Monthly Archives: August 2016

A bishop of the Church of the Poor

“What do you think?”
Monseñor Leonidas Proaño

Though the Latin American bishops did not have a very pronounced role in the Second Vatican Council, a number of them proceeded to put the reforms of the Council into practice. In November 1965, just before the close of the Council about 39 bishops got together and formulated what has become known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” A translation of an article by Jon Sobrino can be found here.

One of those bishops was the Ecuadoran Leonidas Proaño, who died on August 31, 1988.

Leonidas-Eduardo-Proaño-Villalba

After the Council, he proceeded to help in the founding of IPLA, the Latin American Pastoral Institute, which held short training sessions for many priests, including the Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande. After the session he and another Salvadoran, Higinio Alas, spent a month in Bishop Proaño’s diocese of Riobamba. It was there that Higinio was impressed by the persistent question of Monseñor: “What do you think?”

Monseñor Proaño was a great defender of the poor indigenous campesino. They saw him as one who treated them with a deep respect. He often went throughout his diocese wearing a poncho.

Respect was not enough and needed to be shown in social changes. One of the ways Monseñor Proaño did this was a redistribution of the land owned by the church in Ecuador. I don’t know the full details of this but this preceded later government efforts to redistribute land.

All this was based in a deep faith in God, expressed in this Credo:

   “Above all, I believe in God. I believe in God the Father. It is he who has given me life. He loves me infinitely. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. According to God’s plan, he became poor, lived among the poor and preached the Good News to the poor.
“I believe in the [person] that is within me and that is being saved by the Word of God. I believe in the person that is within all of my brothers and sisters because this same Word of God was sent to save all of us. Therefore, I can also say that I believe in hope. And for the same reason, I believe in justice. I believe in reconciliation, and I believe that we are walking toward the Kingdom of God.
“I believe in the poor and the oppressed. I believe that they are tremendously capable, especially in their ability to receive the salvation message, to understand it, and to put it into practice. It is true then that we are evangelized by the poor.
“I believe in the church of the poor because Christ became poor. He was born poor, he grew up in poverty, he found his disciples among the poor and he founded his Church with the poor.”

Martyrs and the Ministry of the Cup

The beheading of John the Baptist is one of my favorite feast days. There is something compelling about the witness of my patron saint and his willingness to give his life for truth and justice, as the prayer at Mass today reads.

I have been fascinated by martyrs for many years. I deliberately use the word “fascinated” which comes from the Latin word which means “bewitched” or “spell-bound.”

The willingness to give one’s life is bewitching, compelling me to look closer.

For me, several twentieth century martyrs hold me spell-bound – Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero who gave his life for the people of El Salvador, not flinching from speaking the truth and being a voice for those without a voice; Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army because he saw Nazism as a hell-bent movement; Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who died in the Algerians desert, living as a poor man among the poorest.

But I have been deeply moved by the Trappist martyrs of Tibhirine, who lived among their Muslim brothers and sisters in Algeria and stayed in the face of threats. Their death by extremists is a witness to love for all. The Testament of their prior, Christian de Chergé, is a witness to the power of forgiving love.

Yesterday, during Mass in San Agustín, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, I raised the cup of the Blood of Christ – as the deacon is called to do.

At that moment I recognized that Jesus is calling me to give my life – even to the point of death – for Him and for the People of God.

It was not a moment of fear – but of consolation.

Yet, as I reflect this morning, I realize that giving one’s life is not a question of a last minute decision in the face of the executioner. It is a question of a daily dying, a daily giving, a daily putting of myself at the service of God and all, especially the poor.

In the rite of ordination of a deacon, I was asked

“¿Quieres imitar siempre en tu vida el ejemplo de Cristo, cuyo cuerpo y sangre servirás en el Altar?”

Are you willing to always imitate in your life the example of Christ, whose Body and Blood you will serve at the altar?

The response is:

Si, quiero hacerlo, con la ayuda de Dios.

Yes, I am willing to do so, with the help of God.

It is the only response in which I said “with the help of God.”

Perhaps because it’s only with the help of God that I can witness – that is be a martyr – for the love of God.

May God give me the courage to live this witness every day – not only in the hour of death.

 

DSC00573

A panel in the baptistery in Florence.

Truth Arrogance and Saint Augustine

DSC02420 - Version 2Saint Augustine, writing to an opponent in 397 AD, counseled mutual understanding. He did not call for an easy tolerance but asked for care-filled mutual respect.

There has been a lot of discussion in the blog-sphere, often filled with invective. Fr. Thomas Rosica has warned about the toxicity that can be found on some sites, especially in the comments. This past week, a national catholic [sic] newspaper has fired at least two of its regular contributors.

But what did Augustine write to a heretic? “Lay aside all arrogance.”

“On the other hand, all must allow that you owe it to me, in return, to lay aside all arrogance on your part too, that so you may be the more disposed to gentleness, and may not oppose me in a hostile spirit, to your own hurt. Let neither of us assert that he has found truth; let us seek it as if it were unknown to us both. For truth can be sought with zeal and unanimity if by no rash presumption it is believed to have been already found and ascertained.”

Augustine calls for a mutual search for the truth, recognizing that Truth is beyond us. This is not to deny Truth but to recognize that our way of expressing or explaining it may be different.

Augustine refuses to agree to the position of Manichaeus and if he remains unconvinced, he wants nothing to do with their worship or dogma.

“But if I cannot induce you to grant me this, at least allow me to suppose myself a stranger now for the first time hearing you, for the first time examining your doctrines. I think my demand a just one. And it must be laid down as an understood thing that I am not to join you in your prayers, or in holding conventicles, or in taking the name of Manichaeus, unless you give me a clear explanation, without any obscurity, of all matters touching the salvation of the soul.”

Augustine is clear that he would not accept and tolerate merely accepting what another said, but he was also open to searching for the truth with another with whom he did not agree. (However, Augustine – in contrast to theSecond Vatican Council – was not adverse to using force against heretics.)

Maybe we all should take this quote of Augustine a little more seriously and put aside arrogance and be more disposed to gentleness – seeking Truth, not scoring points.

 

Enter the narrow door

On the way to Jerusalem, someone asks Jesus if it is true that only a few will be saved.

Jesus does not respond directly to the question. For Jesus it is a question of the heart and not the intellect.

“Struggle to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will strive to enter but will not be strong enough.” (Luke 13: 24)

Reading this, I thought of the door of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is low and narrow, probably made so that soldiers couldn’t enter on horseback.

Bethlehemdoor

They would need to dismount and maybe even leave aside their shields and large weapons. They could not enter, trusting in their horses and swords (Psalm 20:7; Psalm 44:6). Their horses and weapons are not the strength needed to enter the cave of Bethlehem.

What do we need to leave behind to enter the door?

Jesus continues his answer to the question in a very unusual way. He tells us that it is not enough to be one of the inner circle or to be someone who hangs around him. In fact, he suggests that the hangers-on will be cast out and the strangers will be welcomed into the Reign of God and will sit at the banquet table.

Maybe we need to leave behind all our efforts to determine who is in and who is out and find ways to welcome all into the Reign of God.

Sending the rich away empty

God casts down the mighty from the thrones
and raises the lowly,
fills the hungry with good things
and send the rich away empty.
Luke 1: 52-53

DSC04679When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist, she broke into the song we call the Magnificat. This hymn, rooted in the hymn of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, is a revolutionary call to recognize and live the Reign of God which has begun in this world with the incarnation of Jesus in the womb of a young poor woman from the backwoods hamlet of Nazareth.

Something new has happened: God has become flesh.

Something new can begin: human beings saved by God can begin to live in the light of the Reign of God.

“God sends the rich away empty,” Mary sings.

Now that’s a bit much for some of us who have more than we need – even if we are not super-rich. It’s really a challenge to those of us who live among the poor but with all the security of a US bank account, Social Security, and more.

But what might God be saying to us?

During my canonical retreat before ordination as a deacon, the retreat director led a session on Mary. Sometime later that day, I was praying the Magnificat when this insight came to me, which I quote from my notes:

You fill the hungry with good things
and send the rich away empty
so that we may experience
the emptiness that you alone can fill,
with the emptying out of ourselves for others.

We who are rich need to be emptied out of all that keeps us safe and isolated from the precariousness of existence for so many in the world.

This became very clear to me the last week. I live a comfortable, uncomplicated life here in Honduras, with easy access to what I need. But this past week the village has been digging up the road to put in a sewage line before the road is paved. It’s a major inconvenience. I cannot park my car by the house. I have to find alternative places to park the car and walk ten minutes to the house.

Yesterday, I had to travel an alternative route to get to where I wanted to go. We were going to a nearby village to celebrate Mass on their feast day – anticipating the Assumption of Mary. The truck was full – with people and with the drinks for the meal after Mass.

But even this adventure proved to be a valuable lesson in the vision of the Reign of God. Isaias helped me find a back way out of Plan Grande. But we got stuck in the mud and even four-wheel drive wasn’t enough. So almost everyone got out of the truck and tried pulling and pushing. No luck.  Sure enough, about five men from nearby came and pushed and pulled the truck. We proceeded to Mass but, as I look back, I realized that act of being pushed and pulled by the poor was also a sign of God’s presence and what God wants for us.

May God continue to empty me of my attempts to be self-sufficient and move me to serve at the table of the poor.


The photo was taken in the Cloisters Museum in New York City.

Olympian specials

When I had been here in Honduras for a few months, I noticed the large number of people with birth defects of various types. Some are beggars but many are just trying to live and survive with twisted limbs, missing limbs, and other less visible disabilities.

I also saw a fair number of people with Downs syndrome. I presume there are a number hidden away in homes and houses. I had seen one case of a young man who was just let to sit in the dirt in the patio, but when I returned a few months later he was seated in a wheel chair.

I have made an effort to go out of my way to greet these people whom much of the world despises.

But one of the great joys is the presence of Adrián. A young man with Downs, I think he is in his thirties. He is almost always present at the Masses and church events near Vertientes, where he lives with his aged parents. He goes out of the way to greet people. He helps at the altar; he plays the guitar and sings. He is a refreshing presence in these communities. And the people accept him.

I was reminded of this today as I read Give Us This Day. Today Robert Ellsberg wrote about Eunice Shriver, who died on August 11, 2009. Her work with people with disabilities in her family led her to work with the Special Olympics, reminding them at the first Special Olympics in 1968 of the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

In these days when the world is looking at the beautiful and talented athletes in Brazil, it is good to remember what she saw in people with disabilities. They are real people with names, with histories, with needs and desires like those of other people. As she told them:

“You are the stars and the world is watching you. By your presence you send a message to every village, every city, every nation. A message of hope. A message of victory.”


The August 15, 2016, issue of America has an article on welcoming people with disabilities in parishes as well as a pointed column by the magazine’s editor.

The treasures of the church

DSC07607Saint Lawrence, a deacon of Rome, was not martyred with his bishop, Pope Sixtus. The prefect of Rome knew that he was in charge of the treasures of the church and demanded that he present them to the Roman authorities.

According of one version of the legend, Lawrence, distributed all the goods of the Church to the poor, the ill, and the widows, even selling the sacred vessels. Then he gathered the poor and presented them to the Roman prefect, announcing, “Here are the treasures of the church.”

Needless to say, the prefect was not impressed and proceeded to have Lawrence martyred on a gridiron. The saint seems to have had a sense of humor. After some time over the flames he told his executioners to turn him over since he was done on that side. (Does this qualifying St. Lawrence as the patron saint of barbecues?)

All kidding aside, Lawrence knew what was important – the glory of God and the poor.

The glory of God is shown when we gather around the table of the Lord, rich and poor, sharing the Body and Blood of the Lord.

The glory of God is also shown when we gather around the table of the poor where all have a part, where all share the goodness of creation, where, in the words of the Salvadoran martyred Jesuit Rutilio Grande, everyone has a place, a stool, around a long shared table.

The servant of God serves God at the table of the Eucharist and the table of the poor – both are part of our mission, our identity.

Recalling the absolute equality around the Lord’s table, where there are no divisions, we gather around a table where those who have more share so that all may experience the abundance of God’s creation.

This may call for sacrifices, for selling what we have, even what we think we need. It might even mean, as it meant for St. Lawrence, selling the goods of the church to feed the poor.

This is not all that radical. It was mentioned by Pope Saint John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis  [On Social Concern], # 31:

Thus, part of the teaching and most ancient practice of the Church is her conviction that she is obliged by her vocation – she herself, her ministers and each of her members – to relieve the misery of the suffering, both far and near, not only out of her “abundance” but also out of her “necessities.” Faced by cases of need, one cannot ignore them in favor of superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings for divine worship; on the contrary it could be obligatory to sell these goods in order to provide food, drink, clothing and shelter for those who lack these things. As has been already noted, here we are shown a “hierarchy of values” – in the framework of the right to property – between “having” and “being,” especially when the “having” of a few can be to the detriment of the “being” of many others.

That is the witness of St. Lawrence, as it is the witness of many saints, recall the example of St. Dominic who sold his books to feed the poor in time of famine.

The question then is how can we truly serve God and the poor, recognizing the real treasures of the Church.


The image is from a holy card designed by Ade Bethune. A collection of her works is at St. Catherine University.