Category Archives: apostles

St. Thomas and the Church in India

Today is the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle. He is known as “doubting Thomas,” though he is the only person in John’s Gospel to call Jesus “My Lord and my God.”

According to tradition, after Pentecost he evangelized the people of India and was martyred there. The church he established there has endured to this day. When the Portuguese arrived in southern India, they were surprised to find a flourishing Christian community.

All too often western Christians identify Christianity with its western manifestations. This reminds me of something that happened in Ames, Iowa, many years ago, that some friends shared with me.

There was an Indian family who were members of the parish. He was a professor at Iowa State University. One of their sons became a diplomat.

One day someone asked the wife, “When did your family become Catholic?”

Of course, the answer which followed was unexpected.

“We became Catholics when St. Thomas the Apostle came to India.”

I recall this today in the midst of the trials of the Church in the United States in the face of racism. There were followers of Christ in India and Ethiopia (Acts 9: 26-40) way before any western European heard about Jesus. They are our foremothers and forefathers in the faith.

Don’t forget that.

A Last Supper from Ethiopia

Breathing threats or life?

… still breathing murderous threats…
Acts 9:1

The Acts of the Apostles graphically describes Saul in his pursuit of the followers of Christ.

He not only wants to imprison them and get rid of them. He is breathing threats and murder. They have taken over his very being, his very breathing.

These threats of slaughter are not just thoughts, not just ideas. They are part of his being.

Fears, insecurity, competing world visions are not just thoughts that we can get rid of by thinking them through. Sometimes they are so much a part of us that we need to have the breath taken out of us. They are habits of our being that need a radical transformation.

Maybe that’s why the most famous images of the conversion of Saul picture him fallen off a horse, even though there is no horse mentioned in the scriptures.


Perhaps he needed to be “knocked off his high horse.”

When fear, insecurity, doubts assail us, we sometimes need such a radical push by God.

But there are times when we find ourselves at a turning point, a “tipping point.” We have been moved slowly away from our limited views of God and the world. Suddenly an event pushes us “over the top” and we find ourselves on the verge of a new way of living and thinking. We find ourselves called to a new level of conversion in which we take a new breath and live differently.

Not all of us will experience the sudden conversion of Saul, but God is continuously pushing (and pulling) us toward new life, toward even greater Love. Some of us need to be thrown off our high horses; others need only a little push to begin anew.

But all of us need to learn how to stop breathing murderous threats and start breathing in harmony with all our sisters and brothers.

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Daily life and Saint Bartholomew

Today is the feast of St. Bartholomew, the apostle, often identified with Nathaniel.

In John’s Gospel 1:45-51, Philip finds him seated under a fig tree and calls him to come and see this Jesus. A little skeptical – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” – Bartholomew follows his friend and then follows Jesus.

He is called in his daily life and he lives a life which was probably not full of moments of grandeur, but full of the concerns of daily life, even the daily life of a disciple and a missionary. And I can attest that the life of a missionary is not all excitement; it’s full of the ordinary.

But it’s in the ordinary where we can begin to live out faithful discipleship.

Benedictine Daily Prayer offers part of a sermon of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman for Vigils. This section spoke to me today.

…sometimes we are led to think we ought to be useful on a large scale, and go out of our line of life, that we maybe doing something worth doing, as we consider it.

Here we have the history of St. Bartholomew and the other apostles to recall us to ourselves, and to assure us that we need not give up our usual manner of life, in order to serve God; that the most humble and quietest station is acceptable to God, if improved duly. Indeed, it affords means for maturing the highest Christian character, even that of an apostle. Bartholomew read the Scriptures and prayed to God; and thus was trained at length to give up his life for Christ, when he demanded it.

We are trained at length in the little things, the constant repetitions of daily life. There we learn how to follow, how to “Come and see.”

Called by name

When day came, he called his disciples to himself,
and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles…
Luke 6: 13

St. Jude image, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church

St. Jude image, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Ames, Iowa

In today’s Gospel for the feast of the apostles Simon and Jude, Jesus calls twelve of his disciples – his followers – to be his apostles, those sent out.

What struck me this morning was that Jesus calls the twelve by name.

We may not know much about many of the apostles but we know their names.

Jesus calls each of us by name – no matter what our social standing, no matter whether our deeds will be known in the future.

Jesus knows us – by name. We are not merely numbers or a group in a crowd.

We are called out of the crowd – sent, by name.

Son of Encouragement

Today is the feast of St. Barnabas, whose name, according to Acts 4:36, means “Son of Encouragement” or “Son of Consolation.”

Being the nerd I am, I looked up the Greek. The word used is παράκλησις – paraklesis, which is related to Paraclete – the name we give to the Holy Spirit.

Paraklesis is also the word used repeatedly in 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7, a passage which I love, because I see it as a call for real solidarity:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our afflictions, so we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For, just as the sufferings of Christ overflow in us, so also our consolation overflows through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation which is at work in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is well-founded, for we know that as you in community with us in our sufferings, so too are you in our consolation.

Re-read the passage, substituting encouragement for consolation.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all encouragement, who encourages us in all our afflictions, so we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For, just as the sufferings of Christ overflow in us, so also our encouragement overflows through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are being encouraged, it is for your encouragement which is at work in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is well-founded, for we know that as you in community with us in our sufferings, so too are you in our encouragement.

True consolation is encouragement, calling us forward, moving us out of the afflictions that keep us discouraged and focused on ourselves.

If his name is true, Barnabas was a person who encouraged others.

So many people I minister with here in Honduras are in need of encouragement, the word that helps them move on. All too often they are made to feel useless which takes the courage out of them. And so to encourage them is a way to show God’s presence among them.

I don’t think that’s the case only here in Honduras – though it is much more visible.

How many of us need a consolation that is really encouragement.

May we experience the encouragement of God – and encourage others.


Serving in obscurity

Image of St. Jude, St. Thomas  Aquinas Church, Ames, IA

Image of St. Jude, St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Ames, IA

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the apostles Simon and Jude.

Simon is often referred to as the Zealot (since he might have been connected with the anti-Roman Zealots of his time) or as Simon the Less to distinguish him from Simon Peter.

Jude is sometimes called Judas Thaddeus since some of the lists of apostles name a “Thaddeus” in place of a “Jude.” He is also called Judas, not the Iscariot, to distinguish him from Judas who betrayed the Lord.

What they did after Pentecost is known only in terms of legends. Supposedly both were martyred together in Persia.

They lived in obscurity.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman noted this in one of his sermons.

Little is known of St. Simon and St. Jude…

And hence we draw an important lesson for ourselves. which, however obvious, is continually forgotten by us in the actual business of life; namely, to do our duty without aiming at the world’s praise.

This year I seem to be noting how many of those we call saints actually lived in obscurity, serving without being known beyond the city where they lived or even only in their family.

Sometimes I wonder whether I am taken in by the vanity of seeking recognition and so write and promote my blog. Is my writing a way of trying to bring attention to me?

The only recorded words of St. Jude in the Gospel are in John 14: 22: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself clearly to us and not to the world?” They seem to be a question about whether Jesus will really show himself to the world as he really is, so that people may recognize him.

But Jesus answers, seemingly avoiding the question:

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

Will we be dwelling places of God who will make known to people, through living the Word of God in the obscurity of our lives, the loving and saving presence of God in the world?

And so today we can contemplate the obscurity of Saints Simon and Jude – and ask them to show us how we can show forth God’s love in the little things of our lives.

Matthew – sinner, disciple, evangelizer

St. Matthew, the tax-collector, is seated at this tables. A young wandering preacher is passing by and calls him, “Follow me.”

Surprisingly he gets up and follows.

Whatever could have moved him to do this? He abandoned what was a profitable career, even though he was despised and rejected by his follow Israelites?

Was it the sense that he needed to be in community, to be in union with God and others? Did his status as a collaborator with the Romans lead him to feel isolated, even as he had the power of the Roman Empire behind him?

We will never know, but I do think a lot might have to do with a sense of isolation. It is interesting that Matthew’s Gospel which is, at least inspired by the apostle, speaks very clearly about the Reign, the Kingdom, of Heaven.

But what he does next, I think, makes the case even more strongly.

What does he do? He invites Jesus to dinner with the outcasts, the sinners and the tax collectors.

The despised of the earth sit down at table with Jesus. What a scandal!

Matthew followed the Lord but it seems that he opened his table not only to Jesus, but also to others who were like him.

He was offering them the Good News, the Gospel, of a God “who desires mercy, not sacrifice,” who calls not the self-righteous, but the sinners.

Matthew was not content to just follow Jesus. He wanted others to follow and to share at the table with the Lord.

Sinner though he was, he called other sinners to experience the loving mercy of God.

So too we, sinners, called to follow the merciful Savior, are called to open the doors of mercy and sit down with those at the margin of society, showing them by our example the Good News.

That might be one of the most effective means of evangelization that we can offer, following the example of Matthew – sinner, disciple, evangelizer.


Inviting Thomas, not accusing him

Today, the Catholic Church, together with the Malabar Church in India, celebrates the feast of St. Thomas, the doubter.

According to the Malabar Church, Thomas went to India and evangelized the people that formed into what are called Thomas Christians. When the Portuguese arrived in India, they were greeted by these Christians who trace their lineage to the first century.

An Indian woman I knew in Ames, Iowa, was once asked when her family became Christian. “From the time of the apostle St. Thomas.” Sadly western Christians often forget that the Church is universal and is not exclusively Western.

St. Thomas is known as “doubting Thomas,” because he missed the first apparition of the risen Jesus to the apostles and said he wouldn’t believe unless he touched the marks of the nails and put his hand in the wound in Jesus’s side.

There is an interesting reflection on this by Monsignor Ronald Knox, in a Vigils reading in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

Our Lord doesn’t complain. Our Lord wasn’t like us, he didn’t go about after his resurrection find fault and saying “I told you so”; he looked forward to the future….

And when Jesus spent time with Peter at the shore of the lake, he didn’t accuse him. Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him.

The Lord welcomes us, invites us. He can so easily accuse us, but his message – as is the message of Pope Francis – is to invite us to faith, to conversion.

What a different world this would be if we followed the example of Jesus – not accusing, but inviting.


Peter’s jailbreak and our fears

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Psalm 34: 5

Today’s first reading (Acts 12: 1-11) is one of several major jailbreaks found in the Acts of the Apostles. After the apostle James had been killed, Peter was arrested.

Waiting in jail, bound by chains and with four squads of four soldiers each, Peter is awaiting trial and death. But God has other plans.

An angel enters Peter’s cell, filling it with light, but the two guards at his side don’t wake up or notice anything. The angel tells him to get up and as he rises the chains fall off. He walks right past the guards and passes through the prison gates.

There is a beautiful portrayal by Rafael of this scene in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

Rafael's Deliverance of Peter (detail)

Rafael’s Deliverance of Peter (detail)

Paul and Silas are also rescued from jail, but by an earthquake (Acts 16: 23-40).

And so Paul writes (in Romans 8: 38-39):

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The message of Christ is a message that casts out fear.

For many of us our lives are ruled by fear – fear of loss, fear of risks, fear of and fear of death. Thus tyrants, criminals, and dictators rule by fear.

We want security – and so risks are what frighten us. We become afraid of the Other and demonize those who are different from us.

But when we encounter a person free from fear, we have a glimpse of the power of God to overcome evil and death – not by the sword but by the gift of one’s life.

That’s why saints Peter and Paul should inspire us today – their courage, their freedom from fear enabled them to go beyond their weaknesses and let the power of Christ work in them. It enabled them to die – but, first of all, to live lives of commitment, love, and testimony to God’s saving power.

St. Paul outside the Wall, Rome

St. Paul outside the Wall, Rome

Paradigms of conversion

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul, the day when he was thrown from his high horse, according to popular belief and many artistic representations of the event.

Yet, if you examine the accounts of Paul’s conversion in the Acts of the Apostles, there is no horse. He is merely surrounded by light and falls to the ground.

This image of sudden conversion and being thrown off one’s high horse has affected many of our ideas of conversion. Many evangelicals, in fact, emphasize knowing the day and the hour when they were saved.

But conversion doesn’t always happen that way. There is not always that sudden moment when everything changes.

There are, I believe, for most of us key moments when the call of God is clearer and more forceful. But real conversion is a process, with many moments.

I think that conversion is never finished – until the final moment when God calls us to live in His presence.

Conversion is a turning, a moving away from our self-centeredness to the all-embracing love of God, an ongoing process of letting God’s love change us and open our hearts to all people, to all creation, and to the God who is “all in all.”

The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan also talks about different types of conversion, all of which are passages from “self-preoccupation” to “self-transcendence.”

Religious conversion is from alienation to recognition of the Holy Mystery; theistic conversion is from impersonal mystery to the recognition of a personal God. Christian conversion moves from an incomplete community between God and humanity to the recognition that Jesus is the Christ. Ecclesial conversion moves us from individualized religion to incorporation into the People of God, the Church. Moral conversion is the passage from selfish indifference to values to a moral life. Intellectual conversion is from “undifferentiated consciousness” to the “holistic view of truth.”

I find these distinctions helpful – but incomplete. For in all this, conversion is letting God work in us; it’s not all up to us. It’s God’s work – which needs our consent.

And so not all of us will be struck down to the earth in a moment of conversion; most of us will struggle daily on the road of conversion.

But we need to remember that many have gone on this path before and there are many by our side. And most of all, God beckons us: “Come.”