Category Archives: Church

Mother Church

Today is the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of Christ the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist – more commonly known as St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral.

It’s an impressive church and probably the major basilica I most appreciated when I visited Rome in February 2013. St. Peter’s felt more like a mall than a church; St. Paul’s outside the walls was almost deserted when I visited; St. Mary Major does house what is called the manger, but except for some mosaics it didn’t move me.

But there was something about St. John Lateran that struck me.

Maybe it was because I went to Mass there and it felt like a place of prayer.

San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma

San Giovanni in Laterano, Rom

Maybe it was the apse mosaic with the small image of St. Francis of Assisi beside the image of Mary.

St. John Lateran apse

St. John Lateran apse

Or maybe it was the sculpture of St. Francis and his companions across the park, facing the church. In the Lateran palace Francis sought the approval of his new order of mendicant friars. The pope was probably a little reluctant to accept this strange group, but he had a dream that the Lateran church was falling down and a strange guy, whom he later recognized as Francis, sustained the church.

St. Francis facing the Lateran

St. Francis facing the Lateran

St, Francis (facing the Lateran Palace)

St, Francis (facing the Lateran Palace)

Pope Leo XIII

Maybe it was the tomb of Pope Leo XIII with its triumphant statue of the pope who initiated the modern era of Catholic social thought with his encyclical on labor in 1891, Rerum Novarum.

Maybe it was the nearby baptistery with an image of the deer seeking living waters.


But then it might just have been because God and the people of God were present at worship.

This is what I thought of this morning as I read from a sermon of St. Caesarius of Arles in Benedictine Daily Prayer:

We celebrate the birthday of this church, dear brothers and sisters, with a joy that pleases Christ. Yet, remember that we ourselves must first be God’s true and living temple. Nonetheless, Christians rightly keep the anniversary of Mother Church, who has given them spiritual rebirth….
If then … we want to celebrate the birthday of a church with real joy, we must avoid destroying by sin the temples of God which we ourselves are.

Kristallnacht, the Wall, and a Basilica

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938, when the Nazis fomented a massive campaign of destruction against the German Jewish communities. One hundred and ninety one synagogues were burned and seventy five hundred shops owned by Jews were destroyed.

Today is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Berlin Wall, 2012

The Berlin Wall, 2012 

Today is also the feast of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s cathedral, which has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. It is an impressive building with a separate Baptistry.

St. John Lateran - facade

St. John Lateran – facade

St. John Lateran - apse

St. John Lateran – apse

But what I most recall from my February 2013 visit is the sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi and his companions facing the church, across the plaza.

St. Francis and companions facing the Lateran

St. Francis and companions facing the Lateran

According to the legend, Francis had come to the Lateran to ask the pope to approve his group of brothers. The pope had a dream that the basilica of St. John Lateran was falling down and that a poor man saved it. He later recognized that man as Francis.

Francis came in homage to the Church, both the building and the institution, but his presence was a challenge to the power and the glory of the medieval church.

Francis sought a poor church, a church of the poor, a church that followed the Poor Man of Nazareth.

Such a church will identify with the poor – not merely serve them,

Such a church will break down walls.

Such a church will protest all the Kristallnachts that oppress others.

Such a church will love and follow the Lord who accompanied His people.


All the parts of the Body of Christ

Today’s first lectionary reading is from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 12: 12-14, 27-31a.

As I read it I noticed that a large portion of the chapter had been omitted. This is often done to shorten the reading. But in this case I feel something important has been left out.

In working with catechists and in materials for religious education here, I have used 1 Corinthians 12: 12-27 in a dynamic way.

I begin asking the catechists to draw a body and write the parts of the body on the paper. Then I read St. Paul in parts, emphasizing that we are one body in Christ, the Church.

But Paul is very clear that we aren’t all the same; all of us have different functions. He even says that “the parts of our body that we mist need are those that seem to be the weakest; the parts that we consider lower are treated with more care and we cover them with more modesty…” (1 Corinthians 12: 22-23).

We talk about how we need all the parts of the body. We get concrete talking about how we feel when we have stomach problems or a headache. Nothing seems to work.

We need all the parts of the body – not just those appointed to positions in the Church.

Then I have the catechists come forward and write their names on the part of the body that they feel most represents them and their work,


We then read and reflect on verse 27:

You are the Body of Christ
and each of you is a member of that Body.

The catechists will do the same process with the young people they work with, helping them see that each one of us has an important role in the Church. This is extremely important in a society that looks down upon the poor.

Finally we conclude with the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila

Christ has no body on earth but yours;
no hands on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks out
with compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which he chooses
to go about doing good.
For as He is the Head of the Body,
so you are the members;
and we are all one in Christ.

Unless we remember this, we might forget the important role that everyone plays – from the Pope in Rome to the illiterate adolescent in a rural Honduran village. We all are part of Christ’s Body – with a role, with a mission: building up God’s Reign of Love in this world.


Bling bishops and a poor church

There was no needy person among them.
Acts 4:34 

 Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles 4: 32-37 is a challenge to the church that appears beyond our reach. Yet Pope Francis has called for “a poor Church and a Church for the poor.”

Pope Francis has given us an example of how this might be lived out – in his austerity as well as in his tender outreach to the poor and the marginalized.

But the challenge is not just to give to the poor, to live simply, and to tenderly embrace the marginalized. All these are important and essential to live out our calling as disciples of the Jesus.

But there may be more.

Pope Saint John XXIII called for a church of the poor – not only for the poor. I think that means that we should be a church that makes the causes of the poor our causes, not doing things for them, but working with them.

This may mean major changes.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – On Social Concern – challenged the church to be really with the poor. In paragraph 31, he wrote

…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.

This is not a new concern – but one that finds echo in the lives and words of many saints. Today’s saint, Catherine of Siena, was one of these. A mystic who was called out of her mysticism to care for the poor and then to reform the church, Catherine was scandalized by the luxury of the bling bishops and clergy of her day. As she wrote on the bishops and the clergy of her day:

They ought to be mirrors of freely chosen poverty, humble lambs, giving away the Church’s possessions 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.

Catherine could say this without hypocrisy for she lived a simple life, in deep communion with Christ. She loved the Church but wanted the Church to be faithful to Christ.

The challenge is not only for the institutional church but for all of us.

It may come back to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles: Do we share our possessions and are there really no poor among us?


Saint Paul’s sense of humor

I would never have realized that St. Paul had a sense of humor until I facilitated a workshop for catechists in the remote village of Agua Buena, Concepción, yesterday.

There were nineteen of us and I was using an activity to help the people understand the Church as the Body of Christ in the world, an activity they could use with confirmation candidates.

After they shared some ideas they had of the church, we talked a bit about the Church as the Body of Christ and we read 1 Corinthians 12: 12-13.

Then, I wanted them to draw a body on some sheets of papers I had. Nobody wanted to and so I had one of the guys lay on the paper and I drew around him. Then I asked them to write the names of the different parts of the body.


I had to do a little prompting and so we added rectum and sexual organs.

I had done this activity with two other groups last week, but this group added a part that neither group had before – breasts!

Then I had them read 1 Corinthians 12: 14-26.

As they read verse 17, I heard a few snickers:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

Somehow they had gotten the image of a body that was only an eye or an ear. And it was funny.

We talked a bit and I shared how they had helped me see the humor in Saint Paul. What would a body look if it was only an ear?

That’s ridiculous, absurd, funny – and tragic.

We talked about how we need all the parts of the body and if we lack one something is missing.

Then, after reading verse 27 (“Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”), I had them write their names or a symbol of themselves near the part of the body of Christ that they were.


To close I read St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer:

 Christ has no body on earth but yours;
no hands on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks out
with compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which he chooses
to go about doing good.

Today, while writing this entry I remembered a portion of a painting I saw in a Berlin art gallery in November 2006. The antithesis of Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, sorely tragic:


Kristallnacht, the Berlin Wall, and St. John Lateran

Seventy-five years ago, on the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers attacked Jewish communities throughout Germany, destroying 191 synagogues, thousands of Jewish businesses, arresting 22,000 Jewish men, and deporting about half of them to Buchenwald.

Few people, in either Germany or the world protested this “Kristallnacht” – the Night of Broken Glass. The Nazis took great comfort in the silence of the world.

A cross at the Berlin Wall

A cross at the Berlin Wall

Fifty one years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. That year the movements for independence from Soviet control were growing throughout Eastern Europe. Finally on this day, following an announcement that East Germans would be able to pass through the wall into West Berlin with permission, thousands mobbed the border crossings and were finally let through. In following days the wall fell.

Today is also the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, the mother church of the whole world. The first building was dedicated in 324 and there have been many rebuilding and renovations of the structure.

St.  John Lateran, Rome

St. John Lateran, Rome

Saint John Lateran is a beautiful church which I found much more prayerful than Saint Peter’s. Its apse has a beautiful mosaic – with a small image of Francis between Our Lady and Saint Peter. A legend says that when St. Francis came to Rome to seek permission for his new band of followers of Christ, the Pope had a dream that the Lateran was falling down and a simple friar held it up. The pope identified Francis with this friar who was preventing the church from falling into ruin.

St. John Lateran - apse with the Pope cathedra

St. John Lateran – apse with the Pope’s cathedra

In the second reading for today’s feast in the Catholic lectionary (1 Corinthians 3: 9-11, 16-17), Paul tells the people of Corinth:

You are God’s field and building….
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Though Paul was writing to Christians, we ought to remember that each person is made in God’s image and should be loved and respected.

The failure of the world – especially the Christian Church – to respond to the violence of Kristallnacht is a failure to respect the presence of God in all people, a failure of the Church to love.

But this failure should be a challenge to us today, especially as we consider the feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran.

Will we build up the community of God in such a way that we break down walls that keep people apart and work to prevent crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust? Or will we just admire the beauty of the churches, while we keep others out and permit the killing of others and the deaths of thousands daily from hunger?

It is easy to criticize the Church and other institutions, but, as St. Caesarius of Arles said (in a sermon found in Benedictine Daily Prayer),

Every time we come to church, we ought to make our souls be what we want the church to be…. Do you want a light-filled Church? God grant your soul not to be a dark place but alight with good works.

Let our lives be transparent like unbroken glass, letting the light of God shine through, breaking down walls and reaching out in love and justice to all the broken peoples of this world.

Witnesses of solidarity and nonviolence

On March 18, 1989, two witnesses for the poor and nonviolence died in an auto accident in Perú: Father Neptalí Liceta, indigenous priest and coordinator of SERPAJ-Peru (the Latin American nonviolent action network), and Sister Amparo Escobedo, Sister of Social Service.

Father Neftalí once wrote:

“In the struggle for liberation in Latin America today, and the painful search for peace with justice, by following the option of Jesus Christ for the poor, we are making a definitive choice for the nonviolence of the cross that leads to resurrection. We must not be ignorant of, nor hide, nor attempt to legitimate the situation in which we are living if we are to be faithful disciples. To the contrary, we must denounce injustice constantly and clearly, and continually revise our goals and objectives. Nonviolence in Latin America implies noncooperation, whether internal or external, with every aspect of the existing unjust system.”

People like Padre Neftalí and Sister Amparo are lights that show what the Reign of God might be like. May their example inspire us to live lives of nonviolence and solidarity with the poor.

Speaking out clearly and forcefully against injustice is not easy and has not been easy, especially in Latin America where thousands have been killed. In the face of the violence and repression the Church has often failed to speak clearly and forcibly. But there have always been thousands of witnesses, usually among the priests and religious who work directly with the poor.

There have been some bishops who have spoken out and been killed for their efforts, not only Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala, but also Bishop Enrique Angelleli of La Rioja, Argentina, who was killed on August 4, 1976, in a suspicious car accident during Argentina’s Dirty War.

These martyrs of Latin America lived as a Poor Church and a Church for the poor, as Pope Francis hopes. They also sought a Church of the Poor – where the poor are central, even as participants.

May these martyrs of Latin America continue to inspire us to be light for the nations, witnesses of solidarity and nonviolence – seeking to be a Church of the Poor.


A different kind of King

When Jesus stood before Pilate, he said firmly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18: 36)

This doesn’t mean that his kingdom has nothing to do with the world. The whole message of Jesus was the transformation of the world in light of that Kingdom.

It is, as the late Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., wrote in the Word Encountered,

It is a kingdom not fought for with old means of warfare. Rather, it testifies to truth. It will not kill for truth, it will die for it. If Jesus is king, he will be a suffering king. He will not demand ransom. He will be ransom. He will win, not by spilling the blood of others, but by offering up his own.

This means a life of transformation, of conversion, of continually seeking the Kingdom of God.

It means a church that does not seek its own rights, but seeks to wash the feet of all and to serve the least of the world.

I worry about a church that seeks power and privilege, that wraps itself in incense and fancy garments, that proclaims grand campaigns for its own religious liberty but that does not bow down to wash the feet of the poor.

And I worry about myself, when I want to be recognized – rather than recognizing Jesus in those I work with.

The Kingdom of God is here – and is not yet fulfilled. I see signs of it in the poor I work with here in Honduras and in the people who serve others throughout the world, in nursing homes, in soup kitchens, and in the midst of their families.

Would that the signs of the Kingdom would be clearer.

But I think that means willing to make ourselves the servants of others – as Christ did.

May Day – Labor Day

Most of the world, except for the US, celebrates May 1 as Labor Day. Interestingly, the date was chosen because of labor struggles in Chicago.

The Catholic Church established today as the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, emphasizing the sacred character of work. As the US bishops wrote in their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All:

All work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principal way that people exercise their distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for one’s self. It is for one’s family, for the nation, and indeed for the entire human family.

Perhaps by providence, Msgr. George Higgins, died ten years ago at the age of 86 on May 1. He was a priest who devoted most of his life to the cause of the worker and to labor unions. He saw in work a real ministry. As he once said:

…The overwhelming majority of lay people… will exercise their ministry, their calling or vocation, not behind the altar rail or within the sanctuary but in and through their respective occupations, be they workers, employers, bankers, professionals, or what have you.

Some may think this is much ado about nothing. I do not agree. At a time when the church puts so much emphasis on the work of catechetical, liturgical, and other ministries within the church–and rightly so–we must pay attention also to those who work as Christians in what are sometimes denigrated as purely ‘secular’ tasks….

May 1 also marks the beginning of the Catholic Worker. On May Day, 1933, the first issue of the Catholic Worker monthly was distributed at the Union Square labor rally in New York City. Dorothy Day edited that issue, as she did many issues.

In that issue she wrote:

For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight.
For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work.
For those who think there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight—this little paper is addressed.
It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program—to let them know that there are men of God who are seeking not only for their spiritual but for their material welfare.

Sad to say, the social teaching of the Catholic Church is still, as one author calls it, “our best kept secret,” and it still does not always guide the lives of Catholics, including some “Catholic” politicians and even some church leaders.

In the first issue of the Catholic Worker,  Dorothy Day included this haunting “Easy Essay” of the Peter Maurin, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker, noting the need for conversion of institutions, including the church:

Christ drove the money changers
out of the Temple.
But nobody today dares
to drive the money lenders
out of the Temple.
And nobody dares
to drive the money lenders
out of the Temple
because the money lenders
have taken a mortgage
on the Temple.

Sharp words, that should touch our hearts, especially those of us who are followers of Christ and members of the Church.

Let us pray that all people may grow in their respect for work and for the honest efforts of unions to work for the rights of workers everywhere.

That’s the least we can do.

The challenge of Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II [Karol Wojtyla]  died on April 2, 2005. I’ve found him an enigmatic figure. He said enough to disturb almost everyone, though mostly more liberal Catholics have found him problematic.

He was formed in the totalitarian environment of Nazism and Soviet Communism and so tended to see most of the world from this perspective. I think that because of this he was very suspicious of Latin American liberation theology. Yet he told the Brazilian bishops that “it was not only useful but also necessary.”

When he went to the Latin American Bishops’ conference meeting in 1979 his prepared remarks seemed fairly critical of the bishops’ activism in support of the poor. Yet when he visited the indigenous people he spoke warmly of the need to protect their rights.

Some US Catholics have thus used Pope John Paul II to support a libertarian political and social agenda. But it is not clear that that was his stand.Many of these same Catholics also ignore his stand against the death penalty and his opposition to the Gulf War and the Iraq war.

But these words of Pope John Paul II at Yankee Stadium on October 2, 1979, are a continual challenge to the US and its treatment of the poor and ought to be central to our faith:

The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance and not just of your abundance in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.