Good Pope John

JohnXXIIIFifty-five years ago today, on June 3, 1963, Pope John XXIII died. This rotund pope seemed more like an Italian peasant than the Pope of Rome. In fact, he saw himself as a shepherd.

Faced by many “prophets of gloom,” he called for a new ecumenical council, to open up the church to respond to the needs of the world. The Second Vatican Council convened in 1962 and continued after his death until 1965, bringing a renewed Church in contact with a world filled with pain and suffering.

Responding to the needs of all the world, Pope John wrote two important encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, facing the challenges of poverty and war. These were not mere social treatises, though some tried to dismiss them as such. They were reflections of his faith. As he wrote in Pacem in Terris, 164-165,

“Every believer in this world of ours must be a spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying leaven amidst [their] fellow human beings; and [they] will be this all the more perfectly [they] live in communion with God and in the intimacy of [their] soul[s].
“In fact, there can be no peace between human beings, unless there is peace within each of them, unless, that is, each one builds up within [themselves] the order wished by God.”

For him the church was called to be the leaven of God’s love in the world, not condemning but showing God’s loving mercy to all. As he said, “the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.”

In this the poor were to have a central role. “The church is and desires to be the church of all, but principally the church of the poor.”

In many ways, I see Pope Francis as trying to live out the heritage of Saint John XXIII, opening the doors of mercy to all, especially the poor.

Saint John, pray for us.

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Saint Rita and the cycle of violence

saint ritaToday is the feast of Saint Rita of Cascia, a saint of impossible cases, like Saint Jude. I recall that devotion to her was strong in the Italian-American Catholic community of my youth.

But there is something about Saint Rita that I think is much more important for our world than her miracles or even the mark of a thorn on her forehead, recalling Christ’s crown of thorns.

Saint Rita was married to a man who did not share her piety. He was brash, a womanizer, and a brawler. Together they had two sons who shared their father’s character.

Rite persisted in prayer and her husband experienced a conversion, but shortly after he was killed by members of a rival family.

She forgave those who killed her husband, but her sons wanted to avenge his death. Saint Rita prayed that they would die rather than murder their adversaries. They finally ended up giving up their desire for revenge. But they died.

Rita was then free to pursue her earlier dream of being a nun and applied to the local Augustinian convent.

They rejected her, supposedly because she was not a virgin. But the real reason might have been that there were sisters in the convent who were members of the family that killed her husband. They were afraid of the consequences and the potential conflict.

Not one to be easily dissuaded, Rita started talking with members of her husband’s family as well as with the family of the man who had killed him. Her efforts resulted in an agreement between them to not pursue any violence or retribution.

That done, she was accepted into the convent.

I discovered this story when I went one Sunday to preside at a village church dedicated to Santa Rita a few days before her feast day. They were going to have a Mass and a celebration for that whole sector of the parish, in which there had been a death a few months ago as an act of retribution, not uncommon here in Honduras, where the “justice” system does not function and so people take the “law” in their own hands.

Saint Rita is one of those who broke the cycle of violence, seeking reconciliation. I pray that she may intercede here in Honduras, as well as in other prats of the world where revenge causes deaths.

I especially pray for two men killed a few days ago here in our parish – probably as acts of retribution.

 


Photo taken from this site.

Visionary of a community of deacons

8045070f79739d7323d3e25632fb966b1723479598-1302025774-4d9b562e-620x348May 9 is the feast of Saint George Preca – Dun Gorg – a Maltese priest who died on July 26, 1962.

Devoted to the life of all the faithful, he is the founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine which was to include lay celibate members devoted to teaching the faith to the young, beginning with a small group of young people in 1907.

But, even before he was ordained, he also had the idea of establishing in every parish groups of seven permanent deacons who, with lay helpers, would be responsible for the formation of the parish. Even though he wrote a rule for them, the idea never came to fruition. He died before the Second Vatican Council opened the opportunity of the permanent diaconate.

In “The Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church,” paragraph 16, , the bishops at the Second Vatican Council wrote:

Where Episcopal Conferences deem it opportune, the order of the diaconate should be restored as a permanent state of life, according to the norms of the Constitution on the Church. For there are men who are actually carrying out the functions of the deacon’s office, either by preaching the Word of God as catechists, or by presiding over scattered Christian communities in the name of the pastor and the bishop, or by practicing charity in social or relief work. It will be helpful to strengthen them by that imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles, and to bind them more closely to the altar. Thus they can carry out their ministry more effectively because of the sacramental grace of the diaconate.

Saint George Preca was truly a visionary priest who can help us recover the role of deacons and all the people in faith formation. I do not know of any community of deacons as he envisioned, but it might be a new direction for the permanent diaconate, especially for those of us who are celibate permanent deacons.


Image from The Times of Malta.

Despising the manual worker

“Isn’t this guy the carpenter’s son?”
Matthew 13: 55

All too often the world looks down on manual work and on those who work in our fields and factories, those who clean our buildings or service our cars. White collar work, intellectual work, and business savvy are valued more than the sweat of those who clean our schools and hospitals or grow and harvest our food.

josephEven Jesus experienced this dismissal of the value of manual work. They tried to dismiss him and his wisdom since he is only “the carpenter’s son.”

Yet today, as the world celebrates the Day of the Worker, a national holiday here in Honduras and other countries, the Church celebrates Saint Joseph the Worker.

I see this around me here in Honduras. Shortly after I got here I read the president of the National Congress referring to the people who work in the countryside in our part of the country as “gente del monte,” which (because of the ambiguity of the word monte as either hill or weed) can be translated as “hillbillies” or “hayseed.”

But this is not only here. I remember how the university students who came from the farm or were studying agriculture seemed to be seen as less important than those studying engineering who came from a big city. And this was at a land-grant university.

But it was only a few years ago when I realized why I am so sensitive to this. My parents were blue collar workers. Though my dad eventually worked in the office, he began working on the floor of a steel fabrication plant. My mom had several jobs in offices but also spent several years working in a supermarket distribution center, candling eggs and going through fruit and vegetables.

There is a dignity in manual work that it is so easy to ignore. There is also a tendency to over-value intellectual work, to esteem thinking over doing.

Thus it is interesting that today is also the anniversary of the death of Thomas A Kempis who wrote in The Imitation of Christ:

“A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul.”

Today is also the anniversary of the initiation of the Catholic Worker, distributed at the May Day rally in 1933.

Today I also recall the death of Monsignor George Higgins, a strong advocate of the worker and of unions, in 2002, and the death on the same day of Ade Bethune, the artist whose work has appeared prominently in The Catholic Worker for decades.

It is good that today we honor Saint Joseph the Worker by honoring all those who work, especially those who work with their hands. Where would we be without them?

 

Violence redeemed

I am often troubled by the violence around me in Honduras. Though it hasn’t touched me, it touches people I know and minister with.

Yesterday I went to a distant village for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. As is my custom, I try to visit the sick after the Celebration, bringing them Communion.

I went to visit the blind mother of one of the people involved in the local church community. His son, recently married, led me to her house.

DSC01468

Seated just inside the door, I sat and greeted her. As is my custom I began to ask about her life, her health, and her family. The tears began to flow as she recalled a son who had been murdered about five years ago. The pain of such a loss still overwhelms her.

After a short prayer, she received communion and I blessed her.

But then the mystery of salvation became all too real.

Her grandson told me how about eight years ago, his brother was killed by someone in the community.  Yet his father and the family have forgiven him and the murderer still lives among them.

Though there was a sort of reconciliation between the father of the young man murdered with the murderer, the murderer still doesn’t acknowledge the greetings of the brother of the man he killed. But this man does not harbor revenge. In fact, he was going to visit the mother of the murderer and give her an injection – a medical treatment very common among the poor.

As we talked, it was clear that he and his family had forgiven the murderer because of their faith in a God who loves all and calls us to love our enemies.

Here is a case of violence redeemed by love. What a way to celebrate Sunday in Easter-time, when we celebrate the redemptive death and resurrection of God-made-flesh.

 


Photo of a sculpture of Kathe Kollwitz in Berlin, taken November 2016.

 

 

The Good Shepherd – two perspectives

I have two homilies in me on this Sunday’s readings. I don’t know which one I’ll share, though I might end up sharing both, since I’ll probably be preaching in two different celebrations – in a Celebration of the Word in a remote village and at a Mass in one of the municipalities in the parish.

shepherd

The first perspective on  Jesus as the Good Shepherd that I want to share is of a shepherd who encourages and consoles us.

Jesus care for us, the sheep. He knows us – with all our faults and all our gifts. He wants the best for us. John in the second reading reminds us that “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”

Jesus seeks us out. Knowing us, as sometimes lost and wandering, he has come from the Father to seek us out. He finds us even in the brambles and carries us back to the flock. If he carries us on his shoulders, it’s quite likely that our bowels will be loosened in fright and we’ll crap down his back. But he loves us with all our crap – and wants to carry us back to the security of the flock.

Jesus also guards and protects us. When we are with Him, we may face dangers – but He is there at our side.

But he loves us so much that He willingly gives us life for us. Yes, it is dangerous and fearful. He did sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. But He knows that giving up oneself brings life.

Jesus, God-made-flesh, is the Good Shepherd who is for us.

But the second perspective is one that challenges us who serve the People of God, God’s flock.

Are we like the Good Shepherd?

Do we know our sheep, as Jesus knows His sheep? Do we have the smell of sheep from getting down into the mud with them?

Do we seek out the lost sheep, instead of being content with the faithful few? Do we go out into the brambles and offer the lost a way out, a way of hope? Or, do we want a comfortable church?

Are we willing to pick up the sheep and carry them home with tenderness? They’ll be dirty and smelling – and may crap on us.

Finally, are we willing to give our lives for them? This may mean martyrdom – which is a gift that God gives to a few. But then there is the dying that happens every day when people serve others in love, go the extra mile to comfort someone, forgive even their enemies?

Are we like the Good Shepherd or are we hired hands, who are content with our little rituals and minimal duties?

But, don’t worry. Even if we are mere hired hands, the Good Shepherd seeks us out and, with love, brings us back and offers us another chance to love.


The image is taken from the web page of Mount Saviour Monastery, a close up of the statue in their cemetery.

Being a saint: Merton and Pope Francis

Reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate – Rejoice and be glad, I thought of an exchange between the poet Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, soon after Merton was baptized.

Jim Forest relates it thus, in Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, based on Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain:

Walking with Lax on Sixth Avenue one night in the spring of 1939, Lax turned toward Merton and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
It was obvious to Merton that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” and “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of freshman English” were not good enough answers.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton was silent. He hadn’t figured that out yet.
“What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.”
That struck Merton as downright weird.
“How do expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to.”
“I can’t be a saint,” Merton responded. To be a saint would require a magnitude of renunciation that was completely beyond him. But Lax pressed on.
“All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is offering a call to holiness, to sanctity. “Don’t be afraid of holiness,” he writes (¶ 32) and adds (¶ 34), quoting Leon Bloy, ““the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

And so Pope Francis urges us, “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness, [sanctity].”

This call, from our baptism, is to live this holiness, this sanctity, in daily life – to be a saint in the ordinary.

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. (¶14)

The letter of Pope Francis is direct and practical. It is well-worth the read, a good choice for Easter reading. But even more for Easter living.

Above all, be a saint.

To get started, take a look at the video.