Category Archives: witnesses

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?


The subversive Gospel

The Good News of Jesus undermines all our pretensions.

Jonah thought the Ninevites were incorrigible – after all they were Israel’s enemies. But he also feared that God would not strike them down as they deserved, because God is merciful.

The leaders of Jesus’ day asked for signs, looking for a God who would make things right with a quick miracle. But the Good News is a Jonah who provokes conversion in the hearts of the people of Nineveh.

Father Rutilio Grande, the Salvadoran Jesuit who was a good friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero, was martyred on March 12, 1977. His death moved Monseñor Romero to live more openly a commitment to preach and be Good News for the Poor.

Rutilio had been a very scrupulous seminarian whose sense of unworthiness was so overwhelming that he didn’t consider himself worthy to be ordained. But God chose him, strengthened him, and moved him to be a presence and a voice for the poor.

In a February 13, 1977 sermon at a gathering to protest the government’s expulsion of a priest, he stated:

I fear that if Jesus entered the country crossing the border in Chalatenango, they wouldn’t let him pass. There by Apopa they’d detain him…
They’d accuse him of being a revolutionary.

How is the Gospel revolutionary and subversive?

Another quote of Rutilio Grande suggests that Jesus’ message of inclusion and community – all as children of God seated around the table of the Lord – is subversive of our images of god:

“In the name of God,” or “Glory to God,” [people cry out].
But what God are they referring to?
Some make the sign of the cross: In the name of the father – money, of the son – coffee, and of the spirit – rather sugar cane.
That is not God, the Father of our brother and Lord Jesus who gave us a Good Spirit so that we might be brothers [and sisters] – equal, and that as real followers of Jesus we might work to make present here and now His Reign.

Rutilio’s God was not a god “sitting in a hammock in the clouds.”

He is a God who offers the sign of conversion of all, a God who walks among us, seeking out the poor and the sinners – and rejoicing when we all sit together at the banquet table of the Lord.

As the entrance hymn of the Salvadoran Mass puts it – echoing the words of Rutilio Grande:

Vamos todos al banquete
a la mesa de la creación,
cada cual con su taburete
tiene un puesto y una misión.

We are all going to the banquet,
to the table of creation,
each one on his stool
has a place and a mission.


This week is was announced that the Archdiocese of San Salvador is beginning an investigation into the life of Father Rutilio Grande to determine if they will initiate a process seeking his canonization. Yet he, like Monseñor Romero, is already a martyr and a saint in the lives and hearts of many people. 


There is still time

There is still time:
come back to me with all your heart.
Joel 2:12
(from the Latin America lectionary)

 The English lectionary begins today’s first reading differently:

Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart…

There is still time.

Conversion can happen at any moment in our lives. In fact, the life of faith is one of constant conversion, continuing opening ourselves to God’s call to be one with God, to be reconciled with God and with others.

Today Thursday March 6 is the fortieth anniversary of the death of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who is most known for this quote:

When the Nazis came to get the Communists, I was silent. When they came to get the Socialists, I was silent. When they came to get the Catholics, I was silent. When they came to get the Jews, I was silent. And when they came to get me, there was no one left to speak.

Reading about him this morning in Robert Ellserg’s All Saints and in Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday’s Cloud of Witnesses, I realized that here was a man who went through a whole series of conversions.

He was a German U-boat commander in World War I. He was disillusioned by the treaty of Versailles and was found Hitler’s critique appealing. Even though he became a Lutheran pastor, following his father’s example, he was still an ardent German nationalist.

But Hitler’s taking over the German Lutheran Church and the banning of Lutheran pastors of Jewish ancestry, moved him to untie with other pastors in a protest, that developed into the Confessing Church.

Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and spent almost eight years in German concentration camps – as Hitler’s personal prisoner!

But after the war, he recognized the real evil that was Hitler and Nazism and helped formulate a Declaration of Guilt. The evil was more than Hitler’s takeover of the church. As Niemöller said, “The issue was whether one saw Jesus as the highest authority, or Hitler.”

But, as the Cold War heated up, Niemöller had a further conversion – against nuclear weapons and against all war. He became a prominent pacifist leader in Germany and throughout the world.

Not one conversions but many.

Yet, in an interview two years before his death, he shared the root of his life of conversions.

I was a schoolboy of eight when my father often took me along in the afternoons when he went around to visit the sick. One day we went to see a weaver who was dying of tuberculosis. Downstairs was his loo, and my father parked me there while he went upstairs to the sick man’s bedroom. I took in the bare room with nothing but the loom and whitewashed walls.
In one corner I noticed something framed and under glass which was embroidered in pearls – nothing but the question, “What would Jesus say?” I’ve never forgotten it – never. And that’s the sum of Christian ethics.

Robert Ellberg gives March 5 as the date for Niemoeller’s death, while almost all other sources say March 6.

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?






Young heroes of the White Rose

For decades I have been collecting quotations that touch me. Since high school I have been fascinated by people who stand up for justice, identify with the poor, and work for peace. About twenty years ago I began to put together a calendar of these heroes and quotes from them.

Each morning I check the calendar and I am often moved by remembering the many women and men who are witnesses to love, very often based in a deep faith in Christ.

Every once in a while I am reminded of some persons who have touched me in a steep way by their witness.

Today is the anniversary of the execution of three members of the White Rose, a group mostly of young students – Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox – who made a courageous witness against Nazism. On February 22, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl (sister and brother) and Christoph Probst were executed in Munich. Others were later apprehended and executed.

They didn’t start a revolutionary movement. Their major weapon was an illegal duplicating machine which they used to print thousands of leaflets that they distributed in defiance of Hitler.

“We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

I am touched that these young people had more courage than many religious leaders in Germany and elsewhere to denounce – in clear words – the evil that Nazism was.

They challenge me to speak boldly, yet peacefully and lovingly, in the face of the evils around us.

And, as far as I can discern, they did this because of a deep faith in God.

That gave them a great courage that moved them to rouse themselves from a survival ethic. As Sophie Scholl wrote:

The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

How will we burn with the love of God and others in our hearts?



John’s head on a platter

In the Gospel account of the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6: 14-29), there is one element that has puzzled me for many years.

The daughter of Herodias dances for Herod’s birthday party. He offers her anything she wants. A dutiful daughter, she asks her mother who tells her “the head of John the Baptist.”

Baptistry door, Florence

Baptistry door, Florence

When the young girl returns to Herod’s birthday party, she asks for John’s head “on a platter.”

Why a platter?

That’s a macabre image, a bloody dessert. I’ve never read an adequate explanation of why she doesn’t just ask for John the Baptist’s head, as her mother had told her, but adds “on a platter.”

Maybe she didn’t want her hands bloodied and so sought a platter to collect the blood.

Do we also cooperate in the death and suffering of others but want a dessert – without the blood?

Do we want to avoid getting our hands bloody, but still want to enjoy the benefits of the death of those who prick our consciences?

We need, as Albert Camus noted, “to confront the blood-stained face that history has taken on today.”

Without the platter.

Contemplating our bloody history

For the next few weekdays the first reading in the Catholic lectionary will offer us stories about King Solomon, mostly from the First Book of Kings.

If today’s reading is indicatory, we will be reading a very sanitized version of his life.

In today’s reading 1 Kings 2:1-4, 10-12, David on his deathbed is giving Solomon advice to follow the ways of the Lord.

What we don’t hear are David’s request to settle accounts with his army commander Joab and with a reality of Saul who insulted him. David asks Solomon to get rid of them.

David and Solomon were deeply flawed persons, not the paragons of virtue and wisdom that we are often shown.

Murder and adultery, and even idolatry in Solomon’s case, are indicative of their reigns. It is thus not surprising that they have conflicts with their sons and there are conflicts between the sons about who shall be king.

How can we deal with this? It’s in the Bible, some might say.

I began this morning to read Daniel Berrigan’s The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power. This Jesuit poet and prophet (now 92 years old) has written many poetic commentaries on scripture which combine scholarship with a prophet’s insightful critique. He reads the scripture with an eye to conversion – even today.

And so he writes of these bloody accounts:

The books of Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Maccabees imply that we humans must move in great darkness before we are blessed and enter the light. This, it sold seem, is the law of the Fall… Let us ponder such forbears, and weep.

We must suffer the anti-human as well in ourselves….

Through these books, we must come to know the worst of our ancestry — as well as the worst that lurks in ourselves.

The stories of David and Solomon – and the other bloody tales – call us to look at the evil around us – the pathology of power – as well as the evil within. For “the books of the Kings stand like a record of our own benighted century, bloody as beef newly drawn and hung.

And so Dan Berrigan prays:

Grant us knowledge of our crimes. Help us take our true bearings in the world, to confess how rarely, in public life and private, in religion and statecraft,  in temple and marketplace and home —how rarely authority is joined with virtue. Grant us knowledge of our plight, that we may cry out for relief, and be drawn forth.

Reading the whole bloody story is necessary so that we may see the faithlessness in our lives as well as the bloody story of our times – the wars, the hunger, the injustice, the idolatry of power and money. May we, as Albert Camus challenged us, “get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.”

Then, maybe we might repent, as persons and as nations, and begin to seek the ways of peace.



The dangers of wealth

Pope Francis has been getting a bit of criticism recently for his critique of the “culture of prosperity.” But his critique is not without precedent. Not only did Jesus warn about “filthy mammon,” but so did many of His followers.

When St. John Bosco went off for the seminary, his poor illiterate mother warned him, “If you have the misfortune to get rich, I shan’t set foot in your house again.”

Don Bosco remembered this and dedicated his life to poor youth, especially in the industrialized cities of northern Italy in the nineteenth century. The congregation he founded, the Salesians, still devotes itself to the education and care of the young, even though in some places their school are havens for the rich. But Don Bosco maintained a commitment to the poor. As he noted:

I have promised God that until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people. I study for you, I work for you, I am also ready to give my life for you.

In fourth century Rome, St. Marcella had come from a wealthy family and married a wealthy Roman. After only seven months of marriage he died. As a widow she devoted herself to prayer and study of the Scriptures. She gave away her wealth, preferring to store her money in the stomachs of the needy than hide it in a purse.”

On January 31, 1915, Thomas Merton was born. He subsequently entered the Trappists and became one of the most important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.

Though Merton lived in a monastery, he too was aware of the dangers of wealth. As he wrote in 1949 to Sister Marialein Lorenz’s class,

I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.

Like Don Bosco, St. Marcella, and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis is warning us about the dangers of wealth, as he writes in  Evangelii Gaudium,  ¶ 54:

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us…

This is a danger for all of us – no matter how much or how little we have. This merits our prayer and careful examination of our lives and our hearts.


Gentle strength

There is nothing so strong as gentleness
and there is nothing so gentle as real strength.
St. Francis de Sales

Today is the feast of Saint Francis de Sales, a Swiss bishop who pioneered a spirituality for lay people which emphasized patience with oneself and living God’s love.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Sister Dorothy Marie Hennessey, a Dubuque Franciscan sister, who died in 2008 at the age of 94.

She was a remarkable little sister, a tireless advocate for peace and human rights. She took part in one of the walks for peace across the United States and continually protested against war in all its forms.

She was arrested several times, including an arrest at the age of 88 at the School of the Americas, protesting US involvement in Latin America.

In this she remembered the witness of her brother, Ron Hennessey, a Maryknoll missionary in Central America who lived under the oppression of the indigenous in Guatemala. (Ron’s witness is told in Thomas Melville’s Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America.)

Her persistence in witnessing for the poor and oppressed is a sign of how God uses all sorts of people to show His love and justice.

Today is also the anniversary of the death in 2011 of Don Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. A detailed homage can be found at Mex Files here.

He was a bishop totally devoted to the poor, especially to the indigenous in his diocese in southern Mexico, who called him Jtatic Samuel. Although despised by those in power he was asked to meditate during the Zapatista rebellion because he was probably one of the few persons the people trusted. He had spent his life with them and had risked his life many times.

He also was not always appreciated by the Vatican, especially for his efforts to promote indigenous deacons in the diocese. A coadjutor was appointed, Monseñor Raúl Vera, who ironically has become one of the most progressive bishops in Latin America and is now the bishop of Saltillo, Mexico.

Don Samuel was beloved by his people. I saw a manifestation of that love when I visited San Cristobal in late January 2012 for the wedding of a friend. His tomb, behind the cathedral’s main altar was decorated with flowers.

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

Tomb of Don Samuel Ruiz

But he was more than a beloved pastor. He was a prophet.

Reflecting the words of Mary in her Magnificat, he once said:

Justice means bringing down from their throne those who are privileged and elevating those who are humble to the same heights.

The gentle strength and the strong gentleness of Sister Dorothy and Don Samuel offer us a way into living the Gospel, in solidarity with the poor.


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.