.

We can do this best, I believe, when we are deeply connected with the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gave His life for the sheep and promises us life.

Doing this can give us life.


Laura López, martyr of solidarity

laura lopezduranThirty years ago, on April 24, 1985, a Salvadoran catechist gave up her space in a bomb shelter and was killed while running to escape the guns of the Salvadoran government troops, near Valle Verde, in the municipality of Suchitoto.

Laura López was the pseudonym of Felipa Duran. She was active as a catechist in the rural region of Suchitoto, a region devastated by the Salvadoran civil war. The Salvadoran guerrillas operated fairly freely in the region since they had the support of many rural communities which had been evangelized in the style of liberating theology by a series of priests and lay leaders.

Thus the Salvadoran government military often invaded the zone – both with troops and with major bombings. There were a series of major massacres in the area.

Laura came into this area, allied to a number of priests and religious leaders who supported the cause of the guerrillas, though not always their tactics. Though she was not from the area, she came in solidarity.

She led Celebrations of the Word. I heard several people say how she always seemed to come in the most difficult times and offered a word of consolation.

She also passed on the testimony of the crimes of the Salvadoran government troops to the church’s legal aid office.

But she was not uncritical of the guerrillas. Her denunciations of promiscuity among the guerrilla troops almost had her expelled from the region, but the communities resisted such a move.

Her stance was based in her faith and so her opinions were not as ideological as some supporters of the guerrillas. As reported in the Memorial Martirial, “she used to say that the members of both the guerrillas and of the armed forces were not as much to blame for what they did as were those who led them.”

On the fateful day when she was shot, she was fleeing with her daughter. She told her daughter to hide, lest she be killed. Handing over her knapsack she told her, “Adelante. Go forward.”

She had gone forward, giving up a place of safety – not only in the shelter but also by entering and serving in a war zone. But she did it out of love, with a vision of a civilization of love. As she once said:

“We have gotten used to hating, to being afraid. We have to put an end to that. We have to confront ourselves, to kill the false pride within our soul, so that a new person may arise, so that a new civilization may come into being — one composed of love.”

Laura was but one of thousands of pastoral workers in El Salvador who were killed. In a month, on May 23, Monseñor Oscar Romero will be beatified. He is but one of those who were martyred for their commitment to a God who hears the cry of the poor.


A more detailed description of the witness of Laura López can be found in this extract from a book I’m writign on the witness of the church in the parish of Suchitoto, El Salvador: Laura Lopez extract.


Cicadas praise the Creator on Earth Day

Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Psalm 66

 This morning, just back home in Plan Grande, I had hoped to sleep in – to 6:30 or 7:00. But nature’s alarm clock awakened me at 5:10 am.

The cicadas are chanting – in loud voices – right outside my windows.


I heard them yesterday when I arrived at 3:00 pm and saw them in the tree. (I photographed one this morning.)


I  found three live cicadas in the house last night and two this morning. I released them from captivity in the house.

I also found some dead ones on the upstairs terrace. It seems that if they fall on their backs they can’t turn over.


They stopped their chirping last night and so I could sleep well. But at 5:10 they were up and sang their raucous song for about a minute. I managed to stay in bed until 5:20 since they were not too loud.

When I entered my prayer room, I heard a different noise at the window. When I opened the curtains, I encountered a black bird outside, perhaps looking at his reflection in the window.

But when I sat down, the cicadas kept up their song – at times loud, at times less loud, but still enough to be a distraction.

However, when I read the psalm response for today’s liturgy – “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy,” I realized that the cicadas praise God with their racket.

I know that soon they will die – and a few have died on my terrace and other places. But in their brief lives they praise God with their loud chirping.

What a beautiful way to begin Earth Day – hearing creation praising the Creator.


By the way, I have been told that there are two kinds of cicadas here: the chicharas which are pretty monotone and not too loud and the chiquirines which are loud and have a range of tones. The chiquirines can be almost deafening. I recorded some that I heard on Good Friday in another village. Listen to them here.

Chant and the oppressed

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

As I read a very challenging article by Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis here, I thought of what I had written more than ten years ago after a personal pilgrimage to Palestine and Israel with a friend. Here is one part of the journal I wrote.


The night before I left for my pilgrimage, I watched a documentary film on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian, who was killed in 1945 for his role in resisting Hitler.

The failure of the Christian community to resist Hitler, especially the timidity of the Catholic Church in Germany, has played an important role in my commitment to justice since my early years in college in the mid-sixties.

One phrase of Bonhoeffer’s in the video particularly touched me that night. “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

I love chant and much medieval music. The music seems to give us a glimpse of the heavenly realm.

As I prepared to leave I wondered whether this statement might need to be expanded – “Only the one who cries out for the Jews and the Palestinians may sing Gregorian chant.”

But I wondered whether that might be pushing things.

The first day in Bethlehem, after visiting the Grotto of the Nativity, Omar and I went to St. Catherine’s, the attached Roman Catholic church. We passed into the crypt where we passed the tombs of the Holy Innocents and went to the chapel of the cave of St. Jerome, where he translated the bible into Latin.

It was almost noon and the Franciscan friars were preparing for prayer. We approached the grotto and were stopped by the door that led from the crypt. We turned, went upstairs to the church of St. Catherine’s and began to leave. As we left the friars were beginning to chant.

Truly, I thought, “Only the person who cries out for the oppressed – the Palestinians and others – may sing Gregorian chant.”

A few days later, visiting Jerusalem we stopped into the Church of Saint Anne in the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s an old Crusader church built in the twelfth century, on the grounds of the ruins of the pool of Bethsaida. It served for a time as a Muslim school but is now a church on the ground of the seminary of the Missionaries of Africa. As I entered the church I heard Omar humming and was astounded at the acoustics. I sang a few notes and realized that there is an incredible reverberation in the church, up to seven seconds someone later told me.

I wanted to sing a chant. All I could think of was the Regina Coeli, an Easter hymn in honor of Mary. This was quite fitting I later realized since this church was on the site of the house of Ann, the mother of Mary, and there is a shrine to Mary’s birth on the crypt.

As I sung, I heard my voice echoing in the vaults – my prayer continued by the stones. When I stopped singing, the sound continued. The prayer echoed in the church and it echoed in my heart.

That night in a conversation with the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem I shared my reflections on Bonhoeffer’s challenge.

But only a month later did I realize what I had done that day in East Jerusalem. In occupied land I sang chant. Had I, by singing chant, unwittingly committed myself to cry out for the Palestinians?

So I will continue to sing chant – but I will raise my voice even more for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. For only if you speak up for the oppressed may you dare to sing the praises of God.

May my chant and my cries of protest echo as forcefully as the hymn in Saint Anne’s.

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Church of St. Anne, Jerusalem

Patron of the homeless

One of the churches I visited in Rome two years ago was Santa Maria ai Monti, where St. Benedict Joseph Labre is buried. He fainted there on April 16, 1784, and died soon after in a nearby house at the age of 35. He is buried there.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Deemed too frail or talentless by several religious orders, he became a wandering pilgrim. The Franciscan claim him as a Cordbearer, a Franciscan confraternity.

He lived among the poor and beggars, noted for his piety, especially his devotion to the Eucharist, and for sharing his food with the poor.

I read of St. Benedict Joseph many years ago and a friend told me of his devotion to this unlikely saint.

The visit to his tomb was for me a blessing – especially since the tomb and the church were bathed in sunlight.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre

Benedict Joseph shows us that holiness can be lived anywhere – and that we need to open our eyes and our hearts to those who appear the least likely to reflect the presence of the holiness of God.

In Mary, heaven breaks through

DSC04666Thursday and Friday in New York City I visited the Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. This time I was stuck by several images of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

In the Cloisters I came across a few images of the Virgin Mary, including one of my favorites – this Burgundian wooden statue made between 1130 and 1140.

What always struck me is that Christ is headless – incomplete – yet he is sitting on the lap of the Virgin Mary, the Seat of Wisdom.

But this time I noted another image from Spain, from about 1280-1300. What struck me is that both Mary and Jesus are smiling.


There is a deep joy that the unknown artist captured,


the joy that is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “that deepest freshness deep down things.”

Also in the Cloisters, in a series of carvings of the lives of Jesus and Mary, there is this image of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, depicting the scene from Luke’s Gospel.


Note that Elizabeth is gently touching the womb of her cousin.

Today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I got a new perspective at a painting I had seen before. It helped that I was there with two friends, who are sisters, and their children.

The painting comes from Florence in the early 1400s. Mary, with people at her knees, is touching her breast and saying to Jesus: “Dearest son, because of the milk I gave you, have mercy on them.” Jesus, in turn, asks the Father: “My father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the passion.”


What strikes me in all of this is how very human these images are – but how they open to all of us the transcendent nature of all that is. They show us that heaven breaks through in all creation.


One of the scenes of Good Friday that most touches me is Jesus being taken down from the Cross and laid in the arms of his mother.

There are two images that I would like to meditate on this year.

The first is Michelangelo’s Pietà in Florence. When I first saw it in 1973, in the Duomo of Florence, it deeply moved me, especially the emotion in the face of the man in the sculpture. Two years ago I encountered the sculpture again in the Duomo Museum in Florence. Though it is no longer in a place of prayer, it evokes prayer, more than the famous Pietà in the Vatican.


The second image is not exactly a Pietà. It is the image of a mother and her dead son in a memorial in the Neue Wache in Berlin. It is the work of Käthe Kollwitz, an artist and sculptor who identified with the cause of the poor and oppressed and opposed all war. The tragedy of the death of a son is evident in her hand holding her son’s.


As I meditate on these images I think of the mothers who have lost their children this year – to war, to illness, to preventable diseases.

Looking on them, may our hearts be opened to be filled with the mercy of God.

Like those in flight

… you shall eat
like those who are in flight.
Exodus 12: 11
(Douai Rheims translation)

 The instructions for the meal waiting for deliverance from slavery in Egypt were very clear. They were instructions for those who would soon flee.

Today I think of all those who are in flight in our world.

Those fleeing the poverty, unemployment, and violence in their home countries in Central America, looking for a better life.

Those fleeing the war and violence in the Middle East and Africa.

Those women and children fleeing situations of domestic violence.

Those fleeing the effects of floods and other disasters in nature.

Those fleeing persecution for speaking out for their rights and the rights of others.

Those trying to fleeing from prostitution or enslavement brought about by human traffickers.

The message of the Exodus is that their cries reach up to God.

But do their cries reach our ears?