Monthly Archives: December 2015

Fear and the slaughter of innocents

Neither the mothers’ tears nor the fathers’ grief,
nor the cries of the children themselves touch you, O Herod.
Fear kills you and you kill them.
St. Quodvultdeus

The Chapel of the Divine Child in Bethlehem University has a series of beautiful frescoes, remembering the Holy Innocents and other child martyrs. When I visited the US Christian Brother told me that the artist who painted the frescoes in 1957 and 1958 was inspired by the faces of Palestinian children in Bethlehem.

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As I contemplate the faces I think of the many Palestinian children who have been killed, especially those in Gaza.

It is not that I want to forget the Israeli children killed nor the children killed by ISIS and Al-Queda or by US or Russian bombs. Nor can I forget the children killed in massacres in Ruanda or El Salvador and Guatemala.

But let us pray today for all the innocent children killed.

I believe that many are killed today for the same reasons that moved Herod to kill the innocents in Bethlehem centuries ago: fear.

A hymn from Benedictine Daily Prayer well expresses this:

The tyrant Herod, filled with dread and fear,
When told that Christ the Infant King was near,
Was wild with rage and gave command to slay
All infants under two without delay.

Fear kills us, blinding us to the images of the suffering, rending us deaf to the cries of the victims, hardening our hearts so that we cannot recognize the others as our sisters and brothers.

Thomas Merton once wrote that the root of war is fear – a marvelous essay in New Seeds of Contemplation. Fear is not only the root o war but of the massacre of innocents who threaten the powers of this world.

fRemembering today the feast of the Holy Innocents, let us pray that God will remove the fear in the hearts of so many and move all of us to become advocates of the victims.

This for me is the message of the feast of the Holy Innocents.

 

Going out to meet the other

Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
Luke 1:39

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Today, the church in the Americas celebrates the visitation of the Mother of God to an Indian, Juan Diego, on a hilltop in Mexico.

Mary appears to Juan Diego several times and asks him to go to the bishop to have a church built on the site, “so that I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land…”

Twice he receives a lukewarm reception from the bishop.

On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego set out for the city to get a priest to hear his ill uncle’s confession. As Antonio Valeriano writes, “he went around the hill and passed on the other side, to the east, so as to arrive quickly in Mexico City and to avoid being detained by the Heavenly Lady.”

But Mary was insistent: “she came out to meet him.”

Mary had gone in haste to her cousin Elizabeth’s and then went out to meet Juan Diego on the road.

Mary shows us a God, the God she bore in her womb, who goes out to encounter the other, especially those in need. She reaches out to the poor, the outcast, the nothings of this world.

What a contrast to what a friend experienced a few months ago. He went to a government office to ask for help to get some soil samples tested. He was told that they didn’t have time for him.

In contrast, Mary takes time for the other, for us, and especially for the poor.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is a challenge to us to take time for others, especially the poor, to welcome those who are without power, who are despised by the rich and powerful.

For, as Pope Francis said in a general audience on December 11, 2013:

When the image of the Virgin appeared on the tilma of Juan Diego, it was the prophecy of an embrace: Mary’s embrace of all the peoples of the vast expanses of America — the peoples who already lived there, and those who were yet to come.
Mary’s embrace showed what America — North and South — is called to be: a land where different peoples come together; a land prepared to accept human life at every stage, from the mother’s womb to old age; a land which welcomes immigrants, and the poor and the marginalized, in every age. A land of generosity.

 

God’s mercy and our shortcomings

A few weeks ago I came across this quotation from Thomas Merton, who died on December 10, 1968:

“But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his own illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God.”

I struggle with accepting my limitations, my sins, my inadequacies. It’s so much easier to pretend that I am not perfect, but good.

But Merton is suggesting that the start of our life of faith is remembering what is wrong with ourselves – but not stopping there.

If I don’t recognize where I am wrong, I can end up thinking I am right and everyone else to wrong. I can find myself taking on a “god complex.”

A few months ago, I ran across these words of St. Thérèse of Liseux:

How happy I am to see myself as imperfect and be in need of God’s mercy.

Reflecting on these words, which mirror Merton’s, I wrote in my journal that morning. (This is slightly revised.)

How hard it is for me to acknowledge my errors, my failures! How difficult it is for me when I’ve made a mistake, when I’ve not done something as well as I think I could. How reluctant I am to face someone , to talk with someone, when I’ve not done something well or put things off. I am afraid of looking bad.
But St. Thérèse remind me that my imperfections could very well be the path to letting God’s love and mercy touch my soul, transform me, bring me to conversion.

Recognition of our sins and shortcomings, of our imperfections and errors, can open us to the mercy of God.

That too is at the heart of the Jesus prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the Living God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.

The Immaculate Conception: Letting God through

God chose us in Christ, before the world began,
to be holy and blameless in his sight,
to be full of love.
Ephesians 1:4

Today the Catholic world celebrate Mary, the Mother of God, who was conceived without sin.

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Icon written by Yaroslava Wright Mills

By the merits of the death and resurrection of her Son she was freed from the power of original sin. God then worked through her without interference of sin.

This rather unusual understanding of the Immaculate Conception came to me this morning reading about Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J,, a prisoner in the Soviet Union for 22 years, who died on December 8, 1984. Reflecting on how he had been freed from the fear of death, he wrote:

I realized that true freedom meant nothing else than letting God operate within my soul without interference.

Mary, freed from sin, lived this all her life, letting God operate in her life without interference. She let God through.

This is grace – a grace granted to Mary from her conception and a grace granted to all of us through our baptism and the workings of God’s grace in our daily lives.

Will we let God through? Will we let ourselves give birth to God’s grace in the world?

Another Jesuit, Alfred Delp, S.J., from a Nazi prison, wrote of this openness of Mary to let God through in his meditation of Christmas:

“The fact that this night of nights [Christmas] brought forth the Light, that Mary kneels before the child, that motherhood and the grace of compassion have become a law of our life, that the ice of humanity’s inner solitude can be broken and melted by healing warmth — all this became possible only because the maid Mary yielded of her own free choice to the inner prompting of God’s voice. Her secret is self-surrender and willing acceptance, offering herself to the point of complete obliteration of her personal will.
“This is both her message and her judgment of us. As a generation we are completely concerned about our self-fulfillment, our self-realization, our living conditions and so on. Everything is organized for our self-gratification. And precisely because of this we are getting progressively poorer and more miserable. Mary’s decision was complete surrender to God and it is the only thing that can lead to human fulfillment. Hers is the decisions that obeys the law of life.”

May our will be conformed to God’s as Mary’s way so that God can get through to our world.

Subverting Santa Claus

December 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas whose memory has been corrupted by the commercialized Santa Claus.

But this fourth century bishop in many ways subverts the values of a commercialized Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (today Turkey) was not without his faults.

His temper led him to punch the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea; Nicholas was jailed and repented of his angry attack, though he stood up for his belief in the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

That was not the first time he had been imprisoned. Because of his faith he was imprisoned and beaten during the persecution of Diocletian.

But as bishop he was a man who listened to the people.

At one point he went to the Emperor to ask him to reduce the taxes on Myra which were bankrupting the citizens.

At another point he intervened and stopped the execution of three innocent men.

He rescued three young boys who had been kidnapped, killed, and pickled by a man who hated kids.

By throwing in three sacks of coins, he also rescued three young women whose father did not have money for a dowry and who would have had to become prostitutes.

Nicholas is a defender of children and women, an advocate for life and for justice.

The legends about St. Nicholas abound. He is the patron of sailors since he was invoked by sailors during a storm.

Let us remember him today and this season by our commitment to God, to children, to innocent victims of violence and oppression, and to women.

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Icon of St. Nicholas rescuing a sailor. Courtesy of Lynn Miller.

Hundreds of resources on St. Nicholas can be found on the site of the St. Nicholas Center.

Weeping and binding wounds

no more will you weep;
Isaiah 30:19

There has been a lot of weeping and mourning around the world these past several weeks – Paris, Syria, San Bernardino. Victims of violence, refugees fleeing their homes, migrants seeking freedom and livelihoods, and more abound.

It has hit home to me here in Honduras.

There are not only the violent deaths in the main cities and the people dying from lack of food and medicine.

About two weeks ago, a man in our community died after an accident when a car he was working on fell on him. He left a widow and four daughters.

This past Wednesday the mayor of Dolores, one of the municipalities in the parish of Dulce Nombre, was shot and killed in his car and his wife was injured.

Thursday, one of the priests of the diocese died in an auto accident.

Weeping abounds, despite the promise of the Lord in Isaiah.

Yet in today’s first reading from Isaiah (30:26) and in the psalm (147:3) we read these words:

the Lord bind up the wounds of his people.

The Lord is here among us, binding up the wounds.

But that doesn’t mean that we are off the hook. In the Gospel (Matthew 9:35—10: 1, 5 -8), Jesus has compassion on the people but also sends out the twelve, reminding them to not only preach the coming of the Kingdom but make the Reign of God present by giving of themselves to those who are suffering:

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.
Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.

Weeping will end when it is shared and when we dry the tears of those who suffer, sitting with them, offering healing and working for the Reign of God.

It is not a question of waiting for God to intervene from afar. God has not intervened from afar; God became human. And Jesus calls us to continue this work in the world – by personal conversion and the conversion of the structures of injustice and violence around us.

It’s now easy. But it can bring deep joy in the midst of the weeping, as we do the work of God – binding up the wounds.

Different types of missionaries

Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier, the sixteenth century Jesuit priest who is one of the patrons of missionaries, who died on December 2, 1552 on a deserted island off the coast of China.

But these first three days of December offer us visions of three different types of missionaries.

On December 1, 1916, Blessed Brother Charles de Foucauld was killed by rebels in Tamanrasset which is in what is now southern Algeria. He had sought to live among the poor as Jesus in Nazareth, hidden and poor – and so found himself living among Muslims in Africa.

For him to be a missionary was to be a witness by being present.

“The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives should cry the Gospel from the rooftops  .  .  . not by our words but by our lives.”

Blessed Charles teaches us the importance of being present with our poor sisters and brothers:

We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers … let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted as one of them.

On December 2, 1980, four US women missionaries were killed in El Salvador. Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clark and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan offer us the vision of missionaries who accompany the poor in situations of violence and oppression.

Not only were they present, living among the poor, they were also responding to their needs, accompanying those who were being displaced inside the country, largely because of the repression by government and death squad forces.

They also noted that the poor can evangelize us. As Sister Ita Ford wrote:

“Am I willing to suffer with the people here, the suffering of the powerless, the feeling impotent. Can I say to my neighbors — I have no solutions to the situation, I don’t know the answers, but I will walk with you, be with you. Can I let myself be evangelized by this opportunity? Can I look at and accept my own poorness and learn from other poor ones?”

They accompanied the poor in their powerlessness and shared the fate of so many poor in El Salvador, a violent death at the hands of government forces.

St. Francis Xavier offers another vision of mission.

In some ways he appears to be the traditional missionary, in his ten years in India and the Far East.

He baptized thousands in India – and complained that students in the universities in Europe were thinking more of themselves than of the thousands who needed to hear the Gospel message and to be baptized.

But there is more to Francis Xavier than this.

In India he served the poor, visiting prisoners, slaves, lepers and people at the margins. He lived as a poor man.

But he was aware of the exploitation and violence wrought by Portuguese colonial rule in India and wrote back to the King of Portugal calling on him to correct the rampant injustices. He was a missionary who was not afraid to advocate for the poor.

But, though he identified with the poor and spent most of his time in India with the poor, he realized that, like St. Paul, he needed to be “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9: 22). So, when he went to Japan and saw that the rulers looked down on him with his poor clothing, he put on fancier clothes and brought gifts – opening up Japan to the message of the Gospel. He was a pioneer in inculturation.

And so, Charles de Foucauld teaches the missionary the importance of being really present among the poor. The US women religious martyrs teach the call to accompany people in the midst of poverty and violence and to be open to learn from the poor. St. Francis Xavier teaches the importance of being an advocate of the poor in the face of injustice and of being willing to make changes in the face of different cultures.

These missionary witnesses can help us who are missionaries in a foreign land to examine our ministry. (They also can help all Christians who seek to be missionaries, witnesses of the Gospel, wherever they may be.)

Yesterday, December 2, 2015, Pope Francis took up the call to mission and also provided food for thought.

He first challenged young people to think of becoming missionaries and recalled an 81 year old Italian woman religious he met in Bangui in the Central American Republic. She had left Italy when she was in her early twenties and had devoted all her life to Africa.

Pope Francis’ message reflects the challenge of mission in the twenty-first century, echoing the witness of Charles de Foucauld, Francis Xavier, Maura Clark, Ira Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel.

But I address young people: think what you are doing with your life. Think of this sister and so many like her, who have given their life, and so many have died there. Missionary work is not to engage in proselytism: this sister said to me that Muslim women go to them because they know that the sisters are good nurses and that they look after one well, and they do not engage in catechesis to convert them! They give witness then, they catechize anyone who so wishes. But witness: this is the great heroic missionary work of the Church. To proclaim Jesus Christ with one’s life!  I turn to young people: think of what you want to do with your life. It is the moment to think and to ask the Lord to make you hear His will. However, please don’t exclude this possibility of becoming a missionary, to bring love, humanity and faith to other countries. Do not engage in proselytism: no. Those who seek something else do so. The faith is preached first with witness and then with the word, slowly.

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For more on the missionaries mentioned here, you can find short biographies in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.