Category Archives: bishop

A gift horse

Reading this morning about Saint Aidan, Celtic monk and bishop of Lindisfarne, I recalled the proverb

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

We shouldn’t look at the value of a gift (even if it’s an old horse) but rather accept all gifts gratefully.

But the story of Aidan and the gift horse is quite different, as told in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

King Oswin gave Bishop Aidan a horse with fine trappings so that the bishop could ride to the far-flung parts of his diocese instead of walking as had been his custom.

One day Aidan met a beggar who sought alms. Aidan dismounted and gave the horse and all the trappings to the man. As Bede notes, Aidan “was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, as it were, the father of the wretched.”

The king was a little upset and told Aidan that he had other less valuable horses that the bishop could give to the poor.

Aidan’s response is classic:

“What are you saying, your majesty? Is the child of a mare more valuable to you than this child of God?”

No thing, no animal is more valuable than a human being, a child of God.

I also recall a conversation Charlie Clements writes about in Witness to War: An American Doctor in El Salvador. He spoke to some campesinos who worked on a cattle ranch near Suchitoto. They told him how the owner would send them to town to buy medicines for the animals – but they had no medicine for their sick children.

How often are the poor treated worse than animals, than things.

The witness of Saint Aidan is as important today as it was in the seventh century.

Words from a martyr

In the midst of the wars in the Middle East and the wanton killing of civilians, I offer these quotes from Bishop Pierre Lucien Claverie, French bishop of Oran, Algeria, a proponent of active solidarity and dialogue with Islam, who was killed on August 1, 1996.

“There is no life without love. There is no love without letting go every possession and giving oneself.”

“That is probably what is at the basis of my religious vocation. I wondered why, throughout my Christian childhood when I listened to sermons on loving one’s neighbor, I had never heard anyone say the Arabs were my neighbors.”

“It is my conviction that humanity can only exist in the plural. As soon as we claim to possess the truth or speak in the name of humanity we fall into totalitarianism and exclusion. No one possesses the truth; everyone seeks it.”

“So that love vanquishes hate, one must love to the point of giving one’s life in the daily combat from which Jesus himself did not escape unscathed.”


Las Casas, a massacre, and the power of scripture

According to the Agenda Latinoamericana 2014, today is the five hundredth anniversary of the conversion of Bartolomé de las Casas.

Las Casas is well known as a Dominican bishop who was a defender of the indigenous peoples in the New World. But this did not come all that easily for him.

He arrived in the New World in 1502 and stayed here for four years. He returned to Spain to study for the priesthood and was ordained in Rome in 1507.

He returned to the New World where he was given an encomienda, a right to have native peoples as slaves to work for him. The Dominicans in Hispañola had condemned slave-holding, but Las Casas did not think they were correct in refusing absolution to anyone who held slaves.

In 1514, accompanying a group of Spaniards on a pacifying mission in Cuba, led by a friend of his, Las Casas witnessed the massacre of indigenous peoples.

Soon after, while preparing his sermon for Pentecost, Las Casas came upon these verses from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 34:

Unclean is the offering sacrificed by an oppressor. [Such] mockeries of the unjust are not pleasing [toGod]. The Lord is pleased only by those who keep to the way of truth and justice… The one whose sacrifice comes from the goods of the poor is like one who kills his neighbor. The one who sheds blood and the one who defrauds the laborer are kin and kind.

Reflecting on these words, Las Casas concluded that “everything done to the Indians in these Indies was unjust and tyrannical.”

He eventually divested himself of his slaves, He joined the Dominicans and became an advocate of the indigenous.

It took an atrocity to open Las Casas’ heart to the injustice all around him. The blood of the people at the massacre of Caonao, Cuba, moved him to listen attentively to the Word of God.

So much blood is being poured out all around us – but do we let it touch our hearts as it touches the heart of God?

May the example of Bartolomé de Las Casas open our hearts to the cries of the oppressed.

The translation of Sirach is from Francis Patrick Sullivan’s introduction of Indian Freedom: The Cause of Bartolomé de las Casa, 1484-1566: A Reader, pp. 3-4.

The Romero Prayer by Bishop Untener

Ten years ago today, at the age of 66, Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, passed on to the Lord.

He was a bishop who sought to live as a pastor who opens the door to life in abundance. As he once wrote, “The shepherd brings them to the wide open spaces, green pastures, wider horizons, where they can have a freedom they never knew before.”

His pastoral style was reflected in his greeting to a meeting soon after his consecration as bishop: “Hello, I’m Ken, and I’ll be your waiter.”

He spent much of his time on the road, visiting the parishes in his diocese and staying in various rectories.

But what he might be most remembered for is a prayer he wrote in 1979 for Cardinal Dearden. For some unknown reason it was attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero and became known as “The Romero Prayer.”

Though it expresses some of the spirituality of Romero, it is the work of Bishop Untener. It is a good prayer to pray this Lent.

It helps now and then to step back
and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection;
no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds
that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast
that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter
and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.



Was Saint Basil a Marxist?

You refuse to give on the pretext that you haven’t got enough for your own needs. But while your tongue makes excuses, your hand convicts you — that ring shining on your finger silently declares you to be a liar! How many debtors could be released from prison with one of those rings?
Saint Basil the Great

Recently a rich donor complained to New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, seeking 180 million dollars for the restoration of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, that perhaps the pope didn’t understand the rich. As the Cardinal explained:

One person said that you come to us who are blessed who are wealthy and we sense that perhaps the pope is less than enthusiastic about us and we need to correct that.

Cardinal Dolan’s response was that “the pope loves poor people and loves rich people; he loves people…”

But what the pope really said in Evangelii Gaudium, ¶ 58, was more critical than what the cardinal intimated:

The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.

I wonder what that donor would have said if the cardinal or the pope had quoted Saint Basil, whose feast is celebrated today:

Who is a robber? One who takes the goods of another.
Are you not avaricious? Are you not a robber? You who make your own the things which you have received to distribute….
The bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession belong to the shoeless; the gold which you have hidden in the ground belongs to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others and refused, so often did you do them wrong.

I think those donors would be surprised at these words from a fourth century saint and doctor of the church who was a champion of orthodoxy against the Arians.

There are other rich persons, though, who find these words a challenge and respond with incredible generosity.

But those who questioned Cardinal Dolan might even be tempted to quote Rush Limbaugh.

A few weeks ago he complained that what Pope Francis was saying in Evangelii Gaudium about exclusion and inequality was  “just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.”

What would Limbaugh say of these words of Saint Basil?

If each one would take that which is sufficient for one’s need, leaving what is in excess to those in distress, no one would be rich, no one would be poor.

Whoever loves the neighbor as oneself will possess no more than one’s neighbor.

Of course, Basil was not a Marxist. He lived 1500 years before Karl Marx. His inspiration, like the pope’s, is the Gospel. which says, in strikingly severe words:

Blessed are you who are poor…
Woe to you who are rich.
Luke  6: 20, 24

Another martyred archbishop

Ten years ago today, the papal nuncio to Burundi, Michael Courtney, was ambushed and shot 25 times in southern Burundi

The government blamed rebels, but further investigations suggest that he was targeted by high-ranking members of the government, because he had evidence of government misuse of international funds. See the Catholic News Service report here.

Irish-born Archbishop Courtney was trying to broker peace in the troubled nation, where tribal conflicts had resulted in massacres (as in neighboring Ruanda) and a civil war. He was seeking to help the people of Burundi find a sense of being brothers and sisters, instead of identifying themselves by ethnic background.

I don’t know much more about his life or his witness. But he was committed enough to risk his own life.

Trying to seek peace and justice is not sitting back, talking about reconciliation. It is a hard process, demanding sacrifice – of oneself.

That sacrifice begins when we start treating others, even our enemies and opponents, with respect and love – speaking the truth, but seeking to find what is common to all of us: our identity as children of one God.

Canterbury tale: murder in the cathedral

Thomas Becket: Canterbury Cathedral window

Thomas Becket: Canterbury Cathedral window

On December 29, 1170, four of King Henry II’s knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and killed the archbishop, Thomas Becket.

Thomas had been a good friend of the king who had Thomas, his chancellor, appointed archbishop. He probably hoped to thus consolidate his power.

But Thomas took his role seriously. Upon being ordained priest and then bishop, he donned clerical dress and began to pray and study – and distribute alms – like a real priest.

But it was Thomas’ defense of the rights of the church that put him at odds with his former friend. The last straw was when he excommunicated the bishops who had participated in the coronation of Henry’s son.  When informed of this in Normandy, King Henry is alleged to have said, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights took on that task.

Whether he was a martyr for the faith or a martyr for the rights of the church can be debated. But he was a person not afraid to stand up to one who sought absolute power.

All too often we are intimidated into silence by those in power. Today in places like Honduras, the power of politicians and the rich, backed up by soldiers and police, can intimidate some. In places like the US, the intimidation is more likely to come from peers whom we don’t want to alienate. The result is the same.

But people like Thomas Becket and other bishop martyrs (St. Stanislaus and Archbishop Oscar Romero – also killed in churches) ought to inspire us to ask for the courage to “speak truth to power,” as the Quakers say.

A church of the poor

Regarding fraternal love (phladelphia)
you do not need anyone to write you,
since God has taught you to love (agape) one another.
1 Thessalonians 4, 9

Today is the feast of St. Aidan, the Celtic bishop of Lindisfarne, as well as the anniversary of the death of two twentieth century witnesses to God’s love ifor the poor:  Monseñor Leonidas Proaño of Riobamba, Ecuador, and John Leary of Boston.

There is a story that reveals St. Aidan as “most compassionate, a protector of the poor and a father to the wretched.” King Oswin gave him a horse, which St. Aidan gave to the poor, with all its fancy trappings. Oswin was upset and suggested that there were less valuable horses which could be given away to the poor. But Aidan replied, “What are you saying, your majesty? Is this child of a mare more valuable than this child of God?”

Monseñor Leonidas Proaño, bishop of Riobamba, Ecuador, died  twenty five years ago, on August 31, 1988.

One of the prophetic bishops of Latin America, he lived and served the church with a deep love for God and for the poor, which showed itself in a struggle for justice, in particular in solidarity with the indigenous.

He once wrote a creed, which I read in Carta a a las Iglesias  many years ago. My translation follows:

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 human person that is within me
and that is being saved by the Word of God.
I believe in the human 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.

A tribute to Monseños Leonidas Proaño can be found here at the blog Iglesia Descalza.

John Leary died on August 31, 1982, at the age of twenty-four, jogging to his home at the Haley House Catholic Worker from his work with the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War.

His short life was given to service of the poor at Haley House as well as nonviolent witness against war, nuclear weapons, the draft, and abortion. An unassuming young man, he radiated respect for others – as well as a profound commitment to the God of peace and the poor God made incarnate in Jesus.

I met him several times. I only wish I had taken to time to know him more.

These three men, from different continents, show us a bit of our vocation to be a poor Church and a Church of the poor (and not only for the poor).

Loving our neighbor

In the 1990s Algeria was torn apart by the violence. Among the victims were Trappist monks, other men and women religious, and a bishop, Monseigneur Pierre Lucien Claverie, Bishop of Oran, who was killed on this day in 1996. He was the last Catholic leader killed in Algeria.

He was born in Algeria of French parents. He was very sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence in the 1950s.

After studying and being ordained a Dominican priest in France, he decided to return to Algeria in 1967.

He directed a center for Arabic and Islamic studies which attracted Muslims and ot only Christians.

For Bishop Claverie, his love embraced all.

As he wrote shortly before his death:

“There is no life without love. There is no love without letting go every possession and giving oneself.
“That is probably what is at the basis of my religious vocation.
“I wondered why, throughout my Christian childhood when I listened to sermons on loving one’s neighbor, I had never heard anyone say the Arabs were my neighbors.
“It is my conviction that humanity can only exist in the plural. As soon as we claim to possess the truth or speak in the name of humanity we fall into totalitarianism and exclusion. No one possesses the truth; everyone seeks it.”

Today, we need to be reminded that all people are our neighbors and we are called to love them all – not with pious intentions, but with a love that seeks their good and the good of all peoples.

Today, love your neighbor – and, if you really want to be a follower of Christ, love your enemy.


Guatemala’s Martyred Bishop, Juan Geradi

The history of Central America, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, is bloody. Many know of the violence in El Salvador, partly because of the killings of Archbishop Romero and the four US women missionaries in 1980, partly because of the overt US support of the government and military – in the mid-1980s at a rate of about one million US dollars a day.

The history of Guatemalan oppression is much less known, though it is bloodier and lasted longer. After the war was over, the Guatemalan Archdiocesan Human Rights Office supported the Recovery of Historical Memory Project [REMHI], to investigate the killings. The project released a report that implicated the Guatemalan government and military in 90% of the 200,000 plus killings and disappearances.

Guatemala City auxiliary bishop Juan Gerardi led the investigation and spoke at the release of the report. He had experienced the repression first hand when he was bishop of Santa Cruz de Quiché. The violence got so bad that he and the priests withdrew from the diocese, partly at the urging of the people. He went into exile but later returned.

Two days after the REMHI report was released, Bishop Gerardi was killed on April 26, 1988, fifteen years ago today.

When he reported the findings of the REMHI report on April 24, 1998, he noted the importance of the report and the dangers in releasing such information:

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.

Even today there are dangers as can be noted in the trial of former Guatemalan general and president Rios Montt, which was revealing more of the massacres of indigenous peoples. The status of the trial is unsure now. For more information, look at the Central American Politics blog of a friend and University of Scranton professor, Mike Allison.

Impunity for crimes against the poor and indigenous are not uncommon in Latin America.

But that means that we are called even more to practice the virtue of solidarity, that is, as Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis [On Social Concern], paragraph 28, wrote, the “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….”

This is not something political, nor is it merely the social aspect of our faith. Solidarity is, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “an encounter with God.”

Bishop Gerardi put it more starkly, on March 10, a few weeks before his martyrdom:

We ought to reflect on the suffering of Christ in his Mystical Body. That means, that if the poor person is not part of our life, then, perhaps, Christ is not part of our life.

El sufrimiento de Cristo en su cuerpo místico es algo que nos debe hacer reflexionar. Es decir, si el pobre está fuera de nuestra vida, entonces quizás, Jesús está fuera de nuestra vida.

May Christ – present in the suffering and the poor, in the crucified peoples of this world – become ever more central to our lives.