In the face of oppression

“You shall not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake.
Leviticus 19: 16

Martin Niemöller once wrote:

“If we had recognized that in the communists who were thrown into concentration camps, the Lord Jesus Christ himself lay imprisoned and looked for our love and help, if we had seen that at the beginning of the persecution of the Jews it was the Lord Jesus Christ in the person of the least of our human brethren who was being persecuted, and beaten and killed, if we had stood by him and identified ourselves with him, I do not know whether God would not then have stood by us and whether the whole thing would not then have had to take a different course.”

He was a decorated U-boat commander in the First World War. After the war he became a Lutheran pastor and later a pacifist, speaking out forcefully against war and especially the proliferation of nuclear weapons until his death on March 6, 1984.

Imprisoned by Hitler he did not stand idly by when his neighbor’s life was at stake. He recognized the call of God to respond to the forces of evil and protect the innocent.

I have since my high school days been plagued by the seeming indifference of many, including religious leaders, to the violence and racism of Hitler and Nazism. The witness of people like Martin Niemöller, the members of the White Rose, and the Austrian peasant Franz Jägerstätter who risked their lives in opposition to evil.

Will I continue to try to do this? Will I see the challenge that we followers of Christ face when we see the hungry, the refugee, the defenseless, the imprisoned? Will I, as todays Gospel notes, be among the sheep who respond to those in need or among the goats? (Matthew 25:31-46)

The fast of Mother Drexel

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

Katherine Drexel came from money, but also from a house in Philadelphia where prayer and open doors for the poor were part of her growing up.

She saw a need for responding to blacks and Native Americans (who were called “Colored and Indians” in her day) and asked the pope to send priests for them. Pope Leo XIII told her to be a missionary. And she did.

She founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to work with blacks and Native Americans, founding schools and even Xavier University in New Orleans.

Though she and her sisters inherited millions, she never used the money for her congregation but assisted others in responding to needs of the marginalized.

Though it might seem that her approach was mostly what some would term “charity,” it is important to realize that Mother Drexel also spoke out against segregation before the civil rights movement. Her sisters were threatened for their commitment to blacks.

She is one of those who live out today’s reading from Isaiah 58:

This, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

May we too be people who respond to those in need as missionaries of the love, justice, and mercy of God.

Choosing life amid the Nazis

Choose life, that you and your children may live.
Deuteronomy 30: 19
Take up the cross and follow me.
Luke 9: 23

On March 2, 1945, a day after his thirty-fourth birthday, Father Engelmar Unzeitig died in Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp just outside Munich.

Blessed Engelmar wanted to be a foreign missionary. But his forceful sermons defending the Jews landed him in Dachau in 1941, after only two years as a parish priest in Austria.

Together with thousands of other Catholic priests and Protestant clergy, he spent four years there. He learned Russian so that he could give pastoral care for prisoners form eastern Europe, even dialoguing with Marxists.

In 1945 he and nineteen other priests volunteered to serve in a barracks for those who were dying of typhoid. He contracted the disease and died there.

For him choosing life meant taking up the cross, speaking the truth to the powers that be, defending those who were being persecuted. It also meant attending the dying.

Responding to God for Blessed Engelmar meant being truthful, forthright, and compassionate. He was an angel of mercy.

As he wrote to his sister from Dachau, he did this from his deep faith in a God of love and grace:

Whatever we do, whatever we want, is surely simply the grace that carries us and guides us. God’s almighty grace helps us overcome obstacles.

Love doubles our strength, makes us inventive, makes us feel content and inwardly free. If people would only realize what God has in store for those who love him!

Even behind the hardest sacrifices and worst suffering stands God with his Fatherly love, who is satisfied with the good will of his children and gives them and others happiness.

He is a martyr, a witness, a sign for our times.

Will we speak up against persecution of Jews and Muslims?

Will we attend those who suffer from disease and poverty?

Will we, as Bishop Robert McElroy said so pointedly, be disrupters and rebuilders?

Blessed Engelmar was a disrupter, almost without wanting to be one, as he critiqued the Nazi regime and spoke up for the Jews. But he was also, I believe, a rebuilder as he attended the needs of other prisoners, dialoguing even with non-believers, serving even in the hideous barracks of the victims of typhoid.

May we be angels of mercy, messengers of truth, disrupters of all that is unholy, rebuilders with our sights on the Kingdom of God – a Reign of “justice, peace, and joy in the Spirit.” (Romans 14:7)

Dust – Ash Wednesday

It’s the dry season.

The taste of dust is in my mouth as I walk and drive the dusty roads.

“Dust you are and to dust you will return.”

But when it rains, the dust will turn to mud – and with a little sun will become earth for growing.

Dust needs water.

But not too much.

And a bit of sun.

Remember that the Lord raises the poor from the dust (1 Samuel 2:8).

And the Lord makes rivers in the wasteland (Isaiah 43:19).

And the waters of baptism bring new life.

Happy Lent.

 

Persistence in the face of intransigence

Today is the feast of Saint Scholastica, sister (possibly twin sister) of Saint Benedict, the father of western monasticism. She is often consider the mother of Benedictines.

There is a beautiful story told by St. Gregory the Great in his Books of Dialogues, about her persistence.

Each year Benedict and Scholastica met for a day of prayer and discussion in a house near Benedict’s monastery. As a woman she was not permitted in the male monastery.

She had a premonition that she would soon die and so she asked her brother to stay the night and speak of the things of heaven. He said no; he had to return to the monastery, because of the Rule. She bowed her head and prayed. A huge storm came on and prevented Benedict from leaving.

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Benedict castigated her. But she calmly noted:

I asked you and you would not listen to me. So I asked my God and he listened.

St. Gregory notes that

“It ought not surprise us that the woman won out. John tells us that ‘God is Love.‘ It was inevitable that she who loved more would accomplish more.”

This story reminded me of something I read recently:

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

So let us too persist in prayer – in the face of intransigence.

My cloud of witnesses

This morning as I read today’s first reading from the lectionary (Hebrews 12: 1-4), I began to think of the “great cloud of witnesses” that challenge and sustain me. I began to list them and came up with nineteen. I am sure that I could add many more – including some witnesses who are family members and some who are still alive. But here are those who have passed on to the Lord who help me be who I am called to be. (I have linked each witness to a meditation I wrote on this blog.)

  1. Mary, the Mother of God

Mary in her canticle, the Magnificat, challenges me to live God’s Reign among and with the least of God’s people, for “God lifts up the lowly.”

  1. St. Francis of Assisi

Identifying with the poor crucified Christ, Francis calls me to love God and the poor.

  1. Dorothy Day

A living sign of God’s love and God’s call for peace, Dorothy Day calls me to open my heart to all the poor.

  1. Blessed Charles de Foucauld

The hermit of the desert, Charles de Foucauld, challenges me to be a person of contemplation in the midst of the poor, willing to give my life for them.

  1. Thomas Merton

The Trappist monk, Father Louis [aka Thomas Merton], challenges me to uproot the roots of war and violence in my heart, reminding me that the “root of war is fear.”

  1. Blessed Oscar Romero 

The martyred archbishop, Monseñor Romero, calls me to be willing to be the seed that falls to the ground and dies.

  1. Blessed Franz Jägerstätter

The Austrian peasant martyr, Franz, reminds me to say “No” to all that opposes God, as he refused to serve in Hitler’s army.

  1. Blessed Jerzy Popielusko

The Polish priest martyr, Father Jerzy, reminds me that the call to Solidarity is central to our lives, even if it means suffering and death.

  1. Trappist Father Christian de Chergé

Killed by Islamicist extremists in Algerian, Father Christian challenges me to love even those who wish me ill and to open my hearts to all people of faith.

  1. St. Benedict Joseph Labré

This poor beggar, a street person in Rome, St. Benedict challenges me to accept all persons, even those who smell terrible.

  1. St. Benedict the Black 

This humble African-Italian Franciscan, St. Benedict the Black (sometimes called St. Benedict the Moor), has challenged me to recognize and defend all persons, no matter their race or economic condition.

  1. St. Martin of Tours

This early bishop, Saint Martin, challenges me to share with the poor and to refuse to kill.

  1. St. Thomas More

This lawyer martyr, St. Thomas More, a “Man for All Seasons,” challenges me to be faithful to my conscience, even as he tried to make reasonable compromises.

  1. Father Alfred Delp, S.J.

This Jesuit priest, Father Delp, challenges me with his writings from a Nazi prison to be a voice in the wilderness.

  1. St. Brigid of Kildaire

This Irish nun, Saint Brigid, inspires me to see Heaven as a “Lake of Beer,” with a special place for the poor.

  1. St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

This woman, Mary of Magdala, the first to witness the risen Lord, challenges me to listen to the Good News from the mouths of women.

  1. Pastor André Trocmé

This Reformed Church pacifist pastor, Pastor André Trocmé, challenges me to open my heart and my life to the stranger and the persecuted, as he help the village of Le Chambon, France, rescue hundreds of Jews.

  1. St. Alberto Hurtado, S.J.

This Chilean Jesuit, Padre Hurtado, challenges me to be a person of faith seeking justice.

  1. St. John the Baptist

The precursor of Jesus, Saint John, challenges me, so that I may decrease and the Lord may increase.

There are hundreds more surrounding me, but these are those whom I most cherish on this day.


 

I would also like to refer you to my meditation on prostrating before the altar during the Litany of the Saints on the day of my ordination as a permanent deacon.

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The Will of God

This morning before getting up from the bed, I found myself praying, “Here I am Lord; I come to do your will.”

After fixing coffee and showering – in that order,  I sat down to pray and read the first reading for the day, Hebrews 10: 1-10, in which the author cites, twice, a passage from Psalm 40: “Behold, I come to do your will, O God.”

Then in the Gospel, Mark 3: 31-35, we find Jesus saying that “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Wow! Doing the will of God must be central to our life of faith.

In our parish, when the candidates for baptism or confirmation are introduced, we ask them to respond to their name with the phrase, “Aquí estoy, Señor, para hacer tu voluntad” – “Here I am, Lord, to do your will.” Some respond forcefully, even with a fist bump, but others, perhaps a bit more shy, barely say it above a whisper.

But the question is “How do we know we are trying to do the will of God?” All too often I confuse my will with God’s, thinking that I know what he wants and it’s what I want.

This points me to the real need we have to learn and teach discernment. All too often I find that our teaching of the faith and the moral life seem more aligned with a black-and-white, law-based approach.

Discernment is hard in such a climate. That’s why I want to spend more time this year learning how to discern better and learning how to assist the people I serve with learning the practical wisdom of discernment.

Many years ago, as I considered coming here to Honduras, I re-read Dean Brackley’s The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspective on the Transformative Vision of Ignatius of Loyola. I’m thinking of re-reading it, perhaps for Lent, as a way to deepen my life of faith. (It’s also now available in Spanish, from UCA editores in El Salvador.)

I would also appreciate any suggestions for other resources – books, articles, activities – in English or Spanish, to help our ministry here.

And keep discerning – it’s a life long project.

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