Category Archives: United States

Martyr against racism

Fifty years ago today, on August 20, 1965, the twenty-six year old Episcopalian seminarian Jonathan Daniels was killed in Hayneville, Alabama.

He had come to the south to support the civil rights movement. He, a Catholic priest, and two black civil rights workers hade been imprisoned and were waiting for a ride. They went to buy a soft drink but were confronted by a man with a shotgun and pistol. Jonathan Daniels died protecting one of the women who was threatened by the man with a shotgun aimed at her. Daniels pushed the man down and took the brunt of the blast.

He was among those who gave up the comforts of life and study to participate in the struggle of the poor.

What I find refreshing is this quote which shows not only the faith that was the source of his commitment but also a spirit that was seeking to be free of self-righteousness, one of the temptations of those who struggle for justice and human rights.

“I lost fear. . . when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God. I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one’s motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”

This is a lesson for all of us.

Good news for the poor

Make justice your aim.
Isaiah 1: 17 

Today the Catholic Church in the US honors Mother Katherine Drexel who died in 1955 at the age of ninety-six. She founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for the care of “Indians and Colored People,” in the terminology of her time.

When I was a kid rowing up in Darby, a suburb of Philadelphia, I remember her sisters coming to Mass at our church as part of a mission appeal, asking for funds but also asking us to pray for her canonization.

Although she was born to a wealthy family and inherited an incredible fortune, when she founded her order she made the decision that her fortune would be used for others and that her sisters would beg for money.

With her fortune she founded schools and institutions for Native Americans and Black Americans, including helping fund the founding of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic institution of higher learning for Black Catholic Americans.

Though she was not known as an outspoken advocate of justice, she did speak out against segregation and her sisters working in Harlem were maligned for their identification with Blacks.

She is an example of a person who came from a position of wealth and power but gave not only her wealth, but her life, for those on the margins of society.

She was inspired by her father and her stepmother, who opened the doors of their mansion three times a week to feed and help the poor.

What I find inspiring is that, though she controlled and distributed hundred of thousands of dollars each year, she used none of it for herself or for her congregation of sisters. It was all for others.

She took seriously the phrase from today’s Gospel, “The greatest among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 23: 11)

She sought to be Good news for the poor, in the ways she could. As she once said:

“If we live the Gospel, we will be people of justice and our lives will bring good news to the poor.”

How will I be a person of justice and peace and good news for the poor? How will I dispose of my wealth, compared to the people around me, to be a sign of God’s love for those at the margins? How will I live the Gospel?

Judgment of the nations

“What you did to the least, you did to me.”
Matthew 25: 40

Fr. John Kavanaugh summed up this parable of the Last Judgment very well:

In human mayhem, we dismember the body of Christ.

It’s not a mere failure to respond to human need, it’s a failure to respond to Christ Jesus.

This is a judgment not just of individuals. Jesus presents it as a judgment of the nations.

That makes things really problematic for us North Americans.

Pope John Paul II put it well at a Mass in Canada in 1984:

…in the light of Christ’s words, the poor South will judge the opulent North. And poor people and poor nations — poor in different ways, not only lacking food but deprived of freedom and other human rights — will be judging those who snatch away their possessions, accumulating for themselves the imperialist monopoly of economic and political predominance at the expense of others.

When will these words be taken seriously by my native land, the United States?

Conformed or transformed

Be not conformed to this age,
but be transformed
by the renewal of your understanding.
Romans 12: 2

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 16: 21-27, Jesus calls Simon Peter “Satan,” the adversary, the one who plots against the Lord. Peter wants to block the way of the Cross.

For Peter is thinking – or better, reasoning – not as God does, but as humans do.

We look for advantage, for ways to get ahead, to be in control.

But Jesus transforms the world by giving us a new way of thinking – a way of giving oneself.

Today I recall two people who died on August 31 – one from the US, John Leary, who died in Boston in 1982; the other an Ecuadorian bishop, Leonidas Proaño, who died in 1988. I wrote about them in a blog entry last year, which can be read here.

I met John Leary several times at Haley House in Boston. What always struck me was his simplicity, his lack of arrogance. He was actively engaged in resistance to MIT’s nuclear weapons lab, to abortion, to military intervention – but I never saw the self-righteousness I have seen in some activists.

It was probably his life of prayer, his opening his room to the poor, his service to those in need that kept him grounded.

If no one told you, you would not know that he was a graduate of Harvard University. For him, that was not important.

He was a person who was not conformed to this age but had allowed himself to be transformed by Christ and the poor.

Will I let myself be transformed – or do I let myself be formed by the search for recognition, for security, for honors and wealth?


May God transform me.

The earth’s shadow and the crescent moon

I missed commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor on August 3.

Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are not always the easiest pieces to read and understand, as she often portrays the presence of grace and sin with what, to my prejudiced eye, are bizarre characters. But her works are worthy of study.

Many years ago a friend (I think it was Jim Forest) introduced me to her collection of letters, The Habit of Being, letter which give us a privileged look into the spiritual and intellectual life of this extraordinary woman. They are well worth a read, not once, but several times.

Last year some prayers she wrote early in her life – when she was in Iowa City – were published as A Prayer Journal.

lunar eclipse

lunar eclipse

I began reading the book this afternoon while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. I could not get past these two paragraphs on page 3:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

Help me push myself aside!

Getting political

“To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”
Fr. Stanley Rother

Fr. Stanley Rother was a priest – an Oklahama farm boy, as Robert Ellsberg writes – who spent many years in the indigenous town of Santiago Atitlan, serving the pastoral needs of the people.

On July 28, 1981, he was killed in the rectory by three armed men who sought to silence his voice.

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

From what I can gather he was not a very “political” person, like some people I know here in Central America, including some priests. But his work with founding cooperatives and training catechists and pastoral workers made him a threat to the powers of Guatemala in those days. Those rulers saw every effort to work with the indigenous peoples and to empower them as threats to their national security state.

I have always been struck by Father Stan’s statement: “To shake the hand of an Indian is a political act.”

I think this has been part of the inspiration of my custom to shake the hand of almost everyone I meet when I come into a meeting.`

Here it is customary for the men to greet each other with a handshake. But I try to shake the hand of everyone – man, woman, child. Sometimes the younger children recoil, or even cry – not having seen many gringos. But other kids just smile – a little embarrassed, perhaps.

But I consider that this simple act is a way to show that I try to respect their dignity as children of God, as my sisters and brothers in Christ.

The little things mean a lot.

Thus I have grieved when I see the reaction of some in the US to the tens of thousands of young people and children who have fled poverty or violence or have travelled far to meet up with their parents. The hate, the fear, the anger fill me with a deep sadness.

But I rejoice at those who welcome the stranger, open their churches and houses to the adolescent and child migrants who seek a like of tranquility.

Their acts are political acts – not because they are supporting a political ideology, but because they are opening their lives and their hearts to the poor, the migrant, the stranger.

And in that political act, which is really just a human act, they are – I pray – experiencing Christ.


Having many possessions

He went away sad,
for he had many possessions.
Mark 10: 22

Today’s Gospel (Mark 10: 17-28) should challenge us, but so often we think that it is only a challenge for the rich young man who came to Jesus seeking to know how to inherit eternal life.

The disciples realized it was challenge for they were amazed and astonished when Jesus noted, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

All those of us who don’t have to worry about our physical survive are in some sense rich. One liberation theologian has said that the poor are those who wake up each morning and have to ask if they will have enough to feed themselves and their families.

The lives of the poor are insecure – and thus they show us the reality of this world, the pain and suffering of the poor and marginalized.

Our riches cannot win us real security, even if we surround ourselves with armed guards and electrified wire fences, as some do here. Our riches cannot win us wealth.

And so we are asked to sell what we have, give the money to the poor, and follow Christ.

Following Christ has everything to do with how we deal with money.

A great example of this is today’s saint, Mother Katherine Drexel. She was born into a rich Philadelphia Catholic family. Her mother died when she was a few weeks old, but her step mother, Emma Bouvier, gave her an example of charity. Three times a week, the Drexel home opened its doors to feed, clothe, and give money to the poor.

That gesture of charity opened Katherine’s heart to the poor.

But she did not confine her love to Catholics or poor city dwellers.  In her travels with her family throughout the US, she saw the poverty and the discrimination against native Americans and black Americans. She finally founded a religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to care for them.

But even though she inherited great sums of money, none of the money was used for her congregation. It was used to assist works with native and black Americans. This included the founding of missions, schools, and New Orleans’ Xavier University.

The poor at the margins were her concern – as they are the concern of the Lord.

Mother Drexel’s heart was open – and she followed the poor Christ, by sharing with the poor.

What am I called to do?






Dorothy Day on joy

The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives
of all who encounter Jesus.
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶1

 On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died in Mary House, a Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan. Since 1933 she had lived with the poor, served them, and been an advocate of nonviolence and voluntary poverty.

Her life was not easy. Living with the poor can be very difficult. She liked to quote Dostoevsky who wrote the “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Her journals, published in The Duty of Delight, reveal that, even though she struggled both with personal “demons” and with those who came to the Catholic Worker, she found great joy, nourished by her faith.

As she wrote on December 25, 1961:

It is joy that brought me to the faith, joy at the birth of my child 35 years ago, and that joy is constantly renewed as I daily receive our Lord at Mass.

The scriptures lived among the poor helped her uncover the sources of her joy and faith, as she wrote on September 24, 1968:

People need to be rediscovering the Gospel. They have to find them [the Gospels?] thru people who find their joy in them, and who accept the crosses of this life as preparation, as the inevitable in the way.

The spirituality which sustained her was incarnational. On March 26, 1972, she wrote:

We had a wayfarer who accepted our hospitality for a few years who used to kneel down and kiss the earth on that day (March 25 [the feast of the Annunciation]) each year, because Christ in putting on our human flesh which came from the earth, had made the earth holy.

God has become flesh and so holiness surrounds us.

But I find one short remark of hers, on December 19, 1976, particularly helpful to sustain joy:

Find beauty everywhere.

To find beauty everywhere, because God has lived among us, and gives us joy.

Dorothy Day thus reminds us to keep our hearts open to God, to the beauty of everyday life, to the sufferings of the poor. That’s one way to be raptured by joy.


Facing barriers to mission

Do justice for the weak and the orphan,
defend the afflicted and the needy.
Rescue the weak and the poor;
set them free from the hand of the wicked.
Psalm 82: 3-4

 Today the church in the US honors the first US citizen – a naturalized citizen in fact – to be canonized, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who died in Chicago on December 22, 1917. She is the patroness of immigrants.

But her life is really an example of God working straight with crooked lines.

She grew up in a town south of Milan, Italy. Orphaned at 20, she became a school teacher. She wanted to join a religious order, but was refused by two different orders because she was considered too frail.

Asked by a bishop to help with an orphanage, she ended up founding a religious order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, whose rule was approved when she was only thirty years old.

Her hope had been to follow in the footsteps of her patron, St. Francis Xavier, and go to China. However, the pope told to go to the west, instead of the east, to respond to the spiritual needs of the Italian immigrants to the US.

She went with several sisters, only to find that the bishop didn’t want sisters. He wanted priests. She firmly but gently told him that they would stay and work among the abandoned Italians in New York and other cities.

The sisters were well received among the Italian immigrants and Mother Cabrini – as she would be called – founded houses for sisters in many US cities.

She also traveled back to Italy for more recruits as well as to several Latin American countries. In Nicaragua she thought that they were making inroads among some indigenous people until she caught yellow fever and they all fled.

That didn’t stop her.

She was asked to take over a hospital but resisted until she had a dream where Mary was nursing people in a hospital. in the dream, Mother Cabrini asked her why. Mary responded. “Because you won’t.“ That, of course, changed things altogether and she helped found Columbus Hospital in New York City.

She died at the age of 67, wrapping candies in Chicago, after a full life given to poor immigrants in the Americas.

This woman who was refused entry into two orders, founded an order that cared for the weak and the afflicted. This woman who was considered too frail for religious life, traveled throughout the US and the Americas for many years to defend the afflicted. Despite rejection by a bishop (who later relented) she and her sisters were welcomed and sustained by poor Italian immigrants.

So God works – making the crooked straight.

This morning I found this quotation from Mother Cabrini in Daily Gospel 2013, that reflects how she could do all this – placing her heart with the Heart of Jesus:

“We must pray without tiring, for the salvation of [hu]mankind does not depend on material success, nor on sciences that cloud the intellect. Neither does it depend on arms and human industries, but Jesus alone.”

Weeping mothers: Mary, Birmingham, Chile

 At the cross her station keeping
stood the mournful mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
Stabat Mater

Today is the feast of Our Mother of Sorrows.  From the time I was a child I remember singing   verses of the medieval hymn Stabat Mater during the Stations of the Cross. The hymn calls to mind the presence of Mary at the death of Jesus, her son, on the cross.

Today we might recall the role of Mary as the weeping compassionate mother, looking on as her son was brutally crucified. Because of this, St. Augustine spoke of her martyrdom in spirit.

Fifty years ago, on September 15, 1963, in a church in the highly segregated city of Birmingham, Alabama, black children were vesting for choir after having participated in Sunday school. A bomb took the lives of four of them, the martyred children of Birmingham. Their mothers and many others mourned their death.

The children of Birmingham should not just be seen as victims of racial violence. In May 1963 the black children of Birmingham had left their classes to try to talk with the mayor. They were jailed and after they were released they returned the next day. The protest ended after dogs and fire hoses were used on them. But they had nonviolently stood up against injustice.

Forty years ago, on September 15, 1973, Victor Jara, a famous Chilean folk singer and activist, was among the thousands imprisoned in the Santiago, Chile, National Stadium by the US-supported coup. On this day he was killed, after having been beaten. His hands which had been instruments of protest on his guitar were broken. But he sang out to those in the stadium with the song Venceremos – We will win. He was then shot to death.

Mary mourned the death of her son. She is the prime example of all those who mourn the deaths of their children, those killed unjustly, the victims of war, the tortured, and those who die because they do not have enough to eat or their parents don’t have money to pay for medicine.

Mary is present there.

As the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, Monseñor Oscar Romero, once said:

Even when all despaired, at the hour when Christ was dying on the cross, Mary, serene, awaited the hour of the resurrection. Mary is the symbol of the people who suffer oppression and injustice. Theirs is the calm suffering that awaits the resurrection. It is Christ suffering, the suffering of the Church, which does not accept the present injustices, but awaits without rancor the moment when the Risen One will return to give us the redemption we await.

So too we should be there, sitting in mourning with all the mothers of the world who cry out against pain and injustice.

Our prayer is heard by God. But will the powers of this world listen, unless we cry out unceasingly.